Review: Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged


Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. 536 pp. $39.95 (paperback).

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Since it was first published in 1957, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has sold more than seven million copies. Remarkably, in that time, the popularity of the novel has actually grown, and, over the past couple of years, due to the parallels between the story and recent events, sales have skyrocketed. In 2009 alone, Atlas sold more then a half million copies. And now a new resource is available for the novel’s legion of fans: Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged,edited by Robert Mayhew.

In “The Part and Chapter Headings of Atlas Shrugged,” Onkar Ghate indicates why such a collection is of value to fans of the novel: “At over a thousand pages long and dealing with the fate of a civilization, Atlas Shrugged is a story of incredible scope and complexity.”

Its theme is the role of man’s reasoning mind in achieving all the values of his existence. Its plot is driven by a central question, a seeming contradiction: If the men of the mind are the creators and sustainers of man’s life, why do they continually lose their battles and witness their achievements siphoned off and destroyed by men who have abandoned their minds? The story focuses on how the men of the mind learn to ask and to answer this question, thereby putting a stop to their own exploitation.

To resolve the apparent contradiction demands of the heroes a ruthless commitment to logic: to identify the problem, learn its fundamental cause, and grasp the path to its solution. To liberate themselves, the men of the mind must discover, understand, and then practice a new set of philosophical principles. And for we as readers to really appreciate the story’s progression, the same exacting logical focus is demanded of us (p. 1).

Assuming “familiarity with the events of each part and each chapter,” Ghate highlights “how the part and chapter headings help integrate those events and thus enable [readers] to gain a deeper understanding of the story and its meaning” (p. 2).

Gregory Salmieri presents two essays (either of which could be reason enough to purchase the book) elucidating the theme of the novel, which Rand specified as “the role of the mind in man’s existence” (p. 219), and discussing how the novel constitutes “the demonstration of a new moral philosophy” (p. 398).

In the first of these, “Atlas Shrugged on the Role of the Mind in Man’s Existence,” Salmieri shows that “What unites the men of the mind, is not genius, but ‘an unbreached rationality—not the degree of [their] intelligence, but the full and relentless use of [their] mind, not the extent of [their] knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute’” (p. 220). Quoting the novel’s hero, Salmieri defines reason as “the faculty that perceives, identifies, and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” (p. 222). Integrating and contrasting example after example, Salmieri shows how the novel’s “philosophical speeches underscore, and the progression of its plot dramatizes, the many ways in which our lives depend on technologies and how these technologies are produced and sustained by thought” (p. 226). He also points out that there is “an aspect to Rand’s integrative view of reason that is uniquely hers: she ascribes to production the features long recognized as noble in abstract science, and in so doing she reconceives the nature of this nobility.”

Recall the traits that the bum in the diner thought could not be found in the modern world: “vision to see the truth, courage to act upon it, dedication to that which is good, integrity to stand by the good at any price.” Notice what reason Rearden gives in the very next scene for his refusal to sell the rights to his metal at any price or to be intimidated by any threat into taking it off the market: “You see, it’s because Rearden metal is good” (p. 182). He and Dagny have the vision to see the truth about the metal, and the courage to act upon this truth, when the whole world is against them. In showing us how this vision and courage is necessary to produce the John Galt Line, Atlas Shrugged shows us that it is necessary for production as such (p. 232).

Salmieri points out that the role of reason, as presented in Atlas, is more than a faculty that devises means to an end; it is also a faculty for choosing ends. Restating a passage from Rand, he says that “a man can—and, indeed, must—project goals that are outside of the range of his perceptual awareness” (p. 236). This, Salmieri notes, is “a conceptual process which requires using one’s mind to project new possibilities and to direct oneself to them over time” (p. 239). However, he continues, because “some purposes are rational and right and others irrational (or, at least, mistaken) and wrong: man must use his mind to discover ‘the knowledge of what to value’” (p. 239). This gives rise to the field of morality, which Rand defines as “a code of values to guide the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of [man’s] life” (p. 246). Salmieri concludes this essay by pointing out that “Galt’s moral code—the Objectivist ethics—is based on a recognition of the nature of the mind and its role in man’s existence” (p. 247).

