Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Buddhism and Ayn Rand: huh?



As a late teen, or early twenty something, I found myself diving into a few of the novels of Ayn Rand. Most notably, I fell in love with The Fountainhead, the story of an architect who chooses to live out his dreams in obscurity, rather than compromise with various forms of the status quo. In part, I believe this story resonated with my interest in buildings, and the childhood thoughts I had about being an architect myself. But I also think the rebellious and defiant determination to bring your dreams to life hit deeply for me then, and still does today.

Following that novel, I picked up a copy of Atlas Shrugged, which initially drew my interest because it's plot included a focus on railroads. On my father's side of the family, we have several generations of "train people," so railroads and trains are part of my blood.

Anyway, somewhere around page 250 (of a 1300 page novel), I suddenly realized what Ms. Rand's general philosophy on life was, and had a physical reaction so strong I threw the book across my bedroom. I tried to read it again sometime later, but found myself continually disgusted by her insistence on the virtue of a merger of selfishness and reason as the pinnacle of human existence.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this article on one of the websites I write for. In the article, Rick Bateman points out that reading Rand's writing offers us Buddhists a worthy challenge:

If you are a Buddhist, no other books I know of will challenge your beliefs like Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. They will do so because they dig into the very same issues, and, with very persuasive logic and story, argue the opposite of The Buddha’s teachings. Rand chose to convey her philosophy via her novels rather than non-fiction works because of her views on art and romanticism. The worlds and characters of the novels are intentionally stylistic as they are not intended to reflect realistic individuals but rather to symbolize concepts.


I'm not convinced that Rand is working from the "opposite" end of Buddhist teachings, nor am I convinced that much of her writing was even very good, but I do think Rand's work has been influential enough that's it worth considering in terms of understanding some of the thought processes behind today's global economic system. Amongst those who have claimed her as a major influence are U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former U.S. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, rising star Republican Congressman Paul Ryan,and media personality Glenn Beck. Countless others have been inspired in part by her views, and a think tank inspired by her writings has been running for over twenty five years.

Beyond this, though, it's hard not to see how uber individualism and a focus on self benefit has become a pretty popular way of living. Probably more so than in the past, in part due to the reduced need to rely on each other for basic survival.

It's easy to dismiss someone like Rand as an outdated hack of writer. But perhaps it might be instructive to pick up a copy of the Fountainhead, for example, and take a look at the world portrayed in it. Why? Because even as it is fiction, it offers a view inside the heads of those who embody a philosophy of life driven by self-focus. And isn't that one of the main reasons why people love a good story? That it gives us a chance to see things about humanity we otherwise wouldn't want to look at.

Oddly, I'm feeling a little grateful to Ayn Rand - not a lot. But a little bit.

15 comments:

David said...

I agree with much you say here. When I was a kid whenever I was in a drug or grocery store I gravitated to the paperback rack. Usually there was at least one Ayn Rand book. Often it was Atlas Shrugged. It was thick. The cover was cool (the early Signet edition) and serious looking. I knew it must be important.

I’ve never gotten around to reading it. But I did read the Fountainhead which I wanted to throw across the room, realizing halfway through that, as Bateman says, “Rand chose to convey her philosophy via her novels.” The people weren’t characters, they were points of view.

I don’t think she is as bad a writer as some say. Two of her books, where her sense of individualism is pitted against totalitarian forces, “We, The Living” and “Anthem”, are rather good I think. In the former she is writing about something she knew firsthand, life in Soviet Russia and she does a good job of conveying the bleakness, the blackness of that time and place. You also have to keep in mind that she wrote in English and not in her native language.

Other than that, I have no use for her.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Only an American or a teenager would mistake Ayn Rand for a serious thinker. /snark

(I did. When I was a teenager. Shortly after spending a year in America.)

kevin said...

My mom encouraged me to read a couple of Rand's books in my early teens (if not earlier) but I just never got around to it. I was aware of their allegorical nature, which as a literary tool I was into.

It wasn't until I started reading Buddhist blogs that I saw anything even remotely critical of her writing and when I did she was blasted like Machiavelli. (Although from what you say, she sounds like a less extreme version.)

