With adoring fans, rabid critics and very few in between, why does Atlas Shrugged evoke such impassioned responses? Because it grapples with the fundamental problems of human existence — and presents radically new answers.
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s last novel, is a dramatization of her unique vision of existence and of man’s highest potential. Twelve years in the writing, it is her masterwork.
Is the pursuit of profit a noble enterprise or the root of all evil? Is sexual passion an exalted spiritual virtue or a dirty, animalistic vice? Is reason an absolute or is faith an alternative source of truth? Is self-esteem possible or are we consigned to a life of self-doubt and guilt? In what kind of society can an individual prosper, and in what kind of society is he doomed to the opposite fate?
Rand’s worldview emerges in the compelling plot turns of a mystery story, centered on the question “Who is John Galt?”
— Ayn Rand, “Is Atlas Shrugging?” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
The country’s top banker — a leading oil producer — a once-revered professor — an acclaimed composer — a distinguished judge. All vanish without explanation and without trace.
A copper magnate becomes a worthless playboy. A philosopher-turned-pirate is rumored to roam the seas. The remnants of a brilliant invention are left as scrap in an abandoned factory.
What is happening to the world? Why does it seem to be in a state of decay? Can it be saved — and how?
Atlas Shrugged “is a mystery story, not about the murder of a man’s body, but about the murder — and rebirth — of man’s spirit.”
Follow along as industrialist Hank Rearden and railroad executive Dagny Taggart struggle to keep the country afloat and unravel the mysteries that confront them.
Discover why, at every turn, they are met with public opposition and new government roadblocks, taxes and controls — and with the disappearance of the nation’s most competent men and women.
Will Hank and Dagny succeed in saving the country — and will they discover the answer to the question “Who is John Galt?”
“You’re guilty of a great sin, Mr. Rearden, much guiltier than they tell you, but not in the way they preach. The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt — and that is what you have been doing all your life. . . . Your own moral code — the one you lived by, but never stated, acknowledged or defended — was the code that preserves man’s existence. If you were punished for it, what was the nature of those who punished you? Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? . . .
“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of this strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders — what would you tell him to do?”
“I . . . don’t know. What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?”
Who is John Galt? There are many legends — which, if any, is true? Is he the man who discovered the fountain of youth? The man who found the lost city of Atlantis? A modern Prometheus? Does he even exist? And why, if no one knows the answer, does the entire world know his name?
The novel’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, is the vice president in charge of Operations at Taggart Transcontinental — a job that she loves and performs with matchless competence. With seemingly inexhaustible energy, Dagny fights to keep her railroad and the country’s economy afloat despite mounting interference by the government, a collapsing economy, and the irrationality and incompetence of her brother, James, president of Taggart Transcontinental.
As she fights to save her railroad, Dagny struggles to understand why incompetence, which she believes to be powerless, seems to be stopping her at every turn and winning every battle. And to answer that question, she must grapple with another one: Why does the man she loves say that she is responsible for the victories of her enemies?
Hank Rearden is the nation’s most successful industrialist. His greatest achievement, a new alloy he calls Rearden Metal, has the potential to revolutionize the economy. But Rearden soon finds his metal under attack from the government, the media and so-called scientific experts.
More broadly, Rearden is denounced by the public and its leading cultural voices for his “greed” and “materialism,” and for being a ruthless monopolist. Rearden loves his work, but he does not regard it as a moral achievement and is unconcerned with defending it and himself from intellectual attack.
But as Rearden begins to understand the importance of championing his work, he starts to see a connection to why he is unhappy at home, where he is surrounded by a family who mocks and scorns him, caught in a loveless marriage, and plagued by a sense of guilt over his sexual desire, which he regards as a low, animalistic urge.
James Taggart is president of Taggart Transcontinental. Whereas his sister Dagny is passionately committed to growing the railroad by exercising her power of independent judgment, James’s chief concern is to avoid blame, responsibility and effort.
Instead of helping to grow Taggart Transcontinental through productive achievement, as Dagny does, James curries favors from his “friends in Washington,” and uses his political pull to get special laws and regulations.
But what will happen as other players make their own backroom deals, threatening the very existence of Taggart Transcontinental? How will he respond to his sister’s attempts to rescue the company? And what does his response reveal about his soul?
