September 2, 2014

Acton Institute: Atlas Shrugged – See the Movie, Skip the Book [VIDEO]

I received permission to reprint this blog post by Acton Institute blogger Bruce Edward Walker. Walker, correctly in my view, draws out the authoritarian impulse in Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism” that can be distilled down to this: The libertarianism (man’s moral agency is self-referencing) that describes Rand’s Objectivism stands against the classical liberalism (what we today would call moral conservatism) of a Burke, Kirk, or even Tocqueville which see the bonds between people and thus society and culture as fundamentally religious in character.

Ayn Rand

Rand stood against the cultural leveling of statism, particularly the loss of character and mediocrity it fosters. That is the appeal of her philosophy. There is little difference between, say, Soviet materialism and the state-sponsored corporatism of the modern welfare state (Europe in particular but increasingly so in the United States). However, the final refutation of this debilitating journey into what Friederich Hayek warned is a new “serfdom” is actually moral renewal. Rand was not able to penetrate the moral dimension of statism because of her passionate atheism. The best she could offer was an anti-statist libertarianism that inevitably results in an authoritarianism of a different sort (and fostered a personal life that is best described as morally chaotic).

Whittaker Chambers

I’ve included two items that shed more light on Rand and her influence on American intellectual history. The first is the critique of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist turned Catholic who’s book “Witness” is perhaps the clearest testament of moral clarity of his age. The second is an interview with William F. Buckley, who fills in some of the cultural history of the era. Buckley described Atlas Shrugged as “ideological fabulism.” (Chambers worked for Buckley at National Review in the 1950s.)

Whittaker Chambers: Big Sister is Watching You

William Buckley on Ayn Rand & Atlas Shrugged:

Source: Acton Institute | Bruce Edward Walker

Atlas Shrugged – See the Movie, Skip the Book

Is it conceivable to endorse the cinematic adaptation of Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto Atlas Shrugged – as I do – while rejecting the flawed ideology which inspired it?

I would argue, yes. On the one hand, I place the Beatles at the pinnacle of 1960s pop music while concluding that their song “Mr. Moonlight” is wince-inducing to the point of being unlistenable. Likewise, I admire 99.9 percent of G.K. Chesterton’s body of work yet disagree with him on his assertion only men should vote. On the other hand, I disagree for the most part with Camille Paglia’s worldview yet admire her writing style and intellectual honesty.

So it goes with Ayn Rand. Her free-market views were a welcome antidote to New Deal policies and the malignant growth of government programs and crony capitalism. And for the same reasons I warmly welcome the first installment of the planned cinematic trilogy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – timed to coincide with the traditional Tax Day this coming Friday – which renders her themes in such a fashion they appear ripped from the headlines of today’s Wall Street Journal.

Atlas Shrugged-Part I captures the malaise of our times in its depiction of a United States of the near future when businessmen look to government to throttle competition by any means necessary (e.g. legislation and regulation) rather than innovating and investing to succeed. Part I ignores Rand’s anti-collectivism, rampant individualism, atheism and, for the most part, libertarian libertinism, to focus on her depictions of government looters and corporate rent seekers.

All this recommends the movie to lovers of liberty properly understood, to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. In fact, I’ll go so far as to encourage readers to see the film and skip the book.

My problems with Rand and Objectivism, the ideology of “enlightened self-interest” she founded, go beyond the oft-quoted admonition of Whittaker Chambers in which he expressed her autocratic intransigence led him to read Rand’s command to all detractors real and perceived “to the gas chambers go!” on every page. There is some truth to Chamber’s critique, to be sure, in that any worldview that rejects faith and community eventually succumbs to obduracy leading to what Russell Kirk labeled the “chirping sect” of libertarianism (a phrase he borrowed from T.S. Eliot).

By chirping sect, Kirk intentionally references Edmund Burke’s “insects of the hour” — those libertarians who splinter into ever smaller groups and thereby sacrifice both the personal and common good on the altar of their own narcissism masked as “individualism.” One need only read about the internecine strife within the Objectivist’s ivory tower to note the wisdom of Burke and Kirk. The CliffsNotes version: Arguing with Rand meant immediate exile to intellectual Siberia.

Contrary to Rand’s individualism, the United States since its beginning has congregated in townships and parishes where true democracy flourishes under the express influence of religious faith. Nineteenth-century writers Alexis de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson both noted these communal incubators and conservators of liberty – small collectives that reflect their respective faiths to advocate for the good of all within their sphere.

