Essay on Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead

Keating: “How do you always manage to decide?”
Roark: “How can you let others decide for you?”

This dialogue represents one of the prime differences between a second-hander and a man who lives for himself. Keating’s indecision indicates his reliance on others’ approval as a means of achieving peace of mind. Roark’s autonomy, however, shows his self-reliance and independence.

Keating is reliant on others’ acceptance. He expresses interest in taking the right path, but he doesn’t stop to ask himself which path is right for him. He has no sense of his own wants and needs, the wants and needs that should be his primary concern. In his early character development, Keating shows that he will be more a spectator in his own life than an active participant. Living in that manner is not only fruitless, but it will not serve the purpose that Keating hopes it will serve. Keating’s hopes to achieve self-respect by gaining the respect of those around him. However, the only means of reaching self-respect lies primarily in self-acceptance. The acceptance of others may be enticing, but without self-acceptance it is worthless. It cannot meet his needs; Keating’s hope is comparable to a search for the Holy Grail. Keating will spend a lifetime looking around him for that which can be found only by looking into himself.

Roark, on the other hand, finds his basic motivation in life in satisfying the needs and wants in his own heart. He does what he loves, and refuses to do otherwise. He would rather do nothing at all than to desecrate his life’s work by compromising his values. Roark is the epitome of self-reliance, incapable of letting others decide his destiny. He is the master of taking what life gives him and doing his best with it.

Keating and Roark, as polar opposites, seem to be unable to understand each other. Keating cannot understand how Roark is able to decide on his own, while Roark cannot understand why Keating lets others continually shape his life. Through the course of the story, though, these men gain a better understanding of each other. Roark even expresses pity for Keating for having tried in vain, the way he best knew, to do what he was told to do. He tried the only way he knew to achieve a goal that Roark couldn’t avoid had he tried. Acceptance must first come from within. Roark knew that, but Keating could not understand until it was too late. By continually letting others decide for him, Keating sealed his fate as a second-hander. By living up to the greatness in himself, Roark was able to overcome the forces that tried to defeat him. Two very different men demonstrating one principle: self-reliance.

Toohey: “If your first concern is for what you are or think or feel or have or haven’t got – you’re still a common egotist.”
Katie: “You mean, I must want to be unhappy?”
Toohey: “No. You must stop wanting anything.”

This is a case of a staunch advocate of selflessness brainwashing an unsuspecting victim. Katie’s intention is to take the virtuous path, but she is misdirected into believing that the path of selflessness and altruism is the most virtuous path she can take. Toohey represents a shepherd organizing a flock. By imposing on Katie the belief that she should “stop wanting anything”, Toohey is telling her to stay with the flock. He is adding her to the ranks of those whom he’s already deceived.

Katie is an example of someone who has no idea what she wants out of life, and therefore she can—and will—fall for anything. She is tricked into believing that by actively pursuing second-handedness she will be doing what is good and right. She replaces her mind with a store of information justifying exactly why selflessness is the ideal for which to live and strive. In trying to find a reason to live, Katie sacrifices her life and her self to the ideals of selflessness. Unexposed to alternatives, she is already primed for Toohey’s cause. Katie is a victim of the Tooheys of the world. She isn’t a hard shell to crack, because the few things she has wanted have been denied her. She has found no virtue in fulfilling her wants, for in her passive method of trying to do so, she’s found only pain and discomfort. Toohey sells her on selflessness because she would buy anything. She is a top candidate for an anonymous face in the crowd, and Toohey knows. Katie is a victim destined to become a supporter of the very cause to which she fell.

Ellsworth Monkton Toohey is a shepherd in sheep’s clothing. He assumes the role of an anonymous member of the flock and says that everyone else should strive to become the same, which is part of his strategy to achieve power by herding the rest of them. He preaches the glories of selflessness in order to strip people of self. Having done that, he has a power over such people. By stripping Katie of her self, he has created a walking advertisement for selflessness. She will carry the message that he’s instilled in her. He is, in a sense, teaching a sheep to herd sheep.

