Thus Spoke Howard Roark
presented to seminar —
[ Notes for this essay are on a separate page.]
Section 1. Ayn Rand & Friedrich Nietzsche,
a philosophical discussion
The position I will be taking here will seem very peculiar to many people. I will be treating a novel as a discussion of the work of a philosopher — namely, Friedrich Nietzsche. Worse yet, I will be treating it as a discussion that is philosophically penetrating and deserves to be taken seriously. Still worse, the novel is Ayn Rand's early novel The Fountainhead. I think it is safe to say that her reputation, among academics who discuss the works of philosophers, is very low. If the reader will only bear with me, though, I think I can make a case that Rand opens a line of inquiry about Nietzsche's ideas and values that is not only quite interesting in itself but definitely ought to be pursued further by others. There has always been ample reason to associate Nietzsche with The Fountainhead.1 He is after all, the only philosopher who is more or less directly quoted in the book.2 Beyond that, Rand's novel has many other passages that students of Nietzsche instantly recognize as conscious references to him or deliberate echoes of his style. In addition, she revealed, in an introduction written for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, that the following quotation from Beyond Good and Evil had originally stood at the head of the book when it was still in manuscript:
It is not the works, but the belief which is here decisive and determines the order of rank — to employ once more an old religious formula with a new and deeper meaning — it is some fundamental certainty which a noble soul has about itself, something which is not to be sought, is not to be found, and perhaps, also, is not to be lost. — The noble soul has reverence for itself. — 3
She said, in the same introduction, that she removed the quotation (evidently, immediately before publication) for philosophical reasons, because of her "profound disagreement with the philosophy of its author." Nietzsche, she says, was fundamentally "a mystic and irrationalist," and even in this quotation, chosen for its content, insinuates a philosophical position that she regards as erroneous (namely, determinism). Even her statement of what she likes about this passage is rather constrained: "as a poet [i.e.., not as a philosopher], he projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man's greatness, expressed in emotional, not intellectual terms."4
It is of course true enough that Rand does disagree with Nietzsche, and for more or less the reasons that she suggests here, but it is also true that the passage she has quoted expresses some ethical themes — nobility, order of rank, the "pathos of distance," and (most obviously) the idea of self-reverence as a characteristic of the ethically good — which are at least as important in The Fountainhead as they are in Nietzsche's writings. Though Rand's spirited disclaimer serves to remind us of her deep differences with Nietzsche, the quotation itself suggests that there might be an interesting philosophical, not merely literary or emotional, connection between The Fountainhead and Nietzsche's ideas. What I would like to show here is that this connection merits a much closer look than it has ever been given heretofore. Not only is the presence of Nietzschean themes in Rand's novel deep and pervasive, but the book actually contains a very interesting and powerful internal critique of one of Nietzsche's most characteristic ideas, a criticism based in large part on values and assumptions that he shares.
Before I can set out this critique, I will need to explore some of the positive thematic and philosophical connections.
One evening, rather late in the novel, Gail Wynand, the corrupt newspaper publisher and financier, surprises his wife, Dominique, with a present: he has had an architect design a house for them. The architect, she realizes with shock as she sees the drawings for the house, is her former lover, Howard Roark, a man with whom she is still in love. None of this is known to her husband, who innocently tells her that Roark will be their guest for dinner that evening. When Roark arrives, he tells her: "If you like the house, the first achievement was your husband's conception of it." We, and Dominique as well, realize that he is referring to the fact that Wynand meant the house as a statement of his devotion to his wife, whom we know (though of course Wynand does not) that Roark also loves. She replies with a question that must be very far from the front of her mind at that moment:
The underlying logic of this passage, and indeed of much else in this novel, becomes much more salient when we realize that it reflects several of the most distinctive features of the idea that Nietzsche called "power" and (rather confusingly) "will to power." In German, as in English, "power", Macht, is (or at least appears to be) deeply ambiguous. On the one hand, the word can refer to power over someone or something. On the other, it can refer to capacities or abilities, one's powers — including the power to work, build, create. On the face of it, it seems reasonable to distinguish between these two apparently quite different referents as hegemonic power and dynamic power.5 Nietzsche himself never bothers to eliminate this ambiguity, probably because he thought these two meanings are closely related and, indeed, mutually necessary. His conception of power is based on the idea that, as he says,
whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous 'meaning' and 'purpose' are necessarily obscured or obliterated. (GM II 12.)
Power is a three-place relation between a) an agent that is directing something else for the agent's own purposes, b) the subordinate agent that is being directed, and c) the purposes toward which the subordinate agent is being directed. This, in fact, is Nietzsche's account of what it is to do anything.6 This conception of power implies that, in a certain respect, the two sorts of power I have just identified are inseparable: to have the power to do something (which is dynamic power) is also to be able to manipulate and use something else (i.e.., to possess hegemonic power). Thus, though Nietzsche might accept a distinction between the dynamic and hegemonic aspects of power, he might well deny that they could constitute two distinct referents of the word, "power."
Nietzsche holds that all living beings, and ultimately all inanimate beings, are by nature involved in the some sort of power-relationships with other entities, entities that have a nature and teleological orientation of their own. This means that his conception of power has another immediate implication, one that can easily escape one's notice. It implies that power and resistance are not mutually exclusive. To exercise power is to subdue something that has its own nature and does not cooperate automatically. It must be, as Nietzsche says, subdued. This contrasts sharply with another conception of power, in which the paradigm of power is God's creation of the world out of nothing. In this contrasting view, insofar as one exercises power, what stands against one is — precisely nothing. All resistance is obstruction, a threat to one's power. Quanta of resistance must, so to speak, be subtracted from quanta of power. According to Nietzsche's conception, this view is simply confused: power without resistance is analogous to building without any materials with which to build, or an end achieved in the absence of any means by which to achieve it.
