Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ayn Rand: The Most Important Person You Know Nothing About

In June 2010, when the Tea Party was still an emerging political force, I read a book that did more to help me understand that movement and late twentieth-century/early twenty-first century political and economic debate than years of news consumption and reading. The funny thing is, I didn't pick up Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made because I wanted to understand Ron Paul and the Libertarian movement, Alan Greenspan, or the Tea Party. I picked it up because I happen to love her most famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (I don't really care for We, the Living or Anthem). Heller's title ostensibly refers to the fictional worlds that Rand created and lived in, but--as NPR recently suggested--the world in which we live is more and more a world made after the image of Ayn Rand.

Chances are that you've heard of Ayn Rand, notwithstanding the academy's scorn for her books. You've likely heard her name because her novels are tremendously popular. Heller writes,

"In a 1991 survey jointly sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Americans named Atlas Shrugged the book that had most influenced their lives (second only to the Bible). When the Modern Library asked readers in 1998 to name the twentieth century's one hundred greatest books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were numbers one and two on the list; Anthem and We, the Living were numbers seven and eight, trumping The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and Ulysses" (xii).

Literary critics asked to list the hundred best books did not mention Rand's name. In other words, Rand is tremendously popular but her work is virtually ignored by those who profess to teach the most important and influential literature of the twentieth century. Why? That neglect (by largely liberal academics) likely stems from Rand's "Objectivist" philosophy which makes self interest (or answering and acting upon the question, "What is best for myself?") the most highest individual priority and social good. Objectivists, who followed her philosophy, even founded their own conservative political party:

"Her ideas roared and shouted within a new group of young right-wing libertarians who were disgusted with the economic policies of the Republican Party and determined to found a party of their own, which they called the Libertarian Party. In its 'Statement of Principles' it rejected 'the cult of the omnipotent state' and called for the restoration of each individual's right to exercise sole dominion over his own life. It recommended a speedy return to the gold standard and, when seeking its first presidential candidate in 1972, it chose Rand's erstwhile friend John Hospers. Its founders and members, many of whom were self-declared Objectivists, almost universally revered Rand as the guiding light and most courageous exponent of limited government and free markets" (Heller 383-83).

The Libertarian Party has yet to win a major electoral contest, but many of its cherished principles--especially the limitation of government power and the restoration of individual rights--have been adopted by the Tea Party, which is a large part of the reason that a Republican presidential candidate like Rick Perry, in an attempt to curry favor with the Tea Party, proposed abolishing three agencies of the federal government (go ahead and watch--you'll laugh!). The Tea Party, which is currently fighting for control of the Republican Party and waging an uncompromising fight against Democratic lawmakers, is a movement inspired by Rand's books and ideas--which makes her life something worth studying.

Rand is Russian--she grew up in the turbulent years following the Russian Revolution and preceding World War II. Her family was extremely poor--they celebrated special occasions by eating "cakes made of potato peelings, carrot greens, coffee grounds, and acorns" (Heller 46). Rand moved to Chicago and then Hollywood, scraping her way to success by writing screenplays and then novels. Rand is, in this sense, a self-made woman (notwithstanding the aid and sacrifice of family members)--an admirable all-American story.

But if Rand's success in pulling herself up by her bootstraps is admirable, other aspects of her life are less so. Despite her insistence that Objectivism--and everything in her life--was governed by impeccable logic, she was extremely superstitious and believed in different forms of the supernatural:

"One night Rand spilled salt on a restaurant table and surprised the Hills by throwing a pinch of it over her left shoulder, an ancient rite to blind the devil. Most uncharacteristically, Hill also observed her in the role of witness to a UFO. One Saturday afternoon, Rand greeted the Hills by beckoning Ruth upstairs, into the immense master bedroom, where tall glass windows lined a wall to the left of the bed. 'Do you see those junipers?' she asked, pointing to a row of twelve-foot bushes about half an acre from the house. 'A UFO came by there last night.' Stunned, Hill asked for details. 'It was hovering just above the junipers and flying in slow motion,' she said. It was round and its outer edges were lighted, she continued, and it made no sound. By the time she woke [her husband] Frank and led him to the window, it had moved out of sight' (Heller 608).

