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Friday, November 11, 2022

5 Counterintuitive Things I Learned Reading Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’

Rand makes some radical claims in the book, but when you think about it, they make a lot of sense.

Image Credit: Pamla J. Eisenberg - Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently picked up Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, and I must say I quite enjoyed it. For those who haven’t read it, The Fountainhead is a story about a young architect named Howard Roark. Roark is a non-conformist who finds himself at odds with the rest of his profession because of his refusal to compromise his artistic expression for the sake of tradition. It goes deeper than that, however. Roark’s self-described worldview is “egotism,” and it’s this selfish, individualistic attitude that the rest of the world can’t seem to stand, save a few of his close friends.

Rand unapologetically uses the story to advance her life philosophy, called Objectivism. Roark is the prototypical hero in this philosophy, though if you read some of the things Roark does, you may bristle at the thought of holding him up as an example to be emulated.

Thinking back on the book, I enjoyed the narrative, but the dialogues are really what made it stand out. They were incredibly clever and sharp, and they really help the reader get to know the characters and their worldviews.

The book also challenged me to rethink a lot of “common sense” ideas people often take for granted. Throughout the story, Rand makes many counterintuitive points that push back against the mainstream view on various topics.

Here’s a selection of some counterintuitive ideas that stood out to me.

1) Our Culture Is Not as Individualistic as We Think

Most people would say we live in a fairly individualistic culture in the West, but Rand would disagree. According to Rand, our society is full of “second-handers,” people who live for and through others.

This theme is introduced early in the book in a dialogue between Roark and Peter Keating, a fellow architect. Keating knows Roark is good at architecture, so he goes to Roark for advice. Roark’s response is illuminating.

“If you want my advice, Peter, you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”

As we learn through the rest of the story, asking for advice may seem benign, but it often reveals that you don’t have any opinions of your own—you can only live through the opinions of others. And it’s not like these others have their own opinions either. They too are second-handers, reflecting the opinions of everyone around them. It’s “like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage,” Rand writes, “…reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose.”

The point is that we live in a culture where people are afraid to be original and to have their own ideas. We strive so much to please others, to be the person others want us to be, that in the process we lose our very selves.

Truly being yourself—genuine individualism—is difficult. Because it inevitably means being unpopular, unliked, and constantly criticized. And when you’re criticized, you need to have enough integrity to say, “I disagree with your criticism and refuse to incorporate it. I refuse to be the person others want me to be simply to appease them.” Integrity in this sense is loyalty to your self—to you. Betraying your self to the whims of others is the telltale sin of the second-hander.

Rand expands on the second-hander idea in a later section of the book. “That, precisely, is the deadliness of second-handers,” she writes. “They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: ‘Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’ Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull.”

2) Teamwork Doesn’t Always Make the Dream Work

People often say two heads are better than one, and there are times when that’s certainly the case. But according to Rand, the “teamwork” mentality is applied far too broadly in our culture, with mediocrity being the predictable result.

There’s a story in The Fountainhead that’s intended to illustrate this point, and it revolves around an architectural project called The March of the Centuries, which is part of an exhibition for the World’s Fair. Eight of the best architects in America were chosen to design the building—collaboratively. It was intended to demonstrate how much better working with others is compared to working alone. Peter Keating was one of the eight collaborators.

The project, however, was a “ghastly flop.” And as usual, every reason except the most obvious one was given for its failure.

A few chapters later, Roark is talking with Peter Keating, trying to make him understand the individualist ethos. In an offhand comment, Roark brings up The March of the Centuries. “Peter, every single one of you on that committee has done better work alone than the eight of you produced collectively. Ask yourself why, sometime.”

I asked myself “why” when I read that, and the answer was self-evident, as Rand intended it to be. The reason the project was a flop is because creation and production are best pursued as individualistic enterprises. One person with a grand vision—someone who can control every detail—is usually the key to achieving excellence. When you lead by committee no one is really in charge; you have to compromise and incorporate everyone’s input. The result is a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas. No single, comprehensive vision can come to fruition. But it is precisely single, comprehensive visions that make a product great.

There’s a reason almost all great art is created by individuals rather than teams.

3) The Imbecile Always Smiles

“Have you noticed that the imbecile always smiles? Man’s first frown is the first touch of God on his forehead. The touch of thought.”

That line instantly clicked the moment I first read it. Many people—“imbeciles” in particular—seem to have a certain unseriousness about them. They spend all their time in bars, at parties, and watching laugh-track TV shows, chasing what basically amounts to cheap thrills. It’s a kind of hedonism, a cavalier approach to life that is frankly rather shallow and trite.

The thing these people all have in common is that smile. That naive, whimsical, childish smile.

