This is read by a computer-generated voice.
I think I’m discovering a new continent. . . . A continent that should have been discovered along with America, but wasn’t. (438)
Hank Rearden has just had Floyd Ferris ejected from his office, refusing to succumb to his attempt at blackmail, and he has seen a connection between this blackmail attempt and the manner in which his wife Lillian is attempting to punish him for his adultery. This is an important step in what he will later describe as his “liberation from guilt.” Rearden’s description of what he’s discovering as a “new continent” is an allusion to Atlantis, which had been associated with America earlier in the novel (153–54), by an old spinster who claimed that the mysterious John Galt had found the lost island. Atlantis becomes a recurring symbol in parts II and III, and, in his radio speech, Galt describes it (along with several similar legends) as representing “a radiant state of existence” (1058) which most men experience only in early childhood or isolated moments of their adult life. To maintain this state, Galt explains, requires a moral philosophy which is implicit in America’s founding and in the lives of men such as Hank Rearden, but which Galt himself was the first to define and implement consistently.
For some time prior to his encounter with Ferris, Rearden feels “a strange excitement . . . as if he were on the trail of some discovery still too distant to know, except that it had the most immense importance he had ever glimpsed” (366), and in the present scene he “discovers another step along his half-glimpsed trail” (435). The trail leads to Galt’s philosophy; and, unbeknownst to Rearden, Galt is facilitating his progress. He does this in part through his agent, Francisco d’Anconia, and in part by creating a social and economic circumstance in which the nature and consequences of the prevailing moral code are increasingly obvious, and the contrast between it and Rearden’s own code of values is increasingly stark.1
Galt has called a secret strike of the men of the mind against this prevailing moral code and in the name of his new philosophy. Atlas Shrugged opens in the tenth year of this strike and follows Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, the last significant scabs, over the course of three years, as they learn of and are won over to Galt’s cause. Their joining the strike precipitates the full collapse of society and clears the road for the men of the mind to return to the world and rebuild it on the right philosophical foundation (1168). But before Dagny or Rearden can be ready to join the strike they must discover the truth of Galt’s philosophy and why it requires this drastic action. And the reader must discover this too, if he is to understand the characters’ motivations and the logic of the plot. It is for this reason that Rand includes “the demonstration of a new moral philosophy” in her statement of the novel’s theme.2
In philosophical contexts especially, “to demonstrate” means to prove; and since a theme is an essentialized statement of “a novel’s abstract meaning,”3 to say that demonstrating a moral philosophy is part of Atlas Shrugged’s theme is to say that proving this philosophy is essential to the novel. This is a striking thing for Rand to hold, since she argued in other contexts that, though art often does prove or teach philosophical principles, this is a consequence, rather than a part of, its purpose: “since every art work has a theme, it will necessarily convey some conclusion, some ‘message,’ to its audience. But that influence and that ‘message’ are only secondary consequences. Art is not the means to any didactic end.”4 The demonstration of a moral code is essential to Atlas Shrugged, however, because of the role it plays in the novel’s plot. Atlas dramatizes “the role of the mind in man’s existence” by showing Galt’s strike—an action that is explicitly motivated by a philosophy and accomplished by convincing the other men of the mind of its truth.
Dagny and Rearden in particular are convinced by a complex train of reasoning extended over the years in which the novel is set—a chain of reasoning that both arises from and gives rise to the actions that constitute the novel’s plot.5 This train of reasoning is Atlas Shrugged’s demonstration of a new moral philosophy, and one needs to follow it in order to fully appreciate the novel, either as a work of literature or as a work of philosophy. My project here is to outline this progression and to highlight some of its most important developments, bringing out the order in which the principles are established and some of the relations between them. In doing so, I hope to give readers a sense of the whole and to introduce them to a way of reading and thinking about the novel that will enable them to better appreciate, enjoy, and learn from it. In particular, I will discuss: how Rearden grasps and applies the principle of the sanction of the victim; Dagny’s sharpening identification of the premise that ties her to the looters’ world; and the final realizations that lead Dagny and Rearden to join the strike. Before taking up these topics it will be instructive to discuss some preliminaries concerning the way in which Atlas Shrugged demonstrates principles and, more generally, how it is possible for a novel to demonstrate anything at all.
ATLAS SHRUGGED AS A WORK OF PHILOSOPHY
I have already indicated that Rearden and Dagny reach their conclusions on the basis of the events that constitute the novel’s plot: they observe and reflect on the effects of the strike and the differences made stark by it between themselves and the villains and between their own values and the prevailing moral code. It is on the basis of these same observations that the reader too is supposed to become convinced of Galt’s philosophy. However, since the events of the novel are fictitious, the reader—unlike the characters living in the universe of the novel—cannot take these events as facts and assume that generalizations reached from them will apply in the real world. Novelists routinely depict events or situations that could not occur. For example, one finds in fiction many socialist utopias replete with ever-improving technology and happy citizens—something that Rand argues is impossible. Of course, the existence of these societies in fiction does not prove Rand wrong on this point, and, by the same token, the mere fact that socialism fails in her novels does not prove that it must fail in reality.
How then can a novel prove anything? Novels—or at least Romantic novels, such as Rand’s—do not simply portray situations and events haphazardly. They show some events as following from others and from facts about the circumstances and characters—especially from the characters’ choices.6 As readers we can assess whether these events do in fact follow from such causes, and we can consider whether the causes—the kinds of characters and circumstances presented in the novel—actually exist.
Of course we rarely if ever encounter in the real world people or situations exactly like those in novels. This is true even of Naturalistic novels, which aim to mirror real-life circumstances, and it is all the more true of Romantic novels, which aim to project a world grander than that of day-to-day life. However, if the characters, circumstances, and events in a work of fiction are not journalistic reproductions of real things, neither are they entirely divorced from them. As Rand observed, an artist stylizes reality by “isolating and stressing” those elements of it that he regards as significant and “omitting the insignificant and accidental.”7 As a result of this stylization, a work of fiction can make salient causal connections that, though not obvious in the real world, can be easily observed there once our attention has been called to them.8 It is in this way that fiction can demonstrate, for example, that socialism cannot succeed. By depicting a world in which the facts that lead to this conclusion stand in sharper relief than they do amidst the train of accidental minutiae that constitutes so much of daily life, Atlas Shrugged helps us to notice these facts and their implications.
We can, then, draw conclusions from the events in a novel, just as the characters do, and apply these conclusions to our world and our lives, when we can identify in our world the facts from which these conclusions follow. But we cannot apply conclusions about the world of a novel to our own without doing this. We would not, for example, decide based on the events of Atlas Shrugged that we ought to buy or sell shares of Taggart Transcontinental, when in fact there is no such company. Similarly, we should not conclude from the novel that the proper course of action in America today is to go on strike.
In interviews, Rand said that it would not be proper or necessary to withdraw from the world until a dictatorship was established that banned free speech, because after this point it would be impossible to fight a battle of ideas within society. Certainly such a dictatorship was in power by the end of Atlas Shrugged, but this was not yet the case when Galt initiated his strike.9 Galt calls for a strike before there is a dictatorship because the universe in which he lives is different from ours in some respects. In her early notes for the novel, Rand described the strike as an element of “fantasy.”10 It would not be possible for one man to recruit and organize all the productive men as Galt does—much less for him to do it secretly and within a single generation.
