Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for May 29th, 2010

Aristotle and Ayn Rand

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By Wiz

Via a friend I saw this excellent essay about Ayn Rand by Corey Robin in The Nation. Robin sees Rand less as a con-man, though she has many surface similarities to that great American type, and more a product of Hollywood: all phony pseudo-intellectualisms and self-satisfied (and she was very satisfied with herself) and self-serving superficiality. Robin also suggests her ethos tends towards fascism, not liberation, as she probably thought.

On one hand it always seems a bit too easy to bash Rand. We all know, by this point, the score. She’s a bad writer, philosophically ludicrous, and morally immature. Her fans tend to be socially inept, and have the truly repulsive combination of delusions of grandeur alongside persecution complexes. Of course, on the other hand, there are enough powerful people out there pushing Ayn Rand and her ideas at us, that its always worth reminding ourselves how ludicrous she is. (Here, for instance, is a report about how businessmen are trying to fund “Ayn Rand Studies” at universities).

Aristotle: Not an Apologist for Capitalism

One thing I learned from Robin was that Rand claimed to be influenced by Aristotle, basing her defense of the free market on Aristotle’s dictum that A is A, and declaring Aristotle to be the greatest Western philosopher (until her, of course). Robin is rightfully skeptical that Rand ever read much Aristotle beyond a shallow reading of his logics. Certainly not his ethics, it seems. Aristotle’s entire ethical theory, after all, is based on the idea of personal virtues: habits and skills that individuals build up over time in order to live good lives. Were Rand to seriously read Aristotle she might have noted that many of the virtues lauded by Aristotle—like temperance and justice—hardly fit into a capitalist and egoist ethos.

Moreover, she might have noticed something else jarring to her hyper-egoist worldview. For a book about ethics, Aristotle dedicated two chapters, 1/5 of the book (Chapters 8 and 9), to friendship. “Without friends no one would choose to live.” Friendships are crucial training grounds for virtuous behavior, places to enjoy the internal goods of yours and others’ virtue, and a small model of the just community. In other words, Aristotle’s ethics is crafted, from the beginning, as a social product, just as his political philosophy takes the household, rather than the individual, as its starting point. As Alasdair McIntrye points out, Aristotle’s ethics are fundamentally incompatible with Nietzschian relativism. Yet, of course, Rand’s vision tried to fuse a vulgar Aristotle with an extraordinarily vulgar Nietzsche.

And finally, one last point. In a burst of hideous meladramatic cliché, Rand has one of her heroes, Howard Roark declare:

“The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid.”

(One can just imagine all the CEO psychopaths out there, bravely firing their workers who try to unionize, evading environmental laws, and hiding their income in off-shore tax havens, all imagining themselves as heroic Galileo figures, couragously withstanding the persecution of the small-minded and jealous.)

Anyways…Aristotle was, of course, personal physician to Kings and tutor to Alexander the Great and Ptolemy. He spent his entire life among the most powerful in the Greek world. Hardly the resume of a persecuted and misunderstood man who suffered for his genius.

But then, one suspects that this doesn’t contradict Rand’s point. What Roark means is that the true heroes will be disliked by the democratic masses, so being friends with Kings is fine. The “men of unborrowed vision” are not worried about the rich and powerful, since in Rand’s world they always are the rich and powerful. They’re worried about the unwashed little people. And so, of course, we see the self-fulfilling prophecy to Rand’s message: anyone who acts like a self-centered greedy solipsistic psychopath, as Rand wants, will end up hated by the mass of the people, just as Rand predicts they will.

I’ll leave you with these words of Aristotle, much wiser than anything our modern libertarians ever have come up with:

For in every community there is thought to be some form of justice, and friendship too; at least men address as friends their fellow-voyagers and fellowsoldiers, and so too those associated with them in any other kind of community. And the extent of their association is the extent of their friendship, as it is the extent to which justice exists between them. And the proverb ‘what friends have is common property’ expresses the truth; for friendship depends on community.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 29, 2010 at 22:53


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