A recent New York Times article about the influence of Atlas Shrugged among businessmen and Fortune 500 CEOs, for example, contained one confused businesswoman's opinion that "Rand's idea of 'the virtue of selfishness' is a harsh phrase for the Buddhist idea that you have to take care of yourself." It is hard to see how Buddhism—a philosophy of mystical asceticism—can be seen as equivalent to a philosophy of rational self-interest.
Some distorted views of Ayn Rand's masterwork will be motivated by spite. (In the Weekly Standard, for example, Andrew Ferguson dismisses the novel's readers as a bunch of neurotic adolescents—but he does so, ironically, by adopting exactly the kind of puerile derisiveness one would expect from such an insecure adolescent. Read it at risk to your sense of good taste and intellectual seriousness.) Most inaccuracies, however, are merely the result of the reporters' awkward unfamiliarity with Ayn Rand's ideas.
That's a shame, because Atlas Shrugged is a novel that everyone ought to discover and grapple with, because it succeeds at something too few artists and intellectuals have had the courage to do.
The purpose of art and philosophy is to show us truths about human nature, about the nature of the world and our place in it. Philosophy names these truths explicitly, in literal terms; literature dramatizes these truths in concrete terms, revealing its insights through the actions and statements of the characters created by the novelist. A philosophical novel, like Atlas Shrugged, is supposed to do both of these things.
But too often both the philosophers and the artists have failed us as seekers of truth. Rather than convey truths they have learned first-hand through observation of the world, they simply repeat or project their own prejudices and pre-conceived notions.
The most important event of the past two centuries, with which artists and intellectuals ought to have come to grips, is the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution—a social revolution that has radically transformed human life for the better. Free markets and industrialization have produced a previously unimagined wealth, which is enjoyed not only by captains of industry but by the common man, who is able to afford luxuries—large homes, automobiles, air travel, everything down to his caffe latte at the corner coffee shop—on a scale that could not even have been conceived in earlier centuries. Capitalism has also afforded the individual a degree of personal independence and unlimited opportunity that has fully liberated men from the stultifying tyranny of previous aristocratic and feudal systems.
Human nature is timeless and universal, but the evidence for human potential is not. That evidence is provided by actual human actions and their results. No one could have conceived of the achievements of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution before they happened—and these new events required a radical re-evaluation of conventional ideas. Yet the intellectuals failed to perform such a re-evaluation.
Regular readers of may be familiar with my own favorite example. In 1816, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a group of Britain's best young literary minds—including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later became Mary Shelley)—gathered together to explore their new school of literature, which they called "Gothic" because it took its inspiration from the mysticism of the Middle Ages. In that spirit, they challenged each other to write the best ghost story, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein—a story which portrays the quest for scientific knowledge as a kind of dangerous madness.
Just as capitalism was propelling us forward into a technological future that would, among other advantages, double the average human lifespan, the intellectuals were looking backward to the Middle Ages and predicting that all of this new science and technology would bring disaster. (They're still doing it, except that now they conjure up the bogeyman of global warming in place of Frankenstein's monster.)
A few decades later, a German intellectual named Karl Marx gave one of the most influential accounts of the new capitalist system—and he got everything wrong. An Industrial Revolution driven by scientific and technological advances springing from the minds of a few extraordinary individuals, he would describe as the anonymous, collective product of brute physical labor; an economic system of liberty, he would describe as a system of oppression; a system built on the right to property he would describe as a system based on expropriation—and then he would propose actual oppression and expropriation as the solution.
This has been the pattern of the artists and intellectuals in dealing with the most significant phenomenon of our age. While the world was transformed around them, they refused to grasp the real meaning of these events, choosing to ignore or denigrate the forces that were rapidly improving human life.
In this context, we can see the widest significance of Ayn Rand's literary and philosophical achievement. She was the first thinker and artist to fully grasp the meaning of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution and to give them expression both in literature and in philosophy.
The most radical aspect of Atlas Shrugged is that it is a sweeping, serious novel of ideas that is based in the business world, the last place mainstream intellectuals would have thought to regard as the inspiration for epic drama or profound new ideas. What makes Ayn Rand distinctive is that she found drama, heroism, and profound philosophical meaning in the achievements of the entrepreneurs and industrialists who were reshaping the world.
Atlas Shrugged was written in an age of creeping global socialism. Extrapolating from the trends of the day, Ayn Rand projected a future in which most of the world's nations are collapsing into the poverty and oppression of socialist "people's states," while America itself is collapsing under the weight of increasing government takeover of the economy.
