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Autobiography of an Idea

Autobiography of an Idea

8 Mins
February 1, 1998

BOOK REVIEW: Journals of Ayn Rand. Edited by David Harriman. (New York: Dutton, 1997.
727 pp. $39.95.)

February 1, 1998 -- Ayn Rand said that her first novel, We the Living, was the closest she would ever come to writing an autobiography. Telling the story of her life, she said, "would bore me to death. My view of what a good autobiography should be is contained in the title that Louis H. Sullivan gave to the story of his life: The Autobiography of an Idea." That is exactly what we get from Rand's journals, which allow us to see both the creative process that went into her novels and the philosophical development by which her concept of individualism matured into the philosophy of Objectivism.

Journals does not include anything about her personal life or relationships. It is drawn from her working journals, the voluminous notes she made on her writing projects. It opens with the first scenarios she wrote as a beginning screenwriter in Hollywood, and concludes with her notes on a novel she never wrote, To Lorne Dieterling, a story of unrequited love. After eliminating repetitious and extraneous entries, David Harriman has included about three-quarters of the notes Rand left from her entire writing career.

Harriman's editing is skillful; his comments are helpful in setting the context for journal entries and in noting points at which Rand later changed her mind. Unfortunately, he does not give citations for all of those later reversals. Or he gives incomplete citations: for example, he quotes a number of comments that Rand made during "a 1961 interview." Which interview? Who was the interviewer? Could it be that Harriman has sacrificed scholarship to avoid mentioning Barbara Branden?

Most of the material in Journals concerns Rand's major novels; more than 10 percent comes from a single month, April 1946, when Rand began systematic work on Atlas Shrugged in an astounding burst of creative energy. There is rather less coverage of her earlier novels, and next to nothing about the theoretical philosophy and political commentary she wrote after Atlas was published. "Considering the complexity of the issues she dealt with in this period," Harriman observes, "it may be surprising that she made so few notes. But she found non-fiction writing much easier than fiction."

It is fascinating to see in Rand's early work the origins of later characters and incidents. "The Skyscraper," a screenplay she outlined for Cecil B. DeMille in 1927, features an architect-hero named Howard Kane who is falsely charged with destroying a building he created. Though the screenplay shows no sign of the philosophical depth of The Fountainhead, it is full of plot elements she would later use.

At about the same time, Rand made notes (in Russian!) for "an epic" that foreshadows Atlas Shrugged. Even before she had any specific idea of its theme or plot, she envisioned a work that "spans an entire epoch, ... has a large theme, a grand theme-and an enormous conflict." She went on to tell herself, "Do not push the hero into the foreground too much, do not express everything only from the hero's point of view"-an eerie anticipation of John Galt as the hero who, for most of the novel, is a name on the one hand and an unidentified figure on the other.

Rand also drew inspiration from real events and people. My favorite example comes from The Fountainhead, where she shows the inane and undignified mediocrity of Peter Keating and his circle by having them attend a ball dressed up as their best buildings.

Peter Keating ... looked wonderful as the Cosmo-Slotnick Building. An exact paper-mâché replica of his famous structure covered him from head to knees; one could not see his face, but his bright eyes peered from behind the windows of the top floor.

This satiric incident was based on a real architects' ball held in 1931. Rand clipped a newspaper story, "Human Skyline for Beaux-Arts Ball," and made a note to herself on the accompanying photograph: "Note the little guy with the glasses peering through a hole in his headpiece-the Waldorf-Astoria."


"The theme of a novel," Rand wrote in an essay on literature,

defines its purpose. The theme sets the writer's standard of selection, directing the innumerable choices he has to make and serving as the integrator of the novel. . . . The integration of an important theme with a complex plot structure is the most difficult achievement possible to a writer.

The journals show us, step by step, how Rand accomplished this integration, especially in her greatest novel, Atlas Shrugged.

Though the theme (the role of the mind in human life) and the basic plot device (what happens when the men of the mind, "the prime movers," go on strike) had occurred to her several years before she began work, her earliest notes reveal how much thought it took to elaborate and pull together every aspect of the theme before she could begin constructing a plot. From her first day's notes:

To be thought out in detail: (1) every representative aspect of the prime mover who is martyred or stopped by society; (2) every representative aspect of the different way in which prime movers stop and go on strike; (3) every representative aspect of the way in which the second-hander cannot function by himself and paralyzes the world. Every aspect of how and why and in what way the world has to stop without the prime movers-and does stop.

She went on to analyze the disintegration of an industrial society into five stages, and then worked out what would happen in each stage to a major railroad-Taggart Transcontinental-on its way to total collapse. She analyzed the motivations of the second-handers, and the relationships between their motives and the altruist and collectivist doctrines they espouse. She analyzed the character and motivations of her major characters: what they want, what they believe, how they relate to other characters. She spent pages reflecting on the reasons why creative people allow themselves to be exploited by second-handers. Of particular interest in this regard are a number of speeches she imagines John Galt giving to those he took out on strike-speeches never used in the novel itself.

