Our Man in Greece: On the Use and Abuse of Aristotle in the Works of Ayn Rand

by Peter Saint-Andre (2009)


Objectivists like to think of Aristotle as "our man in Greece": a reliable agent of their interests in the foreign land of serious philosophy. Although Ayn Rand took issue with aspects of Aristotle's philosophy, she still said that he was "the greatest of all philosophers" (Rand 1961b, 14) and that "the only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle" (Rand 1957, 1085). Yet was Aristotle a proto-Objectivist, and was Rand truly an Aristotelian? The topic is a large one, especially so given the vast scope of Aristotle's writings, and could fill a significant book on its own. However, we can at least start to clear the underbrush and thus pave a path towards an answer by observing how Rand used and abused Aristotle's philosophy in her own writings.

Rand divided philosophy into five branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. Such groupings post-date Aristotle [1] and therefore do a subtle violence to Aristotle's achievements (logic, ontology, biology, ethics, rhetoric, poetics, etc.) and his failings (physics, cosmology, theology, etc.). Although in this essay I adhere to Rand's grouping, I do so while recognizing that in a sense it too is a kind of abuse of Aristotle.

Aristotle and the History of Ideas

One way in which Rand distorts Aristotle's legacy is by overestimating his historical significance. Consider a few examples:

[E]verything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value we possess — including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language — is the result of Aristotle's influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles... (1960, 22-23)

[A]t the root of every civilized achievement, such as science, technology, progress, freedom — at the root of every value we enjoy today, including the birth of this country — you will find the achievement of one man, who lived over two thousand years ago: Aristotle. (1974, 7)

To the contrary, the evidence is scant to non-existent that Aristotle's philosophy caused modern science, the industrial revolution, recent technological progress, or the founding of the United States of America, let alone the structure of the English language. I have considered these matters at greater length in my essays Ayn Rand and the Ascent of Man and Ayn Rand and American Culture, so I will not discuss them in depth here. However, the key insight is that the multifaceted phenomena we group under a broad heading such as "modern science" or "the industrial revolution" emerged slowly through the confluence of many causes, few of which were directly philosophical. It stands to reason that philosophers would overestimate their own influence and importance — all professions do so — but that is no reason for us to believe them. Yet the hyperbolic nature of Rand's evaluation of Aristotle does serve a purpose: it builds him up as an authority to whom she can appeal when needed.


Rand says very little, and nothing of substance, about Aristotle's political philosophy, other than to vaguely claim him as an antecedent of John Locke, the American Revolution, and the classical liberal tradition; therefore I do not discuss political philosophy further in this essay.


Perhaps the most egregious example of Rand's abuse of Aristotle is her attempt to invoke his authority in her essays on the philosophy of art, which I first noticed many years ago on my first serious reading of Aristotle's Poetics. Several times in her writings she claimed to be maintaining or renewing the Aristotelian tradition of literary criticism ([1945] 1995, 669-670; 1963, 168; 1968, 80). She did this by misquoting Aristotle to make him seem like a "romantic realist" or literary moralist, most completely in the following passage (Rand 1968, 80):

The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because "history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be."

But the "quotation" from Aristotle here is spurious: it is to be found in no English translation made before 1945, when Rand first mentioned it, and in fact it was lifted almost word-for-word from Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by the early twentieth-century libertarian writer Albert Jay Nock. [2] It's true that in Chapter 9 of the Poetics Aristotle draws a distinction between poetry (not "fiction") and history, but he does not say what Rand or Nock claims he says (1451a36-1451b11, translation mine):

[T]he function of the poet is to describe, not what has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible according to probability or necessity. For the difference between the poet and the historian is not that the one speaks in meter and the other speaks in prose ... but that the one describes what has happened and the other describes the kind of thing that might be. Thus poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history, for poetry speaks more of the universal, whereas history speaks more of the particular; and by universal I mean what such or such a person might say or do according to probability or necessity (which is the aim of poetry, although it assigns proper names to the characters), whereas by particular I mean what, say, Alcibiades did or experienced.

