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6. Ayn Rand and the Enlightenment


What I’ve, in effect, given you in this nutshell is what I think the rise liberty looked like during the Age of Enlightenment, and its decline in the 19th and then into the 20th century, its decline as a philosophical-political ideal, and why it declined, and what I’m saying is: it’s for philosophical, moral-philosophical reasons in the 19th century. It’s, in effect, the 19th century’s attack on reason and its attack on self-preservation, is what leads to its repudiation in the 19th century, of liberty as a political ideal.

Now this obviously is just a sketch of what happened. In effect, what I’m trying to give you is a map of thinking about the arguments and the back and forth and the structure, the debate and the disputes, looked like, from the Age of Enlightenment into the 19th century, and then it’s kind of political consequences in the 20th century. For you to decide whether this really makes sense, you have to, in effect, visit the places. I’ve given a map, which is a broad overview, but to decide if this really makes sense, you have to actually go visit the places and to see if the map really helps you navigate the terrain. And to go visit the places, in effect, means: read the thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment, read 19th century philosophy, think of how they’re responding to the doctrines of the Age of Enlightenment, of what they say about happiness, what they say about the rights of man, what they say about industry and commerce, and see if it actually fits. I mean, that’s what you will have to do to be convinced of this. I’m giving, as I say, a broad overview.

And now what I want to do, in the last few minutes, is situate Ayn Rand’s philosophy into this debate, or into this conflict. She viewed herself as a great champion of freedom, of liberty as a political ideal, that was achieved by this doctrine of the rights of man. And she was a great defender of the concept of individual rights, and argued extensively for what the nature of individual rights are and what their philosophical foundation looks like. And one way to think about what Ayn Rand is doing, philosophically, what her purpose is, I think you could put it as: what she is doing or what she is seeking to do, what she’s striving to do, is to revive the ideals of the Enlightenment. You can think of her philosophy, which she called “Objectivism,” as arguing for and defending the basic view of an enlightened life that the Enlightenment was offering.

What Rand thinks is needed is a new philosophical account of the ideals that the Enlightenment was arguing for, that they were crusading for. So the ideals of the Enlightenment as I’ve been talking about them: it was the ideal of self-preservation and the pursuit of happiness, of reason being your supreme guide in life, and of a life that is filled with industry, it’s industrious. These are things that the Enlightenment is talking about. This is their view of an enlightened life. And what Rand is arguing is you need a new account, new arguments and new defense of these views.

Take first, the issue of self-preservation. What Rand offers is a new account of thinking about the foundations of morality. There is, in her view, and in her account, in her arguments, no appeal to authority, no appeal to God or to any kind of supernatural being, supernatural dimension, as this is what you need in order to be moral to understand what morality is, what good and evil is. Rather, on her view, morality is about the individual, and it comes into existence because of the individual’s own life. The whole notion and idea of values, of good and bad, right and wrong, good and evil, comes into existence because you’re alive and you have to do something. And particularly, you have to engage in real, rational thought, in order to achieve your own survival, or self-preservation as the Enlightenment would put it, and your own happiness. So what right and wrong, good and evil, come down to is the individual’s own life, and he has a quest and he can achieve values in it, he can achieve things that are good, which means good for him, that advance his life, his self-preservation, and enable him to thrive in the world. Or, he can do things that are bad or evil. And those are things that frustrate his ability to survive, his ability to thrive, his ability to attain happiness. This is what morality is about, through and through. And so she offers a new account of morality. She puts it as: it’s an account of rational self-interest, or, to use the title of one of her books, The Virtue of Selfishness. And what she means by rational self-interest, or selfishness, is not some kind of quest to exploit others, but a quest to achieve the values that will advance your life, that enrich it and that enable you to achieve happiness. So you get a new moral view that is proclaiming, I mean most people today think of selfishness as a vice, as evil, and that it’s a virtue in her view, and it is part of what the whole purpose of morality is.

The Enlightenment was arguing for reason. Ayn Rand said of her philosophy, in essence, what it is, is it’s an explication and defense of human reason, of what the nature of reason is, what it means to follow it, what it means to not follow it, what it means to act in various kinds of ways, irrationally, or against reason. So she’s reviving that whole view, and she’s trying to answer, as she would often also describe her philosophy, answering Kant’s attack on reason. And he’s tried to deny reason in order to make room for faith; Ayn Rand, now, is trying to revive that one should accept reason as an absolute; there’s no room for things like faith, or things like emotion, to be your primary guides in life. So she’s arguing for that, for this kind of Enlightenment ideal.

