Atlas Shrugged

Yesterday, I finished Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a book which seems to be enjoying a fashionable resurgence.

Atlas Shrugged is, from the jacket:

The astounding story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world — and did. … It is a mystery story, not about the murder of a man’s body, but about the murder — and rebirth — of man’s spirit.

The novel articulates Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism: objective reality, reason, self-interest and capitalism. The book and the philosophy are not without controversy. Superficially, it is a source of society’s atomisation, but consider for example, this from the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept “rational” is omitted from the context of “values,” “desires,” “self-interest” and ethics.

As an articulation of what goes wrong when government and other coercive institutions intervene in the economy and in society, it is a masterpiece. As an articulation of the timeless morals which have sustained human society, it leaves something to be desired: magnanimity. Ironically, Aristotle, who made magnanimity “the crowning virtue”, was the only philosopher to whom Rand would acknowledge a philosophical debt: it appears she missed that in his writing.

However, if one considers the book and the philosophy as a resentful rejection of the “progressive” philosophy which destroys lives — socialism — it makes sense. Consider this from John Galt’s speech:

Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. Yes, you are bearing punishment for your evil. But it is not man who is now on trial and it is not human nature that will take the blame. It is your moral code that’s through, this time. Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality — you who have never known any — but to discover it.

We cannot go on resenting private profit as we cannot go on fearing to live. Social progress will come when people have more to do with one another and governments less; the necessary system of independence, interdependence and mutual cooperation is the free market.

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