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The Revolutionary Philosophy of Atlas Shrugged

The Revolutionary Philosophy of Atlas Shrugged

9 Mins
October 7, 2007

One evening after the publication of The Fountainhead , Ayn Rand was on the phone, discussing her disappointment over early sales with author Isabel Paterson. Paterson suggested that Rand stop trying to offer her radical ideas in fictional form, and instead write a nonfiction treatise. Rand disagreed.

“No, I’ve presented my case in The Fountainhead,” she said. “If [people] don’t respond, why should I wish to enlighten or help them further? I’m not an altruist.”

But Paterson argued that Rand had a duty to write nonfiction, because people needed her ideas. Rand responded angrily.

“Oh, they do? What if I went on strike? What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?” She added: “That would make a good novel.”When she hung up the phone, her husband, Frank O’Connor, said: “It would make a good novel.”

They talked about it all night—and by morning, she had decided that the theme of her next novel would be "the mind on strike."

In fact, for a long time the working title of the developing story was The Strike. However, the final title, Atlas Shrugged , concisely symbolizes the book’s plot: the rebellion of the unrecognized and often persecuted creative heroes who bear the rest of the world on their shoulders.


As a novelist, Ayn Rand chose to create ideal characters. Yet her heroes and heroines defy conventional values. In order to make their motives intelligible and convincing, Rand found that she first had to become a philosopher and define a new moral ideal.

“My most important job,” she wrote in a journal entry, “is the formulation of a rational morality of and for man, of and for his life, of and for this earth. . . I know that I am challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years.”

Heroes typically reflect the prevailing moral codes, and moral codes typically reflect the priorities of their cultures. In primitive societies, where sheer physical survival was the highest priority, tribal codes idealized the strength, prowess, cunning, and bravery of great hunters and warriors—men willing to face great ordeals on behalf of their tribe or nation, in order to win fame, glory, and fortune.

But later, responding to the suffering so inescapable in medieval societies, religions began to define a different kind of hero. Their moral codes idealized obedience, self-sacrifice, unshakable faith, and the dutiful martyrs who embraced suffering as their worldly lot—as the price of eternal happiness after death.

But for the past few hundred years, a new culture has been emerging. The light of reason and science slowly has been pushing back the shadows of superstition and mysticism. Industrial production and international trade have replaced the primitive lifestyles of hunter-gatherer and martial cultures. Blind faith and brute force, once universally hailed as virtues, are completely out of place in a world of computer chips and global financial markets.

And this is the world of the Randian hero—a new world demanding a new morality.

In a postscript to Atlas Shrugged , Rand offered this summary of her vision: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”


The major theme of Atlas Shrugged, embodied in every character, event, and line of dialogue, is: the role of reason in mans life.

For Rand, rationality was the essence of “the good” and irrationality the essence of “evil.” So, from the first chapter to the last, the novel depicts the countless ways that human life, well-being, and happiness depend on thinking. It shows us what happens whenever somebody assumes the responsibility of using his mind—or whenever he fails to do so.

Now on its face, this doesn’t seem very controversial. After all, most people act rationally most of the time: to do otherwise, they wouldn’t survive. But few are totally consistent about it. Sometimes, a person exercises exceptional rationality and integrity pursuing his career goals, but then drifts mindlessly and self-destructively in his private life. Or he betrays on Tuesday a course of action he committed himself to on Monday.

Such conflicted lives are filled with frustrations and failures. Atlas Shrugged tells us that if left unresolved, conflicts between reason and whim can lead even great men and great nations to destruction.

One of the most dramatic examples in the story is that of Dr. Robert Stadler. A great but cynical physicist, Stadler believes that reason is impotent in the world, and he concludes that his work must be sustained by force. So he founds the State Science Institute, a government body that compels taxpayers to support his scientific research.

Even when the Institute begins to sponsor work he loathes—such as a book openly attacking reason, written by Dr. Floyd Ferris of the Institute’s staff—Stadler refuses to repudiate it publicly, for fear of jeopardizing his tax-supported existence. But these contradictions and evasions exact a heavy price on his self-esteem:

    When Ferris had gone, Dr. Stadler sat at his desk, his shoulders shrinking together, conscious only of a desperate wish not to be seen by anyone. In the fog of the pain which he would not define, there was also the desperate feeling that no one—no one of those he valued—would ever wish to see him again.

Like the real-life scientists who went to work for the Nazis and communists, Robert Stadler soon becomes totally dependent on his keepers—and totally corrupted.

The main reason for moral inconsistencies and betrayals, Rand believed, is that men have been taught to pursue ideals that are irrational, and therefore impractical. Traditional virtues, such as self-sacrifice, faith, and humility, are contrary to the requirements of human life and happiness. They force men into the horrible dilemma of having to choose between virtue and happiness—between morality and life itself.

In the novel, industrialist Hank Rearden is torn by such conflicts. He’s passionately in love with life and happiness; yet he accepts uncritically the conventional view that his personal desires, such as his love for his work, are subjective, base, and lacking any nobility or moral significance. This belief leaves him morally defenseless against those who plot to destroy his steel mills. Similarly, he views his passion for his mistress, Dagny Taggart, as animalistic and degrading. This belief leaves him trapped in a loveless marriage to a vicious wife, held by a gray, empty sense of guilt and moral duty.

The cure for such conflicts, according to Rand, is a moral code rooted in reason and the requirements of human life, rather than in faith, duty, and selflessness. Because a rational ideal is both moral and practical, it ends the need for hypocrisy and inconsistency.

In fact, one of the most startling things that readers first notice about Rand’s fictional heroes is their complete integrity. John Galt, Dagny Taggart, and Francisco d’Anconia display consistent loyalty to their principles—not just on important issues, but in the smallest details of everyday life. Holding a moral code rooted in reason and reality allows the Randian hero to act morally all the time.

We see this most clearly in the character of Galt. Rand portrays him as a man whom irrationality simply can’t tempt—because he can visualize its destructive consequences too clearly. Because he doesn’t see reality as his enemy, his most noticeable trait is his habit of stating bluntly the facts that others prefer to ignore. He refuses even to shield those whom he loves, such as Dagny, from painful truths.

Dagny desperately wants to stay in the valley with Galt—but the thought of giving up her railroad seems unbearable:

    “If only I could stay here and never know what they’re doing to the railroad, and never learn when it goes.”

“You’ll have to hear about it,” said Galt; it was that ruthless tone, peculiarly his, which sounded implacable by being simple, devoid of any emotional value, save the quality of respect for facts. “You’ll hear the whole course of the last agony of Taggart Transcontinental. You’ll hear about every wreck. You’ll hear about every discontinued train. You’ll hear about every abandoned line. You’ll hear about the collapse of the Taggart Bridge. Nobody stays in this valley except by a full, conscious choice based on a full, conscious knowledge of every fact involved in his decision. Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatever.”

The first distinctive feature of the Randian hero, then, is his total, consistent devotion to reason as an absolute.


By reason, Rand meant thinking applied to the problems of living—practical reason, serving human well-being and happiness. Which brings us to the second key element in Ayn Rand ’s brief summary of her philosophy:

The Randian hero expresses his commitment to reason and his passion for life through productive work.

That’s why, as the background for her story of “the mind on strike,” she chose not a college campus or literary salon, but the world of industry, focusing on railroads and steel. Here Rand would show the practical impact of rationality, or its absence, in the world.

Atlas Shrugged pays tribute to producers and creators of all kinds—to scientists and engineers, artists and musicians, scholars and philosophers. But the main heroes of the story—Dagny, Rearden, Francisco, and Galt—are the children of the Industrial Revolution: self-made businessmen, entrepreneurs, inventors, and financiers. These are the independent souls who—at their own risk, by their own judgment, for their own profit—take the discoveries of scientists and the raw materials of the earth, and transform them for practical uses, as goods and services.

