Paul Ryan has been thoroughly castigated for “allegedly” expressing an appreciation for Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Unfortunately, he’s decided to play politician and deny he ever held Objectivism in high regard rather than attempt to explain to the unwashed masses (the media) how he (previously?) reconciled an appreciation for Objectivism with his Catholic faith.
I think I know the answer he hasn’t given.
As Fr. Dwight Longenecker suggests: Be Self Centered – It’s Good for You.
I’ve often thought this exact point is the overlooked key to reconciling Objectivism with our Christian faith.
To be sure, Rand was indubitably a perverse and broken woman. She was also rather a genius, and Objectivism has many excellent points to recommend it. The essence of the philosophy in her words is:
- Reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears.
- Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
- Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
- The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
With the first point (objective reality), Christianity finds nothing to dispute. Upon this, we agree. In fact, we hold this truth more firmly than Rand, who was willing to dismiss evidence contrary to her athiestic opinions, or at the very least, to conclude that absence of convincing (to her) evidence for God is equivalent to evidence of absence. Rand fell short of her own ideals in this respect, falling right into the pit of subjectivism while striving for objectivism.
With the second point (reason), Christianity (particularly Catholic Christianity) finds little to dispute. Rand proposes only athiestic materialism as compatible with reason, but advances in physics have antiquated her notions. Modern philosophers and ancient Catholics alike understand “there are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio [Ms. Rand], than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” What revelation have we experienced or learned of that was not first experienced through the senses, translated to us via the senses, and understood through reason? The church has a long an honorable tradition of applying reason to the understanding of God. We call it Theology. It is through reason applied to the evidence of the senses that we understand the effects of original sin, making us no less, and perhaps more “heroic beings” for having to struggle with ourselves before we can engage the world.
With the third point (pursuit of our own rational self-interest is the highest moral purpose), we find the greatest point of contention and misunderstanding. There is, however, not so much to dispute, when we understand Fr. Longenecker’s point: “Be self centered. Look after the good of your own soul first and foremost. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. …Of course, here’s the paradoxical bit: if you are concerned with your own salvation you will naturally be concerned about other people too–but you’ll be concerned about them in the right way and for the right reasons.” This, ultimately, is the key to reconciliation.
Rand herself recognized that self-interest is more than hedonism, although “her critics ignored her insistence, repeated tirelessly, that one’s true self-interest is a rational and long-range self-interest, not a thoughtless, whim-driven lurching from one superficial desire to another.”(firstname.lastname@example.org) We can’t ignore Rand’s own thoughts on Christianity, however un-clueful they might be. She perceived that Jesus “gave men a code of altruism” which requires “the subordination of one’s soul to the wishes, desires or needs of others” and in this found “a contradiction that cannot be resolved.” Rand had a fundamental misunderstanding of God and of Christ’s teachings. When we understand that God desires all that is good, then it is selfish (in Rand’s positive light) of us to pursue God’s will for our lives; benevolent, not altruistic, to give to the poor and sacrifice our life for another. In fact, Saint Paul addressed this very point in his first letter to the Corinthians, pointing out that if he were to give all he posseses to the poor and surrender his body to be burned, but didn’t have love, “I gain nothing.”
Finally, her fourth pillar, capitalism, which she defines as a system in which in which we freely engage in exchange to mutual benefit, is not incompatible with our faith, and is perhaps more closely aligned with our faith than any other economic system. Rand would most likely have placed the wrong boundaries around “free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit,” and failed to include the right to life from conception to natural death within the the rights that government would protect, but her own flawed application of Objectivism is not necessarily reason to discard the philosophy entirely.
Rand was a twisted genius with an intellect ravaged by the effects of Communism and Twentieth Century philosophies. She failed to understand, and therefore dismissed as foolishness the reality of God. She was mean, grumpy, and unpleasant, and she died rejected and alone. She was “a very bad woman” who came to a bad end.
Ryan is right to select Saint Thomas Aquinas as his model. The ironic thing, and I don’t think Ryan is ignorant of this fact, is that Aquinas is especially notable for his fair-handed handling of opposing ideas. He presents his opponents arguments more effectively than they, and either destroys them utterly, or masterfully reframes them to reflect the light of Christ. That is exactly what we need to do to Objectivism.
As broken as she was, Rand’s philosophy, properly framed, offers a viable alternative to Christian Socialism. The core of Objectivism may be reasonably applied where the practitioner sincerely lives the first and greatest commandment, and takes the fruit of Rand’s intellect without applying her brand of fertilizer.
Some other perspectives to consider:
“I’m an objectivist, because I need some standard outside of Christianity that helps me understand the will of God so that when contradictions in my circle of Christian influences occur, I can make a decision. I am a Christian because life is more fulfilling when I understand why I am living it.” http://msblackandwhite.blogspot.com/2005/07/objectivist-christian-is-not.html