Ayn Rand Contra Nietzsche - The Objective Standard

Editor’s note: This article is an edited version by Michael Berliner of Dr. Ridpath’s article originally written for a 2005 project that was canceled. Because the article was written prior to the publication of A Companion to Ayn Rand, Allan Gotthelf and Greg Salmieri, eds. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), it makes no reference to that book’s chapter on Nietzsche by Lester Hunt.

I disagree with [Nietzsche] emphatically on all fundamentals. —Ayn Rand (1962)1

I do not want to be confused with Nietzsche in any respect. —Ayn Rand (1964)2

Why was Ayn Rand determined to distance herself from Nietzsche? Because in her time, as today, various writers portrayed her as a Nietzschean, claiming that she embraced his ideas and modeled her characters accordingly—which she did not.

The notion of Rand as a Nietzschean was promulgated most viciously in Whittaker Chambers’s 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, published in National Review. Although he acknowledged Rand’s debt to Aristotle, Chambers wrote that she is “indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche” and that “her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen.”3 Since then, similar claims have been made in countless articles and books, including Goddess of the Market, in which Jennifer Burns declared that Rand’s “entire career might be considered a ‘Nietzschean phase.’”4

Was Rand influenced by Nietzsche? To some extent, yes. In the 1930s, she called him her “favorite philosopher” and referred to Thus Spake Zarathustra as her “bible.” As late as 1942, Nietzsche quotes adorned the first pages of each section of her manuscript of The Fountainhead. But from her first encounter with his ideas, Rand knew that her ideas were fundamentally different from his.

Rand first read Nietzsche in 1920, at the age of fifteen, when a cousin told her that Nietzsche had beaten her to her ideas. “Naturally,” Rand recalled in a 1961 interview, “I was very curious to read him. And I started with Zarathustra, and my feelings were quite mixed. I very quickly saw that he hadn’t beat me to [my ideas], and that it wasn’t exactly my ideas; that it was not what I wanted to say, but I certainly was enthusiastic about the individualist part of it. I had not expected that there existed anybody who would go that far in praising the individual.”5

However attracted to Nietzsche’s seeming praise of the individual, Rand had her doubts even then about his philosophy. As she learned more about philosophy and about Nietzsche’s ideas, she became increasingly disillusioned. “I think I read all his works; I did not read the smaller letters or epigrams, but everything that was translated in Russian. And that’s when the disappointment started, more and more.”6 The final break came in late 1942, when she removed her favorite Nietzsche quote (“The noble soul has reverence for itself”)7 from the title page of The Fountainhead. By this time, she had concluded that political and ethical ideas—including individualism—are not fundamental but rest on ideas in metaphysics and epistemology. And this is where the differences between her philosophy and that of Nietzsche most fundamentally lie.

Early Premises

The roots of both Nietzsche’s and Rand’s philosophies can be traced to their youths.

Nietzsche (1844–1900) was raised in a strict Pietist household, and he fixated on the cosmos as the stage on which God and Satan battled for men’s souls. Beginning in his youth, Nietzsche read widely in Greek and Nordic myth, occult literature, and heroic sagas, all of which he interpreted as the form taken by a cosmic war acting within the minds of men. He sought evidence for this cosmic “storm” in the power of visions and drives within himself, and, upon entering university to study theology, he pledged his life to first knowing and then serving this cosmic storm. He pursued this pledge in all of his writings, and, by the end of his working life, he believed that his insights into this storm were of cosmic significance.

By contrast, Rand (1905–1982) grew up in a predominantly secular household, was exposed to a world of productiveness, prosperity, stable order, and romantic art—a world in which, through the exercise of reason, one could discover facts, grasp laws of nature, and thereby work for success and individual happiness. By an early age, Rand had identified “going by reason” as her leitmotif, had rejected faith and God, and had decided on a career in writing. In university she studied history and philosophy, and, upon graduation, left communist Russia for America in order to be free of tyrannical rule.

Compared at the beginnings of their respective professional lives, Nietzsche’s and Rand’s philosophies stand in profound opposition over two basic issues. Whereas Nietzsche held that the subject matter of philosophy is a cosmic storm of warring forces; Rand held that “philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man’s relationship to existence.”8 Whereas Nietzsche held that the proper method for studying philosophy is to look inward, at activities within one’s self as a guide to the basic forces of the universe; Rand held that a proper method is to look outward, at objects in the world, and to build, through reason, a conceptual understanding of man and his relationship to existence. Nietzsche referred to his system of views as his “ontological myth”; Rand held that philosophy is the science of fundamentals.

In 1958, Rand wrote in her philosophical notebook that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, philosophy had admitted into its domain a series of “fantastic irrationalities,” which, being cosmology, were not part of the rational science of philosophy. As she emphasized the point, “‘Cosmology’ has to be thrown out of philosophy” (italics hers).9

This fundamental difference between Rand’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies was in place by their respective university years and would expand with time. This will become increasingly evident as we examine and compare their philosophies.

Nietzsche’s Metaphysics

As a university student, Nietzsche had given up his Pietist vision of the cosmos. He still believed that some kind of forces raged throughout the cosmos, but he no longer believed those forces to be God and Satan, nor that religious faith was the means to accessing whatever forces exist.

Guided by Greek myth and three philosophers—Heraclitus, Schopenhauer, and Hegel—Nietzsche developed an early version of his “cosmological myth.” The most profound influence on Nietzsche’s life was the myth of Dionysus, who reigned in a hidden realm of formless turmoil and traveled to the human realm in order to show men the boiling cauldron out of which they had temporarily arisen and back into which they would be absorbed.

From a very early paper, “The Dionysiac World View” (1870), to the last passage of a grand posthumous collection of Nietzsche’s most significant passages, the Dionysian model of the cosmos remained central to Nietzsche’s worldview. As he put it in The Will to Power:

And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; . . . a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing; . . . a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, eternally self-destroying, this mystery world.10

Alongside the Dionysian myth, Nietzsche revered Heraclitus, whom he characterized as having “the highest power of intuitive conception”11 and from whom he took the view that the universe is a random process, a flux, a becoming, out of which specific things emerge, temporarily, and then are reabsorbed. This underlying flux works through the increase and release of tension—that is, through conflict, struggle, the interaction of positive and negative forces. All things are unifications of opposite states, Heraclitus said. “All things happen according to strife and necessity”;12 “War is father of all and king of all”;13 and the world is “The eternal and exclusive Becoming, the total instability of all reality, which continually works and never is, as Heraclitus teaches.”14

The young Nietzsche was convinced that the universe consisted of two contradictory forces, that these forces are more fundamental than the entities that they create and then reabsorb, and that process, activity, and change—not the things that act and change—are the cosmic fundamentals. There is no “being” behind the doing, he wrote; “‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed; the deed is everything.”15 What is basic is not that which acts, but activity itself.

Nietzsche found further support for this view of the cosmos in Hegel’s belief that the existing cosmos (Hegel’s “Nature”) was a realm of interacting and contradictory manifestations of one ultimate force. This dialectical “explanation” for all change would underlie all of Nietzsche’s further writings. On this view, reality consists of conflicting, contradictory forces. And entities, including men, are the arenas in which these forces clash. This Hegelian view, Nietzsche held, is the basis of an explanation for all things, all change, all evolutionary advances. (Hegel’s argument that one cosmic goal was being sought through change in the universe would also come to underlie Nietzsche’s final cosmic view.)

From Schopenhauer came a view of the cosmos that would prompt Nietzsche to write his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (the work that Ayn Rand said “really finished” Nietzsche for her). Unlike Hegel’s cosmos, Schopenhauer’s cosmic force was a Dionysian Will bent on destruction, although Nietzsche gave it a more positive connotation. With The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s early metaphysics, that of two fundamentally opposing cosmic forces interacting, was complete.

In 1881, however, Nietzsche experienced “a lightning bolt of inspiration” about the ultimate nature of the cosmos. It was “given” to him that the cosmos was not composed of two opposing forces in dialectical struggle, but rather was one force in two opposing forms. And this force was not Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Destruction or Hegel’s Will (to cosmic self-discovery), but rather a cosmic “Will to Power,” a Will on a relentless quest for ever-increasing cosmic power.

