Q: In your earlier lectures, you had many fascinating things to say about masculinity and femininity, and yet you barely touched on those concepts in The Psychology of Romantic Love. You wouldn’t consider addressing these concepts again in some future book?
Branden: I’ve learned never to say never, but I doubt it. Not that the issue doesn’t interest me; a lot of issues interest me. Right now a lot of research is being conducted in this area. Let’s wait and see what turns up.
I sometimes wish there could be a twenty-year moratorium on the words “masculinity” and “femininity,” and, during the same period, a far greater emphasis placed on self-acceptance. If we were all as honestly accepting of our natural inclinations as we knew how to be, without concern about cultural stereotypes of what was “appropriate,” I think we would see patterns of difference between males and females. I have strong opinions about what some of those patterns would be. But it would be interesting to let the evidence accumulate and speak for itself.
Many feminists, of course, have an agenda in this area, and wish on political principle to deny any significant differences between the sexes except the obvious physical ones. They want to insist it’s all a matter of culture and upbringing. I think reality is against them. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty wrong with traditional sex roles. However, I think it’s foolish to imagine that our physical differences do not result in any psychological differences, at least as tendencies.
As an interesting aside, a psychological study isolated a group of men and women who by their peers were judged to be highly creative individuals. They gave this group a battery of tests and what they found was that creative men tended to exhibit a high number of traits the world calls feminine, and that the women manifested a high number of the traits that the world calls masculine. That doesn’t mean that the men were effeminate and the women were butch. But they seemed to have more of the traits commonly associated with the opposite sex.
I have an explanation for this, which is the following: highly creative people are at least in some respects more independent than the average person; they are much more attentive to their internal signals, and because of this, they are less likely to block off or disown pieces of themselves that don’t fit cultural stereotypes.
Q: There’s a lot of talk in psychology about the difference between men and women’s attitude toward sex and relationships—that when a man is younger all he thinks about is “nailing” a girl and all the girl thinks about is getting married. This is quite a conflict! What would you say to teenagers about viewing their sex lives, and understanding the other sex’s very different goals?
Branden: If we were more accepting of our own sexuality, and the sexuality of the opposite gender, I don’t think we so readily fall into adversarial postures. I think we could be more open and honest about our feelings.
I suspect we should not be so prone to treat each other as “objects.” Males tend to treat females as sex objects and females tend to treat males as success objects (to borrow a phrase from my friend Warren Farrell, author of a marvelous book on this subject, The Myth of Male Power). Just as lots of men like to “nail” (using your word) sex objects, lots of women like to “nail” success objects. We don’t relate as human beings. Alienation from the self inevitably leads to alienation from the other.
Q: One area where we’ve seen some evolution in your views is the issue of homosexuality. How did you see homosexuality in the past, how do you see it today, and why?
Branden: Today it seems clear that there is more than one kind of homosexuality—by which I mean there is evidence that in some instances people are born with this orientation, whereas in other instances it is learned, acquired during the course of development, and in other instances still, it is situational, as with people in prisons. Different explanations are needed, rather than treating all cases as the same.
In the past I described homosexuality as a developmental problem, which I think it is sometimes, but not always, not necessarily, so I prefer to avoid generalizations. Until much more is understood than is understood at present, I prefer to say nothing on the subject, especially since this is a field in which I am not a specialist or expert.
The only exception I will make is that I am convinced it is a major error to treat homosexuality as a moral issue. If I ever implied or conveyed anything to the contrary, I profoundly regret it.
Q: You’ve also conveyed that Rand did her admirers a disservice by her own moralistic pronouncements about homosexuality. What’s your perspective on this?
Branden: By treating homosexuality as a moral problem, all that is accomplished is to fill people with guilt for something about which most of them can do nothing. Now in therapy, if someone comes to me and insists that he or she genuinely wants to change from a homosexual to a heterosexual orientation, sometimes I am able to help, without judging the client’s choice, one way or the other. However, if a homosexual wishes to work on other problems and does not raise the issue of sexual orientation as an issue, I do not try to change his or her mind.
Ayn had the habit, unfortunately, of flinging moral pronouncements about which she had no knowledge to support her verdicts. So did I, at times. Not a good idea.
