This lecture was delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on April 26, 1987, published in The Objectivist Forum in June 1987 and anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought in 1989.
Ayn Rand was unique — as a mind and as a person. If I could be granted a wish outside my power, it would be to meet and talk to someone like her again; unfortunately, I do not expect this wish to come true. The root of her uniqueness, which I had abundant opportunity to experience and enjoy in my thirty-year friendship with her, was the nature of her mental processes.
The purpose of this intellectual memoir is not to report on the content of the ideas I learned from Ayn Rand — whoever knows her books knows that already — but on her method of thinking as I observed it, her approach to the whole realm of ideas and therefore of living, her basic way of functioning cognitively in any situation. Method is fundamental; it is that which underlies and shapes content and thus all human achievement, in every field. Ayn Rand’s method of thinking is an eloquent case in point: it is the root of her genius and of her distinctive art and philosophy. The mental processes she used in everyday life, from adolescence on, were the processes that led her, one step at a time, to all of her brilliant insights and to the principles of Objectivism.
Because of the role of method in human life, I have often thought that the greatest humanitarian service I could perform would be to leave the world a record and analysis of Ayn Rand’s mind and how it worked. In the present discussion, I can offer you at least a glimpse of what I was privileged to see. Near the end, I will say something less epistemological — about Ayn Rand as a person.
When I met Ayn Rand, in the spring of 1951, I was an ignorant, intelligent seventeen-year-old, an admirer of The Fountainhead, but one who knew nothing about philosophy or how to think. Ayn Rand brought me up intellectually. In the nature of the case, therefore, some of my reminiscences are going to cast me in the role of naïve foil exhibiting her brilliance by contrast. This implication does not bother me, however, because alongside my confusions and errors, I claim one offsetting virtue: I did finally learn and come to practice what Ayn Rand taught me.
The strongest first impression I had of Ayn Rand on the fateful evening I met her — fateful to my life — was her passion for ideas. I have never seen its equal. I came to her California home that evening with a few broad questions suggested to me by The Fountainhead. One pertained to the issue of the moral and the practical, attributes which I had always been told were opposites. The character of Howard Roark, therefore, puzzled me, because he seemed to be both at once. So I asked Ayn Rand to tell me which one she intended him to represent. This was the sort of issue — relating to the nature of ideals and their role in life — which I had tried now and then, without much success, to discuss with family or teachers. Such issues were usually dismissed by the people I knew with a bromide or a shrug, amounting to the declaration: “Who knows and who cares?” Ayn Rand knew and Ayn Rand cared.
From the moment we started talking, she was vibrant, alert, alive. She listened intently to my words, she extracted every drop of meaning and of confusion, and then she answered. She spoke at length, first considering the question as I phrased it, then the deeper implications she saw in it. At each step, she explained what were the facts supporting her viewpoint, what kinds of objections might occur to me later if I pursued the topic, and what was the logical reply to them. She never suggested that I accept what she said on her say-so; on the contrary, she was working diligently to get me to see the truth with my own eyes and mind. The result was a brilliant extemporaneous dissertation on man’s need of morality and therefore on the unity of the moral and the practical — in Roark and in any rational person — along with an eloquent demonstration of the disasters caused by the conventional viewpoint.
I was astonished not only by the originality of her ideas, but even more by her manner. She spoke as though it were urgent that I understand the issue and that she forestall every possible misinterpretation on my part. She was wringing out of herself every ounce of clarity she had. I have seen men lecturing to solemn halls of graduate students, and men running for national office, dealing in the most literal sense with issues of life and death; but I have never seen anyone work as hard as she did to be fully understood, down to the root. Yet she was doing it in a drawing room, in answer to a question from a boy she had just met. Clearly, it was not the boy who primarily inspired her; it was the subject (though she would not have answered as she did if she had doubted my sincerity).
Ayn Rand’s performance that evening opened up the world to me. She made me think for the first time that thinking is important. I said to myself after I left her home: “All of life will be different now. If she exists, everything is possible.”
As long as I knew Ayn Rand, her passion for ideas never abated. As a rule, she wrote in her office daily from noon until 6:30, and she often came out looking exhilarated but utterly spent. But then if I or someone else would drop over and make an intellectual observation or ask a question, she was suddenly, dramatically invigorated, and it might very well be midnight before she realized that she hadn’t yet eaten dinner. A day or even an hour spent on legal contracts, or on business phone calls, or on shopping, or on having her hair done, tired her out thoroughly. But philosophy — ideas — was the stimulant that always brought her back.
