Atlas Shrugged

A couple of years ago I read a thought provoking book and scribbled some musings about it. Some of the references are a bit dated but I thought resurrecting it along with some of the issues are still relevant.

Ayn Rand (2007) Atlas Shrugged London:Penguin Modern Classics (First published 1957)

“All our stories are expressions of ourselves even when they purport to be accounts of aspects of the world. We are deeply implicated in the very grounds of our story telling” (Mair, 1989, p. 257). This is particularly true in the novel Atlas Shrugged; when one is aware of the life story of Rand and her escape from the world of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Russia it created. The reader cannot help but see the condemnation of such a regime in her story of John Galt. The novel “envisions a world where ‘men of talent’– the great innovators, producers and creators– have mysteriously disappeared” (2007: back cover). These men (and women) have effectively been called out on strike by John Galt. He has observed a system where personal industry, inspiration and wealth are condemned, or at least subsumed, into the collective good. The story is about the struggle of one woman to save the world she knows, while struggling with the realisation that that world may not be worth saving.

Although I began the post by quoting Mair’s suggestion about the role of the author in storytelling, just as pertinent in my reading of Atlas Shrugged was my background, and the biases and worldviews I have. Surprisingly in a book that I was reading for relaxation, I found myself having contradictory intellectual (and spiritual) encounters with the events and arguments as they unfolded. This was nowhere more apparent than within my Mormon preconceptions and ideas. On the one hand there are elements of the book, and John Galt’s arguments, that reflect my beliefs perfectly. Conversely, there are parts that seem to contradict my Mormon worldview and teachings of the Church. In the end, I realise they do not (and yet still do); but only after lots of thought and interrogation of the main themes.

Immediately obvious and applicable to Mormonism are the importance of the mind, and the development of self. In addressing the nation John Galt declares: “Man’s life, as required by his nature, is not the life of a mindless brute, of a looting thug or a mooching mystic, but the life of a thinking being—not life by means of force or fraud, but life by means of achievement—not survival at any price” (p. 1014). This nature, within Mormonism, is as a child of God. A being created from/ with intelligence to strive to achieve. Galt continues: “Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it” (p. 1016). From a Mormon perspective the gaining of knowledge is an eternal goal. This life (and the whole of the plan of salvation) can be seen to be about the acquisition of knowledge. In the same way intelligences progress to spirits, to mortality, to resurrection and godhood; so individual people progress in knowledge and experience in preparation for fulfilment in exaltation. “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130: 18-19). Arguing that the plan of salvation is about the accumulation of knowledge and truth: “provides an interesting perspective on eternal progression. There is apparently no end to learning and no end of things to learn” (Eyring H. 1967, p. 157).

There are limits to the applicability of Galt’s speech within Mormonism; for him: “Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch-or build a cyclotron-without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think” (p. 1012). While, as a Mormon, I would accept that knowledge is crucial to the way that we act it would be unacceptable to rely on the mind only. The mind can get a person so far, but only when it is coupled with the inspiration of the Holy Ghost (or possibly the Light of Christ) can a person hope for success in mortality (and eternity). Oliver Cowdery’s experience of translation illustrates this point; the necessity of exercising one’s mind and then involving the Lord: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9: 8). These aspects of Galt’s speech are of intellectual and spiritual interest to Mormonism, but are of no particular challenge.

However, the aspects of the speech, and the book, that challenge Mormon perceptions are concerned with the creation of a, Mormon termed, “United Order”. Understanding Rand’s background enables the reader to interpret the condemnation of such a system to be a reflection of the author’s views about Soviet Russia. However, from a Mormon perspective it raises questions about the viability of the law of consecration. In the book, the system of government begins in one factory, but then begins to extend to become enshrined in the laws of government. In a critique of the system Galt argues: “Then, one night at a factory meeting, I heard myself sentenced to death by reason of my achievement. I heard three parasites assert that my brain and my life were their property, that my right to exist was conditional and depended on the satisfaction of their desires. The purpose of my ability, they said, was to serve the needs of those who were less able. I had no right to live, they said, by reason of my competence for living: their right to live was unconditional, by reason of their incompetence. 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” (p. 1048). These thoughts could have been condemned as the “rantings” of one man, who refused to help other people. But Rand’s most effective condemnation of the system comes from her description of how it was applied. Those who sought to apply it as the leaders became wealthy while all others were left to prove their “need” to be allocated their due by the voice of the people. It was at this point that, as a Mormon, I feel the condemnation was more of the people who ran the system. The links with Animal Farm are hard to miss; there was certainly the view among the factory and the people who ran America, in the book, that: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” (Orwell, 1998, p. 90). If the system inevitably leads to abuse and inequality, how can I, as a Mormon reconcile it with the fact that the law of consecration is inspired of God? Section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants outlines the principles of the United Order; and it is declared to be an “immutable” law. The caveat from the Lord is that “it must needs be done in mine own way” (D&C 104: 16). Interestingly, in light of Rand’s critique, this has not been able to be achieved yet. In the New Testament and in the early part of this dispensation, its practice was suspended (D&C 105: 34). One cannot help but suggest that the suspension of the United Order was because of the inability of people to live it in the Lord’s way. Section 104 indicates that there were issues with the way the certain people were trying to circumvent the organisation. The contrast of the Lord’s practice with Rand’s description is that the Lord was not willing to allow it to be abused, and so the order was disbanded. In Rand’s book the people who ran it were unwilling to let go of it, even when it was obvious that it did not work.

