I hardly know where to begin to respond to this immense book. It isn’t an easy read or rather it wasn’t an easy listen as I had the audio version. Rand’s characters do not converse, they ‘hold forth’ and while there is a storyline that is relatively interesting, this is splattered with great dobs of philosophy. It is immense in scale, scope and aim and is heroic for that. But, heroic attempts have a tendency to fail, and when they fail, they do so often with astonishing results. Atlas Shrugged is nothing short of an heroic failure.
To understand this failure, you must first understand that this is not a novel by the standard definition. It is a thesis. Novelists tend to have philosophical ambitions, Rand is more of a philosopher with a novelist’s ambition. Novelists have the ability to charm you into their way of thinking. Rand grabs you by the throat and smashes you in the face with it.
I could write for days here but I’ll confine myself to hours and to what is arguably the centrepiece of the whole book viz. the speech given by the hero of heroes (and heroes are where it’s at for Rand) John Galt near the end of the book. My response will be twofold; while Rand’s attack on faith demands a response, I will first respond to the nub of her argument that “A is A.”
My response to Rand’s basic premise
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One simple example from my meagre intellect will suffice. It involves perception, a function of the mind. Now, if “consciousness [really] is identification” we have a problem. In a language where there is no word for orange, and there are many, there is no way for the speakers to identify orange. Hence, if shown a leaf that an English speaker would call “all orange,” the non-English speaker would ‘disagree.’ This is further illustrated by imagining a table placed in a tribal area where furniture is not made. Quite what an approaching tribe will make of the table who can tell, but one thing is sure: they won’t identify it as a table. This is cultural determinism.
The main problem with these examples is that in both cases, the people are using their reasoning to arrive at very different conclusions. In one culture, reason determines that “A is A” but in another, it results in the premise that “B is B.” Anyone dealing with a cross-cultural exchange would have to reconcile the fact that “A is in fact B.” The leaf can be green and red at the same time depending on the mind viewing it.
For Rand, cultural determinism is a serious challenge and one that neither her nor her proponents have, as far as I’m aware, dealt with successfully. When two minds may arrive at these contradictory viewpoints by her method of “logic: the art of non-contradictory identification,” we have a serious problem. It is from people being unwilling to consider that A might well also be B that wars result.
The nail in Rand’s coffin thus comes from her own statement that “to arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking.” Hoist by her own petard, it would have been wiser to allow for a lack of full understanding in one’s thinking, for what seems contradictory now may well turn out to be perfectly reconcilable later, as history has often proven.
Contradictory statements abound in Galt’s speech:
- “morality ends where a gun begins” – Rand, fleeing the Red Menace, found shelter in the US. That this shelter was maintained with guns doesn’t seem to have occurred to her.
- in considering the distinction between the animate and the inanimate, she says that, at death, “[a living being’s] chemical elements remain but it’s life goes out of existence” – but if life disappears while chemicals remain, what could life possibly be but metaphysical? Her statement leaves no room for anything else but the idea that life itself is something more than chemical and therefore, beyond empirical, rational measurement.
- “pain is an agent of death” – surely pain is, by definition, an agent of life. The dead feel no pain. Pain is designed to preserve life or it would be pointless. If it were truly an agent of death, pain would be death’s greatest traitor.
- “man …exists for his own sake and the achievement of his own happiness” – logically followed, this would cripple the birthday card industry. How does this marry with the fact that many of us find it equally if not more rewarding to give, not receive?
- “life is a process of self-sustaining, self-generating action” – what about those who are incapacitated or unable to sustain themselves; the old the young, the weak, the mentally infirm? Is Rand actually advocating that these people have no life and therefore no value?
- “by refusing to say “it is” you are refusing to say “I am”” – but there is no more a way to empirically prove the existence of your own identity than there is to prove the existence of God, the mere notion of whom Rand finds abhorrent.
- “Life is the reward of virtue” – but all who are virtuous die. Followed logically, this statement actually reinforces the Biblical claim that as death is a logical certainty for every man, no man is virtuous.
- criticising followers of faith as that which demands “surrender… of your mind” – but if I follow Rand’s Objectivism, a philosophical idea which cannot be empirically proven, don’t I therefore surrender my mind?
