Thought for the Day - 28/08/2012 - Canon Angela Tilby

Good morning. Yesterday there was a discussion on this programme about the influence of Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher who is much admired by some Republic politicians, especially Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan.

Ayn Rand’s called her philosophy ‘objectivism’ and claimed to prize reason above all other virtues. She loathed the state, all forms of religion and any kind of collectivist ideology. Her ideas produce quotes that sound rather shocking on this side of the Atlantic, where even libertarian policies are usually tempered by humanistic values. Rand says, ‘man’ – and I it always was ‘man’ for her, ‘ is a heroic being with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his existence’, ‘If any civilisation is to survive it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject’. She even made her students promise never to do anything for altruistic motives. Reason, achievement, rational self-interest, living for yourself and not for others and not letting others live through you. It is the ultimate in rugged individualism.

I have to say when I first come across her ideas I felt a mixture of shock, intrigue and even a delicious thrill that such things could be stated in public. No room here for the idea that was drummed into me through eleven years of school prayers: that God made all of us equal and that the good life is that each should live for all and all should care for each. Ayn Rand reminds me of the Friedrich Nietschze, in fact her early work was influenced by him.

Nietschze rejected any idea that human beings were equal. He thought equality was a hangover from Christianity which had sentimentalised the poor and weak, spreading a false morality based on pity. For him, pity robbed the creative and strong of their vitality. It also deprived the poor and the weak of the dignity of suffering, of a becoming stoicism and silence in the face of adversity. Tough stuff, and I’d love to be able to dismiss it, but for me there’s a glimmer of truth I can’t ignore.

Pity is what the strong and well feel quite easily for the weak and sick. And the weak and sick very often hate it because being pitied is simply excruciating. What the needy strive for is not our kindness but their independence. Those who care for truly helpless would be well advised to take up what a religious sister once said was her practice, to apologise mentally to those she cared for, remembering their dignity and their just resentment. Now I think Christian faith will always be grounded in compassion and I am glad that our society continues to value this. But when compassion degenerates into sentimentality we have lost the tough theology at its root. Which is that God sees none of as heroes; but all as flawed, greedy, needy and wretched and because of that has pity on us all.

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