On Reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’

 

This post is a refutation of objectivism as presented in Atlas Shrugged. Paradoxically, the problem with doing so is not that the question is too hard but too easy. It’s simple to say that Rand writes bad characters and ponderous speeches and dismiss the lot of it out of hand. There are two problems with that approach. The first is that it convinces nobody. If you do find her ideas compelling then easy mockery does nothing to expose their flaws. The second is that Rand actually had a number of excellent observations, ideas that shouldn’t be discarded even if she’s a lousy writer (and the writing isn’t all lousy either). What follows is an honest attempt to understand and refute the philosophy of objectivism. We’ll start by looking at Rand’s best ideas.

What Rand Does Well

Rand herself lived through the Bolshevik revolution, and escaped to America only by “going Galt” in that she wrote off everything she had in the Soviet Union and made it here with only what she could carry. That’s entirely to her credit, as is her subsequent prosperity in The Land of the Free. Having lived through that part of history she has an amazing grasp on the arguments of the communists, their appeals to a sort of morality, and the fatal flaws that doom the prospect of a socialist utopia. Indeed, she often seems to have a prescient vision of how society has progressed. This is not because she’s accurately predicted the advancement of mankind’s morality, but because mankind’s morality doesn’t advance. All these things she describes were problems in her day, are problems in our day, and will be with us until the Lord returns in glory.

Weaponized Compassion

The woke reformer is attempting to immanentize the eschaton much like the communist idealist of Rand’s day. The communist urges us to have compassion for the working man; the woke evangelist urges us to remember the suffering of those who are discriminated against. In both cases, they demand that we break our eggs to make their omelet, and as with the communists I’m not holding my breath waiting for that woke omelet to appear.

Rand’s industrialists are often condemned for their lack of human feeling. “Human feeling” is defined as love for a broad and unspecified general public, which as a practical principle means the industrialists pay out now, and instead of some general public reaping the benefit, the profits redound to the sort of people with political pull. Life for the common man gets worse. Maybe asking for pronouns will benefit some trans person somewhere by making them feel less excluded. I have my doubts. In the short term, there are diversity consultants pulling down good money for insisting that we all do so, and the common man suffers because actual communication becomes harder. But we can’t possibly fail to tack to the ever-shifting winds of what constitutes acceptable discourse; that wouldn’t be nice.

Early on in the book Hank Rearden gives ten thousand dollars to his brother’s charity. This fails to make his brother happy. The Rearden sibling genuinely isn’t concerned with money; he’s also entirely unconcerned with the putative objectives of his charity. What he wants, what he really wants, is Hank Rearden to acknowledge his moral superiority in being so unconcerned with money. He isn’t though; like the Pharisee loudly counting out his donation in the temple he’s not unconcerned with money, he’s buying something intangible. Dealing in the trade of cash for status does not make a man moral.

Brother Rearden, the diversity consultant, and the communist organizer, they’re all crying tears for the plight of someone. But they’re not actually helping that someone, they’re achieving some other goal. That isn’t compassion, that’s weaponized compassion. Crocodile tears should be met only with contempt.

Making Your Own Luck

The looters always say that “nobody ever gave them a chance.” Well, they’re given the chance. Phil Larkin gets his chance when the law forbids Hank Rearden to own his own ore mines. Phil Larkin squanders the chance he’s given. Dagny Taggart, despite bearing the family name, starts at the bottom of Taggart Transcontinental and works her way up to Operating Vice President.[1] She would have had a chance given to her if she had insisted on the prerogatives of the family name. She didn’t need anyone to hand her a chance. There are such things in this world as lucky breaks and good men doomed to failure by misfortune rather than laziness and stupidity, however, sitting back and worrying about bad luck never gets you anywhere. You do what you can with what you have, which gives you the opportunity to mitigate bad luck and capitalize on any good fortune that turns up. Giving a man a chance only does him any good if he’s willing to use that chance.

This is, it should be noted, a hard doctrine to live by. If your fortunes are guided by the stars and your job hunting turns out wrong, oh well, that’s life, what can you do? If on the other hand there’s no luck at all, then it must be that your failure to get a job hinged on decisions you made wrong, effort that you could have put in, things you should have done. Living under that rule set will get you better results in life (because it will spur you on to evaluate mistakes and improve your efforts going forward) but it will drive you crazy if you take responsibility for factors you can’t influence. I use the example of job hunting deliberately; many important factors involved are beyond your control. Like, for example, the unstated objectives of the hiring committee.

The Cowardice of the Committee

You can see this from the first chapter, from the first time that Jim Taggart says “Nobody could blame me for…”. A man who sets out to solve a problem may or may not solve the problem. A man who sets out to insure himself against any possible downside might accomplish that, but if he solves the problem it’s purely a matter of accident. Don’t make that decision yourself; get a committee to decide it. Spread any possible blame around. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. If your idea fails you’re screwed, but if everyone agreed to a solution that didn’t work then you’re in the clear. There are several problems with this approach. It wastes time. By securing risk with a committee to blame you’re also preventing yourself from taking any risks which are too scary for the committee. Worst of all a committee focused on limiting short-term losses may doom you to long-term catastrophe by forestalling any options that would offer long-term benefits at the expense of immediate risk.

