It is all-too-ironic that Ayn Rand did not live to see the mid-1980s, when many of her ideas found echo in the policies and practices of the government she feared was tending toward diametrically opposite views. Indeed, for a writer bold enough to call one of her tracts The Virtue of Selfishness, current ideological trends may render her more a seer than a throwback to an earlier, "naive" view of social relations. At the very least, a translation of her vocabulary into the one now informing public policy—"volunteerism," "trickle-down," and the like—will show her thought to be strikingly contemporary.
Two excellent new books provide systematic accounts of Rand's work as a novelist and philosopher. The Ayn Rand Companion is certainly the more accessible and, as such, will better serve those uninitiated into the realm of academic philosophy with its technical (and often tortuous) mode of argumentation. Gladstein's [End Page 413] Companion is aptly named: It offers an unintimidating and generous overview of the life and mind of Ayn Rand through a consideration of both her fiction and nonfiction writings. What Gladstein sacrifices by way of complexity, she more than makes up for in clarity, sensible organization, and deliberate exposition. If there still exists that mythical beast, the "general reader" (as contrasted with "the student," whose aims usually have less to do with satisfying curiosity than with pleasing a professor on an exam or in a term paper, often through the propagation of the ingenious, if not outlandish, "reading"), this volume will prove invaluable.
A weightier text, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand gathers contributions from professional philosophers (some of them quite renowned) to tackle the various components—metaphysical/epistemological, ethical, and social/political—of Rand's comprehensive system. All the contributors demonstrate the particular genius of current academic philosophy: the painstaking and meticulous analysis of assumptions with an eye toward the coherence and consistency of the conclusions derived therefrom. All exhibit (to a greater or lesser extent) the singular defect that has plagued the discipline and made it a paradigm of modern "specialist-speak": an unwieldy and off-putting jargon liberally laced with gratuitous name-dropping. Perhaps the very rigor that one finds so compelling demands such abstruse terminology. If so, then the editors' assertion that they have "sought to maintain a consistent level of professional standards throughout the book" can be regarded as a caveat to the nonprofessional that the waters here are deep and sometimes murky.
Two virtues of the book more than compensate for the effort it requires. First is the willingness to take Rand seriously as a philosopher in her own right. Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of Rand as a system-builder, she is at no point simply dismissed, nor are the thorny problems she raises evaded. This is all the more remarkable because Rand'hardly qualifies as one of the currently fashionable thinkers upon whom to lavish philosophical attention. That honor is more usually bestowed these days upon writers in a wholly antithetical tradition: the Continental Idealists. (The names of Barthes and Derrida are more standard fare in philosophical circles now than those of Aristotle and Aquinas. One contributor, Robert Hollinger, does attempt to link Rand's epistemology to that of Barthes's and Derrida's predecessors, Husserl and Heidegger, although his argument seems strained.) The second notable merit of the book follows from this serious scrutiny Rand is accorded. By attending so closely to the ambiguities and inconsistencies in her philosophical system, the various commentators effectively squash any impulse the reader may feel simply to attach a label to Ayn Rand and so to be done with her. As the editors take pains to point out, "neither the traditionalist nor the libertarian offers Rand an ideological home."
Taken together, then, these two volumes complement one another in nearly all respects. The Companion is lucid and lively; The Philosophic Thought , thorough and...