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.