October 15, 1950.
Mr. Stanley Greben
30 Shields Avenue
Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Dear Mr. Greben:
The nature of this letter will tell you why it has taken me such a long time to answer the letter you wrote me. This is the first opportunity I have had to write an answer of the length required, as I am very busy working on my new novel.
You wrote that THE FOUNTAINHEAD made a powerful impression on you and that you are unable to explain the reason why it did so. Your entire letter appears to be a quest for that explanation. I found your letter very interesting, because the explanation you are seeking is so obviously contained within your own words. Therefore, I want to point out to you a fundamental error in your approach to life, as revealed by your letter.
You begin by asking: “On the basis of what experience, feelings, background, education or personality is it that you write as you do in the novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD?” I will ask you to note what single word is missing from this sentence. You have listed all the things which you consider as possible sources of a novel and you have omitted the most important one, the only source from which any novel or any action can come, the source which determines experience, feelings, etc., which determines all the irrelevant things you name. You say about yourself: “I profess to be as much of a cynic and perhaps more of an iconoclast than most of the young men of my own age, education and environmental history with whom I have come in contact.” The same word is eloquent here by its absence.
The word is: The mind. You make no reference in your letter, explicitly or implicitly, to reason,
thinking, ideas, logic, as if these did not exist. If you are confused and troubled, as I gather from your letter, then this is the source of your troubles.
You seem to be an irrationalist, a young man who has accepted as an axiom the vicious and preposterous premise which underlies modern education: the premise of determinism. You seem to believe that the human mind does not exist, that man has no capacity to think, that he is a helpless, “conditioned” robot, and that his ideas are merely the by-product of his experiences, feelings, background, breakfast food, etc., the by-product of anything and everything except logic. You have accepted the premise that a man’s ideas are the effect, not the cause, of the events of his life. The exact opposite is true. A man’s ideas are the cause which determines every aspect of his life and character.
Your letter gave me the impression that THE FOUNTAINHEAD was your first contact with the world of rationalism, of the possibility of whose existence you had no concept.[*] You sounded to me like a man stunned by the discovery that man is a rational being. You sounded like a jungle savage at his first sight of New York skyscrapers—and I intend this comparison, not as an insult to you, but literally—because modern determinism, the view of man as a non-thinking, conditioned brute, is a return to the mental state of the jungle. If the men, the emotions and the whole approach to life presented in THE FOUNTAINHEAD appealed to you, it is because you recognized suddenly, for the first time, a picture of existence proper to a human being.
You say you feel that there is in THE FOUNTAINHEAD “some power, some force which I must recognize.” That power is Reason. THE FOUNTAINHEAD impressed you as it did, because it presents a philosophy of life which contains no logical contradictions. Since reason is our only means of perceiving reality, a rational thesis will have an irresistible power for any person who has the capacity to think, or for any part of a person’s mind which he is willing to exercise. The modern determinists spend their lives evading the responsibility of thought. But to the extent to which a man is rational, to that extent THE FOUNTAINHEAD will impress him. My diagnosis of you is that you probably have a better mind than you have allowed yourself to realize, and that you have chained your own mind by accepting the irrationalism which was probably taught to you in college.
Now to answer your questions: I did not write THE FOUNTAINHEAD on the basis of my experiences or feelings or any of the things you listed. I wrote it on the basis of my thinking. I arrived at my ideas by means of logic and by the process of rational consideration, not by means of whatever accidental experiences I might have had in my life. I am not a product of my “environmental history”—and if my letter can be of any value to you, the best advice I can give you is never to regard yourself as a product of your environment. That is not the key to me, to you, or to any human being. It is not a key to anything, it is merely an alibi for weaklings.
You ask “Upon what authority do you write—whence arise your ideas, whence the passion with which this story and its characters are enveloped?” If you were a rationalist, you would never ask such a question of the author of a book like THE FOUNTAINHEAD. I write upon no authority but my own—and I spent a whole book telling you that no man can do anything of value upon any authority but his own, which means: the authority of his own mind.
