Ellsworth Toohey’s collectivism: Answer to a question on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”

July 1, 2019 by  

On June 30th, on the public Facebook group “Ayn Rand“, a person fairly new to Ms Rand’s works posted the following passage from Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, highlighting (among others) the parts that below appear in red text. The person in question asked something akin to “Please explain”. I did so, but it appears that the person deleted her post (and all responses to it). Rather than letting my answer/effort go to waste, I post it below the quoted passage.

Ellsworth’s relations with his fellow students were the most unusual of his achievements at Harvard. He made himself accepted. Among the proud young descendants of proud old names, he did not hide the fact of his humble background; he exaggerated it. He did not tell them that his father was the manager of a shoe store; “he said that his father was a shoe cobbler. He said it without defiance, bitterness or proletarian arrogance; he said it as if it were a joke on him and–if one looked closely into his smile–on them. He acted like a snob; not a flagrant snob, but a natural, innocent one who tries very hard not to be snobbish. He was polite, not in the manner of one seeking favor, but in the manner of one granting it. His attitude was contagious. People did not question the reasons of his superiority; they took it for granted that such reasons existed. It became amusing, at first, to accept “Monk” Toohey; then it became distinctive and progressive. If this was a victory Ellsworth did not seem conscious of it as such; he did not seem to care. He moved among all these unformed youths, with the assurance of a man who has a plan, a long-range plan set in every detail, and who can spare nothing but amusement for the small incidentals on his way. His smile had a secret, closed quality, the smile of a shopkeeper counting profits–even though nothing in particular seemed to be happening.

He did not talk about God and the nobility of suffering. He talked about the masses. He proved to a rapt audience, at bull sessions lasting till dawn, that religion bred selfishness; because, he stated, religion overemphasized the importance of the individual spirit; religion preached nothing but a single concern–the salvation of one’s own soul.

“To achieve virtue in the absolute sense,” said Ellsworth Toohey, “a man must be willing to take the foulest crimes upon his soul–for the sake of his brothers. To mortify the flesh is nothing. To mortify the soul is the only act of virtue. So you think you love the broad mass of mankind? You know nothing of love. You give two bucks to a strike fund and you think you’ve done your duty? You poor fools! No gift is worth a damn, unless it’s the most precious thing you’ve got.

Give your soul. To a lie? Yes, if others believe it. To deceit? Yes, if others need it. To treachery, knavery, crime? Yes! To whatever it is that seems lowest and vilest in your eyes. Only when you can feel contempt for your own priceless little ego, only then can you achieve the true, broad peace of selflessness, the merging of your spirit with the vast collective spirit of mankind. There is no room for the love of others within the tight, crowded miser’s hole of a private ego. Be empty in order to be filled. ’He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.’ The opium peddlers of the church had something there, but they didn’t know what they had. Self-abnegation? Yes, my friends, by all means. But one doesn’t abnegate by keeping one’s self pure and proud of its own purity. The sacrifice that includes the destruction of one’s soul–ah, but what am I talking about? This is only for heroes to grasp and to achieve.”

He did not have much success among the poor boys working their way through college. He acquired a sizable following among the young heirs, the second and third generation millionaires. He offered them an achievement of which they felt capable.

He graduated with high honors. When he came to New York, he was preceded by a small, private fame; a few trickles of rumor had seeped down from Harvard about an unusual person named Ellsworth Toohey; a few people, among the extreme intellectuals and the extremely wealthy, heard these rumors and promptly forgot what they heard, but remembered the name; it remained in their minds with a vague connotation of such things as brilliance, courage, idealism.

People began to ooze toward Ellsworth Toohey; the right kind of people, those who soon found him to be a spiritual necessity. The other kind did not come; there seemed to be an instinct about it. When someone commented on the loyalty of Toohey’s following–he had no title, program or organization, but somehow his circle was called a following from the first–an envious rival remarked: “Toohey draws the sticky kind. You know the two things that stick best: mud and glue.” Toohey overheard it and shrugged, smiling, and said: “Oh, come, come, come, there are many more: adhesive plaster, leeches, taffy, wet socks, rubber girdles, chewing gum and tapioca pudding.” Moving away, he added over his shoulder, without smiling: “And cement.”

He took his Master’s degree from a New York university and wrote a thesis on “Collective Patterns in the City Architecture of the XlVth Century.” He earned his living in a busy, varied, scattered way: no one could keep track of all his activities. He held the post of vocational adviser at the university, he reviewed books, plays, art exhibitions, he wrote articles, gave a few lectures to small, obscure audiences. Certain tendencies were apparent in his work. When reviewing books, he leaned toward novels about the soil rather than the city, about the average rather than the gifted, about the sick rather than the healthy; there was a special glow in his writing when he referred to stories about “little people”; “human” was his favorite adjective; he preferred character study to action, and description to character study; he preferred novels without a plot and, above all, novels without a hero.

I replied as follows:

unformed youths“: Young people are still willing to learn. Their minds have not taken on a rigid form. These are the sorts of people who can be more easily misled.

religion bred selfishness“: Toohey wants people not to care about their own souls/minds/selves. Religion is an effort (however misguided) to perfect oneself so that one can deserve god’s favour/bounty/reward. Toohey wants people not to seek a personal reward, hence not to seek any god’s good graces.

Give your soul“: Same as the above. Toohey wants nobody to do what is good for himself. He wants the ejection of any moral conviction in which a person seeks to do what is (allegedly) good for himself. Moreover, he wants nobody to take any pride in being a good individual.

the destruction of one’s soul“: Soul = mind. Mind and body together, as one = self. Toohey wants not just the sacrifice of one’s body and property but of one’s capacity to think and choose (i.e., of one’s mind/soul). So long as you do not sacrifice your mind, you are an individual and, for Toohey, that’s a problem

He did not have much success among the poor boys working there way through college“: because they – by working – knew that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. One must produce the values that one trades for other values, such as education.

He acquired a sizeable following among the young heirs“: because they did not have to earn their material wealth. They *effortlessly* could sacrifice large chunks of their wealth to others in order to obtain the outward appearance of moral superiority (as judged by the size of one’s sacrifices). In other words, they could obtain the appearance of virtue without actually earning it *if* they adopted Toohey’s collectivist ethics.

found him to be a spiritual necessity“: because, without Toohey’s knack at convincing people that sacrifice of the self is good, the “right kind” of people could not get the spiritual values (e.g., respect, admiration, love) they needed/craved but were unwilling to *earn*. They needed someone who essentially convinced people that to sacrifice of oneself (instead of to produce/make oneself a value) *is* to earn.

without a plot” / “without a hero“: Such novels tell one what IS, without involving one’s mind in any thought about what one OUGHT to do. Such novels, in other words, sever FACT from VALUE. Nothing, in such novels, is good or evil; nothing is better or worse. Everything just is. Such novels imply that there is no good/evil; that there is no better/worse and, if one is doing lots of things that are evil by an Objective moral code, it is comforting to be told that there is no such thing as evil.


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