She had such a passion for ideas because she thought that ideas are practical — that they are the most practical things in the world. In this regard, her approach was the opposite of that which philosophers call “rationalism.” “Rationalism” amounts to the viewpoint that ideas are detached from reality, unrelated to daily events, and without significance for man’s actual life — that they are nothing but floating abstractions to be manipulated by ivory-tower intellectuals for their own amusement, just as other men manipulate chess pieces. This viewpoint dominates twentieth-century thinkers. When I went to college, I routinely heard philosophical theories being discussed or debated by my professors as a purely academic matter. One professor was a follower of Immanuel Kant, say, another was an opponent of Kant, but they spoke and acted as though nothing separated them but dry, technical differences. After the debate, the two would go off arm in arm, buddies in spirit who had just finished a game or a show and were now returning to the real world. It reminds me of the logical positivist I heard about years ago who gave a lecture on why the word “God” is meaningless, then asked for directions to the nearest synagogue so he could say his prayers. The man was surprised that anyone was surprised by his request. “What has philosophy got to do with living?” he asked indignantly.
After a few weeks of classes with such professors, I would come running to Ayn Rand, chock-full of sophistry and fallacies, and she would spend twelve or even fifteen unbroken hours struggling to straighten out my thinking again. Why did it matter so much to her? Because her own mental practice was the antithesis of rationalism. To continue the same example, I remember asking her once long ago why she was so vehement in denouncing Kant’s theories, particularly the abstract ideas at the base of his system, such as his view that the world we perceive by our senses and mind is not real, but is only a creation of man’s subjective forms of awareness. I knew that Kant was wrong, but I did not understand at the age of twenty why the issue evoked in her so strong an emotion.
She replied, in essence: “When someone says that reality is unreal or that reason is subjective, he is, admittedly or not, attacking every conviction and every value I hold. Everything I love in life — my work, my husband, my kind of music, my freedom, the creativity of man’s mind — all of it rests on my perception of reality; all of it becomes a delusion and an impossibility if reason is impotent. Once you concede Kant’s kind of approach, you unleash the destroyers among men, the creatures who, freed of the need to be rational, will proceed — as in fact they have done since Kant — to expropriate the producers, sacrifice all values, and throw the rest of us into a fascist or communist dictatorship.”
If you went up to an ordinary individual, itemized every object and person he cared for, then said to him seriously: “I intend to smash them all and leave you groveling in the muck,” he would become indignant, even outraged. What set Ayn Rand apart from mankind is the fact that she heard the whole itemization and the intention to smash everything in the simple statement that “reality is unreal.” Most people in our age of pragmatism and skepticism shrug off broad generalizations about reality as mere talk — i.e., as floating abstractions — and react only to relatively narrow utterances. Ayn Rand was the reverse. She reacted much more intensely to philosophical ideas than to narrow concretes. The more abstract an evil formulation, the more territory it covered, and the greater, therefore, the destructive potential she saw in it.
By the same token, if Ayn Rand heard a basic idea that she regarded as true — an idea upholding reality and reason, like many of the principles of Aristotle — she responded with profound respect, admiration, even gratitude. Ideas to her were not a parlor game. They were man’s form of grasping the world, and they were thus an essential of human action and survival. So true ideas were an invaluable asset, and false ones a potential disaster.
Just as Ayn Rand did not detach abstractions from concretes, so she did not allow concretes to remain detached from abstractions. That is, she rejected today’s widespread policy of staring at daily events in a vacuum, then wailing that life is unintelligible. What a man does, she held, is a product of what he thinks. To be understood, therefore, a man’s actions have to be seen in relation to his ideas. Whether she encountered an inspiring novel by Victor Hugo, accordingly, or some horror spawned by Progressive education, or America’s thrilling venture into space, or the latest catastrophe out of Washington, or the seemingly incomprehensible behavior of a friend she had trusted — whatever it was, she was always intent on explaining it by identifying the ideas at its root. Since abstractions, in her philosophy, are man’s means of grasping and dealing with concretes, she actually used them for that purpose. She would not rest content either with floating theories or with unintelligible news items. She always required a crucial unity: theory and reality, or ideas and facts, or concepts and percepts.
Now I think you can see how Ayn Rand arrived at the most revolutionary element in Objectivism, her theory of concepts. I asked her about this once. She told me that she was talking one day to a Thomist and disagreed with the theory of concepts the man was advancing. “Well, then,” Ayn Rand was asked, “where do you think concepts come from?” “Let me introspect a moment and see what my mind does in forming a concept,” she replied, “because I haven’t yet considered this question.” Whereupon, after a few minutes of silence, she came up with her idea of measurement-omission as the essence of abstraction. I was always astounded by this feat of philosophic creativity; it seemed as though she had solved the problem of the ages by a casual glance inward. But now I think I understand it. What I see is that Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts was implicit from the time of her adolescence in her basic mental approach — in her recognition of the fact that concepts are not supernatural or arbitrary, but rather are instruments enabling men to integrate perceptual data. The rest of her theory of concepts is really an elaboration of this fundamental, although of course it takes a genius to discover such an elaboration.