So Rand, when she’s defending the issue of reason, is challenging two different kinds of accounts of man’s inability to know the world and to be able to use reason to guide himself. So one account, and you can put it, and Rand will often put it, is mystical. But, as I’ve been talking about it, it’s an appeal to authority. We can’t know, so someone has to tell us what to do. And I’ve been saying that part of the Enlightenment view, particularly in regard to morality, if it’s an appeal to God, it is: “Well, we can’t know directly, we can know only if someone tells us what to do.” So you’re not guided by reason, you’re guided by an authority. She’s certainly challenging that. But the flipside she’s also challenging. So, there’s often this kind of view, “Well, if you don’t have an authority to tell you what to do, you don’t know what to do. You can’t figure it out.” And that’s the Skepticism side. So either the authority tells you, or you don’t know. And the Skepticism is: “Well, you just don’t know.” And she challenges the whole issue of Skepticism. She argues, in her defense of reason, that man can know the world external to him, he’s able to grasp cause and effect. He’s able to engage in scientific, inductive reasoning. He’s able to generalize from his observations and his experience as scientists do every day. And he’s able to understand good and evil, right and wrong, using his own mind, and using his own reasoning. It’s not an issue of feelings or emotions, and it’s not an issue of appealing to an authority. So she’s challenging both what the Enlightenment was challenging, that we need authorities, but she’s also challenging that without authorities you’re left with Skepticism.

The Enlightenment spoke of industriousness, of making and creating things. She would put it, not in terms of “industry,” but of “productivity,” which is a broader notion than what, I think, is meant by “industry” in the Enlightenment. And she speaks of the “virtue” of productivity, and of what that means, and this is at the center of, or core of, a proper or of a good life, of a moral life, of an enlightened life.

Rand is really the first moral thinker to celebrate productiveness as a profoundly moral issue: that it’s the essence of what is good about a person, if he’s good. And so she’s the first thinker to celebrate inventors, scientists, businessmen, industrialists, artists, architects, as these are good people, they’re moral exemplars in their capacity as scientists, as inventors, as businessmen, as industrialists, as architects, as artists. She celebrates the human mind’s ability to create values that advance his own life. And that is what productivity is about. So it’s a much richer notion in the end, than, the Enlightenment was talking about the issue of industrialists. The issue of productivity becomes a real moral issue for Rand, and really the essence of morality.

So she’s arguing for that. And she’s certainly arguing for the pursuit of happiness—that what life is about is achieving happiness within your own life, within its days, within its years. What you should be seeking and striving to, and what you can attain, if you lead a proper life, is happiness. So that picture, in effect, of what an enlightened life looks like, Ayn Rand is arguing for. But she’s giving different philosophical arguments, new philosophical arguments for these ideals, and she’s giving new arguments for them because she thinks there are many problems, many defects, many holes, in effect, and contradictions and inconsistencies, in Enlightenment philosophy.

So, Rand is arguing for the virtue of selfishness, for the individual’s own pursuit of happiness, for the supremacy of reason (it should be your guide in life), and for the virtue of productivity. This is what life, a truly good life, is about on her view. And you can see real similarities between this and what the Enlightenment was arguing when they talk about self-preservation, industriousness, reason, the pursuit of happiness. But what is really different, is the arguments that each are advancing for these.

So the fact that in the 19th century it came under attack and it could be all discredited, in effect, and all its central ideas, of self-preservation, of being rational, of being industrious, of pursuing happiness, that these all could be discarded, she thought that was possible because the arguments, the philosophical arguments, the philosophical case for these ideals, was lacking in the Enlightenment. There were all kinds of problems, which is why she thinks you need a new philosophy. They were on the right track in what they were trying to do, but they went wrong, or they went off-track in actually going about it.

So in the details, when you look into the details of the philosophy of, say, of a Locke, Rand thinks there’s all kinds of problems, all kinds of inconsistencies in his view of reason, in his view of self-preservation, and even in his view of happiness. And that has to be corrected, and that is what she is trying to do. And in that sense, I think, you can think of her, philosophically, as: she’s philosophically trying to revive the Enlightenment.

And if you want to get a picture of Ayn Rand’s new account of morality, of what she thinks a truly enlightened life is, a life that is guided by reason, what that looks like, the best place to find this is to read her novels. And particularly, read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. They give a picture of what the moral life looks like, day to day, and in practice. And this is her new account of what an enlightened life is, and what you should be striving for.



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