THE HERO CYCLE IN OBJECTIVISM*
(* DISCLAIMER: I have come to distance myself from some of the conclusions of this article, which was written as a sequel to "The Trickster Archetype and Objectivism" (Originally published as "The Trickster Icon and Objectivism" in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies,Volume 3, No. 2 - Spring 2002.) This, and that article, were written to expand on pre-existing essays from Objectivist sources on the nature of heroism as it relates to Jungian ideas, which I found to only scratch the surface. I particularly reject the analysis of Ayn Rand as a dogmatic figurehead and Objectivism as fascist, comparisons based on the depictions of Rand in the biographies written by the Brandens). However, where I diverge from my original conclusions about the implications of Ayn Rand and the attempt to reconcile her philosophy with that of classical mythology, I believe the research to be solid and useful for future researchers on the topic. There is merit in this piece, particularly the research on Rand's childhood hero, Cyrus, the comparisons of the concept of self and ego between Rand and others such as Jung and Nietzsche, and the comparison of classical versus American hero myths, and Rand's preference towards the latter. I would like to rewrite this one day, but it is offered here for archival purposes as well for comparative purposes; I would like to compare it specifically to Andrew Bernstein's "The Philosophical Basis of Heroism," which does not consider the Jungian/Campbell tradition, yet offers a stronger approach to heroism without the pitfalls of the classical theory. For now, however, I offer it as it originally appeared, and not indicative of my reconsidered position towards Rand and her concepts of heroism, which can be gleamed from my piece "The Incredible Revolution" [based on the movie The Incredibles, and written as a rebuttal of this piece], and my writings on heroism blog, Superhero Babylon.)
"What I felt for Cyrus, then, is the essence of what I feel for all my heroes, for all my values…After Cyrus, 'ordinary people' interested me much less. I thought I would find my kind of people when I grew up." Ayn Rand.
There are two common criticisms circling the works of Ayn Rand. One is that it is juvenile, appealing primarily to adolescents; Objectivism is something they are expected to abandon upon maturity. The other criticism is that her philosophy and her personality contain elements of a fascist nature. These criticisms are shrugged off by Objectivists as vicious slurs, to intimidate those who would find inspiration in Rand's fiction, without much rational argument to back those claims. I would like to present an argument that intertwines both of these criticisms, and it revolves around Rand's celebration of the hero.
THE HERO CYCLE
The theme of hero worship is an integral part of Rand's writings, but she does not offer a simple definition of what a hero is. Common parlance defines a hero as "someone you look up to," or, someone who does something for the good of mankind. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English defines the etymology of "hero" as thus:
DEFINITION: To protect. 1. Extended form *serw-. conserve, observe, preserve, reserve, reservoir, from Latin servre, to keep, preserve. 2. Perhaps suffixed lengthened-grade form *sr-s-. hero, from Greek hrs, “protector,” hero. (Pokorny 2. ser- 910.)
To gain a better understanding of Rand's celebration of heroism, one needs only to look at the archetypal hero cycle that appears in much of the world's myths and religions. These heroic tales, supposedly arising spontaneously in different parts of the world by unrelated cultures, incorporate the same archetypal features, most importantly as a metaphor of individuation and ego development.
As Joseph Campbell defines it, "The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear monomyth. " Campbell elaborates:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces that are encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (30)
Anthropologist Paul Radin defines the hero cycle this way:
"These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them the more one sees that structurally they are very similar…. Over and over again one hears a tale describing a hero's miraculous but humble birth, his early proof of superhuman strength, his rapid rise to prominence or power, his triumphant struggle with the forces of evil, his fallibility to the sin of pride (hybris), and his fall through betrayal or a 'heroic' sacrifice that ends in his death." (101)
Radin offers a description of the Hero Cycle that summarizes Rand's usage of the archetype nicely. He claims that "it represents our efforts to deal with the problem of growing up, aided by the illusion of an eternal fiction." (103) Rand was aware of the ability to use fiction to serve as guidance, as noted that fiction could "show" as opposed to "tell", to make an abstract concept concrete. She was fond of quoting Aristotle's assertion that fiction was more important that history, since history shows what is, and fiction shows what might or ought to be.
