Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Study Guide to Ayn Rand's Philosophy

It takes no time to fall in love, but it takes you years to know what the love is.
Jason Mraz
Life is Wonderful

Learning Objectivism is a delightful, deeply rewarding, life-altering process, and you can sense that it is going to be from the very beginning. But there is a simple, practical problem when getting started: among the great deal of high quality material available, what do you read first?

Based on my thirty years as a dedicated Objectivist, I offer the following list as a highly opinionated where-to-start-first guide to someone who wants to study and master Ayn Rand's philosophy.


      1. Three great sustained non-technical classics
      2. Four great sustained technical classics
      3. Top three best short works
      4. Other sustained classics
      5. Other best short works
      6. Biographical works
      7. Non-Objectivist works
      8. Conclusion: Exactly how to start

1. The three great sustained non-technical classics:

The Fountainhead
Atlas Shrugged
The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America

These are the first three books you should read. They will give you an overview of the total of the Objectivist world view.

The Ominous Parallels is the most important breakthough in the field of history since Thucydides. The book gives a revolutionary new answer to the question: how could the Nazi's take over a highly advanced, civilized nation -- the nation of "poets and philsophers"? If Atlas Shrugged is the most philosophical novel ever written, then The Ominous Parallels is the most philosophical history every written. If Atlas Shrugged teaches the fundamentally correct view of life, then The Ominous Parallels teaches the fundamentally correct view of history.

On the face of it, this is a strange collection of books to start with: the rapture of Roark and Galt followed by the hell of Kant and Auschwitz. On the face of it, Objectivism offers a contradictory message: on the one hand, Objectivism teaches man-worship, it teaches that your life can be more glorious than any previous conception you have ever had of it; but on the other hand, Objectivism teaches that the philosophy of altruism that the world takes as self-evidently true is leading to an apocalyptic disaster that you had never expected.

But those are the facts. Man’s life is glorious and this culture is a corrupt mess. But the contradiction is only seeming. The last Dark Ages happened, and ended. This culture is in deep decline, but it will recover. The world is in a very bad state, but Objectivism teaches you why, and why it didn’t have to be this way, and the philosophical truth that will permanently more than fix it. The Ominous Parallels is a tour through a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide. The existence of the powerful guide gives the book a profoundly optimistic sense of life, despite its subject matter.

Entire books and lectures could be written on this issue, but I will leave you with one thought: make it a conscious point not to let the state of today’s culture get you down. It is an easy mistake to make. Don’t let yourself make it. Dedicate yourself to seeing the big picture from the beginning. You can live a wonderful life in a declining culture, just as Aristotle did. Today’s cultural state is barely a footnote to the truth about human life. It is an aberration that you can learn to ignore across time.

In fact, Objectivism has only one message: man is an entity to be worshipped, and his life on earth is a glorious crusade that is all the consecration his soul requires. That is what you learn from the first three non-technical Objectivist classics.

2. Five great sustained technical classics:

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

Ayn Rand’s most exalted insight into technical philosophy. Her solution to the problem of universals, which even Aristotle was unable to fully solve. Ayn Rand’s mathematical approach revolutionized the science of epistemology, just as Newton’s mathematical approach revolutionized the science of physics.

The Romantic Manifesto

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of esthetics. What is art? Why is it needed? Ayn Rand and Aristotle were the only great philosophers who could write a full treatise on this subject, and, to repeat a theme, this work is the most important breakthrough since Aristotle.

Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume I and II

Dr. Peikoff is the college professor you never had. These lectures are so far superior to any other presentation of the subject, that no superlatives can do them justice.

Note: the primary value in the lectures comes from the discussion of Greek philosophy through Kant’s philosophy; after Kant, the lectures maintain their incredibly high quality, but the subject matter becomes progressively much less interesting and mind-nourishing.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (e.g., OPAR)

Dr. Peikoff puts the entire Objectivist philosophy in one place, carefully putting the forest before the trees at every turn. The book can be read in its entirety, or used as a summarized reference. Of special interest are chapter 1, 2, 4, and 5, which include crucial technical material in epistemology that Ayn Rand did not discuss at length in her own writings.

