Whose moral theology?

A recent column in the National Catholic Register, “Understanding Pope Francis: It’s the Moral Theology, Stupid,” laid out the argument that “the most significant thing about this current papacy is the revolution in moral theology it seems to be embracing.” Citing examples of Francis’s clerical appointments, references to certain theologians, organizational decisions, and use of language in Amoris laetitia, the author suggests that the pope “seems favorably disposed to a form of moral theology that has been commonly referred to as ‘proportionalism’ or ‘consequentialism.’…Proportionalism denies that there are intrinsically evil acts and that the morality of an act can only be judged in the light of its outcomes or ‘consequences.’ Catholic proportionalists do not deny that there are indeed foundational moral principles (which is how it differs from a straight-up and unvarnished utilitarianism), but that in the light of a rational adjudication of potential likely outcomes, a moral principle can be denied as applicable in a particular instance if there is a ‘proportionate’ reason for doing so.”

By this definition, many of the keystone arguments in Catholic theology are examples of proportionalism, particularly with respect to the literal teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Augustine of Hippo propounded just war theory: “There are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death…They who have…represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.'” Ambrose of Milan proposed the Exception of St. Ambrose: after declaring the charging of interest to be “fraud and circumvention of the [divine] Law,” he then added a “but”: “Upon him whom you rightly desire to harm, against whom weapons are lawfully carried, upon him usury is legally imposed…where there is the right of war, there also is the right of usury.” Thomas Aquinas provided a structure for all arguments of proportionalism with the principle of double effect: “though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end.” In a related fashion, Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI described Christianity as “the religion according to reason” and called for the reintegration of science and theology, asserting that the scientific ethos is “the will to be obedient to the truth, and as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.” Nevertheless, Benedict was unable or unwilling, for pragmatic reasons, to reexamine the church’s traditional stance that the purpose of sex is reproduction in light of increasing scientific evidence that the primary purpose of sex in humans is promoting prosocial behaviors.

To define Pope Francis as a proportionalist, then, is to define him as a thoroughly traditional theologian within a theological tradition that has grounded some of its major dogmas on proportionalism.

Naked Barsoom

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels “are famous for the casual nudity of their characters, in almost any climate and under almost any circumstances,” science fiction writer John Alleyn summarized.  “Male Barsoomians rarely wear anything but a leather ‘harness’ on which they can hang their weapons, a utility pouch, and possibly a few ornaments.  Female Barsoomians normally wear nothing other than some jewelry.  We never see most characters put on actual clothing, unless they’re going out in a very cold climate.”  Nevertheless, illustrations and cover art for the novels almost entirely ignore the universal nudity of Barsoom.  Instead, most visual representations of John Carter and Dejah Thoris dress them up in a leather jockstrap and boots or a bikini, respectively.  Illustrators are likely to dismiss Burroughs’s written nudity as either unrealistic and therefore unworthy of respect, or to argue that, like Lady Godiva, the characters weren’t actually naked in the sense of wearing no clothes.  Rather than confront their own issues with the nude human form, it is easier for them to clothe the characters they have to depict, distorting the author’s intent in the process

In spite of the revisionism of science fiction artists, there is absolutely no ambiguity in the Barsoom novels themselves about the characters’ lack of clothing.  “Naked as at the minute of my birth” is how John Carter describes himself upon stepping out of his old body each time he leaves Earth; “naked” is how he describes himself upon his first arrival on Barsoom, feeling the sun shining down on his exposed flesh with an intense heat comparable to that of Arizona.  The second American to follow him to the Red Planet, Ulysses Paxton, later reports a similarly nude transition.  When Tars Tarkas, the Green Martian jed, throws down his weapons to approach Carter in peace, Carter takes the time to observe that he is “entirely unarmed and as naked as I.”  He likewise refers to Green Martian women as being similarly unclad: “With the exception of their ornaments all were naked.”  This description applies equally to Red Martian women, as made clear in Carter’s more lingering notice of Dejah Thoris when she appears on the scene.  “She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.”  “Naked and unarmed” is how Carter confronts the plant-men of the Valley Dor on his second arrival on Barsoom.  His more usual Barsoomian appearance is that of “the figure of a bronzed giant, his otherwise naked body trapped with a jewel-encrusted harness from which there hung at one side an ornate short-sword and at the other a pistol of strange pattern.”  The harness, a practical arrangement of belts and rings designed for carrying weapons and attaching the wearer to various flying craft, is the sole article of Barsoomian attire in most situations.  When a rogue savant develops a disintegrating ray that can dissolve the metal and leather of which the Barsoomian harness is crafted, the bodies of soldiers caught in its beam are left “entirely nude.”  Since John Carter’s white skin exposes him to easy recognition among Red Martians, he relates that he is in the habit of staining “every square inch of my naked body” with red pigment when he wants to remain incognito, a precaution that would hardly be necessary if he were wearing any kind of clothing.  Even in the cold wastes of the north, Barsoomians don fur robes only for venturing outdoors: “The moment we entered the city Talu threw off his outer garments of fur, as did we, and I saw that his apparel differed but little from that of the red races of Barsoom.  Except for his leathern harness, covered thick with jewels and metal, he was naked.”  Nudity is clearly preferred for extreme physical activity on Barsoom, as when the handsome young jed of Gathol strips naked to climb a tower in pursuit of his lady-love, “removing his sandals and laying aside all of his harness and weapons other than a single belt supporting a dagger.”  Young men and women tend to be very aware of their near-nudity save for jewelry when dancing, and Carter takes pains to describe how universal and important dancing is on Barsoom.  Farmers, too, wear so few trappings as to be “practically naked,” as do the panthans, the soldiers of fortune, whose “almost naked” bodies are “trapped only in the simplest of unadorned harnesses.”  The cavalry of Manator likewise ride “almost naked” save for feathered head-dresses and body paint of ochre, blue, and white, while the city’s gate guards wear robes at night against the chill but are otherwise naked except for their paint.  The laboratory assistants of Ras Thavas, the greatest scientist of the planet, also go naked and unarmed.  Their master, like his fellow scientists, confines himself to scant harness to the point of near-nudity, although he sports a heavily jeweled collar in addition.  Among the few remaining tribes of uncivilized Martians, paint is the only adornment at all.  The Goolians, a population of marsupial Barsoomians, go “entirely naked except for a simple harness which supported a short sword on one side and a dagger on the other,” and the inhabitants of Jupiter are “quite naked except for G strings, having no harness.”  On the rare occasions when clothing is employed on Barsoom, it is typically worn by the inhabitants of lost cities or remote areas.  The people of Lothar are described as being clad in “flowing robes,” although their soldiers wear ordinary harness, and when one is dreamed into existence by the jeddak, he appears in the world “naked and unarmed,” and sees no shame or inconvenience in the fact.  In fact, he doesn’t hesitate to rush into combat with a band of Green Martians in that condition.

A further inconsistency in the illustrators’ renderings involves their depictions of Barsoomian footwear.  Whatever the rest of their costumes, male Barsoomians are nearly always shown wearing tall, heavy, French Musketeer-style boots or Roman sandals, which make a ludicrous and inaccurate contrast to their otherwise exposed bodies.  This is, of course, a perversion of the original texts in all cases.  John Carter’s description of his first combat with a thern, one of the Martian priests, mentions “the soft shuffling of our naked feet,” and the prisoners he subsequently frees are similarly barefoot.  When reconnoitering a city of the Green Martians, he tracks them by the sound of their “naked feet.”  His son Carthoris occasionally wears sandals, which are mentioned only in a context where he is getting rid of them during an emergency: “with his bare feet [he] braced himself against the sickening tilt.”  Subsequently Carthoris shows no hesitation in sauntering through an abandoned city, off into the forest, and across the empty wastes of the planet in bare feet.  Carthoris’s love interest Thuvia also dons sandals in the gardens of her father’s palace.  Carter’s daughter Tara of Helium boasts “a symmetrical foot, undeformed by tight shoes and high heels—a lovely foot, as God intended that feet should be and seldom are,” although she too wears sandals while on a journey.  Servants are sometimes sandaled, but also arouse no comment if barefoot in public, or when removing their sandals on a whim.  Regardless of rank or condition, it is clear that Barsoomians are accustomed to bare feet as well as bare bodies.  They regard the use of sandals as a matter of taste and convenience, not necessity, and they do not wear boots at all.  Again, paralleling their preference for greater clothing, the more isolated Barsoomians appear to wear sandals more often than the more “civilized” populations.  Instances of this include the soldiers of Manator and the mercenaries of Pankor.  One soldier who fails to follow the example of Gahan of Gathol and keeps his sandals on when scaling a tower nearly falls to his death as a consequence of not going barefoot.  Panthans, however, are likely to wear them for long journeys, as John Carter does on his expedition to the lost city of Horz, where he finds the few remaining warriors doing the same.

Burroughs’s descriptions of Martian nudity were inspired by his fascination with the Apache of the American Southwest, who famously shunned all clothing except moccasins and g-strings, and often discarded even those.  Indeed, Burroughs’s novel Apache Devil includes references to Apache nakedness that use the same terms of breathless enthusiasm his Barsoom stories employ.  The original hardcover jacket for Apache Devil displays a mounted Apache warrior who is stark naked apart from a headscarf, cartridge belts, and war moccasins.  The degree to which Burroughs’s Barsoomians mirrored the Apache is further emphasized by two more of the most notable aspects of the Barsoom novels: their total lack of sex in spite of the warm climate and ubiquitous nudity of their setting, and their incessant violence.  John Carter states explicitly in the first book that sexual promiscuity is nearly unknown among Martians and occurs only in social deviants.  Fights and murders, however, are part of daily life and perfectly acceptable so long as no cheating or cowardice is involved.  These elements Burroughs also borrowed from Apache culture.  The Apache’s legendary reputation for violence and brutality ensured that they would be enshrined as the archetype of the noble savage in the American imagination, given that the glorification of violence is an essential part of modern American culture.  To this day, the United States Army continues to name its equipment after Apache leaders or bands.  The Apache further endeared themselves to the Anglo-Americans through their hostility towards sex and sexual freedom.  Their sex-negative norms were similar to those of the European settlers, and were all the more noticeable for their stark contrast with the sexual norms of their neighbors, especially those of the Puebloans and the Yuman speakers along the Colorado River.  The puzzling sexlessness (in spite of their exquisitely erotic imagery) mingled with brutality of the Barsoom tales is the result of Burroughs’s faithful reuse of elements of Apache culture in his world-building.  To him, this trio of nudity, violence, and sterility seemed natural and self-sustaining.  “His own nakedness stirred every savage instinct within him,” Burroughs wrote of the protagonist in Apache Devil, making it clear that he thought that the one quality depended on the other.  If there is any correlation to be made between nudity and sexual behavior among Native Americans, it would be one between nudity and sexual promiscuity, as the majority of indigenous societies—and of indigenous men in particular—across what is now the southern United States historically displayed both traits.  Burroughs chose to ignore the dominant behaviors of Native American culture in order to create a fictional rendering of a minority representative of that culture because its values aligned more closely with those of his own civilization.  The Apache were exotic, yet understandable and therefore non-threatening in spite of their violence, making them appropriate models for the Barsoomian warriors, the ultimate noble savages.

Incidentally, this treatment of Burroughs characters by illustrators is paralleled by their treatment of Native subjects as well.  The Indian of American art and illustration is always loinclothed; often wears leather leggings and a fringed shirt, which were rarely donned except when cold weather made them necessary; and almost invariably moccasined even if depicted as naked otherwise, when in practice footwear was conserved and typically worn only on long journeys.  Elaborate moccasins and clothes were certainly not the norm among pre-Columbian North Americans, and still less so among growing children.  Historical reports and photographs testify to the fact that American Indians, the men in particular, went naked or wore no more than a breechcloth across most of the continent whenever the weather was warm enough for them to do so comfortably.  Total nudity was most common among the residents of California and the American southwest and also frequent among the southern Plains peoples, as well as those of Texas and Florida.  This is not reflected in American art—more so in contemporary than historical art—any more than the jackets and illustrations of Burroughs’s Barsoom novels reflect the author’s descriptions of the nudity of their characters.

“Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world,” Ray Bradbury once said, referring to the way in which the Barsoom novels influenced the genres of fantasy and science fiction.  Their most notable descendants are likely the comics and films of the Marvel Universe, which perpetuate Burroughs’s false equivalency of nudity, violence, and sexlessness.  Each Marvel hero is a John Carter, living by the sword and commanding human deference by his otherworldly presence and nearly supernatural skills.  Each Marvel story is another Barsoomian war, arising out of nothing more essential than the greed and ambition of rulers or would-be rulers.  Death is easy to find there; love or even eroticism is not.  Outright nudity is mostly absent, but in its place, heroes don either skintight spandex suits that draw the viewer’s attention to their bodies more readily than exposed flesh would, or powered exoskeletons that stylize and emphasize their musculature.  The armor or suit of a Marvel superhero simultaneously insulates the user from many of the consequences of his decisions; conceals the user’s own nudity, replacing it with a faked version of that nudity; and parodies the nudity of a Burroughs hero.  Armored heroes, however, would certainly have drawn even Burroughs’s derision.  The Apache, he pointed out, stripped off what little clothing they wore before combat, and the Barsoomians went into battle already naked.  Marvel heroes, by contrast, are too timid to expose more than avatars of themselves, which they use to express virility without consummation in the same way that the Barsoomians use nudity to make the same statement.  Superhero suits convey the same weakness that comes across in most of the illustrations for Burrough’s novels.  No matter how badly Burroughs was willing to mislead the public about American Indian culture, no matter how morally bankrupt he was to create a multi-volume tribute to murder, his successors were even less honest than he.  The loincloths of Boris Vallejo’s otherwise admirable illustrations and the spandex-coated Tom Holland peering down from a billboard both testify to that.

The libertine who wasn’t

(References to passages in the Memoirs are based upon the 1894 Arthur Machen translation.)

“In spite of a good foundation of sound morals…I have been throughout my life the victim of my senses; I have found delight in losing the right path, I have lived constantly in the midst of error, with no consolation but the consciousness of being mistaken,” the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova declares in the preface to his six volumes of Memoirs.  He then implores his reader to consider the Memoirs a truthful confession devoid of boasting—“They are the follies inherent to youth; I make sport of them”—implying the veracity of what he relates.  “Truth is the only God I have ever adored,” the Casanova researcher Arthur Symonds quoted him as writing elsewhere.  If we are to take Casanova at his word, however, and form a picture of his character from his actions, then the commonplace image of an unrestrained sexual adventurer that his name evokes must give way to a more nuanced portrait of a man who operated entirely within a complex system of mental restraints, particularly sexual ones, and who was in addition an attempted assassin, a thief, and a prude.

