Avarice and Eden
Edward Skidelsky believes that our materialist culture tempts people to do too much productive work (“The Emancipation of Avarice,” May). He thinks that when men have produced reasonable necessaries, comforts, and conveniences to supply “all the population,” they should shift from productive occupation to cultivation of the will and intellect. He does not explain how we will know when “all the population” has reasonable necessaries, comforts, and conveniences. When that happy day arrives, we will know that Jesus was wrong about the poor being with us always.
While some men may be tempted to do too much productive work at the expense of cultivation of their will and intellect, the larger temptation for most men is to idleness and vice at the expense of providing enough for themselves, let alone for “all the population.” Not all humans are willing or able to do productive work. The willing and able must take up the slack to meet basic human needs.
Our culture is clearly wrong in its consequentialist assumption that good results can redeem morally blameworthy acts. But it is equally wrong to recklessly disregard consequences altogether. Good intentions for proximate and ultimate ends can be poisoned by knowable bad consequences, even when they are not intended. Well-intentioned acts to help the poor are immoral when the actor fails to engage his rational faculties to discover whether his actions consistently harm the poor.
Capitalism is the only known system that can take man as he is without leading inexorably to coercion, cruelty, and poverty. In a famine, the best thing we can hope for is a population with a virtuous character and a belief that the duty to feed the poor is absolute. But with or without this foundation of virtue, the poor will be better off with a reliable price system. I would prefer a virtuous society to a prosperous society if that were the choice, but we don’t have to make that choice because public virtue seems to be positively correlated with intelligent economic systems.
Edward Skidelsky’s wise and erudite treatment of greed is well placed in an issue with David Bentley Hart’s essay on Ayn Rand. The expectation of self-interested behavior was turned into a necessity and from there to a virtue. Virtue was natural to Adam Smith’s butcher, because good customer relations, an expectation of honesty, and healthy meat were good for business. That expectation does not exist with an impersonal corporate bureaucracy, so self-interested behavior does not naturally produce virtue in the course of putting meat on millions of tables. Indeed, corporate management has even escaped accountability to its owners.
Accountability for decisions drives markets to solve problems and achieve efficiency. Politicians and the interests behind them, in contrast, use the ideas of virtue and fairness to move decisions away from the market toward the government, where there is no direct accountability. Economists are rightly skeptical of moral arguments about market abuse, as such arguments are usually followed by legislation that protects companies of the old, stodgy type from young upstarts or that just feathers a nonmarket or quasi-market nest.
Markets fail, often spectacularly, but left alone they self-correct. The government does not. Indeed, since interests build up around all government failures, it becomes almost impossible to correct government mistakes. Reforms, if they occur at all, are piled on reforms until we have forgotten what it was we were trying to fix. Rot and corruption become the norm.
Virtue is necessary in market behavior, but it would seem it has to come from a relationship with one’s maker, the only one we can truly trust. Where we must have public goods (and public goods, like private goods, are ubiquitous), we must bring them as close to the people as possible so there is hope of accountability. However, even most public goods should be left in the hands of the public, where virtue must guide, and where free persons are accountable for their decisions.
John H. Penfold
While there are numerous bones to pick with Edward Skidelsky’s lengthy article on avarice, the foremost is that he never actually offers a definition of avarice. Another is that he approves of the Church’s erroneous early adoption (though often blessedly ignored by practical saints) of an Aristotelian view of interest-bearing loans. Interest payments are in fact nothing more than the rental fee for one person’s property used by another. The Judaic ethic that Jesus exemplified held that loans to the destitute poor among the Israelites should be made at no interest, but it allowed and approved such rental in commercial endeavor, due to the risk and loss of use involved.
This ethic was meant to have universal application beyond Israel in the Christian age. Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) depicts a property owner excoriating his “lazy, wicked servant”: “You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” Investment for return (as Rodney Stark relates in The Victory of Reason) largely occurred against the grain of Church teaching, the Spanish Scholastics being largely ignored, and it was Calvin’s application of biblical law to trade and commerce that created the competitive tension under which a millennium of misapplication and resultant economic suppression could begin to be corrected.
