A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 13
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
The publication of this reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged is unexpectedly timely in one respect.
Several prominent recent books have set off a debate over the legacy of the Enlightenment for today’s world, at a time when that discussion is badly needed. But these discussions have been missing one big thing. In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker looks at the Enlightenment and finds its contemporary legacy in the conventional center-left “liberal.” In Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg looks at the Enlightenment and finds its legacy in standard 20th-Century conservatism. But no one mentions the most conspicuous standard bearer of Enlightenment ideals in recent times: Ayn Rand.
In part, this is because she did not quite describe her philosophy in those terms. In fact, she did not talk about “the Enlightenment” at all, instead speaking glowingly of the Renaissance. This may, perhaps, be due partly to fashions in philosophical terminology. “The Enlightenment” as a term to refer to the intellectual movement of the 18th Century was not used at all in English until the late 19th Century, so perhaps her own philosophical education did not focus on the term or on the idea of the Enlightenment as a distinct era. But there is perhaps another reason: the few times Ayn Rand explicitly mentioned “post-Renaissance” philosophers—in her essay “For the New Intellectual,” written as she transitioned to non-fiction writing after Atlas Shrugged—she mostly sought to differentiate herself from what she saw as their errors.
Yet Ayn Rand is surely referring to herself, if only obliquely, in her description of one of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged. When Dagny meets John Galt’s mentor, the philosopher Hugh Akston, she describes him as “the last of the advocates of reason,” to which he replies, “or the first of their return.” “Advocates of reason” is an appropriate description of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment (with a few notable exceptions), and Ayn Rand can be fairly characterized as the first of their return.
Certainly, she shared the widest themes of Enlightenment thought. It is a large and varied tradition—a critic summed up one of Voltaire’s works as “a chaos of clear ideas”—but here is how Isaac Kramnick sums up the basic message of the 18th Century in his introduction to The Enlightenment Reader, a standard overview of the ideas of the era. See if you recognize any of it.
“They believed that unassisted human reason, not faith or tradition, was the principal guide to human conduct.” Check. “Everything, including political and religious authority, must be subject to a critique of reason if it were to commend itself to the respect of humanity.” Check. “Humanity was not innately corrupt as Catholicism taught, nor was the good life found only in a beatific state of otherworldly salvation.” Check. “Pleasure and happiness were worthy ends of life and realizable in this world.” Check. “The natural universe, governed not by the miraculous whimsy of a supernatural God, was ruled by rational scientific laws, which were accessible to human beings through the scientific method of experiment and empirical observation.” Check. “Science and technology were the engines of progress enabling modern men and women to force nature to serve their well-being and further their happiness.” Check. “The Enlightenment valorized the individual and the moral legitimacy of self-interest.” Double check.
Not only is all of this substantively similar to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, some of it is even described in a style of expression that she clearly picked up from the Enlightenment—flourishes like “to force nature to serve their happiness.” Who else still talked like that in the 20th Century?
Ayn Rand’s criticism of the Enlightenment was that they didn’t succeed at making good on all of this. In “For the New Intellectual,” she complained that “Most [post-Renaissance] philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies.” They “were unable to refute the Witch Doctor’s claims that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations.” While the legacy of the Enlightenment had continued marching on in science, technology, and business, achieving spectacular results, she complained that “the intellectuals, or their predominant majority, remained centuries behind their time.”
So Ayn Rand set out, in effect, to fix the Enlightenment by solving these underlying problems and bringing philosophy fully into the modern world. In offering a concrete vision of how a culture can actually achieve the broad goals set by the Enlightenment, Atlas Shrugged is a crucial part of her solution.
Her answer in Atlas Shrugged is partly in the sections that are explicitly philosophical, particularly in Galt’s Speech, where a few passages are technical enough that only someone versed in the history of philosophy would understand their full significance. Despite its speeches, Atlas is not fundamentally a vehicle for delivering explicit philosophical ideas, and our goal here is to focus on the book’s role as a novel, not as a philosophical treatise. But the more abstract and technical passages are important for understanding what she set out to accomplish in the rest of the book.
