Recently, I finished a book titled Old School by Tobias Wolff, a learned editor, professor, historian, memoirist, and novelist. The topic of writing and writers concerns much of the book, and Robert Frost and Ayn Rand actually visit the protagonist’s school. The account of Ayn Rand’s visit and the prior weeks of our protagonist’s infatuation with her novel, The Fountainhead, make for the most interesting reading in the book. These passages bring how greatly Wolff detests Rand’s extreme individualism. And, our protagonist comes to understand how unhappy and shabby life would be if everyone was merely out for themselves.
Since we live in the century after collectivist ideologies (fascism and communism) oppressed and decimated the world, it ought to be easier to see the faults of collectivism than individualism. (Though, the great support for the welfare state and the calumny directed against people holding politically incorrect doctrines shows that collectivism is alive and well.) The truth is that both Rand’s objectivism and collectivism are extremes, and the real attitude we ought to hold toward our fellow man is between the two, succinctly and poetically put by the Three Musketeers: “One for all and all for one!” The human person, the individual, counts as one of God’s greatest gifts, but it takes society for that gift to be actualized: the individual needs society as much as society needs the individual.
Lily Cat, a science fiction anime movie reminiscent of the film Alien, presents a small society besieged by man-eating alien bacteria. The number of crewmen are whittled down as they try to preserve the ship and cargo until they only care about preserving their very lives. In one dialogue, the captain reveals that, through the agency of cold sleep, he has lived for over two hundred years and a fellow crew member one hundred and sixty. This extra long life has merely brought pain and isolation to the captain as his family and friends on earth all perished and the trends of society have completely changed. His worth and meaning have essentially been reduced to that of a cog in the corporate machine. It is true that work provides much of the meaning in our lives, but when one’s income and work do not aid family, friends, and community, when the purpose of work is merely self-serving, it is pure drudgery even if one lives in a golden palace. Relying on work and one’s economic value to provide meaning to one’s life is the great trap of the postmodern age. Many of us and our contemporaries struggle with similar feelings of isolation as those suffered by the captain and his crew.
Rather than providing fuel for the passions or as a means of self-aggrandisement, which we see in Rand’s works, the end of work is charity and self-sacrifice. God the Father told St. Catherine of Siena in her Dialogues that he scattered talents unequally among people so that they would be forced to exercise charity. The farmer needs the blacksmith, who needs the carpenter, who needs the grocer, who needs the makers of Apple’s iPhone 6, etc. Mountain men, men who rely solely upon themselves, have existed; but, what small and poor lives they lead without the pleasures of company and access to the talents of others! In order to be fulfilling, work must be self-sacrificing.
Ayn Rand claims that the notion of self-sacrifice began with dictators and the powerful, who sacrifice the weak for their own goals. (If she had rather meditated on the human condition, she might have realized it began with a mother cradling her infant.) Being raised and educated behind Stalin’s Iron Curtain might easily have brought this notion to her mind, but a righteous government–even if not of–must be for the people and the people for the nation. A nation of selfish individualists is doomed for destruction, even as a nation of tyrants ought to be destroyed.
But, what are we to make of a mere revenant of our heroes surviving? Does the sacrifice of the many for the sake of the few diminish the value of the few’s survival? No: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal,” (John 12:24-25). The lives of the dead become ennobled through their sacrifice and also add value to those who survive them. Point to any individual and you will see the result of others’ sacrifices. These sacrifices were not made so that the recipient could enjoy life’s pleasures to the max or make himself a god over his fellows, but so that the individual might express the divine image and likeness within his soul for the benefit of others and the glory of God. “All for one and one for all” is not only the motto of the Three Musketeers, but how God wishes us to act toward one another, because God is love and love gives without counting the cost.