Homer. Herodotus. Sophocles. Plato. Aristotle. Demosthenes. Cicero. Vergil. These are the names etched across the top of Butler that serve the foundation of the Western canon. We learn that these thinkers comprise and inform the foundation of Western civilization, yet conspicuously missing from the list is one name: Ayn Rand.
There is a certain stigma attached to Ayn Rand, largely because of her unabashed love for the individual. I distinctly remember first hearing about her through a South Park episode in which one of the town police officers learns how to read as an adult, only to wish that he had never started reading because Atlas Shrugged had so convoluted his mind. I also saw libertarian works in my grandfather's library every time I visited as a child. I could never shake these images from my mind, and so last summer, I decided to embark on a journey through Atlas Shrugged. It took me three months, and it was one of the most arduous, yet rewarding, experiences of my academic life.
Rand's Core principles include "Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride." These virtues logically follow Aristotle, Locke and Smith, and Rand applies them to modern society in which government is increasingly empowered—for Rand's leaving Russia during its Stalinist days directed her principles. If we follow the progression of thinkers along the opposite side of the curriculum, we see Plato, Hobbes and Rousseau, followed by, in the more modern era, Marx.
Why set up this parallel? In the Western canon, Marx and Rand are almost perfect opposites. Where Marx believes in the value of all living for the community, Rand believes in living for oneself. Where Marx argues that the government should control the factors of production and plan society, Rand feels that the government's powers should almost all be ceded to private individuals. Whereas Marx believes in the downtrodden laborer as the hero, Rand believes in the individual who puts thoughts to productive action as the real hero. And yet Marx remains unchallenged as our curriculum is currently constituted.
The Contemporary Civilization creed purports to "introduce students to a range of issues concerning the kinds of communities—political, social, moral, and religious—that human beings construct for themselves and the values that inform and define such communities; the course is intended to prepare students to become active and informed citizens." In the 20th century, Rand made a major contribution in light of these aims. Rand set up the way in which humans should construct themselves, through which one could derive political, social, moral and religious values. As one of my friends notes, "Atlas Shrugged itself has been ranked as the second most influential book in the history of the West to the Bible for crying out loud."
But superficial rankings probably will not convince more than a handful of people about the importance of Rand in the curriculum. Nor, apparently, will sending e-mails to the head of the department of Contemporary Civilization—I tried this tactic multiple times and never received a response. So what I can offer in the defense of Rand is this: if one of the major aims of the Core is to facilitate purposeful, engaging intellectual discourse on the major works that have influenced western thought, then Rand should be given her chance to compete in the intellectual marketplace of ideas. Not only this, but in a campus so politically charged, one will find that Rand will possess certain principles to which the outspoken left will ascribe (think total social freedom), and certain principles to which the quiet right will ascribe (think laissez-faire).
But above crass political mudslinging, the most important thing that Rand does is make one question one's beliefs. I always wondered how capitalism could be morally justifiable, whether or not the rich should be shunned as most of society does, why the welfare state is inherently bad, how selfishness could be perceived as anything but appalling. In a word, where in my heart I was scared to be an egoist, Rand showed me that I should not hate this impulse, but I should embrace it, and that if all were to embrace it, the bounds of human progress would be limitless. I learned that striving to achieve and putting thought to action was the highest goal that I could seek, and that this would lead to my ultimate happiness.
Everyone's reading of Rand will produce different results—some will be appalled at her emphasis on the individual. Others will find her views on love to be in stark contrast to those of the Greeks. Still others might find that Rand's emphasis on the unfettered free market is compelling. The particulars, however, are insignificant. What matters is that the Core is deserving of the works of Rand because her influence on Western thought in the last century was unprecedented, and the discourse that her works engender will be passionate and enriching.
I could have no greater lasting legacy at Columbia than to have garnered the inclusion of Rand in our CC curriculum so that others might have a chance to hear a different perspective, to challenge their preconceived notions, and to see that to unleash the heroic from within is the most natural and beautiful aim for which we can strive. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Rand makes us examine life and challenges us always to check our premises. The Core should only be so lucky to have Ms. Rand in its graces.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics-political science.