Looking Out for Number One and Finding Zero

 This past week, while riding the commuter home I sat down on an upper row seat not far from a young Indian woman. Her head was covered so I believed her to be a devoutly religious person. On her lap was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I wondered about her interest in Rand’s lengthy novel.

As you know much has been said in the media recently about corporate greed and fairness. OWS protests, though largely unfocused and self-trivializing, seem to want to generate a discussion about what is ethically the “right thing to do” in the world of money and specifically money as power or a force to use for “good” and not for selfish pleasure. It should be noted, though, that the message of the OWS protestors is certainly compromised by their own envy and greed. Their desire (and demand) to have the same things that someone else has stands as witness to their hypocrisy. But, let’s get back to the woman reading Atlas Shrugged.  Briefly, let’s look at the philosophy behind the book.

Ayn Rand’s (1905-1982) novels portray the philosophy of Objectivism. The (paper) weighty Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead clearly identify the key tenets of Objectivism: objective reality, reason, self-interest, capitalism.

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism:

Objective reality: a tree falls in the forest. The sound of the falling tree occurs whether you are there to hear it or not. There is no spiritual realm. When you are dead you are dead.

Reason: direct stimuli from nature; there is no God, no soul, no intuition, nothing beyond what we determine though reason.

Self-interest: your own self-interest and happiness is what life is all about. You take care of number one.

Capitalism: Objectivism’s ideal political expression. Capitalism for the Objectivist is all about individual rights and private property; self-reliance, free trade, entrepreneurship and initiative all operate freely and without coercion within capitalism and the free market system.

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is atheistic, rejecting faith and religion. It believes only in reason and what the self can determine. This viewpoint is born out of a godless evolutionary view of life, the Enlightenment era and philosophical naturalism. Objectivism is blind faith in your self.

Rugged individualism, for Rand, was a force like other forces of nature and something to be reckoned with. As you might imagine this type of thinking would certainly feed the ego and especially if the person who embraces Objectivism is successful in life. For these people pride of place means you’ve made it to the top of the heap. Your self-esteem is rewarded. You are recognized by your peers as having objectively “made it.” (BTW: OWS protestors want to make it, too.)

Ayn Rand’s extreme philosophy is most likely a reaction to her early life in Russia during the Communist Revolution. As a child she learned to despise coercion, government intrusion and totalitarianism. She came to oppose statism and collectivism while she promoted social systems which protected individual rights and personal initiatives. As a romantic realist she hated the dystopian effects created by those seeking to create a man-made utopia. Though a polemic, Rand never insisted that others be made to accept her philosophy. She was “laissez faire” with respect to others.

Before Rand another voice of philosophical naturalism and the evolutionary world view had chosen a different atheistic force with which to respond to “the law of life.: Jack London (1876 – 1916).

London, the author of The Call of The Wild wrote about the rugged individualist in a Darwinian world where and at a time when man was being considered as just another evolved animal. London wrote about animal instincts (the dog Buck) including survival of the species. For the philosophical naturalist life was essentially a matter of staying alive. This meant a primordial existence: eating, having sex, avoiding pain, etc. There was no higher purpose.

Over time, though, London drifted into materialism as most atheistic evolutionists do. He became a member of the Socialist Party of America. He embraced materialist thinkers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. It may be that because London, as depicted in his writings, saw humans at the mercy of nature’s massive forces that he decided that the best thing to do was to fight back by joining forces with other human animals via collectivism.

It could be said that both philosophical novelists, London and Rand, saw life as a Darwinian atheist did: having no divine purpose; first matter emerges then mind and then will-supplying force. And force, per Jack London and Karl Marx (and even these days, Obama) may be pooled into a collective. Or, force in the hands of Ayn Rand’s character Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, can be the individual who does it “My Way.” Either way, force is the means to an end: the “survival of the fittest,” a now-common phrase given to us by Herbert Spencer, nineteenth-century British philosopher who was huge proponent of evolution (and a significant influence on Jack London and it seems also of the OWS protestors).

As a Christian I believe that there is a lot about the basic wording of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism that rings true while at the same time Rand’s self-directed fleshing out of the philosophy has nothing in common with Christianity.

To be sure there is objective reality but for the Christian it is the True Reality of the Kingdom of God. And those who have “ears to hear and eyes to see” can detect this Kingdom. It is spiritual and at the same time more real than this present world. Christians have wide-eyed belief in God.

Being created in the image of God a Christian also understands that reason is not an end in itself but a means to be in relationship with God and to work together with God to bring about His kingdom on earth.

Christian self-interest is the model for how we are to take care of others: “Love your neighbor as yourself”; “Husbands love your wives as yourself.” Our self-interest is not an end in itself. It is not bent inward. Remember, the Good Samaritan cared for the wounded man as he would have wanted to be cared for in the same situation. He wasn’t the rugged individualist who walked on by. Instead, he was the rugged individualist who cared for others.

Christian capitalism, man’s free, voluntary and individual exchange with others, is to be guided and tempered by a Christian’s self-governing virtue of justice – giving every man his due, of temperance, of prudence and of charity and not by government fiat. Remember, we are told in Scripture to “Pray for those in authority over you.” We pray for those in authority so that we can live in peace – a peace which means no government authority interfering in our lives. This allows for the free exchange of God’s goodness.

Collectivism, on the other hand, finds no place in Scripture apart from a brief mention of the early New Testament church. Yet, there are social engineers and social gospel advocates who build vast socialist ideologies around snippets of this New Testament history.  The U.S. Government is not the church of Jesus Christ. The world and the church are two separate entities. Governments are impersonal and do not have virtues. Governments are coercive and make demands.  In a democratic republic like the U.S. we must not elect leaders who create ever more egregious and imposing laws in hopes of creating the virtues we want to have around us. Be the virtue instead.

The Indian woman on the train woman reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged may find that “the survival of the fittest” individual means that she cuts herself off from God and others to obtain it all. And, those with a humanistic-collective bent may find that they will lose themselves and God in the mix.

Jesus – The Way, The Truth and The Life.  Let The Way Occupy you.

****

Shakespeare had it right when Hamlet says. ‘And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

Here are some related posts:

Wrestling With God

Just Say No

What’s Left. To Be Decided.

tête-à-tête

How Shall I Then Live?

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