This simple but easily overlooked fact explains a number of Nietzschean paradoxes, including his strikingly agonistic account of friendship (Z I 14), which finds its purest expression in his claim that one should be ready not merely to love one's enemies but, beyond that, to hate one's friends (Z I 22 3). It can also explain why, in the brief bit of dialogue I have just quoted fromThe Fountainhead, Roark does not merely cheerfully acknowledge the conflicts involved in designing Wynand's house, but actually depicts them as an integral part of the creative process.
This conflict is closely related to a much wider conflict, one of a distinctively Nietzschean sort, that permeates the novel. When Dominique asks Roark "Was there conflict involved in designing this house?" we (like Dominique and Roark, and unlike Wynand) know that the strongest conflicts in this case happen to be very personal in nature: the conflicting forces include Roark's love of Dominique, his attachment to Wynand (whom he loves in spite of disapproving of the way he lives: a conflict within a conflict), and his love of the act of creating the building Wynand and Dominique are to live in. Throughout the novel, relations between the positive characters are full of tension and conflict, both in terms of the passions they elicit and in terms of the ways in which the friends and lovers act toward one another.7 The most extreme example of this is of course the notorious "rape" scene of Part II Chapter 2, but in fact sexual relations are persistently described in conflict-laden terms: "a surrender made more complete by the force of their resistance," ... "a force that fed on resistance," ... "tense as water made into power by the restraining violence of a dam," and so forth ( all from 301).8 In The Fountainhead, as in Nietzsche's writings, conflict is not depicted merely as a regrettable side effect of things that are otherwise good: certain forms of conflict are treated as a constitutive element of the good itself.
It is partly for this reason that Roark is able to make this serene statement of acceptance and affirmation later in the same dialogue with Dominique and Wynand:
"What you feel in the presence of a thing you admire is just one word — 'Yes.' The affirmation, the acceptance, the sign of admittance. And that 'Yes' is more than an answer to one thing, it's a kind of 'Amen' to life, to the earth that holds this thing, to the thought that created it, to yourself for being able to see it." (582.)
As far as Wynand is concerned, the conversation is still about buildings, but Dominique and the reader, once again, interpret it as a comment about matters that give it a meaning that is both more universal and more personal than the one that is superficially apparent to Wynand. Read in terms of this wider context, this statement has an obvious affinity with Nietzsche's formula of world-affirmation, amor fati (EH II 10), an affinity that is made more obvious by the fact that Roark's use of the words "yes" and "amen" to express his affirmation echoes some of Nietzsche's statements of the same theme.9 We should begin to suspect, at this point, that the connection between Nietzsche and The Fountainhead is philosophical in nature and very deep. Before commenting on how deep the connection actually is, I think it will be best to talk about some themes that are narrower and more concrete, and to look at the text more closely.
One very specific connection between Nietzsche's work and The Fountainhead can be found in their treatment of pity as an ethical idea. Nietzsche's critique of pity is of course well known. What is much less well known is that the idea of pity constitutes a persistent leitmotif of Rand's novel. As we shall see, her development of this theme parallels her development of other Nietzschean ideas.
Nietzsche's most developed discussion of pity (A 7) raises the following objections against it. First, inasmuch as pity (Mitleid) causes the one who pities to suffer along with the one who is pitied, it multiplies suffering, which is a shortcoming if we assume (as the advocates of pity do) that suffering is bad. Second, because it does cause the observer to identify with the suffering of others, it reduces one's strength and will to live. Third, pity causes us to try to prolong the existence of failed forms of life, a practice that eventually "gives life itself a gloomy and questionable aspect." Fourth, Plato, Aristotle, La Rochefoucauld, Kant, and all noble moralities are critical of pity (see also GM Prologue 6), while moralists who value it highly (Schopenhauer, Wagner, Tolstoy) are decadents.
Elsewhere (BGE 225), Nietzsche suggests that there is another sort of pity, one that is quite different from pity as it is usually understood, which he himself sometimes experiences. Pity in the usual sense is a certain distress at the suffering of others and rests on treating suffering as bad. In fact, suffering (according to Nietzsche) is not per se bad, because some suffering (such as the sort that is caused by conflict with oneself and self-overcoming) is a condition of creativity and excellence. The other sort of pity, Nietzschean pity one might call it, apparently consists in a certain distress at seeing people in conditions that destroy creativity and excellence.10
The subject of pity first appears in The Fountainhead when Dominique makes some comments about it that clearly suggest an ethical objection to it. In feeling pity (the word she actually uses is "compassion," though without implying any distinction between the two words), she says: "One can let oneself go and spread — you know, like taking a girdle off. You don't have to hold your stomach, your heart, or your spirit up — when you feel compassion. All you have to do is look down." The objection to pity suggested here rests, like the first two Nietzschean objections — on a contrast between the direction of attention of the one who experiences pity — downward, in the direction of failure and deficiency, rather than upward in the direction of flourishing and excellence. The "antithesis" of compassion, she says, is "admiration." (301.) Obviously, the heart of the objection is the idea that pity is a comfortable alternative to striving for self-perfection. Though this idea has some affinity to some of the Nietzschean objections to pity it is, somewhat surprisingly, different from anything Nietzsche ever actually says. Still, it is very much in the spirit of the peculiar sort of idealism that is one of the most salient characteristics of Nietzsche's writings.
The second time pity makes an appearance, it expresses an idea that is much closer to the letter of Nietzsche's text. This time, it appears when one of the characters, Dominique again, experiences pity. It occurs one evening, twenty months after she (for reasons that are irrelevant here) married Peter Keating. Keating is telling her what a devastating effect their marriage has had on his psychological well-being. Though she has never done anything intentionally cruel or even disagreeable, she has also never shared, or pretended to share, the elaborate structure of socially supported self-myths on which his life is based. He reproaches her for it, saying that she had "taken something" from him. She says that she had taken his pretense at it though, she confesses, "I grant you that's worse." At that moment, "She looked down at his face against her knees, and he saw pity in her eyes, and for one moment he knew what a dreadful thing true pity is, but he kept no knowledge of it, because he slammed his mind shut before the words in which he was about to preserve it." (456.)
This is clearly a case of what I've just called "Nietzschean pity." This, in fact, is what makes it so dreadful: it is a response, not merely to the fact that the life of the pitied person contains pain, but to the value of that life itself. This passage also suggests, though, that there might still be reasons, perhaps ones with a strong connection with Nietzsche's concerns, for doubting the ethical value of this state of mind. This suggestion is reenforced by the last and most memorable passage in which pity makes an appearance in the novel. Again, the object of pity is Peter Keating. Late in the narrative, after years of opportunistic compromises, he returns furtively to a childhood dream of being a painter. It was his original career-choice, given up under pressure from his mother, who thought being an architect is more "respectable." He shows Roark some of his canvases, quietly and hopelessly accumulated in weekend sessions. When Roark looks at the paintings, "he took a longer time than he needed. When he could trust himself to lift his eyes, he shook his head in silent answer...." After Keating leaves, Roark
Again, this passage is interesting both for the way in which it indicates Nietzsche's influence and for the way in which it suggests a rather different way of thinking, one that strikes out in a different direction. On the one hand, there is a conviction that pain is generally not the worst thing that can happen to a person, and a Nietzschean concern that the pity of an enlightened person would be responsive to this fact. On the other hand, there is a concern that this sort of pity, though more enlightened than the other sort and perhaps unavoidable, is in a way even more horrible. The ground for this worry is a concern that is not explicitly reflected in any of Nietzsche's discussions of pity, that this more enlightened sort of pity is even farther removed than ordinary pity from admiration and respect for the person one is pitying. This aspect of the critique of pity suggested by The Fountainhead is, as we will shortly see, related to other ways in which it deviates from Nietzsche's view of the world.
So far, we have seen Rand making use, albeit selective and even revisionist use, of Nietzsche's ideas. To show how she subjects Nietzschean ideals to criticism, I will need to say more about Nietzsche's own doctrine. The doctrine I will need to say something about is one of the best known and often discussed: his analysis of "master morality" and "slave morality." This doctrine is of interest in part because it sheds some light on an idea that Nietzsche often uses when explaining his notion of "power": namely, the distinction between "activity" and "mere reactivity."11
Nietzsche presents his discussion of the these two types of thinking in morals as a theory of the early development, the pre-history so to speak, of human thought about ethical matters, but he is interested in it mainly as a way of assessing the value of the ways in which people think and act today. Master morality is Nietzsche's name for the ethical valuations of various early warrior-elites, such as those represented by the principal characters in Homer. The "good" in this sort of ethic is a certain type of person, while the "bad" is simply the person who lacks the characteristics that distinguish the good. "Good" in this way of thinking is logically prior to " bad," it is the "positive basic concept." The good, moreover, is what the members of such an elite take themselves to be: they are the source from which their conception of the good is derived. The good are simply those who resemble themselves, "we the noble ones, we good, beautiful, happy ones." (GM I, 10.) Truthfulness is an attribute of the good because they themselves are the truthful ones. For the same reason, untruthfulness, the trait of the lying common man, is identified as an attribute of the "bad" (5).
Such is the fundamental idea of master morality. In the case of slave morality, on the other hand, it is a negative valuation, a "No" which is "its creative deed": "slave morality from the outset says No to what is "outside," what is "different," what is "not itself"." This fact, as Nietzsche describes it, is closely related to the fact that it is based on a state of mind he calls (using a French word) ressentiment. This is the state of mind of someone who has a reason to have some negative reaction toward another person, but who (as in the case of people who literally are slaves) "are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge." (GM I, 10.) The "creative deed" of this sort of morality occurs when "the hatred, the vengefulness of the impotent" finds that it must disfigure one's opponent "in effigie", by interpreting their distinctive traits as evil: here the logically basic moral concept is that of "the evil enemy," "the evil one." From this "basic concept" one derives "as an afterthought and pendant, the concept of a "good one." Just as, in master morality, the bad is conceived in terms of the good, so in slave morality the good is conceived in terms of the evil. Thus the traits that make up the "good" in this code of values are simply characteristics that someone in the position of a slave must inevitably have, but interpreted in a such a way as to emphasize and valorize the absence of the power that distinguishes the masters: "impotence" is interpreted as "goodness of heart," "anxious lowliness" as "humility," "subjection to those one hates" as "humility," and "the inoffensiveness of the weak man, ... his being ineluctably compelled to wait" becomes "patience." In a word: "Weakness is being lied into something meritorious." (GM I 14.)
The reason why Nietzsche prefers the noble point of view to the slavish one is not that one is self-serving or self-celebrating and the other is not. On his view, both these moralities can be characterized in roughly this way. For both the master and slave types, the notion of "the good" is a flattering self-portrait. Nor does the reason for Nietzsche's ranking of the two moralities lie (simply) in the fact that the slave morality substitutes thought and feeling for actions. It is obvious that there are situations where such a response is superior to that of taking action. Again, the reason is not that slave morality is deluded about the nature of its opponent, in that the notion of "evil" is a caricature of the master. Nietzsche insists that "the noble mode of valuation" similarly "blunders and sins against reality" in its view of the other: which in its case is the "bad" common people. (Z I, 10.)
The principal reason why Nietzsche holds that the noble mode of valuation is nonetheless the superior is one that might seem counterintuitive at first. It is however, the fundamental difference between the two positions. It is to be found in the way in which slave morality begins with a response to the other:
This inversion of the value-positing eye — the need to direct one's view outward instead of back to oneself — is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all — its action is fundamentally reaction. (GM I 10.)
Why does Nietzsche think that the fact that slave morality is directed "outward" supports his low evaluation of it? The answer to this question is not entirely clear. We can, however, get an idea of the broad outlines of the answer if we look once more, and more closely, at Nietzsche's idea of power.
The answer has to do with the relation between what I have called the dynamic and hegemonic aspects of power — or, more precisely, with the reason why he regards the hegemonic element as indispensable to the whole. At one point he denounces what he calls "the democratic idiosyncrasy which opposes everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism" on the grounds that it has had a certain detrimental effect on the "physiology and theory of life," namely that it
has robbed it of a fundamental concept, that of activity. Under the influence of the above-mentioned idiosyncrasy, one places instead "adaptation" in the foreground, that is to say, an activity of the second rank, a mere reactivity.... Thus the essence of life, its will to power, is ignored; one overlooks the essential priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions, although "adaptation" follows only from this.... (GM II 12.)
There are a number of ideas tangled together in this interesting passage, and a complete discussion of the possible connections between them would take me too far afield. Three things do seem to be clear enough, though. First, Nietzsche thinks that the claim that a given sort of activity consists in reacting to stimuli implies that it embodies a lower amount of power than activity that does not have this character. Second, the reason for this, he believes, is that insofar as activity is a reaction to external factors, the hegemonic element of power is lacking or relatively unimportant. Finally, he thinks that activity that does have this element will be "spontaneous."
This last idea figures prominently in his discussion of the difference between master morality and slave morality. Immediately after he says that slave morality evinces "the need to direct one's view outward instead of back to oneself" he says that the "reverse is the case with the noble mode of valuation: it acts and grows spontaneously, it seeks its opposite only so as to affirm itself more gratefully and triumphantly" (GM I, 10). What we have just seen is that there are several distinctively Nietzschean ideas connecting these two features of the two contrasting moral codes, the outward-directedness of slave morality and the spontaneity of master morality. An intuitively appealing way to state the connection might be this.12 What slave morality does, it does because of what master morality does. On the other hand, what the masters do is done because of their own nature, and not because of what the slaves do. Their actions flow freely from the internal nature of the agent, unelicited by factors external to the self. In this freedom from such external factors lies its spontaneity. I will return to all this eventually, but we are now in a position to take another look at what happens to these ideas in The Fountainhead.
Several ideas that Nietzsche expresses in his discussion of master morality and slave morality are also expressed in The Fountainhead, often cleverly varied and elaborated. To take a simple and straightforward instance, Ellsworth Toohey, Roark's philosophical antipode, uses a psychological strategy that is deeply characteristic of slave morality. Early in his career, he tells a fellow student who is falling under his influence:
"It's good to suffer. Don't complain. Bear, bow, accept — and be grateful that God has made you suffer. For this makes you better than the people who are laughing and happy. If you don't understand this, don't try to understand. Everything bad comes from the mind, because the mind asks too many questions. It is blessed to believe, not to understand. So if you didn't get passing grades, be glad of it. It means that you are better than the smart boys who think too much and too easily." (318.)
Obviously, this is the revaluation that forms the foundation of slave morality, in which the marks of low status are read as virtues, and does so by taking the powerful and happy ones as a sort of negative standard of value.
The same idea, or variations of it, can be found throughout The Fountainhead. In a milder and otherwise altered form, it is present in the character of Alvah Scarret, the Editor-in-Chief of Wynand's yellow-journalism enterprises, whose front-page column, "Observations and Meditations", is full of beloved cliches about the virtuousness of extremely modest attainments: becoming a mother automatically makes a woman a saint, and so forth. One hears in his words, not merely the flattery of those who achieve little, but a hint of hostility toward those who presume to aspire toward something greater. The novel encourages us to compare Scarret and the mature Toohey by placing them in close juxtaposition — they are co-workers on Wynand's flagship newspaper, the Banner, as well as friends and frequent allies — and the comparison suggests that Toohey is practicing a much more sophisticated, more thorough, and ultimately more destructive form of the same revaluation.
One of Toohey's projects, pursued by means of his influence as a critic and as an organizer, is to promote the careers of seemingly unpromising young artists and professionals. There are would-be "radical" architects who, rather than developing a distinctive new style, seem to be building in a manner without style or distinction; and there are writers with nothing to say and curiously little inclination to conceal that fact. At length, Toohey reveals that the reason he has supported these people was not some value that he sees in them and is invisible to us: his support was as an attack upon value as such. As he explains to one of his proteges, an author of egregiously bad stage plays:
"Suppose I didn't like Ibsen.... Suppose I didn't want people to see his plays. It would do no good whatever to tell them so. But if I sold them the idea that you're just as great as Ibsen — pretty soon they wouldn't be able to tell the difference. ... Then it wouldn't matter what they went to see at all. Then nothing would matter." ( 505.)
As he tells another of his followers:
"Don't set out to raze all the shrines.... Enshrine mediocrity — and the shrines are razed." (691)
Valuing the lesser prevents one from seeing the greater: from seeing it, that is, as greater. If that is so, then the seemingly benign act of placing value on something can actually be an act of aggression, and even in the long run a very effective one. This idea is obviously related to one aspect of Nietzsche's analysis of slave morality, the idea that the humble values of the slave code are actually part of an attack on the (in his case, politically) great. Just as obviously, it goes well beyond what Nietzsche is saying there. Nietzsche, as is his wont, keeps his analysis within the boundaries of individual psychology. Toohey's revaluation raises, and of course is meant to raise, an issue in social psychology: What would a society be like in which shared assumptions evaluate the small as if it were great?
It would be a world in which the great is invisible and, consequently, completely alone. This idea is in fact quite different from anything we can find in Nietzsche. Nietzsche's own discussion of social usages tend to be surprisingly simple: a given society will tend to produce the sorts of thoughts, feelings, and actions that their customs value and require, while ones prohibited or devalued by them become more rare than they otherwise would be. To speak of the indirect results of customary ideas was generally a move he did not make.