Casanova is often called a libertine by modern writers.  That is stretching the term well past its limits.  A libertine, particularly an educated libertine of the Enlightenment, could be expected to advocate individual freedom through his behavior, not only his sexual behavior but his general conduct.  Eighteenth-century libertinism was associated with the dangerous radical doctrines of religious skepticism and political liberalism.  Substantial reforms to sexual taboos would be proposed in England and enacted in France during the latter part of the century through the efforts of politicians influenced by the thinkers of the Enlightenment.  Giacomo Casanova, on the other hand, was a self-avowed and proud reactionary.  “Man is free; yet we must not suppose that he is at liberty to do everything he pleases,” he states in his preface, a clear contradiction in terms.  He then proceeds to express his contempt for “the whole tribe of fools,” and by a fool, as his narrative makes plain, he means anyone who disagrees with him on any issue he deems important.  Other frequent objects of his scorn include concepts such as the equality of human beings, democracy, and freedom of conscience, as well as male homosexuals or bisexuals (though not female bisexuals).  His occasional profession of liberal principles combined with his practical conservatism results in constant other contradictions throughout the Memoirs.  He may defend the supremacy of reason in one sentence and the absolute authority of the Pope in the next.  He vehemently attacks the State Inquisitors of Venice for their brutality in imprisoning him and others without trial or due process—and then casually admits that such a system is necessary for the preservation of the state.  He writes with outrage of how the sbirri were in the habit of bursting into the rooms of travelers to make sure no man was in bed with a woman who was not his wife—before commenting that the Papal States would be overwhelmed with debauchery were it not for the vigilance of their secret police.  He defends the use of lettres de cachet and laments that the French Revolution abolished them—after he himself was expelled from France by means of just such a letter.  Far from being a notable figure of the Enlightenment, Casanova was not particularly interested in enlightenment or liberty at all, save for sufficient liberty of movement to gain access to desirable females.  Otherwise, he craved a stable, ordered society that strictly regulated the behavior of the individual through rules that might be flouted only by those prepared to risk the penalties, which in practice meant the educated, the wealthy, and members of the ruling class.

Even Casanova’s contemporaries noticed and commented upon this streak of inconsistency in his character.  In the first volume of the Memoirs, he relates a conversation that took place between himself and a Muslim friend on his first visit to Constantinople.  The Turk pointed out Casanova’s own personal hypocrisy, namely the discrepancy between his nominal profession of chastity as a Catholic and his actual promiscuity, and compared it to similar situations elsewhere in the Catholic world, particularly the readiness of the Knights of Malta to produce legions of neglected bastards due to their unnatural vows.  Casanova shrugged off the charge of hypocrisy with the reply that all he needed to do was go to confession in order to start over afresh from a moral point of view.  It is worth remembering that this famous sensualist was also a doctor of canon law and was appointed protonotary apostolic ex urbem by Clement XIII.  He did not operate within a libertine framework of his own making. On the contrary, Casanova generally confined his activites well within the accepted boundaries for his class and time, which allowed him to interpret love as an act of damnation rather than salvation.  He ardently pursued that which he freely confessed to be a sin, which allows the reader to consider him anything from insincere to a lunatic.  “I had always a strong tincture of superstition, which has exercised considerable influence on my strange career,” he finally admits near the end of the last volume.

Nowhere in the Memoirs do Casanova’s inconsistency and smugness, as well as his authoritarian attitude, show up better than in his exchange with Voltaire, at the end of volume three:

“If Horace had had to combat the hydra-headed monster of superstition, he would have written as I have written—for all the world.”

“It seems to me that you might spare yourself the trouble of combating what you will never destroy.”

“That which I cannot finish others will, and I shall always have the glory of being the first in the field.”

“Very good; but supposing you succeed in destroying superstition, what are you going to put in its place?”

“I like that.  If I deliver the race of man from a wild beast which is devouring it, am I to be asked what I intend to put in its place?”

“It does not devour it; on the contrary, it is necessary to its existence.”

“Necessary to its existence!  That is a horrible blasphemy, the falsity of which will be seen in the future.  I love the human race; I would fain see men like myself, free and happy, and superstition and freedom cannot go together.  Where do you find an enslaved and yet a happy people?”

“You wish, then, to see the people sovereign?”

“God forbid!  There must be a sovereign to govern the masses.”

“In that case you must have superstition, for without it the masses will never obey a mere man decked with the name of monarch.”

“I will have no monarch; the word expresses despotism, which I hate as I do slavery.”

“What do you mean, then?  If you wish to put the government in the hands of one man, such a man, I maintain, will be a monarch.”

“I would have a sovereign ruler of a free people, of which he is the chief by an agreement which binds them both, which would prevent him from becoming a tyrant.”

“Addison will tell you that such a sovereign is a sheer impossibility.  I agree with Hobbes, of two evils choose the least.  A nation without superstition would be a nation of philosophers, and philosophers would never obey.  The people will only be happy when they are crushed and down-trodden, and bound in chains.”

“This is horrible; and you are of the people yourself.  If you have read my works you must have seen how I shew that superstition is the enemy of kings.”

“Read your works?  I have read and re-read them, especially in places where I have differed from you.  Your ruling passion is the love of humanity.  ‘Est ubi peccas’.  This blinds you.  Love humanity, but love it as it is.  It is not fit to receive the blessings you would lavish on it, and which would only make it more wretched and perverse.  Leave men their devouring monster, it is dear to them.  I have never laughed so heartily as at Don Quixote assailed by the galley-slaves whom his generosity had set free.”

“I am sorry that you have such a bad opinion of your fellow-creatures.  And by the way, tell me whether there is freedom in Venice.”

“As much as can be expected under an aristocracy.  Our liberty is not so great as that which the English enjoy, but we are content.”

“Even under The Leads?”

“My imprisonment was certainly despotic; but as I had knowingly abused my liberty I am satisfied that the Government was within its rights in shutting me up without the usual formalities.”

“All the same, you made your escape.”

“I used my rights as they had used theirs.”

“Very good!  But as far as I can see, no one in Venice is really free.”

“That may be; but you must agree that the essence of freedom consists in thinking you have it.”

“I shall not agree to that so easily.  You and I see liberty from very different points of view.  The aristocrats, the members of the Government even, are not free at Venice; for example, they cannot travel without permission.”

“True, but that is a restriction of their own making to preserve their power.  Would you say that a Bernese is not free, because he is subject to the sumptuary laws, which he himself had made.” 

“Well, well, I wish the people made the laws everywhere.”

Apart from his obvious hypocrisy, Casanova does not emerge from the Memoirs with much of a character.  He claims a proficiency in literature and versifying, but it is impossible for the reader of the Memoirs to judge this for himself, as the author includes no examples of his work, merely speaking instead of the approbation of various notable personages for it.  He quite candidly admits that Voltaire thought his Italian translation of Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise to be terrible, and that he bore a grudge against the man he had once regarded as a hero for the next ten years in consequence.  His brief success as a financial agent for the French government appears to have had more to do with his ability to advocate the ideas of others than with his own ingenuity.  By his own telling, he deliberately threw over all the opportunities offered to him for a successful career in the Church, politics, the army, and diplomacy through his impatience and bad decisions.  He chose instead to become a professional gambler and sponger.  While in general he seems to have spared his sexual partners violence—the first two volumes of the Memoirs reveal only one semi-rape—this restraint did not extend to his fellow men.  In the first three volumes alone, he fights several duels, commits a robbery with violence, and attempts to shoot a postilion, as well as admitting that he started out to commit a murder on at least two other occasions but recovered his temper before he could do so.  He would take offense on the slightest provocation, and then refer to the targets of his ire as “ungrateful” for resenting his anger.  This was doubtless of frequent occurrence, as indicated by the letters of his own that he quotes, which lay on the sarcasm with a trowel.  His behavior towards his children, of whom he sired at least eight (and possibly two more), was disgraceful; one at least he sent to an orphanage immediately, and the others he seems to have ignored, leaving their mothers to care for them.  In spite of Casanova’s passion for sex, he had so little self-restraint or common sense that he came down with sexually transmitted diseases, presumably syphilis since he alludes to mercury treatments, on a regular basis, and had to take himself out of action for six weeks at a stretch to recover each time.  One particularly severe infection disabled him for nearly a year.  Nevertheless, he did not fail in the Memoirs to condemn the improvidence of acquaintances of his who did exactly the same thing.  While he offered fortunes in cash to women in exchange for their favors without shame, and spent lavishly on his mistresses and friends, he would not hesitate to do a working man out of a few ducats if he could.  Once he paid a thousand sequins for a girl’s maidenhead.  In an episode that had a distinctly Old Testament flavor, he had his brother arrested on a trumped-up charge when the two of them were contending for the affections of the same woman.

Casanova’s most elaborate fraud was his exploitation of the Marquise d’Urfe, which extended over a period of several years.  As she was a fervent believer in the reality of the occult, he was able to supply her with faked oracles that incited her to give him, or allow him to defraud her of, hundreds of thousands of francs in addition to jewels, to travel all over France at his bidding, and to protect his mistresses and the half-brother of one of his children.  The scheme culminated in Casanova’s pretending to impregnate the seventy year-old Marquise with a male child, into whom she would be reincarnated upon her death in childbirth.  When his former accomplices exposed him as a fraud, d’Urfe broke off her connection with him.  Casanova glossed over this in the Memoirs by claiming, quite contrary to verifiable facts, that d’Urfe died twelve years prior her actual death, and named him the guardian of her fictitious child in her will, a situation he claims “vexed me exceedingly, as I knew I should be the laughing-stock of Paris for a week at least.”

Turning from his character to his sexual behavior, the reader of the Memoirs is still further disillusioned.  The common perception of Casanova as a master of the one-night stand who would try almost any sexual novelty—as an early modern champion of sex positivity, in other words—is not borne out by his own confessions.  Rather than moving incessantly from woman to woman, he had a habit of fixating on one individual at a time, falling passionately “in love” with her, and remaining loyal for weeks or months until he got bored, or some other incident in his life separated him from his “wife”.  Yes, he had the habit of referring to any woman with whom he fell temporarily in lust as his “wife”, and becoming possessive accordingly.  While Casanova routinely proposed and promised marriage to his conquests, never once did he follow through on these.  He admits repeatedly that his love of liberty was always greater than his love for any woman, and that his desire was often quenched by being satisfied.  The famous “Casanova method” of handing his conquests off to a more worthy lover comes across in the Memoirs as more of an expedient to escape marriage than a genuine gesture of concern for the welfare of his discards.  To some extent, Casanova specialized not only in virgins, but in young ladies already betrothed.  He appears to have delighted in his ability to cut out, at least temporarily, a previously successful candidate.

An instance of this occurs in volume three of the Memoirs, which opens with Casanova persuading a teenage girl, fresh from a convent to be married, to jerk him off while he is visiting at her aunt’s house.  Soon he takes her virginity, and several days later the girl’s fiance shows up to sign the marriage contract, an event to which Casanova, his hostess being ignorant of his nocturnal activities, is invited.  Of this separation from a girl he has known for only a few days, with whom he has shared nothing but some tumbles, the great lover writes, “I cannot imagine how it was that I did not fall dead on the spot.  My anguish cannot be expressed.”  A few days later, he is entirely recovered.  Assuming he is telling the truth about his emotions, this incident reveals how uncontrolled and unstable his sexual personality was.  More than that, it dispels the notion of Casanova as an enlightened libertine, rational and consistent in pursuit of sex as in pursuit of other personal freedoms.  Instead, it shows him to have been nothing but a volatile young man with a penchant for overdramatizing every incident in his life.  If that is not enough to cripple the myth, it further emerges that the great seducer was not, on many occasions, very good at seducing.  Casanova frequently paid for sex, not just from prostitutes or professional courtesans, and not just in the form of presents or investments for his mistresses.  There were moments when he would tell a woman (or her mother) in so many words, “I want to sleep with you (or your daughter), I’m a busy man, and I’ll pay you such-and-such an amount for your (her) time.  You have so long to decide before my offer expires.”  Frequently he would make such offers to women of his own class who were in financial distress.  Such an approach is more about power than pleasure, yet Casanova persisted in believing he went through life scattering joy and making people happy.  That he bought a female serf for his bed for a hundred roubles in St. Petersburg should be enough to dispose of that delusion for the reader.

Modern pieces on Casanova often suggest that the famous Venetian was, as a libertine, likely to have been bisexual.  One contemporary writer expressed the sentiment that he probably wanted to try every flavor of sex on offer.  Scholars who make this case allude to a couple of unspecified passages in the Memoirs that supposedly support their claims, but any such perceived support is the result of a wishful rereading rather than of Casanova’s writing.  There is no lack of references to male homosexuality or bisexuality in the Memoirs—but every single one reveals Casanova’s disapproval of sex between men.  The often-cited encounter with a castrato in a coffee-house when Casanova was a teenager ends in a caustic comment by the author, not a romp in the bedroom.  Similarly, Casanova describes how he rejected the sexual advances of male friends on other occasions, both in Venice and Constantinople, in the first two volumes, and later how he was hard put to fend off the approaches of a younger man while visiting Russia.  Perhaps the most unusual and conclusive evidence for his sexual antipathy towards other men appears in the first volume, in which he admits to falling overwhelmingly in love with a beautiful castrato—while stressing that he is simultaneously repulsed by the idea of touching another man’s penis.  The thought of it makes him weep.  Fortunately, he soon discovers the castrato is a girl in disguise, allowing him to successfully seduce her, promise to marry her, and then abandon her, as usual.  His own testimony makes it clear that he regarded sexual relations between men as “extraordinary and disgusting,” a phrase he applies to his former partner in a faro bank, who was expelled from Venice for his promiscuity.  He also calls homosexuality “the basest of all vices.”  At a bisexual orgy in Rome that he mentions in volume four, at which noblemen, abbes, courtesans, and castrati are present, he is the only clothed person in the room, and leaves with his nose in the air when they try to draw him into the action.

