Thursday, April 02, 2009

From the Academy to Atlas Shrugged: An Appreciation

Were you alive in Aristotle‘s time, had attended his lectures at the Academy, and had read his works, as well, would you have grasped the importance of those works to your existence? Would you have evaluated his contribution to the lives of other men and gasped in unbounded gratitude? Would you have understood the scope and breadth of his bequest to posterity? Could you have projected how his philosophy would influence the actions of men yet unborn, and what effect his ideas would have on their lives? Could you have projected the consequences of his work, such as skyscrapers, or robots exploring Mars, or microscopic cameras and lasers eradicating cancer, or genetically perfected crops, or communications through radio waves?

Could you have imagined a tableau like Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” in the hall of philosophers, with Aristotle and Plato, deep in conversation, striding from beneath the arch, one pointing upward to the heavens, the other gesturing to the earth? Would you have rejected Plato, and venerated Aristotle?

After the eclipse of ancient Greece, and following the interim of ancient Rome before the heavy, impenetrable curtain of the Dark Ages fell to hide the Greco-Roman millennium from the knowledge and sight of men, it took another millennium for them to rediscover Aristotle. The ruins and artifacts of his and Rome’s civilizations lay buried or weed-grown and crumbling in the chaotic, terrifying landscape of the Dark Ages, presenting a paradox and mystery to men who did not understand the source and significance of those ruins and artifacts. His works were salvaged and preserved by a culture, Islam, which ultimately, logically, had to reject them. Aristotle’s rediscovery in the Middle Ages made possible the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution -- and America.

In a dramatically telescoped way, Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, is experiencing the same rediscovery in the 21st century. It was the most important book of the 20th century, published in New York City in 1957. Although its sales success has been steady and almost without precedent since its publication, until now the novel was ignored, relegated to the cultural sidelines, and deprecated by the cultural establishment. As far as modern philosophers and intellectuals were concerned, it did not exist as a work worthy of serious attention, or exist at all in their minds. It was, and still is, invariably dismissed by critics, leftists, collectivists of every stripe, and most academics as a badly written, unfeeling, hateful, overlong screed posing as a work of literature. Or, it was studiously ignored.

It has taken little over half a century for men to rediscover it and the significance of Rand’s mind and work. Men are gasping, if not in grateful appreciation, then in simple astonishment in the knowledge that she was right. The parallels between the events in the novel and those in the real world have become too obvious for even the novel’s detractors to ignore. They still hurry to denigrate it, but their protests sound peevishly feeble. Hardly a week goes by without Atlas Shrugged being discussed in newspapers, magazines, on the air, or on the Internet. (The latest mention, in the Drudge Report, can be seen here.) The instances are too numerous to cite here. The catalyst for the rediscovery is the current moral and economic crisis for which government actions are only the symptom. What men will do about it remains to be seen.

In an intellectual and philosophic sense, the works of Aristotle acted as a “prime mover” of human culture and civilization. Without them, no Renaissance and Enlightenment would have been possible. Their rediscovery and advocacy by the men of those periods accelerated human progress in terms of a mastery of the physical world, which manifested itself in the Industrial Revolution. But, as Rand herself so succinctly and eloquently observed in her numerous articles and speeches, the Aristotelian influence went only so far, because the skeleton hands of the philosophy of altruism and unreason remained clutched firmly to men’s notion of morality and men did not bother to throw them off. They believed that microwave ovens and cars could coexist with a morality that condemned the ovens and cars, as well as themselves.

Also in an intellectual and philosophic sense, Atlas Shrugged is acting as a “prime mover,” reemerging from behind its curtain of unrecognized existence as something to fear or to reexamine. Men are learning now that the philosophy which made possible their earthly well-being is irreconcilable with its antipode, which makes possible their recurring moral crises. Atlas Shrugged demonstrates that. They are beginning to see that contentment with their pragmatic, unstated “rapprochement” between the opposites can only lead to tyranny, destruction and death, to a condition of existence, as Rand once put it, worse than that of the Dark Ages, for if a partial application to reason fueled the rapid material progress of man, its total absence will cause an even more rapid collapse into anarchic savagery. And reason is what the world’s intellectuals and political leaders are asking men to abandon.

