Ayn Rand called Atlas Shrugged a “stunt novel.” She meant that it is a rollicking entertainment: a mystery novel with dramatic twists and revelations, a satirical burlesque of collectivist and irrationalist culture, a heroic quest, and a steamy romance novel with plenty of rough sex.
But I think the real stunt is the way Rand combines all this in a high-concept intellectual tour de force, rich in symbols and thematic integrity, taking on the intellectual traditions of Western civilization and dishing up a fresh perspective on the fundamental issues behind those traditions.
The result is a novel that continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year. It is a novel whose main characters—Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, Francisco d’Anconia, and John Galt—have become cultural icons that are remembered, emulated, and debated. And it is a novel that keeps puzzling the critics, who don’t know what to make of it nor how to classify its ideas.
I was puzzled myself when I first read Atlas. I thought it was supposed to be a conservative novel of the Fifties; then I got to the sex! I thought it was supposed to be about a railroad; but what kind of railroad novel also includes devastating attacks on, among other ideas, epistemological skepticism, ethical hedonism, and the doctrine of original sin?
A philosophical stunt novel, that’s what.
In Atlas Shrugged , Ayn Rand managed to combine storytelling so effective that the novel could stand on its own—without the philosophic speeches—with the presentation of an incisive and comprehensive philosophical system, one that offers a revolutionary alternative to the received tradition in crucial areas of philosophy.
Combining insightful philosophy with good fiction in the form of a novel is hard to do. Very hard.
A novel is an extended piece of narrative fiction. A novel is not poetry. It is longer than a short story or a novella, long enough to really dig into a life, a situation, a character, a time, or a place. Most importantly, it tells a story: There is a progression of developments that grabs the reader’s interest and carries him on a journey into the writer’s world. The novel, like any artwork, communicates to us a basic world-view filtered through the lens of the artist’s outlook, tastes, and feelings.
Writing a good novel is very difficult in itself. A novelist needs to create well-realized characters, put them in a convincing setting, and make of their interactions a plot that is believable, interesting, and moving. That people remember Atlas Shrugged for its story and its characters is a testament to the job Ayn Rand did as a novelist.
But writing philosophy is a very different kettle of fish. Philosophy is a body of theoretical knowledge that pertains to the most basic issues of life and existence. It provides an understanding of what reality fundamentally is and what constitutes the foundation of knowledge. It summarizes our basic view of human beings and their relationship to the world. It gives ethical guidance—a concept of virtue and the Good—which then underlies all our institutions and drives our choices. Philosophy is typically presented in treatises that make arguments, summarize facts, and refute opposing views. If a philosopher uses stories at all, he employs them as examples or “thought experiments”; he doesn’t need plot or characterization muddying the theoretical waters.
Like writing fiction, writing philosophy is very difficult. Many philosophers have produced reams upon reams of arguments that say nothing original—or nothing worth saying. There are scads of poor counter-arguments that miss their targets, and countless bizarre thought experiments that shed more confusion than light. A very few philosophers stand out, due to the power and cogency of their arguments: figures like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Russell, and Wittgenstein. Read them: Right or wrong, they will puzzle and challenge you to think twice on the basic issues of life.
When a writer successfully brings together philosophy and the novel form, the result can be like a nuclear reaction, with each element multiplying the power of the other.
A good novel has a unifying theme and presents a world-view that the author intends. But a good philosophical novel takes its theme from a full theory of what is really fundamental, so it gets at deeply meaningful and important issues.
Consider the difference between Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and a standard contemporary romance bestseller. Both novels are about a love affair, and both are enjoyable at that level. But while P&P is not heavily philosophical, it is strongly rooted in the ethics of the Enlightenment, and its romance plot addresses the moral themes of real merit vs. social status, independence vs. social conformity, and objective judgment vs. prejudice. It is this philosophical foundation that helps give Pride and Prejudice its resonance and staying power, even while the society that Austen portrayed has become less and less like our own.
Philosophical arguments, on the other hand, marshal facts and logic to make an abstract point. When those arguments are wedded to a narrative, they become accessible to a wider range of readers, and the ideas within become much more vivid and credible. It is no accident that quite a few philosophical thinkers have couched important works in the form of narrative.