There are too many such people in the real world, and, whereas, in the novel, most characters are either black or white—producers or parasites—in reality, there are many more shades of gray. Consider, for example, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, both of whom produced fortunes in innovative and honest ways but also advocated for welfare-statist measures. Again, the founders of Google created major values with their search engine and other services, but they also used antitrust legislation to persecute Microsoft, and they collaborated with the Chinese government’s censors. Such mixed people can be analyzed in terms of black and white elements: their productive actions have the same sorts of motivations and consequences as do Rearden’s, though they sometimes act in the manner of Orren Boyle.11 In a world where so many of the great producers are mixed in this way, a strike such as Galt’s is not possible, even if it were otherwise logistically feasible.
Thus, the specific conclusion that Dagny and Rearden reach—that they should go on strike—is not applicable in our world. What Atlas Shrugged demonstrates is not this conclusion, but rather a philosophy that necessitates a strike in the world of the novel but different actions in our world. Rand went on to write many nonfiction articles and books concerning the application of her philosophy to actual events, and I will make occasional reference to such real-world applications later in this essay. For the most part, however, I will confine myself to the world and events of the novel and the conclusions that the heroes draw from them. Before turning to these heroes and tracing their development, it will be instructive to consider holistically the nature of what they learn and the structure of the novel.
What Rearden and Dagny (and the reader) discover over the course of the novel is not a collection of isolated points, but a philosophy—a complex system of abstract principles by which one can guide one’s life. The novel progresses from comparatively concrete points to increasingly abstract principles that integrate and explain them. I alluded earlier to the novel’s demonstration that socialism cannot work. This is not a point that any of the heroes need to learn; it is one of a number of moral and political convictions that they share from the beginning of the novel. Such convictions motivate Dagny and Rearden’s actions across part I, during which the reader is given several demonstrations of their truth. In part II, Dagny and Rearden come to see these convictions as components of a moral code that makes life possible. The events, premises, and characters from part I are reconceived in part II in terms of the alternative between this moral code and its antithesis—thus the part’s title, “Either-Or.”12 This new, integrative perspective gives Dagny and Rearden a deeper understanding of themselves and of the villains, it motivates them to actions they could not have taken in part I, and it enables them to interpret the results of their actions in ways that lead to further realizations. As a result of this, in part III, they come to see the opposite moral codes as expressions of opposite attitudes towards existence as such; and it is grasping this and everything that follows from it that motivates them to join the strike. Recall how Galt describes the strikers’ position: “We, the men of the mind, are now on strike against you in the name of a single axiom, which is the root of our moral code, just as the root of yours is the wish to escape it: the axiom that existence exists” (1015). Thus, while part II is essentially moral, part III is essentially metaphysical, which is why it has as its name the “formula” that Galt tells us “defines the concept of existence”: “A is A” (1015).13
The difference between the three parts is especially clear when one compares the way the same issues are treated across them. For example: in part I, we see numerous examples of Rearden and Dagny acting (both in business and in their personal lives) as traders to mutual advantage, and we see how the villains’ demands for sacrifice lead to destruction. Already in part I, Rearden opposes many of the calls for sacrifice, but he does something markedly different during his courtroom speech in part II, when, after arguing that “nobody’s good can be achieved at the price of human sacrifices,” he concludes:
It is not your particular policy that I challenge, but your moral premise. If it were true that men could achieve their good by means of turning some men into sacrificial animals, and I were asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who wanted to survive at the price of my blood, if I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse. I would reject it as the most contemptible evil, I would fight it with every power I possess, I would fight the whole of mankind, if one minute were all I could last before I were murdered, I would fight in the full confidence of the justice of my battle and of a living being’s right to exist. Let there be no misunderstanding about me. If it is now the belief of my fellow men, who call themselves the public, that their good requires victims, then I say: The public good be damned, I will have no part of it! (481)
Rearden rejects sacrifice as such as impractical and evil, and he sees it as the consequence of an evil moral premise. As we will see in greater detail later, this is not something that he would have been able to do earlier in the novel. Now contrast this with Galt’s discussion of conflicts of interest early in part III of the novel:
Did it ever occur to you, Miss Taggart, that there is no conflict of interests among men, neither in business nor in trade nor in their most personal desires—if they omit the irrational from their view of the possible and destruction from their view of the practical? There is no conflict, and no call for sacrifice, and no man is a threat to the aims of another—if men understand that reality is an absolute not to be faked, that lies do not work, that the unearned cannot be had, that the undeserved cannot be given, that the destruction of a value which is, will not bring value to that which isn’t. The businessman who wishes to gain a market by throttling a superior competitor, the worker who wants a share of his employer’s wealth, the artist who envies a rival’s higher talent—they’re all wishing facts out of existence, and destruction is the only means of their wish. If they pursue it, they will not achieve a market, a fortune or an immortal fame—they will merely destroy production, employment and art. A wish for the irrational is not to be achieved, whether the sacrificial victims are willing or not. But men will not cease to desire the impossible and will not lose their longing to destroy—so long as self-destruction and self-sacrifice are preached to them as the practical means of achieving the happiness of the recipients. (798)
Here conflicts of interest are seen as arising not simply from a false moral premise, but, more deeply, from the denial that reality is absolute—that is, from a false metaphysical premise.
We will see further evidence of the progression between the three parts later, when we turn to the details of Rearden and Dagny’s development. For now, as a further indication, we can note that the frequency of the words “moral” and “evil” more than triples between parts I and II, and that between parts II and III, the frequency of metaphysical terms such as “reality” and “existence” triples.14
Since it is primarily in the last two parts of the novel that the philosophical principles are articulated, my focus will be there. It will be helpful at the outset, however, to comment briefly on part I, which provides the context for what follows. It is the story of Dagny Taggart’s greatest achievement and its consequences. We see in great detail how the John Galt Line is the product of her and Rearden’s virtue, and we see why the Line is necessary to save the Colorado industrialists and, with them, Taggart Transcontinental and the nation. We also see how the Line, in fact, serves to hasten the destruction of these very industrialists: the bonds they invest in it are “frozen,” thus depriving them of crucially needed assets; and regulations on the size, speed, and frequency of trains prevent them from getting the transportation their businesses need to survive (333–35). The fate of the Line is a paradox—an apparent contradiction—which Dagny and Rearden must come to understand in parts II and III of the novel. In order to do so they will need, in the words of Akston and Francisco, to “check their premises” (199, 331, 489, 618, 737, 807).15
REARDEN’S LIBERATION FROM GUILT
Rearden first feels the excitement of being “on the trail of some discovery still too distant to know” at the beginning of part II, during his interview with the nameless bureaucrat who looks like a “traffic cop” and tries to intimidate him into selling Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute. The bureaucrat keeps up the pretense that the interview is “an amicable discussion,” and reacts with a mixture of bewilderment and fear when Rearden, refusing to maintain this pretense, states that he only granted the interview under the threat of arrest, which is the traffic cop’s “ultimate argument against” him and is “implied by every sentence in this discussion.” It is in observing this reaction that Rearden first glimpses the trail, and he pursues it by challenging the bureaucrat to seize his metal openly by force, as he would have to without Rearden’s help pretending that the transaction is a sale. The result is an “instinctive, involuntary cry”—“Good God, Mr. Rearden, what would the public think!”—and Rearden knows that he has taken “the right steps down the trail he had glimpsed” (366).