Q: After one lives with bad habits for 20 years, how does one change? Your books suggest sentence-completion work, but that doesn’t seem to be a very complete technology.
Branden: I have never suggested that sentence-completion work alone is a complete technology, although often it is a powerful force for change, as many people have discovered. Apart from the clinical practice I get a good deal of mail from readers who do the sentence-completion exercises I recommend in my books, and they report electrifying changes.
But in addition I do many, many other things—from various forms of psychodrama, to working with subpersonalities, to guided fantasy, to techniques adapted from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, to working with the person’s energy system, to all kinds of homework assignments, and so forth. What I do is much too complex to explain in an interview.
Q: Among the various movements in psychology and therapy what do you think of the “Iron John” movement? I had a friend who went through it, and I was very impressed with the things he told me. I was intrigued by their techniques of destroying a man’s false pride and helping him find to whom he relinquished his masculinity.
Branden: I’ve never read or met Robert Bly (author of Iron John), and I know only a little about the work he does. I can’t say it strikes much resonance in me but I do know men who find it enormously helpful, and I don’t dismiss that.
For many historical reasons, there’s great confusion today about what constitutes “masculinity” and “manhood.” Many of the old models no longer seem relevant. I see the issue as one of self-acceptance—forget social stereotypes. I’m convinced that if men have the courage to connect with the deepest parts of ourselves, they will discover their “masculinity,” just as women will discover their “femininity.”
Q: Do you think teenagers should experiment with sex or are they too immature to deal with such a complex issue, not to mention the problem of disease and pregnancy? At what age (generally) should a young person decide to have sex and under what conditions?
Branden: It’s not so much a matter of age as of psychological maturity. One can’t properly answer this question merely in terms of age.
The principle is, when people act, at any age, they need to know what they are doing, they need to operate consciously, and they need to be able and willing to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This clearly excludes girls who get pregnant at 14 and the boys who impregnate them. But let’s assume a young couple practices birth control. Even so, one couple of, say, 15 or 16 might be fully equipped emotionally to handle sexual intimacy while another couple will not.
We live in a time of great irresponsibility and one manifestation of the irresponsibility is children having children and getting themselves diseased and passing that disease to others. There is no such thing as sexual morality. There is only morality. There is living consciously or not consciously, living responsibly or not living responsibly.
Q: What would you say to a man who says: “I’m a nice guy and because I’m a nice guy women aren’t interested in me; they go for these guys who leave them hanging by the phone. They don’t find me exciting.”
Branden: As long as there are girls with cold or rejecting fathers, a certain type of rejecting man will always have sex appeal for those females. That’s one part of the story. Let’s call it the neurotic part.
But there is another part that is less understood. There’s a story I like to tell men who are not especially self-assertive.
Many years ago I became friendly with a woman who worked in the same building, and occasionally we’d bump into each other in the elevator, and we’d end up having lunch together. She was dating a friend of mine at the time. So one day over lunch I said how are you and so-and-so getting along, just to make conversation. And she said: “I’m actually thinking of ending the relationship.” I said: “Really, if it’s not an invasion of your privacy, do you feel like telling me why?” She said: “Well, it’s really odd; I’m a fairly experienced woman, and he is by far the best lover I have ever known, and he is in many ways a terrific man to be with.” So I said, knowing I was about to learn something very interesting, “Then why are you ending the relationship?” She sighed, and she looked at me, and said: “Nathaniel, he’s too eager to please.” And I understood everything.
In other words he had such a desire to be liked or approved that there wasn’t enough male animal self-assertiveness in the relationship. He could be a marvelous lover, or a marvelous escort, but was missing something that she legitimately wanted. I wouldn’t call that neurotic on her part.
Q: While granting that self-esteem deficits lead to many other psychological problems, do you insist that “all” psychological problems are rooted in a troubled self-esteem?
Branden: If you mean caused by troubled self-esteem, and by that alone, no. If you mean, do we always find troubled self-esteem in the background, contributing to the problem in some way, often in a very basic way, the answer is yes, if not always, then a great deal of the time.
