Ayn Rand and Martyrdom

If you've got enough time on your hands to have read my earlier essays, you may recall my saying that I used to be a hard-core rationalist, whose thinking was shaped by the novels and essays of Ayn Rand. In college and for some years after, I was a devotee of Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, which bills itself as a philosophy of reason, rational self-interest, and individualism. Eventually, for reasons I've discussed previously, I shrugged off Rand's ideas. I don't think like an Objectivist anymore. In fact, I rarely think of Objectivism at all.

Occasionally, however, I'm reminded of it for one reason or another - as recently happened while I was reading Margaret George's historical novel,The Autobiography of Henry VIII. To explain why George's book triggered some speculations about Ayn Rand and the movement she inspired, I first need to discuss the work of yet another writer - Robert Bolt, the gifted playwright who gave us A Man for All Seasons.

Bolt's famous drama is the story of Sir Thomas More, imprisoned in the Tower of London and ultimately executed by Henry VIII. More's crime was his refusal to sign an oath that repudiated the Roman Catholic Church by declaring Henry's first marriage null and void. It was to annul this marriage that Henry split from Rome and established the Church of England, with himself as supreme authority.

More's theological position is not of primary importance in A Man for All Seasons. Rather, the play focuses on the intransigence and incorruptibility that led More to prefer punishment and death over any compromise of his convictions.

When I was an Objectivist, I remember many favorable discussions of this play - or more precisely, of the Oscar-winning 1966 movie versionstarring Paul Scofield. A recent Google search showed me that Objectivists' enthusiasm for A Man for All Seasons remains undimmed.

The Daily Objectivist, for instance, advises, "Whatever you do, don't miss A Man for All Seasons," while in another issue of the same publication, Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra lists A Man for All Seasons among his favorite films. Robert James Bidinotto of The Objectivist Centerincludes A Man for All Seasons among the top three movies likely to appeal to Objectivists, writing that the film "is the unforgettable story of a brilliant, independent man of principle standing his ground against enormous social and political pressure." (The other two films were Apollo 13and Cash McCall.) The Ayn Rand Institute, in its lesson-plans for high school courses on Rand's novel Anthem, suggests that students "compare and contrast Equality [the hero of Anthem] to a few of your favorite literary heroes," and includes Bolt's characterization of Sir Thomas More in the short list that follows. An Objectivist study group announces that A Man for All Seasons will be shown at their next meeting. And so on.

One reason for the appeal of this movie to Objectivists is obvious. Indeed, it was suggested by the playwright himself, who described Thomas More as "a hero of selfhood" and "a man with an adamantine sense of his own self." These words are aptly suited to Ayn Rand's fictional heroes, as well.

Another obvious explanation of the play's popularity with Rand's admirers is the legalistic strategy More employs in his defense. As depicted by Bolt, More is highly rationalistic, parsing his words with scrupulous care, mounting elaborate arguments. He is an intellectual hero, a rare phenomenon on stage or screen. Rand celebrated (one might say idolized) the power of reason and stressed (one might say over-stressed) the role of intellectuals in society, so it's not surprising that her admirers are drawn to a dramatization of these ideas.

Still, I wonder if there's something more to More - or at least to Objectivists' fascination with him. I will admit that even in my Objectivist days I never quite warmed up to A Man for All Seasons. Yes, it is well written and well acted, and yes, it has a compelling theme. But frankly I had more instinctive sympathy for Sir Thomas's family, who urge him to strike a readily available deal, than I had for the "hero of selfhood." It seemed to me that, no matter how skillfully Robert Bolt disguised for matter, More really was seeking martyrdom - an impulse I couldn't relate to.

For this reason I was interested to read an entirely different take on More in Margaret George's above-mentioned novel. In one scene King Henry spies on More, alone at night, "bare to the waist, kneeling on a pallet.

"Over his shoulder was a whip. But no ordinary whip. I recognized it as the 'discipline': a small metal ring with five chains suspended from it, each chain ending in a hook. As I watched, he beat himself with it, slowly, rhythmically, reciting all the while, 'It is for You, Lord, for You. Let my imagination and my memory be effaced. For You, Lord, for You.'

"He rocked back and forth on his knees, thrashing himself and chanting.

