View from
The Center

What Søren Kierkegaard Can Teach the Left About Ayn Rand

(Royal Danish Library)

“The view of Rand as a self-absorbed, even solipsistic, apologist for the greed of nefarious capitalists…was always a myopic misreading of Rand, at least if one pays close attention to her novels.”

In an essay for Merion West, Matt McManus attempts to explain what the Left can learn from Søren Kierkegaard. The “father of existentialism,” Kierkegaard had much to say about the individual’s quest for a meaningful existence. As McManus writes, the “one consistent theme in Kierkegaard’s oeuvre…is how only a true individual can obtain meaning in their life.” This focus on the individual stands in contrast to conservative views that prioritize the community over the individual. In the words of McManus, “[t]he inverse argument to this is Kierkegaard’s warnings about the meaninglessness of sacrificing one’s individuality to become a member of mass society.”

Ironically, this is the same root concern that occupied Ayn Rand throughout her life. In telling us what Kierkegaard can teach the Left, McManus implicitly makes a case for what the Left can learn from a perennial favorite of right-wing libertarians. Rand not only shared the Left’s “staunchly secular” approach to life but also joined Kierkegaard in his concern with the quest of a “true individual” for meaning in life. Like Kierkegaard, Rand was deeply skeptical that questions about meaning in life can be adequately resolved by an appeal to community norms and values. 

An enemy of collectivism, Rand was highly contemptuous of conformity. She would have agreed wholeheartedly with Kierkegaard’s caustic observation that “[p]eople demand freedom of speech as compensation for the freedom of thought they seldom use.” In Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the character Ellsworth Toohey exploits his right of free speech, as well as his platform as an esteemed architecture critic for popular publications to promote a “humanitarian” ideal for society. This humanitarian ideal effectively vilifies individuals who exercise their freedom of thought. Toohey promotes a culture of collective solidarity that insidiously stifles, and even belittles, aspirations and achievements that arise from the creative activities of individuals exercising their freedom of thought. 

Similarly, Kierkegaard drew a line between what we say we believe in public and what we would genuinely believe in private, if we bothered to think about it. This contrast exposes a shortcoming in the conservative belief that community values outlive whatever the individual can achieve on his own. Like a Left concerned about whether right-wing populism and postmodern conservatism provide suitable answers to questions about meaning in life, Rand and Kierkegaard worried about views which, as McManus writes, run “the danger of becoming reactionary and idolizing the community at the expense of the individual who may be truly committed to discovering the real truth about the meaning of existence.” The state, the church, and other social institutions demand, for McManus, “conformity from the individual to secure the stability of [their] own contingent values.” This is unsatisfactory because we end up settling “passively for what others tell us we should believe in.”

Moreover, conservatism “falters and quickly becomes vulgar and unmeaningful, since in the last instance it only displaces the problem of meaning from the liberal individual to the group and its values.” In other words, “the conservative wants to displace the danger of nihilism by collectively ignoring it.” Given these caveats, McManus emphasizes that the Left needs “to provide progressive arguments that speak to our deeper human aspiration for meaning, and that stress an individualism committed to deeper principles than just those articulated by any given community.” 

Rand’s Quest for Meaning 

McManus identifies “neoliberalism” as a central culprit behind the predicament in which both the Right and Left find themselves: in desperate search for meaning that transcends the bottom line of dollars and cents. It may seem odd, then, to identify Rand as a friend of the Left in its search for meaning. “For decades,” McManus writes, “the neoliberal ethos orienting society has maintained that the purpose of life is to become financially successful enough to achieve material prosperity and professional standing.” Both the Right and Left largely acceded to this ethos, seeming to hand a victory to a perennial favorite of the libertarian Right—namely, Ayn Rand, a twentieth-century novelist who became famous for promoting capitalism and the “virtue of selfishness.”

This is unfortunate. The view of Rand as a self-absorbed, even solipsistic, apologist for the greed of nefarious capitalists (see this superficial, cherry-picking segment on Rand by comedian John Oliver), was always a myopic misreading of Rand, at least if one pays close attention to her novels. Rand has mostly lost any luster she had a philosopher, and, frankly, I never had a lot of interest in her philosophical works. But her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were explosively, and deservedly, inspirational as stories which celebrated the “true individual,” for whom the ideal vocation is one which is also a passionate avocation—not a mere job that brings home the proverbial bacon.

Rand’s characters were often solitary figures who were deemed unfriendly to society. The one vulnerability in Rand’s characters was that they were so engrossed in their cherished endeavors that they were indifferent to public animosity toward them. As such, they were otherwise inattentive to public figures like Ellsworth Toohey and Wesley Mouch who turned public sentiment against them by vilifying them as selfish and anti-social, unconcerned for the welfare of their fellow man. 

