A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 6
Spoiler Alert: You do not need a reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged—at least not for your first reading. Ayn Rand’s novel is clear, compelling, eminently readable, and perfectly comprehensible on its own terms. Yet Atlas is also a rich and complex novel, with an intricate plot in which dozens of moving parts mesh together and many minor themes are woven in amongst the novel’s big philosophical issues. It rewards further study, and my goal in this series is to share what I’ve learned about the novel over decades of reading it and thinking about it.
This series assumes that you have already read Atlas Shrugged. That means there will be plenty of “spoilers”: discussion of important plot points that will ruin the novel’s suspense for someone who does not already know how it all turns out. I don’t want any reader to find himself slapping his forehead in the middle of one of these articles and thinking: if only I hadn’t missed out on this experience that has now been wrecked for me.
So take this spoiler warning seriously. I mean it.
If you haven’t read the novel and need some inducement, read the overview I wrote on the 50th anniversary of its publication—then go read Atlas Shrugged, then come back to this.
Atlas Shrugged is famous for its philosophical speeches, which are both beloved by its fans and reviled by critics. They are what make it a “novel of ideas”—not merely an entertaining or interesting story but a book with revolutionary cultural and political significance. They make this a dangerous book, from the perspective of maintaining the cultural status quo, which explains some of the fury of the critics.
But Atlas is not a novel of ideas just because its characters talk about ideas. Big ideas are what drive the characters and events, setting the dramatic conflict in motion. More to the point, its characters are portrayed as needing those ideas, in exactly the same way that many of its readers find they need them: as a practical guide for figuring out how to resolve the conflicts they face in life. The ideas themselves are central to the resolution of the plot.
This is why, contrary to the critics, Atlas Shrugged is a model for how to integrate big ideas with dramatic action.
As I pointed out recently:
Today’s right is always complaining that the left holds the cultural high ground and that we need to do more to influence popular culture. But Ayn Rand is the only figure on the right who has really succeeded at it. She wrote some of the world’s most popular and enduring fiction, which has succeeded in the marketplace—for 70 years and still going strong—in the face of unrelenting hostility from mainstream critics. Reading her novels is practically a rite of passage for high school and college students, and in my experience, her books are the single biggest engine for bringing eager, idealistic young people into the right.
Even some on the left have complained that there is no “liberal Atlas Shrugged.” If liberals and conservatives have no equivalent to Atlas Shrugged, perhaps they should spend less time disparaging Ayn Rand’s use of philosophical ideas in her fiction and more time learning how she does it.
The best way to construct a story is for the plot and theme to flow naturally from the characters and situation, so that the moment you introduce these particular people in this particular setting, the rest of the action seems inevitable. Take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. One of the reasons the story endures is the way it unfolds from its setup; once you introduce Elizabeth Bennett to Mr. Darcy, it is inevitable that these two characters will be attracted to one another but also inevitable (given the context) that they will repel one another, setting up the conflict that takes the rest of the novel to resolve.
So the best way to introduce big ideas into a story is to create a situation that naturally raises those big questions, simply by means of the inevitable conflicts that arise between a particular set of characters in a particular setting.
Perhaps we could have a nationwide railroad company run by a brother and sister who are heirs to the family fortune, giving both of them a claim to some influence over the company. Then give them opposite views of the world. One is driven by a desire to live up to the example of the producers who built the railroad. She lives by a code of work, competence, productivity, and profit. The other rides off of the wealth and status earned by those who came before him, while attempting to feel superior to them by declaring that he doesn’t care about money. Instead, he’s a “limousine liberal” type who talks loudly about a fuzzy-headed humanitarianism and wants the company to invest in “socially responsible” projects. There you have a natural set-up for a long and bitter conflict that involves big ideas, which will be the topic of exactly the kind of conversations and arguments you might ordinarily hear around the dinner table at Thanksgiving. But in this case it is propelled by the extra urgency of having billions of dollars and the economic future of the country at stake.
These two characters, of course, are Dagny Taggart and her brother James. This shows us the pattern by which Ayn Rand constructs the entire novel, establishing a cast of characters with sharply contrasting worldviews and putting them in situations that naturally draw them into conflict with one another. The conflicts are not merely ideological but concrete and specific. In most cases, the ideological differences are longstanding—Dagny and Jim have been at loggerheads since they were kids—and their arguments would not need to be rehashed at all if not for some new, concrete source of conflict. When we first meet them, for example, Dagny and Jim are not engaged in airy philosophizing about abstract hypotheticals. They are arguing about Taggart Transcontinental’s investment in the San Sebastian Mines and an order for new rails that Dagny has just placed with Rearden Steel. This will give you a flavor for how that conversation plays out.