However, the most important difference between Nietzsche's ideas about master morality and slave morality and Rand's use of those ideas in The Fountainhead is the one that is the most obvious, the one that is so to speak under our noses from the outset. Nietzsche's discussion of the two syndromes, after all, treats them in the context of the relationship between masters and slaves. As Rand, and of course many others, use these ideas, they are freed from their embededness in pre-liberal systems of social castes. This seemingly simple fact is potentially problematic: Nietzsche, and the purists among his followers, might argue that there is a limit to the extent to which these ideas can be detached from their original context. The ideas are no doubt applicable, perhaps indeed without greatly distorting them, in situations that do not literally involve a caste structure. After all, Nietzsche himself wanted to argue that some of the same psychological strategies he found in the original master-slave relationship were at work in the comparatively liberal and democratic Europe of his day. But note that the original Nietzschean ideas were formulated in the context of relationships of unequal power, and for Nietzsche power includes hegemony. This may mean that these ideas may be inevitably and profoundly illiberal. Part of the point of Nietzsche's analysis is to provide a critique of certain aspects of what, in the analysis, is labeled "slave" morality. If the occupant of this position is necessarily someone who is rebelling against someone who has hegemony over them, then it would seem to be impossible to use Nietzsche's ideas without being committed to some profoundly illiberal implications. These ideas would inevitably tend to denigrate those who rebel against oppressive power in order to pursue their own self-development. This would seem to be incompatible with the individualism that, as everyone knows, is embodied in The Fountainhead. It may well commit one to the idea that most people cannot, or should not, be individuals at all, but functionaries serving others.13
There are a number of possible ways that someone like Rand might attempt to overcome this potential problem. In what follows, I will argue that the solution embodied in The Fountainhead is a fairly radical one: namely, that of re-conceiving the most fundamental Nietzschean category, that of power itself. As we shall presently see, the nature of power is one of the most persistent thematic elements of this novel. It constitutes one of Rand's cleverest contributions to what might be called neo-Nietzschean ethics.
The idea of power is clearly present in The Fountainhead from the first page, in which Roark looks at a beautiful formation of rocks in the countryside and thinks only of the things he could build with them. He is one character who is very clearly associated with the idea of power: power is something he possesses and, in some form or other, desires to possess.
Of the three principal characters who are pointedly contrasted with him — Wynand, Toohey, and Peter Keating — all are also intensely interested in power and, in each case, the nature and degree of this interest is in fact the most salient way in which the character is contrasted with Roark.14 Of the three, the character of Gail Wynand is the one who most frequently and overtly identifies himself as primarily interested in power: As he tells Dominique Francon: "Power, Dominique. The only thing I ever wanted," he says. "To know that there's not a man living whom I can't force to do — anything. Anything I choose." (533.)
Like the other two characters, but especially like Peter Keating, the novel invites us to consciously compare him with Roark. The two become close friends, in spite of their mutual surprise at their friendship and their mutual reluctance to believe they have anything in common. The question of their differences and similarities becomes something of an obsession with Wynand, and he engages Roark, who cooperates reluctantly, in several discussions of this subject.15 The first thing he notices, at their very first meeting, is that, while he hasn't always "liked being Gail Wynand," Roark has always liked being Howard Roark (562). The next salient fact he notices is something that, as he says, he keeps revisiting: "I keep thinking that you and I started the same way. From the same point. From nothing." But he soon realizes that their paths also diverged early in life. Both of them began in poverty, and both held a series of servile jobs in which they often had to take orders from people they regarded as incompetent. Both hated taking orders from such people, but this is where they differed. The experience made Wynand desire above all else to become one who gives the orders. It only made Roark want to do his own work in his own way. (571-72.) Wynand, in other words, became interested in hegemonic power. Roark, on the other hand, is always interested only in dynamic power: he is concerned only with what he can produce. Exclusive interest in hegemony is in fact what unites Wynand with Keating and Toohey and opposes all three to Roark.
Throughout his discussions with Roark, Wynand's intellectual posture is perplexed and groping: for him, his relations with Roark constitute a riddle to be solved. Roark seems to find the relationship less problematic, though he is initially very tight-lipped about what the solution to the problem might be. Yet his posture is also often that of an inquirer, though the topics of his inquiries tend to have a somewhat different focus. He thinks about the relations of similarity and difference that hold between himself and various other people, principally Peter Keating. Their discussions eventually lead to a rather elaborate dialogue on Wynand's yacht (Part IV, Chapter 11), and the quite different results of the enquiries of the two characters culminate in two different events after the break in their relationship precipitated by Roark's destroying Cortlandt Homes project with dynamite: one is an internal monologue in which Wynand reflects on the board of directors meeting at which he capitulates to Roark's enemies (IV, 16), and the other is Roark's speech in his defense at his dynamiting trial (IV, 18).
Throughout the dialogue on the yacht, they agree to an extent that, considering the antipodal differences between them, is remarkable. Their differences, however, do lurk in the shadows, and are brought out later by the course of events. The dialogue begins with Wynand setting forth a strikingly paradoxical claim, one that he believes is, in a certain way, literally true. The paradox is his claim that he, an unscrupulous yellow journalist and opportunistic panderer to public opinion, is actually the embodiment of Toohey's ideal, which Wynand describes as "selflessness in the absolute sense" (655). The reason he gives for this curious idea is this:
"I erased my ego out of existence in a way never achieved by a saint in a cloister. ... The saint ... sacrifices only material things. It's a small price to pay for the glory of his soul. He hoards his soul and gives up the world. But I — I took automobiles, silk pajamas, a penthouse, and gave the world my soul in exchange. Who has sacrificed more — if sacrifice is the test of virtue? Who is the actual saint?"
Wynand's idea here is based on the assumption that what philosophers in the Socratic tradition sometimes call "the goods of the soul," such things as virtue for instance, are the things with the greatest value. To give these things up, he is saying, for the sake of anything else — including worldly wealth — is to be truly self-sacrificing, or "selfless".16 The underlying supposition is of course that what makes a life selfless "in the absolute sense" is not a matter of one's intentions. "Motives," he says in a crucial aside, "never alter facts." (656) Whether a life is objectively self-sacrificing depends on the objective value of what one seeks and of what one gives up for it.