Ayn Rand regarded ideas as important to human life — as the shaper of man’s character, his culture, his history, his future — because she knew what an idea is. She knew that an idea is not a social ritual, but a means of cognition.
If ideas are as crucial as this, then they must be dealt with properly — which brings me to the center of the present discussion: the specific steps of Ayn Rand’s intellectual method. In her own thinking, she always distinguished the “what,” as she called it, from the “how”: what she knew, and how (by what means) she knew it. If you disagreed with her about a particular conclusion, you did not argue the point for long, because the discussion soon changed to method. To her, the “how” was the burning issue in life; it was the thing that gave rise to the “what.” So let us look at some of the distinctive steps of Ayn Rand’s method. The best way to approach this subject briefly is through the issue of principles.
Ayn Rand thought in terms of principles. In the sense I mean it, this is a rare phenomenon. I personally had never encountered or even imagined it before I met her, and most people have no idea of it at all. Let me start here by giving you an example; it is the one on which I first discovered the issue, about a year after I met Ayn Rand.
I had been taking an ethics course in college and was thoroughly confused about the virtue of honesty. I was not tempted to be dishonest myself, but I did not see how to prove the evil of lying. (I speak throughout of lying in order to gain some value from others, as against lying to defend oneself from criminals, which is perfectly moral.) On my own, I rejected the two dominant schools in regard to honesty: the religious school, which holds that lying is absolutely wrong because God forbids it; and the Utilitarian school, which holds that there are no absolutes and that one has to judge each case “on its own merits,” according to the probable consequences of any given lie. I rejected the first of these as mystical, the second as brute expediency. But what could constitute a third interpretation? I had no idea, so I went to Ayn Rand.
She started her answer by asking me to invent the most plausible lie I could think of. I don’t remember the details any longer, but I know that I did proceed to concoct a pretty good con-man scheme for bilking investors out of large sums of money. Ayn Rand then analyzed the example patiently, for thirty or forty minutes, showing me on my own material how one lie would lead necessarily to another, how I would be forced into contradictory lies, how I would gradually become trapped in my own escalating deceptions, and why, therefore, sooner or later, in one form or another, my con-man scheme would have to backfire and lead to the loss of the very things I was seeking to gain by it. If you are interested in the content of her analysis, I have re-created the substance of this lengthy discussion in my next book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
The point now, however, lies in what happened next. My immediate reaction to her reply was to amend my initial scheme in order to remove the particular weaknesses she had found in it. So I made up a second con-man scheme, and again she analyzed it patiently, showing that it would lead to the same disastrous results even though most of the details were now different. Whereupon, in all innocence, I started to invent a third scheme (I was only 18). But Ayn Rand by this time was fed up. “Can’t you think in principle?” she asked me.
Let me condense into a few paragraphs what she then explained to me at length. “The essence of a con-man’s lie,” she began, “of any such lie, no matter what the details, is the attempt to gain a value by faking certain facts of reality.”
She went on: “Now can’t you grasp the logical consequences of that kind of policy? Since all facts of reality are interrelated, faking one of them leads the person to fake others; ultimately, he is committed to an all-out war against reality as such. But this is the kind of war no one can win. If life in reality is a man’s purpose, how can he expect to achieve it while struggling at the same time to escape and defeat reality?”
And she concluded: “The con-man’s lies are wrong on principle. To state the principle positively: honesty is a long-range requirement of human self-preservation and is, therefore, a moral obligation.”
This was not merely a new ethical argument to me. It was a whole new form of thought. She was saying, in effect: you do not have to consult some supernatural authority for intellectual guidance, nor try to judge particular cases in a vacuum and on to infinity. Rather, you first abstract the essence of a series of concretes. Then you identify, by an appropriate use of logic, the necessary implications or result of this essence. You thereby reach a fundamental generalization, a principle, which subsumes and enables you to deal with an unlimited number of instances — past, present, and future. The consequence, in this example, is an absolute prohibition against the con-man mentality — a prohibition based not on God, but on perception and thought.
Ayn Rand applied this method not only to lying or to moral issues, but to every fact and question she studied. She applied it in every branch of philosophy, from metaphysics to esthetics. If she saw that the sun rises every day, she did not, like David Hume, consider it a puzzling coincidence. She identified the essence of the event: an entity acting in accordance with its nature; and thereby was able to reach and validate the principle of causality. Or, if she admired the novels of Hugo and the plays of Friedrich Schiller, she did not say merely: “I like their grand-scale protagonists.” She identified the essence of such art: the depiction of man as a being with volition; and thereby was able to reach and validate the principle of Romanticism in art. This kind of method is the root of a whole new approach to thought. It led her a step at a time to a philosophy that is neither mystical nor skeptical, but objective; one that neither bases knowledge on revelation nor succumbs to relativism, but that teaches men to conceptualize logically the data of observation. Such a philosophy enables us to discover absolutes which are not supernatural, but rational and this-worldly.