Shortly after the event, Rearden has a discussion with Dagny from which we can learn what he does and does not understand at this point. He describes the bureaucrat as “scared way deep”:
Of what? I don’t know—public opinion was just his name for it, but it’s not the full name. Why should he have been scared? He has the guns, the jails, the laws—he could have seized the whole of my mills, if he wished, and nobody would have risen to defend me, and he knew it—so why should he have cared what I thought? But he did. It was I who had to tell him that he wasn’t a looter, but my customer and friend. That’s what he needed from me. (377)
Rearden is a victim of the State Science Institute, and the bureaucrat needs his help to pretend that this is not the case.
Rearden immediately recognizes this same phenomenon at work when Dagny describes her unexplained feeling that she should not have called Robert Stadler (377, cf. 353). Stadler, Rearden says, wanted a “recognition” from her “that he was still the Dr. Robert Stadler he should have been but wasn’t and knew he wasn’t.”
He wanted you to grant him your respect, in spite of and in contradiction to his actions. He wanted you to juggle reality for him, so that his greatness would remain, but the State Science Institute would be wiped out, as if it had never existed—and you’re the only one who could do it for him. . . . Because you’re the victim. (377)
The State Science Institute was created “as a personal present” from the nation to Stadler, who had used his prestige to advocate for it (186). In part I, it issued a slanderous statement about Rearden Metal that made it impossible for Taggart Transcontinental to complete the Rio Norte Line, which was to be made out of Rearden Metal rails. Dagny was able to complete the line only by leaving the job that had been her life’s goal and forming an independent company, finding independent investors (whose investment was eventually seized by order of Wesley Mouch), and running herself ragged for months. Stadler knew that the Institute’s statement was false and unscientific, but refused to repudiate it when Dagny confronted him. The call she felt she should not make occurred a year later. Though she did not know this, it came moments after he declined to repudiate a book, published under the auspices of the Institute, that distorted his own scientific work into a profane attack on the mind. As a result he felt, “in the fog of a pain that he would not define,” “the desperate feeling that no one—of those he valued—would ever wish to see him again”; and he realized that he had to wish that Galt, “the man he longed to see more than any other being in the world,” was dead and so unable to learn of his shameful action (348). This is the context in which he eagerly accepted Dagny’s invitation for a meeting; these are the facts that he wanted Dagny to juggle out of existence for him.
Rearden’s identification of what Stadler and the bureaucrat want begins to sum up and explain these events and numerous smaller episodes in the novel; and this is why, when making the identification, he feels “a sudden, violent clarity of perception, as if a surge of energy were rushing into the activity of sight, fusing the half-seen and half-grasped into a single shape and direction.” He identifies his present state of understanding as follows:
Dagny, they’re doing something that we’ve never understood. They know something which we don’t, but should discover. I can’t see it fully yet, but I’m beginning to see parts of it. . . . I don’t know what it is that they think they accomplish—but they want us to pretend that we see the world as they pretend they see it. They need some sort of sanction from us. I don’t know the nature of that sanction—but, Dagny, I know that if we value our lives, we must not give it to them. If they put you on a torture rack, don’t give it to them. Let them destroy your railroad and my mills, but don’t give it to them. Because I know this much: I know that that’s our only chance. (377–78)
Dagny agrees: “I can’t understand their game, but this much is right: We must not see the world as they want us to see it. It’s some sort of fraud, very ancient and very vast—and the key to break it is to check every premise they teach us, to question every precept, to—” (378) She stops because “her next words would have been the ones she did not want to say to him”; she has realized the connection between the issue at hand and another path of discovery along which Rearden is traveling—his “struggle for deliverance” with which she must “help him in every way except in words” (376). We will come to this struggle and its relation to Rearden’s present discovery shortly. For now, we can observe that he is struggling against “some sort of perversion in what we’re taught, some error that’s vicious and very important” (372, 373). Dagny understands the nature of this error more fully than does Rearden, and it is her observation of his struggle against it, along with the principle of premise-checking taught to her by Francisco and Akston, that enables her to identify the way in which she and Rearden must proceed on the present issue.
Let’s take stock, now, of what Rearden does and does not understand. He knows that the looters keep up a pretense to themselves about their own nature and actions; that for some reason they need their victims’ complicity in this pretense; and that by giving it, the victims grant the looters some sort of sanction. He does not know why the looters need this or the nature of the sanction involved. These answers will come as he progresses further down his trail.
Rearden makes his next significant discovery in the following chapter, when he grasps the point that Dagny refrained from telling him: that there is a connection between his conflict with the looters and his personal conflict over his affair. This occurs during his illegal sale of Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger:
He thought that he had been made to hide, as a guilty secret, the only business transaction he had enjoyed in a year’s work—and that he was hiding, as a guilty secret, his nights with Dagny, the only hours that kept him alive. He felt that there was some connection between the two secrets, some essential connection which he had to discover. He could not grasp it, he could not find the words to name it, but he felt that the day when he would find them, he would answer every question of his life. (384)
Now aware that there is an essential connection between the conflicts in his professional and personal lives, Rearden begins increasingly to apply things he learns in one sphere to the other, and even when Rearden doesn’t draw the connections himself, the reader’s attention is called to them. Thus, before we proceed further in our discussion of his conflict with the looters, we need to look at Rearden’s personal life.
The family he supports trivializes the productive achievements that are Rearden’s central purpose in life and subjects him to constant moral censure for his selfishness and lack of nonmaterial values. In part I, he regards their views about business, and those of the whole world, as “tripe” and remains guiltlessly committed to his business; but they nonetheless influence his conception of himself. Most notably he agrees with the accusation that he is evil and describes himself and Dagny as “a couple of blackguards” who “haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities” and care only for “material things” (147, 87).
The worst insults come from his wife Lillian, who shows distain not only for his work, but also for his sexual appetite, to which she acquiesces with a condescending indifference. Rearden cannot understand what she sought from the marriage: she shows no affection for him but has not tried to exploit him materially. He concludes that she must be motivated by a love that he cannot comprehend. Thus, though he has come to despise her, he can find no grounds on which to condemn her. Because of this, and because he himself thinks that sex is depraved, he accepts the torture of their marriage as his own fault and cannot justify leaving her (159–60).
Through his relationship with Dagny, for which he initially damns himself, Rearden discovers by degrees the spiritual meaning of sexual desire, learns that the enjoyment of sensual pleasures has its root in spiritual values, and comes to see the connections between his desires for such pleasures and the qualities on which he prides himself in his professional life. Throughout this process his contempt for Lillian grows. Already at the end of part I, we see an anticipation in his dealings with her of the method he employs with the traffic cop. In response to a belittling remark about his manufacturing plumbing pipes, he asks: “[W]hy do you keep making those cracks? I know that you feel contempt for the plumbing pipes. You’ve made that clear long ago. Your contempt means nothing to me. Why keep repeating it?” (308). Noticing that this “hit her” in some manner that he does not understand, he wonders “why he felt with absolute certainty that that had been the right thing to say” (308).
Lillian’s next appearance occurs early in part II, moments after Rearden sees the connection between his two guilty secrets. She arrives unannounced at his hotel room and demands that he escort her to Jim Taggart’s wedding, though she knows that he despises such occasions:
I’ve asked nothing of you. I’ve let you live your life as you pleased. Can’t you give me one evening? Oh, I know you hate parties and you’ll be bored. But it means a great deal to me. Call it empty, social vanity—I want to appear, for once, with my husband. I suppose you never think of it in such terms, but you’re an important man, you’re envied, hated, respected and feared, you’re a man whom any woman would be proud to show off as her husband. You may say it’s a low form of feminine ostentation, but that’s the form of any woman’s happiness. You don’t live by such standards, but I do. Can’t you give me this much, at the price of a few hours of boredom? Can’t you be strong enough to fulfill your obligation and to perform a husband’s duty? Can’t you go there, not for your own sake, but mine, not because you want to go, but only because I want it? (386)
The cost to Rearden is higher than Lillian realizes. Rearden knows that Dagny will be at the wedding and he would rather die than “let her see him as the husband proudly being shown off,” but “because he had accepted his secret as guilt and promised himself to take its consequences” and “because he granted that the right was with Lillian” he agrees to go (386).16 He has made a contract with Lillian and he is duty bound to honor it—though, now sensitive to the parallels between his professional and personal life, it occurs to him “that in business transactions the courts of law did not recognize a contract wherein no valuable consideration had been given by one party to the other” (398).
Rearden recalls Lillian’s demand later that evening, when Dagny explains why she does not resent his marriage and was not hurt by his attendance at the wedding:
Hank, I knew you were married. I knew what I was doing. I chose to do it. There’s nothing you owe me, no duty you have to consider. . . . I want nothing from you except what you wish to give me. Do you remember that you called me a trader once? I want you to come to me seeking nothing but your own enjoyment. So long as you wish to remain married, whatever your reason, I have no right to resent it. My way of trading is to know that the joy you give me is paid for by the joy you get from me—not by your suffering or mine. I don’t accept sacrifices and I don’t make them. . . . If ever the pleasure of one has to be bought by the pain of the other, there better be no trade at all. A trade by which one gains and the other loses is a fraud. You don’t do it in business, Hank. Don’t do it in your own life. (425)
Reflecting on the difference between Dagny’s words and Lillian’s, he begins to see “the distance between the two, the difference in what they sought from him and from life” (426), though he will not fully grasp what Lillian wants from life until well into part III, and he continues to wonder what Lillian wants from him throughout part II.
The connection between the conflicts in Rearden’s personal and professional lives is drawn explicitly in his conversation with Dagny after the wedding, and indeed Dagny’s discussion of trade in personal relationships recalls a point that has just been made about financial trade by Francisco, at the wedding that they both attended:
Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss—the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery—that you must offer them values, not wounds—that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods. (411)
The quote comes from the novel’s first great philosophical speech: Francisco’s hymn to the meaning of money (410–15). In it, Francisco gives an abstract statement of the central philosophical principle that has been dramatized by the novel up to this point: moral virtue—rationality in particular—is the source of wealth (and, therefore, of survival) and is required to maintain and enjoy it.17 The speech and Francisco’s subsequent conversation with Rearden is a turning point in the novel. The two had met before, but this encounter marks the beginning of their friendship and of Francisco’s role as Rearden’s teacher. Their first meeting was at the Reardens’ anniversary party—an occasion at which all the guests were united in their scorn for Rearden and their support for a piece of legislation (the Equalization of Opportunity Bill) that would soon “slash away part of his life” (214). Francisco offered Rearden gratitude, pointing out that none of the other guests would; and he asked why Rearden was willing to support them. Rearden’s unhappiness, he suggested, was evidence of a battle in which these people were using a “terrible weapon” against him (147–48). At the time Rearden damns Francisco, but at Taggart’s wedding, he recalls the offer:
When I met you, do you remember that you said you wanted to offer me your gratitude? . . . I told you that I didn’t need it and I insulted you for it. All right, you’ve won. That speech you’ve made tonight—that was what you were offering me, wasn’t it? . . . It was more than gratitude, and I needed the gratitude; it was more than admiration, and I needed that too; it was much more than any word I can find, it will take me days to think of all that it’s given me—but one thing I do know: I needed it. (417)
Months later, Francisco explains to Rearden what he gave him in that speech and why Rearden needed it. We will come to this in due course; for the present let’s turn to Francisco’s first lesson: “There are no evil thoughts except one, the refusal to think” (418). He explains that Rearden is making the same error, though “in a nobler form,” as a woman who dismissed Francisco’s speech because she didn’t feel that it was true (415). Both are “refusing to recognize reality,” though for opposite reasons. The woman, and those like her, “keep evading thoughts that they know to be good . . . because they want to avoid effort.”
You keep pushing out of your mind thoughts which you believe to be evil . . . because you won’t permit yourself to consider anything that would spare you. They indulge their emotions at any cost. You sacrifice your emotions as the first cost of any problem. They are willing to bear nothing. You are willing to bear anything. They keep evading responsibility, you keep assuming it. But don’t you see that the essential error is the same? (418)
Thus, Francisco councils Rearden to examine his desires rather than sacrificing them.
We have seen already how Rearden sacrifices his desires in connection with his marriage and his passion for Dagny. His attendance at the wedding is an example of this; amongst his reasons for consenting to Lillian’s demand was that “he heard the pleading cry in his mind: ‘Oh God, Lillian, anything but that party!’ and he did not allow himself to beg for mercy” (386). Later that evening, reflecting on the pain he (mistakenly) thinks he has inflicted on Dagny, he says of his own pain, “I wish it were worse,” and adds, “At least I’m not letting myself get away with it” (425). When, as a response to these and similar statements, Dagny points out to Rearden that his “only real guilt” is that he’s “always rejected [his] own pleasure too easily” and “been willing to bear too much,” Rearden recognizes this as the same point Francisco made earlier in the evening (427). But, as Rearden points out, he and Francisco were “talking about quite a different subject”: in connection with his professional life also, Rearden has been sacrificing his desires and suppressing thoughts that might alleviate his burdens. Consider how he reacted to the news of Ellis Wyatt’s disappearance:
He tried to avoid these thoughts [that the world is devolving into a Dark Age and that his struggle against it is hopeless]. He had to stand on guard against his own feeling—as if some part of him had become a stranger that had to be kept numb, and his will had to be its constant, watchful anesthetic. That part was an unknown of which he knew only that he must never see its root and never give it voice. He had lived through one dangerous moment which he could not allow to return.
It was the moment when—alone in his office, on a winter evening, held paralyzed by a newspaper spread on his desk with a long column of directives on the front page—he had heard on the radio the news of Ellis Wyatt’s flaming oil fields. Then, his first reaction—before any thought of the future, any sense of disaster, any shock, terror or protest—had been to burst out laughing. He had laughed in triumph, in deliverance, in a spurting, living exultation—and the words which he had not pronounced, but felt, were: God bless you, Ellis, whatever you’re doing!
When he had grasped the implications of his laughter, he had known that he was now condemned to constant vigilance against himself. Like the survivor of a heart attack, he knew that he had had a warning and that he carried within him a danger that could strike him at any moment. (363)
Rearden bursts into triumphant laughter again at the wedding when Francisco precipitates a run on d’Anconia Copper stock thus ruining many of the looters who profited from the regulations crippling Rearden’s mills. Though Rearden suppresses the feeling and repeats his earlier condemnation of Francisco, later that evening he admits that he is “certain of nothing about him—except that I like him” (427), and he agrees with Dagny’s assessment that he has “fallen for” Francisco. He now faces directly his thoughts about the state of the world and about what Dagny and Francisco mean to him:
all that’s left for us ahead is to keep the ship afloat as long as we can and then go down with it. . . . I look at people and they seem to be made of nothing but pain. He’s not. You’re not. That terrible hopelessness that’s all around us, I lose it only in his presence and here. Nowhere else. (428)
And, as Rearden acknowledges that he cannot damn Francisco, he acknowledges too that he cannot damn himself and Dagny for their relationship: “the things I said to you that morning in Ellis Wyatt’s house . . . I think I was lying to myself” (428).