“It isn’t fair,” said James Taggart.
“That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn’t need us; he’s plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging a monopoly.”
“Don’t talk tripe, Jim.”
“Why do we always have to get things from Rearden?”
“Because we always get them.”
“I don’t like Henry Rearden.”
“I do. But what does that matter, one way or the other? We need rails and he’s the only one who can give them to us.”
“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element
“We’re talking about saving a railroad, Jim.”
“Yes, of course, of course, but still, you haven’t any sense of the human element.”
“No. I haven’t.”
It will turn out, of course, that Dagny has a much better sense of “the human element” than Jim does, but that’s a realization that comes later. For our purposes, this early scene show how these two characters, coming from opposing worldviews, naturally take opposing stands on specific issues, and they argue about those specific cases, not just about abstract theories. But in the process of these concrete conflicts, they are drawn to discuss the reasoning (or lack of reasoning) behind them.
This isn’t just the case for characters who are in conflict. Like-minded characters find themselves drawn to each other and are motivated to share their joy at developments they like and their anger or frustration at events they don’t like, which also leads them to discuss the reasons for their reactions. Take the first conversation between Dagny and Hank Rearden, in which Dagny is exulting in the “sense of clear outlines, of purpose, of lightness, of hope” in her discussion with Rearden about the uses of his new metal alloy.
He made a step back and said in a strange tone of dispassionate wonder, “We’re a couple of blackguards, aren’t we?”
“We haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for.”
She looked at him, unable to understand. But he was looking past her, straight ahead, at the crane in the distance. She wished he had not said it. The accusation did not trouble her, she never thought of herself in such terms and she was completely incapable of experiencing a feeling of fundamental guilt. But she felt a vague apprehension which she could not define, the suggestion that there was something of grave consequence in whatever had made him say it, something dangerous to him. He had not said it casually. But there had been no feeling in his voice, neither plea nor shame. He had said it indifferently, as a statement of fact.
Then, as she watched him, the apprehension vanished. He was looking at his mills beyond the window; there was no guilt in his face, no doubt, nothing but the calm of an inviolate self-confidence.
“Dagny,” he said, “whatever we are, it’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through.”
You can see in both of these passages, early in the novel, that the characters are grappling, in a direct and personal way, with this whole question of whether production and commerce are “materialistic” and whether there is some “spiritual” “human element” they are missing—a philosophical false alternative that Ayn Rand is going to turn inside out over the course of the novel.
Most of the big philosophical exchanges are between the heroes, particularly when one of them understands the issues more deeply and explicitly than the other. In the first two-thirds of the novel, these are mostly conversations between Rearden and Francisco D’Anconia. Hank Rearden is the rough, self-made man who lives implicitly by the same values as the rest of the heroes of the novel, but who generally doesn’t have the words to express them. Without knowing it, he has a desperate need for someone who can explicitly identify the moral ideals he has lived by and who can provide him with a sense of validation. Francisco is the philosophically educated intellectual (with access to John Galt’s as-yet-unrevealed philosophical breakthroughs) who can provide him with this knowledge. This is all set up in their first meeting.
“It’s a terrible night for any animal caught unprotected on that plain,” said Francisco d’Anconia. “This is when one should appreciate the meaning of being a man.”
Rearden did not answer for a moment; then he said, as if in answer to himself, a tone of wonder in his voice, “Funny…”
“You told me what I was thinking just a while ago…”
“…only I didn’t have the words for it.”
“Shall I tell you the rest of the words?”
“You stood here and watched the storm with the greatest pride one can ever feel—because you are able to have summer flowers and half-naked women in your house on a night like this, in demonstration of your victory over that storm. And if it weren’t for you, most of those who are here would be left helpless at the mercy of that wind in the middle of some such plain.”
“How did you know that?”
In time with his question, Rearden realized that it was not his thoughts this man had named, but his most hidden, most personal emotion; and that he, who would never confess his emotions to anyone, had confessed it in his question. He saw the faintest flicker in Francisco’s eyes, as of a smile or a check mark.