Ayn Rand started thinking in terms of principles, she told me once, at the age of twelve. To her, it was a normal part of the process of growing up, and she never dropped the method thereafter. Nor, I believe, did she ever entirely comprehend the fact that the approach which was second nature to her was not practiced by other people. Much of the time, she was baffled by or indignant at the people she was doomed to talk to, people like the man we heard about in the early 1950s, who was calling for the nationalization of the steel industry. The man was told by an Objectivist why government seizure of the steel industry was immoral and impractical, and he was impressed by the argument. His comeback was: “Okay, I see that. But what about the coal industry?”
The method of thinking in principle involves many complexities, about which I intend, someday, to write an entire volume. But let me mention here a few further aspects, to give you a fuller picture of Ayn Rand’s approach. You recall that, to reach the principle that honesty is a virtue, we had first to grasp the essence of lying. Let us focus now on this issue, i.e., thinking in essentials, which was an essential part of Ayn Rand’s method of thinking.
The concept of “essential” was originated by Aristotle in connection with his theory of definition. He used the term to name the quality that makes an entity the distinctive kind of thing it is, as against what he called the “accidental” qualities. For example, having a rational faculty is essential to being a man. But having blue eyes rather than green is not; it is a mere detail or accident of a particular case. Ayn Rand’s commitment to essentials grew out of this Aristotelian theory, although she modified the concept significantly and expanded its role in human thought.
For Ayn Rand, thinking in essentials was not restricted to the issue of definitions. It was a method of understanding any complex situation by deliberately setting aside irrelevancies — such as insignificant details, superficial similarities, unimportant differences — and going instead to the heart of the matter, to the aspects which, as we may say, constitute the distinctive core or being of the situation. This is something Ayn Rand herself did brilliantly. I always thought of her, metaphorically, as possessing a special power of vision, which could penetrate beneath the surface data that most people see, just as an X-ray machine penetrates beneath the flesh that meets our eyes to reveal the crucial underlying structures.
This kind of penetration is precisely what was lacking in the man I just mentioned, who could see no connection between the steel and the coal industries. Ayn Rand, by contrast, knew at once that steel in this context is a mere detail. She went to the essence of nationalization: government force unleashed against the minds of productive, thinking men — a practice common to countless cases beyond steel, and one that will have a certain kind of effect no matter where it occurs. This is the kind of mental process that is required if one is to reach a generalization uniting many cases. It is the process that is required if one is to champion capitalism as a matter of principle, rather than, like today’s conservatives, clamoring merely for the removal of some random controls.
In the deepest epistemological sense, Ayn Rand was the opposite of an egalitarian. She did not regard every aspect of a whole as equal in importance to every other. Some aspects, she held, are crucial to a proper understanding; others merely clutter up the cognitive landscape and distract lesser minds from the truth. So the task of the thinker is to distinguish the two, i.e., to analyze and process the data confronting him, not to amass mounds of information without any attempt at mental digestion. She herself always functioned like an intellectual detective, a philosophical Hercule Poirot, reading, watching, listening for the fact, the statement, the perspective that would illuminate a whole, tortuous complexity — the one that would reveal the essence and thereby suddenly make that complexity simple and intelligible. The result was often dramatic. When you were with her, you always felt poised on the brink of some startling new cognitive adventure and discovery.
Here is an example of what I mean. In the 1970s, Ayn Rand and I were watching the Academy Awards on television; it was the evening when a streaker flashed by during the ceremonies. Most people probably dismissed the incident with some remark like: “He’s just a kid” or “It’s a high-spirited prank” or “He wants to get on TV.” But not Ayn Rand. Why, her mind wanted to know, does this “kid” act in this particular fashion? What is the difference between his “prank” and that of college students on a lark who swallow goldfish or stuff themselves into telephone booths? How does his desire to appear on TV differ from that of a typical game-show contestant? In other words, Ayn Rand swept aside from the outset the superficial aspects of the incident and the standard irrelevant comments in order to reach the essence, which had to pertain to this specific action in this distinctive setting.
“Here,” she said to me in effect, “is a nationally acclaimed occasion replete with celebrities, jeweled ball gowns, coveted prizes, and breathless cameras, an occasion offered to the country as the height of excitement, elegance, glamor — and what this creature wants to do is drop his pants in the middle of it all and thrust his bare buttocks into everybody’s face. What then is his motive? Not high spirits or TV coverage, but destruction — the satisfaction of sneering at and undercutting that which the rest of the country looks up to and admires.” In essence, she concluded, the incident was an example of nihilism, which is the desire not to have or enjoy values, but to nullify and eradicate them.
