Who the Hell is Ayn Rand? was recently published. It is written by Simon Lemieux who teaches at Portsmouth Grammar School in England. It’s a volume in a new series of brief introductions to ancient and contemporary thinkers. It’s a good overview of Rand’s life and philosophy from a somewhat left-wing perspective. In particular, I like how Lemieux lets Rand speak for herself, letting the reader judge for himself if Rand’s ideas are correct or practical. In this respect it’s quite unique in the world of Randian criticism. In lieu of a formal book review, I’ll summarize each chapter and make some comments.
The introduction points out that Ayn Rand continues to be controversial. Lemieux also notes that Rand has been misrepresented and “wasn’t a fully-fledged libertarian or a reckless libertine.” He makes the interesting observation that Randianism is something of a combination of Nietzscheanism and can-do American individualism.
Rand’s Life Story
Lemieux discusses Rand’s life from her birth in Russia in 1905 until her death in New York City in 1982. One thing I found interesting is that he doesn’t dwell on the “negative” side of Rand’s personality, such as her temper and her tendency to break with people for reasons that many would consider petty. Also interesting is that his main sources for Rand’s life are Jennifer Burns’s 2009 biography, Goddess of the Market, and Anne Heller’s 2009 biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Lemieux discusses Rand’s involvement with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden and her break with them in 1968, but nowhere mentions that Barbara wrote a biography of Rand (The Passion of Ayn Rand) and Nathaniel two memoirs (Judgment Day and My Years with Ayn Rand). These works helped cement the idea of Rand of a brilliant, if highly flawed, person. Rand’s followers associated with the Ayn Rand Institute continue to attack them as nasty and self-serving. If Lemieux believes that the Branden books have largely been superseded by the 2009 biographies then I’d agree; however, the controversy over Rand’s life (at least as some of her fans see it) is something readers of an introduction should be made aware of.*
Influences on Rand’s Thinking
Lemieux relies in part on Chris Sciabarra’s The Russian Radical. Lemieux discusses the influence of Aristotle on Rand and notes that her interpretation of Aristotle and other thinkers is controversial. He sees similarities with others such as her teacher Nicholas Lossky and various authors in the libertarian and conservative traditions.
Philosophy of Objectivism
He reviews Rand’s views on politics, ethics, metaphysics and epistemology. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. This is the one book that Rand wrote that resembles a traditional work of philosophy. In it, Rand purported to solve “the problem of universals” via an elaborate description of how the mind forms concepts. While this work hasn’t made much of an influence in the world of professional philosophy, her acolytes consider it her greatest achievement. As Alan Gotthelf once told Rand, “you’ve done for consciousness what Aristotle did for existence,” to which Rand replied “I have.”** The best aspect of this chapter is how Lemieux integrates Rand’s philosophy with characters in her novels. He notes that Rand’s characters, however, tend to be rather one dimensional.
Individualism and Morality
Lemieux discusses the Randian view of selfishness and altruism. He is quite fair to Rand by observing that Rand doesn’t mean by this that being uncaring about others is a virtue. She didn’t even oppose private charity. I think he’s correct that Rand’s “transactional” approach to ethics does make ethical decisions somewhat sterile. Most of us would consider being compassionate and friendly good in themselves, not just good in the “go along to get along” sense.
Capitalism and Politics
Lemieux observes that for Rand, Capitalism was not only an economic system, but a political system where individuals were free to live their lives without governmental or societal interference. Capitalism is derivative of her view of human beings as rational creatures. He disagrees with Rand that monopolies can only be sustained by governmental interference. He points out that Amazon, Facebook and other companies have an advantage because the costs of competing with them are quite high and the technological advantage they possess because of copyrighted software and the like.
He notes that Rand received Social Security and Medicare in her later years. He doesn’t accuse Rand of being a hypocrite because she wrote in “The Question of Scholarships” that it’s reasonable for a person to “take back” what the government has, in her view, stolen.
Lemieux has a brief discussion of Rand’s view of property rights and notes that Rand wasn’t a racist. She didn’t approve of private discrimination against non-Whites but thought that boycotts and social pressure was the appropriate manner to fight racial discrimination. He sees as somewhat contradictory her support for Israel, noting that it was based in part on a rather stereotypical and almost collectivist view of Arabs.
Lemieux finishes the book with the enduring influence of Rand on American and European life. He names some of the people that are influenced by Rand. He claims, correctly I think, that Rand, as a “big picture” thinker, asked all sorts of important questions about life, politics and morality. “To all those questions, Rand provides some interesting answers. One may well disagree with much of the overarching nature of Objectivist philosophy or see it unrealistic in practice . . .”
*Likewise, Lemieux doesn’t mention James Valliant’s 2005 hit piece, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, which argues that the Branden books are lies from beginning to end.
**Not to be outdone, Leonard Peikoff claims that with his theory of induction (given as taped lectures) “the validation of reason has now been accomplished.”