There’s a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in which a mediocre playwright, Ike, reads a mediocre play to the fictional Council of American Writers. The initial feedback is strongly negative. The consensus seems to be that the play is trash. But then one listener, a well-regarded theater critic, says that it’s great, and that he’s going to make a success out of it.
What made the play great, according to this critic?
It was so perfectly mediocre that praising it would annihilate the meaning of praise entirely. When we treat the shallow as if it were profound, we blind ourselves to profundity. We dull our aesthetic and moral sense. From the novel:
“Ibsen is good,” said Ike.
“Sure he’s good, but suppose I didn’t like him. Suppose I wanted to stop people from seeing his plays. It would do me no good whatever to tell them so. But if I sold them the idea that you’re just as great as Ibsen—pretty soon they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
“Jesus, can you?”
“It’s only an example, Ike.”
“But it would be wonderful!”
“Yes, it would be wonderful. And then it wouldn’t matter what they went to see at all. Then nothing would matter—neither the writers nor those for whom they wrote.”
I’m still trying to figure out what to make of Ayn Rand. From what I understand, her philosophy is naively rationalistic. She hates philosophers that attempt to criticize reason, such as Nietzsche or Kant. But at the same time, The Fountainhead has a lot of Nietzschean themes, one of which is that cultures that hold equality as the highest value inevitably lose their ability to appreciate beauty and excellence.
Indeed, in a dogmatically egalitarian society, beauty and excellence are threats. Beauty and excellence imply inequality, that there is something else which is less beautiful and less excellent. If we commit ourselves fully to equality as the highest value, then there is no room for any other values. This is the egalitarian nihilism that Nietzsche warned against. Rand does a good job describing the moral and aesthetic emptiness of such a state of affairs. The characters in her novel praise mediocrity for the sole reason that everyone else is praising it. They have no thoughts of their own. They have been reduced to generic, interchangeable instances of the collective. They fail to be themselves.
My problem with Ayn Rand is that she seems to think that a fresh commitment to reason is the antidote to this egalitarian nihilism. But reason itself cannot teach us what is beautiful. Reason is a tool which can be put to good ends or bad ones. The revitalization of a culture that’s been hijacked by egalitarianism requires something more than reason. Rand seems to understand this implicitly, based on the fact that she wrote novels in addition to works of philosophy. There’s a part of the human soul that loves what is good and hates what is bad, and that part of the soul must be cultivated and brought to maturity. If this part of the soul is neglected, then reason does us no good. It just becomes another tool with which the Good can be dismantled.
This is why I think that studying great literature, art, and music is of paramount importance. When we come face-to-face with the sublime, our soul begins to awaken. We begin to develop a thirst for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. At the risk of sounding overtly Platonic, I capitalize these words, because I believe that they correlate with fundamental desires that we have as humans. There is a longing for goodness, truth, and beauty ingrained in the fiber of our being. To refuse to serve this longing is a grave sin, to extinguish it an even graver one.
But the destruction of these noble desires (which I consider to be parts of the imago dei) is a necessary part of creating an egalitarian society. To desire the Good, the True, and the Beautiful is unfair to the mediocre, so let’s pretend that there is no Good, True, or Beautiful. Let’s pretend further that life is still worth living, even better, without the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And then let’s tell people when they’re unhappy with the vapid life we’ve given them to live that they’re unhappy because they’re too selfish, that they need to subordinate their own ego to the common good, that they must effectively cease to be in order to be content. And after we have thus sacrificed our souls to the false god of equality, we will feel a vague sense of contentment, because you need a soul to desire and to love, and we, being soulless, will want nothing.