For this, we get a few clues from “For the New Intellectual,” where she explains what she thought was wrong with the direction of “post-Renaissance philosophy.”
While promising a philosophical system as rational, demonstrable, and scientific as mathematics, Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor…: “the prior certainty of consciousness,” the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness—which means: the contents of one’s consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform.
She is referring here to the argument that leads up to the famous Cartesian maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” He begins by doubting the existence of everything that can be perceived in the world, then decides that the only absolute, self-evident point of certainty is that “I think,” i.e., the existence of his consciousness.
Ayn Rand traces the influence of this idea through the two main schools of Enlightenment philosophy: “those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge of the world by deducing it exclusively from concepts, which come from inside his head and are not derived from the perception of physical facts (the Rationalists)—and those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge from experience, which was held to mean: by direct perception of immediate facts, with no recourse to concepts (the Empiricists).” Her examples of these two schools are René Descartes and David Hume, and one might object that there were better philosophers of the period who deserve a little more credit. But her diagnosis of the ultimate dead end of these two schools, in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, is dead on.
If it is true that Kant is the last of the Enlightenment philosophers, as he is often described, that is because he was responsible for killing the Enlightenment. Kant’s disastrous synthesis of Rationalism and Empiricism was the division of reality into a “phenomenal” realm, the realm of perception, and a “noumenal” realm, a real world that can only be conceived of but not known. Here is how Ayn Rand summed it up.
Thus, reason and science are “limited,” said Kant; they are valid only so long as they deal with this world, with a permanent, pre-determined collective delusion (and thus the criterion of reason’s validity was shifted from the objective to the collective), but they are impotent to deal with the fundamental, metaphysical issues of existence, which belong to the “noumenal” world.
If we understand this context from the history of philosophy, we can understand the importance of a crucial passage from Galt’s Speech.
We, the men of the mind, are now on strike against you in the name of a single axiom, which is the root of our moral code, just as the root of yours is the wish to escape it: the axiom that existence exists.
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 is Ayn Rand’s refutation of the “prior certainty of consciousness” and her assertion of an opposite principle, which she would later call the “primacy of existence.” She gave it that name in a much later essay, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” where she spelled out the meaning of this passage from Galt’s Speech.
The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists—and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness—the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it receives from another, superior consciousness).
We can see these two different ways of looking at the world portrayed implicitly all through Atlas Shrugged, in the characterization of the heroes and villains and in the motives that drive their actions.
Nobody could act on the primacy of consciousness more thoroughly than Jim Taggart: “danger, to him, was a signal to shut off his sight, suspend his judgment and pursue an unaltered course, on the unstated premise that the danger would remain unreal by the sovereign power of his wish not to see it—like a foghorn within him, blowing, not to sound a warning, but to summon the fog.”
Conversely, the primacy of existence is central to the characterization of her heroes—even the minor ones, as in this description from the prelude to the Taggart Tunnel disaster: “Bill Brent knew nothing about epistemology; but he knew that man must live by his own rational perception of reality, that he cannot act against it or escape it or find a substitute for it—and that there is no other way for him to live.”
Notice that the primacy of existence is presented as having crucial relevance for the question of how to live and that Galt describes it as “the root of our moral code.” That brings us to what Ayn Rand regarded as the other big failure of the Enlightenment: “The great treason of the philosophers was that they, the thinkers, defaulted on the responsibility of providing a rational society with a code of rational morality.”
The inability to discover a secular basis for morality was a weakness that was well-known to most thinkers of the time, who papered over it as best they could. The closest they got was the notion that because God designed man with a faculty of reason, along with a natural desire for pleasure and happiness, he must have intended us to use that faculty for that goal. This was the moral basis for John Locke’s defense of political liberty, and it was a religious view widely accepted in America at the time of the Founding. But this was just a theological supposition about the intentions of a supernatural consciousness—not a factual, scientific, fully rational grounding for morality.
