Review: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
In 1998, when the Modern Library solicited readers to select the 100 best English language novels published since 1900, Atlas Shrugged finished first place in the voting (Rand also had three other books make the top ten). Interestingly, on the accompanying editor's top 100 list, nary a work by Rand was to be found. What accounts for this disparity? As one literary critic quipped, Ayn Rand may not have more followers than other philosophical novelists, but the ones she does have tend to be fanatical. Here's a critique of Rand's principal novel from a literary, economic, and philosophical perspective.
THE LITERARY PERSPECTIVE
Rand’s story, while entertaining, is excessively long and repetitive, beating the reader over the head with countless monologues that more or less say the same thing. It is littered with false dichotomies, as Rand’s contrived world lacks the infinite nuance and gradation we experience in daily life. To her, things are black or white, rational or irrational, right or wrong. Perhaps there is no better proof of this than in her character typology. Despite the dozens of people we encounter throughout the novel, upon closer examination, there are only two mentionable characters: the hyper-rational, hyper-competent Industrialist (capitalist), and the irrational, blundering - though occasionally cunning - Looter (socialist). While dichotomy can be a well-placed, intentional literary device, Rand takes it to such extremes that it ultimately robs her arguments of their full force, making them seem divorced from reality as we actually encounter it. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a single person in real life who acts, talks, or thinks like either of Rand’s two characters.
THE ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE
The 20th century more than vindicated Rand’s endorsement of capitalism (though I’m not sure we’ve ever witnessed the completely unbridled capitalism she would probably espouse). Is capitalism perfect? Of course not. Its “creative destruction” leaves winners and (sometimes significant) losers in its wake – not just business owners either, but plenty of blue-collar workers. Regardless, it is undoubtedly the lesser of many other evils.
It’s hard to know where economic policy ends and personal morality begins with Rand though, as she treats them interchangeably. Her exaggeration of their concomitant nature is a forgivable mistake, as she was trying to refute the viewpoints of the communists and Christian socialists of her time who also inordinately blended morality and economics relative to their typical distinction in American culture. After having watched the Bolsheviks wreck her own country, this must have seemed an urgent project. However, her ultimate argument that Judeo-Christian doctrines of altruism are inimical to, and ultimately fatal toward, Western capitalism is parochial thinking. As shown by Weber, the deeply felt and historically grounded Protestant Work Ethic has been one of the great driving forces in Western economic development. It is itself a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition Rand decries. Her appalling silence toward this undeniable boon of American production betrays her bias against all forms of religiosity – a tendency that is a dogmatic requirement of her philosophy, as will be discussed below.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL PERSPECTIVE
Having suffered through the Bolshevik Revolution in her formative years, Rand saw one extreme ideology (the marginalization of individual human agency in the name of the collective) and committed the common error of assuming that if it was bad, then its opposite (the valuation of individual agency above all else) must necessarily be good. This is a logician’s trap that would be more forgivable if Rand wasn’t a professed Aristotelian – the philosopher who, among other things, is famous for his doctrine of the Golden Mean as a mechanism to avoid erroneous extremes.
Like so many other modern thinkers, Rand builds her philosophical structure on an incredibly narrow understanding of human nature (Rousseau and the Natural Good, Marx and Homo Economicus, Freud and the Sexual Instinct, et al). We should beware of any philosophy starting with the premise “man is X” where X is an over-exaggeration of one aspect of his character at the expense of all else. Such thinking is fundamentally flawed, typically extolling man as he “should be” while utterly failing to deal with man as he actually is. For Rand, this results in a wild overestimation of man’s rationality and agency, and a near-total denial of his contingency. Her novel’s protagonists are surely superheroes in disguise, unencumbered by death, disease, sickness, or even an ill-timed bowel movement. Is it any wonder this book is so popular with the young, the intelligent, and the enfranchised? What would a poor rice farmer in Indonesia make of this story?