On the night of Taggart’s wedding, then, Rearden hears a moral defense of trade that explains how proper human relationships are based on mutual advantage; he recognizes that his relationship with Dagny is of this nature, whereas his relationship with Lillian is not; he grasps that he has been suppressing as evil thoughts that would alleviate his suffering; and he faces some of these thoughts directly. All of this sets the context for his reaction the following morning when Lillian discovers his adultery.
Lillian’s response is revolting. She seems to delight in Rearden’s hypocrisy, likening him, “the man who wanted to hold himself as perfect,” to Icarus, who “wanted to reach the sun on wings made of wax”; and the punishment she proposes for him targets his “vaunted self-esteem”:
I want you to face, in your own home, the one person who despises you and has the right to do so. I want you to look at me whenever you build another furnace, or pour another recordbreaking load of steel, or hear applause and admiration, whenever you feel proud of yourself, whenever you feel clean, whenever you feel drunk on the sense of your own greatness. I want you to look at me whenever you hear of some act of depravity, or feel anger at human corruption, or feel contempt for someone’s knavery, or are the victim of a new governmental extortion—to look and to know that you’re no better, that you’re superior to no one, that there’s nothing you have the right to condemn. (431)
Rearden feels “so overwhelming a tide of revulsion that it swamped Lillian out of human form,” but he can account for her ugliness only as an attempt to hide the pain of a betrayed lover, and though he despises Lillian and no longer condemns his passion for Dagny, he does still feel responsible for breaking his marriage vows and hurting Lillian, so he accedes to her wishes. Nevertheless, as Lillian passes sentence on him, he has “the thought that there was some flaw in the scheme of the punishment she wanted him to bear, something wrong by its own terms, aside from its propriety or justice, some practical miscalculation that would demolish it all if discovered” (431).
In the next scene, Rearden, who is now on the premise of noticing parallels between the problems in his personal and professional lives, discovers this same flaw in Floyd Ferris’ attempt to pressure him into selling Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute. When Ferris threatens to arrest him for the sale of Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger, Rearden names the act as blackmail, but notes “a peculiar difference between the manner of a plain blackmailer and that of Dr. Ferris.” Whereas the former would “show signs of gloating over his victim’s sin” and convey a sense of danger to both parties, Ferris’ “manner was that of dealing with the normal and the natural, it suggested a sense of safety, it held no tone of condemnation, but a hint of comradeship, a comradeship based—for both of them—on self-contempt” (435).
This had been true of Lillian’s manner as well. Seized by a feeling of eager attentiveness, Rearden feels that “he is about to discover another step along his half-glimpsed trail,” and he points out that Ferris seems “pleased” that Rearden had broken one of his laws. When Ferris explains that the laws are made to be broken, so that power-lusting bureaucrats can “cash in on the guilt,” Rearden’s face takes on the “look of luminous serenity that comes from the sudden answer to an old dark problem.” He explains: “There is a flaw in your system, Dr. Ferris, a practical flaw which you will discover when you put me on trial for selling four thousand tons of Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger” (437). Though we are not told this until later, what Rearden realizes is that his trial depends on the pretense, which requires his complicity, that the laws on which he will be tried are legitimate and that his action is a crime. Something analogous is true for Lillian’s scheme of punishment, but before Rearden can be in a position to articulate it, there is a crucial lesson that he must learn.
He learns it from his “young teacher,” who visits his office two days after his indictment. Francisco has come to make the argument that the strikers use to recruit new members—the argument that we hear in a more complete form from Galt in part III—and he gets a considerable distance into it. The crucial points, and the ones that have the biggest impact on Rearden, are that morality is man’s motive power and that there are two opposite moral codes, one of which makes life possible. Francisco explains that Rearden is “one of the last moral men left to the world,” and his morality consists in the manner in which he runs his mills, where every detail is ruthlessly selected so as to be best for his purpose, which is his standard of value. If he has been made to suffer rather than being rewarded for this achievement, it is because he has not exercised this same selectivity when dealing with people.
You take pride in setting no limit to your endurance, Mr. Rearden, because you think that you are doing right. What if you aren’t? What if you’re placing your virtue in the service of evil and letting it become a tool for the destruction of everything you love, respect and admire? Why don’t you uphold your own code of values among men as you do among iron smelters? You who won’t allow one per cent of impurity into an alloy of metal—what have you allowed into your moral code? (453–54)
Rearden had already grasped that the looters needed something from him. Now he begins to see what it is. As Francisco speaks, he hears in his mind, “like the beat of steps down the trail he had been seeking,” the words “the sanction of the victim.” Francisco goes on to deliver two of the most important paragraphs in the novel, which answer the questions he raised for Rearden in their previous encounters:
You, who would not submit to the hardships of nature, but set out to conquer it and placed it in the service of your joy and your comfort—to what have you submitted at the hands of men? You, who know from your work that one bears punishment only for being wrong—what have you been willing to bear and for what reason? All your life, you have heard yourself denounced, not for your faults, but for your greatest virtues. You have been hated, not for your mistakes, but for your achievements. You have been scorned for all those qualities of character which are your highest pride. You have been called selfish for the courage of acting on your own judgment and bearing sole responsibility for your own life. You have been called arrogant for your independent mind. You have been called cruel for your unyielding integrity. You have been called antisocial for the vision that made you venture upon undiscovered roads. You have been called ruthless for the strength and self-discipline of your drive to your purpose. You have been called greedy for the magnificence of your power to create wealth. You, who’ve expended an inconceivable flow of energy, have been called a parasite. You, who’ve created abundance where there had been nothing but wastelands and helpless, starving men before you, have been called a robber. You, who’ve kept them all alive, have been called an exploiter. You, the purest and most moral man among them, have been sneered at as a “vulgar materialist.” Have you stopped to ask them: by what right?—by what code?—by what standard? No, you have borne it all and kept silent. You bowed to their code and you never upheld your own. You knew what exacting morality was needed to produce a single metal nail, but you let them brand you as immoral. You knew that man needs the strictest code of values to deal with nature, but you thought that you needed no such code to deal with men. You left the deadliest weapon in the hands of your enemies, a weapon you never suspected or understood. Their moral code is their weapon. Ask yourself how deeply and in how many terrible ways you have accepted it. Ask yourself what it is that a code of moral values does to a man’s life, and why he can’t exist without it, and what happens to him if he accepts the wrong standard, by which the evil is the good. Shall I tell you why you’re drawn to me, even though you think you ought to damn me? It’s because I’m the first man who has given you what the whole world owes you and what you should have demanded of all men before you dealt with them: a moral sanction.
You’re guilty of a great sin, Mr. Rearden, much guiltier than they tell you, but not in the way they preach. The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt—and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment—and to let it grow the heavier the greater the virtues you practiced. But your virtues were those which keep men alive. Your own moral code—the one you lived by, but never stated, acknowledged or defended—was the code that preserves man’s existence. If you were punished for it, what was the nature of those who punished you? Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? What standard of value lies at its root? What is its ultimate purpose? Do you think that what you’re facing is merely a conspiracy to seize your wealth? You, who know the source of wealth, should know it’s much more and much worse than that. Did you ask me to name man’s motive power? Man’s motive power is his moral code. Ask yourself where their code is leading you and what it offers you as your final goal. A viler evil than to murder a man, is to sell him suicide as an act of virtue. A viler evil than to throw a man into a sacrificial furnace, is to demand that he leap in, of his own will, and that he build the furnace, besides. By their own statement, it is they who need you and have nothing to offer you in return. By their own statement, you must support them because they cannot survive without you. Consider the obscenity of offering their impotence and their need—their need of you—as a justification for your torture. Are you willing to accept it? Do you care to purchase—at the price of your great endurance, at the price of your agony—the satisfaction of the needs of your own destroyers? (454–55)
Rearden had been unable to explain what Francisco gave him in his speech at Taggart’s wedding and what it was that the looters needed from him and Dagny. Now he knows: it is a moral sanction. Francisco had told him at their first meeting that his unhappiness was evidence that a horrible weapon was being used against him, and that he was wrong to “permit anyone to call [his attitude toward his work] evil” (147). Now Rearden can see why. The weapon is a moral code antithetical to the one by which he lives. His code—his virtues—is the one that makes life possible and is the source of all efficacy. The looters need his acceptance of their code in order to give it power, and he grants this acceptance when he permits himself to be branded as evil.
