In September of 1977 I was a 20-year old airman stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo, Texas. I was training there to become a Chinese linguist/analyst. West Texas was sultry and slow, with not a lot to do other than fish and drink beer. I had some time on my hands so I picked up a used, yellowing paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
I was not a great reader of serious literature. Mostly I liked comic books and science fiction. I had read some Hemingway and Steinbeck and I loved Shakespeare, which I had discovered in high school drama classes. The hardest novel I had read was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, of which I read several hundred pages before I figured out that Alexei and Alyosha were the same person.
With a big, serious novel I was prepared to invest several hundred pages of boredom before the plot grabbed me. Atlas Shrugged had me hooked within 100 pages. I experienced the thrill I used to feel when I read comic books as a child; I was reading about heroes in an exciting, suspenseful plot. I read the book in four days. I did not read it well, skimming the long speeches, as I had done in Dostoyevsky and I think even in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I was more interested in the plot than in serious ideas. I have since gone back to read the long speeches many times.
When I finished the novel, I did not understand the ideas well, but what I did understand, I agreed with. The book rocked my world. I knew it was true and revolutionary. I thought, “Wait till they hear about this back home!”
Well, what followed was the great disillusionment of my life. It turned out that my family and friends were familiar with Rand and they had all rejected her. Most of them were liberals, a few were Christians. I was told that Rand was just a phase intelligent young people go through and once I got older I would see that life is not like it is in her novels. One teacher told me to come back and talk to her when I was 25. It was most unsettling to hear the people I had loved and respected most saying things like, "There are no absolutes" and "Life is not black and white" and "You have to compromise to get along in society" and "How can you know for sure? How can anyone know anything for sure?" After Atlas Shrugged I never looked at those people quite the same again.
As I explored Ayn Rand’s non-fiction and came to understand her philosophy of Objectivism, I realized that I could reject it and conform to the tribe or accept it and put some distance between me and those who were closest to me. There really was no question of how I would decide because Objectivism is true. I got a lot of sneers, smears and half-formed dismissals of Rand, but never a logical refutation of her ideas.
Leonard Peikoff has described his philosophy before discovering Ayn Rand as “chaos.” I would say that describes me as well. I was an atheist and had been since around the age of eight, when I decided God did not exist. I had very little interest in philosophy, politics and economics before reading Ayn Rand because I thought it was theoretical blather unconnected with real life. I was something of a liberal by default, but certainly not a leftist.
The one quality I had that made me receptive to Objectivism was intellectual honesty. I had no strong attachment to any philosophy or political position. My self-esteem was not threatened by Ayn Rand’s radical ideas. I was willing to read her arguments and see if they conflicted with the facts of life I had observed; they never did conflict with reality.
Discovering Objectivism was a thrilling intellectual odyssey because I learned that ideas are important and that intellectual premises actually move the world. The realization that philosophy was of life and death importance was like a portal to the vast universe of ideas. Before Atlas Shrugged I had been satisfied with comic books; after it, I was reading Peikoff, Mises, Aristotle, Hazlitt, Bastiat, Marx, Nietzsche, Menger, Gibbon, Windleband, Durant and so many others. Suddenly I was interested in philosophy, politics, history and economics. My higher education began in September of 1977.
The idea that ideas are important and have consequences is a like a secret potion Objectivists drink that makes them smarter than most other people. Really, how much sustained interest in ideas can a linguistic analyst or postmodernist have, when he believes that philosophy is an ivory tower game detached from day to day living? Modern philosophy does not motivate people to pursue knowledge. Modern philosophy turns ideas into an elaborate game in which one learns the right techniques designed not to discover knowledge of reality, but to impress one’s colleagues who also play the game. Life becomes compartmentalized: there’s modern philosophy and the world of ideas in one box, and the real world, family, friends, job, movies, oil changes and stubbed toes in another box. Objectivism shows how ideas and daily life are very much in the one big, fascinating box that is the world.
September of 2007 will mark my 30th anniversary as an Objectivist. It has been a long trip but not a strange one as in the Grateful Dead song. Unlike the hippies, I don’t need drugs to make life interesting. Seeing the world with clear, focused eyes and understanding the world with philosophy and acting to achieve goals that integrate with one’s knowledge is the best high because it is the functioning of man’s nature as a rational animal. It is a human doing what a human should do to survive and find happiness.
30 years is a long time, but I still see myself as in the middle of my journey. In spirit and mind I’m ready to go for another 30. The only question is when this aging body of mine will wear out. But in my soul I am still, though much smarter now, that 20-year old young man who sat down to read a battered paperback with small print.