The Fountainhead Essay Contest Finalist
The conversation regarding Howard Roark’s refusal to accept the conditions of the contract offered by Weidler exemplifies the dangerous disconnect between egotistical individuals and a society that has been steadily brainwashed into letting go of the idiosyncratic ego in favor of a collective emptiness. Roark, ever the staunch individualist, refuses to change himself for any person and is utterly incapable of viewing the world from any perspective other than his own. Weidler acts as his foil, for he can only look at actions in terms of how they will affect other people or how they will affect the actor in his relationships with others. The men’s oppositional points of view reach a climax when Weidler refers to Roark’s refusal as selfless – a gross misuse of the word – while Roark asserts that defending his ideals is the most selfish thing a man could do.
Because of the modern warped connotations of the words “selfless” and “selfish,” which people erroneously segregate into categories of good and evil, “selfish,” to the majority of the public, has come to mean any action that glorifies or aids the individual at the expense of society. However, at its core, the word “selfish” is just as it sounds – something that regards only the self and not any other person or group of people, and therefore does not involve the intentional harming of any others. There is not a negative correlation between selfishness and the strength of a society, as disciples of Ellsworth Toohey would have the world believe; in fact, there is a positive correlation between these two abstracts. When more people care for the well-being of their own selves, there is less stifling of creativity and an increased spread of knowledge, because no person fears that another’s position in the world will somehow cheat him out of his own desires.
Selfishness, therefore, is not an attack on any other person or group of people, but a type of fortitude. Selfishness is the tenacity of sticking to ideals, because at the core of each person, in the very essence of every being, are egocentric ideals. These ideals include anything that makes a man happy – this is not to say that others may not also gain happiness as a result of another’s individual pursuit of happiness. For example, if a man derives his own pleasure from the donation of food to the homeless or knowledge to the ignorant, his willingness to provide service to these people is selfish. However, if any person donates to the homeless because of a belief that such actions will gain him entry into Heaven (or union with Brahman, or achievement of Nirvana) or that his fellow humans will respect him more for the donation, he is utterly selfless, because he provides only others with pleasure and is not fulfilled by what he has done.
Howard Roark achieves his selfish pleasure through his art: architecture. He designs buildings as they are meant to be in his mind’s eye, not as the Greeks or the Romans before him would have imagined them. If he were to change any detail of his buildings, no matter how minute, he would be submitting to the will of another, and thus would not maximize his happiness. As the ideal egotist, Roark would never be able to add a Classic motive to his façade simply because somebody asked him to do so, because the Classic motive was not his idea, would not add to his happiness, and, in fact, would be counterproductive to morality because it would bring him unhappiness.
Roark turns down Weidler’s offer because he values his own creation and ideas over any other person’s happiness. He selfishly shelters his ego from the outer world through his inability to feel any sort of suffering from rejections and setbacks. Roark wants neither money nor power if his inner self – his ego – must be compromised in order to reach these goals. He knows that he was born to be exactly as he is, and that to sacrifice any part of himself, even his architectural designs, to another would be to sacrifice an integral part of himself.
To lose any part of oneself by compromising ideals is selfless. As the ego is the most important part of any being, to be selfless is destructive and immoral. However, over time, institutions have warped the meaning of this word so that the common belief is that that selflessness is tantamount to helping others and that helping others is truly the noblest deed possible in the collective robotic mind of society (of course, if each person were to preserve his own ego, no person would ever be in need of aid).
As a part of the American machine, Weidler glorifies money, no matter the manner in which it is gained, and power, though it only comes through the support of other people. From his point of view, there was no way that Roark would even so much as hesitate to accept his contract, because the building would attract attention from other prestigious businessmen, inevitably opening doors for many future jobs. It was selfless, then, by Weidler’s standards, for Roark to forgo the clout that he would have received in the architectural world for keeping his drawing unchanged. The power, Weidler must have concluded, would ultimately be given to another aspiring architect, and because he was too weak-willed to see Roark’s original drawing as anything other than a means to power, he concluded that it was selfless of Roark to aid another man (albeit this was done entirely unintentionally in Roark’s mind) in climbing career ladders to reach the heights of fame and affluence.
Weidler also knows that Roark is not financially secure. If Roark elected not to accept the job on Weidler’s terms, there could be no telling how long he would have to wait for another commission. In this time, he could easily run out of money, potentially leaving him hungry or without even a place to live. As a person who has been touched by the socialistic ravings of men like Toohey, Weidler equates selfishness with hoarding possessions and selflessness with giving them away. For Roark to not seize any opportunity to earn money, which would lead to an ability to purchase basic necessities and better living spaces, would make him, then, selfless in the eyes of the masses, because he has no desire for worldly possessions or for increasing his own physical wellbeing.
Howard Roark’s physical wellbeing is not and never will be as important as the wellbeing of his ego, which, unlike the majority of society, he is determined to protect from the constant buffeting it receives from a world in which the individual is pushed to become part of the collective. While citizens of this world believe him to be selfless because he cares not at all for material possessions or power over the many, two things they have been brainwashed into believing should be shared evenly amongst all people, Roark knows himself to be selfish because he unrelentingly battles the pressure to join the collective human body. Roark is selfish because he lives for himself, and he expects no less from any other man.