Atlas Shrugged: The Novel that Inspired a Movement of Objectivists and Libertarians
Atlas Shrugged: A Novel by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged is a 1957 novel by Ayn Rand. It was her longest novel, the fourth and final one published during her lifetime, and the one she considered her magnum opus in the realm of fiction writing.
Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged includes elements of science fiction, mystery, and romance, and it contains Rand's most extensive statement of Objectivism in any of her works of fiction. Rand described the theme of Atlas Shrugged as "the role of man's mind in existence". The book explores a number of philosophical themes from which Rand would subsequently develop Objectivism, including reason, property rights, individualism, libertarianism and capitalism, and depicts what Rand saw as the failures of governmental coercion. The book depicts a dystopian United States in which private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations. Railroad executive Dagny Taggart and her lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden, struggle against "looters" who want to exploit their productivity. They discover that a mysterious figure called John Galt is persuading other business leaders to abandon their companies and disappear as a strike of productive individuals against the looters. The novel ends with the strikers planning to build a new capitalist society based on Galt's philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged received largely negative reviews, but achieved enduring popularity and ongoing sales in the following decades. The novel has been cited as an influence on a variety of libertarian and conservative thinkers and politicians. After several unsuccessful attempts to adapt the novel for film or television, a film trilogy based on it was released from 2011 to 2014, and two theatrical adaptations have been staged.
The Historical and Philosophical Context of Atlas Shrugged
The Life and Influences of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the eldest of three daughters of a Jewish family that owned a pharmacy. She witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent rise of communism, which she despised. She experienced the confiscation of her father's business, the starvation and violence of the civil war, and the censorship and oppression of the Soviet regime. She developed an early interest in literature and philosophy, especially in the works of Aristotle, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche. She also admired American culture and values, which she saw as representing freedom, individualism, and capitalism.
In 1926, she obtained permission to leave the Soviet Union to visit relatives in America. She arrived in New York City with a visa that expired in six months. She decided to stay in America permanently, changing her name to Ayn Rand (a contraction of her original name). She moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a screenwriter and met her future husband, Frank O'Connor. She also wrote several novels, including We the Living (1936), which was based on her experiences in Soviet Russia, and The Fountainhead (1943), which was her first major success and introduced some of her philosophical ideas.
In the 1950s, she devoted herself to writing Atlas Shrugged, which took her more than a decade to complete. She also began to formulate and promote her philosophy of Objectivism, which she defined as "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". She gave lectures, wrote essays, published newsletters, and founded organizations to spread her ideas. She also gathered a group of loyal followers, known as "the Collective", who included future economists Alan Greenspan and Nathaniel Branden. She became an influential figure in the libertarian movement and an outspoken critic of socialism, altruism, religion, and environmentalism.
She died on March 6, 1982, in New York City, leaving behind a legacy of novels, essays, and followers that continue to shape the cultural and political landscape of America and beyond.
The Rise of Collectivism and Statism in the 20th Century
The world in which Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged was marked by dramatic changes in the political and economic order. The first half of the 20th century saw two devastating world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and communism, and the emergence of the Cold War. These events challenged the classical liberal ideals of individual rights, limited government, free markets, and peace. They also gave rise to various forms of collectivism and statism, which Rand regarded as irrational, immoral, and destructive.
Collectivism is the doctrine that holds that the individual is subordinate to some group or collective entity, such as a class, a race, a nation, or a state. It denies the value of individual autonomy, choice, and responsibility. It demands that individuals sacrifice their interests, freedom, and happiness for the sake of some alleged common good. It justifies the use The Development and Essence of Objectivism
Objectivism is the name of Rand's philosophical system, which she developed and refined throughout her life. She first expressed some of her ideas in her novels, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but she also wrote numerous non-fiction essays and books that explained and defended her views on various topics. She also gave lectures, interviews, and radio broadcasts to promote her philosophy and to respond to critics and questions.
Objectivism is based on the premise that reality exists independently of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, and that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic. Objectivism rejects any form of mysticism, supernaturalism, or skepticism that denies the validity of reason or the possibility of knowledge. Objectivism also holds that reason is the only guide to action, and that morality is based on the rational pursuit of one's own happiness or self-interest. Objectivism advocates ethical egoism, which means that an action is morally right if it promotes the self-interest of the agent, and that one has no moral duty to sacrifice oneself for others or to serve any collective entity. Objectivism also supports individual rights, which are derived from the nature of man as a rational being who requires freedom to act on his own judgment. Objectivism upholds laissez-faire capitalism as the only social system that respects individual rights and enables human flourishing. Objectivism also addresses issues in aesthetics and the philosophy of love and sex, arguing that art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's values, and that romantic love is a response to the virtues and values of another person.
