Howard Roark: The Fountainhead
Offered by Andy Joppa
“The crowd would have forgiven anything, except a man who could remain normal under the vibrations of its enormous collective sneer.”
― Ayn Rand
What follows is an extract from Ayn Rand’s tome, The Fountainhead, circa 1943. It is not light reading and must actually be read…not scanned. Its ideas are subtle and complex. Preconceived notions as to her meaning will not serve the purpose of understanding. Now, over 75 years later, we are witnessing the result of the failure to understand and/or accept the prescience that this giant, perhaps THE philosophic giant of the twentieth century, made available to us. As you read her words consider their direct applicability to America, 2020. I have presented these thoughts before…but their significance now is so dramatic in their implication, that they need a place in our current debates. (Make allowances for the male designators as they were those most commonly used in 1943)
In the basic plot of this novel, Howard Roark, an architect, has been commissioned to design a cost-effective, low-rent housing project called the Cortlandt Homes. His only agreed on compensation is that the project be built exactly as he specifies. They fail to do so. Roark, since he was not paid as agreed, dynamites and destroys Cortlandt Homes, thus withdrawing his contribution. What follows are extracts from Roark’s words offered in his own defense at the trial that followed. If you haven’t read them in a while, or at all, they are worth your time…even if only in part (highlights are mine).
Howard Roark is standing in a courtroom, offering this statement in his defense:
Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire then the wheel. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered a transgressor who ventured into forbidden territory. But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon. He had left them gifts they had not conceived, and he had opened the roads of the world.
The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered, and they paid. But they won.
Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons—a process of thought.
From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man—the function of his reasoning mind. But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. The primary act—the process of reason—must be performed by each man alone.
Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways—by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite living off the minds of others. The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.
The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed, or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary. The basic need of the second hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He declares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism. Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.
Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement. (My note: Rand here uses the word “shrug,” perhaps foreshadowing her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged)
The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner. He does not function through them. He is not concerned with them in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy, He does not exist for any other man—and he asks no other man to exist for him. This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men.
In all proper relationships there is no sacrifice of anyone to anyone. Men exchange their work by free, mutual consent to mutual advantage when their personal interests agree and they both desire the exchange. If they do not desire it, they are not forced-to deal with each other. This is the only possible form of relationship between equals. Anything else is a relation of slave to master, or victim to executioner.
Rulers of men are not egotists. They create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker, and the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter. But men were taught to regard second-handers—tyrants, emperors, dictators—as exponents of egotism. By this fraud they were made to destroy the ego, themselves and others. The purpose of the fraud was to destroy the creators. Or to harness them.
The creator—denied, opposed, persecuted, exploited—went on, moved forward, and carried all humanity along on his energy. The second hander contributed nothing to the process except the impediments. The contest has another name: the individual against the collective.
The ‘common good’ of a collective—a race, a class, a state-was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men. Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism? Does the fault lie in men’s hypocrisy or in the nature of the principle? The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere. They believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine and the firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was accepted that man must be sacrificed for other men.
Actors change, but the course of the tragedy remains the same. A humanitarian who starts with declarations of love for mankind and ends with a sea of blood. It goes on and will go on so long as men believe that an action is good if it is unselfish. That permits the altruist to act and forces his victims to bear it. The leaders of collectivist movements ask nothing for themselves. But observe the results. The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is—Hands off!
Now observe the results of a society built on the principle of individualism. This, our country; the noblest country in the history of men. The country of greatest achievement, greatest prosperity, greatest freedom. This country was not based on selfless service, sacrifice, or any precept of altruism. It was based on a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else’s. A private, personal, selfish motive. Look at the results. Look into your own conscience.
It is an ancient conflict. Men have come close to the truth, but it was destroyed each time and one civilization fell after another. Civilization is the progress toward a society ‘of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Now, in our age, collectivism, the rule of the second hander and second-rater, the ancient monster, has broken loose and is running amuck. It has brought men to a level of intellectual indecency never equaled on earth. It has reached a scale of horror without precedent. It has poisoned every mind. It has swallowed most of Europe. It is engulfing our country.”
I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need. I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.
I wished to come here and say that the integrity of a man’s creative work is of greater importance than any charitable endeavor. Those of you who do not understand this are the men who’re destroying the world. I wished to come here and state my terms. I do not care to exist on any others.
I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society.
“All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.”
― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead