Author’s note: I’ve omitted characters’ names and other information in the following excerpts and discussion of Ayn Rand’s novels to minimize spoilers. But if you are extremely sensitive to spoilers, I recommend reading Rand’s works before reading this article.
Happy Halloween! It’s a holiday for making light of evil and celebrating the good. But, given the inflatable ghosts on your neighbors’ lawns and the kids dressed as zombies and monsters—it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the basis and nature of evil. We can’t rely on garlic, decapitation, or sunlight to repel the noxious creatures that we do inevitably encounter in life. In order to fortify ourselves against evil, we have to understand it.
Toward this end, Ayn Rand is a tremendous help. “The motive and purpose of my writing,” she wrote in regard to her fiction, “is the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself—to which any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means.”1 Rand threw her portrayals of moral ideals into high relief, revealing what makes some men virtuous and others vicious. Thus, among the treasure of intellectual and philosophical values her writing offers are refined illustrations and incisive analyses of evil, its motives, variations, manifestations, and essence. Fortunately, most of us will never deal directly with the worst kinds of villains that Rand depicts. Nonetheless, her crystal-clear distillations can help us identify and deal with vice and evil of any form or degree, including any unhealthy tendencies we may have, a family member’s psychological manipulation, a criminal’s attempt to swindle us, or worse.
To grapple with the full breadth and depth of Rand’s ideas on evil, readers should turn to her writing, specifically Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, Anthem, and We the Living. Here, I aim only to highlight and integrate a few key ideas drawn from her works.
One of the most fundamental evils Rand identified is collectivism: the subjugation of the individual—his mind, judgment, values—to a group. The theme of Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, is “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul; the psychological motivations and the basic premises that produce the character of an individualist or a collectivist.”2 In the book, Rand illustrates collectivist motives and premises and how they infect men’s thought and action in various personal and social situations.
One particularly pernicious consequence of collectivism is that those who accept it fully and consistently are incapable of having a self. Insofar as a person relinquishes his mind to others, he gives up his means of deciding what to value and what to do. To the extent that he abandons his independent judgment, he is primed to agree with any opinion and accept any idea—except his own, which don’t exist. The most consistent collectivists have no means of deciding on a career, a lover, a hobby, or a hairstyle, except by deferring to authorities, to others’ views or expectations, to any nonsense a friend or a stranger cares to offer. This is what Rand called “second-handedness,” and two examples of it in The Fountainhead stand out.One particularly pernicious consequence of collectivism is that those who accept it fully and consistently are incapable of having a self. Click To Tweet
In his youth, one of the main characters wished to be an artist. But he allows his mother to talk him into pursuing a more “respectable profession”: architecture. The day that he graduates from architecture school, he realizes that his mother “had pushed him into his career,” though “he had never known when or how.” He’s not sure why his long-buried ambition of becoming an artist bubbles to the surface of his thoughts on graduation day, nor does he take time to investigate the reasons. Instead, he thinks, “It’s funny, that it should hurt [me] now—to remember. Well, this was the night to remember it—and to forget it forever.”3 And so he again suppresses his personal ambition—the thing he most wants to do—going after that which his mother convinced him comes with more prestige.
Years later, his monumental errors are made clear to him. He hates, with all of his being, the career he’s chosen and the way he’s gone about it. Now a middle-aged man, he regains a sliver of a self and finally begins painting, perhaps hoping to salvage his dream of a career as an artist.
He dares not show his paintings to the sort of people he’s spent his life trying to please and impress. But, timidly, he brings a briefcase of paintings to the office of the only man he has come to respect—a man who has vigorously and consistently pursued a career that he loves. He “stood looking uncertainly at his briefcase for a moment, then picked it up. He mumbled some vague words of parting, he took his hat, he walked to the door, then stopped and looked down at his briefcase. . . . ‘I haven’t shown it to anyone.’ His fingers fumbled, opening the straps. . . . ‘I just want you to tell me if there’s any . . .’” He doesn’t finish his sentence but hands over several paintings.
