“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.”
In the painstakingly lengthy novel, “Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn Rand creates an allegory to demonstrate her philosophy of objectivism, the idea that “man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute,” (Rand). Due to its rejection of altruism and encouragement of “selfishness”, this idea is not favored by leftists and most other people, and thus deemed controversial.
The novel tells the story of group industrial tycoons in the mid-twentieth century, mainly Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and Fransisco D’Anconia, all who must fight for their livelihoods against a government which keeps passing laws and directives in order to provide “welfare” to the general population.
Throughout the course of the novel, the United States economy and society crumbles due to the heavier burden these capitalists are forced to carry, causing them to disappear one by one, only harming the “general welfare” of the nation even more.
I particularly enjoyed the deviant nature of this novel. Throughout the story, it felt as though Rand, through they voice of Dagny Taggart and her cohorts, kept saying, “Yeah, I know this novel is going to be hated, demonized, and spat on for decades to come. And I’m okay with that.” It was certainly a very brave and strong novel, coming from a female author during that time period. Despite its controversial nature, I really began to see the value in objectivism for several reasons, including its dictation on altruism, virtue, and reason.
Rand makes the argument that humans are not altruistic creatures by nature, that concepts such as “original sin” and welfare have ingrained in us that altruism is necessary for the better of mankind and society. However, from a biological standpoint, I would have to agree with Rand. In the animal kingdom, animals do not help one another if they cannot survive in an environment by themselves. The large fish does not shield the smaller fish when it is threatened by a predator, nor does the giraffe with a longer neck reach leaves for the giraffe with a shorter neck to help it feed; exceptions here are in the case of kin and offspring. But is that truly altruism? No. Non-human animals only help one another in the case of kin because they share genes, which they inherently want to pass on to keep their genes existing. This plays a huge role in what we call natural selection.
The religious individual might argue that it is heinous to suggest that humans are not subject to the forces of natural selection (i.e. our environment) or evolution. However, humans only exist because of our “selfish”, non-altruistic, survival-of-the-fittest nature. The world is not full of chimpanzees simply because chimpanzees evolved by using their traits to thrive in their environments and not surrendering those abilities to those who did not have the traits to make it. Simple biology goes to show that humans are not naturally altruistic.
Virtue, another major component of objectivism, is a sticky subject, considering the fact that different individuals will inevitably hold different virtues. Now, one may argue that it is these differences in virtues that cause war and discordance among individuals and peoples. However, Rand (and myself) makes the argument that the problem does not lie within the difference of virtues and morals; it lies within the response to those differences. Often, individuals attack one another, saying that the others’ virtues should be cause for the other to suffer and experience punishment. However, Rand says this is one of the most evil things man can do to one another- to use one’s virtues as a means for their punishment and suffering, simply because they differ from the virtues of another.
For the protagonists in this story, their virtues consist of making money and doing the best job they can while working with what they love (railroads, steel, science, etc.). Ambition played a key role in these characters living up to their virtues. Following is one of my favorite quotes from the novel regarding this virtue:
“I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle.”
While I found the story engaging, compelling, and encouraging, I think the novel was far too long for its own good. Was it truly necessary for the novel to be 1,070 pages long, with a near 80-page manuscript of a three hour speech, which lays out the entire philosophy of objectivism? I hardly think so. Subtlety, in my opinion, is what takes an author from being great to magnificent. Rand definitely lacks the quality of subtlety, at least when it comes to her ideology. Some scenes in the novel, such as the hours leading up to Cheryl Taggart’s suicide or Dagny’s time in the valley were also drawn out much longer than necessary.
I also thought some of the “plot twists” were a little too… wacky, I suppose you could say. For example, it seemed as it was forced that John Galt just happened to be an employee of Dagny Taggart, who sought to destroy him, “The Destroyer”, and would be referenced to constantly, as though it were pure coincidence. Also, Ragnar Danneskjöld randomly popping up out of nowhere and saying “Hank Rearden, here is gold I stole for you. There’s more in a secret bank account somewhere and you’ll get it when it is best for you,” and disappearing into the night could have been written far better, and seemed much less random and Doug Adams-esque (I hated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
That being said, I do think she created a fantastic story of full of plot twists and questions that keeps the reader guessing and turning pages. She also creates wonderful antagonists that are so hate-able but I think the average person could see a little bit of themselves in, in terms of the qualities they represent, such as laziness, victimization, and self-sacrifice. I certainly saw a little bit of James Taggart in myself, and as of late, it has really caused me to be more accountable for my own actions and happiness. Hell, even the protagonists begin with some of these qualities that Rand discourages, like Hank Rearden, who let his family constantly make him feel guilty for living his life according to his own morals, while also trying to pacify theirs. Development of main characters, like Rearden, also made this book a great piece of literature, in my opinion.
While focusing largely human nature, Rand shows her audience how human nature affects the realm of politics and economics.She is a large advocate for laissez-faire economics and capitalism, while strongly opposing any kind of welfare state and socialism, which is understandable when taking into consideration the fact that Ayn Rand’s family was displaced and basically fucked over in the Bolshevik Revolution.
In the midst of the 2016 American presidential election, this novel seems very relevant. All over the country, people are screaming for socialism, welfare, capitalism, and jobs, jobs, jobs. The idea of socialism is very appealing to some groups of people, while others view this kind of ideology as an imminent threat to their ways of life, much like the antagonists and protagonists of the novel, respectively.
Throughout the novel, laws and directives are constantly being passed in order to help those who are not rich or have “never had the opportunity” to become rich. However, in turn, the populace becomes lazy, unmotivated, and entitled. I find it interesting to see that those are both sides of the socialism debate that dominate the conversation today. Those who have accumulated their fortunes (both in the novel and in real life) are regarded as selfish, evil, and exploiters of the less fortunate.
Overall, I see a lot of worth in “Atlas Shrugged”. Its length made it torturous to finish, but it almost felt as though Ayn Rand knew exactly what we would experience sixty years after writing her novel. I find value in the philosophy of objectivism, at least on an individual scale. While it was bizarre, and even outright silly sometimes, I truly enjoyed the story. Though, I may definitely have to take a break from Rand before I read “The Fountainhead”.