The Shroud of Aristotle

Whilst surfing for something else I happened across this description of Ayn Rand’s philosophy as “really nothing other than a Solipsistic ethical system thinly shrouded with Aristotle,” popular only because “a lot of college age kids want to hear … a philosophical rationalization for greed and selfishness.”

Ayn Rand I think one of the chief explainers of the divide between those who take Rand seriously as a philosopher and those who don’t may well be the interpretive divide between those who see her philosophy as a solipsistic ethical system thinly shrouded with Aristotle and those who see it as an Aristotelean system thinly shrouded with ethical solipsism. Obviously I’m in the latter camp.

So here’s a question for those in the former camp: if Rand’s ethics is just a rationalisation for greed and selfishness (in the conventional sense) and the Aristoteleanism is just a thin shroud, then what exactly is the contrast in The Fountainhead between Roark on the one hand and Wynand and Keating on the other supposed to be about? What is supposed to be wrong with Wynand’s and/or Keating’s modus operandi, from Rand’s point of view? If anyone can give a plausible answer that’s consistent with the view of Rand cited above, I’ll eat my conical hat. If not, then I’ll stick to my view that such readings of Rand are the product of a tin ear.

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9 Responses to The Shroud of Aristotle

  1. Bob Kaercher May 8, 2008 at 10:18 am #

    I’m no Rand scholar, but based on what I have read by her and of her, I tend to agree with your point of view, Roderick.

    But I’m not so sure that all such criticism of Rand is merely “the product of a tin ear.” It’s all well and good to point to “The Fountainhead,” but this is also the same woman who said that Big Business is America’s most persecuted minority (which many of her disciples still pretty much repeat ad infinitum to this day), and that the military-industrial complex is a “myth or worse.”

    Now, any philosopher is bound to be inconsistent and self-contradictory at times, being only human. But her particular inconsistencies are compounded by the fact that her “intellectual heirs” and disciples have defended the use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations, and have called for the mass, indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims. I’ve seen such writing by self-described Objectivists that have just left me with an absolutely sick feeling in my stomach. (Perhaps it could be argued that Rand herself wouldn’t take such positions if she lived to be 103 years old, but the fact is she isn’t around to clarify, so we can never know for sure. I’m also aware that Barbara Branden has denounced some of the stuff I mention, but it’s my impression that she is largely considered a pariah by much of the Objectivist movement.)

    So it seems to me that many of Rand’s own followers are themselves contributing to the misconceptions. Some of them seem to actually take some pride in behaving like the living cartoon stereotypes drawn by Rand’s critics.

    What I would recommend to these critics is to read more writing by you and Chris Matthew Sciabarra on Rand for a more balanced interpretation that sorts the wheat from the chaff. If not for reading some of your and Sciabarra’s work on Rand, I probably would have written her off some time ago due to the negative impressions I have of today’s Objectivist movement.

    But it looks to me that you guys are among only a very few, solitary voices in a Randian wilderness that is largely inhabited by rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth wolves masquerading as champions of reason.

  2. Victor Milan May 8, 2008 at 2:25 pm #

    Don’t the contradictions tend to be resolve by differentiating between Rand the near-libertarian novelist and Rand the Big Corporate-and-power-worshipping commentator she became in her latter years?

    Those of us who believe liberty is a birthright tend to be drawn to the former. Those who somehow imagine liberty can be provided by the mailed fist are drawn to the latter.

  3. Bob Kaercher May 8, 2008 at 4:18 pm #

    I would agree, Victor. But it seems that these days, the most outspoken of self-described Objectivists are those who “somehow imagine liberty can be provided by the mailed fist.”

    My point is that they’re muddying the waters and obscuring Rand’s best qualities. This hasn’t exactly cleared up popular misconceptions of Rand any.

  4. Shawn Huckabay May 9, 2008 at 1:20 pm #

    I studied Rand for 10 years (starting at age 13) but I don’t think I truly appreciated her as a philosopher until I broke from the constraints of Objectivism and began learning about things like anarchism and Aristotle.

  5. Anna Morgenstern May 13, 2008 at 8:19 pm #

    I’ve always believed that it’s Objectivists that make Ayn Rand look bad.

    She did say some things that she probably wouldn’t have under different circumstances, but she was smarter than her critics give her credit for.
    She was unfortunately horribly inconsistent in some ways, most likely because of emotional biases. Those biases may have been very understandable given her life, but they did cloud the issues around her body of thought.

    As for your question a good distinction might also be made between Jim and Dagny Taggart.

  6. JOR May 18, 2008 at 10:47 am #

    Rand almost certainly would have endorsed the most monstrous views of her craziest current followers. We already know, from her own explicit statements, that she was perfectly fine with the US military killing as many innocents as necessary to serve its ends.

  7. PhysicistDave May 19, 2008 at 9:32 pm #

    In 1971 in “The Objectivist,” Rand wrote, “I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This – the supremacy of reason – was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism.”

    Isn’t the real problem with the psychotic foreign-policy of the current Randian cult that they fail to take this idea seriously?

    A lot of the current Randians have privileged egoism over reason: if it serves your own self-interest to murder a bunch of innocent people, go for it!

    Under a fair definition of “reason,” this is not reasonable: e.g., it’s hard seriously to defend this as a rule that one would wish to see generalized to everyone.

    Now, Rand was not completely consistent here herself. For example, in cases where “pure” self-interest obviously violated the demands of reason, she tried to uphold the supremacy of self-interest by arguing that “true” self-interest was the life of man qua man, not just self-interest in the obvious sense.

    And the current Randian cultists often pursue a peculiarly collectivist version of self-interest that focuses on the nation-state (and sometimes not even our nation-state!) rather than the individual.

    But if all Randians would simply accept that reason rules, and that self-interest must be strictly subordinated to reason, so that you need to respect others’ rights even when that may not serve your own self-interest, that would surely solve some of the problems.

    Self-interest is not enough.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  8. PhysicistDave May 19, 2008 at 9:45 pm #


    Looking back on my own exposure to Rand, it seems to me the important thing was her pointing out that captialism, libertarianism, a cimmitment to reason, eudaemonism, empiricism, atheism, etc. were all consistent with each other and, indeed, often offered support for each other.

    In a sense, she gave a lot of us adolescents “permission” to take seriously eudaemonism, atheism, etc.

    I already knew about all of those strains of thought before I read Rand in high school. I’m not sure I really learned much philosophy from her – I already knew enough about Kant to know that her denunciations were a bit cartoonish, for example. (On the other hand, I learned a great deal from Rothbard that I had not known about history, economics, and even philosophy.)

    Can you point to any area in which she was really a great philosophical innovator or even synthesizer?

    I think of her as a philosophical essayist, who certainly knew how to get the reader’s blood flowing and who caused a lot of young people to take philosophy seriously in terms of its impact on real life.

    But was she really a significant philosopher?

    Or was she the philosophical equivalent of a great inspirational speaker?


  9. Neil Parille May 22, 2008 at 5:38 am #


    I think Professor Long has pointed to Rand’ theory of concepts as quite similar to Kripke’s theories.

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