Objectivism and the Meaning of Life

by Peter Saint-Andre (2001)

The Big Questions

If you have been strongly influenced by Ayn Rand but have entertained no doubts about the value of Objectivism, then you have not reflected deeply enough on her philosophy. Rand's systematic vision of life is radical, provocative, and innovative -- yet incomplete, often vitriolic, and sometimes just plain wrongheaded. Furthermore, because of the rhetorical seductiveness of her writing style, it can be enormously challenging to integrate her ideas into your life without subordinating your personal nature to a symbolic ideal. Yet both the quest for truth and the inner experience of life are at root solitary pursuits, no matter how deeply affected you are by other people; so the meaning of life can be found only by remaining true to your own nature and experience.

There are enough tensions (not to say outright contradictions) here to lead to serious inner conflict, repression, and disconnection from the reality of your own needs. The question is whether a better life -- a life of "joy and reason and meaning" -- awaits if you are able to separate the bad from the good in Rand's thought, integrate the good into your daily life, and thereby make real the core value of Objectivist insights.

Essential to the question of the value of Objectivism is the question of the values of Objectivism: what does Objectivism hold out as the core values of human existence, and why? Are these values consistent with what you, based on your own experience, hold to be most important in life and most reflective of the highest human potential? Is the Objectivist system of values comprehensive, or does it ignore key human values and therefore fall short of the ideal?

These are large questions, and I do not pretend that I have answered them in my attempts at understanding Rand's ideas (nor even that I have raised all of the relevant questions). However, I would like to outline my approach to the big questions in order to stimulate your own reflections on the meaning of Ayn Rand's philosophy. The intent is that my reflections be a point of departure for you, not the final destination.

Core Capacities and Cardinal Values

In opposition to the technical minutiae of much contemporary scholarship, I hold that philosophy performs its highest function when it focuses its attention on core questions about the meaning of human experience. And further, I hold that the best way to seek answers to those questions is to grapple with the timeless enigma that is human nature.

As I discovered when writing my essay A Philosophy for Living on Earth, Ayn Rand identified four fundamental capacities of the human individual: thought, choice, action, and feeling. Over time I have come to see that it is not necessarily easy to fulfill the promise of those capacities. Consider the cardinal values of Rand's philosophy for living on earth:

  1. True understanding is hard. Given the siren call of what Francis Bacon called the "idols" of human thinking, it can be difficult to understand the world and yourself in a clear-headed, factual, objective manner. Perspective can be gained through immersion in the facts of history, awareness of the contours of human psychology (such as the will to believe, the in-group/out-group dichotomy, and the fundamental attribution bias), and knowledge of the evolutionary origins and biological basis of much human behavior.

  2. True self-direction is hard. Given the many distractions of life, it can be difficult to focus your attention and direct your energy to those aspects of life that you find most valuable, important, and rewarding. It helps to avoid the mental junk food of most television and other entertainment, to eschew the ephemeral froth of fashion (whether in politics, clothing, culture, finance, or any other human endeavor), and to spend your precious time on those aspects of life that are within your span of control.

  3. True achievement is hard. Given the unhealthy state of so many institutions (mixed-economy corporations, overweening government, market-insulated schools, and the like), it can be difficult to achieve efficacy and excellence in your work and your personal relationships, so that you can make your chosen values real in the world. Here there is no substitute for continual practice, learning from worthy models while maintaining a studied independence, clear communication, and good old-fashioned hard work.

  4. True enjoyment is hard. Given the wearying stresses of modern existence, it can be difficult to achieve objectivity, self-direction, and personal excellence, not out of a sense of duty or obligation, but in a free-spirited style of almost childlike exuberance and innocent wonder. The point of a philosophy for living on earth is your own life, lived not with the gritted teeth of fortitude but with the relaxed ease of natural serenity and effortless joy.

From Abstract to Particular

By focusing here on cardinal values, I do not mean to give short shrift either to their foundation in the value of life or to their expression in everyday living. Indeed, I see the cardinal values as a bridge between the most abstract level of value and the more particular values that one pursues day-to-day.

Regarding the value of life, the core human capacities are capacities for living. Thought, choice, action, and feeling enable you to succeed at the task of living a good human life, which includes understanding life as well as experiencing the emotional side of your activities and relationships.

Regarding the more particular values, the cardinal values are broad categories under which those everyday values can be subsumed as instances -- as dimensions along which measurement of those particular values can be measured. While we could make an exhaustive list of particular values (such as reason, truth, honesty, clarity of purpose, expressiveness, openness to emotion and experience, creativity, physical and emotional health, moral ambition, security, property, wealth, love, friendship, etc.), all of these particular values can be seen as instances of one or more of the cardinal values. Here are a few examples:

  1. Friendship -- I find that friends give me great pleasure, that they support me in my endeavors to create value, that the example of who they are inspires me to be more morally ambitious and directed in the pursuit of my values, and that through my discussions with them they help me understand my own perspective on life. In other words, I can measure friendship (and any particular friendship) along the dimensions of enjoyment, achievement, self-direction, and understanding.