This setup is important because this is the story line that brings us most of the philosophical passages in the middle of the novel. If you catalog all of the philosophical speeches in Atlas Shrugged—and Ayn Rand helpfully did this for us, gathering most of them together in her first non-fiction volume, For the New Intellectual—every speech up to Part 3, when the reader finally meets John Galt, is related to the Francisco-Rearden story line: Francisco’s soliloquy on the meaning of money, which he describes as really being directed to Rearden (“To whom do you think I’ve been speaking for the last quarter of an hour?”); the long conversation in which Francisco introduces the metaphor of the producer as an “Atlas” who should “shrug”; Rearden’s speech at his trial, which he describes to Francisco as hearing “your own lines” repeated back to him; and Francisco’s discussion of the meaning of sex. The only other passage in Part 2 that might be considered a speech is Ragnar Danneskjold’s description to Rearden of the purpose of his piracy, but that can also be considered a step in the education of Henry Rearden.
All of this falls under the description Francisco gives Rearden at the very beginning: he is giving him “the words you need, for the time when you’ll need them.” The key word here is “need.” All of the concepts presented in these speeches are ideas Rearden needs to understand in order to deal with the specific conflicts he faces in the plot. Francisco’s speech on money comes as Rearden is trying to understand the difference between his own outlook and the anti-commercial philosophy parroted at him endlessly by his family, particularly his wife Lillian, who dragged him to the wedding for the purposes of her own political machinations. The ideas in Francisco’s speech about Atlas provide the core of Rearden’s defense in his own speech at his trial—which is presented, not just as an intellectual breakthrough, but as a practical means of defeating the statist system Rearden is up against. Even the part about sex comes toward the end of Rearden’s personal evolution on that issue, by way of his affair with Dagny (and sets up a conflict between the two men over their past and present relationships with her).
This also provides a key mystery that drives the interaction between the two men. When they first meet, Francisco seems outwardly to be Rearden’s antithesis. Rearden is a man who came up from nothing and dedicated himself to work and achievement, while Francisco inherited a vast fortune that he’s frittering away by throwing wild parties. So Rearden is mystified that this spoiled party hound, who ought to be the last person in the world to understand his life and motivation, understands them more fully than he does.
That is another important way in which the philosophical content of the novel is intimately tied to the plot. Atlas Shrugged is full of mysterious characters with hidden motives, as well as characters we thought we knew and understood who suddenly act in a mysterious way for reasons they refuse to explain.
Francisco is the biggest example. In a flashback, we learn that he started out sharing Dagny’s approach to life and her dedication to work, but he suffered some kind of inexplicable personal crisis that seemingly caused him to degenerate into a male bimbo. But the biggest mystery is that he still looks and talks like the same man he used to be. “[T]he face, she thought, had not changed. How could a face remain the same when everything else was gone?”
Yet even earlier, there are other characters who are acting strangely: the brakeman on the Comet whom Dagny overhears whistling Halley’s Fifth Concerto but who clams up when she questions him about it, and Owen Kellogg, a rising young executive who suddenly quits for a reason he refuses to explain. Kellogg makes brief appearances later in the novel, just to remind us that he, and the mystery he represents, are still out there.
And then there are the entrepreneurs who disappear, seemingly in contradiction to their entire previous history, and in one case after vowing to chain himself to his desk before he would allow himself to leave. The enigma only deepens the one time Dagny manages to catch up to one of these industrialists as he is quitting.
Her first movement was a sudden jerk of her head toward the exit door; she asked, her voice low, her mouth distorted by hatred, “Who was he?”
Danagger laughed. “If you’ve guessed that much, you should have guessed that it’s a question I won’t answer.”…
“I came too late,” she said. “That’s what I came here to prevent. I knew it would happen.”
“I felt certain that he’d get you next, whoever he is.”
“You did? That’s funny. I didn’t.”
“I wanted to warn you, to…to arm you against him.”
He smiled. “Take my word for it, Miss Taggart, so that you won’t torture yourself with regrets about the timing: that could not have been done.”
She felt that with every passing minute he was moving away into some great distance where she would not be able to reach him.
What Dagny begins to realize is that each of these people has heard something that has caused him to radically alter the course of his life, some message so powerful that it cannot be resisted. So the discovery of that message becomes crucial to the resolution of the plot.
In terms of its plot structure, Atlas Shrugged is essentially a mystery story. There are elements of the “business romance”—an old genre consisting of tales of plucky entrepreneurs succeeding against the odds—and of course there is a love story (or two). But all of these are subplots that take place within the framework of Dagny’s quest to solve a mystery: her search for the man who is causing all of the great producers to disappear.