What I will say now is simply this. It is easy to see that many problems are a clear expression of poor self-esteem, such as fear of self-assertiveness, a habit of making self-deprecating comments, fear of change, novelty, or challenge, plus a good deal of anxiety and depression (although not all). And it is easy to see that many other problems are defenses against poor self-esteem, such as grandiosity, seeking always to control others’ behavior, focusing on popularity or material acquisitions as proof of self-worth, a habitual policy of putting other people down in order to lift oneself up, and so forth.
But to say that we can trace most problems to a troubled self-esteem is not to say that no other causal factor is involved. I need to clarify this point still further in some future writing project.
Q: On the subject of responsibility, what do you think of the practice of an unhappily married couple staying together “for the sake of the children?” Where does responsibility end and self-sacrifice begin?
Branden: A simple, general answer is not easy. There is no question that children suffer from divorce. It is also true that they suffer when the parents are always fighting and unhappy. And certainly responsible parents have to think about the impact on the children of their choices and decision. When children are involved—especially young children—self-responsible adults act slowly, thoughtfully, and non-impulsively. Their thinking does not stop at, “Don’t I have a right to my self-interest?”
Objectivism certainly teaches that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. No one forces us to have children. If we elect to bring them into the world, we cannot walk away from our obligations to them merely because the obligations now feel inconvenient. But we also have a right to exist. And sometimes remaining in a marriage is so agonizing that we feel we must leave, if we are ever to have any kind of a life at all. I respect that right, too. So I do not condemn parents who break up a marriage, in spite of a possibly negative impact on the children.
What I cannot admire, however, is (a) parents who have children irresponsibly in the first place, (b) parents who walk away from a marriage without making every effort possible to save the situation, and (c) parents who do not think long and hard, and perhaps consults specialists, on how to minimize the suffering of children following the break-up.
There are three things never to do impulsively or mindlessly: get married; have children; get divorced. Of course, one shouldn’t do anything else mindlessly either.
Q: Leonard Peikoff said that it is all right to lie to someone if you think the truth is none of their business and is not owed to them. Do you agree? Is it ever morally permissible to lead someone astray with false information?
Branden: If you are being subjected to physical coercion or the threat of it, obviously you are morally free to lie to protect yourself and your possessions. We don’t owe honesty to someone pointing a gun at us.
When people ask questions that we perceive to be none of their business, it’s far better to refuse to discuss the issue than to lie. Better to point out, perhaps, that the question asked is none of the questioner’s legitimate business. Or to answer in a very general way that gives away nothing you don’t wish to give away. Sometimes nothing short of a lie will protect us, of course, and if the questioner truly has no right to ask what he or she is asking, I suppose a lie is defensible. But we are all on our honor here, because it is awfully easy to kid ourselves about what someone else does or does not have a right to ask.
What makes your question tricky, in part, is that you know, and I know, and many other people know—or at least we suspect—that Leonard developed this argument to legitimate Rand’s lying to everyone about her affair with me. She was demanding that Leonard and others in our circle damn me while withholding from them a vital piece of information that would help them understand what was really at issue. Once Rand asked her followers to damn Nathaniel Branden, she lost the right to claim that her full reasons and context were none of their business.
Not that she could always control herself. At the time of the explosion, in the summer of 1968, when my sister Florence met with Ayn and struggled to decide who to believe, she spent several hours in Ayn’s apartment while Ayn ridiculed the idea of an affair between us as absurd. But Florence persisted in her questioning, long after a loyal follower would have stopped—Florence was an admirer but not a true believer—and finally Ayn yelled that if I was the man I had pretended to be I would have been in love with her rather than with Patrecia. And then Florence knew that I had been telling her the truth.
Since Ayn insisted that she always took pride in her choices and actions, here was a chance to prove it. Why didn’t she repeat the statement she made to Florence, in the pages of The Objectivist? Why didn’t she say it to Leonard and the rest of our circle? Why didn’t she proudly assert her values and choices the way her heroes and heroines did? When I failed on this same account, it was properly regarded as a vice.
Q: At NBI someone asked if a person can be involved in two romantic relationships at the same time. You and Miss Rand replied that “Only giants can.” Considering the mess that the “giants” made, have you altered your view on this?
