Zealous partisans of the anti-Christian (or anti-Catholic) point of view would be quick to assert that Christianity is responsible for Inquisition; that the Inquisition is merely the logical application of Christian doctrine (or of “faith” in general) to society. As Leonard Peikoff puts it: “There can be no philosophic breach between thought and action. The consequence of the epistemology of religion is the politics of tyranny.”
Yet if you can blame the bad stuff done in the name of Christianity on Christianity, can’t you also blame the bad stuff done in the name of Objectivism on Ayn Rand? If there can be no philosophical breach between thought and action, what are we to make of someone like psychologist Lonnie Leonard, who, in the name of Objectivism, manipulated his female patients into granting him sexual favors? If Christianity is responsible for the Inquisition, why isn’t Objectivism responsible for Lonnie Leonard?
If it is said that Objectivism cannot be responsible for Lonnie Leonard because Leonard’s conduct goes directly against Objectivist doctrine, well the same thing can be said of Christianity. Where in the New Testament does is say one should torture and murder people over trivial points of doctrine? If it is said that Leonard merely used Objectivism as pretext for carrying out his nefarious deeds, that his motives had nothing to do with Rand’s ideas, well the same thing can be said of the Inquisition. Christianity was merely a pretext which allowed powerful church authorities to murder their enemies and pilfer the property of so-called “heretics.” Just as Objectivism had nothing really to do with Lonnie Leonard’s misconduct, so Christianity had nothing to do with the Inquisition.
Even this, however, doesn’t seem quite right. Surely Christianity had something to do with the Inquisition. True enough. But the linkage is very complicated. These complexities are ignored by people with axes to grind, who obscure the real issues involved by not being sufficiently detailed and masking their bigotry with broad-level abstractions. The term Christianity is far too vague to be used as a cause of anything, since there are many different forms of Christianity and many doctrines within each form. We need to isolate which doctrine (or doctrines) may have contributed to the Inquisition, and which forms of Christianity adhere to those doctrines.
The great historian of the Inquisition Henry Charles Lea placed the blame for the disaster on false ideals mixed with human nature. The conditions for the Inquisition, he wrote,
was the outcome of the theocracy whose foundation had been laid by Hildebrand in the belief that it would realize the reign of Christ on earth. Power such as was claimed and exercised by the Church could only be wielded by superhuman wisdom. Human nature was too imperfect not to convert it into the gratification of worldly passions and ambition, and its inevitable result was to plunge society deeper and deeper into corruption. Thus the divine law on which the Church professed to be founded was superseded by human law administered by those who profited by its abuse.
In other words, authorities in the Catholic Church were pursuing an imaginary end. While the pursuit of imaginary ends does not always lead to disaster (see my post on myths), this does not mean that the pursuit of every imaginary end will lead to a good result. Some will, some won’t. What are the worst sort of imaginary ends? Generally speaking, imaginary ends that are based on false views of human nature are particularly dangerous when zealously pursued. The imaginary ends pursued by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages helped bring about the Inquisition by entrusting too much power to individual men on the grounds that the power would be used well because they were “men of God.” A very unwise thing to have done.
We can apply some of the same logic to the Lonnie Leonard fiasco. Objectivism also pursues an imaginary goal: namely, Rand’s ideal man, the man of “self-made soul” who “has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony.” Now this is all nonsense. Men don’t have self-made souls, nor are they without inner conflicts. This view is a “myth” (using the term as defined here.) Now the question is: does this myth, when “followed,” lead to good or bad results? Well, that depends on the individuals involved. Some individuals may use myth of the ideal man to help motivate themselves to use more self-initiative, and if this leads them in a positive direction, then the Randian myth, in this respect, has operated for the better. But there are other individuals who either lack self-initiative or cannot exercise such initiative without leading themselves into trouble. It is precisely these kinds of individuals who are prone to the manipulations of charlatans like Lonnie Leonard. Leonard presented himself as an ideal man who could help others become the embodiment of Rand’s ideas. Leonard’ attracted just those individuals in the Objectivist movement who weren’t getting positive results from following Rand’s ideas and therefore concluded that they needed psychological help. Since these individuals wanted to believe in Rand’s ideals about self-made souls and perfect emotional integration, they were susceptible to believing that Leonard was, in fact, a Randian ideal man. Hence when Ellen Plasil exposed Leonard as a fraud, the natural reaction was to blame, not Leonard, but Plasil. “I received innumerable phone calls, from men and women alike,” Plasil later recalled, “who condemned me for terminating my own therapy and for the reason they had learned was behind my doing so. In one call, I was accused of ‘destroying the closest thing Man has ever had to a god.’ In another, I was threatened with retaliation for causing the closing of Dr. Leonard’s practice.” (Therapist, 158)
Now while Rand is obviously not responsible for Leonard’s gross immoralities, does her philosophy perhaps bear some responsibility for the behavior of Leonard’s apologists? After all, their behavior was inspired by her ideas? If it is argued that Rand cannot possibly be responsible for this behavior, because she would have deplored it, the same argument could be used to defend Christianity against the behavior of medieval inquisitors. It is very difficult to determine the degree to which a specific doctrine is to blame for the conduct of those inspired by it, particularly when the doctrines involved contain imaginary goals based on a false views of human nature.