What Ayn Rand Understood about Romantic Love That so Many Fail to Grasp
We recently recognized Valentine’s Day: a holiday dedicated to amorous love.
While I spent the evening covering a campus fashion show for the Dartmouth Review all alone, I’d like to share some of my favorite quotes from Ayn Rand on the subject. While Rand is perhaps most renowned for her political and moral philosophy, Objectivism constitutes a full philosophical system that includes a beautiful theory of love.
Many people conceive of love as unconditional and selfless. While this sounds sweet and wholesome prima facie, Rand’s fiction and philosophy reveal why this conception of love is far from the ideal. In Rand’s breakthrough 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, the protagonist (Howard Roark) issues one of the pithiest, most impactful and memorable lines in all of her fiction:
To say ’I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I.’
What does Roark mean by this? Love is not something that exists abstractly but as the union between two individuals. For this love to mean something, both individuals involved in the romance, a subspecies of the “happy commerce” of friendship, must have a robust sense of self. That is, each person must possess values independently and demonstrate the requisite virtues to achieve them. Love is not a substitute for self-esteem but a consequence thereof.
Hank Rearden, in Rand’s seminal 1957 tome Atlas Shrugged, expounds upon the role of romantic love in relation to one’s highest values:
[Lovers] can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.
To lose oneself, i.e., one’s values, virtues, and self-esteem, in the ecstasy of romance is to consign one’s relationship to the same fate one’s consigned his individuality: oblivion. Such is the natural and inexorable consequence of treating love as a substitute instead of a complement to the self.
The following line, uttered by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, strikes many as antithetical to the widely accepted conception of love as sacrificial:
“I love you, Dominique. As selfishly as the fact that I exist. As selfishly as my lungs breathe air. I breathe for my own necessity, for the fuel of my body, for my survival. I’ve given you, not my sacrifice or my pity, but my ego and my naked need.”
To demonstrate the truthfulness of love as selfish, one can do a simple proof by contrapositive. In other words, is it true that the opposite of selfishness implies the opposite of love? I believe so. Imagine, if you will, your loved one informing you that they love you selflessly, i.e., they love you not for their survival, not out of their ego and naked need, but because they know you need them for your survival and out of your ego and naked need? I predict that you would be aghast by such an admission and properly regard their feelings towards you as altruistic and well-intentioned but not as love. It follows, then, that true love is a reflection of mutual selfish satisfaction that both partners derive from each other’s company.
Rand expounded upon her theory of love as selfish in a 1964 interview for a rather unlikely publication: Playboy.
“It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love,” Rand said, “and that is the greatest compliment, the greatest tribute you can pay to that person.”
So next year on February 14, a day dedicated to true love, I encourage you to express to your significant other that you love them “as selfishly as [you] lungs breathe air.”
Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.
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Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, I believe, is the greatest book of the 20th Century. When I first read it, I was in college, and like most young people an “I’ll change the world” bleeding heart liberal. As Winston Churchill famously said, “If you are not a Liberal at 25, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle aged Conservative, you have no head.” Well, Atlas Shrugged turned me into a Conservative before the tender age of 21. It should be required reading in every high school. Like Orwell’s “1984”, it is both prophetic and more relevant today than ever. It is the ultimate treatise on Capitalism vs. Socialism or Communism and translates vague ideologies into the lives and fates of identifiable and relatable characters; both heroic and commonplace. It’s very long, but worth it and if you’ve never read it, I challenge you to get it and find out; “Who and Where is John Galt?”