"His entire upper body was cut and bleeding. There were slashes all over his back. But they were superimposed on flesh that was already irritated and infected. Yellow pustules were scattered like the blooming of evil little flowerets all over his chest and back, and his whole skin was bright red. There was not an inch of unmarked skin on his upper trunk.

"'Forgive me, Lord, that my sufferings do not approach Yours,' he intoned. 'I will increase them, so as to please You.' Then he picked up the 'discipline' again, and began to flog himself. He gasped with each fivefold lash, yet continued. Blood oozed from the new-created gashes down to his waist, where it dribbled to the floor."

The king watches the rest of this disturbing performance, then sees More pull on a hair shirt, the coarse fibers of which will further irritate his damaged skin.

"Did he wear the hair shirt always? Every day? For how long had he worn it? I would never know the answers to those questions, as More would never give them, and I could never ask them.

"But I knew the answer to my own tormenting question. More would seek the full punishment of the law as yet another 'discipline.' And I would, perforce, be the one chosen to administer it.

"I hated him in that moment - hated him for making me his scourge." (pp. 445 - 447)

Of course, this scene most likely never took place. Although historians report that Sir Thomas did wear a hair shirt, there's no evidence, as far as I know, that he engaged in self-flagellation. Margaret George invents this dramatic moment in order to put Henry's later arrest and execution of More in the most sympathetic light. As she tells the story, Thomas More longed for martyrdom and essentially forced the king's hand.

Still, her invention is not wholly without a basis in More's life story. As I suggested earlier, even in Bolt's version, it is hard to escape the feeling that More was, in some sense, "asking for it." George's scene vividly and viscerally dramatizes an impression that runs as an undercurrent through Bolt's more intellectualized interpretation.

And this got me thinking. Could Objectivists be drawn to A Man for All Seasons not only for the reasons they cite, but for a deeper reason? Could there be something deep within Ayn Rand's philosophy and fiction that resonates positively to the idea of martyrdom?

At first sight, the suggestion seems absurd. A philosophy of happiness and selfishness - endorsing the nobility of suffering and the virtue of sacrifice?

Look more closely, however, and a case can be made that Rand's philosophy, like the fiction that dramatizes it, has never been much concerned with happiness. Ayn Rand's real focus is the suffering of heroes - noble suffering, stoic suffering, "rational" suffering perhaps - but suffering, all the same.

As Jeff Walker notes in The Ayn Rand Cult, "the word 'pain' occurs an astounding 207 times in Atlas [Shrugged], 'suffering' 109 times." He goes on to provide more word counts from Rand's magnum opus: "desperate (87), twisted (81), tense (73), hate (72), resentment (70), mocking (67),contempt (65), torture (65), ugly (64), waste (64), panic (63), lonely (61), shudder (57), violent (57), fog (55), perish (47), terror (46),rotter/rot/rotten (46), and vicious (43)." (p. 132; pp. 298-299)

Of course, word counts can take us only so far. Let's look at the stories of Rand's two major novels.

In The FountainheadHoward Roark endures a life of considerable hardship, a great deal of it of his own making. For much of the novel he is friendless and, apparently, celibate. He disdains companionship and finds joy only in his work as an architect, which Rand depicts as a purely solitary endeavor. His unwillingness to compromise alienates his clients, and he makes so little headway in his career that he is reduced to manual labor - drilling in a granite quarry - a punishing occupation that brings him physical pain. But his emotional pain is worse:

"Sometimes, not often, he sat up and did not move for a long time; then he smiled, the slow smile of an executioner watching a victim. He thought of his days going by, of the buildings he could have been doing, should have been doing and, perhaps, never would be doing again. He watched the pain's unsummoned appearance with a cold, detached curiosity; he said to himself: Well, here it is again. He waited to see how long it would last. It gave him a strange, hard pleasure to watch his fight against it, and he could forget that it was his own suffering; he could smile in contempt, not realizing that he smiled at his own agony. Such moments were rare. But when they came, he felt as he did in the quarry: that he had to drill through granite, that he had to drive a wedge and blast the thing within him that persisted in calling to his pity." (pp. 202-3)

Eventually (and improbably) Roark does achieve success, but instead of enjoying his hard-won accomplishments, he risks everything on a final uncompromising gesture - destroying a housing project built from altered versions of his original designs, then submitting to arrest without a struggle. At the peak of his success he is willing to martyr himself. One wonders if he wasn't disappointed by his rather surprising acquittal.

