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Atlas Yawned

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I recently completed reading the classic Ayn Rand novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Actually I listened to the audiobook version of it because I don’t have enough time to read the well over 1000 pages of the conventional book. The reason I read it is because of its prominence as a book but also because of Ayn Rand’s standing as an author and philosopher.

Actually I must clarify that point because there seems to be two schools of thought: those who think she was great, probably because her philosophy agreed with the critic’s rather than through some intrinsic merit; and those who think she was deluded, evil, or just plain over-rated.

If you read my previous report on the book (which I made a month ago) you will see that I was moderately positive about it. There is a lot to like, but as I got further through I realised there is a lot to dislike as well. And the same applies to the underlying philosophy. Here are some examples…

I found this quote, in relation to negativity, and the emotional state many people find themselves in when under stress quite useful: “Never think of pain or danger or enemies a moment longer than is necessary to fight them.” Good point. Dwelling on your problems or the actions of your enemy unnecessarily is a worthless exercise and this is a quote I use when I see people doing that.

I found this simile very vivid, when describing the reporter broadcasting the demonstration of the State’s new weapon “…with a voice like a machine gun spitting smiles.” I really like the imagery there, especially the contradiction in the words. Here’s another one which is similar: “The military march boomed through the silence with the inflexible gaiety of a grinning skull.” She does have a way with words!

Rand was generally very rational and dedicated to logic and had no respect for pseudoscience or superstition. I like this: “Devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality; there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking” and “The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard.” I couldn’t agree more!

She also had little respect for highly theoretical thinking and thought real practical outcomes were of greater value: “No principle ever filled anybody’s milk bottle.” And here’s a related quote that many people could learn from: “If you don’t know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.” So many science deniers could learn from that!

Another thing I like about Rand is her optimism, because without that there’s not much point in anything. Here’s a quote which illustrates that well: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swaps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists… it is real… it is possible… it’s yours.”

But where she goes wrong, I think, is in her support for extreme libertarianism, free markets, and pure capitalism. I disagree with these statements…

On work: “There is no such thing as a lousy job – only lousy men who don’t care to do it.” Really? That’s all very convenient for the employer, but what about the worker who has to do a job which is so meaningless, or dangerous, or unappreciated that no human should do it? Is it really the person who doesn’t want to do that work who is to blame? That’s just too simple an excuse for abuse of workers.

And her opinion of money is a bit simplistic. For example there’s this: “The man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it.” Really? Anyone who doesn’t appreciate money has not earned it? Again, that just seems all to convenient and I can’t see any way the idea can be objectively supported. On a similar theme there is this: “Money is the product of virtue, but it will not give you virtue and it will not redeem your vices.” Well, you must be starting to see the theme by now!

And yes, OK, we get it Ayn. You think the brightest and best in society should be rewarded and you have contempt for people who just make deals behind the scenes for their own benefit. Does it really take over 1000 pages to tell us this? After the first few hundred pages I felt like I was just being preached at and that maybe the author thought that by basically repeating the same points over and over that it would somehow be more convincing. I didn’t find that. I just found it more boring.

I completely agree that the most valuable to society should be rewarded. But I disagree that the most valuable are those who do well in a free market capitalist system. And I completely agree that individuals should be able to flourish free from the controls of other people (especially the state), but if the state doesn’t take control someone else will and sometimes regulations enforced by the state are the least of possible evils.

In Rand’s world of heroic business leaders and their evil opponents everything is so simple. It’s very easy to make your case look good when you make your heroes’ opponents look like idiots. It’s easy to make your case stronger by deliberately choosing the best and worst possible outcomes as is convenient. And it’s easy to make your ideas more prominent through repetition.

And was it really necessary to reiterate the points already made through a monolithic 34,000 word, three hour speech by the book’s hero?

In Rand’s world Atlas shrugged, but in many of her readers’ worlds he would have just yawned!

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  1. peterkiernan
    November 30, 2012 at 1:30 am

    Rand is an interesting case – in Ireland//UK [and this goes I think for large parts of Europe as well] for example she has no standing whatsoever as a philosopher and is looked upon in altogether minor way as a writer. I mean she isn’t even admitted into the philosophic tradition, she isn’t recognised as having engaged with it on any meaningful level. Yet in the US as a I understand it she’s taken relatively seriously.

    I can only make sense of it in a dismissive way; that is that her American sensibility is exactly that which ostracises her completely. There simply isn’t any respect for someone who takes on the garment of the discipline but has no interest in engaging the tradition behind that discipline. Most would strongly imply that if she had she wouldn’t have been able to formulate her views as she did, they would have collapsed into a more complex environment, they would have been overtaken by the deep problems which the discipline barely survives engaging in the first place.

    A political context which can hold Locke alongside Montesquieu and Montesquieu alongside Hegel and Hegel alongside Marx doesn’t have the space to even begin to develop the kind of attitudes Rand expresses.

    Whether this is negative or positive I don’t know. The negative view would be that the ‘American’ experience opens up entirely new ways of thinking [so this dismissal of Rand is negative] the positive rejoinder would be that this experience is merely a distorted reflection of the European, and that dealing with the problems can only take place firmly within the context of European philosophic thought [as such a failure to engage that context would be reason to reject in itself – this doesn’t imply that only Europeans can do philosophy, just that you can’t do philosophy at present without engaging European thinkers].

    Interesting because contentious, either way you move you end up causing consternation, I lean toward the positive account, though diluted a little.

    • ojb42
      November 30, 2012 at 2:59 am

      Yes, I think she is taken more seriously in the US because she reinforces the American mindset: free markets, individualism, etc, and is so negative towards collectivism and other systems Americans (especially of that era) would disapprove of. So her acceptance is more to do with her saying what people want to hear rather than having a particularly meaningful or well considered philosophical view. However, as I said in the post, there is a lot there I agree with.

  2. November 30, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Great work picking out some nice quotes. I agree that she makes some good points on what ideal morals and motivations of a human being can be but a free market capitalist system might not favour the people with these characteristics.

    Have you read the Fountainhead? I enjoyed that book more (other than another lengthy monologue in the climax).

    • ojb42
      November 30, 2012 at 3:06 am

      Yes, exactly. There are many brilliant people who don’t do well in a free market economy and many corrupt people who do. Free markets are not good at producing positive long term outcomes (climate change mitigation has no hope in a free market), or producing research in science with no obvious practical purpose (quantum theory, relativity would not have been researched in a free market). That’s where she’s wrong.

      I have the Fountainhead as a (old) movie but haven’t watched it. I don’t think I could stand any more Ayn Rand just yet!

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