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I have spent a good deal of my professional career studying the philosophy of
Objectivism, including the Objectivist ethics, as a system of principles. That system was laid out most fully, with the greatest breadth and rigor, in Atlas Shrugged and in Ayn Rand’s later philosophical essays. From this standpoint, it is a natural temptation to look back on The Fountainhead as merely a first attempt, a preliminary sketch of the system. As I thought about The Fountainhead on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, however, and as I reread the book for the first time in many years, I tried to put my knowledge of Rand’s later work to one side. I tried to approach the novel as a naive reader, the kind of reader who might have bought the book in 1943, curious to see what this new novel of ideas was all about; the kind of reader that I myself was at the age of sixteen, when I first picked up the book, having heard vague reports that it had something to do with individualism, atheism, sex, and other things that were on my mind at the time. What struck me when I approached The Fountainhead in this way was how complete it was, how perfect an expression of the moral sense and sensibility that has drawn so many people to Objectivism. To explain what I mean by this, I need to begin by saying a few words about the concept of a moral sense.
A moral sense is the whole constellation of values, ideals, and moral rules and principles, that govern our evaluations of ourselves and others. Our moral sense determines the content of our judgments about what is proper or improper, what is fair or unfair, what is deserving of praise or blame—on the job, in family life, in politics, or any other realm of action. It determines the content of our conception of a good person, of a hero or a saint, an ideal to be emulated. It determines the content of such emotions as anger, pride, remorse,
The Literary Art of Ayn Rand
guilt, respect, and admiration—the so-called moral emotions, so-called because they presuppose the use of ethical concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, worthy and unworthy. Particular aspects of a moral sense can be formulated explicitly as principles. And in theory, it would be possible to express the whole content of a moral sense explicitly, in language. But this would be an enormous undertaking because of the enormous complexity and comprehensiveness of a moral sense. The normative concepts involved are extremely abstract. They are integrated in complex ways into moral rules and principles, hierarchies of values and virtues. They are tied to reality, and thus gain their meaning, from countless experiences in our own lives, from the stories of moral heroes and villains we learn in childhood, from the daily rain of moral pronouncements issuing from the pulpit, from the media, from movies and books. This is why art, and specifically literature, has always been the primary means of conveying a moral sense. One can learn a great deal about the conventional moral sense of ancient Greece, its dominant ethos, by reading Plato and Aristotle, but it is Homer who gives us the full sense, the personal reality, of that ethos. In the same way, the Christian ethos is best conveyed through Augustine’s highly personalized Confessions, or Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Ayn Rand herself observed that normative abstractions . . .are almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act: no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions. . . . There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure—an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible.1 If it is difficult to convey a conventional moral sense, an outlook that is widely accepted within a given society, think how much more difficult it is to propose a fundamentally new moral sense and to convey it with enough clarity, enough breadth, enough detail, for us to grasp it as a moral sense—that is, as a distinctive way of thinking, feeling, and acting, across the whole range of a human life. This is what Ayn Rand accomplished as a philosopher and a novelist. The Fountainhead is her first full presentation of this moral sense. A reader who approaches the book from the standpoint of the conventional ethos in our own society would be struck by how fully Rand engages that ethos, how deeply she challenges it, how radically she transforms it. At least, that’s what struck me on rereading the novel, and I know that it is what bowled me over at the age of sixteen. So here I want to discuss the
The Code of the Creator
moral sense of The Fountainhead, the moral sense which I am going to call the code of the creator, and the way this new moral sense relates to the conventional ethos. I want to show how you get here from there. Ayn Rand sometimes wrote as if conventional ethics were defined by a single outlook antithetical to hers: the morality of altruism. I think the truth is somewhat more complex than that. Our conventional ethos, the moral sense dominant when The Fountainhead was published and still dominant today, is made of various strands that emerged from different sources historically, and are concerned with different aspects of human life and experience. I am going to spend some time at the outset describing what I think are the three most important of these strands, what I will call the religious, the aristocratic, and the bourgeois ethics. Then we will return to The Fountainhead, and see how it relates to each of them.
