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The Value of Ayn Rand’s Marginalia

Dive into Ayn Rand’s fascinating comments on the works of over twenty authors.

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In her published nonfiction, Ayn Rand dissects the viewpoints of prominent intellectuals based on her careful reading of their books. It was Rand’s practice to make extensive marginal notes in the books and articles she read, and many of those volumes are preserved in the Ayn Rand Archives. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Mayhew, some of her most penetrating marginalia are available in book form. Ayn Rand’s Marginalia allows the reader, in effect, to sit next to Rand and observe her reading a book and making notes on important passages — notes that usually explain where the author’s logic fails.

Featured in Ayn Rand’s Marginalia are notes on thinkers and authors such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, C. S. Lewis, Barry Goldwater, Henry Hazlitt, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and John Hospers. As Mayhew explains in his introduction, the material included “comes from over twenty books and several boxes of newspaper/magazine clippings,” mostly from after 1957, when she turned to writing nonfiction after having published Atlas Shrugged.

Mayhew stresses that even though Rand’s marginalia can give us great insight into her way of thinking, one cannot treat those comments as final statements, as she “wrote these comments for her own eyes only, and never imagined that they would be published.”

We are happy to publish in New Ideal a portion of Mayhew’s introduction as well as selections from his book, which is available for purchase on Amazon.

From Robert Mayhew’s Introduction to
Ayn Rand’s Marginalia

Ayn Rand made extensive comments in the margins of many of the books and periodicals she read. This work is a collection of these notes, or marginalia.

In Philosophy: Who Needs It Ayn Rand writes:

To take ideas seriously means that you intend to live by, to practice, any idea you accept as true. Philosophy provides man with a comprehensive view of life. In order to evaluate it properly, ask yourself what a given theory, if accepted, would do to a human life, starting with your own.

Most people would be astonished by this method. They think that abstract thinking must be “impersonal” — which means that ideas must hold no personal meaning, value or importance to the thinker. . . . But if you are the kind of person who knows that reality is not your enemy, that truth and knowledge are of crucial, personal, selfish importance to you and to your own life—then the more passionately personal the thinking, the clearer and truer.

In the marginalia we can observe the distinctive seriousness — the insistence on ap­plying abstractions to concrete reality — with which she approached ideas. For example, consider her concern for the practical effects of ideas. In his book on Kant, Friedrich Paulsen writes:

Although in the details of [Kant’s] philosophy there may be much that is not agreeable to us, it is its enduring merit to have drawn for the first time, with a firm hand and clear outline, the dividing line between knowledge and faith. This gives to knowledge what belongs to it — the entire world of phenomena for free investigation; it conserves, on the other hand, to faith its eternal right to the interpretation of life and of the world from the standpoint of value.

Ayn Rand reads this and disagrees — but not simply by presenting an epistemological objection to any acceptance of faith. Rather, she names the real-life consequences of al­lowing faith to be the arbiter of values: “And it leads to the 20th Century, to Hitler and Stalin, as its necessary, logical climax!”

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Similarly, when C. S. Lewis claims: “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger” — she responds: “So when you cure men of TB, syphilis, scurvy, small pox and rabies — you make them weaker!!!” (Note the exclamation points, which abound in the marginalia. Here is an individual whose thinking is “passionately personal.”)

As Ayn Rand observes, a corollary of taking ideas seriously is the commitment to precision in language. She writes: “You must attach clear, specific meanings to words, i.e., be able to identify their referents in reality. This is the precondition, without which neither critical judgment nor thinking of any kind is possible.”

This is what underlies her superlative ability to “translate” some innocuous—or incomprehensible—passage into its actual meaning. For example, in Human Action, von Mises writes:

In studying interpersonal exchange one cannot avoid dealing with autistic ex­change. But then it is no longer possible to define neatly the boundaries between the kind of action which is the proper field of economic science in the narrower sense, and other action. Economics widens its horizon and turns into a general science of all and every human action, into praxeology. The question emerges of how to distinguish precisely, within the broader field of general praxeology, a narrower orbit of specifically economic problems.

To which Ayn Rand replies in the margins:

Translation: in dealing with interpersonal exchange, one cannot avoid dealing with individual motivation. Then one invades the field of philosophy by invent­ing a new science [i.e., praxeology] whose boundaries one cannot define.

Or consider Jerome Rothstein, who, in Communication, Organization, and Science, writes:

Engineering is a system whose input is the world as the engineer finds it and whose output is the world as the engineer wants it. This statement seems like an exaggeration and an oversimplification. But if one broadens the definition of engineering so that it is synonymous with all branches of applied science (a cattle raiser is a zoological engineer, a truck farmer a botanical engineer, etc.) . . . then the engineers include a large part of the human race and the statement is less open to criticism.

She responds: “Beef stroganoff is made up of wood and gasoline. This statement seems inaccurate, but if one broadens the definition of wood to include all solid mat­ter, and the definition of gasoline to include all liquids, the statement is less open to criticisms.”

Her attention is especially drawn to inaccurate definitions. For example, in Hu­man Action von Mises states: “[L]aw is the complex of rules determining the orbit in which individuals are free to act.” On which she comments: “Good Lord! Look at what the premise of ‘definitions by negatives’ will do! ‘Everything which is not permitted by law is forbidden’? (See ‘Anthem.’)” And in The Road to Serfdom, Hayek says: “The essential features of . . . individualism . . . are the respect for the individual man qua man, that is, the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere, however narrowly that may be circumscribed.” She responds:

Rotten definition! A collectivist could subscribe to it. You can circumscribe “a man’s own sphere” to mere breathing—and not too much of that. Who decides on what a man’s “own sphere” is? If a defender of individualism can offer no better definition than this—it’s proof of why the cause of individualism has failed. It had no real base, no moral base. This is why my book is needed.

As a thinker, Ayn Rand took a fresh, independent approach to complex philosophical issues, and offered solutions that got to the root of the matter. And that root is always reality. It was Ayn Rand’s distinctive approach to ask: What facts of reality give rise to a particular concept? Consider her brilliant analysis of the contemporary analytic notion of “logical possibility”—a notion which, as she demonstrates, is possible only if one detaches logic from existence.


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Tom Bowden

Tom Bowden, JD and former civil litigator, is a research fellow and publishing manager at the Ayn Rand Institute. He is also a coeditor of Illuminating Ayn Rand (2022) and a contributing editor of New Ideal.

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