Two important modern examples are Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762), a novel containing a treatise on education, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885). Emile continues to have big effects in our own time via the progressive-education movement. In Zarathustra, Nietzsche couches his attack on Christianity and conventional society in the style of a myth or religious allegory. Both works popularized their authors’ ideas—not merely because adding fiction made their philosophies more entertaining (although it did), but because the people and views of the world captured in their fiction allowed readers to see and feel their arguments, in addition to trying to understand them abstractly.
There are many great philosophical novels. Some I could mention include: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Voltaire’s Candide, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. Atlas Shrugged deserves to stand in this company. To judge from its ongoing high sales and growing critical acceptance, it appears to be joining the older of these works as a perennially rewarding artwork and entertainment.
These works differ greatly in style. Some, like Candide and Animal Farm, are fantastic tales of one kind or another. Atlas Shrugged itself is a kind of science fiction, set in an allegorical America that Rand stripped of many historical and institutional details—the country has a “head of state,” for example, rather than a President. In terms of realistic or historical detail, it doesn’t stand up to novels like War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, nor should it be expected to (Rand’s own The Fountainhead , set in the New York architectural world of the 1930s, would be a better comparison for those works). Atlas Shrugged is programmatic, and the characters largely represent various ideas or moral tendencies. But the same could be said for most of the works mentioned, and indeed it would be hard to write a good philosophical novel—where the plot and characters are deeply connected to the ideas—in any other way.
Many classic philosophical novels have lost their bite as the issues they address have become culturally passé. Gulliver’s Travels is a case in point: Today, we read it mainly as a fantasy for children. But in its day, it was a striking statement of liberal values. Others I’ve cited never had much original to say philosophically in the first place. This is most plain in War and Peace, which, for all its historical vision, fails to integrate the philosophic ideas that the characters discuss with the actions they actually take or the apparent themes of the work as a whole. Even Animal Farm, brilliant and well-integrated as it is, has lost its relevance with the collapse of Communism and the decline of totalitarian socialism as a moral ideal.
By comparison, the key ideas debated in Atlas Shrugged —such as capitalism, the role of reason in human life, and self-interest versus self-sacrifice—will remain important for at least as long as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do, for these great religions all stand against Rand on most or all the basic issues.
As philosophy, Atlas Shrugged is certainly a worthy competitor of other great works of philosophy in fiction. Rand’s ideas are as fundamental as Nietzsche’s, but her treatment of them in Atlas is much more clear, systematic, and comprehensive than is his in Zarathustra. Rousseau’s Emile, along with his epistolary novel Julie and other works, has had a huge effect in the eighteenth century and since, laying part of the intellectual foundation for the French revolution, for the rise of nationalism and socialism in Europe, and for the Romantic art movement. It is too soon to say what all the effects of Atlas will be, but it has already given birth, more than any other single work, to the contemporary libertarian movement. It is difficult to recall the lack of confidence that Americans, and the world, had in individual achievement and the free market in the 1960s. But today, there is a robust, world-wide movement in favor of invention and success. When we hear a business entrepreneur lauded as a creator and adventurer, as we often do these days, we are hearing an echo of Atlas Shrugged reverberating through the culture.
Rand was hunting for big game in Atlas: not just novelizing philosophers like Rousseau and Nietzsche, but also Plato, Descartes, Kant, Hume, and Marx. I would be happy to explain how well she hit these targets, but it would take more space than I have here. Suffice it to say that Atlas is indeed a serious challenge to many of these thinkers’ doctrines on most or all of the most basic issues in philosophy.
It is fair to say, however, that although her points were strong in essentials, Atlas Shrugged is not a full philosophic treatise. It does not employ the apparatus of scholarly philosophy, and it does not go into the level of detail that a treatise would. In fact, Rand usually does not even refer to her opponents by name.
But how much do we demand of an author, anyway? None of the other great philosophical novels I mentioned can even be discussed in this regard. It is a tribute to Rand that Atlas Shrugged gives us a very well-developed outline of how her ideas compare to the full philosophic systems of other great philosophers.
No other novel offers so fundamental and well-thought-out a philosophy. No other writer combines philosophy with plot more smoothly and ingeniously than Rand does in Atlas. To do it all in a work that operates on so many different levels artistically—as mystery, as farce, as romance, as high drama—well, that takes the cake. Atlas Shrugged is simply the finest combination of serious ideas and artistic mojo ever written.
Quite a “stunt,” eh?
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.