Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Realistic Science Fiction or Didactic Thinking?

I'm working my way through Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I say “working” because the book really requires work. It doesn't hold my interest the way other novels do, but I do appreciate its value as a text that has influenced people. I'm going to offer some criticisms on it, keeping in mind that I'm only on page 129 out of 1074. Since I haven't gotten too far into the novel (and the plot moves slowly), I'll stick with what I've read.

The characters have some serious problems. The protagonists all seem to share one characteristic, which is the inability to care about other people. That's not a poke in Ayn Rand's eye; it's something she makes very clear. This quality, a lack of sympathy towards one's fellow man, is a lynchpin of her philosophy. She believes that a person's only purpose is to be true to that one person and what he does; all other things are secondary and superfluous. “Altruism”, or living one's life for others, is a crime against oneself.

The problem with this concept, and like many flawed philosophical ideas it has a few grains of truth, is that mankind is not just an individual animal, working for personal goals. Evolutionary scientists have made fairly clear that early man was able to survive because he lived in hunter-gatherer and then later agricultural communities. While people may have been motivated partially by a notion of personal achievement, it was the community itself which enabled human beings to thrive. Ayn Rand rejects this idea of man being a communal animal, instead populating her novels with heroes who completely reject this notion.

As a teaching tool, Atlas Shrugged can be an interesting springboard into the conversation of the individual verses society. Where do the responsibilities of the individual end and where do those of society begin? While I personally find the idea that human beings have no responsibility to others amoral, that is an important question for a young person to figure out.

I would also wonder how questions of class might figure into this. Atlas Shrugged seems populated mostly by the wealthy, those least in need of altruism. Someone who grew up poor would not have most of the advantages of her heroes, and for this very reason might reject this philosophy. After all, if a society has no responsibilty towards its people, what place is there for public schools and colleges? What chance would a poor person have of succeeding?

I think a follower of Ayn Rand might be able to say  that a society has no business doing these things. It's up to the individual to make whatever he/she will out of his life. Yet this philosophy would also seem to stack the deck against the poor, so I don't think it would work well as real policy. After all, the first three words of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution are “We the people…” which suggests that a secure society cannot be establish by individuals working for their own purposes, it has to be an expression of a common purpose. Within that framework people, of course, can work for their individual goals (“…the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”), but the nation  as a working communal structure must come first.


  1. While I have serious problems with Rand's simplictic and reductionist philosophy, many of Rand's characters, like Hank Reardon, began life poor and worked their way to wealth. That is the core belief in the novel. Wealth is the result of focus and hard work. Those who amass wealth by creating it rather than looting it are society's heroes and saviors. She contrasts the wealthy who create wealth (heroes like Dagny and Hank) with those who loot it (like Dagny's brother Jim).

  2. That's a good point. What's bad about that novel is not that aspect. Yet the glorification of wealth which is troubling. I'm not saying wealth itself is bad; it's that wealth, in Rand's system, is the ultimate goal of the human spirit, and that's kind of creepy. The purpose of man is not to amass wealth — that of course is a huge question — but Rand is able to reduce man's purpose to that, hence Galt's drawing of the dollar sign in the air at the end of the book.

    The character's in Rand's books are another issue. She glorifies people with the inability to feel compassion for others, even goes out of her way to make the pint that her heroes are like this. This is *not* what a complete human is like. I actually do like how she's very clear that a person should do the work he/she is meant to do, but she makes this into a fetish.

    Thanks for your comment, BTW. Please keep posting.