The book illustrates this with the rebuilding of the Rio Norte line. The only way Dagny can get permission from Jim Taggart to do it right is if she assumes all the risk for herself. Jim wants to use steel rails because they’ve always used steel rails, and nobody could blame them if it turns out that Rearden Metal would have done the job better. If he had used steel rails that section of track wouldn’t have been able to handle the Colorado traffic, and the result would have been much the same as if the bridge of Rearden Metal had collapsed. Nobody would have blamed Jim; he wouldn’t have lost his corporate presidency. It still would have been his fault, for surrendering his judgment to the opinion of a committee instead of doing the job right.

Jim sneers at Dagny that she’s just gotten lucky, while ignoring all the labor, all the intelligence, and the courage to defy public opinion to produce that luck. Jim will never get so lucky himself because he’s secured himself against that chance.

The Aristocracy of Pull

I’m going to start here with a quotation from the eponymous chapter. It’s one of the best moments in the book.

“We are at the dawning of a new age” said James Taggart, from above the rim of his champagne glass. “We are breaking up the vicious tyranny of economic power. We have set men free from the rule of the dollar. We will release our spiritual aims from dependence on the owners of material means. We will liberate our culture from the stranglehold of the profit-chasers. We will build a society dedicated to higher ideals, and we will replace the aristocracy of money with —”

“The aristocracy of pull,” said a voice beyond the group.

When you lose an agreed-upon measure of social worth (which is what money and prices boil down to) then someone still does the measuring, and suddenly the person who decides on that measure becomes very important to your livelihood indeed. Despite the protestations of fairness and equality, the process doesn’t get any more fair or equal. When the slaves depose their masters the most likely result isn’t freedom; it’s a new set of masters. Money, as Francisco d’Anconia (the mentioned voice) reminds us, allows men to make agreements, not merely live by theft and the sword.[2]

Jim Taggart, through his significant political pull, gets railroad bonds frozen. He no longer has to pay out to his investors. This is great news for Jim, and terrible for people who were relying on those investments. Not to worry says the government, those who have special need can get their bonds defrozen and those defrozen bonds can be cashed in. There springs into existence a bureaucracy to determine “special need”, and a class of defreezers who are adept at navigating that bureaucracy. Seem plausible to you? Tell me, was your job considered essential during the pandemic? In the general case, how closely do you think the groups of people who need welfare and the people who are adept at filling out the paperwork for it match? Again I refer you to Rand’s experience with the Bolshevik Revolution and what followed.

There’s one more danger to the Aristocracy of Pull. Those that live by the sword die by the sword. When the government needs a favor out of Jim Taggart they can extort it by threatening to defreeze all the railroad bonds. If Taggart had dealt honestly with his investors at the beginning he could have told the G-man to get bent. By using regulations to fleece his investors he gave the government the ability to use those self-same regulations to fleece him.

The Tyranny of Need

If your house burns down you can collect insurance money. The devious mind immediately asks “what if the money I collect is worth more than the house I burn?” That’s how you get insurance fraud. A charitable man gives a fish to a man who needs to eat. The man immediately considers “if I always need to eat, then he must always give me fish, and I’ll never have to work again.” That plan is fraudulent as well.

Charity, true charity, must always be done for the good of the recipient, including the moral good that refuses to let them become parasites depending only on charity. You can find this as far back as the Old Testament law which forbade the Israelites to go over their harvested field again and glean every last grain of, er, grain. This allows the widow and the orphan both charity to eat and the necessity of working to earn that charity. They have to go out and harvest that grain themselves. It also neatly prevents the taxes on the landowners from getting so large as to bankrupt them, leaving Atlas with a burden light enough that he’d never need to shrug. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are more excellent ideas that Rand has had, accurate descriptions of human venality and the horrors that ensue. The decline and fall of the Twentieth Century Motor company. The moralist’s need to propagandize. Her refusal to ignore the sacrificed individual for the sake of expedience. The dangers of people insisting that reality conform to their righteous outrage. I’m certainly leaving more out. I’ll just touch on one last point before moving on to the second half of the post.

The Consent of the Victim

This is an interesting point and one that I’m not sure I understand correctly. Hank Rearden goes on trial for breaking the laws concerning how much of his new Rearden Metal he’s allowed to sell to each customer. Rather than throw himself on the mercy of the court as they expected he denies their right to sanction his actions. They finally hand him a suspended sentence. By denying the judges had any moral right to condemn his actions he rubbed their noses in the fundamental injustice of the prosecution, and caused them to balk.

I have no doubt that this is a useful strategy some of the time. A Twitter mob feeds on the apologies of its victims because those apologies reinforce the mob’s conviction that it’s acting correctly to begin with. That only works when they believe they’re in the right. If a medieval brigand stopped you to relieve you of your coin purse he wouldn’t first demand that you tell him that he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t care about your blessings or your curses.