Francisco’s words echo through his mind at Thanksgiving dinner as his family damns him and Lillian tries to manipulate him through a guilt that he no longer feels. He can now name “the flaw in her scheme of punishment”:
She wanted to force upon him the suffering of dishonor—but his own sense of honor was her only weapon of enforcement. She wanted to wrest from him an acknowledgment of his moral depravity—but only his own moral rectitude could attach significance to such a verdict. She wanted to injure him by her contempt—but he could not be injured, unless he respected her judgment. She wanted to punish him for the pain he had caused her and she held her pain as a gun aimed at him, as if she wished to extort his agony at the point of his pity. But her only tool was his own benevolence, his concern for her, his compassion. Her only power was the power of his own virtues. What if he chose to withdraw it?
An issue of guilt, he thought, had to rest on his own acceptance of the code of justice that pronounced him guilty. He did not accept it; he never had. His virtues, all the virtues she needed to achieve his punishment, came from another code and lived by another standard. He felt no guilt, no shame, no regret, no dishonor. He felt no concern for any verdict she chose to pass upon him: he had lost respect for her judgment long ago. And the sole chain still holding him was only a last remnant of pity.
But what was the code on which she acted? What sort of code permitted the concept of a punishment that required the victim’s own virtue as the fuel to make it work? A code—he thought—which would destroy only those who tried to observe it; a punishment, from which only the honest would suffer, while the dishonest would escape unhurt. Could one conceive of an infamy lower than to equate virtue with pain, to make virtue, not vice, the source and motive power of suffering? If he were the kind of rotter she was struggling to make him believe he was, then no issue of his honor and his moral worth would matter to him. If he wasn’t then what was the nature of her attempt?
To count upon his virtue and use it as an instrument of torture, to practice blackmail with the victim’s generosity as sole means of extortion, to accept the gift of a man’s good will and turn it into a tool for the giver’s destruction . . . he sat very still, contemplating the formula of so monstrous an evil that he was able to name it, but not to believe it possible. (464–65)
Though he too generously concludes that Lillian does not understand what she is doing, he knows that he has “discovered a secret much greater than the problem of his marriage, that he had grasped the formula of a policy practiced more widely throughout the world than he dared to contemplate at the moment” (466), and he immediately acts on this knowledge. When Lillian says that the government targets him because he’s been difficult to deal with, he responds that he’s been too easy. When his mother tries to manipulate him into backing down on the grounds of the disgrace his trial will bring to the family, he responds that he doesn’t “know or care” what it will do to them. When his brother, Philip, speaking “with the assurance of a man who knows that the moral ground of his stand is not open to question,” declares that he is guilty and his actions contemptible, Rearden recalls Francisco’s questions, “By what right?—by what code?—by what standard?” and announces that he will throw Philip out on the street if he ever expresses such opinions again. His family is immediately deflated. Philip has gone too far, his mother pleads, but Rearden shouldn’t be hard on him: it would prey on his conscience; he has to be kind and to have pity; and he wouldn’t want to be thought selfish. When Rearden responds that it wouldn’t prey on his conscience, that he isn’t kind, has no pity, and is selfish, she has nothing further to say. Whereas “his consideration for them” over the years “had brought him nothing but their maliciously righteous reproaches,” they are now unable to “throw at him all those accusations of cruelty and selfishness, which he had come to accept as the eternal chorus to his life.” It was his sanction—his acceptance of their standards as legitimate—that had permitted it (467–70).
The following day he takes the same approach at his trial, where he refuses to help disguise the nature of the proceeding and denies the legitimacy of the court and of the laws on which he is being tried.
That is the flaw in your theory, gentlemen, and I will not help you out of it. If you choose to deal with men by means of compulsion, do so. But you will discover that you need the voluntary co-operation of your victims, in many more ways than you can see at present. And your victims should discover that it is their own volition—which you cannot force—that makes you possible. I choose to be consistent and I will obey you in the manner you demand. Whatever you wish me to do, I will do it at the point of a gun. If you sentence me to jail, you will have to send armed men to carry me there—I will not volunteer to move. If you fine me, you will have to seize my property to collect the fine—I will not volunteer to pay it. If you believe that you have the right to force me—use your guns openly. I will not help you to disguise the nature of your action. (479)
In response to the judges’ questions, as to those of his mother, he adheres ruthlessly to his moral code, and repeatedly rejects their attempts to intimidate him into making concessions to theirs. When the eldest judge, for example, says that he wouldn’t want to be “misunderstood” and “give support to the widespread impression” that he is “a man devoid of social conscience” who “works for nothing but his own profit,” Rearden affirms that this impression is correct and speaks eloquently about the virtue of selfishness. After this, when the judge, no longer in a posture of authority, tries to cast all the blame for the illegal sale on Danagger (who has since vanished), Rearden insists that it was made by “equal, mutual, voluntary agreement”; and, when another judge tries to justify the action on the grounds that Rearden “was prompted to disregard the legal technicalities by the critical situation of the coal mines and crucial importance of fuel to the public welfare,” Rearden responds that he was prompted only by his own profit and interests (482). As a result, Rearden is given only a small fine, which is suspended, and the audience applauds him.
The actions Rearden takes on Thanksgiving and at his trial are made possible by what he has learned, and this knowledge is the result—for Rearden and for the reader—of reflection on events earlier in the novel. Though some of the key principles are articulated by Francisco, they are only convincing because of the evidence provided by these earlier events. And indeed, during the crucial discussion in Rearden’s office, Francisco makes continual reference to the consequences of Rearden’s creation of his Metal and to the results of its use on the John Galt Line.
The actions Rearden takes based on his new-found knowledge confirms it, raises new questions, and forms a basis for further conclusions. Looking at the judges who folded so easily, Rearden contemplates “with a bitter wonder that was almost fear . . . the enormity of the smallness of the enemy who was destroying the world,” and he recognizes that if men such as himself were defeated by such an enemy, it can only be through their own fault. Such an impotent evil can only triumph when good men are “willing to let the brand of evil be stamped upon us and silently to bear punishment for our virtues” (483). This observation gives rise to a question: In what ways that they do not yet realize are Rearden and Dagny still giving their moral sanction to evil? Francisco poses this question to Rearden by suggesting that he read a transcript of the speech he made at his trial and consider whether he “is practicing it consistently—or not” (487).
The results of the trial give rise to another question as well. Looking over the crowd, Rearden observes that “they had cheered him today” as he had been cheered during the first run of the John Galt Line, but that these same people would “clamor” for more of the statist measures that shackled him and that were driving the country to ruin, “because they would be told to forget, as a sin, that which had made them cheer Hank Rearden.”