The primary difference here is that Rand (following Nock) imputes a moral force to Aristotle's interpretation of poetry: it represents things as they "ought to be", she claims. Yet the word "ought" is nowhere to be found in Aristotle's text; his contrast is between the particulars of what has happened vs. the universals of what might happen, not naturalistic "mere facts" vs. romanticist high ideals. Although Rand thought that she was buttressing her argument for the primarily moral purpose of literature by invoking the authority of Aristotle, in fact she was merely abusing that authority by putting words into his mouth.


While scholars have found significant echoes of Aristotelian principles in Rand's ethics, Rand herself was somewhat dismissive of Aristotle's approach to ethical philosophy (Rand 1961b, 14):

No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined. The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics s an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.

These sentences reveal such a fundamental lack of familiarity with the sophisticated arguments presented in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (and their connections to his biological insights) that I wonder if Rand ever did more than glance over the copy of the complete works of Aristotle that she bought in the 1940s (Branden 1986, 192). The image conjured up here is that of Aristotle as philosophical pollster, clipboard and pen in hand, diligently surveying the conventionally noble and wise men of Athens in order to construct a composite picture of their unquestioned ethical assumptions.

That picture is very far from the truth.

It is true that Aristotle did not think ethics was an exact science, but at the same time I doubt that Rand's understanding of the concept "exact science" was the same as Aristotle's. In modern usage, a science is considered to be exact if it admits of precise measurements, well-defined causation, and testable hypotheses and theories. Thus hard sciences such as physics and chemistry are commonly thought to be exact, "softer" sciences such as psychology are thought to be inexact or only partially exact, some of the life sciences (e.g., biology), descriptive sciences (e.g., geology), and social sciences (e.g., economics) are thought to hold a mediate position, and other fields of knowledge (e.g., history, aesthetics, ethics) are even now considered to not be sciences at all, or at best to be proto-sciences. The reasons are fairly clear: the phenomena of (say) physics and chemistry are relatively simple and well-understood despite their manifest complexities, whereas the phenomena of (say) history and sociology are so complex and poorly-understood that scholars find it difficult to define the dimensions along which measurements could be made, to determine the range of plausible causes for the phenomena under study, and to formulate hypotheses and theories that are even potentially testable.

Aristotle appears to have recognized some of these difficulties in a well-known passage from the Nicomachean Ethics, where he sets out some of his reasons for thinking that ethics is not an exact science (1094b11-1094b27, translation mine):

Our discussion will be sufficient if it illuminates the underlying subject-matter: for the same precision is not to be sought in all accounts, any more than in the products of different crafts. Moreover, what is noble and what is just, which are examined in social science, differ and vary so much that they seem to be based only on convention, not on nature. Things that are good, however, also vary in the same sort of way, since they cause harm to many people; for some people have been destroyed because of their wealth, and others because of their bravery. Therefore we must be content if we can indicate the truth roughly and in outline, since these are the sorts of things we reason from and about, i.e. the sort of thing that can be decided for the most part. It is appropriate to accept each of our conclusions in the same way, since the educated person seeks as much precision as possible in accordance with the nature of the subject-matter; for it seems just as mistaken to demand proofs from a rhetorician as to accept persuasive arguments from a mathematician.

Later, when summarizing the outline he has made in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides some further insights into his notion of precision or exactness (1098a20-34, translation mine):

This is a sketch of the good; for perhaps the outline must come first and the complete inscription later. It seems that anyone can advance and complete the sketch if it is well done; and in such cases time is a good inventor or a good co-worker. That is also how the crafts have progressed, since anyone can add what is missing. Yet it is appropriate to recall what we said before, so that we do not seek the same precision everywhere but the degree that fits the subject-matter and that is proper to the investigation. For the carpenter's and the geometer's inquiries about the right angle also differ: the carpenter's inquiry is limited to the right angle's usefulness for his work, whereas the geometer's inquiry concerns what or what sort of thing the right angle is, since he studies the truth. And we must take the same approach in other areas, so that secondary purposes do not engage us more than our primary task.

