Ayn Rand Versus Plato

Plato’s great dialogue, the Republic, written more than 2000 years ago, remains one of the most influential works about social justice ever written.  The twentieth century novelist and social philosopher Ayn Rand, perhaps the most influential conservative/ libertarian voice of the present day, had a radically different vision.  So, it might be useful to do a brief comparison between Plato and Ayn Rand.

Both of these theorists were idealists and elitists.  Neither trusted the “masses”; they were certainly not democrats.  Both also allowed freedom of action for special individuals.  However, the similarities end there.  Plato’s philosopher kings were to be carefully trained to be perfect instruments for achieving social justice as he defined it.  Ayn Rand, the high priestess of selfishness, advanced the cause of unfettered self-interests for creative geniuses and the captains of industry.  Plato favored selfless rule over the masses by people who were specially educated and devoted to duty (and celibate).  Ayn Rand sought freedom of action for exceptional individuals and had no interest in, or concern for, society.

For Plato, social justice involved “giving every man his due.”  For Ayn Rand, the very concept of social justice was incomprehensible.  She mocked the idea.  The only form of justice she recognized was freedom for the Howard Roarks and John Galts of the world.  For Plato, a society is a social “organism” whose purpose is to meet basic human needs and wants through a division of labor.  For Ayn Rand it is simply a marketplace (assuming that an oppressive democratic government can removed from the picture), and the freer it is the better.  Indeed, in a perfectly free market, everyone would benefit from the pursuit of their own self-interests (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” without Smith’s major qualifiers).

Both Plato and Ayn Rand were misguided in their idealism, but Plato came to recognize his errors (to his great credit) and went back to the drawing board.  In his last work, The Laws, Plato advanced the proposition – a model for all the ages to come – that a system of impartial laws and a “mixed” government in which all classes are empowered was preferable to rule by any individual leader.  By contrast, Ayn Rand was, like her character Howard Roark, uncompromising to the end, despite a turbulent history of personal relationships that might have called some of her radical assumptions into question.  

Ayn Rand’s bottom line:  "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."  

Plato’s bottom line (in the terminology of modern evolutionary biology): An organized human society is fundamentally a “collective survival enterprise.”  Its basic purpose is to provide for the survival and reproductive needs of its members.  It is a “social contract” and not the servant of a privileged class.  As I show in my new book, Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind, Plato got it right.   



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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