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The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 4

Dominique has agreed to sleep with Gail Wynand. He’s taking her on a round-the-world cruise on his luxury yacht, and when they return, he’ll give the contract for Stoneridge to her husband, Peter Keating, as they agreed.

The yacht sets sail as soon as the two of them are on board. Wynand leaves Dominique alone in her cabin for the first few hours, until dinner is ready. While they’re seated at the dining table, he points out that she hasn’t asked where they’re sailing to, to which she says that’s no concern of hers:

“I’m glad you don’t care. Because I never have any definite destination. This ship is not for going to places, but for getting away from them. When I stop at a port, it’s only for the sheer pleasure of leaving it. I always think: Here’s one more spot that can’t hold me.”

“I used to travel a great deal. I always felt just like that. I’ve been told it’s because I’m a hater of mankind.”

…. “Surely you’ve seen through that particular stupidity. I mean the one that claims the pig is the symbol of love for humanity — the creature that accepts anything. As a matter of fact, the person who loves everybody and feels at home everywhere is the true hater of mankind. He expects nothing of men, so no form of depravity can outrage him… I mean the person who has the filthy insolence to claim that he loves equally the man who made that statue of you and the man who makes a Mickey Mouse balloon to sell on street corners. I mean the person who loves the men who prefer the Mickey Mouse to your statue — and there are many of that kind.”

Basically, Wynand is the tourist from hell. The only reason he travels the world and visits so many rare and exotic places is just so he can confirm that he’s better than the people who live there. Once he’s poured out his scorn and contempt on the latest city he’s visited, he can sail off into the sunset while flipping them off and yelling, “So long, suckers!”

In Rand’s topsy-turvy view, “loving humanity” requires you to despise the vast majority of actual human beings, including their beliefs, their cultures, their fashions, their art and their history. (Later in this chapter, Wynand sneers at people who go on “pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage”. Racism ahoy!)

Meanwhile, a person who appreciates the diversity and creativity of humanity – who finds something unique and fascinating wherever they go, who’s always eager to explore and learn, who encounters new cultures with a spirit of respectful curiosity – that person is who Rand defines as “a hater of humanity”, because they lack the proper attitude of condemnation and scorn for anything less than perfection. It’s very similar to the evangelical Christian attitude that “love” means telling everyone you meet that they’re wretched sinners doomed to eternal torture.

A subsequent exchange of dialogue confirms that this is what she means:

One can’t love man without hating most of the creatures who pretend to bear his name. It’s one or the other. One doesn’t love God and sacrilege impartially. Except when one doesn’t know that sacrilege has been committed. Because one doesn’t know God.”

“What will you say if I give you the answer people usually give me — that love is forgiveness?”

… “That love is reverence, and worship, and glory, and the upward glance. Not a bandage for dirty sores. But they don’t know it. Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who’ve never felt it. They make some sort of feeble stew out of sympathy, compassion, contempt and general indifference, and they call it love. Once you’ve felt what it means to love as you and I know it — the total passion for the total height — you’re incapable of anything less.”

In Rand’s worldview, love has to be earned, and not by being a thoughtful or generous or empathetic partner. Rather, she thinks that love is a variety of worship, and only the greatest among us are worthy of it. People who are ordinary, who are average, who are unexceptional – they deserve to live gray, joyless lives bereft of true love or companionship. And Rand makes it clear that she consigns the vast majority of humanity to that category. Remember, again, Ellsworth Toohey musing that as few as twelve people throughout history are responsible for the existence of New York City.

If this strikes you as an overly harsh judgment, it’s probably because Rand set her starting point in the wrong place. When she says that most human beings are average and undistinguished, I say: Compared to what?

We live in a cosmos where sentient life is a fantastically rare and precious thing. In all the infinite vastness of empty space, we’re like a candle burning in the dark. Each and every one of us represents a unique melding of DNA molecules, staggeringly improbable, a creature that has never existed before and will never exist again. Our rarity and uniqueness make our existence valuable beyond measure.

This isn’t to say that every human being achieves something grand and glorious with their life, because that’s obviously impossible. (Just try to imagine the violent chaos of a world with six billion Howard Roarks.) But I maintain that every person has the potential for greatness in their own way. Every one of us, if given the right opportunity, could think something or feel something or do something or understand something better than anyone else ever will – even if they never exercise that talent, even if they themselves never know they possess it.

As Neil Gaiman said:

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

It’s true that not all of us live up to our full potential. Many people squander it by falling into meanness and ignorance and bigotry. Many people seek to live their lives in comfortable ruts of habit and routine, never attempting to learn or challenge themselves or indulge their curiosity. Some people seek to devalue and denigrate others – just as Ayn Rand does – and, by the moral principle of the golden rule, only succeed in devaluing themselves.

But this goes to the question that Rand never addressed in any of her works, the one she always carefully avoided: where does human greatness come from? Why does one person become a brilliant architect or a heroic industrialist while another becomes a sinister, leeching socialist? What causal factors underlie the roots of human nature, what reasons can explain why one person walks one path in life while another person walks a different one?

Rand’s only answer is that her Nietzschean heroes are self-created, in the literal and absurd meaning of the term. They willed themselves into existence ex nihilo, depending on no one and nothing to become the people they now are. They never had to learn, grow or change (in fact, in a later chapter, she denies that Roark has ever changed in any way). This is obviously ridiculous, but it’s the only option open to her, for the same reason that Christian apologists write off free will as a mysterious essence not amenable to reductionistic explanation: to do otherwise would disrupt their simplistic worldview where people deserve 100% of the credit or 100% of the blame for their actions.

To wrap this up, let’s point out just one big, problematic implication of Rand’s love-equals-worship rule: Doesn’t this make it impossible to love your children?

After all, if love consists solely of worship of human greatness – if it’s passion for “the total height” of achievement, accept no substitutes – then it would seem that children are unworthy of it. How many children erect magnificent skyscrapers, or write immortal works of literature, or compose symphonies that move listeners to tears? The most they can do is recite their ABCs or learn to tie their shoes, and is that the kind of breathtaking accomplishment that Ayn Rand would accept? I think not!

If love is the opposite of pity, if love has nothing to do with compassion… then I ask, what is it you’re feeling when you wake up in the dark of the night to comfort a crying baby? When you bandage a toddler’s skinned knee and wipe away their tears? When you feel a glow of pride at hearing your son or daughter utter their first, halting words? If that emotion isn’t love, then what is it? And if it’s not love, why would anyone desire a life that includes those experiences? If everyone adopted this philosophy, the human race would go extinct in a single generation.

Not coincidentally, Rand steered clear of children and family – both in her writing and in her actual life – so she never had to face the question. She only touched on the topic once, in Atlas Shrugged, in a brief scene that raises more questions than it answers.

The resolution to this dilemma is obvious, although she staunchly rejected it: love can flow in both directions. Yes, love can consist of the reverent awe and admiration you feel for a brilliant talent, but it can also be compassion, nurturing, and forgiveness. It can also consist of caring for someone and wanting to ease their hurts for no reason other than that they’re a conscious being like you. Ayn Rand rejects this conception of love as “a bandage for dirty sores”, implying that it’s a degrading job no one should willingly take on. But none of us, including her, would have been here if there hadn’t been someone willing to do it for us.

Image credit: Julien GONG Min, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...