Skidelsky is certainly correct that we all must be on guard against the deadly sin of avarice, and he is correct to link avarice with lust. What is truly unfortunate is that he misses completely the opportunity to offer a prescription for avoiding temptation. He proposes radical societal abstinence rather than prudent chastity. He casually dismisses governmental favoritism and coercion, particularly in the realm of the inherently unsound loan requirements forced on bankers (with the implicit promise of bailouts) as the proximate cause of the current crash. Totally unaddressed was the fiat credit creation that served as the financial equivalent of parading nubile, unclothed young women before a healthy sixteen-year-old boy.
Biblical law offers a means for limiting the ravages of the disease of avarice, and as a result it is the Church, not economists, that must lead in offering the corrective. That law, for example, forbids favoritism, whether to rich corporations or poor workers, as well as the manipulation and distortion of currencies. Economic incentives work themselves out among people free to exchange cooperatively with each other. How people view those incentives and, indeed, what serves as an incentive will be informed by their worldview. The long prophetic lineage that urged a return to the pure ethic of the law of God, would produce a humane society and proper love for God and neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40). It would place the Church in the role of gently but firmly pointing out violations of biblical law and predicting the consequences, while seeking to live out its own profession before the world, showing God’s glory in the wholesome, restrained, but ultimately satisfying outcomes it would demonstrate.
Although Edward Skidelsky does not specify the sin involved in “off-shoring” hundreds of jobs from Sheffield to Mumbai, I presume it is callousness or avarice. However, suppose the businessperson making that decision were charged, as part of his job, to get the highest return for the shareholders of the company doing the “off-shoring.” Can we say that this decision is immoral? Would doing otherwise be a dereliction of duty to the company’s owners and therefore constitute theft in Aquinas’ terms?
Edward Skidelsky replies:
These letters raise many interesting points. I can respond to only a few. John H. Penfold reiterates the conventional Chicago wisdom that, unlike governments, markets “self-correct.” Surely the decade-long under-pricing of risk preceding the recent financial crisis has put paid to that myth.
John Soladay invokes the doctrine of shareholder sovereignty as justification for ruthless management practices. Indeed, he suggests that failure to obtain the highest possible returns for shareholders, by immoral practices if necessary, constitutes “theft in Aquinas’ terms.” This is clearly untrue. Aquinas would never have defined theft in such a way that avoiding it might entail the commission of unjust acts. Of course, if the manager in question has signed a contract committing him to maximize shareholder value by all means necessary, then he is forced to sin one way or another. But that is his own fault for signing an unjust contract.
Paul Hoedeman takes issue with the passage from Monsignor John A. Ryan, quoted approvingly in my essay. How do we know, he objects, what constitutes “reasonable necessaries, comforts, and conveniences”? It is a good question. Unless we can give concrete content to the idea of a “good life,” we can attach no objective meaning to terms such as “sufficient” and “reasonable.” In the book I am currently writing with my father, Robert Skidelsky (How Much is Enough? forthcoming in 2012), we try to outline the basic elements of a good life. This is a difficult enterprise, but not a senseless one.
Political Life and Human Dignity
Mary Ann Glendon (“The Bearable Lightness of Dignity,” May) is right on target in noting that within the Christian tradition, dignity has a twofold meaning: “In its ontological sense it is a given attribute of the person, while, in its moral sense, it is a call to an end to be gradually realized.” From a moral point of view, individuals can act against their dignity or in a way that perfects it.
The great disagreement among people is over the meaning of perfected dignity, even if they do not use this kind of language. The crucial divide is between those who look to the exercise of autonomy (following Kant or Nietzsche) as the essence of perfected dignity and those who stress the avoidance of evil and the practice of the virtues. For example, advocates of autonomy might defend euthanasia as death with dignity, while most Christian teaching judges euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide to be actions beneath and against human dignity.
The discussion about the meaning of human dignity is really a conversation about the meaning of being a human being and about the best way to shape a society. Do persons have a telos that is gradually realized, and should the state, to some degree, and society, to a great degree, do what is possible to help people attain their telos or perfection? Or should state and society simply focus on protecting rights and autonomy?
While continuing disagreements on the meaning of dignity are inevitable, every society should protect the religious freedom of those who believe that all human beings have a telos. They should be allowed to profess and live their beliefs in the public square. At the present time, the religious freedom of many believers is being curtailed throughout the world. Otherwise stated, advocates of the belief that human beings have the duty to perfect their dignity are often persecuted or marginalized.
