Exclusive Interviews
Nathaniel Branden on Ayn Rand, Her Philosophy and the Psychology of Self-Esteem
By Anthony Wile - December 13, 2009

Introduction: Dr. Branden is a practicing psychotherapist in Los Angeles and also does corporate consulting. Dr. Branden offers workshops, seminars, and conferences on applying self-esteem principles to the problems of modern business. He addresses the relationship between self-esteem and such issues as leadership, effective communication, and managing change. Dr. Branden has a PhD in psychology and a background in philosophy and has written 20 books, which have been translated into 18 languages. More than 4 million copies are in print, including the classic The Psychology of Self-Esteem, originally published in 1969. In it, he explains the need for self-esteem, the nature of that need, and how self-esteem-or lack of it-affects our values, responses, and goals. His many books include Honoring the Self, The Six Pillars of Self-esteem, The Art of Living Consciously, and a personal memoir, My Years with Ayn Rand. Many of his books have been translated in to foreign languages, and worldwide have sold over 4 million copies. His most recent book, Self-esteem at Work, deals with the application of his work in the field of self-esteem to the challenges of business in an information age economy.

Daily Bell: It's an honor to interview you. We know you have written on many of these subjects, but our readers may not. Please feel free to give us article and book citations as you go, if you wish. Please start with an explanation of objectivism as Ayn Rand wanted it to be understood. Why is it called objectivism?

Nathaniel Branden: She wanted to stress that, rationally understood, knowledge is objective, meaning not effected by wishes or fears. Ethically she wanted to stress that a rational code of morality was possible and objectively demonstrable.

Daily Bell: Can you describe your background, how you met Ayn Rand and what she was like as an individual? As a philosopher?

Nathaniel Branden: The answer to this question, which is very complex, I suggest you read or re-read My Years With Ayn Rand. What was she like? Like nothing you ever dreamed of.

Daily Bell: Can you describe what she was like at the peak of her powers and why you were so attracted to her and her thought?

Nathaniel Branden: She had a powerful intellect beyond my power to communicate. I can't remember where but I know that somewhere I described her as a sorceress of reason.

Daily Bell: Can you describe how your ardor waned and why you were eventually excommunicated?

Nathaniel Branden: The answer to both your questions is that I fell in love with another woman.

Daily Bell: What are your differences with Randian thought today and how have they evolved?

Nathaniel Branden: In my website, Nathanielbranden.com, there is an essay entitled "Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand." It answers this question in depth. There is a bias against emotion to mention only one example in passing. Another is the fact that Rand treats compassion, kindness, empathy as morally marginal. I disagree with her. I think they are enormously significant in a pro-life code of ethics.

Daily Bell: You've had a great deal of success. Please explain the success of your own writings and the impact of your views on the profession of psychology.

Nathaniel Branden: Well, first of all, I am a good writer. And also I write with considerable sensitivity to the issues that concern us at 3:00 in the morning.

Daily Bell: Why is self-esteem crucial to psychological health, and how did Rand encourage it?

Nathaniel Branden: Self-esteem is important because it influences the choices we make for good or for bad. I can't say that in her personal life Rand did much to nurture anyone's self-esteem. She was a very judgmental person, and proud of it, but she was a very poor psychologist.

Daily Bell: You are a libertarian (if an unenthusiastic one) whereas Rand's famous disciple Leonard Peikoff believes, apparently, in a pro-active, overseas, state-run military. How does Peikoff square an aggressive military endeavor like those managed by the American Pentagon (with 1,000 overseas bases) with Randian thought?

Nathaniel Branden: I am not a student of the writings of Leonard Peikoff. Viewed from my context, he is not a serious thinker.

Daily Bell: How come Rand's books are such a success, even today? What chord do they touch? Is it philosophical? (If so, she must be among the most successful philosophers ever to have lived.)

Nathaniel Branden: She has advanced a very powerful and inspiring vision of human life "as it might be and ought to be."

Daily Bell: Why did Ayn Rand consider charity to be misguided, or at least not admirable – or is this somehow a mischaracterization of her views?

Nathaniel Branden: It is not a mis-characterization, it's a big mistake on Rand's part. She wanted the reader to understand that we have the right to live for our own sake, without shame or guilt. She was also aware how common it is to make altruism the moral underpinning of dictatorship. She held that teaching "others above self" is evil. People don't understand that altruism means others above self and that self-sacrifice is our highest virtue. It s not just about helping an old lady across the street.

Daily Bell: You believe Rand's philosophy to be open, while Piekoff believes it to be closed. Can you explain briefly the ramifications of these two points of view?

Nathaniel Branden: The view that objectivism is a closed system means that only what Rand wrote and others wrote with Ayn's knowledge and approval can call the ideas "objectivism." Obviously Rand did not consider herself an advocate of a closed system because, in an interview, she spoke of future writers who would carry the idea forward, who would see new connections and new applications and further flesh out Objectivism. An open system shares that vision.

Daily Bell: Explain more precisely, if you don't mind, how your thought has evolved regarding Rand. Can she be said to be an economist, a free-market philosopher, a novelist, or all three – and more?