She saw the dramatic potential in asking a single question: what would happen if the innovative entrepreneurs and businessmen—after decades of being vilified and regulated—started to disappear? What if the men condemned as parasites who somehow grow rich by exploiting manual laborers—the whole Marxist view of the economy—what if those "exploiters" were no longer around? The disappearance of the world's productive geniuses provides the novel's central mystery, both factually and intellectually.
Factually, the story follows Dagny Taggart, a woman in the then-unconventional role of operating vice-president of a transcontinental railroad, as she struggles to keep her railroad running in the face of strangling government regulations, while trying to solve a series of mysteries: a promising young railroad worker refuses a promotion and takes up a menial job instead; a spectacularly talented heir to a multinational copper company abandons his work to become a flamboyant playboy; a genius who invented a revolutionary new motor abandons his creation in the ruins of a derelict factory.
The factual question is: where did all of these people go? Why did they give up their work? Is there someone or something that is causing them to disappear?
The philosophical question raised by this plot is: what is the role of the entrepreneurs and innovators in a society? What motivates them, what are the conditions they need in order to work, and what happens to the world when they disappear? The factual mystery is integrated with the novel's deepest philosophical question: what is the moral status of the businessman and industrialist? Capitalism had been transforming the world for the better for more than a century, yet until Ayn Rand no one had taken a serious, original, first-hand look at this question, and no one had had the courage to challenge the conventional answers.
Capitalism unleashed an extraordinary burst of scientific and technological innovation and of human creativity—yet this had largely gone unrecognized as a phenomenon with any moral or intellectual significance. Ayn Rand was the first to celebrate the accomplishments of the James Watts and Andrew Carnegies and Thomas Edisons and to recognize in their productive energies an example of moral heroism.
Literarily, she recognized the romanticism in the extraordinary feats of these business innovators. In Atlas Shrugged this is perhaps best captured in repeated references to the legend of Nat Taggart, the swashbuckling young adventurer who founded the railroad for which Dagny Taggart works—a character based, in part, on the real-life swashbuckling of Commodore Vanderbilt's early career.
Or consider this passage, from an early chapter of Atlas Shrugged, in which steel tycoon Hank Rearden reflects on the process by which he invented a revolutionary new metal alloy.
He did not think of the ten years. What remained of them tonight was only a feeling which he could not name, except that it was quiet and solemn. The feeling was a sum, and he did not have to count again the parts that had gone to make it. But the parts, unrecalled, were there, within the feeling. They were the nights spent at scorching ovens in the research laboratory at the mills—
—the nights spent in the workshop of his home, over sheets of paper which he had filled with formulas, then tore up in angry failure—
—the days when the young scientists of the small staff he had chosen to assist him waited for instructions like soldiers ready for a hopeless battle, having exhausted their ingenuity, still willing, but silent, with the unspoken sentence hanging in the air: "Mr. Rearden, it can't be done—
—the meals, interrupted and abandoned at the sudden flash of a new thought, a thought to be pursued at once, to be tried, to be tested, to be worked on for months, and to be discarded as another failure—
—the moments snatched from conferences, from contracts, from the duties of running the best steel mills in the country, snatched almost guiltily, as for a secret love—
—the one thought held immovably across a span of ten years, under everything he did and everything he saw, the thought held in his mind when he looked at the buildings of a city, at the track of a railroad, at the light in the windows of a distant farmhouse, at the knife in the hands of a beautiful woman cutting a piece of fruit at a banquet, the thought of a metal alloy that would do more than steel had ever done, a metal that would be to steel what steel had been to iron—
—the acts of self-racking when he discarded a hope or a sample, not permitting himself to know that he was tired, not giving himself time to feel, driving himself through the wringing torture of: "not good enough…still not good enough…" and going on with no motor save the conviction that it could be done—
—then the day when it was done and its result was called Rearden Metal—
—these were the things that had come to white heat, had melted and fused within him, and their alloy was a strange, quiet feeling that made him smile at the countryside in the darkness and wonder why happiness could hurt.
This is a view of the innovative entrepreneur as a kind of crusader, driven by a profound commitment to moral excellence.
More than a century earlier, one of the most honest and insightful observers of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, had recounted the extraordinary exertions and risk-taking of American merchant sea-captains and concluded that "the Americans put something heroic into their way of trading." But Tocqueville never really took this idea seriously or followed its consequences. Ayn Rand did.
