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Published May 25th 2014
'Who is John Galt?'
Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, is arguably the most influential work written by the mid-twentieth century philosopher Ayn Rand (other works include Anthem and The Fountainhead). The novel is one of her most enduring successes, particularly amongst those with an interest in philosophy, economics, or politics. With an Atlas Shrugged film due to open in September 2014, the novel is gaining more widespread interest. In fact, even if you haven't read the novel or heard of Ayn Rand, you may have seen the enigmatic opening catchphrase of the novel 'Who is John Galt?' plastered across bumper stickers, t-shirts, and even billboards.
Photo by Graham Hardy (Wikimedia Commons)
Rand invented the philosophy of Objectivism, which, in general, promotes economic competition, self-interest, and human ingenuity above all else. Atlas Shrugged was composed in order to illustrate the tenets of Objectivism via fictional symbolic representations. At a length of over 1000 pages with 11 major characters and nearly 60 minor characters, as well as a variety of complex philosophical and economic ideas, Atlas Shrugged is in no way an easy or frivolous read, but it is ultimately rewarding to engage with the major work of a modern philosopher and its unusual proposals for a better society.
In very brief summary, the novel follows the events surrounding the destruction of the fictional Phoenix-Durango railroad instigated by James Taggert (of a rival railroad) via the passage of a rule that eliminates competition for the sake of the public good. At the time of the destruction of the Phoenix-Durango the best and brightest thinkers and innovators are beginning to mysteriously disappear to join the novel's hero, John Galt, in the formation of a new and Objectivist society – a society that lives according to human creativity and competition. As summed up in the novel by the character of Ragnar Danneskjöld, the thinkers' fight is against the idealised symbol of Robin Hood, the 'champion of need.' By the end of the novel, the Objectivist moral code of a productive life based on rational thought, a life lived for the sake of personal interests, trumps the guilt-induced, self-sacrifice of the mainstream dystopian society characterised in the novel.
Whatever your ultimate conclusions or feelings are about Objectivism, Atlas Shrugged is certainly thought-provoking and worth reading well in advance of the film debut.