Ayn Rand (born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum; February 2, 1905 – March 6, 1982) was an American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. Born and educated in Russia, Rand moved to the United States in 1926. She had a play produced on Broadway in 1935-1936. After two early novels that were initially unsuccessful in America, she achieved fame with her 1943 novel, The Fountainhead.
In 1957, she published her best-known work, the novel Atlas Shrugged. Afterward, she turned to non-fiction to promote her philosophy, publishing her own magazines and releasing several collections of essays until her death in 1982. Rand advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and religion. She supported rational and ethical egoism, and rejected altruism. In politics, she condemned the initiation of force as immoral and opposed collectivism and statism as well as anarchism, instead supporting laissez-faire capitalism, which she defined as the system based on recognizing individual rights. In art, Rand promoted romantic realism. She was sharply critical of most philosophers and philosophical traditions known to her, except for some Aristotelians and classical liberals.
Literary critics received Rand’s fiction with mixed reviews, and academia generally ignored or rejected her philosophy, though academic interest has increased in recent decades. The Objectivist movement attempts to spread her ideas, both to the public and in academic settings. She has been a significant influence among libertarians and American conservatives.
Rand was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905, to a Russian Jewish bourgeois family living in Saint Petersburg. She was the eldest of the three daughters of Zinovy Zakharovich Rosenbaum and his wife, Anna Borisovna (née Kaplan), largely non-observant Jews. Zinovy Rosenbaum was a successful pharmacist and businessman, eventually owning a pharmacy and the building in which it was located. With a passion for the liberal arts, Rand found school unchallenging, and said she began writing screenplays at the age of eight and novels at the age of ten. At the prestigious Stoiunina Gymnasium, her closest friend was Vladimir Nabokov’s younger sister, Olga. The two girls shared an intense interest in politics and would engage in debates: while Nabokov defended constitutional monarchy, Rand supported republican ideals. She was twelve at the time of the February Revolution of 1917, during which she favored Alexander Kerensky over Tsar Nicholas II.
The subsequent October Revolution and the rule of the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin disrupted the comfortable life the family had previously enjoyed. Her father’s business was confiscated and the family displaced. They fled to the Crimean Peninsula, which was initially under control of the White Army during the Russian Civil War. She later recalled that, while in high school, she determined that she was an atheist and that she valued reason above any other human virtue. After graduating from high school in the Crimea at 16, Rand returned with her family to Petrograd (as Saint Petersburg was renamed at that time), where they faced desperate conditions, on occasion nearly starving.
After the Russian Revolution, universities were opened to women, allowing Rand to be in the first group of women to enroll at Petrograd State University, where, at the age of only 16, she began her studies in the department of social pedagogy, majoring in history. At the university she was introduced to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, who would be her greatest influence and counter-influence, respectively. A third figure whose philosophical works she studied heavily was Friedrich Nietzsche. Able to read French, German and Russian, Rand also discovered the writers Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Edmond Rostand, and Friedrich Schiller, who became her perennial favorites.
Along with many other “bourgeois” students, Rand was purged from the university shortly before graduating. However, after complaints from a group of visiting foreign scientists, many of the purged students were allowed to complete their work and graduate, which Rand did in October 1924. She subsequently studied for a year at the State Technicum for Screen Arts in Leningrad. For one of her assignments, she wrote an essay about the Polish actress Pola Negri, which became her first published work.
By this time she had decided her professional surname for writing would be Rand, possibly as a Cyrillic contraction of her birth surname, and she adopted the first name Ayn, either from a Finnish name or from the Hebrew word (ayin, meaning “eye”).
In the fall of 1925, Rand was granted a visa to visit American relatives. She departed on January 17, 1926. When she arrived in New York City on February 19, 1926, she was so impressed with the skyline of Manhattan that she cried what she later called “tears of splendor”. Intent on staying in the United States to become a screenwriter, she lived for a few months with relatives in Chicago, one of whom owned a movie theater and allowed her to watch dozens of films for free. She then set out for Hollywood, California.
