Perhaps it is a sign of the fact that I am, like everyone else, getting older, and with age, comes the realization of one's own mortality and the mortality of those one has loved, respected and admired. Today, I learned that Nathaniel Branden passed away at the age of 84; I have been utterly devastated by the news. Too many bright lights of liberty have dimmed in the past few months.
Nathaniel Branden was one of those individuals who provided the kind of light that could illuminate the path to self-discovery and self-esteem. He was the father of the self-esteem movement, in every positive sense it has embodied.
But before eulogizing the man and his work, let's get a few items out of the way immediately: I am aware that he, like every other human being on earth had his faults, and that among these faults was that he conducted a relationship with a woman (Ayn Rand) 25 years his senior, and lied to Rand as that relationship collapsed. My take on "The Affair" has been beaten to death. I am sure that those who hated him in life are gathering for parties tonight to dance and piss on this man's grave.
They should hang their heads in utter shame, for without Nathaniel Branden, nothing like a structured Objectivist philosophy would have emerged or influenced thousands of people across the globe.
I could not care less about all the naysayers; they owe Nathaniel Branden more than anybody, save Ayn Rand, for the formal development of the philosophy of Objectivism. It was Branden who created the Nathaniel Branden Institute, which brought Rand out of her post-Atlas Shrugged depression, and catapulted her into the role of public philosopher. It was Branden who presented the first systematization of the philosophy with his "Basic Principles of Objectivism" course (later published as The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism, 2009), a course that was given live, and heard by thousands of others on audio recordings, both on vinyl records and tapes. It was Branden who explored the psychological implications of Rand's exalted conception of self-esteem, and whose work was fully and unequivocally endorsed by Rand during her lifetime (indeed, his book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem is largely a collection of all the work he did while under Rand's tutelage, and it is, in many ways, the popular launch of the self-esteem movement in modern psychology). He also conducted, with the late Barbara Branden (who passed away a year ago, this December), a series of interviews that have formed the basis of nearly every biographical work that has been published (though none of us Rand scholars non-affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute have had the privilege of listening to them, much less entering the premises to examine unpublished materials to compare them to their published versions---except for one, Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right and her assessment of the state of affairs is worth reading).
But it was in his post-Randian years that Branden made his biggest impact. He owned up to the damage he did to so many people when he used psychology as a sledgehammer in the Randian Inner Circle to the detriment of many talented and tender human beings. But he also traced the rationalism that was poisoning the philosophy; instead of being a path to uplift, it often became a path to self-repression, self-flagellation, pain, fear, and guilt. It was the height of horrific irony that a movement based on individualism would give birth to "The Collective," where group-think discouraged independent thought. But Branden wrote Breaking Free and The Disowned Self, both of which began the very process of breaking free from the worst aspects of that legacy, to which he himself had contributed; Leonard Peikoff did a similarly exemplary job in his series of lectures, "Understanding Objectivism," by far, his best post-Randian work.
Except it was Nathaniel Branden who led the way long before Peikoff took the necessary steps to shed the oppressive characteristics that were haunting the early Objectivist movement. Unfortunately, however, Peikoff, as heir to Rand's Estate, merely established another oppressive movement, and I suspect it will take a generation for this internecine warfare and insane back-stabbing to end. It is the kind of thing that undermines the integrity of Rand's philosophy, making it a laughing stock for writers who would rather focus on the salacious details of sex scandals and personal foibles than on the serious theoretical and philosophical implications of Rand's work.
To the critics of Rand, who would dismiss her philosophy by focusing on scandal and to the critics of Branden, who would seek to erase the contributions he made to Objectivism, I could only say: To hell with every last one of you.
Both groups ignore the works of Nathaniel Branden at their own peril. He was a man who eventually learned to "Honor the Self" in a way that he could not have accomplished fully under the spell of the "Collective."
Nathaniel Branden was a friend to me; he was a counselor and mentor. He helped me through some of the worst days of my life with his psychological acumen; he helped me materially and spiritually when my congenital health problems nearly destroyed my life and my family's finances. He was a consummate gentleman, a kind, loving, humane, and brilliant man.
I first met Nathaniel, the same way I first met Barbara; I sent him a draft of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and he returned it with so many remarkable edits, questions, and challenges, that if it were not for his input, the book would have suffered immensely. One of the problems we had in our early discussions, however, was that I was referring to Objectivism as a totality, from a historical perspective, a cultural-historio-philosophical movement. Toward that end, my book sought to look at the whole of Objectivism. I could not do so without a requisite encounter with Branden's work. My Russian Radical was the first book to reintegrate the contributions of Nathaniel Branden into the formal philosophical edifice of Rand's radical understanding of the world. Sometimes I'd find in the marginalia of his comments: "But Rand didn't say this, Branden did..." and I'd interrupt him and tell him, "But you don't understand: whether you like it or not, in a hundred years, people won't give a shit about who stabbed whom or who slept with whom, and simply look at all you folks as part and parcel of the same philosophical movement, one that aimed to change the world." He relented.
Before I had the privilege of taking him and his (then, wife) Devers Branden, for my celebrated tour of Brooklyn, I met him in Manhattan to discuss my book; we later joined up with David Kelley for dinner.
While we sat in his bright hotel room, Branden asked me: "So what does Chris Sciabarra do when he's not reconstructing Objectivism, when he's not helping us to understand the amazing historical context within which the philosophy developed? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?"
To which I answered: "Well, Nathaniel, you know I have health problems, so I don't get out as much as I'd like; but rest assured, if I were to ever get married, it would not be to a girl."
Without missing a beat, he looked me directly into my eyes and said: "I did a lot of damage in the early years of Objectivism, especially in my flippant treatment of homosexuality. I would like to think I've come a long way and that I have made amends to those who were unduly hurt by the insensitive ways in which I characterized sexual orientation. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with heterosexuality or homosexuality, as long as you are happy and seek the kinds of relationships that will appeal to the best within you."
It was almost an apology to me personally, though I never felt wronged; I had read his evolving views on the subject, which gave me the balls to say what I said in his hotel room.
We spoke often through the years; he shared with me books that he wrote, which have still not been published. Some of these works were works of personal catharsis, something that all of us could use a dose of. He leaves a legacy that is so immense, I would not know where to start in characterizing its importance and its impact.
All I can say, for now, is this: I express my deepest appreciation to him, and my heart goes out to his current wife Leigh, who has weathered the storms of the last few years in ways that have proven remarkable. And to all those who mourn him and who will miss him, I extend my deepest sympathies.
I will forever honor Nathaniel Branden's work, his person, his generosity, his kindness, his sensitivity, and his gifts. I will miss him until my dying day.
Love and friendship, eternal,
Chris Matthew Sciabarra