Radin points out a key hallmark of the hero cycle, the mentor who starts the hero on his quest, usually represented by the wise old sage or wizard: "Another important characteristic of the hero myth…the early weaknesses of the hero is balanced by the appearance of strong "tutelary figures" or guardians who enable him to perform the superhuman tasks that he cannot accomplish unaided." (101) He adds,
These godlike figures are in fact symbolic representations of the whole psyche, the larger and more comprehensive identity that supplies the strength that the personal ego lacks. Their special role suggests that that the essential function of the heroic myth is the development of his own strengths and weaknesses in a manner that will equip him for the arduous tasks with which life confront him. (101-102)
Such a relationship is visible between Howard Roark and his mentor, Henry Cameron, as well as John Galt and Hugh Akston. Roark, in the beginning, cannot understand people, though he intuitively avoids the pitfalls, and works in a Zen-like manner, not necessarily self-conscious of the things he does. However, as Rand writes in The Romantic Manifesto, one's sense of life cannot sustain one for long; hence the tutelage of Cameron to Roark. Throughout the story, Roark becomes more self-conscious, which mirrors Rand's own psychological development. As she rejects Nietzsche, and develops the character of Roark, her philosophy evolves through the character of Galt in Atlas Shrugged who represents the rational, self-conscious, ideal man. For example, consider this quote from Campbell:
"The composite hero of the monomyth is the personage of exceptional gifts. Frequently his is honored by his society, frequently unrecognized or disdained. He and/or the world in which he finds himself suffering from a symbolical deficiency. In fairy tales this may be as slight as the lack of a certain gold ring, whereas in apocalyptic vision the physical and spiritual life of the whole earth can be represented as fallen, or on the point of falling, into ruin." (37)James Hillman places the hero in the past: " the hero was actually an underworld figure, known only in his…burial mound, which attached him to a definite place, so that the cult of the hero was a reminiscence of imaginative struggles, [note: this is interesting in comparison to Rand's claim that the heroes she wrote of did exist] a memorial mode of being founded and located and carried through the vicissitudes of life." (110-111)
Anyone familiar with Rand's work can see in that statement the resentment against Equality, John Galt and Howard Roark as they strive against the masses; the suffering of Dagny Taggart, Dominiqe Francon, and Hank Reardon as they discover their sense of self, to integrate their hearts and minds; the loss and discovery of the electric light in the dystopia of Anthem, and the ravaged Soviet Union of We the Living, and the "new world order" of Atlas Shrugged.
But perhaps the most important feature of the hero cycle as it relates to Objectivism is the development of the hero's consciousness, his ego.
Rand understood the importance of the need for heroes in personal development. More explicitly, she connected the concept of heroism with egoism. She defended the concept of the hero when it was under attack in literary and philosophical circles. This was a time of antiheroes. The concept of heroism was under attack for being unrealistic, impossible to realize; heroes were ridiculed for being always successful, or too powerful, or wooden. But most such criticisms, according to Rand, missed the point. For her, heroism was not about the high tech gadgets, or superpowers. It is about the formation of the individual, individuation from the unconscious to consciousness. Not journeys of outer space, but of inner space.
But how did Rand come to use the hero cycle? She certainly wasn't the first, even though her particular version may have been unique. Is it possible that is Rand was never exposed to the literature of her childhood, that she would still have formed her heroes, albeit in a different manner? A study into the archetypal form of the hero would reveal the answer to be "yes."
THE GENESIS OF THE RANDIAN HERO CYCLE:
Before we trace Rand's literary influences, we should ask what caused her to respond to the hero archetype in the first place. It is no coincidence, nor arbitrary, that Rand used the models that she did; though her use of the hero cycle had her own personal stamp, which involves her experiences and cultural background, the archetypal form remains. As Jung writes, "If I have any share in these discoveries, it consists in my having shown that archetypes are not disseminated only by tradition, language, and migration, but that they can arise spontaneously, at any time, at any place, and without any outside influence." (78-79)
(Rand would not approve of Jung's Platonic and Kantian influenced ideas, but ironically, she herself admits that such ideas have a place in literature. Using morality plays as an example, she writes in The Art of Fiction that the characters of such stories "do not represent characteristics [as in Romantic Fiction]; they represent the abstractions themselves as kind of Platonic archetype. This is a crude dramatic form, but legitimate if the symbolism is made clear." (173) For a full critique of Rand's idea of the mind as tabula rasa, see Ryan 2003.)