In the next eight years, Nietzsche would interpret everything of interest to him as surface manifestations of this one basic force. The cosmos as Will to Power was Nietzsche’s ultimate “cosmological myth.” According to this myth, everything and every event ultimately is reducible to units of will, which he called “quanta.” These quanta, as he described them, are not things but processes, active centers of force or energy. And despite Nietzsche’s use of the term “Will,” he does not have in mind any aspect of consciousness, but rather some mystical force that underlies all consciousness and matter.

What are these quanta doing? Seeking power. The only true existent, wrote Nietzsche, is “the willing to become stronger, from each center of force outward.” This is “the most elementary fact, which results in a becoming, an acting.”16

In Nietzsche’s world, there are no things, no individual entities—those are all mental constructions. “True” reality is activity, power seeking, conflict. Reality, at root, is made up of little imperialistic centers of will, all striving to gain power at the expense of others. Reality, including all life, is reducible to quanta seeking to dominate neighboring quanta and not to be dominated by them. This is Nietzsche’s version of the “war” that Heraclitus said was “the Father of all and the King of all.” In this process, as quanta randomly interact, two strains of quanta-combinations arise. Those encompassing greater strength and capacity for coordination are Nietzsche’s “virile” or “master” strain of the Will to Power, whereas the weaker and less capable are the “decadent” or “slave” strain.

Because life is a biologically evolved organization of quanta, it reflects the process of power seeking in which the quanta, whether virile or decadent, are engaged. Thus, Nietzsche’s Dionysian interpretation of life: “Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the foreign and the weaker, oppression, harshness, imposition of its own forms.”17

Although living things, as individual constellations of quanta, are necessarily “egoistic to the core,”18 said Nietzsche, the enhancement of their power, rather than the lives of individual men, is the ultimate cosmic goal. “Nothing exists for itself alone.”19 And further, Nietzsche tells us, “There is nothing to life that has value besides the degree of power.”20 The deepest desire of life “is to create beyond and above itself.”21 In other words, power is not for the sake of life; rather, life exists to serve power.

In sum, Nietzsche’s view of reality denies the fundamentality of individual entities. On the basis of an alleged mystical insight, he asserts the existence and omnipresence of a cosmic Will to Power as the true metaphysical fundamental. Activity is more fundamental than that which acts, and activity is the product of a dialectical clash of contradictions. Power (not life) is the ultimate value. Life is essentially conflict. And life in service to the cosmic Will to Power is the highest fate available to man.

These positions put him squarely in opposition to Ayn Rand.

Rand’s Metaphysics

It is difficult to imagine a metaphysics more opposite to Nietzsche’s than that of Ayn Rand. Nietzsche’s worldview is dominated by turmoil, flux, dialectics, contradictions, cosmological myths—with centers of power-seeking activity as the ultimate constituents. In contrast, Ayn Rand’s metaphysics consists of the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity, and, as a corollary, the law of causality.

In Rand’s view, the world “out there” consists of entities existing independent of consciousness, a world where existence has primacy over consciousness, a world of stable natural law. Her metaphysics, as we shall see, leads to views of human nature, epistemology, ethics, and politics that are opposite to those engendered by Nietzsche’s metaphysics of turmoil and flux.

Rand held that certain primaries are inescapable, directly observable, irreducible to anything more fundamental, implicit in all facts and knowledge, and rationally undeniable. These axiomatic facts are existence (“something exists”), consciousness (“of which I am aware”) and identity (“and it is something specific”). They are implicit in perception and used in any attempt to deny them.

Regarding the primacy of existence, wrote Rand, “every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world.”22 Thus, “man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward,”23 and “the development of human cognition starts with the ability to perceive things, i.e., entities.”24

In Rand’s metaphysics, entities exist “out there.” They are not mere illusory mental concoctions, as Nietzsche claims. And, contrary to Nietzsche, they are not cosmologically intuited constellations of unfolding contradictory forces; they are what we perceive them to be:

A thing is—what it is; its characteristics constitute its identity. An existent apart from its characteristic would be an existent apart from its identity, which means: a nothing, a non-existent.25

Entities are what they are; A is A; to be is to be something specific; “existence is identity.” Thus, “a contradiction cannot exist”; nothing “can contradict its own identity, nor can a part contradict the whole”; “to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind.”26

Nietzsche’s metaphysics was anathema to Rand, who held that change cannot be fundamental, for there is no change without something changing. Nietzsche’s “dynamic universe,” wrote Leonard Peikoff, “was a resurrection of the ancient theory of Heraclitus: reality is a stream of change without entities or of action without anything that acts; it is a wild, chaotic flux.”27 And Rand rejected it outright. “All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe,” she wrote, “are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved.”28

Ayn Rand’s world is not the “mystery world” of Dionysus. It is a causal world of lawful order. “Whether its basic constituent elements are atoms, or subatomic particles, or some yet undiscovered forms of energy,” wrote Rand, the universe “is not ruled by a consciousness or by will or by chance, but by the Law of Identity.”29

Rand’s world is not a Dionysian cauldron. It is not “false, cruel, contradictory, demoralizing, without sense.”30 And it is not a place in which men’s lives are characterized by conflict, mystery, and fate. It is a world of entities, the identities of which determine their capacities to act—a world of natural law and knowable fact. Consequently, it is a world in which individuals can live and prosper.

Nietzsche on Man

In Nietzsche’s view, as we saw earlier, the understanding (or “naturalizing,” as he termed it) of any subject matter involves reducing it to little bundles of power-seeking energy (i.e., “quanta”). Human beings are reducible to “constellations” of quanta, each caught up in the cosmic struggle to increase its power. From this, Nietzsche drew several inferences:

  1. Quanta divide into stronger or weaker strains. Therefore, the category “man” is less important than the division of men into castes.
  2. All of the actions of “individuals” and all of their internal processes, including thinking, choosing, evaluating, and feeling, are the surface manifestations or “affects” of the activity of the Will to Power. Nietzsche referred to this determinist view as his “affectual” theory of man’s nature.
  3. Free will does not exist. When men experience themselves as being in volitional control of their thoughts and actions, Nietzsche dismisses that as a delusion, the purpose of which is to motivate human constellations to more vigorous action. In Nietzsche’s universe, nothing escapes the deterministic matrix of the Will to Power. In regard to the delusion of free will, he wrote:

We believe ourselves to be causal in the act of willing . . . that here at least we have caught causality in the act . . . where the antecedents of an act, its causes, were to be sought in consciousness . . . not the ego [that] causes thought. . . . Today we no longer believe a word of all this. . . . What follows from this? There are no mental causes at all.31

Nietzsche went further and denied any mental “self” altogether. There is, he asserted, no such thing as “something that thinks,”32 let alone chooses to think; there is no “I” that is “the cause of thought.”33 “A thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, not when ‘I’ wish.”34

  1. The source of any particular individual’s makeup (i.e., his own particular combination of quanta) is his ancestors in a process of biological determinism going back beyond generations, to all eternity. Nietzsche urges us to “trust our feelings . . . [because] that means to obey one’s grandfather and one’s grand­mother, and their grandparents.”35

One cannot erase from the soul of a human being what his ancestors liked most to do and did most constantly. It is simply not possible that a human being should not have the qualities and preferences of his parents and ancestors in his body.36

The fatality of [man’s] essence is not to be disentangled from the fatality of all that has been and will be.37

  1. Human beings are gatherings of quanta that exhibit a new and potentially more powerful form of activity: intellectuality. In this human manifestation, the Will to Power (not an individual possessing free will) calculates, reasons, plans across time, and devises intellectual perspectives. Nietzsche referred to the source of this newly evolved activity as “spirit.” Man, he said, is “the spirited animal,” an animal whose mental activity consists of whatever its inherited quanta dictate.