It is worth noting that Casanova found female bisexuality quite the reverse of disgusting; indeed, he gained much of his early sexual experience with a pair of sisters who shared each other’s favors as well as his.  He would later enjoy tripling with at least three other pairs of sisters, several mother-daughter combinations (volumes three and four), and, at other times, unrelated women.  This attitude, combined with his comments throughout the Memoirs, suggests that he held the view that only penetration qualifies as sex.  When he did witness penetration between women, as in the instance of one girl with a large clitoris penetrating another, he found himself both revolted and aroused.  For a man who spent his life in penetration, he was a bundle of insecurities when it came to his penis, a point of view that comes across as well in his complaints about how other men he observed in action were too large, particularly men whom he thought to be cruder than or socially inferior to himself.  It is also instructive to consider how Casanova’s attitude towards various forms of incest further revealed his lack of consistency (both sexually and in general).  He was highly excited by sisters getting it on, or by a mother and daughter, but when a father was attracted to his son or daughter, or a brother and sister were carrying on a sexual relationship, their actions became in his opinion “a horrible union, a criminal matter.”  At least, so he thought until he nearly married his own daughter.  He didn’t, of course, but he realized shamefacedly that merely becoming aware of their blood relationship did not destroy his sexual attraction to her. “I was in love and unable to satisfy my love.”  He also made the following statement which nicely sums up the conflict between his rational mind and his superstitions: “There is no philosopher who would maintain or even advance the thesis that the union of a father and daughter is horrible naturally, for it is entirely a social prejudice; but it is so widespread, and education has graven it so deeply in our hearts, that only a man whose heart is utterly depraved could despise it.  It is the result of a respect for the laws, it keeps the social scheme together; in fact, it is no longer a prejudice, it is a principle.”  Not once does he ever consider that accepting the opinion of others as to the right or wrong of a course of action—which is something he made a point of not doing in such matters as applauding at the theatre or paying a gambling debt—reveals him to be an intellectual weakling.  In any case, his summary of his situation is little more than a paraphrase of canon law, while also echoing the tone of Martin Luther’s earlier regretful statement that he could find nothing in Holy Writ prohibiting polygamy.  Eyes have they, but they see not—perhaps because they do not want to see.  Returning to the matter in hand, Casanova reveals that he did finally end up in bed with both his daughter and her mother, and describes that night as the greatest sexual experience of his life.  He would later resume his affair with his daughter after her marriage to a nonagenarian nobleman and father a son with her.

One of Casanova’s triads is deserving of particular attention because of what it reveals about his proprietary attitude towards sex and relationships.  Prior to his imprisonment in Venice (for possessing prohibited books, by the way, not for gambling or seduction or his other charming habits), he had accomplished the conquest of a girl of fourteen and asked her father for her hand.  Her father had other plans for her and promptly locked her up in a convent.  Deprived of his “wife”, his ardor failed to cool immediately, and he remained in communication with her, attending mass at the convent church every Sunday to allow her to see him.  His display led to one of the nuns, a woman of wealth and connections who was also his “wife’s” preceptor, falling in love with him and arranging for their rendezvous outside the convent.  For Casanova, loving two women—having two “wives”—at once presented no problem, apart from the fact that his affection for the first was diminished: “I do not believe in the possibility of equal love being bestowed upon two persons at the same time.”  Nor was he put off when the nun informed him that she already had a lover, who “will be delighted to see me happy with such a lover as you.  It is in his nature.”  To this, Casanova replies, “What an admirable nature!  Such heroism is quite beyond me,” an illuminating comment, as the subsequent progress of their intrigue reveals.  When her lover wishes to witness their coupling from a secret recess adjoining the bedroom, Casanova is surprised at first, but agrees to allow it.  He is not particularly shocked when he learns that the nun has initiated his little wife into the mysteries of girl-on-girl sex.  But when he turns up at their rendezvous one night, he discovers the latter awaiting him in place of the nun, who informs him that the nun had discovered they were lovers, and that “she could not give us a greater proof of her love than by procuring us, without forewarning us, that which two lovers fond of each other must wish for so ardently.”  Casanova is outraged, believing that the nun is deliberately flinging his previous attachment in his face to embarrass him, and is only appeased when he learns of her distress at hearing a rumor of his death in a gondola accident that night.

In her pleasure at regaining his affections, the nun introduces Casanova to her lover, the Abbe de Bernis, who is the French ambassador to Venice, and arranges a party for all four of them.  This makes Casanova extremely uncomfortable, as he realizes the abbe is in love with his “wife” and seeking an introduction to her, but he cannot decline the invitation without appearing jealous before all of his very giving friends.  The abbe fails to arrive and Casanova enjoys a threesome with both girls, which, rather than pleasing him, upsets him further, as he realizes afterwards that he has effectively given the abbe permission to do the same thing.  When the abbe’s threesome comes off, the girls write Casanova letters full of praise and appreciation for his sexual openness, and he notes how difficult it is for him to reply to them in the same terms, because he is in reality filled with bitterness and resentment.  Afterwards, he breaks off all connection with his “wife” because she has been unfaithful to him, and his passion for the nun rapidly cools.  This series of events reveals a remarkable strain of possessiveness in its protagonist, remarkable both because it was one-sided (Casanova’s remarks indicate that he feels entitled to sleep around, but is affronted when a woman he is in the process of discarding does so) and because possessiveness was, by Casanova’s own account, uncommon among his contemporaries.  “He was never so pleased as when he saw his mistress surrounded by people,” he writes of a French nobleman, calling that a rare taste while giving himself the lie through the cumulative testimony of the Memoirs.  Everyone around Casanova seems to have been perfectly capable of feeling and showing compersion–except Casanova himself.  The great lover was never able to love fully, or to put his lover’s desires above his own.  Everyone around him also had generally looser attitudes towards polyamory, incest, and same-sex behavior than he did.  Casanova’s sexual morals, with his habit of considering women as practically a separate species, and his narrowness of mind towards anything other than heterosexual-dominant behavior, were more in line with the accepted values of the late twentieth century than with those of the late eighteenth.

Casanova’s attitude towards love in general was not just inconsistent, but falsely premised and selfish.  When a woman rejected his advances, he would typically respond by protesting that he loved her, and that therefore she should love him in return.  To his mind, love–or attraction–ought to be sufficient in itself to evoke a response; if it did not, he was confused and angry, as if the universe had departed from its absolute laws.  Furthermore, he could never understand why someone who loved him, and whom he loved, would refuse him her sexual favors.  Love without sex was inconceivable for him; his love, so-called, required taking from others rather than giving freely and was thus selfishness rather than selflessness.  If the girl of the moment was reluctant, he would bully and manipulate her until she surrendered at discretion, and sulk if she did not.  He was possessive to the point of absurdity, feeling insulted if another man so much as spoke to a woman whom he was pursuing.  Having once possessed a woman, he felt he had acquired a certain permanent right to her.  When he encountered an actress he had abandoned seventeen years before, he mounted her at the first opportunity, then became annoyed that she had ventured to marry during that time.  He expected women to be available to him as a matter of course.  The mere sight of a woman wearing breeches sent him into a genuine rage.  “It seemed to me that such clothes were a kind of rampart or outwork, very natural, no doubt, but I thought a young girl should know nothing of the danger, or, at all events, pretend ignorance if she did not possess it.”  Although he prided himself on being able to perceive a woman under any disguise, citing the cases of the false castrato and another in France in volume three to make his point, Casanova was also firmly convinced that the crossdressing Chevalier d’Eon, whom he met in London, was a woman.

“I am a detestable man; but I do not care about having it known,” Casanova wrote to one of his correspondents when soliciting advice on whether he should destroy his Memoirs or not.  His eventual decision to preserve them ensured that his detestability would become known, enriching our knowledge of the eighteenth century while at the same time guaranteeing the permanent destruction of his own reputation.  In that sense he prefigured the social media culture of the early twenty-first century, with its attitude that any notoriety is a good thing, by more than two centuries. Casanova’s contemporaries already knew him to be a mass of contradictions, prone to hysterics, gifted and neglecting his gifts, and passionate in his loves and hates, which in him partook of the quality of obsessions.  They did not, however, pay particular attention to his success as a womanizer, because by their standards his sexual behavior was unexceptionable, even restrained.  That the name of Casanova should have become synonymous with “libertine” in the modern Anglo-American vernacular reveals as much about the speakers of the English language as the Memoirs do about Casanova himself.  Only a culture lacking in regular and varied sex could come to regard a prudish serial monogamist like Casanova as an exemplar of promiscuity.  Likewise, the use of Casanova as an illustration of what a great lover or an “ethical slut” should be implies that strict heterosexuality, the treatment of sex as a commodity, monogamous relationships, jealousy, selfishness, violence, lies, and control of one’s partner are all essential to sexual success.  Casanova may be regarded as advanced in sexual license only from the viewpoint of a society that is far more sex-negative than his own was.  Instead of depicting his sexual behavior as a pursuit of yet another form of freedom in the Age of Enlightenment, he openly avowed that it was in defiance of the very traditional rules of the Catholic Church by which he had agreed to live his life, which he flouted knowingly yet nominally embraced.  He sought to express greed and project power through sex, and as such was the very opposite of the ideal lover, who seeks to give, not to take.  His Memoirs are fascinating reading—and a monument to selfishness that should be explored with caution.

Friendly fire

On June 30, 2020, the Chicago Reader published an article reviewing the demographics of arrests made by the Chicago Police Department over the first full weekend of Black Lives Matter protests a month earlier.  The Reader noted that over 70 percent of those arrested that weekend and 80 percent of those arrested for violating Chicago’s curfew were black in a city where only 32 percent of the population is black; that the vast majority of arrests for curfew violations took place in affluent, mainly white neighborhoods; and that the majority of protestors, as many as 85 percent in places, were white.  What the Reader did not point out was that just over half of the members of the CPD by 2019 figures—including the superintendent, David O. Brown—are black, Hispanic, or Asian, and that it was therefore likely that the majority of minority individuals arrested or assaulted by CPD officers that weekend were the victims of fellow minorities.

One of the aspects of paramilitary violence that has been rather neglected so far by the media is the fact that in many large cities, the very policemen who routinely brutalize blacks and minorities are themselves blacks and minorities.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of minority paramilitary troopers in the United States doubled to 27 percent from 1987 to 2013.  At the same time, fatal paramilitary shootings were rising steadily, more than doubling between 2000 and 2014.  This evidence would tend to refute the findings of a study in the Public Administration Review, based on English and Welsh police, which claimed that increasing officer diversity reduced misconduct.  On the contrary, the greater the number of black or Hispanic officers involved in a paramilitary shooting, the more likely it is that the victim will be black or Hispanic, respectively.  48 percent of NYPD troopers belong to a minority group in a city where 56 percent of the population also belong to a minority group; in the first three months of 2018, 93 percent of the people the NYPD arrested for marijuana use did as well.  Unless white officers were making nearly twice as many arrests of minorities as minority officers, which would have been a highly obvious form of discrimination, then it is clear that minority NYPD troopers were also actively seeking out minorities to arrest, having absorbed the cultural bias of their white peers.  

The fifty largest cities in the United States are home to nearly one in six Americans.  More than 55 percent of their combined populations belong to a racial or ethnic group other than non-Hispanic white, and, on average, more than 68 percent of those arrested each year in these cities also belong to a minority group.  Obtaining data on the number of arrests by race in these cities is difficult give that some states, such as Oklahoma and New Mexico, do not formally collect or report that information, while others, including parts of California and Florida, count Hispanics and some Asians as white, skewing the results.  However, as far as can be determined, in only six of these cities—Oklahoma City, Virginia Beach, Louisville, Portland, Kansas City, and Colorado Springs—did minority residents represent less than 50 percent of annual arrestees.  By contrast, in twenty-seven of these cities, minorities accounted for at least 70 percent of arrests, and, in seventeen of them, for at least 80 percent of arrests, regardless of the number of minority citizens in the population or serving on the paramilitary force.

The twenty-three cities in which minorities account for less than 70 percent of arrests average a 51 percent minority population, have a paramilitary force that is composed of 30 percent minority officers, and average 52 percent of minorities among those arrested.  Among the twenty-seven cities where the minority arrest rate is higher than 70 percent, these numbers are 62 percent, 44 percent, and 82 percent, respectively.  Not only does a having a larger minority population and a larger number of minority officers on the force fail to decrease a city paramilitary’s racial bias, it has the opposite effect, increasing it disproportionately.  48 percent of minority troopers in New York City and Chicago produce dockets that are 89 percent and 92 percent composed of minorities.  65 percent of Los Angeles police belong to a minority group; 80 percent of the people they arrest do.  Those numbers are on the order of 63 percent and 90 percent in Atlanta.  Perhaps the most egregious offender is Washington, DC, where 65 percent of the population and 68 percent of the paramilitary are minorities—and 86 percent of the arrests the latter makes are of black males alone.  Only Miami and El Paso among these twenty-seven cities have achieved rough equivalence among minority population, paramilitary representation, and arrest rates.  Given the sheer volume of discriminatory violence committed by American paramilitaries, it is inevitable that a substantial part of this discrimination is being carried out by individuals who, were they not wearing uniforms, would themselves be likely targets of discrimination.

The real black-on-black crime is that black murderers can get away with killing as readily as white murderers as long as they join the police force.  The exercise of power cuts across all ethnic and racial barriers; those who belong to a group that allows them to exercise power are loyal to that group rather than to any of the groups to which they formerly belonged.  As Ursula LeGuin said, “The state recognizes no coinage but power—and it issues the coins itself.”  Authority requires both a perpetrator and a victim.  Cops create an identity for themselves that allows them to identify more as perpetrators of violence than as white or black or Hispanic, which are the identities of victims, and through which they relate to outsiders, “others”, barbarians, more as superiors than they do as fellow members of a racial group.  A Justice Department report on the Baltimore paramilitary found that “officers seemed to view themselves as controlling the city rather than as a part of the city” and “view themselves as enforcing the will of the ‘silent majority.’”  The same attitude of separatism is observable within the US armed forces due to the strong military emphasis on replacing soldiers’ private identities with a shared public one. The prevalence of this attitude among the paramilitary has naturally increased in tandem with rising police militarization, explaining why the rise in the number of minority paramilitary soldiers has been accompanied by the increasing use of violence against civilians by those paramilitary soldiers.  The development of a military or paramilitary aristocracy of merit, self-protecting, controlling the attributes of physical power, and immune to the popular will, is exactly what early American leaders wanted to avoid, and what some, like Davy Crockett, sought to prevent by demanding the abolition of the US Military Academy.  Neither racial solidarity nor learned tolerance have so far shown an ability to overcome this indoctrination, although that is unsurprising when one considers that paramilitary forces are made up of those who are deliberately seeking an opportunity to commit acts of violence with impunity.

The situation is summed up in a single graphic from ABC News that compared total arrests by the NYPD from 2006 to 2019 with total arrests since the end of the city’s stop-and-frisk program in 2014 and arrests in 2019 alone.  In all three cases, the racial breakdown of those arrests was the same: 48 percent black, 34 percent Hispanic, 4 to 6 percent Asian, and 11 to 12 percent white.  The growth of the city’s population by four hundred thousand people, the end of a controversial program, the turnover of troopers, and the passage of thirteen years barely made the numbers flicker.  Their stability reflects reality about as convincingly as does a 98 percent electoral victory for the incumbent president in a banana republic.  Quite simply, the NYPD has decided that about 88 percent of all arrests it makes must be of members of minority groups and that such a proportion accurately reflects the relationship between race and crime.  More broadly, other paramilitary forces in other large, majority-minority cities around the country have come to the same conclusion: that approximately 80 percent of all the people their officers arrest must be minorities.  The presence of minorities within the paramilitaries themselves does not mitigate this trend, but instead exacerbates it as minority troopers strive to prove their loyalty to their adopted identity group by copying its attitudes and being particularly demanding towards members of their former identity group.  Greed for power and the desire to exercise power override any sense of fellowship among them for their kin by blood or circumstance.

Freedom for the few

Twenty years ago, I always looked forward to the arrival of the newest Easton Press catalog in the mail with an almost erotic yearning.  Sometimes the too-long breaks between catalogs would be relieved by flyers advertising special editions.  One of these, I seem to recall, displayed on its front page a four-volume set of the novels of Ayn Rand, together with several glowing endorsements of her works from business and political figures.  A contemporary catalog speaks of her as a “daring philosopher and compelling author” and of her books as “controversial and powerful novels…classics that champion individuality and nonconformity in the face of numbing bureaucracy…some of the 20th century’s most influential writings.”  I liked the sound of that, but I had other collecting priorities at the time.  I did not get around to reading Rand’s novels for another sixteen years, and when I finally did so, my primary motivation had become curiosity as to exactly what she had to say that infatuated some and infuriated others.

I chose to focus on Rand’s fiction rather than her theoretical works to see how she would describe her economic and social theories in action, including the novels We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, the novella Anthem, and the play Think Twice.  The plots of all these works, except the last, deal with the struggles of talented but nonconforming individuals to remain uninfluenced by their societies and triumph over them.  While Atlas Shrugged is usually described as Rand’s masterpiece, her earlier, shorter works are greatly superior to it.  Think Twice, a murder mystery, is probably her finest piece of writing, in which she depicts how dependence on another person can become the starting point for manipulation and abuse.  She also used it as an opportunity to comment on the pernicious effects of charity in general, an idea that appears in the works of her contemporaries H.G. Wells and E. Phillips Oppenheim as well.  The play’s weakest moment is its climax, which degenerates into melodrama with its stereotypical “the Communist did it.”  Rand could not resist taking jabs at Communists.  Her dystopian allegory Anthem benefits from its shortness and its lack of definite historical background; it is more focused, idealistic, and enthusiastic about individual freedom than any of her other novels.  It is also more optimistic.  We the Living, set in the early days of the Soviet Union, is less about the obscenity of the totalitarian state and more about the struggle to survive in a land ravaged by war.  In a sense, it is Gone with the Wind transposed to Russia.  Given that Rand considered herself a Romantic with a desire to express the best in human potential, the ending of this book is terrible.  The Fountainhead deals chiefly with the topics of artistic integrity, extreme individuality, and the evils of dependence as expressed through the person of Howard Roark, a colorless architect whose egotism makes the Renaissance masters look humble by comparison.  It is an agonizingly prolonged bildungsroman.  As for Atlas Shrugged, there is the germ of a good plot in this book with its idea of the creative workers of the world uniting to go on strike from a society that has ceased to appreciate them, but Rand let it go on much too long.  A more practiced writer of science fiction would have cut the book down to a third of its eventual length, producing a stronger effect.  Otherwise, it is the story of how the free market is immeasurably superior to the managed economy, though Rand shows herself to be quite unclear on what a free market is.  The famous speech delivered at the end of the book by her deus ex machina superman John Galt is physically painful to read, given its vanity and vagueness.  Rand’s writing style is nothing special and abounds in similes.  There are nevertheless occasional delightful moments in her books, such as D’Anconia’s remarks at the Rearden party in Atlas Shrugged or Roark’s exposition of the individual nature of the creative process (frankly the best part of The Fountainhead), and the plumbing analogy of We the Living.  Galt’s largely vapid speech contains a few gems that are most likely the result of Rand’s interest in Aristotle: 

“Your mind is your only judge of truth…If devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking…The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments…I saw that the enemy was an inverted morality—and that my sanction was its only power. I saw that evil was impotent—that evil was the irrational, the blind, the anti-real—and that the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it.”

However, Rand elsewhere identifies this true morality with industrialism, rather blunting the idealism of those sentiments.

“The motive and purpose of my writing [is] the projection of an ideal man,” Rand once stated.  Ostensibly, her ideal man is driven by a supreme love of life.  “‘My life is the highest of values, too high to give up without a fight,’” railway executive Dagny Taggart asserts in Atlas Shrugged.  “‘If existence on earth is your goal, you must choose your actions and values by the standard of that which is proper to man—for the purpose of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life,’” John Galt agrees.  “‘A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death.’”  “‘I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life,’” states the fiercely independent architect Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead.  “‘Nor to any part of my energy.  Nor to any achievement of mine.  No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need.’”  Roark goes further and connects the existence of life with the existence of reason: “‘When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life.’”  There was clearly more to Rand’s view of the importance of life than survival, as further indicated by a comment that one of her characters makes to a Soviet official in We the Living: “‘You may claim the right to kill, as all fighters do. But no one before you has ever thought of forbidding life to those still living.’”

The objective of this life, according to Prometheus, the hero of Anthem, is happiness.  “My happiness is not the means to any end.  It is the end.  It is its own goal.  It is its own purpose.”  A recurrent theme throughout Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s observation that the harmful living situations and bizarre taboos of Western societies are largely responsible for both physical and mental suffering among the population of those societies.  “‘We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one’s happiness is evil,’” John Galt tells America.  “‘We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt…

“You have been taught that morality is a code of behavior imposed on you by whim, the whim of a supernatural power or the whim of society, to serve God’s purpose or your neighbor’s welfare, to please an authority beyond the grave or else next door—but not to serve your life or pleasure.  Your pleasure, you have been taught, is to be found in immorality, your interests would best be served by evil, and any moral code must be designed not for you, but against you, not to further your life, but to drain it.”

“‘We saw that we’d been given a law to live by, a moral law, they called it, which punished those who observed it—for observing it,’” a laborer in the same book remarks when complaining about the problem of freeloading in communal enterprises (although the statement applies broadly to any human law).  “She would not allow pain to become important,” Rand wrote of Dagny Taggart, an oddly Aurelian statement placed in a context of industrial warfare.  Throwing Rand’s views on the primacy of happiness into greater relief is a sinister passage penned by the socialist Ellsworth Toohey that appears in Fountainhead:

“Don’t allow men to be happy.  Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient.  Happy men have no time and no use for you.  Happy men are free men.  So kill their joy in living.  Take away from them whatever is dear or important to them.  Never let them have what they want.  Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil.”

“‘Happiness is the successful state of life, pain is an agent of death,’” Galt summed up.  “‘Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.’”

Happiness in Rand’s understanding—and that of her characters—is thus part of a set of related values.  It is equal to success in life; it is also equal to, and inseparable from, personal freedom.  Life is likewise inseparable from consciousness or conscious effort, happiness is similarly defined as a state of consciousness or awareness, and life itself is considered the highest value.  The Randian hero moves through life towards happiness and freedom by means of reasoned, independent effort, attaining his goals while living, merely by living, so long as he retains his singular identity and confidence in his own intellectual powers.  He is happy while pursuing freedom; he is free while pursuing happiness; he must be alive to do both; he cannot move through life without logic and identity.  “‘Who can tell me why I should live for anything but for that which I want?  Who can answer that in human sounds that speak for human reason?’” the protagonist demands in We the Living.  Nowhere, however, is this feeling expressed more blatantly than in Anthem:

It is my mind which thinks, and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth.  It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.  Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy:  “I will it!”…

This god, this one word: I…

I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them.  I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others.  I covet no man’s soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet.  I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me.  And to earn my love, my brothers must do more than to have been born.  I do not grant my love without reason, nor to any chance passer-by who may wish to claim it.  I honor men with my love.  But honor is a thing to be earned.  I shall choose my friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters.  And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey.  And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire.

Howard Roark’s egotism is a close second to that of the self-made Prometheus.  “‘I don’t work with collectives.  I don’t consult, I don’t co-operate, I don’t collaborate,’” he says.  So secure is he in his own self-sufficiency that he can claim, “‘A truly selfish man cannot be affected by the approval of others.  He doesn’t need it.’”  At one point he reflects that “it was strange to be conscious of another person’s existence.”  On another occasion, he asks, “‘How can you let others decide for you?’”  His sometime employer, the newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, shares this attitude:

“That I’ve never practiced any sort of integrity is not so important.  What’s important is that I’ve never felt any need for it.  I hate the conception of it.  I hate the presumptuousness of the idea…If it were true, that old legend about appearing before a supreme judge and naming one’s record, I would offer, with all my pride, not any act I committed, but one thing I have never done on this earth: that I never sought an outside sanction.  I would stand and say: I am Gail Wynand, the man who has committed every crime except the foremost one: that of ascribing futility to the wonderful fact of existence and seeking justification beyond myself.  This is my pride: that now, thinking of the end, I do not cry like all the men of my age: but what was the use and the meaning?  I was the use and the meaning, I, Gail Wynand.  That I lived and that I acted.”

Rand took the Platonic concept of striving for the good life, the life lived with integrity according to one’s professed values, and turned it on its head by setting those values equal to self-interest.  Fountainhead makes it clear that to the Randian hero, the ultimate form of selflessness—and therefore of evil—is to give up his ego.

It is worth observing that Rand elsewhere accused the nation-state of replacing one religious system (churchgoing/private morality) with another (collectivism/public morality), and rejected both systems, but was nevertheless eager to set up her own third religion of the Perfect Man.  The hostility that such a self-sufficient, self-centered man must provoke among the socialists is expressed in another passage by Toohey:

“Great men can’t be ruled.  We don’t want any great men.  Don’t deny the conception of greatness.  Destroy it from within.  The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional.  Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small.  You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection.”

Perfection, in Rand’s world, is achieved through industrial progress, and her hero is therefore always a technologist.  Engineers, architects, or those who could make money out of engineering and architecture were uniformly her favorites.  And technology too is bound up with Rand’s conception of the virtues.  In We the Living, the lead character Kira, who is training as an engineer, explains that “‘it’s the only profession for which I don’t have to learn any lies.  Steel is steel.  Most of the other sciences are someone’s guess, and someone’s wish, and many people’s lies.’”  Technology—both in the sense of the physical steel that comprises it and in the sense of the natural laws governing its use—equals logic and truth in the Randian equation, which further equates it with life and happiness as well as virtue.  Rand’s two major novels are perhaps the highest expression in fiction of the American technological sublime, a concept that the technology writer L.M. Sacacas summarized as the way “the Americans blended, almost seamlessly, their religious affections with their veneration for technology until finally the experience of technology took on the unifying role of religion in traditional societies.”  “‘What are they, your mills—a holy temple of some kind?’” Rearden’s mother challenges him.  “‘Why…yes,’ he said softly, astonished at the thought.”   “‘He thinks you should take your shoes off and kneel, when you speak of architecture,’” one of Roark’s rivals comments dismissively.  That same rival nonetheless later finds himself writing, albeit from a very different perspective than Roark’s, that “‘the architect is a metaphysical priest dealing in basic essentials.’”  Representing the technologist as a high priest was certainly Rand’s intention.  Dagny Taggart’s attitude towards her own family’s railway is forthright “worship of the skill that had gone to make it, of the ingenuity of someone’s clean, reasoning mind.”  Rand likewise referred to John Galt’s miraculous motors as “a moral code cast in steel.”  An anecdote from Atlas Shrugged underscores the point:

“Once, an elderly professor of literature, Mrs. Taggart’s friend, saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile.  He stopped, shook his head and said to Francisco, ‘A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries, absorbing the culture of the world.’  ‘What do you think I’m doing?’ asked Francisco.”

“‘It’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through,” Hank Rearden says to Dagny Taggart.  Yes—for a price, since Rand made it clear that “‘the words “to make money” hold the essence of human morality’” and that “‘the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader.’”  Technology, to be virtuous, must be exploited for profit, which term takes its place alongside life, happiness, and logic as a result.  Any of Rand’s heroes might say with Anthem’s Prometheus, “The only things which taught us joy were the power we created in our wires.”

Life and technology are largely interchangeable terms in Rand’s worldview, in that a life lived well will manifest itself first in technological pursuits and then in the particular appearance or form that the ideal man stamps on his technology.  “‘We live in our minds, and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form.  For the man who understands this, a house he owns is a statement of his life,’” Howard Roark explains.  One of his designs, for a client who asks Roark to give him what he needs rather than what might be popular, turns out to be

…a study in circles; there were no angles and no straight lines; it looked like shapes caught in a flow, held still at the moment of being poured, at the precise moment when they formed a harmony that seemed too perfect to be intentional.  It looked like a cluster of bubbles hanging low over the ground, not quite touching it, to be swept aside in an instant on a wind of speed; it looked gay, with the hard, bracing gaiety of efficiency, like a powerful airplane engine.

“‘What we love about these buildings, Dominique, is the creative faculty, the heroic in man,’” Roark says to his girl.  “‘What in hell are you really made of, Howard?’” someone else asks him.  “‘After all, it’s only a building.  It’s not the combination of holy sacrament, Indian torture and sexual ecstasy that you seem to make of it.’” “‘Isn’t it?’” Roark replies.  As for Dominique’s point of view, gazing down on New York, “the buildings of the city far below looked no bigger than the model on his table.  It seemed to her that she could see his hands shaping the setbacks, the corners, the roofs of all the structures below, smashing and molding again.”  The ideal man who can express himself through technology in his life does so by exercising power over men and nature alike, restrained only by his superior judgment, unique to his species and to the strong of his species.  “‘I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart,’” a newspaper vendor comments.  “‘I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand.  Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips.’”

