Ayn Rand was a Russian-born American philosopher and writer best known for her philosophy of Objectivism. After a series of failures, she found success with her novel The Fountainhead (1943) and became well-established as a renowned writer through her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957).
While her books have sold millions of copies, literary critics have held many differing opinions, and academic philosophers have often rejected Objectivism due to Rand’s controversial beliefs, along with the absence of a consistent methodology. Nevertheless, her philosophy has stood the test of time for those interested in her work. This article will explore Rand’s path toward literature and philosophy, the two novels that brought her fame, and the philosophy of Objectivism that pervades these books and defined her career.
1. Ayn Rand’s Background: A Russian Emigré
Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, or Ayn Rand, was born in 1905 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to a wealthy Jewish family. Her father, Zinovy Zakharovich Rosenbaum, was a successful pharmacist, and she was the oldest of three children. At age 12, the October Revolution hit the Soviet Union, and the far-left, Marxist political faction called the Bolsheviks took over. Her father’s business was seized by communist authorities, and the family was forced to flee to Yevpatoria in Crimea, a city ruled by the anti-Soviet government White Army during the Russian Civil War (1917-1923). In 1921, her family returned to Saint Petersburg, or Petrograd at the time, where they struggled to survive without the stability of Zinovy’s work. From an early age, Rand resisted the beliefs of Communists and Tsarists due to her exposure to the Russian Revolution and Civil War.
She attended Petrograd State University as one of the first women allowed to enroll. Her major in history included social science courses like philosophy, law, and philology, which greatly interested her. She was taught the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, logic, philosophical psychology, Marxism-Leninism, and non-Marxist politics. Combined with her fascination with Hegel and Nietzsche, philosophers who were the focus of the Russian Silver Age, she was a proponent of systematically connecting diverse ideologies to decide an individual’s true convictions. The Romantic Realism of Victor Hugo was also a big inspiration for her literary pursuits. Rand graduated in 1924 and attended the State Institute for Cinematography to study screenwriting.
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As a self-proclaimed enemy of the Soviet system, she traveled to the United States in 1925 to visit relatives and never returned to live in her homeland. After just two days in Hollywood after seeing family in Chicago, she met American filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille and was hired as a script reader and eventually a screenplay writer. One week after this fortuitous event, she encountered actor Frank O’Connor, whom she married four years later and would be her partner for life. This is around the time that she chose Ayn Rand as her pen name, which would protect her family while honoring them (“Rand” was an abbreviation of her Russian last name). With the hopes that her family could become American citizens like she had in 1931, she endeavored to bring them to the states to no avail. In 1951, her and O’Connor moved to New York City, where they would live the remainder of their lives. She became associated with a group of intellectuals reviving classical liberalism and interested in Lockean philosophy of the American founding.
2. Ayn Rand Wrote The Fountainhead (1943)
Rand’s first major literary success came from The Fountainhead, which originally was rejected by twelve different publishers due to its overly intellectual nature. By word of mouth alone, it became well-established and launched her career as a writer and philosopher. She heavily participated in political activism in the 40s, volunteering for Republican Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign and exploring free-market capitalism. The novel delves into the motivations behind humanity’s desire to create, and the competing forces of individualism versus collectivism within the psyche.
The protagonist is Howard Roark, an architect who lives by his own judgement and answers to no one regarding his creativity and his life. The supporting characters all represent a spirit of “second-handedness” living: navigating existence through a follower mentality. The story portrays a reality where there is no space for unconventional and egotistical thinkers. It questions the differing levels of integrity between a society as a whole and an individual in society rebelling against norms. Roark values his independence, and this is viewed as selfish by everyone around him. However, he simultaneously emphasizes the importance of collaboration and learning from mentors he admires. The “second-handers” that disdain his philosophy are identified by Rand as overly dependent and reliant on rules of authority and an obsession with domination and power.
She provides a controversial perspective on selfishness, which traditionally holds a negative connotation. This particular human condition is presented as a virtue, a quality derived from the morality of individualism. This belief system translates to creativity; in order to further advancement as a race, innovation is key and cannot be cultivated if novel ideas aren’t accepted. These central themes of The Fountainhead tie into Objectivism, a philosophy developed by Rand that is a crucial part of her legacy.
