Atlas Evolved: The Life and Loves of Nathaniel Branden

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From Ayn Rand to the Art of Conscious Living.

The writings and philosophies of Ayn Rand continue to impact and influence the world in many profound ways, seen everywhere from national budget debates to Wall Street ethics to the recent rise of the Tea Party. The Economist and the New York Times have both reported that the sales of Atlas Shrugged have spiked in the wake of the 2000’s recession, and a new film adaptation has just been released in theaters across America. Think whatever you want about Ayn Rand and the Objectivist philosophy she founded, but you shouldn’t underestimate her influence upon contemporary thought and culture.

Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s former lover and the inspiration for her famous John Galt character, was at ground zero during the rise of the Objectivist movement. In this exclusive six-hour dialogue, Nathaniel offers an intimate insider’s view of the origins, major contributions, and inevitable limitations of Rand’s philosophy and the intellectual movement it sparked. Masterfully hosted by renowned Integral philosopher Ken Wilber, this talk offers invaluable insight into Ayn Rand’s legacy, the human potential movement, romantic love, self-esteem, self-transcendence, and the art of conscious living.

An intimate insider’s view of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and legacy.

In a well known joint study conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, people were asked to identify the book that has made the biggest difference in their lives. Not surprisingly, the Bible came in first—but Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was listed second, with The Fountainhead in fifth place. Which means that two of the five most influential books reported by the public were both penned by Ayn Rand.

Rand’s legacy is staggering. Her Objectivist philosophy continues to influence modern “greed is good” economic theory (think Alan Greenspan), conservative and libertarian ideologies (think Rep. Paul Ryan), and is even resurfacing in recent years as the rise of Tea Party politics. Even one of the most successful video games of the past decade, BioShock, was based explicitly upon Rand’s philosophy.

Who is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, is regarded by many as Rand’s magnum opus. Within you can find all the core tenets of her Objectivist philosophy, expounding upon Rand’s views on reason, individualism, and self-reliance, the concepts of achievement and human progress, the importance of free market economies, and the dangers of socialism and government coercion.

One of the most important characters in Atlas Shrugged is a man named John Galt, a mysterious philosopher and inventor who, in the end, symbolizes all the most admirable qualities described by Rand’s worldview. What many people do not realize, however, is that John Galt was largely based upon Ayn Rand’s real-life partner and lover, Nathaniel Branden, who Rand considered to be the living embodiment of the principles of her Objectivist philosophy.

Okay, so who is Nathaniel Branden?

Psychologist and philosopher Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D. is a founding member of Integral Institute and author of twenty books on the psychology of self-esteem, romantic love, and the life and thought of Ayn Rand. His work has been translated into 18 languages and has sold over 4 million copies, and includes such titles as Taking Responsibility, The Art of Living Consciously, A Woman’s Self-Esteem, and the 1969 classic, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. Branden currently works as both a practicing psychotherapist and a corporate consultant through the Branden Institute, conducting seminars, workshops, and conferences to demonstrate how the principles of self-esteem can be applied to the challenges of the modern business organization.

Nathaniel begins his story at the beginning: a boy of fourteen who stumbled across a copy of The Fountainhead lying on the coffee table. “I disappeared from this earth for the next two days, until the book was finished. It was an electrifying experience.” Little did he know then that as a young man, a shade under twenty, he would actually meet Ayn and soon begin one of the most passionate and turbulent romantic relationships of his life, the effects of which would touch the lives of thousands.

As Nathaniel recalls: “I could hardly believe that this person who I had regarded as a goddess since age fourteen, saw me for all practical purposes as the apotheosis of everything she was writing about.” Ayn and Nathaniel began an intense, romantic (and largely secret) relationship—she in her forties, Nathaniel in his twenties—that has become the stuff of legend (and at least one movie). It is rare that any influential movement begins in such a way; rarer still to have such an intimate eyewitness report.