While recognising the necessity of withdrawing from a system that is operating corruptly, there a number of concerns that I have with Galt’s (and Rand’s) philosophy. It seems that a survival of the fittest mentality is what is best for the world; as the fittest prosper and survive then so does the world. However, it seems that protection of the weaker is a natural result of the success of the strong. There is no such thing as charity, everyone pays their way. This misses the essence of what is involved in charity- that such actions benefit the giver and the receiver. Rand suggests a utopia where there is no concern for those who have less. Galt’s removal from society is not just at the expense of the corrupt, but also of the innocent. To what extent does our covenant, as Latter-day Saints, to bless the whole human family only extend to those who are deserving of it? The immediate answer is that the blessing (either of the spreading of the Gospel or through charity) should be given to everybody. We are not to judge who is deserving of our help; the Saviour set the perfect example as his atonement blesses the entirety of creation, without discrimination. At the time of writing there have been different political issues that could be applied to the requirement to not withdraw ourselves from the conflict but seek to bless the entire human family. Positively, the providing of relief supplies and infrastructure help for Japan and the victims of the earthquake and tsunami, have enabled the Church and Church members to exemplify the Gospel and the imperative to provide charity. The issue of the Ground Zero mosque has, however, raised questions about individual members’ ability to bless the whole world. Prothero has offered a humbling reminder to members of the Church: “When Mormons see Muslims as a group found guilty of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, they think “them” rather than “us,” forgetting how Mormons as a group were found guilty of the atrocities of September 11, 1857, when Mormon vigilantes attacked a wagon train of Arkansas emigrants to the Utah territory, killing some 120 innocent men, women, and children” (2010). In withdrawing ourselves from the debate about a Mosque which has nothing to do with us we are missing the point of the Gospel. Seeking to assist others helps Latter-day Saints live their religion in their day to day lives, but also enables those of other religions to have opportunities to practice their religion (either in the service activity, or the resultant “better” society). The dialogue and activities provide further opportunities for a better world as believers are able to “build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation” (Nelson, 1994, p. 71). The issue of the enforcing of a no-fly zone over Libya raises similar questions for the UN and the governments of the world. Why are we discriminating in the choice of conflicts that we involve ourselves in? I am not arguing the rights and wrongs of military action; I am however, suggesting that the same arguments that are used to intervene in Libya have been ignored in places like Zimbabwe and Guatemala. As Latter-day Saints we should bestow love and fight against evil wherever we find it. The governments of the world, are not held to this higher standard, but perhaps reflect the ambiguity and hypocrisy that is evident when we do not apply the principles of love and protection with equity and consistency.

As a Mormon I find Rand’s book to be incredibly entertaining and thought provoking. It raised thoughts that I did not expect to find. However, she also uses language in a way that I have seldom experienced. To read the book as a piece of beautiful and engaging literature or as a timeless commentary on the world we live in are both good reasons to read the book. However, the best reason for me turned out to be the opportunity to enhance my faith and practice as I explored them in greater detail.

Sources

Eyring, H. (1967). The Faith of a Scientist. Salt Lake City : Bookcraft.

Mair, M. (1989). Between psychology and psychotherapy : a poetics of experience . London: Routledge.

Nelson, R. M. (1994, May). Teach us Tolerance and Love. Ensign, pp. 69-72.

Orwell, G. (1998). Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. London: Penguin.

Prothero, S. (2010, August 20). My take: Why aren’t more Mormons supporting Islamic Center. Retrieved March 23, 2011, from CNN Belief Blog: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/20/my-take-why-arent-more-mormons-supporting-islamic-center/

Rand, A. (2007). Atlas Shrugged. London: Penguin.

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