Nature, on the other hand, is only a backdrop to man’s works, the raw material for his pursuits, as Gail Wynand makes clear in Fountainhead:

“When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man.  I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space.  When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite.  When I look at the planets, I think of airplanes…It’s interesting to speculate on the reasons that make men so anxious to debase themselves…It’s as if they were smacking their lips in sheer glee that their best is dust before the brute force of an earthquake.  As if they were sprawling on all fours, rubbing their foreheads in the mud to the majesty of a hurricane.  But that’s not the spirit that leashed fire, steam, electricity, that crossed oceans in sailing sloops, that built airplanes and dams…and skyscrapers.”

In Anthem, Rand’s worldbuilding presupposes that collectivism has resulted in the collapse of industrial society, producing a medieval-style dystopia: 

They whisper many strange things, of the towers which rose to the sky, in those Unmentionable Times, and of the wagons which moved without horses, and of the lights which burned without flame.  But those times were evil…We learned that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it, which causes the day and the night…We learned the names of all the winds which blow over the seas and push the sails of our great ships.  We learned how to bleed men to cure them of all ailments…All the great modern inventions come from the Home of the Scholars, such as the newest one, which we found only a hundred years ago, of how to make candles from wax and string; also, how to make glass, which is put in our windows to protect us from the rain…At forty, [men] are worn out…When a miracle happens and some live to be forty-five, they are the Ancient Ones…Our brothers in the Home of the Clerks spend one year to copy one single script in their clear handwriting.

Opposition to technological progress and industrial expansion is expressed only by the villains in a Rand novel.  One of them, in Atlas Shrugged, avers that “‘machines have destroyed man’s humanity, taken him away from the soil, robbed him of his natural arts, killed his soul and turned him into an insensitive robot.’”  This, oddly, was the worst thing Rand could think of to say about technology, even when speaking falsely—not that industry led to economic specialization and therefore a culture of dependence, nor that agrarian society would involve less economic dependence, but rather that machinery might somehow be immoral by its nature.  Such an approach is explained by her conception that the machines themselves were a moral code, which humans might either embrace or reject, making them virtuous or evil respectively.  Since the machines themselves were inherently moral, that the relationships of man with man might be affected negatively by machines was not something she ever considered possible.  Where technology exists and is respected in the Randian world, it must elevate.

Part of the effectiveness of Rand’s works as intellectual exercises results from the obvious dichotomies she set up between her heroes and antagonists.  Both classes of characters are clear and literal.  Their positions are not nuanced.  They state the essence of their competing values in simple, unambiguous terms and physically embody characteristics associated with those values—in short, they are avatars.  The encounter between the Dean and Roark early in The Fountainhead is a good instance of this.  It’s easy for the reader to resent the Dean; it’s equally easy for him to see the unfairly-suppressed promise in Roark.  Mrs. Rearden’s party early in Atlas Shrugged is an even better example of Rand’s contrasting-characters technique, featuring more powerful and more varied figures.  The characters who act out these dialectics are not stereotypes, but they are one-dimensional: ideas made flesh. Generally they represent tradition versus innovation and subservience versus independence.  The ideal man is usually on one side of the debate and gets the best of it.

These ideal men of Rand’s are more than a little obvious and trite as well as physically unappealing.  All her villains are undersized, slouching, or overweight.  Conversely, all her heroes are tall and tend towards being cold, indifferent, bland, even cruel—rather New England Puritan stereotypes, in fact.  Her own adjectives for them included calm, severe, contemptuous, cold, steady, tense, arrogant, courteous, expressionless, commanding, straight (We the Living); thin, hard, strong (Anthem); rigid, closed, disquieting, gaunt, insulting, insolent, austere, unapproachable, indifferent, cruel, “ice cube” (The Fountainhead); and unyielding, implacable, merciless, bitter, pure, lonely, ascetic, ruthless, tight, taut, astonished (Atlas Shrugged).  Of the newspaperman Gail Wynand, she wrote, “He felt many emotions toward his fellow men, but respect was not one of them…a creature possessed by the single impulse to have his way.”  Her occasional rapture over the human form was reducible to utilitarian motives: “‘the beauty of the human body is that it hasn’t a single muscle which doesn’t serve its purpose; that there’s not a line wasted; that every detail of it fits one idea, the idea of a man and the life of a man.’”  In one sense, the aesthetic of her stories is Puritan materialism with God excised but the work ethic preserved.  To Rand, wealth was important as a marker of the creative and determined man rather than as a force in its own right.  If a man was wealthy, she assumed that he must have been strong enough and egotistical enough to earn his wealth, and therefore deserved respect, and though she acknowledged the exceptions to this rule briefly, she took sanctification by wealth for granted in general.  The question raised by such descriptions of her characters, however, is how they are to convey the supreme virtue of happiness.  Are these stern, detached, unemotional men her ambassadors of life and freedom?  They have little charm or appeal and produce no conviction in the reader that the ideals they embody are attractive.

Nevertheless, so large did this ideal man loom in Rand’s vision that even her antagonistic characters couldn’t help but be swayed by the promise of his ability.  In a passage in Atlas Shrugged in which the “looters”—federal bureaucrats—tell Rearden that they have every confidence that he will be able to keep up production in spite of the restrictions they have placed on him, they cannot resist expressing admiration for the greatest force of nature, the creative industrialist.  They feel themselves compelled to render him homage against their will.  This scene is Rand’s way of expressing how undeniable the greatness of the ideal man is even to his enemies, and how indispensable he is to them.  John Galt’s calm resistance to his torturers at the end of the book provokes much the same response in them while recalling the wager of Epictetus as well.  Rand’s reverence for the economic superman of her own creation also serves to highlight just how out of date her views on corporations were, even for the period at which she was writing.  She viewed corporations as nothing more than fronts for driven men of steel, who were above the sordidness of weak collaboration or political influence buying.  The arch-example of this in her works is Dagny Taggart, who is technically a minority stockholder in the family railway but nevertheless orders her brother and the rest of the directors about through sheer force of personality.  Rand entirely lost sight of the fact that the reason for a corporation’s existence is to grant government privileges and protection to a group of individuals in order to assist them in exploiting other individuals who do not share in those protections.  If Rand had really been serious about the primacy of men of genius, she would have advocated the abolition of the corporation in order to ensure that no ideal man could ever be ordered about by the inferiors on his board, that no business enterprise could ever be greater or less than its creators, and that talent would no longer be at the mercy of wealthy mediocrity.  Instead, she dismissed the corporation as a legal fiction that merely provided her ideal men with the capital they needed for their great enterprises.  She thought—and her readers would doubtless like to think—that her books are paens to a free market.  In reality, they are only paens to capitalism, which would be almost nonexistent in a true free market.  The heroic individualist industrialist she described was long dead by the time she began writing, if indeed he had ever existed at all.

While Rand was full of admiration for the laborer who triumphed, she had no such sympathy for him if he failed.  From her first novel to her last, Rand’s writing overflows with contempt for the working class as a whole, the workers who are content to remain workers without attempting to exploit one another.  In We the Living she pronounced, “‘It is an old and ugly fact that the masses exist and make their existence felt.  This is a time when they make it felt with particular ugliness.’”  Later in the book, she lashed out at the masses again with greater vehemence, rejecting the Benthamite ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number”:

“Can you sacrifice the few?  When those few are the best?  Deny the best its right to the top—and you have no best left.  What are your masses but millions of dull, shrivelled, stagnant souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words others put into their brains?  And for those you would sacrifice the few who know life, who are life?  I loathe your ideals because I know no worse injustice than the giving of the undeserved.  Because men are not equal in ability and one can’t treat them as if they were.”

Elsewhere in her works, Rand ruled out talent and stated that mastery of any skill could be achieved through training, quite an inconsistency with this passage.  She returned to the subject of the unworthiness of the masses in Atlas Shrugged, published twenty years later, first in the voice of Dagny Taggart:

“If the rest of them can survive only by destroying us, then why should we wish them to survive?  Nothing can make self-immolation proper.  Nothing can give them the right to turn men into sacrificial animals.  Nothing can make it moral to destroy the best.  One can’t be punished for being good.  One can’t be penalized for ability.  If that is right, then we’d better start slaughtering one another, because there isn’t any right at all in the world!”

And again, with bitter irony:

“What we are now asked to worship, what had once been dressed as God or king, is the naked, twisted, mindless figure of the human Incompetent.  This is the new ideal, the goal to aim at, the purpose to live for, and all men are to be rewarded according to how close they approach it.  This is the age of the common man, they tell us—a title which any man may claim to the extent of such distinction as he has managed not to achieve.  He will rise to a rank of nobility by means of the effort he has failed to make, he will be honored for such virtue as he has not displayed, and he will be paid for the goods which he did not produce.”

“‘The public,’ to you, is whoever has failed to achieve any virtue or value,” Rand’s great hero John Galt declares in addressing the collectivists.  “Groups of men are vacuums. Great big empty nothings,” Rand wrote in Fountainhead, in which her protagonist also “wondered why ineptitude should exist and have its say.”  Gail Wynand expresses a similar attitude, with greater cynicism, towards his subscribers and the public.  “‘The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard,’” the eccentric industrialist Francisco D’Anconia remarks in Atlas Shrugged, while Rearden informs his more collectivist competitors, “‘You expect me to hold my business down to the level of your incompetence.  This is to tell you that you have miscalculated.’”  Fountainhead portrays workers as the inevitable incompetents; in a capitalist fantasy, it assumes that the man at the top can only be at the top by reason of his excellence and therefore cannot be incompetent like those who have failed to rise.  Elsewhere in the book, a socialist architect writes that “‘the literate is inferior to the illiterate, that the rich is inferior to the poor, and the able to the incompetent’” expressly so Rand can disagree with him, or make the reader disagree and thereby take her side.  A jaded theatregoer attending a popular play says afterward, “‘I looked at the stage and I thought, this is what people are like, such are their spirits.’”  For Rand, all of the proletariat was the lumpenproletariat, and all social welfare programs a penalizing of the competent to support the less competent.  Competence (as a form of logic), profitability, and strength were necessary virtues that, in her eyes, the masses lacked.  They were the masses; they were not individual ideal men.

Rand’s loathing for the mob and democratic governments included a conviction that “they” were out to “get” the individual.  “‘Notice how they’ll accept anything except a man who stands alone,’” she wrote in Fountainhead.  “‘They recognize him at once.  By instinct.  There’s a special, insidious kind of hatred for him.  They forgive criminals.  They admire dictators.  Crime and violence are a tie.  A form of mutual dependence.  They need ties.’”  “‘Society—all of it is the same performance for the same and only purpose: to reduce you to the kind of pulp that has surrendered the validity of its consciousness,’” John Galt says flatly in his radio address.  This sentiment is echoed in We the Living, in which one of the characters reflects on the time-wasting policies of the new Soviet government: “‘I believe they’re doing it deliberately.  They don’t want us to think.  That’s why we have to work as we do.  And because there’s still time left after we’ve worked all day and stood in a few lines, we have the social activities to attend, and then the newspapers.’”  “They don’t want us to think” is an appraisal of the situation that echoes the nineteenth-century words of Major Sylvanus Thayer, commandant of the United States Military Academy, to former president James Monroe when advocating the distraction of students through constant academic and physical exercises.  One of Roark’s clients is always prepared for failure by taking it personally, as an insult to the ideal man by the mob:

“When facing society, the man most concerned, the man who is to do the most and contribute the most, has the least say.  It’s taken for granted that he has no voice and the reasons he could offer are rejected in advance as prejudiced—since no speech is ever considered, but only the speaker.  It’s so much easier to pass judgment on a man than on an idea.”

Of another character in Fountainhead, an architect who prostituted his talent, Rand wrote, “He was great; great as the number of people who told him so. He was right; right as the number of people who believed it.”  Her cynicism dismissed not only his success but also the entire notion of measuring success by popular approval and suggested that no thing generally approved by the mob can be a true success, that true accomplishment can only be accompanied by public silence, hostility, or confusion.  Vox populi, vox dei in reverse.

Given their high opinions of their own powers and their contempt for the rest of mankind, it is unsurprising that Rand’s ideal men are outspoken elitists, regarding themselves as set apart from the rest, the Chosen People.  Social equality, for Rand, was an excuse in the same category with “I never had a chance” and “I couldn’t help it”, phrases that repeatedly crop up in the mouths of her weak and unsuccessful characters.  She embodied this idea in Howard Roark’s rival Peter Keating, a man who grasps at equality as something that will relieve him of the burden of competing with others who are more skilled than he is.  Keating feels relief at recognizing his own mediocrity when he is otherwise surrounded by similar mediocrity.  Gail Wynand, however, feels not confidence but fury at recognizing his superiority to those around him:

“Did you want to scream, when you were a child, seeing nothing but fat ineptitude around you, knowing how many things could be done and done so well, but having no power to do them?  Having no power to blast the empty skulls around you?  Having to take orders—and that’s bad enough—but to take orders from your inferiors!  Have you felt that?”


“Did you drive the anger back inside of you, and store it, and decide to let yourself be torn to pieces if necessary, but reach the day when you’d rule those people and all people and everything around you?”


There is no question in the mind of the ideal man that he is superior to his fellows; in the Randian system, the lack of such a sense of superiority would itself be proof that the man who lacked it possessed no special abilities or strength.  While discussing the need to provide housing for impoverished populations, one of the socialists in Fountainhead remarks, “‘Well, what about the Patagonians?  It’s our job to teach them to want a roof.’”  Though she might have put these words in the mouth of a collectivist, they accurately represented Rand’s own view.  In a draft of the novel, she also wrote that part of the role of the ideal man should be “‘to teach them to want…to teach them to dream…to make them true to themselves.’”  It was a vision of the architect as priest, the educated, sensitive, intelligent man guiding the mob and elevating it through technology—but all the while from a position of superiority.  The great tragedy of life, as Rand saw it, was that the competent men should love their technical competence for its own sake so much that they would go on creating wonders for the benefit of the masses, even though the masses would revile and suppress them.  John Galt is of course the supreme illustration of this trait in her works, as he is of many others.  In his speech, he addresses humanity not as if he is one of them, but from a position outside and above them.  What is he doing but playing the aristocrat, jesting on the steps of the guillotine, as he delivers a philosophy lecture lasting several hours to a nation of terrified people who could not have understood it if they were perfectly calm?  Approaching his peroration, he announces,

“I have taught them that the world is ours, whenever we choose to claim it, by virtue and grace of the fact that ours is the Morality of Life.  They, the great victims who had produced all the wonders of humanity’s brief summer, they, the industrialists, the conquerors of matter, had not discovered the nature of their right.  They had known that theirs was the power.  I taught them that theirs was the glory.”