Why were they ready to renounce their highest moments as a sin? Why were they willing to betray the best within them? What made them believe that this earth was a realm of evil where despair was their natural fate? He could not name the reason, but he knew that it had to be named. He felt it as a huge question mark within the courtroom, which it was now his duty to answer.
This was the real sentence imposed upon him, he thought—to discover what idea, what simple idea available to the simplest man, had made mankind accept the doctrines that led it to self-destruction. (483–84)
Over the course of the next six months Rearden will identify this “simple idea”—“the worst of our enemies’ creed”—as “the one tenet by which they destroy a man before he’s started, the killer-tenet: the breach between his mind and body” (857–58).18 We have already seen that it is because of this dichotomy that Rearden initially damns himself and Dagny for their affair, and we have seen how he comes by degrees to recognize that there is something wrong in the traditional views of sex and pleasure and how he admits that, in his initial condemnation of the affair, he was “lying to himself.” By the time of his trial, he no longer regards his feeling for Dagny as evil and even takes a sort of pride in it and in his newfound enjoyment of sensuous pleasures. He has not, however, identified the nature or moral character of this enjoyment. In short, at the time of his trial, Rearden’s attitude toward sex is equivalent to his attitude toward his work earlier in the novel: he loves it unreservedly, but without an understanding of its nature or the conviction that he is morally right to do so.
As Francisco’s speeches at Taggart’s wedding and in Rearden’s office help Rearden to understand the meaning of money and the moral nature of his work, so Francisco’s speech on “The Meaning of Sex” (486–93), shortly after Rearden’s trial, gives him the words he needs to understand the cause and moral significance of his passion for Dagny and to identify for the first time the error he made in damning sex. Francisco identifies the mind-body dichotomy explicitly and explains how both promiscuity and Platonic love are variants of the same error made by the people who denounce wealth.
We can see the consequences of this new knowledge in Rearden’s next encounter with Lillian, when she learns the identity of his mistress. Rearden does not show any sign of guilt, as he did when Lillian first discovered that he was having an affair. In the earlier scene, he acknowledged to Lillian that she had “the right to condemn me in any way you wish” and “to decide what you wish me to do” (430). Though he said that he would not comply with a demand that he give up the affair, he acknowledged that she had the right to make such a demand. However, in the present scene, when Lillian asserts this right, he responds that “no human being can hold on another a claim demanding that he wipe himself out of existence,” and he tells her that he would continue his affair with Dagny “even if it took your life” (529). Moreover, when Lillian damns Dagny for her sexuality, just as Rearden himself had “in the sun-striped bedroom of Ellis Wyatt’s house,” he fully appreciates the moral difference between the two women’s attitudes toward sex and sees “the obscenity of letting impotence hold itself as virtue and damn the power of living as a sin”: “he saw, with the clarity of direct perception, in the shock of a single instant, the terrible ugliness of that which had once been his own belief” (530). When Lillian leaves he feels a wondrous sense of freedom and deliverance in “the shining, guiltless knowledge” that it “did not matter” and “did not have to matter” “what Lillian felt, what she discovered, or what became of her” (531).
Rearden could not have achieved this deliverance prior to coming to understand the meaning of sex, nor could he have appreciated Francisco’s speech on this topic prior either to his relationship with Dagny or to his coming to understand the morality of the principles on which he conducts his business and the relation of these principles to his private life. However, he has not yet reached the end of his trail. Though he no longer feels guilty for his passion for Dagny and he finds Lillian despicable, he still believes that Lillian is motivated by some incomprehensible form of love for him, and he feels responsible for breaking his word to her. Because of this, he is willing to “atone” for his infidelity by remaining in a marriage that by his standards is “a vicious fraud”: “my standards are not yours. I do not understand yours, I never have, but I will accept them. If this is the manner of your love for me, if bearing the name of my wife will give you some form of contentment, I won’t take it away from you” (530). Furthermore, though he grasps the nature and ugliness of Lillian’s belief about sex, he does so only in the form of a “feeling, left unsealed by his mind” (530). As a consequence of this, he is unable to appreciate all the consequences of this knowledge, and its connections with what he has learned about the sanction of the victim, and so he is unable to deal existentially with Lillian. When she insults Dagny, he responds with a threat and the demand that “Neither you nor anyone else is to discuss her,” which lets Lillian know that he is susceptible to blackmail (431).
It is when Ferris uses Lillian’s discovery to blackmail him into signing the Gift Certificate for his Metal that Rearden comprehends the connection between the mind-body dichotomy, the sanction of the victim, and the opposing moral codes. Ferris’ extortion depends on the fact that Rearden is virtuous. The metal is an effect of his virtue, as is his affair with Dagny. He creates life-sustaining values because he loves them—because he loves life. This is the essence of his code, but Ferris and the other looters live by an opposite code. They extort their living from men like Rearden by holding their values hostage. Ferris, who calls Rearden’s loyalty to values “impractical,” represents a moral code that
hooks a man’s love of existence to a circuit of torture, so that only the man who had nothing to offer would have nothing to fear, so that the virtues that made life possible and the values which gave it meaning become the agents of its destruction, so that one’s best became a tool of one’s agony and man’s life on earth became impractical. (561)
Rearden has learned that the practice of such a code requires the acceptance and sanction of the victims, in myriad ways. Chief among these is the victims’ acceptance of their own virtue as guilt for which they are willing to bear punishment—“a punishment that requires the victim’s own virtue as the fuel to make it work” (561). When he asks himself what could make the victims accept this, he sees the answer:
Hadn’t he done it also? Hadn’t he given his sanction to the code of self-damnation? Dagny—he thought—and the depth of their feeling for each other . . . the blackmail from which the depraved would be immune . . . hadn’t he, too, once called it depravity? Hadn’t he been first to throw at her all the insults which the human scum was now threatening to throw at her in public? Hadn’t he accepted as guilt the highest happiness he had ever found? (561)
And he recalls Francisco’s question: “You, who won’t allow one percent impurity into an alloy of metal, what have you allowed into your moral code?” In that same conversation Francisco told Rearden that he was guilty of the great sin of accepting an unearned guilt and paying blackmail to the impotent for the virtues that kept men alive (455). Rearden grasps now for the first time how he was guilty of “damning as guilt that which was my best”:
I broke their code, but I fell into the trap they intended, the trap of a code devised to be broken. I took no pride in my rebellion, I took it as guilt, I did not damn them, I damned myself, I did not damn their code, I damned existence—and I hid my happiness as a shameful secret. . . .
I did it—in the name of pity for the most contemptible woman I know. That, too, was their code, and I accepted it. I believed that one person owes a duty to another with no payment for it in return. . . . I believed that love is some static gift which, once granted, need no longer be deserved—just as they believe that wealth is a static possession which can be seized and held without further effort. . . . I placed pity above my own conscience, and this is the core of my guilt. My crime was committed when I said to her, “By every standard of mine, to maintain our marriage will be a vicious fraud. But my standards are not yours. I do not understand yours, I never have, but I will accept them.”
Here they are, lying on my desk, those standards I accepted without understanding, here is the manner of her love for me, that love which I never believed, but tried to spare. . . .
It was not the cheap little looters of wealth who have beaten me—it was I. They did not disarm me—I threw away my weapon. This is a battle that cannot be fought except with clean hands—because the enemy’s sole power is in the sores of one’s conscience—and I accepted a code that made me regard the strength of my hands as a sin and a stain. (564–65)
At their first meeting, Francisco told Rearden that the impotent guests who damned him while eating his food and surviving by dint of his productive genius, were using a “terrible weapon” against him. Rearden now grasps for the first time how this is the case. As he later explains to Dagny, “I took pride in my ability to think, to act, to work for the satisfaction of my desires. But I did not know that this was virtue.” As a result, he “accepted punishment for it . . . at the hands of an arrogant evil, made arrogant solely by my ignorance and my submission” (858).
