The Gospel According to John Galt
This post is based on two essays that I originally wrote six years ago, edited to fit your screen.
This summer I read everything that Ayn Rand wrote, fictional and nonfictional. I had read all of her nonfiction before, so that was mostly review, but I had never touched her fiction. Her four prominent fictional works are We The Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, which are the ones I’ll be addressing here.
Rand was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 20th century and lived through the Soviet revolution as a young adult. By the late 1920s she had escaped to the United States and started writing in the 1930s. Her work was clearly directed against Karl Marx, Soviet Stalinists, and their guiding philosophical principles.
Historical context is important because Rand was not writing in a vacuum: she was dealing with a particular philosophical movement. Like many thinkers, the things Rand opposed shaped the things she supported. Her works make sense when read with people like Marx, Harold Laski (the basis for the character Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead), or Plato in mind. Rand intended her philosophy, Objectivism, to be a grand unifying theory, but it only addresses the world that she was immediately in. Her context defined her much more than her writings explicitly intend.
Rand was most effective in her fiction. Atlas Shrugged is one of the best selling novels ever and will probably continue to be for years to come; its impact is unquestionable. Rand’s philosophy matured in each subsequent book. According to Rand, We The Living was closest to an autobiography as she ever wrote. We The Living had less overt philosophy than The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, and what was there was significantly less developed, but was foundational to what Objectivism later became. After We The Living Rand was intentional in communicating Objectivism in her stories. We The Living served primarily as the story of the horrors of Soviet Russia with the heroine holding to a sloppy form of Objectivism, whereas The Fountainhead was a showcase for Objectivism. Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s vision of the world with the strength and practice of Objectivism by embodying Objectivism in story form. Her fiction is the paramount example of “the method is the message”.
And that was what Rand was doing with her fiction: unashamedly making the case for Objectivism. Objectivism is more than an ethical or epistemological theory. Marx’s theory of communism was fundamentally a metaphysical philosophy of how history flowed and where it would continue to flow. Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto are essentially the story of humanity, past, present, and future, told through a philosophical lens. Objectivism has that metaphysical element as well. Atlas Shrugged embodied not only Objectivist epistemology, but also the Objectivist metaphysical theory of how history and society work. Rand was responding to Marx’s impact on her world and Objectivism mimicked his philosophical structure. That knowledge is absolutely critical to understand what Rand was doing, and explains its weakness.
An example comes from her overestimation of Objectivism’s persuasiveness. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were both designed to carry and embody Objectivism, but also to make a case for the real state of the world. The climax of The Fountainhead, for which Rand had done impeccable research on architectural information, was set in a courtroom. Howard Roark makes an epic speech, which is really Rand laying out a defense of Objectivism. Roark admits that he carried out the crime that he is being charged with, but makes the case that he was justified by Objectivist standards. He is so persuasive that the jury finds him innocent. It was a childish legal understanding that undermined Rand’s otherwise very well researched and grounded book. But more importantly it demonstrated how highly Objectivism thinks of itself and how highly Rand thought of herself.
In Atlas Shrugged John Galt makes a 40+ page radio speech that outlines, exposits, and defends Objectivism. The speech is so persuasive that not only do the vast majority of Americans find themselves persuaded, but even Galt’s enemies are convinced, though they refuse to embrace Objectivism.
In both of these speeches everyone who hears is persuaded and won over. But both of these books, especially Atlas Shrugged, are intended demonstrations of how the world actually works, including the rational nature of people. In other words, Rand is saying that since Objectivism is true, and since the masses in the book were persuaded of it, then Objectivism must have that actual impact in the real world. In her metaphysical-historical response to Marx, she contends that Objectivism will be embraced readily once people hear and understand it, which is precisely what her fiction is attempting to accomplish.
Objectivism is Rand’s alternative to Marx’s communism, and the failure of Objectivism to take hold in reality is evidence of its intrinsic failure as a philosophy.
