The Ideas of Ayn Rand
by Ronald E. Merrill

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois; 1991

191 pages

April 2002

Neither attacker nor apologist

Ronald E. Merrill's The Ideas of Ayn Rand is a interesting book to readers of that novelist wishing to pursue her ideas outside their immediate context. Merrill goes into various literary, philosophical, and political ideas and their development in Rand's novels and non-fiction writings. This is a popular account rather than a scholarly study; it is not an introduction to Ayn Rand or her ideas; for an introduction, read her great novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). Unlike many pro and con writers on Rand, Merrill tries to be scrupulous and objective. Given his acknowledged bias in favor of Ayn Rand, that her philosophy of Objectivism "has been the organizing principle of my life for nearly 30 years", he does a good job in the space available.

He is neither attacker nor apologist, and if he speaks for the Objectivist movement, it is the movement of ideas, of intellectual history, not an official school or party-line. Merrill does go into as much of Rand's personal history and "movement" history as he feels necessary to tie together her intellectual and artistic development. While Merrill works to be balanced and fair throughout, it is unfortunate that his very last word, right before the bibliographical listing, is thoughtcrimes.

Merrill explicitly leaves economics and psychology out of his exposition, and he reasonably pleads relative ignorance, and lack of time and space, to treat them adequately in The Ideas of Ayn Rand. He does defend Rand against the charge sometimes leveled at her that the novels advocate repression of emotions. I'd say that Merrill is moderately successful as far as he goes, but this whole area of Randian emotions could use a lot more exploration. But of all the interesting descriptions that could apply to Rand's character Francisco d'Anconia, frozen is not one of them. (Oddly, Merrill mis-capitalizes the name as D'Anconia throughout, as though he were writing from memory.)

Ideas: Greek, Christian, Jewish — and Nietzschean?

I'm glad to see some side-glances at Christian and Jewish ideas as well as ancient Greek (Atlas, Prometheus) and American. Merrill gives some space also to Rand's fun with Judaic symbolism, of which there's quite a bit in Atlas Shrugged. One of these symbols, from the Talmud, goes right to the heart of the story: to continue to exist, the world needs always to have thirty-six Just Men, or righteous individuals. These hidden saints, Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim or Lamed-vavniks, who in ordinary times work at ordinary simple jobs, correspond to the individuals named as residing in Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged.

I give Merrill considerable credit for this introductory statement, and his attempt to follow through on it:

Rand's philosophical roots in the Aristotelian tradition are well known. Not so well understood is her ambivalent attitude toward Friedrich Nietzsche. Rand started her career as a follower of this enigmatic philosopher. By looking at Rand's work chronologically, we can trace a fascinating intellectual odyssey. Her ethical, political, and esthetic values, woven together in a complex manner, were developed by a process of rejection and revision of the Nietzschean vision. The Objectivist's knee-jerk fear of being tarred with the Nietzschean brush has inhibited an objective evaluation of this process.

There's material for whole books in this area alone, but unfortunately Merrill does not seem to have read much of Nietzsche. The latter's brilliance shines right past him, as does the true depth of Nietzsche's importance for understanding Rand — scarcely acknowledged by the novelist herself. Is it symbolic or symptomatic that in Merrill's index, references to Nietzsche are mis-alphabetized, misplacing them onto the previous page?

Rand studied Nietzsche while still in post-Revolutionary Petrograd, as Chris Matthew Sciabarra discusses in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995). And the first book purchased by Rand after emigrating to America was Thus Spoke Zarathustra — I suppose in the wretched Thomas Common translation, which helped misrepresent Nietzsche in English for half a century, until Walter Kaufmann's translations began appearing in 1954.

A modern Goddess of Reason

The more important Rand's characters are to her plot, the more they seem to come out of nowhere, ideal and universal and groundless. I'm glad to see Merrill mention the Count of Monte-Cristo in a couple of contexts, another character on heroic scale, whom Alexandre Dumas gave a carefully delineated past and context.

Ayn Rand liked to give the impression that she too had an immaculate intellectual birth like Athena from Zeus, a modern Goddess of Reason springing from the brow of Aristotle. This flair for the dramatic entrance, so notable in her novels, may have helped her popularity in her lifetime, but thereby intellectual history has had extra work to do, and still is trying to catch up.