The Art of Conscious Living

Most of us are lucky to collect a handful of truly great stories in our lifetimes. Nathaniel, meanwhile, has dozens. Hundreds, maybe. And boy, does he know how to tell them! (“I’ve never met anyone who speaks in full chapters!” Ken quips toward the end of the dialogue.) Nathaniel’s relationship with Ayn—and the disintegration thereof—is just the very first chapter of Nathaniel’s remarkable life. The rest of his story is truly extraordinary, having unfolded through several of the developmental stages that Ken describes so lucidly in his own work.

Each chapter of his life resulted in a deepening and widening of Nathaniel’s concept of self, ranging from the rational self-interest of Rand’s Objectivism (modern) to themes of self-esteem and self-authorship (postmodern) to the curious relationship between self-identity and self-transcendence (post-postmodern, or integral)—all of which makes Nathaniel’s life one of the most fascinating case-studies of the many territories of integral consciousness that we have ever seen.

“The secret to romantic relationships,” Nathaniel tells us, “is mutual admiration.” Clearly, the same can be said for long and enduring friendships, such as the one shared by Ken and Nathaniel. The affection and respect that exists between these two intellectual giants is unmistakable, resulting in one of the warmest and most emotionally-stirring conversations that Ken has ever recorded. Nathaniel’s stories will make you laugh, they will make you cry, and they will help inspire your own path toward a fully-conscious and fully-lived life.

A Note from Ken Wilber

“Nathaniel Branden is an old friend of mine—ever since he asked to meet with me in 1984 to answer the question, “What does Buddha have that Zorba the Greek doesn’t?” (I replied something like constancy of realization, not just occasional dancing.) But Nathaniel in general, at that time, was wary of the transpersonal position, yet he seemed to find my writing fairly convincing, and so we were always going at it in some sort of very friendly debate.

Nathaniel, of course, had been Ayn Rand’s primary promoter (and lover) for several decades (John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged, was modeled largely after him), although he later came to feel her approach too violently cut off emotions, and so he developed what he called a “biocentric approach,” returning feelings to their appropriate and significant place.

The following interview is typical of our talks together—I think you will find it illuminating, clear, fascinating, and often compelling. I always had a very special place for Nathaniel in my heart, even though we remained in some ways on opposite sides of the transpersonal street. But I admired him enormously—and still do. I hope you find the following as much fun as I did.”

-Ken Wilber

Dialogue Summary

The Early Years. Part 1: Falling in Love with Ayn & the Passion of Objectivism

In this opening conversation, Nathaniel recounts his love affair with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which later turned into a dramatic love affair with the women herself. Spending his young adulthood in the intellectual and emotional cauldron surrounding Ayn became the home he had been searching for. And yet, the seductive momentum of the times carried Nathaniel off into an intoxicating and constricted period of maturation. Coupled with these intensely conflicting feelings was the attack on Atlas Shrugged by the intellectuals of the times….

The Early Years. Part 2: Falling-Out with Ayn & Rediscovering Emotions

Nathaniel and Ken continue the conversation by exploring several reasons Ayn’s philosophy was attacked so mercilessly after the publication of Atlas Shrugged. Timing is everything, and Ayn offered a persuasive vision of the foundational importance of the individual in a time when collectivism ruled the intellectual day. Thus it came as no surprise when the Objectivist movement received such blazing criticism from the intelligentsia.

It was during this time that Nathaniel met and fell in love with one of his students, Patrecia. This began a wonderfully painful chain of events culminating in Ayn’s discovery of Nathaniel and Patrecia’s relationship, which marked the well-publicized split between Nathaniel and Ayn both personally and professionally. Finally extricated from this world, he began to critically reassess the relationship between emotions and reason. As Nathaniel goes on to explain, this was a difficult period because his inquiry involved not just the philosophical dimensions of his being, but also his psychological being as well. He had thus begun the process of including within his own life the things he had spent the past twenty years disowning.

Nathaniel Branden

About Nathaniel Branden

Psychologist and philosopher Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D. is a founding member of Integral Institute and author of twenty books on the psychology of self-esteem, romantic love, and the life and thought of Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. His work has been translated into 18 languages and has sold over 4 million copies, and includes such titles as Taking Responsibility, The Art of Living Consciously, A Woman's Self-Esteem, and the 1969 classic, The Psychology of Self-Esteem.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.