I Got My Philosophy: Final Thoughts on Atlas Shrugged

Back when this blog was blogged on the regular, I wrote a series of posts grappling with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, digesting the ideas in the book and finding voice for my response. This epic post definitively concludes that process.

In The Romantic Manifesto, Rand defines art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments” but qualifies that an artist need not have a wholly conscious and articulate grasp of what those judgments are, nor a deliberate intent to explain them by means of the artwork, for a work to qualify as art under this definition.

Likewise, I felt my reaction to the book was informed by a difference in metaphysical value-judgments between myself and the author, though I was not entirely conscious of, nor able to articulate, the root of our divergence.

Unable to speak philosophically about this disagreement with Objectivism, having been formally schooled in the field only by a 7th grade advanced reading class that spent the term reading Sophie’s World and a freshman honors seminar on epistemology at NYU, I found my misgivings best expressed self-evidently in the book’s shortcomings as literature. Provocative story and ideas? Chock full.  Evocative characters sketched in three dimensions? Lacking.  Indeed, the characters of Atlas Shrugged suffer for being molded too strictly into allegorical roles that are oddly Manichean for an author so radically anti-mystic. As the launch of a holistic philosophic project, it lacks a certain human touch.

In Rand’s defense, some of her characterizations are stronger than others. Dagny Taggart is a good but not great protagonist — I found James Taggart, Hank Rearden, and Lilian Rearden to be the novel’s most psychologically fascinating and compelling characters, and at least in the case of the two men the characters I understand to be most directly derived from the central protagonist and antagonist in The Fountainhead, which I have not yet read but suspect I will find far more satisfying as literature when I do.

That said, I was not content with this inductive, literary rationale for a philosophical critique, and I sought a deductive answer to the question of my reaction.  Properly, I would have begun by reading Aristotle, Rand’s primary influence and a fundamental Western philosopher with whom I am notably less familiar than with Plato. But in the more casual and leisurely approach I took,  I first reviewed Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics and ethics, and read up on Rand’s vociferous condemnation thereof.

I re-read Alan Moore’s Watchmen based on the strong plot resonances between it and Atlas, and then dug up the following philosophy paper analyzing Watchmen, Deconstructing the Hero, which touches repeatedly on Nietzsche, whom I have read in part and who is a clear influence on Rand.

I read several excerpts from Rand’s later non-fiction work, mostly The Romantic Manifesto, as well as this fantastic blog essay by Richard Posner tracking Alan Greenspan’s analysis of the economy over the last five years up through last fall’s collapse (because Greenspan, of course, is the best  objective exemplar since Rand of a lived Objectivism with wildly successful results in fulfilling personal ambitions).

Of course this was all very satisfying for my intellectual appetite, but too general and tangential to my core question to coalesce into the specific critique of Rand’s philosophic thought that seemed so vitally necessary to me to explain my reaction to the book with intellectual integrity.  I knew, for example, that the root of my disagreement with Rand was epistemic and ontological, but lacked the vocabulary and intertextual depth to be more precise.

Well, last night the subject of Rand came up while I was at a bar downtown with my housemate Nabeel, enjoying some live jazz. When I got home I took the least scholastic route possible and Googled “Ayn Rand ontology” only to discover EXACTLY the explication I had sought.

Chapter 3 of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion is written by Douglas B. Rasmussen, professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, and is titled “The Aristotelian Significance of the Section Titles of Atlas Shrugged: A Brief Consideration of Rand’s View of Logic and Reality”.  To quote his core insight and conclusion,

Reality is intelligible, and Rand understands this perhaps better than any other philosopher. Yet, she does not fully appreciate the difference between logic and reality and as a result becomes entangled in some serious conceptual knots.  It is in avoiding these confusions that the wisdom of Aristotelian tradition’s account of logic remains vitally significant.

From this elision of ontological measurement grows the glaring oversights in Rand’s ethics and politics, which Rasmussen once again articulates so beautifully:

[T]he failure to make this distinction clear leads Rand to make a serious error regarding the basis of moral values[,] … to appreciate insufficiently not only the difficulties people face in knowing reality and living a worthwhile human life but also the myriad complexities and details that are required for radical political change. More directly stated, she sometimes fails to appreciate the role of the contingent and the particular in human knowledge, human flourishing, and human liberty. [Emphasis mine]

The vital importance of recognizing contingency is a thematic element of Oakeshottian conservatism, with which I am superficially familiar thanks to the cheerleading performed on its behalf by Andrew Sullivan, of whom I am a big fan. Oakeshott, in fact, defines freedom as ‘recognized contingency,’ and I believe that recognizing one’s contingent nature and successfully synthesizing it with the (individual, not universal) concept of idealized self that we each strive to attain, is a necessary prerequisite for the responsible adult exercise of free will.

