A fifteen-year-old book containing sixty-year-old marginal notes is making waves in the blogosphere this week. Someone over on the First Things blog made a post titled “Ayn Rand Really, Really Hated C.S. Lewis,” which dredges up material from Ayn Rand’s Marginalia (1998), a book containing Rand’s private comments on twenty different authors.
It seems that Rand couldn’t abide Lewis’s Abolition of Man. Anyone familiar with both authors may find this surprising. After all, the Abolition of Man is a powerful statement against totalitarianism and oppression, and Rand spent her career trying to warn readers about these same things.
However, Rand seems to have interpreted Lewis’s book as a Luddite screed against science and technology. You can read the detailed marginal notes in the First Things post, but here’s one example. Lewis writes:
I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.
Rand underlined the second and final sentences of the above paragraph, and then wrote in the margin, “So in the pre-science age, there was no power of majorities over minorities – and the Middle Ages were a period of love and equality, and the oppression began only in the U.S.A. (!!!) The abysmal b****rd!”
In my experience, it’s unusual to come across someone, religious or not, who has no appreciation for C.S. Lewis. (I did know one science professor at Florida State University who abhorred his writing.) The Oxford don was remarkably successful in communicating Christian ideas in a way that won respect from a broad, educated audience.
On the other hand, Ayn Rand seems to be a “love-her-or-hate-her” author. Her devoted fan base is large, but huge numbers of readers despise her, too. One of the more comical things to come out of Washington in recent years is the attempt to smear Rep. Paul Ryan as an extremist because he had stated that he found value in Rand’s writing. I’m sure that many hate Rand simply because she rejected statism, and that others hate her because she ridiculed religion in all its forms.
I suspect, though, that some of the animus against Rand stems from her tendency to caricature her opponents. Her marginal note above is a textbook example of a straw man fallacy. Furthermore, it’s not clear that Rand even understood Lewis’s argument, if the rest of her notes are anything to go on. In context, Lewis is stressing that our attempts to “master Nature” can have profound long-term consequences, and that it’s critical that we be guided by a strict standard of ethics along the way.
To the post-WWII generation that was learning about the vivisection and other medical experiments performed by Nazis on human beings, this argument ought to make sense. Rand, however, appears to have been blinded by Lewis’s respect for tradition and faith, and thus dismissed everything he had to say.
I enjoy reading both of these authors and have assigned their works to undergraduate and graduate students. It’s pretty clear, though, that when showing students how to engage in scholarly discourse, Ayn Rand should not be the model.