The Roark Attack

Howard Roark was a chess genius. He had known this, utterly securely, since his sixth birthday, when he had discovered the chess set in his attic and immediately known how to play. Sitting on pile of magazines which contained the dreary, identical thoughts of the chess ancients, he had there and then created his own unique and devastating attack. He knew that any any honest chess player could not beat it.

Growing up, Roark was a strapping but silent child. He was deeply unpopular at school, but when his fellows came to pound on him, he simply straightened up and a strange, cold light would come into his eyes. Deeply impressed, they would slink off, and would later whisper amongst themselves about how great they really thought he was. Their biggest fear was only that he would one day find this out.

Roark was bothered through his whole childhood by inferior adults wanting to play him at chess. He didn’t feel sorry for them – no, rather he felt embarrassed for them and thought how they weren’t proper people, when you get down to it. His floozy of an Aunt was the first, barely interested in the game as she made eyes at his father. Amazingly, his father played even worse then her, and Roark knew this man had no talent. Roark did not feel regret the man was his father – rather he knew his talent came only from him, and he had no influences of any sort. The doctor clearly just wanted some vicarious thrill of seeing the young play so well, and his enthusiasm was sickening to see. When he brought Roark some old books and articles on chess, Roark handed them back to him in silence, and told him he did not mind the insult.

After his father died, Roark made an honest and good living from playing chess in all the great towns of Europe. A lesser man would have tried to impress others, like our readers, with this, but he would never talk about his experiences with anyone. One day, some silly flighty woman handed him back something she thought he had dropped – of course, Roark never made mistakes like that, and simply handed her back the handkerchief. When he saw how she was kind and perceptive, he lost interest completely, and advised her to find a more suitable man and station in life.

Roark played against opponents as little as possible – he preferred to play thousands of games against himself, lost in his own brilliance. Roark was very selfish. Sometimes, he would have to play in tournaments, which he only did to bring money in because he knew they were all corrupt and meaningless. One player, the suave and calculating Turati, would follow Roark around and try to play him whenever he could – cared only for what people thought of him, and made sure he was always photographed, looking suave, while Roark sat next to him stiff as a board with a neutral expression.

Turati approached him before the tournament began. He smiled and extended his hand – Turati knew that this made him look affable – and started talking of the many great players at the tournament, and the mechanics of his new defence.
“Bongiourno, grandmaster Roark! I am so pleased to see you here. I am a great admirer of your – what do you call – relentless, homogeneous attack. It has something of the late Luzhin about it – but more direct, I think. But I have been thinking long and hard about how to beat it – I often spend most of my time thinking about others, I try to be selfless in that way! But not to blow my own trumpet!”. Turati smiled, suavely.
“Yes”, said Roark
“Anyway, now we must start the game. I think there my opponent is just over there. May the best man win, grandmaster Roark” oozed Turati
“Yes”, said Roark
“Please give my regard to your charming wife” … for a moment Turati looked puzzled, and then smiled warmly again .. “ah no, I must be thinking of someone else. Anyway, my apologies, and good luck again”.
Roark looked at him flatly – turned – and walked away.

Roark obviously beat every player in the ladder, like a machine. He played the same way every time, and looked with disgust on the dishonest and self-deceiving ways some of the players tried to manipulate the game. Eventually he had to play Turati in the final round.

Turati was panicking. He could see Roark’s essential brilliance, and knew he could not honestly win against it. He had tried to charm Roark with his suaveness, and now over the gleaming golden chessboard he tried every trick that had made him an European grandmaster.
“Grandmaster – do you want to look at these erotic photographs of my many mistresses? They are extremely erotic,” he simpered
“Grandmaster – I think I have dropped my money down there. What a shame it would be if another grandmaster might – accidentally – pick it up,” he cajoled
“Grandmaster – don’t you feel terribly sorry for me? Why don’t you just let me win. I might cry otherwise,” he intoned
“Don’t – call me grandmaster” – was all that Roark said.

Nevertheless, Turati’s sneekiness and dishonesty was somehow burying Roark. He simply would not play decently in response to the attack, and even seemed to be anticipating Roark’s beautiful, pure, decent, individualistic moves – and playing them back at him mockingly. Roark just couldn’t win in four or five minutes as he usually did. He could see he would maybe only get a draw.