A Nietzschean progression

Merrill does have sections on Nietzsche, and further mention or discussion throughout. He says too much and too little in the following passage on Rand's intellectual growth through and out of her "Nietzschean phase", as he calls it:

Ayn Rand attempted to present herself as having started her adult life as an Objectivist. She claimed that she always held these beliefs, though she gradually expanded and improved her understanding. This was a falsehood.

Rand, at the time she wrote We the Living, was definitely an ethical Nietzschean. As her thinking developed, she began to abandon the emotionalism of Nietzsche for the rationalism of Objectivism. At the same time, her sense of life — at least as expressed in her writing — changed from one of existential despair to one of hope and confidence.

This can be seen by the progression of her four novels. In We the Living the struggle is between good (represented by Kira, Leo, and Andrei) and evil (the Communist State) — and evil wins. Anthem deals with the same fight, but this time the good is triumphant. The Fountainhead progresses further; now the conflict is between the good (Roark) and the imperfect (Dominique and Wynand). With Atlas Shrugged Rand dismisses the importance of evil entirely, and the conflict is between good and good (the strikers versus the scabs).

This progression is certainly clear, but partly it is due to the themes Rand chose, and the order in which she developed them. As a Russian escapee and exile, she was not finding much good to say about people's suffering under the Soviet dictatorship — unlike Maxim Gorky or Mikhail Sholokov who wrote within the Soviet regime, or the fellow-travelers and apologists in the West. And as her themes moved out of valleys of despair into whole landscapes, she could let the sunshine play over her great novels. Throughout Atlas Shrugged Rand is quite explicit about moving beyond one's tragic past and transcending the tragic outlook; this profound idea is neither universal nor popular, but Merrill might have discovered an earlier formulation:

There are heights of the soul from which even tragedy ceases to look tragic; and rolling together all the woe of the world — who could dare to decide whether its sight would necessarily seduce us and compel us to feel pity and thus double this woe?

Friedrich Nietzsche
"The Free Spirit"; section 30
Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
translated by Walter Kaufmann

The very incarnation of a model superman

As for characters of good and evil, Merrill goes into the despicable Ellsworth Toohey of The Fountainhead in some detail elsewhere, but Toohey is missing from his list above. I think it also is open to debate whether there are any worthy characters on the side of the good in We the Living.

Conflicts in Rand's novels are more complex than suggested in the above list of good versus evil. Merrill claims that

The Fountainhead is Ayn Rand's explicit and final renunciation of the morality of Friedrich Nietzsche. [...]

For Wynand is indeed the very incarnation of the Nietzschean superman.

We may agree that Wynand is tragically flawed, but this is shallow. And note how Merrill's own one-sentence plot summaries show the movement beyond good and evil to our arrival at the great Atlas Shrugged. Nietzsche is more subtle than Merrill is aware; and so is Rand.

In fact, Rand may be deeper in her novels than she was willing or able to acknowledge in her own non-fiction. Merrill has a stab at Rand's attempt to ground her values in life, making perhaps better headway than Rand does in her late articles. But I'm not sure this is a useful philosophical track to follow. Again, Merrill might have profited from looking at an earlier thinker:

Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.

In short, here as everywhere else, let us beware of superfluous teleological principles — one of which is the instinct of self-preservation (we owe it to Spinoza's inconsistency). Thus method, which must be essentially economy of principles, demands it.

"On the Prejudices of Philosophers"; section 13
Beyond Good and Evil

Life is indeed a living thing in Rand's novels. With this concept as for some others, she seems on surer ground in her novelistic representations than in her later non-fiction articles — which attempted to summarize and codify her sense of life into rules and principles. Read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, or read them again. Should you then want to explore the ideational background, The Ideas of Ayn Rand is not a bad place to start.


© 2002 Robert Wilfred Franson

WHS facilitated this.

W. H. Stoddard's
Life and Value in Ayn Rand's Ethics

Ayn Rand at Troynovant

Laurence Lampert's
Nietzsche's Task:
An Interpretation of
Beyond Good and Evil


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