A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 12
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.—RWT
Since the explicit identification of reason as a distinctive method of thinking by the Ancient Greeks, philosophers and artists have wondered what a life ruled by reason would consist of.
Plato and Aristotle both identified the perfect life of the rational man as a life of theoretical inquiry and contemplation, though they had very different views of what that meant. Later Greeks, such as the Stoics, took this to mean that a life of reason was a life of withdrawal from the world or indifference to its ordinary joys and sufferings—particularly the sufferings. Epicurus walled himself up within his garden to enjoy small, simple pleasures and devote his life to philosophical speculation, while Epictetus, who was born a slave, supposedly was able to endure with perfect rational composure having his leg broken by his master.
The Renaissance and Enlightenment brought a somewhat more expansive view of the role of the man of reason. (See the next installment of this series.) But the anti-Enlightenment backlash of philosophical Romanticism claimed emotion, idealism, and a sense of the exalted as the exclusive claim of irrational emotion. Under the influence of this outlook, the 19th Century brought us a narrower portrait of the man of reason and science, one that is still pervasive today. I can sum it up in a single name: Sherlock Holmes.
That example is particularly relevant today, a little more than a century after the character of Holmes was created. Other fictional characters, such as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, have become associated with this view of the perfectly rational man, but for the past decade or so, we have been in the midst of a Holmes explosion—no doubt due, in part, to the expiration of Arthur Conan Doyle’s copyrights, which leaves the character free to be borrowed and reinterpreted. You can see multiple versions of Holmes on the screen—there is concurrently an American television series, a British television series, and a Hollywood film franchise—as well as various Holmes-inspired spinoffs, such as television’s Dr. House.
The common characteristic of this post-Enlightenment vision of the man of reason is that his rationality renders him cold, unemotional, and incapable of normal human attachments. In “The Sign of Four,” Arthur Conan Doyle has Dr. Watson describe Holmes this way: “You really are an automaton—a calculating machine. There is something positively inhuman in you at times.” Holmes replies, “A client to me is a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.” In one of the “edgier” modern versions, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes even describes himself (inaccurately) as a “high-functioning sociopath,” presumably referring to his lack of normal emotional reactions.
Earlier in “The Sign of Four,” Holmes’s contempt for emotion leads to this bit of literary criticism, when he gives his opinion of Dr. Watson’s chronicle of his work. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”
Given this prevailing view of the preferences of the rational man, what are we to make of Atlas Shrugged? On the one hand, nobody could romanticize a story—Romantic with a capital “R,” in fact—like Ayn Rand. She sought to infuse her novels with high drama and emotional power, and yes, she couldn’t resist a good love story. Yet she also set out to make her heroes into examples of the supremacy of reason in human life and to make her plots into a Euclidean dream of the orderly, logical unfolding of events.
This combination is itself a mystery worthy of Holmes. Call it the Curious Adventure of the Man of Reason.
Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. Here is Dagny Taggart expressing her reverence for reason and logic during the first run of the John Galt Line.
Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?—she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?”—like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped….
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.
Yet here is the beginning of that scene.
She felt the sweep of an emotion which she could not contain, as of something bursting upward. She turned to the door of the motor units, she threw it open to a screaming jet of sound and escaped into the pounding of the engine’s heart.
For a moment, it was as if she were reduced to a single sense, the sense of hearing, and what remained of her hearing was only a long, rising, falling, rising scream…. In the abnormal clarity of a violent emotion, she felt as if she were about to grasp something she had never known and had to know. She laughed aloud, but heard no sound of it; nothing could be heard through the continuous explosion. “The John Galt Line!” she shouted, for the amusement of feeling her voice swept away from her lips.
It is almost as if Ayn Rand deliberately set out to undermine the view of reason as coldly unemotional.
Just as she made the power-hungry individualist Gail Wynand into her representative of Nietzsche’s philosophy in The Fountainhead, specifically so she could show what was wrong with it, so she devised one of her characters in Atlas Shrugged as an answer to the common view of the man of the reason. That character is Hank Rearden, and his development, particularly in Part 2 of the novel, is Ayn Rand’s solution to the Curious Adventure of the Man of Reason.
When we first meet Rearden, the primary description we are given of his face is that it is “expressionless.” When we first see him meeting with Dagny, his smile is described as “unrevealing.”
When he did not smile, his face looked inanimate, only his eyes remained alive, active with a cold, brilliant clarity of perception. But what he was made to feel by the things he perceived, no one would be permitted to know, she thought, perhaps not even himself.
There is our portrait of the Holmesian man of reason. It is a view echoed by Rearden’s family, who keep insisting to him that the spiritual dimension of life is outside the realm of reason and therefore outside his area of competence. “To enjoy life and people is not so simple as pouring a ton of steel,” Lillian Rearden lectures. “Intellectual pursuits are not learned in the market place.”