Still later, Aristotle contrasts the level of precision needed for right action with the level needed for scientific study (1103b34-1104a11, translation mine):

Therefore let us grant in advance that every account of the actions we owe shall be stated in outline instead of precisely, just as we said at the beginning: the accounts we demand shall reflect the subject-matter, and actions and advantage, like health, are not settled. And when the general account is so imprecise, the account of particular cases is even less precise, for they fall under no craft or set of rules, and those who act must always consider what is advantageous, just as doctors and navigators do. But although the present account is of this sort, it is necessary to at least offer assistance.

For Aristotle, then, a science is exact when its principles apply without qualification or modification to all particular cases (i.e., they are true not only for the most part but universally), or at least when the exceptions to its general principles can be stated in a clear and detailed manner. However, when a field of study is focused on usefulness rather than scientific completeness, what matters is that its conclusions conduce to right action; and the point of ethics is not to define an exact science but to help one live a good life.

By contrast, Rand does seem to have believed that ethics is or could be an exact science; yet her conception of ethics as an exact science was more of a promissory note than an achieved reality. Her essays on ethics make for stimulating reading, but when it comes to human choices and actions her principles do not propose testable hypotheses for the choices people might make or the actions they might take, set out a fully explanatory set of causes for human behavior, or define dimensions along which choices or actions could be precisely measured for goodness or value.

For instance, in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology she claimed that an ethical concept like love can indeed be measured, but that the measurements in question are ordinal (e.g., this is the second most intense love I have ever experienced) rather than cardinal (e.g., this love is worth investing 1,000 hours of my time). Rand ties this claim to her definition of a moral code as "a system of teleological measurements which grades the choices and actions open to man, according to the degree to which they achieve or frustrate the code's standard of value" (Rand 1966d, 33). Yet are these teleological measurements scientifically exact? Is Rand claiming that the objective value of an individual's choices can be precisely and accurately measured by an appropriately scientific ethicist?

Consider an analogy that Rand pursues at some length: just as money provides a medium of exchange in the economic realm, which is used as a measure of material value, so also "the same kind of measurement guides man's actions in the wider realm of moral or spiritual values.... But the currency or medium of exchange is different. In the spiritual realm, the currency — which exists in limited quantities and must be teleologically measured in the pursuit of any value — is time, i.e., one's life" (Rand 1966d, 33-34). Presumably Rand would argue that economics is an exact science because it possesses a dimension along which values can be measured (i.e., prices). Yet prices are a social phenomenon. True, the price that a given individual will pay for a given item can be roughly measured in any given transaction (i.e., by the fact that an individual makes or does not make the purchase at a given price), but this value is personal or (in the language of the Austrian school of economics) subjective rather than objective. The objective nature of economic value emerges in a social context through the myriad individual interactions among buyers and sellers. And, most importantly for our discussion here, the scientific nature of economics arises not at the personal level but at the social level. The particular decisions of a particular economic actor are a matter for psychology, not economics.

Furthermore, time (the spiritual currency that Rand posits) is inherently personal or subjective. There is no objective measure of the "content" and "intensity" (Rand 1966d, 31) of a given activity, no way to sum that content and intensity over all individuals to arrive at an objective measure of the value of that activity. And even if there were, such a measure would be inherently social (as is the market price of a given economic item), and thus diametrically opposed to Rand's ethical individualism.