The Conventional Ethos
Achilles and Jesus
As a point of departure in describing the conventional ethos, let us consider the seven cardinal virtues of medieval Christianity: moderation, courage, wisdom, justice, faith, hope, and charity. The first four virtues on this list—moderation, courage, wisdom, and justice—are derived from the Greeks; they are the four virtues described in Plato’s Republic, and the Greek conception of them can be traced back to Homer. Faith, hope, and charity, by contrast, are the theological virtues derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition, specifically from the New Testament of the Bible. This is not a consistent list of virtues, despite the heroic efforts of medieval philosophers to reconcile them. For example, wisdom is a virtue of reason, the ability to integrate one’s experience coherently and arrive at sound judgments. It is flatly inconsistent with the Christian concept of faith as a kind of intellectual humility, the willingness to believe without demanding reasons or the evidence of the senses. Again, justice is the virtue of giving each man his due; it is based on the concept of the earned, and presupposes the willingness to pass judgment on others. It contradicts the Christian emphasis on mercy, and the doctrine “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” which are elements of the virtue charity. Even in the case of moderation, there is a difference to be noted. Moderation for the Greeks meant self-discipline, the strength of the soldier who forgoes comfort and indulgence for the sake of glory. It did not involve the asceticism practiced by many Christians, who took a much more hostile view of the pleasures of the flesh. But the most important difference between the Greek and Christian
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virtues is the one that Friedrich Nietzsche called attention to. Temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice are aristocratic virtues, emblems of nobility, success, and power. Like the Latin word “virtus,” from which our word “virtue” derives, the Greek “arete” denoted the valor, the manly virtue, of a warrior like Achilles. By contrast, the religious ethic emphasized passivity: acceptance of suffering, submission to God’s will, faith in the judgment of God and hope for a better life hereafter. Christians associated virtue with the poor, with those who suffer, with those oppressed by the mighty of the world. Thus where the Greek conception is elitist, the Christian is egalitarian. The themes of passivity and egalitarianism are best expressed in the Beatitudes, where Jesus says: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. . . . Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5: 2–10) Despite the differences and tensions between them, these two conceptions of virtue have coexisted in Western culture for a long time, and they still exist side by side in the conventional moral sense. On the one hand, aristocratic courage, cunning, and discipline, the command of self and others. On the other hand, religious charity, meekness, sacrifice, the brotherhood of man. On the one side, the heroic figure of the proud and fearless Achilles. On the other side, the saintly figure of Jesus, who walked with the rabble and died for their sins. The conventional ethos admires both heroes and saints.2
The aristocratic and religious elements of this ethos have long coexisted, despite their differences, because they are both tribal ethics. For a tribal ethic, the group is the unit of existence and value; it is the group as a whole that faces the challenge of surviving and flourishing. The individual’s primary relationship is to the group, for he cannot survive or flourish outside it. Both the Greek and the Christian ethics emerged from a background of actual tribal life, the life of nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers, and clans engaged in primitive agriculture, where the individual’s survival did indeed depend on the group. Without the technology to protect himself against nature, he could not survive in isolation. Without trade, travel, or emigration across the boundaries of the clan, he could not survive by forming his own voluntary society. Hence
The Code of the Creator
it is not surprising that in primitive tribes, ethical practices largely serve the purpose of promoting the solidarity and the interests of the group. The concept of virtue, in particular, is associated with the regulation of self-interest for the sake of the common good. This is obvious in the Christian ethos, which explicitly commands self-sacrifice and humility, turning the other cheek, giving rather than receiving. The Greeks, for their part, never advocated altruism in anything like the Christian sense. But their virtues nonetheless had a tribal focus. Courage and moderation were the virtues of warriors who protected the group by risking their lives in combat. And their reward was glory, the approbation of their peers. The heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as historic leaders like Alexander the Great, were quite explicit that this was their motive. A point of particular importance is that in this primitive mode of existence, there is a more or less fixed amount of wealth available. There may be lean years and fat years, but the fruits of the hunt and the harvest do not continually increase over the long haul. It is thus natural for people to assume that the distribution of wealth is a zero sum game, with one person’s gain being another’s loss. The only way to expand the pool of goods available is by conquest. Hence the emphasis placed on the virtues of the warrior. Within the tribe, morality is concerned largely with the equitable division of goods. In this context, the individual’s desire for gain is perceived as a threat, and the willingness to sacrifice, or at least to limit one’s claim to one’s fair share of the common pool of goods, is naturally regarded as a major virtue.
