Atlas Shrugged: Catholic Parent Review
The last couple weeks I’ve been deep in the philosophy of Ayn Rand as I submerged myself in Atlas Shrugged until late in the night. And I can’t deny I enjoyed this iconic novel. Despite totaling over 1000 pages, Atlas Shrugged is surprisingly readable, especially when you consider that is fundamentally an apologia for Rand’s philosophy: objectivism. I found that I agreed with more of Rand’s ideas than I expected, but her philosophy as a whole is fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism. That means you as the parent have some critical thinking to do about whether this book is appropriate for your teens.
A Myth Retold
The title Atlas Shrugged points the reader to the Greek myth of Atlas, the titan who was sentenced to forever hold the world up on his shoulders. Rand equates the brilliant businessmen who produce the ideas and money that keeps the economy growing with Atlas: the few carrying the weight of a whole world on their shoulders. In Atlas Shrugged, one genius named John Galt decides to teach the ungrateful parasites of the world a lesson by convincing all the brilliant businessman and capable workers to go on strike. The world collapses without them. They come back and remake the world according to Rand’s Objectivism.
Objectivism and “objectivism”
So what is Objectivism? Well, traditionally the term “objectivism” was used as the opposite of “subjectivism” in philosophy. Aristotelian metaphysics states that an individual possesses life independent of his or her mind whereas Hume’s school of thought is that a being is only real as the mental presence which acquires our representation of it. Rand, and Catholicism, follow Aristotle’s metaphysics and affirm that a being has existence independent of its mind.
Put more simply, Aristotelian metaphysics argues for an objective reality that exists outside the mind and that the mind can understand.
So far we agree.
But Rand took the term Objectivism and used it in a more all-encompassing sense to describe her philosophy, which applies to both the political and economic realm and the moral realm.
Atlas Shrugged and Politics Today
What I really appreciate about Atlas Shrugged is the prescience Rand shows about Communism and its pitfalls. If Rand’s philosophy strays too far towards egoism, Communism goes to the other extreme.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand traces the inevitable path of a world where private property is abolished, merit unvalued, and excellence frowned upon. In one chilling section, she describes a factory of several thousand workers who decide to abolish salaries and instead vote to distribute the money based on “needs.” Of course, the result is that no one has motivation to work hard, and everyone has motivation to try to be the neediest and most pitiful. The factory soon stops making a profit, the workers hate each other, and the town faces starvation.
In the setting of Atlas Shrugged, America is the last capitalist society; the rest of the countries are communist in government. The American government demands that the businessman surrender their profits to send huge sums of money to the starving Communist countries. Higher and higher taxes are placed on Americans to feed the rest of the world. Even within America, increasing tax burdens are placed on the producers- the workers- in order to support an ever growing welfare state. In response, the American workers begin to stop trying to earn more than the basis for survival since the rest of their money will be taken anyway. When the big businessmen follow suit and stop producing, the economy collapses and the entire world is plunged into a primeval darkness both literally and figuratively.
Atlas Shrugged was written in 1957.
When it comes to politics and economics, Atlas Shrugged has a message America might need to hear today. But when it comes to Rand’s applications of her economic philosophy to morality, there are some parts of Rand’s Objectivism we just can’t accept as Catholics.
Rand’s Objectivism and Morality
As Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of human life. In Objectivism, Rand argues that there is no intrinsic value in human life. What determines and bestows value to a life is the free choice to think and choose values. For Rand, survival is achieved by choosing to pursue one’s own self-interests exclusively. Selfishness is her ultimate virtue, and altruism her ultimate vice.
Sacrifice is the ultimate altruism, so of course Rand detests it with a passion.
Rand and Religion
Now, as I read Atlas Shrugged, I realized that Rand valued many traditional virtues greatly: justice, temperance, honesty, prudence, and even humility in its true sense of knowing one’s own worth. But she insists that all of these virtues are simply part of man’s battle for survival: his struggle to fulfill his own natural purpose, independent of anyone else.
I think she misunderstood religion, and especially Catholicism. There’s a great Fulton Sheen Quote: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” Rand must have been one of those who misunderstood Religion.
Some of what she hates is a straw man. She claims that religion tells us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, whereas Catholic commentary on Mark 12:31 always emphasizes that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must first love and care for yourself.
She also equates religion with an excuse for people to demand what they haven’t earned in the name of charity. Of course, in its true sense, charity has to be a gift freely given: not something ever demanded as a right. (Note that here as in many places, I noticed parallels with the current state of our country where the government demands taxpayer dollars be given to “development” in other countries without our volition.)
For Rand, one of the greatest sins is a man using someone else’s pity as a weapon to manipulate them. Interestingly, in The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis comes down on this particular sin with a vengeance also. Now, a discussion between Rand and Lewis: that would have been worth hearing!
Original Sin is another huge stumbling block for Rand. She sees it as a cop out: a free pass on which to blame all our imperfections. In her view, man is born able to think clearly but begins to doubt his own mind and judgment as he submits his mind to others’ rules. This may be Rand’s view of the ultimate sin: to be untrue to our own idea of what is right.
Sound a little bit like the Catholic idea of never going against your conscience? It does to me. Of course in the Catholic view of conscience, a conscience must be formed correctly in order to be trustworthy.
There may be more common ground than Rand realized in her fundamental ideas and Catholic social teaching and beliefs. But unfortunately, in Atlas Shrugged, her conclusions are vehemently anti-religion, anti-God, and anti-charity.
Rand and Death
In Atlas Shrugged, the term “death” refers to a failure to live. Living, of course, refers to exercising one’s capacity to think and reason for Rand. So “death” in Atlas Shrugged refers to men who refuse to use their capacity to think. She describes such men as “no longer living.”
What exactly Rand thought about death in the sense of the separation of mind and body I wasn’t able to figure out from Atlas Shrugged. I don’t see how her philosophy encompasses this inevitable eventuality, unless perhaps she believed that there was nothing after death. This latter surmise is a probability given her hostility to Christian religion with its emphasis on a heavenly reward.
But Blaise Pascal’s classic wager comes to mind as I consider Rand’s philosophy: is the wager that there is nothing after death worth whatever pleasure we can wring from this world? Or is sticking with religion worth it given the unnerving possibility that it might be true?
Atlas Shrugged and Teens
Should teens read Atlas Shrugged? Philosophy aside, what else would parents want to consider about this book? The language is clean, and there is no graphic violence. However, there’s quite a lot of sexual content. One of the protagonists, Dagny, punctuates the book with her sexual relationships with 3 different men. Promiscuity is completely acceptable in Rand’s philosophy. (I actually found this surprising given the easily observable benefits of stable families to the individuals of the family.) Dagny’s sexual encounters are described quite sensually and take up a lot of pages. There’s also a lot of rhetoric about sex with multiple people not being a betrayal or immoral.
As far as the philosophical aspects of Rand’s Objectivism, I think that it’s too dense for most teens to sift through without guidance. As often happens, there’s enough true premises included that it’s quite difficult to determine where exactly the logical flaws are in Rand’s arguments. To really understand and refute the philosophy, a teen would need a solid grounding in metaphysics, ethics, and more.
Given the overt sexual content and hefty dose of flawed philosophy, I don’t recommend this even for older teens unless the parent is involved and helping unpack this dense and thought-provoking story.
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