A Declaration of Existentialism
Ayn Rand’s unflinching political confutation for socialism conveyed throughout her mighty work Atlas Shrugged is a passionate allegorical account regarding how one should exist only for the benefit of oneself. This idea is expressed through an assortment of Rand’s main characters, though none quite so explicitly as Hank Rearden. “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!” In Rearden’s bold refutation of ‘public good’ at his trial, Rearden is dismissing the core ideology of socialism and declaring himself an existentialist member of society.
At the novel’s start, Hank Rearden is a simple man trying to make a name for himself in the metal industry so that he can support his family. He lives to content his unappeasable wife Lillian, an antagonist to the story’s existentialist themes, and finds no happiness in his interactions with her. We first understand Lillian’s main role as villainous wife when Rearden gifts her with the first piece of his metal crafted into a bracelet for her to wear. She dismisses his loving act, and this is the first instance where Rearden is seen as a lesser (41). Lillian’s main purpose in the novel is to help characterize Rearden’s conciliatory persona and demonstrate his initial inability to be egotistic. Selfishness, as viewed by Rand, is a positive trait that leads to the success in business and personal affairs. Rearden finally acts upon selfish desires when he falls in love with Dagny Taggart shortly after his wife’s discontent with his metal bracelet. The affair between Rearden and Dagny is selfish on both ends, but that is the reason why it makes them both so happy.
“I am proud that [Hank] has chosen me to give him pleasure and that it was he who had been my choice. It was not – as it is for most of you – an act of casual indulgence and mutual contempt. It was the ultimate form of our admiration for each other, with full knowledge of the values by which we made our choice…” (318).
In the above quote articulated by Dagny when referencing his relations with Hank Rearden, she explains how being with each other was each of their own individual choices. Rearden chose Dagny to pleasure himself and vice versa; there were no outside forces pressuring them together other than the pure admiration for one another that Dagny references. Through this, Rand is demonstrating that by disregarding the good of others and focusing on the pleasure of oneself, great things will emerge. Rearden does not understand this concept prior to his relationship with Dagny, but finally has an egotistical epiphany at his trial where he disputes the good of others and suggests existing for the good of himself.
Hank’s statement, “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!” references the two coinciding themes of existentialism and egoism. The idea of existentialism, existing for oneself instead of for the greater good of others, is conveyed through several different outlets throughout Rand’s work. By supporting capitalism and shooting down communist principles, she expresses the importance of this theme. Public good, as Rand sees it, aims to work toward the greater benefit of a community by taking from others, while existentialism strives for the success of one’s self. This is key, as the looters take from those who are stronger. By boasting these words in such a public environment, the character experiences a shift where he goes from submission to the powerful figures that aim to control his success to breaking out and declaring his individualist existence. As his trial commences, the judge questions where Rearden’s absent defense is. Rearden replies, “I will not play the part of defending myself, where no defense is possible, and I will not simulate the illusion of dealing with a tribunal of justice” (442). With this statement, he is refusing to conform to the expectations of the government and society, proving this point by standing on his own in court. Although he realizes he alone cannot fight the power that the government will exert on him, he makes it very clear to the judge that he does not acknowledge nor believe in any of the principles for which he is being tried for. The purpose of the publicity of this declaration is to demonstrate his opposition to the principles of socialism in a manner that can be heard by all. This is Rand’s way of communicating her philosophy through this growing character.
Rand also develops the philosophies of egoism and reason through Hank Rearden. Rand once stated that an “individual should exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself” (Duignan). This goes hand in hand with the ideas of existentialism portrayed by Rearden as the novel progresses. Existentialism is the core concept of the valley many of the characters find themselves in climatically. In order to stay in the valley, an individual must pledge an oath stating “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” (670). This captures the central idea of Hank’s quote, simply rephrased.
To conclude, Rearden’s dismissal of public good brings the novel to a climax point; this is where Hank declares his realization that he is living for himself, and not to please anyone, including the government and his dreadful wife Lillian. By Ayn Rand highlighting this outspoken epiphany, she is declaring her own beliefs encouraging capitalism and discouraging the idea that one must exist for the greater good of the community. After all of Rand’s awful experiences with communism, she is showing that being an existentialist is the only way to true success and happiness.