The power and the glory in Rand’s novels belong to the ideal men, who are virtuous because they live to pursue profit through reason and technology, and who are certain to be happy, or at least fulfilled, in consequence.  Rand’s stories and their heroes thus serve as sources of consolation and justification for those who feel that they are superior to other men or that their abilities are being unfairly suppressed by society.  Though she rejected both Christianity and traditional philosophy, her books express her own version of both the ninth Beatitude and the Platonic ideal that the man of integrity would always be happy in his integrity, adapted for the needs of egotists.

Turning temporarily from Rand’s characters to the manner in which she treated the subject of government, her stories—and her characters—make it abundantly clear that while she opposed state interference in most economic matters, she was not absolutely opposed to the existence of government.  On the contrary, she saw the government as performing proper and necessary functions within the economy.  With the voice of John Galt, she proclaimed,

“A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force.  The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.  But a government that initiates the employment of force against men who had forced no one, the employment of armed compulsion against disarmed victims, is a nightmare infernal machine designed to annihilate morality: such a government reverses its only moral purpose and switches from the role of protector to the role of man’s deadliest enemy, from the role of policeman to the role of a criminal vested with the right to the wielding of violence against victims deprived of the right of self-defense.  Such a government substitutes for morality the following rule of social conduct: you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided your gang is bigger than his.”

The government is always the biggest gang of all, but Rand does not comment upon that interpretation of Galt’s remark.  In essence, it is the gang that the industrialist can call upon to protect his property against domestic or international thieves.  “‘Property rights are a superstition,’” a fool remarks in Atlas Shrugged.  “‘One holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it.’”  From a pragmatic standpoint this is perfectly true.  Hence, in Rand’s system, the state is a necessity in order to protect the property rights of the technologists and enable them to pursue life and happiness.  Without the state, no technological sublime, no life, no logic, no virtue, no joy.  An example of her ideal government is referred to in contemptuous terms by another of Atlas Shrugged’s villains: “‘It’s the worst government in any state.  The laziest.  It does nothing—outside of keeping law courts and a police department.’”  Her heroic pirate informs Dagny Taggart, “‘Nor have I ever robbed a military vessel—because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a government.’”

This approach to the concept of a “proper” government filling a needed role in society suggests that Rand and her heroes embraced a version of the non-aggression principle, and indeed John Galt offers just such an expression of that tenet:

“So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.  To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight.  Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live.  Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind.  Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”

Morality ends where a gun begins—but how does the government capture criminals, repel invaders, and deter fraudsters without guns?  If those are the moral functions of government, in support of the moral rights of property and life, how may the government fulfill those functions when it can only do so by immoral means?  Does the robber walk into jail because the moral suasion practiced on him by a court has convinced him of his own guilt, or does he do so because an agent of the court is walking behind him with a gun, forcing his mind?  There is a contradiction here in Galt’s own words, and a deeper contradiction behind it: the idea that freedom and government can coexist when the purpose of a government, as defined by Rand among others, is to deprive some of the population of its freedom of action in the interests of the rest.

By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand had become fascinated by the law of identity, the first and most fundamental axiom of classical logic, another outgrowth of her interest in Aristotle.  “‘A equals A,’” Galt repeats throughout the book.  “‘A contradiction cannot exist.’”  Yet Galt himself introduces a contradiction into his logic by declaring in one breath that the police, army, and courts—all of which initiate the use of force against others—are necessary, and in the next that no man may initiate the use of force against others.  The strength of this contradiction is intensified by a survey of the uncompromising terms in which Rand for two decades rejected justification by force.  In the introduction to We the Living, she declared,

“I could not understand how any man could be so brutalized as to claim the right to dispose of the lives of others, nor how any man could be so lacking in self-esteem as to grant to others the right to dispose of his life…do you consider it moral to treat men as sacrificial animals and to rule them by physical force?”

Right is the question that concerns Hank Rearden as he reflects on the government takeover of his business:

Destroyed at the whim of some men who sat and voted…Who knows by what minds? …Who knows whose will had placed them in power?—what motive moved them?—what was their knowledge?—which one of them, unaided, could bring a chunk of ore out of the earth? …Destroyed at the whim of men whom he had never seen and who had never seen those tiers of metal…Destroyed, because they so decided.  By what right?

Technological might makes right, but not human might, as the pirate smugly suggests: “‘If my fellow men believe that the force of the combined tonnage of their muscles is a practical means to rule me—let them learn the outcome of a contest in which there’s nothing but brute force on one side, and force ruled by a mind, on the other.’”  Against this, the collectivists in Atlas Shrugged respond, “‘When people are unanimous, how does one man dare to dissent?  By what right?’”  One of Roark’s clients speaks for freedom from the state and the public in more absolute terms:

“We must consider that since—unfortunately—we are forced to live together, the most important thing for us to remember is that the only way in which we can have any law at all is to have as little of it as possible.  I see no ethical standard by which to measure the whole unethical conception of a State, except in the amount of time, of thought, of money, of effort and of obedience, which a society extorts from its every member.  Its value and its civilization are in inverse ratio to that extortion.  There is no conceivable law by which a man can be forced to work on any terms except those he chooses to set.  There is no conceivable law to prevent him from setting them—just as there is none to force his employer to accept them.  The freedom to agree or disagree is the foundation of our kind of society—and the freedom to strike is a part of it.”

Can the same state that is inherently an “unethical conception” engaged in extortion also be an adequate policeman—or, under those circumstances, does not the term “policeman” become synonymous with “extortionist”?  A federal bureaucrat in Atlas Shrugged makes the case that, from the state’s perspective, the two words are identical:

“Did you really think we want those laws observed?  We want them to be broken… There’s no way to rule innocent men.  The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals.  Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them.  One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.  Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens?  What’s there in that for anyone?  But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted—and you create a nation of law-breakers—and then you cash in on guilt.”

The state is needed to punish criminals, according to Galt, but according to the state itself, it will make everyone into a criminal and punish as it chooses, dissolving any theoretical line of restraint.  Neither Rand nor Galt ever attempted to resolve this contradiction, nor the more obvious and urgent one between their competing claims that the government has the right to initiate the use of force and that no one has the right to initiate the use of force.

Atlas Shrugged is filled with rejections of the idea that a man should collaborate with his oppressors, including the government, in the spirit of preserving public order.  “‘Do not help your jailers to pretend that their jail is your natural state of existence,’” Galt exhorts his listeners.  Francisco D’Anconia tells Rearden, “‘A viler evil than to throw a man into a sacrificial furnace, is to demand that he leap in, of his own will, and that he build the furnace, besides.’”  Rearden himself has several thoughts to offer on the subject:

Through all those generations of crusades against corruption, the remedy had always been, not the liberating of the victims, but the granting of wider powers for extortion to the extortionists.  The only guilt of the victims, he thought, had been that they accepted it as guilt.

“If it is now believed that my fellow men may sacrifice me in any manner they please for the sake of whatever they deem to be their own good, if they believe that they may seize my property simply because they need it—well, so does any burglar.  There is only this difference: the burglar does not ask me to sanction his act.”

“I will not help you to preserve an appearance of righteousness where rights are not recognized. I will not help you to preserve an appearance of rationality by entering a debate in which a gun is the final argument.  I will not help you to pretend that you are administering justice.”

“‘I was asked to use force to violate the rights of disarmed men, who came before me to seek my protection for their rights,’” Judge Narragansett, a minor character, says while explaining why he resigned from the bench.  Again, these sentiments are not consistent with a respect for a state legal system that can be used to make anyone into a criminal at will, or with acceptance of the initiation of force by agents of the state acting as necessary policemen.  It would have been more consistent for Rand to call for the extortionists and looters to be stripped of their guns and their ability to coerce.  But she did not do so.

The novel concludes with Judge Narragansett beginning to draft an amendment to the US Constitution that will be passed when Galt’s followers have reestablished American society on their terms: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade…”  To the reader, it is a mundane, mercenary anticlimax after a tale of revealed secrets, espionage, daring escapes, and cross-country flights.  They risked their necks for that? you ask.  Furthermore, that single clause contains another implicit ideological contradiction, one that also underlies Rand’s comments on money earlier in the book: 

“Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return.  Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more.  Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders.  Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss—the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery—that you must offer them values, not wounds—that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods.”

“‘Gold is the objective value, the means of preserving one’s wealth and one’s future,’” Rand added, even though gold, when divorced from monetization, is only another object of barter, albeit one that is widely known and highly valued.  In treating money and gold as ideals of fairness, she purposefully neglected the role of the state in creating the money supply in the first place.  Nowhere in her fiction did Rand suggest a return to the currency volatility of the nineteenth century before the implementation of central banking in the United States.  When the state prints or creates a finite amount of money, it inherently limits the number and size of transactions that can be carried out using that money.  When the state inflates or deflates the money supply, it alters the financial positions of individuals.  When the state helps to establish a social system in which barter is abandoned and individuals expect to be able to conduct all transactions using currency, trade then becomes dependent upon the existence of currency and the value of gold becomes even more subjective relative to the currency.  When the state restricts the circumstances under which currency may be used, the prior adoption of currency becomes an impediment rather than an aid to transactions.  When the state creates a legal tender system or establishes an official exchange rate, it reduces the opportunities for free trade.  The money supply is provided by the state—Rand never disputed this—and thus its very existence abridges the freedom of production and trade.

Why was Rand insincere about rejecting all government interference in the market, including a central currency?  Why did she see a “proper” role for government in society, when by her standards bureaucratic government was nothing but the incompetent giving orders to the competent and democratic government nothing but the mob giving orders to the individual?  The answers to both those questions are identical.  Like most political philosophers, no matter how ostensibly radical they appear, Rand wanted to preserve the structure of government in order to appropriate it to her own ends.  A limited government attuned to the interests of her elite technologists was, she understood, the key factor that could establish the conditions of privilege under which they would be able to flourish.  Rand never admitted that the corporation, which she ignored because of its collectivist overtones, was a form of state privilege, and that corporate privileges alone (a different tax base, limited liability, separate legal identity, unlimited existence) had allowed capitalism to dominate the American economy.  Her industrialists could not exist unless they were backed up by corporations able to collect the wealth of many investors in an easily realizable form—money.  Hank Rearden found it much easier to convert money into steel than he would have found trying to convert investments in the form of baskets of produce, flocks of chickens, boxes of soap, manuscripts, and concert performances into steel.  Individuals can easily trade all those things and countless others to supply their needs and make a profit—but a corporation cannot readily incorporate barter items into a large-scale business as part of its capital to provide negotiable value.  The corporation and money—two pure concepts created and maintained solely by the forcible backing of the state—are inseparable from capitalism and industry, and therefore, in the Randian system, the state itself, in limited form, is likewise necessary to capitalism and industry.  Without the state, the ideal men could not find the proper opportunities to express themselves.  The state itself should never be an exploiter, but it can provide the framework to allow ideal men to exploit the masses.

An equally fundamental contradiction emerges when considering Rand’s various comments on the evils of depending on others. In Anthem, Prometheus states, “‘There is nothing to take a man’s freedom away from him, save other men.  To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.  That is freedom.’”  Dominique, Howard Roark’s girlfriend, is even more abstract and absolute.  She defines freedom as “‘To ask nothing.  To expect nothing.  To depend on nothing,’” and explains why:

“If I found a job, a project, an idea or a person I wanted—I’d have to depend on the whole world.  Everything has strings leading to everything else.  We’re all so tied together.  We’re all in a net, the net is waiting, and we’re pushed into it by one single desire.  You want a thing and it’s precious to you.  Do you know who is standing ready to tear it out of your hands?  You can’t know, it may be so involved and so far away, but someone is ready, and you’re afraid of them all.  And you cringe and you crawl and you beg and you accept them—just so they’ll let you keep it. And look at whom you come to accept.”

The Fountainhead is Rand’s most consistent attack on dependence and, by extension, interdependence, which finds its subtlest expression in the tension between its two strong men, Roark and Gail Wynand.  (Roark’s butting heads with everyone who disagrees with him is a much cruder manifestation of the same feeling.)  Both Roark and Wynand are pure egotists out to get what they want.  Roark, however, is a man who is complete within himself, who can be fulfilled and confident without the aid of others.  If no one will hire him to build houses or skyscrapers, he is perfectly willing to go off and work in a quarry, retaining, as he sees it, his independence by doing so instead of prostituting his talent to public opinion.  “‘I hate incompetence,’” he says.  “‘I think it’s probably the only thing I do hate.  But it didn’t make me want to rule people.  Nor to teach them anything.  It made me want to do my own work in my own way and let myself be torn to pieces if necessary.’”  By becoming “one man against many…one man who wished neither to serve nor to rule,” he rejected the principle of rulership “and had thereby committed the only unforgivable crime.”  Wynand, by contrast, wants power over his fellow men for reasons of both revenge and pleasure.  This makes him dependent on other men and therefore flawed in Rand’s eyes in spite of his egotism:

“A man thinks and works alone.  A man cannot rob, exploit or rule—alone.  Robbery, exploitation and ruling presuppose victims.  They imply dependence.  They are the province of the second-hander…Rulers of men are not egotists.  They create nothing.  They exist entirely through the persons of others.  Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving.  They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit.  The form of dependence does not matter.”

The ruler is morally lowered by his dependence on his victims as much as his victims are by their willingness to be victimized.  Each modern politician who praises Rand as an inspiration does so from the position of Gail Wynand, dependent upon his constituents as Wynand is upon his subscribers, unable to live up to her ideals by the very nature of his profession.  What Rand refused to admit was that Howard Roark is in exactly the same position.  He must have commissions and employment or he starves.  This stems from his profession: an engineer cannot eat buildings.  He too is dependent.  That he accepts no advice or direction from his clients does not obscure the fact that he depends on them in order to survive.  And when he runs away from the metropolis to work in the quarry, he is equally dependent on the wages paid to him by his new employer.  Any form of employment in an industrial society is dependence. 