My response to Rand’s attack on Christianity
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Before I respond to specific details, I must say that it is obvious to me that whatever experience Rand had of Christians, she was seriously let down. It is as much the fault of Christians that Christ was misrepresented to her as it is that she swallowed this misrepresentation whole. It is very obvious that she knew the Bible only in passing. Rather, she has taken the practices of the established church and presumed that these faithfully represent what the Bible teaches. This is the contemporary equivalent of watching a suicide bomber’s video and surmising that the Qu’ran teaches Moslems to strap on explosives.
The most telling example of this comes from her concepts of the doctrine of original sin. For her, this is a “monstrous absurdity” because “sin without volition is… an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality” and therefore “to punish [man] for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice.” Quite so, but this false conclusion results not from a Biblical reading but from established church teachings and, in particular, the Catholic church.
A full understanding of the Biblical teaching of sin reveals that the sin that brings punishment is not original sin but the suppression of an individual’s awareness of the truth about God. This is not unjust because knowledge about God is available to us all, naturally revealed in creation and conscience. The book of Romans clearly explains this.
Rand also misunderstands the nature of humanity from a Biblical perspective. Allowing that God is perfect by definition, it follows that if we were also perfect, we would be God which we clearly are not. This difference in standards is rendered by the Greek word hamartia and translated “sin”.
In making this mistake, she has missed remarkable parallels between the Bible and Atlas Shrugged. Both works espouse a higher standard to live by. In the Bible attaining this higher standard is accomplished through faith, in Atlas Shrugged through reason. There are consequences for not comitting to this higher standard. In the Bible, this is inadmittance to the dwelling place of God aka heaven. In Atlas Shrugged, this is inadmittance to Galt’s utopian Colorado sanctuary. Ultimately in both, the dwellings of those who refuse to embrace the higher standard are destroyed. In the Bible, God declares he will do this. In Atlas Shrugged, Galt declares that he has “destroyed their world.”
These parallels illustrate that the theology Rand condemns as unworkable and unjust is actually mirrored in her own writings. There is a fundamental difference however between Rand and Jesus. Jesus came to proclaim that admission to his utopia was freely available for all and to commission the church to pass on that Good News. Rand’s characters, in stark and telling contrast, contrive to keep their utopia secret while the world perishes.
Rand lambasts the teaching of the curse apportioned to man as a result of the Fall in Genesis 3 saying “the evils for which [Chrstians] damn [man] are reason, morality, creativeness, joy…” But this is a false interpretation of the Bible because it stops at the third chapter neglecting the other 1186, the clearly ludicrous equivalent of judging Atlas Shrugged after 3 pages.
A thorough reading of the Bible clearly shows not a condemnation of “reason, morality, creativeness and joy” as Rand claims but rather their redemption; to lay aside our limited human reasoning and be “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2), to shed the Pharisaical pretense of morality in exchange for the moral perfection of Christ himself (Matthew 5:48), to be creative and productive in the Parable of the Talents (Luke 19:11-27) and to lay aside temporal joys of earth for the guarantee, as Mr Pickwick puts it, of eternal summers in the next.
And she vastly underestimates the importance of the reasoning mind in Biblical Christianity:
- “[Christians claim] that only the unknowable exists.” – far from it. Jesus prays to the Father for every Christian in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God”
- “God, a being… beyond man’s power to conceiveâ€“a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness” – The apostle Paul, realising the validity of the mind in relating to God, clearly declares in 2 Corinthians 14, “I will pray with my spirit but I will also pray with my mind.”
- “The purpose of man’s life… is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know”- Jesus states “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Paul writes in Ephesians 3 “I pray that you will have the power to comprehend (Greek: perceptually understand) the love of Christ… and to know (Greek: experientially know) this love” Quite clearly, Christians know the purpose they serve.
Rand’s thesis fails because it simply doesn’t scratch the surface of the full hero that each one of us has the potential to become. She fails because she has decided to “blank” the spiritual dimension, the one dimension that makes the others pale, the one dimension which affords us the perspective to see clearly the limited potential of the others. To buy into Rand’s philosophy is to buy into the very lie of the Serpent in the Garden of Genesis 3: to accept finite potential at the price of the infinite.
Rand was an admirer of Dostoevsky. Quite why, I’m not sure. But Dostoevsky sums it all up masterfully in the early section of Notes from the Underground. I’ll let him conclude on my behalf:
You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots.
Who is John Galt?
He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.
RATING:terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb