"Of Living Death" - comments on some ideas

Leif Martyn

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Ayn Rand, Of Living Death.

This essay was first published in the September – November 1968 issues of /The Objectivist/ and also delivered in lecture form in December 1968 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum. It was later anthologized in /The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought/ (1989).
The full text was retrieved from the Ayn Rand Institute website <https://courses.aynrand.org/works/of-living-death/>.
The use of slashes (/ /) for emphasis was supplied by editors at the Institute, and I'll take them as they are, without reviewing the printed texts.

Compared to her remarks in the Objectivist Newsletter (Dec 1962) and in the Playboy interview (1964), this is the most extended discussion by Ayn Rand of her  ideas about sex and reproduction.
It is, however, a reactive piece, written after the issuing of the Papal encyclical "Humanae Vitae." As such, it is a critique, and I attribute the angry rhetoric to the fact that Rand found herself reacting, and not creating a positive vision of sex and reproduction. Compare this with her response, in the Playboy interview, to a question about politics, "I never describe my position in terms of negatives."

Her anger is evident from the outset:

"Dealing with the subject of birth control, the encyclical prohibits all forms of contraception (except the so-called “rhythm method”). The prohibition is total, rigid, unequivocal. It is enunciated as a moral absolute.

"Bear in mind what this subject entails. Try to hold an image of horror spread across space and time — across the entire globe and through all the centuries — the image of parents chained, like beasts of burden, to the physical needs of a growing brood of children — young parents aging prematurely while fighting a losing battle against starvation — the skeletal hordes of unwanted children born without a chance to live — the unwed mothers slaughtered in the unsanitary dens of incompetent abortionists — the silent terror hanging, for every couple, over every moment of love. If one holds this image while hearing that this nightmare is not to be stopped, the first question one will ask is: /Why/? In the name of humanity, one will assume that some inconceivable, but crucially important reason must motivate any human being who would seek to let that carnage go on uncontested."

"... In the darker corners of that labyrinth, one finds some snatches of argument, in alleged support of the mystic axiom, but these arguments are embarrassingly transparent equivocations. For instance:

    . . . to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. In fact, just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his creative faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination toward raising up life, of which God is the principle. [Humanae Vitae 13]

"What is meant here by the words “man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general?” The obvious meaning is that man cannot change the /metaphysical/ nature of his body; which is true. But man has the power of choice in regard to the /actions/ of his body — specifically, in regard to “his creative faculties,” and the responsibility for the use of these particular faculties is most crucially his. “To acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life” is to evade and to default on that responsibility. Here again, the same equivocation or package deal is involved. Does man have the power to determine the nature of his procreative faculty? No. But granted that nature, is he the arbiter of bringing a new human life into existence? He most certainly is, and he (with his mate) is the /sole/ arbiter of that decision — and the consequences of that decision affect and determine the entire course of his life.

"... The passive obedience and helpless surrender to the physical functions of one’s body, the necessity to let procreation be the inevitable result of the sexual act, is the natural fate of /animals/, not of men. In spite of its concern with man’s higher aspirations, with his soul, with the sanctity of married love — it is to the level of animals that the encyclical seeks to reduce man’s sex life, in fact, in reality, on earth. What does this indicate about the encyclical’s view of sex?"

The heart of Rand's critique of the encyclical is succinct, and not rhetorically infused:

"The motive of the church’s doctrine on this issue is, philosophically, much deeper than that and much worse; the goal is not metaphysical or political or biological, but psychological: if man is forbidden to regard sexual enjoyment as an end in itself, he will not regard love or his own happiness as an end in itself; if so, then he will not regard his own life as an end in itself; if so, then he will not attain self-esteem."

After which she articulates her positive vision of the role of sex:

"It is not against the gross, animal, physicalistic theories or uses of sex that the encyclical is directed, but against the /spiritual/ meaning of sex in man’s life. (By “spiritual” I mean pertaining to man’s consciousness.) It is not directed against casual, mindless promiscuity, but against romantic love.

"To make this clear, let me indicate, in brief essentials, a rational view of the role of sex in man’s existence.

"Sex is a physical capacity, but its exercise is determined by man’s mind — by his choice of values, held consciously or subconsciously. To a rational man, sex is an expression of self-esteem — /a celebration of himself and of existence/. To the man who lacks self-esteem, sex is an attempt to fake it, to acquire its momentary illusion.

"Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another — an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire. Such a man (or woman) is incapable of experiencing a sexual desire divorced from spiritual values.

"... In comparison to the moral and psychological importance of sexual happiness, the issue of procreation is insignificant and irrelevant, except as a deadly threat — and God bless the inventors of the Pill!

