For most people, reading Atlas Shrugged is an unforgettable experience. The story is gripping, involving numerous mysteries and unexpected but logical plot twists. The characters are unique–what other book contains a philosopher turned pirate? And the writing is that rarest of combinations: at once clear and deep. But for many readers, Atlas is even more: it’s life-changing.
[Over] Fifty years after its publication, how can a novel still exert this powerful an effect? Because in its pages Ayn Rand forces you to look at the world anew.
To give a taste of its radicalness, consider that today it’s bromidic that the man of virtue is Mother Teresa-like; he selflessly lives to serve others and demands that you do the same. The man of vice is selfish; he pursues his own interests and demands that his actions bring him a profit. Whenever a television show or movie needs a stock villain, one whose evil motivation will require no setup, you can be sure a businessman erecting an office building on treed land or a corporation testing an experimental drug will be penciled in. Simply to point out that they are pursuing profit is sufficient to damn them. More murders on television are committed by businessmen than by mobsters and gang members.
This entire viewpoint, entrenched for centuries by religious and secular thinkers alike, Atlas challenges. What emerges from its pages is that the moral man is in fact truly selfish: he chooses to embrace his own life by choosing to purposefully, systematically, and unwaveringly do the thinking and take the actions necessary for happiness.
On this approach, ruthless rationality and the ever-increasing production of profit–the core of what it takes to be successful in business–become the essence of the moral life.
There is a scene early in Atlas, in which the industrialist Hank Rearden looks back over his creation of a metal superior to steel, that perfectly captures the novel’s new portrait of moral greatness.
“. . . the nights spent at scorching ovens in the research laboratory of the mills . . . –the meals, interrupted and abandoned at the sudden flash of a new thought, a thought to be pursued at once, to be tried, to be tested, to be worked on for months, and to be discarded as another failure . . .–the one thought held immovably across a span of ten years . . . the thought of a metal alloy that would do more than steel had ever done . . . –the acts of . . . driving himself through the wringing torture of: ‘… still not good enough …’ and going on with no motor save the conviction that it could be done–then the day when it was done and its result was called Rearden Metal.”
No one had ever before thought of men like Aristotle, Newton, Edison and Vanderbilt as moral exemplars. But this–the man alone in his lab or office, who chooses to exert the effort necessary to think and to create his values–is Atlas’s image of a moral saint.
What then of an entrenched moral code that demands that, in the name of the “poor in spirit,” a man like Rearden selflessly sacrifice his creation, profit and happiness to those who have not earned them?
This whole code, Atlas declares, is immoral. What the story’s logic reveals is that the very purpose of the code is to get the good voluntarily to surrender to evil. Atlas is the story of the rebellion of men like Rearden, who are in reality moral, against a moral code that damns selfishness and demands the sacrifice of those rich in spirit to those poor in spirit.
With the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand became the most remarkable of individuals: a moral revolutionary. For anyone interested in ideas, it’s a book which deserves to be read and re-read.