There was a time when Rep. Paul Ryan made a Christmas gift of Atlas Shrugged to staffers in his congressional office. The vice presidential nominee made no secret of his admiration for the author of that book, Ayn Rand, and her distinctive ideas about freedom and capitalism, individualism and collectivism. In fact, he credits Rand’s writings with inspiring him to take up public service as a calling. “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told The Atlas Society in 2005.
But in recent years, Ryan has been tip-toeing away from Rand. He says it’s because of Rand’s atheism.
I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told the National Review in April. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. …Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”
Is this a flip-flop? Sort of. What Ryan objects to is the rhetoric of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, which is a cross between the rantings of Scrooge and Simon Legree. And the Russian writer’s aggressive atheism has posed a big problem for many religious conservatives.
Ryan made that statement in April, just as Romney was in the process of becoming the obvious choice in the primaries and the congressman’s prospects for the second spot on the ticket began to take shape. But it is significant that Ryan mentioned Thomas Aquinas as an alternative to Rand’s passionate and absolutist libertarianism. (Aside: Rand rejected libertarianism, but modern libertarians embrace her.) Catholic school children are exposed early and often to the writings of Aquinas, whose elegant strands of logic regarding faith and belief in man’s ability to glimpse God’s intent without divine inspiration so hugely influenced Western civilization.
If both philosophers taught us how to think, it was Aquinas who supplied the moral basis for action. Aquinas’s identification of the “cardinal virtues” of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude echoes down to us today in the writings of many conservative philosophers. And Aquinas’s belief in “natural law” as man’s discovery of God’s “eternal law” by reason alone helps integrate Ryan’s Catholic beliefs with his conservative philosophy.