Those who had the experience of discussing ideas with Ayn Rand usually remark on her intensely active, questioning mind. When reading the work of other authors, she habitually wrote private, critical comments in the margins — comments that provide glimpses of Rand’s mind at work.
What makes these comments especially interesting is that Rand is always on the lookout for an author’s fundamental premises and is quick to identify and address them.
Edited by Objectivist scholar Robert Mayhew, Marginalia is a collection of these comments and notes on over twenty works, by such authors as Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, John Herman Randall, C. S. Lewis, Barry Goldwater, John Hospers and Friedrich Hayek.
Rand’s marginalia are presented in an easy-to-read format that lays her comments and the text of the original passages she is responding to side by side, so the reader can better understand and evaluate Rand’s comments.
— Robert Mayhew, “Introduction,” Ayn Rand’s Marginalia
In Marginalia, we see Ayn Rand’s ability to translate an author’s woozy, seemingly plausible abstractions into concrete reality. For instance, when Henry Hazlitt suggests that capitalism produces the results that “an economic dictator” would make “if he could take into account all the needs of consumers,” Rand responds indignantly: “This is fudging. Capitalism certainly does not consider ‘all the needs’ of consumers. ‘Needs’ are not the yardstick. Nobody gets anything on the basis of his needs — under capitalism.”
As this example suggests, Rand is concerned as she reads with catching — and correcting — sloppy or evasive formulations and identifying the philosophic implications of an author’s argument.
Among the works on which Rand comments are: Human Action (Ludwig von Mises); The Road to Serfdom(Friedrich Hayek); Aristotle (John Herman Randall); An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (John Hospers); Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine (Friedrich Paulsen); The Conscience of a Conservative(Barry Goldwater); and The Abolition of Man (C. S. Lewis).
[From Robert Mayhew’s introduction:] In the marginalia we can observe the distinctive seriousness — the insistence on applying abstractions to concrete reality — with which [Ayn Rand] approached ideas . . . when C. S. Lewis claims: “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger” — she responds: “So when you cure men of TB, syphilis, scurvy, small pox and rabies — you make them weaker!!!” (Note the exclamation points, which abound in the marginalia. Here is an individual whose thinking is “passionately personal.”)
As Ayn Rand observes, a corollary of taking ideas seriously is the commitment to precision in language. She writes: “You must attach clear, specific meanings to words, i.e., be able to identify their referents in realty. This is the precondition, without which neither critical judgment nor thinking of any kind is possible.”
This is what underlies her superlative ability to “translate” some innocuous — or incomprehensible — passage into its actual meaning.
Throughout her life, Ayn Rand wrote many letters responding to fans, friends and family. In a 1973 letter to Rand, Marilyn Van Derbur, a businesswoman and former Miss America, writes asking for biographical incidents she could use to encourage high school students to think about personal motivation. In Rand’s response, she recommends a “very interesting book on this subject.”
The book is How to Think Creatively by Eliot D. Hutchinson, which presents the author’s summation of hundreds of interviews with artists, writers and scientists. In the margins of this book, Rand responds to the author’s analysis of the creative mindset.
Within these notes, included in Marginalia, Rand comments briefly on her own creative process and what it means to be a creative person. These notes indicate why Rand holds that the act of creating, whether by an artist, writer, scientist or inventor, requires an independent spirit.
Ayn Rand is neither a “conservative” nor a “liberal.” Critical of both groups, she sees them as claiming to stand for freedom but then proceeding (as she writes elsewhere) “to declare what kind of controls, regulations, coercions, taxes and ‘sacrifices’ they would impose.” She regards conservatives, in particular, as betraying their alleged ideal of capitalism.
In Rand’s comments on Senator Barry Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative, we see further evidence for her viewpoint. When Goldwater writes, “We want to stay alive of course; but more than that we want to be free,” she identifies his “acceptance of that false dichotomy: life or freedom — instead of explaining why they are inseparable corollaries. Just as the Conservatives accepted, with disastrous results, the false dichotomy of ‘freedom or security,’ so they are now accepting another one: ‘freedom or life.’ On these terms, what’s the use, meaning or value of freedom?”
Ayn Rand writes elsewhere that “the Supreme Court is the last remnant of a philosophical influence in this country.” And in a number of her published articles, Rand analyzes Supreme Court decisions and comments on their philosophical and cultural implications.
Collected in Marginalia are a few pages of Rand’s notes on three “obscenity” cases, which pertain to the Court’s understanding of the crucial right to freedom of speech (see “Censorship: Local and Express” in Philosophy: Who Needs It), and on one case pertaining to affirmative action (see “Moral Inflation” in The Ayn Rand Letter). In her marginal comments Rand is especially focused on how the Court misunderstands the principle of individual rights.
Readers of Atlas Shrugged are normally struck by the moral fire of Ayn Rand’s defense of business and capitalism. Hers is a philosophical focus on the nature of capitalism.
In Marginalia, we can read Rand’s philosophical comments on four works by pro-capitalist economists: Human Action and Bureaucracy by Ludwig von Mises, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, and The Great Idea by Henry Hazlitt.
In the notes, Rand’s special concern is whether the wider context of these works (explicit or implicit) contradicts or complements the philosophical basis of capitalism. Especially revealing in this regard are the marginalia on Mises’s Human Action and Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.
The Voice of Reason reprints Ayn Rand’s review of John Herman Randall’s book Aristotle. Of Aristotle himself, Rand writes in the review: “If there is a philosophical Atlas who carries the whole of Western civilization on his shoulders, it is Aristotle. He has been opposed, misinterpreted, misrepresented, and — like an axiom — used by his enemies in the very act of denying him. Whatever intellectual progress men have achieved rests on his achievements.” And of the book: “To read a concise, lucid presentation of Aristotle’s system, written by a distinguished modern philosopher — written in terms of basic principles and broad fundamentals, as against the senseless ‘teasing’ of trivia by today’s alleged thinkers — is so rare a value that it is sufficient to establish the importance of Professor Randall’s book, in spite of its flaws.”
In more than twenty pages in Marginalia, we can read Rand’s fascinating comments, both positive and negative, on Randall’s book and Aristotle’s philosophy.