Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden died on December 3, at the age of 84. Whatever the mistakes he made in his life, he has to be credited with bringing Objectivism to a larger audience. At the same time, his Nathaniel Branden Institute promoted the ideological conformity, the idea that almost any disagreement, even in tastes, is a sin, which has tainted the Objectivist movement ever since. Reason and unquestioning agreement are totally incompatible, as he later came to realize.

Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem presented an idea which was later widely adopted, if only in name. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, he wrote:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.

The “self-esteem movement” picked up part of the basic idea but turned it into something to be achieved with sheer positive thinking, rather than something that’s built up through decisions and actions. Conservatives, for their part, have often regarded self-esteem as the sin of pride.

I’ve found it valuable to remember that self-esteem builds on itself. If you’re confident in your ability, you’re motivated to take the actions that will lead to success and to keep going when it gets hard. Being successful gives you more confidence. However, we all experience strings of failures in our lives, and we need a more enduring kind of self-esteem to get through those, a sense of personal integrity and worth and a philosophical view that regards success as a possible and worthy goal. Branden wrote: “What people think, what they believe, what they tell themselves, incluences what they feel and what they do. In turn, they experience what they feel and do as having meaning for who they are.”

We’re so often told we should be “selfless,” that “there’s no I in ‘team,'” etc. People are pushed into self-doubt and self-disparagement in order to make them easy to manipulate. Branden helped to push back against this idea, to tell people that their personal worth is theirs to lay claim to and develop.

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One Response to “Nathaniel Branden”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    I agree with your comments regarding Branden’s concept of self-esteem, and its relation to the self-esteem movement.

    I really have to correct you, however, on crediting Branden with having “later come to realize” that reason and unquestioning agreement are incompatible.

    In theory, Branden always completely understood that reason and unquestioning agreement are incompatible, and was always explicit about saying so. He made many such statements in his essays and lectures during the NBI days, and never showed any signs of recognizing how hypocritical and inconsistent these statements were with his practice.

    After Branden’s break with Ayn Rand, none of this changed. Branden made some statements half-heartedly admitting there was something wrong with his approach during the NBI days, pretending to express remorse for some of his behavior, all the while insisting that the blame for these problems should be placed on Rand, not on him. Meanwhile, his actual practice remained unchanged (at least not as late as the early 2000s, which is the latest that I had any contact with him or paid any attention to him). He continued to set himself up as an authority, demanding that everyone agree with him unquestioningly, and responding with hostility and condemnation to any challenging question. That remained true whenever he was giving talks in person, as well as in his interactions on email discussion lists.

    The evidence is clear that Branden never “came to realize” anything. His approach to reason and unquestioning agreement remained the same throughout his life, never changing in any way.


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