Branden: Today I would answer that people with a less grandiose view of themselves probably have a better chance of succeeding in such a project with some reasonable degree of sanity and balance. Ayn and I—who were operating totally out of reality—had no chance whatsoever. For further details about what is or is not possible in relationships, let me refer you to my Psychology of Romantic Love.
Q: Ayn Rand had a concept of the “ideal man” and she seems to have projected that concept first onto her husband and then later onto you—as if she could be in love with a man only if she perceived him as the embodiment of the “ideal,” irrespective of the man’s actual real-world traits. Is there a form of Platonism here?
Branden: Ayn one day admitted it to me, that if Frank had not looked as he did, she would never have fallen in love with him. Looks were terribly important to Ayn. I don’t mean that it’s wrong to care about looks. But Frank and Ayn were so profoundly different in so many ways. Whatever his virtues—and he did have virtues—I don’t think anyone can deny that he was passive, non-intellectual, non-assertive, and dependent.
Interestingly enough, it was Barbara who challenged me to look at Ayn realistically on this subject. One day, not long after the break, when I was trying to defend some aspect of Ayn’s behavior because of how hurt she was, Barbara said, “Nathan, be a psychologist. Look at Ayn as if she were a client in your office. She’s been in love with two men, and the first was passive and totally subordinate to her, and the second was a man, no matter what his strengths, twenty-five years her junior. What are the implications of that? Ayn needs to be in control. And look at how she behaves when she can’t be.” I was stopped dead in my tracks—because I saw that Barbara was right.
So, yes, Ayn did a lot of projecting, on Frank and on me, to justify and make sense of her feelings for each of us. There’s probably a little projecting in all relationships, but Ayn took projection into the stratosphere. She over-praised me many times. That was really harmful—and seductive. So long as I was “her” man, everything I did was “genius.” Very intoxicating to a young man.
Q: In Taking Responsibility, as well as in earlier writings, you acknowledge that destructive parenting can have a devastating impact on a young person’s development. In light of this, if one has a wounded or underdeveloped self-esteem, is it fair to regard oneself as immoral?
Branden: This is an important issue. Let me take my time with this. I will begin with an observation that virtually every psychologist would agree with: a person who thinks of himself or herself as “immoral” is likely to turn that judgment into a self-fulfilling prophecy, by engaging in behaviors that are immoral. That is why we warn parents against labeling children. In the immortal words of child psychologist Haim Ginott, “Labeling is disabling.” Label a child as stupid, or sloppy, or incompetent—and watch the child go out to prove you’re right.
If a client wants to tell me that, in retrospect, he now perceives something he or she once did as immoral, I do not challenge that, assuming it makes sense to me. But if the person describes himself or herself as immoral, I certainly do challenge it. I encourage people to see themselves as results of the choices they make, and if they do not like some of their past choices, I may encourage them to understand why they made them, and to explore what better choices exist for the future. I am more interested in where we’re going than where we’ve been.
Now if parents have treated us badly, and we have acquired some destructive behavior patterns of our own, I see no value in worrying about what was my parents’ “fault” and what is my “fault.” I am interested in: how do I do better in the future? And that is what I teach clients. A client preoccupied with self-condemnation is harder to help, not easier. Also, as I discussed in Honoring the Self, sometimes self-reproach is only a defense strategy, an excuse not to grow: “I’m no good, so expect nothing of me.”
Finally, I will say this: nobody ever improved by telling himself he was rotten—or by being told he was rotten. And boy, is that something Objectivists need to understand. Sometimes it breaks my heart a little when I get an Objectivist for a client, and he says, “I’ve got poor self-esteem, I’m immoral, I must be or else I’d have good self-esteem.” And I ask of what the immorality consists, and of course the client can almost never tell me.
The psychological roots of most problems are fairly complicated, a mixture of environmental factors, volitional ones, and sometimes even biological ones. It’s not always possible to know all the factors involved or how they relate, and fortunately in most cases it’s not necessary to know in order to get the problem solved. It’s painful enough to have the problem. What is helped by, in addition, tormenting oneself with self-reproach?