Still, I’m filing this in the section on things that Rand has got right because I’m unsure how to evaluate it just yet. The trouble is that this only applies so long as the moralist oppressor believes (however incorrectly) that he’s doing the right thing. The woke moralist, asking you to try to be less white, may be stymied by you refusing to accept his premises. The woke brigand knows he’s in it for the loot, and he’ll use the woke cant to deprive you of your wallet unconcerned with how you may feel about it. The woke moralist may be confounded with the question “how is it, if I’m benefiting from systemic power structures, that in this instance I’m standing in front of you awaiting your justice?” To the woke brigand the question is irrelevant; he has to actually care about justice before an appeal to justice has any meaning.

After Rearden’s defense Francisco d’Anconia tells him that, three generations ago such a speech might have done something. Three generations before justice might have been the question on trial; if society had really degraded to the point which Rand is describing I can’t help but feel that the brigands would have taken over entirely and that Rearden wouldn’t have gotten off so lightly. Still, I’m marking the consent of the victim in Rand’s favor; it’s a useful concept for understanding that kind of villainy.

What Rand Doesn’t Cover

You can see the spots where Rand’s theory has trouble by looking for all the things that she didn’t find space for in a thousand pages of Atlas Shrugged. Building directly over the previous point you never see a brigand who steals through sheer force of arms rather than by pious platitude and government edict. A couple of times, Rand makes the point that her industrialists, being men of reason, must necessarily defeat the mob should it come to violence. This is silly, and that silliness is abundantly on display when Rand includes an actual combat sequence late in the book. The industrialist shoots a guard because the guard couldn’t decide whether to shoot the intruder or lay down his arms. A realistic guard would have shot the intruder, or made a personal value calculation and dropped his weapon. You may speak of vices inherent to the military mindset, but indecision isn’t one of them. Rearden, while still in thrall to the looter’s creed, made plenty of steel. Should we assume then that soldiers couldn’t win battles because of their adherence to a flawed socioeconomic doctrine? (I mean, it took down Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.) But I’m straying from my point.

There’s exactly one point where someone does something genuinely disinterested to help another person. An unnamed reporter helps Cheryl on her wedding day. This is mostly by accident; Rand needed someone for Cheryl to talk to in order to express Cheryl’s joy. A hard-bitten gossip columnist who can see the sorrow to come takes pity on the foolish girl and offers her some small aid. In this Rand falls into the temptation of writing a believable character and betrays her thesis. This reporter was neither living by the looter’s creed nor acting in an industrialist’s self-interest. What then was her motivation?

Rearden’s Remorse

When Rearden first cheated on his wife he breaks his word. Rearden values his word highly, he’ll tell you himself, and the character demonstrates that throughout the book. No matter the difficulties inherent in fulfilling a contract Rearden pulls through. But he never repents for breaking his wedding vow. There’s a sense where his marriage to Lillian was dissolved when Lillian scorned his achievement and traded off the bracelet of Rearden metal for a soon-forgotten diamond. But that’s not good enough; Rearden spends the rest of the book moving mountains to ensure that he makes his business commitments despite the heavier and heavier burdens they place on his Atlas shoulders. Rand correctly excoriates the “I can’t be blamed for circumstances beyond my control” attitude in fulfilling business contracts, but apparently not in wedding contracts. Why then does Rearden ignore his wedding vows?

After their first night together Rearden makes a post-coital speech damning himself for living by his basest desires. Late in the book he repents of that, redeeming the thought by denying the distinction between mind and body. This is half correct. Rearden’s admiration for Dagny, her character, and her achievement comes from the higher things of the mind, and expresses itself in the lower bodily lusts. Physical desire can be generated by a spiritual admiration. The half that’s wrong is the assumption that there’s no other source of desire. The body wants to get drunk; the mind is concerned about the hangover. There is an old Christian heresy that the mind, the spiritual is inherently good and the physical, the body, is inherently evil. Rand rightly rejects this. The opposite assumption which she takes up, that there can be no conflict between the mind and the body, is foolish. Go ahead and eat that entire cake like you want to to find out why.

The Abolition of Managers

Objectivism seems to be a celebration of man’s will, a philosophy built around the notion that achievement is the measure of greatness. Those who dare, who risk, who rely upon their own judgment and who achieve mighty things are to be celebrated. That’s a fine thing, but lurking under that lies the question of what, exactly, they should choose to achieve. A young Francisco d’Anconia wants to outdo all his ancestors in making money with d’Anconia Copper. Hank Rearden spends ten long years perfecting Rearden metal, and intends to make great gobs of money with it. A government man comes by asking to buy the secret; Rearden refuses to sell. “Because it’s mine.” If money honestly earned is the measure of achievement then didn’t Rearden earn whatever he could squeeze out of the public fisc for that metal?[3] He earned it. Lurking under the iron logic of the industrialists we find the Conditioners C.S. Lewis described in The Abolition of Man. Being ruled only by logic they have enslaved themselves to their postulates, postulates grounded only in whim. You cannot argue with Rearden’s “Because it is mine” any more than you could with a toddler refusing to share his chocolate milk with his sister.

