Monday, May 30, 2011


In an essay in the current issue of America (May 23, 2011), John Kavanaugh muses on the philosophical viewpoint of Ayn Rand, author of influential novels such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.  Hers is a view that celebrates the individual and narcissistic self-seeking to the extent, Kavanaugh suggests, of making narcissism a virtue--one that he believes is at risk of becoming the dominant one in American life.

This leads me to wonder about the ways in which abortion (to take one of many examples) is defended--almost irrationally--in American society.  Is it really all about being able to have sex with whomever one wants, without any of the "consequences" for which acts of intercourse are naturally ordered?  In part it is, but I think it is only one layer of the answer.  Really, it seems that the larger picture is one in which I can do anything I want to please myself, and whoever dies with the most toys wins.  Sexual gratification is only one of the "toys."

What is the opposite of such a view?  The "enemy" according to Rand is the "collective," the society structured on mindless obedience, like an ant farm (think of the scene in The Once and Future King) or a beehive, with all workers subservient to a queen bee--like the world of Stalin's Russia.  And this is truly a horrible vision of life:  the individual has no purpose other than the progress of the State (rather like the orcs of Sauron's Mordor).  It is a nightmarish vision.  But it is not the only alternative.

When giving a talk a couple of Sundays ago on "Catholic Social Teaching" I referred to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum and the fall of communism in eastern and central Europe.  The Pope had harsh criticism for the view of the collective that communism represented.  But he had equally harsh words for capitalism (this made some in the audience uncomfortable).  Insofar as both views are ultimately materialistic, they are opposite sides of the same coin: one exalts the individual at all costs, and the other rejects the individual in the name of the State. 

But there is a third alternative.  Just as Rollo May long ago (Love and Will) suggested that love and hate are not opposites but also two sides of the same coin, with apathy as the true opposite, so also in this case there is a true alternative to narcissistic self-absorption or the mindless collective.  To quote Kavanaugh: 
As the French philosopher Jacques Maritain pointed out long ago, the only authentic alternative is a community of persons. 

In theological terms, this is the three-fold image of the Church found in Vatican II's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium):  to be citizens of the People of God, members of the Body of Christ, living stones in the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Where do the individual and society best come together in this balance?  Ideally speaking, in a family, or in a monastery...

"I" is, but "I" is not all there is. 

1 comment:

  1. My interpretation of Atlas Shrugged is much different than John Kavanaugh's. Actually the heroes of the story are people who want nothing more than to earn their place in life and want to live in a society of people who do the same and who value that individual responsibility and contribution. In Atlas, people who are just taking and living off of the work of others and who want and want and always take but never earn are the villians. I haven't read her other books but if this book accurately portrays her thinking, she doesn't seem to support the kind of selfishness that you're talking about with people wanting to please themselves no matter the cost.

    I actually think the utopia that Rand creates in Atlas is pretty similar to this ideal: "As the French philosopher Jacques Maritain pointed out long ago, the only authentic alternative is a community of persons."

    I don't agree with Rand's thoughts on religion as were expressed in Atlas Shrugged, and I'm sure if I read more of her work or philosophy I would disagree on much of it. But, I don't really think she would be a supporter of people who think they deserve everything they want for no reason other than that they want it, to me that was what she was saying is wrong with the world.

    I definitely agree with Kavanaugh in saying that narcissism is a huge problem in today's world, I just think that he and Rand are more on the same side than he thinks when it comes to the kind of narcissism he's referring to.

    What is it that the Pope doesn't admire in capitalism?