Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Golden Anniversary of an Inspiration

Upon completion, after some 12 years, of her novel ATLAS SHRUGGED, Ayn Rand remarked to some friends; “I know that I am challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years”.

Later, in searching for a publisher, a primary consideration for Rand was to find someone who understood fully the intellectual and philosophical implications of her book and who would be willing to face the storm of hostility she expected it to touch off. In a meeting with Random House, vice-president Donald Klopfer stated; “If you propose to offer a moral defense of capitalism, wouldn’t you have to clash with the entire tradition of Judeo-Christian ethics?” Rand chose Random House.

Atlas Shrugged was published on October 10, 1957, 50 years ago today. As Rand predicted, and following the pattern of her previous novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD but on a much wider and more intense scale, ATLAS SHRUGGED touched off a firestorm of criticism and almost universally negative reviews. And again as in the case of her previous novel, ATLAS became an instant and huge commercial success, powered mainly through the grassroots by word-of-mouth. On the success of AS, Random House’s Bennett Cerf told Ayn Rand: “It’s remarkable! In all my years of publishing, I’ve never seen anything like it. To break through against such enormous opposition!”

Today ATLAS SHRUGGED (as well as all of Ayn Rand’s books, both fiction and non-fiction), continues to sell briskly and in fact its sales are accelerating. AS and its philosophy Objectivism, laid out by Rand in a series of non-fiction books, lectures, and essays have generated world-wide interest and influence that has steadily grown stronger as the years pass. The movie version of the novel, with Angelina Joli contracted to play the heroine Dagney Taggart (which she says has been a life-long ambition of hers) is tentatively slated for release in 2008.

The moral revolution in AS, demonstrated in the form of a breathtaking action story that makes the book hard to put down, is that rational, enlightened self-interest rather than altruistic self-sacrificial service to others is the proper moral code for man to live by. Thus, Ayn Rand has broken the monopoly on morality held by altruism (both religious and secular). Based on neither the commands of a supernatural being (religion) nor on the commands of “society” (secular), the Objectivist ethics is based on man’s life on earth and the objectively provable requirements for his survival as an individual human being.

Under Rand's code of ethics, both altruism and the conventional view of selfishness are rejected as two sides of the same coin, both requiring human sacrifice. Thus, rational selfishness means living one's life by one's own effort and for one's own long term happiness, neither sacrificing oneself to others (altruism), nor sacrificing others to oneself (conventional selfishness). Needless to say, this non-sacrificial code of morality is the most widely misunderstood aspect of Ayn Rand's Objectivism and a full understanding of it requires much thought and study. Fortunately, Rand has presented a great (and entertaining) place to start; with her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

While the widespread and growing influence of the ideas presented in AS both in America and around the world and among both ordinary people and prominent persons are beyond question, how deeply rooted that influence is in the culture is not easily gauged. Undoubtedly, the number of people who call themselves Objectivists is still very small. What is certain is that parts of Rand’s philosophy are scattered widely among many millions of people who might not agree with it in its entirety. I also believe that there are many “closet” Rand admirers, even in the religious community, who find much to agree with her on but who, nonetheless, may not want to identify with an atheist, or who perhaps do not feel comfortable having to defend a philosophy they do not fully understand (which was me until very recently). Still others may be inspired by the heroic view of man presented through the novel’s characters while finding very little agreement with the political/social ideals they represent. Hillary Clinton, for example, claims to have been influenced by Ayn Rand but one would hardly call her a believer in limited government.

On peoples' personal lives is likely where ATLAS's strongest influence has occurred thus far. In an essay (see link below), Dr. Yaron Brook describes this phenomena: "As executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, I see the impact of Atlas Shrugged on a daily basis. I'm continually amazed by how many people, from every walk of life and every part of the planet, from high school students to political activists in countries from Hong Kong to Belarus to Ghana, eagerly tell me: ' Atlas Shrugged changed my life.'Scores of business leaders, from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, say they have derived great spiritual fuel from Atlas Shrugged. Many tell me that the novel has motivated them to make the most of their lives, inspiring them to be more ambitious, more productive, and more successful in their work. And many of America's politicians and intellectuals who claim to fight for economic freedom name Atlas Shrugged as the book that has most inspired them."

ATLAS SHRUGGED (as well as THE FOUNTAINHEAD) has definitely been a source of inspiration to me over the years. Since discovering ATLAS some 40 years ago, I have read both novels twice in their entirety and have turned to them enumerable times to re-read particular scenes. "Re-living" the way the novel's heros dealt with, struggled and won against impossible odds without sacrificing their principles has given me fuel and optimism, especially during times when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed in my life.

One good barometer of Rand’s and her novel’s influence can be measured by the level of criticism and outright hostility toward her ideas. By this measure, her influence is certainly growing. This is not surprising, considering the growing number of trained Objectivist intellectuals who regularly appear on the major news outlets such as CNBC, Fox News, CNN, etc., as well as by the number of their letters and op-eds published in major newspapers around the country. In addition, the academic barriers to serious study of Objectivism are steadily breaking down with more than 30 major universities now offering courses by Objectivist professors, and Objectivist study clubs operating on campuses around the country.

Criticism of AS and of Rand has usually been of the ad hominem variety. In fact, every attack I have ever seen has involved use of snide, unsubstantiated, anti-intellectual insults, or else was based on honest misunderstanding, willful misrepresentations, or outright lies. I have yet to see a solid refutation based on an accurate representation of any of her fundamental ideas or viewpoints. But, with the still limited but growing number of Objectivist scholars, thanks in large part to the educational programs of the Ayn Rand Institute, it will become increasingly difficult for critics to avoid confronting Objectivism head-on on the intellectual level.

So, 50 years after publication, ATLAS SHRUGGED and its radical new philosophy of reason/rational egoism/ individual rights/capitalism has become a force to be reckoned with. In the future, Ayn Rand’s ideas promise to add a whole new, and badly needed, dimension to the cultural/political battles.

Happy Anniversary, ATLAS SHRUGGED

P.S.- See also the essays "The influence of Atlas Shrugged", "Ayn Rands Legacy of Reason and Freedom" and "Good press for Objectivism and Atlas Shrugged" at Principles in Practice, the blog of The Objective Standard. Also on Forbes there is an interesting piece describing the surging interest in Ayn Rand.

See Post Reference 12

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