What sets apart the mature—in my view and in Rand’s—is the frown of thought and determination. It’s not a renunciation of joy. It’s learning to find a deeper joy, perhaps in applying yourself on a difficult project, or in learning something new, or in appreciating genuinely good art.

Jordan Peterson highlights this dichotomy in his analysis of The Lion King. In the beginning of the movie, Simba is young and immature, and you can see it in his face. But by the end, he has grown into adulthood, he has shouldered responsibility. You can see the change especially in the eyebrows, which point firmly down when someone is concentrating.

Image Credit: YouTube screenshot
Image Credit: YouTube screenshot

4) When It Comes to People, You Often Can Judge a Book by Its Cover

It’s common knowledge that you’re not supposed to judge others by first impressions. You’ve just met them, after all. It’s almost unfair to jump to conclusions about their character and personality when you hardly know them.

Or is it? In one section of the book, Rand makes an interesting point about intuition that challenges this notion that we can’t possibly judge people just by looking at them.

“‘There’s nothing as significant as a human face. Nor as eloquent. We can never really know another person, except by our first glance at him. Because, in that glance, we know everything. Even though we’re not always wise enough to unravel the knowledge. Have you ever thought about the style of a soul, Kiki?’

‘The … what?’

‘The style of a soul. Do you remember the famous philosopher who spoke of the style of a civilization? He called it ‘style.’ He said it was the nearest word he could find for it. He said that every civilization has its one basic principle, one single, supreme, determining conception, and every endeavor of men within that civilization is true, unconsciously and irrevocably, to that one principle. … I think, Kiki, that every human soul has a style of its own, also. Its one basic theme. You’ll see it reflected in every thought, every act, every wish of that person. The one absolute, the one imperative in that living creature. Years of studying a man won’t show it to you. His face will. You’d have to write volumes to describe a person. Think of his face. You need nothing else.’”

In recent years this philosophical speculation has been backed up by some pretty cool scientific research. For instance, in a 2016 paper titled Perceptions of Sexual Orientation From Minimal Cues, psychologist Nicholas Rule summarizes the literature on “gaydar,” the colloquial term for being able to intuit someone’s sexual orientation. “The bulk of scientific evidence suggests that people are sensitive to differences in sexual orientation and can reliably perceive it based on minimal nonverbal cues,” Rule writes.

Many other characteristics can also be reliably predicted from subtle cues, according to a 2013 paper by Rule and coauthor Konstantin Tskhay. “The majority of groups to which we may belong (e.g., professions, religious groups, political parties) are ambiguous, yet research has nonetheless shown that many of these distinctions are perceptible,” they write.

This isn’t to say we should always rush to judgment, of course. We should be open to new information and be willing to revise our initial assessments of people should they prove erroneous. But as Rand, Rule, and Tskhay point out, we often know far more than we think, even if we can’t “unravel the knowledge.” It’s subconscious. I can’t tell you how I know what you’re like. I just know. You betray far more than you realize when you show your face to the world.

5) Man’s Ego is the Fountainhead of Human Progress

The summary of The Fountainhead that appeared on the first edition in 1943 begins with the following line: “An excitingly dramatic novel, this book is based on a challenging belief in the importance of selfishness, on the provocative idea that man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”

In his afterword, Rand’s protégé Leonard Peikoff sheds some more light on the title, which is never directly explained in the book itself. “Ayn Rand’s working title for the novel was Second-Hand Lives,” he explains. “The final title, chosen after the manuscript was completed, changes the emphasis: like the book, it gives primacy not to the villains, but to the creative hero, the man who uses his mind first-handedly and becomes thereby the fountainhead of all achievement.”

The idea that man’s ego is the fountainhead of progress and achievement is the central claim of the book, and perhaps the most radical. But Rand’s explanation of this idea—both through dialogue and narrative—is compelling.

“Before you can do things for people,” Roark says, “you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, not any possible object of your charity. I’ll be glad if people who need it find a better manner of living in a house I designed. But that’s not the motive of my work. Nor my reason. Nor my reward.”

Rand’s point is that productivity and creative achievement only really come from individuals acting in their own self-interest. Paradoxically, the best way to help others is to be, in a sense, selfish.

That probably sounds uncouth, but Rand challenges us to at least wrestle with the idea. Ask yourself, who is the more effective benefactor of the downtrodden? The one who professes love for them but is impotent to help, or the one who acts out of sheer self-interest but—as a result of that self-interest—is actually able to produce something of value?

A Novel for Our Time

Though it was written many decades ago, The Fountainhead has enduring appeal because it speaks to issues that are as relevant today as they were when the novel was first published. The battle between individualism and collectivism in particular rages on, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

This book will challenge many assumptions about morality and what a life well-lived looks like. But the challenge doesn’t come in the form of an argument. It comes in the form of a story, one that has the potential to transform how you see the world.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.