Celebrating Atlas Shrugged
by Ari Armstrong, October 10, 2007
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's seminal novel about producers who go on strike to oppose their treatment at the hands of political plunderers. The novel celebrates the greatness possible to the freed human mind in pursuit of life-enhancing values. The work unabashedly endorses the moral doctrine of rational self-interest.
Atlas Shrugged gave me my first view of the the significance of applying reason to the production of material values that sustain our lives. My home, my car, my clothes, my computer, my stereo -- all are the result of individuals working in our advanced economy made possible by the Industrial and American Revolutions.
Here is just a tiny example of modern prosperity. Just this morning I hopped in my car, turned on my mp3 music player, and took the cat to the vet, where I paid for vaccines and blood examinations. My cat quite literally gets better health care now than any human got just a few hundred years ago. And my healthy cat makes my life more enjoyable.
Many people in our society take modern prosperity for granted. They imagine that they can enjoy the fruits of prosperity even as they hack away at the root. A culture that does not value the individual mind reasoning from the evidence of the senses, a culture that does not value the right of the individual to pursue his or her own ends, is a culture that will not respect political and economic freedom and that will therefore undermine the blessings of production.
When I first read Atlas Shrugged, I didn't fully understand the requirements of productivity: the mental discipline, the many years of hard work and research typical to launch a successful productive effort, the strict adherence to moral principles. The more I learn about the giants of industry, the more I understand how much they have enriched my life. The more I learn about Rand's system of ethics, the more I grasp how important it is for each person to discover happiness in a productive career.
Nor did I fully understand years ago what it means to live an uncompromisingly moral life. I understood Rand's ethical theories rationalistically, without applying them fully to my own life. My twin faults of rationalism and pragmatism set me up for trouble. That is, by treating ideas as a logical structure detached from real life, I sometimes abandoned principles in my day-to-day life. I have since worked to more fully ground my principles in my life and guide my life by my principles. Some people with similar problems of rationalism believe that they have abandoned the world of Atlas Shrugged, when the truth is that they never really discovered it.
Atlas Shrugged lays out the vision of heroic people who refuse to compromise their principles -- and thereby refuse to compromise their happiness. Such people realize the full value of life on earth, and they therefore apply their reason and efforts to the goal of living. They hold productiveness as a moral virtue, and they seek to protect the political liberty that allows individuals to act, create, and trade according to their own judgment.