Finally, as Aristotle notes, "the account of particular cases is even less precise, for they fall under no craft or set of rules". What would the craft of ethics look like? Consider medicine: it has taken decades and centuries of cumulative knowledge-gathering and knowledge-application by hundreds of thousands of doctors to bootstrap the craft of medicine into a science, because science is not just a particular result but a process of inquiry and a community of inquirers; and even though medicine has built up such an extensive institutional infrastructure, there remains as much art as science in that field. In the field of ethics, there is no such institutional infrastructure, no such cumulative body of objective knowledge, no such community of scientists using agreed-upon methods of inquiry. To paraphrase Aristotle on habituation, one scientist does not a science make; and even if Rand had achieved a mostly scientific theory of ethics, that would not by itself turn ethics into a science.

No, ethics is not an exact science, and Rand did not prove that it is (or even illuminate the general direction in which such a proof could be pursued). Perhaps one could argue that ethics is a normative science and therefore is not subject to the same stringent requirements as experimental sciences like physics or descriptive sciences like geology; but Rand does not make this argument or do the work necessary to justify it — and in any case such an argument would give the lie to Rand's claim that ethics is an exact science. In the end, Rand's ethics is just as inexact as Aristotle's, except that she did not have the intellectual honesty to admit it.

So if ethics is not an exact science that provides testable hypotheses, well-defined causation, and precise measurements, what results can ethics legitimately provide, and on what basis? Despite Rand's protestations, Aristotle's conclusions were not all that different from hers: ethics defines general principles based on fundamental facts about human nature, but those principles must be applied individually based on the particulars of one's psychological constitution and life experiences.

For Aristotle, the most fundamental fact about human nature is that the work/function (ἔργον) or means of life (ζωή) or characteristic way of living (βίος) for human beings is reason (an argument closely paralleled by Rand's claim that reason is man's only tool of knowledge and basic way of survival; see my essay A Philosophy for Living on Earth for details). It is true that Aristotle pays more attention to common opinions about ethical matters than Rand does (see for example 1098b27-29); but he uses such opinions for corroboration of his more fundamental arguments, not for proof, on the assumption that "all the facts are linked to the truth" (1098b11). It is also true that he pays special attention to the opinions of ὁ σπουδαῖος (a person who is serious, earnest, zealous, good, excellent, of strong character), for example at 1099a24; but this is because the function of ὁ σπουδαῖος is to perform especially well the characteristic activity of a human being (i.e., reason). Thus for Aristotle there is a line of causation from the fundamental human capacity for reason to the definition of excellence, and his ethical arguments are not limited to that which was conventionally considered to be noble and wise in his time.

Leaving aside her misunderstandings of Aristotle's methodology, Rand might have had any number of reasons for disagreeing with the substance of Aristotle's ethics. Most centrally for Rand's purposes, he dismissed out of hand the ethical value of money-making, business, art, technology, and productive activity in general (preferring instead a life of contemplation or, secondarily, what nowadays we would call public service). However, given Rand's contention that the fundamental value of productive activity was not demonstrated historically until the industrial revolution, it would have been difficult for her to hold Aristotle to account regarding the centrally organizing purpose of the best life for human beings. Apparently it was easier for her to criticize him on methodological grounds, misguided though those criticisms were.


Aristotle's theory of knowledge is difficult to understand and for far too long has been misrepresented, mistranslated, and misunderstood. So it should come as no surprise that Ayn Rand, too, missed the mark in her views on Aristotle's epistemology. First, Rand made the following claims about Aristotle's theory of knowledge:

Interestingly, Rand seems to have derived her conception of Aristotelian epistemology not from Aristotle's own writings but from modern-day Thomists (Rand 1990, 307):

Somewhere in the 1940s ... I was discussing the issue of concepts with a Jesuit, who philosophically was a Thomist. He was holding to the Aristotelian position that concepts refer to an essence in concretes. And he specifically referred to "manness" in man and "roseness" in roses. I was arguing with him that there is no such thing, and that these names refer merely to an organization of concretes, that this is our way of organizing concretes.