Apart from the fact that in this sphere we often lack the knowledge to make appropriate judgments, even if we had the knowledge we have to ask: What is our purpose here in making moral judgments? Is it just to make judgments for the sake of making them, to prove I’m a good Objectivist? Is it to help me overcome my problems and grow? Moral judgments have to have a purpose, something we wish to accomplish. They rarely accomplish anything valuable when working on one’s own development. At best, they might be applicable to actions we’ve taken and now regret. Even then, however, people generally know when they’ve done something wrong. Psychotherapists don’t need to hit them over the head with it. More often, we have to make sure they don’t hit themselves over the head with it, to the extent that it blocks progress.
Occasionally, there is a client who does have to be helped to face the wrongness of some action, but in my experience such clients are a small minority. And even here, it’s not so much a matter of focusing on how wrong the action was—the client already knows that—as focusing on the fact that the client really did perform this action, confronting the full reality of it. With most clients my basic attitude is: “Shall we talk about how rotten you are or shall we look at how you can do better in the future, and create a happier, more satisfying life for yourself?”
Q: All the Objectivist virtues are directly volitional except one, Pride. Each day we can say: “Today I will be honest, productive, rational…” but you cannot say: “Today I will be proud.” Pride is the end result of practicing the other virtues, but it cannot be guaranteed if there has been traumatic damage done to you as a child. Pride is a feeling, an end result of virtuous action. How can a feeling be a virtue? How can the reward of virtuous action be a virtue itself? Should pride be included in the Objectivist list if it cannot be directly volitional?
Branden: What confuses this issue is that there are two different senses in which we use the term “pride.” We can mean pride as an emotional experience and we can mean pride in the Objectivist sense of a virtue. When we speak of pride as an emotional experience we refer to the pleasure we take in our own achievements, in what we have made of ourselves as human beings and what we have accomplished. When we speak of pride as a virtue, we mean moral ambitiousness. We mean a commitment to valuing our own life and striving to become the best person we can, in the moral sense. Here, choice and volition are clearly involved.
Pride as a virtue entails treating yourself as a value, treating yourself with respect, and this may not always be easy, because of one’s fears or insecurities. Courage may be needed. Of course, if one has been doing things about which one feels ashamed or guilty, and refuses to confront these issues and clean them up, pride is as good as impossible. Except that there may still be some spark of pride left that inspires a person to call a halt to his or her self-undermining activity.
Q: If pride is a virtue, and our goal if we are morally ambitious, do we not run the risk of trying to create pride by making our ego the goal of winning an argument, or deciding upon a set of truths that make us look good? Shouldn’t we just seek truth and be honest, productive, etc., and not worry about pride so much? Wouldn’t it be more philosophically correct and psychologically more healthy, if it were not considered a virtue, but just an emotional reward?
Branden: Pride divorced from honesty, reality, and integrity, is not pride. Pride is not about “winning arguments” or “looking good.” I have written about this in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Neither self-esteem or pride are competitive or comparative. It is not about me winning over you or looking better than you. It’s about me being the best person I can be.
Q: You are often described as “the father of the self-esteem movement.” How do you feel about that? Do you think the movement has gone astray? If so, how and why has it happened?
Branden: Being described that way puts me in a difficult position. I don’t want to be ungracious about what is intended as a compliment. And yet, I have many problems with the self-esteem movement. I often agree with the attacks of its critics, although I am also convinced most critics don’t really understand the issues involved.
There are a few serious people in the movement, doing really good work, and I am proud to have them as colleagues. But there is also a lot of fluff, by which I mean shallow, sugar-coated nonsense that has nothing important to do with self-esteem. I’m thinking of the notion that you can grow in self-esteem by greeting yourself in the mirror every morning, blowing yourself a kiss, and saying, “Hi, perfect!” A lot of what is taught in the schools in the name of self-esteem is pretty poor. It gives self-esteem a bad name—like the notion that one should not let a child know how inadequate his or her mastery of some subject is, for fear of undermining self-esteem, as if self-esteem can be achieved by faking reality.
