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Atlas Shrugged

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Mind in Steel

Dagny “felt the sweep of an emotion which she could not contain, as of something bursting upward. She turned to the door of the motor units, she threw it open to a screaming jet of sound and escaped into the pounding of the engine’s heart. . . . “Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?—she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to ‘Why?’ and ‘What for?’—like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel. “They are alive, she thought, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement.” (I VIII, 245–46)[1]

Dagny Taggart had been nine years old when she had determined her life work would be to run the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. She had pronounced the decision to herself one day while alone walking rails that cut through a forrest, walking the rungs of “two straight lines of steel that went off into the distance and met in a single point” (I III, 50).

One of Rand’s principal protagonists in Atlas Shrugged is Francisco d’Anconia who is “the last descendant of one of the noblest families of Argentina. He owned cattle ranches, coffee plantations and most of the copper mines of Chile. He owned half of South America and sundry mines scattered through the United States as small change” (I III, 53). The boy Francisco would be brought every summer, by “a stern South American tutor,” to spend a month at the Taggart estate on the Hudson (I V, 90). The Taggart children, James and Dagny, are future heirs of a transcontinental railroad. When they were teenagers, Dagny once asked Francisco “‘What is the most depraved type of human being?’” He replied “‘The man without a purpose’” (99). Francisco is an extremely gifted child, in mind and in physical agility. He is “can do” and he is joy.

Rand looks on the fortunes of wealthy families as the results of the noble in man. For family fortunes in her fiction, she includes a story of the man who first made the fortune. His traits are noble traits, at least under Rand’s cast of the noble in human beings. Some of the children of such fortune-makers will not be noble humans: premier example in Atlas Shrugged is James Taggart.

Rand’s noble ones take their greatest joy in productive work, most particularly commercially valuable work. Two things were impossible to the youth Francisco: “to stand still or to move aimlessly” (94). Eddie, a childhood friend of Francisco’s through the Taggart children, once asked Francisco, “as they stood by the tracks of the Taggart station, ‘you’ve been just about everywhere in the world. What’s the most important thing on earth?’ ‘This’, answered Francisco, pointing to the emblem TT on the front of an engine” (95). Francisco is from an aristocratic family, but the coat-of-arms he reveres as symbols of nobility in our era “are to be found on billboards and in the ads of popular magazines” (95).

It is rationality that Rand will unveil as the center of that in human being that is to be admired. This idea has a long philosophic pedigree, though Rand will cast the concept of rationality anew. Reason keeping the trains running is second to none in true worth, and philosophy protecting and nurturing that reason is philosophy most fine.

It is unfortunate, I say, that Rand portrayed a personification of ideal man, in Francisco, as a new aristocracy, a new nobility. She evidently thought it true in the real world, as well, that holding onto inherited wealth requires an heir coming to earn the wealth, in a sense, by active enterprise and risk. This is an erroneous generalization, and the right way to look at it, I should say, is that one does not need to deserve property by earning in order to be rightly entitled to the property. The case for that entitlement would be whatever case one can make for the full bundle of liberal property rights. Such a case is offered in Atlas Shrugged by welding freedom of private action to freedom of the creative rational mind; by welding of general prosperity to self-interest and free private property incentives; and by welding general economic, technical, scientific, and cultural decline to governmental highjacking of private property and restraining individual decision making.

In the laboratory of a shuttered factory, Dagny found the remnant of the discarded model of a motor. “She examined the tarnished tubes and odd-shaped connections. She tried to guess their purpose, her mind going over every type of motor she knew and every possible kind of work its parts could perform. None fitted the model. It looked like an electric motor, but she could not tell what fuel it was intended to burn. It was not designed for steam, or oil, or anything she could name” (I IX, 288).

Whether by design of the author or by accidental coincidence, that description of the mysterious motor could be figuratively and rightly said of the new philosophy she was presenting within this novel.