This also arises out of Rand’s attempt to harmonize the desires of the mind with the desires of the body. If there can be no conflict between mind and body then there can be no control exerted over irrational, animalistic impulses. Those impulses must necessarily be of the same stuff as the rest of the being. Hank Rearden must desire Dagny Taggart physically because he admires her achievement so. One is left to wonder if he also feels a sexual attraction towards Ken Danagger who does so well at mining coal. But leave that cheap shot aside; the assumption that our basest desires are of the same stuff as our noblest impulses leaves you no reason to prefer the one to the other.

It’s also a pretty lousy description of how people actually act. Isn’t philosophy supposed to describe real people, and be applicable to real problems?[4] This isn’t the only spot where objectivism fails to deliver, and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a couple of quick quotes about ignoring reality from John Galt’s speech:

[Y]ours is the responsibility of judgement and nothing can help you escape it — no pinch hitter can live your life — that the vilest form of self abasement and self destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle man between your consciousness and your existence.”

And again:

[L]ike a judge impervious to public opinion he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him.

Or more succinctly, from John Galt in his Gulch:

Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatsoever.

Then, his statement about the nature of guilt:

It is not any crime that you’ve committed that infects your soul with permanent guilt, it is none of your failures, errors or flaws, but the blank-out by which you attempt to evade them — it is not any sort of Original Sin or unknown prenatal deficiency, but the knowledge and fact of your basic default, of suspending your mind, of refusing to think. Fear and guilt are your chronic emotions, and they are real, but they don’t come from the superficial reasons you invent to disguise their cause, not from your ‘selfishness’, weakness or ignorance, but from a real and basic threat to your existence; fear because you have abandoned your weapon of survival, guilt because you know you have done it voluntarily.

I do not so submit the responsibility of judgment to another, and that another includes John Galt. The way you describe guilt Mr. Galt, it simply isn’t so. Forget original sin, forget self-deception; I have personally done evil, I have done it knowingly, and with bad intent. I have then felt guilty about it afterward. I have wished that I hadn’t done so, wished to make up the damage. What Galt is describing isn’t how guilt works. Rand is reasoning about sin like she refuses to reason about humanity; she’s taking the general case and ignoring the particular. A little boy who pushes a little girl down and steals her dolly is sinning, and he should feel guilty for it. This isn’t a failure of reason, a crime against survival, it’s causing hurt for hurt’s sake.

The invocation of self-deception doesn’t help her case either. Rand could say that in a Freudian sense I’m repressing the true causes of my guilt, or that I’m experiencing a false consciousness as a Marxist Leninist might, except that Ayn Rand of all people can’t. Never mind the revulsion she’d feel at siding with the commies, her philosophy doesn’t permit me to ignore the world by submitting my judgment to another. How can I then accept her definition of guilt if my own judgment tells me that it’s wrong? If I were to be an objectivist it would only be by violating the tenets of objectivism. Contradictions can’t exist.

This simple feeling of remorse is missing from the text. Rearden cheated on his wife. Never mind that his wife was an awful human being; the tenets of his own code of morality forbid him to break his word, but he never repented of that. He faced cosmic justice for lying about his affair but never for having the affair to begin with. There are characters who feel guilty; Dr. Stadler and Jim Taggart are ultimately broken by confronting the end result of their personal philosophies, but there’s no Raskolnikov to feel remorse over a crime he committed, no murderer listening to a heartbeat under his floorboards, no one so much as kicking a dog and saying “Gee I wish I hadn’t done that.” Any regret is expressed over what is ultimately an error of knowledge, not a moral error.

I can’t imagine that Rand hasn’t ever had this problem herself. Either she’s — in a technical sense — psychopathic, or she’s suppressing the postulate because it leads to contradictions that invalidate her philosophy. One may only regard compassion as merely a duplicitous wallet grab if one has never needed compassion to begin with.

This unexpectedly brings us all the way back to the opening of this essay, and explains the spots where Rand’s writing loses its adeptness. She uses perfect Mary Sue characters because admitting to any flaw in them offers an implicit refutation of her philosophy. The fight scene at the end is so laughable because she can’t bear to admit to the merest scrap of excellence in anyone who isn’t in her industrialist class. The society in Galt’s Gulch rings false because we know that it’d collapse in a hundred ways the minute the author dictating events looked away. You cannot admit to morally ambiguous characters because doing so disrupts the dualism of the philosophy Rand is trying to present.

In the end, this is where I get off of the train. Rand has made a lot of interesting and useful observations, but she fails to stitch them together into a cohesive philosophy. To get there she has to cheat, gluing things together with uncertain materials. Having spotted the shoddy construction her end philosophy is ultimately not persuasive.


[1] Dagny’s rise through the ranks at Taggart Transcontinental is a little too smooth to be plausible. She’s never denied an intermediate job because the guy in it can’t be fired for incompetence because he’s got connections. Nobody ever resents her rise and stymies her out of bureaucratic spite. I’m willing to give this a pass; Dagny needed to be at the top so that this story could be told.

