“From Nietzsche to Ayn Rand” – John GRAY

Few thinkers were more different than Henry Sidgwick and Friedrich Nietzsche. Sidgwick was unfailingly conscientious in his pursuit of truth, Nietzsche an intellectual adventurer who came to doubt the value of truth. Yet the two converged on a vital point. Once theism is left behind, not only much of religious morality but ‘morality’ itself must come into question. Here Sidgwick was more radical than Mill and more sceptical than Russell.

Following Christian precedent, Sidgwick believed that morality consisted of universal laws or principles. This is not how ethics was understood by the polytheistic Greeks, who had no conception of ‘morality’ as we nowadays understand it. They understood ethics as the whole art of life, which included beauty and pleasure as values no less important than those that Christian and post-Christian cultures consider peculiarly ‘moral’.

It is not only the assertion that ‘moral’ values must take precedence over all others that has been inherited from Christianity. So has the belief that all human beings must live by the same morality. This is not the same as saying ‘If God is dead, all things are permitted,’ as Nietzsche is supposed to have done. (The saying actually comes from a character in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, which I will discuss in Chapter 5.) Human beings develop moralities as a normal part of living with each other, but no single morality is uniquely human. Understood as a set of categorical principles binding on all human beings, ‘morality’ itself is one more relic of monotheism – possibly the most important of them all.

If they are philosophers, secular thinkers will tell you that Nietzsche was guilty of a ‘genetic fallacy’ – the error of thinking that beliefs that have depended on falsehoods must themselves be false. Just because the idea of a universal moral law originated in religion, these philosophers say, does not mean the idea must be abandoned once religion has been rejected. Wheeling in the rusty old apparatus of the genetic fallacy hardly settles the question, however. Without a law-giver, what can a universal moral law mean? If you think of morality as part of the natural behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans do not live according to a single moral code. Unless you think one of them has been mandated by God, you must accept the variety of moralities as a part of what it means to be human.

At this point the spectre of relativism is sure to appear on the scene – as it did in the last chapter, when it was suggested that science need not eventuate in one true view of the world. If there are many moralities, it will be asked, how can there be truth in ethics? Well, if you leave theism behind you must accept that human values cannot be independent of human needs and decisions. Some values may be humanly universal – being tortured or persecuted is bad for all human beings, for example. But universal values do not make a universal morality, for these values often conflict with each other. Do you want more liberty at the price of less security? Peace if it means continuing injustice? When individuals and groups choose between conflicting universal values, they create different moralities. Anyone who wants their morality secured by something beyond the fickle human world had better join an old-fashioned religion.

In France, where atheists are better educated than in English-speaking countries, Nietzsche continues to be central to the discussion of religion. Thinkers like Georges Bataille have explored the prospects of a ‘difficult atheism’ that does not take any set of values for granted. Today the popular French philosopher Michel Onfray acknowledges Nietzsche’s pivotal role in modern atheism, writing that ‘Nietzsche introduced transvaluation: atheism is not an end in itself. Do away with God, but then what? Another morality, a new ethic, values never before thought of because unthinkable, this innovation is what makes it possible to arrive at atheism and to surpass it. A formidable task, and one still to be brought to fruition.’ Not much has come of these new atheisms. Bataille’s ‘atheology’ produced nothing coherent, while Onfray’s new ethics turns out to be a reheated version of Bentham’s Utilitarianism. But at least these French thinkers recognize there is a problem about atheist values, and do not simply regurgitate some secular version of Christian morality.

Given that he is one of the most widely read atheist writers of all time, Nietzsche’s absence from English-speaking atheist discourse is an interesting omission. He is not neglected because he was a forerunner of fascism. Nietzsche attacked nationalism, mocked the Prussian state and ridiculed the faux-Darwinism that was emerging as the dominant German ideology. He preferred the religion of the Old Testament to that of the New and loathed the anti-Semites who were so prominent at the time – including his repulsive sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who married an anti-Semitic high-school teacher with whom she travelled to Paraguay to set up an ‘Aryan colony’, one of many services to racism that Hitler cited when he attended her funeral. But if Nietzsche was not a fascist or a proto-Nazi, neither was he any kind of liberal. This may be why he is screened out from so much of current atheist thinking.

An atheist because he rejected liberal values, Nietzsche is the ghost at the liberal humanist feast. In The Anti-Christ, he condemned the Christian religion in the strongest terms: ‘In Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and oppressed come into the foreground: it is the lowest classes which seek their salvation in it.’ In suggesting that Christianity began as a ‘slave-religion’ Nietzsche was on shaky ground. His account of Christian origins is not very different from the standard Christian story, which has Jesus attracting his disciples from among the poor and outcast. He underestimates the gulf between the teachings of Jesus and the religion founded by Paul. Writing of Paul as ‘quintessentially Jewish’, he passes over how Paul severed the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teaching by turning it into a universal creed.