Nietzsche’s deterministic view of man forms the basis of his division of the human race into biologically determined castes. All human beings are repositories of their inherited Will to Power, which may be of the virile and/or the decadent strain and which will be experienced in men as both animal instinctual drives and spirited intellectual productions. This inherited Will to Power, however, is capable of combining within humans in three possible manifestations or castes.

One caste comprises those with predominantly virile animal drives, which this caste embraces rather than fears and acts on with little accompanying intellectual (“spirited”) justification required. They are nature’s “master caste,” history’s Caesars and Attilas, who have “tyrants within” and who act out their inherited “tasks” with vigor and bravery, undeterred by any intellectual restraint.

A second, moderately intellectual caste (the “spirited ones”) appears in early human societies. Fearful of their animal urges and resentful of the masters who rule over them, this decadent caste is, by nature, the slave caste and is destined for submission. Eventually, they turn for self-defense to abusing their intellectual powers and, in a “slave insurrection,”38 create a universal moral code of sacrifice and an intellectual set of “truths” concerning peace, order, and redemption. With this code, they then castigate and imprison their former masters and instigate a reign of decadence over all men.

Beyond this lies a rare third caste: Nietzsche’s elite, the “highly spirited ones.” They, like the masters, contain an abundance of the virile strain of the Will to Power. But, unlike the masters, they do not simply submit to their animal drives, nor do they flee it, as do the decadents. This third caste sublimates its animal drives into a stronger form of spirited activity. For this caste, the intellect is capable of furthering, rather than (as with the decadents) opposing, the Will to Power’s cosmic project, by using the crude master caste to implement the goals of this elite.

And finally, in accordance with his reduction of everything to cosmic activity, Nietzsche insisted that most men’s instincts, urges, drives, and emotions are more long-standing and immediate “affects” of the Will to Power than are the productions of man’s mind. Thus, Nietzsche repeatedly urged men to follow their feelings or their received inspirations as their primary guides to action, and to do so without understanding what their feelings are, or why they should be given prominence over the intellect.

Despite Nietzsche’s occasional use of the term “individual,” his view of human beings reduces to racially induced predestination. Nevertheless, he praised the elite caste as “great individuals,” because they and only they can receive “lightning bolts” of inspired insight into the Will to Power, what it wants of its spirited animals, and in pursuit of what goal.

Nietzsche’s cosmology led to an explicit and all-encompassing repudiation of metaphysical individualism. His metaphysics led him to a tripartite racial division of the human race.

Rand on Man’s Nature

The contrast between Nietzsche’s and Rand’s views of human nature is readily apparent.

In Nietzsche’s view, man is a constellation of quanta that create different biological types who are by that fact in constant conflict with each other. Rand, in contrast, defined man as “the rational animal,” meaning not that he always acts rationally but that he possesses the faculty of reason. It is this faculty that distinguishes man from other living entities, and each individual man’s way of using this faculty is what significantly distinguishes him from other men.

Man’s distinctive characteristic is his type of consciousness—a consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts, to apprehend reality by a process of reason. . . . [The] valid definition of man, within the context of his knowledge and of all of mankind’s knowledge to-date [is]: “A rational animal.”39

In Rand’s view, reason is man’s primary mental faculty; it is not the handmaiden of his emotions. Man’s mind is under his own control; he is not driven by inborn urges or instincts. His emotions are consequences of his thinking (or lack thereof). An emotion, Rand wrote, “is an effect, not a cause. . . . A rational man knows—or makes it a point to discover—the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come.”40 “An emotion as such,” she wrote, “tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something.”41

Contra Nietzsche, Rand held that thinking is an act of choice, and that an individual’s choice to think or not to think is the locus of his free will. This is the basis for her view that every man is responsible for his own character. “The use or misuse of his cognitive faculty,” she wrote, “determines a man’s choice of values, which determine his emotions and his character. It is in this sense that man is a being of self-made soul.”42

Implicit in the preceding is Rand’s recognition of free will—and her rejection of Nietzsche’s deterministic view of human nature.

Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice.43

The essence of human nature, Rand insisted, “is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness.”44

Man’s consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third state, conceptions, that makes him man. Sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically, by the brain of a man or of an animal. But to integrate perceptions into conceptions by a process of abstraction, is a feat that man alone has the power to perform—and he has to perform it by choice. The process of abstraction, and of concept-formation is a process of reason, of thought; it is not automatic nor instinctive nor involuntary nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results. The pre-conceptual level of consciousness is non-volitional; volition begins with the first syllogism. Man has the choice to think or to evade—to maintain a state of full awareness or to drift from moment to moment, in a semi-conscious daze, at the mercy of whatever associational whims the unfocused mechanism of his consciousness produces.45

By 1934, Rand had begun to see the connection between free will and reason. “The will,” she wrote at the time, “does not have to be without reason, or motivation, in order to be free. One’s act may be motivated by an outside reason, but the choice of that reason is our free will.”46 And, in 1961, she reflected explicitly about her differences with Nietzsche on this matter:

Zarathustra is very much like the Bible—it’s written poetically—[and] most of the content seemed to be metaphorical. But the mere idea of innate determinism, that someone is born noble in soul, and somebody else is born to be a slave, I considered enormously wrong.47

But her differences with Nietzsche date to much earlier in her life. Even as a child, she argued against racial determinism. As she recalled in an interview:

I was very much opposed to any doctrine that would say that your decisions, choices, and ideas are determined by inheritance or by any factor outside of your own mind. That I would have always fought; I would have fought on the ground that you are free to form your own convictions. . . . And that is what I objected to in Nietzsche most, probably: the idea that characters are determined, that you are somehow born good or born inferior.48

As we can see, Nietzsche and Rand stand in stark contrast regarding the very issue on which many Rand detractors charge her with being an ally of Nietzsche: the supposed existence of a natural and superior class. Are human beings individuals acting freely and independently? According to Nietzsche, the answer is no; according to Rand, the answer is yes. Unlike Nietzsche, Rand holds that each individual has volitional control of his mind and thus is responsible for his own character. If he achieves superiority in any context, it is something he has earned, not something he was born with.

This issue, however, has an ironic sidebar. Unaware of the ultimately collectivist-determinist nature of Nietzsche’s view of man, Rand took his seeming praise of noble individuals at face value and corrected her own views accordingly. As she related in 1960:

He did do me one service, however. One formulation. In my first year in college and before I discovered him, I made one very bad mistake, which was more verbal than factual, but even so could have been bad philosophically. I didn’t talk so much of men as of mankind. By which I meant [that] the individual man, the hero, was my standard, but I was on the premise that all of mankind has to be redeemed. I had to defend man as the species. I had the idea that mankind is in essence heroic. It was almost an original virtue formulation. And it was . . . mainly, I think, in protest against all the deterministic schools. . . . And what Nietzsche made me realize is that it doesn’t have to be collective. In other words, that the species can be vindicated by one man. And that, thereafter, he helped me to formulate it in terms of individualism and not of the metaphysical original virtue of mankind as such. So, in a sense, what my attitude could have taken me into would be original virtue determinism.49

Nietzsche’s Epistemology

One of the most critical issues in philosophy is whether reason is man’s means of knowledge. On this issue, there are essentially three views: that reason is man’s only means of knowledge; that reason cannot achieve knowledge (skepticism); that there is some means of knowledge other than reason (mysticism). Rand, as we shall see, is firmly in the first camp. Nietzsche is both a skeptic and a mystic, initially embracing Kantian skepticism and later augmenting that with his own cosmological form of mysticism.

To readers unfamiliar with Nietzsche’s cosmology, his views on reason and man’s intellect appear confusing and contradictory. Because Nietzsche welcomed “spirit” as a potentially great advance in the Will to Power’s effort toward greater power, he praised the intellect. The Will to Power, qua the activities of the intellect, is what makes men out of animals, aids the strong in pursuit of their tasks, contributes to the production of great art, and produces the elite “new philosophers” (with their “new truths”).