Rand may have tried to spin the love of power as a form of dependence in the character of Wynand, but he is in no way unique.  Virtually all of her ideal men seek power over other men as employers, whether purposefully or incidentally, and are consequently dependent “second-handers”.  There is no conception in her values system of how a man can remain a worker and independent at the same time, or, for that matter, an employer and independent at the same time.  The horror of dependence she displayed in Think Twice did not extend to recognizing every employer as a Breckenridge who would manipulate his employees automatically.  In the introduction to Fountainhead, she announced, “Since man acts among and deals with other men, I had to present the kind of social system that makes it possible for ideal men to exist and to function—a free, productive, rational system which demands and rewards the best in every man, and which is, obviously, laissez-faire capitalism.”  Apart from the smaller contradiction involved in the term “laissez-faire capitalism”—since capitalism, which requires state privilege to flourish, would be virtually nonexistent in a true free market—capitalism is based upon employment and therefore upon the mutual dependence of employer and employed.  This would equate dependence with “a free, productive, rational system”, which was presumably not Rand’s intent.  Industry, which goes hand in hand with capitalism, involves dependence both by entailing employer-employee relationships and by making every man in an industrial economy dependent upon every other for food, clothing, shelter, and so on through the specialization and alienation of labor.  The urban laborer can produce none of these things for himself, through his own efforts, but must exchange his labor for a wage which he may then exchange with someone else in return for products produced by still others.  Industrial society is a system of interdependence in which everyone consumes the output of everyone else.  Even a free market requires dependence upon others, since market prices are set by demand.  Rearden’s metal, Ellis’s oil, Halley’s music, and Roark’s buildings have value only to the extent that other people are willing to pay them for these products.  A market-based economic system is dependent by definition.  Capitalism, industry, and free markets all involve the dependence of humans on one another, yet Rand declared the first three concepts to be virtues and dependence to be one of the greatest of evils.  She praised her ideal men for requiring no one, yet all of them depend, if not on employers or officials, then on the corner grocer or the dealer in drafting paper.  She denounced subservience consistently throughout her novels, yet turned a blind eye to the way in which the economic and technological vision she projected would require subservience.  If the pursuit of profit through technology is necessary to life and happiness, then it follows from her equations that dependence is necessary to life and happiness, a conclusion Rand would doubtless reject but which is implicit in her understanding of dependence when fully applied.

Ironically, Rand was well aware that a rural agrarian economy would involve far less human interdependence than an urban industrial economy.  “I shall take my food from the earth by the toil of my own hands,” Prometheus declares in Anthem.  “And the day will come when I shall break all the chains of the earth, and raze the cities of the enslaved.”  He who produces his own food is less subject to the will of others than he who must obtain his food from others, but Rand chose to glorify industrial dependents instead of free farmers.  The concept of “we” that she denounced as corrosive can only arise among groups, and cities are where the largest groups gather together.  Again, Rand is superficially correct, when speaking of the decline of oil production in Atlas Shrugged, to state that it is the economy of scale of large businesses that keeps costs down for small businesses as well, and that the existence of large businesses is therefore in everyone’s best interests.  She failed to explore the argument that if both large and small businesses were to fail, men would have to go back to producing as individuals, independent of employment and state regulation.  Had the elimination of dependence been her true goal, she might have followed that line of thought instead.  The technological sublime, however, requires industry and capitalism for its fulfillment.  It was easier for Rand to ignore the contradictions in her treatment of industrial dependence than for her to abandon her machine fetish.

Through John Galt, Rand asserted that the mind was the only judge of truth, that morality must be freely chosen, and that no man has the right to force the mind of another.  An earlier statement she made in We the Living implies that for a reasonable mind, morality and desire are the same thing: “‘If you know that a thing is right, you want to do it.  If you don’t want to do it—it isn’t right.  If it’s right and you don’t want to do it—you don’t know what right is and you’re not a man.’”  She then put another contradiction in Galt’s mouth:

“I do not grant the terms of reason to men who propose to deprive me of reason.  I do not enter discussions with neighbors who think they can forbid me to think.  I do not place my moral sanction upon a murderer’s wish to kill me…There can be no right to destroy the source of rights, the only means of judging right and wrong: the mind.”

Here Galt echoes the teachings of his mentor, the philosopher Henry Akston, who is the quiet master-mind of Atlas Shrugged:

“When thinkers accept those who deny the existence of thinking, as fellow thinkers of a different school of thought—it is they who achieve the destruction of the mind.  They grant the enemy’s basic premise, thus granting the sanction of reason to formal dementia.  A basic premise is an absolute that permits no co-operation with its antithesis and tolerates no tolerance.”

In this case, the basic premise of the Randian system is, again, that reason is equal to life and morality.  Any method of thought that does not involve reason, or any choice of action that does not appear to follow the most logical, efficient methods for maximizing life and happiness, is immoral in this system—even though Rand and Galt also admitted that the mind was the sole judge of truth and morality.  What neither of them admitted was that the human mind is often unreasonable and impulsive, and not infrequently chooses to consider impulse moral and reason immoral.  Being anti-thought and pro-impulse—Epicurean rather than Stoic, roughly speaking—is a well-established position in philosophy.  The rejection of reason in favor of sensation has always had adherents, and Rand’s awareness of living in a society that prized sensation over logic likely infuriated her.  Yet such a position is perceived as truth or right by its adherents and is freely chosen by them, making it moral according to Galt’s statements in which morality results from free choice and immoral according to his a priori assumption that logic alone is moral.  The contradiction very much exists, and is enhanced by the vehemence of Galt and Akston in expressing it.  “‘I do not grant the terms of reason…,’” Galt says haughtily, implying that without reason, his “neighbors” are not really human and he will not treat them as humans.  His teacher fears the “destruction of the mind” if the false thinkers are acknowledged.  The suggestion is that those who do not think according to Randian logical methods are not alive and that therefore no stigma attaches to dealing with them using methods other than “the terms of reason”, such as force.  In Anthem, Prometheus speaks of “the fire which is called the Dawn of the Great Rebirth…the Script Fire where all the scripts of the Evil Ones were burned, and with them all the words of the Evil Ones.”  The reader senses that Rand would have liked to do the same with the works of the thinkers she denounces.  Thought which is not in accord with her system is, to her, not thought at all.  She refuses to admit that the collectivists have as much right to their views, and to implement and fight for their views, as the individualists do—because their position is inherently, absolutely, axiomatically immoral.  That is dogmatism, not a defense of reason.

The Randian rejections of freedom from dependence and freedom of thought are paralleled by Rand’s additional rejection of sexual freedom.  In an inversion of the basic human attitude towards sexual pleasure worthy of J.J. Bachofen, she sneered, “Indiscriminate desire and unselective indulgence were possible only to those who regarded sex and themselves as evil.”  Now, one of the minor preoccupations of Atlas Shrugged, in which those words appear, is how evil the prudish, hypocritical American attitude towards sex is, and how Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart show themselves to be superior to the twisted morals of their society by ignoring those morals and indulging themselves.  Rand must have known that sexual freedom was inseparable from freedom in general, but it also appeared to have revolted her.  Her representations of sexual behavior are shaped by the unresolved contradiction between those two viewpoints.  She incorporated sex into her stories routinely, but saw a sexual relationship as a monogamous bond, albeit a serial one.  She preferred to depict love triangles, which invariably tear apart as the plot evolves.  When she was explicit about sex, it was always fierce, hurtful, painful, and in the case of Howard Roark so violent as to be nearly rape.  Her limitations show up most fully in a consideration of Dagny Taggart’s sexual affairs.  Dagny starts off with the young industrialist Francisco D’Anconia, moves on to the married Hank Rearden, and finally secures John Galt himself.  Her progress is not merely a result of the development of the story; it is, in Rand’s portrayal, an inevitable expression of her quest for the ideal man in the most physical sense and of her success in achieving that goal.  Rearden is superior to D’Anconia, so naturally Dagny chooses him over her earlier love, but Galt is then so superior to Rearden that she must leave Rearden behind, too—and because her former lovers are as reverent towards the ideal man as she is, they do not resent the transference of her affections but respect her for it.  It never seems to have entered Rand’s head that Dagny could have achieved greater satisfaction, both physically and emotionally, by retaining all of her lovers instead of practicing partial self-denial.  Even farther from her mind was the notion that D’Anconia and Rearden might also have expressed their admiration for Galt in a sexual manner, either with Dagny or without her.  But Rand, far from being a thorough freethinker, was limited by the mores of her day.  Multiple relationships and same-sex relationships alike, though expressing freedom from artificial social limitations much more powerfully than illicit heterosexual monogamy, represented a degree of freedom that made her uncomfortable.  It is both screamingly funny and frustrating for the reader to watch the characters of Atlas Shrugged stumble around beneath their creator’s bourgeois Russian Orthodox morality like Victorian spinsters with trains.

Ayn Rand’s novels are a passionately-argued defense of her ethical system and very little more than that.  Far from championing individuality and nonconformity, they champion strict conformity to the Randian ideal of the perfect man.  These ideal men are cold, dispassionate aristocrats whose moral code may be summarized as happiness = life = reason = freedom = egotism = technology = industry = capitalism = profit = morality.  Those who do not meet this standard are weaklings, dependents, second-handers, and it is only reasonable that their more successful fellows should exploit them.  Rand’s love of life is not communicated by example, nor does it extend to those who do not belong to this technocratic elite.  For Rand’s ideal man, freedom in practice is not the absence of control by or dependence on others, but the ability to exert control over others, as a preemptive strike to prevent them from doing the same.  The freedom of one requires the unfreedom of others (just as the financial independence of the industrialist depends upon the financial dependence of his workers).  In this sense, Rand’s concept of freedom negates itself, since it guarantees the attempts of the unfree to overthrow the free and take their place—a subject that Rand herself dealt with in Think Twice.  Breckenridge’s family and associates resent his manipulative generosity so much that eventually one of them murders him to escape it.  Rand’s objection was to the individual being dominated by the group, the community, the state—not to the individual being dominated by another individual if the former was inferior and the latter superior, or to the individual dominating the group.  Freedom to her meant the freedom for the few to exploit the many under controlled conditions that would allow the genius of the former to flourish for its own sake.

But didn’t Rand regard dependence as an evil and control over others as a form of dependence?  Nominally, yes, and her statements to that effect contradict the general tenor of her books throughout.  She was filled with contempt for workers without genius or drive.  She defended government because she understood it could provide necessary protections and advantages to men of genius.  Most notably, she consistently defended and advocated the virtues of industrial capitalism, a system that requires mutual dependence in the shape of employment and that cannot exist without such dependence.  She who declared “The contradiction does not exist” filled her works with contradictions.  John Galt is no exemplar of supreme reason, but rather a highly confused man who in that respect resembles Rand’s other philosophical favorite, Thomas Aquinas.  “‘A equals A,’” Galt insistently repeats.  If that is so, then the immediate application of that law in human affairs is that one human being is the equal of any other human being.  There are no superior men and inferior men, only humans of equal status.  Individual equality was intellectually and emotionally repugnant to Rand, and her failure to apply the law of identity to human beings resulted in the greatest overall contradiction of her works: praising “freedom from the world” while prescribing systems that restricted the exercise of that freedom to ideal men.  Given a choice between consistency, equality, and decentralization on the one hand, and contradictions, elitism, and heavy industry on the other, Rand chose the latter.  Her love of strong men and the technological sublime was the dominant element of her moral system.  If that meant that her strong men had to possess a certain degree of political power, she was willing to overlook the conflict between their power and her theory of the dependency of rulership.  “‘After all, it doesn’t make any difference to the poor whether their livelihood is at the mercy of an industrialist or of a bureaucrat,’” one of her villains in Atlas Shrugged says dismissively.  As long as it was the industrialist rather than the bureaucrat in charge, Rand did not care about the condition of the poor, either.  She cared about the technocrats.  Perhaps she concluded that if dependence was unavoidable anyway, she might as well establish a theoretical system in which an elite few could otherwise be free of control in exchange for the small concession of depending on their employees.  Perhaps she never saw that the employer-employee relationship was a dependent one.  She certainly never explored any serious alternatives to industrial dependence, such as a return to a hunter-gatherer or largely agrarian rural lifestyle that rejected the technological sublime, instead merely hinting at it as a possibility in Anthem.

The Fountainhead contains the cautionary lines, “‘It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings.  Where there’s service, there’s someone being served.  The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters.  And intends to be the master.”  The passage might serve as a prefatory warning to all of Rand’s texts.  She too asked for a sacrifice: the sacrifice of human equality to the machine and its tenders.  To ensure the triumph of capitalism and industry, she intended that there should still and always be masters, who, if they could not be entirely free by the nature of their situation, would at least enjoy more freedom than the men beneath them.  Her novels are incitements to mastery and oligarchy.  There is no true commitment to freedom in them.

Perceptions of morality

The concept of moral behavior presupposes, among other things, the existence of a moral code; moral integrity, or the consistent adherence to one’s professed principles; and moral sincerity, or honesty about one’s principles (unless one’s particular moral scheme makes a virtue of dishonesty). A person who claims to subscribe to a moral code to which he really has no attachment is not lacking in integrity, since he had no true reverence for the code in the first place, but in sincerity, because he is not being honest about the nature of his beliefs. Likewise, this particular failure of sincerity most frequently takes the form of claiming to subscribe to any moral code when in fact the claimant believes in no moral code at all.

Moral sincerity is a quality that may decline in inverse proportion to the age of a civilization. The Romans of twenty centuries ago used the term superstitio to refer to any religious belief that was practiced sincerely or allowed to interfere with daily life, apart from state-endorsed cult activities; the Americans of today use the synonymous term “religious extremism.” Or perhaps a better correlation exists between a lack of moral sincerity and materialistic societies. In such societies the quality of life is high and the motivation for arranging it according to an abstract ideal both low and frequently disparaged. Moral sincerity and integrity are also much rarer when the standard of behavior required by a moral code is a challenging one. “Neither you, nor I, nor any man, would rather do than suffer injustice; for to do injustice is the greater evil of the two,” Socrates declared in Gorgias. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend,” Jesus of Nazareth said. “Nonviolence is the supreme virtue,” Jain architecture proclaims. “An it harm none, do what ye will,” reads the Wiccan Rede. The concept of doing harm to none – with the added requirement in the Christian tradition of actively doing good to others – is the most widely held moral standard in human ethics, the most difficult to achieve, and consequently the most common subject of moral insincerity and lack of integrity.