Toohey’s insistence that Katie must “stop wanting anything” is the essence of selflessness. Her only goal should be to help everyone else, to work for the masses expecting nothing in return. This assertion is not only counterproductive, but it is ridiculous. If one is to stop wanting anything, then individuality is destroyed. Without individuality, there is nothing but the monotonous trudging of zombies, as opposed to the true experience of consciousness. From individuality comes the fulfillment of necessity and desire. The necessities and desires of the individuals among a group are the catalysts towards the furthering of the group. Communities thrive on individuality and self-reliance, not on selflessness. When the individuals of the group live up to the greatness in themselves, the health of the community is furthered. When the individuals sacrifice themselves to the good of the community, the community is hindered and even destroyed.

Dominique: “Roark, I can accept anything, except what seems to be the easiest for most people: the half-way, the almost, the just-about, the in-between.”

Dominique is a woman of extremes, able to accept anything except a compromise. While refusing to compromise, she will accept defeat. This is significant to the understanding of Dominique’s character. She prefers an absolute defeat as opposed to an almost success. Her marriages are examples of this aspect. Dominique uses her marriage to Keating as a form of punishment to herself, for having tried to save Roark in the Stoddard trial though she knew her effort wouldn’t help. In marrying Keating, she chose the epitome of second-handedness as opposed to that of self-reliance. By later marrying Wynand, she does the same, on a different level. Wynand represents a unique type of second-hander. He doesn’t understand that he is a second-hander, or that his quest for power is self-defeating. Wynand attempts to gain power over the herd by becoming a leader of the pack, pushing the herd’s views on those who won’t conform, either forcing conformity or destroying the subject. Wynand believes that the herd is his tool all along, when in reality he has become the herd’s tool. Both Roark and Dominique know that Wynand is beyond the point of being saved, and he will know eventually as well. Dominique uses both of her marriages as self-inflicted punishment, and expects a day when she will get that for which she is waiting. Dominique will stop at nothing to avoid compromise, even if it means living a life that she cannot stand to live.

Roark: “Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself—not what he has or hasn’t done for others.”

In making his final speech during the Cortlandt trial, Roark slaughters the sacred cows of altruism. In this statement alone, Roark glorifies his existence is for what it truly is: a triumph of
the human spirit. Roark explains exactly how the misperception of his actions has hidden the truth in the matter. By bombing Cortlandt, Roark preserved both his own integrity and that of Cortlandt itself. This act far outweighs the “virtue” of the altruistic purposes for which Cortlandt was originally designed. He maintained his own virtue by maintaining the independence of his designs. To allow Cortlandt to be built for the sake of those who would live in it would’ve destroyed Roark’s integrity and virtue. The corruption of a man must not be bought for such a price, or any price. Sacrificing the life of one for the sake of helping many is never justifiable.

By acting only for his own purposes, a man gives the world a gift greater than any altruist could ever conceive. When a man is judged by his ability to sacrifice himself for others, the key factors are missing. Motives are unclear, and truth is lost. By devoting his life to helping others, a man is doing those he is helping an injustice. Those for whom a man lives become dependant on that man, and are unable to live for themselves. In a world where men live for themselves, all men are independent and share the bond of independence. All men would have the chance to rise up to their own greatness, rather than being kept down by a system that allows them to remain mediocre, and even rewards mediocrity. Self-reliance prohibits men of integrity from accepting second-hand greatness; true greatness is its own reward. In the world of second-handers, men have no concept of greatness. When men seek greatness outside of themselves, they denigrate their birthright and come up shorthanded. We can only recognize that in the world around us which we can recognize in ourselves. Until we can recognize and achieve our own greatness, we are incapable of living in a world of greatness. We cannot give away what we do not have; nor should we deny others the opportunity to achieve what we’ve achieved. Independence truly is the only gauge of human virtue and value. We must achieve self-reliance before any progress can be made.