But against this seeming praise of reason, Nietzsche’s writings abound with sneers at the products of the intellect and warnings against glorifying “reason,” “intellect,” and “truth” (as these terms are conventionally understood). In Nietzsche’s Heraclitean universe, no silver lining comes without its dark cloud. Man’s mind, if misunderstood, exaggerated, and misused, can lead to cosmic disaster. Nietzsche’s central concerns, therefore, were understanding the limitations of men’s minds and promoting his own neo-Kantian version of the view that the objects of consciousness are within consciousness.

According to Nietzsche, human reason is limited in two ways: First, the Dionysian world of flux, contradictions, and chaos is not amenable to man’s intellect. No world of stable, noncontradictory facts independently exists in Nietzsche’s universe. And second, the content of men’s minds is nonobjective. Although men experience their awareness as being of a world of independent objects, actual awareness is of an inner world of concocted things, which are merely images or spirit-created “affects” within the brain’s chamber of consciousness. “It is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations,” wrote Nietzsche.50

Each individual’s inherited quanta manufacture within the mind its own subjective “facts.” The quanta create in each individual his own world, his own cognitive affects, just as the Will to Power manufactures within the human body its own drives and emotional affects.

This is Nietzsche’s doctrine of “perspectivism,” the claim that every individual’s “world” is an individual and internally generated perspective. The fact that people experience a common “world” that appears to exist independently of them is not, according to Nietzsche, proof of such a world. Rather, it is proof that the Will to Power creates a common delusion in its spirited creatures. In an early paper, Nietzsche characterizes the intellect of most humans as “pitiful,” “transitory,” “purposeless,” and “arbitrary.” 51 But, more tellingly, Nietzsche wrote that the purpose of the human intellect is to keep humans “deeply immersed in illusions and dream images” to protect them from the chaos.

The intellect traffics in dreams and illusions? The whole external world of facts, structure, and causal necessity is inside the human mind? Where did Nietzsche get these ideas? Nietzsche is clear about the historical source of his epistemological skepticism: “The tremendous courage and wisdom of Kant and Schopenhauer accomplished that most difficult of all victories, the victory over the optimism which lies concealed in the essence of logic.”52 The “optimism” to which Nietzsche referred is the intellect’s belief in an independently existing world of entities and in the efficacy of reason. “When Kant says: ‘reason does not derive its laws from nature but prescribes them to nature,’ this is, in regard to the concept of nature, completely true,”53 wrote Nietzsche. “‘Truth’ is therefore not something there, that might be found or discovered—but something that must be created.”54

If we were to ask Nietzsche, “Does reason have cognitive validity? Does it allow us to know the world?” his answer would be clear. No—the purely subjective nature of reason and the chaotic nature of an unknowable world make knowledge through reason impossible.

Indeed, Nietzsche took pride in going beyond Kant, observing that skepticism—the view that all knowledge is subjective—is itself a subjective and arbitrary theory. All theories, all “perspectives,” Nietzsche held, can be nothing more than personal mystically delivered “onto-mythologies.” All philosophical systems, including his own, are just individual creations of the Will to Power. In his words, “Gradually I have come to realize what every great philosophy up to now has been: the personal confession of its originator, a type of involuntary and unaware memoirs.”55

Nietzsche’s reduction of everything to the Will to Power underlies his acceptance of Kantian skepticism and explains his many pejorative statements about reason and the intellect. It also explains why he urged men not to rely on their minds for guidance. In particular, he was adamant in his disgust at the decadent caste’s exaggeration of the intellect as a weapon in its attack on the master caste. As weak men, they are unable to face the Dionysian chaos. In self-defense, they use their intellects to concoct illusions, articles of faith, fictions, lies. Their alleged truths are, in fact, necessary errors without which they would be incapable of surviving.56 As he put it: “We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live—by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life.”57

In Nietzsche’s view, the human intellect in its pro-survival role is a profound falsifying apparatus for all but the strongest men. The Will to Power generates perspectives that are superficial and project an overgeneralized and debased world. Thus, Nietzsche held that for most men (excepting the highly spirited caste), “whatever becomes conscious becomes by the same token shallow, thin, relatively stupid.”58

In praising the highly spirited ones, is Nietzsche elevating the mind over inherited instincts? No, because the intellectual activity of this caste is an assimilation, rather than a repudiation, of instinctual, animal drives. For all men—particularly the highly spirited ones—“the course of logical ideas and inferences in our brain corresponds to a process and struggle among impulses.”59 Thus, Nietzsche wrote, “it is certainly wrong to deny the force of impulses in knowledge.”60

As if he were opposing Objectivism in advance, Nietzsche stated that, in their blindness, human beings believe reason to be man’s primary mental faculty and his mind to be under his control. Thus, they see man as being free to control his own life. In fact, Nietzsche contended, reasoning is merely the deterministic surface affect of underlying drives. All thinking, including philosophic thinking, is no more than this. In his view, all of the conscious intellectual activity and phenomenon in the human mind—including perceptual experiences, conceptual grasp, logical inference, value judgments, and philosophical “perspectives”—are the byproducts of physiological demands, instinctual urges, and the Will to Power underlying it all.

Nietzsche held that the emphasis on reason is the basic error underlying Western civilization. Most men throughout history (the exception being the highly spirited ones) have taken reason (an “infantile organ”) and created a life-sapping despot out of it. Thus, Nietzsche’s lauded elite “individuals” (whose “perspectives” are “nothing but intellectual detours of personal drives”)61 as special because their perspectives are closer than those of others to the cosmic source generating these perspectives. Their “visions,” therefore, are “truer” than are the visions or perspectives of lesser Will to Power. It is through the elite, therefore, that the Will to Power advances its cause.

Rand’s Epistemology

Ayn Rand considered epistemology to be the most important area of philosophy. Man, she held, is a being of volitional consciousness; he has no automatic means of knowledge and thus no automatic means of survival. To live, he must choose to initiate a thought process—and his thinking is not guaranteed to be correct. Man is fallible; thus he must use reason, observation, and logic to check his thinking and prove his conclusions. Ayn Rand understood this at a young age and was adamant about the necessity of proof: “Everything has to be proved, and if something cannot be proved by reason, then it’s nonsense, and [I had] contempt for any irrationality—I can’t name when it was different. That was a chronic leitmotif.”62

Her early fiction, We the Living and Anthem, dealt with tyrannies that attempted to control the thinking of the populace, and she later identified the theme of Atlas Shrugged as “the role of the mind in man’s existence.” But her focus on reason as the issue of central importance in philosophy began much earlier. In the first entry of her philosophic journal, her focus was on religion, which she saw as the enemy of reason:

I want to fight religion as the root of all human lying and the only excuse for suffering. . . . I want to prove that religion breaks a character before it’s formed, in childhood, by teaching a child lies before he knows what a lie is, by breaking him of the habit of thinking before he has begun to think. . . . I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion.63

In a 1946 letter to fellow free-enterpriser Rose Wilder Lane, she wrote: “Do you know that my personal crusade in life (in the philosophical sense) is not merely to fight collectivism, nor to fight altruism? These are only consequences, not causes. I am out after the real cause, the real root of evil on earth—the irrational.”64 And in 1971, describing her general philosophic stance, she wrote:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. . . . [T]he supremacy of reason was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism.”65

Ten years earlier, she had this to say, specifically about Nietzsche’s view of reason:

If before [reading The Birth of Tragedy] I thought he was anti-reason, here it was stated specifically that reason is an inferior faculty and [that] some kind of drunken-orgy emotions, the Dionysus principle, were superior. That really finished him for me, in the sense of a serious spiritual ally.66

The theme of Ayn Rand’s epistemology is the connection of the mind to its objects in the independently existing reality. Reason, she held, is man’s only means of knowledge. It is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. It is our particularly human means of awareness, our means of contact with the world.

Reason integrates man’s perceptions [of externally existing entities] by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach.67

In essence, Rand held, concepts are integrations of percepts, which are produced by sensations, which are the result of external objects acting on sensory organs. Ultimately, all valid concepts and conceptual knowledge are reducible to perceptual concretes.

Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. Some object, i.e., some content, is involved in every state of awareness. . . . A content-less state of consciousness is a contradiction in terms.68

And further:

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.69

Essential to Rand’s approach to epistemology is the principle of “reduction,” which Leonard Peikoff described as “the process of identifying in logical sequence the intermediate steps that relate a cognitive term to perceptual data. . . . Such retracing is a requirement of objectivity.” Reduction in this meaning (not to be confused with Nietzsche’s use of the word) ultimately takes one back to direct perception of reality.

In her most technical philosophic work, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand explained how concepts are based on and derived from percepts. She explained her theory of concept formation and, in the process, offered a solution to the “problem of universals,” which she considered to be “philosophy’s central issue”:

Since man’s knowledge is gained and held in conceptual form, the validity of man’s knowledge depends on the validity of concepts. But concepts are abstractions or universals, and everything that man perceives is particular, concrete. What is the relationship between abstractions and concretes? To what precisely do concepts refer in reality?70

She then proceeded to answer those questions and demonstrate the process by which we form concepts from perceptual concretes, and how concepts, so formed, are mental integrations of facts of reality and thus constitute the building blocks of conceptual knowledge of reality. The process, she explained, begins with sensation, man’s “only direct cognitive contact with reality and, therefore, his only source of information.”

A sensation is produced by the automatic reaction of a sense organ to a stimulus from the outside world; it lasts for the duration of the immediate moment, as long as the stimulus lasts and no longer. Sensations are an automatic response, an automatic form of knowledge, which a consciousness can neither seek nor evade. An organism that possesses only the faculty of sensation is guided by the pleasure-pain mechanism of its body. . . . The higher organisms possess a much more potent form of consciousness: they possess the faculty of retaining sensations, which is the faculty of perception. A “perception” is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism.71

The final level of consciousness for human beings is the conceptual level:

A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition. By organizing his perceptual material into concepts, and his concepts into wider and still wider concepts, man is able to grasp and retain, to identify and integrate an unlimited amount of knowledge, a knowledge extending beyond the immediate concretes of any given, immediate moment.72

Rand’s fundamental approach to epistemology—the idea that an external reality exists, and that man’s perceptions are perceptions of objects in reality—provided the name for Rand’s philosophy: Objectivism. This approach also puts her in fundamental conflict with Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, under the influence of Kant, held that the object of awareness is a subjective state of consciousness rather than an independently existing reality. Recall his doctrine of perspectivism, whereby an individual’s world is his own subjectively generated perspective, with the Will to Power manufacturing its own “facts.” Against Nietzsche’s dismissal of logic as inapplicable with the chaotic universe he believed exists, Rand held that man’s “means to establish the truth of his answers is logic,”73 which she defined as “the art of non-contradictory identification”—the discipline that ties man’s mind objectively to the (noncontradictory) world.

Logic is man’s method of reaching conclusions objectively by deriving them without contradiction from the facts of reality—ultimately, from the evidence provided by man’s senses. If men reject logic, then the tie between their mental processes and reality is severed; all cognitive standards are repudiated, and anything goes; any contradiction, on any subject, may be endorsed (and simultaneously rejected) by anyone, as and when he feels like it.74

Implicit in the preceding is Rand’s rejection of skepticism and mysticism, both of which Nietzsche embraced. She made the point explicitly as follows:

In the history of philosophy—with some very rare exceptions—epistemological theories have . . . taught either that knowledge is impossible (skepticism) or that it is available without effort (mysticism). These two positions appear to be antagonists, but are, in fact, two variants on the same theme, two sides of the same fraudulent coin: the attempt to escape the responsibility of rational cognition and the absolutism of reality—the attempt to assert the primacy of consciousness over existence.75

Whereas Nietzsche (qua skeptic) held that man cannot grasp reality because of the chaotic and contradictory nature of existence, Rand held—and showed—that man, through reason, can gain knowledge of reality. Knowledge, she wrote, “is a mental grasp of fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation.”76 “Truth is the product of the recognition (i.e., identification) of the facts of reality.”77

A man does not know everything, but he does know what he knows. The choice is not: to make unwarranted, dogmatic claims or to give up the cognitive quest in despair. Both these policies stem from the notion that omniscience is the standard. . . . In reason, however, this standard must be rejected. Conceptual knowledge rests on logic within a context, not on omniscience. If an idea has been logically proved, then it is valid and it is an absolute—contextually.78

Finally, in contrast to Nietzsche’s mysticism, Rand had nothing but abhorrence for such blatant rejection of reason: “Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge,”79 such as “instinct,” “intuition,” “revelation,” or any form of “just knowing.” And, because in Rand’s view reason is man’s means of survival, the rejection of reason can lead only to destruction. “There is,” she wrote, “only one state that fulfills the mystic’s longing for infinity, non-causality, non-identity: death.”80

The stark differences between Rand and Nietzsche in regard to reason and mysticism lead to equally stark differences in regard to ethics and politics.

Nietzsche’s Ethics

Having ruled out free will, having characterized the contents of man’s mind as cosmologically determined instincts and affects, and having divided men into castes with necessarily conflicting instincts and affects, Nietzsche did not offer an ethical philosophy in the usual sense. In his view, ethics reduces to deterministic activity—to the “instincts” behind men’s values.

His standard of value is service to the aims of the Will to Power. In a preface to On the Genealogy of Morals, his central treatise on morality, Nietzsche stated that his subject is “the origin of our moral prejudices.” As a “new philosopher,” he claimed that the ideas he expressed “have arisen in me . . . from a fundamental will to knowledge.”81

What are the implications of approaching morality within the context of the Will to Power acting in either virile or decadent form? The first is that there cannot be any code of values for all men, no ultimate value common to them all. Given the division of man into castes, morality is a biologically determined phenomenon.

Second, given that man’s social history is a record of some caste dominating the others, all moralities are, at base, caste-imposed systems of compulsion. According to Nietzsche, the compelling of some by others is not immoral; it is the essence of morality. To be moral means “to be obedient to a long-established law or tradition.”82

It follows that morality, construed as a universal code of “oughts,” is immoral. Those who advocate such a code are thwarting the Will to Power’s effort to express itself in a variety of forms. Thus, Nietzsche held that the enemy of the cosmic good is the idea of universal good. As he put it, “The Good which is impersonal and universally valid [is an] expression of decline, of the final exhaustion of life. . . . The fundamental law of self-preservation and growth demands the opposite—that everyone invent his own virtue, his own categorical imperative.”83

Universal codes of morality—Christianity in particular—come out of a decadent “will to break precisely the strongest and noblest souls,” writes Nietzsche.84 “Morality,” in his view, is “conceived as Vampirism.”85

In Nietzsche’s account of history, the domination of early societies by the master caste had built up a “black melancholy” of envy, hatred, and resentment in the decadents’ souls. Eventually, they rebelled, by concocting a universal code of decadent values—pity, serenity, humility, gentleness, and the like. Thus, “the slave insurrection begins when resentment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values” in a universal code. This code then serves to castigate the masters as “evil.”86

With this, we arrive at the meaning of Nietzsche’s effort, in his last decade, to precipitate a “revaluation of all values”87—that is, to reinvigorate the old master-caste instinctual values. He set out, in his famous phrase, to “philosophize with a hammer”88—to expose the hollowness of the slave morality, and thus destroy respect for Christian morality. “I am not a man, I am dynamite,”89 he wrote, as he strove to pave the way for the return of the master caste and its values.

The nature of the elite’s caste system that Nietzsche sought to impose becomes clear only when we ask what purpose would be served by the destruction of universal morality and the reinvigoration by the elite of the master-caste values. Nietzsche wanted to return respectability to the values of the elite. He sought to “prepare a reversal of values for a certain strong kind of man . . . and to this end . . . to unfetter a host of instincts now kept in check.”90

What exactly are the values he sought to reinsert into the culture? They include bravery; strength of will to assert oneself; disdain for the approval of others; a dominating spirit exemplified by Julius Caesar and Napoleon; audaciousness; hardness to the suffering of others or oneself; a great multiplicity of powerful drives; a capacity for injustice, falsehood, exploitation. In short, Nietzsche sought the revival of the Attilas of history under the guidance of an elite caste of mystics.

