So I finally read Atlas Shrugged (I haven’t seen the movie yet). I’d heard about the novel in libertarian circles for a long time, of course, but I’d never read it. I had read some of Rand’s nonfiction, and I knew going into Atlas that I disagreed with Rand’s philosophy on several fundamental points. Indeed, Rand seems to have misread so much of the Western philosophical canon that I have had trouble taking her seriously as a philosopher. Nevertheless, I put aside my doubts and decided to find out what all the fuss was about.
First, the bad.
I agree with critics who say that Rand’s characters are one-dimensional and unrealistic. Especially by the latter half of the book, as sympathetic but not-fully-enlightened characters “wake up” to “reality,” all the good guys sound like clones of Rand herself, while all the bad guys sound like clones of each other. She is desperate to link together (what she regards as) intellectual failures, moral failures, and personality types – and even physical characteristics. (If someone has an angular jaw and cruel, blue eyes, he is definitely a good guy; paunchy guys with receding hairlines are invariably baddies. I don’t know why Rand chose to use these unfortunate Aryan motifs given their obvious potential to mislead, as evinced in Whittaker Chambers’ infamous “gas chamber” line.) If someone is very deceived about politics or economics, he will usually be very deceived about metaphysics, aesthetics, or personal ethics as well – and vice versa. It is no wonder, then, that Rand’s Objectivist followers have often insisted, cult-like, that the whole philosophy be taken or left as it is, and that any deviation constitutes corruption or treason.
The motives of the bad guys are unclear. At times they appear to be in thrall to a false philosophy, but at other times it is clear that they are willfully self-deceived, that they know the right but do the wrong out of the pleasure of doing wrong itself, “radical evil” in the Augustinian-Kantian sense. James Taggart, the most fully developed “baddie” character, exemplifies the type. For lesser baddies like Eugene Lawson, the flaw is true belief in an evil creed. Indeed, Rand emphasizes again and again that human acts always reflect one’s fundamental values (weakness of will is thus ruled out). Remarkably, then, for a hater of Plato, Rand gives us a Platonic view of wrong-doing as the result of ignorance or confusion about the good, rather than failure of will or nerve. Never mind the possibility that those who disagree with us and therefore do harm by our lights are not evil but are sincerely trying to act on what they believe is good!
The philosophical browbeating becomes tedious. The same points are repeated over and over, out of different mouths and in different contexts, ad nauseam. Just as one example among many: how many times did some stock baddie utter the phrase, “I couldn’t help it”? The reader is clearly supposed to mentally point an accusatory finger each time Rand pokes one of these buttons, but I’d rather not be manipulated so blatantly.
Galt’s speech is a mess. The notion that entire systems of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics can be deduced from a single meaningless axiom (“Existence exists”) is gobsmackingly silly.
Now for the good.
Rand has hit on something appealing and correct, and that kernel of truth must account for the novel’s enduring appeal. She believes in and promotes a laudably fanatical commitment to duty and truth. Some Randians might shrink at the word “duty,” but it’s clear that Rand believes in moral duties and places very high – no, ultimate – value upon them. For instance, we (who are able-bodied and of sound mind) have a duty not to live purely at the expense of other human beings. We have a duty not to “counterfeit reality” in any manner. I think if Rand had understood Kant, she would have agreed with his understanding of the good will as the only thing that is good for its own sake, rather than castigating him as the font of all altruistic evil.
The philosophical position that we should live our lives primarily for the benefit of others is false, and Rand appropriately draws out its absurd and pernicious implications. However, I wonder how many people who are not Peter Singer really take this position. And Rand’s alternative – that each of us should live his life purely for his own happiness – is equally false and pernicious. (That is, it would be if she really believed it. This is another philosophical point on which she is confused. Rand is not, apparently, Max Stirner, for some forms of happiness would seem to be intrinsically superior to others, for her. On what grounds? Not obvious.) The reasonable alternative – that we are morally free to live our lives within the bounds set by the duties of respect for others’ personhood and rationality – is missing from all of Rand’s work.
There is also something attractive in Rand’s Aristotelian conception of the human being. I refer here to the idea that we should strive to become a human being who is “fit” in every respect: ethically, physically, and emotionally. Our actions should flow from our convictions, and our convictions must take into account the fundamental unity of the human mind and body. The desires of the body can never be inherently wrong, but our desires will be shaped by our fundamental objectives. If our fundamental objectives are warped, our desires will tend to become so as well. There does seem to be something “right” about this, although I must in the final analysis defer to the psychologists here. Here again, however, Rand is not unique. Christian ethicists and counselors, for instance, have long stressed the idea of the “whole person,” and this concept has made its way into the pedagogy at evangelical colleges like ORU, as well as the more traditionally Thomist, Catholic schools. More fundamentally, I don’t think taking these points on board requires swallowing all of Aristotle’s metaphysics.
Unfortunately, Rand’s celebration of human production and ingenuity leads her into the “productivist” fallacy, which Marx shares by the way, the belief that it is the effort and ingenuity of human production that confers value on something, rather than its subjective value to the consumer. As a consequence, Rand is contemptuous of nature. In one passage, she has one of her heroes, Dagny Taggart, say to Hank Rearden: “You know those people who say that billboards ruin the views of the countryside? I hate those people.”
This part was supposed to be about the good in the novel. Well, I will admit that it’s just a good story. Between the philosophical browbreating, the elaborate plot keeps even a hostile reader like me going. I was able to finish it in about three weeks, just reading here and there. If the philosophy gets monotonous, you can always skip the speeches. In general, I enjoy “idea fiction,” even if the ideas are disagreeable or even repugnant. As an example of a completely different sort of writer, H.P. Lovecraft had some pretty nasty views, but it’s interesting to see how his view of the universe becomes instantiated in story.
My final analysis is that I wish a novel of this type had been written by someone else. A novel with just as good a story, more nuanced, sophisticated characters, and a more appealing philosophy not only would have been more persuasive, but it would also have been less of a millstone for the movement, that is, for those of us who have struggling over the years to show people that libertarians are not selfish, elitist bastards who think that everything noncoercive is morally permissible. Has Atlas Shrugged done more good than harm or more harm than good? I could argue either side of the question.