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt figured this all out and led a revolt, convincing business icons to withdraw from their enterprises and disappear from society. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark figured it out and gave a momentous speech in court which exonerated him after he blew up a building for which he provided the blueprint. One of his memorable lines was: “independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value, what a man is and makes of himself, not what he has or hasn’t done for others.” This remark would seem to vindicate Rand’s critics, especially since Roark demolished a public housing project. But Roark had agreed to design the project without public recognition, on the sole condition that the project be built according to the plan he laid out.

The point for Rand, however, was that the individual who stays committed to his creative aspirations is the ultimate benefactor of mankind.

In other words, all that mattered to Roark was that his plan be carried out faithfully. It was not fame he wanted but, rather, the fulfillment that came with working out a problem and seeing his solution realized. He worked in secrecy as part of a deal with Peter Keating, an old acquaintance who was both friend and nemesis, and who came to Roark for help in designing the project as a way to resurrect his career. Keating had done so before, and the results had been spectacular for Keating in terms of fame and career advancement. Roark did not mind so long as he had an opportunity to build something as he envisaged it. As he stated in court, “[t]here is no substitute for personal dignity.”

The same was true of John Galt and his band of rebels, with the difference being that Rand is more proactive in Atlas Shrugged about lauding the virtues of capitalism, while, in the The Fountainhead, she is more proactive about exposing the evils of socialism. The point for Rand, however, was that the individual who stays committed to his creative aspirations is the ultimate benefactor of mankind. Human ingenuity and progress are the result of “true individuals” engaged in creative activities that give expression to interests that provide them with meaning in life. The “true individuals” contribute most to the welfare of mankind—not only in terms of their creative output but also because they set an example of what it means to reject the sacrifice of personal integrity. 

One does not find meaning in life by thinking first about what one can do for others—but by thinking first about what one can do for oneself. This does not mean becoming a glutton, seeking, as McManus writes, “pure hedonistic enjoyment of drugs and alcohol, pursuing money and material objects, and so on.” It also does not mean hoarding wealth or neglecting the humanity of others, as Roark showed in his austere life and in his devotion to Henry Cameron, a once-renowned architect who had his own fights against conformity and was eventually abandoned by society. Instead, one finds meaning by finding his place in the world, and one finds his place by finding what he loves to do. If you find something you love to do, you’ll likely end up being of great use to society, but only because you solved the question of meaning for yourself, not for others. 

Unfortunately, in a century that saw the rise of mass movements resulting in fascism and totalitarianism—and in an American society which was not immune from collectivist sentiments of its own—Rand’s ideal individual was depicted as an eccentricity which needed to be denounced and repudiated. Rand’s ideal individual was not welcomed by the tides of public opinion celebrating mindless conformity to what the Frankfurt School deemed the culture industry

The same kind of concern preoccupies McManus and also preoccupied Kierkegaard. “For too long,” McManus writes, progressives “have left problems of meaning to the Right, while largely focusing on issues of material equality and political participation. These are no doubt crucial issues, but it is not enough.” The effort to “stress an individualism committed to deeper principles than just those articulated by any given community” is one “of the key tasks for progressives today.” 

Instead of turning to Rand, McManus turns to Kierkegaard. I can see why, but I would argue that Kierkegaard was concerned with the same kind of existential angst that galvanized the writing of Rand’s novels. Having covered Rand, I turn to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, in which Kierkegaard introduces the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This notion provides us with a “deeper principle,” which stresses an individualism to which Kierkegaard, Rand, McManus and the modern Left can aspire. 

Fear and Trembling

Kierkegaard dwells on the trial of faith which made the Biblical Abraham a great man. Kierkegaard believed that many of his contemporaries did not understand faith. In fact, they had cheapened faith. Seeking to understand faith, Kierkegaard turned to the “father of faith” to illustrate an act of faith as a personal commitment to the will of God, even when the commitment becomes ridiculous or violates ethical principles through which the will of God is supposed to manifest. 

Kierkegaard does not claim to “understand” faith, nor does he claim to understand how Abraham was able to endure in his faith in the face of God’s request to sacrifice his son Isaac. Rather, he sets out to reconcile Abraham’s faith with Abraham’s sacrifice. Kierkegaard argues that the greatness of Abraham and his act of faith lies in the so-called teleological suspension of the ethical. God demanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, an act conflicting with the ethical principle that a father should not murder his son. Moreover, Isaac’s death means the death of Abraham’s seed. It is the death of a people and, thus, the promise that Abraham would be the father of his people.

It makes no sense. God’s demand for Isaac’s sacrifice is ethically untenable. Yet the ethical is presumed to express a moral law of God. Obedience to the ethical is to be in a relationship with God. But Abraham suspends the ethical. It does not apply. Abraham believes the sacrifice of Isaac is the right thing to do. Abraham maintains faith that God’s promise will be fulfilled despite the sacrifice. His justification lies in his direct relationship with God, unmediated by the normal ethical principle, transparent to any rational mind, that a father should not murder his son. God places himself in a direct relationship with Abraham, and Abraham does the same, thereby proving his faith.