Rand’s explanation of the religious inclination in man is, like Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (from which she borrows heavily), a bizarre reading of history that attributes the success of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to a giant conspiracy theory of “value inversion” in which those who “can’t” (the Clergy, the Looters, the weak) end up subjugating those who “can” (the Rationalists, the Industrialists, the strong) through other-worldly doctrines. While no one should deny that people within all ideological circles – the Church in no way excluded – have at one time or another abused the powers given to them by that ideology, how could thinkers as gifted as Nietzsche and Rand use this fact to cling to such a ridiculous conspiracy theory? The answer is simple: because their dogmatic doctrine of man requires them to. After all, if a person’s essence is rationality (Rand) or self-will (Nietzsche), how did humankind become so enamored with religious ideologies that do not lend preeminence to either of these aspects? They must have been misled by a handful of devious, power-hungry mystics. Why the strong man and the rational man could not stop this conspiracy during its ascendancy, and why we had to wait several thousand years for the book’s messianic savior Jon Galt to save us, is never explained.
Rand inordinately focuses on the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Original Sin as the key pillar in the religious conspiracy theory but completely ignores its complementary and conterminous doctrine of Redemption. Had she not inappropriately isolated Original Sin from its relevant context and schema (in the same way she inappropriately separates man’s rationality/agency from the rest of his character), she would have seen that the wild success of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not because of a conspiracy, but because it gives a more complete and accurate exposition of the problems of man’s existence. Therefore, it is a more psychologically satisfying credo than she comprehends.
What is the doctrine of Original Sin but a recognition of man’s utter contingency? No matter how many railroads a person builds, how much money one makes, or how much one “self-actualizes” through creative expression – despite all this, old age and disease and catastrophe and death are always lurking around the corner, and there is no stopping them. Conversely, the doctrine of Redemption says that despite this contingency, man is still infinitely valuable, he is still divinely endowed, he is still capable of meaningful and lasting productivity in this life and beyond; he is truly transcendent. With even a modicum of reflection, the average man feels this paradoxical tension of his existence – finitude and transcendence – even if he can’t express this tension with the eloquence of a Kierkegaard or a Niebuhr. Luckily he doesn't have to – the Judeo-Christian tradition does it for him, and its ubiquity is accounted for not by a half-baked conspiracy theory as Nietzsche and Rand would have us believe, but by a very real psychological strain it both recognizes and alleviates.
Rand’s notions concerning hard work and individual effort are points well taken. She was enamored with American life, and this novel represents her greatest contribution to a defense of that way of life against what she perceived to be a real threat. For these efforts, I truly commend her.
At the end of the day though, I believe this novel is another modern siren song, luring us in with tempting illusions of self-sufficiency and rational capacity that completely distort and deny the contingency of our nature. If anything, our anxiety over our contingency – no matter how sublimated – often makes us double down on doctrines of self-sufficiency. This helps account for the overwhelming popularity of this book in so many circles. Above all else, what modern man desperately desires is a passionate belief in himself. Rand was the first modern author to give the masses an unabashed doctrine of life-affirming self-sufficiency. But an affirmation of life – no matter how passionate – doesn’t solve the problems of life, and it takes willful ignorance to think any of us ever has been or ever will be self-sufficient. We exist at the mercy of countless factors and forces beyond our comprehension and control. Rand’s deification of reason means the deification of the self, and, like Nietzsche before her, she follows through on the logic that if God is not god, then “man” must step in his place.
Unfortunately, as Goethe once pointed out, there is no “man” – there are only individual men, and they all say different things. I see no reason to accept Rand’s philosophical project as anything other than one more form of fanaticism. She swells up a narrow aspect of reality to unjustified proportions and then tries to convince us to give it preeminence by having it thrash a straw-man. No matter how well-intentioned, that’s what this book amounts to. Throughout the novel, Rand condemns men who aren’t willing to think things through and face the facts clearly. Ironically, I believe this book convicts her of that very sin. An ideology that does not address the problem of man’s finitude and his transcendent freedom has misdiagnosed the disease.
For an in-depth study of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition contra modern ideologies, I highly recommend The Nature and Destiny of Man by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.