Ph.D. Octopus

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Aristotle and Ayn Rand

with 8 comments

By Wiz

Via a friend I saw this excellent essay about Ayn Rand by Corey Robin in The Nation. Robin sees Rand less as a con-man, though she has many surface similarities to that great American type, and more a product of Hollywood: all phony pseudo-intellectualisms and self-satisfied (and she was very satisfied with herself) and self-serving superficiality. Robin also suggests her ethos tends towards fascism, not liberation, as she probably thought.

On one hand it always seems a bit too easy to bash Rand. We all know, by this point, the score. She’s a bad writer, philosophically ludicrous, and morally immature. Her fans tend to be socially inept, and have the truly repulsive combination of delusions of grandeur alongside persecution complexes. Of course, on the other hand, there are enough powerful people out there pushing Ayn Rand and her ideas at us, that its always worth reminding ourselves how ludicrous she is. (Here, for instance, is a report about how businessmen are trying to fund “Ayn Rand Studies” at universities).

Aristotle: Not an Apologist for Capitalism

One thing I learned from Robin was that Rand claimed to be influenced by Aristotle, basing her defense of the free market on Aristotle’s dictum that A is A, and declaring Aristotle to be the greatest Western philosopher (until her, of course). Robin is rightfully skeptical that Rand ever read much Aristotle beyond a shallow reading of his logics. Certainly not his ethics, it seems. Aristotle’s entire ethical theory, after all, is based on the idea of personal virtues: habits and skills that individuals build up over time in order to live good lives. Were Rand to seriously read Aristotle she might have noted that many of the virtues lauded by Aristotle—like temperance and justice—hardly fit into a capitalist and egoist ethos.

Moreover, she might have noticed something else jarring to her hyper-egoist worldview. For a book about ethics, Aristotle dedicated two chapters, 1/5 of the book (Chapters 8 and 9), to friendship. “Without friends no one would choose to live.” Friendships are crucial training grounds for virtuous behavior, places to enjoy the internal goods of yours and others’ virtue, and a small model of the just community. In other words, Aristotle’s ethics is crafted, from the beginning, as a social product, just as his political philosophy takes the household, rather than the individual, as its starting point. As Alasdair McIntrye points out, Aristotle’s ethics are fundamentally incompatible with Nietzschian relativism. Yet, of course, Rand’s vision tried to fuse a vulgar Aristotle with an extraordinarily vulgar Nietzsche.

And finally, one last point. In a burst of hideous meladramatic cliché, Rand has one of her heroes, Howard Roark declare:

“The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid.”

(One can just imagine all the CEO psychopaths out there, bravely firing their workers who try to unionize, evading environmental laws, and hiding their income in off-shore tax havens, all imagining themselves as heroic Galileo figures, couragously withstanding the persecution of the small-minded and jealous.)

Anyways…Aristotle was, of course, personal physician to Kings and tutor to Alexander the Great and Ptolemy. He spent his entire life among the most powerful in the Greek world. Hardly the resume of a persecuted and misunderstood man who suffered for his genius.

But then, one suspects that this doesn’t contradict Rand’s point. What Roark means is that the true heroes will be disliked by the democratic masses, so being friends with Kings is fine. The “men of unborrowed vision” are not worried about the rich and powerful, since in Rand’s world they always are the rich and powerful. They’re worried about the unwashed little people. And so, of course, we see the self-fulfilling prophecy to Rand’s message: anyone who acts like a self-centered greedy solipsistic psychopath, as Rand wants, will end up hated by the mass of the people, just as Rand predicts they will.

I’ll leave you with these words of Aristotle, much wiser than anything our modern libertarians ever have come up with:

For in every community there is thought to be some form of justice, and friendship too; at least men address as friends their fellow-voyagers and fellowsoldiers, and so too those associated with them in any other kind of community. And the extent of their association is the extent of their friendship, as it is the extent to which justice exists between them. And the proverb ‘what friends have is common property’ expresses the truth; for friendship depends on community.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 29, 2010 at 22:53

8 Responses

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  1. […] Aristotle and Ayn Rand « Ph.D. Octopus […]

  2. […] difference with Ayn Rand–who grossly misinterpreted Aristotle and Nietzsche–is that people did not really misinterpret her ideas at all (except her modern […]

  3. […] have done to the American economy. I’ve addressed that a little bit here, and so has Wiz  here, and so did GQ‘s Andrew Corsello in a hilarious hit piece titled “The Bitch is […]

  4. Well….as a staunch 11 year-old Randian (yes, 11), I have to say that I completely disagree with you on one point: that Rand is a bad writer. Except for that, the stuff you talk about in friendships… I don’t get it – Rand has numerous friendships shown in her books – it is only the way she interprets the relation which is different yet undoubtedly correct.