That is precisely what Ayn Rand set out to provide. She does it explicitly in Galt’s Speech, where she spells out how the primacy of existence is the basis for morality.
There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms…. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of “Life” that makes the concept of “Value” possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil….
My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.
The Enlightenment had tentatively embraced the individual and self-interest, but Ayn Rand put them explicitly at the center and at the base of morality, identifying the conditions of individual self-preservation as the foundation of ethics.
This development of a rational, secular morality is not just a philosophical achievement not reached by the Enlightenment. It has wider implications for a culture’s “sense of life” in a way that carries Ayn Rand farther than the worldview of the Enlightenment could support.
As I have already described, the unfolding of the “operation of the moral law” drives the plot of Atlas Shrugged. The drama of the novel’s action is found in the connection between the characters’ choices and thinking and their consequences for survival. We have already looked at the effect this has on the plot structure of Atlas Shrugged. But it also has an impact on her literary style. She was an advocate of thinking and reason, but also of the extravagant drama that is natural when the stakes are life and death and when the crucial difference is made by the assertive choices of a heroic individual.
Yet this is one respect in which Ayn Rand is not a straightforward inheritor of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers could be expansive in their optimistic idealism. For example, Joseph Priestley gushed about the possibilities opened up by the revolutions in America and in France (before it went wrong).
These great events, in many respects unparalleled in all history, make a totally new, a most wonderful and important, era in the history of mankind. It is…a change from darkness to light, from superstition to sound knowledge, from debasing servitude to a state of the most exalted freedom. It is a liberating of all the powers of man from that variety of fetters by which they have hitherto been held. So that, in comparison with what has been, now only can we expect to see what men really are, and what they can do.
This is pretty inspiring stuff. Yet it is generally conceded that it was the backlash to the Enlightenment, the fiery emotionalism of the Romantic era, that produced a more stirring artistic vision. That has been a matter of concern for recent defenders of the Enlightenment, who worry that the value of Enlightenment ideals has been overshadowed by the seductive literary appeal of Romanticism.
Let’s take a look at what they describe as the source of the Romantics’ appeal. Jonah Goldberg includes themes such as “true love,” “contempt for selling out,” “the superiority of authenticity,” a focus on “personal feelings,” a willingness to “defy authority,” and the hero as a man of self-assertiveness who “plays by his own rules.” Here’s how he describes the worldview of Romanticism: “The idea that contemporary life was out of balance and off-kilter, inauthentic, or oppressive, and that elites and the system itself were broken, corrupt, or inadequate to the task of making life right.”
All of these qualities are abundantly present in Ayn Rand’s fiction. That last passage, about contemporary life being “off-kilter,” is a major theme of Atlas Shrugged. An early chapter, titled “The Top and the Bottom,” contrasts a meeting of elite political manipulators on the top floor of a skyscraper, in a barroom designed to look like a cellar, with a meeting of disregarded producers in an underground cafeteria designed with “a sense of space and light.” The world of Atlas Shrugged is not merely “off-kilter”; it is upside down.
This literary similarity to the Romantics is what leads superficial observers to classify Ayn Rand as a Romantic and even as a Nietzschean. I’m afraid that includes Steven Pinker: “Though she later tried to conceal it, Ayn Rand’s celebration of selfishness, her deification of the heroic capitalist, and her disdain for the general welfare had Nietzsche written all over them.” Obviously, this is wrong. But the idea that Ayn Rand is a Nietzschean is so persistent that, even if it doesn’t deserve an answer, it requires one.
As we have seen, in the substance of her philosophy, she is not only in the tradition of the Enlightenment; she more thoroughly and more firmly embodies its ideals than the thinkers of that era. She provides a stronger foundation for reason, gives it full scope as the ruling principle in all of human life, and even brings morality fully within the province of reason. She out-philosophes the philosophes.