While Nietzsche may be a compelling critic of Christian values, he never succeeded in shaking off these values himself. The son of a Lutheran pastor, he led an ascetic existence. There was always an aura of otherworldliness around him. He renounced a brilliant academic career for the life of a wandering scholar. When he lived in a modest guest house in Genoa in the early 1880s, his fellow guests called him il piccolo santo – the little saint. While visiting Turin in 1889 he broke down after seeing a horse being beaten in the street, and proceeded to fire off letters to friends and various European dignitaries, signing them as ‘Dionysus’ or ‘the Crucified’. The causes of his madness are disputed, with some explaining it as a side-effect of syphilis, which he may have contracted as a student. Until he died in 1900 he was under the care of his sister, who bowdlerized his thought in books (notably the posthumously published Will to Power) that she and others composed from passages they cobbled together from his notes.

An implacable enemy of Christianity, Nietzsche was also an incurably Christian thinker. Like the Christians he despised, he regarded the human animal as a species in need of redemption. Without God, humankind faced ‘nihilism’ – life without meaning. But nihilism could be avoided if humans willed into being the meaning God had once secured. Only a few would ever be capable of this feat. It was these exceptional individuals – the supermen lauded in Thus Spake Zarathustra – who would redeem humanity from a senseless existence. Nietzsche’s Übermensch or superman played a Christ-like role.

Nietzsche’s thought continues to be a formative influence. It has been particularly important when its influence is denied. An example can be found in the work of one of the last century’s most influential atheist writers, Ayn Rand.

Fastidious philosophers will sniff at including Rand in a list of atheist thinkers. Yet she is one of the most popular atheist writers, and the only one who has had an impact on contemporary politics. Condemning his philosophy as a betrayal of reason, Rand disavowed Nietzsche entirely. But there can be no doubt that a version of his ideas shaped her way of thinking.

Born in Russia in 1905, Rand left the Soviet Union at the age of twenty. Her first published novel, We the Living (1936), a fictionalized account of her experiences in the early Soviet period, contains a number of clues about the origins of her later philosophy. The heroine of the novel, Kira Argounova, also tries to leave the Soviet Union but fails and dies in the attempt. Kira has a Bolshevik lover, whom she admires not for his values and goals but for the ruthlessness with which he pursues them. Several passages in the first print of the book, which attested to this admiration, were excised by Rand from later editions.

In a foreword to the American edition that appeared in 1959, Rand told the reader that in some places she ‘reworded the sentences and clarified their meaning, without changing their content … The novel remains what and as it was.’ Rand’s insistence that nothing of importance had been changed was disingenuous. She had made some crucial revisions. As a result, the first edition has become a rare book that can cost tens of thousands of dollars to buy.

Consulting a first edition, I found the following exchange between Kira and her communist lover Victor. Kira tells Victor – who ‘looked like a tenor in an Italian grand opera … the broad shoulders, the flaming black eyes, the wavy, unruly black hair, the flashing smile, the healthy arrogant assurance of every movement’ – why she admires his ruthlessness:

I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one is right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them … What are your masses but mud to be ground under foot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it? What is the people but millions of puny, shrivelled, helpless souls, that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words put into their mildewed brains.

Here – and, in a less overt form, throughout Rand’s writings – a violent rejection of the sacrificial ethics of Christianity is combined with a willingness to sacrifice countless human lives for the sake of a few self-styled superior individuals.

Much that seems strange in Rand’s life and writings becomes clearer once Nietzsche’s ideas – a vulgarized version of them, at any rate – are taken into account. The admiration she expressed in her journal in 1928 for William Hickman is telling in this regard. An armed robber and kidnapper who murdered and dismembered a twelve-year-old girl he had abducted for ransom, Hickman might seem an unlikely candidate for the title of Übermensch. Yet Rand quoted with approval a dictum attributed to him – ‘What is good for me is right’ – commenting in her journal: ‘The best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I have heard.’

Hickman’s dictum is far from anything that can be derived from Nietzsche. As he dissected human values in The Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche found them inherently conflicting. Good could come of evil, truth of falsehood. Some of the most precious achievements of civilization emerged from error and illusion. The ascetic Christian morality he loathed had given birth to a passion for truth that culminated in atheism. There is nothing of this subtlety in Rand.

Rand’s views were not always as eccentric as they seem today. Practically every literate person in Russia from 1890 up to the revolutions of 1917 was exposed to some variant of Nietzsche’s ideas. There were Nietzschean Christians and Nietzschean pagans, Nietzschean Bolsheviks and Nietzschean Tsarists. Young people were particularly attuned to Nietzsche’s ideas, which surfaced in the music of Alexander Scriabin and the writings of Maxim Gorky. When Rand was growing up in Russia, Nietzsche was ubiquitous as a cultural influence. It is hardly surprising that her attitudes should have reflected those that were popularly associated with him.

More interesting is the way Rand adapted her version of Nietzsche’s ideas to American folk-mythology. Mixing them with borrowings from Aristotle and John Locke, she called the farrago that resulted ‘Objectivism’. She produced a bible for the faithful in the 1,200 pages of Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, which has sold millions of copies.