Rand took a cue from both Marx and Georg Hegel in how the cultural zeitgeist would come about. Hegel argued that a prophet (meaning himself) would come along and demonstrate that a final epoch had arrived. This prophet would usher in that era. Marx borrowed his metaphysical-historical structure from Hegel, and then was in turn copied by Rand. John Galt was the fictional version of that prophet in Atlas Shrugged and Rand thought of herself as that real prophetess of the epoch of Objectivism. In Atlas Shrugged, western civilization has virtually collapsed under the decay of socialism. It takes Galt’s leadership to inspire the remaining rationalists to save the day. If the embodied metaphysics of Atlas Shrugged were correct, then western civilization would be undergoing the socialist collapse which Rand predicted. Marx is the same way: if Das Kapital was true, then the factory workers would have overthrown their capitalist overlords by now and established a communist utopia. Objectivism’s metaphysical theory of history cannot truly comprehend a still-functioning society that has not yet embraced Objectivism.
Sputnik 1 was launched by the U.S.S.R. in 1957, six days before Atlas Shrugged was published. Rand thought it was a hoax because she could not believe that a society that was antithetical to Objectivism and capitalism could actually innovate and create. Objectivism’s understanding of history and society does not allow for a society to have success outside of an Objectivist framework. Rand’s fiction embodies Objectivism not just in a story, but also in a cultural prophecy about how society will play itself out. History’s failure to bear that out is a demonstration of the weakness of Objectivism. The very fact that western society has not collapsed the way Atlas Shrugged said it would demonstrates the actual failure of functionality of Objectivism.
Rand was also very inconsistent when it comes to meaningful details. In the middle of Atlas Shrugged, industrialist Francisco d’Anconia gives a speech about money. One of his points was that machines and factories have no intrinsic value; they are only given value by the minds that can construct and operate them. Fabulous point – except that he immediately adds that only a gold standard should be used for currency since gold has objective value. Gold is a rock with no mind or intent and has no objective value in the way Rand uses the term. This is not a minor point as gold and its alleged objective value are huge plot elements in Atlas Shrugged. This is just one of many examples of Rand’s inconsistency that permeates her works.
“I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
This creed, articulated by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, sums up Ayn Rand’s ethics. Objectivist epistemology maintains that perception is the basis for reason and that sensory percepts are the basis for knowledge. From this, Objectivism concludes that there is no god and that man’s existence is its own reason and morality. Rand draws heavily here from Friedrich Nietzsche. Since man is the epitome of nature, embracing and fulfilling his humanity is moral and good for man.
In other words, the greatest potential of man is the measure of humanity. Whatever man is, is the good and right. The Stoddard Temple in The Fountainhead is a literal monument to this.
Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness is the best nonfiction example of her ethics. Objectivism’s ethics of selfishness is an example of the school of ethical egoism, first articulated by Henry Sidgwick. Ethical egoism holds that there is no morality external to man, but that there is morality internal to man. Since man is his own measure, whatever he wants to do is moral. In fact, it is immoral to do what he does not want to do since that is to deny who he is. This is the first pillar in Objectivist ethics. It is a strong theme in all of Rand’s fiction and she argues for it in her nonfiction.
Humanity has no master, so humanity is to do what it wants. Humanity is just the categorization of individuals rather than a description of a meaningful whole, so individual persons are the ones who need to do what they want. This is right. This is virtuous. This selfishness is not only good, it is the only good.
Up to this point Objectivist ethics is just a blend of ethical egoism and Nietzsche. Rand differs from them by inserting some practical out-workings of her ethics. Objectivism teaches that it is wrong to initiate force. In other words, it is wrong to force people to do what they do not want to do. If my virtue comes from me acting selfishly, then it is wrong for someone to make me act in a way that I don’t want. This is expressed in the latter half of Galt’s oath, “…nor ask another man to live for [my life].”
This is where Rand differs from Nietzsche. Nietzsche sees domination over other men as the great elite reaching their potential and embracing their good and superiority. Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead is used by Rand to illustrate this difference. Rather than pursue all the power that controlling a newspaper brings him, Wynand pursues what he wants. When he finds himself in a position of choosing between his power and his new found principles, he shamefully chooses the power. This is Rand’s rebuke of Nietzsche. Wynand did wrong by utilizing power in a way that restricts the liberty of others.