As Tocqueville wrote in his seminal Democracy in America:

In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. Amongst the Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess the doctrines of Christianity from a sincere belief in them, and others who do the same because they are afraid to be suspected of unbelief. Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and the experiments of men. Thus the human mind is never left to wander across a boundless field; and, whatever may be its pretensions, it is checked from time to time by barriers which it cannot surmount. Before it can perpetrate innovation, certain primal and immutable principles are laid down, and the boldest conceptions of human device are subjected to certain forms which retard and stop their completion.

Among his many salient points against libertarianism enumerated in the essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” Kirk said:

What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.

Elsewhere in his essay, Kirk delineates the differences between individualism as expressed by Rand and her like and the community spirit so intrinsic to our national character by invoking Eric Voegelin, whom, Kirk states:

[R]eminds us – is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats – that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.

In short, capitalism and the toxic individualism of Rand and others for the instantaneous benefits supposedly granted leads to liberty misunderstood in the forms of materialism and licentious behavior – both antithetical to liberty properly understood as the fully realized temporal life in community and faith.

So I’m thankful Atlas Shrugged-Part I avoids the toxic elements of Rand’s so-called “philosophy” and am hopeful the subsequent installments of the film trilogy steer clear of the same pitfalls. By all means, see the film and avoid the book.

Comments

  1. Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
    Scott Pennington says:

    Apart from her libertarianism and atheism, there is a grain of truth to what she asserted. She seems to be opposed to selfless sacrifice, the notion that we are to live only for others and that this destroys self esteem. There is some danger in what she attacks – - a kind of saintly masochism. Both in the Old Testament and the New, it is written, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Many forget that you must first love yourself in order to have some reference point to know what constitutes love of neighbor.

    However, she also goes out of her way to assert that love should only go to those who deserve it. Setting aside the Christian notion that our good deeds are like filthy rags before God, it does not seem that she accounts for intrinsic disabilities or limitations which hamper virtue, nor for confusion or misunderstanding. Not that the society or even the Church take these into account sufficiently, but she seems to make it a point of denying all but earned love.

    In a sense, this is inhuman – - certainly unchristian. However, we should not be surprised at the trajectory of her thought. Marxism, Naziism, Libertarianism (in it’s non-theistic varieties), Objectivism, etc. all are materialistic in theory, but depend on the caprice of the emotional proclivities of their founders and luminaries for their spiritual direction and moral choices.

    It is comical to hear from someone that there can be something like a rational, reasoned, materialistic morality that is somehow objective. It may be true that Mengele betrayed the rules of scientific inquiry because of the twisted ideology that animated the Nazis, however, science is no more inherently merciful than nature itself. Morality is no more than a set of subjective preferences without some supernatural foundation.

    That is also the folly of depending on the subjective (but allegedly objective) powers of the individual intellect to find truth or interpret what has been written. There is an objective reality; however, there is no such thing as an objective perspective, objective opinion or objective interpretation. There were many heterodox Christians in the Church’s history who challenged Orthodoxy not because of malice, foolishness or other bad faith, but because they simply followed a different line of reasoning. It is one thing to write a book asserting scriptural support for, for example, iconodulia. It is another matter entirely to say that any line of reasoning that ends in some type of iconoclasm is flawed to the point of malice and inherently, objectively false. That is one reason why important matters in the Church are given to consensus, even consensus over the ages. It is quite important who decides, every bit as much as whether the decision is right. After all, who is to say whether the decision is true to the criteria?

  2. Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
    Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell says:

    Rand wasn’t just un-Christian; she was viscerally anti-Christian. A Jew (born Alisa Rosenbaum) who fled Russia with her family after the Revolution, she despised Christianity as the antithesis of her own ideology and as the main inspiration for collectivism in the West. She pressured libertarian economist Murray Rothard to forsake his Christian wife and finally ostracized him when he wouldn’t.

    • Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
      Scott Pennington says:

      The thing that makes me equivocate somewhat regarding her is that what she was really doing, IMHO, was overreacting to real flaws in the way Christianity has been practiced or understood – - especially in the twentieth century.

      There is a masochistic as well as a collectivist strain that runs through Christianity. It is not Christian teaching in the sense of being Holy Tradition; however, it is there. Sometimes it manifests itself in the cliches regarding Orthodox or Catholic sense of guilt. Sometimes it comes out as pacifism or economic egalitarianism. Nietzsche had a similar take, that Christianity is what weakens man rather than strengthening him. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on a cross.”

