“Atlas Shrugged” Fifty Years Later
Appreciation and Criticism
Today, October 10, 2007, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. As I write this on October 9, 2007, the book is ranked 237 at Amazon. That is phenomenal for a 1,200-page novel that contains philosophical speeches, one of which stretches to 90 uninterrupted pages. The book has sold over six million copies. In one survey from 16 years ago, Atlas Shrugged was ranked second only to the Bible as the book that influenced people most.
My Ayn Rand craze was in the late seventies when I was a professor of Biblical Studies at Bethel College. I read most of what she wrote both fiction and non-fiction. I was attracted and repulsed. I admired and cried. I was blown away with powerful statements of what I believed, and angered that she shut herself up in what Jonathan Edwards called the infinite provincialism of atheism. Her brand of hedonism was so close to my Christian Hedonism and yet so far—like a satellite that comes close to the gravitational pull of truth and then flings off into the darkness of outer space.
She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, graduated with a degree in history from the University of Leningrad in 1924, and emigrated to the United States in 1926. “I am an American by choice and conviction,” she wrote, “I was born in Europe, but I came to America because this was the country based on my moral premises and the only country where I could be fully free to write.” She died on March 6, 1982.
She abominated altruism. All self-sacrifice is evil because
Sacrifice is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of non-value. Thus altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less ‘selfish’ than help to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.
Sentences like these made me want to scream. No. No. No. Altruism (treating someone better than he deserves) does not have to involve “betraying your values” or “sacrificing a greater value to a lesser one.” In other words, I agreed with her that we should never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one. But I disagreed that mercy (returning good for evil) always involved doing that.
Ayn Rand had no place for mercy, whereas Christianity has mercy at its heart. And the reason for the difference is that God was simply missing in Ayn Rand’s universe. Since there was no God from whom she had received everything undeserved, and since there was no God who promised to reward every act that showed his supreme worth, she could only conceive of sacrifice as the immoral suicide of one’s own values.
What Ayn Rand meant by altruism is indeed ugly and can be seen best in the words of Lillian Rearden to her husband in Atlas Shrugged. Here is the essence of the evil of altruism, as Rand saw it:
If you tell a beautiful woman that she is beautiful, what have you given her? It’s no more than a fact and it costs you nothing. But if you tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty. To love a woman for her virtues is meaningless. She’s earned it, it’s a payment, not a gift. But to love her for her vices is to defile all virtue for her sake—and that is a real tribute of love, because you sacrifice your conscience, your reason, your integrity and your invaluable self-esteem.
Since Ayn Rand had no place for a sovereign, all-sufficient God who cannot be traded with, she did not reckon with any righteous form of mercy. It is indeed evil to love a person “for their vices.” But mercy in the Christian sense is not “because of” vices, but “in spite of” vices. It is not intended to reward evil, but to reveal the bounty of God who cannot be traded with, but only freely admired and enjoyed. It aims not to corrupt or compromise integrity, but to transform the values of the enemy into the values of Christ. While it may mean the sacrifice of some temporal pleasures, it is never the sacrifice of greater values to lesser ones. It is the sacrifice of lower values to higher ones.
Therefore, Ayn Rand’s philosophy did not need to be entirely scrapped. Rather, it needed to take all of reality into account, including the infinite God. No detail of her philosophy would have been left untouched.
I have written a much longer form of this critique which you may read at the Desiring God site. I sent her a copy of this longer essay in 1979 three years before she died. I don’t know if she received it. I tried to commend Christ to her as the final correction and consummation of her life’s work.
This anniversary is not a time to celebrate her philosophy. That would be like celebrating a blind person’s exquisite ability to identify things by touch and then use the truth he finds to curse the idea of light. Instead, let the day be a reminder that there are pointers to Christ in every philosophy. And let us pray that we not be like the one-year-old who, when daddy points at the flower, looks at his daddy’s finger instead.