Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged sat unread on the shelf, mocking me.  One thousand sixty-nine pages, fifty one hours and fourteen reading sessions later, that monument lies in smitherines at my feet.

Such a picture of accomplishment is appropriate for a novel like Ayn Rand’s since Rand was all about the glorious nature of human achievement. Born during the days of upheaval in early 20th century Russia, she never embraced the tenets of communism. Later emmigrating to the United States, she developed a philosophy of her own called “objectivism.” At the center of her vision is an heroic image of the individual who can accomplish anything he or she sets her mind to achieve. In that sentence, the key word is “mind.” For many pages toward the end of the novel, Ayn Rand becomes Ayn Rant as she excoriates those who have neglected the mind to favor either the body or the soul, observing: “Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue” (969-70).

The life of the mind and its resulting achievement has many enemies. The novel centers around Dagny Taggart, the female archetype of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Taggart is vice-president of operations for a transcontinental railroad. As the collectivist philosophy gains a strangle-hold on the country, Dagny struggles first to keep trains running on-time, then to keep them running at all. Her arch-nemesis is her own spineless brother, Jim, who is president of the railroad and a tool of the oppressive and stifling government bureaucracy. Dagny allies herself with other captains of industry who keep alive a vision of progress even as the world crumbles around them, the logical consequence of a worldview that punishes intelligence and excellence. One inventor has seen enough, and hastens the world’s decay by doing the one thing that the present system cannot accept. What is that inventor’s name? What does he do? Therein lies a tale.

In a post-script to her book, Ayn Rand summarizes her system of thought:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of 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.”

Unfortunately, in one area, Ayn Rand sets up a straw man only to knock it over. She portrays belief in the supernatural as an enemy and altruism as nonsense. This flies in the face of the Protestant principle, the bedrock of the work ethic in America. Far from being “mystic moochers,” as she labels people of faith, it is because one realizes that work is peformed to the glory of God that one must do one’s best. Further, Christ’s command to love God includes the command to love Him with all one’s mind. There is no conflict between the life of faith and productive, intelligent work here on this earth. Belief in a hereafter does not negate the importance of the here-and-now. As servants, we look to a day when the master will come and find us working. Yet Jesus’ command to love God includes the love of neighbor. Having done our purposeful best for God, whatever the task at-hand, we will help a down-and-out neighbor so that he or she in-turn can find a place of purposeful and thoughtful labor, to the glory of God.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy has merit. A central theme to Atlas Shrugged is the issue of how we treat our best and brightest. Do we reward them for their initiative and hard work, or do we punish them as “selfish”? Have we inadvertantly rewarded mediocrity, then scratched our heads when all we end up with is mediocrity? These are timely questions as the United States slips further behind other countries in test scores in math and the sciences. Does “no child left behind” focus our efforts on making the mediocre a little less mediocre, thereby letting the gifted languish in boredom, talents buried and potential untapped? Why should they pursue excellence when the superior income that excellence one day brings will only be taxed at a higher level? Atlas Shrugged, written in 1957, still has something to say in today’s politial dialogue.

Ayn Rand will remain an innovative and intriguing figure in philosophy. While her objectivism is blind to what Christian faith has contributed to the advance of the United States, her unique background gives her a positive spin on capitalism that we hear too little these days. As a novelist, her skills are average. The reader can’t help but think that a book half as long would make the same point more powerfully. Despite its weaknesses, Atlas Shrugged is worth the effort and will stretch your thinking.

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