  2. Work -- call me a workaholic, but I think work is fun! Work is also a prime example of creating value in the world, of achieving goals and applying values. I find that work gives me an expansive field for self-direction, for choosing what I'd like to pursue in life, for selectively attending to what I find interesting and important. Work, if done well, also involves a great deal of thought.

  3. Art -- works of art comprise one the highest ornaments of life. Personally, I'm actively involved in creating art (mostly music and poetry) as a value to be experienced in the world. Even for those who are not active as producers of art, I think the greatest enjoyment of art is accompanied by discussing art with others, thinking about it, reflecting on it, selectively attending to what one likes and does not like, seeking out art one might enjoy, etc. Here again, the value of art can be measured along the dimensions of conceptual understanding, self-direction, achievement, and enjoyment.

These are only three examples, but you get the idea: the four cardinal values yield a framework for understanding the more particular values. Yet do these cardinal values yield a comprehensive account of human value? I think they do, at a certain level of abstraction. They are abstract assessments, conceptualizations that do justice to the more particular values of human existence. Thus the cardinal values provide dimensions along which the more particular values can be measured. And I think this is the most we can expect from a set of cardinal values.

Regarding what I call the more particular values, Ayn Rand is famous for having made specific prescriptions as to what is right or wrong, good or bad. Partly this is because she was a novelist and needed to present characters who had specific measurements along the dimensions I've discussed. Unfortunately, one can conclude from Rand's novels that her characters provide the only consistent set of measurements along those dimensions -- or even that some of the more specific dimensions along which Rand measured her characters (e.g., their near-ascetic dedication to work or their unusual disinterest in family) are the only or the most important dimensions of value in life. I think that such conclusions are misguided and concrete-bound, and that a focus on cardinal values can result in a more balanced, healthy, and conceptual perspective on the particular values of everyday life. The key is to see cardinal values as a bridge between abstract "life" and particular living -- as categories of thought and dimensions of measurement, not as distant symbols or ends in themselves. This conceptual approach to values is part of the enduring value of Objectivism.

Joy and Reason and Meaning

For me, the essence of what is good in Rand's philosophy is best captured by the phrase "joy and reason and meaning", which she uses in her description of Howard Roark's Monadnock Valley development at the beginning of part four of The Fountainhead. However, my understanding of that phrase is broader than Rand's. Here is how I unpack it...

One could interpret joy as requiring a seriously heroic sense of life, as when Rand says of Kira in We The Living that "because she worshipped joy, Kira seldom laughed" (Rand 1936, 42). For me, joy is the word that best captures the kind of positive, constructive, humanistic approach to life, art, and the pursuit of wisdom that I try to apply in my life -- an attitude that life is special and precious and meant to be enjoyed. However, holding joy as an ideal and focusing on the positive aspects of life does not imply that one refuses to acknowledge painful facts or experiences, in the sense of Nietzsche's early claim that purely Apollonian art is sentimental escapism. So while I value acts and creations that are pleasing to the senses and to the mind, I recognize that the capacity for joy is but the most positive realization of the capacity for feeling and emotion, and that one must nurture that more fundamental capacity in order to be capable of the greatest joy. The acts and creations that I value exhibit an openness to the emotional experience of life; at its best, that experience is positive, but being open to experience means not shrinking from the negative, either.

One could interpret reason as requiring an explicitly philosophical view of man and the universe, as well as a state of "full focus" and willingness to judge others at all times. For me, reason means that an act or creation is clear, intelligible, integrated, open to the fundamental human power of understanding ourselves and the world. Although as linguistic beings we humans are fundamentally conceptual, the power of understanding includes perception, imagination, and introspection as well as conceptual thought. As Jacob Bronowski wrote in his poem "The Abacus and the Rose", we must "reject the feud of eye and intellect" (Bronowski 1972, 119); reason's hand, far from being cold and clammy, provides the touch that enables both light and heat, both thought and passion, both deep understanding and deep emotion. Joy and reason go hand in hand.

What, then, of meaning? One could interpret meaning as requiring a kind of excessive seriousness about life, as being found only in the loftiest abstractions or most cosmic goals. For me, meaning is a combination of the human powers of choice and action: you find meaning in the self-directed achievement of that which you have affirmed as good or important. But the good and the important are not mere abstractions: they may be as particular as the smile of a friend, the scent of a flower, the sense of a phrase. Individualism extends that far; and meaning is found not merely in the cosmic and the universal, but also most directly in the concrete, the particular, and the deeply personal.

Together, joy and reason and meaning capture the essence of a philosophy for living on earth -- not academic distinctions and hopeless abstractions, but a fully-engaged life of clear understanding, passionate valuation, active achievement, earthy enjoyment, and wise reflection. Can one ask for more meaning than that? I think not. And I think that such a humanistic vision of life is the highest potential of the philosophy of Ayn Rand.


Bronowski, J. 1972. Science and Human Values. New York: Harper & Row.

Rand, A. [1936] 1959. We The Living. New York: Random House.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections