Was Ayn Rand an Aristotelian?

Most, if not all, of the criticisms of Ayn Rand’s philosophy I have seen over the years have been nonsensical. They have consisted in smears; or they show gross misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations of her views; and quite often a combination of both. But recently I encountered a criticism that I think deserves to be taken seriously. It is called Our Man in Greece: On the Use and Misuse of Aristotle on the Works of Ayn Rand by Peter Saint-Andre[1]. I will give my own thoughts on some of the points he brings up.

He takes her to task for the following statement:

The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.” (“Basic Principles of Literature” in The Romantic Manifesto,)

But in fact, Aristotle says nothing about “things as they ought to be”, only “things as they might be”. (Aristotle’s statement is in chapter 9 of The Poetics.) Ayn Rand simply puts her idea in Aristotle’s mouth.

Besides, I don’t think there is much fiction that actually depicts “things as they ought to be”. This may be true of Ayn Rand’s own novels (with the exception of We the Living), in the sense that the heroes triumph, the good wins out and the evil loses. But what about other famous (or not so famous) works? What about the ancient Greek tragedies, for example? Or the novels of Victor Hugo (Ayn Rand’s own favorite) for that matter? They all have tragic endings. I leave it to you to find more examples.

Then about Aristotle’s historical influence. Ayn Rand writes as follows:

Everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value we possess — including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language — is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles… (For the New Intellectual.)

This is an extremely sweeping statement.

How could Aristotle possibly be responsible for the structure of our language? For the way we form sentences? Is there any indication that even the Greek language was differently structured before Aristotle’s time, and that is was he who taught the Greek to form correct sentences? And what about us Swedes or Americans or whatever of today? Our ancestors at Aristotle’s time certainly did not read Greek and cannot possibly have read Aristotle.

Now, Aristotle does have some very elementary things to say about grammar and sentence structure. I believe he was the first one in the West[2] to identify the simple fact that a sentence must have a subject and a predicate (I think we get the word “predicate” from him, when he says that a verb predicates something about a noun or a subject). But this, of course, does not change the structure of the language; it merely identifies something that has always been true. Certainly, sentences have had subjects and predicates for as long as there have been people on earth.

What about Aristotle’s responsibility for the birth of science and the industrial revolution? Saint-Andre says that the evidence for this is “scant to non-existent”. But in one sense he was the father of science: He was the first to write extensively on scientific matters. For example, he was certainly the first to write extensively on zoology. (That much of what he wrote has since been proven wrong is another matter. But would we even have zoology today, if Aristotle had not inaugurated the subject?)

But it is equally true that few, if any, of the great scientists have acknowledged an intellectual debt to Aristotle. (Does Newton, for example, even mention Aristotle?)

But then, Ayn Rand also has the words “explicitly or implicitly”. Few, if any, great scientists have been explicit Aristotelians. But what about “implicit Aristotelianism”?

In very broad terms Plato was an “other-worldly” thinker, while Aristotle as a “this-worldly” thinker. And any scientist has to be “this-worldly” to achieve anything of value at all. So in this sense scientists would have to be “implicit Aristotelians”. But this is in very broad terms. If one goes into details of Aristotle’s epistemology (which is too large a subject for me to delve into at present), one might find other things.

According to Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand viewed history as a “duel between Plato and Aristotle”. An obvious objection to this is that history did not start with those two thinkers – so what was the driving force behind history before their time? But if one takes them as representatives and/or symbols of an “other-worldly” versus a “this-worldly” orientation, then this duel might have been going on since time immemorial. But this, too, is very broad and very sweeping. And in general, I distrust attempts to explain history by formulas such as this; history is simply too complex for this.[3]

As to Aristotle’s influence of the creation of the United States, the only thing I can think of off-hand is that he actually discusses “division of powers” between the legislative, the executive and the judicial branch in The Politics:

There are three elements in all constitutions, and every serious lawgiver must look for the best set-up for each of the three; if these are well done, the constitution will be well done, and the differences in constitutions correspond to the different set-up in each case. The three elements are, first, the deliberative, discussion about everything of national importance, second, the executive, the whole complex of officials and authorities, their number and nature, the limits of their power, and the methods by which they are selected, and third, the judicial system. (The Politics, Book 4, Chapter 13; translation T.A. Sinclair; italics mine.)

Saint-Andre then has lengthy discussions of The Nicomachean Ethics and of Aristotle’s epistemology, but for now, they are “too big a mouthful” for me to comment on, so I will end here.

(Hat tip to Joshua Zader, who linked to this essay on his Facebook wall, and to Kirsti Minsaas, who tipped Joshua about it.)

Minor update: Saint-Andre claims that Ayn Rand is unfair to Aristotle when she says that “he did not regard ethics as an exact science”; and he takes issue with the idea that Aristotle was a “moderate realist” in epistemology. But both those subjects are complex; and I am a slow thinker. But an interesting fact is that on the latter subject, he refers to some essays in the book Philosophical Issue in Aristotle’s Biology, which was edited by two Objectivist Aristotle scholars, Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox. This, I think, shows that there is some awareness of this issue also in Objectivist circles.

[1]) I had never heard of this person before; but obviously he is well versed in Aristotle’s philosophy and also is able to read them in the original Greek.

[2]) In the West, grammar did not emerge as a discipline until Hellenic times, a few centuries after Aristotle. In India, it emerged as early as the 6th century BC. See the Wikipedia article on grammar.

[3]) I have a similar criticism against Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s interpretation of history; see my blog post A Short Word on Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Scandinavian speaking people may also read what I write about him on my Swedish blog.

4 Responses to Was Ayn Rand an Aristotelian?

  1. Pingback: Aristotle Biography | physicio

  2. Pingback: An Imperfect Analogy | The House at POS Corner

  3. Pingback: A Modern Reconciliation of Aristotle’s Views on Slavery and the Subordination of Women | Until Philosophers are Kings...

  4. Thank you for your comments on my essay about Aristotle and Ayn Rand. I have extensively studied the origin of the industrial revolution and of the American character, which I wrote about in my essays “Ayn Rand and the Ascent of Man” and “Ayn Rand and American Culture” (both published by the Libertarian Alliance in the U.K. and available on my website). My conclusion is that both phenomena have multiple and deep causes, but that those causes are not to be found in the philosophy of Aristotle. Don’t get me wrong: I have also studied Aristotle and I very much appreciate his philosophical insights; however, I think that Rand went far beyond the evidence when she made her sweeping claims about Aristotle’s impact on the course of history.

    Best Regards,

    Peter Saint-Andre

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