The mysterious question that opens Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged has now haunted the readers, seekers and thinkers who comprise her audience for fifty years, as of today. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism finds its voice – and a great deal of its thought – in this book. I am not an objectivist. I consider myself more of an existentialist – a term Rand herself preferred to “objectivism,” but which, she said, had already been taken by its adherents in a slightly different direction. Nevertheless, I do find much to appreciate about Rand’s worldview.
In defining Objectivism, she wrote, “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.”
While Rand and I might disagree on a few definitions here and there, I find her basic framework quite appealing.
Rand, it must be noted, was an avowed athiest. This, she explained, was because, “I had decided that the concept of God is degrading to men. Since they say that God is perfect, man can never be that perfect, then man is low and imperfect and there is something above him – which is wrong.”
Anybody familiar with conservative theistic philosophies – be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or some other religious tradition – can see where she is coming from. In my own religious heritage, Evangelical Christianity, it is called “worm theology,” the belief, drawn from an old Isaac Watts hymn, “that a feeling and expression of low self worth means God is more likely to show mercy and compassion.” This belief has its parallels in virtually all theistic religions. Even in more gracious religious systems, such as some more modern streams of evangelical Christianity, the prevailing belief is that man is always on the verge of failure, that God is constantly at watch in case of such failures, and that religious structures are necessary to prevent them.
Small wonder, then, that according to Neil Parille writing at Rebirth of Reason, “Ayn Rand is noteworthy for her atheism and uncompromising opposition to religion. Unlike many non-believers who see utilitarian value to religion, Rand is somewhat unique in seeing (with minor exceptions) virtually no value to religion.”
This seems, to me, to stem from a deep misunderstanding of the Christian religion – not merely on Rand’s part, but on the part of those who claim to adhere to it.
After all, when one reads the Bible – the epic story central to Christianity – one sees in man the same things Rand saw in her characters. Genesis 1 describes mankind as the pinnacle of creation, a being formed in the image of God, blessed, and given primacy over every other living thing. It is true that the heroic being at the center of God’s creative work is ultimately capable of failure, but so were Rand’s characters. Even the messianic John Galt himself ends up in need of rescuing before the final pages of her novel.
So rather than the concept of God being “degrading to man,” it seems to me that the concept of God is the very thing that gives humanity its worth – for are we not far more valuable as beings created in God’s image than we are as the momentary occupants of the top spot in a food chain subject to the accident of natural selection?
I think Rand had it right, when she described man (and woman – the most compelling character in Atlas Shrugged is its female protagonist, Dagny Taggart) as a heroic being.
What, then of her belief in “his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life”?
I am not breaking any new ground when I say that this notion is perfectly compatible with a Christian worldview. John Piper, an evangelical Christian theologian, has already spent a great deal of time reconciling this perspective with a religious outlook. He calls his synthesis “Christian Hedonism,” which he summarizes in the phrase, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” He seems to differ from Rand in that he says “By Christian Hedonism, we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good . . .” but ultimately he reconciles the two divergent worldviews with, “. . . The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God.”
The rest is mere semantics. Rand exalted “productive achievement as [man’s] noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” I agree with both sentiments – though Rand and I would probably be quite at variance over what constitutes “productive achievement” or “reason.”
Nevertheless, my regular readers will be quite familiar with my essays on choice – and on the importance of actively choosing. To me, this constitutes the highest level of productive achievement, and I am not sure that Rand would disagree all that much. Her characters, after all, are at their best when they are making choices for themselves, rather than being forced into certain actions – even actions she considers heroic.
As for “reason,” what is reason, anyway? Apologetics.org defines reason as “the use of logical faculties to arrive at truth.” It has already been demonstrated, though, that Rand’s view of mankind, while exultant, left room for human failings. Thus, there is room for a perfect embodiment of reason, which is capable of bestowing that reason upon the products of its own labor – in short, there is room for God.
The success of this book (According to the Christian Science Monitor, a 1991 poll ranked it the second most influential book in America, after the Bible) is to me a testament to the very ideal it espouses – the glory of the human spirit. It is a testament to the fact that, despite the messages with which we are daily confronted about the depravity, degradation and disgustingness of what mankind is and has become, we refuse to believe that these outward actions are the sum total of who, or what, we are. Why else would a book like this be so influential, if it were not a release of that burden – an assurance that I am not the sum total of what others say about me, or even of the things I do.And yet, Rand would harshly disapprove of the “cult of self-esteem” that has been born in Western Civilization over the last century or so. She would note that there are those who have done little or nothing to earn the lofty opinions they have of themselves.
She would urge them to do something about it – and so do I. Don’t for one minute rest on the laurels of the so-called “experts” – politicians, teachers, doctors, pastors – anyone who tries to tell you that you don’t have to think . . . that they’ll do your thinking for you. On this point Ayn Rand and I agree perfectly – a life of discovering, becoming, and deliberately shaping your psyche and your world through the choices you make is a life truly lived!
This is mankind’s burden, and our gift. Some see choice as a prison, a labyrinth from which there is no escape, and in which one wrong choice could spell death.
I see death in the lack of choice – for it is our ability to choose that makes us human. If we lose that, what are we?
Live free and unencumbered in a life of your own choosing. That is what you were created to do.
And if somebody tries to place the weight of the world on your shoulders . . . shrug.