How I Discovered Ayn Rand
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “There are two novels that can change a bookish 14-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
I’ve always loved that joke because I was that bookish 14-year old and in beautiful irony, perhaps no single philosopher has had a bigger impact on me than Ayn Rand.
I discovered Ayn Rand in a peculiar moment in my life. The Great Recession was in full swing, the markets flashed red seemingly every day and there was a steady drumbeat urging us to abandon “free market principles in order to save the free market system.” It was almost like the world was joining me in teenage angst and, like the miserable usually do, I enjoyed the company.
As I tried to grapple with a crumbling world at a time when most people are starting to formulate their thoughts and identity within the eternal chain we call life, I turned to my place of solace and refuge – reading.
Books on history and economics quickly replaced a Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter (which I would argue is my generation’s Lord of the Rings). However, history and economics, I would come to realize, was just two-thirds of the puzzle; philosophy was the missing piece that ties everything together.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the name Ayn Rand. It might have been down the YouTube rabbit hole or one of Glenn Beck’s rambling monologues (I consumed my fair share of Fox News at the time; mea culpa) but I know what drew me in – her escape from the Soviet Union. I myself am the offspring of Cuban refugees and the generational trauma is real within our community. The allure of someone who grew up in a communist state and dedicated herself to combating the evils that came from it was too much to resist.
But it was her now famous interview with Mike Wallace that sealed the deal for me and would introduce me to the book which would change my life.
“Throughout the United States, small pockets of intellectuals have become involved in a new and unusual philosophy, which would seem to strike at the very roots of our society. The fountainhead of this philosophy is a novelist, Ayn Rand, whose two major works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have been best sellers,” Wallace started. As a fan of Greek mythology, the title of the latter immediately stuck out to me, called even.
“Down through history various political and philosophical movements have sprung up, but most of them have died. Some, however, like democracy or communism, take hold and affect the entire world. Here in the United States perhaps the most challenging and unusual new philosophy has been forged by a novelist, Ayn Rand. Miss Rand’s point of view is still comparatively unknown in America, but if it ever did take hold, it would revolutionize our lives,” Wallace concluded before introducing Ayn Rand.
Here is where I would first be introduced to her concepts of objective reality, rational egoism and altruism; that man is not a means to an end but an end in himself. It was quite revolutionary to me. I looked around and saw a world where people were treated as chess pieces to be moved and manipulated to meet the ends of the government, of God, and, yes, of other people much to the detriment of all and for false promises.
Rand’s vision promised a different world, a better world where man could pursue his own creative ventures and not be limited by tradition, society or others who lacked the vision or felt envy. It can be quite the powerful assurance to an individual to tell them life is worth living and that the world you envision can be yours.
It’s what I needed to hear. Self-esteem and its development are important to having a successful and fulfilling life. That will always be the greatest thing I’ve learned from Ayn Rand. I was struggling at the time with depression and self-assurance like many young people do, and the larger-than-life characters she would bring forth in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were captivating to me. For many years, they motivated me and helped me through adversity.
I particularly remember the inconvenience of lugging a 1,200-page book around but there was a sense of pride upon completion. I remember trying to force my then-romantic interests to read it and seeking to engage in as many arguments to sharpen my arguments on ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. Hell, I even started a philosophy club at my high school to get into arguments. I must’ve been insufferable.
I have since come to learn I was not alone. There is and always has been a “cult of Rand”; some who believe everything she ever wrote was akin to scripture. This is obviously not true, and I don’t believe even Ayn Rand would believe so. I’ve found this is where much of the Rand hate comes from. But on the fundamentals, which matters most for building a philosophy for life, Rand’s ideas are mostly correct, and Objectivism provides a solid framework to build upon, but it should not be the end of your intellectual journey.
For young liberty lovers, I recommend starting with The Fountainhead since it has aged best among her novels and feels less dated than Atlas Shrugged (even if it was written a decade earlier). The way she explores the themes of integrity vs. conformity, creativity and pride would be of value to anyone seeking to understand their place in this world and how to not lose yourself in it.
If you’re akin to a deeper dive into Objectivism, I recommend the provocatively named The Virtue of Selfishness. Ayn Rand will guide you to better understand her definition of selfishness, different from the one commonly levied against people, and touches on the ethics of a good life revolving around the values of productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice and pride.
Although I will never meet Ayn Rand, I would’ve liked to. Unfortunately, she continues to be underrated in many discussions but that is a mistake. Reason matters. Reality matters. You matter.