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New Ideal - Reason | Individualism | Capitalism

Atlas Shrugged on the Role of the Mind in Man’s Existence, Part 2

To live as a man is to exercise one’s power of thought and choice.

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In discussing reason’s role in production, we focused on what philosophers call “instrumental reasoning”—that is, calculating the means necessary to achieve an end. To return to our last example, Dagny sought to move trains through the Taggart Terminal, and figured out how to do it. The broken interlocking system, a product of reason, was likewise devised as a means to this end. Again, consider the ten-year long process by which Rearden designed his Metal. There was something he sought—a metal with certain properties—and he thought about the means of creating it. However, Rand maintained that reason is responsible for determining our ends as well as our means.1

Before taking up Atlas Shrugged’s treatment of this point, it will be instructive to briefly consider it independently of the novel. We can begin by imagining the content of an animal’s consciousness. Take the case of a tiger on the hunt: he is seeking his prey, and in some manner—perhaps in the form of an image—he must be aware of this goal. In this way, the tiger can consciously pursue the prey or a mate, but he cannot consciously pursue good nutrition or parenthood as such; much less can he consciously pursue life or any particular sort of life. The tiger’s consciousness is limited to the perceptual level, and he cannot project goals that cannot be perceived. Because his life as a whole is outside the range of his consciousness, he cannot consciously pursue or direct it. Its direction is provided by genetically programmed desires or learned habits that nonconsciously cause him to be motivated to pursue various perceptible goals and to take various concrete actions, which, unbeknownst to him, cohere into a self-sustaining way of life. Thus, as Rand explains,

an animal’s life consists of a series of separate cycles, repeated over and over again, such as the cycle of breeding its young, or of storing food for the winter; an animal’s consciousness cannot integrate its entire lifespan; it can carry just so far, then the animal has to begin the cycle all over again, with no connection to the past. Man’s life is a continuous whole: for good or evil, every day, year and decade of his life holds the sum of all the days behind him.2

A man can—and, indeed, must—project goals that are outside of the range of his perceptual awareness. He must conceive purposes, holding them in mind over a span of time, directing himself toward them. Think, for example of how Rearden held “the one thought” of his metal “immovably across a span of ten years, under everything he did and everything he saw” (30). Further, man can integrate his purposes into wider and wider values, to be pursued over longer and longer expanses of time, culminating in a conception of his life as a whole, as a value to be achieved and maintained. Thus Rearden, seeing the neon sign above his mills as he walks home after pouring the first heat of his Metal, thinks of the other neon signs in different parts of the country reading “Rearden Ore—Rearden Coal—Rearden Limestone” and wishes “it were possible to light a neon sign above them, saying: Rearden Life” (32): each sign represents a value achieved, and he conceives of his life as an ever-growing sum of such achievements.

A purpose conceived and pursued over time is a value in the sense in which that term is properly applicable to man. Galt, in his speech, defines a value as “that which one acts to gain and keep” (1012), and there is a sense in which a man chasing after something in the short-range manner of an animal might be said to be pursuing a value; but human beings cannot survive in this manner, nor can they even find such values desirable, except in a context where they see them contributing to further values. Whereas an animal is motivated to pursue certain perceptible things by innate desires, all of man’s desires derive from the purposes he has chosen.

This difference between men and animals is highlighted in Dagny’s thoughts, during her stay in Woodstock. Having quit the railroad, which has been her central purpose in life since she was a child, she retreats to the country to regroup; with nothing else to do, she finds herself rebuilding the path from her cabin.

