Ayn Rand – “Atlas Shrugged” (1957) and “The Fountainhead” (1943)

Ayn Rand was a Russian born philosopher and novelist. She moved to the United States in the 1926. She used her novels to establish and advance her philosophical system. Her two most significant novels were The Fountainhead, published in the early 1940s, and Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957.

Rand’s political philosophy is in the classical liberal tradition, with that tradition’s emphasis upon individualism, the constitutional protection of individual rights to life, liberty, and property, and limited government. Regarding human nature, Rand said, “Man is a being of self-made soul.” Rand believes human beings are not born in sin or with destructive desires; nor do they necessarily acquire them in the course of growing to maturity. Instead one is born morally tabula rasa (a blank slate), and through one’s choices and actions one acquires one’s character traits and habits. And just as one is not born lazy but can by one’s choices develop oneself into a person of vigor or sloth, so also one is not born antisocial but can by one’s choices develop oneself into a person of cooperativeness or conflict. Rand took traditional Christian morality, which said it was good to act in the interest of others—not in your own selfish interest—and she flipped that. She said selfishness is a virtue, and the goal of life is to grow and develop as an individual, and that a moral social system supports the rights of the individual above all. If an individual chooses to do charity, they may; and if they choose to help others, they may; but that’s not how you measure their worth. You measure their worth essentially by their independence, their autonomy, their integrity to themselves. Based on her novels, Rand developed a significant, public following in the 1950s.

The Fountainhead was hailed by The New York Times reviewer, Lorine Pruette, as “masterful,”  but overall professional reviews were mixed. The public, on the other hand, enthusiastically received the book, making it a best seller by word of mouth. In her notes for The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand describes its purpose as “a defense of egoism in its real meaning . . . a new definition of egoism and its living example.” Rand later stated its theme as “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul; the psychological motivations and the basic premises that produce the character of an individualist or a collectivist.” What motivates a creative thinker? Is it a selfless desire to benefit mankind? A hunger for fame, fortune, and accolades? The need to prove superiority? Or is it a self-sufficient drive to pursue a creative vision, independent of others’ needs or opinions? Ayn Rand addresses these questions through her portrayal of Howard Roark, an innovative architect who, as she puts it, “struggles for the integrity of his creative work against every form of social opposition.”

The “living example” of egoism is Howard Roark, the novel’s protagonist, “an architect and innovator, who breaks with tradition, [and] recognizes no authority but that of his own independent judgment.” This individualism and Roark’s refusal to compromise his unconventional approach gets Roark expelled from a prestigious architectural school and, later, shapes his entire architectural career. Roark embodies a new concept of self-interest- – one that places nothing above the rational judgment of his independent mind. Roark’s individualism is contrasted with the spiritual collectivism of many of the other characters, who are variations on the theme of “second-handedness” — thinking, acting, and living second-hand. Roark struggles to endure not merely professional rejection, but also the denial of his closest friends: Ellsworth Toohey, beloved humanitarian and leading architectural critic, Gail Wynand, powerful publisher, and of Dominique Francon, the beautiful columnist who loves him fervently yet is bent on destroying his career.

The Fountainhead,” wrote Ayn Rand, “started in my mind as a definition of a new code of ethics — the morality of individualism. The idea of individualism is not new, but nobody had defined a consistent and specific way to live by it in practice. It is in their statements on morality that the individualist thinkers have floundered and lost their case. They had nothing better to offer than vulgar selfishness which consisted of sacrificing others to self. When I realized that that was only another form of collectivism — of living through others by ruling them — I had the key to The Fountainhead and to the character of Howard Roark.” The Fountainhead offers a radical rethinking of basic moral concepts. In particular, it rejects the conventional notion that selfishness involves harming and exploiting others. What Roark embodies is Rand’s new concept of selfishness, portrayed, not as a vice, but a virtue.

One of the qualities of Howard Roark that is so striking is his utter independence. (Roark’s designs “were not Classical, they were not Gothic, they were not Renaissance. They were only Howard Roark.”) In every area of his work and life — from his views on architecture to his career plans to his choice of friends — he thinks for himself, judges for himself, and makes decisions based solely on his own thinking and judgment. Roark does learn from others — such as the architect he most admires, Henry Cameron, and some of his teachers at school — but not by passively accepting their ideas on authority. And Roark does work with others — the clients who hire him to design their buildings, and the employees and contractors he hires to build them — but only on terms he thinks are correct. Roark exemplifies Rand’s concept of independence as the “acceptance of the responsibility of forming one’s own judgments and of living by the work of one’s own mind.” This is contrasted with “second-handedness,” characters who exhibit a basic dependence on others, whether in the form of seeking social approval as the measure of their own worth, or of following the opinions of others as authoritative, or of trying to dominate others in a quest for power.