In the book Nietzsche’s Übermensch, represented in We the Living as a Bolshevik commissar, became a heroic American capitalist, John Galt. Forecasting the imminent destruction of the corrupted capitalism of his time, Galt offers other capitalists salvation in a hidden community, Galt’s Gulch, an enclave in a Colorado mountain valley that will be preserved in the coming end-time. One fact about Atlas Shrugged that has gone unnoticed is that it is a reinvention of Christian apocalyptic myth. Here too Rand borrowed from Nietzsche.

In ethics Rand promoted an extreme version of rationalism according to which morality can be derived from principles of logic. To examine her arguments for this view would be tedious, since they are thoroughly silly. It is more useful to consider the ethical outlook she promoted. In Rand’s work Nietzsche’s defence of aristocratic individualism became an apology for laissez-faire capitalism. The Übermensch reappeared as an indignant businessman grumbling about taxes.

In Rand’s ethics the worst vice is altruism. In The Virtue of Selfishness: a new concept of egoism (1964), she rejected any conception of morality in which it is essentially concerned with the welfare of others. The only goal of any rational individual should be their own well-being. But Rand’s conception of well-being was heavily moralized. It is not the welfare of any actually existing human being that counts, but that of an abstraction lacking in many human qualities. Actual human beings are only fitfully moved by anything that might be called rational self-interest. They need to sacrifice themselves, sometimes for the sake of others they care for and sometimes in the service of ideas that may have little or no meaning.

Rand’s cult aimed to govern every aspect of life. She was a dedicated smoker, and her followers were instructed that they had to smoke as well. Not only did Rand smoke, she used a cigarette-holder – so that when she addressed large audience of the faithful, a thousand cigarette-holders would move in unison with hers. It was not for nothing that the ultra-individualists who became Rand’s disciples were described within the movement as ‘the Collective’. The selection of marriage partners was also controlled. In her view of things, rational human beings should not associate with those that are irrational. There could be no worse example of this than two people joined together in marriage by mere emotion, so officers of the cult were empowered to pair Rand’s disciples only with others who also subscribed to the faith. The marriage ceremony included pledging devotion to Rand, then opening Atlas Shrugged at random to read aloud a passage from the sacred text.

Rand pronounced on a wide range of issues, including what was the best kind of dance. Only one type of dancing was truly rational. Some – like the tango – were low-level, semi-instinctual physical performances lacking any intellectual content. Others – the foxtrot, possibly – she rejected as being too cerebral. What then was the only dance that, combining mind and body, could be approved as being truly rational? Tap-dancing. Fred Astaire may not have known it, but he embodied the opposing forces of reason and instinct in an ideal synthesis. Tap-dancing was the cultural form that Nietzsche had been searching for in his first important work, The Birth of Tragedy: a fusion of Dionysian vitality with Apollonian harmony.

It might seem unlikely that a cult of this kind could exercise any public influence. But the maddest ideas are quite often the most influential, and Rand’s cod-philosophy has had a discernible impact on American politics. Intermixed with Christian fundamentalism, it inspired the twenty-first-century Tea Party. One of the movement’s leading lights, Senator Rand Paul – not named after Rand; his first name is ‘Randall’ – has boasted of being a ‘big fan of Rand’, though he is also a professed Catholic believer. Randian ideas have had an influence on American public policy. The ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Alan Greenspan was a former disciple of Rand, who – despite being anathematized by more orthodox believers for backtracking on the virtues of the gold standard – never entirely renounced the Objectivist faith. To his credit, Greenspan has suffered occasional spasms of doubt. In testimony to a Senate Committee in October 2008, following the financial crash, he admitted that his ‘ideology’ of the free market might be ‘flawed’ as an account of ‘how the world works’.

For all its absurdities or because of them, Rand’s version of atheism was one of the most widely disseminated in the second half of the twentieth century. But the chief significance of her ideas is not their popularity. It is in showing the protean character of atheism, which has inspired many varieties of ethics and politics.

Modern atheists can be individualists like Rand, socialists like Karl Marx, liberals like John Stuart Mill or fascists like Charles Maurras. They can revere altruism as the embodiment of all that is truly human with Auguste Comte, or revile altruists as thoroughly anti-human with Ayn Rand. Without exception, these atheists have been convinced they were promoting the cause of humanity. In every case, the species whose progress they believed they were advancing was a phantom of their imagination.

Ancient atheists were more dispassionate. The philosophy of the Epicureans – beautifully presented by Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) – promoted an ethics in which gentle pleasures and peace of mind are the chief ends of human life. Epicureans aimed to insulate themselves from the sorrows of their fellow humans. The opening lines of Book Two of Lucretius’ poem express the attitude of serene indifference to the mass of humankind they cultivated:

A joy it is, when the strong winds of storm
Sir up the waters of a mighty sea,
To watch from the shore the troubles of another.
No pleasure this in any man’s distress,
But joy to see the ills from which you are spared,
And joy to see great armies locked in conflict
Across the plains, yourself free from the danger.

Watching calmly as others drowned in misery, the Epicureans were content in the tranquil retreat of their secluded gardens. ‘Humanity’ could do what it pleased. It was no concern of theirs.


GRAY, John, Seven Types of Atheism. London: Penguin Ramdom House, 2018.

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