If you were a rationalist, you would not ask me such a question as: “Did you write with the belief in the words you penned, or did you write with your tongue in your cheek, laughing at the people whom you created, laughing at credulous readers, laughing at yourself for the creation?” This is a good example on which to give you a lesson in rationalism. Your question is futile by its own terms. If I wrote my novel sincerely, then I would have to answer you that I was sincere. And if it were possible for me to have written THE FOUNTAINHEAD as a hypocrite, then I would still have to answer your question by assuring you of my sincerity. If it were possible for me to be willing to lie to the whole world on such a scale as THE FOUNTAINHEAD, wouldn’t I then lie also in a private letter to one reader?
A rationalist would know that a book such as THE FOUNTAINHEAD was not and could not have been written by a hypocrite. The book presents a philosophy which is irrefutable in terms of reason. How would it be possible for me to write it “with tongue in cheek” and to laugh at “credulous readers?” It would amount to considering people credulous because they accept reason. If so, then what is it that I would have to hold as my true belief? That reason is not valid and that real
wisdom lies in insanity? Does this sound possible for the author of THE FOUNTAINHEAD?
Yes, of course, I am sincere about my philosophy, much more so than you imagine possible, I not only believe what I write, I actually practice it, I live by the principles which I preach and they have worked for me exactly as they have worked for Roark. But if you are to learn the principles of rationalism, you should not ask me to tell you this, you should prove it to yourself by analyzing THE FOUNTAINHEAD. This can be done only on the premise that logic is a valid means of judgment. If you believe that logic is not valid, then nothing is, but then no such concepts as sincerity, ideas, morality, judgment, language or human existence are possible.
I cannot attempt to discuss in detail the many other fallacies which I found in your letter. I can only point them out briefly. You say that you recognize “the limitations of the novel as a medium for description of human beings and human emotions.” There are no such limitations. If you learn to attach real meaning to the words you use, you will see this for yourself.
You mention that the characters in my book are heroic, even though “in their actual lives there must still exist the small chores and activities of living—eating, sleeping, and even elimination, if you like.” This is another gaping hole in your thinking. Of course, these chores and activities exist. What of it? There is nothing evil nor degrading about them, but neither do they constitute the significance of human life. It is what you do with your life after eating, sleeping and eliminating that counts. These activities are the means, not the meaning, of human existence. They do not interfere in any way with the heroic qualities of a man—and one does not include them in a novel, not by reason of any “limitations”, but because the proper purpose of a novel is to present that which is significant, not to catalog indiscriminately every move and moment of a person’s life. I would suggest that you clarify your ideas about literature. I think that you are suffering from a bad case of literary “Naturalism”. And, again, it comes back to the issue of rationalism. If man is a conditioned animal, then his food and his bathroom activities are of equal importance with his creative work, except that nothing can then be of any importance whatever. If man is a rational being, then it is his mind and his chosen purpose which determine his standard of value and tell him why the time he spends at his work is significant and the time he spends in the bathroom is not.
Whatever confusion there may be in your thinking, it all stems from the same source and I suggest that you review your entire philosophy of life, starting with the premise of rationalism. The “mysterious” power which impressed you in THE FOUNTAINHEAD is not mysterious at all and its entire secret is contained in the word Reason. It is a power which is available to you—and if the kind of life presented in THE FOUNTAINHEAD appeals to you, you can have it in reality, you can live it, but you can do so only on the basis of complete, total, uncompromising rationalism. I cannot attempt here to lecture you on the Theory of Knowledge. I can only suggest that you go back to Aristotle and start from there. I suggest that you do it now, because I have no words strong enough to tell you how much you will regret it as you grow older, if you permit yourself to proceed on the theory of “conditioning” and irrationalism. I can only tell you that every form of human misery, suffering, ugliness, evil, failure and frustration stems from that one source—from the inexcusable tragedy of a living being who rejects his essential nature and his only means of survival, which is his mind.
*Again, AR uses the term “rationalism” to mean the view that reason is man’s means of knowledge.
Please enter your shipping information below so we can send you a free paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged.
Please enter your country information below so we can send you a free digital copy of Atlas Shrugged.