Could it be that Rand's view of Aristotle as an essentialist and intuitivist owes less to Aristotle's actual philosophy than to the accretion of interpretations between the time of Aristotle's death in 322 B.C. and the time of Thomas Aquinas's flourishing around 1250 A.D. (as well as in the subsequent Thomist tradition)? Consider an observation that Charles B. Schmitt makes about Thomist metaphysics in his book Aristotle and the Renaissance (Schmitt 1983, 93):

[T]endencies to modify peripatetic doctrine by calling on external traditions continued throughout the Middle Ages. One particularly noteworthy example is Thomas Aquinas, whose metaphysics, as is now generally recognized, is more Neoplatonic than Aristotelian. While the external form and language of Thomas’s exposition is largely Aristotelian, at the core there is a metaphysics of participation that has no genuine basis in Aristotle. It is, in fact, one of the central doctrines of Neoplatonism, which developed quite naturally from Plato’s Theory of Forms with its consequent doctrine of participation. Though Thomas did not know Plotinus directly and knew the voluminous writings of Proclus only partially, he derived enough information from intermediate Latin and Arabic sources (especially the Liber de causis, which was then attributed to Aristotle) to allow him to formulate a metaphysical system eclectic to a degree which he himself probably did not realize.

Similarly, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen come close to pinning the essentialist interpretation of Aristotle on certain members of the Scholastic tradition rather than on Aristotle himself (Den Uyl and Rasmussen 1984, 17-18; for several other fresh perspectives on Aristotle as anti-essentialist, see Balme 1987 and Lennox 1987):

[A] crucial difference between Rand's use of the term essence and the use made of it by certain Aristotelians should be noted. Maritain means by essence both differentia (distinguishing characteristic) and genus. Henry Veatch means by essence simply "what something is" — much like Rand's use of the term identity. Rand, however, seems to mean by essence the fundamental distinguishing characteristic — the differentia. It is quite doubtful that Aristotelians have ever meant, for example, by the phrase essence of man just rationality. It seems then that Rand, in criticizing the Aristotelian commitment to metaphysical essences, is, at worst, attacking a straw-man or, at best, attacking ill-formed statements of the position.... Yet, it must be admitted that there are times when Aristotelians do seem to talk as if the essence of a being were a constitutive part of the thing. It seems, therefore, that Rand may have an important insight after all. Her insight is even more credible when we recall the tendency of some "Scholastics" to confuse the second intentional status of genus and species with that of things, the objects of our first intentions. This error is a form of Platonism, and Rand is not the first Aristotelian to find such Platonism among the proponents of Aristotelianism.

Although noting that the textual evidence is somewhat lacking, Chris Sciabarra ties the intuitivist interpretation of Aristotle to Rand's Russian philosophy teacher N.O. Lossky (Sciabarra 1995, 50), who worked primarily in the modern idealist tradition of Leibniz, Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling:

Lossky presented an intuitivist perspective that he believed owed much to the concrete ideal-realism of Aristotle. Though he rejected aspects of the Aristotelian epistemology, Lossky saw Aristotle as a philosophical intuitivist. In later years, Rand would present an interpretation of Aristotle that linked the Greek philosopher to a similar metaphysical-intuitivist tradition.... One can speculate that Lossky's lectures on Aristotle provided Rand with an intuitivist interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy. This might explain her insistence that Aristotle's theory was a form of intuitivism with an emphasis on metaphysical "essence."

Thus we have at least some hints that Rand's view of Aristotle as a metaphysical essentialist and epistemological intuitivist is not founded in the bedrock of Aristotle's own writings but in the subsequent accumulation of Platonizing interpretations.

From the recent date of the secondary sources I have quoted, it may appear that Rand could not reasonably have had doubts regarding her views on Aristotle's epistemology. However, perhaps the most thorough-going critique of those Platonizing interpretations can be found in the writings of William of Ockham (c. 1288 - c. 1348); furthermore, the pre-eminent modern interpreter of Ockham's thought published his major study of Ockham, including important coverage of the problem of universals, in 1965 (Moody 1965), a year before Rand began to issue the essays that comprised her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Although a comparison of Aristotle, Ockham, and Rand could fill a separate paper, the main lines of Ockham's argument are clear:

  1. Aristotle's views on logic, epistemology, and metaphysics are not to be confused with the Neo-Platonic, Augustinian, and Islamic interpretations of Aristotle.

