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An Objectivist in Pittsburgh

Blake Scholl addresses Objectivists in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Scott Holleran)

Watching Boom Supersonic founder and CEO Blake Scholl address this summer’s Objectivist Conference in Pittsburgh, I was struck by the newness, youth and growth of the movement to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. Blake is a friend whom I’ve known since he was a student at Pittsburgh’s distinguished university named for two great American capitalists — Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie — at the end of the 20th century. Today, Blake’s a leading new voice for capitalism, seeking to reclaim and restore supersonic air travel.

As the only philosophy to advocate capitalism on the ethics of egoism, which Ayn Rand (1905-1982) reduced to what she boldly and, I think, rightly called the virtue of selfishness, Objectivism is perfect for attracting, inspiring and guiding productive achievers such as Blake Scholl, who departed after his talk in Pittsburgh to Paris, where he tripled orders for Boom Supersonic’s new jet (its XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator is scheduled to fly at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California in 2019). The system of ideas created by the author of Atlas Shrugged is bound to foster businessmen such as Blake Scholl, who presented his vision for aviation based on speed, convenience and quality before what the Ayn Rand Institute claims is its largest annual Objectivist Conference.

Pittsburgh

The city of steel, bridges and exemplary education, Pittsburgh, too, is the perfect place to exhibit an enticing preview of the manmade. Pittsburgh was at the crux of creating the world’s single, greatest period of productive achievement, the Industrial Revolution. This magnificent city, where pioneering soldiers, frontiersmen, industrialists, doctors and artists protected and forged the nation’s most enduring new enterprises — in medicine, engineering, energy, movies, television and the arts — continues to be underestimated. Just like America, Ayn Rand and the best minds.

Certainly, Boom’s Blake Scholl is not infallible; he may make mistakes in executing his vision. However, with Blake’s presentation, the Objectivist movement reaches a higher point — fittingly, in a tower located next to railroad tracks at the south bank of the Monongahela River in a proudly industrialized metropolis which climaxes at a golden triangle pointing West, stretching into lush, green hills. This year’s OCON included lectures on intellectual property, stoicism and the gold standard. Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram delivered insightful talks on Rand’s interviews with industrialists and an examination of Rand’s favorite novel, which is about building a grain elevator. There was a screening and discussion of the Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, trivia and talent events and a panel discussion on free speech with Flemming Rose, a journalist who once published a Mohammed cartoon and still needs police protection. Pittsburgh doctor Amesh Adalja spoke on the history of infectious disease in the city where his heroes, Drs. Thomas Starzl and Jonas Salk, made medical history. OCON Pittsburgh — during which the Pittsburgh Penguins won hockey’s Stanley Cup and I visited family and friends and saw the Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park — included tours of the Homestead blast furnace once owned by Andrew Carnegie‘s U.S. Steel, Henry Clay Frick’s (1849-1919) home and owned works of art and Fallingwater, the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann in 1936. I was writing TV scripts on deadline during the conference and missed some talks, events and mixers. And, while certain conference services, staff and events failed, fell flat or need improvement, others were good, new or interesting.

Blake Scholl’s talk stands out as an Objectivist hallmark. That this Carnegie Mellon University graduate stood as a businessman against the cynicism and anti-intellectualism of our times to demonstrate that the good is possible and that air transportation can and ought to be grand, fast and glorious realizes Ayn Rand’s depiction of man as a heroic being. That he did it in Pittsburgh is perfectly rational. So, here comes evidence that the potential for the gleaming, industrialized future Ayn Rand’s idealistic novels envision, promise and dramatize can be made real. Whatever happens on the day after tomorrow, to paraphrase a condensed description of Atlas Shrugged — a novel, it must be recognized, which also depicts a dramatic episode of aviation adventure — this is true, which is cause for all thinkers to want more of what Objectivism explains and offers for living here on earth.

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997)

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Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.

Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.

Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.

In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.

Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.

Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.

But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.

Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.

The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.

“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”

Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.

This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.

However, this is earned in steps, not lobbed as a propaganda piece (such as 2012’s Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Altas Shrugged), and Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is gentle, not overbearing.

There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).

That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.

Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of A Sense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.

As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford and the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.

Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.

Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.

This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.

In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.

If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.


The Blu-Ray Edition

As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.

The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.

In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.

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An Act of Egoism

220px-Chris_Borland_2013_against_ASU_1An explicit act of egoism is rare in today’s culture. By my observation, most people begrudgingly or, worse, apologetically, act in selfishness when they do, even among those who claim that selfishness can be virtuous. As rare as egoism is, it’s even rarer to be publicly practiced among well-known people, and I can’t think of many who practice egoism on principle who work in sports.

This is what makes athlete Chris Borland, who quit playing professional sports this spring after one season with the San Francisco 49ers based upon his judgment that the risk of brain injury exceeds the rewards of playing pro football, a rare American hero. Borland, a skilled 24-year-old linebacker, retired after consulting with his ex-teammates, friends, family and concussion researchers and evaluating the facts about the relationship between playing football and the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephelopathy (CTE).

The young man quit with an explicit rejection of altruism—he said: “I’m not willing to sacrifice…”—in favor of being selfish, stating:  “I know this is right for me.”

