Picture this: The United States is in the midst of a financial crisis. Businesses both large and small across the country are shutting their doors for good. Unemployment steadily rises as people find it harder and harder to get by. Politicians blame capitalism and greedy industrialists for causing the crisis and laud socialism as society’s savior, even as every subsequent intervention causes more misery and destruction. Sound familiar? Not only does this description fit our country’s troubling current events, but it is also the setting of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.
In fact, the parallels between the plot of the twentieth century philosopher’s magnum opus and our current recession are so shockingly similar that there has been a great surge in interest in the book recently. Thus far in 2009, sales of the book have tripled compared to the previous year, far surpassing 2008’s total of 200,000 copies sold. Fans of Rand’s 1,200-page epic have described the book as “eye-opening” and “life changing.” This chilling, yet inspiring, look at the future ahead has been ranked as the second most influential book of the modern era (behind only the Bible). In fact, in January of this year, Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore wrote, “If only Atlas were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration, I’m confident that we’d get out of the current financial mess a lot faster.”
So, does the book live up to its hype? Or is it merely gibberish, the nonsense of a cult leader preaching the sham of a philosophy she calls “Objectivism” (as her critics claim)? After reading the novel, I opine that Atlas Shrugged is indeed as great as its sensation has painted it to be.
First, on a surface level, the novel is simply fun. The book captures the reader with its thrilling plot. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is a proud industrialist in a time when such types are politically hated. She considers herself to be one of the few sane people left in a growingly insane world. As the operating vice president of Taggart Transcontinental, the premier railroad of the book’s fictive world, she struggles to keep her trains running as dozens of her customers, the industrialists of the world, mysteriously disappear without a trace. Anxious by the vanishings of her professional colleagues and close friends, Dagny sets out to search for the cause of these disappearances, and to find an answer to the question that people mindlessly mutter every day in despair: “Who is John Galt?” These mysteries had me turning the pages faster than Obama spends non-existent money (oh, and Atlas Shrugged has that too). Even better, the resolutions to the book’s enigmas are as intriguing as the buildup to them.
However, the book’s real strength is its underlying philosophy and the clarity and ardor with which she defends it. Rand successfully lays out her philosophy in such a rational manner that it is very hard to intelligently disagree with by the end. Specifically in the chapter “This is John Galt Speaking,” Rand’s character John Galt (who is the manifestation of Objectivism) beautifully explains Rand’s philosophy in such an eloquent and logically airtight manner that it leaves the reader in awe. Galt explains that the fundamental truth of his philosophy is that “existence exists”, and that “A is A” (things that exist have real, objective identities, hence the name Objectivism). From this, Galt explains the cardinal virtues of Objectivism, foremost among them being rationality.
Rand set herself apart from philosophers and ethicists by asking, “Why does man need morality, anyway?” Her answer: “not to suffer and die” (as most other philosophies assert), but “to enjoy yourself and live”. Since mankind’s standard of value is life, actions that advance man’s life are morally good, whereas actions that cripple or destroy it are morally evil. Galt’s speech is impeccable philosophically and logically; any student of reason would smile.
Those unfamiliar with Objectivism may find its conclusion that man’s highest moral purpose is to live solely for himself is a bit of a stretch if not downright wrong. However, Atlas Shrugged soundly explains this idea in such a rational manner that by the end of reading the novel it is hard not to take the central oath of Objectivism as written in the book: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Editor’s Note: Berkeley has a strong Objectivist presence on campus. Their club regularly meets to discuss philosophy and ethics, and periodically hosts guest speakers for the student body.