This, however, is not the whole story. Nietzsche’s purpose in revitalizing the master caste with its morality of dominance was to make the masters available to the dictates of their masters—the elite cadre of highly spirited ones. These men, Nietzsche’s “new intellectuals,” in turn, would impose their caste morality in order to sacrifice the masters and the slaves to the even higher cosmic purpose that the elite have been created to serve.

In his quasi-autobiographical Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche presented a poetic visionary who, from a mountaintop, has seen ahead to a vision of man’s heroic purpose and possible future. And, with this vision, Zarathustra descends to the lower world, in order to lead men out of the black shadow of nihilism and despair into a sunlit future.

This future is a world in which the Will to Power has succeeded, through its most elite human agents, in dialectically transfiguring itself into a new and higher manifestation: the beyond-man, “the Overman,” Nietzsche’s Ubermensch: “I will teach men the meaning of their existence—the Overman, the lightning out of the dark cloud man.”91 Nietzsche’s writings abound with such aphorisms as: “Man is something that shall be overcome.”92 “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”93 “Upwards goes our road, from the species across to the super-species.”94

And what is the Overman, this higher form of power that the Will to Power seeks? Nietzsche didn’t know. The Will to Power had provided him only a brief glimpse, a vaguely perceived future possibility. However, he was not vague about the inferences about the Overman that he drew from his vague revelation.

The Overman will not be human, not “merely a higher type” of man, Nietzsche insisted. He will be “a stronger species . . . with its own sphere of life.” The Overman will not be a “super” or “stronger” man but rather a “supra” man. The Overman’s strength will consist of more powerful mental activity that provides enhanced receptivity of what the Will to Power seeks.

These inferences of Nietzsche became pivotal in his final decade, during which he focused on removing cultural threats to the future appearance of the Overman. And the central threat was morality, especially Christian morality. Moral theory, he held, must be transformed into “the doctrine of the relations of supremacy under which ‘life’ comes to be.”95 By “life” Nietzsche meant war and the defeat of the weak by the strong. The morality he advocated is a doctrine that justifies the strong compelling the weak, the elite subjecting the masses to dictatorial rule, in accordance with the Will to Power, in pursuit of a mystically intuited higher species beyond man.

To those repulsed by this outright assault on freedom, Nietzsche retorted: “For what is freedom?” And he answered: “that one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one’s cause.”96 And he meant this literally. “One must learn from war,” he continued, “one must learn to sacrifice many and to take one’s cause seriously enough not to spare men.”97 Citing himself as an early prototype of the highly spirited elite to come, Nietzsche wrote, “to a being such as ‘we are’ other beings must be subordinate by nature, and have to sacrifice themselves.”98 The task of the Overman, Nietzsche said, is “to bring forth creatures which stand sublimely above the whole species man, and to sacrifice ‘one’s neighbors’ and oneself to this end.”99

“My philosophy aims at an ordering of rank, not at an individualist morality,”100 wrote Nietzsche. Both the content of his philosophy and his view of that content clearly bear this out.

Rand’s Ethics

Whereas Nietzsche viewed the idea of a universal morality as a drain on the life energy of the strong because it forbids them to compel the weak, Rand saw rational morality as universal in that it is “an objective metaphysical necessity of man’s survival” given man’s nature.101

According to Rand, ethics is “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions.”102 It is a metaphysical necessity because of man’s identity: He is a being of volitional consciousness who survives by means of his rational faculty. Like all living things, he faces the alternative of life or death. If he is to live, he must use his means of living; he must use reason to discover what will further his life and then to pursue it. In Rand’s view, it is the phenomenon and factual requirements of life—not some arbitrarily posited, mystically intuited cosmic phenomena—that give rise to the need and the concept of values. In her view, life is the ultimate goal of any living thing, and thus the requirements of its life are its standard of value.

It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of value possible.”103

Rand held that every individual “must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.”104 The reason man needs a moral code, she argued, is “to guide the course and the fulfillment of his own life.” The purpose of morality “is to define man’s proper values and interests,” and “concern with his own interests is the essence of a moral existence.” This means “man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions.”

Since all values have to be gained and/or kept by men’s actions, any breach between actor and beneficiary necessitates an injustice: the sacrifice of some men to others, of the actors to the nonactors, of the moral to the immoral. Nothing could ever justify such a breach, and no one ever has.105

According to Rand, every man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. No one is to be sacrificed to anyone. Thus, in contrast to Nietzsche’s mystically intuited position that the strong should act on their innate urges and sacrifice the weak as they see fit, Rand wrote:

The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes. . . . The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone.106

Further, inherent in Rand’s advocacy of rational selfishness is her rejection of the view that there are conflicts of interest among rational men. Whereas Nietzsche held that “One furthers one’s ego always at the expense of others” and that “Life always lives at the expense of others,”107 Rand held “that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.”108

Rand’s rational egoism is the foundation for her ethical individualism, and both of these, in turn, are consequences of both her metaphysics of existence, identity, and consciousness of individual entities and her epistemology based on the identity, needs, and functioning of the individual mind.

Aware that the term “selfishness” is widely misunderstood and demeaned in our culture as if it stood for the actions of “a murderous brute who tramples over corpses to achieve his own ends,” Rand pointed out that the exact meaning of “selfishness” is concern with one’s own interests,109 and that one’s interests cannot be determined by irrational means.

This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” . . . who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.110

What are the virtues of Rand’s egoistic man, and what (if anything) do they have in common with the attributes of Nietzsche’s master and/or elite castes? In “Galt’s Speech” and in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand identified and described the virtues of her code:

  • Rationality (using “reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values, and one’s only guide to action”)111;
  • Productiveness (recognizing that “productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life”)112;
  • Pride (recognizing that “you are your own highest value, and like all of man’s values, it has to be earned”)113;
  • Independence (“forming one’s own judgments and living by the work of one’s own mind”)114;
  • Integrity (“never sacrificing one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others”)115;
  • Honesty (“never attempting to fake reality in any manner”)116;
  • Justice (“never seeking or granting the unearned and undeserved, neither in matter nor in spirit”).117

Are these Nietzschean values? The question is absurd.

Rand’s morality upholds each individual’s own life as his own ultimate value, his reasoning mind as his only means of knowledge and basic means of survival, his non-sacrificial pursuit of his own rational values as the essence of moral action, and his right to his own life as absolute. That last point, as we will see, is the bridge from her ethical individualism to her political individualism.

Nietzsche on Politics

Every code or theory of morality has direct implications regarding how individuals should deal with each other and for the proper function of government. Given his dismissal of universally applicable moral principles and his endorsement of castes with elites domineering inferiors, it is easy to predict Nietzsche’s view of individual rights. To Nietzsche, rights are a sniveling plea made by “pygmy men,” for whom he experiences disgust.

Nietzsche was not concerned with the issues that political philosophy has traditionally addressed. His views on politics amount to his drawing out the social implications of applying compulsion in the service of the Will to Power’s cosmic goal, the Ubermensch. The architects of the social structure required for advancements toward the Ubermensch are Nietzsche and other “new philosophers,” through whom the Will to Power has delivered its vision. In his words:

Each highly spirited individual has, by virtue of his nature, been liberated . . . from the morality of custom, [and is] autonomous and supra moral. . . . [He has] his own independent protracted will . . . [and his] mastery over himself also necessarily gives him mastery over circumstances, over nature, and over all more short-willed and unreliable creatures.118

The master caste is short-willed; the slave caste is unreliable; and, through these “creatures,” the Will to Power, guided by the highly spirited caste, will work “to give birth to its god and see all mankind at his feet.”119 And the emotional reward will be extreme: “To bring out the form of multifariousness of man, to smash him when a variety of type has had its culmination—to be thus creating and annihilating seems to me the supreme delight that men can have.”120

To carry forward the Will to Power’s cosmic advance to the Ubermensch, Nietzsche advocated a politics of biologically based elitism. The highly spirited ones “are the sculptors—and the rest . . . are merely clay compared to them.”121 The elites are the “noble souls,” who have inherited their Will to Power from their forefathers. Using “blood” as a metaphor for physiological inheritance, Nietzsche wrote: “There is only nobility of birth, only nobility of blood. . . . For spirit alone does not make noble; rather, there must be something to ennoble the spirit—what then is required? Blood.”122

Applying this elitism to his belief that every living organism “is egoistic to the core,” Nietzsche wrote—in blatantly anti-individualistic prose:

Every individual is the entire line of evolution to date. . . . If he represents the ascent of the line “man,” his value is in fact extraordinary; and care for the preservation and encouragement of his growth may legitimately be extreme. If he represents the declining line—then he has little value, and the first demand of justice is that he take as little room, force and sunshine from the well bred as possible. In this case society has the duty of suppressing egoism.123

In short, Nietzsche’s highly spirited elite must direct the masters to violently suppress any self-interested acts by non-masters and chain all men to their proper roles in the service of the Will to Power.

