For some reason, honestly unknown to me, I decided a couple of months ago that I would take on one of the classics that had always seemed rather daunting to me, Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. For someone who loves literature like I do, I knew embarrassingly little about what I was jumping into and had a very vague idea about the subject matter.
I must say that it was a fascinating read, especially given our current political and economic climate. There were many passages that jumped out at me as noteworthy, and much of what was written seemed at times to echo many of the arguments we hear in the elevated political rhetoric that comes with the seemingly endless election season.
Atlas Shrugged is widely regarded as Rand’s greatest work, her magnum opus. Published in 1957, it has sold over 7 Million copies and each year the Ayn Rand Institute donates 400,000 copies of the books to schools. To say that this book hasn’t had a profound impact on the thinking of our society would be ludicrous. In it, Rand lays out for us her personal philosophy, Objectivism, which says that we are all purely rational individuals whose moral code is determined by our choices and our value based on what we produce and create.
I will admit I initially got swept up in the idea that, yes, if I just produce to the best of my ability and only worry about myself, that the rest will fall into place. That my value will be determined by what I can offer. It sounds nice…
“Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” —Francisco d’Anconia, Atlas Shrugged (Part 1, Chapter 1)
“You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you, you create them, you own the one and only tool of production.” —Dagny Taggart, Atlas Shrugged (Part 2, Chapter 8)
“Any man who’s afraid of hiring the best ability he can find, is a cheat who’s in a business where he doesn’t belong.” –Ken Danagger, Atlas Shrugged (Part 3, Chapter 1)
…But it also sounds incredibly simplistic. What Rand does not take into account is that humans are, in fact, humans. We are rational beings, but we are also emotional beings and have morals based on more than just our ability to produce and think. The idea that we could just walk away from our current lives because society is not properly valuing our contributions, and go to this utopia where we are only responsible to ourselves seems to take away the very essence of what it means to be human.
While I do think we all need to be responsible for ourselves and our decisions, and we have become increasingly passive in allowing people to shirk their responsibilities and giving them a free pass, I also think we have an important responsibility to our fellow beings. Rand neglects to take into account the world we do live in and instead chooses to over simplify and downplays the value of our non-rational characteristics.
While doing more research on Rand and her body of work I stumbled upon an interesting lecture by Donald DeMarco given to the Lumen Christi at the University of Chicago entitled “A Critical Look at Ayn Rand.” In his lecture, DeMarco gives us a look into Rand and her motivations, but also the searing critiques of her works. One of his most interesting points focused on Rand’s philosophy of Objectivity, describing for us how she, incorrectly, believed that because communism and Marxism were wrong, radical individualism must therefore be right. Well, as DeMarco explains to us through Aristotle’s logic, just because one thing is wrong, does not mean that another is not wrong as well.
Communism and Radical Individualism are neither 100 percent wrong, nor 100 percent right. Part of both are true. We are part of the collective whole, but not exclusively; we are individuals to be sure, but again, not exclusive of the collective whole.
It’s funny, I never fancied myself much of a philosophy fan, but there is something very interesting about how people come to their conclusions, don’t you think?
All of that said, I do think Atlas Shrugged is an important book to read as there as so many references to in throughout our society and culture. Even just as I was driving through Dallas the other day I spotted the Atlas Metal Works. If that’s not a literary reference I don’t know what is. I enjoyed reading this and took a lot away from it. If nothing else, it gave my critical thinking skills a good workout.
Have you read Atlas Shrugged? If not, will you?