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Ayn Rand had no love for war. In a journal entry from 1946 she recognized that war was the purest expression of statism and the antithesis of rational self-interest: “Statism leads men to war because that is its nature. It is based on the principle of force, violence and compulsion. This means, on the principle of destruction.” While “rationally selfish people do not start wars,” statist nations must: “Statism cannot maintain itself because it kills the productive activities of its own subjects; therefore it cannot exist for long without looting some freer, more productive country.”
But Rand liked the military, although she disapproved of the military draft. During her lifetime, Rand made a point of speaking to military audiences. In 1972 she gave a talk at the U. S. Naval Academy that later became part of the curriculum there. Most famously, in 1974 she discussed philosophy with cadets at West Point Military Academy. That talk became the title essay of her book, Philosophy: Who Needs It.
Anyone who has read her thoughtfully knows that Rand categorically endorsed government’s obligation to secure the individual’s right to self-defense, but her interest in the military went beyond that. Ayn Rand also admired and identified with the soldier on a personal level. Her earliest ambitions for life, love, and literature were stirred by an admiration for a soldier’s character.
As a girl, Ayn Rand discovered Cyrus Paltons, the fictional hero of Maurice Champagne’s serialized adventure story The Mysterious Valley. Captain Cyrus Paltons, of the 93rd Infantry on location in Bengal, India, is a “marvelous hunter,” an “intrepid man, brave to the point of temerity,” both “skillful and self-possessed.”
Cyrus is unambiguously a military man. He neither doubts the value of his job nor considers it a sacrifice. He is a willing soldier, and he loves the life. He wears a military uniform, is a confident commander, and excels at marksmanship. Supremely devoted to duty, never the aggressor, and fully apprised of the rules, he nevertheless follows his own code of honor, especially when innocent life is at stake. To his enemies he is impudent, combative, and jealous of his freedom. To his compatriots, he is well-trained, quick-thinking, fearless, proud, and civilized.
Nathaniel Branden understood Rand’s attraction to Cyrus. Rand told Barbara Branden that Cyrus was “my type of man”–a designation Rand understood on multiple levels. But Captain Cyrus Paltons was more than a girlish crush. The young Ayn Rand, “imprisoned among dull people,” also emulated him. He gave her the courage to live the life she wanted. Later, as an adult and a writer, the dashing Cyrus helped her to express her own idea of a hero: “He was a perfect drawing of my present hero: tall, long-legged, with leggings but no jacket, just an open collar, his shirt torn in front, open very low, sleeves rolled to the elbows, and hair falling down over one eye.” She recreated him in all four of her novels as a way to inspire courage in others.
Cyrus first returns in his namesake Kira Argounova from Rand’s debut novel We the Living. The name “Kira” is the Russian feminine of Cyrus. Like Cyrus, Kira is beautiful, brave, qualified, highly civilized, and fiercely protective of her freedom and her life. Kira physically resembles Cyrus. She is long, lean and jauntily dressed. And she resembles him in attitude. While not a soldier in any army, she has the bearing of one: “She had a calm mouth and slightly widened eyes with the defiant, enraptured, solemnly and fearfully expectant look of a warrior. . . .”
Ayn Rand admitted that We the Living was her most autobiographical novel, and much of Kira’s character is an idealized version of Rand’s own. Kira even has her own fictional hero that she both embodies and loves–the Viking: “a Viking who walked through life, breaking barriers and reaping victories, . . .” The similarities between the Viking and Cyrus are most certainly deliberate.
The similarities don’t end there. Leo Kovalensky too is another Cyrus, someone who would go to battle if necessary in self-defense: “He was tall; his collar was raised; a cap was pulled over his eyes. His mouth, calm, severe, contemptuous, was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it.” So is Andrei Taganov. Andrei has “two gray eyes that looked like the eyes of a tamed tiger” and “four straight lines on his face: two eyebrows, a mouth and a scar on his right temple.” His mouth, Rand points out, “spoke of many past battles louder than the scar on his forehead; it also spoke of many more to come.” And Andrei is both in bearing and in fact a soldier: “He was tall and young. He wore a cap and a leather jacket. He walked like a soldier, his steps deliberate and very confident.”