As Borland told CBS News’ Face the Nation when asked if he had any remorse for his position:

Absolutely not. To play one year, it’s not a cash grab as I’ve been accused of. I’m paying back three-fourths of my signing bonus. I’m only taking the money I’ve earned. This to me is just about health and nothing else. I’ve never played the game for money or attention. I love football. I’ve had a blast and I don’t regret the last 10 years of my life at all. I’d do it over the exact same way. From here on I’m looking forward.”

Borland, who signed a four-year contract with the 49ers which included a $617,436 bonus, acted heroically for putting himself first, for doing so with remarkable poise and eloquence, and for refusing to seek the unearned. That he also chose to do so by speaking up in public and addressing the press to explain his reasons, while rejecting self-sacrifice, makes him a candidate for man of the year.

Though there are other sports heroes and athletes who have embraced egoism, such as Mario Lemieux, Oscar de la Hoya and Michael Jordan, today’s sports often mirror the bankrupt culture with scandals, corruption and thug worship. Mr. Borland offers an elegant, intelligent and heroic counterexample. In a culture in which athletes are urged to put themselves—body and mind—last, not first, Chris Borland’s egoism is truly exceptional.

Book Review: The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science

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Examining Aristotle with wonder, admiration and scholarly attention to detail, biology professor Armand Marie Leroi creates a fascinating account of how he thinks Aristotle invented science in The Lagoon (Viking, $27.95), which goes on sale this week.

The writing is excellent because it serves the storytelling. So, while this is a meticulous work, it is not pompous or too technical, though of course this depends upon one’s interest in and knowledge of science. Teeming with questions about reality, nature and life, London-based BBC commentator and science writer Leroi delivers a leisurely, structured narrative of Aristotle’s favorite subject, biology, and Aristotle’s focus on the animal’s life. Retracing geographic points of study and discovery, he covers Aristotle’s writings in detail, errors and breathtaking observations and advancements alike, with reverence for the father of Western philosophy.

For example, after taking the reader through citations, tales and journeys into Aristotle’s pursuits, Leroi concludes that Aristotle’s ethics underscore his passion and amount to the idea that:

The best way that a man can spend his life is in contemplation for that has no utilitarian goal; it’s pleasurable in itself. Elsewhere [Aristotle] relates a story. Someone asked Anaxagoras what was the point of being born, to which the great physiologos replied: ‘to study the order and heaven of the whole cosmos’. The answer rang true to Aristotle; he told the story at least twice. But he warns that none of us can ever achieve a life of pure contemplation. There are so many things, the mundane things of everyday life, and the human things—the sense is disparaging—that distract us from the divine life of the mind. Nevertheless, we should ‘strain every sinew’ to ignore them and devote ourselves to pure reason. That is where true happiness lies.”

For his part, Leroi observes that: “Had I a God—had I a God—it would be Aristotle’s God.” The Lagoon finishes telling a compelling story, which is really a tale of Western civilization, about renting buildings at the Lyceum, teaching and, always, seeking to know more to live life here on earth.

“In our day,” Lerio asks in conclusion, “philosophers and scientists are distinct academic castes with distinct ways of arguing. But who is to say that, more than two thousand years ago, a man could not be both at once?” With glossaries, appendices, notes, bibliography (including a volume by Aristotelian scholar Robert Mayhew) and an index, The Lagoon is an Aristotle story well discovered, considered and told.

New Title, Art for Peikoff’s First Book

TCOHGOn November 25, Penguin gives a new title, cover art (pictured here) and author’s preface to Leonard Peikoff’s brilliant first book, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America.

The book, The Cause of Hitler’s Germany, is an exhaustive philosophical study of what caused Nazi Germany. As the publisher’s new promotional material promises, Dr. Peikoff examines self-sacrifice, Oriental mysticism, racial “truth,” the public good and doing one’s duty—seductive catchphrases that circulated in Weimar Germanyand he demonstrates how unreason and collectivism led a seemingly civilized society to become Nazi Germany. Peikoff, who grew up in western Canada, lives in southern California and teaches a writing course in which I am enrolled, worked closely with Ayn Rand for 30 years. The preeminent Rand scholar and estate heir taught philosophy at Hunter College and New York University. Here, he offers a breathtaking comparative study and analysis of the rise of fascism in the United States. This was the first book by an Objectivist author other than Rand that I read and I found it utterly absorbing, like taking an intellectual odyssey in a style distinctly different from Rand’s non-fiction in the form of a cogent and captivating lesson in the modern history of philosophy culminating in the Nazi atrocities while ingeniously integrating what the author warns is the impending meltdown of the New Left. I was fascinated to learn that most Germans possessed, read and accepted Hitler’s Mein Kampf and to see how the ideas of Schopenhauer, Hegel and Kant continue to spread and influence the world around me. Philosopher and podcaster Peikoff, who was Ayn Rand’s long-time associate, has written two other books, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out.

This volume includes the original introduction by Rand, who endorsed The Cause of Hitler’s Germany as “[a] truly revolutionary idea…. Clear, tight, disciplined, beautifully structured, and brilliantly reasoned.”