James Mulholland

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Notes on Atlas Shrugged

2020-09-20 • 3 minutes read

If you have read Atlas Shrugged, you will know that it is a book that throws its beliefs in your face. With sixty-page speeches extolling the values of libertarianism, a caricature division between the heroic industrialists and their slimy socialist rivals, and dialogue which is so meaning-laden that it reads like a sermon, Atlas Shrugged is not a subtle book.

Yet, however extreme the book's depiction of 'good' and 'evil' gets, I couldn't help but find some of the ideas inspiring and original (at least coming from a left-leaning, cosmopolitan and British background). This post serves as a quick analysis of the ideas in Atlas Shrugged I found most powerful, most troubling, and most interesting.

Valuing Creation

Above almost anything else, Atlas Shrugged praises creative activity. For Rand, work is not slave-like labour, but an inventive, positive act. The praise of work is both for the result of what the mind produces (time saved, wealth created, experiences had), and the subjective experience of what doing a good job feels like.

The descriptive accounts of joyous creation in Atlas Shrugged felt powerfully human to me. To see the characters solving problems and inventing solutions reminded me of some of the best moments of my childhood where possibility was unbounded and personal capability unconstrained.

I think this perspective of optimism is often forgotten, disregarded, or misunderstood. Although tech has adopted the memes of wealth creation and zero-sum avoidance, this does not, as far as I can tell, translate to the rest of society.

Personal Responsibility

Perhaps the idea that had the most practical impact on me was that of personal responsibility. If one thing defines the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, it is their willingness to say "I take responsibility for this".

In work, gaps in responsibility between individuals and teams inevitably appear. Saying "I take responsibility" fills these gaps and the work that needs to be done isn't collectively dodged. Furthermore, even if you fail or your beliefs are mistaken, putting your neck on the line helps you course-correct your beliefs over time (à la Skin in the Game).

Seeing Atlas Shrugged's characters adopt this extreme form of responsibility gave sufficient improvement to my productivity at work that it was noticed by my manager. Even if it is uncomfortable at times, more responsibility is almost always a good thing.

Joy as Meaning; Meaningless Pain

"We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?"

Dagny Taggart

This quote stuck with me more than any other in the book. Initially, the idea that pain ("it") is not to be taken seriously did not make sense to me. It only crystallised when combined with the contrasting claim that joy is meaning.

Perhaps at the surface, Rand's heroes are rational and cold. Yet they are also, on a deep level, lovers of life and joyously happy. They go beyond the removal of pain and actively enjoy everything they do. Creating, thinking, love, fully fleshed-out human flourishing, are the ultimate values in Rand's philosophy. Next to these gifts, how could something as insignificant as pain mean anything at all?

I find exercise to be one of the best microcosms for this idea. Training hard is not pleasurable. Your lungs sting, your muscles burn, your mind aches with the mental exertion of pushing harder. But viewed in the grand scheme of the race, these things simply do not matter. It is not that the pain is diminished or overcome in face of a more important goal, rather that it becomes worthless when the joy of going faster, further, and harder is embraced.

Especially for the British, the idea that we should be unabashedly happy is an uncomfortable one. Although I had had a similar thought in my mind before reading the book, there was also something shameful and private about it. I am glad that I now have something more concrete to anchor the emotion of gratitude to.

Ignoring Reality

For a thinker who claims that your beliefs must stick to reality, Rand certainly likes to ignore many features of the real world. There is no mention of racial discrimination, let alone a non-white character. The value that one must pursue one's own individual goals without exception is almost comical in the face of climate change.

The whole book is hyperbole and is hard to translate into reality. Of course, the villains of the novel are terrible people, but they are often crude fictional tools that are difficult to learn anything from. Reality is not black and white and important decisions rely upon nuance which is simply absent from the book.

Rand's Objectivism is dressed up as obviously, tautologically correct. Yet it is an incomplete description and there is a leap from the truly objective to Rand's Objectivism that needs some explaining.

Conclusion

Those who disagree with Rand's views will find its uncompromising position uncomfortable to read at times. While I would recommend reading it to almost everybody, for most, I suspect the main value will be to better understand a position you disagree with.

Yet the descriptions of striving, creating, thriving, and thinking stick with me. I think the book is mostly wrong, but there is something it gets powerfully, uniquely right.