If all of this isn’t enough, one specific example will serve to highlight her profound difference from Nietzsche: their very different reactions to the philosophy of Descartes.
We have already sketched out Ayn Rand’s later answer to Descartes on the “prior certainty of consciousness,” but she already refers to this implicitly in Atlas Shrugged, when John Galt calls on his listeners “to stand naked in the face of reality and, reversing a costly historical error, to declare: ‘I am, therefore I’ll think.'” This is the same objection to Descartes: that he reversed the proper relationship by putting consciousness ahead of reality.
What about Nietzsche’s response to Descartes? In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche denied that the “I think” from “I think, therefore I am,” was an “immediate certainty”—but on very different grounds.
[A] thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition on the predicate “think.” It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition…. [O]ne has gone too far with this “it thinks.”
He ends up concluding, in effect, that they think. The mind is not a single ego, but a chaos of clashing drives and emotions, “a social structure composed of many souls,” with each contending for superiority over the others. (As for the source of these drives and desires, he ends up attributing them to “physiological valuations and racial conditions.”) So much for Nietzsche as an “egoist”; he doesn’t even believe in the existence of an “I.”
So Nietzsche’s objection is not that Descartes puts consciousness ahead of reality. His objection is that the Cartesian view of consciousness is not chaotic enough.
For those who are familiar with these philosophical issues, it is easy to brush off the idea of Ayn Rand as a Nietzschean and dismiss it as a crude error, but note that according to the normal philosophical and cultural categories, Ayn Rand’s combination of philosophical substance and literary style seems impossible. You are not supposed to be able to have reason and romanticism together, to have clear-headed logic and heroic drama. But that’s exactly what she provided.
This is the final way in which Ayn Rand fixed the Enlightenment—the way in which she could fix it only in her capacity as a novelist and not just as a philosopher.
Her critics are so eager to portray her as a secret Nietzschean that they ignore what she actually told them about Nietzsche’s influence on her. In her introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead, she explains why she considered using a quote from Nietzsche at the beginning of the novel but decided against it.
Philosophically, Nietzsche is a mystic and an irrationalist. His metaphysics consists of a somewhat “Byronic” and mystically “malevolent” universe; his epistemology subordinates reason to “will,” or feeling or instinct or blood or innate virtues of character. But, as a poet, he projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man’s greatness, expressed in emotional, not intellectual, terms.
What Ayn Rand took from the Romantics was a sense of life expressed in emotional terms, for which she provided her own intellectual terms. Those terms were diametrically opposed to Romanticism as a school of philosophy, yet she was clearly part of the Romantic tradition as a school of literature.
I began this series by mentioning the contest between Homer and Hesiod, an Ancient Greek legend about a competition between the two greatest Greek poets. The judge gives the prize to Hesiod because “he who called upon men to follow peace and husbandry should have the prize rather than one who dwelt on war and slaughter.” But the point of the legend was that Homer, the one who wrote about war and slaughter, was clearly the better poet. It was the same contrast between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, just in an earlier form. The side that was more consistent with human prosperity and happiness suffered from its presentation in a less glamorous form. Ayn Rand, I argued, set out to correct this imbalance, creating the modern equivalent of a Homeric epic, but to glorify the producers instead of the warriors.
We can now take that observation and put it in a wider and more complex modern context. Atlas Shrugged transcends the contest between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, providing all the excitement and appeal of the latter but in service to the ideals of the former. And more: she shows how reason leads to and supports all of the appealing qualities of the Romantics—love, passion, struggle, self-assertion, a sense of heroism. She finds the Romanticism within Enlightenment ideals.
She could not have done it without new philosophical ideas to support her. But when it comes to promoting the best of Enlightenment ideals as a living cultural force in today’s world, her literary style is at least as important a contribution.
If the advocates of reason do return, they will return better, clearer, stronger—and more inspired and inspiring—thanks to Atlas Shrugged.