Nor did she stop there. The purpose of using concepts — and the precondition of reaching principles — is the integration of observed facts; in other words, the bringing together in one’s mind of many different examples or fields, such as the steel and the coal industries, for instance. Ayn Rand was expert at this process. For her, grasping the essence of an event was merely the beginning of processing it cognitively. The next step was to identify that essence in other, seemingly very different areas, and thereby discover a common denominator uniting them all.
Having grasped the streaker’s nihilism, therefore, she was eager to point out some different examples of the same attitude. Modern literature, she observed, is distinguished by its creators’ passion not to offer something new and positive, but to wipe out: to eliminate plots, heroes, motivation, even grammar and syntax; this represents the brazen desire to destroy an entire art form along with the great writers of the past by stripping away from literature every one of its cardinal attributes. Just as Progressive education is the desire for education stripped of lessons, reading, facts, teaching, and learning. Just as avant-garde physics is the gleeful cry that there is no order in nature, no law, no predictability, no causality. That streaker, in short, was the very opposite of an isolated phenomenon. He was a microcosm of the principle ruling modern culture, a fleeting representative of that corrupt motivation which Ayn Rand has described so eloquently as “hatred of the good for being the good.” And what accounts for such widespread hatred? she asked at the end. Her answer brings us back to the philosophy we referred to earlier, the one that attacks reason and reality wholesale and thus makes all values impossible: the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
Listening to Ayn Rand that evening, I felt that I was beginning to understand what it means really to understand an event. I went home and proceeded to write the chapter in The Ominous Parallels dealing with Weimar culture, which develops at length Ayn Rand’s analysis of the modern intellectual trend. The point here, however, is not her analysis, but the method that underlies it: observation of facts; the identification of the essential; the integration of data from many disparate fields; then the culminating overview, the grasp of principle.
I use the term “overview” deliberately, because I always felt as though everyone else had their faces pressed up close to an event and were staring at it myopically, while she was standing on a mountaintop, sweeping the world with a single glance, and thus was able to identify the most startling connections, not only between streaking and literature, but also between sex and economics, art and business, William F. Buckley and Edward Kennedy. She was able to unite the kinds of things that other people automatically pigeonhole into separate compartments. Her universe, as a result, was a single whole, with all its parts interrelated and intelligible; it was not the scattered fragments and fiefdoms that are all most people know. To change the image: she was like a ballet dancer of the intellect, leaping from fact to fact and field to field, not by the strength of her legs, but by the power of logic, a power that most men do not seem fully to have discovered yet.
The unity of Ayn Rand’s universe rested on more than I can indicate here. But I want to mention a last aspect of her method, one which is crucial in this regard: thinking in terms of fundamentals.
By “fundamental” I mean that on which everything else in a given context depends, that which is the base or groundwork on which a whole development is built. This concept is necessary because human knowledge, like a skyscraper, has a structure: certain ideas are the ground floor or foundation of cognition, while other ideas, like the upper stories of a building, are dependents, no better or stronger than the foundation on which they rely. Thinking in terms of fundamentals means never accepting a conclusion while ignoring its base; it means knowing and validating the deepest ideas on which one’s conclusion rests.
For instance, in our discussion of honesty, we said that lying is wrong because it is incompatible with the requirements of self-preservation. What base were we counting on? Clearly, a certain ethical theory, the one that upholds self-preservation as man’s proper goal — in contrast to the ethics that advocates self-sacrifice for the sake of others. If you accept this latter theory, our whole argument against lying collapses. Why should a man who is committed to selfless service necessarily tell the truth? What if, as often happens, others want him to lie and claim that it is essential to their happiness?
But this is just the beginning of our quest for fundamentals, because the field of ethics itself rests on the basic branches of philosophy, as you can see in this same example. How did we prove that lying is self-destructive? We said that a policy of lying leads to a war against reality, which no one can win. Well, why can’t anyone? What ideas are we counting on here? Clearly, that there is a reality; that it is what it is independent of our desires; and that our minds are able to know these facts, i.e., to know reality. The issue of lying, in sum, whatever view of it one takes, is merely a consequence. It is a derivative, which rests on a complex philosophic foundation.
Thinking in terms of fundamentals is not an independent aspect of Ayn Rand’s method; it is an inherent part of thinking in principle. If one ignored the issue of fundamentals, his so-called principles would be merely a heap of disconnected, random claims — like a catalog of divine commandments — and they would be of no help in understanding the world or guiding one’s action. One would not be able to prove or even retain the items in such a heap; they would be nothing but floating abstractions. Only ideas organized into a logical structure can be tied to reality, and only such ideas, therefore, can be of use or value to man; and that means principles based on antecedent principles, going back ultimately to the fundamentals of philosophy.