I have been fighting to put the whole subject of self-esteem on an intellectually serious foundation. I am happy that my definition of self-esteem was adopted by the National Council for Self-Esteem, although it is by no means universally accepted by all members. There is still an enormous amount of work to be done. What is certain, however, is that we have to get away from associating self-esteem with schoolchildren singing songs about how wonderful they are. We have to think much more deeply about what self-esteem depends on and how it is nurtured.
Q: The Objectivist ethics treats Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem as its cardinal values. You have written a great deal about Self-esteem. Have your ever considered turning your attention in future books to Reason and Purpose?
Branden: I have a book coming out in the spring of 1997—The Art of Living Consciously. You can think of that, in a way, as my book about Reason, although I will have more to say about it in another book I am now planning. I don’t put my discussion in the context of Objectivism, just as my writing on self-esteem is not contextualized that way. I write as Nathaniel Branden, not as “an Objectivist.” As for Purpose, I don’t plan to write more than what I wrote in Six Pillars, where living purposefully gets a chapter.
Q: Might it be interesting for you to write a book about how to live rationally? Or on how to choose a productive career?
Branden: Live rationally? That’s The Art of Living Consciously. I’ve no plans to write about choosing a career. I find my interests turning more and more back to philosophy. I’ve done what I wanted to do in psychology.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to enter the field of psychology, especially clinical psychology?
Branden: Learn as many different ways of working with people as you can. Don’t get stuck on just one or two techniques. Almost every system has something of value in it. Find out what it is. And keep working on yourself. And whether you’re in clinical psychology or some other specialty, don’t think you have nothing to learn from other psychologists just because they are not Objectivists. You have plenty to learn.
Q: Do you consider yourself an Objectivist?
Branden: In terms of broad fundamentals, sure.
Q: What are your chief differences with Rand?
Branden: The biggest area of difference that I am aware of so far is in psychology. Most of the time I disagree with Rand’s psychological explanations of why people believe what they believe or do what they do. For example, I totally dismiss her analysis of the psychology of mysticism, for which, incidentally, she offers no evidence or proof whatever. I agree with her in rejecting mysticism, but that’s a different issue. Also, the psychology of sex is much more complicated than one would ever gather from reading Rand, although I once shared her views. And, in general, her explanations of why people hold the ideas they do are merely assertions, unsupported by argument, as if no other interpretations were possible than the ones that occurred to her. I regard her metaethics as solid, but her ethics itself as underdeveloped and very incomplete. Much more needs to be thought out in the sphere of human relationships. I have some reservations in the field of epistemology but so far they seem small and I am still formulating them. I think her achievements in epistemology are stupendous.
Q: In your talk for IOS this past summer, you spoke of your need to get away from Objectivism, following your break with Rand, in order to gain some perspective. What did you learn by doing so?
Branden: I saw that in the world I had formerly inhabited we were all both meat and meat-grinder—victim and executioner. I saw that Ayn’s literary and philosophical achievements had to be separated from Ayn the person to be adequately appreciated. I saw that she was a tortured and tormented giant. I saw that what I had gained from her, what she had given me, mattered much more to me in the end than any wrong I might attribute to her. And I saw that the pattern of our relationship—younger person and older; student and mentor; Champion and Queen—was not some unique experience I alone was suffering, but a story as old and familiar as history; in a word, an archetype. In the words of the poem, our end was contained in our beginning.
Q: In The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, you said that Rand never knew very much about mysticism, and also that mysticism and irrationalism are not synonymous concepts although they are often so treated by Objectivists. Would you clarify?
Branden: By “mysticism” I mean the claim there are aspects of existence that can be known by means of a unique cognitive faculty whose judgments are above the authority of sensory observation or reason. “Irrationalism,” by which I mean the sheer defiance of reason and logic per se, needn’t make any claim to other pathways to knowledge. One can be an irrationalist without being a mystic.
If Ayn had ever seriously studied mystical literature, she would have known how frivolous it was to identify mysticism with “the worship of feelings and whims.” The most brilliant and articulate spokesperson for mysticism to the West is a psychologist named Ken Wilber. It’s impossible to read him without learning that mysticism is a much more complex subject than we ever learned at Objectivist lectures. One doesn’t have to be a mystic to recognize that some of those people have extraordinary minds and sometimes very interesting things to say. I address these matters in The Art of Living Consciously.