That is what we are beginning to witness now, here in America and abroad.

Atlas Shrugged is about the necessity of a full, unreserved commitment to reason, capitalism and freedom versus a careless, unthinking defaulting to mysticism, “duty,“ slavery and misery. Its theme is the role of the mind in man’s existence. It dramatizes what happens when the rational mind withdraws its power from a society that wishes to both enslave it and kill it. When statist laws and physical force become the “moral” norm in any society, rational minds, which do not take orders or obey edicts, begin to hide, vanish, and go on strike. Just as they did in the Dark Ages. Just as the heroes do in the novel.

In the broadest historic and philosophic sense, the American Revolution was a form of such a strike. As an historic event, it was unprecedented. Its “No, thank you!” was flung in the face of Crown tyranny. Unlike the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, however, the American revolutionaries had to fight a war to win their freedom from that tyranny. Someone has remarked that the novel was America’s second declaration of independence, a completion of the principles present in the first Declaration. That document contains the beginnings of a philosophy which ought to have been explicated, but which was merely implied. Given the enormity of their accomplishment, however, there is neither profit nor point in gainsaying its authors for what they did not do.

For the Founders, because of their circumstances and the means at their disposal, it was necessary to risk the fortunes of a violent separation, which could have ended with defeat and execution in their attempt to dissolve the political bonds which they realized were ensuring their enslavement. In our time, it will become necessary to repudiate and dissolve the bonds of a philosophy which is ensuring our own incremental enslavement. It will require the ratification of a consistent philosophy of reason, one which corrects even Aristotle’s errors. Once that is done, the execrable politics based on a morality of selflessness and sacrifice now robbing us of our own lives, fortunes and sacred honor, will dissolve, as well.

In 1782, replying to James Monroe about calls for Jefferson to abandon plans to retire from public service and return to his personal life, Jefferson wrote:

“In this country…since the present government has been established the point has been settled by uniform, pointed and multiplied precedents, offices of every kind, and given by every power, have been daily and hourly declined and resigned from the Declaration of Independence to this moment….If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose that a man had less right in himself than one of his neighbors or indeed all of them put together. This would be slavery and not that liberty which the Bill of Rights has made inviolable and for the preservation of which our government has been charged. Nothing could so completely divest us of that liberty as the establishment of the opinion that the state has a perpetual right to the services of all its members. This to men of certain ways of thinking would be to annihilate the blessing of existence; to contradict the giver of life who gave it for happiness and not for wretchedness, and certainly to such it were better that they had never been born….”


Had he pursued the thought further, Jefferson might have concluded that neither the state nor society nor “others” had any right or claim to the services of any of its members. Had he done that, and in deference to his incomparable stature as a political thinker and child of the Enlightenment, Jefferson would have attained the heights of Aristotle and his philosophical heir.

One hundred and seventy-five years later, Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, completed that thought:

“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.”


It is as simple as that.


**Jefferson: Writings, New York: The Library of America (1984), “The Limits of Public Duty,” pp. 778-779.

16 comments:

Prometheus said...

Brilliant article Ed!

I sometimes wonder whether the circumstances presented about Richard Halley in the novel was a form of self-prophecy by Ayn Rand.

- Dinesh.

Anonymous said...

Yet another excellent piece, Ed! I admit to being a little stunned bu the fact that Atlas Shrugged reached No. 1 on Amazon's Best Seller List this week. Stunned I may be, but also excited by the prospect.

I did have one question: you indicate the Jefferson quotation dates from 1782. Is this correct?

John Mize said...

"In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all -- security, comfort, and freedom. When ... the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free." -- Sir Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)
It seems we are headed the way of the Athenians...

Phoroneus said...

What work of Gibbon's is that from?

shahnawaz said...

Great article Ed!

I think Aristotle taught at "Lyceum" not at the Academy of Plato.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Yes, 1782 is the correct date of Jeffeson's reply to Monroe.

Shahnawaz: I decided for sytlistic reasons not to say "Lyceum" but use Academy instead, since a lyceum was merely a building in which lectures and presumably the Academy were venued.

