The Fountainhead


This has been a rough read. I’ve had a relatively easy semester, but every time I tried to read this book, I invariably got distracted. I don’t know if it says more about this book or the Internet.

The Fountainhead left me with more questions than answers. I’ve heard mixed opinions of Ayn Rand’s works, and this book was recommended to me twice, both times over Atlas Shrugged. I cannot comment on the comparison yet.

I’m really not sure how to react to what I just read. On one hand, I agree with the exaltation of the “prime mover” and the condemnation of the “second-hander.” But I cannot reconcile that with the rejection of altruism (though the concept in the book is slightly different from our contemporary notion of altruism).

From Howard Roark’s final courtroom speech (emphasis added):

Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.

I fully agree up to this point. However, the speech continues:

No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men.

His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man’s spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness.

To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego. The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.

And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.

I’m not sure whether I agree that achievement is solely for oneself.

Later on, Roark talks about the parasitic nature of second-handers, that “the parasite faces nature through an intermediary.”

Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.

The statement that “the need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary” is debatable, but I definitely agree that in our society, the creator is undervalued compared to the gift dispenser.

On morality and altruism from Rand’s framework:

The ‘common good’ of a collective—a race, a class, a state—was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men. Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism? Does the fault lie in men’s hypocrisy or in the nature of the principle? The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere. They believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine and the firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was accepted that man must be sacrificed for other men. Actors change, but the course of the tragedy remains the same. A humanitarian who starts with declarations of love for mankind and ends with a sea of blood. It goes on and will go on so long as men believe that an action is good if it is unselfish. That permits the altruist to act and forces his victims to bear it. The leaders of collectivist movements ask nothing for themselves. But observe the results.

I’m not as pessimistic about humanitarian efforts, and it’s important to note that in the 70 years since the book was written, there have been many changes to society. Among them, just the Internet has caused us to think much differently about others, and I’d like to continue thinking about what the correctness or relevancy of ideas in this book applies today.

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