Like The Fountainhead, Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged was received with negative reviews. It became a bestseller largely through word of mouth. Atlas Shrugged “is a mystery story, not about the murder of a man’s body, but about the murder — and rebirth — of man’s spirit.” There were strong individualistic creators on one hand, and parasitic, weak government officials and politicians on the other. And they were locked in battle, and the country was going downhill, because the government bureaucrats and second-handers were winning. The country had to be taken back by individualistic creators, most of whom were business people: scientists, inventors, industrialists linked to commerce.

The country’s top banker, a leading oil producer, a once-revered professor, an acclaimed composer, and a distinguished judge all vanish without explanation and without trace. A copper magnate becomes a worthless playboy. A philosopher-turned-pirate is rumored to roam the seas. The remnants of a brilliant invention are left as scrap in an abandoned factory. What is happening to the world? Why does it seem to be in a state of decay? Can it be saved — and how? Follow along as industrialist Hank Rearden and railroad executive Dagny Taggart struggle to keep the country afloat and unravel the mysteries that confront them. Discover why, at every turn, they are met with public opposition and new government roadblocks, taxes and controls — and with the disappearance of the nation’s most competent men and women. Will Hank and Dagny succeed in saving the country — and will they discover the answer to the questions “Who is John Galt?”; “Is the pursuit of profit a noble enterprise or the root of all evil?”; “Is reason an absolute or is faith an alternative source of truth?”; “Is self-esteem possible or are we consigned to a life of self-doubt and guilt?”; and “In what kind of society can an individual prosper?” A plot summary can be found at https://atlassociety.org/atlas-shrugged/atlas-shrugged-blog/3176-atlas-shrugged-plot-synopsis.

Rand described the theme of the novel as “the role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as a corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest.” It advocates the core tenets of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and expresses her concept of human achievement. The plot involves a dystopian United States in which the most creative industrialists, scientists, and artists respond to a welfare state government by going on strike and retreating to a mountainous hideaway where they build an independent free economy. The novel’s hero and leader of the strike, John Galt, describes the strike as “stopping the motor of the world” by withdrawing the minds of the individuals most contributing to the nation’s wealth and achievement. With this fictional strike, Rand intended to illustrate that without the efforts of the rational and productive, the economy would collapse and society would fall apart. The novel includes elements of mystery, romance, and science fiction, and it contains an extended exposition of Objectivism in the form of a lengthy monologue delivered by Galt.

The major themes of Atlas Shrugged are (1) Reason – The theme of Atlas Shrugged, according to Ayn Rand, “is the role of the mind in man’s existence.” It is the mind, the story shows, that is the root of all human knowledge and values — and its absence is the root of all evil. For Rand, reason is needed not just by a theoretical scientist in his lab, but by all of us at all times. All of the novel’s heroes are thinkers: they demonstrate an ongoing commitment to understanding their work, themselves and the world around them. They choose their goals and values by a process of thought, never putting their desires above the facts. The villains, on the other hand, are those who defy reason and evade facts, acting on what’s left: their feelings. As a result, they are in constant conflict with reality and achieve nothing. This is what leads one of the novel’s heroes to the conclusion that thinking is the basic virtue life requires, and that the anti-mind is the anti-life; (2) Good vs. Evil – Atlas Shrugged challenges many conventional notions about good and evil: that sex is a low, animal desire; that money is the root of evil; that man is sinful by nature. One of the most prominent is the notion that selfishness is evil and self-sacrifice is good. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are condemned for their selfishness, while the villains tout their selflessness and the moral duty to sacrifice. But readers come to see that the interests of the rational characters don’t consist of robbery, exploitation, crass materialism or cold-heartedness. Rather, the heroes’ interests consist in highly admirable values and virtues: unflinching honesty, independent judgment, personal achievement. In their dealings with others, they seek to gain by trade, with the result being a profound benevolence toward other such self-interested characters. Self-sacrifice, by contrast, is shown to lead to just the sort of cruelty, exploitation and injustice traditionally associated with “selfishness.” Thus, in Atlas a code of rational self-interest emerges as a Morality of Life and the conventional code of selflessness and self-sacrifice emerges as a Morality of Death; (3) The Nobility of Business – Atlas Shrugged is a favorite book among businessmen, and for good reason. Many of the heroic characters are businessmen who deeply love and excel at their work. Dagny and Hank in particular are shown as devoted to their careers — a devotion that requires a solemn commitment to virtue: to thought, integrity, courage, responsibility, tenacity. Importantly, many of the novel’s villains are businessmen as well. The basic difference is that they betray the actual nature of business: for them business is not a realm in which to use their minds to create values. Instead, it is a means to appropriate values produced by others. James Taggart, for instance, lives off his sister’s accomplishments and Orren Boyle gets rich from handouts and government favors. For the first time in history, in the pages of Atlas, those who pursue business rationally receive profound moral recognition, while those who enter the realm to expropriate values receive condemnation; and, (4) Reason and Freedom – Reason and freedom are corollaries, Ayn Rand holds, as are faith and force. Atlas Shrugged showcases both relationships. The heroes are unwavering thinkers. Whether it is a destructive business scheme proclaimed as moral, the potential collapse of the economy, or a personal life filled with pain, the heroes seek to face the facts and understand. To them, reason is an absolute. Politically, therefore, what they require and demand is freedom. Freedom to think, to venture into the new and unknown, to earn, to trade, to succeed and fail and pursue their own individual happiness. The villains, by contrast, reject the absolutism of reason. They want a world ruled by their feelings, in which wishing makes it so. James Taggart, for instance, wants to be the head of a railroad without the need of effort. No amount of thinking can bring such a world about — he must attempt to bring it about by force. As Rand puts it elsewhere, “Anyone who resorts to the formula: ‘It’s so, because I say so,’ will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later.”

The three parts of the book are each named in tribute to Aristotle’s laws of logic. Part One is titled “Non-Contradiction,” and appropriately, the first third of the book confronts two prominent business executives, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden and the reader with a host of seeming contradictions and paradoxes with no apparently logical solutions. Part Two, titled “Either-Or,” focuses on Dagny Taggart’s struggle to resolve a dilemma: either to continue her battle to save her business or to give it up. Part Three is titled “A Is A,” symbolizing what Rand referred to as “the Law of Identity” and here, the answers to all the apparent contradictions finally are identified and resolved by Dagny and Rearden, and also for the reader.

The tale is told largely from the point of view of Dagny, the beautiful, superlatively competent chief of operations for the nation’s largest railroad, Taggart Transcontinental. The main story line is Dagny’s quest to understand the cause underlying the seemingly inexplicable collapse of her railroad and industrial civilization and simultaneously, her tenacious, desperate search for two unknown men: one, the inventor of an abandoned motor so revolutionary that it could have changed the world; the other, a mysterious figure who, like some perverse kind of Pied Piper, seems purposefully bent on luring away from society its most able and talented people – an unseen destroyer who, she believes, is “draining the brains of the world.”

A major subplot follows steel titan Hank Rearden in his spiritual quest to understand the unknown forces that are undermining his career and happiness, and turning his talents and energies toward his own destruction. In the shoes of Dagny and Rearden, we gradually learn the full explanation behind the startling events wreaking havoc in their world. With them, we come to discover that all the mysteries and strange events of the story proceed from a single philosophical cause and that Ayn Rand poses a provocative philosophical remedy for many of the moral and cultural crises of our own world. When in virtually every Hollywood movie the “bad guy” is always the one who thinks only of himself and the “good guy” sacrifices himself for the benefit of others; when the leftist propaganda machine persuaded generations of Americans that the mega-industrialists of the 19th century – “the greatest humanitarians of mankind” – were nothing but “robber barons”; and when an American president dares to preach, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and is wildly applauded even by self-styled capitalists – after all this, Rand’s conclusion was that America is committing suicide by way of a cup of moral hemlock served up by left-wing intellectuals in their perverted thrust to establish an anti-rational nightmarish society.

In sum, what Rand did very deliberately is to create a portrait of American business, American commercial life, American industry, as a creative and challenging and dynamic field of human endeavor. And also a moral place. Where, to grow a business and have an idea and see that idea come to fruition, come to reality, was essentially a moral thing to do. It was not selfish; it was self-actualization, and it was performing to your highest potential in the world. What is left is something that’s run under the radar: the elevation of the business person, the elevation of the capitalist entrepreneur individualist as the true leader of society, as the true change agent of society. She asserted that the government really didn’t have a positive role to play in society; it needed to be absolutely minimal. It should set the rules of the road, enforce contracts, provide for national defense, and otherwise basically get out of the way. The way you free the individual, the way you grow a free society, is by stripping the government down and shrinking the government as much as possible.