Ed

Anonymous said...

Ed, by coincidence, just before reading your Academy essay, I read a column explaining surprising point that "enormity" actually means "wicked," NOT "prodigious" or "enormous."

John Mize said...

Gibbon Quote,
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 1. Not sure of the exact chapter, it has been awhile since I read it.

Ed's post struck a chord with me, and reminded me of the passage, I had to look it up online to find the exact wording, luckily someone had it up. My old copy was a paperback rehash of the 1909 printing.

John Mize said...

Like Atlas Shrugged, History of the Decline and Fall has so many warnings to us today...It seems those of us with the time to read and learn and receive the messages are never the ones to make the decisions....

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Re "enormity." "Wicked" or the implication of a great evil is its usual meaning, but I have encountered it in the past used in the opposite sense, as simply "great" in a neutral sense. In fact, I am about to finish rereading Arthur Quiller-Couch's "The Art of Writing," a series of lectures at Cambridge U. in the early 20th century, and he used it twice, as I recollect, in the neutral sense.

Ed

shahnawaz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shahnawaz said...

Ed,
My grammar, i am told, is atrocious.What i write is simply whatever english i have automatized from reading voraciously.
Since your command of the english language is excellent, please suggest a grammar primer.what about Dr.Peikoff's lecture on grammar?
I desperately want to learn as much as i can so that i can start writing.

Jeff said...

If you want to master English grammar, learn sentence diagramming.

Tim R said...

Hi Ed,

I've read two of your recent articles. This one and "On The Left-Wing Reaction to John Galt, Ayn Rand, and Tea Parties".
What struck me was that I thought both were highly optimistic.
I find it quite difficult to maintain that optimism and was wondering if you had any thoughts on your confidence in rationality prevailing and/or the development of your sense of life.
I'm quite new to Objectivism myself and was always fairly cynical as a teenager.

I've just noticed in the comments that Atlas Shrugged was the #1 best seller on Amazon this week and that's definitely a very good thing, but I'm not 100% convinced - I still think this popularity could easily be fleeting?

In addition, I'm thinking of Peikoff saying he's never observed someone over the age of 30 change a fundamental belief. Or the KGB idea that it takes at least one generation to change a culture's ideology. Considering the task at hand for Objectivist principles to become ingrained in the culture, it seems very difficult to view Ayn Rand's influence objectively.

Anonymous said...

Tim R: I understand your doubts about the abrupt attention being paid to Atlas Shrugged and the effectiveness of the Tea Parties to be held on April 15th.

You're right to doubt, but one can never know in this kind of situation what will happen as a result. One can't predict any one individual's allegiance to rationality and his rational commitment to self-preservation. It's a matter of voliton, of placing the highest value on one's life and independence to live it as a free individual and acting as best one can in the circumstances. I can only speak for myself, just as only you can speak for yourself on that matter.

But, one can doubt without becoming cynical. The current popularity might or might not be, as you put it, "fleeting." The Tea Parties may or may not have any effect on Congress or any other organization. One simply cannot predict such things, since men possess volition, not only individuals being taxed and regulated by government, but also members of Congress who are doing the taxing and regulating, who may or may not take seriously the demonstrations that will take place across the country.

Peikoff is right about the difficulty of a person over the age of 30 to change his premises and sense of life even with the persussive skills of a master. But, I'm finding it just as difficult to persuade people who are complete products of the education system, individuals around the age of 30 and younger.

Like it or not, you and I and everyone else who are on "the same page" are living in a watershed period of this country's history and existence. You will need to find and have what Rand called the "moral endurance" to survive it and work to advance the cause of reason. This is what I've been doing all my life, even before I had even heard of Rand.

I cannot say that I'm optimistic about the near future. But I refuse to surrender my life and my values to the looters, the killers, and moochers without a fight. I have a breaking point, but I haven't yet reached it and don't even know what it is.

Rand also said that if one fights for the future, one is livig in it today.

Ed

Tim R said...

Hi Ed,
Thanks for the reply,
All the best and keep up the good work.