You can think of this as something equivalent to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. People are disappearing, and we don’t know why. It begins in the first few pages when, as Dagny is trying to track down the “Fifth Concerto” she heard the brakeman whistling, we learn about the mystery of Richard Halley’s disappearance. By the end of Part 1, we find a bigger mystery: someone has invented a motor that would save the economy and transform everyone’s lives, but it has been abandoned. Who invented it, where did he go, and why? The quest to track him down dominates the last sections of Part 1. The plot of Part 2 is driven by Dagny’s search for a growing number of missing industrialists and for the person, the “destroyer,” whom she suspects is behind their disappearance. At the beginning of Part 3, she finds him, she finds the people who disappeared, and she discovers where they went and what they are doing. That mystery is solved.
Yet this is not the resolution of the plot, because the real mystery isn’t the “who” or the “what.” It’s the why.
That is the most important role of the novel’s philosophical speeches, particularly the speech so big that it has its own special designation, as if it were a separate work of its own: Galt’s Speech.
The plot that reaches its climax in Part 3 cannot be resolved without a speech. Up to that point, we have followed a long train of events, a broad sweep of action that encompasses the entire course of events in a nation, in the world, over a period of more than a decade. We have discovered that all of these events are being driven by mysterious people with obscure motives that don’t fit into our normal moral and intellectual categories and don’t make sense from a conventional perspective. It is precisely because these characters are new, their motives are new, and their outlook on life is new that we cannot resolve the plot without an explanation, in explicit ideological terms, of why they are doing what they are doing.
If we lay out the events of the plot, not in the order we encounter them in the novel, but reconstructing the order in which they would have originally happened, then everything traces back to one moment twelve years earlier.
“‘This is a crucial moment in the history of mankind!’ Gerald Starnes yelled through the noise. ‘Remember that none of us may now leave this place, for each of us belongs to all the others by the moral law which we all accept!’ ‘I don’t,’ said one man and stood up. He was one of the young engineers. Nobody knew much about him. He’d always kept mostly by himself. When he stood up, we suddenly turned dead-still. It was the way he held his head. He was tall and slim— and I remember thinking that any two of us could have broken his neck without trouble—but what we all felt was fear. He stood like a man who knew that he was right. ‘I will put an end to this, once and for all,’ he said.”
So the whole cause of the plot, the factor that sets everything into motion, is John Galt’s principled philosophical rejection of the morality of altruism. If we’re then going to tie up the plot, we need to know the reasons for that rejection.
We also know that this argument has been convincing to dozens, even hundreds of other people, who have left everything behind after hearing it. So we have to know what he told them that was so new and powerful and convincing. It’s similar to a story in which we hear that a man has written an eloquent series of letters. At some point, we’re going to have to hear what the letters said. (This was a dilemma Ayn Rand faced as screenwriter for the 1945 film Love Letters. In the original novel she was adapting, we are told that the letters are beautiful and eloquent, but we never see what is in them—a lapse Ayn Rand had to correct in her screenplay.)
And this had better be a philosophical speech. One of the key themes of the novel is the importance of guiding one’s actions by reason. So the speech can’t rely on vague slogans or on appeals to tradition or emotion. It has to lay out a systematic rational case for abstract principles. It needs to be about philosophy, if it is going to be about ideas that are designed to convince a rational listener.
There is one other practical reason why Galt’s speech is necessary. Galt has recruited a select group of established industrialists and talented unknowns, and this usually causes critics to complain about Ayn Rand’s “elitism.” But Galt’s Speech is his way of carrying his message to the masses, giving them an opportunity to join his strike. Following the speech, there are hints of popular unrest simmering in the background, with rural areas becoming no-go zones for government officials. (“Lights were seen, once in a while, on the distant horizon of a prairie, in the hills, on the ledges of mountains, where no buildings had been known to exist. But no soldiers could be persuaded to investigate the sources of those lights.”) So we can imagine that there is some kind of Tea Party-style opposition. Galt adopts the sign of the dollar, but I have to think he wouldn’t be averse to the Gadsden flag.
This all happens in the background because it is not Ayn Rand’s main subject matter; she is more concerned with what happens to the extraordinary individuals who have joined Galt in the valley. But as I have discussed elsewhere, she didn’t accept the false alternative in which reverence for high achievers implies hostility toward the common man. So she gives the common man a role in the drama by having Galt rally them for some kind of popular rebellion that hastens the fall of the dictatorship. To do that, he needs to give a speech that is broadcast to the whole country.
