Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.


Nathaniel Branden, the man who turned Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy into a popular intellectual movement, died today at age 84.

He and Rand famously broke over complications involving a long-term affair of theirs that ended badly in 1968; the tale is told at length from his perspective in his memoir—the most recent edition called My Years with Ayn Randand interestingly, from his ex-wife Barbara Branden's perspective in her 1986 Rand biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand.

After the break with Rand in 1968, Branden had his own highly successful career as a hugely popular writer on psychology, and he is a pioneer of the vital importance of "self-esteem" in modern culture.

Unlike the way the concept has been denatured over the decades, Branden, still Objectivist at heart, wrote with the understanding that creating a worthwhile and valuable life from the perspective of your own values was key to self-esteem, and thus to psychological health. That is, self-esteem wasn't something that should be a natural given to a human, nor our birthright, but something to be won through clear-eyed understanding of our own emotions and their sources, and our values and how to pursue them.

Branden was vital to the spread of Rand's ideas in two distinct junctures: by creating and publicizing the ideas inherent in her fiction through nonfiction and lectures via the Nathaniel Branden Institute in its lectures and magazines from 1958 to 1968 (a task Rand would almost certainly not have attempted without his prodding and aid).

Then, after Rand broke from him and all "official" Objectivists were required to revile him, Branden was a living example that intelligent admiration for and advocacy of Rand's ideas need not be tied in with thoughtless fealty to Rand as a person, or to the pronouncements of those who controlled her estate, with all the attendant flaws and occasional irrationality: that one need not be an official Randian to spread the best of Objectivism. As late as 2010, Branden published print versions of his NBI lectures helping systematize her ideas under the title The Vision of Ayn Rand.

Branden was a friend to Reason over the years. An interview he gave to the magazine back in 1971 was vital in breaking the then very-small-circulation publication up into the thousands in circulation.

He was helpful and giving with information when I researched my 2007 book on the history of the American libertarian movement, of which he was such a major figure, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. He maintained an interest and enthusiasm for libertarian and Objectivist ideas til the end. And as he told me once, to the extent that a libertarian society requires self-realized, self-responsible people–and he believed it did–he considered his work in psychology to be an extension of his interest in political liberty.

Branden's friend Jim Peron eulogizes him at Huffington Post.

A Reason TV interview with Branden from 2009:

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  1. Age 184? and to think 50 of them spent reading John Galt’s monologue…

    1. Your comment shaved a century off the man’s lifespan. Libertarianism kills!

    2. they fixed it…. too bad; I was hoping to meet his doctor

  2. Fuckin’ REcord lifespan, dude.

  3. The Tom Arnold of Objectivism.

    1. Was he in True Lies and did he ever make a movie for some rich kid with cerebral palsy?

    2. That’s a good quip, Bo. Rand had a soft spot for pop-psychology.

  4. I saw the film version of ‘The Passion of Ayn Rand’ starring Helen Mirren as Rand.

    Uh, lots of sex involving neekid Mirren dressed as Rand. If you’re into that sort of thing.

    1. neekid Mirren dressed as Rand

      wait wut?

  5. I was big of Ayn Rand when I was in my late 20’s. I still have high regard for her essays. Rand, while proclaiming to be objective, was really a primacy of conciseness philosopher. She really believed that the human mind was a blank slate. Her attraction to Brandon was that HE could take that and run with it.

    1. She really believed that the human mind was a blank slate.

      Quite possibly one of the most harmful ideas to come down the pike… ever. It’s certainly been a helpful handmaiden to horror wherever it’s appeared in its post-Enlightenment European incarnations.

      1. WTF–are you claiming that Marxism is tabula rasa? All collectivist ideology, to the extent that they embrace an avowed epistemology, have claimed man to be a robot driven by innate, imperceptible forces; this was absolutely central with Marx’s “dialectical materialism” bullshit.

        Materialism is running hog wild through the humanities to this day, it’s latest treachery being the rationalistic bs of evolutionary psych.

    2. No, Rand did not uphold the primacy of consciousness; she created the term and identified that metaphysics in the work of other philosophers.

      To say that tabula rasa = PoC is a ridiculous non-sequitor.

      1. No, he said that Rand upheld the primacy of conciseness.

        Which, considering Galt’s speech, doesn’t seem quite right either.

  6. PuffPo eulogizing an Objectivist? Fiction is dead.

    very-small-circulation publication up into the thousands in circulation.

    Singlehandedly took Reason from Impossibly Obscure to Extremely Obscure.

  7. I was just wondering last week if he’s doing OK, and half-expecting to hear that he’d died.

    I had weekly sessions with NB over the phone about 8-9 years ago, while I was going through a rough patch.

    Most of the time I wasn’t really attending to the fact that he was Nathaniel Branden, but rather just my therapist.

    But one day I was talking to him about a new relationship I’d started, and I made some comment about older women, and he said “you seem to have forgotten who you’re talking to”. I freaking lost it. I’ll never forget that.

  8. He lied to and manipulated a friend, mentor, and lover he professed to respect, wrote a dishonest book about her after she died, and built a career more successful than he deserved based upon that association and betrayal and upon distorting the views she laid out.

    He was a scoundrel who did even more damage to her ideas than Alan Greenspan did.

    1. There is no God but Reason and Rand (pbuh) is its prophet

    2. Leonard Peikoff, is that you?

      1. Leonard Peikoff has a podcast that he updates weekly. At 81! He gets into some topics where he doesn’t quite agree with Objectivist orthodoxy. It’s not a secret:


        There’s a debate between Peikoff and Yaron Brook about open borders, if you take a close look. And homosexuality.

        1. Peikoff is a deeply diplomatic person despite being an Objectivist. If you notice, the only members of the Collective who remained “loyal” to Rand until her death were Peikoff and Greenspan, both great diplomats, the latter being perhaps the best unelected political I’ve ever heard speak this side of Milton Friedman.

          And while I disagree with Objectivism profoundly in both style and substance, Yaron Brook is a damn warrior. His extemporaneous speeches on Youtube are a marvel.

      2. Nope! In fact, I think Peikoff has made a lot of mistakes over the years too, especially this past decade.

        If we have to boil it down, I’m of the Diana Hsieh and Craig Biddle persuasion. But yeah, PeikoffKelley.

        1. Guess I should have previewed that. My “much greater than” sign did not show up between Peikoff and Kelley.

          1. I concur. Still, I love ‘The Evidence of the Senses’.

        2. If we have to boil it down, I’m of the Diana Hsieh and Craig Biddle persuasion.

          If there’s one thing Objectivists excel at, it’s schisms.

    3. Classy. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. I think Roy Childs deserves a lot of credit for humanizing Branden after his fall.

  10. He probably wouldn’t appreciate it, but Olav HaShalom*. He could be an arrogant jerk back then, and I think Sheldon’s right about Roy’s influence normalizing him.
    Those were wilder days, I must say (I was peripherally in some of the wider circles back when I was an undergraduate).

    [*That’s the Jewish version of PBUH, but everybody gets it, if they’re dead–well, there’s a feminine version too…]

  11. I’ve been reading Branden’s neo-Randian books on self-esteem and eclectic talk-therapy methods the past few months. The self-esteem industry gets a bad rap, and deservedly so given how it spun out after Branden became a name, but Branden is as serious an influence on libertarian psychology as Szasz IMO. Though his popular legacy will always be his relationship to Rand as her lover and bulldog, he was a deeply creative and humane mind in his own right.

    A great and flawed man whose life was filled with tragedy and betrayal, on both his part and others. If they can write the same about me, I’ll consider it a good life.

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