Rearden himself has internalized this idea. Here is how he puts it in that first meeting with Dagny.
She looked at him in the exact moment when he turned to look at her. They stood very close to each other. She saw, in his eyes, that he felt as she did. If joy is the aim and the core of existence, she thought, and if that which has the power to give one joy is always guarded as one’s deepest secret, then they had seen each other naked in that moment.
He made a step back and said in a strange tone of dispassionate wonder, “We’re a couple of blackguards, aren’t we?” “Why?” “We haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for.”…
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.”
Obviously, Ayn Rand is already undermining this view even as Rearden articulates it. With those mentions of secret joy and nakedness—a distinctly sensual metaphor—she is already setting up the reader for the affair between Dagny and Hank that will be consummated about 150 pages later. This affair is what will propel Hank Rearden’s journey away from this archetype of the unemotional man of reason.
If the primary emotional theme of Part 1 of the novel was the loneliness of the producers, the primary emotional theme of Part 2 is Hank Rearden’s spiritual awakening. The stage is set early in Part 1 when we learn the reasons for Rearden’s puritanical view of sexuality.
He had not known many women. He had moved toward his goal, sweeping aside everything that did not pertain to it in the world and in himself…. But there were times when he felt a sudden access of desire, so violent that it could not be given to a casual encounter. He had surrendered to it, on a few rare occasions through the years, with women he had thought he liked. He had been left feeling an angry emptiness—because he had sought an act of triumph, though he had not known of what nature, but the response he received was only a woman’s acceptance of a casual pleasure, and he knew too clearly that what he had won had no meaning…. He grew to hate his desire. He fought it. He came to believe the doctrine that this desire was wholly physical, a desire, not of consciousness, but of matter, and he rebelled against the thought that his flesh could be free to choose and that its choice was impervious to the will of his mind…. He had won his every battle against inanimate nature; but this was a battle he lost.
It is probably not a coincidence that this idea, the complaint that the desires of the body are not controllable by reason, is similar to the complaint made by Saint Augustine in his Confessions, which helped establish the Catholic Church’s view of sexuality for the following millennium and a half. But it is interesting to note that this view also has its roots in the Stoic philosophers’ idea of the life of the rational man. Epictetus, for example, classified the needs of the body as being in the category of those things over which our reason has no control, and therefore as the part of life that should be regarded by the rational man as an irrelevant distraction.
Ayn Rand’s first direct answer to this is in Dagny’s response when Rearden applies this view of sexuality to their own affair. Here is how Rearden expresses his sense of self-contempt at giving in to his desire for her.
It had been my pride that I had always acted on my convictions. I’ve given in to a desire which I despise. It is a desire that has reduced my mind, my will, my being, my power to exist into an abject dependence upon you—not even upon the Dagny Taggart whom I admired—but upon your body, your hands, your mouth and the few seconds of a convulsion of your muscles.
And here is Dagny’s response:
That is all I want, Hank. I want you in my bed—and you are free of me for all the rest of your time. There’s nothing you’ll have to pretend—don’t think of me, don’t feel; don’t care—I do not want your mind, your will, your being or your soul, so long as it’s to me that you will come for that lowest one of your desires.
The reader is supposed to understand that Dagny is being ironic. She doesn’t actually mean that she doesn’t want Rearden for any of his spiritual qualities. What she means is that if he comes to her—and specifically to her—for sexual pleasure, he is already giving her his mind, his will, his being, and his soul.
What we see in part 2 of the novel is the process by which he figures this out, too. But he finds this out in a way that is much broader than the issue of sex. As I have noted before, sex is the issue on which Atlas Shrugged has been most outstripped by change in the culture after its publication, as the Sexual Revolution smashed the remnants of sexual puritanism and flipped the culture toward the other side of the coin. But Rearden’s transformation is about more than sex. It is about his growing capacity to enjoy life on the sensual and emotional level.
Here is how Rearden’s transformation is described from Dagny’s point of view: “She was thinking of him, of the struggle she had watched through the months behind them, his struggle for deliverance; she had known that she could help him win, but must help him in every way except in words.” This introduces us to an unexpected side of Rearden, in which he buys her flowers and jewelry on the grounds that “I like to look at it. It’s beautiful.” He takes her to dinner at an expensive restaurant with “an air of beautiful taste,” where he describes the transformation from his perspective.