The work gave her the calm needed; she had not noticed how she began it or why; she had started without conscious intention, but she saw it growing under her hands, pulling her forward, giving her a healing sense of peace. Then she understood that what she needed was the motion to a purpose, no matter how small or in what form, the sense of an activity going step by step to some chosen end across a span of time. The work of cooking a meal was like a closed circle, completed and gone, leading nowhere. But the work of building a path was a living sum, so that no day was left to die behind her, but each day contained all those that preceded it, each day acquired its immortality on every succeeding tomorrow. A circle, she thought, is the movement proper to physical nature, they say that there’s nothing but circular motion in the inanimate universe around us, but the straight line is the badge of man, the straight line of a geometrical abstraction that makes roads, rails and bridges, the straight line that cuts the curving aimlessness of nature by a purposeful motion from a start to an end. The cooking of meals, she thought, is like the feeding of coal to an engine for the sake of a great run, but what would be the imbecile torture of coaling an engine that had no run to make? It is not proper for man’s life to be a circle, she thought, or a string of circles dropping off like zeros behind him—man’s life must be a straight line of motion from goal to farther goal, each leading to the next and to a single growing sum, like a journey down the track of a railroad, from station to station. (609)

A tiger would not experience the process of acquiring food when he had no further purpose as an “imbecile torture,” because his awareness does not reach beyond the meal. The direction of his life and the place of the meal in it is set for him by nonconscious mechanisms. For Dagny, whose consciousness does reach further, the meal can only be a value as a means to or part of something more. And she must conceive and choose this something herself. At this point in the novel she has abandoned what had been her central purpose in life and, because of certain philosophical confusions, is unable to choose another one.3 It is for this reason that she can find no joy in such short-range goals as preparing a meal. (Notice how she delights in this very same task, later in the novel, when cooking for Galt in the valley [774–75].)

Dagny’s mind is fiercely active, and she experiences her lack of a purpose during her time in Woodstock as an unbearable departure from her normal way of functioning. Other characters, who lack a purpose because they are mentally passive or evasive, do not experience the lack as Dagny does, but it is nonetheless present. Such people, like the “old woman” of Starnesville, come as near as a human being can to an animal’s mode of action; but they do not have the vitality that we associate with animals. Instead they drift through life without feeling the passions that even animals experience for such things as food and sex. Consider in this connection how James Taggart and Betty Pope’s relationship is described:

There was no passion in it, no desire, no actual pleasure, not even a sense of shame. To them, the act of sex was neither joy nor sin. It meant nothing. They had heard that men and women were supposed to sleep together, so they did. (71)

The negative characters are similarly indifferent to money. In part III, for example, Jim absentmindedly hands a bum a hundred-dollar bill, which is “the first wad of paper” he finds in his pocket. He notices that the bum accepts the money in the same “automatic and meaningless” manner in which he gave it—“as if he would have been indifferent had he received a hundred dollars or a dime or, failing to find any help whatever, had seen himself dying of starvation within this night” (864). Over the course of the evening, Jim has “thrown dollars about by the hundreds” for “unfinished drinks,” “uneaten delicacies,” “unprovoked tips,” and such “unexpected whims” as a “long distance phone call to Argentina” to check “the exact version of a smutty story.” Reflecting on this, he realizes that “he had never cared for money” and feels a “shudder of dread” at the recognition that “he would be equally indifferent were he reduced to the state of the beggar” (867).

This indifference comes from the abdication of the mind, as Francisco explains in his speech at Taggart’s wedding on “the meaning of money”:

[Money] will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver. It will give you the means for the satisfaction of your desires, but it will not provide you with desires. . . . Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he’s evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he’s evaded the choice of what to seek. (411)

There are two crucially connected points here. The first is that valuing as such is a conceptual process, which requires using one’s mind to project new possibilities, and to direct oneself toward them over time. This is the case regardless of what one values. To be purposive at all, a man must be a thinker—he must have a “concept of what one wants” (though there is a certain, degenerate respect in which nonthinkers may be said to have purposes). The second point is that some purposes are rational and right and others irrational (or, at least, mistaken) and wrong: man must use his mind to discover “the knowledge of what to value.” Crucial to Rearden’s valuing of Rearden Metal, for example, is his identification of it as good. Ultimately validating this judgment requires an explicit code of values, and later I will comment briefly on the need for such a code and reason’s role in defining one. But it is possible to have values even in the absence of an explicit code, as is the case with Rearden who (initially at least) evaluates the metal as good based on his recognition of the way in which it promotes a constellation of other values that he recognizes as promoting human survival.

At present, our focus is on the role of reason in having purposes at all, and especially on the implications of this for motivation. It is by choosing what to seek, by projecting and committing to goals, that reason gives rise to desires and emotions, including both those drives that are thought to be innate, such as sexual passion and the desire to live, and those profound values that give shape and meaning to one’s life and generate one’s deepest emotional responses. In its capacity as the valuing faculty—and specifically the faculty that gives rise to values of this second sort—the mind is the spirit or soul. Just as there is a dichotomy, rejected by Atlas Shrugged, between theoretical and productive reason, so there is a dichotomy between spiritual values and bodily desires. The former, which are more often attributed to some mystical faculty than to reason, include moral and aesthetic values and love; the latter, desires for sex, food, and creature comforts. The spiritual values are supposed to be sublime and bodily desires debased—an attitude we witnessed earlier in the person of the bum who attributes technology to man’s “ignoble cunning for satisfying the needs of his body”:

There isn’t any human spirit. Man is just a low-grade animal, without intellect, without soul, without virtues or moral values. An animal with only two capacities: to eat and to reproduce. . . . You go through life looking for beauty, for greatness, for some sublime achievement, and what do you find? A lot of trick machinery for making upholstered cars or inner-spring mattresses. (177)

It does not occur to the bum that there may be anything sublime or spiritual in creating an innerspring mattress (or in maintaining a transcontinental railroad) because such accomplishments are related to bodily needs, and he conceives of spiritual values as independent of, and higher than, bodily concerns.

In opposition to the spirit-body dichotomy, Atlas Shrugged maintains that bodily desires and pleasures are expressions of spiritual values, and that spiritual values must be given expression in material form. The novel’s most extended treatment of the unity between spirit and body, especially as regards the spiritual character of bodily pleasures and desires, occurs in connection with Rearden, whose initial acceptance of the spirit-body dichotomy leads him to damn himself for his sexual desire for Dagny (254). Through his affair with her and friendship with Francisco he comes first to appreciate the spiritual nature of material production, and then to grasp that “my mind and my body [are] a unit,” that sex is “an experience of superlative joy to unite my flesh and my spirit,” and that his desire for her “did not come from the sight of her body, but from the knowledge that the lovely form I saw, did express the spirit I was seeing” (564). In the course of this development he learns how to enjoy his wealth, and realizes that there is a “vicious and very important” “perversion” in the idea that it is mindless playboys who are the real enjoyers of material pleasures (371).4

Dagny understands these points from the beginning, but some of the novel’s most dramatic expressions of them occur in the narrations of her thoughts. We can see clearly the novel’s position on the relation of sexual desire to spiritual values as she struggles against an overpowering desire for Galt:

as she lay in bed in the darkness of her room, unable to think or to sleep—and the moaning violence that filled her mind seemed only a sensation of her muscles, but its tone and its twisting shades were like a pleading cry, which she knew, not as words, but as pain: Let him come here, let him break—let it be damned, all of it, my railroad and his strike and everything we’ve lived by!—let it be damned, everything we’ve been and are!—he would, if tomorrow I were to die—then let me die, but tomorrow—let him come here, be it any price he names, I have nothing left that’s not for sale to him any longer—is this what it means to be an animal?—it does and I am. . . . She lay on her back, her palms pressed to the sheet at her sides, to stop herself from rising and walking into his room, knowing that she was capable even of that. . . . It’s not I, it’s a body I can neither endure nor control. . . . But somewhere within her, not as words, but as a radiant point of stillness, there was the presence of the judge who seemed to observe her, not in stern condemnation any longer, but in approval and amusement, as if saying: Your body?—if he were not what you know him to be, would your body, bring you to this?—why is it his body that you want, and no other?—do you think that you are damning them, the things you both have lived by?—are you damning that which you are honoring in this very moment, by your very desire? . . . She did not have to hear the words, she knew them, she had always known them. . . . After a while, she lost the glow of that knowledge, and there was nothing left but pain and the palms that were pressed to the sheet—and the almost indifferent wonder whether he, too, was awake and fighting the same torture. (780–81)

Dagny’s desire for Galt is intense and intensely physical, but it stems from her deepest spiritual values and her recognition of his—from the things they have lived for. Throughout the novel we see how sexual passion is a result of such values, and how the characters, like James Taggart and Betty Pope, who lack such values do not experience intense sexual desires or find any joy in sex.

The mere physical sensation of an orgasm, taken in isolation, may be pleasant, but such tactile pleasures alone do not account for the superlative joy we take in sex or the painful intensity with which we sometimes desire it. Rather the tactile pleasures are a form in which we experience spiritual values:

It was not the pressure of a hand that made her tremble; but the instantaneous sum of its meaning, the knowledge that it was his hand, that it moved as if her flesh were his possession, that its movement was his signature of acceptance under the whole of that achievement which was herself—it was only a sensation of physical pleasure, but it contained her worship of him, of everything that was his person and his life [. . .] it contained her pride in herself and that it should be she whom he had chosen as his mirror, that it should be her body which was now giving him the sum of his existence, as his body was giving her the sum of hers. These were the things it contained—but what she knew was only the sensation of the movement of his hand on her breasts. (956–57)

The same point applies to luxuries. The flowers and lights at Dagny’s first ball do not make the occasion gay for people who have nothing to celebrate (103); and looking at the “dim sculptured beauty” of a fancy restaurant and at its patrons, Rearden notices their “look of rancorous anxiety” and “manner of self-conscious display, as if the enormous cost of their clothes and the enormous care of their grooming should have fused into splendor, but didn’t.” “They sit there, waiting for this place to give them meaning, not the other way around. . . . They are the playboys, while we’re just tradesmen, you and I. Do you realize that we’re much more capable of enjoying this place than they can ever hope to be?” (371–72). Unlike other patrons, Dagny and Rearden can enjoy the luxurious restaurant because they have values to give it meaning.

It is primarily for these values, rather than for the pleasure they take in sex or luxury items, that the spirit-body dichotomy denigrates mere “tradesmen” like Rearden and Dagny. When, earlier in the novel, under the influence of the dichotomy, he described the two of them as “a couple of blackguards” who “haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities” and care only for “material things” (87), the material things he had in mind are not sexual pleasures or creature comforts. He and Dagny were standing at the window of his office watching “silently” and “intently” the motion of a crane as it loaded the first shipment of Rearden Metal rails into a string of gondolas. Dagny pronounced the name of the metal “as if greeting a new phenomenon of nature,” and the two agreed that it is “great” and “the most important thing happening in the world today” because of “what that metal can do, what it will make possible”:

They spoke of the metal and of the possibilities which they could not exhaust. It was as if they were standing on a mountain top, seeing a limitless plain below and roads open in all directions. But they merely spoke of mathematical figures, of weights, pressures, resistances, costs.

This was reality, she thought, this sense of clear outlines, of purpose, or lightness, of hope. This was the way she had expected to live—she had wanted to spend no hour and take no action that would mean less than this.

She looked at him in the exact moment when he turned to look at her. They stood very close to each other. She saw, in his eyes, that he felt as she did. If joy is the aim and the core of existence, she thought, and if that which has the power to give one joy is always guarded as one’s deepest secret, then they had seen each other naked in that moment. (87)

The spirit-body dichotomy vilifies the heroes because they value nothing above the production of material goods. What Rearden Metal makes possible is such things as heavy-freight air traffic, new types of motors, durable and inexpensive chicken wire and kitchenware, and so forth. These goods are of value because they contribute to the fulfillment of “needs of the body” for such things as food and shelter, and a life around such needs is supposed to be that of a “low-grade animal” without any spiritual qualities.

We saw in the last section how reason is the root of production, and the greatest productive achievements, such as Rearden Metal, involve the fullest use of the mind. And, earlier in this section we saw that, though these achievements are our means of satisfying the bodily needs that we share with animals, the motivation involved is quite different. A tiger in pursuit of his prey is acting to sate an automatic urge that has come over him, but there is no such automatic desire to create a new metal. That goal itself is a value that Rearden conceived and chose; and, like the pleasure he takes in the taste of expensive wine (372), the sight of Hawaiian Torch Ginger on a winter’s day (368), or the feeling of Dagny’s “slender, sensitive body” trembling under his fingers (309), his enjoyment of the metal is an expression of his spirit.