J. Brian Benestad
The “dignified” is public, or at least may be viewed, known, and discussed without shame. Dignified things tend to be rational, well lit, quiet, clean, classical . . . Apollonian. But many things that are very human are not dignified. The ambition of politicians, the fierce vision of artists, and marketplace greed are hardly dignified. Ecstasy and the love of children are not dignified. Much of life is smelly, desperate, loud, and romantic, even when not Dionysian.
As Mary Ann Glendon explains, the human-rights tradition is founded on “human dignity” and cognate liberal terms. Thus limited to the Apollonian side of life, our political and legal orders are pallid expressions of humanity. This disjuncture between what law is capable of saying and the sap of life is most apparent in international law, where wars are discussed in language suited to bond agreements.
So while I agree with her that political life may help renew faith in human dignity and so make human rights believable, the politics of human rights is conducted through liberal language that is extremely partial, that leaves out at least half of the human experience. As a result, we are somewhat bizarrely asked to renew our faith in humanity via the language of international bureaucrats. The Episcopal Church prays for the Millennium Development goals.
In such circumstances, professions and other forms of association like sports, fashion, and media assume great importance. The “ephemera” of life in global society are points of human contact and opportunities for sympathy. From such opportunities we may sense that other lives, lived through beliefs different from our own, are nonetheless meaningful and partake of a general humanity that is worthy of legal protection even when undignified.
David A. Westbrook
University at Buffalo,
State University of New York
Buffalo, New York
Christians have, says Mary Ann Glendon, a responsibility to defend the concept of human dignity, not by an appeal to humanity’s creation in the image of God but “in terms that are accessible to persons of all faiths or no faith.” The realm of politics is particularly ill suited for grappling with foundational matters. But the question of dignity, pace Neuhaus, is not preeminently a political one. It is preeminently a theological one with enormous political implications.
The need to explain and translate theological arguments into successful political agendas is challenging. Yet we need not toss aside making such arguments directly, and we certainly should not be overly optimistic that secularizing the whys of what we know to be the case will prove better.
C. Scott Pryor
School of Law
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Lutheran Trials and Theses
Robert Benne is clearly disappointed by the direction of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—a disappointment many share (“The Trials of American Lutheranism,” May). Unfortunately, he gives far too much credit to the ELCA churchwide offices, and his claims about the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod schism are far too simplistic.
ELCA churchwide offices prepare social statements and oversee the clergy roster, yet their day-to-day influence on individuals and congregations is quite muted. Following majority Lutheran tradition, individual congregations retain significant authority over the teaching and parish life in their context. Changes in the ELCA are democratic processes where lay and clergy leaders together choose a mission that the majority discerns to be faithful to Scripture and the confessions. While there is opposition, it should be noted that this has not been the work of a small cadre of leaders from any one tradition.
Benne’s use of the term “revisionist” also is problematic. He contends that John Tietjen could have stopped the split in the LCMS simply by making a “small apology for the faculty’s errors.” I currently serve Dr. Tietjen’s final pastoral call and have learned firsthand of his spiritual conviction and resilient commitment to the gospel. It would have struck him to the core to make a “small apology” for what in his judgment were not errors. Perhaps this makes Tiejten a “revisionist,” but one wonders what Benne would have whispered into the ears of the “reformers” when Luther confronted Charles.
The Concordia Seminary in Exile (Seminex) had a significant impact on the ELCA. Yet by laying the majority of the credit and blame at their feet, I believe Benne misses the point. The ELCA is a large and diverse community (currently twice the size of the LCMS) that has chosen to interpret Scripture to allow for the inclusion of many previously marginalized by the church. While he may not agree with their decisions, there is a fine line between “revisionism” and “reformation.”
Rev. Erik K. J. Gronberg
Trinity Lutheran Church
Fort Worth, Texas
Having lived with a servant of the Word for more than fifty years in three Lutheran churches, I have this question: Why is it that the “white, middle-class, traditional, orthodox theologians” being told that their understanding of the church is no longer relevant, are told this by “white, middle-class theologians?” Where is all of this vaunted, sought-after diversity and inclusiveness?