“I’ve always wanted to enjoy my wealth,” he said. “I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t even have time to know how much I wanted to. But I knew that all the steel I poured came back to me as liquid gold, and the gold was meant to harden into any shape I wished, and it was I who had to enjoy it. Only I couldn’t. I couldn’t find any purpose for it. I’ve found it, now. It’s I who’ve produced that wealth and it’s I who am going to let it buy for me every kind of pleasure I want.”
But notice that Dagny says she can help Rearden “in every way except in words.” The words have to come, ironically, from Francisco D’Anconia. Francisco is not attempting to talk to Rearden about sex, and although neither the characters nor the reader know it yet, it would go against Francisco’s hopes to help Rearden along in his affair with Dagny. Yet it is he who begins to identify the fundamental issue. This happens at Jim Taggart’s wedding, right after Francisco’s speech about money, when he pulls Rearden aside to talk to him.
Responding to a woman who rejected Francisco’s ideas because, “I don’t feel that you’re right, so I know that you’re wrong,” Rearden says, “I’m almost in the position of that fool woman who spoke to you: every reason I know tells me that you’re guilty—and yet I can’t feel it.” Francisco’s response introduces us to an important new idea.
You are making the same mistake as that woman, Mr. Rearden, though in a nobler form…. That woman and all those like her keep evading the thoughts which they know to be good. You keep pushing out of your mind the thoughts which you believe to be evil…. They indulge their emotions at any cost. You sacrifice your emotions as the first cost of any problem….
But don’t you see that the essential error is the same? Any refusal to recognize reality, for any reason whatever, has disastrous consequences. There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. Don’t ignore your own desires, Mr. Rearden.
Sherlock Holmes, reflecting a whole philosophical tradition, had said that “the emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.” But Ayn Rand seems to be saying here that sensitivity to emotions is required for clear reasoning. We get a little more of a glimpse into this view later in the scene, with Rearden’s reaction to Francisco’s revelation that he is about to deliberately crash the stock of D’Anconia Copper in order to bankrupt its corrupt statist “hitchhikers.”
Rearden burst out laughing. Rearden did not know how long that moment lasted or what he had felt, it had been like a blow hurling him into another kind of consciousness, then a second blow returning him to his own—all that was left, as at the awakening from a narcotic, was the feeling that he had known some immense kind of freedom, never to be matched in reality….
He found himself backing away from Francisco d’Anconia. Francisco stood watching him intently and looked as if he had been watching him all through that unknown length of time. “There are no evil thoughts, Mr. Rearden,” Francisco said softly, “except one: the refusal to think.”
So Rearden’s emotional reaction is somehow a thought that sends him into “another kind of consciousness,” by which she means a different mental perspective on the events he is observing. It is as if Ayn Rand is implying that emotions themselves are some kind of “recognition of reality” and even some form or reflection of thinking.
That turns out to be exactly what she is saying. In his long speech toward the end of the novel, John Galt spells out Ayn Rand’s philosophical view of the role of emotions.
Your emotions are estimates of that which furthers your life or threatens it, lightning calculators giving you a sum of your profit or loss. You have no choice about your capacity to feel that something is good for you or evil, but what you will consider good or evil, what will give you joy or pain, what you will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on your standard of value. Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it.
This does not mean that your emotional reactions are determined directly by your explicit thinking. It means that your emotions are “fueled” by the ideas you have implicitly accepted and automatized in your personal psychology. Later, Galt says, “An emotion that clashes with your reason, an emotion that you cannot explain or control, is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.” Emotions are not thinking, but they are products and reflections of previous thinking.
Ayn Rand’s objection to emotionalism is not an objection to emotion itself, but to reversing the order of cause and effect between thinking and feeling. “They take their emotions as a cause, and their mind as a passive effect. They make their emotions their tool for perceiving reality.” Emotions are not the driver of life but an end-result and a goal. Galt refers to love, for example, as “the highest of emotions” and ends up extolling an emotional state that you might call “rational happiness.”
Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer. Happiness is possible only to a rational man.
But this is all in the big speech at the end. Before Galt can tell us this, Rearden has to show it to us in action. The next crucial step is during one of his evenings with Dagny, when he is overwhelmed with weariness at the state of the world but finds himself revived by observing the spirit in which she talks about her work.
What he knew, what he had discovered tonight, was that his recaptured love of existence had not been given back to him by the return of his desire for her—but that the desire had returned after he had regained his world, the love, the value and the sense of his world—and that the desire was not an answer to her body, but a celebration of himself and of his will to live.
Again, it is Francisco who gives him the words he needs on this issue. In explaining the real story behind his reputation as a womanizer, Francisco uses the same terminology Galt will later use about emotions: “sex is not the cause, but an effect and an expression of a man’s sense of his own value.” Note that he explicitly contrasts this to the Stoic-Augustinian view of sex that Rearden had accepted.
