Shrugging off Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s 1,168-page magnum opus, is a novel that — if one must read it at all — should be read twice, the first time when one is young and still more or less innocent and ignorant of the ways of the world, and the second time at least two decades later when it can be filtered through the lens of the wider knowledge and experience that comes with maturity.

I had just turned 20 when I read the novel for the first time in the early Fall of 1964. I was so enthralled that I immediately signed up for Nathaniel Branden Institute’s lecture series in the basic principles of objectivism, the name Rand gave to her philosophy. (Branden, who later achieved fame as a pop psychologist, was Rand’s top disciple and her designated “intellectual heir” until she severed all relations with him in 1968.)

I read the novel again last week, 46 years after I had read it the first time, and I was doubly surprised: first, by how much I remembered from my initial reading nearly half a century ago — it was almost as if I could finish each sentence after reading just the first two or three words — and second, because the rereading turned out to be an ordeal, and not just because I already knew how the book would end.

Atlas Shrugged is, to put it bluntly, vastly overrated both as literature and philosophy. It could have been a great book. Its plot-theme (a term invented by Rand herself) — what would happen if the creators and innovators withdrew from the world — is intriguing and full of possibilities. Unfortunately, after a promising start, Rand bungles it.

As literature the novel is sophomoric, more like a Marvel comic book than a novel. The heroes and villains who inhabit the pages of Atlas Shrugged are not so much characters as caricatures, and they are so predictable that they are boring. The physical descriptions of Rand’s heroes are reminiscent of the description of a building designed by Howard Roark, the architect hero of The Fountainhead: they are tall, all lines and planes, with chiseled features and ice-blue eyes. Her villains, in contrast, tend to be short, round and dumpy, with vacant eyes and petulant lower lips.

In addition to being physically perfect, Rand’s heroes are always presented as being extremely competent, not just in their own fields of expertise, but in everything they do. Thus, we have a scene in which the world’s greatest philosopher — one of the men of ability who has vanished — is “expertly” cooking a hamburger, “the best-cooked food she had ever tasted, the product of simple ingredients and of an unusual skill”. In contrast, the bad guys are depicted as being so incompetent that you wonder how they manage to dress themselves in the morning.

As for dialogue, there is none to speak of. The bad guys seem incapable of mouthing anything more profound than liberal clichés. And the good guys — they don’t converse, they give speeches. God, do they give speeches! One of them, at the climax of the novel, runs on for sixty pages. I wouldn’t mind the speeches so much if they contained anything new. But they don’t — they just keep making the same point over and over again. For example, Dagny Taggart, the heroine of the novel, accidentally crashes her airplane in the valley where the vanished men of ability are hiding. For a whole month, day after day and night after night, she has to listen to each of them give a speech on why he abandoned the world and his work and, except for a few details, they all give the same speech — that they were tired of being exploited by a world that didn’t appreciate them or their work. After the third or fourth speech I wanted to scream, “All right! Enough already! I get it! Get on with the story!”

It is through the speeches that Rand explicates her philosophy. It is commonplace among Rand’s followers to claim that she gave capitalism its moral basis — an ethics of rational self-interest. And, sure enough, her heroes proudly boast that making money for themselves is their only motivation for offering their creations to the world.

However, Rand is hardly original in recognizing the driving force of self-interest in a market economy. Nearly 200 years before Atlas Shrugged was published Adam Smith wrote, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” In fact, rational self-interest is the fundamental assumption underlying the science of economics.

But rational self-interest is not — and cannot be — a basis for ethics. It just is, a given of nature, neither good nor bad. The function of ethics is to provide the moral boundaries within which self-interest can be pursued. Thus, an earlier defense of capitalism — a defense Rand has vehemently rejected as altruistic and therefore evil — held that capitalism is the most moral economic system because the capitalist serves his own interest only by serving the interests of others, i.e., by providing them with the goods and services they want.

More troublesome still is the novel’s anti-Christian tone. Although Rand never mentions Christianity by name, she condemns the doctrine of Original Sin and elevates Pride — the sin that for Christians is at the root of all other sins — to the highest virtue. But it is clear that she understands neither. For example, in the sixty-page speech that climaxes the novel, the uber-hero John Galt says of “mystics” (Rand’s term for anyone who believes in God), “they do not want to succeed, they want you to fail.” Rand doesn’t realize it, but she has just condemned the sin of Pride as it is understood by Christians. If she understood this, this apostle of selfishness might even find herself agreeing with Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’s observation that “nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.”

Atlas Shrugged has some positive attributes — its depiction of business people as innovators who are as original and creative as the artists, writers, and composers who so often despise them is one; another is the development of the concept of “the sanction of the victim” — and, read in the context of current events, the novel seems prophetic. But on the whole it is an unfortunate book. I say “unfortunate”, because it is a seminal influence on the modern pro-liberty movement, and I am no longer so sure that its influence has been good.

Originally published in American Thinker.