In fact, wealth is not a static quantity. It may be expanded through economic exchange and technological progress—a fact that became increasingly clear during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, there emerged a new ethic, distinct from the aristocratic and religious outlooks. The virtues involved were those of the bourgeoisie, the people of the towns, who prospered by trade rather than conquest, and whose position was based on contract rather than aristocratic privilege. The new ethic was based, in part at least, on a recognition that wealth is not a fixed quantity but is created through exchange. Comparing the landed aristocracy with the new merchant class, Daniel Defoe put it this way: “an Estate is but a Pond, but Trade is a Spring.”3 The cardinal virtues of the bourgeois ethic are tied to the requirements of trade and commercial success. These virtues include honesty and fairness in business dealings, the keeping of contracts and respect for property. They include what might be called the facilitating bourgeois virtues— reliability, courtesy, and punctuality—which grease the wheels of commerce.
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They include frugality and thrift in the use of money, and more generally enterprise and industry in one’s work. The most famous expression of the bourgeois ethic is Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. As a young man, Franklin conceived “the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.”4 To that end, he distilled from his reading and experience a list of thirteen virtues as a way of defining for himself the content of moral perfection. Among these virtues were the following: Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e., waste nothing. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.5 The interesting thing about such virtues is that they are concerned with the production of wealth rather than its distribution. They are concerned with the profitable use of one’s time, money and other resources, rather than one’s relation to other people. These virtues have no real counterparts in the aristocratic or religious conceptions; they pertain to a realm of activity that had been morally invisible before.
The conventional ethos, then, is made up of three identifiable strands—the aristocratic, the religious, and the bourgeois—Achilles, Jesus, and Ben Franklin. An unlikely trinity, to be sure, but it gives us the coordinates of conventional morality, the latitude and longitude of the conventional virtues. Despite the contradictions among these strands, they all contribute to the normal reader’s sense of how one should behave, what values one should live for, what sort of person is admirable. The point I want to make about The Fountainhead is that it speaks to every aspect of this ethos, and provides a comprehensive and internally consistent alternative to it. In her later work, Rand tended to reduce her opponents to a single axis, the mystic-altruist axis. The villains in Atlas, for example, tend to be one-dimensional variations on this theme. In The Fountainhead, there is a greater variety of character types. She seems more
The Code of the Creator
attuned to the different elements in the conventional outlook of her readers. She employs many of the symbols and endorses many of the virtues associated with the strands I have described. But she gives all of them a radically new meaning, a new place in her vision of the meaning of life and the heroic potential of human nature. So let us turn at last to the book itself.
The Ethics of Individualism
Ayn Rand said that the theme of The Fountainhead is “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul. . . .”6 I want to comment on three specific aspects of this theme, as it is embodied in Roark’s character and his interactions with the other figures in the novel, especially Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey, and Gail Wynand. Roark is a man of independence, he is an egoist, and he is a creator, a paragon of productive achievement. These three concepts—independence, egoism, and achievement—are the key to understanding the moral sense of The Fountainhead, and the ways in which it differs from the conventional ethos. The novel gives us a completely new understanding of the meaning and moral significance of these concepts.