The man looks at them for a while with some discomfort. “When he could trust himself to lift his eyes, he shook his head in silent answer. . . . He was sick with pity. . . . this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed.”4 If the would-be painter once had talent, it withered on the vine. He was now without hope of pursuing the career that he was passionate about in his youth.
It’s a terrifying prospect: committing treason against oneself, against one’s deepest values and ambitions. Sadly, by accepting collectivism and repressing their own judgment, by being second-handed, many do just this.
The second example illustrates the collectivist motives and premises that cause some people to make the same error in regard to their relationships, sacrificing their highest romantic values in an effort to meet the expectations of others. When the second-hander discussed above resolves to marry the girl he loves, he cannot rest on his conviction. He’s drawn into—and invites—a conversation with his mother, who questions his choice: “[S]he’s a respectable girl and I’d say she’d make a good wife for anybody. For any nice, plodding, respectable boy. But to think of it for you, . . . You’re too modest. That’s always been your trouble. You don’t appreciate yourself. You think you’re just like anybody else.”5 She lures him into considering not the nature of his love or the character of his fiancée but the reactions his choice of bride is likely to elicit from other people and the potential impacts on his “prestige.” When he calls on his fiancée the following morning, which is to be their wedding day, he floats the idea of postponing the wedding, and she agrees.
He went away, relieved and desolate, cursing himself for the dull, persistent feeling that told him he had missed a chance which would never return; that something was closing in on them both and they had surrendered. He cursed, because he could not say what it was that they should have fought.6
Again, he goes no further in attempting to figure out what he thinks is worth pursuing and, if need be, fighting for. Nor does his fiancée. They never marry, they never pursue the things they once desired for themselves, and in time, they lose even the ability to desire. Another character realizes of such people, “They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand.” What do they aim at? “Greatness—in other people’s eyes. Fame, admiration, envy—all that which comes from others.” Such people don’t want to be great, “but to be thought great.”7 This same character realizes, “When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life. . . . The second-hander acts, but the source of his actions is scattered in every other living person. It’s everywhere and nowhere.”8
Many people will spend a substantial portion of their lives doing work they don’t love. Many lose their way for a time, prioritizing other people’s expectations over their own goals. But some realize they have erred, and in whatever time they have, they choose to correct course and to begin thinking, planning, and moving toward their goals.
But an unfortunate number of people stop thinking in terms of their goals and standards altogether, if not in all spheres of life, then in many. They may seek an MBA, a Mercedes, or a trophy wife to evoke the desired reaction from others. The more a person does so, the more he renounces his mind and loses his self.
The consequence, Rand writes, is that “you can’t reason with him. He’s not open to reason. You can’t speak to him—he can’t hear.” And when such a person pronounces judgement on others, he does so mindlessly. “You’re tried by an empty bench. A blind mass running amuck, to crush you without sense or purpose.”9 In other words, consistent collectivists are zombies, not in costume and not for a day, but as a matter of course throughout their lives.
If such living death seems prevalent today, it’s because for more than a century in the United States, an entire profession has been hijacked for the purpose of manufacturing it. In The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo describes the comprachicos, who purchased children and forced them to wear iron masks, to grow inside of vases, and employed other means to deform their bodies, turning them into sideshow freaks. In her essay titled “The Comprachicos,” Rand writes, “The production of monsters—helpless, twisted monsters whose normal development has been stunted—goes on all around us.”10 But, she observes, the methods have evolved since the time Hugo described, and the evil is viler than ever. The practice is carried out, not in secret and not on their bodies, but in the open and on their minds. The perpetrators here are the so-called Progressive educators, whom Rand referred to as “the comprachicos of the mind.”