When she followed the consequences of this idea, it led her to two crucial philosophical identifications that Atlas Shrugged introduced to the world.
Atlas Shrugged is famous for its characters' philosophical speeches, even though its primary means of expression is dramatic, not didactic; ninety percent of the novel, after all, is action and dialogue. Yet the speeches are a crucial part of the novel's drama and suspense. The central mystery of the novel is not merely what the characters are doing, but why. This sense of philosophical intrigue is heightened by the fact that the central characters turn out to be motivated by radical new moral and philosophical ideas—ideas that challenge centuries of received wisdom and lead these characters to act in unexpected and unconventional ways.
Atlas Shrugged is a "novel of ideas" in the truest sense: the philosophical issues it explores are indispensable to the drawing of its characters and the suspense of its plot.
The central philosophical theme of Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand's demolition of the intellectuals' dichotomy between the high-minded pursuits of the intellect and the allegedly grubby, un-intellectual world of business and industry. Ayn Rand's answer to this is provided early in the novel by her character Francisco D'Anconia. A flashback shows us Francisco and Dagny as teenagers combing through the machinery of a junk yard, to the disapproval of a friend of the family:
Once, an elderly professor of literature, Mrs. Taggart's friend, saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile. He stopped, shook his head and said to Francisco, "A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries, absorbing the culture of the world." "What do you think I'm doing?" asked Francisco.
Later, Dagny's observations about the motors of a railroad locomotive provide a deeper explanation of this view of the products of industrial capitalism as testaments to the power of the human mind.
For an instant, it seemed to her that the motors were transparent and she was seeing the net of their nervous system. It was a net of connections, more intricate, more crucial than all of their wires and circuits: the rational connections made by that human mind which had fashioned any one part of them for the first time.
It is a measure of the success of Atlas Shrugged that this message may not seem as radical today as it did 50 years ago. With the discrediting of Marxism and the rise of the "information age," it is now commonplace to recognize that knowledge is the engine of production—that ideas, more than physical labor or raw materials, are the primary source of wealth. Yet Ayn Rand originated this idea during the old industrial age, when the brute muscle power of union workers was still widely put forward as the source of America's industrial might.
It may be easier to recognize the central role of the mind when looking at advances in high technology. But Ayn Rand grasped the role of the mind in all aspect of business. Late in the novel, Dagny Taggart observes the reign of Cuffy Meigs—a kind of railroad czar empowered as chief regulator of the industry—and surveys the havoc that his arbitrary decrees wreak on the rational planning of private businesses.
She knew that no train schedules could be maintained any longer, no promises kept, no contracts observed, that regular trains were cancelled at a moment's notice and transformed into emergency specials sent by unexplained orders to unexpected destinations—and that the orders came from Cuffy Meigs, sole judge of emergencies and of the public welfare. She knew that factories were closing, some with their machinery stilled for lack of supplies that had not been received, others with their warehouses full of goods that could not be delivered. She knew that the old industries—the giants who had built their power by a purposeful course projected over a span of time—were left to exist at the whim of the moment, a moment they could not foresee or control. She knew that the best among them, those of the longest range and most complex function, had long since gone—and those still struggling to produce, struggling savagely to preserve the code of an age when production had been possible, were now inserting into their contracts a line shameful to a descendant of Nat Taggart: "Transportation permitting."
That the central "planning" of government actually consists of the disruption of rational planning by millions of private individuals is a point that had already been made by pro-free-market economists like Ludwig von Mises. Ayn Rand grasped that these economic principle were not dry, academic abstractions, but dramas played out in the real world—that the laws of economics are a matter of life and death, of triumph or tragedy. Here, for example, is one episode of the tragedy that plays out in the novel's later pages:
Six weeks ago, Train Number 193 had been sent with a load of steel, not to Faulkton, Nebraska, where the Spencer Machine Tool Company, the best machine tool concern still in existence, had been idle for two weeks, waiting for the shipment—but to Sand Creek, Illinois, where Confederated Machines had been wallowing in debt for over a year, producing unreliable goods at unpredictable times. The steel had been allocated by a directive which explained that the Spencer Machine Tool Company was a rich concern, able to wait, while Confederated Machines was bankrupt and could not be allowed to collapse, being the sole source of livelihood of the community of Sand Creek, Illinois. The Spencer Machine Tool Company had closed a month ago. Confederated Machines had closed two weeks later.