Let us begin with the issue of independence versus dependence. Rand makes it clear from the outset that independence does not consist in nonconformity. Henry Cameron says to Roark, “I wouldn’t care, if you were an exhibitionist who’s being different as a stunt, as a lark, just to attract attention to himself. It’s a smart racket, to oppose the crowd and amuse it and collect admission to the sideshow.”7 Later on, we meet a number of artists, protégés of Toohey, who are engaged in precisely that kind of racket: the writer who did not use capital letters, the painter who “used no canvas, but did something with bird cages and metronomes,” and the like. When Toohey’s friends asked him how he could support such rabid individualists, he smiled blandly. He knew that these “iconoclasts” were merely playing off conventions, for the sake of shock value; they were just as dependent on others as the most abject conformist. And most of them, like the writer Lois Cook, had a smirky kind of awareness that they were getting away with something, foisting trash on a credulous public (306–7). (I sometimes think that Andy Warhol got his ideas from these passages of The Fountainhead.) Real independence is a trait of mind. It is a commitment to one’s own perception of reality as an absolute standard of thought and action. This is what disturbed most people about Roark. His primary connection was to the world, not to other people. His convictions, his artistic judgments, his commit-
The Literary Art of Ayn Rand
ment to his goals, were not filtered through any awareness of what other people thought or felt. It was not rebelliousness; it was indifference. “‘You know,’” said the Dean, when Roark explained why he did not wish to be readmitted to Stanton, “‘you would sound much more convincing if you spoke as if you cared whether I agreed with you or not.’ ‘That’s true,’ said Roark. ‘I don’t care whether you agree with me or not.’ He said it so simply that it did not sound offensive, it sounded like the statement of a fact which he noticed, puzzled, for the first time.” (26) Keating, by contrast, is an instrument who registers every twitch and nuance in his social environment. Rand describes his chronic fear of “that mysterious entity of consciousness within others,” (67) which he spends his life trying to appease and control. “Always be what people want you to be,” he says to Roark at one point (262). Keating takes great relief when he notices that Guy Francon is putting on a pretense for his, Keating’s benefit (42). It means that Francon too is a man of the tribe, with the same predominant orientation toward the consciousness of others. When Keating first proposes to Dominique, “he spoke rapidly, easily; he was lying now, and so he was sure of himself and it was not difficult.” (182) A lie is an effort to manipulate the consciousness of others, a goal that comes naturally to Keating. Though he is an intelligent man, not without some decency, he is fundamentally incapable of being honest, because the concept of truth—the grasp of reality by his own mind—is foreign and frightening. Roark’s independence is the source of his heroic strength. As I noted earlier, the conventional ethos has always admired strength and the aristocratic virtues associated with it, especially courage. Since the Enlightenment, moreover, courage and strength have been linked to independence, the mental strength to stand alone against the crowd. Ayn Rand is not the first writer to portray a man of integrity who fights for his ideals against popular opinion. But she was the first to affirm that independence is not a matter of whether one agrees with others. It’s a matter of whether one’s mental functioning agrees with reality, whether truth is one’s goal and logic one’s method. For an independent person, the sheer fact of what others believe or value is of no concern because it is not relevant to truth. Independence, in short, is a form of rationality. The concept of independence names the same phenomenon as the concept of rationality, with a special emphasis on the fact that reason is an attribute of the individual, a faculty that must be exercised and directed by one’s own autonomous choice. It is interesting to note that rationality is not a virtue endorsed by any of the strands that make up the conventional ethos—not in the full-blooded sense that Rand intends. The religious ethic, of course, is actively opposed to rationality; it commands faith and reliance on authority. The Greeks, for their part, considered wisdom a virtue, but their conception of wisdom always con-
The Code of the Creator
tained a conventional, conservative element. The wise man is one who embodies the accumulated wisdom of the group. “Wisdom” is not the term one would use to describe a scientific genius, a brilliant artist, an innovator in any field. But these, for Rand, are the highest exemplars of rationality. Independence, then, is one major element in the moral sense of The Fountainhead. By linking independence to reason, Rand severed its association with subjectivism, with the arbitrary impulses of the iconoclast, with the dark realm of Dionysian passion. Conversely, by linking reason with independence, she gave it a romantic quality as a tool of creative freedom, not a constraint. I am going to return to this last point in discussing her view of creative achievement. But first, let us turn to the issue of egoism and altruism.
