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The Theme of Atlas Shrugged
by Jeremy Browning
May. 11, 2011 01:35

I drove an hour to a nearby town to watch Atlas Shrugged tonight. On the way home I found myself struggling to wrap my mind around the theme of the story. It's been 10 years since I read Atlas Shrugged in its entirety, and tonight I was trying to piece together the kernel at the center of it.

As we cruised home, I was telling my travelmates about the idea that evil is impotent and that in a way it requires the participation of the good to gain power. I couldn't remember how Ayn Rand put it, but when I got home I looked up the passage below.

I believe it contains the Tootsie Roll at the center of Rand's masterpiece. And if it's that central to the novel, maybe it's the most important paragraph she ever wrote. I say that because she recognized Atlas Shrugged as her magnum opus and I don't believe she ever wrote fiction again once it was published.

The idea is called the "Sanction of the Victim," and it goes like this:

(Although it's one paragraph, I broke it up to make it easier to swallow. I think in the original novel they were trying to save paper because the book was so long.)

Then I saw what was wrong with the world, I saw what destroyed men and nations, and where the battle for life had to be fought. I saw that the enemy was an inverted morality—and that my sanction was its only power. I saw that evil was impotent—that evil was the irrational, the blind, the anti-real—and that the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it.

Just as the parasites around me were proclaiming their helpless dependence on my mind and were expecting me voluntarily to accept a slavery they had no power to enforce, just as they were counting on my self-immolation to provide them with the means of their plan—so throughout the world and throughout men’s history, in every version and form, from the extortions of loafing relatives to the atrocities of collectivized countries, it is the good, the able, the men of reason, who act as their own destroyers, who transfuse to evil the blood of their virtue and let evil transmit to them the poison of destruction, thus gaining for evil the power of survival, and for their own values—the impotence of death.

I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent.

I saw that I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was "No."

In my early 20s, I spent several months trying to come to terms with the meaning of that idea. I wanted to know exactly what she meant and exactly how she arrived at that conclusion. That lead me to read almost every word of non-fiction Rand ever published. And it lead me to conclude that although her championing of capitalism was what had gotten me excited about her work in the first place, Rand was not just another capitalist. I came to realize that her understanding of and respect for the the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism deserved a closer look. I came to understand that Rand's viewpoint was qualitatively different from the other capitalist viewpoints I was familiar with.

Rand was digging deep, I found. And her ideas carried so much weight because they were so damn tenable. I'd read a new idea of hers and it would sound clever or interesting. Then I'd play the Devil's Advocate and try to come at it from another angle and see if it still held water. Sometimes her ideas would get stuck in my head for days and I'd sit there thinking, Wow, this woman has really done her homework.

Observe the power of her words: half a century after being published, her great work is still so relevant and so highly revered that it continues to be a sensation and is embraced by a large following of readers who would otherwise vehemently disagree with her on religious grounds. She makes so much sense that even readers who would fight her to the death over her atheism are happy to associate themselves with her political viewpoints.

The passage I quoted above should be read slowly. One sentence at a time. I find that I start to appreciate why she enclosed that paragraph within a half-million-word novel. It required 1,100 pages to illustrate what she was driving at.

Imagine me, a 20-something coming to terms with the power of her words and actually the power of words in general. Now imagine me combing through the philosophy textbooks at Colorado State University, searching the philosophy anthologies at the college library, scanning the indexes and excitedly racing my eyes down the "R" sections looking for reference to Ayn Rand, looking for further information.


She's not there.

You'll find her name mentioned from time-to-time. Rarely, she gets a paragraph or two.

What's going on? I wondered. She's secular enough that it can't be some religious bias. She's a best-selling author, so surely she's not too obscure to be mentioned.

It doesn't take long, walking around a modern college campus, where one can actually taste in the air the loathing that higher education harbors for capitalism, it doesn't take long to figure out why a great thinker is missing from the "R" sections in all those indexes.

Edited May. 11, 2011 08:27


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