In addition to these apparent lapses in logical thought, Rand was conducted her personal life without regard to widely held standards of morality. Rand was addicted to amphetamines  for most of her working life and was militantly anti-religious (which may have something to do with the Tea Party's ambivalence towards moral issues). During her married life she indulged in an affair with Nathaniel Branden, a married man twenty-five years her junior. Rand demanded complete obedience from Branden and anyone else who claimed to be an Objectivist. Branden wrote that Rand's inner circle all had to accept the following "implicit premises" transmitted to students of Objectivism:

  • Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
  • Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
  • Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moreal, or appropriate to man's life on earth.
  • Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and her work, the measure of one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position that one takes regarding her and her work. (Heller 302)
Rand presided over a sort of cult that revered her person; perhaps the best annecdote to make this point is one concerning her eventual "intellectual heir" and the man who founded and currently heads the Ayn Rand Institute: Leonard Peikoff. A member of Rand's 1970s inner circle reported that "Sometimes she would wipe the floor with [Peikoff]. You'd think he had threatened to kill her. I finally said, 'How can you let her do that?' He said, 'I would let her step on my face if she wanted'" (Heller 385). 

The champion of individual liberties seemed--at least in these instance--to have had little respect for the liberties of Branden (who didn't want to sleep with her but felt compelled to do so) and Peikoff. This inconsistency also applied to her financial principles. The champion of a free market and capitalism's potential to make all prosperous, Rand kept her money in a savings bank all her life; she never invested it. 

Heller's biography is one of the best I've ever read--and it chronicles the life of a woman who continues to dramatically shape American political debates, despite the fact that most people who invoke her name or her novels know little if anything about her. Few know that Alan Greenspan spent every Saturday night, from 8 PM to 4 or 5 AM Sunday morning, over the course of years listening to Rand speak. You want to understand Greenspan's ideological origins? Learn about Ayn Rand. You want to understand the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party? Learn about Ayn Rand. You want to understand John Boehner's politics? Learn about Ayn Rand. For these reasons, and many others, Rand's life is one worth understanding, and her novels are worth the reading. 

Even if you, like most of the academics who have ignored her novels, disagree with her ultra-conservative principles, you should learn about Ayn Rand. As Sun Tzu taught, the first principle of war is to "know your enemy." 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Patience, the Indispensable Virtue

Courage is a glamorous virtue. We celebrate biblical heroes like Deborah and David--men and women of action who defied the odds and came off conquerors. Other virtues, if not exactly glamorous, are at least associated with marvelous blessings. We all want to have the faith of Mahonri Moriancumer, who moved mountains; the wisdom of Solomon, who confounded liars and the learned; and the purity of Enoch, who took a whole city to heaven. Courage, faith, wisdom, purity: these are among the most attractive, desirable virtues. Patience is not.

I know what you are thinking. You want to be more patient. But why? What great blessing will attend your patience? Patience will not move mountains, no one will collect your patience into proverbs, and patience probably will not inspire the Lord to translate you ahead of time. After all, if you have learned to wait patiently, why would he prioritize your return? Job's name is synonymous with the virtue of patience, but I know no one who aspires to weeks of scraping painful boils with potshards while listening to the philosophical banter of 'friends.' Nobody aches for a chance to demonstrate patience. Face it--the only reason we wish for patience in the first place is because we want to forget the frustration of waiting impatiently, of wondering when that email will arrive, when we'll get a raise, when our trials will be over, when that better time in life will come. We do not wish for patience so much as we wish for temporary amnesia, the ability to forget our dissatisfactions for a time.