Suddenly, he was at the other side of the chessboard. The spectators saw him in a violent motion shoving a pawn up Turati’s nose. Then he spoke, flatly and calmly:
“Chess is a game of structure, and reflects a man’s soul. Only a man of pure and honest soul can play chess well. To win in a way that uses combinations dishonestly reveals the corruption of your mind. Never think of your opponent, never worry about what’s in his mind. I have never worried. Let the pure chess expression, which you will know even if you never use it to play chess against anyone else, define you. Chess is a game of individuals – and we must never let this individuality be compromised, ever. This is the most important thing, second only to that which is most obvious, free-market economics. People are always trying to make me forget this. I don’t care about them. I don’t care much about other people. I care about chess. And I also care about free-market economics, and individualism. Individualism is…”.

Roark spoke in this way for thirty or forty minutes. When he had finished, every member of the audience knew he was correct. Turati was weeping with joy at how right Roark was, and knew he could never be that right.

And at this Roark barged through the crowd, and out into the street, bellowing his own name. As he staggered through the streets of Berlin, a kind of righteous fury overwhelmed him – all the passers-by seemed to have his face, and he continued to shout his own name as he clinched his moral victory.



Let’s take some time to look in detail with how Rand executes the features we’ve identified. We can make the trouble with Rand’s writing stand out in bold relief when we compare Roark’s portrayal in The Fountainhead with Luzhin in The Defence in these terms.

Unskilled, and unaware of it

We all know somebody who makes a complex, daunting, or artful task seem effortless (if you don’t, maybe it’s not you). We might even know somebody who is truly exceptional at that task, in a way that seems qualitatively different from other people’s efforts – some sort of genius, perhaps. Let’s bracket for the moment the old chestnut of how much of this is nature, and how much acquired – whenever this gets raised, the debate is usually ended fairly quickly with well it’s both, just in varying degrees – and apart from anything, once something has become part of your nature, the significance of its origins becomes moot.

But – even if this person is entirely self-taught, or a savant – we know that the talents don’t just suddenly appear fully-formed. There is a process – even an entirely internal one – which has to be gone through, worked at, and refined. Internally, this process must essentially be self-reflective – for a start, you don’t get any better at something – anything – unless you are initially extremely self-critical, while having also the drive to continue in the face of doubt. If you’re going excel at something, and be original as well – surely just the first tiny steps to becoming a genius – then you have to be essentially dissatisfied, be needled into continuous refinement – at least until you reach the end of the process, and maybe that never occurs.

I’ve mentioned the wonderful Dunning-Kruger effect before – this is whereby individuals can lack the skills to be capable of identifying themselves as unskilled. To a neophyte, it might seem you can pick up everything about a broad topic from reading a wikipedia article – but when you begin to accrue some knowledge, the true scale of what you have yet to master is revealed. Self-satisfaction can drive this phenomenon – if you already think you have life sussed, why go to the trouble to learn a little more than you need? But so can isolation.

Contact with a community doing similar work to you can help to drive you out of the DK effect. Whether it’s low-level like technical points of comparison, or higher like debating the reasons for the activity, participating in – or even just resisting – a community of practice is vital. We see this all the time with programmers – “they start off original, and become good”. It’s not like the originality is not a virtue (though there are some who would like to eliminate it) – it’s that most self-taught programmers have no idea of the disciplines needed to create larger projects. And most look back after a year or so of professionalism – and gasp at the code they once thought elegant.

This isn’t some esoteric experience – all of us who have even dabbled with competency know it. And even if we know nothing of chess, the process of the transformation of Luzhin from a little boy who doesn’t even know what chess pieces are to seedy Grandmaster is so instantly recognisable as to seem almost effortless.

In the first chapter of the novel, little Luzhin runs away from the station where the train is due to take him to St Petersburg and the school he is dreading, and hides in the attic, where: “Besides books there was a shuttlecock with one feather, a large photograph (of a military band), a cracked chessboard, and some other not very interesting things.” We know Luzhin has a gift for combinatorial thinking – and defence – but before the initial point of contact a chessboard is just another piece of unloved clutter. We’ve already talked about how the timid Luzhin, hiding in a corner of his father’s room to escape the attentions of family friends at a concert, is first introduced to chess. He gains a compulsion to learn the game and cajoles his Aunt to show him the moves, and later fidgets while he watches his schoolmates play –

“But ‘tower’ turned out to be a synonym for ‘cannon.’. With gnawing envy and irritating frustration Luzhin watched the game, striving to perceive those harmonious patterns the musician had spoken of and feeling vaguely that in some way or other he understood the game better than these two, although he was completely ignorant of how it should be conducted, why this was good and that bad, and what one should do to penetrate the opposite King’s camp without losses.”