Ayn Rand’s real intellectual interest was emphatically not politics. Of course, she was a champion of capitalism and freedom. But unlike today’s libertarians and conservatives, she was a thinker; she was not content to preach liberty or private property as though they were self-evident axioms. She wanted to know what they depend on and how they can be proved, all the way back to metaphysics and epistemology. This is why she admired Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas even more than she did Thomas Jefferson, and why, to the amazement of today’s businessmen, she hated Kant and Hegel much more than income taxes. It is also why, starting with an interest in political questions, she was led eventually to formulate an overall system of thought, expressing a complete philosophy of life.
Ayn Rand’s mind had an exalted quality, one shared by only a handful of kindred spirits across the ages. Hers was a mind with the profundity of a true philosopher; a mind that greeted the deepest issues of man’s life with solemn reverence and ruthless logic; a mind that derived its greatest joy and its personal fulfillment from the rational study of fundamentals. In our age of mediocrity and anti-philosophy, this fact doomed her to a certain loneliness. It made her a unique personality, unable to find her equal, just as her product, the philosophy of reason that she called Objectivism, is unique and unequaled.
If you want to know what Ayn Rand was like as a person, I can now answer simply: you already know it, because she was just what she had to be given the nature of her intellectual processes. Ayn Rand the person was an expression and corollary of Ayn Rand the mind.
Ayn Rand herself repudiated any dichotomy between mind and person. Her mind, she held, was the essence of her person: it was her highest value, the source of her other values, and the root of her character traits. Thinking, to her, was not merely an interest or even a passion; it was a lifestyle. When she greeted you, for instance, she often asked not “How are you?” but “How’s your universe?” Her meaning was: “How’s your view of the universe? Have the problems of daily life swamped your philosophical knowledge? Or are you still holding on to the fact that reality is intelligible and that values are possible?” Similarly, when you left, she would say not “Goodbye,” but “Good premises.” In other words: “Don’t count on luck or God for success, but on your own thinking.” If self-esteem means confidence in the power of one’s mind, then the explanation of Ayn Rand’s profound self-esteem is obvious: she earned it — both in virtue of the value she ascribed to the mind, and of the meticulous method by which she used her own.
Another result of this method was that attribute men call “strength of character.” Ayn Rand was immutable. I never saw her adapting her personality to please another individual. She was always the same and always herself, whether she was talking with me alone, or attending a cocktail party of celebrities, or being cheered or booed by a hall full of college students, or being interviewed on national television. She took on the whole world — liberals, conservatives, communists, religionists, Babbitts, and avant-garde alike — but opposition had no power to sway her. She knew too clearly how she had reached her ideas, why they were true, and what their opposites were doing to mankind. Nor, like Howard Roark, could she ever be tempted to betray her convictions. Since she had integrated her principles into a consistent system, she knew that to violate a single one would be to discard the totality. A Texas oil man once offered her up to a million dollars to use in spreading her philosophy, if she would only add a religious element to it to make it more popular. She threw his proposal into the wastebasket. “What would I do with his money,” she asked me indignantly, “if I have to give up my mind in order to get it?”
Dedication to thought and thus to her work was the root of Ayn Rand’s person; it was not, however, her only passion. As a result of this root, she held intense values in every department of life. She loved her husband of fifty years, Frank O’Connor, a sensitive, intense man, not nearly as intellectual as she but just as independent and deep in his own quiet way. He is the exception to my statement that she never found an equal. Frank did not have her mind; but his dedication to his work as a painter, his extravagant Romanticism, his innocent, sunlit sense of life, and, I may add, the visible joy he took in her work and in her person — all this made it plain that he did share her soul.
As to Ayn Rand’s other values, I have hardly room here even to mention a sample. Some of them are obvious from her writings, such as America, skyscrapers, modern technology, man the hero, the great romantic artists of the nineteenth century, the silent German movies from her childhood that she always tried to find again, Agatha Christie, TV’s Perry Mason — and there were so many more, from her cats to her lion pictures to her Adrian clothes to her vivid, outsize jewelry to her stamp collecting to her favorite candy (Godiva chocolates) and even her favorite color (blue-green). In every aspect of life, she once told me, a man should have favorites; he should define what he likes most and why, and then proceed to get it. She always did just that — from fleeing the Soviet dictatorship for America, to tripping her future husband on a movie set to get him to notice her, to ransacking ancient record shops to unearth some lost treasure, to decorating her apartment with an abundance of blue-green pillows, ashtrays, and even walls.
Ayn Rand was a woman dominated by values, values that were consistent expressions of a single view of life — which is what you might expect of a great thinker who was at once a moralist and an artist. The corollary is that she had strong dislikes in every department, too. You cannot love something without rejecting just as passionately that which you see as the antithesis of your love. Most people do not know their values clearly or hold them consistently; their desires are correspondingly vague, ambivalent, contradictory. To many such people, Ayn Rand’s violent aliveness and assertiveness were shocking, even intimidating. To me, however, they were a tonic. I felt as though other people were drawn in wishy-washy shades of gray, whereas her soul was made of brilliant color.