Delhi, New York
I incline toward the first of two alternative explanations Robert Benne offers for the leading role ex-Missourians have played in the liberal protestantizing of ELCA Lutheranism, namely, that their experience of torment from the right blinded them to “any danger on the left.” There go I but for the grace of God. I don’t think the ex-Missourians were “liberals” in a sense significantly different from the way Richard John Neuhaus was in those days or—for that matter, Robert Benne.
Benne’s account does not attend sufficiently to the sources indigenous to Lutheranism for the mess we are in. After all, nineteenth-century Lutheran theologians like Ritschl and Harnack were leading lights of what Troeltsch later called “Neo-Protestantism”; they were followed in the twentieth century by the likes of Bultmann, Ebeling, and lesser imitators fighting at all costs to save Lutheranism against Karl Barth’s new orthodoxy or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call to discipleship. In their own way, the “liberals” also have a claim on the increasingly dismembered corpse of Lutheranism.
If that is so, there is no safe refuge in any of our denominations from the difficult set of problems for Christian orthodoxy unveiled in Benne’s report. Perhaps that is because Christian orthodoxy is a work in progress, which must pass through many trials and tribulations before it enters the kingdom of heaven.
Paul R. Hinlicky
One of my quibbles with Robert Benne’s article is a concern found in nearly every attempt to chronicle American Lutheranism: interpreting theological developments in LCMS history as resulting from personalities. For example, I almost always find the adjective “mean-spirited” to be entirely misplaced. The boy who pushes the little kid into the mud or torments small animals for fun is mean-spirited. He enjoys being mean for its own sake.
Benne’s identification of the conservative leaders in the LCMS of the 1970s as mean-spirited explains neither the theological nor the historical events of the era. You don’t start a new church because the people in the old one were mean, and little is accomplished by labeling winners and losers. Including that term merely proves that the history of recent American Lutheranism is still too raw to be digested. It is still too personal. We Lutherans are like the children of Benedict Arnold and George Washington discussing the Revolutionary War. We need to arrive at a point when people can describe the turmoil without ever mentioning a power-hungry president, a favorite professor, or hurt feelings.
Instead, we should take the theological issues as foundational and tell the story this way: “A dispute arose among them concerning the Scriptures and morality.” Discuss the theology, not the people and politics. Do it the way you might explain the Donatist controversy or some other conflict that no doubt featured many interesting personalities but only remains relevant in term of its theological arguments and conclusions.
Rev. Peter A. Speckhard
Faith Lutheran Church (lcms)
Associate Editor, Forum Letter
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Robert Benne replies:
Perhaps the wisest observation about the ongoing debate over the recent trials of Lutheranism in America is offered by Peter Speckhard when he says that “the history of recent American Lutheranism is still too raw to be digested. It is still too personal.” But then he pleads that we should see the conflicts in theological, not personal, terms. It is difficult to read Burkee’s Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod and not come to the conclusion that some very powerful personalities swayed the direction of the controversy.
Almost everyone agrees that J. A. O. Preus was fairly ruthless in his surge for power, for example. My colleague Paul Hinlicky concurs that Preus and his cohorts provided so much “torment from the right” that the Seminex folks saw little danger from the left. I doubt that the torment issued primarily from Preus posing formidable theological arguments.
Erik Gronberg indicates that “it would have struck Tietjen to the core to make a ‘small apology’ for what in his judgment were not errors.” That inflexibility is reinforced by the account of Tietjen’s very short tenure as bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod at the founding of the ELCA, when his inflexibility put him at loggerheads with the newly elected synod council. He again found little room for compromise.
Compare those conflicts with the current conflicts in the ELCA. While there are many painful conflicts at the congregational level, nothing at the ELCA churchwide or synodical level has unleashed the personal vitriol experienced by Missouri in the sixties and seventies. This lack of conflict at the higher levels can be attributed to the ongoing, suffocating momentum of the ELCA bureaucracy, which is able to set its own direction independent of either its presiding bishops or its constituency.
The ELCA’s flawed organizational structure—set from its beginning in the 1980s, with the help of Missouri refugees—assures that the bureaucracy will have its way. It needed neither strong personalities nor theological persuasiveness—nor the consent of its constituency, as Gronberg erroneously thinks it had—to reach its liberal Protestant destination. Indeed, it would take personalities the likes of Tietjen or Preus to dent the ELCA bureaucracy, but the ELCA doesn’t grow or elect them like that. It is content with company men.