Rand rejected the idea of innate concepts, but no matter how original she claimed to be, she had no choice but to use the same form of storytelling that religion and mythologies have used throughout history. Regardless of whether it was Platonic or not, she had no choice to use it because it is the psyche's expression of its individuation process, the development of the ego.
But like the words capitalism and selfishness, Rand's definition of the word ego differed form the commonly accepted usage. This would have an effect on her particular use of the hero cycle, and lead to accusations, despite her belief in the non-initiation of force, of fascism.
If Rand didn't believe in innate concepts, she certainly wouldn't support the idea of the ego's submission to a larger whole. However, Rand had her own definition of ego that becomes confusing in this context, which led some critics to label her a fascist. If Jung is right, and the hero archetype is innate, this could mean that, besides being wrong about the mind being tabula rasa, that Rand's version of the hero cycle is incomplete because Rand would have wrongly defined ego as self. But before that can be said, it is necessary to examine her usage of the word ego.
EGO: PROBLEMS OF DEFINITION
The criticism that Rand's work primarily appeals to adolescents stems from her celebration of the ego. This is perhaps most explicit in Anthem, where the plot revolves around the re-discovery of the word "I." Rand was aware of the link between heroism and its crucial significance in the psychological development of the individual. The role of ego in the formation of the self is also a crucial aspect of the hero cycle, as both "Jungian" psychology and Objectivism stress. Both defend the ego against its negative connotations in common usage. As Objectivist Leonard Piekoff states,
"…[E]goism has been advocated through the centuries mainly by subjectivists. The result is several corrupt versions of egoism, which most people now regard as the self-evident meaning of the concept…Objectivism uphold objectivity and therefore rejects all these versions…. We reject the notion that selfishness means 'doing what you feel like doing.'"
Jungian analysists would agree. As Mary Ann Matoon states, "The ego of Jungian psychology should not be confused with the ego of common parlance. The latter, often is used to denote selfishness or conceit is used to mean 'egocentric' or 'big ego.' However, such an ego is not big; rather it is underdeveloped, insecure, and in need of protection .The healthy ego of which Jung wrote does not need protection; it can tolerate criticism from other people as well as from within." (25) According to William Doty, "Within the Jungian system there is a strong emphasis upon individuation, the process by which selfhood is attained by an individual. The transpersonal or archetypal self is considered to be manifested though an individual, and there is a strong bias toward the attainment of an integrated and creative individuality…". (209) In addition, Robert A. Segal writes that for Jungians, "the key feat of the first half of life is the establishment of a measure of independence from the unconscious."(29) Compare this to Peikoff 's take on Rand's use of ego:" Each individual must choose his values and actions by the standards of man's life in order to achieve the purpose of maintaining and enjoying his own life. Thus Objectivism advocates egoism-the pursuit of self-interest-the policy of selfishness." (230)
But a problem arises when comparing Jung and Rand's usage of the word ego. Both thinkers affirm the ego, but Jung saw it as part of a larger whole, the Self, while Rand identifies it as the Self. In Nathaniel Branden's words,
" A man's ego is his mind, his faculty of awareness, his ability to think-the faculty that perceives reality, preserves the inner continuity of his own existence, and generates his sense of personal identity. 'Ego' and 'mind' denote the same fact of reality, the same attributes of man; the difference, in the use of these terms pertains to an issue of perspective: I use the term 'ego' to designate man's power of awareness as he experiences it." (159)
Branden identifies the ego as awareness and thought, but does not mention here the relation of the ego to the rest of the psyche, or what is often termed the unconscious or subconscious, suggesting that it is the whole of the self. His next statement confirms this: "Any threat to man's ego -anything which he experiences as a danger to his mind's efficacy and control -is a potential source of pathological anxiety. The pain of this anxiety is the most terrible that man can know -because the value at stake is, necessarily, the most crucial of all his values. (159)
This, Jung might say, is the source of ego inflation which cause the hero to become tyrannical, creating a need for the hero to be sacrificed. According to Jung, the ego that sees itself as the whole self runs the risk of inflation with its own importance. When this happens, the hero often replaces the former tyrant with his own variant of tyranny. He usually starts out with good intentions; the hero acts as a benevolent benefactor who knows best for the community. But when the populace doesn't act in the manner that he thinks they should, he decides that it is in their best interest to make the decisions for them. So, the cycle of tyranny continues.