Rand’s fullest portrait of the producer is Hank Rearden. Like the great industrialists of the nineteenth century, Rearden is a self-made man of boundless energy, vision, and purpose. All his life, he’s maintained a single-tracked devotion to his work. He prides himself on his achievements, and the fact that he’s let nothing distract or deter him from his path. He’s so vital, so used to confronting and surmounting problems, that he automatically assumes any burden placed before him—even burdens that others deliberately impose upon him. Of all the characters in the novel, Hank Rearden most clearly embodies the symbol of Atlas.

One of the most inspiring illustrations of Rearden’s indomitable creative spirit comes just after an “Equalization of Opportunity” bill has passed the Legislature. The new law will shatter Rearden’s industrial empire, forcing him to sell off his affiliated businesses, including his ore mines. Trying to go on, he works furiously, past midnight, when suddenly all the pain and anger finally leave him flattened across his desk.

But as he reflects on all his past achievements, now being ripped from him by the government, his mind drifts to a current problem—a new bridge for Dagny’s railroad—and suddenly a revolutionary structural invention occurs to him:

    In the next moment, he was at his desk, bending over it, with one knee on the seat of the chair, with no time to think of sitting down, he was drawing lines, curves, triangles, columns of calculations, indiscriminately on the blueprints, on the desk blotter, on somebody’s letters.

And an hour later. . . he was calling for a long-distance line. . . [and] he was saying, “Dagny! That bridge of ours—throw in the ashcan all the drawings I sent you, because. . . What?. . . Oh, that? To hell with that! Never mind the looters and their laws! Forget it! Dagny, what do we care? Listen. . . I’ve figured out a truss that will beat anything ever built! Your bridge will carry four trains at once, stand three hundred years and cost you less than your cheapest culvert. I’ll send you the drawings in two days. . . What?. . . I can’t hear you. Have you caught a cold?. . . What are you thanking me for, as yet? Wait till I explain it to you.”

One of Ayn Rand ’s main goals in the novel, according to her notes, was to show that inventors and industrialists are, as she put it, “creators in the same way, in the same sense, with the same heroic virtues, of the same high spiritual order, as the men usually thought of as creators—the artists.”

This, too, challenges conventional morality. Today, philanthropists who give away fortunes are regarded as morally superior to the producers who create them. But Rand argued that if human life is the standard, then productive work is a major virtue—and that anyone who struggles to achieve despite great obstacles should be regarded as a hero.

In the opening pages of Atlas Shrugged , Eddie Willers remembers a day in his childhood, when he and Dagny stood near some railroad tracks, talking about what they would do when they grew up.

“You ought to do something great [Eddie told her]. . .  I mean, the two of us together.” “What?” she asked. He said, “I don’t know. That’s what we ought to find out. Not just what you said. Not just business and earning a living. Things like winning battles, or saving people out of fires, or climbing mountains.” “What for?” she asked. He said, “The minister said last Sunday that we must always reach for the best within us. What do you suppose is the best within us?” “I don’t know.” “We’ll have to find out.” She did not answer; she was looking away, up the railroad track.


Like Eddie, many people regard business and earning a living as “worldly” rather than “spiritual” virtues. But Rand dismissed any notion of the supernatural—and any division between the moral and the practical. She described her code as a morality for living on earth. She didn’t view man’s need to think and work as a curse upon human nature.

She thus rejected the traditional “work ethic,” which regards work as a duty—as a punishment for Original Sin. The Randian hero, by contrast, regards his work as a source of pleasure and profit, of self-interest and self-expression. Virtue, she declares, isn’t its own reward or an end in itself. Rather, the ultimate purpose of acting virtuously is to achieve personal happiness. Man doesn’t live in order to work; he works in order to live.

This is the third key element in Rand’s summary of her philosophy: that a mans own happiness is the moral purpose of his life.

Whatever else they’ve disagreed about, past views of the moral ideal always shared one conclusion: they equated heroism with self-sacrifice. In story and song, tribal groups celebrated the hunter or warrior who dies for his tribe, while religions revered the saint or martyr who dies for his faith.

