Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

662Finishing Atlas Shrugged has given me a feeling of invincibility – the kind that necessarily comes with the completion of a philosophical and political manifesto dressed in novel threads and clocking in at just under 1200 pages. Booyah.

Finishing Atlas Shrugged has also given me a feeling of exasperated curiosity – the kind that desperately wishes to ask Miss Rand a single, pointed question: How could you get so much right, and yet get so much wrong?”

The novel’s title refers to Atlas, that Titan of Greek mythology who was doomed to bear weight of the world on his shoulders (quite literally). The significance of the reference can be seen in this conversation between Francisco d’Anconia and Hank Reardon, two of the main characters:

“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?”

“I… don’t know. What… could he do? What would you tell him?”

“To shrug.”

The consequences of such a move would be cataclysmic – and that is exactly Rand’s point. Atlas is a man of myth; but what about the great men and women who keep the world going, all while being violently maligned as “greedy” and “self-centered” by the looters and moochers of society? What if these builders and producers – these Atlases – simply shrugged? What would happen if they abandoned their responsibilities altogether and left the world to fend for itself?

Rand’s answer: Political anarchy. Societal collapse. Economic ruin. Hell on earth.

Rather than trying (and failing) to address everything Rand and her novel have to offer, I’ll limit myself to two points. And they are:

I. Rand is an excellent writer who knows how to express her ideas with bold and unequivocal passion.

II. Anyone who believes her philosophy is or should be the moral bedrock of conservatism needs to do some serious rethinking.

Regarding the first point: You have heard it said that Atlas Shrugged is dryly written, clumsily plotted, filled with a thousand pages worth of uninteresting characters. I beg to differ. Rand knows her way around with a pen; there were times when I had to stop and reread passages just to marvel at how well they were constructed. And while the plot is no “action thriller” (as the back cover dubiously claims), it is thrilling in a battle-of-the-ideas sort of way. Precious few guns go off, but there are conversations with enough explosive power behind them to take out the Golden Gate Bridge.

As for the characters, they are interesting, but not for the usual reasons. The heroes (Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon, Francisco d’Anconia, John Galt) and the villains (James Taggart, Lillian Reardon, Dr. Floyd Ferris, Wesley Mouch) are fascinating, not because they’re incredibly realistic or even very likable, but because they represent different facets of good and evil in the novel’s philosophical tug-of-war. They are, for the most part, deliberate caricatures representing various ideas and the outworking of those ideas.

In John Galt, for instance, we see the embodiment of Rand’s quintessential man – the “heroic man” – the kind of übermensch she venerated from her youth onwards. In Dr. Ferris, meanwhile, we see bastardized science wedded to government thuggery, with predictably appalling results.

Regarding the second point: There are good and useful insights to be found in Rand’s work. She is right to point out that man, by his very nature, is a rational creature. She is right to point out the dangers of moral and intellectual relativism. She is right to point out that there is such a thing as objective truth. And she is right to point out the wicked injustice of the socialist system.

She is right in her diagnosis of all these problems. But she is so, so wrong in her solution.

Recognizing the evils of subjectivism, Rand countered with her own philosophy: Objectivism. Objectivism finds its ultimate expression in a sixty page speech – equal parts interesting and tedious – given by John Galt near the novel’s conclusion. The speech ends with a little creed: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

So here’s the thing: contrary to many popular assumptions, Objectivism is not conservatism. Not even close. Rand herself acknowledged this, and would have scoffed at the way modern conservatives try adopting her into their ranks.

Dr. Benjamin Wiker, in his excellent volume 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read, calls Rand what she really is: an impostor. Though initially friendly to conservatism, she soon abandoned it and set up Objectivism in its place. Wiker attributes her break with conservatism to three causes:

First, Rand was a devout atheist. Her contemptuous dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular was, in large part, the cause of the famous and deep antagonism that quickly developed between Rand and William F. Buckley and his National Review.

Second, Rand’s insistence on pure selfishness as the root and branch of her moral system proved irreconcilable with true conservative moral principals, as she herself made amply clear in her work and in her personal life.