Perhaps I should add that I remain an uncompromising champion of reason.
Q: Then the rumors are false that Nathaniel Branden has been flirting with mysticism?
Branden: Yes, they’re false. Also the rumors that I have become a convert to God, altruism, and flying saucers.
Q: Why do you suppose such rumors started?
Branden: Perhaps because of what I’ve just said about Ayn not knowing much about mysticism. Or perhaps because in my lectures and writings I talk about the importance of kindness and benevolence in human relationships. Or perhaps because, in light of how much Branden hurt Ayn Rand, why wouldn’t he believe in flying saucers?
Q: Rand always stressed that emotions are not tools of cognition. Many Objectivists seem to ignore emotions in the name of “being rational.” In contrast, you emphasize the importance of listening to emotions and learning from them. What role do emotions play in the acquisition of knowledge?
Branden: If our goal is self-awareness and self-understanding, they play a supremely important role. Emotions are not, literally, “tools of cognition,” to be sure, but they are often data of great significance. They allow us to directly experience what things mean to us. Without that experience, we are cut off from our own context. Try to decide “rationally” who to ask out for a date, or who to marry, or whether or not to have children, or what career to pursue, without the information provided by your feelings. One of the great insights of my life was the realization that most of the big mistakes I had made had happened while I was ignoring or was oblivious to what I felt.
Q: At the IOS conference, you spoke of the lack of any account of moral redemption in the Objectivist literature. How might such a gap be filled?
Branden: Fortunately, I can give you an example from Atlas. In one of Ayn’s daydreams about the story, she had Stadler redeeming himself at the end by turning against the government at great personal risk—I think he destroys the Project X machine. There is an explosion and when he wakes up he’s in the Valley; Galt and the other strikers have rescued him. That would have been a dramatization of moral redemption. The message would have been: One can fall but then one can rise again. It could have been very inspiring. But I don’t think moral redemption interested her very much. Some other Objectivist will have to write about it.
Q: Why do Objectivists so often appear arrogant? They seem to find it very difficult to say “I don’t know” or “I need to think about that.” Is this where a little humility might be a good thing?
Branden: I’m not fond of the term “humility,” but I sympathize with the intention of the question. What is needed is less pretentiousness and greater realism. Many Objectivists seem to feel that they are special because they share a philosophy superior to all others. It’s as if they base their self-esteem on being a follower of this philosophy, not on anything about their own character or actions. To be comfortable saying “I don’t know,” or “I need to think about that,” one has to have a decent level of self-esteem—and a decent level of honesty. That’s what appears to be missing. What’s involved here is more than lack of “humility.”
Q: You have expressed admiration for Dr. Sciabarra’s book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. What do you see as the chief importance of this book?
Branden: He has brought Ayn Rand into the history of philosophy. He has attempted to place her in a historical context. Whether or not he’s right in all his hypotheses is not the most important point. So far, his is the book most likely to gain the interest of the academic community, and that interest is essential if one is thinking long-range about the spread of Objectivism. You’ve got to get the teaching of Objectivism into the universities.
Q: What do you think of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand?
Branden: That book wouldn’t influence anyone who was not already a believer. There is no attempt to build a bridge from other perspectives to Rand’s. Very disappointing. Here is the first major non-fiction work to introduce Objectivism to the world—and it’s stilted, pedantic, totally non-inspirational. No fire and no sense of joy. I had hoped for more from Leonard.
Observe that in the preface he gratuitously insults the academic community, yet he wants that community’s support, or else why would the book be advertised in academic journals? So, like a person with an inferiority complex, he beats the academics to the punch—rejecting them before they can reject him. The book that this one started out to be still needs to be written.
Q: Some thinkers—Doug Den Uyl, Doug Rasmussen, Chris Sciabarra—have argued that Rand’s view of man’s life as the standard of moral value entails more than mere survival but also entails the idea of “flourishing”—something closer to the classic idea of “eudaemonism.” What’s your stand on this?
