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Why I Hate Chris Sciabarra & Barbara Branden
I first became fascinated with the philosophy of Ayn Rand around 1993, after reading The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand’s novels hit me like a ton of bricks! After devouring Atlas Shrugged, I was soon immersed in reading all her non-fiction articles and essays. Rand’s vision of a rational, benevolent and heroic humanity struck a chord in me that continues to this day.
As time passed Ayn Rand became sort of a mythological figure in my mind. Her works took on the dimension of the divinely inspired, and in time the image of her persona did as well. That period of my life was exhilarating, as one mental chain after another began to be broken. I felt as if I had discovered a sense of perfect clarity. Every word of Objectivist literature was to be learned and treated as gospel. The truth, the whole truth, had been revealed to me. I was sure that I had discovered a sense of perfect inner peace, or what the Buddhists call nirvana. Life was good, real good, I reveled in my new role as demigod - UNTIL - (picture me spitting on the floor) – Chris Matthew Sciabarra ruined everything.
Until reading The Russian Radical, everything that I had read before was an extension of what I had read previously. Furthermore, until I read this book I had but the most cursory knowledge of Miss Rand’s life. Sciabarra’s book was the first time that I began to get a glimpse of Miss Rand, not as an icon, but as a human being. What’s more, Sciabarra did 2 things that no other author that I had read on the subject had: he criticized aspects of her philosophy, and he offered his own theories beyond the standard interpretations.
So you might say, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that he made his case ... well! Sciabarra for the most part appears to agree with the essentials of Objectivist philosophy, but disagrees with many of the standard conclusions derived on the specifics. He even offers a completely new approach for interpreting Rand’s methodology, with his assertion of her “dialectical” approach in the tradition of Hegel.
Okay, so you're still asking, “What’s the big deal”? The big deal is not that I completely agreed with Sciabarra - I did not, nor do I now (I believe he overly reduces her method to a verbal and rhetorical construct). But - and it is with this “but” that my development as an Objectivist radically changed - I did agree with much of what he postulated. Worse than that, the early chapters in the book humanized Rand in a manner that would require my further investigation. Sciabarra left me with the essentials of her philosophy, but stripped me from being able to so easily integrate all my thinking within the standard orthodoxy of mainstream Objectivism. His Russian Radical upset the perfect intellectual order that I had created. He laid the first nail into the coffin of my perfect orderly world in which the method to know all that I needed to know, was already there. Nirvana was no more. I hate Chris Sciabarra.
But, it gets worse. After Sciabarra came an even more evil being: Barbara Branden. Sciabarra’s book gave me a greater interest to study Ayn Rand as a person. So I then moved to an even more hellish book than Sciabarra's. I read Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand. Hers was to be the second nail in my coffin.
Sciabarra may have moved Rand from deity to saint, but Branden’s book moved her from saint to a human being. Branden’s Rand did not descend from the mountain with the 10 commandments; Branden gave me a sense of Ayn Rand’s ‘humanity’. After reading Passion, the marble sculpture that was my former image became flesh and blood. Ayn Rand was reduced to a mere intellectual genius. I will never forgive Barbara Branden.
While Branden’s book is not intended to serve as a means to smash false idols, it does so nevertheless. We see Rand the woman, the wife, the friend, the adversary, and most importantly: the fallible. Coming to terms with this leads a person to then ask, “Why did I take so much pleasure in viewing her as I did?” The answer is not hard to discern - as an adherent to the infallible, you become semi-divine as well. My own position of absolute moral authority had been compromised. Oh, how I hate Barbara Branden!
According to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, life is defined as the process of self-generating and self-sustaining action. Rand also maintains that man's only means of knowledge is reason/thinking. If our being as a whole (our life) is a continuous process, then certainly our means of knowledge should be a continuing process as well ... the expansion and growth of our knowledge being determined by the degree to which we continue to exercise our minds. Yet, so many of us who call ourselves ‘Objectivist’ have long ago stopped the intellectual process that should be the natural by-product of being alive. We declare that we live by the philosophical tenets of a woman who regarded reasoning and work a virtue, and then stop the hard work of expanding our rational minds by accepting the ‘package deal’ version of Objectivism, in its totality and without question. Show me a man who lives his life by that ‘package deal’ and I will show you a man who has become intellectually lazy – no matter how brilliant his articulation.
The older I get the more I am convinced that becoming a ‘proper’ objectivist is often a 3-step process. First there comes the initial discovery period, and the passionate exhilaration of having so many of our mental chains broken by the clarity of Rand’s novels. We are swept away by the larger-than-life characters, we identify with each and every one of them to varying degrees and we become conscious of the central purpose of our lives. Then we read her academic works, and the works of her closest associates during her lifetime. Contradiction after contradiction falls, as we begin to understand the fundamentals of her philosophy. If I were limited to describe the feeling of this period with a single word, it would be the word, ‘liberating’.
Then comes the second phase, the consolidation period. At this point Objectivists split off into 2 groups: the academic, and the dilettante (I do not mean the latter in a derisive manner). Here one studies in depth, and integrates Objectivist metaphysics and ethics. The aspiring academics leap into the nuances of epistemology as well. It is during this period that one becomes confident and assured in one's knowledge, the academic by sheer breadth of knowledge, and the dilettante by his knowledge and his certainty in the validity of the academic's knowledge (when he needs to have a referent). It is during this second period that many Objectivists develop a ‘god-complex’. The process of thinking and seeking stops, and is replaced with the satiated and arrogant demeanor of a fat Buddha dispensing pearls of wisdom to the lower caste. Objectivism ceases to be a means to an end, but becomes an end in itself. Many become caricatures of an unobtainable ideal. With moral perfection as the standard, loneliness and contempt become their signature.
The last phase (for those able to break out of the second) is the value-seeking period. Here we slim down from a fat, satiated Buddha and re-discover the hunger for the exhilaration of the first phase Except now we have the added benefit of being able take our intellectual development out of the purely theoretical and apply it into our everyday lives. Here our primary concern is how to apply Objectivism to ourselves as individuals, and not how to apply it to others. This is the period were Objectivism becomes a means to an end, a tool in the process that we call our lives. The value-seeking period begins the moment that we cease to cast pearls from mountaintops as gods, but begin to climb mountains as men.
The story I have told above is an oversimplification of my intellectual development as an Objectivist. But the essential theme of that story is wholly accurate. And while there were many nails in the coffin of my ‘Buddha’ stage, Branden and Sciabarra were without question two of the sharpest nails used.
So why do I hate them? Because they told me there’s no Santa Claus.
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