In that first encounter Francisco described Rearden as working for his enemies, and now Rearden can see that he was correct. Since it is morality that determines one’s purposes, in conceding the realm of morality to his enemies, Rearden delivered his ability into their hands.
I, who knew that wealth is only a means to an end, created the means and let them prescribe my ends. I, who took pride in my ability to achieve the satisfaction of my desires, let them prescribe the code of values by which I judged my desires. I, who shaped matter to serve my purpose, was left with a pile of steel and gold, but with my every purpose defeated, my every desire betrayed, my every attempt at happiness frustrated.
I had cut myself in two, as the mystics preached, and I ran my business by one code of rules, but my own life by another. I rebelled against the looter’s attempt to set the price and value of my steel—but I let them set the moral values of my life. I rebelled against demands for an unearned wealth—but I thought it was my duty to grant an unearned love to a wife I despised, an unearned respect to a mother who hated me, an unearned support to a brother who plotted for my destruction. I rebelled against undeserved financial injury—but I accepted a life of undeserved pain. I rebelled against the doctrine that my productive ability was guilt—but I accepted, as guilt, my capacity for happiness. I rebelled against the creed that virtue is some disembodied unknowable of the spirit—but I damned you, you, my dearest one, for the desire of your body and mine. But if the body is evil, then so are those who provide the means of its survival, so is material wealth and those who produce it—and if moral values are set in contradiction to our physical existence, then it’s right that rewards should be unearned, that virtue should consist of the undone, that there should be no tie between achievement and profit, that the inferior animals who’re able to produce should serve those superior beings whose superiority in spirit consists of incompetence in the flesh. (858–59)
Rearden’s liberation from guilt—the progression we have been following—is a philosophical development, which consists in drawing abstract and evaluative conclusions from his observations of the world and integrating them into more and more abstract principles—of checking progressively deeper and more abstract premises about the way in which he and others live, when he finds that these premises contradict one another or his experience. Thus, though at the beginning of the novel, if “some man like Hugh Akston” told him that there was a connection between his view of sex and his economic exploitation, he would have “laughed in his face,” by the beginning of part III he has grasped the connection. His mills have come to be “ruled by human scum,” he sees “the achievement of my life serving to enrich the worst of my enemies,” and he understands why this is the case (859).
He has not yet reached Atlantis, however: rather than a sense of radiant joy, “He felt nothing—nothing but the sense of an even restful twilight like a spread of slag over a molten metal, when it crusts and swallows the last brilliant spurt of the white glow within” (571). He is not ready to go on strike; his acceptance of the mind-body dichotomy was not the only chain holding Rearden to the looters’ world. Like Dagny, who never accepted the dichotomy and “was completely incapable of experiencing a feeling of fundamental guilt” (87), he will not be able to break with the looters wholly and achieve happiness until he understands their basic motivation and just how his sanction has enabled them. In the final section of this paper I will trace the final steps that lead to this understanding. I turn now to the earlier stages of Dagny’s progression.
Continue to Part 2 here.
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.
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- In this way Galt drives the action of the novel, and this is why Rand identifies him, rather than Rearden or Dagny Taggart, as the protagonist.
- Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Random House, 1961; Signet paperback edition, 1963), 88. The full statement is: “The role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest.” I discuss the novel’s conception of the role of the mind in my other contribution to this volume, “Atlas Shrugged on the Role of the Mind in Man’s Existence.” The demonstration of a new moral philosophy is corollary to this in that the philosophy consists in recognizing the mind’s role along with its presuppositions and consequences.
- Ayn Rand, “Basic Principles of Literature,” in The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: Signet, 1975), 81.
- Ayn Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” in Romantic Manifesto, 22.
- Rand defined “plot” as “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax” (“Basic Principles of Literature,” 82). This sort of relationship exists only when the characters’ later actions are motivated by their understanding and evaluation of earlier events. In her lectures on fiction writing, Rand takes Les Misérables as the paradigm of a well-plotted novel because “everything [Jean Valjean] does is always conditioned by what he concluded (or misconcluded) from a previous event,” and similarly for the antagonists (Tore Boeckmann, ed., The Art of Fiction [New York: Plume, 2000], 24).
- See Tore Boeckmann’s “What Might Be and Ought to Be: Aristotle’s Poetics and The Fountainhead” in Robert Mayhew, ed. Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
- Ayn Rand, “Art and Sense of Life,” in Romantic Manifesto, 36.
- Fiction functions as an extended hypothetical example or thought experiment.
- When Directive 10-287 is being planned, twelve years into the strike, the bureaucrats are worried that they might encounter resistance because of a provision that would end freedom of the press (532–34, 545–46). This suggests that no such provision was in effect prior to this point.
- David Harriman, ed., Journals of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1997), 398.
- See Ayn Rand, “The Cult of Moral Grayness,” in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964).
- The three parts, of course, are named for the three axioms of traditional logic, but there are reasons why each part has the name it does. For a more detailed discussion, see Onkar Ghate’s “The Part and Chapter Headings of Atlas Shrugged” in the present volume.
- Strictly speaking, on Rand’s view, “existence,” as an axiomatic concept, does not have a definition. See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, second edition, Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, eds. (New York: Meridian, 1990), 40–41. Whether she had formulated this position at the time of writing Galt’s Speech is unclear.
- These shifts remain dramatic even if one factors out the novel’s main philosophical speeches (i.e., those reproduced in For the New Intellectual) all of which occur in parts II and III. The statistics are as follows: in part I, there are on average 0.11 occurrences of “Moral” or “Evil” per page. In Part II they average is 0.38 occurrences per page (or 0.28 if the speeches are factored out), and in Part III the average is 0.83 (0.26 without the speeches). Unambiguously metaphysical words (“reality,” “existence,” “real,” and “unreal”) average 0.14 occurrences per page in part I, 0.22 occurrences per page in part II (whether the speeches are included or not), and 0.67 occurrences per page in part III (0.34 if the speeches are removed).
- This is not the only paradox introduced in part I, which is aptly named “Non-Contradiction”: Francisco d’Anconia, a boy who could not have become a worthless playboy, has nevertheless become one (116), and yet he does not act like one (199); Lillian, who clearly despises Rearden, nevertheless “wants him” in some inexplicable “non-material” sense (309); an invention of genius which is of immeasurable financial value, is abandoned to rust in the closed factory of a bankrupt motor company (289, 331); and, people who love their jobs and excel at them are abandoning them for menial positions (25, 64, 331). These paradoxes set the context for parts II and III of the novel. See Ghate, “Part and Chapter Headings.”
- There are also costs that Lillian knows and Rearden does not. As Francisco explains, Rearden’s attendance constitutes a dangerous sanction of Taggart (415), and this is Lillian’s actual motive for insisting that he escort her (398–99).
- I discuss Atlas Shrugged’s view of the nobility of material production in “Atlas Shrugged on the Role of the Mind in Man’s Existence,” 229–36. See also Debi Ghate’s contribution to this volume, “The Businessmen’s Crucial Role: Material Men of the Mind.”
- On the evil of this doctrine, see “Atlas Shrugged on the Role of the Mind in Man’s Existence,” 242–46.