[2] Money isn’t the only institution that does this. The law ought to as well. It often doesn’t and doesn’t in Rand’s novel, but that’s the fault of the men gaming the system, not the system itself. The judge who rules in favor of a poor man because he hates a rich man is just as corrupt as the judge who takes the rich man’s bribe. Similarly, the government that taxes your money away and offers a fraction of it back to you isn’t doing you any favors even though money ought to be a neutral medium of exchange.

[3] All good conservatives are fidgeting in their seats at this argument. The government has no money of its own; only money that is taken from the taxpayers. Rearden would be selling his metal for money, a part of which was first taken from him. I want to acknowledge the point but move on; Rearden didn’t turn down the sale because selling to the government was illegitimate.

[4] You can stop laughing any time, you know.

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  1. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Thank you this is interesting. I’ve been curious about the high regard this book is held in.

    I read it years ago not knowing anything about it and I have to say I found it extremely tedious. Unfortunately I read it in 2008 so I don’t remember it well and just have an handful of impressions left. I remember thinking what an awful bunch of people these characters are, all of them with maybe the exception of  the girl who kills herself and the poor chap who works on the railway and is hopelessly in love with Dagny. 
    I thought the relationship between Dagny and Reardon was revolting and I thought Dagny’s character was pimped out, why is it a thing she’s had affairs with all the alpha males in the book? 
    So your post is helpful thanks 

    • #1
  2. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Well done.  I read Atlas Shrugged before I was very conservative, but even then it rubbed me the wrong way.

    • #2
  3. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher:

    Charity, true charity, must always be done for the good of the recipient, including the moral good that refuses to let them become parasites depending only on charity. You can find this as far back as the Old Testament law which forbade the Israelites to go over their harvested field again and glean every last grain of, er, grain. This allows the widow and the orphan both charity to eat and the necessity of working to earn that charity. They have to go out and harvest that grain themselves. It also neatly prevents the taxes on the landowners from getting so large as to bankrupt them, leaving Atlas with a burden light enough that he’d never need to shrug. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Amen.

    • #3
  4. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    These observations are right on with my recollection of the book. I read it a number of years back when it seemed all the conservatives had read it, or were reading it. The coalitions of government and industry seemed prophetic at the time and still do, but the characters seemed two-dimensional. I just outright skipped most of the, shall we say, romantic parts and only skimmed the long John Galt speech. I was always aware that the world view expressed was far from Christian, but still offered some interesting observations on trends in the modern world.

    • #4
  5. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Yes, the book is a long slog of a read, but I like it.  The basic plot is – SPOILER ALERT! – What if the movers and shakers who make things run, who invent new technologies, who make great scientific advances, all go on strike?

    • #5
  6. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    I read Atlas Shrugged as a freshman in college, just to see what all the fuss was about. I was already a conservative then and the book didn’t change my life or beliefs or anything. I can see why it might rub some conservatives the wrong way. And its shortcomings are really obvious.

    But honestly, I flew through the book in like 3 days. I found her writing pretty straightforward, which makes reading it super easy. I was actually really engaged by the mystery aspect of the book. Yeah, some of the speeches can be tedious. Her central characters didn’t bother me that much, because right from the start, I didn’t view them as normal human beings. They’re more like larger-than-life, mythical characters.

    Sure, the book is flawed, but I can totally see why it changed some people’s lives. It’s a good intro to certain ideas especially if you’re young and your worldview has never been challenged before.

    Now the bigger question is when is anyone going to allow Zack Snyder to make his vision of The Fountainhead? I’m sure it’ll be like a 6-hr movie.

    • #6
  7. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Great post.   Thanks.

    • #7
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    What I think Ayn Rand gets at better than anyone else is the way that socialism smothers emotions like anger. It’s the psychological effect of living with manipulative people that is destructive of everything that is good in society. The smothering of emotion is what caused mass alcoholism and a high suicide rate in communist Russia. After a while, people can’t think of any reason to love or live anymore.

    Her atheism never bothered me. The Catholic Church did a study in the eighties (I cannot find it now, but I read an article about it that made a lasting impression on me) on the factors that caused Catholics to leave the faith or stop practicing their faith when they had been brought up in the church. The results surprised them. It’s wasn’t the years they had spent seeped in Catholic education or how outwardly devout their parents were. It was how happy their family life was. The loss of religion–not faith but religion–is a direct result of the family’s dysfunction. What causes families to fall apart? More than anything else, a manipulative person. Russia was a dysfunctional family writ large. Rand’s atheism should be viewed as evidence of the truth of her description of what it is like living under socialism. When people are finally free of their dysfunctional family, they leave the religion, and sometimes faith itself, behind too. Sad, but true.

    Her writing is more relevant today than ever before. Living in the “cancel culture” is going to cause mental illness.

    Socialism is more about emotion than it is about money. “Canceling” is simply the latest manipulation. It’s so important for society to see this for what it is. Ayn Rand does a great job articulating something that is really hard to put into words, especially when you’ve lived with the emotion-dulling effects of it for a long time. You forget what honest emotion feels like after a while.

