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I first met Nathaniel Branden, who passed away this morning, in fall 1983. I had successfully passed my Ph.D. oral defense of dissertation that morning, so except for shuffling paperwork, I was now “Doctor Hudgins.”
I don’t know how others would mark such a milestone, but I was eager that evening to hear Branden’s talk on “ The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.”
I had discovered and loved the works of Rand a decade earlier. She presented a vision of a rational world of flourishing, self-actuated, self-confident, achievement-oriented individuals, in sharp contrast to the corrosive culture of whim-worshipping irrationality and self-abnegation of that time.
With Rand, of course, I encountered Nathaniel Branden. I knew he had been her philosophical heir-apparent, and that they had had an angry break. And I had heard rumors of their affair. But even though he was persona non grata in Objectivist circles, I eagerly read his post-Rand books, including The Psychology of Self-Esteem,Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self.
The latter two were especially important. The Objectivist world at the time had what some called cult-like qualities, which Branden himself later acknowledged he had helped create in his years with Rand. One simply was to assume that Ayn Rand was right about everything, and as a “student of Objectivism” your goal was simply to understand her philosophy. Ironically, independent thinking--a key Objectivist virtue--was frowned upon in practice.
While Branden in Breaking Free and The Disowned Self was not directly addressing the defects of the Objectivism movement, he was dealing with self-alienation and other deep problems that held individuals back from being independent and flourishing. He was clearly drawing from the problems he had encountered in individuals who loved Rand’s vision but found the official Objectivist movement stifling.
So that evening in 1983 I listened to Branden address head-on the benefits and hazards of Rand’s philosophy. It was refreshing and liberating. Whether I agreed completely with his analysis or not, there was now a more open, adult conversation going on about the Rand and the philosophy.
Branden argued that Objectivism indeed presented a radiant vision of, in Rand’s words, what the world can be and should be. But too many individuals who loved Rand’s vision saw themselves as so far removed from the heroes of her novels that they despaired. Too many would say “I’m no Roark or Galt, so I must be no good.”
Branden defined his goal as creating the psychological technology to help individuals get from where they were to where they wanted to be.
Branden is often credited as being the father of the modern self-esteem movement. This is true, but misleading. Today, many see “self-esteem” as a lazy and vacuous glance in the mirror to say “I’m great!” Branden defined self-esteem as the recognition that one is worthy of happiness and capable of achieving it. But happiness and flourishing require effort.
In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem he identified the necessary practices to reach those goals as living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and personal integrity. Branden was, in effect, operationalizing Rand’s dictum that “as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul.”
Over the decades that followed “Benefits and Hazards” I had many opportunities to attend and to host conferences with Branden, to discuss with him his insights about psychology and about Objectivism, and to see the benefits that his own work brought to many in this world.
To his wife, Leigh, and all his friends I pass along my condolences. Keep in your hearts and minds the good memories of him. He would have wanted it that way.
The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged by Nathaniel Branden
Published in Kindle format on Dec. 6, 2014.
Now a #1 Kindle best-seller in "Political Philosophy" and "Ethics & Morality"
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.