[1] Where Rand writes “the engine’s heart,” she means “the locomotive’s heart.” Where she writes “the motor units,” she means the diesel combustion engine, but what else? I don’t know why she used the plural on “unit.” I don’t think there are any locomotives having more than one diesel engine; perhaps she was looking at the cylinder-head covers and noting their multiplicity (say 8V, 12V, 16V, or 20V) or perhaps she was thinking of the diesel as one unit and the electric generator as second unit. The diesel-electric locomotive, whose engine room Dagny enters, is technologically more advanced than a coal-steam locomotive (the locomotive that ends in the disaster in the Taggart Tunnel at II VII, 584–607; VIII, 620–22; see also I IX, 281–82). In the diesel-electric, the diesel engine turns a shaft passing to an electric generator. The electricity is transmitted to electric motors (called traction motors) that turn a gear that turns the wheels of the locomotive.

Edited by Boydstun
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Cast of Production

“An oncoming freight train hid the view, filling the windows with a rushing smear of noise. In a sudden break above the flat cars, the passengers saw distant structures under a faint, reddish glow in the sky; the glow moved in irregular spasms, as if the structures were breathing. . . . “The passengers could not grasp the complexity of what seemed to be a city stretched for miles . . . . They saw towers that looked like contorted skyscrapers, bridges hanging in mid-air, and sudden wounds spurting fire from out of solid walls. The saw a line of glowing cylinders moving through the night; the cylinders were red-hot metal. “An office building appeared, close to the tracks. The big neon sign on its roof lighted the interiors of the coaches as they went by. It said: REARDEN STEEL.” (I II, 27)

Henry Rearden is one of the three main male protagonists of Atlas Shrugged. (He shares the initials of Howard Roark, I notice.) No nobility of heritage here. Hank Rearden is like Andrew Carnegie in that he begins in his teens with his own labor as virtually his only asset and becomes a very wealthy man, through acquisitions in steel-making. The fictional Mr. Rearden knows metallurgy, and he invents a new metal superior in many ways to steel and its existing alloys.

Rearden organizes his enterprise under social principles he publicly professes: He works only for his own profit and does so in the square way of making and selling products to parties willing and able to buy them. Mutual trade to mutual advantage. Voluntary trade, he stresses. He openly declares he does not wish to sell his products for less than his buyers are willing to pay for them (II IV, 480). He opposes governmental wage and price and output-level controls.

Francisco had pointed out to Rearden that money is made what value it is by thinking, productive persons. “To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will. Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade his effort in return” (II II, 411). “The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality” (413).

The last of the three main male protagonists in Atlas Shrugged is John Galt. In his radio speech, he gives the first full voice of Rand’s mature philosophy. Within this fictional radio broadcast, she drafts a picture of the worker in a modern factory. The worker is paid not only for his or her intelligent labor, but for efforts of all the productive geniuses who brought the factory about, such as industrialists and engineers, even scientists who made discoveries pertinent to the joint production. She rightly gives a nod to savers who made the loans for capital investment possible. She rightly portrays the worker as receiving returns more than possible were he working on a deserted island. She neglects to notice that were Hank Rearden stranded on a deserted island, he too would take a big cut in possibilities. She paints a picture of a Rearden in modern industrial society as a bestower of gift, with workers and customers resting on his shoulders, never also him resting on theirs, and she lapses into taking him as not really receiving his full market worth (III VII, 1064–65).

Rearden to Francisco after the latter’s speech about money and goodness: “It was more than gratitude, and I needed gratitude; it was more than admiration, and I needed that, too; . . . it will take me days to think of all that it’s given me—but one thing I know: I needed it” (II II, 417). Hear, hear! A Rearden makes in the market all his market due. The only short-change of such a person (besides any disproportionate taxes) is not receiving admiration for the virtue of their work and not fully themselves knowing that that is virtue, indeed the best within us.

On one occasion, Francisco says to Rearden: “You have been called selfish for the courage of acting on your own judgment and bearing sole responsibility for your own life” (II III, 437). This is sleight-of-hand in Rand’s argument. That selfishness has been defended from Kant to Emerson to all sorts of folks around one today. Sweeping away an easy straw man will not do for Rand to win alert minds to her innovative morality of self-interest and moral virtue of capitalism.