The people of Sand Creek, Illinois, had been placed on national relief, but no food could be found for them in the empty granaries of the nation at the frantic call of the moment—so the seed grain of the farmers of Nebraska had been seized by order of the Unification Board—and Train Number 194 had carried the unplanted harvest and the future of the people of Nebraska to be consumed by the people of Illinois. "In this enlightened age," Eugene Lawson had said in a radio broadcast, "we have come, at last, to realize that each one of us is his brother's keeper."
Atlas Shrugged is about more than capitalism, and Ayn Rand carried her observation about the role of the rational mind beyond economics into art, family life, and yes, even sex—where she rejected brute materialism just as thoroughly as she did in economics. To understand fully the lessons of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, she grasped, required that one understand the validity and life-sustaining power of reason in human life.
The passage I quoted above also hints at a second philosophical theme that remains the novel's most revolutionary idea. Altruism—the notion that "each one of us is his brother's keeper"—is still regarded as practically synonymous with morality. Yet Atlas Shrugged concretizes the destructive impact of a moral code based on sacrifice and shows us the virtues of selfishness.
Throughout most of mankind's history, moralists have warned that individuals driven by "greed" and left free to pursue their self-interest would plunge society into a destructive war of all against all, a system of brutality, plunder, and exploitation—precisely the qualities Marx projected onto the new capitalist system. Instead, capitalism produced a system of freedom, independence, prosperity, and super-abundant creative energy—while the societies most thoroughly dedicated to the sacrifice of the individual to the collective, the 20th century's Communist regimes, were guilty of the greatest crimes ever recorded.
The lessons of this history were not lost on Ayn Rand, who had escaped from the Soviet Union to America in the 1920s, experiencing in a brief span the most complete contrast between opposing social systems. In one of the novel's most powerful metaphors, a character describes the collapse of the 20th Century Motor Company, a once-prosperous firm that descended into rancor, petty tyranny, and economic squalor after its employees voted to adopt a "bold experiment" in egalitarian socialism. The tale's narrator concludes, "This was the end of the 20th Century." Literally, he is referring to the fate of the company; symbolically, Ayn Rand uses the story to sum up the moral catastrophe of 20th century socialism.
As her own answer, Ayn Rand offered a morality of self-interest in which the individual's central moral goal is the pursuit of his own happiness. As one of the novel's philosophical speeches expresses it:
For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors—between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.
Yet Ayn Rand's radical idea is not merely her defense of self-interest—others have grudgingly accepted self-interest as a necessary evil, a "private vice" that makes for "public virtue"—but rather her redefinition of the moral meaning of self-interest.
Most intellectuals have accepted the old altruist caricature of self-interest as brute criminality, as if the only choice we face is between forms of sacrifice: sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others or sacrificing others to ourselves. Yet this caricature is thoroughly refuted by the history of capitalism, in which the most self-interested men are not looters or vandals, but creators who built railroads, steel mills, and computer networks. The philosophy of altruism gives us a choice between two moral models: Mother Theresa or Al Capone. Yet where is the room in this philosophy for a Bill Gates, a Thomas Edison, or any of the thousands of other figures who populate the history of capitalism, building their own fortunes through the creation of new ideas and products?
For the first time, Ayn Rand recognized the reality and significance of these men and drew a profound moral lesson: that genuine self-interest means, not the short-range conniving of the brute, but the creative thought and productive effort of the entrepreneur.
These philosophical insights were radical and new—but they were the only genuine, honest response to the evidence provided by the achievements of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Ayn Rand's detractors sometimes dismiss her novels as "unrealistic," but it is today's mainstream intellectuals who seem like they are wandering around in a fog of unreality. Stuck in a battle between two pre-conceived conventional notions—the religious traditionalism of the right versus the secular collectivism of the left—they have missed the monumental lessons of two centuries of history.
The era of encroaching global socialism—the dominant trend when Atlas Shrugged was written—has since given way to an era of global capitalism. But the deepest meaning of capitalism and its achievements has still not been widely understood and embraced. Capitalism is beginning to transform the lives of billions of people across the globe, from Eastern Europe to India to China. But there is virtually no one to help them understand what it is, its deepest personal meaning for their lives and values, and why it is good.
And that is why Atlas Shrugged is, if anything, even more relevant and more necessary today than it was when it was first published five decades ago.