In 1991, the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club polled readers on what book had influenced them the most. Atlas Shrugged finished second, behind only the Bible. Nowadays Atlas Shrugged sells more than 200,000 copies each year, and professors are more likely to assign than attack Rand’s writing.

“2112,” Rush (1976). The progressive rock band Rush made no secret of their love for Ayn Rand. They not only shouted out Rand in the liner notes of their breakthrough album 2112, they injected Rand’s themes into several songs- “Anthem” and “Trees.” 2112 is a 20-minute, eight-movement suite with an overture, akin to a rock opera. It is a song cycle that tells the story of a futuristic and tyrannical, totalitarian society where individual choice and initiative have been replaced by the top-down control of an autocratic regime. It tells the story of a futuristic, fictional city of Megadon, a place “where individualism and creativity are outlawed with the population controlled by a cabal of malevolent Priests who reside in the Temples of Syrin. (See, the Fall 2002 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Volume 4, Number 1): 161-85; “Ayn Rand and Progressive Rock,” Fall 2003 issue of JARS.)

The song “Anthem” is a manifesto of conceptual principles. In “Anthem,” Geddy Lee sings “live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for/begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more” and “I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong/Yet it was for me, not you, I came to write this song.” https://youtu.be/AZm1_jtY1SQ

I lie awake, staring out at the bleakness of Megadon. City and sky become one, merging
into a single plane, a vast sea of unbroken grey. The Twin Moons, just two pale orbs as
they trace their way across the steely sky. I used to think I had a pretty good life here,
just plugging into my machine for the day, then watching Templevision or reading a Temple
Paper in the evening.

‘My friend Jon always said it was nicer here than under the atmospheric domes of the Outer
Planets. We have had peace since 2062, when the surviving planets were banded together under
the Red Star of the Solar Federation. The less fortunate gave us a few new moons.
I believed what I was told. I thought it was a good life, I thought I was happy. Then I found
something that changed it all…’

[I. Overture]

And the meek shall inherit the earth…

[II. Temples of Syrinx]

…’The massive grey walls of the Temples rise from the heart of every Federation city. I
have always been awed by them, to think that every single facet of every life is regulated
and directed from within! Our books, our music, our work and play are all looked after by
the benevolent wisdom of the priests…’

We’ve taken care of everything
The words you read, the songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
It’s one for all and all for one
We work together, common sons
Never need to wonder how or why

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
We are the Priests, of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls

Look around at this world we’ve made
Equality our stock in trade
Come and join the Brotherhood of Man
Oh, what a nice, contented world
Let the banners be unfurled
Hold the Red Star proudly high in hand

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
We are the Priests, of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls

[III. Discovery]

‘…Behind my beloved waterfall, in the little room that was hidden beneath the cave, I
found it. I brushed away the dust of the years, and picked it up, holding it reverently in
my hands. I had no idea what it might be, but it was beautiful…’

‘…I learned to lay my fingers across the wires, and to turn the keys to make them sound
differently. As I struck the wires with my other hand, I produced my first harmonious sounds
and soon my own music! How different it could be from the music of the Temples! I can’t wait
to tell the priests about it!…’

What can this strange device be?
When I touch it, it gives forth a sound
It’s got wires that vibrate and give music
What can this thing be that I found?

See how it sings like a sad heart
And joyously screams out its pain
Sounds that build high like a mountain
Or notes that fall gently like rain

I can’t wait to share this new wonder
The people will all see its light
Let them all make their own music
The Priests praise my name on this night

[IV. Presentation]

‘…In the sudden silence as I finished playing, I looked up to a circle of grim,
expressionless faces. Father Brown rose to his feet, and his somnolent voice echoed
throughout the silent Temple Hall…’

‘…Instead of the grateful joy that I expected, they were words of quiet rejection!
Instead of praise, sullen dismissal. I watched in shock and horror as Father Brown ground
my precious instrument to splinters beneath his feet…’

I know it’s most unusual
To come before you so
But I’ve found an ancient miracle
I thought that you should know
Listen to my music
And hear what it can do
There’s something here as strong as life
I know that it will reach you

Yes, we know, it’s nothing new
It’s just a waste of time
We have no need for ancient ways
The world is doing fine
Another toy that helped destroy
The elder race of man
Forget about your silly whim
It doesn’t fit the plan

I can’t believe you’re saying
These things just can’t be true
Our world could use this beauty
Just think what we might do
Listen to my music
And hear what it can do
There’s something here as strong as life
I know that it will reach you

Don’t annoy us further!
We have our work to do
Just think about the average
What use have they for you?
Another toy that helped destroy
The elder race of man
Forget about your silly whim
It doesn’t fit the Plan!

