Epicurean Assistance for Well-Meaning Fans of Ayn Rand
An Epicurean friend has asked me about a subject that comes up repeatedly. He has a friend who is familiar with the work of Ayn Rand, and the friend is interested in learning more about Epicurus. I am going to put together a list of links for use with such people, specifically including some of the material from Peter St. Andre and a number of other articles I’ve run into over the years. I can’t get too sidetracked into debates with hard-core objectivists over the merits of Aristotle and Rand, but it probably is a useful exercise to put together some basic material that we can reuse for this purpose. Suggestions are welcome.
But in the end I am coming to the conclusion that the heart of the matter is that casual fans of Ayn Rand have been lulled into believing that Aristotle (and by implication Rand herself as his follower) was the savior of the world from Platonism, when the truth is that Aristotle was Plato’s handmaiden, and perpetrator of Plato’s delusions. This is something that Rand herself presumably knew, but hid between the lines of her public statements. Today, her “establishment” followers perpetuate the error.
Rand clearly knew Epicurus’ place in philosophical history, because Nietzsche knew and stated it repeatedly and emphatically, not the least in “ANTICHRIST.” Rand’s followers would themselves have learned the same thing, had they read Nietzsche, or even Thomas Jefferson, or Jefferson’s friend Frances Wright, who detailed the deficiencies in the book Jefferson called “a treat to me of the highest order.” Sadly, many Objectivists have been lulled into complacency by fawning and no-doubt intentionally ambiguous statements about the supposed merits of Aristotle.
Aristotle never said Rand’s pet phrase of “A is A,” and much of what he did say, if one takes the time to read it, is indistinguishable in essentials from Platonism. Listen to Rand’s carefully worded caveat-filled endorsements and you’ll see that she understood this too. I confidently wager that any honest reader who studies the issues for himself will find that, just as Diogenes Laertius laid out almost two thousand years ago, Aristotelianism is just a timid form of Platonism, and what merit can be found in Objectivism springs directly through Nietzsche from the ultimate transvaluation of morality and ideas pioneered by Epicurus.
I ask my Objectivist friends to think about these questions:
What have you learned from Ayn Rand about Plato that you could not have learned had you simply read and listened to Thomas Jefferson, as here:
Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814:
…. I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s Republic. I am wrong, however, in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been, that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world, indeed, should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. But how could the Roman good sense do it? And particularly, how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato! Although Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, and honest. He could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world. With the moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few in their after years have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities and incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth, he is one of the race of genuine sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first, by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly, by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen through a mist, can be defined neither in form nor dimensions. Yet this, which should have consigned him to early oblivion, really procured him immortality of fame and reverence.
The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticism of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them; and for this obvious reason, that nonsense can never be explained. Their purposes, however, are answered. Plato is canonized; and it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus. He is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say, that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it. It is fortunate for us, that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest. Yet “Plato is a great philosopher,” said La Fontaine. But, says Fontenelle, “Do you find his ideas very clear?” “Oh no! he is of an obscurity impenetrable.” “Do you not find him full of contradictions?” “Certainly,” replied La Fontaine, “he is but a sophist.” Yet immediately after he exclaims again, “Oh, Plato was a great philosopher.” Socrates had reason, indeed, to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth, his dialogues are libels on Socrates.
My Objectivist friends, where can you find Thomas Jefferson saying: “I too am an Aristotelian!”
Thomas Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819
Note: A scan of the original document can be viewed here by searching for William Short 1819. A good transcription is also available at StephenJayGould.org.
Your favor of the 21st is received. My late illness, in which you are so kind as to feel an interest, was produced by a spasmodic stricture of the ilium, which came upon me on the 7th inst. The crisis was short, passed over favorably on the fourth day, and I should soon have been well but that a dose of calomel and jalap, in which were only eight or nine grains of the former, brought on a salivation. Of this, however, nothing now remains but a little soreness of the mouth. I have been able to get on horseback for three or four days past.
As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention.
Do not commit the error that I committed myself, in presuming that the standard Academic and Objectivist representations about Plato and Aristotle can be accepted on face value! You owe it to yourself to research the true history.
Perhaps one of the best links I can offer is the excellent commentary to the text of Philodemus’ “On Methods Of Inference” which is highly relevant. DeLacey sets the background of what the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara was attacking, and why, in his commentary beginning on page 120. The hard-core Objectivists will be most interested in the material on Aristotle which begins on page 126. http://archive.org/stream/
I also need to post a new page for my title essay in “Against the Men of the Crowd,” which is my latest summary of the issue (without mention of Rand, however). For the time being, the best place for that is here: http://newepicurean.com/
Here are a few others:
http://www.atlassociety.org/sites/default/files/Reason_Value.pdf Roderick Long’s excellent essay “Reason and Value: Aristotle vs Rand” which covers some of the important points of how Rand wittingly or unwittingly adopted Aristotle’s Platonist methodology.
If the modern fans of Ayn Rand will dig, they will come to understand why they are drowning in rationalism, and why Epicurus is the answer!
Other ideas? Please let me know and I will update this page so we can use it for future reference.