She wrote: “The Progressive nursery schools start a child’s education at the age of three. Their view of a child’s needs is militantly anti-cognitive and anti-conceptual. . . . The primary goal of a Progressive nursery school is ‘social adjustment’ . . . and conformity to the group,” that is, the inculcation of collectivism.11 John Dewey, one of the fathers of Progressive education, lamented, “There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.”12 He sought to make “social cooperation and community life” the focus of the schools—and he largely succeeded.13 In such schools, Rand wrote, the student
learns to hide his feelings, to simulate them, to pretend, to evade—to repress. . . . From playacting, he progresses easily to the skill of putting on an act. He does so with the dim intention of protecting himself, on the wordless conclusion that the pack will not hurt him if it never discovers what he feels. . . . He succeeds so well at hiding his feelings and values from others that he hides them also from himself. His subconscious automatizes his act—he gives it nothing else to automatize. (Years later, in a “crisis of identity,” he will discover that there is nothing behind the act, that his mask is protecting a vacuum.)14
A vampire sucks the blood of humans and thereby creates new vampires; Progressive educators do essentially the same thing. On rare occasions, a student escapes America’s educational system having learned almost nothing but with his mind and values intact. But many do not. They must either attempt to reverse years of repression—or continue to exist as deformed souls. Some develop a taste for blood and join the movement that created them. Others settle to subsist as zombies, as part of the “blind mass running amuck.”
Whether or not we are victims ourselves, we all have reason to fight and dismantle this evil system of collectivist indoctrination. As collectivism waxes—as academics advocate Marxism in order to eliminate “inequality,” as Jihadists kill Americans and Jews for refusing to surrender to Islam, as politicians invoke “national greatness” to outlaw the remnants of free enterprise, as bigots target gays and lesbians for defying religion or “biology”—freedom wanes. A villain in The Fountainhead declares, “Happy men are free men.” He goes on to clarify the causal connections between: (1) the renunciation of one’s mind and values, (2) widespread collectivist indoctrination, and (3), the end of freedom.
[K]ill their joy in living. Take away from them whatever is dear or important to them. . . . Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil. Bring them to a state where saying “I want” is no longer a natural right, but a shameful admission. . . . Look back at history. Look at any great system of ethics, from the Orient up. Didn’t they all preach the sacrifice of personal joy? Under all the complications of verbiage, haven’t they all had a single leitmotif: sacrifice, renunciation, self-denial? . . . We’ve tied happiness to guilt. And we’ve got mankind by the throat. . . . Every system of ethics that preached sacrifice grew into a world power and ruled millions of men. Of course, you must dress it up. You must tell people that they’ll achieve a superior kind of happiness by giving up everything that makes them happy. You don’t have to be too clear about it. Use big vague words. “Universal Harmony”—“Eternal Spirit”—“Divine Purpose”—“Nirvana”—“Paradise”—“Racial Supremacy”—“The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” . . . Pick up any newspaper and read the headlines. Isn’t it coming? Isn’t it here? . . . Everything I said is contained in a single word—collectivism. And isn’t that the god of our century?15
Rand saw that such evil was spreading but not by dint of its own power or that of its proponents. “The spread of evil,” she wrote, “is the symptom of a vacuum. Whenever evil wins, it is only by default: by the moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles.”16 Whenever a man abandons his judgment, he leaves a vacuum for evil to fill. If he is silent in the face of vice or evil, he appeases and helps it by implying his acceptance and approval. If he allows a coworker to steal credit for his work, he invites the leach to do it more frequently. Likewise, when businessmen don’t respond with indignation to bureaucrats’ threats of regulation, they imply that such regulations are acceptable and that they don’t deserve freedom. When politicians, lawyers, judges, and the media fail to condemn treating men as guilty of sexual harassment until proven innocent, they tacitly support this policy.
Rand called the willingness of good people to sacrifice values to evil “the sanction of the victim,” and she wrote, “The truly and deliberately evil men are a very small minority; it is the appeaser who unleashes them on mankind; it is the appeaser’s intellectual abdication that invites them to take over.”17
So, how do we challenge and fight evil? A character in Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged points the way:
I saw that evil was impotent—that evil was the irrational, the blind, the anti-real—and that the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it. . . . I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent.18
In the long term, evil cannot win in any substantial way without the consent of its victims. To fight evil, no “holy water” or silver bullets are necessary. What is necessary is for good men to understand the nature of good and evil, to condemn evil with moral certitude, and to encourage others to do the same. That, in essence, is Ayn Rand’s method for slaying monsters.