The Fountainhead

Ayn Rand has been cited as a major influence on American libertarianism and many libertarians, such as Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute have attributed their initial interest in libertarianism to reading her books.  In order to get a better understanding of liberatarian ideology, I decided to read a few of her more prominent novels.

I just finished reading The Fountainhead.  Now, while the author did not do me the favor of creating an enjoyable novel, I will pay some respect to the ideology I am about to denigrate by discussing it on its own terms.  That is, I will refrain from deferring to others in formulating my thoughts on the matter.  Apologies to readers familiar with the source material and subsequent discussions of the matter who feel that my views are naïve or tread on well-trammeled discussion points.

I will start with what Rand and I have in common.  Like her, I am non-religious and non-egalitarian.  In fact, I have multiple points of disagreement with the first sentence of the United States Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I do not believe that all men are created equal, that a Creator exists, or that inalienable Rights exist, much less that they are self-evident truths.  Of course, with that said, I don’t think that the above statement constitutes a bad philosophy for government.  After all, a government that treats its subjects equally under the law and protects their lives, liberty, and their pursuit of happiness from itself and from external sources is a desirable government.

I’m also opposed to collectivism.  One doesn’t need to look far these days to see that collectivist societies have underperformed relative to systems that have more respect for individual activity.  Eastern Europe, which was Communist-dominated during the the latter half of the twentieth century is much worse off than Western Europe economically and while much has been made of China’s recent growth trend, it’s economy still looks sub-par relative to it’s neighbors, South Korea and Japan, or even to Latin American countries.

However, I found the Manichean thinking displayed in The Fountainhead to be alien and off-putting.  This aspect of the book follows in the tradition of her previous novel, Anthem (which I read in high school), where the protagonist breaks free of a society where people lack any vestige of individual identity.  The main difference is that instead of just having antagonists with ridiculous views, the protagonists also take on ridiculous extremist viewpoints.

The Afterword of the book contained the preliminary description of the characters who would make up the novel.  For the protagonist, Howard Roark, the following description was given:

The noble soul par excellence.  The man as aman should be.  The self-sufficient, self-confident, the end of ends, the reason unto himself, the joy of living personified.  Above all–the man who lives for himself, as living for oneself should be understood.  And who triumphs completely.  A man who is what he should be.

Roark is in essence, the bearer of Rand’s ideology throughout the novel.  He is given the longest sermons and is put at the center of attention.  Given his framing in the novel, I think that it’s safe to assume that his thoughts are the closest to Rand’s own of any of the characters it the book.

Some of the stranger aspects of the book come from its treatment of some of Roark’s misbehavior.  When he rapes Dominque Francon, not only is it not treated as a blemish on his character, but it turns into the beginning of a rather strange romance between the two characters.  This is strange both because of how it’s treated and how it seems to expose a fundamental weakness of Roark’s ideology:  it cannot be used to condemn rape.  It seems strange to me that the author would hint at such an obvious flaw in the ideology underpinning her work.

When he dynamites a housing development that is under destruction and is arrested, the framing of public discourse centers around his egotism rather than the destruction of property.  Further, when Roark gives a monologue in his defense at the trial, which doubles as a final summation of his outlook on the world, the jury acquits him of the crime he readily admits to committing.

Now, I should pause to note that his speech essentially alleges that there a dichotomy between the producers and “second-handers” of society. He paints a picture where the innovations of society are made by egotists who are ultimately persecuted and their innovations appropriated by moochers who use appeals to altruism to justify themselves.

For one thing, I disagree with the dichotomy he poses.  It’s inaccurate, overly simplistic, and ultimately not a particularly useful way of looking at the world.  A simple look just at the history of science reveals that while some people such as Galileo (who was actually well-liked by the masses) were persecuted for insubordination, innovators such as Newton and Einstein are treated as heroes to this day.  So the notion that the inventors of fire (or at least of artificial means of producing it) or the wheel would have been instantly persecuted by their compatriots and then taken advantage of seems silly.  And the notion that the great inventors of the past present and future hold a similar asocial attitude to Howard Roark is even sillier.  Innovators have a wide variety of personal characteristics.  Roark’s claim otherwise made him sound more like a crank than a hero.

