You won’t find a more polarizing writer than Ayn Rand. Typically, people who read her books either revere or despise her, and there’s little in between. There are reasons for this. She was given to extremes, and people who think that way tend to invite extreme reactions. Her devotees are many, although likely fewer than a generation ago. Her critics are also many, although professional philosophers themselves have tended not so much to criticize her ideas as to ignore them. Her fictional works have long been taken more seriously than her non-fiction. Before you dismiss her entirely, consider that her novel Atlas Shrugged, of 1957, continues to be one of the most influential and widely read novels in history despite its formidable length (over 1,100 pages) and despite the avalanche of criticism—most of it scathing—that has been directed at it for over sixty years.
I too find it hard to take Rand seriously as a philosopher, for a few reasons. She had an inadequate knowledge of the philosophers she criticized, she was often dogmatic, inclined to extremes, and far too rationalistic to my way of thinking—but I don’t want to dwell on all of that. Any writer can be criticized, but I want to talk about just one idea of hers for which I can find little precedent. I used to read her books in high school—first the fiction, then the non-fiction—and while most of it I’ve forgotten, one idea that has stayed with me was what she had to say about envy. Not many philosophers, including ethical theorists, have had much to say about this. Nietzsche did remark upon what he called “ressentiment”—he preferred the French word for its suggestion of a lasting animosity toward one’s imagined superior, one that eats away at you from the inside out and that hides itself behind a dubious morality—but it’s a point that’s not often taken up by philosophers. When the topic of envy is mentioned at all, it’s typically regarded as something of a minor vice. What did Rand say about it? Here are her words, which she stated in an interview: “I call this, today’s atmosphere, the age of envy actually. And I ask you whether you would be attacked by people for your success…. I think that is the most immoral thing on earth, to attack a man not for his flaws but for his virtues.” You might think, who does this? Does this actually happen? Maybe this doesn’t happen at all; we just disagree about which qualities are flaws and which are virtues. When I say so-and-so is selfish, I’m not attacking them for their virtue but pointing out a character flaw—so they say. Rand thought that selfishness, in a specific sense of the word—and she really should have chosen a more accurate term—is a virtue where most think it a vice, so what we may be disagreeing about is whether selfishness is a good or bad quality, and no envy is involved. Maybe.
Still, I’ve never been able to shake the idea that she was onto something with her talk of an “age of envy.” When a philosopher speaks of an “age of” this or that—think of the great “age of reason” or the “age of science”—they’re saying something more profound than reason or science are in fashion but that it goes to the root of what’s happening in a given era. It defines the times, in a deep sense, and its symptoms are visible everywhere. Is that true of envy? Rand loved evidence and rationality, so what was her evidence for this? Her answer was, look around you. Look in particular at how people react to other people’s successes or achievements, especially when those achievements go beyond the ordinary. What do we commonly say about someone who’s not just successful but highly so, maybe even the best at what they do? Since reading Rand all those years ago, I’ve kept an eye out for this because it didn’t ring true for me at the time. I wish it didn’t ring true for me now.
Let me mention just a couple of examples. The first is from the world of golf. It’s long been said that the greatest golfer in history, in recent decades anyway, is Tiger Woods. Several years ago, as you probably know, he began to experience some difficulties both with injuries and also in his personal life, and his golf game suffered. He had been put on a pedestal for quite a few years; what did they say about him now? Journalists, golf commentators, and many others now spoke of him with an animosity that was unmistakable and odd. Golf commentators are a restrained bunch, but not this time. The knives were out, and not only among the professional commentators. Why? Athletes get injured sometimes, and when a golfer develops serious back problems, they don’t win tournaments. He was apparently not a perfect husband either. Okay, who is? The animosity that was now directed toward this man, from nearly everyone—what explains that? Everyone loves a winner, and now that he seems to be returning to his old form, they love him again, but my question is why did they kick him quite so viciously when he was down?
Here’s another example, this one from popular music. You all remember Michael Jackson. Here’s a man who spent his whole life, from the age of five, being a professional entertainer, loved by millions of fans around the world. You won’t find a more serious vocalist, songwriter, dancer, all around artist/entertainer. He too was put on a pedestal for years. Then came the troubles. You’re familiar with all of that. He was knocked off his pedestal with a force that in the end killed him. Again, why? Because he was guilty of a crime? The evidence and the biographers say otherwise. Because he was strange? Isn’t that exactly what you want in an artist—someone who’s doing something out of the ordinary, maybe something extraordinary? No one ever described Mr. Jackson as ordinary. If he had been ordinary, you’d never have heard of him. Again, why the animosity? Because he had plastic surgery? Was he the only entertainer to do that?
You can think of any number of examples like this, whether it’s on a small scale or large. It’s a commonplace of the entertainment industry. First, some individual comes forward with some unusual ability; they might be an artist, an athlete, actor, whatever. They come to be more or less the best at what they do, they’re put on a pedestal, rewarded with fame and fortune, then, as sure as night follows day, they’re brought down in some real or usually imagined scandal. They’re disgraced and despised—why? No one’s ever going to say, we hate this person for their virtues, but whatever the explanation is, it’s not what it seems. Next week someone else will be on that pedestal, and you’ll immediately begin seeing them in the tabloids, accused of all sorts of things, most of it made up, and we love this stuff. We love/hate these individuals. What we love them for is their ability and their success. What we hate them for is their ability and their success.
Whether this all amounts to an “age of envy” is doubtful. Let’s just say there’s a lot of it about. It’s one of the vices of our time, and it’s an ugly phenomenon. It’s the desire to bring down the very thing that we admire, and it’s commonplace. I wouldn’t call it “evil,” as Rand did, or not exactly, but what I think she was right about was drawing attention to a phenomenon that’s usually either not seen or falsely rationalized.