The heroes of Atlas Shrugged, endure even greater extremes of suffering. These multimillionaire industrialists walk away from their life's work, abandoning their factories, their homes, even their friends and families (if any). They take menial jobs, laboring in poverty and obscurity in the hope that, by going "on strike," they can bring down the parasitic government that oppresses them. One of them, Francisco D'Anconia, abandons the love of his life, Dagny Taggart, for the sake of this crusade. The leader of the movement, John Galt, allows his revolutionary invention - a new type of motor - to languish in a scrap heap, forgoing the riches he could have earned, instead working as a day laborer on a railroad. The essential motif of these characters is denial - the fiercely stoic, masochistic asceticism that drives a person to cut himself off from the things he loves. The reader is expected to admire, even emulate, these heroes - and many Objectivists have. The Objectivist movement has never had any shortage of underachievers, smart people stuck in dead-end jobs, who explain their lack of progress by reference to our "irrational society."

Now perhaps we can see why A Man for All Seasons holds such strong appeal for Objectivists. Sir Thomas More was no exemplar of Rand's philosophy, but he did choose suffering over compromise. He chose imprisonment and death in order to remain true to his principles. We can be sure that Howard Roark, Francisco D'Anconia, or John Galt would do the same. Indeed, Roark does risk imprisonment for his crime, and Galt, who says he will die rather than compromise, ends up on a torture rack at the climax of Atlas Shrugged.

If there is any merit to this analysis, then it is surely one of the ironies of modern popular philosophy that Objectivism, marketed as a wholesale assault on the virtue of self-sacrifice, actually romanticizes martyrdom. How could this happen?

I think there are two explanations - one philosophical, the other psychological.

The philosophical explanation is that Rand's vision of "the ideal man," as she phrased it, is simply not realistic. In Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, Greg S. Nyquist goes to great lengths to show that Rand's concept of the hero - entirely in control of his emotions, having no inner conflicts or doubts, guided exclusively by reason in every aspect of his life, including his romantic choices and artistic tastes - is untenable in reality. (Whether or not it would be desirable even if it were tenable is another question.) Human nature is far more ambiguous and multilayered, and human psychology is far more complex, than Rand acknowledged.

At some level Rand may have realized that her ideas were impractical. At the very least, she couldn't visualize her kind of hero thriving in the world she saw around her every day. And so she naturally pictured her heroes cut off from this world, at odds with it, tormented by it. She liked to imagine a future utopia in which her "ideal men" could flourish, but this utopia bore little relation to life on earth here and now.

The psychological explanation, closely allied to the foregoing, is that by most accounts Rand was moody and pessimistic, frequently unhappy, prone to angry outbursts and judgmental accusations. Because the people around her failed to live up to her impossible standards, she ostracized most of her friends and ended up nearly alone. Because the world had little use for her philosophy, she became increasingly bitter and depressed. These tendencies, more pronounced in her later years, appear to have been with her from the start. Authors cannot help projecting their own personalities into their books. Rand's gloomy cast of mind found expression in the chronic suffering of Howard Roark and the grim dystopia of Atlas Shrugged.

Look again that those lines from Margaret George. Is her startling image of Thomas More so very different from that of Howard Roark relentlessly attacking the granite quarry, his body shaking with waves of physical exertion, or John Galt being tortured by electric shocks and steadfastly refusing to scream?

Ayn Rand viewed Objectivism as a philosophy of self-fulfillment and personal happiness. I would argue that instead of self-fulfillment, it glorifies martyrdom; instead of happiness, suffering. Like More, Rand's heroes are most true to themselves when they are enduring privation or even torture, and like More, they would be at peace only on the scaffold, submitting to the execution that would elevate them, once and for all, above this world of imperfect compromise.

"A philosophy for living on earth," Ayn Rand called Objectivism. In this, as in so many other things, she got it wrong.

Entire site contents © 2017 Michael Prescott. This site is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.