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August 13, 2012 10:20 AM St. Ayn and St. Thomas

By Ed Kilgore

One of the risks assumed by Mitt Romney is choosing Paul Ryan as his running-mate is the elevation of a self-styled intellectual who until very, very recently was touting Ayn Rand as one of his most important influences. It’s not as though Rand is an obscure or distant figure. Millions of Americans have read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. The former was made into a major Hollywood feature film starring Gary Cooper. Rand’s own life inspired a Showtime flick (The Passion of Ayn Rand) that won an Emmy for Helen Mirren in the title role.

Nowadays Ryan and his fans tend to brush off his Randian enthusiasm as the intellectual equivalent of George W. Bush’s “youthful indiscretions.” But as Jane Meyer points out at New Yorker, Ryan’s most elaborate tribute to Rand was delivered in 2005, just seven years ago. And he was citing Atlas Shrugged as prophetic and Rand’s moral defense of capitalism as definitive just three years ago. We’re not talking about some college sophomore here, but a multi-term member of Congress well on his way to becoming a movement conservative favorite, and, as Dave Weigel notes today, who spoke in his 2005 address of Francisco D’Antonio’s advocacy in Atlas Shrugged of hard money as morally imperative in tones generally reserved for a theologian examining a dog-eared passage of scripture. So those of us who are alarmed by anyone whose enthusiasm for Rand survives adolescence are not engaging in demagoguery.

Ryan’s standard self-defense on this subject is that while admiring Rand and her stout defense of capitalism, he is, of course, a Roman Catholic and can’t, of course, embrace the philosophy of a militant atheist. St. Thomas Aquinas, not St. Ayn Rand, is his philosophical anchor.

Well, whatever; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to cite one notable source of authority, disputes the idea that Ryan’s social and economic vision is compatiable with Catholic moral teachings. But beyond that, it’s been forgotten entirely that Rand herself was an admirer of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, in a 1967 essay (“Requiem For Man”) attacking Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, she had this to say:

There is an element of sadness in this spectacle. Catholicism had once been the most philosophical of all religions. Its long, illustrious philosophical history was illuminated by a giant: Thomas Aquinas. He brought an Aristotelian view of reason (an Aristotelian epistemology ) back into European culture, and lighted the way to the Renaissance. For the brief span of the nineteenth century, when his was the dominant influence among Catholic philosophers, the grandeur of his thought almost lifted the Church close to the realm of reason (though at the price of a basic contradiction). Now, we are witnessing the end of the Aquinas line—with the Church turning again to his primordial antagonist, who fits it better, to the mind-hating, life-hating St. Augustine. One could only wish they had given St. Thomas a more dignified requiem.

Rand basically thought that if you absolutely had to be a theist, the best kind to be was a Thomist. So the suggestion that a self-described Thomist like Paul Ryan can’t possibly be tarred with the brush of Rand’s excesses isn’t quite the slam-dunk argument it might appear to be.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Hedda Peraz on August 13, 2012 10:40 AM:

    This is arcane to nth degree!
    Most Americans, when you say "Rand" they think "Kruger" or "McNally".
    Remember, they have trouble with the menu at McDonald's, and 'book' is half a word, 'comic' being the other.

  • Zorro on August 13, 2012 10:45 AM:

    I really hope the MSM doesn't let Ryan get away w/saying that he defines himself by his Catholic faith, seeing as how his economic policies are virtually the opposite of most Catholic teachings on social justice.

    But this is the MSM; who am I kidding?

    -Z

  • Stetson Kennedy on August 13, 2012 10:53 AM:

    Seemingly lost in all of the hand-wringing of Ryan's Ayn Randism is the hypocrisy of her signature work, Atlas Shrugged. Does anyone recall the business of the novel's protagonist, Dagny Taggart? He was a freaking railroad tycoon! If anyone should be subject to Obama's "you didn't build that" line, it's Dagny Taggart.

    You hate the government? Yeah, only after they built your railroads. It almost makes me wonder if this was all a Randian joke.

  • c u n d gulag on August 13, 2012 10:56 AM:

    Well, Torquemada considered himself a good Catholic, too.

    The Catholic Church, like America, has been battling its own Liberalism of the 1960's.

    This particular group of women-hating politicians in Bishop's garb, is part of the backlash that started with Pope John Paul II.

    Just like Ryan is a against women, and gay, poor, brown and old people, and is an extension of Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan.

    And just like the South is still fighting th Civil War almost 150 years after they lost, the Conservatives are still fighting the Civil Rights Wars that they lost almost 50 years ago.

    These people won't take "NO!" for an answer, and, no matter how badly they're beaten, never scream "UNCLE!"

    Ryan was raised and marinated in "Backlash Conservatism."

  • Mimikatz on August 13, 2012 11:36 AM:

    Yes, and backlash Catholic conservatism is Augustinian in it's views about sexuality. Ryan is more likely just an opportunist, but he has chosen some pretty strange bedfellows and has eschewed the Matthew social teachings.

  • Eastlakeview on August 13, 2012 11:36 AM:

    My favorite Ryan story is him giving out Ayn Rand novels as Christmas presents. Because nothing celebrates the birth of Christ like a novel dedicated to Atheism and the rejection of altruism.

  • wvmcl2 on August 13, 2012 11:37 AM:

    Hispanic voters should be delighted at the way Mexicans are depicted in "Atlas Shrugged."

