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.