Initially, Rand struggled in Hollywood and took odd jobs to pay her basic living expenses. A chance meeting with famed director Cecil B. DeMille led to a job as an extra in his film The King of Kings as well as subsequent work as a junior screenwriter. While working on The King of Kings, she met an aspiring young actor, Frank O’Connor; the two were married on April 15, 1929. Rand became an American citizen in 1931. Taking various jobs during the 1930s to support her writing, she worked for a time as the head of the costume department at RKO Studios. She made several attempts to bring her parents and sisters to the United States, but they were unable to acquire permission to emigrate.
Rand’s first literary success came with the sale of her screenplay Red Pawn to Universal Studios in 1932, although it was never produced. This was followed by the courtroom drama Night of January 16th, first produced by E.E. Clive in Hollywood in 1934 and then successfully reopened on Broadway in 1935. Each night the “jury” was selected from members of the audience, and one of the two different endings, depending on the jury’s “verdict”, would then be performed. In 1941, Paramount Pictures produced a movie loosely based on the play. Rand did not participate in the production and was highly critical of the result.
Rand’s first novel, the semi-autobiographical We the Living, was published in 1936. Set in Soviet Russia, it focused on the struggle between the individual and the state. In a 1959 foreword to the novel, Rand stated that We the Living “is as near to an autobiography as I will ever write. It is not an autobiography in the literal, but only in the intellectual sense. The plot is invented, the background is not…” Initial sales were slow and the American publisher let it go out of print, although European editions continued to sell. After the success of her later novels, Rand was able to release a revised version in 1959 that has since sold over three million copies. Without Rand’s knowledge or permission, the novel was made into a pair of Italian films, Noi vivi and Addio, Kira, in 1942. Rediscovered in the 1960s, these films were re-edited into a new version which was approved by Rand and re-released as We the Living in 1986.
Her novella Anthem was written during a break from the writing of her next major novel, The Fountainhead. It presents a vision of a dystopian future world in which totalitarian collectivism has triumphed to such an extent that even the word ‘I’ has been forgotten and replaced with ‘we’. It was published in England in 1938, but Rand initially could not find an American publisher. As with We the Living, Rand’s later success allowed her to get a revised version published in 1946, which has sold more than 3.5 million copies.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rand developed and promoted her Objectivist philosophy through her nonfiction works and by giving talks to students at institutions such as Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and MIT. She received an honorary doctorate from Lewis & Clark College in 1963. She also began delivering annual lectures at the Ford Hall Forum, responding afterward to questions from the audience. During these speeches and Q&A sessions, she often took controversial stances on political and social issues of the day. These included supporting abortion rights, opposing the Vietnam War and the military draft (but condemning many draft dodgers as “bums”), supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 against a coalition of Arab nations as “civilized men fighting savages”, saying European colonists had the right to take land from American Indians, and calling homosexuality “immoral” and “disgusting”, while also advocating the repeal of all laws about it. She also endorsed several Republican candidates for President of the United States, most strongly Barry Goldwater in 1964, whose candidacy she promoted in several articles for The Objectivist Newsletter.
In 1964 Nathaniel Branden began an affair with the young actress Patrecia Scott, whom he later married. Nathaniel and Barbara Branden kept the affair hidden from Rand. When she learned of it in 1968, though her romantic relationship with Branden had already ended, Rand terminated her relationship with both Brandens, which led to the closure of NBI. Rand published an article in The Objectivist repudiating Nathaniel Branden for dishonesty and other “irrational behavior in his private life”. Branden later apologized in an interview to “every student of Objectivism” for “perpetuating the Ayn Rand mystique” and for “contributing to that dreadful atmosphere of intellectual repressiveness that pervades the Objectivist movement.” In subsequent years, Rand and several more of her closest associates parted company.
Rand underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1974 after decades of heavy smoking. In 1976, she retired from writing her newsletter and, despite her initial objections, was persuaded to allow Evva Pryor, a consultant from her attorney’s office, to sign her up for Social Security and Medicare. During the late 1970s her activities within the Objectivist movement declined, especially after the death of her husband on November 9, 1979. One of her final projects was work on a never-completed television adaptation of Atlas Shrugged.
