This week, I want to talk about The Fountainhead, the effect it’s had on my life, and what it can teach individuals.
What is The Fountainhead?
“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”
The Fountainhead is the best-selling book written by philosopher Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead follows Howard Roark, a master architect, as he tries to build the buildings he wants despite the hostility he experiences from society.
I first read The Fountainhead when I was in high school, and it completely blew my mind. Similar to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I’ve made a habit of reading the book once a year to stay connected to the themes expressed in Ayn Rand’s monumental work.
The Fountainhead is the classic individual versus collective story that can teach the individual much about life and society. Howard Roark finds many enemies who attempt to destroy him through a variety of means including slander, economic regulations, manipulations, and legal attacks. Through Howard Roark’s tale, Ayn Rnd explores the importance of passion for your work, the dead-end nature of prestige and power, and the tactics of the power hungry.
Mastery of Skill
Howard Roark is a master architect who spends his time improving his skill and developing his mindset. He is a creative at heart. I am humbled by his dedication to his craft and the sheer level of expertise he grows throughout the story.
Gail Wynand is the same. Gail came from poverty: he’s been in gangs, and he’s experienced starvation. However, he grows into a media mogul and runs a journalistic empire to last the ages. He has this empire because he’s worked every day of his life and overcame his pain and struggle.
Gail and Howard’s dedication to learning, improving, and thriving have always been the inspiration for my own life. When I reflect on my skill growth, I often ask myself questions such as: how passionate am I about drawing? Am I really being as persistent as I reasonably can be or do I allow distractions to pull me away? How much more can I sacrifice? Am I willing to give up creature comforts like video games to achieve my life goals?
The Importance of Rational Pride
There is rational pride in mastering a skill. Howard Roark and Gail Wynand are very confident in their abilities, and they have every right to be. Learning a skill is hard work and not for the lazy, disingenuous, or faint of heart.
Many collectivist opponents of individualism and objectivism consider characters such as Gail and Howard to be arrogant and poorly written. However, these collectivists reveal their envy as well as a lack of ambition when pursuing their own goals.
Gail and Howard are perfect models of how individuals should live our lives with a passion for achieving personal desires and creating impressive works. Every individual should set clear goals while developing the positive habits needed to overcome their internal weaknesses. Such a process is not easy, which is why all individuals should be proud of their efforts and sacrifices.
What Ayn Rand highlights is clear: don’t let collectivists take away your pride in mastering skills and improving your behavior.
Passion for Life
Howard Roark, Gail Wynand, Dominique Francon, and all their allies have a passion for life. Their love for life is not rooted in mindless consumption or the desire to please the collective – their passion for life is rooted in creating, building, and developing their skills.
Many works of fiction, especially today, have a cynical tinge that is distracting and rather pathetic. Many creators are eager to show how wretched life is and how much pain and suffering their characters should go through. These fictional characters usually wallow in despair before the author’s cynicism readily defeats them.
The Fountainhead is refreshing because Ayn Rand creates characters who are happy to be alive. Her characters thrive in the world despite the hardships they must go through. Ayn Rand expertly utilizes conflict and setbacks as a means of showing the resolve of her characters and as a reader, I am inspired by the persistence and courage of Howard Roark, Gail Wynand, Dominque Francon, and others.
It is inspiring to read a work where characters set out to live their best lives. The passion of these characters pushes me to become more passionate and driven in my own life, and instead of feeling like the world is stacked against me, The Fountainhead keeps me focusing on virtues as I persist in improving myself.
The Individual against the Collective
The central theme of The Fountainhead is the individual against the collective. Howard Roark stands alone as an individual fighting against a society that wishes to stop his progress while staking a claim to his resources, time, energy, and money.
Howard Roark is an originator. He pursues a modern style of architecture, and this puts him at odds with the traditionalists who prefer to copy older styles without rhyme or reason. Because Howard Roark unashamedly builds within the modernist style, the traditionalists feel compelled to destroy his life and career.
“To say “I love you” one must know first how to say the “I”.”