The DIM Hypothesis

The DIM trichotomy is a psycho-epistemological broadening of Ayn Rand’s purely epistemological distinction between the objective, subjective, and intrinsic.  DIM provides a less technical, more wide-angle view of the world, allowing us to see men and society in a way that none of the previous trichotomies made fully possible.  I personally use the DIM distinctions as often as I use any other trichotomy in philosophy. 

3. The three most important Objectivist short works:

These three pieces cover the three most important issues in Objectivism: life as the standard of value, man-worship, and measurement-omission.

Ayn Rand’s Introduction to the Objectivist Ethics

Covers the most critically needed breakthrough in philosophy since Aristotle. How is morality based on facts? What is the relationship between emotions and reason? Neither the Greeks nor the Enlightenment could answer these questions; this subject is the rock that Western Civilization has crashed on.

Leonard Peikoff’s Why Ancient Greece is My Favorite Civilization

Man-worship as the essence of Ayn Rand and the Greeks. After seventeen years of studying Objectivism, the scales fell from my eyes when I heard this lecture, and I finally understood what Ayn Rand was really saying. The entire problem with America is contained in the fact that the Statue of Liberty is wearing clothes. I would recommend listening to this lecture after reading The Fountainhead and before reading Atlas Shrugged.

Harry Binswanger’s Consciousness as Identification

Ayn Rand’s theory of concept formation is the second most critically needed breakthrough in technical philosophy since Aristotle. Dr. Binswanger makes the essence of her contribution crystal clear in three amazing lectures. It’s as though measurement-omission were a swimming pool in Dr. Binswanger’s backyard, and he invites you over to leisurely paddle around in it for a few hours.

A perfectly reasonable way to read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology would be to read the first two chapters, listen to these lectures, and then finish the book.

4. Other sustained Objectivist classics:

Ayn Rand’s Letters
Ayn Rand’s Journals

One prominent review of the Letters stated that it rises to the level of literature. That is a very good way to put it, and the point applies to both works. The Letters discussion of Jesus and the Journals notes on The Fountainhead and To Lorne Dieterling are particular favorites of mine.

Leonard Peikoff’s Eight Great Plays

Once again, Dr. Peikoff is the professor you never had. These plays are great, life-altering literature, and Dr. Peikoff's lectures bring out their full depth.

Sandra Shaw’s Art History I: Prehistory to the Fall of Rome

Sandra Shaw combines a casually elegant background understanding of Objectivism, with a thorough knowledge of the history of art, with the perspective of a highly accomplished professional artist. These three fuse into a unique, powerful exposition of the history of art. Objectivism as a philosophical context is always present, always illuminating in these lectures, but it is never preached.

In addition to purely art history, which alone would be more than enough motivation, these lectures delve into many general issues in pre-history and ancient history from an Objectivist perspective for the first time. For example, Sandra Shaw discusses the Paleolithic period (the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer period), the Mesolithic period (post agriculture to the rise of civilization), and Sumerian, Egyptian, and Minoan civilizations, offering striking new insights that you won’t find anywhere else.

David Harriman’s The Anti-Copernican Revolution
David Harriman’s The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics

What was just stated about Sandra Shaw’s works applies correspondingly to David Harriman’s as well. Three elements are combined: a powerful background understanding of Objectivism, a thorough knowledge of the history of physics, and the perspective of an accomplished physicist. The result is something utterly unique and path breaking.

The Anti-Copernican Revolution is currently a series of lectures and soon to be a book. Its theme is the theme of The Ominous Parallels, but applied specifically to the science of physics, which Dr. Peikoff discussed only very briefly. An enjoyable, accessible introductory lecture to start with might be The Atomic War, which discusses a surprising and little known controversy surrounding the development of the atomic theory in the 19th century.

The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics is a brilliant exposition of the inductive nature of physical science, interrelating the history of physics with Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts via Leonard Peikoff’s theory of scientific induction. This is the only written exposition of Dr. Peikoff’s crucial new theory of induction.

