Chesteron versus Rand

It’s taken me most of the year to read it, but I’m finally wrapping up Chesteron’s What’s Wrong with the World? (which was a Lenten read). At the same time, I’ve started reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The differences in their view of mankind is pretty stark.

Chesterton holds great hope for Man, and I think a lot has to do with his faith. He sees possibilities for Man to straighten out his act, to get right with what he was created for, which is to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.
Rand, on the other hand, has such a skewed view of Man that it’s frightening. Even her protagonists are frightening. Everyone is selfish, including the great capitalists she sees as heroic. Everyone is also extreme: there are no middle-of-the-road people, no one who sees Chesterton’s middle ground between unfettered business and unfettered government. To Ayn Rand, people are either in favor of business being allowed to run any way it pleases or they are “looters”: fleas on the backs of the poor dogs who work for everything while they suck the lifeblood from productive members of society.
While I can definitely see Rand’s point about government interfering too much with business (and who couldn’t, looking at the events of the last two years?), she’s too extreme in her views. Her definition of depravity in Atlas Shrugged is put forth as this:

“The most depraved type of human being … (is) the man without a purpose.”

But the sexual encounters in the book are pure rape fantasy. Talk about mixed-up ideas! By the way she wrote in this book, I get the distinct idea that she hated women – a lot. The only “good” women are those who shun emotion as much as possible (though it’s also a quality in the “good” men, as well), attach love to nothing but what they can do or produce, and pretty much act like men. But not men as authentic Catholic teaching might show as an example to follow – men who honor family and commitment to family, who sacrifice for the good of others, who see benefit in both this world and the next in charity. Rand sees good men as those who put their production and business above all else. What else is there but to be productive in this life? Man who sees his purpose in serving others is weak.
But as I read this book (and I’ll say now that I’m only just into part II, so please don’t give me spoilers), I see Rearden as a weak man, a selfish man, someone who is lost. I see Dagny as someone who is denying her created beauty in order to be more like a man. And I see an author who yearned for beauty but did not know where to find it. Her idea of morals was quite messed up, as you can see from these quotes:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” (appendix to ‘Atlas Shrugged’)

“[T]he only real moral crime that one man can commit against another is the attempt to create, by his words or actions, an impression of the contradictory, the impossible, the irrational, and thus shake the concept of rationality in his victim.”

She rejected Communism, and yet these ideas about Man’s only real moral achievement being what he can produce is an idea embraced by Communists (and other extreme parties like the National Socialist Party of Germany). Unproductive members of society are immoral? They aren’t worth helping or having about?
I’m certainly not saying that it’s just fine for an able-bodied person to be a mooch. If you’re able to do something, then by all means, please try to do it! There is a difference in the man who seeks, but cannot find, work who collects unemployment and the man who does not seek work and is happy to collect his unemployment rather than look for work.
Again, Rand’s characters are all extremes. No one can even comprehend the others’ point of view, let alone see anyone as decent on the “other side” of things. And no one holds a combination of beliefs. It causes plenty of conflict, which I suppose is a good thing in a novel, but it also creates a situation that doesn’t mirror real life.
I could get into the government portion of it, which, sadly, is starting to look less fantastic and more like what goes on in Washington these days, but I’ll try to leave that for the Soccer Mom blog (which is where I try to keep politics, generally).
Chesterton, though, sees business as something else. Consider this quote:

  • “There have been household gods and household saints and household fairies. I am not sure that there have yet been any factory gods or factory saints or factory fairies. I may be wrong, as I am no commericial expert, but I have not heard of them as yet.” – ILN Dec 18, 1926

As far as views on religion, Chesterton blows away Rand’s idea that reason and religion are incompatible. (Not that he was the first … I have to wonder if Rand ever heard of St. Thomas Aquinas!)

  • “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” – Where All Roads Lead, 1922

  • “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” – Chapter 5, What’s Wrong With The World, 1910
  • “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” –Introduction to the Book of Job, 1907

And I love that Chesterton had no patience for big government OR big business:

  • “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” – The Uses of Diversity, 1921

  • “[Capitalism is] that commercial system in which supply immediately answers to demand, and in which everybody seems to be thoroughly dissatisfied and unable to get anything he wants.” – “How to Write a Detective Story.” The Spice of Life
  • “Business, especially big business, is now organized like an army. It is, as some would say, a sort of mild militarism without bloodshed; as I say, a militarism without the military virtues.” – The Thing

I’m finally into a part of the book where I seem to be seeing less of the character development (which, hopefully, means fewer of the dreadful sex scenes) and more of the search for a way out of the increasing control of the government, which is taking control of more and more by decrees and orders and quickly-passed laws that no one seems to know the meaning or consequences of. So perhaps I’ll finally see more of a reason to root for our protagonists, and be able to put behind me their dreadfully cold personalities. (Rand seems to extoll the idea that making one’s self devoid of emotions is a worthy goal in life.)

“He liked to observe emotions; they were like red lanterns strung along the dark unknown of another’s personality, marking vulnerable points.”

The idea that emotions are nothing but a liability is a pretty sad one. I wonder what she was like, Ayn Rand. Was she as unhappy as her writing seems to suggest? What I keep seeing is someone who had all the longing for God that we Catholics know we’re made for, but who denied that it was Him that she longed for. She denied His existence! How sad for her. I pray that she was able to find Him and accept God before the end of her life, even if it was private and in the last moments of life.

One thought on “Chesteron versus Rand

  1. I'm glad you've taken the time to write this comparison. I disagree completely, lol, but I enjoyed the read.Before anything else, I just want to point out that there are indeed middle of the road characters in Atlas Shrugged: James Taggert, Cherryl Brooks, Eddie Willers (perhaps the epitome of the common, middle of the road, man), just to name a few. The main characters are all archetypes, for sure, therefore they are intentionally extreme in nature.I think her idea of depravity is just a different take on the Catholic/Christian idea of the word. Rand's idea that the most depraced type of human is the man without purpose can easily be compared to the Christianity's idea of depravity. If a Christian believes that the purpose of life is to follow God and Christ then anyone who chooses not to is, in fact, without purpose. In other words, "the most depraved type of human being is the man who does not believe in God" and "the most depraved type of human being is the man without a purpose" are the same statement seen/said through different philosophical lenses.Men who honor family and commitment are certainly not disrespected in Ayn Rand's novels. In fact, just the opposite as she encourages man to live up to his own individual principles. Whether or not you believe so, being selfish and being self-absorbed are two different things. I love my family, they are a value to me. When I do things for my family it is not a sacrifice because I am doing something for someone I value. A sacrifice means you get nothing out of the act or, at the very least, what you get from the sacrifice is worth less than what you sacrificed. For instance, you might jump into quicksand to save your child or husband because you value them as much as, if not more than, your own life. You would probably not jump into that quicksand to save a total stranger. Perhaps you would run and call for help and still offer assistance but you would certainly think selfishly about how to act. That's ok, too, its our nature of survival and value.I'm glad you're reading Atlas Shrugged as it is incredibly relative to today's political climate in the U.S. but don't look at the work on such a surface level. Look into the philosophy of Objectivism if you want to truly understand where Rand's characters come from. The Fountainhead, which came previous to Atlas Shrugged, is a great intro into the same topics discussed in your current read but are presented in much more basic terms. It's not nearly as heady and verbose (Ayn Rand knows how to go on and on, lol) but gives a nice preview of what Atlas would bring.At the end of the day, if you think critically about everything you "know" and believe, rather than approach things as though you already have the answers, you open your mind up to a greater knowledge. Thanks for writing this and I hope you enjoy the rest of the book. Ayn Rand's writings – her novels and her essays – literally changed my life. I'm glad to see people reading her work!


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