It’s later at his Aunt’s, while bunking off school, that one of her (unwanted) suitors begins to play against him seriously.

“The old gentleman played divinely … this first time when after a few moves Luzhin’s ears were burning and there was nowhere to advance, it seemed to Luzhin he was playing a completely different game from the one his aunt had taught him. The board was bathed in fragrance. The old man called the Officer a Bishop and the Tower, a Rook, and whenever he made a move that was fatal for his opponent he would immediately take it back, and as if disclosing the mechanism of an expensive instrument he would show the way his opponent should have played in order to avert disaster. He won the first fifteen games without the slightest effort, not pondering his moves for a moment, but during the sixteenth game he suddenly began to think and won with difficulty”

Luzhin’s eventual draw against his teacher is described as like a sudden bursting through of light into his internal conception of the game:

“…on this last day, after a long exciting struggle during which the old man revealed a capacity for breathing hard through the nose – Luzhin perceived something, something was set free within him, something cleared up, and the mental myopia that had been painfully beclouding his chess vision disappeared. ‘Well, well, it’s a draw,’ said the old man. He moved his Queen back and forth a few times the way you move the lever of a broken machine … ‘You’ll go far,’ said the old man. ‘You’ll go far if you continue on the same lines. Tremendous progress!”

It doesn’t end there – after shyly revealing his new talent to his father, he plays against a stream of increasingly impressive opponents, including the country doctor (“a first-rate player … derived enormous pleasure from these incessant defeats”), his geography teacher (“a well-known amateur”), and “a grey haired Jew … a senile chess genius who had been victorious in all the cities of the world but now lived in idleness and poverty, purblind”. He studies chess compulsively: the “immortal games that remained from former tournaments …  Luzhin gradually ceased to reconstruct actually on the board and contented himself with perceiving their melody mentally through the sequence of symbols and signs”. The country doctor carefully nurtures his interest –

“He brought Luzhin a chess handbook … [and] spoke about the grand masters he had had the occasion to see, about a recent tournament … about the great Philidor … At times, grinning gloomily, he would bring what he termed ‘a sugarplum’ – an ingenious problem cut out of some periodical. Luzhin would pore over it a while, find finally the solution and with an extraordinary expression on his face and radiant bliss in his eyes would exclaim, burring his r’s: ‘How glorious, how glorious!’”

Nabokov does not spend chapters on this process – his rigorous structure for the book demands that he is economical – but in the space of the chapter we have a complete arc of the emergence of chess genius, from encounter, through frustration, competence, to mastery – completely believable and compellingly. This is clearly an intensive, continually evolving process, captured in microcosm by Luzhin repeatedly updating his names for the pieces: “cannon” becoming “tower” becoming “rook”.

We are both intimately party to Luzhin’s inner life during the most exciting time of his life, and can see him from the outside – as a fey, awkward child, with obvious talent, but just starting out. What must be a common childish experience: “gnawing envy” and a little arrogance at seeing others doing something we love better: Luzhin feels “vaguely … in some way or another” that his understanding is superior – is captured from both sides. Nabokov does not want to deny that the seeds of Luzhin’s brilliance are innate to him – and here we see simultaneously those responding, and Luzhin’s still childish response. Every adult that Luzhin plays kindly guides him, even as they see his brilliance emerge: “whenever he made a move that was fatal for his opponent he would immediately take it back“. But Luzhin is not an Athena, springing fully formed – he is beaten again and again by the divinely-playing suitor. Again, from the outside we know that the old man is doing ten year-old Luzhin a service by not patronising him and letting him win – and this deepens our joy when he finally forces a draw, and we experience something like the clarity that he must have gained.

