Rebirth of Reason


Checking Your Premises: Non-Contradiction as a Way of Life
by Luke J. Morris

If a man claims that he values human life, while at the same time destroying the lives of those who make living possible, is his first claim true?  When he feels threatened at the first sign of human greatness, and pulls it immediately into the service of mediocrity, can he truly claim to love humanity?  It is clear that one part of this man’s life is a lie.  On the other side, if a man loves the product of his mind’s effort, and takes pride in his achievement – then abandons his creation to the rule of fools who never could have created it – does he really love his work?  What is the proper course for a man who loves his life?  Is it right for him to continue to labor, to produce, to create, under the orders of lesser men who use his own virtues to command his enslavement?  When he sees the product of his life’s work stolen, mutilated, and devoured by depraved creatures masquerading as men, when they abuse him more and more the greater the services he does them, might his morality not impel him to throw off his yoke?
These are a few of the questions that Ayn Rand answers in Atlas Shrugged.  Her heroes, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, confront several apparent contradictions in the world they live in, and they must check their premises and correct their errors in order to find the world that is truly theirs.  To begin with, they face the prospect of a world rapidly losing the supports it needs most.  The core of the world, of human success, of the United States and Taggart Transcontinental, is man’s mind.  Those men most able to use their minds, to improve the world for all of mankind, are abandoning the world to its own self-rot; they are leaving it to the looters who devour it, and to the few brave intellects who still wish to hold back that tide. 

Dagny Taggart wonders what could possibly be terrible or great enough to pull men of ability away from the work they love – and she concludes that someone is hunting them, searching for whomever the country needs most, and grabbing them when they reach the right mental stage.  As Eddie Willers puts it, “There’s a destroyer loose in the country, who’s cutting down the buttresses one after another to let the structure collapse upon our heads” (439).  Dagny swears to stop him, to reach his victims before he does and arm them against him, but time and again she fails.  It seems a contradiction: that men who love their lives, and live for their work, should suddenly give up and abandon the products of their minds to worthless looters, leaving the remaining producers to struggle even harder in an abusive world.  But Dagny’s view is mistaken.  Hugh Akston, Richard Halley, and Francisco D’Anconia have not renounced the world and given up; they have gone on strike.  John Galt, the “destroyer,” is not Dagny’s true enemy.  He is merely the catalyst who has helped her allies to strike back against the creatures who wish to “dispose of our energy, because they have none to offer, and of our product, because they can’t produce” (740).  It is the strikers who have acted consistently in refusing to be martyrs to the altruist code.  Dagny’s premise – that in order to achieve their world, producers must fight to survive their parasites (while their work allows their parasites to survive) – is the error she must correct.  Otherwise, this premise leads her down a path that would allow for their existence while destroying her own. 

The heroes of Atlas Shrugged live among men whom Rearden describes as “a bunch of miserable little children who struggle to remain alive, desperately and very badly” (147) – men who pass laws that make it continually more difficult for producers to produce the means of keeping them alive.  Such a contradiction cannot exist in a rational universe.  Either such looters are ignorant about the means to the continuation of life, or they deliberately act against those means – in which case they do not value life at all.  Through most of the novel, this second option seems too insane for the heroes to acknowledge.  As Dagny tells the men of Atlantis, she cannot give up her belief that the men outside “still love their lives – and that is the uncorrupted remnant of their minds” (807).  Dr. Akston replies that this is the premise she must check; she must answer, for herself, whether such men have not fully corrupted their minds.

When Rearden’s mother tells him that “Virtue is the giving of the undeserved” (209), he responds with shock – he cannot believe she is evil enough to mean it.  Yet she does mean it; the whole broken world means it.  As Francisco D’Anconia tells him, “Their moral code is their weapon” (454).  By accepting a code that damns the production of material wealth and the joy of sexual fulfillment as evil, Rearden gives his destroyers the moral upper hand, thereby sanctioning their right to chain him.  “Do you care to purchase,” Francisco asks, “at the price of your great endurance, at the price of your agony – the satisfaction of the needs of your own destroyers?” (455).  By continuing to work in their world, to create values that are picked from him to fill the bellies of vultures, Rearden is serving those whose goal is death.  He finally realizes this when his family cries out to him that they want to live, and he responds: “I don’t think you do.  If you did, you would have known how to value me” (973). 

Dagny reaches a similar epiphany when she overhears Dr. Ferris and Wesley Mouch plotting to torture John Galt into saving their system.  At this point she discovers the true motive behind the looters’ irrationality:         
They did not think that anything could save them now; they did not want to be saved.  Moved by the panic of their nameless emotions, they had fought against reality all their lives – and now they had reached a moment when at last they felt at home . . . They did not want to live; they wanted him to die.  (1135)
Those who are moved to acts of destruction by “brother-love,” or altruistic self-sacrifice, do not love their lives – they fear their deaths.  But that thing that the Jim Taggarts of the world fear is their own moral standard.  As Galt says, “A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death” (1014).   Discovering this, Dagny corrects her last flawed premise, and abandons the world of those who refuse to live as men. 

Anyone who promotes a moral code demanding that the good willingly immolate itself for the sake of the evil, does not love his life; life is that which he wishes to destroy.  And a man who refuses to serve as a tool for his own destruction is not abandoning his values; he is merely giving the world what it deserves.  When Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart discover this, they correct their flawed premises, and free themselves to live a consistent, moral, and happy life.
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