Ayn Rand was a twentieth-century novelist and philosopher who wrote two classic novels and created a new philosophy called “Objectivism.” As a novelist, her writing is full of implicit and explicit philosophic content and so illustrate, in the form of concrete characters and events, what are otherwise challenging and difficult ideas. As a twentieth-century philosopher, she was unique in rejecting the entire modern and post-modern (Kantian) tradition. Instead, she chose to correct, develop, integrate and systematize the ideas of Aristotle and John Locke to the extent of creating an essentially new philosophy filled with her own innovative discoveries. Although she was not an academic and wrote for a popular audience, she nevertheless addressed nearly all of the major issues in technical philosophy. As a result, in recent years there has been a rapidly increasing presence of Objectivist philosophers in academia.
I was first introduced to her ideas in the early 1980s when a friend gave me a copy of her novel The Fountainhead. Reading The Fountainhead had three effects on me. First, it clarified my understanding of myself, of others, and of what’s important in life. Second, it inspired me to spend three years writing a book of my own original ideas about drumming. And third, it spurred an intense interest in philosophy in general and Objectivism in particular that I’ve pursued to the extent of subsequently earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject. Now, after having studied the history of philosophy in detail, I’ve found myself even more impressed with Rand’s achievements.
In my opinion, there is nothing better one can do for oneself than to gain an understanding of philosophy and no better or more pleasurable way to initially immerse oneself in the subject than to read the fiction of Ayn Rand. Starting with fiction is, surprisingly enough, the best way to begin gaining an understanding of a philosophic system because it demonstrates concretely, rather than explains abstractly, the system’s ideas.
For anyone interested, I recommend beginning as I did with my favorite novel, The Fountainhead. In addition to its philosophic content, it’s a story with an engaging plot and compelling characters that’s one of those rare books of which nearly all readers say “once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.”
(To those interested in gaining deeper insights into the characters and ideas of The Fountainhead, pages 223-234 of The Journals of Ayn Rand provides a fascinating adjunct to the novel.)
The implicit philosophic focus of The Fountainhead is on certain features of Rand’s ethics, particularly as concerns the dichotomies of egoism/altruism, selfishness/selflessness, individualism/collectivism, and the moral virtues of independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride. (This focus on ethics is almost certainly what has made the novel an inspiration and a motivation for many readers, such as myself, to pursue and achieve important life goals that they might not have otherwise.)
To make the implicit ethical philosophy in the novel clear and explicit, and to begin dipping your toes into Objectivism as a philosophic system, I recommend following it with a non-fiction book written by Peter Schwartz, who is a specialist in Rand’s ethics and politics, In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive. This book is short, clear, and compelling to read, and while it’s focused primarily on certain aspects of the Objectivist ethics, it also makes clear the link between Rand’s ethics and her politics and relates both to today’s dominant ethical and political context. (As to what might be an off-putting title for the uninitiated, know that her philosophic insights into the dichotomies of selfishness/unselfishness and egoism/altruism result in definitions of those concepts that are fundamentally different from the popular definitions, and thus end up dissolving what would otherwise be legitimate objections to the term “selfishness” as it is conventionally understood (or, she would say, misunderstood)).
Once you’ve read the forgoing, you can fairly say that you have a reasonable familiarity with Rand’s distinctive literary style and with some of the fundamental features of her distinctive ethics and politics. If you’d like to go a step further and become familiar with her philosophy’s metaphysics, epistemology, and her further insights into ethics, psychology, and economics, you’ll want to read the novel that Rand herself considered to be her masterpiece, and that contains a brief outline of her entire philosophic system, Atlas Shrugged.
(To those interested in gaining deeper insights into the characters and ideas of Atlas Shrugged, Cliffnotes Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, written by Objectivist philosopher and Rand literary scholar Andrew Bernstein, is highly recommended.)
To followup the fiction of Atlas Shrugged with a work of non-fiction that makes the philosophic system that is implicit in the novel fully explicit, and that relates that system to those of other philosophers, and provides a full context with which to approach Rand’s entire written corpus of fiction, non-fiction, and cultural commentary, I recommend the excellent A Companion to Ayn Rand (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy).
If you’ve read all of the foregoing, you can fairly say, whether or not you agree with her, that you’ve taken the time to give her ideas a full and fair hearing and that you have full familiarity with Rand’s distinctive literary style and with her philosophy and legacy. If you find yourself in agreement with her at this point, you’ll almost certainly want to go further and learn Objectivism in particular, as well as philosophy in general, in greater depth. What follows are the final recommended steps to begin to achieve these goals.
Rand’s foremost protégé is a professional philosopher named Leonard Peikoff, who, after studying with her for thirty years, wrote a non-fiction treatise on her complete system, called Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. This book is the clearest and best-written work on general philosophy that I’m aware of. It addresses all of the major issues in all the major branches of philosophy systematically and in hierarchical order, usually giving three or so concrete examples to illustrate and “bring to earth” each abstract principle. In short, it is so well thought out and written that it is pleasurable and even exciting to read, particularly after being “primed” by reading Rand’s novels.
Dr. Peikoff is not only a writer but also an exceptionally good teacher and speaker. To complete a basic philosophic education, from here I recommend going in two further directions simultaneously. First, to deepen your understanding of Objectivism, I recommend taking his excellent lecture course, Understanding Objectivism, (also available now in book form), followed by another excellent course, Objectivism Through Induction. Second, to gain an overview of the entire history of Western philosophy, I recommend taking Dr. Peikoff’s wonderful lecture courses, Founders of Western Philosophy: Thales to Hume, Modern Philosophy: Kant to the Present, and Introduction to Logic. And from here you’ll likely want to explore more of Rand’s and Peikoff’s writing on philosophy, including Rand’s book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and Peikoff’s books The Ominous Parallels and The DIM Hypothesis.
Looking for a shorter, simpler introduction involving less commitment? Try reading my favorite Rand novel, The Fountainhead, followed by my two favorite brief lectures by Peikoff, My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir, and Why Should One Act on Principle? At 90 minutes and $4 each, these lectures represent a very small commitment of time and money and are what personally motivated me to begin my exploration of these ideas many years ago.