By contrast, Ayn Rand ’s stories celebrate the individual who lives—not for the sake of others, or for some abstraction, but for his own well-being and happiness. “The purpose of morality,” says John Galt, “is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”

Of all the characters in Atlas Shrugged , Francisco d’Anconia most clearly captures this light-hearted joy of living. He leaps from the pages as a creature of pure gaiety and laughter, in love with the fact of his existence.

Francisco is John Galt’s closest friend and the first to join him in the strike. While pretending to be a frivolous playboy, he’s covertly, ruthlessly destroying his own vast mining empire—and with it, the last resources of his political enemies.

Francisco was one of Ayn Rand ’s favorite characters. “In a sense, I created Francisco in the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel—or Zorro,” she said. “Francisco is the philosophical expression—the concretization in a human character—of what I heard in the operetta music I fell in love with in my childhood. . . He symbolize[s] the enjoyment of life on earth.”

Easily the most romantic figure Rand ever invented, Francisco d’Anconia is also her most compelling portrait of the practical man of action. Serenely confident and supremely capable, Francisco confronts any obstacle or challenge as if it were merely another opportunity to exercise his enormous talents. And though the strike ultimately costs him both his family fortune and the woman he loves, he remains untouched by any hint of tragedy.

In every way, Francisco represents the conventional morality stood on its head. Where traditional codes uphold meekness, mercy, and selflessness, he’s boldly self-assured, implacably just, and passionately assertive. He’s also the antithesis of the public image he deliberately adopts—the irresponsible hedonist. A man of iron determination, Francisco thinks, plans, and acts long-range. When Dagny asks him, “What’s the most depraved kind of human being?”—Francisco answers: “The man without a purpose.”

"He flew through the days. . . like a rocket,” Rand wrote, “but if one stopped him in mid-flight, he could always name the purpose of his every random moment. Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.”


This brings us to an aspect of Rand’s philosophy that still confuses many people. She advocated a morality she called “rational self-interest.” Today, “self-interest” has come to mean blindly indulging your desires and whims—doing whatever you feel like doing—sacrificing others to benefit yourself. So, some people believe that Rand’s philosophy of self-interest must amount to hedonism—and that the only moral alternative to such a self-indulgent outlook is to suppress and sacrifice your personal desires.

But as a champion of reason, Rand deplored the mindless “selfishness” of the hedonist, the materialist, and the criminal. She rejected self-indulgence and self-sacrifice as false alternatives, as equally irrational and self-destructive. Indulging whims, she argued, won’t bring happiness, but only frustration, misery, and ruin.

Early in the novel, we see James Taggart after he’s spent the night with a cheap, brainless society girl, Betty Pope. In the morning, through the haze of a hangover, Taggart looks at Betty’s clothes scattered around his room, and hears her gargling through the open door of the bathroom.

    Why do I do those things?—he thought, remembering last night. But it was too much trouble to look for an answer…

The nature of their relationship had. . . no passion in it, no desire, no actual pleasure, not even a sense of shame. To them, the act of sex was neither joy nor sin. It meant nothing. They had heard that men and women were supposed to sleep together, so they did.

Contrast this empty relationship with the passionate romances of the novel’s heroes. Rand meant for us to understand that romantic pleasure—like any other human value—arises from full consciousness. Hers is a morality of rational self-interest—of self-interest governed by reason, not whims.


But if reason is our only means of successfully dealing with reality, and if irrationality leads to destruction, what explains the widespread presence of irrationality in the world? In one of her most important insights, Ayn Rand pointed out that no evil person or irrational scheme can possibly succeed—unless theyre assisted and supported by rational people. Evil is basically irrational and self-destructive. For it to survive and succeed, it depends on the aid and support of its victims: the good and the rational.

