Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 26, 2018

I was the subject of a radio interview emanating from Louisville, Ky., recently. The purpose of the interview was to shed some light on why there has been a resurgence of interest, even among Catholics, in the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

My host was justifiably perplexed about this phenomenon because he understood that Ayn Rand’s views are surely hostile to anything Christian, let alone Catholic. Her motto, "Altruism is the root of all evil," could not be more antithetical to Christ’s commandment to love one’s neighbor. Her staunch opposition to giving gifts at Christmas time, which she annotates in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, hardly typifies the true spirit of Christmas. Ayn Rand had barely a friend in the world and was even contemptuous toward her followers.

Yet, there has indeed been a recent upsurge in Ms. Rand’s philosophy. I believe, as do others, that it can be attributed to the extended economic slump that has hurt the economy in North America. When Ayn Rand was once challenged to summarize her philosophy standing on one leg, she had little difficulty: "Metaphysics – objective reality; epistemology – reason; ethics – self-interest; politics – capitalism." In keeping with her philosophy, she arranged to have a 6-foot-tall dollar sign decorate the cover of her casket.

Philosophy, of course, is broad and integrated. As such, it appeals to the philosophical mind. But joblessness, penury, and frustration, like hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, cry out for immediate relief. They do not dispose one to be philosophical.

Ayn Rand believes that if we are totally rational, we will exercise our self-interest in such a way that we will attain what we want. Hence, her conviction that "man’s destiny is to be a self-made soul." Nonetheless, what she proposes is not a philosophy, but a tantalizing mirage for anyone who is desperate. When our attitude is single-minded, our solutions will be proportionally single-minded. No true philosophy could ever be expressed in a single word.

During the past Christmas season, billboards in New York City conveyed a Yuletide message to motorists: "You know it’s a myth – this season, celebrate reason." Ayn Rand’s disciples, and there are hordes of them, would no doubt heartily endorse such a proclamation. They would benignly overlook the contradiction of being apostolic about promoting selfishness.

Reason is a universal human possession. It would be odd to celebrate it at Christmas time, since we possess it on a year-round basis. But Christmas itself, Christ’s coming into the world, is not an everyday occurrence. Therefore, it is to be celebrated at the appropriate time. Moreover, we need to celebrate Christmas because its message of peace, love and good will is vitally needed in our broken world.

We should value reason, but recognize its severe limitations. There is "no worse delusion," wrote Jacques Maritain in The Dream of Descartes, than the belief that "reason by itself alone was capable of making men act reasonably." Reason may help us to know what is right, but it does not supply us with the will to do what is right.

The world is a mess. And even this dire diagnosis is an understatement. But our precarious situation has not been brought about by a lack of reason. Its genesis is not due to an insufficiency of computers, smart bombs, plasma TVs and other high-tech achievements. Rather, it is due to a lack of goodness and love. And that is why it is critical to celebrate these frail, but needed values. For the joyful celebration of these values occasions their adoption.

A life that is circumscribed by reason is severely truncated. It is so truncated, in fact, that it could not even get started. "Reason itself is a matter of faith," writes G. K. Chesterton. "It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." Reason is rooted in faith. Moreover, it is a road to even more faith – a faith that enlarges our liberty. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas referred to our acts of reason as "preambles" to faith, indeed a most fitting term since it implies "walking" toward something.

To be shut in by reason is to suffer extreme deprivation. Reason, important as it is, is radically limited. It rests on faith and aspires to faith. When reason is exercised in isolation of all else, it leads, as Ayn Rand reminds us, directly to the insular world of selfishness.

The words of St. Lawrence of Rome (born c. 225) – "My night allows the light to enter" (Mea nox obscurun non habet) – has meaning on at least three different levels: Just as the darkness of the night allows us to see the stars, our faith admits a larger reality than we can know through reason alone. It also suggests that excessive preoccupation with ourselves excludes what we need to enlarge and fulfill our lives.

Philosophy should not be restricted by the fluctuations of the stock market. The Ayn Rands of the world will always have their appeal. But that appeal is not proportioned to the whole person. It is at best a stop-gap, a tonic, a bromide. True philosophy, as the Greeks well understood, is based not on specific need, but on wonder. That wonder emerges from the soul and asks the basic questions: Who am I? Where am I going? What should I know? How should I live? The acquisition of wealth does not answer any of these questions, nor does reason alone.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell and Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, R.I.