Dagny first formulates this point to herself, in the moment of her greatest achievement, as she rides in the cab on the first run of the John Galt Line. The narration of her thoughts, from which I quote at length, gives what I think is the novel’s most eloquent expression of the relation between spirit and body:

The glass sheets of the cab’s windows made the spread of the fields seem vaster: the earth looked as open to movement as it was to sight. Yet nothing was distant and nothing was out of reach. She had barely grasped the sparkle of a lake ahead—and in the next instant she was beside it, then past.

It was a strange foreshortening between sight and touch, she thought, between wish and fulfillment, between—the words clicked sharply in her mind after a startled stop—between spirit and body. First, the vision—then the physical shape to express it. First, the thought—then the purposeful motion down the straight line of a single track to a chosen goal. Could one have any meaning without the other? Wasn’t it evil to wish without moving—or to move without aim? Whose malevolence was it that crept through the world, struggling to break the two apart and set them against each other?

She shook her head. She did not want to think or to wonder why the world behind her was as it was. She did not care. She was flying away from it, at the rate of a hundred miles an hour. She leaned to the open window by her side, and felt the wind of the speed blowing her hair off her forehead. She lay back, conscious of nothing but the pleasure it gave her.

Yet her mind kept racing. Broken bits of thought flew past her attention, like the telegraph poles by the track. Physical pleasure?—she thought. This is a train made of steel . . . running on rails of Rearden Metal . . . moved by the energy of burning oil and electric generators . . . it’s a physical sensation of physical movement through space . . . but is that the cause and the meaning of what I now feel? . . . Do they call it a low, animal joy—this feeling that I would not care if the rail did break to bits under us now—it won’t—but I wouldn’t care, because I have experienced this? A low, physical, material, degrading pleasure of the body? . . .

She did not want to think, but the sound of thought went on, like the drone of the motors under the sounds of the engine. She looked at the cab around her. The fine steel mesh of the ceiling, she thought, and the row of rivets in the corner, holding sheets of steel sealed together—who made them? The brute force of men’s muscles? Who made it possible for four dials and three levers in front of Pat Logan to hold the incredible power of the sixteen motors behind them and deliver it to the effortless control of one man’s hand?

These things and the capacity from which they came—was this the pursuit men regarded as evil? Was this what they called an ignoble concern with the physical world? Was this the state of being enslaved by matter? Was this the surrender of man’s spirit to his body?

She shook her head, as if she wished she could toss the subject out of the window and let it get shattered somewhere along the track. She looked at the sun on the summer fields. She did not have to think, because these questions were only details of a truth she knew and had always known. Let them go past like the telegraph poles. The thing she knew was like the wires flying above in an unbroken line. The words for it, and for this journey, and for her feeling, and for the whole of man’s earth, were: It’s so simple and so right! (240–42)

She recognizes that the pleasure she takes in the feeling of the wind through her hair, is due not to the feeling itself but to what it means to her; it is the physical sensation of the achievement of a great value. She has worked tirelessly for months against great odds to bring the John Galt Line into existence. She thinks the Line will save Colorado and, with it, the country and the railroad to which she has devoted her life; so the Line’s success represents the triumph of her view of life against the sense of futility and despair that have become the leitmotif of the culture.

Her view of life is summed up in the “single absolute” with which she later tells Galt she has held since childhood: “that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle” (812).5 And the swift motion of the train symbolizes the process of shaping the world in the image of one’s values: one sees a goal ahead, moves purposefully toward it, and then reaches it. A value is “that which one acts to gain and keep” (1012), and so requires action toward it. But our actions are bodily, and to gain a value is to bring it into physical reality—to reshape the world in its image. Any alleged value that cannot be given “physical shape” or expression cannot be acted for and is a contradiction in terms. And, as Galt explains in his speech, anyone who doesn’t act to give his values “expression in material form” is “a cheap little hypocrite” whose “existence is unrelated to his convictions” (1029). Productive work is the epitome of valuing. Galt defines it, echoing Dagny’s words, as: “the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values” (1020). Far from “being enslaved by matter” or “surrendering his spirit to his body,” the person who devotes his life to production takes mastery over matter and makes the world his own.

The values alleged to be nonbodily and superior to the productive purposes to which Dagny and Rearden devote their lives fall into two categories. Some are legitimate values that have been thought incorrectly to be unrelated to physical survival. In this category fall art, romantic love, and the intellectual values prized by the Greeks.6 The second category of values alleged to be superior to productive achievement are not values at all but the undefined ideals espoused by “mystics of spirit.”

The novel’s two most prominent mystics of spirit are James Taggart and Lillian Rearden.7 Lillian consistently demeans Rearden’s values as “crude,” “materialistic,” “commercial,” “sensual,” and so forth, and professes devotion to the “non-commercial” or “non-material,” offering no positive identification of her ideal. When asked by Rearden what “enlightened people do with their lives,” she suggests that their enlightenment consists in their not attempting to do anything—“they certainly don’t spend [their time] on manufacturing plumbing pipes” (302). Jim speaks of “a hunger for something much beyond” achievements such as the John Galt Line—for things that “can’t be tagged or measured” or “named in materialistic words”—for “the higher realms of spirit, which man can never reach” (265). Again, he defines the phenomena of the spirit for which he longs only by stating what they are not. Galt explains:

They claim that they perceive a mode of being superior to your existence on this earth. The mystics of spirit call it “another dimension,” which consists of denying dimensions. The mystics of muscle call it “the future,” which consists of denying the present. To exist is to possess identity. What identity are they able to give to their superior realm? They keep telling you what it is not, but never tell you what it is. All their identifications consist of negating: God is that which no human mind can know, they say—and proceed to demand that you consider it knowledge—God is non-man, heaven is non-earth, soul is non-body, virtue is non-profit, A is non-A, perception is non-sensory, knowledge is non-reason. Their definitions are not acts of defining, but of wiping out. (1035)

A value that is not rational, cannot be given material expression, and cannot be achieved, is a contradiction in terms, and the claim that there are such self-contradictory values is simply an attempt to evade the necessity of conceiving and pursuing rational values and the existence of those who do so.

Jim Taggart and Lillian are among the true villains of Atlas Shrugged, the conscious mystics and inveterate evaders. I mentioned earlier that such characters develop a special, perverse form of motivation centered around an antipathy toward existence and values as such. For them mystical pseudo-values are an instrument of destruction, a means to tear down genuine values.8 But the acceptance of mystical values is not always motivated by such vicious motives. Consider, for example, how the disillusioned bum Dagny meets in the slum diner is described:

His gaunt face, with staring eyes and shrunken features that had been delicate, still retained a trace of distinction. He looked like the hulk of an evangelist or a professor of esthetics who had spent years in contemplation in obscure museums. She wondered what had destroyed him, what error on the way could bring a man to this. (177)

The error that destroyed the man is the acceptance of mystical pseudo-values, and the tone of description suggests that the error was venial and that his destruction is tragic, whereas Jim Taggart’s is not. Dagny sums up the effect the acceptance of such pseudo-values would have on a man nicely when she contrasts her love of electric lights with “what others claimed to feel at the sight of the stars.” The lights represent an achievable goal—“the aspiration drawing her upon her upward course,” with the earth as “the height that she wanted to reach.” By contrast, because the stars are “safely distant by millions of years,” they impose no “obligation to act,” but serve “as the tinsel of futility” (691). This sense of futility and resigned hopelessness, represented by the question “Who is John Galt?” is pervasive in the world of Atlas Shrugged and sadly prevalent in the world in which we live. So too are feelings of guilt experienced by productive men, such as Rearden, who, because they give credence to a mystical standard, mistakenly impugn the values to which they devote their lives.