Any way you look at it, there is no way to resolve the action of the novel without some kind of speech. And given the scope and profundity of the subject matter, a small speech would be anticlimactic. We need a full philosophical manifesto on the evils of altruism and the virtue of selfishness. Anything less would be a letdown.
That is what makes Atlas Shrugged a novel of ideas in the best and truest sense.
We can best explain the role of the speeches in Atlas Shrugged by returning to the analogy of a murder mystery. Somewhere toward the end, you always reach that moment when Hercule Poirot gathers everyone into the drawing room and meticulously lays out—with order and method, of course—the obscure events in the past that led up to the murder, exactly how it was committed, how all of the pieces of evidence come together, and, of course, whodunit. That’s the role of Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged.
Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical whodunit. Or rather, since the mystery is less about who did it than why, we can call it a whydunit.
Atlas Shrugged obeys the most important rules of a whodunit, as summed up in the admirably exact definition at Wikipedia: “A whodunit or whodunnit (for ‘Who [has] done it?’ or ‘Who did it?’) is a complex, plot-driven variety of the detective story in which the audience is given the opportunity to engage in the same process of deduction as the protagonist throughout the investigation of a crime. The reader or viewer is provided with the clues from which the identity of the perpetrator may be deduced before the story provides the revelation itself at its climax.”
It is that process of “deduction” (used loosely to mean a process of rational inference) that is crucial. Contrary to critics, the speeches in Ayn Rand’s novels are not merely sprung on the reader out of the blue. They come after many, many pages of action and characterization that builds up to them.
For example, how many speeches are there in Part 1 of Atlas Shrugged? The answer: exactly zero.
In fact, when thinking about how you might adapt Atlas Shrugged as three films corresponding to its three parts, I was surprised to find myself concluding that it would be necessary to create a new speech where none exists in the novel, just in order to wrap up Part 1 and help the viewer hold the meaning of the events in his head.
That’s another role performed by the philosophical speeches: to sum up the meaning of what has happened so far, so that the reader can understand it and retain it, allowing him to move to the next stage of development of the plot. The earlier speeches, the ones that lead up to Galt’s Speech, help to perform this role, summing up important themes that prepare the ground for the bigger themes to come.
The first speech in Atlas Shrugged is Francisco’s speech on the meaning of money, which takes place during the reception for Jim Taggart’s wedding. Depending on your edition, that’s about 400 pages into the book—the length of an entire ordinary novel. So Ayn Rand gives the reader hundreds of pages of buildup, showing us the achievements of entrepreneurs, the scheming of crony capitalists, the failure of “socially responsible” ventures such as the San Sebastian mines, the blundering of control-obsessed bureaucrats, and so on, before she gives us her first real summing up of the ideological meaning of these events.
This is consistent with the rules of a good whodunit: the evidence is laid out for you in the same order that the protagonists uncover it, and the heroes discuss a series of preliminary conclusions, leading up to a big reveal in which everything is laid out in explicit terms, all questions are answered, and all loose ends are tied up.
This long examination gives us the basis to fully understand the explanation offered by Ayn Rand herself, in her preface to the collection of her novel’s speeches in For the New Intellectual.
In a certain sense, every novelist is a philosopher, because one cannot present a picture of human existence without a philosophical framework; the novelist’s only choice is whether that framework is present in his story explicitly or implicitly, whether he is aware of it or not, whether he holds his philosophical convictions consciously or subconsciously. This involves another choice: whether his work is his individual projection of existing philosophical ideas or whether he originates a philosophical framework of his own. I did the second. That is not the specific task of a novelist; I had to do it, because my basic view of man and of existence was in conflict with most of the existing philosophical theories. In order to define, explain, and present my concept of man, I had to become a philosopher in the specific meaning of the term….
These excerpts [the speeches from the novels] are necessarily condensed summaries, because the full statement of the subjects involved is presented, in each novel, by means of the events of the story. The events are the concretes and the particulars, of which the speeches are the abstract summations.