The plot and characters of Atlas evolved in fits and starts. Rand had the opening and closing scenes in mind early on, as well as the protagonists. But many of the events in between were moved around, recombined, dropped, or invented much later, as were characters. In an early version of the plot, for example, Dagny has a clandestine meeting with Ragnar Danneskjöld on the coast of Maine to seek his help about something, and it is his plane that she later follows to the valley. Rand first conceived Ragnar as a man of pure action; he appears on a character list as "The smuggler (the adventurer)."

He did not become a Robin Hood in reverse-nor, apparently, a philosopher-until much later. Several characters who were to play major roles were eventually dropped, including a priest who was to be the last man to join the strike. Throughout all these revisions, one can see the ruthless process of selection by which Rand shaped her means to her ends.

Her notes also contain a number of passages that explain key points in her philosophy more fully and clearly than anything she published. In particular, she made extensive notes about the thesis she came to call "the pyramid of ability": the idea that those at the top of the pyramid, the men with the greatest minds and talents, confer on others much more value than they ever receive in return, no matter how much wealth they acquire; and that the least able receive much more value than they create. It is the diametrical opposite of Marx's thesis that wealth comes from exploiting others, and of the older and more general view that the strong prosper at the expense of the weak.

Rand's conception of the pyramid of ability is stated in the novel, and the plot as a whole is constructed as a demonstration of it. Still, her notes spell out the conception in its fullest form. She analyzes the nature of economic exchange in the marketplace and of cooperation within a business, showing how the most productive people confer value on others; how people who differ in ability nevertheless relate as equals; and how each person can be said to earn what he receives. She even worked out a fairly detailed view about managing people in a large corporation, in order to write about Dagny's work as a railroad executive.


In addition to the glimpse they provide into Rand's creative process, her journals tell us much about the development of her ideas over the course of her career as a thinker. Broadly speaking, it was a development from Nietzsche to Aristotle, from an emphasis on will and the passion to live to an emphasis on reason and the choice to think. But this broad description belies the subtlety in her thought.

Several commentators, most notably Ronald Merrill in The Ideas of Ayn Rand, have argued that Rand's early thinking was much more Nietzschean than she later wanted to admit. The primary evidence consisted of passages from We the Living in which the heroine, Kira, seems to endorse the use of force by "the best," the men of strength and ability, to control the masses. This was an apparent acceptance of Nietzsche's brand of egoism, in which the "Superman," whose interests conflict with those of lesser men, is entitled to command them for his purposes. In a review of Merrill's book (IOS Journal, Fall 1992), Stephen Hicks showed that the evidence from We the Living is inconclusive and suggested that only the publication of Rand's journals could settle the matter.

As it happens, Journals does not shed further light on this particular issue. There is nothing here to suggest that Rand ever believed in an aristocratic political philosophy, where some men have the right forcibly to command others. But politics was never her fundamental concern; she was primarily a moralist. By her own description, her primary concern throughout her life was "the portrayal of the ideal man," someone to be admired for the moral ideal he aspired to, the values he pursued, and the value he represented in his own person. But her conception of this value changed, at least in emphasis. And her early view can properly be called an aristocratic conception of the human ideal.

Rand used the language and symbols of aristocracy to convey the moral difference, and the conflict, between the hero and the mass of other men. What made her early view aristocratic was the implicit assumption that these are different types of men to whom different standards apply (though she never seemed to believe these differences had anything to do with birth). She did not draw any clear distinction between stature and character, that is, between traits like intelligence and strength, whose degree is not subject to one's choice, and traits like integrity and productiveness, which are a matter of choice and are open to men of any level of ability. In her early heroes, exceptional integrity is portrayed as essentially connected with exceptional ability. On the negative side of the moral ledger, vice is linked with mediocrity, evil with vulgarity.

We can see this conception in her notes for The Little Street, a novel she outlined in 1928 but never wrote. The hero, Danny Renahan, is described as follows:

[B]orn with the spirit of Aragon and the nature of a medieval feudal lord. Imperious. Impatient. Uncompromising. Untamable. Intolerant... . Intensely proud. Superior to the mob and intensely, almost painfully conscious of it... . A clear, strong, brilliant mind. An egoist, in the best sense of the word.

He exists in violent conflict with the tawdry world around him: "the little street, just a small, filthy, shabby, common little street, such as exist around the center of every town in the world," the little street that, in this dark mood, was Rand's image of humanity.