The novel gives us many examples. Rearden’s family treats him cruelly—but only because he continues to support them financially. James Taggart, a vicious incompetent, uses his position as head of the railroad to thwart Dagny’s efforts and destroy her business allies—but only because she continues to run the railroad for him, sustaining him in that position of power. The fascist gang in Washington uses its power to loot businesses—but only because businessmen like Dagny and Rearden continue to produce and provide them the loot.

But why do the victims of evil tolerate such exploitation? Rand blamed the moral code of self-sacrifice. It damns people as greedy and selfish for pursuing their own happiness, and makes them feel ashamed of their personal goals, achievements, and wealth. Parasites and power-seekers exploit such guilt feelings in order to manipulate, control, and loot their victims.

In the story, Dr. Floyd Ferris threatens to expose Rearden’s extramarital affair with Dagny—unless Rearden signs away to the government all rights to his invention, Rearden Metal. Believing that publicizing their affair would expose Dagny to shame, Rearden gives in to the blackmail scheme. The extortion works only because he accepts the morality that condemns his affair as base and selfish. If instead he had viewed their relationship with pride, he’d have been immune to any threat of exposure. But the conventional moral code disarms him.

To defeat such evils, Rand declared, the victims must reject the ethics that damns them. This insight provided the central idea for her plot: the strike of the men of reason against the society that condemns, sacrifices, and plunders them. In Atlas Shrugged , she allows John Galt to speak for her:

    It is the victims who made injustice possible. It is the men of reason who made it possible for the rule of the brute to work…But this time—

it will not last

    . The victims are on strike. We are on strike against martyrdom—and against the moral code that demands it. We are on strike against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another.


Ayn Rand ’s morality regards each individuals life and happiness as an end in itself. Its social corollary is that no individual is a means to the ends of others. This principle lies at the base of the political ideas in Atlas Shrugged .

When, as a girl in Russia, she first heard the communist slogan that the individual should live for the state, Rand knew this was the principle that was making all the other Soviet horrors possible.

But why do people think it’s good to sacrifice individuals for the sake of the group? For one thing, they believe that human interests unavoidably must clash, so that one person’s gain is another person’s loss. This implies that someone’s interests must be sacrificed if another’s are to be furthered—and that the individual must be sacrificed if the group is to prosper.

This combative view of society seemed perfectly sensible to our tribal and feudal ancestors. In those days, life’s necessities were in short supply, and the strong often grew wealthy by plundering the weak. That’s why religions preached humility and self-sacrifice: By getting strong individuals to curb their appetites, it seemed that society as a whole might be better off.

But the Industrial Revolution exploded that myth. By using his reason, man began to transform the natural world into unlimited abundance. As creative developer, he gained, not at the expense of others, but by generating for himself wealth that never before existed. He was no longer a parasite or predator; he became a producer.

And this new wealth spread rapidly by means of trade. People exchanged goods and services they produced for those produced by others. By trading, each person swapped what he valued less for what he wanted more. The free economy, then, wasn’t a zero-sum game, with winners and losers; through production and peaceful trade, everyone benefited and no one lost.

Free trade demonstrated that there are no necessary conflicts of interest among people. In fact, there’s a natural harmony of interests—at least, among those people who deal with each other rationally and voluntarily: by production and exchange rather than by plunder and force.


All proper social relationships, Rand said, must be based on reason, not force. To insure this, the initiation of force must be banned in all its variations—including fraud and coercion. The only proper use of force is in self-defense or retaliation against the person who started its use.

Not even the government is morally entitled to initiate force, Rand argued. Governments should be limited to using only defensive force to protect people’s rights—that, and nothing else.

This means there should be no laws restricting any peaceful, voluntary activities: no laws interfering with economic or personal relationships; no limits on production or trade; no seizures of honestly acquired private property; and no deprivations of human liberty except in retaliation for a crime.

Through reason and freedom, an individual can achieve personal happiness and reach his full, productive, heroic potential.

This, in sum, was the revolutionary philosophy that Ayn Rand introduced in Atlas Shrugged .

This was her new moral ideal for a new age.

Robert James Bidinotto
About the author:
Robert James Bidinotto
Atlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand's Ideas and Influence