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Determinism in The Fountainhead?

Determinism in The Fountainhead?

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January 25, 2011

Question: I am currently reading The Fountainhead. I have the Centennial Edition. In the back of the novel is an overview of Ayn Rand and Objectivism . In the section labeled “Essentials Of Objectivism,” at bullet number 3, it says that Objectivism rejects any form of determinism.

However, in the Afterword, Leonard Peikoff talks about Ayn Rand 's original outline of characters. In it she refers to Keating and Toohey as characters that "could never be," and in her description of Toohey's earlier years she makes it seem that he was always who he is.

Why did Ayn Rand make characters that have predetermined natures if she believed predetermination does not exist? Did she intend to put in characters that are purely hypothetical? If so, why? Couldn't she have chosen to put characters that grew and made the choice to become Tooheys and Keatings?

Answer: Ayn Rand wrote out the passages that Leonard Peikoff cites in The Fountainhead , Centennial Edition (728–732) in her journals from late 1935 to early 1937. (The passages also appear in The Journals of Ayn Rand.) In an early entry, she compares the essential traits of the major characters she had in mind for The Fountainhead , several of whom did not make the final cut. There, she refers to the hero, Howard Roark, as “The noble soul par excellence. … A man who is what he should be.” She contrasts him his major foils in these terms. Peter Keating is “The exact opposite of Howard Roark…. A man who could never be [man as he should be]. And doesn’t know it.” Similarly, she refers to tragic hero Gail Wynand as “A man who could have been.” And arch villain Ellsworth Toohey is the “Worst of all possible rats. A man who could never be—and knows it.” In Journals (90–92), Rand repeats the “could have been” and “could never be” contrasts in her July 14 1937 plot summary, which is closer to the final version.

As you point out, to say that a man “could never be” what he ought to be sounds like fatalism. Worse, Rand could be charged here with committing one of the conceptual fallacies she herself later identified, the fallacy of the stolen concept. After all, “ought” implies “can.” It is unjust to charge someone with a moral failing if he had no choice in the matter. How could one be the “worst of all possible rats” if one couldn’t be anything else? Read Rand’s essay “The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It for a magisterial treatment of this issue and a ringing rejection of determinism.

So did Rand portray her characters deterministically? Are her journal entries evidence of determinist ideas in her work?

When Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead , she was working primarily as a literary artist. She was still working out many details of her philosophical view. Her journals show that process of development, as well as how she developed the book literarily.

Let me recommend an essay and a lecture that help us better see how Rand’s approach  was developing at the time she wrote The Fountainhead. At our 2008 Summer Seminar, S. McCloskey presented “The Root of All Evil,” a thoughtful examination of how Rand’s villains evolved as her thinking matured. And, published in Philosophy and Literature , is “ Thus Spake Howard Roark: Nietzschean Ideas in The Fountainhead ,” a paper by Lester Hunt originally given at our 2005 Summer Seminar. Hunt shows how deeply Rand was inspired by the ideas and aesthetics of Friedrich Nietzsche. He argues that Rand worked from that starting point through to her own view of individualism by writing The Fountainhead.

The Fountainhead has ethics as its theme, particularly the meaning of individualism. Rand focused the characterization and plot to show different ways of dealing with others and choosing one’s direction in life. It’s not surprising, then, that aspects of her notes, including aspects of her original conception for the plot and the characters, do not integrate seamlessly with her fully-developed philosophical system. Nor is it surprising that Rand charted out the kind of life her literary characters would have: insofar as her intent guided their every action, it was up to her to decide what principles should guide her own choices about them.

Bear in mind, too, that Rand did not show her journals to the public. If you want her considered view of the characters in The Fountainhead , look first to the works she herself published.

As a matter of taste, Rand was always attracted to the idea of the person who is heroic by nature. We see this in the contrasting portrayals of Dagny Taggart and her brother James in Atlas Shrugged , for example. Though Rand shows us some of Dagny’s childhood, we never see a time when Dagny does not have a heroic spirit and an admiration of achievement, and we never see a time when James does. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark seems to have always been as he is, and Dominique Francon likewise. I think the language in Rand’s journals that sounds deterministic reflects this taste of hers, and perhaps also to some extent the influence of Nietzsche.

In all fairness, however, notice that the published moral life of Ellsworth Toohey kicks off when he is seven years old. Although Rand tells us about Toohey as a baby (in Part 2, Chapter IX), his road to the evil manipulation of others begins with choices he makes and strategies he employs as a boy. I differ with your interpretation here, because this is all consistent with Rand’s mature view of free will. To be sure, Rand’s focus in The Fountainhead is not on whether Toohey could have been good; she has aimed instead at how he is bad. But the one does not preclude the other.

Notice, too, that an important moment in The Fountainhead hinges on the idea that Peter Keating could have lived for his own sake. This occurs after Keating’s career has collapsed. Coming to see Roark to plead for help with the Cortland Homes project, Keating shows Roark six new paintings he has made. Painting was Keating’s first love in the arts, the route perhaps he should have taken. Roark looks over the paintings, then tells Keating “It’s too late, Peter.” (609) The problem isn’t that Keating never could have followed his own path; it’s that he never did.Determinism is false because we have free will. But free will does not mean we can simply choose to be whatever we wish, whenever we wish. Our range of action is causally constrained. As conceptual beings, we can make the choice to reach as far as the stars, but “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed”: choosing a goal is just the first step towards reaching it.

The Fountainhead illustrates how the ideas we embrace can shape our choices, and that our lives are paths laid out by the choices we make.

Human nature must be obeyed, too: our capacities are not infinitely flexible. In turning to painting, Keating finds he cannot simply switch over to his own vision after having cultivated in himself all the attitudes and talents required to please others. And he cannot have the skills a painter acquires in youth, because he isn’t young anymore. That scene is the last of Keating’s lurches toward integrity. The implication that Keating could have chosen differently in his life makes the scene tragic, moving, and true to human nature. In fact, what the novel illustrates is how the ideas we embrace can shape our choices, and that our lives are paths laid out by the choices we make.

In conclusion, I hold Ayn Rand exonerated of portraying determinism in The Fountainhead. She didn’t do it in the main plot, which centers on profound choices the characters make, and she didn’t do it in the incidentals either. Sure, I’m enough of a fan to want to know how Howard Roark grew up. But a fan also has to know when to appreciate the gift he’s received.

Ayn Rand’s novels are brilliant and complex. The hold up a slanted mirror to the world, letting us see man, society, and the good from a radical new angle. They are large novels and they range over many stages of life. They don’t deal in detail with childhood development. Rand was more interested in how her characters measured up to her ideal than she was in how a person might struggle and change to be better, though certainly she portrayed a variety of characters who do just that. All in all, though, didn’t she do enough?