Luzhin, withdrawn and unsociable to the point of pain, is now brought into constant contact with new opponents – and finds he can engage with them through the medium of chess. We see each one challenging and bringing a new aspect into his play, and introducing him to the wider chess world: we have never seen such an expression of joy from him as when he solves the doctor’s chess problem. He teaches himself as well from the “immortal games” republished in magazines, and we see he has become familiar with particular player’s chess theory: “At the very beginning of the fourth game Luzhin pushed back the piece moved by his father and with a shake of his head said in a confident unchildlike voice: ‘The worst reply. Chigorin suggests taking the Pawn.’”. Here, we see Luzhin through his father’s eyes – impressed, but thrown by his son’s sudden seriousness. Look at how finely balanced the writing is here: more clumsily it would sound out of character, but in fact it is characteristically childish to completely absorb the tone of something we have been studying (“the worst reply”), right down to the  passive voice (“Chigorin suggests”). We see the same blending of real chess mastery, and continuing childishness that so unnerves his father.

The sequence is also dramatic, and even though the passages are fairly brief and we know the outcome, there is something thrilling reading about Luzhin slowly realising his power.


Literature, Nabokov, Rhetoric

Luzhin, exceptional and familiar

Affirming our opposition to bad art and banal thought is satisfying and often necessary. In the few days after I’d immersed myself back into the sludgy consistency of Rand’s novel, with all its bald and unchallenged commonplaces, I felt a real need to vent distaste, even just as cathartic resistance. Schadenfreude is fun, but it can get close to bad conscience if that’s all we’re doing – often something of an online speciality. Spending our whole time decrying the bad doesn’t cut it – something that Rand herself would have done well to mark: for all her pleas of positive virtue created by individuals, the majority of The Fountainhead is spent sneering at the trivially dismissable.

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Literature, Philosophy, Rhetoric

Reasoning why

Read the first half of this post here

In some lighter posts, I’ll come onto the severe weaknesses in Rand’s writing which I believe she cannot control, and which generated some of the fun that kept me sane during the harder going parts. But I think it’s clear that partially Roark’s bizarre construction is an intentional effect. Rand wants to create an embodiment of her virtues: if we were to describe Roark even in negative terms as unreflective, callous, monomaniacal or bone-headed, I can see the committed Randian openly embracing these qualities (though I suspect they would rather cast them as unswerving, selfish, focussed).

So why does it backfire so badly? I would challenge even the most starry-eyed devotee to find the Roark we’re given compelling. The narrative voice – and by extension Rand herself – chooses to spend more of the novel away from him than otherwise.  Even if we allow ourself to discount the rape scene – where the distancing is total, and he may as well be an incidental criminal – he comes out as a pretty second-rate kind of superman.

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Irony, Literature, Rhetoric, self-parody, Uncategorized

Goodies and badies

My favourite source (wikipedia) describes the process of the The Fountainhead as a series of interactions between Roark, the “author’s ideal man of independence and integrity” and a continuum of lesser personalities. While it’s certain that Roark is an flawless paragon for Rand, as I plowed through the first section it became very clear that Rand has no interest in providing us any nuanced characters. The Fountainhead is a novel where the characters are neatly split into badies and a vanishingly small number of goodies – it is never in any doubt which are the favoured creatures – and there is no prospect of complexity, heterogeneity of character, or redemption.

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Philosophy, Rhetoric

Amateur philosophical background: the ethics

In this second philosophical preamble to actually starting talking about The Fountainhead, I’m going to give an overview of the more relevant part of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, the ethics. Unlike the epistemology, which has a very ad-hoc vibe to it, it’s hard to dispute that Rand’s system of values was present (in increasing degrees) in her earlier novels, until it came to dominate her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. The length of the novels, and the volume of speechifying, correlates with this. Rand published a distillation of her position in The Virtue of Selfishness in 1961 (predating the epistemology), and it’s this we’ll draw on.

Heads up

Like in the Epistemology, I’m going to flag some things to watch out for as we go through Rand’s argument.

  1. I should do it because it’s natural. It was Hume that pointed out that there is a fundamental distinction between the descriptive – that which is observable in the world – and the normative – what we ought to morally do. Observing these kinds of disjunctions is commonplace: an observer in the antebellum South might see that slavery is all around him, and that it seems God has ordained that some men should be slaves – but clearly this doesn’t make the ethical decision. A more subtle example might be: John is good at getting on well with people, and this makes him a good person. We may strongly disagree with the first state of affairs and agree with the second, but in both cases we need to cross Hume’s divide.
  2. Nietzsche. As before Rand misrepresents effectively all the other philosophers she mentions. She’s … almost like an unreliable narrator in an interesting work of literature. The big one here is Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s brand of virtue ethics essentially argues that the world has become depressed under the weight of Christian self-sacrificing ethics. He posits a (rather implausible, but gripping) history of the world where in the time Homer, there was no distinction between being strong and being good. Christians were originally slaves, and because they had no power, they created an ethics where to suffer and to be oppressed was virtuous. This “slave morality” was poisonous, but also – and this is what takes Nietzsche far beyond Rand – what made men “interesting”. Nietzsche thinks to break free from this we must exercise our “will to power”, using our individual talents to become some sort of genius – an ubermensche. In doing this we can become “overflowing” with virtue, and create giant achievements for the benefit of all (like Beethoven). This sort of Virtue (or eudaimonic) ethics – where we identify qualities we see as virtuous and cultivate them – has had a resurgence in recent years. Nietzsche was a great psychologist, and his descriptions of the tensions between, say, the visceral world and the life of the mind, are still very resonant.
  3. Contraband. Generally, anyone formulating a theory of ethics wants it to broadly agree with the ethics of their time. Any ethical theory that advocates say, slavery is seen as faulty, and with good reason. Because of this, whenever any claims are made to be generating a universal, timeless ethics, great care must be taken not to smuggle the conclusions into the argument. Rand wants her ethics to indicate very specific things (like laissez-faire capitalism!) and we’ll see how she not-so-subtly slides these into her “objective” argument.

“If a man values destruction … like a masochist”

While there is a lot which is wobbly in the epistemology, its dryness makes it far more easy to take it seriously as a philosophical position. Selfishness suffers from a significantly worse prose style, which continually veers into the unintentionally comic. Ayn begins and ends the first, seminal essay (The Objectivist Ethics) by quoting her own fictional character, and repeatedly returns to John Galt as some kind of sage. Rand is self- parodically shrill in her call to arms:

most philosophers have now decided to declare that reason has failed, that ethics is outside the power of reason … must be guided by something other than reason. By what? Faith — instinct — intuition — revelation — feeling — taste — urge — wish — whim. Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim … If you wonder why the world is now collapsing to a lower and ever lower rung of hell, this is the reason. If you want to save civilization, it is this premise of modern ethics — and of all ethical history — that you must challenge.

The claim – that “all ethical history” has been based on subjective standards is plainly nonsense (millennia of theology would tend to point against this), and Rand’s bogey men: Kant, Descartes, Mill – were engaged in trying to ground ethics in something reliable, rather than being the subjectivists she thinks they are. Rand’s obvious, if unacknowledged, inspiration was Nietzsche (she was apparently teased as a teenaged that he had “already stolen all her ideas“), and his amoralism is far closer to Rand’s despised subjectivity.

It’s enough just to survive

Rand wants to begin from something she considers incontrovertible, and so starts from the position that living things exist and can die. So what is the good for plants and “lower animals”? Purely continuing their existence:

An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.


imagine an immortal, indestructible robot … Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could have no interests and no goals.

Rand follows this with a lovely bit of hubris

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values … The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”

so existence is the only good.

Right, where’s my crossbow?

But clearly there are many destructive ways to survive. I could eat my friendly neighbour and live off the thousands of calories within. Rand doesn’t want these ways to qualify – she hates “moochers”:

men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating

and “thugs”

men attempt to survive by means of brute force … or enslaving the men who produce

So Rand puts forth the idea that being rational is the key to survival:

Consciousness—for those living organisms which possess it—is the basic means of survival. For man, the basic means of survival is reason.


He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought. He needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting. His percepts might lead him to a cave, if one is available … No percepts and no “instincts” will tell him how to light a fire, how to weave cloth, how to forge tools … how to produce an electric light bulb or an electronic tube or a cyclotron … Yet his life depends on such knowledge

It’s important to note that Rand thinks that this is completely optional, and we have to work at this constantly to qualify:

it is a machine without a spark plug, a machine of which his own will has to be the spark plug, the self-starter and the driver; he has to discover how to use it and he has to keep it in constant action.