However, Howard Roark finds success despite the brutal attacks. When he begins to achieve monetary success, the collective changes the argument. They believe they have a right to his labor, his time, and his ideas. They steal his work, and he retaliates. He is treated as the villain when the evil ones are those who wish to take from him.
In the end, we see that no matter what Howard Roark does, society will always stand against him. Unfortunately, society is always doomed to stand against individuals. As individualists, it is important for all of us to accept and understand this reality as quickly as possible. Not so we can attack others, but so we have the emotional maturity to withstand the unreasonable attacks that will come our way.
Why Does the Collectivist Hate the Individual?
Howard Roark, as an individual, commits many “sins” against society. To start, he doesn’t care for the opinions of others, especially the “experts.” He rightfully forges his own creative path and sets off to express his unique style on his own terms. Those in power, the architects and critics who have “prestige” and “distinction,” do not want him challenging their right to rule, so they attack him in the media.
Secondly, Howard Roark responds to the attacks of society with apathy. Very rarely does he get angry and he remains solely focused on his work. Everyone around him, the looters, moochers, and manipulators, find this behavior off-putting. However, they are primarily bothered that Howard Roark cannot be emotionally swayed or manipulated. He does not obsess over drama, and he doesn’t have the insecurities other people possess. Howard Roark, with his stoic emotional maturity, can resist internal doubt and external manipulations which are two of the greatest weapons in the collectivist’s arsenal.
Lastly, Howard Roark doesn’t praise society. He recognizes that his ideas are his alone. He spent the time, energy, and effort necessary to build his skill set and that he has no one to thank but himself and his closest allies. This angers the collectivists in the novel because collectivists love to take credit for work they haven’t done. For example, look at any race hustler who believes being a member of an arbitrary group allows him to take credit for, and have pride in, the accomplishments of any fellow member in that same racial group. Even though this race hustler has done nothing of worth or value to support the success of others.
Howard Roark is the embodiment of individual merit, choice, and greatness. He stands against the pettiness and short-sightedness of society which makes him an immensely compelling character.
Now I want to look at characters starting with Peret Keating. Peter Keating is the opposite of our protagonist Howard Roark – while Howard values individual merit and self-fulfillment, Peter desperately seeks prestige and external validation. At the beginning of the novel, Howard struggles while Peter flourishes. However, by the end of the novel, Peter’s comfortable life has fallen apart because of backstabbing, manipulations, and the instability of relying on the masses.
To start, Peter pursues architecture because his mother wants him to be famous and wealthy. However, Peter wants to be an artist, but he ignores his real passion for following a career that will bring him riches and fame. In contrast, Howard becomes an architect because he wants to be an architect. The money and fame are secondary, and Howard doesn’t seek either nor does he find fulfillment in them. Howard finds satisfaction in his work when he can draw blueprints, set foundations, and erect buildings. Sadly, Peter only finds fulfillment when he earns more money or admiration.
Follow Your Passion, Not Prestige and Wealth
Wealth and prestige are always fleeting. Wealth can only buy so much happiness and security. Additionally, prestige is always based on the irrational whims of the masses – the hero today will be the villain of tomorrow while the villain of yesteryear is celebrated today.
Peter sacrifices passion and mastery for the sake of wealth. He gives up on personal fulfillment while keeping his goals and actions focused on gaining the approval of others. Peter spends most of the book anxious about the thoughts of others as well as afraid of losing his symbolic wealth. Furthermore, to build his career, Peter has to manipulate and abuse others to reach the top of the architecture field. Eventually, by the end of the book, his actions have caught up with him, and he is broken, alone, and dissolute.
As individuals, we must keep our hands and souls clean by pursuing what we love. Never live for the prestige of others but for the nobility of your dreams and the strength of your convictions.
