[Neil Parille continues where he left off in 2009.]
Ayn Rand was quite explicit that ideas are what matter and, in particular, it’s abstract philosophical ideas which guide human history. Because of this, Objectivists usually blame the sorry state of the world on “intellectuals” and professors of philosophy. Leonard Peikoff once said that we’d know the world is on the right track when the philosophy department of UC Berkeley was Objectivist.
Objectivists talk about the history of philosophy as a battle between Plato and Aristotle. According to Objectivists, a society or culture succeeds to the extent it adopts Aristotelian ideas. For example, they argue that the Renaissance began and flourished because Thomas Aquinas supposedly reintroduced Aristotle’s works to the West. In the main Objectivist work of historiography, Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, he argued that Nazism and the gas chambers were the direct result of the influence of Immanuel Kant on German intellectual life. Christianity, to them, is as foolish as one can get.
History paints on a large canvas. One can find examples and counterexamples to prove or disprove any broad historical narrative. For example, contrary to Rand, many scholars argue that the most important Renaissance thinkers were Platonists. Germany’s leading Kantian philosopher was Ernst Cassirer. It’s said that upon hearing a Nazi say “truth is what the Fuhrer says it is,” he responded, “if that’s the case, there is no hope for Germany.” He promptly left for England. I recently heard Yaron Brook claim that the Roman Empire fell because it adopted Christianity. Yet the Eastern half of the Empire - which was more Christian – lasted until 1453.
Another example is the United States, the creation of which Objectivists see as the greatest achievement of Western political theory. I can’t claim to have read widely in the founding of the United States, but I don’t get the impression that the American Founders were particularly influenced by Aristotle. Objectivists like to claim that the Founders were Deists, but as Mark David Hall has argued, few, if any, of the Founders were Deists. Many held traditional religious views. Ellis Sandoz points out that more of the Founders were taught by Princeton University’s John Witherspoon, a Scottish born Presbyterian minister and philosopher, than by any other professor.
One way to test the Objectivist thesis is to look at contemporary politics. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won reelection with 60 percent of the vote. It is unlikely that more than 6 percent of college professors voted for Reagan. American intellectuals hated Donald Trump even more. Trump was elected president in 2016 in one of the biggest upsets in presidential history. Trump was even hated by conservative intellectuals, who started a “Never Trump” movement. Yet this seemed to have little effect on the rank-and-file conservative voter. Many seemed to admire him because he was an anti-intellectual populist. (In fairness, Rand did say that there was an American “sense of life” that was insulated from dominant intellectual trends.)
The idea that college professors are the main drivers of culture, while it may flatter intellectuals, has some practical difficulties. Most people don’t attend college and those who do often study topics that are not particularly “philosophical.” Certainly, one can find professors of math who contend that math is a “social construct,” but it’s hard to imagine such theories making it into the curriculum of the typical math major. Even most philosophy professors likely present ideas from various perspectives.
I can think offhand of a couple of examples which show that people often reject the teachings of intellectuals.
First, few intellectuals are religious. While polls show a gradual decline in religious belief in the last few decades, it remains the case that most Americans identify with various religions. This is particularly striking since 90 percent of students attend public schools which are, by Supreme Court mandate, secular. If attending secular schools almost for one’s entire childhood doesn’t change one’s religious beliefs, it’s hard to imagine that what students learn in later life at college effects them all that much. Incidentally, in a 2019 poll nearly three-fourths of Americans said that they either reject evolution or believe God guided the evolutionary process. I agree that other factors influence people’s upbringing (such as parents and churches), but these numbers stand in opposition to the idea that people blindly follow the teachings of intellectuals.
Second, contrary to what many have heard, it is the agreement of the large majority of experts in intelligence research that IQ tests measure intelligence, that intelligence is largely heritable (probably in the range of 50 to 80 percent) and that IQ correlates with various traits. For example, high IQ people on average do better in school, earn more money, commit less crime, etc. I’m not familiar with any polls on this issue, but I imagine that most people still believe that “you can be whatever you want to be.”
As a final point, the typical Objectivist view of history seems to conflict with their long-standing support of free will. Are the majority of people pawns in the hands of intellectuals? I’d like to think that absent North Korean style brainwashing it’s unlikely the average math student, regardless of what he is taught, would think the question of whether two plus two equals four or five is on the same level as “I like chocolate, you like vanilla.”