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Life Undefeated

Rand wrote Anthem (1938) in the summer of 1937. In her manuscript for Anthem, she continually tries to suit ideas of Nietzsche to her story, then scratches them out. Naturally, I wonder if she was not also, in some of those same strokes of the pen, writing down ideas of Nietzsche that she had seen attractive as truth, or at least promising as truth, then rejecting them as inadequate to her own grasp of the truth. Writing one’s ideas down and reading them helps one think better.

I should mention an interpretive issue concerning philosophy expressed in fiction that Rand finished and submitted for publication. In Fountainhead and Atlas, it is plain that philosophic views expressed by protagonists are those of the author at the time of final composition. What about We the Living (1936) and Anthem (1938)? These works were written before Rand was an established novelist. If you were writing a first novel, would you necessarily create protagonists whose express philosophic ideas were entirely held their creator? I think not, although the life courses one elects for protagonists and antagonists, with their given natures, would very likely express what the creator holds true. I take Rand’s protagonists in these first two published fictions to be always expressing Rand’s then-current view on express matters of philosophy.

In his community of origin, Equality 7-2521 had always loved the science of things. He also wants to know the meaning of things, the meaning of existence. He wants to know the secrets of nature, and he comes to suspect there is some important secret of human existence unknown to all. After fleeing his collectivist society, he comes upon a fine house and learns from its books many wonders of the advanced science of the ancient civilization. He discovers the word I. That is, he attains the concept I distinctly and firmly set.

He no longer writes “we” or “we alone” or “we alone only” in his journal to refer to himself. A new chapter begins. He writes: “I am. I think. I will. I am, for I know joy in living. . . . / I think, for I judge and choose my truth. . . . / I will, for I know my desires, and I am free in that which I desire. . . (A 1938, quoted in Milgram 2005, 18–19). (Cf. Descartes in Meditations II. “I am, I exist, that is certain. . . . / But what then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.”)

With his fundamental discovery, Equality 7-2521 has become a Prometheus. He continues: “What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer. I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning” (A XI). There is one word “which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory. / The sacred word: EGO” (A XII).

The quotation from Chapter XII is the close of the story. At the time this story was written, there were no atomic weapons, no nuclear arsenals, and I think it was an ordinary assumption among people not Christian that human kind would continue effectively forever on the earth. Recall, too, that Anthem is a poetic work, and in poetic expression, as in dreams, conjured images condense multiple associations. In the case of poetic expression, the suggested associations are set up by the wider text. To write that the word ego and that which it names cannot be eradicated from the earth might be playing on multiple meanings of earth. One meaning is the third planet from the sun; another is the dwelling place of mortal men, as distinct from mythological realms of immortal beings; another is the collection of human inhabitants on the planet (American Heritage). Rand’s uses of earth with talk of ego in Anthem 1938 can rightly carry those three meanings simultaneously. I think the most salient of three meanings in Rand’s use here is the second one. She is not only making a statement about the endurance of ego among all possible societies (the third meaning). She is most saliently making a statement about ego in relation to all the earth, to all the abode of human existence.

“Behold, I teach you the overman! / The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! / I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of extraterrestrial hopes!” (Z I “Zarathustra’s Prologue” 3; also Z I “On the Bestowing Virtue” 2).

Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen.” I teach you the overman, or superhuman. Rand 1938 is not teaching something beyond human, higher than human. Rather, she is teaching the human restored to wholeness.

“My ego taught me a new pride, I teach it to mankind: No longer bury your head in the sand of heavenly things, but bear it freely instead, an earthly head that creates a meaning for the earth!” (Z I “On the Hinterworldly”). Rand does not create a superhuman for the meaning of the earth. Does her Prometheous create a meaning of the earth? His namesake does not invent fire.

Rand’s protagonist unlocks a type of human that finds the meaning of human existence; not in super-terrestrial personages and their affairs, but in complete human individuals on earth. “I am a man. This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before!” (XI).

Nietzsche calls for humans to create (by successive generations of self- and value-creators [yes, with Lamarckian inheritance]), superhuman beings who will be the meaning of the earth. Rand 1938 does not teach humans to create (or to beget) the meaning of the earth, but to discover it.  “This spread of naked rock and peaks and moonlight is like a world ready to be born, a world that waits. It seems to us it asks a sign from us, a spark, a first commandment. We cannot know what word we are to give . . . . We are to speak. We are to give its goal, its highest meaning to all this glowing space of rock and sky” (X). I really do not see Rand setting up some sort of Fichtean or Nietzschean perspective on the relation of ego and world. She is saying that whatever goals there are in inanimate and animate earth, they reach their final end in their crowning glory: the individual human knower of joy and living; the individual judge of truth; the individual will free over his ends; in a word, the ego. Notice that at this stage of her development only sentient living processes, specifically, human ones, can be ends not for the sake of something else.

These final ends are human, not superhuman. Rand’s hero of Anthem is not portrayed as creating by will the human self that is final end and meaning of the earth. He is portrayed as discovering, or comprehending the self. (See also Mayhew 2005a, 38–39). In discovering what gives the earth its highest meaning, Rand’s Prometheus is not one who “first creates the possibility that something can be good and evil” (Z III “On New and Old Tablets” 2).

