I finished Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, so I want to share my thoughts on it, especially since it brings out such strong emotions in many people.
1 – It’s long and long-winded. Rand never fails to use four pages where one could do the job better.
2 – It’s preachy. One of the main characters gives a THREE HOUR speech. Seriously, the chapter claims the speech took three hours.
3 – The plot is OK. It has its moments, but the long diatribes detract from it. Also, it reminds me of “Mission Impossible 2” where there seemed to be a large number of silly “glamour shots” focusing on Tom Cruise’s hair. Rand does that IN PRINT. Editing out 50% of the book would make for a much better story while retaining all the meaning.
4 – It reminds me Robert Heinlein’s more Libertarian writings — just swap “spaceship” for “train” throughout the book.
So that’s about it for the book itself. Of course, what makes the book so controversial is that it is a vehicle for exploring Rand’s philosophical framework, Objectivism.
Objectivism rejects religion, insists that rational thought is what makes us human, believes that individuals should live a life of rational self-interest, and that altruism is wrong (or a form of self-delusion). You could very loosely describe it as “Libertarianism for Atheists” although real differences do exist between the two.
Interestingly, the human that honestly embraces Objectivism is also meticulously honorable and fair. This stems from the relationship between rational thinkers and self-esteem: you cannot rationally take pride in wealth, awards or accolades which are undeserved and unearned, so you must treat every dealing with others with a sense of utmost fairness. This is in stark contrast to what I had heard spoken of Rand’s philosophy — that it justifies the behavior of a scoundrel. I can see how people could believe that, but Atlas Shrugged definitely does not support that view.
On the subject of altruism, it is my interpretation that Rand recognized no such thing. I believe she would suggest that a person is always getting something in return: happiness, a sense of nobility, superiority, gratitude or satisfying a personal need to shape the future to be more the world they desire. Wikipedia discusses this debate in its article on altruism as well. Altruism, I think, is not represented so much as something to be avoided, but something an honest person would recognize as self-delusion. Again, a bit different than I usually see her views as presented by critics.
So what do I think of Rand’s philosophy (based on my reading of Atlas Shrugged — I have not studied her other books or essays on the subject)?
I think that for people who can live Objectivism honestly, it could make them better individuals — individuals who tend to pull the world forward towards a brighter future in the process. For people that do not find solace or hope in religion, it seems to be a way for those that embrace it to live happier lives as well — productive, energetic, purposeful and accepting joy at the accomplishments that brings. It’s not an easy way of life for anyone, but I think it has good value for individuals that can deal with its high demands for open self-examination and constant unflinching use of reason. It doesn’t offer easy answers or simple choices, and doesn’t serve as a pre-determined rulebook for every situation an adherent would encounter. I think that the number of people that are capable of successfully applying this philosophical framework to their lives is very small.
Of course, many people wish to judge a philosophy as a social system, not as a choice for an individual. What world would we live in if everyone adopted Objectivism? That’s a fantasy question as it demands a world in which everyone be the kind of person that would live accordingly. To answer the question presupposes a world completely different than the one in which we live — and that doesn’t answer the original question at all. That’s a problem with most philosophies as well as social systems — they paint a picture of Utopia that is based on everyone choosing to embrace the same system.
One-sentence summary of Atlas Shrugged:
It’s worth reading for its historical relevance and as an introduction to Objectivism even though it is long-winded and limps along at times as a work of fiction.
Two-sentence summary of Objectivism:
Potentially quite valuable to a very small number of individuals, but highly unlikely to be successfully applied by most people. It is neither the salvation nor abomination that some make it out to be.