|Objectivism and Theism:
Ayn Rand on Competition
by James Kiefer
Unpublished dot-matrix printout dated
In this section, I should like to consider a matter that may at first seem irrelevant, but which I believe to be of great importance to the reader who is considering the relation of Objectivism to theism.
One can participate in athletics either competitively or non-competitively. On the one hand, a runner can think entirely in terms of winning and losing, so that coming in first makes him happy and coming in not first makes him unhappy. On the other hand, he can think of running as a healthy and satisfying activity, and take pleasure in pushing himself to his limits and training to extend those limits. He can regard a race as something that makes it easier for him to train before it and push himself during it. On the other hand, he can concentrate on the satisfaction of beating all those other runners. One test of the difference is this: if you are second in a race and you notice that the lead runner seems to be in trouble and slowing down a little, do you take this as good news? If you do, then you are approaching the race competitively. I have heard Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, put the matter thus (I quote from memory):
MMWhen you are looking for an opponent for a friendly game of tennis, you ideally want someone who is just a little better than you are right? Because you know that playing against someone like that is going to improve your game a lot more than playing against someone that you can beat without half trying. You dont ask an absolute beginner to play, unless hes a friend that youre teaching. You know that its no fun to play against someone who misses all his shots. But as soon as you get out on the court and the game starts, you no longer want the other player to play well. He runs to return your lob and you are thinking, Miss it! miss it! miss it! Now there is a technical name for this phenomenon. It is called, changing your mind.
Someone new to Miss Rand her work might very possibly take it for granted that she would recommend the competitive approach without reservation. Is she not the great champion of laissez-faire capitalism, and is not competition the essence of capitalism? Add to this, that many of the partisans of the non-competitive approach have a vaguely hippyish air, while the old-fashioned football coach is perceived as the custodian of the attitudes that made America great. Finally, note that Miss Rand has written a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, and it seems obvious where she will stand.
The reader who thinks this is in for a pleasant shock. Miss Rand is firmly allied with the man whose goal is to run, not necessarily faster than his neighbor, but simply as fast as he can. She reminds us, in unforgettable language, that if I run the mile in six minutes, my achievement is what it is, and is in no way diminished by someone elses running it in well under four
The coin has a reverse side. Miss Rand invites us to discover with her the joy of looking up at greatness. She also calls our attention to the great moral cancer of our age what she calls envy meaning, hatred of the good for being good. Some years ago I saw the results of a survey taken in a foreign country with an economy noticeably less free than our own. (I am not sure that I will remember the country correctly, and so in justice will not name it.) People were asked, If you could have a ten percent increase in your standard of living, provided that your neighbors got a twenty percent increase, would you take it? Close to ninety percent said that they would not. To them, the important thing was not being well clothed, but being able to look down on their neighbors (or, failing that, to avoid having their neighbors look down on them) for being not so well clothed. The pleasure of a stereo set was not the music, but being the first family on the block to have one. To have a black-and-white television when the neighbors had color would be far worse than if no one had television at all. Along similar lines, a friend of mine who was teaching her pre-school children reading and arithmetic was told by her neighbor, You have no right to do that. How do you think it makes me feel to know that your children can read and mine cant? My friend offered to lend her a few books, but the neighbor was not interested in teaching her child to read. She only wanted to make sure that no one elses child could. Forgetting that my height is the same no matter who else is in the room, and hating giants because they make me feel like a midget that is the essence of envy. 
In the course of this paper, we have considered point by point
I take it that the first of these two reasons amounts to this: that the burden of proof is on those who affirm the existence of God, that at the time of writing, Miss Rand had not encountered a proof thereof that she judged to be valid, and that she accordingly decided to be an atheist by default, with that position subject to review should she encounter new arguments or evidence in the future. With that position I have no quarrel. The gap Miss Rand complains of, I have undertaken to fill. (See Objectivism and Theism and chapters in the section Notes for Revision and Expansion.) I therefore now turn to her second reason.
That she continued to hold it in later life, we see from her novel, We the
Here she seems to say that, if there is a God, then there is a highest possible goal which is unattainable by man, and that to believe this is degrading to man. But what does this mean? Comparisons aside, is there any achievement which atheists think possible to man, which is not possible if theism is true? Some atheists think that the mile will eventually be run in three and a half minutes. Is there any argument available to show that this is impossible if there is a God? Travel to other planets, extension of the human life span to a thousand years or more, man-made organisms, dashboard clocks that work given anything that you would like scientists to invent next, the atheist premise does not imply a higher probability than the theist premise that they will succeed. I am as optimistic as Miss Rand about the chances that some mathematicians will eventually prove or disprove the Riemann Hypothesis and Fermats Last Theorem. [Fermats Last Theorem was finally proved by Andrew Wiles in
It looks as though comparison is precisely what Miss Rand has in mind. We have already noted that
But I am persuaded that things are not as bad as that. On the one hand, the concept of God is not in itself degrading to man, except in the eyes of the envious. On the other hand, there are particular concepts of God that have sometimes been held that do precisely discourage men from striving to be the best they can be, and from acknowledging both their own actual and their own possible achievements.