Rand began making notes for The Fountainhead in 1935. She began the writing in the summer of 1938 (Milgram 2007, 3). Her earliest notes specify that the theme of the novel is to be “the conflict between the first-handers who use their own minds to know the world and the second-handers, who ‘shift the center’ of their lives from their own judgments and values to those of others” (7). Between ’35 and ’37, Rand’s notes work on the theme, main characters, and events. “Her notes explain how the motives and actions of Toohey, Keating, and Wynand demonstrate their fundamental dependence on others” (4).

Rand selected epigraphs from Nietzsche for the front-piece of the novel and for the head of each of its four sections. (This practice is utilized, for example, by James Baldwin in his novel Another Country.) The epigraph for the section titled “Ellsworth Toohey” was from Zarathustra (I “The Tarantulas”), in the translation by Thomas Common (1917). “Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for ‘equality’; your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!” (quoted in Milgram 2007, 15). For a variety of reasons noted by Dr. Milgram, Rand eliminated all these epigrams from the finished product (1943).

In another notebook, her first philosophical one, Rand had an entry in 1934 in which “she commented that liberal democracies are at fault for ‘giving full rights to quantity (majorities), they forget the rights of quality, which are much higher rights. Prove that the differences of quality not only exist inexorably, but also should exist. The next step—democracy of superiors only’” (ibid., 27).

Eventually, Rand will transmute this quality/quantity notion of rights into the distinction of individual rights versus alleged rights of any collective. The individual rights will be uniform for all individuals, rather than be attached only to those of noble spirit. This will become Rand’s mature view, coincident with her mature view that ultimate ends in themselves are every individual’s own life itself. Ultimate ends in themselves are not just the selves that are noble spirits and higher life.

We see, however, that early Rand subscribed to Nietzsche’s doctrine of two kinds of justice for two spiritual classes of people (BGE 22, 44, 202–3; GS V 377). Kira says “I know no worse injustice than justice for all. Because men are not born equal and I don’t see why one should want to make them equal” (WL 1936, quoted in Mayhew 2004a, 211). Nietzsche had written “I do not want to be mixed in with and mistaken for these preachers of equality. For this justice speaks to me: ‘humans are not equal’. / And they shouldn’t become so either! What would my love for the overman be if I spoke otherwise?” (Z II “On the Tarantulas”).

Early in their relationship, Kira and Andrei discuss Communism, for which he has sacrificed lives and his own blood too. Kira maintains that the ideal of living for the state is wrong. Andrei asks what better purpose there could be. Kira replies “Don’t you know that we live only for ourselves, the best of us do, those who are worth leaving alive?” (ibid., 210). Here we see Rand’s idea from the Fountainhead-note that it is not meritorious to center one’s life on valuing others. That is in step with Nietzsche (D 516). Kira’s phrase “those who are worth leaving alive” suggests Nietzsche’s chronic talk about the ways in which calamities like wars get rid of superfluous humans and raise the type man to greater heights (GS I–IV 1, 19, 92; Z I “On War and Warriers”). However, in the situation, it is types like Kira who are not being left alive. So one might have thought that Rand’s 1936 Kira was only pleading: If some people are to be sacrificed for the sake of others, do not sacrifice the best of people, the people who live for themselves.

That thought is quickly quashed. Andrei tells Kira that we cannot sacrifice the masses for the sake of the few. She replies: “You can! You must. When those few are the best. . . . What are your masses but mud to be ground under foot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it [deserve life]? What is the people but millions of puny, shriveled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, . . . And for those you would sacrifice the few who know life, who are life?” (WL 1936, quoted in Sciabarra 1995, 101; Mayhew 2004, 211).  These words were committed to print prior to WWII and the Nazis’ burning of one race to elevate another, but even if Rand’s talk in ’36 were only of metaphorical burning, say the burning of lifetimes in manual labor for factory owners or mine owners, these were and are words for the trash can.

Nietzsche writes: “At the risk of annoying innocent ears I will propose this: egoism belongs to the essence of the noble soul. I mean that firm belief that other beings will, by nature, have to be subordinate to a being ‘like us’ and will have to sacrifice themselves. The noble soul accepts this fact of its egoism without any question-mark, and also without feeling any harshness, compulsion, or caprice in it, but rather as something that may well be grounded in the primordial law of things. If the noble soul were to try to name this phenomenon, it would call it justice itself” (BGE 265).

Nietzsche and early Rand are seriously at odds over what type of characters should be counted as of noble spirit, as the best type of humans. However those two types are to be rightly characterized, early Rand evidently shared with Nietzsche the view that there has to be sacrifice between types higher and types lower.

That view is in tension with the ideal Rand was upholding by having Kira say she does not want to be for or against the people; she only wants to be left alone to live. Perhaps Rand was thinking that, in existing human societies, there had to be sacrifice between types of people and that the interests of the masses should be sacrificed to the interests of the superior spiritual class. By the summer of ’37, she was thinking that, at least in ideal social relationships, the best individuals are not dependent on the existence of the masses. That is one of the messages of Anthem.