Ellsworth Toohey is a fantastic villain who perfectly represents the evil genius of collectivism. Toohey spends the entire novel trying to consolidate power by focusing on manipulating, lying, and gossiping. Toohey is charismatic, intelligent, and cunning. His verbal abilities and insight into human nature create a villain more than a challenge for Howard Roark and his allies. By the end of the novel, Toohey is defeated, but he has rattled the world of Gail, Howard, Dominique, and the other heroes of The Fountainhead.
Toohey represents collectivist ideologies. Toohey is frail, small, and average looking. He has no discernable talents, and he lacks the dedication and ability to master a skill. Additionally, Toohey is greedy, envious, and covets for the souls, wealth, and resources of others. Bitter and greedy, Toohey accurately shows the mindset of collectivists who do not wish to work but feel entitled to the success of others.
Toohey and Self-Worth
However, Toohey is no strawman. He isn’t a simplistic antagonist who twirls his mustache and cackles from the rooftop. Toohey is an intimidating figure who breaks Peter Keating, undermines Howard Roark’s career, destroys the objective standards for art, and leads to the destruction of Gail Wynand’s empire.
Toohey is charismatic, and this is the source of his power. Through his words, Toohey undermines the individual’s grasp of self-worth and objective values. Individuals need a sense of personal value to maintain their dignity and power over oneself. Once we lose this sense of value, we become much easier to abuse and manipulate.
For example, Toohey manipulates Peter Keating throughout the book by destroying Peter’s sense of personal worth and value. By the end of the book, Peter is nothing but a hollowed man who obediently follows Toohey’s philosophy and does Toohey’s bidding. Without self-worth, Peter looks to Toohey as a leader and cannot make choices that benefit himself.
Toohey and Virtue
“Love is reverence, and worship, and glory, and the upward glance. Not a bandage for dirty sores. But they don’t know it. Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who’ve never felt it. They make some sort of feeble stew out of sympathy, compassion, contempt and general indifference, and they call it love. Once you’ve felt what it means to love as you and I know it – total passion for the total height – you’re incapable of anything less.”
Toohey also uses his words to make objective values nonexistent. Collectivists are always attacking objective values and virtues because these concepts give us the bedrock we need to make intelligent, moral choices. When we don’t have virtue, then individuals lack the tools needed to decide the legitimacy and morality of our actions.
An individual who practices frugality will not go into debt slavery. An individual who is loyal will not spend their time around abusive, destructive people. An individual who is generous will give to the deserving poor and support safety nets that build people up instead of trapping them in a permanent underclass. An individual who practices fortitude will be able to withstand the temptations offered by liars and cheats.
When we do not have virtue and objective values to ground us, we will fall for the first charlaton with empty promises.
In conclusion, Toohey is an excellent antagonist because he doesn’t use physical violence to earn power. Toohey utilizes his cunning words to break people’s souls and gain control over the masses. Even though Howard Roark can withstand Toohey’s direct manipulations, Roark still has to contend with the mob Toohey sends.
Additionally, even though Roark wins in the end, Toohey is still a threat. He exercises massive influence over the masses whose superior numbers can disrupt Roark’s life. Toohey shows that no matter how resilient individuals are to internal vices, we always need to be aware of external threats and affairs.
Gail Wynand has immense power. By the start of the book, he has the largest media empire in the country. He controls the opinions of the masses and whatever he says it becomes the law. However, by the end of the book, Gail discovers that his power over the masses was nonexistent.
Gail is a hard worker and an immensely talented man. A self-made millionaire, Gail began his life in a gang before gaining employment at a newspaper. From here, he climbed his way to the top by bullying, lying, and manipulating. His talent and personal philosophy ensure he becomes fast friends with Howard Roark. By the end of the book, they are close allies, but their friendship is constantly tested.
The Difference Between Howard Roark and Gail Wynand
Within The Fountainhead, Howard Roark stands on his own. He is a self-made man who is driven to improve himself and master his craft. Gail Wynand is also a self-made man but is compelled to control others. Gail wants to have power over the masses, and he gains this power through his newspaper. He appeals to the worst in people, and they prop him up and help him reach the top.
