Friday, October 12, 2007

Classics of Conservatism - part XXI - Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand

Click here for a previous "Classic of Conservatism."

According to the New York Times, today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

Written by Ayn Rand, the novel explores the philosophies of objectivism and liberty. It has been twenty years since I read my copy, but I remember what attracted me to it. Rand did not defend capitalism on the same grounds as modern day conservatives. She did not claim that capitalism was better for the poor or less evil than its critics claimed or acceptable only if properly regulated. Instead, Rand advocated man's happiness and success as values and virtues in and of themselves. Rand was among the first to say that profit is a virtue, while altruism is harmful and wrong. She correctly identified the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, at home and abroad, with the altruistic side of the philosophical ledger. Altruism is the philosophy that one's life is at the disposal and service of others. She draws the logical conclusion between altruism, theft and slavery.

The attack on altruism may shock and offend the average reader at first, but it stands to reason that there must be more to the story about this word [altruism] that we have taken for granted for so long and have repeated without comprehension so many times. Those who want to think will enjoy Rand's books, including Atlas Shrugged, for this reason alone.

Atlas Shrugged is the climax of the Randian novels. In previous years, she had written several novels, plays, short stories, etc. Atlas Shrugged was her masterpiece. The book contains the story of a railroad executive who struggles against the philosophy of not only altruism, but government enforced altruism. But the plot is about more than politics or business. The plot is also a great mystery story, as the reader gradually learns who is responsible for turning out the lights of world.

Paperback (Signet) edition from the 1980's

The story is broad in scope, as it takes the reader from one end of the country to other over the course of three years (with numerous flashbacks to the previous decade and beyond).

Ayn Rand always believed that "plot" was the most important element in any story. The plot of Atlas Shrugged was relatively complex and undoubtedly took much editing [and many years] to make it complete, consistent and integrated. The basic story involved a conflict between the main characters, all of whom are the "good guys." This theme of "good vs. good" was a recurring feature of Randian fiction, as she believed that evil was impotent to do harm in this world unless aided by the good. So she focused on the good and the way that good unknowingly helps evil. Another benefit of this plot style is that the end is much less predictable.

The basic story in this novel can be traced back through numerous novels of Ayn Rand, all the way to a short story named "Red Pawn" in the early 1930's. In the previous works, the plot may be almost unrecognizable as a precursor to Atlas Shrugged, but the similarity exists once the reader understands the "good vs. good" technique and how to match the characters in the early works with those in Atlas Shrugged.

The Times article focuses on the long term influence of Atlas Shrugged:
One of the most influential business books ever written is a 1,200-page novel published 50 years ago, on Oct. 12, 1957. It is still drawing readers; it ranks 388th on’s best-seller list.

. . . . .

But the book attracted a coterie of fans, some of them top corporate executives, who dared not speak of its impact except in private. When they read the book, often as college students, they now say, it gave form and substance to their inchoate thoughts, showing there is no conflict between private ambition and public benefit.

“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas,” said John A. Allison, the chief executive of BB&T, one of the largest banks in the United States.

“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete,” he said.

The following that the book has attracted is often watered down with such references as "public benefit" etc.

I have often lamented that Rand did not write more books. But my reading has lead me to an author whose writings in the 1920's often foreshadowed the Randian works in haunting ways. Garet Garrett's novels have sufficient similarity with some of the storylines in Atlas Shrugged to make those novels almost equally enjoyable. Rand not only has left a great impression on future generations, but enjoys deep roots in prior literature.

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