It should be emphasized how fresh Sandra Shaw’s and David Harriman’s works are. You won’t find these insights outside of Objectivism, because it would take an Objectivist to identify them, and you won’t find these insights in any other place inside of Objectivism because Sandra Shaw and David Harriman were the first Objectivists to see and publish them.

5a. Ayn Rand’s best short pieces:

Discussing Ayn Rand’s “best” short pieces is a little like the man who wanted to build a house on the surface of the sun, but was looking for a nice warm spot. But even with Ayn Rand, you can’t read them all at once, so here is my opinionated list of what to read first:

Introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Fountainhead
Roark’s, Rearden’s, Francisco’s and Galt’s speeches
Review of Randall’s Aristotle
Causality vs. Duty
The Metaphysical vs. Man-Made
The Missing Link
Who is the final authority in ethics?
Introduction to Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three
The Husband I Bought, Red Pawn, Anthem, Ideal

The next three pieces are of necessity primarily negative, but they get to the heart of what is wrong with the world:

From the Horses Mouth (On Kant)
Of Living Death (On Christianity)
The Age of Envy (On the motive of evil)

5b. Leonard Peikoff’s best short pieces:

Art of Thinking, Clarity through Volition

Grasping Objectivism as a form of psychological change. By far the best work on psychology that I have ever read. Makes me feel that no subject is really clear until Peikoff explains it. This lecture was life-changing for me.

Moral Virtue, Third Lecture (on Independence)

The theme of Leonard Peikoff’s career has been thinking in principles and this lecture amounts to a summarizing example-overview of the topic. Dr. Peikoff gives a case instance of overcoming rationalism in his own writing.

Objectivism: The State of the Art, The Logical Structure of Metaphysics

A very technical lecture that brilliantly unravels one of the trickiest knots in philosophy: how to get started.

Objectivism: The State of the Art, Moral Principles

The principled approach to morality. Why selfishness cannot mean theft. Would you want a pair of skis if you had to give up your feet to get them?

Understanding Objectivism, lecture 1
Objectivism Through Induction, lecture 1

These lectures are incredibly helpful in getting Objectivism to sink in deeply and become a real part of your life. They generally pre-suppose a knowledge of Objectivism, but the first lectures in each series will be very helpful even during the initial process of learning Objectivism. Although their purpose is to teach a person how to teach himself Objectivism, they would be of great value to a teacher of anyone on any subject.

Objectivism Through Induction, Lectures 5,6,7

A casual tour-de-force that covers Plato, Aristotle, and Ayn Rand on objectivity. It would be reasonable to insert this lecture just after the lecture on Aristotle in the History of Philosophy I lectures.

The Survival Value of Great (Though Philosophically False) Art

In our shallow culture, the path of least resistance is to miss out on the life-sustaining value of great art. This lecture discusses why and how to pursue that value.

5c. Short pieces by other Objectivists:

Harry Binswanger’s John Locke’s Political Philosophy

At the height of Western Civilization’s most reason-oriented cultural period, John Locke was taken as the defender of worldliness, reason, logic, science. His politics were wonderful, but the rest of his philosophy gave away the store. It would be reasonable to insert this lecture into Dr. Peikoff’s History of Philosophy Part I at the appropriate point (e.g., between lectures 10 and 11).

Harry Binswanger’s Ayn Rand Lexicon

This book is really a series of short pieces. Dr. Binswanger did a masterly job of organizing and distilling Objectivism’s views on key issues. It’s a very browseable reference work, highly useful to beginners and experts alike.

Yaron Brook’s A History of the Middle East

The story of Middle East’s Golden Age, when the Middle East was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, and the importance of the resulting preservation and transmission to the West of key works of Aristotle, is a cardinal aspect of history which is unknown to most people. I was never taught even the rudiments of this story in high school or college. I think you have to be an Objectivist to really see the importance of it.

A good companion piece is Edwin Locke’s The Psycho-Epistemology of the Arab World.

Eric Daniel’s American History I-III

The existence of the pre-Kantian period of America’s history is more important than the existence of her post-Civil War, Kantian decline, yet we tend to know more about the latter period than the former, so these lectures serve to balance and flesh out one’s knowledge of American history.

