Finishing 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?”
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)