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Ayn Rand Explained

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Ayn Rand Explained

From Tyranny to Tea Party

Ronald E. Merrill, author

Marsha Familaro Enright, editor

(2012 Open Court)

Description at Amazon

Ayn Rand Explained is an engrossing account of the life, work, and influence of Ayn Rand: her career, from youth in Soviet Russia to Hollywood screenwriter and then to ideological guru; her novels and other fiction writings, including the perennial best-sellers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; her forays into ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics; her influence on—and personal animosity toward—both conservatism and libertarianism.

Merrill and Enright describe Rand’s early infatuation with Nietzsche, her first fiction writings, the developments behind her record-breaking blockbuster novels of 1943 and 1957, her increasing involvement in politics in the 1950s and 1960s, including her support for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater.

Rand’s Objectivist movement was first promoted through the Nathaniel Branden Institute, headed by her young protégé and anointed heir. The Institute advocated a complete worldview, encompassing Rand’s views on politics, economics, religion, art, music, epistemology, ethics (“The Virtue of Selfishness”), and sexual relationships. For several years the Institute grew rapidly, though there were ominous signs as some leading members were ‘put on trial’ for their heretical ideas, and ignominiously drummed out of the movement.

In 1969, Branden was expelled by Rand for ‘immorality’, the Institute was shut down, and all members who questioned this ruling were themselves excommunicated and shunned by Rand and her disciples. Branden became a best-selling author of psychotherapy books, with a following of Objectivists who had dissociated from the official organization headed by Rand, and after her death in 1982, by Leonard Peikoff. One of Rand’s inner circle, Alan Greenspan, later went on to get his hands on the steering wheel of the American economy.

Objectivism offers a comprehensive package of beliefs encompassing the ethics of rational egoism, rejection of all religion and outright atheism, the arts as expressions of good or bad metaphysical and ethical values, personal freedom from political interference, laissez-faire capitalism, and limited government. The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Objectivism, with a jump in sales of Rand’s novels and the influence of Rand’s ideas in the Tea Party movement and the Republican primaries. While gaining membership, the Objectivist movement continues to be sharply divided into warring factions, the two major groupings led by the Ayn Rand Institute (Leonard Peikoff) and the Objectivist Center (David Kelley).

Ayn Rand Explained is a completely revised and updated edition of The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by the late Ronald E. Merrill, first published by Open Court in 1991.

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I got The Ideas of Ayn Rand when it first came out, I think it was the first independent survey of Rand's life and work that I read. I thought it was terrific, it was the right book at the right time, though I haven't picked it up again in a long time. I'd have to excavate for it, and that's assuming I didn't lend it out to someone who failed to return it. I wonder how much revision there has been to it. Amazon doesn't have a sample. Merrill died years ago. Nathaniel Branden republished his memoir, but acknowledged that it was 95% the same, so I didn't bother getting it since I already had Judgement Day. In any event, I certainly recommend Merrill's book, and I expect this new version is at least as good as the original, having read plenty of good material by Marsha Enright over the years.

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I had never gotten around to reading Ronald Merrill’s original The Ideas of Ayn Rand until now, in parallel with Marsha Enright’s expanded version Ayn Rand Explained. Enright has expanded Ideas considerably in Explained, beyond the three new chapters. For example, Merrill wrote in Ideas: “Rand’s predilection for paradox and her pleasure in surprising and shocking the reader probably owed much to the influence of O. Henry and Oscar Wilde.” That statement, its paragraph, and its section remain in Explained. But the element of paradox and six others (mostly additional to those remarked by Merrill) in Rand’s literature receive fresh and delightful notice and discussion from Enright.

One of the hazards Nathaniel Branden had attended to in “The Benefits and Hazards of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy” (1984) is perhaps more a psychological hazard than a philosophical one: repression.* As I mentioned in another thread,* his lectures The Basic Principles of Objectivism, as transcribed in The Vision of Ayn Rand, contain much more psychology than does Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. As readers here know, Branden published quite a bit of psychology in The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist. In recent years, he has allowed that the psychology he propounded then as well as his later corrections and extensions to it are not part of the philosophy of Objectivism, and he has acknowledged that Peikoff’s OPAR is an accurate representation of Rand’s philosophy.

The divide between philosophical psychology (as my Thomist first philosophy professor called it) and what we call cognitive psychology* or therapeutic psychology* is not sharp. For example, Rand would not have gotten far in posing her view of the nature and role of reason in human life without saying things about the nature of perception and emotions and their relations with reason. Theory of perception and emotions at some level of outline has to be part of a philosophy such as hers.

Moreover, emotional dynamics figure into film, such as Love Letters,* and novels, such as Fountainhead and Atlas. It is in connection with Rand’s literature that Branden came to see a hazard in the “philosophy” of Ayn Rand. He wrote:

If, in page after page of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you show someone being heroic by ruthlessly setting feelings aside, and if you show someone being rotten and depraved by, in effect, diving headlong into his feelings and emotions, and if that is one of your dominant methods of characterization, repeated again and again, then it doesn't matter what you profess, in abstract philosophy, about the relationship of reason and emotion. You have taught people: repress, repress, repress.

No such lesson took on me as a young person reading those books. In Fountainhead again and again Roark is shown to be the character not evasive about himself, the character most not evasive about himself. In Atlas Dagny, Rearden, and Galt are shown as kin of Roark in that respect. Rand was no Doris Lessing when it came to space devoted to self-reflection in characters. Lessing is no Rand when it comes to space devoted to the glory of sustained productive achievement. The two authors had different aspects of human existence, both of them important, that they especially wanted to embroidery.

The view that Rand’s protagonists are emotionally and introspectively inept has become a cliché. It was a pleasant surprise to find that in Ayn Rand Explained that cliché is challenged. This work counters that image, specifically with respect to Branden’s contentions about emotions and repression as portrayed in Atlas (pp. 120–25 in Explained; 79–84 in Ideas).

Edited by Boydstun

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