Edited by Boydstun
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Kindred Souls

Dagny, Francisco, Rearden, and Danneskjöld, a fourth protagonist, rescue Galt from a government torture facility. Rearden is shot in the shoulder in the process. Galt says to him “Thank you, Hank.” Rearden replies “If you understand that I acted for my own sake, you know that no gratitude is required.” Galt rejoins “That is why I thank you” (III X, 1157).

Galt and Rearden are friends. They have brotherly love for each other in a close and elaborate way. Galt’s rejoinder says that he appreciates that Rearden is a person who risked life and limb to rescue him, but only because Rearden (by hypothesis) so acted only from his own self-interest. Galt can, under Rand’s ethical egoism as set out in Atlas Shrugged, take pleasure in the experience of seeing Rearden acting only from self-interest in daring action. Likewise, Rearden or anyone can take heart in the excellences of John Galt.

Rand had it, further, that one would not be properly helping another person, including risking life or limb for them, if one did so merely from the (common, erroneous) view that the beneficiary has a standing claim-right on one for help, with this claim being based simply on suffering or need. Call that reason for helping someone duty-help. Rand’s contrast class of reasons for helping someone, call esteem-help: help by “your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle. . . . If you choose to help a man who suffers, do it only on the ground of his virtues, of his fight to recover, of his rational record, or of the fact that he suffers unjustly” (III VII, 1059–60).

Rand would seem to have gotten herself into an untenable position with the implication that had some fellows from the local Rotary Club—where the motto is “Service above Self”— happened by, gathered there was suffering they might relieve, and rescued Galt, risking their own life and limb: they should not be thanked. I think there is an honest and easy way to loosen the conundrum. Give up the idea that there are any people, aside from psychotics, who are purely morality-of-sacrifice (or for that matter, purely “mystics of spirit” [supernaturalists] or purely “mystics of muscle” [dialectical materialists or behaviorists]). None. Then you sensibly presume in each at least some degree of rescue-reasons in the batch you take for proper ones.

Philosophic traditions down from the Greeks have constructed arguments to conclude that just acts are good for the agent (the self). Rand makes her try. “Every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly” (III VII, 1019). Judgment is rightly and selfishly judgment by oneself. Objectivity in identification is part of one’s selfish good. Consonance of one’s acts on objects with one’s judgments about those objects is also part of one’s selfish good. However, I say, Rand did not get hold of all the important fundamental constitution of the self and its relation to others. There’s the rub.

Even were Rand successful in deriving a social virtue such as justice purely from self-interest, is it the case that the only alternatives in helping are the specifics in duty-help v. esteem-help v. their mixture? Is brotherly love, close or remote, reducible to rational self-love? That rational self-love is good, I do not question. That brotherly love is reducible to rational animality, I do not question, only what is this rational animal that is you and me.


Some good non-fiction philosophical resources on friendship:

Friendship – A Philosophical Reader (1993) edited by Neera Kapur Badhwar.

Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship (2014) edited by Suzanne Stern-Gillet and Gary M. Gurtler.

Aquinas on Friendship (2007) by Daniel Schwartz.

Edited by Boydstun
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You mention that "Philosophic traditions down from the Greeks have constructed arguments to conclude that just acts are good for the agent (the self)." A good example of this can be found in Cicero's book, On Friendship (Laelius de Amicitia). In it Cicero states that "the very essence of friendship" is "a common set of beliefs, aspirations, and opinions." (p 31). He further states that friendship is only possible between those who "act and live so that their lives give proof of faithfulness, integrity, fairness, and generosity; and who are free from any low passion, greed, or violence; and are of great strength of character," (p 37). Most important for true friendship, however, is virtue and "virtue, too, loves itself," (p 165); in conclusion he states, "I say it is virtue that creates and preserves friendships. Virtue is the source of compatibility, stability, and permanence." (p 169)
Cicero's stance would seem to be one that in most respects is consistent with Rand's view as it prominently does not depend on "service above self", but is consistent with integrity and treating others with respect while acting virtuously.

Quotes are all from How to be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship by Marcus Tullius Cicero, trans. by Philip Freeman. Princeton University Press, 2018.

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