Rand’s defense of egoism is the thing she is most famous for, and it is the second major element I want to discuss about the moral sense of The Fountainhead. I noted a moment ago that the nature of Roark’s independence gives a distinctive quality to the portrayal of him as a heroic figure, an embodiment of strength and courage. But now we come to a much more striking difference. The conventional ethos is prepared to admire the aristocratic virtues of strength and courage only if they are combined with the religious virtues of humility and service. This is pattern we find in the stock hero of popular culture, from Ivanhoe to Terminator Two: the knight in shining armor (or the knight of shining armor, in the case of T II), who rides to the rescue of the weak, the poor, the dispossessed. This is not what we find in The Fountainhead . Howard Roark is an egoist who blows up a building—and not just any building, but a housing project for the poor—because his design for the project was altered against his will. Ellsworth Toohey, the apostle of altruism who preaches kindness, unselfishness, humility, forgiveness, the equality and brotherhood of men, is portrayed as a scheming power-seeker who explains to Keating that the purpose of everything he has been preaching is to subjugate all to all, to give humanity “one neck ready for one leash.” (640) In these ways, among many others, The Fountainhead is calculated to outrage the altruist sensibilities of the conventional ethos. At the same time, however, the novel transforms and recasts the issue of egoism versus altruism. On the one hand, Roark does not fit the conventional picture of a selfish man. His integrity, his loyalty to his principles and artistic vision, is so profound that he turns down the commission for the Manhattan Bank Building rather than accept any modification in his design, even knowing that the loss of the commission will mean that he will have to
The Literary Art of Ayn Rand
close his office and go to work on a construction gang. Yet when he is asked how he can be so fanatical and selfless, he answers: “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.” (198) On the other hand, it is interesting that none of Roark’s antagonists, who illustrate different aspects of “collectivism in man’s soul,” is a practicing altruist. Toohey does engage in some acts of apparent altruism. He gives away a hundred thousand dollar bequest (222). He appears in court to defend Stephen Mallory, who tried to shoot him (245). But it is clear that these are mere stratagems in Toohey’s quest for power. Gail Wynand also seeks power, but goes about it the old-fashioned way. He is a very nearly pure embodiment of the aristocratic ethos, an Achilles of the yellow press, whose intelligence, courage, discipline, and single-minded pursuit of his purpose are presented in a favorable light. But he neither preaches nor practices altruism. Peter Keating, finally, is the conventional man on the make. He wants wealth, fame, and status; he will do anything to get them. On his way to the top of the architectural profession, he maneuvers to get his colleagues fired. He is partly responsible for the death of Francon’s partner, Lucius Heyer. He uses Roark’s design, without acknowledgment, to win a prestigious competition. He lacks any shred of integrity. What Toohey, Wynand, and Keating have in common, what makes all of them collectivists in soul, is that their primary purposes involve other people. The central values they seek in life depend on the values, beliefs, and feelings that others happen to have. Toohey and Wynand want power, not as a means to some higher purpose, but as an end in itself; they live for the sake of engendering fear, submission, and obedience in the consciousness of other people. What Keating wants is approval, by whatever standard the approvers may choose to employ. He wants superiority over others—by whatever standard of ranking the world has adopted. Even his desire for wealth is largely a desire to spend money in ways that impress others. Catherine Halsey, who is the only practicing altruist in the book, starts out as an idealist but is corrupted by her own ideal: she soon becomes a petty tyrant of a social worker, and comes to resent poor people who succeed without her help. She becomes dependent on the existence of suffering and the gratitude of the sufferers. In their various ways, these characters illustrate Rand’s rejection of the idea that the central question in ethics is the question of who gets what, who benefits. She rejects the view of the self as essentially a recipient of the goods that the tribe can dispense. The self in her view is essentially an agent. It is “the thing that thinks and values and makes decisions,”as Dominique puts it in a conversation with Keating (426). This is why the self is to be preserved and honored. This is why Roark’s integrity is selfish: he is loyal to the convictions and values that make him the person, the individual, the self that he is. In this respect, Rand’s argument against altruism is that it is not com-
The Code of the Creator
patible with independence. “The man who attempts to live for others,” says Roark in his trial speech, “is a dependent,” (681) and the same is true of the person who seeks to rule others—or gain their approval. The virtue of independence applies to the choice of ends as well as means. It is only when we are free of each other in this way that we can deal with each other as independent equals. And it is only on these terms that genuine kindness and mutual respect are possible. For example, Austin Heller is struck by the fact that Roark has no fundamental need of him, yet when Roark praises one of his articles, he “felt the strangely clean joy of a sanction that was neither a bribe nor alms.” (136) Rand goes out of her way to distinguish kindness and sympathy, which are compatible with respect for their object, from pity, which is not. When the sculptor Stephen Mallory first meets Roark and bares his anguished soul, he “looked at Roark and saw the calmest, kindest face—a face without a hint of pity. . . .it did not bear the cast of the hungry soul that feeds upon another’s humiliation.” (329) Later in the novel, Keating shows Roark the paintings he has done in a futile effort to recapture the artistic impulse of his youth. Roark tells him it is too late, and is “sick with pity”; Roark wonders at “this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed. There was shame in this feeling. . . .” (583–4) Rand’s point is that the altruist ethic, by making pity for suffering the touchstone of virtue, treats man as a metaphysical incompetent and dependent.