I have heard it
The latter theory is explicit in some Greek and Roman stories. Arachne, Ovid tells us, was a maiden who had great skill as a weaver. Her friends said, The goddess Minerva herself must have taught you to weave. Arachne proudly replied that she needed no teacher, and that she could weave better than Minerva. Hearing this, Minerva promptly appeared and challenged Arachne to a contest. Both began weaving, and Arachnes work was plainly better. Furious, Minerva struck Arachnes loom with her staff and it turned into a web. Arachne herself was changed into a spider, and set to spinning and weaving forever.
Clearly, anyone who is asked to believe in a god who does not wish men to be as good or as great as they can be, to achieve as much as they can, lest the divine greatness be less by comparison, will rightly reject this belief as immoral.
But the concept of God, or of a god, as Miss Rand herself has pointed out, does not in itself make it inevitable that the alleged deity will be envious. It is only in a society where human envy is endemic that gifted people, cringing under the envy and hatred they encounter on all sides, will be tempted to conclude that the gods have a similar
We must then understand Miss Rand to be saying, not that theism is immoral, but that the attributing of envy to God is immoral. And with this I must heartily concur. If any religious belief is presented to us that attributes envy or malice to God, we must reject it out of hand. And of any system of religious beliefs that we consider, one of our first questions must be: what does it have to say about mans potential, and about the possibility of his achieving it, and how?
I here turn from the consideration of theism in general to the particular brand of theism which I judge to be correct: namely, traditional Christianity. On the one hand, Christians are told that, without God, man is a hopeless cripple, utterly helpless to achieve any good thing. On the other hand, they are told that no man need be without God unless he chooses to be, and that God does not merely prop us up and drag or shove us along the pathway to fulfillment. He enables us to walk it. His help is internal as well as external, not merely a helping hand or a crutch, but new life and vigor flowing along every vein and nerve. The specific Christian belief is that in one instance, God caused the Divine Mind and a particular human mind, that of Jesus of Nazareth, to be united in one person, so that the creative and life-giving energies of God might find expression in human form, and that, having done so in one man, they are now fitted to do so in all men. If anyone asks why, according to the Christians, God took human nature upon him in the person of Jesus, one short answer is: In order to expand the concept Man. In order to change the answer to the question, What is Man capable of? God undertook to share our nature, say the traditional Christian scholars, in order that we might share in
Someone may complain that, although this looks like a promise that we will attain the highest possible, it isnt, really, because we do not do it on our own, but only through Gods power at work in us, and so we are not really achieving anything. There is a story about a clergyman who was playing gold, and putted a ball which seemed to come to a complete stop just an inch or so from the rim of the cup. Then, to the surprise of the onlookers, it slowly rolled in. The cleric looked upwards with an annoyed expression and said, Father, please! Id rather do it myself! And this seems to be the attitude of some critics. I suggest that if they take it consistently, and not just when talking about God, they will doom themselves to permanent dissatisfaction on any hypothesis. Our lives are incurably derivative. There is no man who does not need to confess an incalculable debt to his parents, to his teachers, to great geniuses. He owes to others both the quality of his life and the mere brute fact of it. And no one has been more explicit in pointing this out to the public, or more generous in acknowledging her own indebtedness, than Miss
And if anyone says that such debts are different that it is not degrading to be indebted to a fellow human, then let him consider the courtesy of God in arranging that it should be precisely to a fellow human that we owe the opportunity of achieving the highest conceivable goal.
We see, then, that the reason Miss Rand gives for rejecting theism turns out upon closer examination to be in fact a reason for rejecting some possible kinds of theism those that fail a certain test, and that at least one kind of theism, namely Christianity (the only kind of theism we have examined in this section), passes the test with
[Editors notes are in blue. Readers who prefer to ignore the links in the text and follow the notes on a separate page, may open a separate page with the references here.]
 A. Rand, The Age of Envy 10/7/7b [References of this form refer to The Objectivist Newsletter, or (after 1964) The Objectivist, in this case,
MM... a man of achievement ... does not judge himself or others by a comparative standard. His attitude is not: "I am better than you, but: I am good.
AS [Atlas Shrugged] 93ww-94A [hardback]
WIAR 72 [Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, Who Is Ayn Rand?; the reference is to the paperback edition (Paperback Library, 1964). The parallel reference in the hardback (Random House, 1962) is
N. Branden, The Psychology of
AS 339mm-nn (358q-qq)
MMShe felt the wish to find a moments joy outside, the wish to be held as a passive spectator by some work or sight of greatness. Not to make it, she thought, but to accept; not to begin, but to respond; not to create, but to admire; I need it to let me go on, she thought, because joy is ones fuel.
MMShe had always been ... the motive power of her own happiness. For once, she wanted to feel herself carried by the power of someone elses achievement. As men on a dark prairie liked to see the lighted windows of a train going past, her achievement, the sight of power and purpose that gave them reassurance in the midst of empty miles and night so she wanted to feel it for a moment, a brief greeting, a single glimpse, just to wave her arm and say: Someone is going somewhere....