Nietzsche’s Übermensch is the one who sets himself beyond and above other men, in all ways, including power. Rand’s alternative is the man who is as full of humanity and greatness as he can be, without the power grab. Here Rand leans heavily on the English Utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The Utilitarians asked how they could maximize societal happiness, and arrived at a conclusion that, in practice, looks like ethical egoism. They just embraced it on a cultural scale.
Rand does the same thing, but this is Objectivism’s greatest flaw. If man as an individual is the measure of his own virtue and goodness, and if acting in his own self interest pursuant to his own understanding of greatness is right, then it is wrong for others to tell him not to initiate force or control over other people. If there exists no morality external to man, Objectivism is inconsistent in demanding that no man demand control over another. That tenet of Objectivism contradicts itself by commanding the internal virtue in one man (desire for power) to submit to a virtue external to himself (initiating force is wrong) when he interacts with other people.
The Objectivist gospel falls here. The Objectivist argument for liberty, capitalism, limited government, the gold standard, celebration of production, and denigration of welfare/looting/socialism, rests on the idea that it is wrong for one man to demand something from another. But there is no consistent grounds of appeal for this. Who is Ayn Rand to tell me that I can’t do something? Who is she to tell me that it is wrong to seize power over other people? Objectivism has to abandon its own philosophical basis to defend this arbitrary line of thinking.
Oddly, properly applied Objectivism leads to tyranny. The Galt Oath was required of all residents of Atlas Shrugged’s Objectivist utopia. Adherence to the oath was mandatory for anyone who wanted to do business there; rejection led to starvation or exile. This is force and tyranny in action. What would happen if an entire country (which is where the ends of Atlas Shrugged is heading) adopted Objectivist principles like that? What would happen to Christians who refused to agree to that oath because they lived for Jesus? They would become incapable of buying and selling in that society and would starve. Forget charity! Objectivism is fundamentally opposed to altruism and sacrifice.
Marx created his idea of communism as the means to end capitalistic and industrialist tyranny and bring freedom to the workers. He did not anticipate the failure of his philosophy in totalitarian states like Cuba, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. It is sadly ironic that Rand’s liberty-laden response to Marx failed to anticipate those same despotic consequences.
One final example of how properly applied Objectivism is soul-crushing: love is seen as nothing more than an exchange of services in the Objectivist world. Love for another person is designed to be a reflection of yourself. That may sound crass, but the Objectivist characters in We The Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged said that countless times. The constant changing of romantic partners in those books reinforces that even more; Dagny Taggert switching her romantic interest up among the main industrialists in Atlas Shrugged, and all three of them embracing it, is a perfect example of this. Love is not about self-giving or self-sacrifice, but about self-elevation – which is perfectly rational if you can never live for the sake of another or ask another to do the same for you.
This is a problem with children. All the children in Rand’s fiction happened to be hyper-industrialists and she barely spoke on the subject elsewhere. In a 1964 interview with Playboy she said that motherhood can be a legitimate career as long as the mother sees it as a science rather than emotional fulfillment. That is the best Objectivism can do with parenthood. Rand recognizes that children need parents and acknowledges that it is okay to be a parent and to love your child as long as the motivation is self-interest.
But Rand has to pretend that children are pets, not people, in order to be consistent. Children are dependent upon other people for their existence and do not voluntarily add anything of their own merit to the world. They do not exchange goods and services to gain the love of the parent. An infant cannot consent to submit to a parent, much less to be brought into existence. And what happens when the parent is no longer interested in parenting? Objectivism, if taken consistently, says that the parent should have no obligation to continue providing for the child.
Raising children out of obligation, joy, pity, or a non-transactional understanding of love contradicts everything that Objectivism preaches. Having nonconsensual authority over a child fundamentally contradicts Objectivism. The example of children clearly demonstrates that Objectivism’s functionality breaks down quickly.
Objectivism is as antithetical to Christianity as Islam or any other form of Humanism, and John Galt and Ayn Rand are as much enemies of Jesus as Joseph Smith or the newest militant atheist. Galt’s creed glorifies man as god and rejects any need for Jesus as savior, denies that there is any sin but compassion, and any God greater than humanity. Objectivism’s inconsistencies render it rationally illegitimate, and its ethics set it up in stark opposition to Christianity.