  2. The fundamental wrong turn in Aristotelian interpretation occurred when the Neo-Platonist Porphyry framed Aristotle's Categories as raising questions about the real existence and precise location of universals (i.e., if they exist only in the mind or outside the mind, and if outside the mind if they exist as separate objects or somehow exist in particular things).

  3. But Porphyry's questions are not Aristotle's questions, because for Aristotle (a) there are no universals as objects that are separately existing or inherent to particular things since all entities are particular things with particular features, and (b) νοῦς or intelligence is the conceptual act of grasping what it is to be a thing.

In Randian terms, this argument results in two primary conclusions: existence is identity and consciousness is identification. The first conclusion overturns the notion that Aristotle was an essentialist, because Aristotle's phrase τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι ("what it is to be a thing"), mistranslated and reified by numerous Scholastics as "quidditas" and thence metaphysical "essence", in fact means identity. The second conclusion overturns the notion that Aristotle was an intuitivist, because Aristotle based his theory of knowledge in large measure on ἀφαίρεσις ("abstraction") and χωρισμός ("separation") in the process of coming to know a universal from the particulars, not on intuition or direct perception of a universal.

Rand herself, however, did not pursue any of the available hints that Aristotle's epistemology was not essentialist and intuitivist, instead remaining content with accepting second- and third-hand accounts rather than completing any original research into Aristotle's philosophy. While the exact nature of Aristotle's theory of knowledge is beyond the scope of this essay, here again we see that Rand's description of Aristotle's philosophy was unfortunately full of distortions and misinterpretations, albeit ones that have been commonly accepted throughout the history of philosophy.

Metaphysics and Philosophical Systems

Rand thought that Aristotle achieved "all that was necessary" to "establish the right metaphysics" by doing two things: "establishing the law of identity" and his "identification of the fact that only concretes exist" [3] (Journals [Rand 1995], June 19, 1958). However, she also thought that "he destroyed his metaphysics by his cosmology — by the whole nonsense of the 'moving spheres,' 'the immovable mover,' teleology, etc." (ibid.)

In particular, Rand held that the issue of teleology — the applicability of the idea that "a purpose set in advance in nature determines physical phenomena" — was "one of my major differences from Aristotle" (1958, 20-21); in her view teleology "pertains only to consciousness" (1965b, 55), in contrast to Aristotle's view that teleology "also applies to nature" (ibid.). Evidently Rand thought that Aristotle's teleology led to his errors in metaphysics, in particular his cosmological and religious ideas of heavenly bodies wanting to move in certain ways and of an unmoved mover as the final cause of the universe. As she once put it: teleology "is the kind of concept that leads to mysticism and religion" (1958, 20-21).

I think that we can safely leave aside Aristotle's cosmology, in which celestial objects were held to undertake motion for the sake of certain ends, because for Aristotle celestial objects were merely analogous to living beings (which he thinks are the exemplars of the concept of entity, see Metaphysics 1034a3-4). This illustrates the fact that the primary locus of Aristotle's teleology was his biological studies, where (properly understood) his emphasis on so-called final causes in fact sounds quite similar to some of Rand's insights into the nature of value. According to Aristotle, we cannot fully account for a given feature or activity of a living being unless we describe how that feature or activity conduces to the being's survival or characteristic way of living. Thus for example a duck's webbed feet help it move through water so that it can feed, avoid prey, tend to its young, and so on. The way that Aristotle puts this is to say that webbed feet exist "for the sake of" (οὗ ἕνεκα) the duck's mode of life, or that webbed feet are good for a duck. His biological treatises are chock-full of such explanations, which, far from invoking unconscious purposes or mystical forces, ground the concept of the good in biological reality. Aristotle's biological insights thus provide an important foundation for an objective or naturalistic theory of value, which was one of Rand's most central pursuits in philosophy. (For more on Aristotle's teleology, see Gotthelf 1987, which does not seem to have received notice from Rand during her lifetime but certainly could have, given that it was written by a disciple of hers and in 1976 won a prize for best dissertation in philosophy.)

