Have you ever wondered what would happen if Atlas – the man holding the world on his shoulders – shrugged? Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s objectivist masterpiece that takes place in a world in which the titans of industry decide to abandon the working class, forcing them to rot in the world of twisted morals they have unintentionally created for themselves. This extraordinarily long novel is at the same time a gripping story of a woman trying to find a place for herself in the all-male railroad industry, a commentary on America’s social structure, and a lecture on the unique philosophy of objectivism.
The novel begins with industrialist Dagny Taggert, a woman in control of one of the nation’s largest railroads: Taggert Transcontinental. She struggles with a declining economy, dwindling resources, and the president of the company – who just so happens to be her weasel of a brother, Jim. Rand introduces us to powerful characters such as Francisco D’Anconia, a leader in the copper industry, and Hank Rearden, inventor and head of the steel industry, both of whom are in love with Dagny. Romance is a complicated thing in the world of objectivism and Rand introduces an intriguing look at sex and relationships in this story. Objectivists such as Dagny are only capable of loving men who are extraordinarily driven and powerful – and the greatest pleasure for her is knowing that she is the one bringing such a man to his knees. Beware: spoilers ahead!!
As the novel progresses, the economy continues to worsen, resources continue to become more scarce, and the working class continues to take advantage of the hard-working leaders of society, such as Dagny and Rearden. The question “Who is John Galt?” is a curious motif running through Atlas Shrugged. The phrase is colloquial in Rand’s world and is used when someone has nothing else to say in a hopeless situation; it is the vocalization of a shrug. Dagny hates the phrase because it is equivalent to giving up. She even names her newest railroad the John Galt line in a rebellious effort to combat the forces that are destroying both society and her beloved railroad. One of those forces, we learn later, is the man John Galt. He believes that “your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.”
Galt is disgusted with the members of society who expect money to fall into their hands; the people who think they don’t have to work to live. He is so disgusted, in fact, that he begins to convince society’s leaders to abandon them. His plan is to “stop the motor of the world.” Galt builds an Atlantis-like commune in the mountains and uses a new type of motor he has invented to power the town. One by one, he lures like-minded men to his side. This act causes society to crumble even faster. Meanwhile in New York, Dagny starts to catch on. Furthermore, she discovers the remains of Galt’s first motor in an abandoned factory. Her efforts to find the man who invented the motor, who is sabotaging society, and who is either kidnapping or killing (she believes) her friends lead to her crash land in Galt’s Gulch, the village nestled in the mountains far from society. There she meets Galt, who she is immediately enamored with, and discovers where all her friends have gone.
Galt and his partners offer Dagny a home in the village, but she isn’t ready to give up her railroad and decides to return to New York. Another interesting character we meet in the mountains is Galt’s friend Ragnar Danneskjold, a sort of Robin Hood/pirate who sinks ships carrying the money belonging to those who haven’t earned it. He gives it back in the form of solid gold bars to those who deserve it. But unlike Robin Hood, he doesn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor – he stills from the undeserving and lazy and gives it to hardworking and rich people like Rearden. Because Danneskjold chooses the path of violence, he provides an interesting counter to Galt, who uses words and nonviolent actions to accomplish the same goals.
The last fourth of the novel follows Dagny’s struggle to save both her railroad and the economy – while she tries to keep herself from running back to Galt. We also learn that Galt has secretly been watching and guarding Dagny for years, waiting until he can finally confess his love for her. That particular situation is complicated because Dagny has been romantically involved with Rearden, who is already married. In addition, Jim Taggert, recently married, has an affair with Rearden’s wife, Taggert Transcontinental collapses, leading scientists invent a weapon of mass destruction, and Galt is kidnapped and tortured after hijacking the radio to make a mass broadcast to the world about his objectivist beliefs. His broadcast, during which he explains to the public “what is wrong with the world” is a painfully long but rewarding sermon.
And the rest of the story is for you to discover on your own. As tempting as it is, I won’t spoil the ending for you. If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favor and put it on your to-do list. I would highly recommend Atlas Shrugged to anyone who enjoys intellectual reading and is patient enough to stick through the relatively slow beginning (and by beginning, I mean about 400 pages) necessary to set up such a long and exciting story.
Many years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem and her philosophy really spoke to me. Both that novel and Atlas Shrugged are downright inspiring and might even make you rethink your own morals. Below I have shared eleven passages from Atlas Shrugged that particularly spoke to me. If you are still deciding whether or not to read the book, maybe these passages will convince you.