Secondly, he clearly merited jail time in spite of his sermon.  His actions probably cost large sums of money and while he produced the design for the buildings in a deal with one of the parties to the agreement that created the buildings, he did not have a justification for destroying the structure that should be accepted by a neutral arbiter.

Another bothersome aspect was the reappropriation of well established terms in the English language.  Whereas “selfish” in normal parlance tends to refer to acting only in one’s own self-interest, often at the expense of others, Rand seems to define it as asociality.  Peter Keating, who is an archetypal career climber and socialite is described as “selfless” because he didn’t have a strong independent identity like Roark, but looking at his actions, it is clear that he is far from selfless by the normal use and connotation of the term.

While I understand Rand’s desire to use words that use “self” as a stem, both selfish and selfless have very different meanings from her own in everyday speech and carry strong connotations with them.  Appropriating new definitions is a quick path to sloppy thinking, and while I’m not sure that this particular action was responsible for much of the sloppy thinking that litter this book, it is a disservice to the readers to slip in a new set of definitions for a well used term with strong meanings.

I also have problems with Rand’s treatment of the significance of God’s existence or lack thereof.  Her view is similar to that of Christopher Hitchens, who lambasts the totalitarian aspects of deities, in that she see God as a corrosive concept in that it places an authority over and individual (the “self” and she would term it).

However, it seems to me that her philosophy doesn’t take into account one of the foremost implications of the non-existence of deities and that is that humans were not specially created.  Now, to be fair to Rand, I don’t think that she was in any way trying to imply that we were, but her idealization of the archetype of Howard Roark suggests that she doesn’t grasp the importance of our past, of the kludgy nature of adapation by means of natural selection and its implications on our psychology, or of the importance of social mechanisms in ensuring human success.

The Neandertals who roamed Europe tens of thousands of years ago had bigger brains than modern humans, but regardless of how smart they may have been relative to us on average, their sparse populations and lack of social cohesion meant that no major innovations spread through their populations until modern humans came to displace them.  And to further the point, modern humans have been around for about a hundred thousand years and it wasn’t until the last 10,000 years that civilizations started to arise and launch the type of innovations that make modern life possible.

This is part of the reason that I think her characterization of humanity spit into producers and second-handers is cartoonish in the extreme.  While Rand, talking through Roark, credits civilization for allowing for individuality, she seems to ignore the fact that the mechanisms behind this are intensely social.  A society of mythic Howard Roark-like egotists would collapse.  In fact, one of the fundamental flaws of Communists regimes is that they consist of a few individuals forcing their ideas upon the masses, whose natural social patterns have led to the types of societies where men like Howard Roark can pursue such un-self-sufficient professions such as architecture.

Another notable aspect of the novel is the fact that none of the major characters have children.  While this may have been aimed at maintaining an interesting storyline, any ideology that does not take into account the role of children in the lives of individuals and the functioning of society contains a rather large lacuna.  As I have not yet read Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged or any of her subsequent writings, I cannot say whether this lacuna was eventually filled, but it was an interesting omission.

In the end, one of the most irritating aspects of the book was how clear it was that all the characters were projections from the author’s mind.  Now, obviously in any novel, characters are creations of the author.  However, in The Fountainhead, characters essentially had the same major focus of egotism vs. collectivism and individuals vs. the masses, with their differences in though arising from whether they agreed with the author or were her diametric opposites.  One of the major antagonists, Ellsworth Toohey, “understands” how things work and uses societies quirks to engineer power for himself.  He sees the world in a similar light to Howard Roark, except that he has opposite goals.

Generally, opposing ideologies also come with differences of framing and focus.  When discussing abortion, pro-lifers focus on the life of the embryo and pro-choicers focus on the liberty of the mother.  Pro-lifers don’t spend their time trying to think of how to restrict a pregnant woman’s liberty and pro-choicers aren’t seeking to kill as many embryos as possible.  Now, it may be that some on each side portray their opponents of doing just that, but such portrayal is the mark of a lack of empathy and empathy is required both in understanding opponents and in writing novels.  The feeling I got from The Fountainhead was that the author lacks a trait that is vital for both writing a good book and for drafting a workable ideology.