As a virtue patience "is despised and rejected of men" and "hath . . . no beauty that we should desire" it (Isaiah 53:3, 2). But here's the thing: patiencethe willingness to delay gratification and to accept affliction or annoyance as an essential component of progressionis the very essence of godliness. Thus, we are to "continue in patience until [we] are perfected" (Doctrine and Covenants 67:13). But if patience is an underrated virtue, so too is impatience an underrated sin because impatiencethe unwillingness to delay gratification or accept affliction and annoyance as an essential component of progressionis the defining characteristic of Satan.

We commonly speak of Satan's rebellion as a sin of pride. The late Ezra Taft Benson explained that "In the premortal council, it was pride that felled Lucifer, 'a son of the morning.'" In support of that claim President Benson cites 2 Nephi 24:12-15, but those verses say nothing of pride. Rather, they paraphrase Lucifer's ambitions: "I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High" (2 Nephi 24:13-14). From my admittedly limited perspective, there is nothing particularly prideful about Satan's desire; to be sure, he wants to be co-equal with God ("I will sit also . . . [and] will be like the Most High"), but that hardly seems inappropriate. If we really believe that God's primary goal is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39) and that the faithful will receive "all that my Father hath" (Doctrine & Covenants 84:38), then Satan's desire hardly seem blasphemous. He did not want anything that the Father is unwilling to give. The problem was not what he desired but when he wanted it and how he intended to acquire it. Satan wanted to receive exaltation and godhood immediately without enduring any of the afflictions or annoyances that would make him more like God; he was impatient.

As a counterpoint to Satan, consider the example of our elder brother, Jesus Christ. This most righteous, most faithful, most intelligent of God's progeny agreed to spend his pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence helping you and I--mere spirit children with divine learning disabilities, as compared to the incomparable Christ--to acquire that which he already possessed. Imagine a brilliant math professor at MIT condescending to teach a group of first grade schoolchildren addition and then remaining with those children for years, teaching them every successive mathematical concept until they were finally able to discuss non-commutative algebra and homotopy theory with the professor on an equal basis. Such a process, repeatedly delivering lessons so basic that you know them by heart, lovingly correcting students' rudimentary errors with encouragement, and respectfully answering their ignorant questions day in and day out for years, is an apt description of the Savior's mission as he labors selflessly at the incredibly slow and personal work of tutoring, redeeming, and perfecting as many of us as will remain in his "class." He waited patiently in the pre-mortal existence until the meridian of time to receive a body. During the thirty years before his mortal ministry commenced, he "waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come" (JST Matthew 3:24). As a post-mortal being, he has voluntarily delayed--or perhaps permanently given up--the perfecting of his body so that every one of God's children may "[b]ehold the wounds which pierced my side, and also the prints of the nails in my hands and feet" (Doctrine & Covenants 6:37). In patience, as in all other things, Jesus Christ is our perfect example.

We often speak of faith, hope, and charity as the three essential, Christ-like virtues, but patience is a prerequisite to each of these desirable attributes. King Benjamin taught that when we exercise faith and obey God's commandments He "doth immediately bless [us]" (Mosiah 2:24), but despite the immediacy of God's response, we rarely--if ever--recognize those blessings right away because God desires to "prove you all, as I did Abraham" (Doctrine and Covenants 132:51), who waited twenty-four years for Isaac's birth to fulfill God's promise. Faith is predicated on a willingness to wait patiently for things "not seen" to become visible (Hebrews 11:1). Thus Alma teaches in his parable of the seed that faith grows as we "nourish the word . . . with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof" (Alma 32:41). Without patience faith is fruitless; as Jesus taught in the parable of the sower, "he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for [just] a [short] while" (Matthew 13:20-21).