Passage #1: “Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes – which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification – which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before. That shining vision which they talk about as belonging to the authors of symphonies and novels – what do they think is the driving faculty of men who discovered how to use oil, how to run a mine, how to build an electric motor? That sacred fire which is said to burn within musicians and poets – what do they suppose moves an industrialist to defy the whole world for the sake of his new metal, as the inventors of the airplane, the builders of the railroads, the discoverers of new germs or new continents have done through all the ages?” (Page 728, composer and pianist Richard Halley talking to Dagny in Galt’s Gulch).
Passage #2: “Every man builds his world in his own image,” he said. “He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice. If he abdicates his power, he abdicates the status of man, and the grinding chaos of the irrational is what he achieves as his sphere of existence – by his own choice. Whoever preserves a single thought uncorrupted by any concession to the will of others, whoever brings into reality a matchstick or a patch of garden made in the image of his thought – he, and to that extent, is a man, and that extent is the sole measure of his virtue” (Pages 735-736, from Galt’s extensive radio broadcast).
Passage #3: The following passage is from page 827 and is a conversation between Dagny and Jim Taggert’s wife, who has just run away from him. The conversation starts with Dagny:
“How did you manage to remain unmangled?”
“By holding to just one rule.”
“To place nothing – nothing – above the verdict of my own mind.”
“You’ve taken some terrible beatings … maybe worse than I did … worse than any of us … what held you through it?”
“The knowledge that my life is the highest of values, too high to give up without a fight.”
Passage #4: There, he thought was the final abortion of the creed of collective interdependence, the creed of non-identity, non-property, non-fact: the belief that the moral stature of one is at the mercy of the action of another (Page 905, Rearden’s thoughts as his wife Lillian admits to cheating on him with Jim Taggert. This episode clearly shows the dichotomy between Rearden and his wife. Rearden finds pleasure in sex with Dagny because his ability to conquer such a powerful woman is a reflection of his own success. Lillian mistakenly thinks that having sex with a despicable man will anger Rearden; this was an utter failure in her attempt at revenge).
Passage #5: He thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly – yet man, whose tool of survival is the mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child’s education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think … Men would shudder, he thought, if they saw a mother bird plucking the feathers from the wings of her young, then pushing him out of the nest to struggle for survival – yet that was what they did to their children” (Page 923, Rearden thinking about what is wrong with schools and teachers as a young boy dies in his arms after a violent attack on his steel mill).
Passage #6: “Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live – that productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values – that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others – that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human – that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than our mind’s full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay – that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live – that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road – that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts down-hill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch …” (Page 946, part of Galt’s radio broadcast; this passage particularly struck me and made me realize why I have been such an over-achiever throughout life and why I absolutely despise laziness).
Passage #7: “I am proud of my own value and of the fact that I wish to live. This wish – which you share, yet submerge as an evil – is the only remnant of the good within you, but it is a wish one must learn to deserve. His own happiness is man’s only moral purpose, but only his own virtue can achieve it. Virtue is not an end in itself. Virtue is not its own reward or sacrificial fodder for the reward of evil. Life is the reward of virtue – and happiness is the goal and the reward of life” (Page 947, part of Galt’s radio broadcast).
Passage #8: “What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor – he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire – he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy – all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of mans’ fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was – that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love – he was not man. Man’s fall, according to your teachers, was that he gained the virtues required to live. These virtues, by their standard, are his Sin. His evil, they charge, is that he’s man. His guilt, they charge, is that he lives” (Page 952, Galt on religion and the nature of man).
Passage #9: “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube” (Page 979, part of Galt’s radio broadcast that explains why good and evil cannot compromise).
Passage #10: You who’ve lost the concept of a right, you who swing in important evasiveness between the claim that rights are a gift of God, a supernatural fight to be taken on faith, or the claim that rights are a gift of society, to be broken at its arbitrary whim – the source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A – and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life” (Page 985, Galt on the rights of man).
Passage #11: “The only purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of mans’ self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law, But a government that initiates the employment of armed compulsion against disarmed victims, is a nightmare infernal machine designed to annihilate morality: such a government reverses its only moral purpose and switches from the role of protector to the role of man’s deadliest enemy, from the role of policeman to the role of a criminal vested with the right to the wielding of violence against victims deprived of the right of self-defense. Such a government substitutes for morality the following rule of social conduct: you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided your gang is bigger than his” (Page 987, Galt on what is wrong with police and the government).