Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Letters of Ayn Rand

Letters of Ayn Rand
Edited by Michael S. Berliner

Letters of Ayn Rand is like an intellectual biography of Ayn Rand. The 681-page book contains hundreds of letters that Rand wrote from 1926 to two months before her death in 1982. Ayn Rand was a patient letter writer—in her letters she explains in detail her views on important political, cultural and philosophical issues. Her letters give you an understanding of her thoughts at different periods of her life.

In his Preface, Michael S. Berliner, the editor of Letters of Ayn Rand, says: “Readers of this book will quickly realize that Ayn Rand’s letters seem more like polished documents than casual conservations. This is no accident. For one thing, she took letter writing very seriously, once commenting at the top of page five of a letter to Isabel Paterson that she had already been writing it for four hours. Ayn Rand was uninterested in “small talk,” either in person or on paper.”

The book’s Introduction is by Leonard Peikoff. He points out that “these letters do not merely tell you about Ayn Rand’s life. In effect, they let you watch her live it, as though you were an invisible presence who could follow her around and even read her mind.”

Rand’s letters to famous contemporaries like Cecil B. DeMille, H. L. Mencken, Frank Lloyd Wright, Isabel Paterson, John Hospers, Alexander Kerensky, Barry Goldwater, John T. Flynn, and Mickey Spillane are of great interest.

The lengthy letter that Rand wrote to Senator Barry Goldwater in May 1960 shows how profoundly disturbed she was by the incorrect view of capitalism that Goldwater had presented in his book The Conscience of a Conservative. Here’s an excerpt from her letter to Goldwater:

“The major contradiction in your book is between Chapter 1 and the rest of the book’s content. More specifically, it is between the fight for capitalism and the issue of religion. There can be no more disastrous error—morally, philosophically and politically—than to assert that the ultimate justification of Capitalism rests on faith. To assert this is to announce that there is no rational justification for Capitalism, no rational arguments to support the principles which created this country—and that reason is on the side of the enemy.”

The organization of the letters in The Letters of Ayn Rand is largely chronological, but specific sections are dedicated to Rand’s correspondence with Frank Lloyd Wright, Isabel Paterson, and John Hospers.

I think that the letters that Rand has written to John Hospers are of great philosophical importance. She wrote these letters in 1961, the year when her first work of non-fiction, For The New Intellectual, was published.

In her April 17, 1960, letter to Hospers, she gives a point-by-point answer to the philosophical issues that he had raised in his letter. Here are a few lines from different paragraphs of her four-page letter that highlight not only her ideas but also her disagreements with Hospers:

“I am puzzled by your comments.” “I hold that philosophy should be more precise than the strictest legal document, because much more is at stake—and I am in favor of the most technical language, to achieve such precision.” “You object to my classification of logical positivists as “witch doctors”— and, instead of arguments, you resort to the method of calling me an “outsider” and implying my total philosophical ignorance.” “I do not believe that philosophy can be discussed without reaching an understanding on Kant. Modern philosophy may and does depart from him on many issues, but it is his epistemological premises that have been accepted without challenge or proof.” “If capitalists are as evil as you say they are, what magic faculty endows a politician with virtue?”

In the letter on March 5, 1961, she says: “It is, therefore, obvious that an enormous epistemological difference exists between us and that our lines of communication do not work at all. If so, I cannot solve the problem alone: you will have to help me.” Later in the letter, she says: “Please bear in mind the total context of the issues discussed in your note—then accuse me of context-dropping, if you find that you can. Do you remember the slogan: ‘When you say that, smile’? Well, my slogan is: ‘When you accuse me, prove it.’”

In the April 29, 1961, letter she tells Hospers why she was opposed to social workers. She says: “The basic principle involved (which applies to all similar cases and problems) is as follows: it is morally evil to choose as one’s full-time profession, any activity which is not supported by trading, but consists of almsgiving.” She goes on to explain her position on altruist morality, sacrifice, generosity, self-interest, Objectivist ethics, and much else.

Ayn Rand’s letters are full of quotes that you would like to carry with you at all times. Here are the excerpts from two more letters:

“If a man is compelled to work against his will for one minute or one second, for any cause, reason or purpose whatsoever—that is involuntary servitude. The purpose for which he is compelled to serve is totally irrelevant. The concept of slavery does not say that it is slavery only when practiced for a bad purpose, but freedom when practiced for the sake of starving babies. Slavery is slavery, and its purpose does not change its nature.” ~ (Letter to DeWitt Emery, April 30, 1949)

“There is no hope for the world unless and until we formulate, accept and state publicly a true moral code of individualism, based on man’s inalienable right to live for himself. Neither to hurt nor to serve his brothers but to be independent of them in his function and in his motive. Neither to sacrifice them for himself nor to sacrifice himself for them in selfless service—but to deal with them in free exchange among equals, each with a legitimate right to his own benefit, and not in the spirit of any kind of altruistic service of anyone by anyone…. But I realize that the cowardly hypocrites among our so-called conservatives would be scared to death by such a doctrine.” ~ (Letter to Tom Girdler, July 12, 1943)

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