Unfortunately — and here I turn for a moment to a somber topic — the wishy-washy people often wanted something from Ayn Rand and were drawn to her circle. A few of them wanted simply to advance their careers by cashing in on her fame and following. Others craved the security they found in her approval. Still others had an element of sincerity during their youth, but turned anti-intellectual as they grew older. These people did what they had to do in order to get from Ayn Rand what they wanted.
What they did usually was to give her the appearance of being the philosophical intelligence she desperately wanted to meet. They were glib, articulate, sometimes even brilliant people. They absorbed the surface features of Ayn Rand’s intellectual style and viewpoint as though by osmosis and then mimicked them. Often, because she was so open, they knew what she wanted them to say, and they said it convincingly. Though uninterested in philosophy and even contemptuous of fundamentals, they could put on an expert act to the contrary, most often an act for themselves first of all. Ayn Rand was not the only person to be taken in by it. I knew most of these people well and, to be fair here, I must admit that I was even more deluded about them than she was.
All of these types ended up resenting Ayn Rand, and even hating her. They felt increasingly bored by the realm of ideas, and chafed under the necessity of suppressing their real self in order to keep up the pretense of intellectual passion. Above all, they found Ayn Rand’s commitment to morality intolerable. In her mind, moral principles were requirements of man’s survival proved by reference to the deepest premises of philosophy; they were thus the opposite of a luxury or a social convention; they were life-or-death absolutes. When she saw a moral breach, therefore — such as dishonesty or moral compromise or power lust or selling one’s soul to the Establishment like Peter Keating — she knew what it meant and where it would lead, and she condemned the individual roundly.
To the types of people we are talking about, this was an unbearable reproach. They could accept Objectivism as pure theory for a while, but only as theory. When they were tested by life, they gave in guiltily, one at a time, to the sundry pressures they encountered, and they shrank thereafter from facing her. Usually they ended up artfully concealing their resentment, saying that they still admired, even adored, Ayn Rand and her philosophy, but not, as they put it, her “moralizing” or her “anger.” Her “moralizing” means the fact that she pronounced moral judgments, i.e., applied her philosophy to real life. Her “anger” in this context means that she took her judgments seriously.
Several of these individuals are now publishing their memoirs in the hopes of getting even with Ayn Rand at last — and also of cashing in on her corpse. At this latter goal, regrettably, some of them seem to be succeeding.
Ayn Rand refused to make collective judgments. Each time she unmasked one of these individuals she struggled to learn from her mistake. But then she would be deceived again by some new variant.
Her basic error was that she took herself as the human standard or norm (as in a sense we all must do, since we have no direct contact with any human consciousness but our own). So if she saw all the outward signs of philosophical enthusiasm and activity, she took it to mean that the individual was, in effect, an intellectual equal of hers, who regarded ideas in the same way she did. After a long while, I came to understand this error. I realized how extraordinary her mind really was, and I tried to explain to her her many disappointments with people.
“You are suffering the fate of a genius trapped in a rotten culture,” I would begin. “My distinctive attribute,” she would retort, “is not genius, but intellectual honesty.” “That is part of it,” I would concede, “but after all I am intellectually honest, too, and it doesn’t make me the kind of epochal mind who can write Atlas Shrugged or discover Objectivism.” “One can’t look at oneself that way,” she would answer me. “No one can say: ‘Ah me! the genius of the ages.’ My perspective as a creator has to be not ‘How great I am’ but ‘How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.’” So, for understandable reasons, we reached an impasse. She kept hoping to meet an equal; I knew that she never would. For once, I felt, I had the broad historical perspective, the perspective on her, that in the nature of the case she could not have.
In order to be fully clear at this point, I want to make one more comment about Ayn Rand’s anger. Many times, as I have explained, it was thoroughly justified. But sometimes it was not justified. For instance, Ayn Rand not infrequently became angry at me over some philosophical statement I made that seemed for the moment to ally me with one of the intellectual movements she was fighting. On many such occasions, of course, she remained calm because she understood the cause of my statement: that I still had a great deal to learn. But other times she did not; she did not grasp fully the gulf that separates the historic master, to whom the truth is obvious, from the merely intelligent student. Since her mind immediately integrated a remark to the fundamentals it presupposes, she would project at once, almost automatically, the full, horrendous meaning of what I had uttered, and then she would be shocked at me. Once I explained that I had not understood the issue at all, her anger melted and she became intent on clarifying the truth for me. The anger she felt on such occasions was mistaken, but it was not irrational. Its root was her failure to appreciate her own intellectual uniqueness.
I should add here that I never saw her hold an unadmitted grudge. Her anger never festered unexpressed or turned into devious, brooding hatred. It was an immediate, open storm of indignant protest — then it was over. In this respect, she was the easiest person in the world to know and to deal with.