Dieter F. Uchtdorf defined hope as an "abiding trust that the Lord will fulfill His promise to us," and hope, like faith, is a product of patience. Adam and Eve trusted that Jesus Christ would come to crush the serpent's head, but that hope was grounded from the beginning in an understanding that salvation would only arrive "in the meridian of time" (Moses 6:57). Thus hope in Jesus Christ was, from the beginning, an exercise in patience, a hope in some far off futurity. Since the mortal ministry of Jesus hope has required an equal amount of patience as we wait for his Second Coming, the day and hour of which "no man knoweth" (Doctrine and Covenants 49:7). As Paul teaches, "if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it" (Romans 8:25), and we "through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Romans 15:4). Hope is patience in practice.

Charity, like faith and hope, is likewise grounded in patience. Paul and Mormon both begin their famous descriptions of charity with the words, "Charity suffereth long" (1 Corinthians 13:4; Moroni 7:45). The key word in this description is long; anyone can put up with and even love another human being for an hour, a day, a six week mission transfer. Charity is a patient love that embraces others, despite their flaws, for eternity. Faith, hope, and charity are the idealized virtues we celebrate, but none of them are possible without patience. The Lord commands us in the Doctrine and Covenants to "have patience, faith, hope, charity," and the order of those virtues is significant (6:19). Charity might be "the greatest of these," but patience is the virtue that must be acquired before faith, hope, and charity can be attained (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Patience is the indispensable virtue not only because it is the basis for faith, hope, and charity, but also because impatience is one of the only trials that every single member of God's family will confront. For the most part God allows his children to face different challenges in life; in one of my favorite General Conference quotes of all time President Packer explained that "Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of age. Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury. All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect." One of the reasons there might be more equality in these disparate challenges than we suspect is because everyone--whether rich or poor, sick or healthy, young or old--must cope with trials of impatience. Surely some ancient monk struggled to curb his impatience while combing through handwritten copies of the Bible for a verse whose reference he couldn't quite remember. Today in my Sunday School class I listened to a woman complain that when she attempted to search for a scripture online, her internet browser didn't load fast enough. Both of these individuals, despite their vastly different circumstances, struggled with patience because patience is relative. There is ALWAYS something about which we could be impatient because patience and impatience are states of mind, not circumstances. You may not know whether you will struggle with trials of health or homeliness, with challenges of penury or prosperity, but every one of us can bank on the fact that life will try our patience. Tests of patience are part of every mortal experience, and for that reason patience is an indispensable virtue, the virtue that no one can afford to be without.

The apostle Paul compared mortality to a race, but our lives are more marathon than hundred-meter dash. Accordingly, Paul instructed us to "run with patience the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1). It is not enough to perform a single good deed and then "dream of your mansion above"; only by "patient continuance in well doing" will our search "for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life" be rewarded (Romans 2:7). It is not enough to forgive the faults of others one time or even seven times; we must "have patience with" (Matthew 18:26, 29) our fellow men and forgive "until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22) or our Father in Heaven will deliver us "to the tormentors" (Matthew 18:34-35). For this reason the Savior taught that "In your patience possess ye your souls" (Luke 21:19). Patience will preserve us from damnation and prepare us for perfection; thus we must "continue in patience until ye are perfected" and "let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (James 1:4) so that we can add "to patience godliness" (2 Peter 1:6).

Patience is an indispensable key to exaltation, but it is also, I would argue, the attribute most important to our temporal progress and happiness. Speaking to his Latter-day Saints, the Lord taught that for those who bear affliction "patiently, your reward shall be doubled" (Doctrine and Covenants 98:26). This principle--that patience is rewarded with a double portion--reminds me of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment

in which children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow and told that they could either eat the marshmallow immediately or wait until an adult returned, at which point they would receive a second marshmallow, doubling their reward. Children who were able to exercise patience and wait for the second marshmallow grew up to be significantly more successful; they had higher SAT scores and lower rates of social recidivism. If patience is correlated with intelligence, it is also correlated with good health; a new study links impatience to obesity, suggesting that exercising patience will save your soul, boost your grades, and trim your waistline, all at the same time. Now THAT'S what I call an indispensable virtue.

Oh--and congratulations; if you made it to the end of this post, you're probably already righteous, skinny, and smart because you're certainly patient.