The Corner

Re: Ayn Rand and Whittaker Chambers

Many thanks to Richard Reinsch for his comments on my Ayn Rand/Whittaker Chambers piece. The issues he raises are quasi-eternal questions and cannot be debated adequately in this forum, but let me state my points of agreement and disagreement as succinctly as I can.

First, I agree that belief in God can serve as a check on temptations of the “immanentizing the eschaton” variety. I think that, at least in the modern world, it has served as such a check, and I am deeply grateful for the Christian contribution to the demise of Soviet Communism. (I will come to my more central disagreements with Reinsch in a moment, but let me note in passing that belief in God can also serve to justify tyranny and cruelty of the most appalling sort, as it did in the court of the Inquisition. I do not think these acts were consistent with the Christian teaching, but they do illustrate the way in which, if reason sundered from God can elevate itself to a totalizing role, reason can also invoke God to arrive at the same destination.)

Second, I agree with Chambers and Reinsch that Communism placed the state in a Godlike position. Chambers’s exploration of this fact is much of what gives Witness its great moral power.

Third, I agree that Rand suffered from a similar ideological temptation. Yesterday I read for the first time Cathy Young’s thoroughly excellent 2005 Rand essay for Reason, which makes the point well. Young observes that Dagny Taggart, Atlas Shrugged’s heroine, “calmly and quite unnecessarily shoots a guard who can’t decide whether to let her in or not. The man, you see, ‘wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness’ — obviously a capital crime.” I cannot agree, however, that Rand’s system qua system is a totalizing ideology. Rand the person and Rand the artist betrayed the ideas of Rand the thinker, which, if properly adhered to, could not have justified tyranny or exploitation of any sort. I refer the reader back to the portion of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged notes, which I quote in “The Greatly Ghastly Rand,” that asserts that the creator (Rand’s ideal) must never desire something that requires primarily the exercise of the will of another person. Note also that, in The Fountainhead, Roark calls this the “cardinal evil.”

Now my main points of disagreement:

First, I think Reinsch is presenting a false choice between God-and-limited-man, on one hand, and Man-as-God on the other. He seems not to have considered Buddhism, which is neither. That Communism placed itself in the position of God does not establish that some ideology or other will inevitably come do so in the absence of an explicit theism. I do not think one can simply wave the magic wand of historical/psychological inevitability to dismiss the many non-believers who fully appreciate the dangers of an overweening state and favor a form of limited government. And there have of course been important thinkers in the history of the West who believed in the inherent dignity and worth of human beings, and therefore strenuously opposed tyranny and exploitative private conduct, without affirming the existence of God and the truth of Christian metaphysics.

My second point of disagreement is this: Insofar as the elevation of ideology to the status of revelation is hostile to the preconditions of human flourishing, we can discuss this consequence directly and in so doing remind ourselves to avoid the danger. If the danger is real — and historically demonstrated, as I think Reinsch would agree it is — there is no need to route the argument through an appeal to a transcendental entity. (Personally, I think that any such appeal undermines the force of the argument, because it begins by writing off anyone who is not moved, by reason or some other force, to believe in God.)

Finally, I think Reinsch mischaracterizes Nietzsche if he means to say that the Nietzschean position “inexorably leads to the rise of a master class.” (It seems to me that he is saying this, because he identifies such a class with the Randian heroes, whom he has already identified as Nietzschean supermen — though without Chambers’s qualification that Rand “transform[s]” them “in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria.”) Certainly some have read Nietzsche as Reinsch does — Heidegger, for instance, and Bertrand Russell (Heidegger liked what he found, while Russell abhorred it) — but this view is no longer dominant among Nietzsche scholars. I would recommend, as a corrective, the work of the late Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann. My personal opinion is that Nietzsche’s thought tends in a direction very like that of some forms of Buddhism, though Nietzsche himself was not aware of this (having fallen prey to Schopenhauer’s caricature of that tradition) and was not always true to his ideal. Perhaps I shall have more to say about this on a future occasion.

I can endorse Reinsch’s statement that Chambers was not reading Rand in a “narrow” political sense. I simply think Chambers was wrong about the underlying connection between metaphysics and politics as well. I thank Mr. Reinsch again for his thoughts, which are certainly worthy of respect and consideration, and for giving me this opportunity to elaborate my own.

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