Tara Smith contributes two beautifully and passionately written essays, one discussing the destructive and lethal nature of nonobjective law as presented in Atlas; the other examining the novel’s depiction of the choice between good and evil, and the implications of that choice. She closes the second of these, “No Tributes to Caesar: Good and Evil in Atlas Shrugged,” with this:

The best within us is that which wants to live—wholeheartedly, unequivocally, and with full understanding of what human life demands. Atlas illustrates that this love of one’s life incorporates knowledge as well as desire. Love of life is not simply an ardent wish for one’s happiness, the grip of an emotion or a mood. It is a deliberate, informed commitment. The quality within us that makes all values possible depends on knowledge of the causal requirements of one’s happiness as well as the commitment to achieving one’s happiness, in light of that knowledge. To love one’s life—to withdraw all sanction of evil, to refuse tributes to false gods, to swear the oath [i.e., “to never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine”]—requires the complete repudiation of anything and everything that impedes life. As symbolized in Dagny’s shooting of the guard, it requires the denial of all quarter to poisoning one’s premises and practices.

The alternative between good and evil, Rand demonstrated in Atlas, is, fundamentally, the alternative between one’s life and one’s death. Coming to appreciate that no neutral territory is available, that one can take no action that does not support one or the other and that concessions to irrational standards achieve no value but bring only some form and degree of self-destruction, is what enables the heroes ultimately to recognize the imperative to strike. It is their understanding of the inescapable and mutually exclusive nature of the choice between life and death—and of how the choice between the rational and the irrational and between good and evil reflects this—that allows them to fully love their lives in action. It liberates them to pursue, without apology, the joy of their existence. And it allows them to experience that joy (p. 295).

Michael Berliner provides a discussion of “The Atlas Shrugged Reviews,” detailing the predominantly hostile reaction to the novel when it was first published, and devoting special attention to the notorious review by religious conservative and ex-communist Whittaker Chambers, which was published in National Review. Leonard Peikoff’s response, published here for the first time, is a passionately argued defense of Rand’s novel against Chambers’ “lies, smears, and cowardly misrepresentations” (p. 146).

Shoshana Milgram contributes two essays, the first on Rand’s creation of John Galt, her ideal man, and the second on Rand’s development of Francisco d’Anconia, perhaps her most complex character. Both of these works contain previously unpublished outtakes that fans of the novel are sure to cherish.

Other essays in the volume include:

  • a discussion by Andrew Bernstein of Atlas’s theme in relation to those of three other great novels, in which he argues that the truth of Rand’s theme enables her to be “the only one [of the three writers discussed] capable of realistically dramatizing the triumph of the good” (p. 189);
  • two essays by Tore Boeckmann—one considering the influence a character from Schiller’s Fiesco had on Rand’s Francisco, the other zeroing in on what makes an Ayn Rand novel an Ayn Rand novel;
  • a reminiscence by Mary Ann Sures of what it was like to work for Rand while she wrote Atlas—and what it was like to be there when Rand finished the last page;
  • a piece by Richard Ralston discussing Rand’s selection of Random House over other possible publishers;
  • a piece by Harry Binswanger contrasting James Joyce’s Ulysses and its “gibbering wordplay” and “snob appeal” with Atlas and its ability to change lives “due not only to the explicit, philosophical content of the book, but also to its exalted vision of what life, and man, can be” (pp. 192–93);
  • an essay by Jeff Britting titled “Adapting Atlas Shrugged to Film,” which shows why “if one knows [Rand’s] theory [of writing], then adapting the story and retaining both its drama and philosophy is possible” (p. 196);
  • a discussion by Darryl Wright of Atlas’s philosophic contribution to ethics and of an interesting shift in Rand’s thought “from taking independence to taking rationality as the primary virtue” while writing the novel (p. 271);
  • a piece by Debi Ghate examining Atlas’s celebration of “the businessman and his pursuit of material wealth as virtuous” (p. 301);
  • and an essay by Edwin Locke arguing that the virtues that make the business heroes in Rand’s novel successful are the same that “make real-life businessmen successful” (p. 333).

Toward the end of the volume, Onkar Ghate returns to discuss “the role that Galt’s speech plays in the story” by identifying “the speech’s connection to the strike by the men of the mind,” to John Galt’s characterization, and to the story’s climax (p. 364). This is followed by Allan Gotthelf’s analysis of the speech using a method that brilliantly distills it into five sentences. And the book concludes with another essay by Gotthelf, in which he discusses why Dagny’s final choice in romantic partners must be John Galt.

The contributors to Essays demonstrate and elaborate a fact known to some extent by many fans of Atlas Shrugged: The book is an unprecedented literary and philosophic achievement. Those who want to better understand, appreciate, and enjoy Rand’s magnum opus will find this collection to be a great value.

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