    In case that I have stumbled into a hornet’s nest of Socialists, I beg you to give rational replies,



    January 2, 2012 at 00:50

    • Rand has friendships in her novels but they are hardly functional relationships. In fact, her longest book, Atlas Shrugged really completely lacks characters who develop relationships as Aristotle described above. They demonstrate an incapability to be devoted to the well being of someone other than themselves which is the essence of true friendship. This is embodied by the famous pledge issued by John Gault and recited by Dagny Taggart, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will not live for the sake of any other man, nor ask any man to live for the sake of mine.” It is as if the Great Gatsby were blown up to 1600 pages with a few sex scenes thrown in; just meandering self involvement. What is even more striking is how dysfunctional the family relationships are within her book too. Having read the book in high school I’ve often wondered if I should reread it to examine it with a more mature and studied intellect, especially having now read Aristotle and Nietzsche. To be honest, I just can’t bring myself to read such unapologetic crap. With a limited number of years in life, and a finite number of books one can read, I just can’t bring myself to devoting another couple of weeks to more Rand. Having learned more about the person Ayn Rand, it’s not difficult to understand how her philosophy was shaped and polluted by her traumatic formative years.


      May 3, 2012 at 12:49

  5. As a pre-teen, I might have also found Rand a good writer. Now nearly thirty, I gave it my best shot, but she’s painfully boring, and with almost nothing worthwhile to say. As the late Christopher Hitchens had to say, (I’m paraphrasing): selfishness does not need an advocate.

    David Weinfeld

    January 2, 2012 at 17:30

  6. The author responsible for vomiting this patch bile onto the web should take a moment and really read the words of Aristotle:

    “The question is also debated, whether a man should love himself most, or some one else.”

    He then goes on to draw a clear distinction between people who are merely hedonistic; as Rand might have described irrationally self-interested, and those that are not. He concludes as follows:

    “Therefore the good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows), but the WICKED man should not; for he will hurt both himself and his neighbours, following as he does evil passions.”

    Furthermore, the author constructs a strawman of capitalism, bloated and dripping with bling and other coerced and stolen property, then he proceeds the thatch hack this ridiculous mirage to a pulp.

    And why, oh why, would the author think that Rand or capitalism was against community? I mean, where the F£$@ are our friends, neighbours, employers, employees, suppliers and customers meant to come from? NUMPTY!

    The author has not read Rand either; as you would expect this is not surprising, as his well learned reaction demonstrates. Had he done so he would not have characerised Rand as an egoist, or in his view my accurately, an egotist. She was a rational egoist, or better put someone who believes in rational self-interest, EXACTLY what Aristotle takes great pains to point out in the Book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics.

    Rand went out of her way to distinguish the Bernie Madoffs, who certainly do NOT pursue RATIONAL self-interest, from the Steve Jobs’ who do. Perhaps the spewer of this vitriolic excrement should take some more time reading both Rand and Aristotle before publicly humiliating himself by showing how uninformed his opinion is.

    It really isn’t that difficult to understand; any capitalist who mistreats his staff and customers will not be a capitalist for very long, and is thus NOT acting rationally or in his self-interest.

    Rob de Senelstun

    March 17, 2013 at 13:50

  7. The greatest irony of all is that Aristotle wrote in his “Politics”, section 1253b: “[…] if thus shuttles wove and quills played harps of themselves, master-craftsmen would have no need of assistants and masters no need of slaves.”

    This turns the whole Ayn Rand ideology on its head and shows who the real “Atlases” are, namely the ones working non-stop to support a few fat cats. With enough wisdom (maybe a basic income guarantee), a fully automated society could free everyone from drudgery and enable other pursuits for self-realization beyond the Randian “rational self-interest” of making as much money as possible without concern for the bigger picture, in an illusionary monetary system conceived by humans that is no “objectivist” law and can always be subject to change.

    The only hard part is to get people to actually care for these oldest dreams of mankind. It’s a strange twilight-zone we now live in.


    April 6, 2013 at 11:41

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