Ayn Rand vs. C.S. Lewis: A Failure to Communicate

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 ManAnyone 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.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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8 Responses to Ayn Rand vs. C.S. Lewis: A Failure to Communicate

  1. as an atheist I hate Rand for bad writing first of all

  2. Thank you for your reflexions…

  3. Alethia Clark says:

    What a great analysis of the problem with Ayn Rand’s comment. This is the first I’ve heard of this new “controversy”. Thanks for posting on such interesting topics and for explaining them so clearly.

  4. Rob McFarland says:

    I wonder whether Rand perceived Lewis’s primary point regarding objectivity? “Man’s power over nature” must be interpreted in light of Lewis’s opening thoughts regarding Modernity’s attempts to deny, or redefine, the intrinsic beauty and value of natural things. Lewis is not necessarily discussing man’s power over other other men (though it is certainly true that Lewis understood that denials of the intrinsic value of human life arise from the same subjectivity that allows one to deny the intrinsic beauty of a waterfall). I agree that it is odd that Rand has created a straw man, but many of Lewis’s contemporaries did the same thing to him.

    • Dr. J says:

      Rob, I thought about that while writing the post. Rand’s “Objectivism” is a reference to the objective reality of the universe. When it comes to imputing value to things, she is definitely a subjectivist. Her view is that nature’s value consists in what it can do for us, based on our own perceived needs and wants. Lewis would disagree, obviously.

  5. From what I can see, Miss Rand was right on the money with regard to C.S. Lewis. She took him seriously in his description of “what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be.” She didn’t thoroughly explain her objections, because she never meant those notes for publication.

    If Lewis wanted simply to convey the idea that ethics is important, he shouldn’t have been talking about what “‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be.”
    “Man’s power over nature” is technology. Lewis is saying that technology is what necessitates the forcible domination of some people at the expense of others. So, according to Lewis, it stands to reason that less technology means less forcible domination of some at the expense of others. Thus, he’s implying that the pre-scientific ages, including the Middle Ages, involved less force and more harmony of interests, just as Miss Rand pointed out. This is blatantly false, as can be seen by the briefest observation of such ages, in contrast to today.

    Yes, technology can be misused, but it is not “always and essentially” corrupting as Lewis says. Taken in its essential role in human life, technology is profoundly good, because it makes a tremendous amount of pursuits, enjoyment and quality of life possible that weren’t possible before.

    • Dr. J says:

      Like Rand, you are straw-manning Lewis. He is not saying that technology necessitates forcible domination of some people at the expense of others, nor is he saying that technology is always and essentially corrupting. It’s just not there.

    • henrymoore says:

      You are quoting it out of context. He is making a statement. Then he says that what people think about the meaning of that statement could be categorically modified by x, y, and z. Then he goes on to say x, y, and z are not necessarily intended by the statement because conditions a, b, and c are not present. Elsewhere Lewis has criticized x, y, and z, as well as a, b, and c. Therefore, in his own view, the statement should be taken more at face value, and not as meaning x, y, and z or a, b, and c, which were only mentioned as disclaimers and qualifiers. “No doubt”, “could be modified” , “but unless”, and “and even” are key phrases.

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