From the very beginning, it seems, she identified altruism as the enemy of greatness. In the first philosophical entry in these notes, from 1934, she blamed altruism not only for teaching the wrong ideal-self-sacrifice and self-abnegation-but for killing man's aspiration for ideals as such, by teaching an impossible ideal, a moral code impossible to practice. As she put it shortly thereafter, when she began work on The Fountainhead, altruism is responsible for the absence of values in the world. "Until man's 'self' regains its proper position, life will be what it is now: flat, gray, empty, lacking all beauty, all fire, all enthusiasm, all meaning, all creative urge."

It was this flatness, this grayness and emptiness-the cultural equivalent of depression-that was Rand's first image of evil, the thing she hated most in the society around her. And it was vitality-fire, enthusiasm, the creative urge-that she loved. This reflects another, and more fundamental aspect of early aristocratic conception of the ideal man: that will rather than reason is man's essential trait. Not that she ever denigrated reason-she sensed from the beginning that reason and will were deeply connected. But energy, will, the rage to live: these were the things she stressed, and they are the key to her affinity with Nietzsche. For example, she writes of Danny Renahan:

He doesn't have people's attitude toward life, that is, the general way of calmly existing from day to day... . His normal state is to be exalted, all the time; he wants all of his life to be high, supreme, full of meaning... . He is all passion, will, and uncompromised absolutes.

It is because of this aristocratic moral conception that some of Rand's early political comments have a Nietzschean flavor, as in her description of Danny Renahan as a Superman. Her sense of the moral conflict between the great man and others carried over into a social conflict. As late as 1937 she was writing of a conflict between the rights of the best among men and the rights of the average man. It was not until the 1940s that she clearly formulated a view of individual rights as a universal principle.

In The Fountainhead, one can still find traces of the aristocratic conception of the ideal. Howard Roark's virtues are not fully separated from his prodigious talents. The other sympathetic characters, lacking his strength, cannot match his independence or his indifference to the vulgar world of the mob, which Dominique flees and Wynand tries to rule. But the novel does explicitly reject any notion that greatness requires the sacrifice of lesser men; and Wynand, whom Rand characterizes in explicitly aristocratic terms, comes to grief through his desire to rule.

A few years later, Rand finally distinguished clearly between stature and character:

If a man says: "But I realize that my natural endowments are mediocre-shall I then suffer, be ashamed, have an inferiority complex?" The answer is: "In the basic, crucial sphere, the sphere of morality and action, it is not your endowments that matter, but what you do with them." It is here that all men are free and equal, regardless of natural gifts.

This is a passage from The Moral Basis of Individualism (1945), a book commissioned by Bobbs-Merrill, publisher of The Fountainhead, to present the ethical-political philosophy expressed in the novel. Rand never finished the book; the sections she did write, along with notes on the whole, are published here for the first time. It is her first extended work in philosophy, and it represents her thought in transition.

At the political level, it contains her first statement of the principle of universal human rights and the evil of initiating force. At the ethical level, it shows her wrestling with the connection between will and reason, choice and thought, the commitment to life and the commitment to rationality. In The Moral Basis of Individualism, she sees that reason is man's essential means of survival. She also sees that the rational faculty is an attribute of the individual, that thinking is inescapably an activity performed by individual minds, a premise at the base of individualism as a moral and political philosophy. The virtues she lays out in this work are described as the traits required for the function of the rational faculty. But rationality itself has not yet appeared on the list of virtues. The fundamental virtue is independence: "To preserve the independence of his mind is man's first and highest moral duty. It stands above any other precept."

At this stage the basic opposition is between "active man" and "passive man," the creator and the second-hander. It was only in working out her ideas for Atlas Shrugged that she saw the true fundamentality of reason. To subordinate one's judgment to the authority of another, in Objectivism, is only one form of abandoning reason; it is equally irrational to subordinate one's judgment to one's own subjective whims. The fundamental choice is to think or not-that is the locus of man's will-and the fundamental virtue is rationality.

The fundamental opposition in human affairs, at this final stage in Rand's thinking, is no longer the aristocrat versus the mob, nor the active man versus the passive man, but the men of the mind versus the mystics. In her notes on the character of John Galt, Rand attributes to him a "peculiar, deeply natural, serene, all-pervading joy in living." This joy is a different thing from the overflowing, nearly manic energy of her earlier heroes. It may be more powerful, like the reactor that drives a laser, but what we actually see is the laser light: the brilliance of Galt's mind, his ruthless objectivity, his total commitment to truth.

Journals of Ayn Rand will give scholars the means to trace these developments in her thought in more depth, with more precision, than has been possible before. But the volume is a treasure for all of us. If you love Ayn Rand's novels, get this book. You will learn to love them more.

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

Ayn Rand's Life
Ayn Rand's Ideas and Influence