Another of my gurus died this week.
I first encountered Nathaniel Branden long ago when I was a shy, introverted young man of questionable self-esteem. Initially I found him a bit off-putting. Like most of the followers of Ayn Rand, Nathaniel was (at that time) a dogmatic Objectivist with no room to even enter into discussions with people like me – we who want to wrestle with hard questions like the existence of God; the possibility that not everything about individualism is good; the possibility that there is something to be learned from Kant or Rousseau no matter how much we disagree with – perhaps even detest – them; or the idea that dogmatic, doctrinal,, rationalism is not necessarily any better than dogmatic, doctrinal religion. The evidence of the senses and the finitude of Aristotelian logic were, in early Objectivism, incontestable. And Nathaniel was the great teacher with the great aversion to even speaking about other possibilities.
I once told Nathaniel that I was a practicing reform Jew because I felt it was to only way to preserve the culture and civilization of the Jewish people. I asked him if there was a way to compartmentalize and to live a rational life while still saying prayers and practicing rituals. He told me that it would never work and that if I wanted to have high self-esteem I need to live consistently not in perpetual contradiction. Of course, you know, he’s right. But, Judaism is important to me and if keeping our culture alive forces me to live with contradictions, I’ll accept that. Long ago Nathaniel would chastise me for saying that and even in these last years he would not agree with it. But, by the end, he would no longer refuse to admit that I’m a good person even with my imperfect application of reason.
When I say that, what I mean is that over the years, Nathaniel shed his dogmatism, became willing to enter dialog with all sorts of people (evening going so far as to befriend Ken Wilbur, who could not be a more opposite thinker), and learned the power of benevolence and spontaneity. That is why I like Nathaniel more than almost any other Objectivist I know.
Nathaniel was part of Ayn Rand’s “Collective”. He and Ms. Rand had a sexual relationship and split entirely when their affair ended inharmoniously in the late 60’s. After that, all “official” Objectivists were required to denounce him, Evidently Ms. Rand did not leave all of her Soviet history behind! Still, the break was a good thing and eventually Nathaniel became an extremely successful writer on human psychology, and the pioneer of the “self-esteem” movement.
It is Nathaniel’s work in Los Angeles that brought me to revere him. Although he remained an Objectivist to the end of his life, he was more of a pragmatic “doer” than he was a philosopher. Nathaniel never gave up devotion to even a single Objectivist virtue. What he did give up was that dogmatic devotion to Ms. Rand. He could have remained in the class of Randian rationalists who viewed Objectivism as a closed system. But, no. Like other more open-minded Objectivists such as David Kelley, Nathaniel came to accept diversity, to have a willingness to discuss even what he did not agree with, and most profoundly, to realize that objective happiness could include spontaneous joy, benevolence for the pure sake of benevolence, and kindness unhinged from self-edification.
From his early beginnings with Ms. Rand, to his death this week at the age of 84, Nathaniel grew and matured. Ultimately being a man who I personally view as “Atlas Matured”.
Rest in peace, Dr. Branden!