Dubious metaphor aside, this talk of will, as the tirade against self-sacrifice, is straight out of Nietzsche. But in an almost identical way to the ambiguity of the faculty required to distinguish essential properties in the epistemology, Rand has to insist that fact of rationality being the essence to survival comes straight out of nature itself:

That which his survival requires is set by his nature and is not open to his choice.

In itself it is very debatable whether Man’s rationality has been key to his survival. Human beings existed for 200,000 years – without even caves in most places (it’s a bit of a myth that early humans lived in caves, rather they used them as sacred sites and left relics and artwork there) before any of the things that Ayn describes, and certainly without nuclear weapons or dramatically increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The history of civilization (~10,000 years) is dramatically shorter than that of humans themselves, so if survival is the only yardstick we have a long way to go to prove rationality’s superiority. After all, dinosaurs were probably very stupid, and reigned on earth for 135 million years – 13,000 times longer than there has been any recorded human history.

Well, that was easy

So, Rand seems to believe that survival is the only thing, and being reasonable is the only way to get there. But remember those thugs. Rand wants us not just to live, but to live in a certain way.

In three helpfully short sentences she passes from one to the other:

(a) The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. (b) Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil. (c) Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.

(my annotations). One can only speculate that Rand passes over this so quickly because she is aware of how weak the connection between (a) and (b) and between (b) and (c) are. Let’s look at the sleight of hand in slow motion:

  1. (a) Survival is the judge of good and evil
  2. (b) Survival, in the way property to a rational being is good
  3. (c) Thinking and productive work are the good.

Ayn’s smuggling is very plain here. It’s clear that actually survival is not important if it is not in the right way. That right is a the value she has smuggled in – and its contents (thinking and productive work) are pulled clean out of the air.


Rand thinks that the life of the follower, moocher, thug etc are not surviving in the right way. One argument Ayn has for this is that it just doesn’t work:

If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating… it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think … The survival of such mental parasites depends on blind chance

If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force … or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims…Such looters are parasites incapable of survival

Rand is very strong on this

Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of a moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. As evidence, I offer you any criminal or any dictatorship.

These practical arguments are very weak. Stalin and Pinochet lived long lives, and North Korea has been ruled by a dynasty of vile dictators since the 50s. What about Jordan Belfort, the “Wolf of Wall street”, who was caught, spent some months in prison, paid back a fraction of what he made, and now makes $30,000 a time for speaking engagements?

Theoretically there is nothing inherently impossible about deciding to become a thug or a parasite as a means of existence. The utter profusion of parasites in the natural world should be a clue to this. As for the argument from chance – who’s to say using your own intelligence is a better gamble than following someone really smart? Wouldn’t that be the smart move for a dumb guy?

Live right

This is obviously deeply unsatisfactory, and Rand knows it. So she shifts her position to make survival as a rational being the good:

Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival.“Man’s survival qua man” means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being

In fact, she rather admits that you can survive while not being rational, but you’ve lowered yourself

He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature … But he cannot succeed, as a subhuman, in achieving anything but the subhuman

As the essay wears on, she forgets her reasoning, and becomes even stronger on this

In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death.

There is an attempt to hedge with the “in psychological terms” and the equation of suffering with death, but ultimately she is talking about a new standard here.

If everyone would just be reasonable, like me, then the world would be perfect!

Rand ultimately comes to formulate a sort of Virtue ethics, where instead of flourishing, rationality is seen as the ultimate good. Doing bad things is supposed to corrode your soul in some way – but in Rand’s version, it would mean you have acted irrationally, which is worst of all.

The problem with this is she has failed to ground it in anything at all. She doesn’t want virtue to come from the outside world (human nature or teleology) or from the structure of the human mind (that would be automatic and require no effort). Rather there must be a single right answer, inherent in the world, and the measure of your goodness is how close you reason your way to that answer. These correct answers are of course the values Rand developed in her troubled time in revolutionary Russia, and which run through her work like a stick of rock. Objectivism is really the ethics of nostalgia – reaching back to that universal right answer.

Finally, Rand is wrong about a monolithic cadre of philosophers being against opposed to this kind of naturalistic virtue ethics – teleologists like Alisdair MacIntyre have created similar systems, but explicitly built value in as part of the definition of virtues.