I said a moment ago that Rand views human beings primarily as agents, not as recipients. That is true, but it is too abstract. She views human beings specifically as creators and achievers. If one’s primary relationship is to reality, not to other people, as independence requires, then one’s central purpose must be the creation of value in the world. This is why Roark describes his morality not as the code of the egoist but as “the code of the creator.” (682) And it brings us to the third and final key element in the moral sense of The Fountainhead: Rand’s view of productive achievement. The altruist ethic, as we have seen, was based partly on the view of wealth as a fixed, static quantity available for distribution. The surprising thing is the perpetuation of this view into an industrial age, when wealth is continually being expanded through production and trade. Economists have known for two hundred years that economic exchange is not a zero sum game, in which one person can gain only at the expense of someone else. Yet the conventional ethos has not fully grasped this fact.
The Literary Art of Ayn Rand
“Men have been taught”[said Roark]“that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the secondhander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.” (682) The needs of the creator were partly recognized by the bourgeois ethic. The bourgeois virtues, as we have seen, are largely concerned with the creation of wealth through production and exchange. In this respect, the bourgeois ethic permitted and even endorsed the pursuit of self-interest. Yet its endorsement of self-interest was partial and it was tepid. Observed Samuel Johnson: “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.”8 This is a far cry from the aristocratic ethos, which looked down its nose at trade, and an even farther cry from the Christian view, which held that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But Johnson’s remark also contains a subtle barb. To say that money-making is innocent is rather faint praise. In a fascinating work called The Passions and the Interests, Albert Hirschman describes a tendency in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to regard self-interest as a bulwark against the heroic passions for religious salvation and military glory. Salvation and glory might be noble ends, it was felt, but the passions they inflame lead to irrationality, civil strife, and bloodshed. The pursuit of self-interest, by contrast, leads to peaceful and productive exchange among people. It relies on calculation and reflection—the calm exercise of reason rather than passion. Indeed, tranquillity of mind appeared on Franklin’s list of virtues. In effect, the bourgeois ethic retained the ancient attitude that commerce is not a particularly worthy or heroic activity. It is safe, it is useful, it is sober and respectable. But there is nothing exalted about it, nothing in it to engage a sense of moral idealism.9 This is one reason why so many artists and intellectuals of the nineteenth century were hostile to the bourgeois morality. D. H. Lawrence, for example, wrote a sneering attack on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, complaining: “Either we are materialistic instruments, like Benjamin, or we move in the gesture of creation, from our deepest self.”10 In fact, this is a false dichotomy—indeed, a whole series of false dichotomies—regarding the act of creation: that it is the product of emotion as opposed to reason, of free imagination as opposed to facts and logic, of spiritual values as opposed to materialistic ones.
