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Happy Birthday Atlas
An analysis of the reasons it was so hated yields also the reasons it is still so loved. Atlas, far more explicitly than Ayn Rand's previous best-seller, The Fountainhead, challenges, in Rand's own words, "the cultural tradition of two thousand five hundred years." It demolishes the sacrificial ethic that permeates most of the belief systems of that entire period. It repudiates the proposition that man's highest purpose and duty is to sacrifice himself - be it to God, the state, society or his neighbour. It roundly condemns the equation of ethics with suffering. "The purpose of morality," says one of its heroes in a startlingly direct and outrageous formulation, "is to teach you not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live." What?!
Thus did Ayn Rand enrage religious conservatives and secular "liberals" alike. In the latter category, Gore Vidal could write that Atlas was "perfect in its immorality;" in the former, Whittaker Chambers could lambaste it for its "materialism (this, of a book glorifying the human spirit)" and insist that from every page one could hear the command, "To a gas chamber-- go!" (This, of a book whose climactic speech contains the following: "So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate – do you hear me? No man may start – the use of physical force against others ... Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.") She demonstrated to all comers on the political spectrum that their fondly-held and fiercely-fought disagreements with each other were, at root, illusory. A home truth that those who heard it would rather not have. That is why the book was and is so hated.
Against their stale self-abasement and conformism, she urged man to rise, to achieve his proper estate: "an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads." That is why the book is so loved – by any human being who has not let his "fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all."
The title Atlas Shrugged is, of course, an allusion to the mythical hero who carried the world on his shoulders. It portrays real-life Atlases – inventors, thinkers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, labourers – shrugging off their burdens and going on strike. Their burdens – the "looters" and "moochers" who expect their "needs" to be met through the efforts of the Atlases – are left to their own devices (prayers, snarls and demands for the unearned) as one by one the strikers repair to a safe haven, a hidden libertarian society where they deal with each other rationally and voluntarily, awaiting the inevitable collapse of the collectivist cannibalism they have left behind.
The reviews quoted above, and many more like them, nearly did Atlas in. On the strength of initial sales, Random House became convinced that they had a commercial failure on their hands. But some critics got it right. John Chamberlain divined that Atlas was "directed towards the creation of an entirely new mental and moral force in the world." Ruth Alexander, in the New York Mirror, proclaimed that "Ayn Rand is destined to rank in history as the outstanding novelist and most profound philosopher of the twentieth century." And then the sense of life of millions of Americans took over. As Barbara Branden writes in The Passion of Ayn Rand: "As always in Ayn's professional career, it was predominantly word of mouth that caused the sagging sales of her novel to pick up – then to soar – then to skyrocket through printing after printing and edition after edition and year after year."
Forty-five years on, in real life, Atlas has yet to shrug anywhere in the world. During the question period at the end of my University of Virginia lecture, Antipodean Altruism, I was asked: "Is Atlas shrugging in New Zealand?" My response was: "In New Zealand, Atlas doesn't even know he's Atlas." The business community in New Zealand, I explained, is cowardly, conformist, submissive, apologetic, anti-philosophical. It gives money even-handedly to every political party – except the one that stands up for it. It puts up with GST, OSH, the Employment Court, the RMA, the brutal tax penalty regime and all manner of such abominations meekly, while its leaders cravenly try to persuade the likes of Jim Anderton that they are more altruistic than he. And even then they speak in muffled voices. For who among them would dare to point out the obvious truth that if "benefit to others" is the criterion of virtue, Bill Gates, acting in his self-interest, is infinitely more virtuous than the selfless Mother Teresa?
As has been demonstrated comprehensively by free market economists, the "collective" benefits of self-interested action are real – but they are secondary (a point lost on the said economists). Self-interested action is good because it is the consequence of rational judgement. Rational judgement is good because it is by this means that human beings live (even those who don't exercise it are dependent on those who do). And life is morality's only defensible standard of value, the only possible criterion by which we can meaningfully designate anything as "good." In that discovery and all that flows therefrom lies the moral revolution of Atlas Shrugged. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the book is perfect in its morality.
To this extraordinary work – happy birthday! To its author, a posthumous salute.
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