Nietzsche openly connected this racial elitism to tyranny. At the age of twenty-seven, Nietzsche advocated slavery, stating that “we must accept this cruel-sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture.”124 And Nietzsche never changed this view. Late in his productive life, at age forty-three, Nietzsche wrote that “a society that believes in the long ladder of an order of rank and differences in value between man and man . . . needs slavery in some sense or other.”125 And: “Mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man—that would be an advance.”126

With the advance toward the Ubermensch in mind, Nietzsche dismissed the individualist doctrine of the equal rights of man, viewing rights as a barrier to advancing toward this goal. Reinterpreting the concept of “rights” to stand for state-approved claims to unlimited freedom of action, Nietzsche wrote that “for making possible higher and highest types—the inequality of rights is the condition.”127 He complained that the doctrine of the equal rights of man had caused him an “anxiety that is past all comparisons”128 and insisted that most men “have no right to existence.”129 Those who claim they do have rights, he said, are “dwarf animals” or “pygmy men.”130

In sum, Nietzsche viewed the master and slave castes as “cattle” who should be ruled by tyrants: “If you are too weak to give laws to yourselves, then let a tyrant lay his yoke upon you and say ‘Obey, gnash and obey,’ and all good and evil will be drowned in obedience to him.”131 Why? Because a great advance in the Will to Power is possible, and “the beginnings were, like the beginnings of everything great on earth [are] soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time.”132

So much for Nietzsche’s “individualism.”

Rand on Politics

“Politics,” wrote Ayn Rand, “is based on three other philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics—on a theory of man’s nature and of man’s relationship to existence. It is only on such a base that one can formulate a consistent political theory and achieve it in practice.”133

In contrast to Nietzsche’s caste system, Rand held that individuals are the basic units of human existence and moral concern, and that each individual’s own mind is his basic means of living. “The mind,” she wrote, “is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain.”134 This separates her principled individualism from every form of collectivism.

In critiquing the rampant collectivism on display in a Papal Encyclical, she wrote:

[T]he encyclical is not concerned with man, with the individual; the “unit” of its thinking is the tribe: nations, countries, peoples—and it discusses them as if they had a totalitarian power to dispose of their citizens, as if such entities as individuals were of no significance any longer.135

Rand saw free will as necessitating political freedom, and determinism as necessitating dictatorship. “Dictatorship and determinism are reciprocally reinforcing corollaries. If one seeks to enslave men, one has to destroy their reliance on the validity of their own judgments and choices.”136

[A] man’s volition is outside the power of other men. . . . Nothing can force a man to think. Others may offer him incentives or impediments . . . but they cannot order his mind to function: this is his exclusive, sovereign power. Man is neither to be obeyed nor to be commanded.137

Rand’s “new concept of egoism” provided the moral foundation for her political philosophy. Contrary to Nietzsche’s insistence that force must be used in the pursuit of cosmic goals, Rand held that every individual exists for his own sake and for the pursuit of his own happiness. No individual morally can be used as a means to the ends of others. Every individual “belongs” only to himself.

Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being.138

The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. . . . Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation, and only against those who initiate its use.139

Rand’s advocacy of political freedom, however, rests most fundamentally on her view of the nature and importance of reason. Because the use of reason is a requirement of man’s survival, human beings require certain social conditions to make their use of reason and thus their survival possible.

Since knowledge, thinking, and rational action are properties of the individual, since the choice to exercise his rational faculty or not depends on the individual, man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t. Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to agree or disagree, to cooperate or to pursue their own independent course, each according to his own rational judgment. Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man’s mind.140

And, she emphasized, “To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival.”141

Rand’s definition of individual rights, the central principle in her political philosophy, follows from her recognition that reason is man’s basic means of survival and that in order to use reason he must be free:

A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions require by the nature of a rational being for the support, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.142

From this principle, it follows that “No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as the ‘right to enslave.’”143

Rand observed that the political consequence of mysticism and altruism—whether Nietzschean or any other variety—is tyranny. “There has never been a philosophy, a theory, or a doctrine that attacked (or ‘limited’) reason which did not also preach submission to the power of some authority.”144 And she identified the roles of both the ruler and his supporting “elites” in the process of forcing men to submit.

A mystic code of morality, demanding self-sacrifice cannot be promulgated or propagated without a supreme ruler that becomes the collector of the sacrificing. . . . The collector had to be inaccessible to mankind at large, and his authority had to be revealed only through an elite of special intermediaries.145

Rand’s clear, multifaceted, and observation-based defense of individual rights gives the lie to the claim that her individualism has anything in common with the so-called individualism of Nietzsche. As she put it, “Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says ‘I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.’ An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others.”146

Heroism: Rand versus Nietzsche

Although Nietzsche’s apparent advocacy of heroism is what attracted the teenaged Rand to his writings, when his and Rand’s respective philosophies are taken into account, we can see that Rand’s conception and portrayal of a hero have nothing in common with those of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s determinism arguably precludes him from validly regarding anyone a “hero,” but we’ll set that aside and consider his view of heroism in contrast to Rand’s.

“Since my purpose is the presentation of an ideal man,” Rand wrote, “I had to define and present the conditions which make him possible and which his existence requires.”147 That ideal is exemplified in such characters as Howard Roark in The Fountainhead and John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. Such characters are the culmination of her philosophy, men who live by the philosophical principles she espoused. In a brief statement “About the Author” at the end of Atlas Shrugged, she wrote: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”148

In contrast to Rand’s concept of a hero, Nietzsche’s is a being who does not choose his purpose in life, does not seek happiness as his goal, has no interest in material production, initiates force against his fellow man, and is guided by mystical insights and instincts rather than by reason. The difference couldn’t be starker.

And, contra Nietzsche, whose “heroes” were special or “elite” only by birth or accident, Rand’s heroes were exceptional by choice. In Rand’s conception, heroism is possible to anyone who chooses to embrace and act in accordance with the principles involved. Replying to a fan in 1945, she wrote: “Any man can follow Roark’s principles—if he has intelligence, integrity and courage. He may not have Roark’s genius, but he can function in the same manner and live by the same morality—within the limits of his own ability.”149

She made this point explicitly in Atlas Shrugged as well, giving these anti-Nietzschean words to the philosophy professor who had been the teacher of John Galt and two other major heroes in the novel: “[D]on’t make the mistake of thinking that these three pupils of mine are some sort of superhuman creatures. They’re something much greater and more astounding than that: they’re normal men.”150

In her 1961 title essay in For the New Intellectual, Rand summarized her assessment of Nietzsche’s philosophy. What began as excitement at his poetic defense of the individual ended in an all-encompassing repudiation:

Nietzsche’s rebellion against altruism consisted of replacing the sacrifice of oneself to others by the sacrifice of others to oneself. He proclaimed that the ideal man is moved, not by reason, but by his “blood,” by his innate instincts, feelings and will to power—that he is predestined by birth to rule others and sacrifice them to himself, while they are predestined by birth to be his victims and slaves—that reason, logic, principles are futile and debilitating, that morality is useless, that the “superman” is “beyond good and evil,” that he is a “beast of prey” whose ultimate standard is nothing but his own whim.151

Although, like many contemporary critics, Ayn Rand seemed to conflate Nietzsche’s master and elite castes of humans as well as the supra-human Ubermensch, there is no doubt that she rejects what all of them stand for. The attributes that Nietzsche admired are not the virtues of Rand’s ideal man.

