Anthem, Atlas, and Meditations

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At the core of Anthem (1938), her manifesto of individualism, Ayn Rand sets a foundational sequence of thoughts: “I am. I think. I will.” Although Rand listed will as third in her 1938 foundational sequence, third in sequence of philosophical reflection; she awarded “I will” some preeminence over “I am,” which she characterized as self of truth, and over “I think,” which she characterized as protector of self (A 128–29).

Rand 1957 had it that knowledge of one’s thinking includes knowledge of its service to one’s living existence. That said, conception of thought as protector of life is not most fundamental in Rand’s 1957 conception of thought, and Rand’s “I am, therefore I’ll think” reversal of cogito ergo sum is not given the foundational level Descartes gave his cogito ergo sum. Her “I am, therefore I’ll think” reversal of Descartes’ cogito is matched, however, with the order of concepts Rand takes as most fundamental in 1957 and beyond: Existence first, consciousness thereon. Sound knowledge that one exists does not wait on reflection that one thinks.

Another reversal of Descartes’ cogito would be “I am existing, therefore I am thinking.” One capable of stating with understanding “I am existing,” where “I” means a thinking subject, understands as necessary entailment “I am thinking.” This is a thorough reversal only if such necessary entailments ride on existential connections we discern. Another thorough reversal of Descartes’ cogito is the statement “I am existing, therefore I am thinking,” where entailment of the second clause is by performative condition on authentic statement of the first clause. This is Rand’s reversal in her 1957, but with “Existence exists” replacing “I am existing” and “I am conscious of existence” replacing “I am thinking.” She proclaims: “Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists” (AS 1015).

Rand’s counters to Descartes’ cogito are challenges to its foundational status, not claims that it contains no truth and no place in right philosophy. Rand 1938 and 1957, and Descartes too, can concur with Aquinas’ reasoning that “no one can assent to the thought that he does not exist. For, in thinking something, he sees that he exists” (DV Q10 A12 ad7).

Before the protagonist of Anthem gave himself the name Prometheus, he had been named Equality 7-2521. Like Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Rand’s Equality is on an inward journey from world to self. Whereas Descartes spurs our travel by methodological doubt and a search for the indubitable and its situation with things, Rand 1938 spurs our travel by a thirst for highest meaning of things and its peace with endless discovery of the world. At her destination in Anthem, what Rand means by the I-subject of “I think” and by the me-object of “I am” includes all on Descartes’ list in Meditations II. “I am, I exist, that is certain. . . . / But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” (28). Include also memory: “Our soul, in so far as it is a substance which is distinct from the body, is known to us merely through the fact that it thinks, that is to say, understands, wills, imagines, remembers and has sensory perceptions” (Descartes 1647/48, 224).

One large difference between Descartes 1641 and Rand 1938 is plain in the title of Meditation II “The Nature of the Mind, and How It Is Better Known than the Body.” Rand’s Equality does not doubt his sensory perceptions and the existence of his body, and he is not engaged, as Descartes is engaged, in an exercise of doubt by way of refuting skepticism of rational knowledge of the world and of God’s existence and by way of staking a non-Aristotelian framework for science. Equality knows directly and integrally with his perception of the world that his body exists. In becoming Prometheus, he comes to know directly and expressly that his thinking and willing self exist and that they exist in his body, integrally to it and directive of it. Descartes, by contrast, rests warranted certitude of physical world and body on certitude of one’s existence as a human consciousness—an existence allegedly not requiring space, body, nor material world—and on certitude of the existence of an all-powerful god, namely God, who is all good and true, not an all-powerful deceiver.

Rand writes in her mature philosophy “Your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver” (AS 1020). That is not a line given to her Prometheus in 1938, but his lines on the situation of body and mind are consistent with it. This line is also consistent on its face with Descartes’ doctrine that the human body is a machine, although Rand would contradict Descartes’ accompanying picture in which all nonhuman animals are devoid of consciousness. Rand had benefit of our diesel-electric locomotives, our particle physics, our chemistry, and our biology, profoundly enriching, over the four centuries since Descartes, what is “mechanical,” what is a “machine,” and what is mind in animals and humans. We can more easily see than Descartes could see the driver of the bodily machine as requiring the brain not only as means for sensory reception, imagination, and direction of the body, but as means of the driver’s own and only existence. With advance of science and without Descartes’ religious constraints, bolstered by his radical divide of extension and thought, we bind the entire driver: with brain and with perceptions of world and body and with the life and mortality of the body. Rand shares a pair of errors with Descartes in supposing that automatic mechanical sensory and motor responses cannot be in error—cannot present a falsehood apart from subsequent judgment—and that purely mechanical mind could not be free.

Rand joins Descartes and the other early moderns (save Leibniz) in rejecting, rightly so, medieval quasi-Aristotelian forms taken as the informing cohort of blank matter, the two of them jointly constituting all physical body. Rand and Descartes say No to substantial form as supposed generator and explanation for the various characters making various inanimate bodies to be the distinctive things they are and to act in their distinctive ways. Also No they say to Scholastic treatment of substantial form as principle of specific life forms of animated matter. No, furthermore, to such forms as little souls directing the actions of animals. With Descartes the role of Scholastic substantial form is taken over by the mind of God as the creator and continuer of existence; with Rand that role is taken over by identity in any and all existence.

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