The Code of the Creator
But Lawrence and his ilk were merely perpetuating assumptions that exponents of the bourgeois ethic themselves embraced. The romantics were right in feeling that the bourgeois ethic lacked any sense of passion and exaltation; that it had no place for courage, daring, imagination, heroism, or individuality. In The Fountainhead, Austin Heller describes Roark’s passionate experience of his work as “a combination of holy sacrament, Indian torture and sexual ecstasy.” (253) It is impossible to imagine Benjamin Franklin describing himself in those terms. The writers of the eighteenth century stressed the benefits of production, but they described the creation of wealth from the outside, in economic rather than personal terms. They never identified what is common to the act of creation in all its forms, the common thread that unites the artist, the scientist, the inventor, and the merchant. They never celebrated the originality and daring involved in commercial enterprise. The great achievement of The Fountainhead is that it transcends this opposition between the bourgeois and the romantic sensibilities. Rand was a romantic realist in her ethics as well as her aesthetic theory. She saw reason in romantic terms, as the source of man’s creative powers and imaginative freedom, not their enemy. She brought a sense of grandeur, of exaltation, to the act of productive achievement. In the introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Fountainhead, she notes that religion has had a monopoly on the concepts of exaltation, reverence, and worship—concepts that have “the emotional connotations of height, uplift, nobility, . . . grandeur”—concepts that refer to “the entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal.” (viii–ix) Her ambition was to give these concepts a secular and individualistic meaning. While other humanistic moralities tried to secularize the altruist content of religion, Rand secularized its spiritual elevation. To pick one of many examples from the book, consider her description of the Enright House: The walls of pale gray limestone looked silver against the sky, with the clean, dulled luster of metal, but a metal that had become a warm, living substance, carved by the most cutting of all instruments—a purposeful human will. It made the house alive in a strange, personal way of its own, so that in the minds of spectators five words ran dimly, without object or clear connection: “. . .in His image and likeness. . .” (308) As a product of Roark’s effort, the building partakes of the qualities of its creator: it is a distillation of Roark’s life, his will, his mind. Invoking the phrase “in His image and likeness” from the book of Genesis, Rand invests the human act of creation with the awesome grandeur and power of God’s act of creating the world.
The Literary Art of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s view of productive achievement is the core of her ethic, the point that ties together everything else. Since achievement is the product of reason, rationality is a virtue. Since reason is a faculty of the individual, it requires independence. Since achievement is the creation of value, it requires a valuer whose primary purpose lies in the world, not in other people. And if we value what is created, then we must accord equal value to the creator. We must honor the self—the thing in us that thinks and values and makes decisions, the Prime Mover within us, the fountainhead of our actions—as a thing never to be sacrificed or subordinated. This new moral sense embraces all that is good in conventional morality. It incorporates all that is admirable in the aristocratic ethos—strength, courage, pride, self-discipline—but it holds that the proper function of these virtues is the conquest of nature, not the conquest of men. It incorporates all that is appealing in the religious ethos: kindness and mutual respect; disdain for the snob and the status-seeker; a vision of the brotherhood that is possible among men. But it holds that these things are possible only to men of selfrespect and independence. And finally, of course, Rand accepts those virtues of the producer that the bourgeois ethic recognized, but she gives us a much deeper, fuller, and more inspiring appreciation of the moral significance of the act of production. The new moral sense conveyed by The Fountainhead represents the final emancipation of ethics from its tribal roots. It completes the process begun by the bourgeois recognition that wealth is created, a process that was left unfinished by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. “Civilization,” says Roark, “is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting men free from men.” (684–5) The Fountainhead was the first announcement to the world of a fully civilized ethic.
1 Ayn Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” in The Romantic Manifesto, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: New American Library, 1975), 21. 2 The symbolism of Achilles and Jesus was suggested to me by Donald McCloskey, “Bourgeois Blues,” Reason, May 1993 <http://reason.com/9305/Mccloskey.html>. For Nietzsche’s critique of the religious ethics, see his Genealogy of Morals. 3 Daniel Defoe, A Plan of the English Commerce, 2nd ed. (1730; New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1967), 100. For other classical expressions of this point, see Milton L. Myers, The Soul of Modern Economic Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 16.
The Code of the Creator
4 J. A. Leo LeMay and P. M. Zall, eds., Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), 66. 5 Ibid, 67–68. 6 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: New American Library, 1961), 68. 7 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943; New York: Signet, 1993), 64. All further page references will appear in the text. 8 Boswell’s Life of Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1933), Vol. I, 567. 9 Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). 10 D. H. Lawrence, “Benjamin Franklin,” in Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923), 30.
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