However, we know this song and dance: the masses are fickle. When Gail wants to use his newspaper to protect Howard, he quickly discovers how little influence he has. Gail attempts to convince the immoral masses to support the magnanimity of individualism. However, the masses are so jaded and corrupt, they turn on Gail and attack him for displaying virtue for the first time in his career. Despite his best efforts, Gail gives up the crusade to help his friend and eventually closes down his newspaper, a broken and humbled man.
Gail achieves his power over the masses through immoral and petty means. He lied, cheated, and manipulated by selling the public yellow journalism and hollow ideas. When Gail wanted to use his influence to save Howard, the masses were uninterested in protecting a man of virtue and talent. Thus, they attacked Gail.
Power Over The Self
Power over the self should always be the concern of the individual. Howard Roark focused on himself and his own personal improvement. From this focus, he builds a network of friends and customers who will always support him. Conversely, Gail builds an empire focused on controlling others. Because of this foundation, Gail attracts corrupt individuals, such as Toohey, who use Gail’s empire to destroy the values Gail holds.
The best empires form from self-control. I’ve learned from Howard to expand my influence through virtue. Although my power will be smaller, it will be stronger and more intense for the few people who I’m close to. But most importantly, my power will remain stable over time.
My Favorite Quotes From The Fountainhead
“Have you felt it too? Have you seen how your best friends love everything about you- except the things that count? And your most important is nothing to them; nothing, not even a sound they can recognize.”
“Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. man had no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons,and to make weapons – a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and we have comes from a single attribute of man -the function of his reasoning mind.”
“Every form of happiness is private. Our greatest moments are personal, self-motivated, not to be touched.”
“Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion – prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: ‘This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me’. Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.”
“To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?”
“Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”
“And what, incidentally, do you think integrity is? The ability not to pick a watch out of your neighbor’s pocket? No, it’s not as easy as that. If that were all, I’d say ninety-five percent of humanity were honest, upright men. Only, as you can see, they aren’t. Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.”
“I often think that he’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean he won’t die someday. But he’s living it. I think he is what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with everyday that passes. . . They change, they deny, they contradict- and they call it growth. At the end there is nothing left, nothing unreveresed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been an entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out of an unformed mass. How do they expect a permanence which they never held for a single moment? But Howard- one can imagine him living forever.”
“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”
“Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.”
The Importance and Impact of The Fountainhead
“Freedom (n.): To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”
As much as I love The Fountainhead, I have lingering concerns. The largest problem is the disturbing nature of Howard and Dominique’s relationship throughout the book. The romance is abusive at best and criminal at worst. They form their relationship through violence, and it creates an uncomfortable dynamic.
Additionally, while Dominque has a stable character arc, her actions are somewhat nonsensical. She spends most of the book being passed from man to man to prove a silly philosophical premise to herself. In a book with characters making deliberate and compelling decisions, Dominique feels out of place.
“I regret nothing. There have been things I missed, but I ask no questions, because I have loved it, such as it has been, even the moments of emptiness, even the unanswered-and that I loved it, that is the unanswered in my life.”
However, The Fountainhead is an excellent, impactful work. Howard Roark is the perfect protagonist who highlights the battle individuals have against society. Peter Keating shows what happens when we put external motivation before pursuing virtue and nobility. Gail Wynand helps us understand the temptation of power and what happens when we give into power lust. Lastly, Ellsworth Toohey represents collectivism to a T by displaying how manipulative and destructive it is.
Whether you need to remain inspired or reminded of the tactics used by the opposers of individualism, The Fountainhead is perfect for you.
- If you’ve read The Fountainhead, what was your take away from it? Did you like it? Hate it? Why?
- What are your thoughts on individualism and collectivism? Do you believe collectives are important? What about individuals? Do you believe there can be a balance between the two? What does this look like in your mind?
- Do you find yourself chasing money and prestige? Why? What do you think these objects will bring you?
Please remember that it’s important to do the actionables. You’re not on this earth to simply read but to do. To become an individual, you must act more than you consume.
*Image credit to Unsplash. All quotes from The Fountainhead.