This would normally be the part of the hero cycle where a new hero arises, which usually results in the downfall or the redemption of the former hero. If the former hero is not slayed, he is otherwise sacrificed. But this is not a sacrifice in an altruistic sense, for the heroic sacrifice signifies the submission of the ego to the larger realm of the Self, of which the ego is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Segal writes that "The feat of the second half [of the hero cycle] is, almost paradoxically, the restoration of contact with the unconscious." (29) But Rand's fiction does not include this aspect. As Joseph Campbell states, "If one or another of the basic elements of the archetypal pattern is omitted from a given fairy tale, legend, ritual, or myth, it is bound to be somehow or other implied-and the omission itself can speak volumes for history and pathology of the example…". (38) A study of Rand's literary and political influences can shed light on the significance of this omission, which will raise many questions on the feasibility of Objectivism.
RAND'S LITERARY ARCHETYPES
Whether or not archetypal heroes come to us through the collective unconscious or through cultural means, Rand certainly drew on them. But if Jung were wrong about the origins of the hero archetype being unconscious inheritance, where would Rand have acquired it? Despite Rand's insistence that she owed little debt to other writers, she drew from a range of characters that influenced her own. Though an atheist, Rand was familiar with religious icons, and she often referred to, and inverted in the process, many religious themes, including the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, her use of the word anthem, and the crucifixion of Christ. In celebrating the word ego, Rand is depicted by Objectivists as being one of the few writers to do so in a positive light and that most other philosophers aim to destroy the ego in the name of religion, mysticism, and altruism. While that may be the case in many examples,there are exceptions. Much of Rand's arguments are against distortions of original concepts, not the original concepts themselves. Many religions and myths actually affirm the ego, in ways that parallel Rand's.
(Note: For example, the words religion and mystical themselves have been distorted, which led Rand to condemn the concepts a bit unfairly. Religion translates as "re-yoking" or re-linking"; usually referring to the linking of the individual to a greater power. Though Rand may have disagreed with most formal religions in their goals and methods, her own work could be considered religious, if we consider her penchant for integration and non-duality. And mysticism, far from being irrational or non-objective, refers to the particular form of religion. Mystical religions are usually introverted and individual oriented, as opposed to prophetic religions, which are usually extraverted and orientated towards the salvation of the external world. Using this criteria, The Fountainhead could be consider "mystic" in the individual, almost Zen-like journey of Howard Roark, and Atlas Shrugged demonstrates Rand's prophetic tendencies through the crusade of John Galt to "destroy the motor of the world," only to recreate the world in his own (that is, Rand's) image. So even though Rand sought to "challenge two-thousand years of Christianity," she was influenced by religious ideas, and incorporated inverted versions into her own work.)
Rand was familiar with many classical myths, mainly those of French and Greek origins. And many of her childhood heroes are traceable back to these tales of antiquity. For example, her cherished hero Cyrus, from a French boy's magazine serial called, The Mysterious Valley, has his origins in a Jules Vernes story called The Mysterious Island. Vernes' "Cyrus" was in turn influenced by the Persian hero myth of Cyrus the Great.
Though Rand was dismissive of Russian folk tales, she was, at least, exposed to them, and her awareness of them may have influenced her, at least subconsciously. Russian scholar Vladimir Propp, who was one of the earliest scholars to identify the heroic archetypal pattern, found many of what he called "the thirty-eight points," in many Russian fairy tales. Most follow the basic hero archetype, with a notable exception: where in other stories, the hero's hubris leads to a downfall, or sacrifice, the Russian tale usually involves the hero living "happily ever after." This was a major hallmark of Rand's fiction, and her philosophy in general.
Although Rand was surely exposed to the Russian fairy tales, she emphatically rejected them in favor of foreign fiction. As much as Rand may have been influenced by the old myths, she found then lacking in ethical content, and looked elsewhere to find tales that most reflected her own views. She found it in the stories of her adopted homeland, America.