Conclusion

Whatever the intended meaning or motives of those who portray Ayn Rand as a Nietzschean, their efforts amount to the claim that she is, in significant philosophical respects, indebted to Nietzsche, and that her work is built on and advances his body of thought. On examination of the relevant facts, however, such claims are totally false. Rand and Nietzsche are not allies but opposites. And those who claim otherwise are peddling falsehood and injustice.

Reading and misunderstanding Nietzsche is understandable, as his writing is often vague and unclear. But reading and misunderstanding Ayn Rand is another matter. Rand’s writing is clear and concise, and her philosophy is vividly non-Nietzschean. Those who claim that she is a Nietzschean are irresponsible at best and malicious at worst.

Over the past half century, Nietzsche has risen to great prominence in academic, intellectual, and aesthetic circles, whereas Rand only now is beginning to receive deep and respectful attention. Understanding each of these philosophers’ ideas for what they are—and what they are not—is essential for anyone who takes philosophical ideas and moral justice seriously.

1. Ayn Rand, Q&A, “The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age,” The Ayn Rand Program radio series, April 5, 1962, in Ayn Rand Answers, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: New American Library, 2005), 117.

2. Ayn Rand, “Objectivism vs. Nietzscheanism,” Ayn Rand on Campus radio program, December 13, 1964.

3. Whittaker Chambers, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” National Review, December 28, 1957.

4. Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 303n4.

5. Ayn Rand, interview by Barbara Branden, transcript 198, The Ayn Rand Archives, Irvine, CA.

6. Rand, interview, 200.

7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1989), 228.

8. Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: New American Library, 1984), 2.

9. Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman (New York: Penguin, 1997), 698.

10. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1968), 549–50.

11. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy during the Tragic Age of the Greeks, quoted in F. A. Lea, The Tragic Philosopher (London: Methuen: 1957), 46.

12. Heraclitus, B80.

13. Heraclitus, B53.

14. Nietzsche, Tragic Age of the Greeks, quoted in Lea, The Tragic Philosopher, 46.

15. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Book One, sec. 13, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1969), 45.

16. Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted in G. A. Morgan, What Nietzsche Means (New York: Harper, 1965), 277.

17. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 61.

18. Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted in Lea, The Tragic Philosopher, 285.

19. Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted in Lea, The Tragic Philosopher, 212.

20. Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 118.

21. Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 63.

22. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed. (New York: New American Library, 1990), 29.

23. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 29.

24. Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition,” in The Romantic Manifesto (New York: New American Library, 1971), 46.

25. Leonard Peikoff, “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” in Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 105.

26. Ayn Rand, “This is John Galt Speaking,” in Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: New American Library, 1961), 126.

27. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels (New York: New American Library, 1982), 51.

28. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 25.

29. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 25.

30. Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 50.[groups_can capability="access_html"]

31. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1968), 495. For Rand’s view that philosophical ideas are the ultimate cause of and explanation for history, see the title essay in her Philosophy: Who Needs It.

32. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 23–24.

33. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 268.

34. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 24.

35. Nietzsche, The Dawn, quoted in R. C. Solomon, Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays (University of Notre Dame, 1980), 302.

36. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 213–14.

37. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 500.

38. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, quoted in Solomon, Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays, 133.

39. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 44.

40. Ayn Rand, “Playboy Interview,” Playboy, March 1964.

41. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 17.

42. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 27.

43. Rand, New Intellectual, 122.

44. Rand, New Intellectual, 120.

45. Rand, New Intellectual, 14–15.

46. Rand, Journals, 68.

47. Rand, interview, 198.

48. Rand, interview, 199.

49. Rand, interview, 200–201.

50. Nietzsche, “Notes,” in The Portable Nietzsche, 458.

51. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” in The Portable Nietzsche, 42–43.

52. Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, quoted in Solomon, Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays, 87.

53. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, quoted in Solomon, Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays, 91.

54. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 298.

55. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, quoted in W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 4 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975), 242.

56. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), 84–85.

57. Nietzsche, Gay Science, 177.

58. Nietzsche, Gay Science, 299–300.

59. Nietzsche, Gay Science, 172.

60. Nietzsche, Gay Science, 170.

61. Nietzsche, The Dawn, quoted in Graham Parkes, Composing the Soul: Reaches of Nietzsche’s Psychology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 8.

62. Rand, interview, 112.

63. Rand, Journals, 66–68.

64. Rand, Letters of Ayn Rand, edited by Michael S. Berliner (New York: Penguin, 1995), 356.

65. Ayn Rand, “Brief Summary,” in The Objectivist, September 1971, 1.

66. Rand, interview, 200.

67. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 62.

68. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 29.

69. Rand, New Intellectual, 124.

70. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 1.

71. Ayn Rand, Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964) 19–20.

72. Rand, Romantic Manifesto, 17.

73. Rand, New Intellectual, 126.

74. Leonard Peikoff, “Nazism and Subjectivism,” The Objectivist, February 1971, 12.

75. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 79.

76. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 35.

77. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 63.

78. Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin, 1993), 174.

79. Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason (New York: New American Library, 1988), 89.

80. Rand, New Intellectual, 162.

81. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Preface, 15–16.

82. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, quoted in Richard Schact, Nietzsche (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), 429.

83. Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, 577.

84. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 145.

85. Nietzsche, Ecce homo, Book 4, translated by Thomas Wayne (New York: Algora, 2004), 97.

86. Nietzsche, Genealogy, First essay, 36.

87. This is the subtitle of The Will to Power, also the working title of Nietzsche’s last (and unfinished) book.

88. The subtitle of Twilight of the Idols is “How One Philosophizes with a Hammer.”

89. Nietzsche, Ecce homo, Book 4, 90.

90. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 503.

91. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, 132.

92. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, 124.

93. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, 127.

94. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 183.

95. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 27

96. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 542.

97. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 513.

98. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 215.

99. Nietzsche, “Notes for Thus Spake Zarathustra,” quoted in Lea, The Tragic Philosopher, 202.

100. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 287, 162.

101. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 24.

102. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 13.

103. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 17–18.

104. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 27.

105. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, x.

106. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 34.

107. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 199.

108. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 34.

109. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, vii.

110. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, xi.

111. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 28.

112. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 29.

113. Rand, New Intellectual, 130–31.

114. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 28.

115. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 28.

116. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 28.

117. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 28.

118. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Second essay, 59–60.

119. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 403.

120. Nietzsche, Complete, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 363.

121. Nietzsche, “Notebooks,” quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 360.

122. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 495–96.

123. Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 182.

124. Nietzsche, “The Greek State,” quoted in Lea, The Tragic Philosopher, 63.

125. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 201.

126. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Second essay, 78.

127. Nietzsche, quoted in Morgan, What Nietzsche Means, 192.

128. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 118.

129. Nietzsche, Will to Power, 467.

130. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 118. These are merely different translations from the German.

131. Nietzsche, “Notes for Zarathustra,” quoted in Solomon, Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays, 150.

132. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Second essay, 65.

133. Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1967), vii.

134. Rand, New Intellectual, 78.

135. Rand, Capitalism, 311–12.

136. Rand, Voice of Reason, 234.

137. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 31.

138. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 150.

139. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 36.

140. Rand, Capitalism, 17.

141. Rand, New Intellectual, 134.

142. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 110.

143. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 113.

144. Ayn Rand, Return of the Primitive (New York: Penguin, 1999), 84.

145. Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 146.

146. Ayn Rand, “Textbook of Americanism,” in The Ayn Rand Column, 2nd ed., edited by Peter Schwartz (New Milford, CT: Second Renaissance Books, 1998), 84.

147. Rand, Romantic Manifesto, 163.

148. Ayn Rand, “About the Author,” in Atlas Shrugged (New York: Penguin, 1992), 1075.

149. Rand, Letters, 236.

150. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 725.

151. Rand, New Intellectual, 36.[/groups_can]

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