  • martin on August 13, 2012 11:57 AM:

    You must remember that Republican "Youthful Indescretions" last well into their 40's. The precedent was set by Henry Hyde who had an extramarital affair in his 40's that he wrote off as a "youthful indiscretion."

    Ryan is now only 42, so everything he has done and said before Friday is a write-off.

  • cmdicely on August 13, 2012 12:22 PM:

    [...] the backlash that started with Pope John Paul II.

    If one is to characterize a backlash against liberalism, particularly on reproductive matters, within the Church, I can't see how one can possibly say that it started with John Paul II and not, instead, with Paul VI (with particular attention to Humanae Vitae.)

  • Joe Friday on August 13, 2012 12:47 PM:

    "Nowadays Ryan and his fans tend to brush off his Randian enthusiasm as the intellectual equivalent of George W. Bush's 'youthful indiscretions'."

    Byron York did exactly that this morning when Ryan's devotion to Rand was raised, saying that young people do all sorts of crazy things.

  • hells littlest angel on August 13, 2012 1:00 PM:

    This has got to be thrilling the producers of Atlas Shrugged: Part Two, which is due out some time in September. Mini-Romney is probably less thrilled about the bump in prominence the Rand is going to get.

  • lgerard on August 13, 2012 1:05 PM:

    Rand called Christianity "the kindergarten of Communism"

    enough said

  • burritoboy on August 13, 2012 1:08 PM:


    Rand clearly couldn't understand any philosophy whatsoever (her take on Kant is.......well, it's difficult to even parody because it's so bizarre). Aquinas is a particularly difficult and complex thinker - to be brutally honest, I don't really believe Rand ever even cracked open the Summa, much less even read it.

    Fore example, for Aquinas, charity is the third greatest virtue (after faith and hope). Charity is Aquinas' primary virtue between human beings (faith and hope primarily acting between God and human beings). Rand explicitly and continuously rejects this throughout all her works.

  • Varecia on August 13, 2012 1:29 PM:

    Ayn Rand was simply wrong in her basic premise; humanity is defined first and foremost by social connections. We don't have language without others, and spoken communication where humans have the ability refer to the past, the present, the future and the imaginary is one of our unique characteristics. Fans of objectivism have only to read Helen Keller's description of what her existence was like before she made the communication breakthrough to see that we are social first and foremost.

  • SecularAnimist on August 13, 2012 1:55 PM:

    Are we really going to have to suffer through discussions of Ayn Rand's opinions of Catholic theologians for the next three months? What's next -- an analysis of Ayn Rand's views that impressionist painting and atonal music are "immoral"?

    Ayn Rand was a fountainhead of pompous bullshit, period, end of story.

  • Jackson on August 13, 2012 2:17 PM:


    So does anyone have the definitive scoop on whether Ayn Rand's lover killed his wife?

    Of course, in light of Diaper Dave Vitter's transgressions, one can hardly expect a meaningful discussion of the intersection of Ryan's religious beliefs as a Catholic and his kiddie economic philosophy.

  • Lolly on August 13, 2012 2:43 PM:

    hmmm--correct me if I'm mis-remembering my freshman humanities class readings, but wasn't Aquinas the one who wrote a theological rationalization/justification for usury, despite it being expressly forbidden in the Bible?

    This would definitely make him a capitalist hero.

  • Ian Whitchurch on August 13, 2012 7:30 PM:

    Lolly,

    Short answer is 'No, Aquinas didnt allow usury'.

    Longer answer is the sin of usury is addressed at question 78 of the second part of the second part of the Summa, which is available here

    http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3078.htm

  • Dabodius on August 13, 2012 11:35 PM:

    No, one can't be an Objectivist Thomist or Thomist objectivist, if only because the keynote of Thomistic political philosophy is the common good. For the Objectivist, that's a "collectivist" chimera, and it only makes sense to speak of individuals' good (or at most a public good that consisted in a military that defended the country and a legal system that punished violence and enforced voluntary contracts, and did nothing else.)

    Moreover, the crown of human moral perfection for the Thomist is the virtue of charity or love, which is infused as a Divine gift, like the other Thomistic "supernatural" virtues of faith and hope. The Objectivist could recognize only the Thomistic "natural" virtues (courage, moderation, justice and prudence), which are achieved by human beings on their own -- and even then would differ with the Thomist over what e.g. justice amounted to here or there.

    Finally, to the Thomist, money, and wealth generally, are strictly means to worthier ends, so a life devoted to money-making and gain at best misses the point of living. But the Objectivist marches behind Ayn Rand's coat of arms, which had just one character on it: $.

  • Everyman on August 14, 2012 5:18 AM:

    Atlas Shrugged Part 2 will be in theaters October 12th, 2012.

  • John Casey on August 14, 2012 8:03 AM:

    Rand understood Aquinas about as much as she understood Aristotle, Kant, or anyone else for that matter: not at all. In the first and most obvious place, the Aristotelian view of reason is not the same as Aristotelian epistemology.

    And in agreeent with Dabodius here above, even the human virtues must be achieved in a social context for both Aristotle and Aquinas, though you're responsible for acquiring them.

  • Josh Blyth on February 06, 2013 8:07 AM:

    Stetson Kennedy, the point is that her company DID build the lines, many of them under her instructions and planning. it also shows what happens to them when the government intervenes. how about you check your premises next time you plan on making a claim like this.