As startling as Wynand's paradox might be, it is surpassed by something that Roark himself goes on to claim about the nature of selflessness. Roark's claim rests on the same underlying "objectivist" supposition that Wynand's rests on, but it implies that a life like Wynand's, and any life that is truly selfless, really involves lacking a self. To use Wynand's own phase, it is a matter of erasing one's ego out of existence. This is a point that, out of Nietzschean generosity, Roark refrains from making explicit, and which Wynand fails to notice. As we will eventually see, his remarks have adverse implications for Wynand and for the Nietzschean conception of power that he represents.
What Roark goes on to claim is that "actual selfishness ... does exist — though not in the sense that [most advocates of selflessness] imagine." The phrase "actual selfishness" is no doubt meant to express the same sort of qualification on what follows as Wynand's "selfishness in the absolute sense," to serve as a warning that this use of the term departs from ordinary usage and to claim that the present use is stricter and more philosophically penetrating and sound. His manner of speaking, again like that of Wynand, points in a very different direction from the standard paradigms of selflessness. The paradigm he offers in their place is the unscrupulous careerist Peter Keating, whose highly traditionalist and conventional work in architecture is calculated to achieve what most people regard as "success":
"In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? Greatness — in other people's eyes. Fame, admiration, envy — all that which comes from others. Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them. Others were his motive power and his prime concern. ... It is his ego that he's given up." (657-8.)
Wynand points out that Toohey would probably say that Keating was actually being selfish because his desires, including the desire to be "noticed, liked, admired," are all "selfish motives." Roark's answer reveals an important feature of his conceptions of selflessness, of selfishness, and ultimately of power: "In the realm of greatest importance — the realm of values, of judgement, of spirit, of thought — [such motives] place others above self, in the exact manner which altruism demands." The reason why this is the "realm of greatest importance" is suggested by his comments on Keating: the faculty of judging and establishing values is what the self is. That is why it is possible for Keating, and of course anyone else, to give up the self: to do so, one need only find some substitute for one's own judging and valuing activities. There is in fact only one possible substitute: namely, to take the judgements and values of someone else as if they were one's own. Of those who manage this substitution, Roark says: "They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand." (657)
Roark then gives several examples of character-types he regards as "second-handers." One is "the man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front ... and derives his self-respect from that, second hand." Another is the person who "professes a love for the ... less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparison."17 (658.) At the end of the discussion, in which Wynand appears to think that the two of them are in complete agreement, Roark thinks to himself: "I haven't mentioned to him the worst second-hander of all — the man who goes after power" (660). It is clear, from the fact that he is referring to Wynand at this point, that the power he is referring to is simply hegemonic power: the worst sort of second-hander is the one who seeks power over others. The reason the for this judgement is not made explicit until Roark's courtroom speech.
In his courtroom speech, he makes an important move that he refrained from making in the last dialogue with Wynand: he specifies and describes the way of life that he takes to be the only alternative to the second-hander's way. The name he gives to the alternative character-type has an eminently Nietzschean clang to it: he calls contrasting type "the creator."18 His initial description of it suggests a much deeper connection than merely verbal echoes:
"The creators are not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power — that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He had lived for himself." (737.)19
Here Roark characterizes the positive pole of his distinction between the two ways of life first of all in terms of its power, and he characterizes the nature of this power as a process that, because its activity flows from its own internal nature and not from external stimuli, presents itself to an external point of view as spontaneous. So far, the point of view is thoroughly Nietzschean. The anti-Nietzschean moment comes near the end of the speech, when he says that the sphere of activity of the creator "includes the whole sphere of his creative faculty, his work," but "does not include the sphere of the gangster, the altruist and the dictator" (740-41). The reason he immediately gives for this pronouncement is however strikingly Nietzschean:
"Rulers of men ... create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker, the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter." (741.)
As a criticism of the "rulers of men," this line of thinking has two essential elements that are quite different and become explicit in different parts of his speech. On the one hand, he is alleging parasitism of a physical sort. Part of his concern, as he indicates earlier, is with the ways in which human beings manage to survive. As he says:
"Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways — by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary." (738.)
Part of the criticism of "ruling" lies in the simple fact that, in so far as hegemony functions as a way of making one's way, of surviving, then what one is doing is getting others to provide one with the wherewithal to live. It is the original producers who are using their powers to make human life possible, the ruler is simply, in this respect, a parasite, physically dependent on others. As Roark puts it, "the basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed" (738). It is easy to see how someone could use this idea to argue that this way of life represents an low grade or quantity of power. There is, as I have said, another aspect of Roark's critique of hegemonic power. It is less obvious than this one but necessary to the unity of his position. He touches on this aspect when at one point in his speech he says: "The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves" (738). There are two completely different sorts of parasitism being alleged here. The sort of parasitism that he says is brought about by one who attempts to live for others is obviously the physical dependence that I have just addressed: he is saying that if one is the recipient of the altruistically donated services of others one is, in that respect, physically dependent on the productive capacities of others for the wherewithal to make one's way in the world.
But the other sort of parasitism, the parasitism "in motive," which exists in the one who renders the services, and just because one has made the attempt to live for others, is an entirely different sort of thing. So, for that matter, is the sort of dependence that he was alleging in the description of Keating in the earlier dialogue with Wynand. There the dependence, the secondariness, of the second-hander was located not, primarily, in the realm of physical fact, but in that of the consciousness of the facts. As Rand puts it earlier in an earlier passage summarizing Keating's psychology:
He was great; great as the number of people who told him so. He was right; right as the number of people who believed him. He looked at the faces, at the eyes; he saw himself born in them, he saw himself being granted the gift of life. (196-97.)
For Keating, the standard of value, the one feature of the world that is an infallible indicator of value, is not in his own consciousness, nor in the facts, but in other people's estimates of the facts. Keating is not only a physical parasite but, one might say, an axiological parasite, in that the consciousness of others is what puts the stamp of value one his own life. At the basis of his system of values is thus a certain compulsion to look outward. He does not seek the other in order to gratefully affirm a pre-existing conviction of his own value, but for the foundation of his values. To understand fully his way of life is to see it as a reaction to external stimuli. All this of course is in accord with Nietzsche's way of thinking on these matters. But Roark suggests by implication that those whose fundamental value is to rule others are open to the same sort of critique. He does not explicitly say why this is so in his courtroom speech, but Rand hints at the reason in the novel, primarily in the characterization of Keating.
