Is it better for us to send a man to Mars or to feed the poor? To build the world’s tallest skyscraper, or to build a homeless shelter? This is Ayn Rand’s question to the reader, and she answers that man’s highest purpose is in achieving greatness and to revel in all the productive achievements that come with it.
I first read this book over a decade ago, on my dad’s recommendation. I am so glad I picked it up again, there is so much I did not understand then. This is the most important book I’ve read all year, if not in my life.
On moral terms, it’s hard to agree with Rand’s philosophy of the world. However, the manner in which she presented her convictions is so compelling that it’s hard not to find it truly tempting. Howard Roark, the book’s protagonist, is the purest archetype of an egoist. His entire purpose is dedicated to architecture, and every action he undertakes is to constructing greater and more perfect buildings. He represents absolute integrity, as do his structures. The book is situated in the early twentieth century, and Roark is a leader in modern minimalism. Every beam, joist, and architectural element has a purpose. There is no ornamentation for its own sake, no superfluous columns, no unnecessary pediments. His personal philosophy is pure, as is his architectural one. This stands in the face of all common conventions, and he is considered a radical and miscreant. He does not care in the slightest.
Rand shows how a pure egoist can have almost no ego in the traditionally pejorative sense of the word. This is to say he does not act entitled, nor seek to procure benefit at the expense of others. There is no sense that he believes himself inherently better than others, just that he is more true to his being. His ego is entirely independent of the existence of everyone else. He still interacts with society of course, but everything Roark stands for is self-derived, solely for himself. He does not accept favors. He does not take charity even when he’s impoverished. He does not compromise on his ideals even when it would produce great personal benefit. And he does not collaborate—to do so would be to diminish the power of his individuality.
This book is one of the sharpest critiques of collectivism ever written. Rand develops several other interesting characters to act as foils for Roark. Ellsworth Toohey is the book’s antagonist, the progenitor of the society’s collectivist high-culture. Everything Toohey does is for the sake of the many, and at the expense of individuality. In his mind, the world would be a better place with less conflict if everyone thought the same. Toohey works for a newspaper called The Banner, and it represents public opinion. It is a pure reflection of the minds of society, and more sinister, Toohey often shapes those minds. People think what Toohey tells them to think. For Toohey, man’s greatness must always be subject to the will and needs of the many. He is not a senseless villain, but one with his own plan and philosophy, which makes him an interesting complement. Roark, in contrast, represents what it means to disregard everyone else in favor of oneself. What it means to rise from the crowd in greatness, not for them but for you alone. He represents man as his own god, the hero within.
It’s hard not to root for greatness, for achievement, for productivity and originality. Roark represents the unique contributions of man. He is purpose incarnate. However, the needs of a man are contraposed to the needs of men. Rand makes the argument through Roark that just as the heroic man can give himself to others, he can also taketh away. One climax in the book is just that—Roark contributes something great and useful to society and then destroys it after it has been tainted by other minds. Rand argues through the plot that the needs of the many, even important needs, are subservient to the individual and absolute purpose of one when it is his personal work at stake. Through Roark, she expounds on the difference between creators and second-hand men, who leech off the greatness of others. Her dismissal for the needs of the collective in its entirety for the heroism of one is not entirely convincing. It works well in the book, with the characters and scenes we encounter, but it’s hard to see be practical or good in real life. While we may want the great achievements of mankind—to put a man on the moon, on Mars, to build skyscrapers and more—it’s hard to imagine that goals of greatness should be our only aims with no balance or concern for the well-being of the many. This is the enduring flaw with Rand’s philosophy, but it makes her presentation no less compelling.
Each of Rand’s characters is archetypal of some idea, and she wrote them so well that it is easy to see oneself in each of them. This was one of the most unnerving parts of the book. We can see our desire for personal achievement as in Roark, and respect his uncompromising ideals. More disquieting however is how easy it is to see one’s insecurities in other foils, like Peter Keating, Guy Francon, and the general readers of The Banner newspaper. Rand makes one question one’s accomplishments, to admit where we compromised our integrity for convenience. One wonders how many ideas and opinions are one’s own, and how many others are the product of what we’ve heard or read. I feel a personal point of pride where I feel I represent Roark and an equally piercing shame where I embody Keating.
Rand makes one think if we should value the opinion of others, or if the self is what really matters. You get to question why people want power over others, why we feel it necessary to feel better or more accomplished. Because this is a novel and not a philosophy textbook, these questions are more than just a proposition to toy with, they are posed in rich narrative. You get to watch the inner minds of those who are obsessed with what others think and contrast that against what it’s like to not care at all for the opinion of others. Roark doesn’t want power over others, he doesn’t want influence, he just wants to fulfill his purpose. Rand makes you rethink what you imagine is important. She causes one to reckon honestly with one’s deepest insecurities and seek to produce our greatest inner beings.
After having read The Fountainhead, it makes one wish they wrote it themselves. Not because one must necessarily agree with its ethics, but because it is truly a great piece of art. By Rand’s philosophy, acknowledging greatness is good and acceptable. But for many would-be objectivists, the greatest trick Rand plays is by making her admirers into frauds. If one doesn’t just admire her work as-is but want to emulate it, and care about what she might believe, then these objectivists become shams of a sort. Like with Roark’s buildings, our beliefs and ideas must be self-derived, not taken second-handed.
I think the average reader will read this and be able to disagree with Rand where her philosophy veers too radical, but still be able to admire the book as a literary work of art. The Fountainhead is a must-read, and I expect this will not be my last time opening it.
(Originally written after my second read, updated after my third).