Gena Gorlin, North Central High School, Indianapolis, IN
Challenging centuries of mankind’s teachings, Roark in his courtroom speech, argues for the moral superiority of egoism over altruism. How do the characters and events of The Fountainhead dramatize Roark’s point?
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead presents the ancient struggle between two moral codes in the persons of two central antagonists—Howard Roark, the egoist, and Ellsworth Toohey, the altruist. These characters most consistently represent the opposing systems. By depicting their lives and ideas, Ayn Rand makes a compelling case for the superiority of egoism.
Howard Roark lives for his work. An architectural genius, he derives his prime satisfaction from designing buildings and seeing them erected. A building, he explains, “is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow… its own single theme, and to serve its own single purpose.” When Roark designs a house, the nature of the site and the building’s practical purpose dictate the position of every stone and girder that rises as an organic extension of the earth. Whereas other architects concern themselves primarily with clients’ and society’s approval, Roark concerns himself solely with the nature of the building. Telling Austen Heller about his completed house, Roark explains, “Every piece is there because the house needs it…. The determining motive of your house is in the house. The determining motive of the others is in the audience.” Because Roark does not consider others’ opinions when designing a house, his buildings are brilliantly functional—they emerge solely from the judgment of his mind, unclouded by any irrelevant intermediary considerations. Roark does not even primarily consider the client; his design conforms to the building’s logical requirements, thus the client’s needs are met. As Roark tells Heller, “I haven’t thought of you at all. I thought of the house…. Perhaps that’s why I knew how to be considerate of you.”
Roark lives the way be builds. As an egoist, he has little concern for other men’s thoughts, opinions, or needs; his consciousness is rooted in the nature of the world around him, as are his buildings. Thus, his decisions obey an impeccable logic, based on the judgment of his mind rather than the conglomeration of other men’s unprocessed judgments. He does not let others venture into his spirit, i.e. his thinking, valuing mind; his thoughts and values are inviolate and grounded in reality. When he experiences exaltation in response to an art work, or to the woman he loves, he feels it with the full force of his consciousness. When he beholds Steven Mallory’s sculpture, he does not approve of it out of pity for the starving artist, but because he recognizes it as a heroic masterpiece. His affair with Dominique does not stem from mawkish or dutiful compassion, but from the selfish pleasure he takes in her existence.
Roark feels happiness, too, with his whole being. Nothing matters much except the fulfillment he receives from solidifying the image of his spirit—his ego—in stone and mortar. As he explains to Dominique after his enemies destroy the Stoddard Temple, his suffering “only goes down to a certain point,” beyond which “I can think of nothing except that I designed that temple….”
Furthermore, through his self-sufficiency, Roark infuses others with a renewed eagerness to live by showing them the spectacle of his greatness. Just weeks after apathetically contemplating suicide, Gail Wynand becomes so rejuvenated that he attempts to uphold his values in The Banner for the first time in his life—because Roark has shown him that integrity is possible. Likewise, a young composer gains an inspiration from Roark that no kindness could give him. When he gazes upon the Monadnock resort Roark designed, it translates in his mind to ringing musical chords; seeing that such grandeur exists in reality, he gains “the courage to face a lifetime.” Thus, by living utterly for himself, Roark in a sense creates life for himself and others: not only does he build the shelters men need to survive, but he supplies the spiritual fuel men need to feel that life is worth living.
Just as Roark does not pander to others’ needs, so he does not seek others’ help or approval; his mind, being anchored to reality, enjoys total independence from other men. He never tries to win clients through pity-mongering or flattery—for his commissions, he relies on men like Roger Enright and Kent Lansing who can evaluate the objective merit of his buildings. Such men have a selfish interest in hiring him—and in preserving the integrity of his designs—since they want him solely for his ability. Roark treats men as neither charity cases nor servants, but traders who exchange the value of their commissions for the value of his work. Such a relationship—one of mutual trade for mutual benefit—is the only proper relationship according to egoism.