But aren’t the speeches in Atlas Shrugged too big, too long, too philosophical—which is to say, not “condensed” enough? As with most critiques of Ayn Rand’s literary merits, this one is applied pretty selectively. Take a recent review of a novel in which the central character, a professor of philosophy, bangs on endlessly about abstractions like “the question of how to think deeply about thought itself”—which is praised as a “genre…in which the workings of [the author’s] mind are on display far more brilliantly than anything as piddling as a plot.” Or consider another review which praises the novel Gone Girl because of the central role of a famous feminist tirade—the “cool girl” speech—and then criticizes the recent movie adaption for failing to properly capture this ideological message, an omission which “downgrades a transgressive meditation on the politics of gender performance into a run-of-the-mill, if entertaining, thriller.”
Yes, you read those quotes right. In one novel, rambling philosophical musings are considered more important than “anything as piddling as a plot.” In another, going from a “transgressive meditation on politics” to an “entertaining thriller” is considered a “downgrade.”
So if critics then turn around and complain about the speeches and philosophical conversations in Ayn Rand’s novel, we are entitled to suspect that it’s not because they disapprove of them on purely literary grounds. It’s because they don’t like the content of her ideas. They don’t want to have to read her characters arguing at length for ideas they wish were not true.
Yet I think it is true that there is too much, not so much in the earlier speeches in Atlas Shrugged but in Galt’s Speech, whose length is a proven impediment to the forward movement of the plot. You can see this from the number of people, including fans of the novel, who will admit that they didn’t make it through the speech or skipped past it after the first few dozen pages. These are people who made it 900 pages through a novel that has already given them plenty of philosophy to think about, so I don’t think we can attribute this to mere anti-intellectualism.
The novel definitely requires many of the philosophical passages in the speech, which discuss issues that are related to the plot and help explain how the events of the novel have unfolded as they do. Consider this critique of the basic contradiction of altruism.
Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you? If the sensation of eating a cake is a value, why is it an immoral indulgence in your stomach, but a moral goal for you to achieve in the stomach of others? Why is it immoral for you to desire, but moral for others to do so? Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice?
But Galt’s Speech contains a bit too much abstract philosophy—ideas that necessary for the philosophical deep thinker, but not for the general audience to which the novel is directed. Consider passages like this one:
Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.
If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.
This passage contains a big and important philosophical idea (in Objectivist terminology, it’s known as “the primacy of existence”), and it provides an answer to whole schools of philosophy. (Immanuel Kant’s epistemology is the ultimate example of “consciousness conscious of nothing but itself.”) But most readers won’t be able to draw that meaning out of it. It is the kind of passage you write down and unpack later, but its meaning and significance would not be clear while you’re listening to it on the radio, which is how Galt’s Speech is supposed to be broadcast. In Ayn Rand’s own terminology, this passage is too much on the side of being “philosophy for Ragnar,” knowledge required to answer questions confronted by the professional philosopher, rather than “philosophy for Rearden,” knowledge required by the intelligent layman.
The usual explanation for this excess in philosophical exposition is that it shows that Ayn Rand “really” wanted to write about philosophy instead of fiction. To the contrary, I think she included these passages in the novel precisely because she did not want to write about philosophy, not as stand-alone non-fiction. It is generally agreed that Ayn Rand was a formidable woman, and if she really wanted to do something, she did it. If she had really wanted to spend her years after The Fountainhead writing non-fiction works spelling out her philosophy, she would have done just that.
But at this point in her career, while she was writing Atlas Shrugged, I don’t think Ayn Rand had settled on that goal. So I suspect that she couldn’t bear to cut these technical philosophical passages from her novel because they were important ideas, because they were necessary to a full defense of her philosophy, and because she did not expect to write about them elsewhere.
Be that as it may, the technical philosophy—passages about axiomatic concepts and meta-ethics—are actually a very small portion of the speech, perhaps a thousand words out of a speech that clocks in at roughly 30,000 words. In examining Galt’s Speech in detail, specifically with an eye to cutting it down to five or six minutes for a screenplay—about 5% of the total—I found that cutting the most abstract philosophical exposition doesn’t get you very far. Instead, I found that the biggest sections of the speech are not about philosophy per se. They are about psychology, or what you might call philosophical psychology: how a certain philosophical outlook manifests itself in a certain kind of personal psychology. Much of this is a long examination of the philosophical psychology of mysticism, in passages such as this one.
A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of independence that he renounced his rational faculty. At the crossroads of the choice between ‘I know’ and ‘They say,’ he chose the authority of others, he chose to submit rather than to understand, to believe rather than to think. Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others. His surrender took the form of the feeling that he must hide his lack of understanding, that others possess some mysterious knowledge of which he alone is deprived, that reality is whatever they want it to be, through some means forever denied to him.