— James Taggart, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Eddie Willers is Dagny’s childhood friend and assistant at Taggart Transcontinental. Unlike the heroes of the novel, he is not a creative giant, but he is unfailingly conscientious and deeply devoted to Taggart Transcontinental.
Through Eddie we see that those of greater productive ability do not exploit those with less ability, but benefit them by giving them the capacity to be even more productive. Eddie also reveals the way in which the best of the men of average intelligence require the creation of a rational society: whereas the heroes can create such a society, Eddie may very well perish without them.
— Eddie Willers, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The theme of Atlas Shrugged, according to Ayn Rand, “is the role of the mind in man’s existence.” It is the mind, the story shows, that is the root of all human knowledge and values — and its absence is the root of all evil.
For Rand reason is needed not just by a theoretical scientist in his lab, but by all of us at all times. All of the novel’s heroes are thinkers: they demonstrate an ongoing commitment to understanding their work, themselves and the world around them. They choose their goals and values by a process of thought, never putting their desires above the facts.
The villains, on the other hand, are those who defy reason and evade facts, acting on what’s left: their feelings. As a result, they are in constant conflict with reality and achieve nothing. This is what leads one of the novel’s heroes to the conclusion that thinking is the basic virtue life requires, and that the anti-mind is the anti-life.
Atlas Shrugged challenges many conventional notions about good and evil: that sex is a low, animal desire; that money is the root of evil; that man is sinful by nature. One of the most prominent is the notion that selfishness is evil and self-sacrifice is good.
The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are condemned for their selfishness, while the villains tout their selflessness and the moral duty to sacrifice. But readers come to see that the interests of the rational characters don’t consist of robbery, exploitation, crass materialism or cold-heartedness. Rather, the heroes’ interests consist in highly admirable values and virtues: unflinching honesty, independent judgment, personal achievement. In their dealings with others, they seek to gain by trade, with the result being a profound benevolence toward other such self-interested characters. Self-sacrifice, by contrast, is shown to lead to just the sort of cruelty, exploitation and injustice traditionally associated with “selfishness.”
Thus in Atlas a code of rational self-interest emerges as a Morality of Life and the conventional code of selflessness and self-sacrifice emerges as a Morality of Death.
Atlas Shrugged is a favorite book among businessmen, and for good reason. Many of the heroic characters are businessmen who deeply love and excel at their work. Dagny and Hank in particular are shown as devoted to their careers — a devotion that requires a solemn commitment to virtue: to thought, integrity, courage, responsibility, tenacity.
Importantly, many of the novel’s villains are businessmen as well. The basic difference is that they betray the actual nature of business: for them business is not a realm in which to use their minds to create values. Instead, it is a means to appropriate values produced by others. James Taggart, for instance, lives off his sister’s accomplishments and Orren Boyle gets rich from handouts and government favors.
For the first time in history, in the pages of Atlas, those who pursue business rationally receive profound moral recognition, while those who enter the realm to expropriate values receive condemnation.
Reason and freedom are corollaries, Ayn Rand holds, as are faith and force. Atlas Shrugged showcases both relationships.
The heroes are unwavering thinkers. Whether it is a destructive business scheme proclaimed as moral, the potential collapse of the economy, or a personal life filled with pain, the heroes seek to face the facts and understand. To them, reason is an absolute. Politically, therefore, what they require and demand is freedom. Freedom to think, to venture into the new and unknown, to earn, to trade, to succeed and fail and pursue their own individual happiness.
The villains, by contrast, reject the absolutism of reason. They want a world ruled by their feelings, in which wishing makes it so. James Taggart, for instance, wants to be the head of a railroad without the need of effort. No amount of thinking can bring such a world about — he must attempt to bring it about by force. As Rand puts it elsewhere, “Anyone who resorts to the formula: ‘It’s so, because I say so,’ will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later.”
Traditionally, love is regarded as spiritual and selfless. Sex, on the other hand, is regarded as low and animalistic, with some claiming we should therefore renounce it in the name of higher values, and others saying there are no higher values and so we should indulge in it indiscriminately.
Atlas Shrugged challenges this entire perspective. Love is shown as an inherently selfish emotion. “Love is the expression of one’s values,” says one of the novel’s heroes, “the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another.”
To love is to value, and the proper expression of romantic valuing is sex. Sex is not an animalistic desire, but a union of the spiritual and material, mind and body. For the novel’s heroes, it is a celebration of one’s partner, oneself, and all of existence.
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