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I never met Ayn Rand. I never saw her in person. I never corresponded with her. Yet this woman was to exert a profound influence on my life.
I first learned of Ayn Rand in 1967, during the first of her three appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. After that I made a point of watching her other two appearances. The intensity of Rand was captivating, as was the conciseness with which she spoke. But the thing that struck me most was her reply to Carson’s remark, “I understand that you’re an atheist,” Rand tersely replied, “Of course”—as if no other reply was possible for a reasonable person. That was it. No lengthy excuses about how a personal tragedy brought about a loss of faith, and no face-saving qualifications about how she was really a “spiritual” person, even if she didn’t believe in God. Just a simple, straightforward “Of course.” I was impressed, having de-converted from Christianity to atheism nearly three years earlier, during my sophomore year in high school.
By 1967 I had been reading avidly in the freethought tradition and greatly admired writers like Thomas Paine. I had also read Walter Kaufmann, Bertrand Russell, Corliss Lamont, and other secular philosophers. Although these thinkers enabled me to hone my critical skills, their ideas never satisfied me. This was especially true in the field of ethics. What was called “humanistic ethics” struck me a little more than a secularized version of Christian ethics.
Within a couple of months after watching Rand I was browsing through a bookstore in Tucson when I happened across The Virtue of Selfishness. I was with a friend at the time, and I remember saying to him, in a joking manner: “Gee, I didn’t know that selfishness is a virtue. That’s a book for me!” Aside from the sheer audacity of the title, which greatly appealed to me, I wanted to know more about the ideas of the unusual woman I had seen on television recently. I was not disappointed. I began reading The Virtue of Selfishness immediately after I got home, and I continued to read it at every opportunity it until I finished. I don’t think I have ever read a book that quickly before or since—with the possible exception of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.
I didn’t know what to think of some of Rand’s ideas at first; my background in freethought prevented me from diving into a belief system full bore, before giving the ideas a lot of thought. But it was clear from the outset that Rand was a serious philosopher, and that her ideas deserved careful consideration. Moreover, Rand was a superb writer. From my own attempts to write about philosophy I knew that one does not achieve the economy in writing displayed by Rand without considerable thought and effort. I still think her skill as an essayist has not been sufficiently appreciated.
… to be continued.