What mysticism mandates is the sacrifice of one’s values—the goals that one has rationally projected and is pursuing in action—to undefined pseudo-ends that cannot be achieved or even pursued. In denying that reason is the source of values and that values are achievable on Earth, mysticism erects an imposter code of values. The possibility of such an aberration and the havoc it can wreak even on the lives of honest men, underscores the need for a rationally defined code of values—a morality of reason, which, unlike mystical codes, is based on and consistent with the facts that give rise to the phenomenon of valuing. Though the content of this morality is too large a topic to take up in the short space remaining, it is necessary to say a little bit about its function in life, in order to complete our sketch of Atlas Shrugged’s theme.9

In her nonfiction Rand defines a “morality” as “a code of values to guide . . . the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of [man’s] life,” and “ethics” as the “science” charged with “discovering and defining such a code.”10 What morality specifies is not such concrete values as who to love or what career to pursue, but rather the broad principles by which one can assess such concrete values. It performs the function that, in animals, is served by the innate desires that direct them toward certain things and away from others and so make their actions cohere into a life—“a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action” (1013). Like other animals, man needs such direction, but he possesses no innate code to provide it—a point made heartbreakingly by Cherryl Taggart:

We’ve always been told that human beings have such a great power of knowledge, so much greater than animals, but I—I feel blinder than any animal right now, blinder and more helpless. An animal knows who are its friends and who are its enemies, and when to defend itself. It doesn’t expect a friend to step on it or to cut its throat. (890)

Cherryl has begun to realize that the prevailing morality condemns as evil all the things that make life possible and elevates as virtues the traits most inimical to life, thus turning morality against man. When she realizes the full extent of this problem, believing herself to be helpless in the face of it, she takes her own life. The train of thought that leads her to this highlights the crucial role of intelligence in the formation of a morality. Observing the traffic light change from red to green,

she stood trembling, unable to move. That’s how it works for the travel of one’s body, she thought, but what have they done to the traffic of the soul? They have set the signals in reverse—and the road is safe when the lights are the red of evil—but when the lights are the green of virtue, promising that yours is the right-of-way, you venture forth and are ground by the wheels. All over the world, she thought—those inverted lights go reaching into every land, they go on, encircling the earth. And the earth is littered with mangled cripples, who don’t know what has hit them or why, who crawl as best they can on their crushed limbs through their lightless days, with no answer save that pain is the core of existence—and the traffic cops of morality chortle and tell them that man, by his nature, is unable to walk. . . .

She could not deal with people any longer, she could not take the paths they took—but what could she say to them, she who had no words to name the thing she knew and no voice that people would hear? What could she tell them? How could she reach them all? Where were the men who could have spoken? (906–7)

The men who could have spoken are the men of the mind, who are on strike, and the strike itself is their means of “reaching them all.” In less than four months after Cherryl’s suicide, Galt speaks in a voice that everyone does hear. It takes Galt, “the sort of mind born once in a century,” to find the words to name the thing Cherryl knew—to identify that the world is perishing because of a Morality of Death and to define a Morality of Life. Galt’s moral code—The Objectivist Ethics—is based on a recognition of the nature of the mind and its role in man’s existence, and it enables the mind to play that role fully, self-confidently, and without contradiction for the first time.

But this is a topic for another occasion. I’d like to close this essay by returning once again to Dagny’s thoughts during the first run of the John Galt Line, when she first articulates the key aspects of the mind’s role that we have been discussing.

Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?—she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?”—like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel.

They are alive, she thought, because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power—of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity, to set its purpose, to give it form. For an instant, it seemed to her that the motors were transparent and she was seeing the net of their nervous system. It was a net of connections, more intricate, more crucial than all of their wires and circuits: the rational connections made by that human mind which had fashioned any one part of them for the first time.

They are alive, she thought, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement. Should the soul vanish from the earth, the motors would stop, because that is the power which keeps them going—not the oil under the floor under her feet, the oil that would then become primeval ooze again—not the steel cylinders that would become stains of rust on the walls of the caves of shivering savages—the power of a living mind—the power of thought and choice and purpose. (246)

Here we can see all the elements we have discussed of Atlas Shrugged’s distinctive vision of the mind and its role in human existence. We see the mind as the source of the technology that keeps us alive, and as the setter of purposes. We see the mind as the soul or living power. It brings life to wires, metal, and primeval ooze by shaping them into the physical form of a life-sustaining value it has conceived. In like manner, man brings himself to life by exercising his power of thought and choice and purpose to set the values—the moral code—that give self-sustaining direction to his actions. This is what it means to live as a man. Atlas Shrugged shows us both grand-scale examples of such living and “that state of living death” which is man’s only alternative to it (1015).11

Reprinted from the English Language edition of Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” edited by Robert Mayhew and originally published by Lexington Books, an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., Lanham, MD, USA. Copyright © by the author. Published in the English language by arrangement with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reprinting, or on any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

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  1. For an especially emphatic statement of this position, see Robert Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A (New York: New American Library, 2005), 107. See also Darryl Wright’s 2005 lecture “Ayn Rand and the History of Ethics” (available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore). Taking this statement as his point of departure, Wright gives a masterly exposition of Rand’s meta-ethics and its relation to the views of several landmark thinkers.
  2. “Objectivist Ethics,” 26.
  3. For further discussion see my “Discovering Atlantis,” 226 ff.
  4. See “Discovering Atlantis,” 406, 416–20.
  5. Galt echoes her wording in his speech, when he defines “productive work” as “the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values” (1020).
  6. For Atlas Shrugged’s view of the role of art in life, see 65–66 and 781–84. Rand discusses the value of art at length in The Romantic Manifesto.
  7. Taggart and Lillian, of course, are not the source of the doctrine. They are taught by intellectuals such as Simon Pritchett, who themselves stand at the end of “a long line of men stretched through the centuries from Plato onward” (559).
  8. Because they do not focus their minds, these characters have no values and so no desires in the normal, healthy sense of that term. But, even in their out-of-focus state, they cannot help but be aware in some form of their own impotence to deal with reality and of their dependence on rational men. As a result, they come to resent the world for its inhospitality to them and to hate rational men for their ability to succeed in it. Ultimately they become motivated to destroy or demean the great. This is why the only moment of enthusiasm from either Taggart or Pope during their time together comes when he tells her of his plans to “put the skids” under his sister (71), and the closest he or Lillian ever comes to sexual passion is when they sleep with one another in a pathetic, futile attempt to defile Rearden (898–900). That act satisfies a desire Jim has had all evening to “celebrate.” It is the only time in the novel when he wants to celebrate, and what he wants to celebrate is specifically the deal that will lead to the nationalization—that is, the destruction—of d’Anconia Copper (866).
  9. See Darryl Wright’s “Ayn Rand’s Ethics: From The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged” and my “Discovering Atlantis,” both in the present volume, for a discussion of the essential ethical content of the novel and its validation.
  10. “Objectivist Ethics,” 13.
  11. The Anthem Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism at the University of Texas at Austin and the Ayn Rand Institute cosponsored a workshop on Atlas Shrugged in January of 2008 at which there was much valuable discussion of my plans for my two contributions to this volume, and of Atlas Shrugged more generally. Both essays are better for it, and I would like to thank Tara Smith and Debi Ghate, who both organized and participated in the event, and the other participants: Robert Mayhew, Tore Boeckmann, Yaron Brook, Onkar Ghate, and Jason Rheins. Thank you also to Allison and Jason Roth for valuable comments on a draft of the essay, to Allan Gotthelf and Harry Binswanger for discussion and comments, and to Charlotte Jarrett for some unexpected, last-minute line editing. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the Chicago Objectivist Club, where I delivered a version of this paper in April 2008 and received valuable feedback—in particular, I’d like to thank Keith and Pari Schacht for organizing the talk; Keith also, along with Ben Bayer, had insightful comments and questions about the structure of the material.
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Gregory Salmieri

Gregory Salmieri, PhD in philosophy, is a senior scholar of philosophy in the Salem Center for Policy at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business. He holds the Brigham Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism and is the director of the center’s Program for Objectivity in Thought, Action, and Enterprise. He is co-editor of A Companion to Ayn Rand and Foundations of a Free Society and has published and lectured on epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophies of Aristotle and Ayn Rand.