From then on, afraid to think, he is left at the mercy of unidentified feelings. His feelings become his only guide, his only remnant of personal identity, he clings to them with ferocious possessiveness—and whatever thinking he does is devoted to the struggle of hiding from himself that the nature of his feelings is terror.
This sort of thing goes on for thousands of words, covering a number of different variations.
So we can rephrase the complaints about the speeches in Atlas Shrugged: a thousand-page novel concludes with a long speech about the underlying psychological motivations of its characters. That seems a little less extraneous, doesn’t it? I still think it is too much—too much is spelled out in the speech that she has already shown us in action, and there is too much that is valuable and interesting but should have been saved for a later non-fiction treatise. Again, I view this as evidence that she had a lot to say and was determined to get it all out there on paper. It was only after finishing Atlas Shrugged and acquiring a philosophical following that Ayn Rand acquiesced to the realization that she would have to write a whole series of non-fiction articles, which could be gathered into several more books, to spell out her entire philosophy.
Yet it seems almost churlish to complain about an author giving you a novel that contains too many interesting new ideas. For those who strongly disagree with Ayn Rand’s ideas, it’s easy to suggest that she ought to have cut many of the philosophical passages, because in their view she shouldn’t have written any of them in the first place. But for those who agree with her philosophy, it can be physically painful to contemplate parting with any one of a number of eloquent and enlightening philosophical passages.
There is Galt’s dismissal of the supposed gap between reason and morality.
A rational process is a moral process. You may make an error at any step of it, with nothing to protect you but your own severity, or you may try to cheat, to fake the evidence and evade the effort of the quest—but if devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.
There is his trenchant analysis of the absurdity of the left’s social subjectivism.
Sweep aside those parasites of subsidized classrooms, who live on the profits of the mind of others and proclaim that man needs no morality, no values, no code of behavior. They, who pose as scientists and claim that man is only an animal, do not grant him inclusion in the law of existence they have granted to the lowest of insects. They recognize that every living species has a way of survival demanded by its nature, they do not claim that a fish can live out of water or that a dog can live without its sense of smell—but man, they claim, the most complex of beings, man can survive in any way whatever, man has no identity, no nature, and there’s no practical reason why he cannot live with his means of survival destroyed, with his mind throttled and placed at the disposal of any orders they might care to issue.
Or his equally trenchant critique of the Christian notion that man is “fallen.”
What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge—he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil—he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor—he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire—he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy—all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man…. Man’s fall, according to your teachers, was that he gained the virtues required to live.
There is his eye-opening analysis of the real meaning of “sacrifice,” which includes this answer to a common argument for altruism.
If a man dies fighting for his own freedom, it is not a sacrifice: he is not willing to live as a slave; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of man who’s willing. If a man refuses to sell his convictions, it is not a sacrifice, unless he is the sort of man who has no convictions. Sacrifice could be proper only for those who have nothing to sacrifice—no values, no standards, no judgment—those whose desires are irrational whims, blindly conceived and lightly surrendered.
Or his analysis of how altruism feeds the psychology of envy.
You fear the man who has a dollar less than you, that dollar is rightfully his, he makes you feel like a moral defrauder. You hate the man who has a dollar more than you, that dollar is rightfully yours, he makes you feel that you are morally defrauded. The man below is a source of your guilt, the man above is a source of your frustration. You do not know what to surrender or demand, when to give and when to grab, what pleasure in life is rightfully yours and what debt is still unpaid to others.
And so on. I gathered many more examples, but I cut most of them—and it was indeed painful.
I’m not saying that all of these passages need to have been kept in Galt’s Speech; 30,000 words of genius is still 30,000 words. But it’s important to recognize why Ayn Rand herself did not believe she could part with them, and why so many of her fans don’t mind them. Yet you cannot have a shorter, more digestible Galt’s Speech unless you part with some of them.
This is not the worst dilemma to have to face. Think of it this way: how terrible it is that Ayn Rand came up with a plot so complex and original, featuring motives and ideas so new and interesting that she had to spend thousands of words explaining them.
Given the range of deep and profound crises we face today and the palpable inadequacy of our increasingly unintellectual culture to deal with them, perhaps the critics should stop complaining that Ayn Rand wrote a big, challenging, iconoclastic novel of ideas. Instead, we should be worried that we’re not getting more books like it.