Atlas Shrugged Revisited

About a month ago I posted a review of Atlas Shrugged and it led to a bunch of comments and a boost in traffic. It got another comment today, and since the book will definitely be coming up again soon when I write about the Watchmen movie, I decided to toss the comment and my response up as a fresh post. So here goes:

1) My original review, Sexy Capitalist Jesus.

2) Today’s new comment from Lisa at Despite Everything:

[Quote from my review] Galt is really an Ubermensch, a Nietzschean superman who could save the world from disaster but won’t because anybody who can’t save himself doesn’t deserve to be saved.

I don’t agree at all. The reason he doesn’t save the world from disaster is because he knows that if he does, they’ll simply continue as they’ve been going, and he’ll have to do it again and again. He refuses to be an enabler, and he refuses to be used.

3) My response:

I think my quote and your counterpoint to my quote are rather complementary, even two sides of the same statement. Objectivism described succinctly and accurately is an “Every man for himself” philosophy. It’s the underlying principle of John Galt’s Oath, but without the usual negative connotation because it refers to the moral value of self-sufficiency, individual liberty, and achievement by will and merit.  As you say, it would be immoral for Galt to enable the collective mass of humanity, because he judges the mass of humanity morally backward and to save them materially would be to undermine himself spiritually.  Insofar as that’s the case I think my statement that “anybody who can’t save himself doesn’t deserve to be saved” is a logical corollary.

Galt announces that after the modern system of sovereignty and industry has collapsed, he will seek out and engage any other self-sufficient communities he can find, a la Galt’s Gulch.  So Galt envisions a simplified and morally righteous civlization rising from the ashes of post-apocalyptic modernity, and he consecrates this wish by marking the night sky with a dollar sign at the very end of the book.  Those who save themselves from the collapse of the current morally perverse civilization will thus get to participate by right of their lived self-sufficiency and will to achieve, demonstrated in the tabula rasa, meritocratic “desert island” scenario common in the formation of social contracts. Ipso facto, anybody who does not save themselves during the social collapse objectively lacks the ability to gain entry to the morally rejuvenated civilization that follows.  Rand makes this point unavoidable when Dagny shoots the guard for refusing to make a decision during the Galt rescue attempt.

Likewise, Eddie Willers, the common man of limited ability who morally accepts his subordinate role with rational honesty, is faced with the necessity of overcoming his own limitations to survive in his final scene, and he’s left to an uncertain fate as a way of posing the question to the reader: can you, average reader, live up to the Objectivist moral standard? Will the good-but-average people overcome, or waste away?

When I say that Galt is the “Overman” or “Superman” of Nietzschean philosophy, this is meant in contrast to Nietzsche’s “last man,” who is mediocrity incarnate, represented by the cabal of moochers in Atlas Shrugged and morally personified by James Taggart.  The “last man’s” apathy and sloth are also recognizable in the guard whom Dagny kills.  Galt, in contrast, embraces the morality of individuality, which includes as a prerequisite the responsibility of knowing thyself, of individuating the self and untangling the knots in one’s personal philosophy so that one’s will and one’s behavior are in sync and rationally directed. Herein lies the incredible value of Atlas Shrugged and its restoration of reason: providing a path out of the post-modern existential wilderness and declaring, “Now it is time to BUILD again.”  The plot of the book is an expression of that process.

All that being said, this is clearly a life lesson one can only appreciate if you’ve matured and come-of-age to some extent already. Not speaking for Objectivism as a whole (I haven’t read all of it), but only regarding Atlas Shrugged, children are problematic for Rand to integrate. The only notable presence of children in the book, and the responsibility for other people that children represent, is the Galt’s Gulch starlet whose new occupation is raising her children to be morally upright individuals.   And yet imagine all of the children whom have the potential ability to be great men and women, to innovate in the wake of society’s collapse if only they had the means, or parents willing to self-sacrifice to make sure the children could overcome.  Since children are not yet matured individuals with the mental ability to form coherent life philosophies, the logic of love that Rand lays out via Dagny’s sex life does not apply to the love a parent gives to a child. If one sacrifices one’s self for one’s children’s future, is that a legitimate exception to the Oath, or would adherence to the Oath require sacrificing one’s children before sacrificing one’s self, and then popping out some new babies and trying the whole parenting thing again later if the opportunity presents itself?

In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the atheist scholar Ivan debates God with his cloistered brother, Alyosha, and evokes the suffering of innocent children as proof that God must either not exist or be condemned as morally perverse. This is not a problem for John Galt because unlike God, he is not identified by the concept of omnipotence. Part of being a Superman, it seems, must be a rejection of hubris, and an objective acceptance of one’s limits (a trait Rand finds admirable in Eddie Willers, for example).  Galt does have this understanding: as far as the human potential lost in a global upheaval, that’s God’s jurisdiction. Or as Barack Obama might put it, above Galt’s pay grade.

So ultimately Galt’s moral system in Atlas Shrugged is logically coherent and indeed greatly insightful. My central complaint with the book, best demonstrated by the issue with children, basically boils down to Rand wearing blinders to a significant portion of the spectrum of human experience in order to maintain such a perfectly coherent value system.  Still, I really got a lot out of reading it, and my initial review reads more negatively than I intended, so hopefully this goes some way towards ameliorating that.

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