In this book, Ayn Rand presents her philosophy through a story about architects. She uses the designing and building of houses as symbolic of how people can live their lives and approaches to producing art. Different characters in the story represent different aspects of human nature.
Summary of Ayn Rand’s main philosophy:
Most people in the world live ‘second-hand’; they have their opinions, desires and actions dictated by others. In some cases this is obvious, for example when questioning someone you realise their opinion is not their own. However, there are more insidious ways to live ‘second hand’. This involves living your life on the terms of others, by values dictated by society; people who strive for prestige, power, money all fit into this category.
Rand contests the values of ‘selfishness’ and ‘selflessness’; popular thought within our society values ‘selflessness’ and tells us to be altruistic and put others first. People who lives second hand, whether they realise it or not, are doing so as they are valuing the opinions of others above themselves and thus are ‘selfless’. There is no real ‘them’, only an amalgamation of the opinions and values that have been placed upon them by others.
Rand argues that the solution is to be selfish in these matters, which counterintuitively leads to a greater contribution to society. She believes we all have natural inclinations towards certain things and that we should live by them regardless of the consensus of society. And ultimately this is how society advances; Rand uses the examples of inventions that were denounced by society at the time (so the creator was living by their own values and not the opinion of the society): the first motor, the airpline, the power loom, anaesthesia, etc. People whose whole being is composed from other will have no means to make a contribution to society as everything that they are came from that society.
(I will add to this if I find the time, including my favourite passages from the book)