Religion and the Marriage Discourse
Let’s get this straight: Any objection to same-sex marriage must be ruled invalid and thrown out of court because, as Matthew J. Franck points out in his excellent article (“Religion, Reason, and Same-Sex Marriage,” May), any such objection is faith-based, and thus in conflict with the separation of church and state.
Amen to that, a murderer might say, recalling that one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not kill.” And while he’s at it, he might suborn one of his cronies to lie for him on the stand, since “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is also faith-based.
O. M. Ostlund Jr.
Matthew J. Franck’s debunking of the charges of bigotry hurled at defenders of traditional marriage leaves his opponents little claim to the honorific rationality with which they flatter themselves. I wonder, however, why he seems to accept another of their self-descriptions: that they are secularists.
To encourage some type of conduct of character, to favor now what was previously disfavored, is to reshape our youth and our future. There is no illumination to be gained by applying the labels “secular” or “religious” to such transformations. In the course of debating sexual morality, therefore, neither party is entitled to any advantage by reason of the First Amendment. Will we have sexual legislation or sexual laissez-faire? Both are secular and both are religious, whether or not anyone is arguing in theological terms.
When Americans who are respectful of tradition speak of religion as a synonym for theism, they limit their use of the First Amendment to defensive purposes only. In applying the phrase “secular orthodoxy” to what the foes of traditional marriage have in mind, Franck makes this error. The result, a costly rhetorical timidity, is an unearned gift to his opponents.
In this setting, those most aggressively invoking the First Amendment are in fact its most dangerous enemies. They know not what they are doing. Those who would stop them need first to understand that the absence of the word “God” does not mark a person, a discourse, or a policy as “secular.”
In his superb defense of freedom of thought and opinion, Matthew J. Franck does not carry through his unblinking realism in analyzing the arguments for same-sex marriage to his conclusion, where he evinces a Pollyannaish hope that the “strategy pursued by the advocates of same-sex marriage will be self-defeating.” He holds up the sentiments of the majority of Americans as the basis for the inevitable victory of the principle of conjugal marriage. Yet there is a larger social movement afoot, and, contrary to his presumption and hope, the majority’s sentiments may be changing.
We all can observe the culture’s consistently high divorce rate. But what is happening today is quite new. People who used to divorce nearly always sought to remarry. The Catholic Church recognized this phenomenon when it liberalized the grounds for determining the legitimacy of an annulment. Today, however, many do not remarry after divorce. They simply move in with a new partner.
Further, the popularity of marriage among the population as a whole is dramatically decreasing. According to the Institute for American Values, the number of marriages per 1000 unmarried women age fifteen and older has shrunk from 76.5 in 1970 to 36 today.
In other words, fewer people currently see same-sex marriage as a threat to anything they are building their lives around. If marriage is a “lifestyle” choice for heterosexual couples, as people seem to believe, why should homosexual couples not be allowed to marry? In fact, same-sex marriage advocates can now take the rhetorical high ground: “At a time when heterosexual couples are merely cohabiting, at least we believe in marriage as an institution.”
The danger is not just that religion and religiously based opinions are being privatized, as Franck points out. So is marriage. The attack on marriage, therefore, is deontological, political, and social. On the one hand, some, knowing that the strongest argument for marriage arises out of natural law, wish to “de-nature” marriage. The political attack on marriage comes through the courts. But the social attack comes from the new habits and sensibilities of the American people, who, when asked, speak of holding marriage in high esteem, but, when put to the test of practice, seem more and more to prefer less committed relationships.
David F. Forte
Cleveland State University
Matthew J. Franck replies:
My thanks to all my correspondents above, whose sympathy with my arguments is gratifying. O. M. Ostlund Jr. puts his finger on the glaring irrationality of the view that moral precepts must be rejected if they coincide with particular religious teachings, for there is hardly a moral stricture one can name that cannot be found in some religion or other.
Scott Rutledge objects to the use of the word “secular” to describe those whose arguments I was criticizing in my article. I surmise that he regards them as just as “religious” as their opposite numbers because they too have a comprehensive worldview from which their moral arguments are derived. Yet, inasmuch as they regard all arguments from theistic premises as illegitimate, the word “secular” seems to fit like a glove, one of its principal meanings (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) being “non-ecclesiastical, non-religious, or non-sacred.” And is not Rutledge the one giving the other side an unearned advantage when he suggests that secularists can make a special claim to ownership of the First Amendment?