    It took living in the United States for many years for her to be able to put into words the differences in the emotional life of Americans versus Russians.

    • #8
  9. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    I like rereading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (well, parts 1 and 2… part 3 is not for rereading.) I like the intensity and weirdness of her characters, with occasional brilliant bursts, like Francisco’s money speech. And who can forget that opening of The Fountainhead? (Imagine Gary Cooper… ok, no, don’t.)

    Rand is a bird that flies with a broken wing, and other damaged body parts.

    —She rejects Marxism while accepting its foundational atheism.

    —And it’s impossible to imagine her “heroic” characters as having either parents or children.

    But she is not worthy of out-of-hand rejection, for many who read her at a young age get shaken out of their progressive lotus-eating and actually manage to develop greater critical thinking skills before recognizing more fully her fundamental faults.

    I’d grant her more leeway on her case for egoism without narcissism, while understanding that her rejection of sacrificing for others is based on horrors she witnessed.

    Perhaps if she had been a mother… well, probably not. How do you raise a Howard Rourke?

    • #9
  10. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Stad (View Comment):

    Yes, the book is a long slog of a read, but I like it. The basic plot is – SPOILER ALERT! – What if the movers and shakers who make things run, who invent new technologies, who make great scientific advances, all go on strike?

    Yes I agree with you there, it’s a good idea, it’s just that the book makes you dislike them all intensely and want to drop a bomb on John gault’s gulch or whatever it is just to shut him up.

    • #10
  11. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    I first read Atlas Shrugged at age 14 – too young at that time for a literary critique. But it did lay a foundation for my later libertarian bent, finally morphing into my current conservative beliefs. I first had to get through the anti-war (Vietnam) college years but I made it. I did re-read it recently and was not impressed with the writing skill but still recognized the prescience of so much of what we see now in political life.

    • #11
  12. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    I liked Atlas Shrugged when I first read it way back in my late teens/early twenties. Rush Limbaugh had begun to give shape and words to my conservative inklings and instincts, but Rand was the first system of thought I encountered. As others have stated, she’s not perfect or even ultimately sound. However, some of her basic assumptions have truth and usefulness to them.

    If something doesn’t make sense then check your assumptions.

    Self interest is at the heart of all of our decisions and actions – otherwise we’re acting irrationally. I think we can get into some semantic battles about that, but I think it’s a sound postulate. Yes, even when we think we’re being charitable or selfless.

    Production is worthwhile. Although I disagree that production itself provides meaning to life I do think production is good and a pretty good default way to engage yourself.

    Of course Rand fell pretty hard on some things even to my impressionable mind. The anti-religion aspects never convinced me. Rand’s approach to relationships I found to be be cartoonishly unreal and even destructive; I could never see myself rationally deciding to suggest my wife go get with someone more alpha than me – for her own good of course she would gladly dive into that better sexual market value match. Yuck.

    The errors, though, can’t disqualify the truths. Also, I credit her with sending me down a path of trying to reconcile her brand of libertarian anarchocapitalism with my ultimately (unknown to me at that time) conservative instincts. I’ve been on that path ever since, and it was a good basis for really exchanging and engaging with libertarians on Ricochet and coming to the conclusion that I am not a libertarian because like collectivism it is severely incomplete.

    So, I look at Rand and Atlas Shrugged in particular as useful entries in the Great Debate over the meaning of life and what constitutes a Good Life.

    • #12
  13. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Of course, Whittaker Chambers had a pretty good measure of Rand even back then. When I eventually read his critique of Atlas Shrugged it was like Neo suddenly easily able to defeat Agent Smith. Despite Rand battling against the same forces against which I also would battle, the big flaw is that Rand’s system is a materialist philosophical system which I think is the fundamental flaw not only of Rand but also of the forces she is arrayed against. 

    • #13
  14. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    I took Rand’s agnostic morals as just part of the lesson she was teaching, not to be read as a fully developed story about people. More like a fable. But good points. Thanks.

    • #14
  15. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Best of Rand’s novels from a literary POV, I think, is ‘We The Living’, probably because it was so closely connected to her personal experiences in immediately post-revolutionary Russia.  I excerpted some passages from the book in my post Life in the Fully Politicized Society.  

    There was a good movie made from the book, in Fascist Italy of all place..apparently it got past the censors because it was anti-Communist…when they realized it was more generally anti-totalitarian, the film was suppressed.

    • #15
  16. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    re Atheism and Communist: in Rand’s ‘We the Living’, the protagonist (Kira), a fierce anti-Communist,  has a friend (Andrei) who is a very committed Communist.  At one point, she tells him:

    If we had souls, which we haven’t, and if our souls met- yours and mine- they’d fight to the death. But after they had torn each other to pieces, to the very bottom, they’d see that they had the same root.

    Okay, this is very interesting and thought-provoking–especially in our time of political conflict impacting personal relationships so severely, maybe it is possible that people really do have *core* beliefs which manifest themselves oppositely at higher belief levels.