Nathaniel Branden: She was a novelist and a philosopher. She was not the other things you mentioned.

Daily Bell: We occasionally have some trouble with Rand's thought and her model of society and "great men." It seems to us that many large corporate endeavors are led in some sense by bureaucratic mediocrities who would never go on strike so long as their stock options stay up. Was her view of capitalism in this regard frankly romantic?

Nathaniel Branden: It seems that in all the novels written about businessmen, the characters are criminals or scoundrels. In contrast, Rand wanted to show business men at their best. The situation in Atlas Shrugged is very much like our world today. In Atlas, the villains are criminal politicians and criminal businessmen. James Taggart would not be invited to go on strike and join a noble cause.

Daily Bell: Do you subscribe to the Austrian free-market school? Rand did in part, we believe, though she had numerous arguments with Ludwig von Mises, did she not?

Nathaniel Branden: Rand disagreed with Mises, as best I remember, not about economics but about ethics and epistemology.

Daily Bell: Is there a monetary elite in your opinion, a coterie of wealth and powerful families and individuals that attempt to manipulate world events for purposes of eventual globalization? Did Rand ever speak of this? How would she have reacted to this frankly "conspiratorial" approach to history and sociopolitical perspectives?

Branden: I don't think she would regard this as anything but a Far Left fantasy. That's how I regard the comment.

Daily Bell: There is a subterranean school of thought that holds that Rand ended up being endorsed by the monetary elite itself – as they were not opposed to her "great man" vision of society. Is there any truth to this or is it merely a conspiratorial rambling?

Branden: Your last sentence says it perfectly.

Daily Bell: Murray Rothbard ended up characterizing Rand's philosophy as a "cult." Can you explain why he did, and why, perhaps, he was wrong?

Branden: Philosophy can't be cults; only people can be cults. That aside, if this subject interests you, then read My Years With Ayn Rand.

Daily Bell: Can you, please, summarize for readers any recommendations you have regarding your work and Ayn Rand's – books and articles that are especially important for those who want to understand two of the most productive and interesting minds of the 20th (and in your case the 21st) century?

Branden: Although this was not in my mind when I was writing The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, many people convey to me that this book provided what was needed for objectivism.

Rand provided hardly a word for how to develop in a more rational and benevolent way. This was the missing link in Objectivism. I am not suggesting that even now there is everything we need to learn about how to evolve to a higher level of being, but I do think that I provided a few steps in that direction.

Daily Bell: Thank you for your time, Mr. Branden and for your courtesy is answering some fairly "tough" questions about Ayn Rand and the objectivist movement.

After Thoughts

We thank Dr. Branden for the interview above, while noting the almost predictable brevity of some of his answers. We anticipated this because Dr. Branden is a prolific author who has written many books and essays and also, of course, has been asked some of the questions we asked him literally a thousands times. Nonetheless, we are not sure how to conduct an interview – especially for our audience – without asking such questions and thus we did.

Anyway … the answers, even the brief ones, do a service in our opinion to illuminate the rather murky puzzle of how Randian thought fits with the overarching free-market conversation that is Austrian economics, especially as enunciated by the greatest 20th century exponent Ludwig von Mises, whom Rand knew well.

Now, it would be easy (or difficult) to get into a long analysis of Ayn Rand's philosophy especially as it interacts with the economic thought of Ludwig von Mises. While we do believe there were some economic issues that came between them – and from what we have read the relationship was not impeccably cordial – Dr. Branden has provided in an abbreviated fashion a pertinent and focused overview of critical issues.

What is the major issue? The insight on which he has to some degree built his career and that from our point of view does not necessarily complement Austrian economic perspectives has to do with Rand's insistence that charity and private generosity is not necessarily moral and is in fact from her point of view immoral. She wished to celebrate one's focus on private achievement (within the ambit of pertinent self-fulfillment) as the natural corrective and this is a significant aspect of her thought.

The Austrian economic doctrine as enunciated by Mises – especially in his great work Human Action – is not nearly so judgmental. Mises perspective was that human action itself was an over-arching force that defied all attempts at bureaucratic organization or government planning. People themselves are capable of corrective action, which is why government planning simply does not work. Every crisis foreseen by government, every planning measure is bound to prove inaccurate because people will doubtless change their behaviors before the difficulties are realized.

We think Mises formulation of human action, building of course on past Austrian insights, is incredibly profound. He made no hard-and-fast judgments from what we can tell as to a specific MORALITY of human action – for he was interested in the economics. Indeed, his thought included implicitly the necessity for a morality, but, again, unlike Rand, he did not postulate a single over-arching moral behavior.

This is why offer the tentative conclusion (subject to revision!) that Rand, in our humble opinion, was perhaps more successful as a novelist than as a philosopher and why Mises, who, perhaps, saw himself more as an economist than philosopher, fashioned a deeply philosophical and generous vision. Yes, for us, in some ways, it seems that Mises succeeds philosophically through the profound and generous statement that is Human Action. Rand, despite the virtues and iconoclasm of Objectivism, succeeds (in some ways) more powerfully as an artist.

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