Absurdist character development in Atlas Shrugged

I recently churned through the novel Atlas Shrugged.  In this novel, Ayn Rand presents her philosophy of Objectivism.  I like philosophy.  I like novels.  I even like philosophical novels, so I thought that Atlas Shrugged might be the perfect book for me.  After reading the novel, I planned to write about Objectivism. The thing is, I found the characters and events in the novel so absurd that I find it hard to evaluate the philosophy.

A vast majority of the characters in the novel fall into one of three types:

  • extremely competent people, violently opposed to emotive thinking,
  • sentimental people impervious to reason (these people are invariably portrayed has having evil ulterior motives), or
  • incompetent useless people.

Rand describes a world where a handful of competent people are running productive industries. Evil, sentimental people get control of government and make life difficult for the competent industrialists. In retaliation, the competent industrialists leave society.  Society can no longer sustain itself without these competent people. Everything falls apart and turns to chaos.

I found it difficult to accept this novel as portraying something possible.  The world isn’t made up of 1% rational competent people, 4% sentimental evil people, an 95% incompetent people.  Removing the top 1% of the population would be disruptive.  However, I find it impossible to believe that society would be destroyed. There are more than enough people smart enough to keep things going, even if at a slower rate of progress. In addition, I find it hard to believe that the sentimental, evil people controlling the government would be stupid enough to make business impossible for all industrialists.

Rand works out a rationale for why emotion apart from rationality leads to mayhem–and I can appreciate that–but she presents her case in absolute terms that allow no room for rational imperfection. She seems incapable of understanding that most people contain a mix of emotions and rationality. For example, the novel contains a 55 page speech that lays out the nature of Objectivism. Early on, the speech states:

Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice–and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal.

and later,

Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it.  A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death.

I find it difficult to believe that the least deviation from rationality and self-interest results in death.

In my opinion, a robust philosophy (or way of life) has to take into account human nature as it exists rather than reject everyone falling short of a narrow ideal. Most people contain a mix of emotions and rationality.  The philosophical system should not fail at the slightest expression of emotion.

It’s hard to tell whether Rand is portraying a hypothetical world or whether she sees the real world this way. The characters might fit in an alternate universe but the story is set on earth with characters intended to represent normal human psychology. In addition, the philosophy was stated in such absolute terms that it became absurd. If Objectivism requires an acceptance of this polarized thinking, I can’t buy it.

One thought on “Absurdist character development in Atlas Shrugged”

  1. Hey – quality write-up. We are big readers of Rand and Atlas Shrugged here too – we even built the green-blue bracelet that Rearden made from his first batch and tried to give to his wife. It’s named the Liberty Bracelet – take a look at http://www.libertybracelet.com. Proceeds are going to the Campaign For Liberty so we thought you’d enjoy it.

    If you’d like to blog about the Bracelet or have us post about it for you, we’d be happy to send you the “Friends and Family” coupon for them! Please write an email if you’d be down, we’d be very thankful.

    Anyhow… nice site… we’re subscribed to your feed now so thanks again!

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