The Characters and Plot of Atlas Shrugged
The Protagonists: Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden
The main characters of Atlas Shrugged are Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, two industrialists who represent the best of human achievement and potential. Dagny Taggart is the vice president of operations of Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company founded by her grandfather. She is a brilliant engineer and manager who loves her work and strives to keep her railroad running despite the obstacles and interference of her incompetent brother James, who is the president of the company, and the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who impose irrational regulations and restrictions on her business. She is also a woman of independent mind and spirit who does not conform to the conventional expectations or stereotypes of her gender or society. She values intelligence, integrity, courage, and productivity in herself and others.
Hank Rearden is the owner of Rearden Steel, a steel company that produces a revolutionary new metal alloy called Rearden Metal, which is stronger, lighter, and cheaper than any other metal. He is a self-made man who rose from poverty to wealth by his own effort and genius. He is a master inventor and producer who loves his work and takes pride in his creations. He is also a man of uncompromising principles who does not seek or accept any favors or subsidies from anyone. He values rationality, honesty, justice, and independence in himself and others.
Dagny and Hank meet and fall in love while working together on various projects involving their respective businesses. They share a passion for their work and a respect for each other's values. They also face similar challenges from their enemies: the looters and the mystics.
The Antagonists: The Looters and the Mystics
The antagonists of Atlas Shrugged are the looters and the mystics, two groups of people who represent the worst of human degradation and destruction. The looters are those who seek to gain wealth and power by force, fraud, or coercion, rather than by honest production and trade. They include the politicians, the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, the cronies, the socialists, the communists, and some of the businessmen who collaborate with them. They enact laws and policies that violate the rights of the producers, such as taxes, subsidies, regulations, controls, and nationalizations. They claim to act for the public good, the common welfare, or the social justice, but in reality they are motivated by envy, greed, fear, and guilt.
The mystics are those who claim to have access to some higher or supernatural source of knowledge or value, such as faith, intuition, revelation, or emotion, rather than by reason and logic. They include the religious leaders, the philosophers, the artists, the psychologists, and some of the scientists who propagate their doctrines. They preach that reality is unknowable, that reason is impotent, that morality is subjective, and that happiness is impossible. They advocate that one should sacrifice one's mind, body, and soul for the sake of some higher power, purpose, or duty, such as God, society, or the state.
The looters and the mystics work together to undermine and destroy the producers and their values. They use force and fraud to loot their wealth, and they use propaganda and intimidation to spread their mysticism. They exploit the producers' sense of morality, responsibility, and benevolence, and they manipulate their emotions, doubts, and fears. They create a culture of irrationality, mediocrity, and misery.
The Mystery: Who is John Galt?
The central question of Atlas Shrugged is: Who is John Galt? This question is uttered repeatedly throughout the novel, usually as an expression of despair, resignation, or indifference in the face of the worsening social and economic conditions. The question also reflects the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of many of the most talented and productive individuals in various fields and industries. As Dagny and Hank investigate this phenomenon, they discover clues that point to the existence of a secret society of strikers led by a mysterious man named John Galt.
John Galt is the hero of Atlas Shrugged, the man who embodies the ideal of Objectivism. He is a genius inventor who discovered the secret of harnessing the energy of static electricity, which he used to build a motor that could provide cheap and abundant power for the world. He is also a philosopher who formulated the principles of Objectivism and articulated them in a radio speech that lasted for three hours. He is also a leader who organized and inspired the strike of the producers, who followed him to a hidden valley in Colorado, where they built a utopian community based on his philosophy.
John Galt's motive for leading the strike was to stop the looters and the mystics from exploiting and destroying the producers and their values. He realized that the looters and the mystics depended on the producers for their survival, and that by withdrawing their minds and their products from society, he could deprive them of their power and expose their bankruptcy. He also wanted to demonstrate to the producers that they did not have to accept or tolerate the looters and the mystics, that they had a moral right to pursue their own happiness, and that they could join him in creating a new society based on reason, freedom, and capitalism.
John Galt's ultimate goal was to answer his own question: Who is John Galt? He wanted to find out if there were any other people like him in the world, people who shared his vision and values, people who could appreciate his achievements and passions, people who could love him as he loved himself. He found such people among his fellow strikers, especially among Dagny Taggart, whom he loved with an intensity that matched his own.
The Themes and Messages of Atlas Shrugged
The Role of the Mind in Human Existence
The main theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in human existence. Rand argued that the mind is the source of all human knowledge and values, and that its absence is the root of all evil. For Rand, reason is not only a cognitive faculty that enables one to perceive reality and discover truth, but also a moral faculty that enables one to choose values and pursue happiness. Reason is thus both descriptive and prescriptive: it tells one what is and what ought to be.