At first glance, this seems odd. Keating, one might suppose, is a quite different sort of character from the predatory Wynand. He is the charming young man who makes his way by pleasing others — by flattering them and imitating them, and not by overcoming and subduing them. Actually, Rand is careful to indicate that there is a darker site to Keating's second-handedness, and her treatment of Keating is meant to show how both sorts of parasitism are essential to the character-type that seeks power over others.
Keating's character has always had a predatory side, an aspect that he describes (using the term in an un-Roarkian sense) as "selfish." Soon after he goes to work for the architectural firm of Francon and Heyer, he goes to work on Tim Davis, the favored draftsman in the office; eventually, as a series of devious "favors" for him, he takes over most of Davis' responsibilities in the office, so that he is eventually fired. Keating takes his place. He then manipulates the head designer, Claude Stengel, into leaving the firm in order to start one of his own. Then, when he comes to face his first assignment as designer, the thought of the men he defeated in order to win this opportunity is deeply meaningful to him, and yet at the same time somehow meaningless. He "thought of Tim Davis, of Stengel, of many others who had wanted [this opportunity], had struggled for it, had tried, had been beaten — by him. It was a triumphant feeling." Yet as far as the actual execution of this assignment itself is concerned, these victories are no help at all. Instead of seeing the building, a simple residence, "rise up before him, he saw it sinking; he saw its shape as a pit in the ground; and as a pit within him; as an emptiness, with only Davis and Stengel rattling uselessly within it." (70.)
When he has drawn up a plan for the house he is, in spite of many hours of work on it, still radically uncertain of its value; and he decides to do the same thing he had done with his most important projects in college: he seeks Roark's help. Later, when he is attempting to design a submission for a highly publicized building competition, his one great chance for early fame, the incident is narrated in a manner calculated to underline the parallel with his designing his first residence. Keating finds himself thinking of "the man who might win and be proclaimed publicly his superior," of the absolute necessity of defeating that man. As to the inner resources he might use to beat him, "there was no Peter Keating, there was only a suction chamber" that sucked other beings dry "and thus acquired its own substance." Again, he goes to Roark for help. (180.) Overcoming and subduing other people is not merely a side-effect of Keating's achieving his goals, nor is it a means to an end. It is one of his values, in the sense that it is something that he pursues as good in itself. What Rand is suggesting is that if such things are pursued as good in themselves, then the there is no way to satisfactorily explain why it has this sort of value except by supposing that it rests on the sense of validity one derives from the consciousness of others, either of the defeated rivals or those who are impressed by it. The point of the activity lies in either case in the substitution of the recognition by some other person for one's own judgement. The seeking of hegemonic power, then, is an instance of the axiological parasitism of the second-hander in fundamentally the same way that Keating's less malevolent activities are. Those who seek ultimately to rule or hurt others are "selfless" in the same way that those who seek ultimately to serve or please others.
There is one more important criticism in The Fountainhead directed at those who seek power over others. It is incomplete, at least if it is interpreted as a criticism of hegemonic power in general and not merely to particular sort of hegemony that Wynand seeks, but the portion of it that is in the text is elaborately and persuasively developed. It is embodied in the sequence of events that lead to Wynand's defeat at the hands of Roark's enemies, and ends with the elegiac internal monologue that serves as a sort of self-inscribed epitaph. Those events began with the same catastrophe that led to Roark's trial. Roark designed Cortlandt Homes, a government housing project. The design was submitted by Peter Keating (fraudulently, but with Roark's collusion) as his own work, and accepted, with a contract promising that it would be erected exactly as designed. In violation of the contract, the government added two "associate designers" to the project, who made various pointless but expensive modifications that marred the aesthetics of the buildings and compromised its functional integrity as an experiment in low-cost housing. Without any effective legal means to protect his project, Roark destroyed it with a blast of dynamite and turned himself in to stand trial. Already controversial, he became a media whipping boy. At this point, Wynand decides to help Roark by using the power of the Banner to defend him. As he sees it, he had spent thirty-five years pandering to the lowest urges and prejudices of the public in order to possess power. It is a power he had never really used because, he said, he had never had a cause to fight for. Now that he and Roark are friends, he finally has a cause. He has found an end that would justify the unprincipled means that he has been using for so long. "We have always made public opinion," he tells his employees, "so let's make it" (678).
The result is a complete disaster for Wynand. Instead of justifying his life, it reveals that his has been based in a mistake. When he violates the contract of an employee who refuses to cooperate in his campaign by firing him, the union goes on strike. His campaign does nothing to help Roark's reputation. It simply adds another to the long list of popular objections to Roark: that he has for some inscrutable reason become "Wynand's pet." The circulation of the Banner goes into steep decline. Truckloads of copies come back unsold and unread. No sooner does Wynand turn sharply against public opinion than his power over it evaporates as if it had never existed. Finally, there is a meeting of the board of directors at which its members demand that he reverse his position to save the paper from complete ruin. Realizing that the campaign is impossible in principle, he authorizes Scarret to write an editorial denouncing Roark. In an internal monologue as he wanders aimlessly down the city streets, he reflects on the illusory appearance of his power. "You were a ruler of men," he says to himself. "You held a leash. A leash is only a rope with a noose at both ends." (716.) What he thought was power on his part was built on pandering to popular prejudices. Insofar as he had any power at all, it was wielded according to a certain strict condition: it had to be used to express those prejudices. As soon as this condition was violated, the appearance of power disappeared, and the reality became visible: it was his would-be subjects who had power over him.
"I made every one of those who destroyed me. There is a beast on earth, dammed safely by its own impotence. I broke the dam. ... I gave them the weapon. I gave them my strength, my energy, my living power." (719-20.)