Branden: You have to realize that when Rand spoke of “survival,” she intended that as synonymous with “the life proper to Man.” She meant a good deal more than merely not dying. She saw “survival” and “flourishing” as inseparable. The example I sometimes gave to make this point clear went like this. Imagine a man in an iron lung. He is not dead but clearly he is not living “the life proper to Man.” Such a life would have to entail the full and proper use of his faculties. I wrote an article on this—I forget whether it appeared in “The Objectivist Newsletter” or “The Objectivist.” So the debates I sometimes hear about between the “survivalists” and the “flourishers” have never made sense to me, not in an Objectivist context.
Q: You have said on more than one occasion that while it may not have been anyone’s intention, there are aspects of Objectivism that encourage repression and emotional self-alienation. At the IOS conference you read passages from Rand’s books to illustrate your thesis. How can a young student protect against this error?
Branden: By always remembering that there is nothing heroic about denying or disowning reality—including the reality of one’s feelings. And—dare I say this?—by studying my books. I have provided a badly needed corrective in this area.
Q: For Objectivism to spread in our culture, what do you see as our most urgent need?
Branden: More than anything, we need books and articles written either about Objectivism or about other subjects from an Objectivist perspective. We need to see more in print about Rand’s philosophy and more about its application to problems in a wide variety of areas. Study groups are fine, conferences are fine, public lectures are fine—but the spread of ideas still depends more on the written word than on anything else. And it’s disappointing how little has been written so far.
Q: Is there any truth to the rumor that you have written several stage plays? If so, do you ever plan to publish them?
Branden: What a pleasure to hear a rumor about me that’s true. Yes, I have written for the theater. No, I don’t plan to publish; not good enough.
Q: Any plans to write a novel?
Branden: I’ve had it in my mind to do so for a long time. Other projects I kept feeling I “must” write kept getting in the way. Right now, I’m working on the outline of what looks to be a fairly big non-fiction book—an integration of philosophy, psychology, culture, history, and political economy—but am I absolutely certain I will write it, or write it next? Not really. I’ve surprised myself too many times in the past.
But what is on my mind, some time in the next few years, is to write a novel. There’s a story idea that’s preoccupied me for a long time. All I can say at the moment is that it feels promising, feels right. I’m reluctant to make forecasts because, you know, it often seems that the books choose me, I don’t choose them—I get this voice in my head saying, (of course I’m speaking poetry here), “I don’t care what your plans were, this is what you must do next.”
All I’m certain of is that as long as I’m alive and functioning, I’ll be writing. Apart from my marriage, working at my computer is the greatest single joy of my life. Sometimes my wife Devers pops in on me when I’m writing, and I look from the computer screen to Devers, and the back to the screen, and then back to Devers, and I don’t know how many times I’ve said to her, “I don’t know what anyone else wants out of life, or thinks life is about, but for me, right here, right now, everything I ever wanted is in the room with me. I feel completely fulfilled. All that’s left to want is that this will go on for a very long time.”
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in life?
Branden: I’d like to say, first of all, I hate being confined to the single most important thing. Can I mention two?
Q: Okay, what are the two most important things you’ve learned?
Branden: Let yourself know and fully experience how important love is and honor that importance in your actions. Don’t ever be careless with love. Be aware of the preciousness of each moment of your existence. Be aware that none of us is immortal—the clock is always ticking and none of us knows how long any of us has got. The time to let that other person experience how loved and valued he or she is by us, is right now. It’s one thing to love—and quite another to have the wisdom and courage to live that love fully, unreservedly, and to the hilt. Fully to surrender to love can be terrifying, but it’s the price life asks of us in exchange for the possibility of ecstasy.
Q: And your second message to the world?
Branden: Don’t deny or disown what you see or experience merely because you can’t explain it, justify it, or fit it into some familiar frame-of-reference. Allow a large space in your psyche to accommodate ambiguity and uncertainty. Don’t invent explanations prematurely just so you can tell yourself you have the universe all tied up in one neat package. Keep your eyes open, keep observing, and be confident that sooner or later the truth will appear to you, providing, of course, you live long enough. And if you don’t, well, hasn’t it been an interesting adventure anyway?