Ayn Rand said that the theme of The Fountainhead is "individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man's soul." I want to comment on three specific aspects of this theme, as it is embodied in Roark's character and his interactions with the other figures in the novel... Roark is a man of independence, he is an egoist, and he is a creator, a paragon of productive achievement. These three concepts—independence, egoism, and achievement—are the key to understanding the moral sense of The Fountainhead and the ways in which it differs from the conventional ethos. ...Rand makes it clear from the outset that independence does not consist in nonconformity. Henry Cameron says to Roark, "I wouldn't care, if you were an exhibitionist who's being different as a stunt, as a lark, just to attract attention to himself. It's a smart racket, to oppose the crowd and amuse it and collect admission to the sideshow." Later on, we meet a number of artists, protégés of Toohey, who are engaged in precisely that kind of racket; the writer who did not use capital letters, the painter who "used no canvas, but did something with bird cages and metronomes," and the like. When Toohey's friends ask him how he can support such rabid individualists, he smiles blandly. He knows that these "iconoclasts" are merely playing off conventions, for the sake of shock value; they are just as dependent on others as the most abject conformist. And most of them, like the writer Lois Cook, have a smirking kind of awareness that they are getting away with something, foisting trash on a credulous public. (I sometimes think that Andy Warhol got his ideas from these passages of The Fountainhead.)
Roark's independence is the source of his heroic strength.
Real independence is a trait of mind. It is a commitment to one's own perception of reality as an absolute standard of thought and action. This is what disturbs most people about Roark. His primary connection is to the world, not to other people. His convictions, his artistic judgments, his commitment to his goal, are not filtered through any awareness of what other people thought or felt. It is not rebelliousness; it is indifference. "'You know,'" says the Dean, when Roark is explaining why he does not wish to be readmitted to Stanton, "'you would sound much more convincing if you spoke as if you cared whether I agreed with you or not.' 'That's true,' said Roark. 'I don't care whether you agree with me or not.' He said it so simply that it did not sound offensive, it sounded like the statement of a fact which he noticed, puzzled, for the first time."
Keating, by contrast, is an instrument that registers every twitch and nuance in his social environment. Rand describes his chronic fear of "that mysterious entity of consciousness within others," which he spends his life trying to appease and control. ...Keating takes great relief when he notices that Guy Francon is putting on a pretense for his (Keating's) benefit. It means that Francon too is a man of the tribe, with the same predominant orientation toward the consciousness of others. When Keating first proposes to Dominique, "he spoke rapidly, easily; he was lying now, and so he was sure of himself and it was not difficult." A lie is an effort to manipulate the consciousness of others, a goal that comes naturally to Keating. Though he is an intelligent man, not without some decency, he is fundamentally incapable of being honest, because the concept of truth—the grasp of reality by his own mind—is foreign and frightening.
Independence as Rationality
Roark's independence is the source of his heroic strength. As I noted earlier, the conventional ethos has always admired strength and the aristocratic virtues associated with it, especially courage. Since the Enlightenment, moreover, courage and strength have been linked to independence, the mental strength to stand alone against the crowd. Rand was not the first writer to portray a man of integrity who fights for his ideals against popular opinion. But she was the first to affirm that independence is not a matter of whether one agrees with others. It's a matter of whether one's mental functioning agrees with reality, whether truth is one's goal and logic one's method. For an independent person, the sheer fact of what others believe or value is of no concern because it is not relevant to truth. Independence, in short, is a form of rationality. The concept of independence names the same phenomenon as the concept of rationality, with a special emphasis on the fact that reason is an attribute of the individual, a faculty that must be exercised and directed by one's own autonomous choice.
It is interesting to note that rationality is not a virtue endorsed by any of the strands that make up the conventional ethos—not in the full-blooded sense that Rand intends. The religious ethic, of course, is actively opposed to rationality; it commands faith and reliance on authority. The Greeks, for their part, considered wisdom a virtue, but their conception of wisdom always contained a conventional, conservative element. ..."Wisdom" is not the term one would use to describe a scientific genius, a brilliant artist, an innovator in any field. But these, for Rand, are the highest exemplars of rationality.
...By linking independence to reason, Ayn Rand
severed its association with subjectivism, with the arbitrary impulses of the iconoclast, with the dark realm of Dionysian passion. Conversely, by linking reason with independence, she gave it a romantic quality as a tool of creative freedom, not a constraint.
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David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harper's, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses; and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and chief intellectual officer of The Atlas Society.