In the novel Anthem, Rand translates Cyrus into Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000, who display Cyrus’s demeanor in high relief against a dystopian ideal man who is everything that the soldier is not: small, pale, half-witted, stooped, hooded, docile, obedient, unimaginative, altruistic, collectivist, and ashamed.
In The Fountainhead, Cyrus becomes Howard Roark. Roark has Cyrus’s looks, “a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes” and a face that “suited a work gang or an army.” He has Cyrus’s attitude: “Roark smiled. The smile was amused, astonished, involuntarily contemptuous.” When describing his support for sculptor Steven Mallory, Roark likens the two of them to soldiers on the battlefield: “The thought, this is how men feel, trapped in a shell hole; this room is not an accident of poverty, it’s the footprint of a war; it’s the devastation torn by explosives more vicious than any stored in the arsenals of the world. A war . . . against?. . . The enemy had no name and no face. But this boy was a comrade-in-arms, hurt in battle, and Roark stood over him, feeling a strange new thing, a desire to lift him in his arms and carry him to safety. . . .”
Also like Cyrus, Roark rarely breaks under pressure: “That’s wrong, Peter. I have fourteen dollars left, and fifty-seven cents.” And he has Cyrus’s courage in self-defense, blowing up the Cortlandt building rather than see his work and his reputation spoiled. Peter Keating had broken the code of the creator, which is “built on the needs of the reasoning mind which allows man to survive.” The Cortlandt building was a direct threat to Roark’s survival.
Finally, Ayn Rand created an extraordinary cast of characters for Atlas Shrugged, cutting Dagny Taggart, Francisco d’Anconia, Henry Rearden, and John Galt from the same cloth as Cyrus Paltons. Indeed in the character of John Galt, Cyrus is fully translated into the Randian universe. Rand’s description of him takes her admiration to a lyrical peak:
She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this was what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. The shape of his mouth was pride, and more: it was as if he took pride in being proud. The angular planes of his cheeks made these qualities, it had their final sum: a look of serene determination and of certainty, and the look of a ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it. It was a face that had nothing to hide or to escape, a face with no fear of being seen or of seeing, so that the first thing she grasped about him was the intense perceptiveness of his eyes–he looked as if his faculty of sight were his best-loved tool and its exercise were a limitless, joyous adventure, as if his eyes imparted a superlative value to himself and to the world–to himself for his ability to see, to the world for being a place so eagerly worth seeing. It seemed to her for a moment that she was in the presence of a being who was pure consciousness–yet she had never been so aware of a man’s body. The light cloth of his shirt seemed to stress, rather than hide, the structure of his figure, his skin was suntanned, his body had the hardness, the gaunt, tensile strength, the clean precision of a foundry casting, he looked as if he were poured out of metal, but some dimmed, soft-lustered metal, like an aluminum-copper alloy, the color of his skin blending with the chestnut-brown of his hair, the loose strands of the hair shading from brown to gold in the sun, and his eyes completing the colors, as the one part of the casting left undimmed and harshly lustrous: his eyes were the deep, dark green of light glinting on metal. He was looking down at her with the faint trace of a smile, it was not a look of discovery, but of familiar contemplation–as if he, too, were seeing the long-expected and the never-doubted.
To be clear, when it came to soldiers, Ayn Rand didn’t admire them all. She had complete contempt for the likes of Pavel Syerov and Cuffy Meigs, soldiers who defended statism and aggression rather than individual liberty–but I’ll leave that for another time.
Every year in November Americans pay tribute to war veterans, a practice that began in 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson designated November 11 Veterans Day, in honor of the Treaty of Versailles that ended what was then thought to be “the war to end all wars.” Contrary to most politicians, Ayn Rand did not consider military service a self-sacrifice. “A sacrifice,” she argued, “is the surrender of a value.” There is no surrender when a soldier fights for freedom: “If a man dies fighting for his own freedom, it is not a sacrifice: he is not willing to live as a slave. . . .” In marking another November it seems fitting to include John Galt in Veterans Day observances. It is John Galt who utters the ultimate fighting word: “No.”