St. Ayn and St. Thomas

One of the risks assumed by Mitt Romney is choosing Paul Ryan as his running-mate is the elevation of a self-styled intellectual who until very, very recently was touting Ayn Rand as one of his most important influences. It’s not as though Rand is an obscure or distant figure. Millions of Americans have read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. The former was made into a major Hollywood feature film starring Gary Cooper. Rand’s own life inspired a Showtime flick (The Passion of Ayn Rand) that won an Emmy for Helen Mirren in the title role.

Nowadays Ryan and his fans tend to brush off his Randian enthusiasm as the intellectual equivalent of George W. Bush’s “youthful indiscretions.” But as Jane Meyer points out at New Yorker, Ryan’s most elaborate tribute to Rand was delivered in 2005, just seven years ago. And he was citing Atlas Shrugged as prophetic and Rand’s moral defense of capitalism as definitive just three years ago. We’re not talking about some college sophomore here, but a multi-term member of Congress well on his way to becoming a movement conservative favorite, and, as Dave Weigel notes today, who spoke in his 2005 address of Francisco D’Antonio’s advocacy in Atlas Shrugged of hard money as morally imperative in tones generally reserved for a theologian examining a dog-eared passage of scripture. So those of us who are alarmed by anyone whose enthusiasm for Rand survives adolescence are not engaging in demagoguery.

Ryan’s standard self-defense on this subject is that while admiring Rand and her stout defense of capitalism, he is, of course, a Roman Catholic and can’t, of course, embrace the philosophy of a militant atheist. St. Thomas Aquinas, not St. Ayn Rand, is his philosophical anchor.

Well, whatever; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to cite one notable source of authority, disputes the idea that Ryan’s social and economic vision is compatiable with Catholic moral teachings. But beyond that, it’s been forgotten entirely that Rand herself was an admirer of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, in a 1967 essay (“Requiem For Man”) attacking Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, she had this to say:

There is an element of sadness in this spectacle. Catholicism had once been the most philosophical of all religions. Its long, illustrious philosophical history was illuminated by a giant: Thomas Aquinas. He brought an Aristotelian view of reason (an Aristotelian epistemology ) back into European culture, and lighted the way to the Renaissance. For the brief span of the nineteenth century, when his was the dominant influence among Catholic philosophers, the grandeur of his thought almost lifted the Church close to the realm of reason (though at the price of a basic contradiction). Now, we are witnessing the end of the Aquinas line—with the Church turning again to his primordial antagonist, who fits it better, to the mind-hating, life-hating St. Augustine. One could only wish they had given St. Thomas a more dignified requiem.

Rand basically thought that if you absolutely had to be a theist, the best kind to be was a Thomist. So the suggestion that a self-described Thomist like Paul Ryan can’t possibly be tarred with the brush of Rand’s excesses isn’t quite the slam-dunk argument it might appear to be.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.