In late 2017, there was an article published on currentaffairs.org referring to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro as “The Cool Kid’s Philosopher.” The article goes on to quote a New York Times piece crediting him with “dissecting arguments with a lawyer’s skill and references to Aristotle.” Is Shapiro the best we can get when it comes to logic based-philosophy? The short answer is no, but the question of who the true “Cool Kid’s Philosopher” is remains.
Objectively speaking, if you want to look at a popular figure who espouses Aristotelian philosophy the best, Ayn Rand is your woman. Rand is perhaps one of the most hated, yet admired 20th-century political icons. Regardless, I find that many, including her so-called fans, don’t even know much about her or her work.
The purpose of this writing is two-fold: first, to cover Rand’s backstory and second, to outline her philosophy known as objectivism. It’s important to note that this account will continue with the presupposition that the reader is versed in basic philosophy. If at any time you have questions in regards to the terminology, please reference my previous piece “Philosophy: The Forgotten Framework.”
Who is Rand?
Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, or Ayn Rand, was born on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg during the age of the Russian Empire. Rand was the eldest of three daughters growing up in a comfortable upbringing with her dad owning a pharmacy business and her mom staying at home with the children.
From an early age, Rand is said to have been bored by the traditional school system, considering it too easy. By the age of 8, instead of spending time on school work, she took to writing screenplays and novels.
However, this lifestyle would not last. At the age of 12, Rand lived through the February Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent October Revolution when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power. During this time Rand’s father had his business confiscated by the government as her family fled to Crimea.
Rand’s high school years were very transformational and important to her lasting ideology. It was during this point that Rand began to value the principles of atheism and reason.
Upon her graduation from high school, she and her family moved back to St. Petersburg. The family found themselves destitute, nearly starving at points. At the same time, however, she was fortunate enough to be in the first class at Petrograd University to allow women. It is also during this time that Rand was exposed to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, arguably her favorite and least favorite philosophers respectively.
Life in America
After her completion of college in 1926, Rand obtained a visa to visit family members in Chicago. During this trip, Rand fell in love with the United States. She dropped everything and moved to California with the goal of becoming a screenwriter. During her work in Hollywood, Rand met a young actor named Frank O’Connor who became her husband in 1929.
Rand quickly became a permanent American resident and soon after a legal United States citizen. She was never able to acquire the proper permission to allow her parents and sisters to emigrate to the US.
Soon after this, Rand began writing novels like We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938) and The Fountainhead (1943). Though Rand was gaining in popularity, nothing had quite the same effect as the release of her so-called “magnum opus” Atlas Shrugged (1957).
Later Life and Legacy
Throughout her books, Rand began fleshing out her philosophy known as Objectivism. The mixture of this philosophy and her books created a wildfire of interest surrounding Rand, with support for her growing year after year.
Despite the growing support, evident through high book sales and public appearances (like on the Phil Donahue Show), Rand was always seen as a fringe figure. Since the beginning of her life Ayn Rand was a fighter, and that fighting was a constant in her life until her death in 1982.
What is Objectivism?
Now that you know about Rand’s life, it’s time to dive into her beliefs as a person. Rand believed that deep down, whether you consciously identify with one or not, you have a philosophy and her’s was known as objectivism.
Objectivism has 5 main tenants of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics, but her philosophy can be simplified into general principles such as selfishness, atheism, sensory knowledge, and free market capitalism. But what does Rand mean by those 5 subcategories?
Metaphysically, Rand espoused the belief that our existence is reality.
This is the area in which Rand use her atheist world view. Rand not only didn’t believe in god but was keen on telling other people that there was no rational reason for them to either. Rand caught a tremendous amount of flack for her strict atheist principles but was in many ways a trailblazer for the modern atheist movement.
Beyond her statement on atheism, Rand subscribed to the belief that reality is independent of consciousness and that something doesn’t occur just because you simply want it to.
Another major piece to metaphysics according to Rand is Aristotle’s law of identity, simply stating “a” is “a”.
When it comes to epistemology, Rand remained firm that reason is the only means of knowledge.
When talking about reason, she pointed to 3 elements.
- Evidence of senses
- Humans can form concepts
With reason being her basis of knowledge, it enabled Rand to speak with absolute certainty of her points.
Out of all of her stances, Rand’s position on ethics has been the most controversial. She believed that selfishness (or egoism) is the key to a moral lifestyle. While Rand was theoretically okay with the concept of you giving to others, she maintained that caring for your own needs first is the only logical (and therefore ethical) way to live.
Anything besides a self-interested model of ethics was seen by Rand as a form of altruism, or self-sacrifice, which she encouraged staying away from at all costs.
Within politics, Rand argued in favor of a political system in which individual liberties trump all, what you achieve is yours, and the initiation of force is outlawed. Rand was not an anarchist, leaving issues regarding courts, police and the military to the government.
Besides political systems, Rand talked about extending the Jeffersonian “Separation of Church and State” to a “Separation of State and Economics.” This meant reverting all government interventions into the economy including redistribution, corporate welfare, and antitrust laws.
Ayn Rand appreciated value oriented art in the vein of romanticism. Important characteristics of art to her were larger than life characters which epitomized reason and inspired the viewer to be a better person.
Rand is a great philosopher, and her experiences in life gave her power behind her words. She never repeated the constant conservative tropes that “philosophers” like Ben Shapiro do. Rather, she reverted to creating her own grouping of ideas, showing just how qualified she is to be the “Cool Kid’s Philosopher.”
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