Third, her defense of the free market was based on the idea of a few Nietzschean figures satisfying their creative and pecuniary impulses; it was not based on the conservative understanding of the free market as primarily about freedom for families and communities to provide for themselves in their own way, unhindered by government interference. (pp. 291-292)

Atlas Shrugged, therefore, may be seen as both “an explication of her Objectivism and her rejection of conservatism.”

With this in mind, why do so many conservatives view Rand as a champion of their cause? The problem is at least two-fold. First, it is far too easy to misunderstand what exactly Rand is saying in Atlas Shrugged unless we recognize that her life was an outworking of her philosophy. And it’s ugly – exceedingly ugly.

The second problem has to do with our inability to see the forest for the trees. We latch on to a sparkly phrase, isolate it, and fail to comprehend the larger context. My friend Santiago puts it this way: “[Rand] is being read by an audience which is immersed in a culture of short attention span that makes them unable to linger on her thoughts for more than one or two catchy, inspiring sentences.” Bingo.

Quote Atlas Shrugged in bits and pieces, and it often sounds like a conservative manifesto. It is not. Consider that Reason #3,498 to not quote out of context.

“There is no doubt,” writes Dr. Wiker,

that Ayn Rand was a leading intellectual voice against the vacuities of Western progressive intellectuals with roseate views of communism and a quasi-religious devotion to socialism. She championed reason against the skeptics, and a meaningful, purposeful, and moral existence against the nihilists and relativists. She was, in large part, the enemy of conservatism’s enemies.

Having given Rand her due, we must be clear-headed about the problems with Rand. Too often conservatives make the mistake of thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is a dangerous principal. Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy. (p. 318)

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: Atlas Shrugged”

  1. Applause! Applause! That you would even attempt to write a review of this book amazes me. That you would do it so well makes me so proud. Well done, my dear son!

  2. Solid thoughts. I would counter that more than just quips could be adopted for a Libertarian cause (NOT classic conservativism, just in case anyone’s confused), and one might even find great similarity in some modern Libertarian thought and Objectivism. The great reason for the departure is a robotic hatred of all moral issues that would require governmental intervention—some of which I agree to hate, of course—but whose foundation requires the denial of everything a conservative would know to be true (see Romans, chapters 1 through 3). Ask an Objectivist if abortion is wrong? He says no way—the selfish impulse of the mother is paramount (that’s probably the easiest example).

    Ah, a shame, though. She’s pretty intense when she wants to be. ;)

    1. Very well said. I can certainly see how Atlas Shrugged would appeal to the Libertarian – even though Rand rejected that philosophy almost as roundly as she rejected classic conservatism. She called Libertarians unsavory names like “scum” and “intellectual cranks”.

      Thanks for the comment! And thanks for presenting me with the challenge that got me started on all of this in the first place. :)

  3. Very well done (in regard to finishing the book AND writing a good review)! I had been curious to hear your thoughts on the subject. It really is amazing how economically prophetic she could be while still rendering her insight nearly useless by wrapping it in backwards philosophy. I was just talking the other day with a friend about how great “Atlas Shrugged” could have been if Rand had stuck with interesting characters in a pro-capitalist adventure story, but at about two-thirds the length without the drivel. Oh well.
    Keep up the good writing!
    -Ben

    1. “It really is amazing how economically prophetic she could be while still rendering her insight nearly useless by wrapping it in backwards philosophy.” Exactly. Nicely put. :)

  4. *Applause* This is awesome, Corey! So rightly put, and on such a difficult book, too. I can tell you put a lot of thought into it. Excellent work!

  5. This review is very articulate and I appreciate the clarity of your thoughts. Some comments and questions, though:

    ‘Dr. Benjamin Wiker, in his excellent volume 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read, calls Rand what she really is: an impostor.’

    The term “impostor” implies dishonesty or dissembling about one’s views in order to present yourself as something you are not to other people. Rand never did this. She originally thought that the conservatives of her era were basically individualists like she was, because they outwardly opposed the expansion of government. But it turned out that they, like the so-called Progressives, held a morality of self-sacrifice. It’s just that their preferred objects of self-sacrifice were God, family and/or the nation, instead of the “social class” or the world.