I can see the danger in such ideas. I had a friend, very intellectual yet egotistical and deluded, who upon reading a book by a Russian author I can't recall, decided that its main character's ideas considering relationships was worthy of imitation. To put it bluntly, one person always benefits while the other suffers, so you should always strive to be the taker. (It was just a phase, though)

It really makes me want to read one of her books now just to find what everyone else has overlooked as useful or meaningful information, the buddhadharma in disguise.

...If only they weren't so long.

Nathan said...

David,

That's a good point about her writing about the bleakness of Soviet Russia. It makes me think that to some degree, she wanted to do exactly the opposite of what she saw there. Which is understandable.

Petteri,

Well, whether she's a major thinker or not, she certainly has had an influence.

Kevin, I would say that much of the "hidden buddhadharma" is seeing what her character's are doing and saying as a expression of what not to do. Lol.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Yeah. So did Hitler, and he wasn't much of a thinker either. She does speak to something fundamentally American, though; the myth of the self-sufficient, self-made, heroically selfish individual.

She's a far cry from Adam Smith. Now that one is a serious thinker, and any self-respecting leftie ought to take a hard look at what he's saying.

Nathan said...

Petteri, I think we're in agreement about Rand. I hadn't though about her for years until seeing that article, but it did remind me of reading her novels, and how many others have loved her for various reasons.

About Andrew Sheldon said...

You assess her popularity in terms of a few high profile people? For the sake of political correctness, perhaps not everyone is talking about her. I've been told not to talk about her when I first read her stuff.
Might I suggest it takes 1/2 a century to make some impact. Frankly, I do not think it will be her, but she is the precursor to something great. She was just a little malformed intellectually.

David Ashton said...

I had the same reaction you did - about 40 years ago I got to the part where she was lambasting Zen and I never read anything of hers again. Lately I've put her on my books to read bucket list to give her another chance.

Nathan said...

Andrew,

I honestly don't care much about how many people are talking about her. It's not so much Rand's specific impact, but more that some of the ideas in her novels - such as the hyper self focus and distrust of groups - are fairly commonplace in the U.S. I see Rand as one of the people who upheld these as positive values, and that is what's interesting to me.

Whether people think she's a great philosopher or writer or not - it doesn't matter to me.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

While dismissing Rand as “an outdated hack of a writer” might be easy it would not be wrong. But aside from her writing skills, she should be dismissed for being a sociopathic amphetamine addict who lead a cult of personality (hers) and was a total hypocrite when it came time for her to accept the government dole of social security and Medicare payments without any apparent awareness of the hypocrisy.
Here are some informative web pages about this scurrilous person whose social philosophy was half-baked at best and completely ignored every human sense of decency and compassion.
http://michaelprescott.net/hickman.htm
http://www.slate.com/id/2233966/
http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2011010531/founding-fathers-supported-socialized-medicine

Anyone today who sees anything of value in her or something to be grateful for can only do so on the basis that we should see the humanity in even the most deeply disturbed individuals, such as a Hitler or a Stalin, for those are the “strong man” types that Ayn Rand idolized, and Ms. Rand was deeply and profoundly morally disturbed

Nathan said...

Alan,

I mostly see Rand as an example of what not to do, so I think we're in agreement. Thanks for the further info.

Nathan

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Yes, we can always be grateful to the cliff that tells us where we should not walk, or the fire that tells us where not to put our hand.

Anonymous said...

I think you all are misguided by a predisposition about what you THINK you are reading.

Life is a dichotomy. You have one choice or the other. Either you make your own decisions, or others make it for you. Rand's claim is that MAN is his own best decider. PERIOD!!

When people preach the mantra of anti-individualism all they do is sacrifice themselves for the sake of the collective.

Bringing in notions of charity, and help thy fellow man crap is nothing but a red herring.

Nathan said...

Enjoy the selfish dichotomy you've chosen!

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Anonymous, you are staerting from the false premise just like Rand does. Life is not a dichotomy. Life is unified completely. It is our thought process, our cognitive consciousness that imposes dichotomy as a screen and filter so that we can have self consciousness awareness. To believe that "life is a dichotomy" is to believe an illusion, and belief in an illusion is called delusion. That delusion causes you to think "you have one choice or the other." That thought is false. Just stop picking and choosing and the Way becomes clear of itself. When the Way becomes clear your path is not made by choices, neither your decisions nor other's decisions. The choice is not between individualism or collectivism as if one is "good" and the other is "bad." That is a false dichotomy, as false as the idea that life is a dichotomy.