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Response by William Thomas

Response by William Thomas

4 Mins
March 8, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."

I was glad to see Eyal Mozes’s essay because it puts a challenge to the idea that Ayn Rand was in some sense a Nietzschean early in her development. Eyal steadfastly refuses to speculate, and articulates a demand for those who claim a Nietzschean phase to provide incontrovertible proof.

However, I think that in assessing the evidence he has cast his net too narrowly. Here is his essential point on the evidence:

“As far as I could find, the only defense of the claim that Rand has had a ‘Nietzschean phase,’ with any attempt at presenting evidence for it, has been by Ron Merrill, in The Ideas of Ayn Rand, ch. 3...What evidence, then, does Merrill present for his claim? Merrill’s entire evidence--and the only evidence I have ever seen presented for the claim of a ‘Nietzschean phase’--consists of two paragraphs, from a conversation between Kira and Andrei, in the first edition of We The Living...”

There is another important place where the claim of a Nietzschean phase is made, and where evidence is provided for it:

In Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 20-21 contain an extended editorial comment on Rand’s 1928 notes for a projected novel: The Little Street. The editor, David Harriman, notes the following divergences from Rand’s later views: a) evil as metaphysically efficacious; b) exclusive focus on “whether a man is motivated to act for himself or not,” regardless of his premises or form of action; c) admiration of “the strong individual who wants to ‘command’ rather than ‘obey’”; d) stating that attitudes or character traits are innate, which “contradict[s] her advocacy of free will.” Harriman’s comments do not amount to an extended case for a Nietzschean phase. Rather, Harriman assumes (and I think rightly) that such a phase is evident in the papers he presents.

Ayn Rand in her youth never subscribed fully to Nietzsche’s system of philosophy.

It is true, as Eyal argues, that Ayn Rand in her youth never subscribed fully to Nietzsche’s system of philosophy. I doubt we will ever know even how much of Nietzsche she read. However, her lack of total commitment to Nietzsche’s philosophy was not due to any commitment to a developed system of her own. In her early years, Rand was not a philosopher and did not think of herself as a philosopher. Her papers from the 1920s focus on the creation and analysis of literature and film. She had a passion for ideas, and her hatred of collectivism, love of individualism, and admiration for American capitalism are plain to see. But like any writer, she appears to have seen these ideas not as topics to be plumbed, but as a creed to express. In any case, it is plain from the papers collected in Journals of Ayn Rand that before writing We the Living, Rand was not engaged in the systematic exploration of philosophic issues.

It was only in the 1930s that Rand began to think of herself as a serious original thinker on philosophic topics. Thus around 1934 she noted on the [sic] of her “first philosophic journal” the following general comment:

“These are the vague beginnings of an amateur philosopher. To be checked with what I learn when I master philosophy--then see how much of it has already been said, and whether I have anything new to say, or anything old to say better than it has already been said” (Journals of Ayn Rand 66).

From this comment of Rand’s we know that the papers of hers that survive do not misrepresent her thought by placing no formal philosophy early than 1934. Rand herself thought of her previous notes on ideas as not even “amateur.”

When we look at the early Rand for signs of influence from Nietzsche and from Nietzscheanism generally, we have to recognize that whatever Rand’s outlook was, it did not at that time consist in a set of well-developed reflections on philosophic topics. As Eyal notes, in that “first philosophic journal,” we see Rand starting to work through questions that will lead to her break explicitly with Nietzsche’s views on social ethics and the role of reason in human life. But before the time of those notes, we have every reason to think Rand was in some significant ways influenced by Nietzsche. If this shows up most clearly in her depiction of the ideal man (i.e., Danny Renahan of The Little Street), this is perfectly natural: it is in the creation of such character that the young Rand would have been focused on implicitly philosophical questions.

I also think Eyal misreads the place in Rand’s development where her “first philosophic journal” falls. Eyal argues that because these papers are dated to 1934, they show the development in Rand’s thought while she was writing We the Living. However, We the Living appears to have been finished by this time. In her biography, Barbara Branden states, “Toward the end of 1933, Ayn completed We the Living” (The Passion of Ayn Rand 112). Although the novel was not published until 1936, it was already circulating among publishers by 1934.

What does this mean? Well, here I have to speculate a little. But I must remark that if we ban all speculation, then we will lack for even hypotheses for further investigation. I think it most plausible to see Rand as turning to deeper philosophic issues as she becomes conscious of the uniqueness of her views, and as she prepares to write The Fountainhead . The epigram from Nietzsche at the start of those notes is unlikely to be accidental: rather Rand appears to be confronting key premises of the Nietzschean view in the notes that follow (and drawing strength from Nietzsche as a father of a modern egoism).

In any case, those are merely probabilities. But what is well established in the papers Rand left is that her ethical views in the late 1920s are best described as passionate but relatively unsophisticated Nietzscheanism. But it is a novelist’s Nietzscheanism: contempt for the masses, the extolling of the superior individual as against the herd, the occasional use of indicative terms such as “supermen” (Journals of Ayn Rand 48), and an admiration for the initiation of force by the noble against the ignoble (see the notes in Journals 46-47). And, as late as 1935, Rand thought Nietzsche to be emblematic of her moral orientation.

Back to Eyal Mozes, "The Relationship Between the Philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand"

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