John Lewis’s The Greco-Persian War

The Persian War was the most important war in human history: the Greeks heroic victory pushed Athens into the white hot heat of the man-worshiping culture of the Classical Era. Human history consists of three essentials: 1) The build up, 2) Athens during the High Classical Period, 3) the long, tortured road back to the level of culture the Athenians had. (The discovery of Objectivism is the most important event in part 3.)

If you are a passionate but recent fan of Ayn Rand and do not know this story, and haven’t heard these lectures, and haven’t seen the movie The 300, I envy you: listen to the lectures and then watch the movie back to back for an intense intellectual-emotional experience.

Robert Mayhew’s Aristotle and the Renaissance

Discusses Aristotle’s influence on the Renaissance. Fascinating from beginning to end. I would strongly recommend inserting this lecture into Dr. Peikoff’s History of Philosophy Part I at the appropriate point (i.e., between lecture 8 and 9).

John Ridpath’s Lectures on the Founding Fathers

No one brings the Founding Fathers to life with quite the style and panache of Dr. Ridpath. All the lectures are great so pick any to start. The Patrick Henry lecture is a favorite of mine.

John Ridpath’s Religion vs. Man

Focus is on the non-Christian religions, on the grounds that most of his audience knows the Christian tradition already.

John Ridpath’s Nietzsche and Individualism
John Ridpath’s Nietzsche and the Nihilism of Our Times

Nietzsche being who he is, and Dr. Ridpath being who he is, these lecture are tremendously entertaining and enjoyable and full of intellectual substance. The two sets of lectures are complimentary, not redundant.

Stephen Siek’s The Music of Rachmaninoff

An expert naturalist takes you on a delightful stroll through the woods, teaching and explaining the natural world as you go. Only it’s not the world of nature, it’s the world of music.

Lisa VanDamme’s Reclaiming Education I and II

I do not know how to get across how inspiring the existence of Lisa VanDamme’s school is, or how grateful the parents of children who attend it should be. The depth of contrast between this school and what goes on the rest of American education is simply bizarre. Perhaps Shakespeare could find the words to describe the difference, but I can’t.

Tony White’s Commentary on Greek Man-worship

This essay is an interpretive summary of Dr. Peikoff’s lecture on Greek man-worship, adding new formulations and perspectives. We tend to think of the America's sense of life as a bulwark against her decline, and in part it is, but even at its best the American sense of life did not fully live up to man’s potential, did not fully rise to the Ayn Rand/Greek man-worshipping sense of life. What Objectivism adds to the American sense of life is at least as important as what it seeks to save or restore.

(The essay is in A Tribute to Leonard Peikoff, the second essay on this blog; the essay is the fourth part of the post, it stands alone, and the first three parts can be skipped to get to it.)

The Lectures on the Greeks

All the lectures on the ancient Greeks in the Ayn Rand Bookstore are highly recommended. Three particularly good ones are Robert Mayhew’s Aristotle: Father of Romanticism, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and Aristotle for Objectivists, and Allan Gotthelf’s Aristotle as Scientist: A Proper Verdict.

6. Biographical pieces:

Philosophy is a means to an end: the living of a single, individual human life. Here are some terrific biographical pieces on Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff:

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
Ayn Rand Interview
by Tom Snyder
Ayn Rand’s Life: Highlights and Sidelights
Facets of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand and the Atlas Shrugged Years: Reminiscences and Recollections
My 30 years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir
Leonard Peikoff: In his Own Words

Although not literally autobiographical, these pieces by Ayn Rand are implicitly revealing about her as a person:

Epitaph for a Culture
The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy
Through Your Most Grievous Fault
The Husband I Bought
Epistemology Workshop – Excerpt Recording

Brief Summary (Closing of The Objectivist magazine)
A Last Survey (Closing of The Ayn Rand Letter)

7. Non-Objectivist works:

Three books:

What these three books have in common is that, in one form or another, they include the man-worshiping sense of life.

