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What Are the Key Messages of Atlas Shrugged?

What Are the Key Messages of Atlas Shrugged?

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March 18, 2024

What are the key messages of Atlas Shrugged, the controversial novel by Ayn Rand?

The five key messages are:

  1. Producers vs. parasites
  2. Reason vs. irrationality
  3. The pursuit of happiness as a moral end in itself
  4. The unity of mind and body, and
  5. Trade vs. force

We’re going to break these down, but first, a couple of quick notes about the novel. Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, was Rand’s final work of fiction, and the one which most explicitly dramatizes her philosophical ideas. It’s at once a dystopian science-fiction thriller, a mystery, and a love story. 

Its protagonist is Dagny Taggart, a woman who runs a railroad company, in a world where things seem to be falling apart: boarded up storefronts, broken supply chains, homeless wandering the streets, and a mounting sense of despair.

Worse, the best and brightest minds of society—engineers, scientists, composers, inventors—all seem to be mysteriously disappearing. Dagny becomes convinced that this is the work of some terrible villain bent on destruction, and embarks on a quest to find and stop the destroyer. In her search, Dagny takes you, the reader, along in her journey of discovery, in which five important themes emerge.

The first is the conflict between the producers and the parasites—between the makers, and the takers. We see that those who create value in the form of businesses, products, services, art, invention—that they are vilified as “greedy,” “selfish” and “materialistic.” They are styled as the villains by politicians, by social-justice activists, by intellectual critics, even by family members—all of whom are supported and funded by the demonized profits the producers earn through their enterprising labors. But it’s actually the parasites who seek something for nothing, the true meaning of “greed” and entitlement.

As Ayn Rand herself said: “I set out to show how desperately the world needs prime movers, and how viciously it treats them.”

The second message of Atlas Shrugged is that of reason vs. anti-reason. You see the theme underscored in the names Ayn Rand gives to the three sections of the novel: Part One, Non-Contradiction; Part Two, Either-Or; Part Three, A is A. These are expressions of the law of identity, things are what they are, not what we want, or hope, or wish they should be.

It’s a lesson Dagny learns the hard way. She is overly-optimistic in believing that she can somehow show, or teach, or persuade the moochers and looters to behave more reasonably, to stop—if you will—biting the hand that feeds them. Her mistake? According to Ayn Rand: “Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone.”

The third message of Atlas Shrugged is the pursuit of one’s happiness as a moral end in itself. In condemning the producers, the parasites of all stripes must have some kind of moral code to justify their judgment. What is that code? It’s the ethics of altruism—not to be confused with ordinary kindness and generosity—but the idea that self-sacrifice is the highest moral ideal. That the interests of others come before your own. And that individual happiness must be subordinated to the so-called “common good.”

It’s the justification behind all the new regulations and laws, things like Directive Number 10-289, which the arch villain Wesley Mouch claims is “based on the noblest principle, to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.” Metaphorically, it’s the idea that the mythical Atlas, condemned for all eternity to bear the weight of the world on his shoulder, must submit no matter the pain or cost to himself, rather than act in his self-interest, and shrug.

It’s why John Galt, in broadcasting the demands of his strike to the world, proclaims: “What you now need is not to return to morality—you who have never known any—but to discover it.” A morality not of altruism—or other-ism—but of egoism, that defends man’s right to his life, his work, and to pursue his happiness.

The fourth message of Atlas Shrugged is the unity of mind and body. Rand dramatizes this theme with Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden in the engine room of a train speeding across the new John Galt line. The intense chemistry between Dagny and Rearden is the opposite of blind lust, but a physical and emotional response to seeing their highest values—rationality, independence, ambition—embodied in each other. But after consummating this mutual attraction, Hank’s guilt and shame reveals he still holds sex as a manifestation of lower, carnal desire.

This mind-body split sows confusion and frustration not just in the realm of romance, but in all other aspects of human life. According to John Galt, the purveyors of this dichotomy “have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. They have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict,” leaving man vulnerable, to either the Mystics of the Mind, who seek to subordinate him to the will of God, or the Mystics of Muscle, who seek to subordinate him to the will of Society.

The fifth message of Atlas Shrugged is trade vs. force as two means of exchange, with plenty of examples of approaches. With trade, characters come together to hash out a deal in which both parties get what they want—like when Dagny agrees to pay a steep price for the first delivery of Rearden Metal. She gets rails, Rearden gets hefty profits, and the chance to showcase his new product to a doubting market. It’s a win-win scenario—a voluntary agreement between people acting freely in their own individual self-interest.

But when an exchange is coerced by force—whether it’s a back-alley mugging, or the state dictating the redistribution of private property—the scenario is always win-lose. The “Fair Share” law, which later dictates who can buy what from whom at what cost, illustrates the dynamic of domination, in which one party is forced to submit, not just the value of what is being contested—steel, or coal, or money—but the value of one’s mind to operate independently. 

Trade builds trust and mutual respect, while force breeds fear, resentment, and ultimately a withdrawal of creative energies.

When you read Atlas Shrugged, see if you can find other examples of the five themes just described—and comment below. Beyond the pages of Rand’s novel, do you recognize examples of these themes in current events, in society, in your own personal life? Hopefully Atlas Shrugged, and Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, can help you make better sense of the world and better decisions as you navigate your way through life.

For further reading, check out these related articles:

1 Atlas Shrugged Course

2 The Capitalist Ideal: The Moral Vision of "Atlas Shrugged"

3 Atlas Shrugged as Literature

4 Atlas Shrugged Book Trailer

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