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 Rand—and 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.
A Reason TV interview with Branden from 2009: