Book Review: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Not a lot of time, so I’ll be brief about a complicated issue: Atlas Shrugged was once ranked the second most influential book for Americans behind the Bible. Plus, too many people had told me to read it for me to put it (and its 1,000 pages) off any longer.

The book itself, as Josh Kaufman told me, is highly romanticized, so characters represent ideas more than they do real people. Moreover, there are several long monologues that are basically Rand’s theories on life, not necessarily relevant to that particular place in the book. So, let’s talk about her theories and Objectivism.

According to the Ayn Rand Institute, Rand’s philosophy in essence “is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” What really resonated with me from this and from Atlas Shrugged is the idea that men were built to soar, that full application of one’s talents and abilities is a noble task, and that reason and science should underpin much of society. I also, of course, found liking in her love of capitalism, though not to the extreme of laizze-faire as she does.

Rand’s detractors often cite her belief that selfishness is a virtue and that self should be put above all others as problematic. Kaufman told me in his comment, “Basically, if you want to help other people out, Rand would say that’s great – if and only if you’re doing it because you desire to help and not because you think you have some kind of moral duty to spend your life and resources in the service of others. (David Kelley wrote an entire book on this: Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis for Benevolence) It’s often quite satisfying to know you’ve really made a difference in someone’s life, so benevolence and philanthropy are not out of the question in her view.” So I wonder…how many people really “want” to help other people in need out? It may be satisfying to be philanthropic, but my cynicism tells me that without some higher moral standard instructing us that, yes, community service is good, we wouldn’t get around to feeling an urge to help those in need. Look at where we are now: society looks favorably upon those who “do good,” yet many people still don’t give back at all. They’re passing up on both feeling good themselves and reaping the praise from the higher moral code.

I still don’t know how I feel about objectivism in the context of a larger discussion on epistemology, an area in which I do not have the requisite knowledge to comment on intelligently.

It is the concern about unbridled embracement of selfishness, plus Ayn Rand herself – who, in reading about her life, seemed to be a bit kooky and contradictory even though her philosophy has been worldview-changing for many – that will prevent me from being an Ayn Rand lover. That said, I have great respect for many of her philosophies and will certainly continue to explore her works, attempting to treat them with the seriousness they deserve and not a simplistic write-off.

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