Rick Bateman explores the philosophies of The Buddha and Ayn Rand, two revolutionary thinkers whose ends are the same, but whose ways and means differ dramatically.
Why on earth would a Buddhist recommend reading Ayn Rand, whose philosophy expounds the Virtue Of Selfishness, for whom thought is the only tool we possess to know reality, and who views achievement as the sole purpose of our lives? All these, and many more of Rand’s philosophical axioms, are in direct opposition with the teachings of The Buddha.
The answer is that The Buddha and Ayn Rand are the two most revolutionary thinkers I know of and both of them wanted above all for those who heard their message to be free and happy. Their ends are the same; only their ways and means vary. Both thought deeply about the same subjects and both, each in his or her own way, have constructed profound teachings.
I recommend you read Ayn Rand because more than any other author, she will make you think about what really matters: about values, virtue and integrity; about how you live your life and its impact on your own happiness and the happiness of others; about the future of our world. In this century, when the folly of our short-term thinking is becoming glaringly obvious to all, we desperately need to question our personal philosophies and the part we are playing.
If you are a Buddhist, no other books I know of will challenge your beliefs like Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. They will do so because they dig into the very same issues, and, with very persuasive logic and story, argue the opposite of The Buddha’s teachings. Rand chose to convey her philosophy via her novels rather than non-fiction works because of her views on art and romanticism. The worlds and characters of the novels are intentionally stylistic as they are not intended to reflect realistic individuals but rather to symbolize concepts.
“My philosophy, in essence, is 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.”
— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
In case you think Ayn Rand is some obscure author who is no longer relevant, consider that sales of Atlas Shrugged exceeded half a million in 2009 and in June of 2010 it was ranked #39 on the Amazon Bestseller List. There are 35 employees who work at the Ayn Rand Institute, her theories are taught at the university level, and the Institute’s essay contest is the largest such educational competition in the United States. Atlas Shrugged is perhaps the most controversial novel in America literature.
I am somewhat qualified, in a non-academic sense, to make this recommendation. I have studied and practiced Buddhism for ten years, I teach an introductory course in historical Buddhism, facilitate a weekly Secular Buddhist practice group and maintain my own daily practice. As the years have gone by, Buddhism has gradually become the central focus of my life; everything else is increasingly being required to be supportive of and in alignment with my practice.
On the Rand side, I have read every book I could acquire by or about Ayn Rand. I have read her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, which at over 1100 pages is one of the longest novels in English literature, six times and The Fountainhead four times. There is copious underlining in both my copies of each book. I have studied her philosophy of Objectivism in detail as well as her works on art, ethics and politics. Note: I recommend you read both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead but I recommend you read Atlas Shrugged first.
I respect Ayn Rand enormously and both agree and disagree with some of her most fundamental points. For example, she holds the individual as the ultimate social unit and his or her own rational self-interest as the purpose of life. Yet humans are social animals and, like lions, wolves and killer whales, are engineered by evolution at the most basic levels to only function optimally, in both the physical and emotional senses, as a group. Secondly, individualism depends on limitless resources. However, on “spaceship earth”, a reality we are currently entering, the good of the many must outweigh the good of the few if we are to survive as a species. Such “thy brother’ keeper” thinking is antithetical to Rand’s philosophy.
How, as a Buddhist, can I embrace any part of Rand’s Objectivism? For children the world is black and white, good and bad, made up of absolutes. Adults accept that the world is rife with paradox, inconsistency and contradiction and that the answer to many questions, often the most important questions, is, “It depends.”
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Although I have made my choice with regard to who got it right, there is a great deal to be said for Rand’s views and I am open to hearing out more than one teacher. The teachers of my younger days, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan etc., were the first to open my mind to seeing the world in new ways. Over time, I learned that some scientists, like Albert Einstein, embraced a spiritual view of the universe while others including Jacob Bronowski, another of my personal heroes, despised the spiritual.
“I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into – into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery. They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it: an understanding of man himself.”
I will not however throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still love Jacob Bronowski and agree with much of what he taught. As a Buddhist I remain open to the views of many teachers, including Ayn Rand. I find they often bring new insights to aspects of my Buddhist practice and generally they only help to clarify and deepen my own convictions regarding my chosen path.
If you are a Buddhist, Rand’s novels will challenge your beliefs in a positive way by presenting cogent and appealing arguments. Her novels address the most central issue of Buddhism and perhaps of life itself: what is happiness and what is the way to happiness?
Ayn Rand, Author and philosopher Ayn Rand. Photograph: Hulton Archive/New York Times Co./Getty
Atlas Shugged, courtesy of Wikipedia