Ellsworth Toohey, by contrast, centers his being on other men. Resenting others’ superior creative ability, he adopts a purpose in life that stands in direct opposition to Roark’s: not to create, but to destroy life. Toohey sets out to destroy creators, in order that no one may rise above his incompetence. To do so, he preaches altruism, the doctrine that man must sacrifice his interests to others. Unlike his disciples, Toohey understands that to sacrifice one’s interests primarily means to sacrifice one’s soul, the faculty that values. He also understands that without one’s soul, a man has no hope of happiness or greatness, since his emotional and creative faculty has been taught to self-destruct. As he tells Peter Keating, “Kill man’s soul. The rest will follow….”
For a dissection of a soul sterilized by altruism, Ayn Rand presents the spiritual murder of Toohey’s niece, Catherine Halsey. Toohey takes Catherine in after he notices her standing “eager and proud and ready to meet [her future]….” Right then he commits himself to killing her every aspiration. Thereafter, he instills selflessness in her as an ideal. He sways her to become a social worker, and when she reports her growing misery, he replies, “You must be willing to suffer, to be cruel… anything… kill the most stubborn of roots, the ego. And only when it is dead… when you have lost your identity and forgotten the name of your soul—only then will you know the kind of happiness I spoke about, and the gates of spiritual grandeur will fall open before you.” Katie grasps Toohey’s gruesome contradiction and asks, “when the gates fall open, who is it that’s going to enter?” Briefly she realizes that to lose one’s soul means to surrender every chance at happiness and grandeur, for without it one hasn’t the capacity to feel happy or grand. Unperturbed, Toohey employs another deadly weapon, wringing from her whatever life is left. “We must not think,” he says. “We must believe….” Thus, by severing her mind’s connection to reality, he drains her spirit forever. Years later, when Peter meets Katie on the street, even he can see that she has died; she has “no consciousness of her own person.” This is the ultimate fruit of altruism.
Unlike Roark’s morality—which demands independence—Toohey’s code requires needy victims. As Ayn Rand often pointed out, every sacrifice implies a recipient. Altruism feeds on weakness, need, and impotence in order to function. As Toohey tells one self-righteous society woman, “There’s got to be suffering in the world, else how would we be virtuous and feel compassion?” Yet those who concern themselves with other men’s welfare lack even the means to relieve suffering; such relief—as any creative endeavor—requires independent thought, which in turn requires that one focus on one’s own thought and judgment, i.e. one’s ego. Thus, the architects who undertake to build a low-rental housing complex “for the poor” get nowhere; but when Roark tackles the job of Cortlandt as an intriguing puzzle, he reduces the housing price further than other architects had imagined possible. “…Before you can do things for people,” Roark explains, “you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing…. Your own action, not any object of your charity.”
Indeed, Roark gets things done because he has a motivation. He knows that, as for all living creatures, man’s proper goal is survival. For man, however, survival means more than mere physical sustenance. It also entails the sustenance of one’s spirit. By achieving his values in architecture and in life, Roark achieves genuine happiness—the highest and most demanding achievement possible to man. Unlike Toohey, who must enshrine weakness and misery to provide a basis for his morality, Roark (literally) enshrines strength and joy—for these values are essential to man’s life. The egoist seeks to further his life, while the altruist—by crippling men’s pursuit of happiness—seeks to dethrone life and plant living death in its place.
However, since no sane man truly wishes to die, the world’s Tooheys must maintain the guise of “humanitarianism” in order to preach altruism successfully. For this task, altruists—who can create nothing on their own—must loot the products of men like Roark and redistribute them to the unproductive. Thus they seize Cortlandt, Roark’s creation, and try to adapt it to their ends. Yet Roark realizes that by withdrawing the product of his thought, he disarms the altruists. So, he reclaims possession of Cortlandt by destroying it. Here we see that, without the egoist’s help and sanction, altruism is impotent. Roark wins his trial because the jury, twelve men who value their lives, understand that man must live for himself or not at all. They recognize that egoism is the only life-promoting morality.
As long as men want to live, it is the egoist—the creator in spirit and in granite—who must ultimately triumph.