Rebirth of Reason


A Fortress Against Objectivism
by Adam Reed

When Roger Donway's "Fortress Americanism" was published in the January/February 2004 issue of TOC's "Navigator," I realized that a reply would take more than an ordinary letter to the editor. I hoped that someone with more time on their hands would address Donway's argument, but the March 2004 "Navigator" has arrived and there is no sign that anyone has. In the meantime, Diana Hsieh pointed out that "(TOC) minimizes the importance of the wide range of insights, applications, principles, methods, arguments, and logical connections found in the full and rich system of philosophy developed by Ayn Rand." Donway's article is too much of a case in point to let it go by without comment.  

The problem - bizarre in the context of a supposedly "Objectivist" publication - is that Donway's article is an attempt to disinterr and resurrect the zombie of an old dichotomy between "bourgeois individualism" and "romantic individualism". This is the same dichotomy that Rand killed and buried by presenting a new, integrated, coherent vision of individualism in "The Fountainhead." Because it is this integrated individualism that grounds Rand's politics, and Rand's vision of America as a society dedicated to individualism and individual rights, Donway's article requires analysis in the context of the intellectual history of political individualism.  

The ancient theory of politics was uniformly collectivist. The Greeks took the collective of the Polis for granted. Man was the "Animal of the Polis"; his identity was to be a citizen of the political collective. The Thomists substituted the Church for the Polis, but otherwise left the politics of the ancients unchanged. The individual mattered in politics if he represented the polity or the church: if he was the holder of political or religious power. In either case the essential function of the political order was ordained by nature or by the gods, and was thus conceived of as outside the power and purview of the individual citizen.  

The Protestant revolution displaced the Church from its position as the Polis. The first individualism was religious: Protestants replaced the collective mediation of the Church between God and the individual with belief in a direct, personal relationship. Protestant theology required a new politics, one in which individuals were primary and the state a mere creation of individuals. The first version of this new politics was supplied by Hobbes (1588-1679.) According to Hobbes, human life before the State was "nasty, brutish, and short" because men, being naturally sinful, were prone to deadly conflict unless restrained. To escape from violent conflict, men entered a "social contract" to obey the most powerful among them, a "Sovereign," in return for protection against those who would disobey him and harm his subjects. It is somewhat paradoxical that Hobbes, an apologist for absolute political power, was also the progenitor of political theory that grounds government in the interests and actions of individuals as primary - the father of political individualism.  

Absolutism was removed from the theory of social contract by Locke (1632-1704.) Locke pointed out that man's survival was conditional not on mere restraint of violent conflict, but on having the freedom to engage in production, cooperation, and trade with others. It is this freedom - which of course precludes absolutism, at least in the economic sphere - that men organize government to secure.  

Locke, unfortunately, did not correct Hobbes' other major mistake: that of vesting the power of government in the personal judgement of a Sovereign. This mistake was corrected by Montesquieu in "L'Esprit des Lois" (The Spirit of the Laws, 1748). Montesquieu replaced the personal rule of a Sovereign with a political structure that remains the foundation of today's major constitutional republics (United States, Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and others.) Montesquieu proposed that the individual's freedom, to engage in the production and trade that his survival requires, be guaranteed by a written constitution, interpreted by an independent judiciary. The laws under this constitution would be adapted to man's constantly improving comprehension of nature and society by a separate legislature, and enforced by an executive subject to independent judicial review.  

Donway's first historical error is his ascription of American political principles to Locke, without mention of Montesquieu. Yet the principles that specified the design of the Constitution of the United States - "separation of powers," "checks and balances," "government of laws and not of men" - were quoted in the Constitutional Convention by our Founding Fathers who had translated them, directly and literally, from "L'Esprit des Lois."  

We now come to Rousseau, the main target of Donway's article. Jean-Jacques Rousseau attempted a synthesis of Enlightenment secularism with various Medieval ideas, including selected elements of Thomist neo-Aristotelianism. Rousseau's attempted synthesis was mostly nonsense: while Aquinas equated "the natural" with the virtuous, because "the natural" was God's creation as it had been before it was corrupted by men qua sinners, Rousseau wound up venerating "the natural," well, just because ... Yet although most of Rousseau's work was crap, he made two contributions that Ayn Rand, as a secular Aristotelian, found useful. Those two contributions, taken together, became known in the history of ideas as "romantic individualism."  

Rousseau's first step toward romantic individualism was to cut the Christian doctrine of original sin out of the social contract theory of Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu. Rousseau was mostly in agreement with the original exponents of bourgeois individualism, and his treatise on politics was entitled "Le Contrat Social" (The Social Contract) in explicit tribute to Hobbes and Locke. However, one of Hobbes' assumptions had been disconfirmed by newly discovered facts. Archeology, which started in Italy as digging for classical statues, spread to the old borders of the Roman Empire. The skeletons from ancient battlefields demonstrated that the "savages" who resisted the Empire were mostly taller, healthier and older than the soldiers of Rome. So the idea that the lives of "savages" were "nasty, brutish and short," as a result of pervasive violent conflict rooted in original sin, turned out to be false. In this case, Rousseau did the Aristotelian thing, checked his premises, and rejected both the idea of original sin and the political arguments that his predecessors had based on that idea.  

