The Virtue of Selfishness as the title suggests, is not about selfishness in the way “we” generally think or practice the word— selfishness. We have a high tendency to form and adapt things according to us and thus, with time, similar has been done with the language and its use. Our tendency to shape things has no boundaries though. But a language do as well as the meaning of a word.
Ayn Rand was one of the most controversial thinkers and a successful fiction writer of 20th century. Her fiction mostly reflects her philosophy. Her fiction includes The Fountainhead & Atlas Shrugged. I actually enjoyed reading The Fountainhead last year as well as her writing style. But there is more than just mere meaning of words in her wiring, and it’s called Objectivism, her philosophy. In considering that, I’d like to mention here, please keep in mind that the intellectual changes she observed and her vision of individualism may sound harsh and dogmatic currently but in her time, some parts of the western world were overwhelmed by communism and socialism. Although, majority of her philosophy is comfortably applicable to the current time period.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is presented through her fictional works and all started with Anthem which is all about finding yourself in the heap of society. This continues and reaches its pinnacle in the form of Atlas Shrugged. The Virtue of Selfishness, a non-fictional work, is more a collection of essays explaining Objectivism in detail. In her essays, one can see her paraphrasing from her own work Atlas Shrugged.
This collection of essays represents a systematic and clear attempt to outline Rand’s philosophy. She begins by defining what are ethics?
It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions— the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.
She continues to correct her readers on the meaning of word “selfish” and compares/contradicts altruism along in most of her essays. According to Rand, the word “selfish” doesn’t represent the lack of concern for others, rather she argues:
Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”
She is blunt and to the point from the start of the book and I like that. In recent times, I have read much books on different philosophies where the philosophers or the writer of that book would sometimes get carried away from the text.
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual“package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
After reading that, I think, the representation of the word “selfish” may need a re-evaluation and a moral way of using it. Her criticism represents a common theme, which can be found in her fictional works, where an immoral society though its particular interest is altruism, prevent individuals from succeeding and producing using their own effort and hard. She clarifies altruism:
Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. […] Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history, under all the variants of the altruist ethics.
There is some amount of bluntness in her essays that may sound harsh to some but I think if you think rationally about the overall moral of her philosophy, it might appear more rational. That is the one basic theme of Objectivism, so far I have concluded and accepted, being rational. Her writing might suggest that individualism is the genesis of Objectivism, but I don’t wholesomely agree with only that. I’d make an addition to the genesis and conclude individualism of a rational being. I find this bridge between the two subordinates essential since it conveys a proper meaning. Another essential theme of Objectivism is the self-esteem to which Rand gives much emphasis.
There is always an exception and Rand has provided a whole essay it in which she suggests a pragmatic approach to be taken in the time of crisis in the form of actions for the welfare that will genuinely help others. This essay is an essential piece in the whole puzzle of Objectivism. She calls this crisis but I think we come across this “crisis” everyday, and cannot show a lack of interest in others since every one of us is not living separately and in solitude on an island with sand and coconuts. In this book, I observed that her focus is on the present and the reality of living as experienced by individuals and tries to provide a utility in form of her works.
Moving on, some of the essays in The Virtual of Selfishness are contributed by Nathaniel Branden, a psychotherapist, whom many acclaimed was her chosen heir. Since this is a non fictional work, I’d adhere myself from commenting on the writing style adopted by the author which is contrasting to that of her fictional works. My work is not done here, I’d have to dig more into her works or philosophy since I find a good deal of practical appeal associated with it.
If you are looking forward to read about Objectivism, or trying to get in the head of Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness is a good place to start.
4 out of 5!