In 1936 Rand may have held, against Marxism, that exploitation is right. However, I do not think her conception of life as an ideal, life undefeated, was the same as the concept of life Nietzsche appealed to in defending social exploitation. Nietzsche writes:

"Life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering, the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and at least, the very least, exploiting . . . . Life is precisely will to power. . . . These days, people everywhere are lost in rapturous enthusiasms, even in scientific disguise, about a future state of society where 'the exploitative character' will fall away . . . . 'Exploitation' does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect society: it belongs to the essence of being alive as a fundamental organic function; it is a result of genuine will to power, which is just the will to life." (BGE 259)

Kira says to Andrei “What do you think is living in me? Why do you think I’m alive? Because I have a stomach and eat and digest food? Because I breathe and work and produce more food to digest? Or because I know what I want and that something that knows how to want—isn’t that life itself?” (WL 1936, quoted in Wright 2005, 203). She speaks of Andrei’s Communism bringing its “new life” to men by telling them what they should want, what they must want, dictating what the hours and thoughts of their lives must be. Andrei’s Communism “forbade life to the living” (WL 388).

Life as the moral ideal in We the Living (1936) is life knowing itself, but what it knows at its heart is not will to power. What it knows is life undefeated, life self-directed and self-caring. Stopping that heart of human life brings humanity not new life, but death.


Descartes, R. 1641. Meditations on First Philosophy. E.S. Haldane and T.R.T. Ross, trans. In The Essential Descartes. M.D. Wilson, editor. Meridian.

Mayhew, R. 2004a. We the Living: ’36 and ’59. In Mayhew 2004b.

——., editor. 2004b. Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living. Lexington.

——. 2005a. Anthem ’38 & ’46. In Mayhew 2005b.

——. editor. 2005b. Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Lexington.

Milgram, S. 2005. Anthem in Manuscript: Finding the Words. In Mayhew 2005b.

Milgram, S. 2007. The Fountainhead from Notebook to Novel. In Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. R. Mayhew, editor. Lexington.

Nietzsche, F. 1881. Daybreak. R.J. Hollingdale, trans. 1997. Cambridge.

——. 1882 & 1887. The Gay Science I–IV & V. J. Nauckhoff, trans. 2001. Cambridge.

——. 1883–85. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A. Del Caro, trans. 2006. Cambridge.

——. 1886. Beyond Good and Evil. J. Norman, trans. 2002. Cambridge.

Rand, A. 1959 (1936). We the Living. Signet.

——. 1946 (1938). Anthem. In The Freeman 3(1).

Sciabarra, C. M. 1995. Ayn Rand – The Russian Radical. Penn State.

Wright, D. 2005. Needs of the Psyche in Ayn Rand’s Early Ethical Thought. In Mayhew 2005b.

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In my piece Desire to Live I showed Rand’s ousting, in her mature philosophy, of instinct from human powers. There is a passage in We The Living referring to human instinct. It appeared in the 1936 initial version of the novel, and Rand left it in the edited 1959 version.

“She did not have to tell her legs to move any longer. She thought they were running. An instinct was driving her, the instinct of an animal, beating in living creatures, whipping them blindly into the scramble of self-preservation.

“She was whispering through frozen lips: ‘You’re a good soldier, Kira Argounova, you’re a good soldier . . .’” (562)

I think Rand could pass these words on instinct in humans from ’36 to ’59 by a smooth change of meaning and scope of instinct. It could be also that Rand wanted to preserve as much of her original text as possible, even where it was no longer correct in her mature view of human constitution, provided the old conception was one not utterly revolting in the new.

On Rand’s consciously coming to gauging instinct small in human constitution, see her notes from 1945 on pages 252 and 303 of David Harriman’s compilation The Journals of Ayn Rand. Even in notes of 1934, by the way, she was crafting reason over instinct (68, 72-73).

In his 1991 book The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Ronald Merrill quoted a note by Rand in her journal from 1934:

“It may be considered strange and denying my own supremacy of reason—that I start with a set of ideas—then want to study and derive my ideas from that. But these ideas, to a great extent, are the result of a subconscious instinct, which is a form of unrealized reason. All instincts are reason, essentially, or reason is instincts made conscious. The ‘unreasonable’ instincts are diseased ones.” (23, emphasis added; Ron obtained this note from its publication in The Objectivist Forum).

From my ‘Desire to Live’ piece linked above, one can see easily Rand here making use of and modifying a thread running through Nietzsche on instinct and reason.

Adam Reed, who had been a long-time friend of Ron’s, recounted Ron in 1966 coming across a 1936 issue of We the Living, in the library stacks at either Tufts or Boston College (Ron and Adam were students at MIT). Ron checked the book out and xeroxed it ("Merrill & the Discovery of Rand's Nietzschean Period" in JARS, Spring 2009). I was able to purchase the 1936 edition via the internet a few years ago, and that is its picture in the post preceding this one. (By the way, before having the fortune of have an original issue of WL come up for sale at a feasible price, I tried to arrange with the Library of Congress for me to come and examine one of their two copies. After searching they concluded that in fact, contrary the catalog,  both copies were lost.

Edited by Boydstun

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