Furthermore, it is odd that Rand considered Aristotle's insights into the law of identity and his particularism to be completely undercut by his views on natural science, because usually she had a keen appreciation for the layering of concepts. On Rand's view, ontology is more fundamental than science, so the truth of the law of identity could not be completely undercut by scientific speculations that were proved false 1500 years later. Consider an analogy applied to Objectivism: a similar layering violation would occur if 1500 years from now in a future society without coercive government someone were to claim that Rand's ethical individualism has been completely undercut by the emergence of a society disproving her assertion that government is necessary for human flourishing.

Rand makes this claim because she sees Aristotle as a consistent thinker who aimed to produce a thoroughgoing philosophical system. Certainly Rand considered it one of her distinctive achievements that she formulated a system of philosophy, and she thought that her system represented a modern-day continuation and updating of the system first expressed by Aristotle. But was Aristotle self-consciously systematic? In The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin draws the following distinction (Berlin 1953, 1-2):

[T]here exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel — a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance — and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes....

There can be little doubt that Rand is a hedgehog. But what of Aristotle? Interestingly, Berlin labels him one of the foxes, and it is not hard to see why: Aristotle applied his protean genius to the entire range of knowledge at the time (founding a few sciences in the process), and he was just as comfortable in biology as in politics, in logic as in ethics, in physics as in religion, in epistemology as in aesthetics. Although Aristotle made connections between these disparate fields of investigation (a task made easier by the fact that the modern compartmentalism of knowledge was not yet dreamt of then), it cannot be said that he sought to impose one system or organizing principle on all of the phenomena he investigated.

Just as Marx was not a Marxist, Aristotle was not an Aristotelian. The systematization of Aristotle's insights came only much later, and that systematization did much violence to the questing spirit of Aristotle's researches (which John Herman Randall once aptly described as "the passionate search for passionless truth"). Those who see in Aristotle the enemy of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Harvey, Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, and the march of modern science in general are more than missing the point. While some of Aristotle's conclusions were suspect even given the thin evidence of the day (the brain is a cooling mechanism, women are naturally inferior to men, there exists a prime mover), overall he did about the best that was possible almost two thousand years before the birth of modern science. Furthermore, there is no reason to think that Aristotle himself would have refused to look through Galileo's telescope, as modern-day Aristotelians did; on the contrary, he would have been among the first to celebrate the achievements of the modern sciences, and probably would have in the scientific vanguard himself. Aristotle's approach to knowledge was too scientific for him to have been deeply invested in whatever system his intellectual progeny constructed out of his preliminary conclusions, because he valued science (in the broadest sense) above system.

Sadly, I don't think that we can say the same for Ayn Rand and Objectivism.


Among Rand's admirers, the usual excuse for her slapdash treatment of Aristotle is that "Ayn Rand was not a scholar" — the implication being that she was too busy writing blockbuster novels, generating philosophical insights, and pontificating about the culture of 1960s America to gain the specialized knowledge required to delve deeply into the obscurities of Aristotelian exegesis. I think this cuts her too much slack. A quick perusal of Chapter 9 of the Poetics would have set her straight regarding Aristotle's aesthetics. An afternoon or a day spent with the early sections of the Nicomachean Ethics (especially his famous argument about the "function" of a human being) would have shown her that Aristotle was not a philosophical pollster in the realm of ethics. Some reflection on the twists and turns of interpretation and misinterpretation in the history of ideas (Rand did study history in her university program) might have made her suspicious regarding Aristotle's supposed essentialism and intuitivism, as might have some research into the problem of universals, especially the works of William of Ockham. She does not seem to have read Aristotle's biological works at all and thus she misunderstood his conception of teleology, which was quite closely allied with her work on an objective theory of value. And her own commitment to an overarching philosophical system blinded her to the fact that, although he pursued connections among many different areas of knowledge, Aristotle was too keen an observer and too focused on reality to place system above experience. Finally, if she found the relevant texts too confusing she could have consulted with scholars of ancient philosophy, commissioned fresh translations, or even learned some Greek (she knew four languages and could have added a fifth with relative ease).

