by Marsha Familaro Enright
February 2nd marked the 116th birthday of one of the most remarkable thinkers and writers of the 20th century, Ayn Rand. Today I wish to pay tribute to her courageous life by recounting some of her achievements.
She aimed for no less a goal than to save civilization—and she struggled for decades against those who feared and distorted her ideas. Despite these obstacles, her writing is so extraordinarily original, clear, and powerful, it has influenced untold numbers of people. Her books have sold over 29 million copies.
She discovered a universal—that is, true for all people—justification for individualism and the free society based on human nature and demonstrated why humans need reason, individualism, and freedom to flourish. As such, her philosophy has the strongest moral argument for the free society ever articulated.
Born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, she survived the Russian Revolution to escape to Hollywood in the 1920’s. She eked out a living there in various behind-the-scenes jobs, publishing two highly influential books in the 30’s: Anthem and We the Living. Anthem is a short novel with a surprising twist which depicts a tyrannical “future” society in which a genius inventor must fight to survive.
We the Living dramatizes the dire struggles of a young woman in early Soviet Russia, caught between love of an outlawed aristocrat, her desire to be an engineer, and the grinding tyranny of the Soviets.
It was made into a movie by Italians during World War II and was brought to the U.S. in the 70’s. Ayn Rand supervised a remarkable editing job with the help of a young director, Duncan Scott. This transformed it into an even more powerful and beautiful film experience.
These novels did not then make Rand a significant amount of money; that had to come from her 1943 paean to individualism and integrity, The Fountainhead.
The story centers around the life and career of a young man, Howard Roark, who struggles against all the conventions of profession and society to establish his career as a path-breakingly original architect, true to his principles. This novel has inspired countless readers to pursue their highest individual goals and not give up. It’s known by every architect I’ve ever met. It was also made into a 1949 movie starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.
In 1957, Rand published probably the longest mystery/science fiction novel in the world. Atlas Shrugged dramatizes the breakdown of civilization when those people who create and produce disappear. Initially, nobody in the story knows why they’re leaving or where they’re going.
While engaging the reader with conflict, romance, and civil strife, Rand incorporated her new philosophy for living in the very fabric of the story, articulating it in conversations and dramatized speeches.
A series of three movies were made of this novel between 2011 and 2014. The fact that Atlas Shrugged has sold over 10 million copies and continues to sell apace after 50 years indicates its vast power and influence.
In her later years she wrote numerous essays further expanding and clarifying her philosophy in such books as Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness, and The Romantic Manifesto.
In 2013, I was asked to edit Ronald Merrill’s The Ideas of Ayn Rand from Open Court Press. In doing so, I added a long introductory essay detailing Rand’s immense influence. The result: a new book, Ayn Rand Explained.
I recounted, for example, how, in January, 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis, economist Stephen Moore wrote “Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in Fifty-Two Years” for The Wall Street Journal. This article showed Rand’s vast prescience. Her novel predicted so much of the destruction wreaked on the U.S. because it had continued along the ideological and political path she identified in 1957. Sales of her books spiked in 2009 to 600,000!
In today’s virulently anti-reason, anti-free-inquiry, collectivist, black-listing culture we need her powerful ideas and arguments for reason, individualism and the free society more than ever.
Our organization, The Great Connections, educates using the greatest and most influential thinkers in history. As such, we regularly offer courses on Rand’s philosophy, including the moral foundations of capitalism, her esthetics, and her ethics.
Happy Birthday Ayn Rand!
(Students and young adults interested in our Ayn Rand courses can apply at this link.)