Rand died of heart failure on March 6, 1982, at her home in New York City, and was interred in the Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York. Rand’s funeral was attended by some of her prominent followers, including Alan Greenspan. A six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket. In her will, Rand named Leonard Peikoff the heir to her estate.
Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism,” describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” She considered Objectivism a systematic philosophy and laid out positions on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics.
In metaphysics, Rand supported philosophical realism, and opposed anything she regarded as mysticism or supernaturalism, including all forms of religion. In epistemology, she considered all knowledge to be based on sense perception, the validity of which she considered axiomatic, and reason, which she described as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.” She rejected all claims of non-perceptual or a priori knowledge, including “‘instinct,’ ‘intuition,’ ‘revelation,’ or any form of ‘just knowing.'” In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand presented a theory of concept formation and rejected the analytic-synthetic dichotomy.
In ethics, Rand argued for rational and ethical egoism (rational self-interest), as the guiding moral principle. She said the individual should “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” She referred to egoism as “the virtue of selfishness” in her book of that title, in which she presented her solution to the is-ought problem by describing a meta-ethical theory that based morality in the needs of “man’s survival qua man.” She condemned ethical altruism as incompatible with the requirements of human life and happiness, and held that the initiation of force was evil and irrational, writing in Atlas Shrugged that “Force and mind are opposites.”
Rand’s political philosophy emphasized individual rights (including property rights), and she considered laissez-faire capitalism the only moral social system because in her view it was the only system based on the protection of those rights. She opposed statism, which she understood to include theocracy, absolute monarchy, Nazism, fascism, communism, democratic socialism, and dictatorship. Rand believed that rights should be enforced by a constitutionally limited government. Although her political views are often classified as conservative or libertarian, she preferred the term “radical for capitalism.” She worked with conservatives on political projects, but disagreed with them over issues such as religion and ethics. She denounced libertarianism, which she associated with anarchism. She rejected anarchism as a naïve theory based in subjectivism that could only lead to collectivism in practice.
Rand’s aesthetics defined art as a “selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” According to Rand, art allows philosophical concepts to be presented in a concrete form that can be easily grasped, thereby fulfilling a need of human consciousness. As a writer, the art form Rand focused on most closely was literature, where she considered romanticism to be the approach that most accurately reflected the existence of human free will. She described her own approach to literature as “romantic realism”.
Rand acknowledged Aristotle as her greatest influence and remarked that in the history of philosophy she could only recommend “three A’s” – Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand. In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, when asked where her philosophy came from, she responded, “Out of my own mind, with the sole acknowledgement of a debt to Aristotle, the only philosopher who ever influenced me. I devised the rest of my philosophy myself.” However, she also found early inspiration in Friedrich Nietzsche, and scholars have found indications of his influence in early notes from Rand’s journals, in passages from the first edition of We the Living (which Rand later revised), and in her overall writing style. However, by the time she wrote The Fountainhead, Rand had turned against Nietzsche’s ideas, and the extent of his influence on her even during her early years is disputed. Among the philosophers Rand held in particular disdain was Immanuel Kant, whom she referred to as a “monster,” although philosophers George Walsh and Fred Seddon have argued that she misinterpreted Kant and exaggerated their differences.
Rand said her most important contributions to philosophy were her “theory of concepts, ethics, and discovery in politics that evil-the violation of rights-consists of the initiation of force.” She believed epistemology was a foundational branch of philosophy and considered the advocacy of reason to be the single most significant aspect of her philosophy, stating, “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”
Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged (read by Scott Brick)
Ayn Rand – The Fountainhead (read by Christopher Hurt)
Ayn Rand – Anthem (read by Christopher Lane)
Ayn Rand – We The Living (read by Mary Woods)
Ayn Rand – The Virtue Of Selfishness: A New Concept Of Egoism (read by C.M. Hernert)
Ayn Rand – Return Of The Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (read by Bernadette Dunne)
Ayn Rand – The Art Of Nonfiction (read by Marguerite Gavin)