Rand’s lack of attention to the ongoing process of human individuation is why the characters in Atlas Shrugged are only one- or two-dimensional: men and women of immense integrity who already know exactly who they are, or cowardly moral perverts deathly afraid of self-knowledge. Hank Rearden is of the first type and made more compelling for the backstory that his uncompromising devotion to his life’s work has led him to neglect his wife, Lilian, whose once-genuine love has since curdled into a resentment that leads her to moral perversion.  This at least implicitly acknowledges the moral pratfalls and emotional blind spots of Rand’s ideal, even if Lilian is portrayed flatly within the action of the novel as utterly villainous with no hope for redemption.

Likewise, James Taggart’s reflexive loathing of those who make his life possible — really a projection of his own self-loathing — is highly compelling. As a cautionary tale, as an example of a person who chooses fear, stagnation, and death over courage, growth, and life, and would never admit this to himself out of fear of facing the nihilistic abyss within, it is the most important and relevant statement Rand makes about achieving self-hood in the entire novel. As Rasmussen writes, Rand is not one to “ignore what is essential,” and I consider James Taggart her most effective characterization for a fantastic portrait of existential horror, a life lived in willful, fearful ignorance of essential personal truths.

Nickel-store Psychology

Nickel-store Psychology

But despite the extreme existential horror of James Taggart’s complete self-avoidance, a full appreciation of our contingent nature demands an epistemic modesty and ontological humility that Rand lacks — we can’t, individually, know everything, even if we write a complete and self-contained philosophical system. In a word, Rand’s flaw is hubris, of the sort that allows certain atheists (of which Rand is one) to make a metaphysical claim with unjustified certainty, while accusing religious devotees of the same fault.

Undermining the atheist’s vast repertoire of valid and important criticisms of religion is this central hypocrisy. It explains why, despite the fact I am not religious and would admit to the label atheist if the concept of God under discussion is the personalized character of monotheistic tradition, I find myself on the side of religious persons defending a faith buttressed by necessary doubt in any debate with an atheist who evangelizes the obsolescence of faith with unwarranted certainty.

That last link brings you to a very lengthy but must-read example of such a debate, conducted in 2007 between Catholic Andrew Sullivan and atheist Sam Harris. I think both parties illustrate well the room for faith made possible by that vital epistemic humility  — Sam Harris, despite being an atheist secular rationalist, actively seeks deeper knowledge about potential spirituality through studies of Buddhism, meditation, etc.

But the Sullivan/Harris debate also illustrates the double-edged danger of our contingent nature: Disregard it, naively believe you can erase it or nullify it,rather than embrace it and synthesize it, and you create a shadow self to outrun (a la James Taggart). But rely too much on contingency, fail to question your circumstances, or expect the world to work for you (also a la James Taggart), and you adopt a cautious status quo bias that is in its own way just as perilous. The former extreme is an attempt to escape growth and individuation, while the latter is an attempt to avoid it.

It is in reaction to the latter threat, the threat of status quo bias and indolent passivity, the modern existential threat of the mindless consumer, that Ayn Rand champions rationality and will power, self-actualization, action, and progress. For these reasons Atlas Shrugged is vital and inspiring, despite its major flaws.  In embracing radicalism and rejecting the conventional wisdom of status quo bias, Rand tickles my idealistic desire for political reform — though not her political reform — and inspires me to achieve and live my life more passionately.

And yet in her treatment of logic as an ontological absolute, she pays not enough credit to her own contingent nature in shaping her philosophy: her metaphysics and ethics so reactionary against Kant, and her politics especially reactionary against her experiences in the Soviet Union, all extend too far into the other extreme to oppose those extremes against which she rails.

Still, I thank her. Obviously her work has provided me with much to consider, and helped me better articulate my own beliefs (naturally, in contrasting reaction to hers).  I’ve spent the last three years in general gaining deeper knowledge of my own contingent self and the necessary appreciation of my limitations. These are lessons I will no doubt have to learn again in the future, but I feel like I’ve reaped some benefits for now, was overdue for a shift in gears, and I do believe that reading Rand was an important reorientation of my growth: a necessary move away from introspective cultivation and towards fertilization, development, and a stronger — yet more graceful and efficient — mode of exercising my will in the world. I definitely plan to read The Fountainhead, and probably some Aristotle, in the near future.

Atlas Shrugged is certainly art, but then again we’re going by the author’s own definition.  And the final irony of it is this: Rand’s fundamental belief is in the existential value of this life, and the book works for me because I felt that, uplifting and radiant, despite the ethical and political elements of her strict philosophical allegory working against it. The ridiculous corporate/luxury entitlement streak she expressed naively, hubristically, in 1957, stems from a survivor of the Soviet Union’s love of liberty, and a socioeconomically misplaced but prophetic frustration with the violent lethargy of Western civilization that has come to dominate the last 40 years.

I might even have shared the passion of Dagny Taggart in her last futile, quixotic quest to escape the grim fatalism of John Galt’s Objectivist economic apocalypse, if only it hadn’t been so clear that she was just going through the motions by leaving the utopic Galt’s Gulch and returning to the crumbling outside world. Alas, Dagny was allegorically destined to relinquish her redemptive spirit, to turn a blind eye to the feeling — the reason she valued making the trains run on time — that the weight of this world on Atlas’ shoulders is, in its own way, a pleasure to bear.

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