Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" on the Altar Wall in the Sistine Chapel Photography by Mark Armstrong

Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on the Altar Wall in the Sistine Chapel
Photography by Mark Armstrong

I am a father and a philosopher.  This is not necessarily an unusual combination, but it does give me a range of interests that spans two rather distinctive worlds.  I am interested in the family, its challenges and rewards, its hard work and its joyful celebrations.  As a philosopher, I am interested in an array of ideas that range from the reasonable to the ridiculous, from the inspirational to the absurd.

I was reminded of this dual interest recently when I watched two radically dissimilar DVDs, one featuring the novelist philosopher, Ayn Rand, the other, extended footage of our extended family.  There could hardly be a greater contrast, with respect to life values, than what appeared in these two videos.

The first video began with Mike Wallace interviewing Ayn Rand, excerpted from a 1959 television show.  Wallace seemed taken aback by Rand’s misanthropy.  She was defending her position that “altruism is the root of all evil,” and explaining that any form of sacrifice a person makes diminishes his individuality.  When Wallace asked her, “What is wrong with loving your neighbor,” Ms Rand countered by saying that most people are not worthy of being loved—the individual must come first, foremost, and always.

Ayn Rand passed away in 1982 at the age of seventy-seven.  She was childless and had hardly a friend in the world.  Her casket bore a six foot replica of the dollar sign, in keeping with her oft’ stated view that “money is the barometer of a society’s value”.  She claimed that the proudest distinction of Americans is that they created the phrase “to make money”.

Viewing “Ayn Rand in Her Own Words,” is not something I do for pleasure or even for entertainment.  It is one of those responsibilities I have as a philosopher to acquaint myself with a philosopher who has an important influence of the contemporary world.  Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s most philosophical novel, has sold more than seven million copies.  It continues to sell upwards of five hundred thousand copies each year.  The Ayn Rand Institute donates annually four hundred thousand copies of various works of Ayn Rand.  All of her books preach absolute individualism, staunch atheism, and laissez-faire capitalism.  Her philosophy is fallacious; her popularity is perplexing.

I put on the family movies, now adapted to DVD, that my father began taking some forty years ago and continued to film for several years thereafter.  My parents and all of their twelve grandchildren were featured in the film, together with their mothers and fathers.  They gathered, sometimes squeezed together, on various celebratory occasions:  Christmas, Easter, baptisms, first Communions, graduations, birthdays, and weddings.  The DVD was a film of family festivals.  But it also revealed something about the family itself.

The parents were provident, making sure the tree was decorated, the food prepared, the children properly outfitted, etc.  The children were exuberant.  Their only responsibility was to be children, which they carried out with consummate ease.  Flashing before my eyes—recorded for posterity in delicate celluloid that often fluttered and faded—was the inestimably beautiful testimony of family love.  Samuel Johnson’s words were fully validated:  “To be at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends.”

The happiness of the adults may have been restrained (adults do tend to be camera shy), but for the children, it was unfettered.  There they were—recalling to my dim memory, how vital, joyful, and beautiful they were—dancing, jumping, laughing, and playing.  Did I fully realize at the time how richly blessed I was?  If only I could go back and hug them all, once again.

Ayn Rand would have preferred watching the fluctuations of the stock market.  Never, as the Harvard sociologist George Gilder has pointed out, did Ayn Rand ever incorporate the family in any of her novels.  She favored abortion and sexual freedom.  But these are dead ends, life short-circuited, joy pre-empted.  I felt profoundly sorry for her, despite her staggering success as a writer and thinker.

Worlds apart!  How far apart?  It seemed to me that the distance of separation that the contents of these two DVDs spanned was the nothing less than the unbridgeable gap that exists between Heaven and Hell.

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