      For a certain vein of Christianity, Rand and Nietzshce have a point. There were times and places in early Christian history where Christians actively sought out martyrdom for its own sake. You also see this in the Church’s occasional appropriation of the term “social justice”. Search in vain for this term in the Fathers. It’s not that they did not write upon economic concerns. It’s that the notion of social engineering inherent in the term was foreign to them. Attaching moral imperatives to things like exactly how much largesse the government redistributes, opposition to the death penalty, uncritical support for unions, reflexive opposition to all war – - these are things that do weaken both the individual and society. It is a tendency to hear the call of unthinking “mercy”. But this is not real mercy. Real mercy maintains strength to protect the weak. Real mercy doesn’t bankrupt itself so that it becomes a burden rather than a source of charity. Real mercy does not flinch from discipline in order to discourage unmerciful, cruel or murderous behavior. “Mercy” in the sense that some Christians hear the term is no more than one of the passions that leads to perdition. I see Ayn Rand’s musings as an overreaction to that.

      There is a religion that sprang out of Persia about the same time as Buddhism arose in India called Jainism. It’s founder is called “Mahavira” which means “great soul”. Most of its adherents now live in India and are called “Parsees”. They often work as bankers. Jains are strict pacifists and vegetarians. They refuse to light fires because it might kill bugs. They refuse to plow because it might kill or harm earthworms, etc. Starving onesself to death is considered a holy way to end ones life.

      Sometimes I get the feeling that many of our more sensitive Christian brethren would be happier as Jains. They follow the same muse.

      • Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
        Eliot Ryan says:

        Scott:

        Sometimes I get the feeling that many of our more sensitive Christian brethren would be happier as Jains. They follow the same muse.

        I see no connection whatsoever between sensitive Christians and the so called “Parsees”.
        Elder Paisios:

        Holy asceticism, together with its great self-denial, which is born from great faith in a burst of love for God, brings man to true joy. He is happy to live, for his heart flutters, glorifying his God of benefactions. He is also happy to die, for he thus goes close to God again, and will continue there his doxology.

        • Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
          Scott Pennington says:

          Eliot,

          I am not talking about true asceticism – - combating the passions in order to clean house to receive the Holy Spirit. I am talking about an obsession with guilt and resulting efforts to be perfect and “holier than thou” based on a false understanding of the Church’s teaching that drive many modern Orthodox and which have, at times, adversely affected the Church.

          Not only am I not talking about monasticism, but I would further observe that even monasticism (which is an eminently holy endeavor) is not for everyone. It would end the human race if embraced by all and the ending would not be pretty since infrastructure, production, healthcare, etc. would quickly shink and vanish. That would yield immense suffering for the “last generations”.

          My point above can be concisely stated as follows: If the only type of Christianity that I encountered were of the Franky Schaefer, Jim Forest/OPF variety, I would probably not think too highly of Christianity and reject it out of hand as being misanthropic.

          The connection between “sensitive Christians” and Parsees is that they let a particular emotion lead them by the nose out of Egypt, right through the Promised Land and up into Turkey. They go too far and thus end up in as bad a place as they might have been without Christianity at all. While it may be true that one can never be too loving and too merciful, one can certainly follow the emotional impulses of toward love and mercy uncritically into spiritual and physical ruin.

          • Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
            Eliot Ryan says:

            It is well known that monasticism is not for everyone and not all who are in the world will perish; nor will everyone in a monastery be saved! You seem to be a great theoretician but that is not enough.Sometimes great theoreticians are people who know what to ignore. Forgive me if I am wrong.
            Elder Paisios:

            The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read. Not to learn it by heart, but to take it to heart. Not to practice using our tongues, but to be able to receive the tongues of fire and to live the mysteries of God. If one studies a great deal in order to acquire knowledge and to teach others, without living the things he teaches, he does no more than fill his head with hot air. At most he will manage to ascend to the moon using machines. The goal of the Christian is to rise to God without machines.

          • Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
            Scott Pennington says:

            Eliot,

            I’m not sure that I disagree with you on anything. I have stated:

            “Not only am I not talking about monasticism, but I would further observe that even monasticism (which is an eminently holy endeavor . . .”

            If you are actually taking issue with the substance of anything I’ve said, it would be nice to know exactly what that is. As far as being a theoretician, I’m not sure what you mean. My observations were concerning those who tend to misconstrue “mercy” or “love” into a kind of masochism or quest for “social justice”. That has nothing to do with monasticism or true asceticism.

          • Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top
            Michael Bauman says:

            They tend to replace the spiritual struggle of repentance and forgiveness with a set of moralistic principals through which they see the world and everything in it. It is easier to say, “this is the way things SHOULD be, than to examine one’s own life and see the filth, dirt and darkness that lies within. The true ascetic lays no burdens on anyone, least of all himself expect the burden to repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. For those who practice moralism, heaven, and therefore the person of Jesus Christ, is always somewhere else and is only to come.

Care to comment?

*