    But then Kira goes on to tell Andrei that their sense of affinity is probably based on the fact that they are both atheists.  Which makes no sense at all, given that those Communists who Kira does despite…as does Andrei, in many cases…are also atheists.

    • #16
  17. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    LC (View Comment):

    I read Atlas Shrugged as a freshman in college, just to see what all the fuss was about. I was already a conservative then and the book didn’t change my life or beliefs or anything. I can see why it might rub some conservatives the wrong way. And its shortcomings are really obvious.

    But honestly, I flew through the book in like 3 days. I found her writing pretty straightforward, which makes reading it super easy. I was actually really engaged by the mystery aspect of the book. Yeah, some of the speeches can be tedious. Her central characters didn’t bother me that much, because right from the start, I didn’t view them as normal human beings. They’re more like larger-than-life, mythical characters.

    Sure, the book is flawed, but I can totally see why it changed some people’s lives. It’s a good intro to certain ideas especially if you’re young and your worldview has never been challenged before.

    Now the bigger question is when is anyone going to allow Zack Snyder to make his vision of The Fountainhead? I’m sure it’ll be like a 6-hr movie.

    There was a poll in (IIRC) Proceedings, the magazine of the US Naval Institute.  The question was, “Other than the Bible, what book has influenced you the most?”  Atlas Shrugged was at the top of the list . . .

    • #17
  18. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Best of Rand’s novels from a literary POV, I think, is ‘We The Living’, probably because it was so closely connected to her personal experiences in immediately post-revolutionary Russia. I excerpted some passages from the book in my post Life in the Fully Politicized Society.

    There was a good movie made from the book, in Fascist Italy of all place..apparently it got past the censors because it was anti-Communist…when they realized it was more generally anti-totalitarian, the film was suppressed.

    We the Living is a must read if you want to know what the left has in store for everyone they consider “haves” . . .

    • #18
  19. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    I first read Atlas Shrugged in high school and liked it. I still do. I didn’t find it boring or a slog at all. My favorite concept is “check your premises”, which is a great riposte when talking to a leftist.  I think about that when writing posts here and on my own blog. It is helpful to think about the left’s premises that they never state out loud, but you can ask them, and when they can’t answer, you point them out. 
    One thought on charity being for the benefit of the recipient. All real charitable actions are first for the benefit of the giver. Doing actual good makes the giver/doer feel good, as well as benefiting the recipient. I think that is hard-wired into humans. 

    • #19
  20. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Stad (View Comment):

    We the Living is a must read if you want to know what the left has in store for everyone they consider “haves” . . .

    …or even those who they *don’t* consider ‘haves’.  At least two major characters in the book, who were definitely not ‘haves’ in pre-revolutionary times and who are truly idealistic Communists, come to bad ends.

    • #20
  21. KevinKrisher Coolidge
    KevinKrisher
    @KevinKrisher

    I thought that Rand’s apparent fascination with rough sex was kind of jarring. It was like an erotic romance novel written by Friedrich Nietzsche.

    • #21
  22. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Any thoughts about the semi-recent movie trilogy?  I enjoyed them, just a shame they didn’t get the same cast for all three films.

    • #22
  23. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    KevinKrisher (View Comment):

    I thought that Rand’s apparent fascination with rough sex was kind of jarring. It was like an erotic romance novel written by Friedrich Nietzsche.

    It appears in all of her books, although it’s definitely at its worst in The Fountainhead, which opens with something that could be credibly called a r*pe. I think it comes down to the fact that she errs on the side of admiration for power, and unbridled freedom, which leads to some very dubious sexual ethics. Kind of like with Edie Willers, who, we’re expected to believe, doesn’t deserve to survive because he’s not as smart or as ‘moral’ as John Galt and Dagny, Roark is a morally superior being, so it’s okay that he exercises his will over Dominique. (If you read about her life, you’ll see that she practiced a bit of what she preached, in the sense that she was engaging in some very questionable activity in those somewhat cultish objectivist circles she ran. Bill Buckley talked about it a little, fictionally, in Getting It Right).

    • #23
  24. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Just for you, Hank, I dug into one of the abandoned PiTs to see what I had written about it when you were still reading. (Okay, I’m lying, I’m really just too lazy to remember and type it out again, and scrolling through that PiT was easier):

    Eddie Willers is one of my big problems with that book. 

    I read it when I was 12/13, and even then, as much as I liked parts of the story, there were some glaring holes in her philosophic vision of society. I understand at the end, when all of the heroes have retreated to Galt’s Gulch, that they are planning to reemerge and fix America (Judge Narragansett striking out and adding bits to the Constitution, etc), but she doesn’t have a realistic vision of societal change, or of human capacity, and the treatment of Eddy Willers is who it’s the most glaringly obvious in. 

    Willers, as Rand shapes her characters, is ‘good’ but not good enough. So we as readers are meant to feel bad for how his story ends, but also to understand that, on some level, he deserved what happened to him because he wasn’t as smart as Hank or as strong as Dagny. There’s no real room on Rand’s scale for normal people be truly heroic, or even have lives of real value. 

