It Has Always Been Thus…

Today’s reading is from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, published in 1943.

Okay, just calm down. Yes, I know, she was crazy. She took some good ideas about freedom and indviduality and took them to absurd degrees. In her novels, characters say things to each other that no human beings have ever said to one another. All true.

But she certainly had her moments! I started reading the novel on a whim, and I was surprised by how gripping and suspenseful I found the story. It’s actually pretty hard to put down, as long as you don’t mind that the action is occasionally interrupted so the characters can hold forth on politics and economics.

Anyway, whatever you think of Rand, just try not to smile as you read the following excerpt. This is being spoken by Ellsworth Toohey, one of the novel’s villains. He is explaining — Screwtape letters style — how to break the spirit of people by crushing individuality, by rewarding mediocrity and punishing achievement, and by urging collectivism. The “you” in what follows refers to the imagined, would-be dictator trying to gain power by preying on people’s weaknesses.

Men have a weapon against you. Reason. So you must be very sure to take it away from them. Cut the props from under it. But be careful. Don’t deny outright. Never deny anything outright, you give your hand away. Don’t say reason is evil — though some have gone that far and with astonishing success. Just say that reason is limited. That there’s something above it. What? You don’t have to be too clear about it either. The field’s inexhaustible. `Instinct’ — `Feeling’ — `Revelation’ — `Divine Intuition’ — `Dialectic Materialism.’ If you get caught at some crucial point and somebody tells you your doctrine doesn’t make sense — you’re ready for him. You tell him there’s something above sense. That here he must not try to think, he must feel. He must believe. Suspend reason and you play it deuces wild. Anything goes in any manner you wish whenever you need it. You’ve got him. Can you rule a thinking man? We don’t want any thinking men.

That’s pretty good!

Here’s another excerpt that made me smile. The story’s hero, Howard Roark, is a brilliant architect whose buildings are too avant garde for the unwashed masses to appreciate. He was commissioned to design a temple that would celebrate the human spirit. When the finished product was revealed, it was considered blasphemous and obscene. (The whole fiasco was orchestrated by Ellsworth Toohey specifically to discredit Roark, whom he despised as too much of an independent thinker, but we don’t need to go into that.) Roark was sued by the man who commissioned the temple, and the following excerpt takes place during the lead-up to the trial. The “he” refers to Roark. “The Banner” refers to a prominent tabloid newspaper.

He was asked for a statement, and he received a group of reporters in his office. He spoke without anger. He said, “I can’t tell anyone about my building. If I prepared a hash of words to stuff into other people’s brains, it would be an insult to them and to me. But I am glad you came here. I do have something to say. I want to ask every man who is interested in this to go and see the building, to look at it and to use the words of his own mind, if he cares to speak.”

The Banner printed the interview as follows: “Mr. Roark, who seems to be a publicity hound, received reporters with an air of swaggering insolence and stated that the public mind was hash. He did not choose to talk, but he seemed well aware of the advertising angles in the situation. All he cared about, he explained, was to have his building seen by as many people as possible.”

Yep. Sounds about right.


  1. #1 MNb
    April 17, 2013

    “just try not to smile”
    It didn’t take me any effort to control my laughing muscles when reading the first quote. I like the second quote though.

  2. #2 H.H.
    April 17, 2013

    Yeah, Rand was briefly influential on me in college. (I grew out of it.) In retrospect, it was her atheism I admired, not her economic principles or system of ethics. I still admire this paragraph from Atlas Shrugged, which I consider a withering critique of original sin.

    What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge — he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil — he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor — he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire — he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy — all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was — that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love — he was not man.

  3. #3 proximity1
    April 17, 2013

    here you go; my one and only comment on this

    “Reason” is the natural enemy of those who’d rob people of their “individuality”? I know that irony is dead–it died long, long, long ago, but still– “reason, ” like science is a method,, by the way, is a tool, a mental tool. It can be lent to any project or venture, however noble or ignoble.