Kierkegaard is at a loss to explain this paradox of faith. He understands that Abraham is a great man for intrinsically being able to reconcile the sacrifice of Isaac with God’s promise that Abraham will be the father of future generations. But Kierkegaard does not understand how Abraham makes this “leap of faith.” He only observes that the telos, or goal, that is at stake is proving the faith. Despite being untenable by normal standards, Abraham’s act of faith is justified by Abraham’s personal relationship with God. Abraham is in an “absolute relation to the absolute,” i.e. God, for whom anything is possible. This act of faith and its justification, however, are unintelligible in a world that normally functions in accord with the kind of rationally intelligible ethical demands that Kierkegaard sarcastically associated with “system” thinkers like Hegel.

Abraham undertakes a deeply private act of faith, justified by his absolute relation to the absolute. The ethical life for Abraham is individually defined. The ethical as universal, as an intelligible demand made on all of us, is pushed aside so that Abraham can prove his faith and bring himself into a private relationship with God. “Then faith’s paradox is this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual…determines his relation to the universal through his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute through his relation to the universal.”

Pushing aside the ethical, Abraham throws himself into complete solitude. He cannot make himself understood because it is only possible to do so through the ethical as universal. Abraham suspends the ethical, makes an unintelligible leap of faith, and says directly to God: I have faith in your promise; here is Isaac, he is yours, even though he will be mine again when you live up to your promise.

Faith and Doubt

Kierkegaard claims that his contemporaries have doubted everything and then moved on, as if doubting were a preliminary step before moving onto something greater. “Every speculative score-keeper,” Kierkegaard writes, “who conscientiously marks up the momentous march of modern philosophy, every lecturer, crammer, student, everyone on the outskirts of philosophy or at its center is unwilling to stop with doubting everything.” This puzzled Kierkegaard, who observed that too many contemporary thinkers did not seem to take the act of doubting as seriously as Descartes or the ancient Greeks, for whom doubting was a skill acquired over a lifetime. 

It is as if doubt were something to be overcome as early as possible. “What those old Greeks…took to be the task of a whole lifetime,” Kierkegaard writes, “doubt not being a skill one acquires in days and weeks…that is where nowadays everyone begins.” Kierkegaard equates faith with doubt to make the same point about faith that he makes about doubt. “Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further,” he writes. His contemporaries were making a mistake in thinking that faith can be subsumed into concepts and thereby grasped with only a little effort. An act of faith is an exceedingly difficult achievement, not to be grasped in mere conceptual terms. 

Even if one were able to render the whole of the content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one had grasped faith, grasped how one came to it, or how it came to one.

For Kierkegaard, faith is not a conceptual achievement. His contemporaries cheapened faith by thinking that one has faith merely because one possesses a comprehensible concept of faith. They have not understood that faith is an act in which one struggles to define individually his own purpose—and to commit himself to that purpose, even when it is untenable to the point of ridicule. 

The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

“The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac,” Kierkegaard writes. This ethical demand is universal because it makes a conceptually intelligible demand on all fathers. But Abraham bypasses this principle. He suspends it to pursue a higher end—setting his own path. The ethical, as we ordinarily understand it, loses its supremacy when it comes to proving one’s faith. But who can understand this? We understand the ethical, but how does one understand the telos—proving one’s faith—in the service of which the ethical is suspended? And who can understand the individual who suspends the ethical to undertake the leap of faith? 

Abraham becomes an icon of existentialism in making a profound commitment to an individually defined telos, justified by the direct relationship he has with God rather than by an appeal to the ethical.

He makes the infinite movement of resignation and gives up his claim to Isaac, something no one can understand because it is a private undertaking. But then he further makes—and at every moment is making—the movement of faith. This is his comfort. For he says, “Nevertheless it won’t happen, or if it does the Lord will give me a new Isaac on the strength of the absurd.”

Faith is a deeply individualistic commitment to the paradoxical belief that God’s promise will be fulfilled despite the sacrifice. It is a belief in what is impossible. Abraham can justify his faith not by its intelligibility to others but by proving it as he stands face to face with God and hands over his son Isaac, while believing that God will fulfill his promise. This act of faith is deeply private. Abraham is alone and cannot be understood. “Abraham is great through an act of purely personal virtue.” This is why he remains silent with Sarah and Isaac. He cannot convey what this act of faith means.

Abraham becomes an icon of existentialism in making a profound commitment to an individually defined telos, justified by the direct relationship he has with God rather than by an appeal to the ethical. The ethical as a moral guideline and a way of making oneself understood is suspended so that Abraham is able to prove his faith in God (and in the fulfillment of God’s promise).

