Monday, July 5, 2010

Atlas Shrugged: A Brief Review

Ayn Rand's famous novel Atlas Shrugged, written over 50 years ago, is currently sitting at 977th place on That is a pretty amazing fact, when you think about it. The ideas of Ann Rand are incredibly influential today within the conservative movement in America and show no sign of evaporating despite the studied indifference projected by the academic, journalistic and political elites.

This was my first direct exposure to the secular libertarianism of Ann Rand and, while she represents a strand of the conservative coalition that is very different from my traditional, religious and social conservative beliefs strand, it is important to see in what sense she could be considered a co-belligerent in the war against collectivism.

First, let me say something about the merits of the novel from the point of view of art. I found the novel poorly written and the characters shallowly portrayed. The portrayal of the developing crisis is out of focus with too much time spent on a few characters making philosophical speeches and not enough time examining the actual process of social breakdown and disintegration. It seems that there is only enough of a plot to serve as a backdrop for the philosophical exchanges between the characters. But in fairness, that could be said of Plato's dialogues as well - although they are incomparably better written.

Second, let me say what I appreciated about the book. I found the portrayal of the philosophy of the "looters" (i.e. the socialist government and its admirers) to be bitterly accurate and telling. She has those guys nailed and this, I suspect, is the real motive power of the book. This is what makes her positive philosophy credible: that she understands her opponents more profoundly than they understand themselves. She describes the slogans, the rhetoric, the tricks, the manipulation, the jargon and the self-deception of those who use high sounding ideals to cover over their selfish pursuit of power and are so convincing that they even fool themselves.

Third, I turn to what I disagreed with in the book. Rand is a throwback to the Enlightenment Philosophes and it seems that, for her, the 18th century has never ended. (I don't begrudge anyone their favorite century; mine is the 13th. And I share her revulsion toward the ugly, violent, squalid 20th century.) But Rand does not seem to know that the Enlightenment is over.

The Medieval Synthesis of Aristotelianism and Augustinianism and the Enlightenment attempt to exalt Autonomous Reason without God both have in common a love and respect for the power and reality of human reason. Both believe in truth and logic. Both reject pragmatism, relativism and ideology. Augustinian Thomism and the Enlightenment are united in the rejection of superstition and the right of brute force to rule the mind and both have a deep respect for the individual human being and profound antipathy toward the rule of power that is not grounded in law.

Nevertheless, Thomism and the Enlightenment represent two great mutually exclusive alternatives philosophies of life. One grounds reason in the Logos of Creation and the other rests it on thin air (Chance). Rand does not acknowledge that the swirling universe of atoms in random motion coming together by chance could never produce consciousness, morality or natural law. The Personal cannot arise out of the Impersonal and to assert that it does is to invite skepticism as to whether one really believes in Personality at all. She shares the eager faith of the 18th century that Reason can be its own foundation, that science can rest safely and securely on nothing but itself. She refuses to recognize that the contemporary irrationality and socialist ideology, which dominates Western elite culture, is a degenerate child of the Enlightenment rejection of God and proud assertion of individual autonomy.

The faith in Reason of the Enlightenment gave way to the faith in Feeling in the 19th century Romantic reaction to the Age of Reason and then degenerated into the worship of the will prophesied by Nietzsche and acted out in the brutal 20th century - the century of genocide and mass murder. She has no sense of the internal contradictions of freedom that rests not on natural law written on creation by the Designer of that creation, but only on what individual men choose to recognize as law. She does not see that a world without design imposed on it from the outside is a world that can have meaning only as strong-willed individuals impose a meaning on it by their own strength of will.

Perhaps, in the end, this is what secular libertarianism amounts to: a philosophy of life appropriate only for the Overman. This problematic relationship between will and reason is the elephant in the room throughout the book. She sees how the "looters" degenerate into subhumans as they follow nothing but their animal urges and inclinations of the moment. Yet, her heroes and heroines engage in sex whenever they feel like it and glorify the satisfaction of bodily urges outside any moral framework as the rejection of gnostism and the affirmation of the life impulse. Yet, she does not seem to see that gnosticism has a libertine form as well as an ascetic form. Her heroes are superior to the socialist looters only as the Nietzschean Overman is superior to the last men.

This defect in understanding apparently is rooted in the rejection of revelation and God's sovereignty. Like the 18th century Philosophes, she views religion as nothing but mysticism: the antithesis of reason. She claims that all other philosophies have divided man into a ghostly soul and an animal body and that only her philosophy holds him together in a unity. But she falls into the trap of the reason-revelation dualism and is like the man out of whom a demon was cast only to have seven demons worse than the first come to fill the void.

The void is that lack of a God in her philosophy. Man cannot be his own God and Reason cannot do the job either. This is what Rand cannot seem to admit. And so her worship of Reason ends in the rule by the will to power instead of by law. For Reason can only be a servant - it can serve either the will or the instincts - but it needs to serve something just as man was created to serve something - or Someone.


Nathan said...

I have a very similar view of that book. My distaste for the style of writing lead my to choose not to finish the novel, which is rare for me.

Rand's pronouncements are indeed often anti-Christian, which has lead me to be perplexed as to why many Christians are so enamored with her writing. I suppose it is in appreciation for the political philosophy divorced from any theological concerns.

Craig Carter said...

I don't know too many Christians who are full out "Randians." I do know a few secular libertarians who used to be liberal but slipped into this swamp. But any Christians who think they are Rand followers are likely mis-informed about what she really taught and are really more classical liberals than they realize.