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Rand's application of these terms differs from the conventional use. The widely accepted paradigm of selfishness is putting one's own interest before others, while Rand defines being selfish as staying true to one's self; the values, judgment, and set of principles an individual establishes. With this in mind, Rand describes the concept of being selfless as doing only for others-forgoing one's values and disregarding ones self-for the sake of the masses.
Rand's use of the term selfless can be more clearly defined through the characterization of Peter Keating, a man who directly contrasts with the personality of Howard Roark. Although Keating had the gift to become an artist, he becomes an architect solely on the basis of his mother's wishes. Keating substitutes his own decisions and virtues with those of his peers. He surrenders his own integrity to the people and loses his identity-his self. The self, then, can be represented by a building. For a building to stand, each part of its structure must fulfill a certain function. Just as a building collapses when a piece of its frame is removed, the self can be destroyed by betraying one's own values. Because of his self-destruction, Keating is unable to construe value. After designing a residence, "were he to be told that this was the best or the ugliest house in the world, he would agree with either." (63) He becomes selfless.
Keating, however, recognizes Roark's talent. Because he cannot design his own buildings, he runs to Roark for aid. A fundamental difference between Keating and Roark is their dependency on others. Keating seeks for the approval of others' in his work, while Roark cares not for evaluation. This is made prominent from the beginning of the novel as Roark returns to his boarding house, "[People] remained staring after him... [but] Howard Roark saw no one." (5) Roark is indifferent to the people around him. He does not need, appraise, nor does he depend on them-he is a man who lives only for himself and no other.
While Keating becomes an architect for his mother, Roark was not pressured by others to pursue the architectural profession; rather he did so out of his own desire. Unlike Keating, who "hated every girder of [his] building[s]" (170), Roark loves the whole process of creating a structure. When designing a building, Roark does so with originality. Roark explains, at the meeting with the Dean, "A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn't borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn't borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it." (12) Tradition, in his eyes, poses no worth. Instead, he designs his buildings, not by the standards of his school, but based on his own values-with originality.
Furthermore, Roark symbolizes what Rand calls "the creator." As Roark says during his courtroom speech, "No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers... His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way... that was his goal and his life." (710) Roark does not work based on the beliefs of the public; using architecture, he erects his buildings based on his own desire-because he wants to. Roark holds his mind, integrity, and laws independent from all other men. By following his own premise in the creation of his designs, Roark's buildings become a piece of his self. His self, then, is the most important value to Roark.
When offered the commission for the Manhattan building-one that he urgently needed-at the expense that his designs be altered, Roark refuses. He calls his action "the most selfish thing you've ever seen a man do." To compromise would mean to abdicate ones principles for another. When a man renounces his values-like Keating-to please others, he becomes selfless. He commits the ultimate crime: the murder of his self. Roark rejects the commission in order to keep his building's honesty intact. To be selfish, one requires a self. He must act on his own judgment, values and principles. He must be independent and committed. Conceding with another's taste is to be the opposite-to surrender. Thus, when Roark is rejects the proposal, despite his destitute state, he exhibits the "virtue" Rand calls true selfishness. (The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand)
In the eyes of others, however, Roark's action is conceived as selfless. In this case, one must analyze the perception of the public regarding the rejection of the commission. Because they fail to understand the reasoning behind Roark's action, a different conclusion surfaces.