Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand
“She looked ahead, at a haze that melted rail and distance, a haze that could rip apart at any moment to some shape of disaster. She wondered why she felt safer than she had ever felt in a car behind the engine, safer here, where it seemed as if, should an obstacle rise, her breast and the glass shield would be first to smash against it. She smiled, grasping the answer: it was the security of being first, with full sight and full knowledge of one’s course – not the blind sense of being pulled into the unknown by some unknown power ahead. It was the greatest sensation of existence: not to trust, but to know.”
“Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines? … The motors were a moral code cast in steel.”
“Do not cry, when you reach it, that life is frustration and that happiness is impossible to man; check your fuel: it brought you to where you wanted to go.”
In a nutshell
Forge your own destiny, create something of value, and enable a higher form of humankind by daring to think.
Atlas Shrugged is a book about which there are still raging debates in review pages and discussion groups. It seems that people love it or hate It, and If there were a list for “most fascinating book of the twentieth century” Rand’s classic would have to be in the top ten. Rand was a philosopher who used fiction to influence the masses. A Russian emigrant who had seen at first hand the restrictions placed on individual freedom after the Bolshevik revolution, her magnum opus may get you thinking for the first time about what it means to be free and the nature of capitalism. The book addresses one of the basic issues of existence: the degree to which one should be selfish. At a higher level, it is a treatise on the heights that human beings can and should reach for.
What is Atlas Shrugged?
A mystery, raunchy romance, and work of philosophy all in one. Its protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is a driven young railroad executive who tries to run Taggart Transcontinental while fighting off corruption on a national scale. She is joined in the cast by the ruthless industrialist Hank Rearden and the flamboyant and aristocratic mining baron Francisco D’Anconia.
However, the key character does not reveal himself until late in the book, when we get answers to some intriguing questions: Why is the greatest living philosopher working as a short-order cook in a diner in the Rocky Mountains? How did the most important inventor of our time come to be an underground ganger on the railways? What happens when the people who might save the world choose not to save it? Who is John GaIt?
Reason (or the responsibility to live according to a purpose)
Atlas Shrugged was inspired by the author’s fury that people wasted the one capacity distinguishing them from other animals: reason. Those who no longer asked “Why am I alive?” or “What am I going to do or create that can justify my existence?” were to Rand as good as dead. “Society” amounted to a protection racket for all sorts of mediocrities, with people agreeing not to point out others’ lack of effort if theirs was not likewise exposed. This willingness to accept less, in order to accommodate “human nature,” Rand saw as actually anti-human. One of her characters says that most people don’t really want to live, but “to get away with living.” And when Dagny Taggart asks Francisco D’Anconia what he thinks is the worst type of human being, he shoots back: “The man without a purpose.”
Dagny’s role in managing Taggart Transcontinental is, in her eyes, a sacred trust. Only when out on the tracks or poring over figures does she feel really alive. The trains are a metaphor for her whole understanding of life – they run at high speed on un-deviating courses toward a fixed destination. In one scene, as she pushes a locomotive up to 100 miles an hour on the newly built John Gait line, Dagny gets a flash of insight above the roar of the engines: Wasn’t it evil to wish without moving – or to move without aim?
The nobility of making money
For Rand, wealth was a sign that significant individual thought had taken place. To create something and to make money out of it was nothing less than the essence of human morality. Napoleon Hill said it in cruder words: “Think and grow rich.” Money obtained by any other means (including inheritance, fraud, or public directive) is “looting,” yet in the book the people who advance civilization and keep the world turning are sneered at as being “vulgar materialists” and “robbers of the people.”
The big question that Dagny faces is why she should still try to save her railway while the looters, in the name of the “public good,” emaciate it. “Wealth creators be proud!” is the book’s cry. Fight for your freedom to innovate and produce, and never accept the guilt of the non-productive.
The best society is one in which people trade the best they have created for the best that others have created. Alan Greenspan, the famous chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, is probably Rand’s best-known disciple and was part of her New York circle in the 1950s. In The Greenspan Effect, Sicilia and Cruickshank refer to a statement by the man whom many hail as an architect of America’s long boom. Before he met Rand, Greenspan comments, he was an “Adam Smith” economist, appreciating the technical basis of capitalism; after Rand he became convinced of its moral force.
Atlas Shrugged and the individual
For so long an object of ridicule, many of Rand’s ideas are now conventional wisdom. We now worship the entrepreneur just as she did and today it seems obvious that a purer brand of capitalism makes the best use of each person’s talents and delivers ever more refined products and services. Economic life in the twenty-first century is not simply a triumph of technology, but a culture of invention generated by individual imagination.
The motif running through Atlas Shrugged is the dollar sign. For Rand, an immigrant to the United States who loved its ideals, this sacred symbol represented the triumph of the creative mind over the state, religion, and tradition. It meant freedom from mediocrity and its strangling power. This worship of the dollar and self-interest looks unpleasant and unseemly, yet Atlas Shrugged brilliantly portrays what happens when the ethic of the “greater good” is pursued to its logical ends. It very effectively annexes the spirit from an entire nation. Self-interest, as Adam Smith noted, is actually in full accordance with nature and therefore brings the more moral end.
Rand is a patron saint of the twenty-first-century entrepreneur because she provides a morality of powerful creation. A person with a Randian frame of mind is opposed in principle to “equality” if it means sacrificing their dreams for the sake of others. The pursuit of equal rights may be noble, but ultimately suffocates the life spirit that has always fired human advance.
Atlas Shrugged holds a person’s greatest duty to be the appreciation of the joy of being alive. Dagny Taggart’s whole existence seems to be a struggle, yet she refuses to give suffering authority over her life; she is not willing to say “that’s life” like everyone else.
Atlas Shrugged has attracted its fair share of damnation. It is usually painted as extreme, simplistic, or naive, but the best word to describe it is uncompromising. Rand was a genuine radical who created an Ideal of humanity that is uncomfortable for most, and her ideas are still being digested.
Atlas Shrugged runs to 1,080 pages and, like the greatest novels, is a world you enter rather than a book you read. It would certainly make a great opera and it is no surprise that Rand’s literary hero was Victor Hugo. She may have been a ranting, chain-smoking, homophobic commie hater, yet her star continues to rise. Her philosophy of maximum self-expression teamed with a lust for technological progress, though frightening to some, certainly fits with our times.
The book will probably outlive its wry-smiling critics, continuing to inspire while other works classified as “literature” become of only academic interest. Rand’s might not be the most brilliant prose: There are many lines that will have the discerning reader shaking their head or chuckling and there is a fair amount of repetition. Like many books of this length, it could be much shorter and better edited. Nevertheless, there is a spirit behind the words that makes you certain that you are reading something important.
This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.