    So, if I’m smiling, it’s more at the implication that by safeguarding “reason,” we’re throwing a monkey-wrench into the best-laid plans of the people who’d rob us of our individuality.

    Today, everyone claims that reason supports him or her no matter what it is that he or she is doing or wants to do. Do you want to promote conformist stupidity? Be sure to do it in the name of reason, which is eminently feasible. Or how about just presenting all technology as a part of ineluctable progress–reason is your friend there, too.

    Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston SAUL, is the one-time vaccination against such silly stuff as this, from Rand’s mind to Ellsworth Toohey’s mouth.

    I don’t deny that we need reason; at the same time, it would be a good thing if we could just recognize it when we see it and if we could distinguish its respectable applications from its deplorable applications. In this effort, reason is an aid but no gaurantee of success.

  4. #4 eric
    April 17, 2013


    Yeah, Rand was briefly influential on me in college.

    I suspect a lot of people are like that. There’s a lot of very seductive optimism in her vision – give smart people freedom and they’ll accomplish anything they want to do! – but, ironically for a movement called “Objectivism,” not a lot of realism. Lowering (the next) Einstein’s tax bracket will not result in him producing a perpetual motion machine, no matter how wonderful the world would be if things worked that way.

  5. #5 Greg Esres
    April 17, 2013

    I loved The Fountainhead and I think it still speaks to one’s personal integrity.

    I had designed a business card for me and offered the design to a friend. With advice from his girlfriend, he asked me to remove the logo. I told him, “Sorry, can’t do that; if you’d read The Fountainhead, you’d understand.” He replied, “I have, and I do.”

  6. #6 Darth Dog
    April 17, 2013

    I always thought Randall Munroe summed Rand up best.

    “I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.'”

  7. #7 Ryan
    April 17, 2013

    I tried to read Rand, I really did. But the characters are less realistic than Tony Stark. The caricatures of outwardly decent people were so bad I just couldn’t do it.

  8. #8 JimR
    April 18, 2013

    There is a movie revival of Atlas Shrugged. Part I released in 2011 received an 11% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Part II released in 2012 dropped to a 5% rating. Part III is scheduled for 2014 and is currently in pre-production. The summaries for I&II panned them.

  9. #9 MNb
    April 18, 2013

    “took them to absurd degrees”
    It always can get worse I suppose: the lyrics of Neil Peart. Sometimes I like the music of Rush very much though.

  10. #10 couchloc
    April 18, 2013

    Philosophers did a poll that included Rand a while ago that reflects what the field thinks of her. You can look at the results here.

  11. #11 Kurt Helf
    April 18, 2013

    Ol’ Neal’s lyrics have gotten better. Check out “Faithless” on Rush’s album “Snakes and Arrows”; could be an atheist anthem except for the “I will quietly resist” bit.

  12. #12 charan langton
    April 18, 2013

    We are heavily guided by emotions. Rationality may indeed be just an excuse for what our emotions are telling us to do anyway.
    Is there rational thought without a foundation of writhing emotion below the visible surface?


  13. #13 itchy
    April 18, 2013

    Thanks, Darth Dog (#6)! Great quote.

  14. #14 MNb
    April 19, 2013

    @Kurt: I listen to music for the notes, not for the lyrics. I know Rush since about 1978 and only learned 5 years ago that the lyrics were written by Peart and often were inspired by Rand. So Peart’s improvements are not high on my interest list.

  15. #15 Sondra
    April 24, 2013

    I liked her too when I was a teenager – mainly because I had never read a bodice ripper before and the liberated sexuality she allowed her females appealed to my own reason about “the War on Women” back in the day.
    I guess Paul Ryan et. alia just skimmed over those parts?

  16. #16 Sondra
    April 24, 2013

    I liked her too when I was a teenager – mainly because I had never read a bodice ripper before and the liberated sexuality she allowed her females appealed to my own reason about “the War on Women” back in the day.
    I guess Paul Ryan et. alia just skimmed over those parts? or maybe they were a secret pleasure.
    Rand Paul and his cohorts have conveniently failed to mention her hatred of organized religion as well.

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