There are those who are unable to make consistent ethical decisions at all because they have never determined what their standards of moral behavior are. Last summer, I was discussing the use of nonviolent behavior in violent situations with a friend of a friend in New York City. He suggested the case of a hypothetical madman holding a pedestrian at knifepoint in front of you and giving you a choice: either you could tell him where to stab the pedestrian, or he would stab him in the throat. My interlocutor argued that you should tell the madman to stab the pedestrian somewhere that would be unlikely to kill him, perhaps the shoulder or leg. I responded that if you were to do so, you would become the madman’s accomplice by helping him to harm another person and would share in his moral guilt. He then proposed trying to take the knife away from the madman, to which I replied that disarming him would require doing violence to him, which would also be an immoral action. If you were trying to practice nonviolence consistently, you could attempt to persuade the madman not to stab the pedestrian, or you could place your body between him and his victim, but you could not harm him. Nonviolence cannot be practiced by doing violence; it is not a form of target selection whereby violence somehow stops being violence when it is employed against evil. My vis-a-vis objected to this, preferring to do some violence himself in order to prevent what he saw as worse violence. I pointed out that if that was his assessment, he couldn’t be employing a standard of nonviolence as the deciding factor in his ethical decision-making, and I asked him what his standard for moral behavior was. He replied, “I don’t know.”

The novel Planet of the Damned by Harry Harrison offers an uncommon look at the role that egotism can play in determining how seriously people take their moral integrity even when they have an unambiguous moral standard for guidance. Harrison’s story concerns the peoples of two adjacent planets, Dis and Nyjord. The ruling class of Dis has obtained cobalt bombs and a jump-space launcher capable of dropping the bombs on their neighbors, set a deadline for unconditional surrender, and refused to communicate further. A Nyjord fleet goes into orbit around Dis, prepared to destroy the planet before the deadline expires – but only with the greatest reluctance. The Nyjorders are a population of thinkers and philosophers for whom nonviolence is the most basic tenet of their philosophy; nearly half the population voted for immediate surrender rather than defensive war in order to preserve their values intact. Later, however, the Nyjorders discover that the Disan leaders are not acting of their own free will, but have been infected with a form of brain parasite that deprives them of some of their functions of judgment. This knowledge reunites the Nyjorders, who stand down their fleet and dispatch medical teams to Dis while still living under the threat of annihilation. They start evacuating their planet as best they can, but fighting is now definitely off the table. They will reluctantly respond to the intentional use of force with force, but they will not harm the mentally ill or use illness as a reason to use force against the ill, even if it will preserve their own lives. “We are civilized, after all,” Professor-Commander Krafft says. “You surely can’t expect us to ignore the plight of sick neighbors?” As soon as the Nyjorders see the problem confronting them to be one of natural selection gone awry, they are willing to take their nonviolence seriously again and submit to destruction if necessary. However, while they believed that they were acting in opposition to the free will of other men, their egos would not let them accept either of the alternatives of surrender and no war, or no surrender and destruction, although those choices would have allowed them to remain true to their principles and would have resulted in no greater risk of incineration than their later decision to stay did. They would accept destruction as the price of attempting to help their neighbors, but they would not accept submission to other humans as the price of preserving their own integrity when that choice was originally offered to them.

Another conversation I had with a friend of mine this spring bears upon this same point: the manner in which individuals often attempt to justify actions that are immoral by their own standards by claiming such actions are necessary to the greater good. Hurt a few to help the rest, in many interpretations, particularly in the twenty-first century. The scenario he proposed was the now-classic case of the nihilist who knows the location of a nuclear bomb hidden in a major city and the clock is ticking: do you torture or not torture the bomber to get him to reveal the bomb’s location? My argument was that if you applied the standard of “do no harm” consistently, you could obviously not elect to torture the nihilist, regardless of what the consequences would be. You might die, but you would die with integrity and without having committed the crime of harming another person. Against that, my friend pointed out that you would also, by inaction, have allowed harm to occur to other persons. But who bears the moral responsibility for that harm? Obviously the man who planted the bomb. Each person is responsible for his own moral conduct and not for that of others, since the nature of a moral choice requires that it be free and not coerced. In the scenario given, you would be responsible for the harm you inflicted on the bomber; the bomber would be responsible for the harm inflicted on the city’s population. Both of you could choose to refrain from doing harm.

These examples raise the additional point that practicing moral integrity and sincerity is almost invariably a form of swimming against the social current and usually carries social consequences. Willingness to accept these consequences is another component of moral behavior. The steps of Socrates led to the cup of hemlock. The steps of Jesus led to the cross. Those who fear death more than they fear doing wrong cannot follow in those steps.

A tale of two murderers

Once upon a time there were two young men from western New York who both grew up to join gangs.

One night, one of these men walked into a crowd outside a restaurant in his hometown with a gun in his hand. He first shot two partygoers in the head at close range. Another guest turned around and had time to recognize him before being shot and injured. A girl begged him not to kill her, and he shot her next. He then crossed the street and put a final bullet into a man he had already wounded. In seventeen seconds, he killed four people. His intended targets were the members and associates of a rival gang. As a result of his actions, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Six years earlier, the other man had walked into someone else’s house in another state with a gun in his hand. He shot one of the occupants and wounded another. When a third man descended the stairs, he killed that man, too, before finishing off the man he had first wounded. A fourth occupant of the house returned his fire while hiding in a closet before fleeing up the stairs; he pursued this man and killed him as well. He subsequently shot a fifth man off the roof of the house, who did not die. In a matter of seconds, he killed four people. His intended targets were the members and associates of a rival gang. As a result of his actions, he received the Medal of Honor and was four times a candidate for Congress.

The first shooter was affiliated with the East Ferry Gang of Buffalo, NY. The second shooter was affiliated with the United States Army.

Members of a culture that values selfishness will respond differently to identical actions occurring in different contexts depending on whether they perceive those actions in context as beneficial or harmful to themselves. They will not be able to perceive the inherent nature of such actions; instead, they will be aware only of personal benefit or loss and will respond accordingly. They will not even be able to comprehend that the actions of a gang operating on their behalf are qualitatively no different from the actions of a gang acting against them. They do not see gangsterism, only the advantage or disadvantage to themselves of that gangsterism.

Members of a culture that venerates authority will also respond differently to identical actions occurring in different contexts depending on whether they perceive those actions in context as upholding or opposing legitimate authority. More than by personal or social benefit, they will judge the morality or immorality of an act by whether it was ordered by those whom they are trained to believe possess the right to use force. Force employed in the service of authority is proper; force employed in defiance of that authority is the highest of crimes. They do not see the force, only its conformity or lack of conformity with their social structure.

Both men killed. Their actions were identical. If one is a murderer, so is the other.

Converging paths

Historians sometimes measure the strength and influence of a culture by the rather prosaic method of studying the roads which that culture builds.  Portions of the highways of the Roman Empire remain in existence to the present day, with a number of more modern roads following their routes.  Construction of the American interstate highway system was a dramatic demonstration of the nation’s industrial power and ambitions in the aftermath of the Second World War.  China’s Grand Canal, though a water and not a land road, has united the eastern parts of the country for fourteen centuries and still sees heavy traffic.  As engineering achievements, these systems command respect and even admiration.  As genuine benefits to humanity, their usefulness is questionable.

A well-maintained and comprehensive highway network increases the interdependency of distant areas.  If a resource rare in one district is plentiful in another, and can be easily transported to the locality where it is in demand, its availability encourages residents of the importing area to rely on that external source of supply instead of making the best use possible of their own resources.  Furthermore, frequent imports and exports encourage the commodification of resources: the process by which those resources come to be seen primarily as instruments in a business transaction instead of as real objects necessary for human survival.  As regions begin to rely more and more on what they can obtain from outside sources, their several local economies merge into a single large one, and in the process they lose their self-sufficiency, placing themselves in danger of economic or literal starvation should anything ever happen to the transport network on which they depend.  The resilience of the small, self-contained unit dissolves.

The existence of a highway system, or even a rail system, also stifles the development of new technology for crossing distances.  Since the roads are already there, engineers and inventors focus their efforts on making incremental improvements to the vehicles in use on those roads.  Such improvements are both simpler and more marketable than alternative lines of inquiry.  There is no incentive for them to strike off in new directions or find solutions for personal transport that do not involve roads, as they would be forced to do if they found themselves barred from traveling by natural obstacles and were unable to construct a highway network to solve the problem.

On a personal level, an extensive road network leads to greater social fusion within a large area.  Roads make it easier for residents of an area to travel; when they travel, they grow more accustomed to their neighbors.  The exchange of ideas that takes place, assuming that it does not cause conflict or violence, eventually increases the intellectual and ideological similarities between the two regions.  The result is greater integration of their populations and a threefold decrease in individuality within the society as a whole.  First, minority ideas become increasingly outnumbered, and the intellectual shift causes formerly unexceptional ideas to be excluded from mainstream discourse.  Second, the combined efforts of the larger population are more effective at actively suppressing dissent.  Third, the greater social problems of the combined society encourage the development of a strong and invasive state to resolve them, which further reduces the opportunities for individual expression.

Roads may be a sign of a healthy civilization, or they may be a sign that a civilization has grown too big to be healthy.

The basis of calculation

In 2015, Boeing paid federal income taxes of $1.98 billion on profits of $7.15 billion, giving it an effective tax rate of 27.7%. That same year, ExxonMobil paid $5.4 billion on $21.97 billion of profits and Apple paid $19.1 billion on $72.5 billion, for tax rates of 24.6% and 26.3%, respectively. While these rates are far higher than many anti-corporate activists claim, they are also well below the official American corporate tax rate of 35%. For purposes of comparison, an individual paying tax at similar rates would be making between thirty and ninety thousand dollars in income each year.

The real discrepancy between corporate and personal taxation in the United States arises from one of the less obvious privileges given to corporations by the state: a parallel accounting system to that which it imposes on humans. The individual pays tax on his entire income. The corporation, however, pays tax only on its profits. The individual cannot deduct the cost of his food, housing, or transportation from his income before he pays his taxes; the corporation can. If Boeing, Exxon, and Apple had derived their effective tax rates based on their annual revenues rather than their profits alone, the former of which would correspond to an individual’s gross income, they would have paid 1.8%, 2.1%, and 8.2%. That is, if corporate taxation were administered on the same basis as personal taxation. By contrast, if they paid the same rate on their entire revenues that they actually did on their profits, they would have seen tax bills of $26.6 billion, $63.8 billion, and $61.5 billion. In two cases out of three, they would have been bankrupt because their profits could not have covered the tax demands they would have incurred by paying the same tax rate on the same basis as an ordinary worker.  According to Forbes, the ten most profitable companies in the United States in 2015 paid cumulative taxes of $60 billion on revenues of $665 billion – less than ten percent, or comparable to what an individual making less than ten thousand dollars a year would pay.  If the one hundred most profitable American companies that year had been required to pay the full statutory rate on their total incomes, as individuals do, not one of them would have earned sufficient profits to end the year in the black. Not one.

Corporations are not more efficient than an individual, nor are they shining monuments to the forces of competition within a free market. They are, in fact, less efficient than the individual, because without the benefit of a privilege bestowed by the state, most of them would be forced out of business within a year or two. Somewhat ironically, they could not afford to compete with the individual if taxes were equalized, and thus would not exist at all in a free market. They almost represent a modern form of mercantilist policy, in which the state designs economic legislation to benefit itself and further its objectives – or in which the organizers of the state design the legislation to serve their personal ends. In the United States, the privileges of corporations have been maintained as law by thousands of elected representatives, who have been well rewarded for their silence by those same corporations. But as time-honored as that tradition may be, it must be recognized for what it is: a form of state intervention in the market. The existence of corporations makes the market less free and less efficient, not more so.

A climate of denial

The earth is getting warmer. That much is beyond doubt. Humans are probably responsible for most of the warming. The scientific consensus extends so far.  The process will have profound results on human life.  By the end of the century, as much as a tenth of the global population may have to relocate due to rising sea levels, while agricultural productivity in the United States will drop by at least twenty percent.  Entire nations will disappear as their territories are submerged, causing political as well as social and economic crises.

Though this may come as a surprise to the average reader, both major American political parties share a common stance on the subject of global warming.  What’s more, not one but both of them are effectively climate denialists.

Republican politicians are the more straightforward of the two.  They simply state that the climate is not changing, that average temperatures have not increased, and that the data is insufficient for a conclusion or just plain wrong. Some of them throw snowballs around to prove their point.  Democratic politicians, on the other hand, admit that global warming is a reality.  However, they claim, a few new environmental regulations will be enough to halt the process by forcing the economy to be more carbon-neutral.  They concede the phenomenon but not its long-term effects, except as a scare tactic to force immediate action.

Both Democrats and Republicans are unable to conceive that global warming will realistically affect their day-to-day world in any way.  Manhattan underwater?  Half of Florida disappearing?  It’s not possible.  Too many human activities depend on the cities and industries already established within reach of inundation.  Rebuilding those cities elsewhere and relocating their populations would be so disruptive to the American way of life, practically and ideologically, that politicians of all stripes have convinced themselves that such an emergency is impossible.  If it is inconvenient, it cannot be true, or at least not urgent.

The issue of acceptance or denial of the reality of global warming is, in essence, one of accepting or denying responsibility for that warming.  At every stage of human development, from the first drive of the first Hyksos chariot to the development of the integrated circuit, humanity has been faced with a choice.  Men were never ignorant of the effects of their actions on the environment; it has always been a simple matter for a logician to extrapolate the effects of a new industry or new invention on the world as a whole.  A century ago, before global warming was even thought of, Jules Verne wrote quite candidly in The Underground City that if the earth was composed solely of coal, mankind would end its existence by consuming the entire planet on which it lived.  Men have always had a choice, and both the knowledge and the right to make that choice.  During the past two centuries they have chosen factories and railroads, highways and highrises, automobiles, beef, tupperware, and cell phones over sustainability.  Now they will also be compelled to live with the consequences of that choice, which will include the derangement of the complex societies they have constructed.  Attempting to evade those consequences by a last-minute effort is as much a denial of responsibility as ignoring their existence in the first place.