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Independent Study: Introduction to Ayn Rand's Ideas

Independent Study: Introduction to Ayn Rand's Ideas

3 Mins
June 19, 2010

Ayn Rand portrayed her philosophy in action in her novels We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged (See here for more infomation on Rand's fiction). But she also summarized her views in specific areas of philosophy and applied them to a searching cultural critique in her nonfiction essays and public speeches.

This is an introductory study guide to Ayn Rand's most essential essays. Reading them will give you a clear idea of what Objectivism is and what it stands for, in the inimitable words of its founder.

1. "Philosophy: Who Needs It" in Philosophy: Who Needs It? (Signet paperback edition), pp. 1-11.

Unless you are one of those rare people who are simply drawn to philosophy, you may wonder why you should bother with it. Ayn Rand's answer is that the philosophic beliefs you embrace are of life-and-death importance. Read this essay to see why a systematic philosophy fills a vital human need.

2. "This is John Galt Speaking" in For the New Intellectual (Signet paperback edition), pp. 117-192.

This excerpt from Atlas Shrugged is Rand's only complete summary of her philosophy. As such, it is the best place to discover the full sense of Rand's magnificent vision of life.

3. "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World" in Philosophy: Who Needs It?  (Signet paperback edition), pp. 58-76.

Human success and progress have proceeded from the dominance of reason and freedom in a culture. But these have been opposed by the union of "mysticism, collectivism, [and] altruism." In this talk, given at several universities in 1960, Ayn Rand argues that capitalism is the social system of reason and freedom, and that both these aspects of capitalism have been misrepresented and suppressed throughout the 20th century in the name of the ethics of altruism. Rand catalogs the cultural ills she sees attending to this situation, including irrationalism and nihilism, and calls for a "moral revolution… the most radical form of rebellion."

4. "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet paperback edition), pp. 13-39.

This essay presents Rand's theory of good and evil, of virtue and vice. Rand begins at the beginning, asking what ethics is and why we need it. She then shows why she regards "man's life" as the objective standard in ethics, the measure of right and wrong, and why she rejects the traditional view that altruism, or one's service to others, is the measure of goodness. She outlines her view of each individual person as a rational being who can and should live and achieve happiness through his own effort and the use of his own mind. She concludes with a discussion of the cardinal virtues of Objectivism —rationality, productiveness, and pride—and argues that the proper mode of dealing with others is by trade.

5. "What is Capitalism?" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (Signet paperback edition), pp. 11-34.

As this essay shows, political thinkers and economists hardly know the meaning of capitalism. Rand explains what capitalism is, why it made the Industrial Revolution possible, and how it came to be vilified and almost universally misunderstood in the 20th century. "The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man's rational nature, that it protects man's survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice." Rand explains what conditions capitalism requires and maintains, and she conducts a seering attack on an interpretation of capitalism that was widespread in her time and remains common today.

"Man's Rights" in The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet paperback edition), pp.108-117.

"If one wishes to advocate a free society—that is, capitalism—one must realize that its indispensable foundation is the principle of individual rights. If one wishes to uphold individual rights, one must realize that capitalism is the only system that can uphold and protect them." So does Ayn Rand begin this clear, point-by-point explication of the nature and moral significance of individual rights, the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. It is the key to understanding the Objectivism's politics and the meaning of liberty.

"The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" in The Romantic Manifesto (Signet paperback edition), pp. 15-24.

Ayn Rand was a fiction writer, and here she takes on the basic issue of aesthetic theory: what art is and why we need it. Rand defines art as "a selective recreation of reality," and connects our need for it to the human faculty of reason, particularly the abstractness of our ideas.

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