In her brief discussion of procreation, she comes nearest to my question: a motive for bringing children into the world, but this is not addressed explicitly - not surprising, since that is not the intent of the critique of "Humanae Vitae." It is, however, a restatement and underlining of the ideas she articulated in the Objectivist Newsletter brief essay and in her interview with Alvin Toffler for Playboy.

"The capacity to procreate is merely a potential which man is not obligated to actualize. The choice to have children or not is morally optional. Nature endows man with a variety of potentials — and it is his /mind/ that must decide which capacities he chooses to exercise, according to his own hierarchy of rational goals and values. The mere fact that man has the capacity to kill does not mean that it is his duty to become a murderer; in the same way, the mere fact that man has the capacity to procreate does not mean that it is his duty to commit spiritual suicide by making procreation his primary goal and turning himself into a stud-farm animal.

"It is only animals that have to adapt themselves to their physical background and to the biological functions of their bodies. Man adapts his physical background and the use of his biological faculties to himself — to his own needs and values. /That/ is his distinction from all other living species.

"To an animal, the rearing of its young is a matter of temporary cycles. To man, it is a lifelong responsibility — a grave responsibility that must not be undertaken causelessly, thoughtlessly, or accidentally.

"In regard to the moral aspects of birth control, the primary right involved is not the “right” of an unborn child, or of the family, or of society, or of God. The primary right is one which — in today’s public clamor on the subject — few, if any, voices have had the courage to uphold: /the right of man and woman to their own life and happiness/ — the right not to be regarded as the means to any end.

"Man is an end in himself. Romantic love — the profound, exalted, lifelong /passion/ that unites his mind and body in the sexual act — is the living testimony to that principle."

These comments may appear to be rather selective, but that's on purpose: while /Of Living Death/ is a monumental diatribe, as public as Ayn Rand could make it, I am on the lookout for ideas of a different, more positive kind. They are more implied than explicit.


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Here is a perfect example of one of the errors Rand made.

She defined man as a "rational animal," then often threw away the animal part and dealt only with the rational as if it replaced the animal part. That in my understanding is a false dichotomy. Being human is not either-or. It's both.

Here's a great example of the error:

On 10/18/2022 at 9:35 PM, Leif Martyn said:

[QUOTING RANT]: The passive obedience and helpless surrender to the physical functions of one’s body, the necessity to let procreation be the inevitable result of the sexual act, is the natural fate of /animals/, not of men.

To start with, that's not accurate with respect to animals. Ask any male dog that has found an obliging human leg to hump.


And the truth is, if humans do not exercise birth control, male-female sex will result in pregnancy. There is no surrender there. Only nature. No rational thought, either. Only nature. Biology.

Rational thought and volition can be added on top, and even conflict with the animal part, but it cannot obliterate or replace the animal part.

Look through that essay, or just the parts you posted above, and you will see several instances of Rand treating human versus animal as if they were two separate things and putting them in either-or framing.

But by Rand's own definition, one cannot be human unless one is an animal--the genus of rational animal. 


On another point, you noticed Rand's anger. I hold that Rand was a human being and came with all the normal faculties and biological parts of human beings. Including the brain.

Getting an abortion is not a light matter. It's deadly serious and it screws with the minds of women who get one. How could it not unless the woman were a sociopath? (Don't get me started on oxytocin and hormones and so on. :) )

Rand had gotten an abortion. That has been documented and discussed in her biographies and elsewhere. I believe her anger on this issue and lack of precision in her definitions were a result of dealing with the pain, or at least cognitive and emotional dissonance. 

I tried to discuss this with Barbara Branden once, but she had the same iron gate slam down on the issue when I brought it up. And she told me she had gotten one, too. 

Since I am hard headed and without a lick of sense, I asked her if she didn't feel a twinge of regret or guilt or whatever. And the iron gate slammed down on top of my head that night.



As you can see, my own approach is that these were women with great minds. Not great minds randomly attached to some body or other that they can discard at will. I don't blame women for manifesting the animal part of being a woman. In fact, I like it.




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Thanks to you both for your comments - as I read through "Of Living Death" these questions about the completeness of the handy definition of Life (self-generated, self-sustaining action) occurred to me and left me thinking that something was missing, and from a very early period, and this was the puzzle we were left to clean up.

I've got another "source" to review coming up: the dialogue (one pass each side) between Carolyn Ray and Michelle Fram-Cohen on this topic, after which I'll take a deep breath and see if any of these puzzle pieces fit without a lot of forcing.

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