I acknowledge the justice of David F. Forte’s description of the damage that marriage has suffered in the larger culture, but I do not think my conclusion was Pollyannaish at all. Since 1998, the people of thirty states have voted to protect marriage in their state constitutions, by an average of 68 percent. Such results would be replicated in most of the remaining twenty states if their constitutions made popular amendment easier.
Damaged in fact though it be, marriage persists as an ideal, sustained by the people’s recognition of its centrality to our civilization and of its unchangeable—and, for many of them, sacred—nature as a union of man and woman. If anything, the campaign for same-sex marriage has awakened more people to the concerns Forte so ably summarizes. And should the Supreme Court be unwise enough to impose same-sex marriage on the whole country, the decision will be greeted not like Loving v. Virginia (overturning antimiscegenation laws in 1967), as an achievement of obvious justice, but like Roe v. Wade, with a tireless movement dedicated to overturning its obvious injustice, and a reinvigorated effort to pass a federal marriage amendment.
Ayn Rand Shrugged off
I’ve been reading First Things for more than a decade now, and David Bentley Hart’s takedown of Ayn Rand (“The Trouble with Ayn Rand,” May) stands out, but not in an admirable way. Many conservative Christians, among them Roman Catholics, will be offended at such a vitriolic attack on a famous conservative humanist author, and I use the term vitriolic advisedly (“just a little spiteful,” in Hart’s confession).
I grant you that Rand, an autodidact Russian émigré (the daughter of a commercial family whose property was confiscated by the Soviets, and an anticommunist intellectual who fell in love with America) was indeed an atheist. But unlike Phillip Pullman, she did not attack or brutally caricature the Church, and unlike Nietzsche, whom she actively disliked, she did not attack Christianity.
Taken as a whole, Ayn Rand’s creative output is a celebration of life and human creative powers. I suspect that she is on David Hart’s personal Index Librorum Prohibitorum because she embraced “greed” over self-immolative sacrifice. Rand’s passion for creative freedom as a moral imperative was a specific commitment that transcended “mere” greed and belies the parodic attempts to marginalize an original, serious ethic, relevant to the modern human condition and, at least to this believer, something that represents a valued addition to the larger Christian worldview.
Ayn Rand’s fiction and philosophy is not Christian by any stretch, but it is an expression of life-affirming, anti-tyrannical humanism. God forbid there would be a movie of one of Eric Hoffer’s books.
Jay B. Gaskill
What Ayn Rand extolled was personal responsibility and freedom. The quote from The Fountainhead rejecting any other person’s claim to oneself is classic. There is a sort of similarity between this and Kierkegaard’s or Buber’s insistence that the individual discover one’s existence and identity apart from one’s membership in the crowd. It is one’s claim to one’s right to oneself that Oswald Chambers defined as the essence of sin.
It is sin because only God has any legitimate claim on you. The claim of the crowd is just as much a counterfeit as the claim of oneself. Kierkegaard and Buber, and Rand, point out the counterfeit of the claim of the crowd. Of course, Rand is no Kierkegaard or Buber. Her prescription for an alternative philosophy or politic is a confused one, as Hart points out, particularly ignorant of grace and compassion. But her diagnosis of the socializing philosophy of her time, the claim of the crowd over the individual, was a bracing corrective. And her prognostication of where that socialization would lead has, in fact, corresponded to eventualities around the world in communist and socialist experiments.
Personally, I do feel an obligation to serve my fellow human being. But to serve a human need is not to serve a legitimate human demand. It must be done out of love for, and service to, my Lord. Anything else serves a counterfeit God, an idol, and has no legitimate demand on me. Ayn Rand didn’t teach me the latter idea, but she helped me understand the former.
Some things are as predictable as a summer cold. Whenever Ayn Rand regains the spotlight (as in the case of the Atlas Shrugged movie) a religious intellectual finds fault with her use of hyperbole and a shrill tone by employing hyperbole and a shrill tone. Does it matter to David Hart that Rand was a reliable ally in the war against communism? Does it count in her favor that a Russian Jewish atheist made heroic (yes, heroic) efforts to leave the Soviet Union and become an American citizen, and that she defended her adopted home for the rest of her life?
As a reader of First Things, I think Hart’s lack of Christian charity positively stinks—maybe not of brimstone, but of something foul. I’m not an Objectivist and not an atheist. I believe there is such a thing as Christian culture as the bedrock of Western civilization. Rand had some serious blind spots on this subject, to put it mildly. But she was right to praise the Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment, even though they were not first things.
To hear Hart tell it, Rand had no more than two arrows in her quiver: strenuous romance writing and hectoring, and inadequate philosophizing. Never mind her brilliant gift for satire, where she did a better critique of the materialism of the modern state than her religious critics in America ever did (even though they never stop complaining about the materialism of the modern state). Project X in Atlas Shrugged, for example, has a lot in common with the N.I.C.E. in C. S. Lewis’ classic That Hideous Strength.
Please don’t pull any more stunts like this literary assassination.
As an ardent admirer of Ayn Rand’s work and as a Christian, I felt my heart flutter on opening the latest issue of First Things to David Bentley Hart’s article. I too think there is a trouble with Ayn Rand’s view of religion, and I anticipated a thoughtful analysis on the order of Hart’s discussion of the New Atheists in the May 2010 issue.
“The Trouble with Ayn Rand” is, unfortunately, a smear campaign. The subtext is, I suppose, that her philosophy of Objectivism is hardly worth serious attention. Hart’s stabs at addressing her actual ideas rarely rise above crude and unsupported assertions.
His explanation of “the essential oafishness of Rand’s view of reality,” for example: “For her, the world really was starkly divided between creators and parasites, and the vast majority of humanity belonged to the ranks of the latter.” This is false. She recognized the vast majority of people as either innovators on a smaller scale or at least those who work and pay their own way in life. They are most definitely not considered morally inferior, and her fiction abounds with such characters in this group, like Red in The Fountainhead and Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged.
Hart thinks Howard Roark’s pronouncement in The Fountainhead (“I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life”) implies the view that a man’s “best achievements were simply and solely the products of his own unfettered and unaided will.” Roark is clearly, however, repudiating the claims of parasites; he is on trial for destroying his own work rather than allowing it to be taken over and disfigured by them.
Both Rand herself and her heroes acknowledge huge debts to their predecessors: Roark to his mentor, Henry Cameron (The Fountainhead is, to some extent, a roman clef based on the relationship of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan); and Rand to Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Victor Hugo, and Dostoevsky. Moreover, her key defense of laissez-faire capitalism is that it is the one social system that unequivocally subjects social interdependence to the rule of noncoercion, thereby outlawing the initiation of force.
Rand denounced Christian morality as altruistic, but knowing her definitions of key terms is crucial. Altruism for her is not “the practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others,” as given in most dictionaries, but the sacrifice of a higher value for a lower (for instance, helping a stranger instead of a family member). Nor does she mean by “selfishness” caring for oneself at the expense of others but merely a concern for oneself that, far from precluding helping others, could necessitate dying for a high-enough value, such as one’s country or spouse. These definitions, and Rand’s discussion of them, are immensely pertinent to understanding Christian agape as more than simply doing what has to be done in order to get to heaven, which is still the view of many Christians. Hart does not appear to know them.
Before accepting Hart’s statement that “Rand was definitely on the side of barbarism,” make sure you’ve read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and her two political essays, “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government.” For examples of a rich humanity combined with keen philosophical analysis, I would recommend “Kant versus Sullivan,” a refutation of Kant’s epistemology based on Annie Sullivan’s treatment of Helen Keller; a review of B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, “The Stimulus and the Response”; “The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”; and her obituary for Marilyn Monroe.
Technically an atheist, Ayn Rand knew deeply, like the centurion in Matthew 8, that we are all under authority, and that man is not the measure of all things. Familiarity with her unusually clear and vigorously argued philosophy would enhance all levels of current philosophical and theological inquiry. Hart does a disservice to that inquiry by trying to peremptorily shut her behind the doors of obloquy.
Brooklyn, New York
David Bentley Hart’s, er, meditation on Ayn Rand was delightful. I wonder, however, why he does not inquire why she is in vogue. I venture that it is not her philosophy. The insight to which Atlas Shrugged especially inspires many of us is that there are some people of exceptionally towering achievements we would hate to do without and to whom we should be grateful. This insight is completely incompatible with Rand’s philosophy. That Rand would have hated this takeaway just makes it so much more delicious.
