Arts & Culture & Economics 101

Who Is Ayn Rand?

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Photo of Ayn Rand courtesy of Seatonsnet via Flickr Creative Commons

I have introduced a new series on Ayn Rand by investigating her impact on our culture. Before diving into her worldview, though, I want to answer the question “Who is Ayn Rand?”

Ayn Rand was born on February 2, 1905 to wealthy Jewish parents in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father was a pharmaceutical chemist, and owned a pharmacy with many employees.

As a twelve-year-old girl, Rand was in the store when armed Bolshevik soldiers commandeered the business during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The family fled to the Crimea, and was plagued by food shortages and the proximity of the ravaging front in the ongoing civil war.

During this period she wrote in her journal, “Today I decided to be an atheist.” Thereafter she focused on the logic of Aristotle and was happy to be known as the “greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion.”

At age 21 she left her family to immigrate to the United States, first staying with relatives in Chicago, later working for Cecil B. DeMille as a junior screenwriter in Hollywood. She met and married Frank O’Connor, who would be her husband for 50 years. Even so, her career remained her highest value, as she viewed love as only a supplement to individual creativity.

  • Rand’s first novel, We the Living, was published in 1936, and it provided autobiographical insights into her years under Soviet tyranny.
  • The anti-collective novelette Anthem was published in 1937 and is still required reading for many high school students 75 years later.
  • Her first bestseller The Fountainhead was published in 1943 and earned her lasting fame as a champion of individualism. In 1948, Gary Cooper played the lead character in the movie based on Rand’s screenplay from this book.

These financial successes freed her to devote the rest of her life to writing and propagating Objectivist philosophy.

In 1950 Rand met Nathaniel Branden, who was 25 years her junior. For many years they collaborated on refining Objectivist philosophy, publishing nonfiction books, and growing a teaching organization called the Nathaniel Branden Institute.

As their friendship grew she declared him her “intellectual heir.” In addition, they sought and received permission from their mutual spouses to pursue a sexual relationship similar to the heroines in her novels.

Coffee, cigarettes, and amphetamines fueled her writing during this era, as well as frequent all-night conversations with a group of followers ironically called “the collective.” Her greatest achievement and last work of fiction, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957.

For the next 25 years Rand lectured and published nonfiction books and newsletters on Objectivism. She suffered from years of depression and was prone to abruptly and acrimoniously ending relationships over intellectual disagreements and other misunderstandings.

At the end of their affair in 1968, she disowned Nathaniel Brandon and dissolved the Institute in less than a week. Rand suffered from lung cancer and was increasingly estranged from all of her living relatives. This estrangement continued to the extent that when she died in 1982, her few remaining friends erroneously reported to the newspapers that she had no family in America.

Ayn Rand influenced millions of readers. Her first-hand knowledge of life under a totalitarian regime exposed the horror of such an economic system at a critical time in the history of United States.

Even so, the errors in her philosophy lead to tragic personal consequences. For this reason we will continue to discern in the coming weeks what Objectivism is and where it deviates from biblical teaching.

This is the second in a series of posts by David Kotter, Ph.D, exploring the life and work of Ayn Rand. This series was adapted from Dr. Kotter’s full research paper, “Check Your Premises: Ayn Rand Through A Biblical Lens.” 

What are your thoughts on Ayn Rand’s life, work, and philosophy? 

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