Did I ever get angry at Ayn Rand’s anger at me? Certainly I did. But my anger did not matter to me and did not last. To me, her temper was an infinitesimal price to pay for the values I was gaining from her. The world, I knew, is full of kindly souls who specialize in loving everybody and forgiving everything; but these souls bored me. I wanted out of life that which Ayn Rand alone, in all her fiery genius, had to offer.
This brings me to my final topic. Whatever Ayn Rand’s anger, her disappointments, her pain, they went down, as she said about Roark, only to a certain point. Beneath it was her self-esteem, her values, and her conviction that happiness, not pain, is what matters. People sometimes ask: “But did she achieve happiness in her own life?” My answer would consist of three images.
One is the memory of a spring day in 1957; we were walking up Madison Avenue toward the office of Random House, which was in the process of bringing out Atlas Shrugged. She was looking at the city she had always loved most, and now, after decades of rejection and bitter poverty, she had seen the top publishers in that city competing for what she knew, triumphantly, was her masterpiece. She turned to me suddenly and said: “Don’t ever give up what you want in life. The struggle is worth it.” I never forgot that. I can still see the look of quiet radiance on her face.
Then I see the image of her one night at a party, perhaps twenty years ago now; she was sitting on a couch with some other guests, looking shy, bored, and miserable. Then her husband, who had been working late, arrived, and she called out “Cubbyhole” (her pet name for him), insisting, as she always did, that he squeeze onto the couch beside her so that they could hold hands. And they smiled at each other, and she relaxed visibly, and he patted her hand and called her “Fluff” (his name for her).
Then I see her as she was turning seventy, on the morning when she, Frank, and I came home from the hospital after her lung surgery. It was still difficult for her to walk, but she wanted to play her “tiddlywink” music, as she always called it — gay, lighthearted, utterly cheerful popular tunes from the turn of the century, which have no counterpart today. And she got up and began to march around the living room to the music, tossing her head, grinning at us, marking the beat by waving her little baton, Frank all the while beaming at her from his easy chair. If ever I want to think of a non-tragic spectacle, I remember that.
Ayn Rand did experience unhappiness in her life. But if you ask me: was she a happy person? I have only one answer to give you. She was.
Ladies and gentlemen: in my judgment, Ayn Rand did live by her philosophy. Whatever her errors, she practiced what she preached, both epistemologically and morally. As a result, she did achieve in her life that which she set out to achieve; she achieved it intellectually, artistically, emotionally. But for you to judge these matters yourself and reach an objective view of Ayn Rand, you must be an unusually philosophical kind of person, because you are living in a Kantian, anti-value culture, and you are going to be offered some very opposite accounts of the facts of her life. So you have to know: what is objectivity? What sort of testimony qualifies as evidence in this context? What do you believe is possible to a man — or a woman? What kind of soul do you think it takes to write Atlas Shrugged? And what do you want to see in a historic figure?
I am not a Kantian. I do not believe that we can know Ayn Rand only as she appeared to somebody or other. But if I were to grant that premise for a split second, if I were to agree that we all construe reality according to our own personal preferences, then I would still draw a fundamental moral distinction between two kinds of preferences: between those of the muckrakers and those of the hero-worshipers. It is the distinction between the people who, confronted by a genius, are seized with a passion to ferret out flaws, real or imaginary, i.e., to find feet of clay so as to justify their own blighted lives — as against the people who, desperate to feel admiration, want to dismiss any flaw as trivial because nothing matters to them in such a context but the sight of the human greatness that inspires and awes them. In this kind of clash, I am sure, you recognize where I stand.
I knew Ayn Rand longer than anyone now alive. I do not believe that my view of her is subjective. But if I am to go down in history as her apologist or glamorizer, then so be it. I am proud to be cursed as a “cultist,” if the “cult” is unbreached dedication to the mind and to its most illustrious exponents.
According to the Objectivist esthetics, a crucial purpose of art is to depict man as he might be and ought to be, and thereby provide the reader or viewer with the pleasure of contemplating, in concrete, embodied form, his abstract moral ideal. Howard Roark and John Galt provide this kind of inspiration to me, and to many other people I know. What I want to add in closing is that Ayn Rand in person provided it, too. Because of the power of her mind and the purity of her soul, she gave me, when I was with her, what her novels give me: a sense of life as exaltation, the sense of living in a clean, uplifted, benevolent world, in which the good has every chance of winning, and the evil does not have to be taken seriously. I often felt, greeting her, as though I were entering the Atlantis of Atlas Shrugged, where the human ideal is not merely an elusive projection to be reached somehow, but is real, alive, here — seated across the room on the blue-green pillows, smiling delightedly, eager to talk philosophy with me, eyes huge, brilliant, penetrating.
That is the Ayn Rand I knew. And that is why I loved her.