In his (Abraham’s) actions, he overstepped the ethical altogether and had a higher telos outside it, in relation to which he suspended it….Then why does Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof.

The Virtue and Value of Independence

Kierkegaard’s primary interest in Fear and Trembling is to cast faith as a lifelong struggle to stay committed to the belief that God’s promise will be fulfilled. An act of faith is a journey in which one suffers through the distress and anguish of sustaining this commitment even when all seems lost. Like Roark in the courtroom, Kierkegaard is making a case that “independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value.” It is the individual who is responsible for finding meaning in life. This is especially so when the individual cannot appeal to solidarity with others, in this case because Abraham’s act of faith is a paradox. 

It was by his faith that Abraham could leave the land of his fathers to become a stranger in the land of promise. He left one thing behind, took another with him. He left behind his worldly understanding and took with him his faith. Otherwise, he would surely not have gone; certainly, it would have been senseless to do so.

Abraham’s act of faith is a teleological suspension of the ethical; in this case, the ethical demand that a father not kill his son. Similarly, Roark’s decision to dynamite the housing project—or Galt’s campaign to persuade the business icons of society to withdraw from society—are teleological suspensions of “ethical” demands by mass society that the individual subordinate his personal integrity to the whimsical demands of public opinion, public bureaucrats, or public intellectuals.

Of course, Abraham’s act of faith, Roark’s demolition, and Galt’s revolt are all unique responses to different sets of ethical demands that stem from different social conditions. But Abraham, Roark, and Galt share an uncompromising fealty to personal integrity. In the case of Abraham, it is the integrity of faith. In the case of Roark, it is the integrity of architecture. In the case of Galt, it is the integrity of private enterprise. But none of them is able to justify their integrity by an appeal to the intelligible “ethical” demands or social values of public opinion. They suspend the “ethical” in pursuit of the greater telos—the pursuit of meaning rooted in solitary endeavors that run against the grain of prevailing customs.

The “true individuals” must often walk alone, silent, isolated, and exiled. They are misunderstood, denounced as antisocial moral outcasts. How does the individual justify himself in the face of societal disapproval and repudiation? How does he justify the telos for which he suspends the ethical? This position of estrangement is one in which the individual who suspends the ethical finds himself. “But now when the ethical is thus teleologically suspended, how does the single individual in whom it is suspended exist? He exists as the particular in opposition to the universal.”

This individual cannot make himself understood. Sounding very much like Rand, Kierkegaard writes that the individual’s only justification is himself. “His justification is, once again, the paradox; for if he is the paradox it is not by virtue of being anything universal, but of being the particular.” “A hero who has become the scandal of his generation, aware that he is a paradox that cannot be understood, cries undaunted to his contemporaries: ‘The future will show I was right!’”

Conclusion

We might be inclined to criticize Kierkegaard for relativism and solipsism. But his interpretation fails to grasp the profound angst of an individual’s solitary quest for meaning. The individual who suspends the ethical does not merely ignore the ethical. He understands its power and import for humanity. Abraham suffers during the journey to Moriah, knowing that God is asking him to perform what is ethically and rationally untenable. But Abraham also knows that his faith and God’s promise have greater significance than the ordinary ethical principle at stake. The ethical is suspended because Abraham’s goal has greater significance. Abraham suspends the ethical and proves his faith, understanding that the promise has a greater significance than the ethical. But this means the individual must exist as a paradox, and this entails suffering and anguish.

Similarly, Roark and Galt part ways with society in order to pursue actualization of their own creative visions. Abraham, Roark, and Galt cannot escape their isolation. They pursue and achieve ends not justified by the “ethical.” In isolation, they suffer. But in this isolation also lies the seed of a profoundly meaningful existence. Kierkegaard may have been a melancholy Christian while Rand was a rational atheist who celebrated life, but both provided us with a vision of the individual in triumphant pursuit of a meaningful existence. For Abraham, it was about the paradox of faith. For Roark and Galt, it was about the integrity of their creative work. In either case, the teleological suspension of the ethical was all about the “true individual” in pursuit of a meaningful existence.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

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johnsonofdaw
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johnsonofdaw

The only thing Rand and Kierkegaard agreed on was that humans had free will. But for Rand that was our wonderful ability to choose to think rationally, which is our glory. For Kierkegaard that was our terrible plight of having to choose but not knowing how to, so being doomed to an existence of fear and trembling.

John Donohue
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John Donohue

This is one of the most interesting attempts I’ve read in half a century to drop Ayn Rand into favorable comparison with a theist.

However, I can hear Miss Rand calmly watching for a brief moment, then tapping Abraham on the shoulder and saying “This guy Kierkegaard is suffering from the contradiction. He is not listening to me. Would you please just kill God instead of your son and relieve the nightmare?”

Adam
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Adam

Wow. This is profoundly misleading and wrong.