According to Jeff Walker, followers of Ayn Rand, who like to call themselves Objectivists, can revere their idol in an unhealthy cultish way. He comments (The Ayn Rand Cult [Open Court, 1999), p.145):
While not official doctrine, Objectivists were nonetheless expected to believe that (1) Ayn Rand is the greatest mind since Aristotle and the greatest human being who ever lived; (2) [Ayn Rand’s novel] Atlas Shrugged is not just the greatest novel of all time, but the greatest achievement in human history; (3) Rand is the ultimate authority on what thoughts, feelings, and aesthetic tastes are appropriate to human beings.
I have just finished reading Allan Gotthelf’s book, On Ayn Rand, published in 2000 as part of the Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Given that I enjoyed Edward Feser’s book, On Nozick, published in the same series, I had high hopes for this volume. How wrong I was. If there is anything that makes one think that Walker might not have been making up his claims, this book would be an example of something to read. Below I copy some extracts:
From page 1:
It is high time that academic philosophers accept the responsibility of understanding, thoroughly and with full, professional expertise, this highly original thinker and the scope and content of her often groundbreaking thought.
From page 2:
This book is dedicated to the memory of Ayn Rand, for her inspiration and her genius.
From pages 13-14:
On the course’s oral final exam she was disappointed to be asked only about Plato. Her answers earned her the highest grade possible, but her professor, discerning her lack of sympathy with Plato, asked her why she disagreed with him. “My philosophical views,” she said, “are not part of the history of philosophy yet. But they will be.
From page 18, note 6:
Her cousin’s remark is of some interest, suggesting (as one might well expect) that Nietzsche’s influence on Ayn Rand was not a matter of her absorbing whole a body of ideas new to her. Rather, Nietzsche articulated and expanded upon ideas she had already formulated and had been presenting to others–and indeed she was aware of important differences from the beginning.
From page 48:
I venture to suggest… that there is no thinker in the history of philosophy who has as profoundly developed and integrated a view of the harmony of mind and body as Ayn Rand.
It is not just the idolisation of Ayn Rand that makes this book worthless as an objective (in the true sense of the term) source to find out about Ayn Rand and her philosophical views, but the content. While the book is only 100 pages long, and it is therefore understandable that Gotthelf had to leave a lot out, it doesn’t mean to say that within the space available he should not have given fair weight to different aspects of Rand and why she is of interest.
After the preface and introduction, the next two chapters are devoted to biographical details of Rand. Excluded from what can only be called a hagiography is the fact that Rand had a long affair with her top student, but the much younger, Nathaniel Branden. When Gotthelf states that “in 1968 [Rand] terminated all relations with Branden,” (p.24) readers would not know that the reason she did so was because Branden informed Rand he no longer sexually desired her and that he was romantically attached to someone else. (Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, [Doubleday, 2009], pp.365-373.)
Gotthelf finds the space to mention that Leonard Peikoff was designated Rand’s heir (p.25), but not the space to mention that she had previously, in her dedication note at the end of Atlas Shrugged, dubbed Branden her “intellectual heir.” (Heller, p.277.) I do not think it a coincidence that this is the case. Gotthelf is associated with the Ayn Rand Institute that was founded by Peikoff. Following Rand’s excommunication of Branden, Peikoff and others pledged loyalty to Rand and renounced any further contact with Branden. Moreover, Peikoff, who had unquestioning loyalty to Rand, made his own students sign a waiver promising that they would not contact Branden or purchase any of his books. (Heller, pp.381-382.)
It is not just the biographical detail that is poor, it is also the discussion about her views. A reason many people become interested in Ayn Rand is for her pro-capitalist political philosophy. Her ideal society would get rid of a welfare state and leave the government in control of the minimum things that she believed necessary: “the police, to protect men from criminals—the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders—[and] the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws.” (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, [Signet, 1964], p.131). According to this view, “taxation—or to be exact, payment for government services—would be voluntary.” (Ibid., p.135). As mentioned, Gotthelf’s book is 100 pages long. The complete discussion of Rand’s political views is no more than one page. (Gotthelf, pp.91-92).
If someone wants to understand what Ayn Rand was about, they are better off reading something other than Gotthelf’s book. I am surprised that Wadsworth published it.