Yet Rand did none of these things. For someone who held that ideas were a matter of life and death, who claimed that the achievements of Aristotle lay "at the root of every civilized achievement", and who recognized Aristotle as her only philosophical influence, she seems to have spent precious little time trying to understand what Aristotle actually thought about the core issues of politics, aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Her treatment of Aristotle would reflect merely a sin of omission were it not for the fact that she made positive assertions about Aristotle's philosophy that range from textually unsupported and patently false to historically conventional but seriously misguided. The results, alas, reflect poorly on her capacity for intellectual objectivity and her love for true wisdom over mere ideology.


[1] For example, the term "metaphysics" derives from an accident of ordering: in an ancient collection of Aristotle's works, the book that has come down to us as Metaphysica was simply the book that came after (μετά) the Physica. [back]

[2] Thanks to John Enright for alerting me to the Nock quotation, via Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns (Burns 2009, 316n32). The exact quote from Nock is: "History, Aristotle says, represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be; and therefore of the two, he adds, 'fiction is the more philosophical and the more highly serious.'" (Nock 1943, 191) For reference, the relevant Greek text is Poetics 1451b4-7: ἀλλὰ τούτῳ διαφέρει, τῷ τὸν μὲν τὰ γενόμενα λέγειν, τὸν δὲ οἷα ἃν γένοιτο. διὸ καὶ φιλοσοφώτερον καὶ σπουδαιότερον ποίησις ἱστορίας ἐστίν· ἡ μὲν γὰρ ποίησις μᾶλλον τὰ καθόλου, ἡ δʼ ἱστορία τὰ καθʼ ἕκαστον λέγει. Nock at least had the intellectual honesty to say in a footnote that "I hope I have not made too free with Aristotle's νὀια γένοιτο, ἂν [sic] but I think the implication is certainly there" — where I take Nock's "implication" to be his mistranslation of "the kind of thing that might be" (τὸν οἷα ἃν γένοιτο) as "what might be and ought to be" (indeed, Nock did not even quote the Greek correctly, transcribing οἷα as νὀια including an unreproducible second character of omicron with a circumflex accent, which does not occur in ancient Greek because omicron is always short and the circumflex accent is used only on long vowels; for more on Nock's lack of scholarship, see Lissner 1982). Unfortunately, Rand expressed no such reservations. The translations I checked before learning of the Nock link were those by Thomas Twining (1789/1812), Samuel Henry Butcher (1895/1902), Ingram Bywater (1898/1909), Lane Cooper (1913/1943), W.H. Fyfe (1927), and Preston H. Epps (1942), as well as Russian translations by M. Gasparova, B. Appelrota, and N. Novosadskogo that would have been available to Rand during her school days (see <http://nevmenandr.net/poetica/1451a36.php> for details). [back]

[3] Consider: "Now the deepest thing Objectivism has in common with Aristotle — and it has many things in common — is this: Aristotle was the first to grasp what most people still do not, namely, that everything that exists is a specific, concrete entity, or an aspect of one, such as an action of an entity, an attribute of an entity, a relationship it bears, etc. But the case of everything is an entity — not an idea or abstraction. An abstraction is the form in which we organize these entities in order to understand them. To be an Aristotelian all the way down, you must grasp that only concrete events, concrete relationships, concrete problems exist." (Rand 1969, 28-29) [back]


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