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Excerpt from Rocking the Boat

In his 1962 book Rocking the Boat, Gore Vidal reprints an article from Esquire magazine, which includes criticisms of Ayn Rand's philosophy.

Ayn Rand is a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read. She has just published a book, For the New Intellectual, subtitled The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, it is a collection of pensées and arias from her novels, and it must be read to be believed. [...]

This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self-interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the "freedom is slavery" sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her "philosophy" but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the welfare state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you're dumb or incompetent that's your lookout.

She is fighting two battles. The first is against the idea of the state's being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other's money openly. She is in legitimate company here. But it is Miss Rand's second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian freethinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and of philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which has figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon "I" is difficult to contain, but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action. The dictionary definition of "moral" is "concerned with the distinction between right and wrong" as in "moral law, the requirements to which right action must conform." Though Miss Rand's grasp of logic is uncertain, she does realize that to make even a modicum of sense she must change all the terms. Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case it was through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Ayn Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.

Her "philosophy" is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters from the deep. Trolls walk the American night.

From "Two Immoralists: Orville Prescott and Ayn Rand" in Rocking the Boat, pp. 231-234. Omissions from the text are shown with bracketed ellipses. All other punctuation and spelling is from the original.


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