Ayn Rand’s materialism has been an object of controversy ever since
the publication of her books. Her stress on the happiness achieved
through material pursuit is by looks an outright negation of the
traditional cultural and religious values. but in essence they are the
same. If they are the same, then how is it? And in what ways are they
different? I am going to divide this article into many parts in the
question-answer form. But before that I would like to define my premise
I am an agnostic by conviction. I do not know if God exists or not
and personally it doesn’t matter to me. The only thing of concern for me
is how I live my life. This agnostic conviction of mine is also
applicable to other related topics such as after-life. I do not care
what is going happen to me in the after-life if it exists at all.
Because trying to be virtuous in this life to reap the benefits in
heaven or next life is also a form of greed only in a very subtle way.
It is my belief that everybody is selfish in one form or the other. Even
those who have renounced everything did that to gain a higher happiness
namely the love of god and hence it is also a selfish desire. Those who
sacrifice do so for the happiness they gain out of the happiness of
others or to get into the good books of god or someone else and that is
selfish again. No matter what you do, every single person in on the this planet
works for a selfish desire, it may be noble or not but it is one.
Henceforth selfishness shall be seen as a word conveying neutral image
and not a negative one.
Now let us get to the questions.
What is materialism?
The default definition of materialism is to portray it as a symbol of
greed, vice and avarice. But did Ayn Rand mean it in the same context?
Any sane person knows that greed only breeds further vice. Ayn Rand
advocating her perspective as a way of life and it being followed by so
many people around the world definitely has to have a different meaning.
So before I say the actual meaning of that, I request you to destroy
the negative image attached with the label of materialism.
Even though Ayn Rand doesn’t give a precise definition for the term
‘materialism’ it can be quite understood if one has read her works with
an open mind. When I say open mind it is not just being generous enough
to read it without prejudice but also not to evaluate her work based on
your existing belief systems. Having said that, materialism in her works
is simply to acknowledge the fact that this is a material world and
there is nothing wrong with it.
There is nothing wrong in wanting to earn more
money given it is by moral means, there is nothing wrong in spending
that money on material pursuits or objects for satisfying your happiness
given that the source of it is not jealousy or an intention to hurt
others. There is nothing wrong in enjoying the fruits of your labour to
satisfy your own happiness. desiresDesires, aspirations, goals, dreams are all
towards achieving something in this material world. If you define
renunciation as your ideal then all this will have to be wrong. You
shouldn’t want to be anybody in your life. Then we should all be
paupers. Why should you want to study? Why do you want to achieve?
Take a labourer’s job, live in a hut and keep living like
this because anything more you want is a need for comfort. A comfort
provided by this material world and hence is an evil. All these
religious gurus who propagate this need for renunciation are themselves
negating their teachings living in comfortable settings with hundreds of
followers to attend to their needs while millions of their followers
are living in unspeakable conditions and yet trying to renounce
everything because its the guru’s words. Some say that the followers
serve on their own will.
True but the guru has a choice to accept it or
not. They moment they choose to live in that comfort their credibility
is gone. furthermoreFurthermore every religion says that salvation lies in
renunciation. ifIf that be the ideal case then why do all of them say to
respect the ownership of each other’s property? If you should ideally
give up everything why provide a clause stating the code for ownership?
Renunciation negates the very concept of ownership. This is a plain
sight contradiction. But is it really a contradiction? No. It is not. Am
I contradicting myself? No. The nuance lies in understanding the fact
that will be answered in the next question.
Who did Ayn Rand write for?
If you are thinking that Ayn Rand was a simple novelist whose readers
were anyone and everyone, you are wrong. This is not to expound my
vanity as a reader of her works but as a plain simple fact. She did not
write the books to change people and teach them a new way of life. Her
works are simply an expression of her conviction. Convictions expressed
and left free to float around everywhere so that only those who can see
it can actually experience it.
You would agree more with me if you would
just enquire about the number of people who started reading her books
and left it incomplete at various stages of reading. And no one who has
read her books just once can claim to have understood her. Hence, in
essence the learning from her works can be attained only by those who
can relate with her enough to her works a number of times and live by
Now that being the case, the effective audience of Ayn rand are
people who have enough awareness and knowledge to comprehend her work in
depth only then can they reap the fruits. Such an audience could be
presumed to know the difference between want by need and want by greed.
And those who are ardent readers of her works will know that this is a
presumption well justified.
Who are the audience for a religion?
The religion Religion is for everybody. Its aim is to create a way of life and
generations of society to live by a certain code. Under such
circumstances the level of knowledge and awareness of audience is not
confined to a narrow spectrum as with Ayn randRand. Hence, no religion can
presume that its followers know the difference between want by need and
want by greed.
Why religion says what it says?
Because the safest bet is to say to renounce everything. Once the
people have decided to renounce everything, they would have come out of
the clutches of greed. But this is a material world and hence you cannot
live without any material. At this point of time anything they choose
to want will be by the creed of need and when it so happens that they
want to go beyond that, it will only so as to achieve their happiness
and it will be by moral means. Same statement said to different audience
makes a lot of difference. Do you think that all the religious leaders
are blunt in saying all they say?
They tailor what they say according to
the audience and as per the need. evenEven though the basic truth is the
same the need to modify the presented form is paramount. For e.g. Toto
follow your heart is a fundamental truth. itIt is believed that heart is a
pure form of consciousness and nothing it says will have evil in any
form in it. If you say an adult to follow his/her heart, it makes sense
in one form because he knows or believes the previous statement as a
But you wouldn’t say that to a child for the child would presume
that it wanting the doll in next kid’s hands is a call of the heart.
What do you think will happen if religion says that material pursuit is
not wrong to the people? Every form of crime will shoot through the
roof!! If people following the religion commit unspeakable crimes in the
name of religion itself when it speaks against the material pursuit, it
is not difficult to imagine what would happen if it said otherwise.
What is the conclusion?
The conclusion is that both religion saying to renounce and Ayn randRand
saying asking to pursue materialism shouldn’t be taken at face value. Both of
them are trying to address the fundamental fact that man has to be
virtuous. By virtue I mean the set of characteristics that if followed
by all will allow the safety of individual live and property for all.
Hence those who feel that they are offended by Ayn rand’s works being
against religion need not feel so for it only shows that you haven’t
really understood either. Every good in this world is the same. Be it
from different religions or from believers of different degrees namely
theists, agnostics, atheists etc. So Ayn Rand’s materialism is not a
negation of any virtue you may have learned from anywhere.