    At the same time, she sets up all of the characters who retreat to the Gulch after checking out of society as superior beings who will remake the world. No substantive thought is ever given to the efficacy and effects of change over time vs. sudden change (clearly she was no Burke fan), societal consent, continuity, or even cultural differences. Never mind the flaws which her heroes have. Galt has none, which is what makes him by far one of the least interesting parts of the book. 

    Overall, I think she bought too much into a weird combination of Nietzschian ubermensch theory (especially with the explicit rejection of Christianity) and bolshevism. Not in the sense of embracing communist ideas, but in thinking that society could and should be changed from the top down, maximum and sudden transformation is best, and materialism.

    Whittaker Chambers had her number, in the long run.

    • #24
  25. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Just for you, Hank, I dug into one of the abandoned PiTs to see what I had written about it when you were still reading. (Okay, I’m lying, I’m really just too lazy to remember and type it out again, and scrolling through that PiT was easier):

    Eddie Willers is one of my big problems with that book.

    I read it when I was 12/13, and even then, as much as I liked parts of the story, there were some glaring holes in her philosophic vision of society. I understand at the end, when all of the heroes have retreated to Galt’s Gulch, that they are planning to reemerge and fix America (Judge Narragansett striking out and adding bits to the Constitution, etc), but she doesn’t have a realistic vision of societal change, or of human capacity, and the treatment of Eddy Willers is who it’s the most glaringly obvious in.

    Willers, as Rand shapes her characters, is ‘good’ but not good enough. So we as readers are meant to feel bad for how his story ends, but also to understand that, on some level, he deserved what happened to him because he wasn’t as smart as Hank or as strong as Dagny. There’s no real room on Rand’s scale for normal people be truly heroic, or even have lives of real value.

    At the same time, she sets up all of the characters who retreat to the Gulch after checking out of society as superior beings who will remake the world. No substantive thought is ever given to the efficacy and effects of change over time vs. sudden change (clearly she was no Burke fan), societal consent, continuity, or even cultural differences. Never mind the flaws which her heroes have. Galt has none, which is what makes him by far one of the least interesting parts of the book.

    Overall, I think she bought too much into a weird combination of Nietzschian ubermensch theory (especially with the explicit rejection of Christianity) and bolshevism. Not in the sense of embracing communist ideas, but in thinking that society could and should be changed from the top down, maximum and sudden transformation is best, and materialism.

    Whittaker Chambers had her number, in the long run.

    In the Douglas Adams version, everyone in Galt’s Gulch died from a disease contracted from dirty telephones.

    • #25
  26. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I remember thinking what an awful bunch of people these characters are, all of them with maybe the exception of the girl who kills herself and the poor chap who works on the railway and is hopelessly in love with Dagny.
    I thought the relationship between Dagny and Reardon was revolting and I thought Dagny’s character was pimped out, why is it a thing she’s had affairs with all the alpha males in the book?
    So your post is helpful thanks

    Thank you for your kind words. And that goes for all y’all, excepting Stad. Nah, I’m just messing with ya. 

    I knew Eddie Willer was going to come to a bad end from the first chapter. Rand describes him as (inexact quote,  I don’t have the text in front of me) “He had always wanted to do the right thing, even though he had never given much though to what the right thing was.” that’s fatal in a book written by a philosopher.

    I can see Dagny falling for d’Anconia as a youth, and Rearden over the course of the story, but the Galt romance just seemed forced. 

    • #26
  27. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    LC (View Comment):
    But honestly, I flew through the book in like 3 days. I found her writing pretty straightforward, which makes reading it super easy. I was actually really engaged by the mystery aspect of the book. Yeah, some of the speeches can be tedious. Her central characters didn’t bother me that much, because right from the start, I didn’t view them as normal human beings. They’re more like larger-than-life, mythical characters.

    I came in to the book expecting the writing to be lousy. It was much better than I expected. I also came in knowing who John Galt was, at least what the phrase ‘going Galt’ meant. As far as it goes, I didn’t mind that the characters are unrealistic, but I do think that their unrealism is indicative of the weaknesses in the philosophy. If the philosophy doesn’t work with real people then it doesn’t work with real people.

    • #27
  28. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):

    —She rejects Marxism while accepting its foundational atheism.

     

    Wow.  Birds breathe air.  So do worms.  It doesn’t make birds worms.

    • #28
  29. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    KevinKrisher (View Comment):

    I thought that Rand’s apparent fascination with rough sex was kind of jarring. It was like an erotic romance novel written by Friedrich Nietzsche.

    Yes, Ayn Rand does have odd views about sex.  I’ll grant that conclusion.

    • #29
  30. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):

    —She rejects Marxism while accepting its foundational atheism.

     

    Wow. Birds breathe air. So do worms. It doesn’t make birds worms.

    I think the point might be that atheism leads more naturally to Marxism than to capitalism, or at least a Republican form of government, etc.  So it seems a little odd that someone would embrace atheism yet somehow reject what it seems to naturally lead to.  It sounds like Rand didn’t examine her own premises much.

    • #30