Atlas Shrugged has been in the news a great deal in the past few months. The novel’s sales have spiked as readers seek to make sense of the economic crisis and of the dramatic moves by the government to take over the financial sector of our economy. Some have called the novel prophetic in its depiction of the process by which governmental controls introduced to stem one calamity cause a greater one, which is then used to justify further controls; and we have begun to hear worries that the most productive members of our society will “go Galt”—i.e., follow the example of John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, who leads a strike of the men of the mind.
Most of the recent discussion of Atlas has focused on its political themes, creating the impression that the novel is essentially a condemnation of government intervention in the economy. However, its scope, its relevance to the current crisis, and the reasons for its enduring appeal go much wider and much deeper than this. Galt goes on strike not simply against high taxes and unjust regulations, but against the morality of altruism, which Rand identifies as the cause of such measures, and against the world-view of which this moral code is an expression—a philosophy that denies the efficacy of reason and the absolutism of reality.
Atlas Shrugged is a novel about the role of the mind in man’s existence. In it, Rand diagnoses not only political and economic trends, but also much of the frustration, injustice, and pain that we experience in our personal lives, tracing them all back to the mind-stultifying ideology that has come to dominate western culture and has replaced the Enlightenment ideals on which America was founded. As a prescription for the rebirth of America, and as a guide to anyone who seeks to make the most of his life, Atlas offers a revolutionary philosophy of reason and egoism.
First and foremost, however, Atlas Shrugged is a literary masterpiece: Rand presents her ideas in the form of an ingeniously plotted mystery, with unforgettable characters, heart-wrenching conflicts, and an inspiring resolution. The thousands who have picked the novel up as a result of the financial crisis are getting more than they bargained for, and they’re in for a real treat.
There will soon be a new resource to help readers, old and new, to get the most out of Rand’s magnum opus: Robert Mayhew’s collection, Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, forthcoming from Lexington Books. Mayhew, who set a new standard in the study of Ayn Rand with his previous collections on We The Living, Anthem, and The Fountainhead, has once again assembled the leading scholars working in the field. The result is a volume packed with historical information about the novel and fresh insights into it as a work of literature and philosophy. I am proud to be a contributor.
Gregory Salmieri is visiting assistant professor of philosophy at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.