AS 360qq-uu (381 ll-pp)
AS 66y-z (63c-d)
AS 426ff, mm-ss (453a, h-m)
MMEnvy is not the emotion I have in mind, but it is the clearest manifestation of an emotion that has remained nameless; it is the only element of a complex emotional sum that men have permitted themselves to identify....
MMThat emotion is: hatred of the good for being good....
MMIf a man regards intelligence as a value, but is troubled by self-doubt and begins to hate the men he judges to be intelligent, that is hatred of the good....
MMIt does not desire the value: it desires the values destruction.
A. Rand, The Age of Envy 10/8/1c
AS 334bb-cc, oo, qq-yy (353p-q, aa, dd-kk)
AS 675a-h (725ii-pp)
FH 281-2 [The Fountainhead; page number is to the 1971 Signet reprint.]
MMIn primitive cultures (and even in ancient Greece) the appeasement [of evil] took the form of the belief that the gods resent human happiness or success, because these are the prerogatives of the gods to which men must not aspire. Hence the superstitious fear of acknowledging ones good fortune....
MMMen create gods and demons in their own likeness; mystic fantasies, as a rule, are invented to explain some phenomenon for which men find no explanation. The notion of gods who are so malicious that they wish men to live in chronic misery, would not be conceived or believed unless men sensed all around them the presence of some inexplicable malevolence directed specifically at their personal happiness.  St. Irenaeus (180), Adversus Haereses, 4:38:1 (p. 76)
MM[In this and the citations immediately following, the number in parenthesis after a writers name gives the approximate year of his writing, and he page number at the end gives the page in Henry Bettensons Early Christian Fathers. (???) [Oxford University
MMThere is one God, who by his Word and Wisdom made and ordered all things.... His Word is our Lord Jesus Christ who in these last times became man among men, that we might unite the end with the beginning, that is, Man with God. ...that man, taking to himself the Spirit of God, should pass to the glory of the Father.
MMSt. Iraenaeus (180), Adversus
MMOur Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is.
MMOrigen (240), De Principiis, 3:4:1 (p. 193) [p. 273]
MMThe fact that after God has said, Let us make man in our image and likeness, the narrator goes on to say, In the image of God he made him and is silent about the likeness (Gen 1:2627), indicates just this: that in his first creation man received the dignity of the image of God, but the fulfillment of the likeness is reserved for the final consummation; that is, that he himself should appropriate it by the eagerness of his own efforts, through the imitation of God having the possibility of perfection given him at the beginning by the dignity of the image, and then in the end, through the fulfillment of his works, should bring to perfect consummation the likeness of God.
MMOrigen (240), Contra
MM... from Jesus began a weaving together of the divine and human nature in order that human nature, through fellowship with what is more divine, might become divine, not only in Jesus but also in all those who, besides believing in Jesus, take up the life which he taught; the life which leads everyone who lives according to the precepts of Jesus to friendship with God and fellowship with him.
MMSt. Athanasius (330), Contra
MMFor as Christ died and was exalted as man, so, as man, he is said to receive what, as God, he always had, in order that this great gift might extend to us. For the Word was not degraded by receiving a body, so that he should seek to receive Gods gift. Rather he deified what he put on; and more than that, he bestowed this gift upon the race of man.
MMSt. Athanasius (330), Contra
MMHe assumed a created human body, that, having renewed it as its creator, he might deify it in himself, and thus bring us all into the kingdom through our likeness to him.... For it was for this reason that the conjunction was of this kind, that he might join him who by nature was man to him who naturally belonged to the godhead, that his salvation and deification might be sure.
MMIn the Roman Catholic Mass (traditional Latin rite), the priest adds a few drops of water to a chalice full of wine, so that the water mingles and in effect becomes wine (since not enough is added to dilute the wine appreciably) and says:
MMO God, by whom the worth of our human nature was wondrously fashioned, and refashioned more wondrously still, grant us, through this water-mingled-with-wine, to be partakers of his Godhead who was courteous enough to share our Manhood.  A. Rand, Introduction to The Romantic
MMMankind moved forward by the grace of those human bridges who are able to grasp and transmit, across the years or centuries, the achievement men had reached and to carry them further. Thomas Aquinas is one illustrious example; he was the bridge between Aristotle and the Renaissance....
MMSpeaking only of the pattern, with no presumptuous comparison of stature intended, I am a bridge of that kind....
MMA. Rand, Apollo 11 8/9/9e [September 1969]
MMThe astronaut ... who remarked that his spacecraft was driven by Sir Isaac Newton, understood this issue. (And if I may be permitted to amend that remark, I would say that Sir Isaac Newton was the copilot of the flight; the pilot was Aristotle.)
MMA. Rand, The Nature of Government 2/12/45g
MMMan is the only species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; the knowledge potentially available to man is greater than any one man could begin to acquire in his own lifespan; every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others.
MMAS 387kk-mm (410oo-qq) and
MMTry to grow a seed of wheat without the knowledge left to you by the men who had to discover it for the first
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