      H.D.F Kitto’s The Greeks (Beautifully condensed history.)
      Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac
      Frederich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Five movies/videos:

      We the Living
      The Greeks (PBS documentary on ancient Athens)
      The 300
      John Adams Miniseries
I do not think that these last three were intended to be examples of what popular culture in an Objectivist society would be like, but they are that nonetheless.

8. Conclusion: Exactly how to start

The list I have offered is a very small percentage of what is in the Ayn Rand Bookstore, but it is still a long list, so, to put a stake in the ground, here is my exact, ordered recommendation what to read/listen to/watch at the very beginning of the study of Objectivism:

  1) Overview of the Total
      The Fountainhead
      Why Ancient Greece is My Favorite Civilization
      Atlas Shrugged
      The Ominous Parallels

  2) Biography and Man-Worship
      Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
      Ayn Rand Interview
by Tom Snyder
      Leonard Peikoff: In his Own Words
      Introduction to The Fountainhead 25th Anniversary
      Why Ancient Greece is My Favorite Civilization (again)
Tony White's Commentary on Greek Man-worship

  3) Philosophy
      Introduction to the Objectivist Ethics
      Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
      The Romantic Manifesto
, chapters 1,2
      Harry Binswanger's Consciousness as Identification
, chapters 4,5
      History of Philosophy, through lecture 8
Robert Mayhew's Aristotle and the Renaissance
      History of Philosophy lectures 9 – Kant

That’s my opinionated short list. I was brutally selective in choosing what to include and leave out. I purposefully left out works on politics, economics, commentary on modern culture and current events, polemics, many terrific works on other narrower topics, such as Peikoff’s lectures on the philosophy of education and Ayn Rand’s lectures on non-fiction writing, and many personal favorite lectures and lecturers, strictly on the grounds of choosing the forest over the trees.

I have not kept up with the new lectures in the last few years as much as I would like, which means that there may be recent lectures that I would have included, but haven’t heard yet.

Politics is the least important branch of philosophy, and none of the other branches depend on it, so I excluded it from the list in order to focus on the fundamentals; but here are the four essays that I would have included on political philosophy, all by Ayn Rand:

What is Capitalism?
The Nature of Government
Man’s Rights
Roots of War

My two favorite lectures on modern culture are Ayn Rand’s Apollo and Dionysus, on the relationship between philosophy and the spirit of the '60s, and Leonard Peikoff’s Modernism and Madness, on the relationship between philosophy and schizophrenia. Both of these essays have a delightful, sparkling quality which is quite an achievement when discussing this type of subject matter.

Two other books that a beginning Objectivist will likely want to read selected chapters from are "The Virtue of Selfishness" and "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal". Many of the essays in these books aren't necessarily the deepest, most important essays in the Objectivist corpus, but instead essays that answer common misconceptions and bromides that a beginner would have and/or have thrust at them. For example, "Doesn't Life Require Compromise?", "You are not taking a black and white view of the world are you?", "Antitrust", "The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children". I would recommend picking and choosing among these essays according to your own personal questions and needs.

One final tip from a veteran. Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff are deceptively good writers. They explain the most difficult, abstract subjects so unusually well that it makes it seem as if those subjects were quick and easy to learn. But they are not. For anyone raised in today’s world, Objectivism is a fundamental revolution of the mind and soul. As enjoyable as learning Objectivism is, it takes time. Don’t think you are supposed to understand it all on the first reading. Instead, expect a long, enjoyable process, across years.


  1. Congratulations for your essay and your blog in general, it´s really interesting. I´m a spanish student of Objectivism and I have one question: Do you know where could I find the four Mayhew´s texts you mentioned?

    Thank you very much

    Óscar Ramos

    PD: here in Spain Ayn Rand and Objectivism in general is almost totally unknown. I´m glad that Internet and people like you make Objectivism spread out.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. The Robert Mayhew pieces are recorded voice lectures, not written text. The place to get them would normally be, but they are not available now. I think they will have the lectures available in the near future when they have their new downloadable format system working. I checked ebay and amazon, and didn't see them, although they may show up there in the future.