Atlas Shrugged illustrates this theme by showing how different characters use or misuse their minds in different ways. The protagonists are rational beings who use their minds to understand reality, create values, solve problems, overcome challenges, achieve goals, and enjoy life. They are exemplars of what Rand called "the virtue of rationality", which she defined as "the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values and one's only guide to action". The antagonists are irrational beings who evade reality, destroy values, create problems, avoid challenges, fail goals, and suffer life. They are examples of what Rand called "the vice of irrationality", which she defined as "the rejection of reason as one's only source of knowledge".
The Morality of Self-Interest and Capitalism
Another major theme of Atlas Shrugged is the morality of self-interest and capitalism. Rand argued that self-interest is the proper motive and standard of human action, and that capitalism is the only moral social system. For Rand, self-interest does not mean selfishness in the sense of exploiting or harming others for one's own benefit. Rather, it means pursuing one's own rational values and happiness, without sacrificing oneself to others or others to oneself. Self-interest is thus consistent with respecting the rights and interests of other rational beings, and with engaging in voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges with them. Self-interest is also the source of human creativity and progress, as it motivates individuals to produce values and to improve their lives and the lives of others.
Capitalism is the social system that recognizes and protects individual rights, including property rights, and that leaves individuals free to act on their own judgment in pursuit of their own self-interest. Capitalism is based on the principle of trade, which means that individuals deal with each other as traders, offering value for value, by mutual consent and to mutual benefit. Capitalism is thus a system of justice, which rewards individuals according to their productive effort and contribution to society. Capitalism is also a system of progress, which fosters innovation, competition, and prosperity.
Atlas Shrugged illustrates this theme by showing how different characters embody or reject self-interest and capitalism in different ways. The protagonists are self-interested individuals who uphold capitalism as the ideal social system. They produce values that benefit themselves and others, they trade with each other on equal terms, they respect each other's rights and freedom, and they enjoy their wealth and happiness. The antagonists are either self-sacrificial altruists who oppose capitalism as an evil system, or self-serving exploiters who corrupt capitalism by using force or fraud. They consume values that they did not produce or earn, they loot or mooch from others by coercion or manipulation, they violate or evade each other's rights and freedom, and they suffer from their poverty and misery.
The Importance of Individualism and Creativity
A third major theme of Atlas Shrugged is the importance of individualism and creativity. Rand argued that individualism is the recognition of one's own identity and worth as a human being, and that creativity is the expression of one's own mind and spirit in one's chosen field of endeavor. For Rand, individualism does not mean isolation or detachment from others, but rather independence and self-reliance. It means thinking for oneself, judging for oneself, choosing for oneself, acting for oneself, and living for oneself. Individualism also means respecting the individuality of others, and dealing with them as independent equals who have their own minds and values. Creativity does not mean originality or novelty for their own sake, but rather excellence and achievement in one's chosen field of endeavor. It means using one's mind to discover new facts or invent new products, applying one's skills to create new values or improve existing ones, expressing one's vision or passion in one's work or art.
Individualism and creativity are closely related concepts in Rand's philosophy. Both require reason as their foundation and tool, both entail values as their purpose and fuel, both involve action as their method and result. Both are also essential aspects of human nature and human flourishing. Rand believed that human beings are not born with a fixed nature or destiny, but have the potential to shape their own character and future by their choices and actions. She also believed that human beings are not mere animals or robots who can survive by instinct or programming, but rational beings who need to use their minds to understand reality and to create values that sustain their lives.
Atlas Shrugged illustrates this theme by showing how different characters exemplify or negate individualism and creativity in different ways. The protagonists are individualists and creators who use their minds to achieve their goals and to express their selves in their work or art. They are heroes of reason, values, and action, who embody the human potential for greatness. The antagonists are either collectivists or conformists who renounce their minds to follow others or to escape reality, and who destroy or degrade the work or art of others. They are villains of irrationality, sacrifice, and stagnation, who represent the human possibility for evil.
The Reception and Impact of Atlas Shrugged
The Critical Response to Atlas Shrugged
Atlas Shrugged received largely negative reviews when it was first published in 1957. Many critics dismissed the novel as poorly written, implausible, dogmatic, and preachy. Some critics attacked the novel as immoral, anti-social, anti-democratic, and anti-Christian. Some critics ignored the novel's philosophical themes and focused on its literary flaws or political implications. Some critics admitted the novel's originality and power, but disagreed with its message or style.
However, Atlas Shrugged also received some positive reviews and praise from some prominent intellectuals and writers, such as Isabel Paterson, John Chamberlain, Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig von Mises, and Whittaker Chambers. Some reviewers appreciated the novel's scope, de