Art and Reason in Atlas Shrugged
As Dagny enters Richard Halley’s valley cottage in the cool calm of the night, she is enveloped with music that hits her as a “symbol of moral pride” (717) This pride is not built on what the heart feels is valuable, but on what the mind knows to be of value. Richard Halley is a music composer, he is an artist, and yet he understands that “all work is creative work if done by a thinking man”(933). He approaches his art with the same moral productiveness as a businessman.The act of playing his music and of Dagny experiencing it is “mutual trade for mutual profit” (717). Halley however explains to Dagny that when he plays for general audiences in the outside world, there is no reciprocal trade for his music: “I do not care to be admired causelessly, emotionally, intuitively, instinctively– or blindly.”(717) Halley’s work has typically been judged by unthinking men, who themselves know and produce very little and yet, Halley bemoans, it’s these very people who evaluate a man of the mind. The reason Halley had to leave the outside world and take his work with him is in essence why every member of John’s Gulch comes to live inside the valley.For Halley, his art is a testament of his “capacity to see,” and his relentless “devotion to the pursuit of truth.”(718) Spontaneous invocations, platitudes and daydreaming cannot exist for the truth seeking artist, only through the laborious and “unrelenting strain upon one’s power of clarity” can the businessman and artist reach the summit of their mind potential.Halley pursues his creations to their logical and brilliant end, but “the nature of the looter”(682) is to deny this process – the process of mental evolution, of identifying that which is real, sticking with it and nurturing the idea into thought. Dagny wonders why Halley doesn’t share his music genius with the world anymore but Halley explains clearly that the ordinary public believed they owned his talent and these “worshippers of zero”(937) could not fully grasp the totality of his work. Only when they were ready to embrace his work, were Halley’s efforts deemed successful. In effect, he had been giving his mind, and the mastered product of his mind, away for free, to people who had neither the rigour to comprehend it, nor the capability to exchange anything of substantial value.Those without an understanding of genuine value cannot bestow their own ideas of worth on a creation, so the only thing they can do is to destroy it and debase it in accordance with their own decrepit soul. Galt proposes the notion to Halley that his “work is the purpose of [his] life”(934), in so much as what he does is an external exhalation of who he is: work is the branch, body the vessel of the life force and both are rooted in the capacity of the mind to seek the light of its own maturity and growth. Everyone who discovers the valley approaches their work and life with the same “mathematical precision” (719) – their ability relies on the logical calculation of their mind and their body is the reinforced effect of their mind. They are truly powerful in their efforts because of their unrelenting desire to seek that which is rational, to be “the man not only of self-made wealth, but…of self-made soul.”(934)It is because of Halley’s “intransigent devotion to the pursuit of truth”(718) he explains to Dagny, that he walked away from the “life haters” and refused to allow their destruction of his highest moral code.His thirst for knowledge and hunger for the truth, his desire to facilitate the expansion of his whole-self as a shining example of human achievement is how he hopes to build “his world in his own image” (725). It is in this mental acceptance of the true nature of the looters that Galt finds him. Each character who lives in Galt’s Gulch had to uncover for themselves what they always knew inside: “Sacrifice could be proper only for those who have nothing to sacrifice” (942) Halley, like the others refused to sacrifice himself for looters who stood for nothing. Not being able to sustain their own irrational existence, they leached off the production of “men of ability”.There is no “loophole in the law of causality”(935) Whether your work is painting, architecture, engineering or running a company, the magnitude of your thinking and the extent of your mind’s dimensions dictate your efficiency in any endeavour: “ability is quality and capacity is quantitive.” If you value that which is anti life, then you are paralyzed in rotted decay of weakness. Why are Halley and the others finally happy when they join John in the valley? It is because now they are truly free to have their work “without penalty or guilt”(935).Halley tells Dagny that he created the “Concerto Deliverance” for John. Galt helped him define what none of them had previously managed to: the creed that was inside them all. Galt helped them to uncover the truth – something that he had fought himself to earn. Thus Halley’s “Concerto Deliverance”(683) is finally the trade for trade value he has been looking for.Ayn Rand is able to brilliantly portray man’s motivation to leave the world of the creative dead. In the end, Dagny also joins them in the valley because she too realises that “the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader”(935).Works Cited Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged: 50th Anniversary Edition. New York. 1996. Print