Rousseau's excision of the doctrine of original sin from political theory made him the whipping boy of all the Conservative political theorists who argued, and still argue, that political freedom can only be grounded in the doctrine that every man is burdened by original sin, and therefore no man (except, of course, for would-be rulers annointed and inspired directly by God) is good enough to rule another. Because of his ejection of original sin from politics, Rousseau has been blamed - and Donway does not shirk from blaming him in the "Navigator" article - for Socialism and every brand of anti-Bourgeois depravity, and for all modern dictatorships, whether Fascist or Communist or Nationalist or any other kind. Ayn Rand, in a caustic critique of anti-Rousseau, pro-original-sin Conservatives, summarized their position like this: "since men are depraved, they are not good enough for a dictatorship; freedom is all that they deserve; if they were perfect, they would be worthy of a totalitarian state." (Ayn Rand: "Conservatism, an Obituary," in Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal, p. 199.) Rousseau, like Ayn Rand after him, held that men ought to be free, not because no human was perfect enough to rule others, but because man is good - good enough to live according to the judgement of his own individual mind.  

The other component of romantic individualism is the idea that one's individual happiness requires the achievement of one's own chosen values; and not merely of the values that are held by society to be good for the generic one-size-fits-all citizen. This was Rousseau's secular version of the Thomist-Scholastic idea that happiness requires one to discover, and actualise, the potentials for virtue with which one was gifted by God. These were supposed to have come from the Grace of God, and therefore were held to be specific to the individual. Rousseau rejected the divine origin of individual identity, but understood that every man's identity and potential is nevertheless unique, so that genuine values and virtues must be chosen individually. Therefore the achievement of virtue requires authenticity - Rousseau's shorthand for individual integrity and intellectual independence.  

When Roark answers the Dean in the opening chapter of Rand's "The Fountainhead," he says, to explain the way he intends to work: "A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose." This is Rousseau's ideal of personal authenticity, writ large across American ground. Before Rand, the values of Locke's bourgeois individualism - the reason and responsibility required for life by production and trade - were already integral in the American national soul. Without taking them away, "The Fountainhead" added to the soul of the ordinary American the romantic individualist values of independence, integrity, and self-actualization. Rousseau's ideal of authenticity - the ideal of every man's "realization of his authentic self" - was Ayn Rand's first gift to America.  

"Authentic self-realization" is Donway's chief example of what he calls "ideas alien to the philosophy of liberty on which our country was founded," ideas that his "Fortress Americanism" is meant to keep out.   Rand's integration of "bourgeois individualism" and "romantic Individualism" into a single coherent individualism in the character of Howard Roark does not mean that either of the two antecedent "individualisms" is worthy outside the context of the other. A minor character, Lois Cook, is there to illustrate the fact that the pursuit of "authentic self-realization," outside the context of the bourgeois virtues of rationality and responsibility, becomes just mindless and nihilistic whim-worshipping. But Peter Keating, who embodies those bourgeois, American virtues outside the context of authentic self-realization, is much worse. Cut out authentic self-realization, and the virtues needed for production and trade lead to commercial success - together with conformism, social metaphysics, selflessness and living a second-hand life.  

To justify the exclusion of the idea of authentic self-realization from his "Fortress Americanism", Donway writes that Ayn Rand "held that production and trade are what government and liberty are for." Now when it comes to government, Donway is right: one's respect for the rights of other men is logically derived from one's self-interest in cooperation and trade, that is, from capitalism. But about liberty, Donway is wrong: Rand, like Rousseau, held that individual liberty is prior to and independent of politics. Rand's politics is built on top of her ethics, and for Rand individual rights - the pre-conditions, prior to politics, for proper human life - are a matter of ethics first, and only then of politics. "Atlas Shrugged" is the superstructure. "The Fountainhead" is the foundation.  

What, then, does Donway present in the way of likely adverse consequences, in actual reality, that would infringe our rights if the alien idea of authentic self-realization penetrated into America's national consciousness? Donway's only example: "in Britain, a man holding a sign denouncing homosexuality was fined for expressing insulting sentiments in front of people who might be distressed by them." But, as Rand points out in "Censorship: Local and Express," the suppression of "offensive" expression is hardly something that needs alien ideas (like "authentic self-realization") to happen in America. Just recently, John Ashcroft's all-American prosecutors indicted a man on federal obscenity charges for selling - privately, to adult customers, without any public exposure - videotapes that supposedly "offend community standards." If convicted, the alleged perpetrator will face a minimum of three years in federal prison. Which is worse: a fine for displaying offensive expression on a public placard, or years in prison for offensive expression that never actually distressed anyone, but would "offend community standards" if it were displayed in public, which it never was? And does anyone in Ashcroft's "Department of Justice" really need the "alien idea" of authentic self-realization to justify censorship in America?  

Donway begins his article with a reference to Lawrence v. Texas, a recent Supreme Court decision that real Objectivists have hailed as the best example of proper judicial review - that is, of judicial review that protects individual human rights by restraining arbitrary political power - since Roe v. Wade. "Fortress Americanism" reads like Donway felt obliged to pander to bigots who denounce Lawrence v. Texas, and, upon finding nothing he could credibly denounce in the decision itself, fell back on the subtext of protecting "Americanism" against "alien" ideas. We need a "Fortress Americanism," he writes, to protect us against "alien ideas" like "authentic self-realization." And builds a paper fortress - against Objectivism.

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