The book jacket of Atlas Shrugged has this quote from Ayn Rand: “To all the readers who discovered The Fountainhead and asked me many questions about the wider application of its ideas, I want to say that I am answering these questions in the present novel, and that The Fountainhead was only an overture to Atlas Shrugged. I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book has been written-and published-is my proof that they do.”
A less objective defense of a philosophy would be hard to find, and for a philosophy she called “Objectivism,” it is a ludicrous statement. I don’t claim to present anything objective here; just my own – subjective – views of her ideas as described in these two books. That I write, and that I publish a blog, is no proof of anything, except that I can.
I first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged years ago. Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged offered a chillingly prophetic view of the future, but I didn’t really like her characters. I just dismissed her books from mind until her name started popping up frequently within the last year, so I decided to read the books again. Living today in a society which has succumbed to a great extent to the laziness, mediocrity, and cronyism she described made me appreciate the accuracy of her depiction of such a society. However, I believe that the basic assumptions she makes are not accurate, and I still find her characters to be two-dimensional.
Everyone looks for a hero to worship. In Ayn Rand’s books, the heroes are like Nazi Germany’s Ubermenschen; they see themselves as so far above the common man that they become their own justification for their actions. Not content with actions, however, even though they claim that these actions are more important than words, philosophical speeches abound…..I had to skip over much of John Galt’s message to the populace because it went on… and on… and on. The idea is that these few people really live up to their potential as human beings, while everyone else just exists or is a parasite. These people are the dreamers who work to make their dreams reality, usually with little help from any one else, the artists and architects whose vision of the future shakes off the clinging tendrils of the outmoded past, the inventors, producers, engineers, and manufacturers who create, produce, manufacture, and run those material things that underpin a technological society and lead it to higher levels of growth and productivity. Yes, they are hard workers, singleminded, driven workers. They are brilliant overachievers who accomplish great things. They believe that they should enjoy the fruits of their labor and not be required to share it. They are happy to be considered selfish, because they believe that their self-interest produces good.
The philosophy teacher and mentor of the hero in Atlas Shrugged tells Dagny:
“All work is an act of philosophy. And when men will learn to consider productive work – and that which is its source – as the standard of their moral values, they will reach that state of perfection which is the birthright they lost…The source of work? Man’s mind, Miss Taggart, man’s reasoning mind.” (p 738)
John Galt, the hero, takes up the subject, expounding on it:
“…the man of the mind….was the man of extravagant energy – and reckless generosity – who knew that stagnation is not man’s fate, that impotence is not his nature, that the ingenuity of his mine is his noblest and most joyous power – and in service to that love of existence he was alone to feel, he went on working, working at any price, working for his despoilers, for his jailers, for his torturers, paying with his life for the privilege of saving theirs…..The tragic joke of human history is that on any of the altars men erected, it was always man whom they immolated and the animal whom they enshrined. It was always the animal’s attributes, not man’s, that humanity worshipped: the idol of instinct and the idol of force – the mystics and the kings…” (p 739)
He goes on to add that the mystics’ claim that feelings were superior to reason enabled them to enslave people to blind obedience, while the kings, desiring power to control men’s bodies, ruled by conquest. Both, he says, were united against the mind.
Touting reason as the highest of human abilities and exalting the singleminded work ethic to the level of a god, Rand, against all reason, denies that only the greatest reason of all, exhibiting the most creative acts of work, could produce people capable of reasoning and working. Only the greatest intelligence could produce man, a being whose “state of perfection” is a lost “birthright.” Only one whose own “extravagant energy” and “reckless generosity” was in existence first could have created man in his own image to possess these qualities. How is it reasonable to believe that man, Ayn Rand’s god, so infinitely complex and beautiful, could be the product of mindless evolution? Rand wants to claim the high place man occupies in creation without acknowledging the creator who made him and put him there. Neither does she understand that it was man’s own selfishness, his worship of himself, that led him to take the steps away from the only one to whom rightful obedience is due, steps leading to the debased condition of humanity that she observes so well.
John Galt states that he hates Robin Hood and everything he stands for. He sees him as one who robs from the deserving, productive rich to give to the undeserving, parasitic poor. In the stories I read, Robin took from the parasitic, corrupt rich to return to the helpless poor that which had been unjustly taken from them. Obviously we have different interpretations of the Robin Hood legends. Yet one of Galt’s best friends becomes a pirate to use violence for his own idea of income redistribution. It is not the violence that is a problem for Galt; it is the way it is used, and that, it seems to me, is not objective at all. Furthermore, when a train wreck kills many people due to negligence and mismanagement, the glimpses of some of the people on the train before the crash make it seem like Rand deems them deserving of death, as a punishment, not just a consequence, of unproductive behavior.
Speaking of violence, the relationships between the heroes and heroines is often a violent one. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark rapes Dominique. In most of the sexual relationships – and each heroine has three separate involvements – sex is a means by which the hero demonstrates his conquest of the heroine; it is often violent and a means to humiliate a woman who is seen as a strong and worthy opponent. Yet each of her heroines, Dominique and Dagny, must suffer and grow before they can come up to the level of their men. All of this makes me wonder what exactly Ayn Rand thought about women. I found this description telling:
“On the slopes around them, the tall, dark pyramids of firs stood immovably straight, in masculine simplicity, like sculpture reduced to an essential form, and they clashed with the complex, feminine, over detailed lace-work of the birch leaves trembling in the sun.” (p 704)
It seems to me that she perceives the feminine as something of less value than the masculine.
Her heroines, like her heroes, are tall and thin, almost masculine. They engage in battles of wills and resources, competing against men. The mothers of the characters are either dead or interferingly obnoxious. There is only one mother portrayed positively, as are her children, who are growing up free from the constraints of a corrupted society. The most important creative act of life, the birthing and raising of children, is not a part of any of the main characters’ lives. They want to make their mark on the world producing material things, but don’t seem to realize that even those will fade and be destroyed. The only lasting legacy humans can have on this earth is their children and their children’s children…..souls that will live on when the material is gone. Children are the supreme production of the human race. It is interesting to me that children, and a healthy family unit, are largely missing from these books. I suspect because, in that family unit, the theories of objectivism break down. Parenting is impossible without the willingness to make and accept sacrifices. A healthy family unit, the basis of a healthy society, cannot exist on the basis of these philosophical statements:
“Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live-”
“Pride is the recognition that you are your own highest value,” and
the “symbol of all relationships among such men [“men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them”], the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader.” (pp 1020-1022)
Ayn Rand had some very accurate descriptions of the political situation in the world today, but her basic understanding of humanity and creation was, I believe, flawed.
“To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument – is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality.” (p 1023)
This situation IS a reality for many in this world, as radical Islam and terrorists are forcing people to make this choice. Yet what gives people the courage to stand up for the truth, to retain control of their minds, and accept death rather than give in, in most cases is not the objectivist philosophy, but rather their faith. Faith in the God who created us and gave us value, faith in the moral universe he gave to us, and faith in the one Man who sacrificed all for those willing to accept that sacrifice. I’m sorry that Ayn Rand did not have this faith; she might have attained to the happiness she sought had she worshipped God rather than man.
Note: Quotations are taken from the 35th Anniversary Edition, hardback, of Atlas Shrugged, Dutton, 1992.