Ayn Rand's name has popped up a few times recently, sometimes because I've mentioned her and sometimes because somebody else has. She is a woman of controversy, that's for sure.
I've read her major works and thought about them, and I've also read the two biography/memoirs by the Brandens. Here's what I think:
I think her ideas were not without merit. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged when I was in my 20's and it helped me to crystalize a couple of things: that if you want something it's up to you to go after it and make it happen, and that you shouldn't look to other people to fulfill you as a person. We all like and need affirmation from others, of course, which is one reason why we like for people to comment on our blogs. But we should be OK without it.
I think her insistence on selfishness was fairly silly. I think everything we do is from a mixture of motives. If I give money to a panhandler, it's for several reasons. One is that I don't want a fellow human to be hungry. You can call that pity, or compassion, or fellow-feeling; I don't know what it is, except that it's as simple as that. One is that Jesus commanded us to feed the hungry. One is that I am expressing my gratitude to God that not only can I provide for myself, I have enough to share. It's true that I work very hard for my money, but it's also true that I was born with a certain amount of intelligence, parents who didn't screw up my psyche, the opportunity to get an education, and so forth, that I did nothing to deserve. One is probably a superstitious feeling in the back of my mind that if I don't help someone when I can, someday I will need help and won't get it. Kind of like karma. I don't really think that, but I can't say the idea isn't running around in my head. If Rand liked me, and knew that I gave money to a panhandler, she would try to excuse it on the basis that I did it to benefit myself somehow. No other reason would be acceptable. That's dumb.
And obviously I don't agree with her outright rejection of religion. In fact, I think that without meaning to she found herself at the center of a cult. Nathaniel Branden touched on something in his book that I think bears some reflection: he wonders if the hero-worship he and the other members of the "collective" bestowed on her didn't encourage her tendency to self-aggrandize. From reading about her actions during and after writing Atlas Shrugged, I wonder if they didn't help push her right over the edge into mental illness.
Her insistence on exaggerated moralism while semi-secretly carrying on an adulterous affair was nuts.
Plus the fact that she was a feminist's nightmare. No, I don't care for her attitude towards women at all.