[V. Oracle: The Dream]

‘…I guess it was a dream, but even now it all seems so vivid to me. Clearly yet I see
the beckoning hand of the oracle as he stood at the summit of the staircase…’

‘…I see still the incredible beauty of the sculptured cities and the pure spirit of man
revealed in the lives and works of this world. I was overwhelmed by both wonder and
understanding as I saw a completely different way to life, a way that had been crushed
by the Federation long ago. I saw now how meaningless life had become with the loss of
all these things…’

I wandered home through the silent streets
And fell into a fitful sleep
Escape to realms beyond the night
Dream can’t you show me the light?

I stand atop a spiral stair
An oracle confronts me there
He leads me on light years away
Through astral nights, galactic days
I see the works of gifted hands
That grace this strange and wondrous land
I see the hand of man arise
With hungry mind and open eyes

They left our planets long ago
The elder race still learn and grow
Their power grows with purpose strong
To claim the home where they belong
Home to tear the Temples down…
Home to change!

[VI. Soliloquy]

‘…I have not left this cave for days now, it has become my last refuge in my total
despair. I have only the music of the waterfall to comfort me now. I can no longer live
under the control of the Federation, but there is no other place to go. My last hope is
that with my death I may pass into the world of my dream, and know peace at last.’

The sleep is still in my eyes
The dream is still in my head
I heave a sigh and sadly smile
And lie a while in bed
I wish that it might come to pass
Not fade like all my dreams…

Just think of what my life might be
In a world like I have seen!
I don’t think I can carry on
Carry on this cold and empty life

My spirits are low in the depths of despair
My lifeblood…
…Spills over…

[VII. The Grand Finale]

Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation
Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation
Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation
We have assumed control
We have assumed control
We have assumed control


“Atlas Choking,” Richard Shindell (2016) https://youtu.be/foNgBEyD-2Q This song presents one of the ultimate conundrums for a capitalist: where profits and social common good are in conflict. Atlas Choking opens with the notoriously ultra-capitalist Ayn Rand greeting the actor Yul Brynner in an unspecified afterlife: “Dead Ayn Rand took Yul by the hand,” sings Shindell, “and said, ‘How does it feel to be free?’” Those who may not follow pop culture and politics, Brynner was the head-shaven star of Westworld and The King and I, as well as a heavy smoker who died from lung cancer. Rand, meanwhile, was one of the tobacco industry’s most avid advocates. “I went on a jag researching Objectivism and their philosophy,” explains Shindell. “I find it fascinating that Ayn Rand holds up a song presents the ultimate smoking as some sort of symbol of rational interest and freedom, when you’re dealing with an addictive substance. So the song is really just kind of a fleshing out of that particular contradiction in that philosophy. Which I find to be just a horrible little philosophy.”

Ayn is dead, she died in her bed
At the end of a terrible illness
Her oxygen berth untethered from earth
She drifted up into the stillness
Eleven years later, good old Yul Brenner
Found himself there in the ether
Dead Ayn Rand took Yul by the hand
And said, how does it feel to be free
Meanwhile on the planet the devil’s still at it
Making a killing churning out addicts
Everybody everywhere sucking in Ayn’s air
Atlas choking

Big tobacco sent flowers around
With a note and basket of options
If you know what’s good for you hold on to these
Cause everything’s going to go up up up
Greenspan and Stockman leading the horsemen
The party was just getting started
The Marlboro man rode into Japan
And looked over the water to China

All over the planet the devil’s still at it
Making a killing churning out addicts
Everybody everywhere sucking in Ayn’s air
Atlas choking
Rational greed, the national creed
Will keep things smoking along

So keep watching those shares, but don’t you dare share
The poor are that way for good reason
So everyone hush, utopia’s flush
And beckoning off in the long-run

Meanwhile on the planet the devil’s still at it
Making a killing churning out addicts
Everybody everywhere sucking in Ayn’s air
Atlas choking