Love is blind, they say; sex is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.
But Rearden’s transformation in Part 2 does not end with sex and emotion. It is also a moral awakening. He engages in a series of escalating conflicts with his wife, Lillian, and with government bureaucrats—a plotline that is drawn together when he is blackmailed into relinquishing the rights to Rearden Metal by the threat that his affair with Dagny will be revealed. He learns two key concepts from these encounters. “White blackmail” is the way in which the prevailing moral code seeks to punish people, not for their sins, but for their virtues. “The sanction of the victim” is the idea that this code depends in some way on its victims to acknowledge the morality of their persecution. Those are important ideas that we will examine elsewhere, but what I want you to notice now is the way in which Rearden’s moral awakening is tied to his emotional awakening.
If emotions are “estimates” and “calculators” of what we think is good and evil, then morality must be something that can be thought about, estimated, calculated. For emotion to be connected to thinking, morality must be a matter for reason. This is how the role of emotions in Atlas Shrugged is intimately tied to her view of morality as the “operation of the moral law” driven by rationally comprehensible connections between cause and effect.
Remember the dramatic scene I quoted earlier, in which Dagny experiences a wave of “violent emotion” about the “rational connections” embodied in a bank of motors? The key to that scene is a line I left out: “The motors were a moral code cast in steel.” Because the “rational connections” are connections between means and ends, between causes and consequences—between the requirement of human survival and the means to achieving them—they are also moral connections, “like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped.” This, their cause-and-effect connection to the requirements of survival—is also the key to their emotional meaning and power.
That is one of the most radical aspects of the worldview Ayn Rand presents in Atlas Shrugged—and it remains more radical in today’s context than some of her other breakthroughs. Her idea that the mind is the fundamental source of all economic production, for example, was radical during the high tide of Marxist economics, when industrial production was still widely viewed as the product of the muscle power of unionized labor. In the Information Age, that view seems antique, and the role of “intellectual capital” is widely acknowledged.
The more radical idea from Atlas Shrugged is the idea that reason is the source of all value, in all aspects of life. When we first meet Rearden in Part 1, he already knows that reason is the source of his ability to produce wealth. The development of his character in Part 2 shows him discovering that it is also the source of moral values, of love, and even of esthetic enjoyment—as in his extravagant choices of beautiful objects for his enjoyment.
This last is an idea that Ayn Rand returns to later, outside of Rearden’s story line. In Part 3, in Galt’s Gulch, he uses the composer Richard Halley to give voice to her own views about the role of reason for the artist. Halley tells her that the goal of his work is “not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired…. I do not care to be admired causelessly, emotionally, intuitively, instinctively—or blindly. I do not care for blindness in any form, I have too much to show—or for deafness, I have too much to say. I do not care to be admired by anyone’s heart—only by someone’s head.”
This outlook can be seen as a liberation of reason, allowing its application to every area of life, with no walls marking off some areas as the domain of unanalyzed emotion. But it is also a liberation of emotion, because it frees the spiritual, the esthetic, and the moral aspects of life from the stigma of being dangerously incomprehensible and off-limits to the man of reason. Her view of reason and emotion does not build a wall between the two. It knocks it down.
Ayn Rand’s reverence for reason led her to name the three major parts of the novel after Aristotle’s three different formulations of the Law of Identity, the fundamental law of logic. They are three different ways of expressing the same idea, each with a slightly different emphasis—which is reflected in the plot and theme of each part of the novel.
Part 1 is titled “Non-Contradiction,” and its emphasis is on a sense of mystery, on contradictions that need to be resolved—underscored by frequent reminders from Francisco D’Anconia, who himself seems to embody these paradoxes, that “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” Part 3, “A Is A,” is stated in the form of an affirmation. After six hundred pages of watching the world fall apart, we finally see a demonstration of how things are supposed to work, in the capitalist utopia of Galt’s Gulch. This is the section of the novel where all the mysteries are resolved, all the apparent contradictions suddenly make sense, and all the characters finally take their rightful place in the world.
Part 2, which is the where Atlas Shrugged works out the relationship between reason and emotion, is called “Either-Or.” On one level, this section of the novel is about the characters’ growing sense that they have a choice to make between two sides of a conflict and two different ways of looking at the world. But there is another sense in which the plot of Part 2 is about resolving either-or choices by discovering that they are false alternatives, as in the case of the conflict between reason and emotion.
Armed with what we learn in Part 2, a real-life man of reason does not have to follow Sherlock Holmes in dismissing the emotional and “romantic” elements of life as distractions to the exercise of reason, because he has the knowledge to exercise reason in dealing with them—which, as the high drama of Atlas Shrugged demonstrates, is a curiously thrilling adventure of its own.