About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
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6 Responses to The Fountainhead

  1. Nathan says:

    Read it a while ago, but I agree with you on many points, especially regarding Rand’s simultaneous exultation of mankind and nonbelief in God or special creation. I hadn’t noticed it before, but I think you’re right when you say Toohey and Roark (and the girl and the old man) all saw the world basically in the same way (collectivism vs individualism, what Rand saw), they just reacted to it different.

    The misappropriation of ‘self’ and related words didn’t really bother me, I also wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Rand’s way of looking at the world can say nothing on the matter of rape, just because she didn’t here in the book and the characters fell in love. Although I guess love and sex is treated rather strangely in the book (Rand lived an unorthodox life in this regard too if I remember right).

    One other thing bothered me that you didn’t mention: when Peter, pretty far along in his career after having Roark rub off on him, began painting and trying to express his individualism on his own, showed his paintings to Howard, who in effect said, “You’re too old.”

    For someone who loves the human spirit, it didn’t seem like Rand was giving people much credit to change or adapt in life. It’s almost like you had to be some shining, “selfish”, individual star from birth (like Roark) or else there’s nothing you could do about it.

    I would consider myself a libertarian, (more conservative on fiscal issues, def liberal on social ones, moderate overall) which is how I heard of Rand (they’re big fans of her on It’s odd because much of modern libertarian thought would seem to clash with Rand’s disdain for the non-innovators, but who knows.

    Another widely cited (nonfiction) thinker from about the same time is Frederick Hayek. He’s a little more practical, you might like him better Ben, probably worthwhile for anyone interested in foundations of libertarian thinking anyway.

    – Nathan Braun

  2. Meng Bomin says:

    You make a good point on the lack of possibility of character adaptation. I generally got a sense that Rand had a sort of “character essentialism” in mind where the characters each represented some essential set of characteristics. It’s a bit hard to tell what the significance of this aspect of the book is. One of the weaknesses of using a novel to push your ideology is the lack of certainty over what’s a narrative device and what’s a central tenet of your worldview.

    On Hayek, I actually have The Road to Serfdom and it’s on my reading list. I may not get to it right away, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll read it some time this fall. I think your recommendation moved it up a few notches.

    At some point, I’ll get around to reading Atlas Shrugged, which may give me a better idea of what Rand was thinking, but at this point, I’m feeling like there are probably more important things to find out. I feel like in order to give Rand a fair shake, I need to read the more cited book. The issue is how much time I have and what other priorities I have to deal with.

    Ultimately, when it comes to political philosophy, I find myself in a stage of indeterminacy. I definitely have some libertarian sympathies and feel that at the very least, libertarians are underrepresented in public discourse. However, I cannot see myself as a hard line libertarian and I’m not sure whether I’ll drift toward or away from it. I will say that, having scratched the surface, I see Rand as more of a center in libertarian culture rather than ideas. Reading Hayek will give me a better glimpse at the ideas involved.

  3. Nathan Braun says:

    Definitely understand about priorities in reading and not enough time. I doubt I’m a hard line libertarian either. My main problem with the left is not one of intentions. Take Obama, for example, I don’t doubt his genuine good intentions or abundance of intelligence and talent (way beyond his predecessor in my opinion). But some of the problems government is trying to solve (this is not unique to any one party) are simply computationally beyond any one centralized body’s capacity to solve. I think there’s real evidence that more decentralized, market and price based systems are effective.

    Hayek is probably considered the father of these ideas, but a lot of people have worked to expand and make them more digestible. I know your reading list is long Ben, but I’d also recommend this book:

    which is pretty short and easy to get through. This podcast (coincidently by the same author) get’s at related ideas pretty well:

    Coincidently both the book and podcast clash pretty heavily with Rand’s idea of human beings and how creation and innovation are the only worthwhile ways of making a living.

  4. dana says:


    saw your comment at onestdv, you may enjoy reading around the Roissy-sphere. you may wish to peruse Importance of Philosophy to get a full sense of Objectivism if you want to accurately discuss her ideas. they were not fully fleshed out and consistent yet in the fountainhead. also, rational egoism really goes back to max stirner, a hegelian of “the right” to whom marx and engels wrote “the german ideology” in response. there is a link to the full text on my blog’s sidebar

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