    ‘Third, her defense of the free market was based on the idea of a few Nietzschean figures satisfying their creative and pecuniary impulses; it was not based on the conservative understanding of the free market as primarily about freedom for families and communities to provide for themselves in their own way, unhindered by government interference.’

    First, if “freedom” meant “freedom for families and communities,” then the only rights recognized by government would belong to families and communities. If we take the family as the sovereign unit, then intra-family violence would not be punishable by law. Only violence between families would be against the law. (How would a single “unit of family” be clearly defined, anyway?)

    Rights are individual, and if you read the words of the Founding Fathers of the US, you will see that they considered the individual the sovereign unit, not the family or the community. (They didn’t fully implement equal sovereignty for women, because they inherited a long historical tradition of female subordination.)

    “Each individual of the society has a right to be protected by it in the enjoyment of his life, liberty, and property, according to standing laws.” –John Adams

    Also, you seem to agree that Ayn Rand’s egoism is Nietzschean. It’s true that early in life, she had some influence from Nietzsche. But what makes you think that her mature philosophy was Nietzschean in character? What characteristics do you think their philosophies have in common?

    ‘First, it is far too easy to misunderstand what exactly Rand is saying in Atlas Shrugged unless we recognize that her life was a practical outworking of her philosophy. And it’s ugly – exceedingly ugly.

    How do you know about Rand’s life, and by what standard do you judge it as “exceedingly ugly”?

    1. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to engage. It’s late, and my brain is rather fuzzy, so I’ll just respond to a few of the points you raised for now:

      “The term “impostor” implies dishonesty or dissembling about one’s views in order to present yourself as something you are not to other people. Rand never did this.”

      You may have a point here; and in retrospect, perhaps ‘imposter’ wasn’t the best choice of words.

      “You seem to agree that Ayn Rand’s egoism is Nietzschean. It’s true that early in life, she had some influence from Nietzsche. But what makes you think that her mature philosophy was Nietzschean in character? What characteristics do you think their philosophies have in common?

      I understand that Rand was influenced by Nietzsche’s writing early on; just how deep and long-lasting that influence was is something I’m still studying for myself; I’ve found a number of interesting articles over on The Atlas Society website, so I’ve got my work cut out for me.

      “How do you know about Rand’s life, and by what standard do you judge it as ‘exceedingly ugly’?”

      As a Christian, I judge it by the standard of God’s law. A standout example of the aforementioned ugliness can be seen in Rand’s torrid affair with Nathaniel Branden, a disciple 25 years her junior, along with her subsequent (and frankly inexplicable) outrage when she discovered that Branden was cheating on her with actress Patrecia Scott.

      Really, though, the ugliness of her life boils down to this: for Rand, selfishness was a virtue, and selflessness was a vice. As she wrote in Atlas Shrugged: “Man — every man — is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

  6. I was very glad to read your review on this. :D I had heard people reference it, but hadn’t seen a conclusive review.

    I don’t think I have the determination to read something that long with so little lasting moral impact. :P

    1. Oh, I still recommend checking it out, Aubrey – I think it’s an important book (though not ‘important’ in the way many conservatives seem to think it is). There’s some hearty food for thought to be had here. Read a mere 25 pages a day – as I did – and you’ll be finished in no time.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Corey, I’ve never seen such a well-written view of this book from a Christian standpoint. I have not had the courage to sift through it myself. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  8. Hmmm… Excellent! I immediately forwarded the article to some friends, as we had been discussing the book recently. I started it a few months ago, but (very!) reluctantly put it down about halfway through – the moral freedom Rand’s atheism granted combined with the psuedo conservatism had a twisted vibe. The exclusion of true, sacrificial love was disturbing. Especially how it came out in Dagny’s personal relationships. It was a cathedral built on stilts…

  9. I know this post was written quite awhile ago, but excellently written! :) I’ve just started the book. So what it sounds like is … it leans heavily towards stoicism? Like in the Aeneid? How interesting. And do you know by chance if Doug Wilson has ever written a review of this book? I’ve been looking for one and have had no success. But the points you brought up in this post sound like things he would discuss. Well done!

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