Tuesday, 10 October 2017, marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The novel was Rand’s fourth, and longest, work, and laid the groundwork for what would become the philosophy she formulated: Objectivism.
As of 2010, 7,000,000 copies of the novel had been sold since 1957. While themes such as capitalism, free speech, and individualism are present, the novel is based on Rand’s view of man’s mind, and the role thereof.
Atlas Shrugged is set in a United States in which more and more “men of the mind”, creative people, go on strike because of the prevailing philosophy – altruism – chipping away at them and their lives. The productive and successful are vilified and the only way to ‘grow’ business is through government deals and influence. When characters such as Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, and Franciso d’Anconia go on strike, Rand presents the consequences of the producers withholding their minds from society – the need of others is no longer a hold on them to produce their innovations, art, business leadership, scientific research, entrepreneurship or wealth.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand develops the philosophy of rational self-interest – the philosophical position that your own happiness ought to be the standard by which you live. No one, no matter their social or economic position, has a moral claim on your mind, or your life. This includes everyone from a religious authority, to a figure of authority, to the government.
The title of the novel is taken from the myth of Atlas, a Titan described in the novel as “the giant who holds the world on his shoulders”. A reference to the title appears in a conversation between d’Anconia and Rearden. During their conversation, d’Anconia asks Rearden what advice he would give Atlas upon seeing that “the greater [the Titan’s] effort, the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders”. Rearden is stumped by the question, and d’Anconia gives his own response: “To shrug”. Once you intellectually refuse another’s claim over your life and mind, you take ownership.
The economy of the US at the time of the novel is, just as many countries around the world, of the mixed variety. While some elements of freedom remain, these are largely side-lined in favor of the social good, and the prevailing view that the needs of others take precedence over your interests and desires. The unit of measuring what is ‘good’ is the group; the individual, and individualist actions, are the fount of evil.
Atlas Shrugged is probably Rand’s best work. It presents a unique, radically different take on human reason and morality, and challenges many conventions we hold without ever really questioning why we hold them. For all the critiques of the novel, from both philosophical and literary avenues, there is something in it with which people identify. If you read the novel and end up disagreeing with Rand, that is good – she believed that each person ought to reach their own conclusions, not just listen to, and accept, what someone else says.
If you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, there’s an ongoing reading group on Facebook. They’ve read up to, and including, Chapter 6. Read those first 6 chapters and then join in the discussion.