3. Ayn Rand Wrote Atlas Shrugged (1957)
Fourteen years after The Fountainhead was published, Rand released arguably her most well-known piece of literature. Atlas Shrugged is the culmination of twelve years, during which Rand was generating the concept and executing it to perfection. She introduces radical ideas fearlessly, sharing an original vision about the meaning of human existence that still conjures up relevant questions holding significance to this day.
After moving to New York City, she created an informal philosophy group comprised of admirers of The Fountainhead, who were directly involved in supporting Rand’s process of writing Atlas Shrugged through manuscript draft readings. Although this novel was a massive success, the negative opinions of many intellectuals dissuaded her from writing any more works of fiction. She assumed the role as solely a philosopher and continued to gain a strong following.
The stark contrast between the heroes and villains of the story is rooted in their differing dependence on the mind versus emotions. Rand believes in the role of the mind to create knowledge and values; without the mind as the nucleus of existence, evil is bound to pervade. The protagonists live their life by reason and a strive for understanding. The opposite force lies within the darkness of the other characters, who ignore facts and only act on their feelings. Their pursuits result in failure as they consistently rebel against reality.
Similar to The Fountainhead, the moral characters don’t promote selflessness and instead commit themselves to virtues like honesty and personal achievement. This is shown through business dealings and financial decisions, making the novel popular amongst people in the field of business. Keeping with her radical thoughts on traditional beliefs, she explores sex as a celebration of the individual and their partner as unified with all existence. The mysteries woven throughout the novel all connect to the enigmatic character of John Galt and his fame despite lacking evidence of truth revolving around his identity.
4. Ayn Rand is the Founder of Objectivism
As mentioned earlier, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was intertwined throughout both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. After she decided to pursue academic writing instead of continuing to write fictional novels, she proceeded to lecture on what is now known as “Objectivism” from 1962 until 1976. The name comes from her periodicals titled The Objectivist Newsletter (1962-1965) and The Objectivist (1966-1971). Along with The Ayn Rand Letter (1971-1976), her published essays became the foundation of nine nonfiction books that are a comprehensive account of the philosophy and how it speaks to cultural issues. As a couple examples, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal explains her theory of politics and economics while The Romantic Manifesto explores her theory of aesthetics.
The term “Objectivism” comes from the fundamental categories that define the philosophy: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the “objective”. Intrinsic phenomena are contingent on external factors, subjective phenomena depend solely on the mind, and objective phenomena are conditional on the relationship between an individual (and their mind) and reality, or the environment it’s surrounded by.
Rand emphasizes the importance of the third of this trichotomy that she believed many belief systems ignored. The philosophy of Objectivism primarily revolves around ethics, and how crucial it is to consider the superiority of the living over any conjectures that don’t prioritize this. This includes her integration of metaphysics and epistemology, such as her opinion that racism is rooted in fallacies of concept-formation. Going against the technique of compartmentalization, Objectivism promotes holistic thinking and the connections that can be formed when accounting for all knowledge that one holds.
To help promote Objectivism before The Objectivist Newsletter was released, Nathaniel Branden created the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) in 1958 to circulate her ideas through public lectures. Many students of NBI and Branden himself revealed that Rand was excessively strict when it came to following her philosophy with exactness, considering it more like a cult or a religion. Through lectures she gave in the 60s and 70s, specifically at the Ford Hall Forum, she spoke out on controversial political and social topics through the lens of Objectivism. Her stances included the support of abortion rights, the opposition of the Vietnam War and the military draft, and the support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Due to the widely comprehensive nature of her philosophies and writings throughout her career, people from diverse fields have responded, criticized, and praised her works. The sectors of academics, literature, politics, philosophy, and economics have all been influenced by her ideas, and discussions about interpretations and applications of her beliefs continue to pervade our society today. Debates around her denial of religious metaphysics and her disregard of collectivist values through her stance on normative individualism are important to acknowledge when judging and reacting to Rand’s philosophy. With over 37 million copies of her books sold and a strong influence over right-libertarians and conservatives, her impact to this day cannot be ignored.