Obviously, what is being asserted here is that the sort of power that Wynand has sought, the end for which he has sacrificed his integrity, is not genuine power at all. The condition on which it is held is so drastically constraining that it virtually amounts to power granted to others rather than power that one holds oneself. As I have suggested, this claim, if it is interpreted as an objection to hegemonic power in general, is not complete as it stands. The particular sort of power that Wynand sought and could be said to possess is the ability to influence people's opinions. This is a sort of power about which this sort of claim is particularly plausible. It is plausible to think, at any rate, that if we attempt to explain how one person might influence the opinions of another, we must suppose that they are appealing to some belief that other person has — that is, that they already have. So we can only have "power" over what someone thinks by acting as if we agree with some more fundamental belief that they have. There is another, more brutal sort of power than the one Wynand represents, one that rests on threats of one sort or another, the most obvious sort being ones that involve physical violence. This sort of power is not subject to this particular constraint. If it is nonetheless subject to one that is relevantly like it, one that is constraining in a similar way, that remains to be shown. It is not clear that The Fountainhead has anything to say on this particular point.
The Fountainhead embodies at least three different objections to the Nietzschean idea of power. More exactly, they are objections to the idea that power, as Nietzsche conceived it, is an adequate characterization of an ethical ideal: that it represents an ultimate value, which someone should strive to achieve as good in itself. The aspect of this conception of power that is criticized is the fact that it includes hegemonic power. The first objection is based on the claim that power over others is a physically parasitic state in which one's continued existence is supported by the creative efforts of others. The second alleges that to pursue hegemonic power as good in itself is an axiologically parasitic state, in which one relies on the consciousness of others for the one's estimate of one's own value. Third, hegemonic power, or at least certain forms of it, are not really forms of power at all, but constitute rather a certain subjection to the power of others. One factor that makes these objections interesting is the fact that, as I suggested at the outset, they are in various ways internal criticisms. The first two objections raise the possibility that Nietzsche's own ideal is open to the same sort of critique that Nietzsche directs toward slave morality. The third objection, the incomplete one, would imply (supposing it can be successfully completed) that hegemony is not a way to achieve Nietzsche's own stated ultimate value: which is, of course, power.
The most important question here is, of course: How good are these objections to Nietzsche's doctrine? I think a full assessment of their merits is far more than I can attempt here. I would however, like to make three relatively modest points, all of which tell in favor of The Fountainhead. First, whatever its philosophical merits might be, the social or political value of this sort of critique is in one respect obvious. Rand is attempting to transform the sorts of values Nietzsche advocated into something that is consistent with the basic assumptions of a liberal society. In view of the fact that Nietzsche has had many thousands of sympathetic readers in countries with no aristocracy and little ambition to become a Herrenvolk, what Rand is trying to do is at least something that ought to be attempted. It is difficult to think of another practical moralist who made the attempt. It seems that the many people who are sympathetic to Nietzsche and also to liberalism should be interested in pursuing further this sort of attempted transformation.
Second, I think evidence I have presented here suggests that these objections do not rest on a misinterpretation of Nietzsche. He depicts power as the good, and avoids making the distinction, which Rand makes boldly and clearly, between what I have called hegemonic and dynamic power. This avoidance is the root of her disagreement with him. There is no doubt much more to be said on this point, but it is clear at least that, if there is a misinterpretation here, it is not an obvious one.20
Third, and perhaps most important, I doubt that Nietzsche's doctrine contains any ready answer to any of these criticisms. This, however, is admittedly not indicated by evidence that I have presented already, so I will make a few comments about it here in closing.
Of the two objections to Nietzsche's power-ideal that are not incomplete as they stand, one is probably not the sort of objection that he would take seriously, mainly because his aristocratic paradigm in morals tended to render it invisible. This is the idea that to the extent that one lives by means of hegemonic power, one is a physical parasite. The idea that true power lies in supporting yourself, in paying your way, was never an element in the aristocratic value-systems that Nietzsche tends to admire. The "masters" have always despised the farmers, craftsmen, and traders whom they robbed and exploited. The fact that these people produce things of value (which the masters can then expropriate) was deemed a mark of their inferiority, and of the masters' right to expropriate them: it is not noble to make one's living by producing and distributing things. The question that Rand raises is that, though these aristocratic codes may have been self-consistent, Nietzsche's defense of them may not be. If my interpretation is right (section 4, above) one fundamental reason why master morality is supposed to be superior is that it represents genuine moral creativity. Master morality is a spontaneous, creative act in morals, while slave morality is basically a reaction to it. The question is, why would producing new value be a good thing in the realm of moral ideas, but not in the realm of action? If there are reasons to admire productivity in the realm of ideas, why would they not apply to the realm of goods and services? Perhaps Nietzsche should have taken this sort of objection seriously.21
With the other of the so to speak "complete" objections that Rand raises, she carries the critique into Nietzsche's home territory, that of individual psychology. She suggests, ultimately by means of the characterization of Keating, that those who seek power are basing their sense of their own value on others: namely, those they manage to subdue. Why isn't this a form of the need to cast one's glance outward, which is supposed to mark the slave's point of view as deficient? This question threatens to drive a wedge between two elements of Nietzsche's ideal that he seems to think are indissolubly linked (GM II 12): value-positing spontaneity on the one hand, and hegemony on the other. To answer it, Nietzsche, or someone friendly to this aspect of his project, would probably want to develop further the psychology of the power-seeker and the power-valuer in a way that makes them out to be axiologically independent. This might not be easy to do without distorting the facts. Historically, the "masters" lived by a code of "honor," which was an extreme form of what Roark calls living "second hand," of validating one's ego by seeking the good opinion of one's neighbor.22
Of course, I don't mean to suggest that the discussion of the issues Ayn Rand raised is over and Friedrich Nietzsche has lost. It has barely begun. I do claim that these matters should be pursued further. The issues Rand unearths are clearly decisive ones for anyone who wants to apply Nietzschean ideas in the world we now live in, for anyone who wants to develop a usable Nietzsche.23
© 2005 Lester H. Hunt
Philosophy at Troynovant