December 2004 -- A few years ago, a colleague whose intelligence I respect invited me to attend a lecture he was going to give. "This will not be one of those careful academic talks," he warned me. "This will cause some controversy. I'm going to tell the would-be authorities exactly where they went wrong. They won't like it, either!"
"Sounds interesting," I said, and went to the lecture anticipating a vigorous clash of ideas. Once the program started, however, I found that my friend's idea of controversy was very different from my own. His dissent from prevailing views consisted of a few slight shifts in nuance and some ironies so mild that even his putative opponents chuckled comfortably about them. The question period was devoted to controversies of a largely bibliographic nature.
I was left to wonder what would have happened if my colleague had actually told the "authorities"—boldly, clearly, and specifically—just where their faulty assumptions lie. Perhaps he would have changed their perspective, altered his scholarly field. Or perhaps he would have been scorned by the people whom Ibsen called the "compact majority," while giving a minority of independent thinkers the chance to judge between two sets of clearly defined ideas.
Either outcome would have been good. In a way, both of them were achieved by Ayn Rand .
Rand dissented in the boldest, clearest, and most specific way possible from prevailing intellectual notions; as a result, her ideas were scorned by the great majority of established thinkers. Yet her rebellion stimulated a minority of independent minds—a minority that, I'm happy to say, included me. This group consisted largely of restless young people, bored by the complacently modulated tones of academic and political authorities who always seemed to be suggesting that the problems of modern liberalism could be solved by further applications of modern liberalism. There were a lot of us, and Rand gave us something new to think about. And by doing so, she did succeed in changing the intellectual landscape.
Henceforth, no one could glibly contrast "personal rights" with "property rights," assert the duty of economic self-sacrifice, condemn individualism, or assume the need for increased state power without considering that someone who knew better might suddenly rise up in the audience, like Ralph Ellison's "little man at Chehaw Station," and demand full discussion of the speaker's evidence and logic.
That was Rand's gift to American political discourse—a valuable gift indeed. It was a change in the idea of what was possible to think and say.
Nor was her influence wholly political, philosophical, and argumentative. It was also psychological, personal, and inspirational. In her stories and in her life, she showed what it meant to live in a world of ideas, not simply to use ideas for professional purposes. Also (and I don't think this is noticed frequently enough), she was a radical thinker who didn't just discard the traditions of Western thought and culture, as too many intellectuals of her time tried to do, but demonstrated how interesting they could be when viewed from a fresh perspective. The excitement of reading her work was like the excitement of watching some daring feat of gymnastics or military strategy, performed for the first time, but with the self-conscious discipline of an ancient art—a feat that, she insisted, the reader could also perform, because the skill was attainable by reason and reflection.
It's hard to imagine a more challenging experience, or a more exciting one. Thirty years later, I find the excitement returning whenever I reread her work.
Stephen Cox is a professor of literature and director of the Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. His is the author of The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America (Transaction Publishers, 2004).
This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.