Joseph A. Bingham
No follower of Jesus, if he understands his Master’s call, can be a devotee of Ayn Rand. Rand herself asserted that “there is a great, basic contradiction in the teachings of Jesus.” He “was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism—the inviolate sanctity of man’s soul, and the salvation of one’s soul as one’s first concern and highest goal,” but “when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe for the salvation of one’s soul . . . Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others. This means, the subordination of one’s soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one’s soul to the souls of others.”
This, she wrote, “is a contradiction that cannot be resolved.” There you have it. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves; Rand taught that selfishness was a virtue.
If Margaret Sanger was the prophetess of Moloch, then Rand was the prophetess of Mammon. Rand’s worldview is no closer to the teachings of Our Lord than is Sanger’s. Each has poisoned our culture with a view that society has no right to constrain man’s vices and that, in fact, what Scripture clearly calls vices are in fact virtues.
Gregory K. Laughlin
David Bentley Hart replies:
I shall not respond to the letters from readers who share my distaste for Ayn Rand, except to commend their sanity and correctness. As for letters from Rand’s apologists, they are of a piece and can be dealt with in general terms. The only specific comment I shall make is that Mr. Gaskill should not imagine it alarms me to think that any of Rand’s admirers might take offense at my article (that was the whole point of the exercise, after all).
As a set, these letters reminded me again how odd and troubling a country America frequently is. Where else could one find a substantial minority who think it possible to be both a practicing Christian and an ardent admirer of a woman whose entire intellectual project was the perfect negation of all Christian values? It confirms me in my conviction that, for all the oceans of Christians that have flooded our shores over the centuries, somehow Christianity has remained strangely alien to our national temperament and to our spiritual tendency toward a bizarre and implausible materialist Gnosticism.
At least, I cannot otherwise account for the inextinguishable allure of Rand’s writings. Certainly it has nothing to do with her intellectual gifts. Her vapid, pseudo-philosophical bluster may fool many defenseless readers, but she really couldn’t think her way out of a transparent sandwich bag. (A good specimen of her ineptitude in the realm of ideas would be the essay on Kant mentioned by Mr. Marr: a piece that reveals a total ignorance not only of what Kant actually said, but of the most basic problems of epistemology as well.)
Nor, surely, can it have much to do with her attempts at literature, which are almost impossibly horrid. Pace Mr. Linaweaver, even as a satirist she was at best crude, obvious, and ponderous. Nor can it really have much to do with her moral “wisdom.” Perhaps one can find the occasional bleached fragment of a truism floating in the sewage of her malevolent system—say, an abhorrence of deadening collectivism—but nothing more interesting than that. (And, really, anyone who could claim that laissez-faire capitalism creates a culture of non-coercion, contrary to the lessons of history and common sense alike, clearly was not a serious thinker.)
It really must have something to do with America’s special spiritual pathologies. At the end of Atlas Shrugged, Rand buoyantly imagined a world in which the sign of the cross had been displaced by the sign of the dollar. Everything the gospel demands of Christians she detested as pernicious and destructive. Mr. Marr cites the Randian definition of “altruism” in the abstract, but it is an absolutely vacuous definition. As the quotation adduced by Mr. Laughlin demonstrates, the altruism Rand despised, reduced to concrete practices, was precisely the life of self-abnegation and sacrificial service to all that Christ commands of his followers. And yet in this deeply Christian, extravagantly post-Christian nation of ours, a number of sincere believers find the life of Christ and his saints somehow compatible with the sterile, preening, sub-adolescent egoism of Objectivism.
It may be, then, that what I find most repellent about Rand is what she tells us about ourselves. Every people has its special virtues and special vices, of course, and lies under the sway of its indigenous malign powers and principalities. But Rand was an altogether painfully pellucid mirror of the peculiar spiritual deformities of America—an apostle of that “wickedness in high places” that is our particular spiritual burden as a nation. Some things, frankly, are too shameful to contemplate so directly.
Correction: In Matthew Milliner’s book review, “Knowing the Beautiful” (May), the layman Leon Bloy is wrongly identified as the priest Louis Bloy.