Bach Ho, University of California, Irvine
The Sanctity of Thought
The most intimate relationship exists between the feeling of sublime exaltation and the cold harsh loyalty to reason.
“[T]he noblest act you have ever performed is the act of your mind in the process of grasping that two and two make four” (p. 1058). John Galt here affirms the virtue of rationality, the acceptance of reason as an absolute. The act of addition is an application of reason, which consists of relying on the sovereignty of one’s own mind to form conclusions about reality—as against following emotions or the dictates of others.
“We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” (702). This is what Dagny Taggart felt when she awoke and saw the “face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt” (701). It is the emotional disposition that disaster and suffering are only the exception in life; that achievement and happiness are the normal and to be expected.
This joyous sense of life is contingent on the total acceptance and consistent practice of the virtue of rationality. In order to understand and feel that the meaning of life is in the pursuit of values, rather than in the struggle against endless disaster, the enslaved producers of Atlas Shrugged needed to apply the virtue of rationality to all aspects of their lives. They had applied it to their careers. They then had to address their views of morality.
By compromising the sovereignty of their minds in the field of morality, the producers condemned themselves to a life burdened with spiritual conflict. They found a clean, understandable, invigorating reality in the world of steel production, oil extraction, copper mining, and running railroads. They thus dedicated all their passion, brilliance, and rationality to work. They found meaning in their lives in the creation and enjoyment of values. Regarding morality, however, they experienced only frustration, hopelessness, and paralysis. They tacitly sanctioned the morality of the looters: altruism, the theory that virtue is self-sacrifice. Altruism condemned their pursuit of happiness as low, unprincipled, and immoral. It forbade them the physical and spiritual freedom required to create wealth and to enjoy it. It regarded their sexual desires as sinful and debased. It condemned the success of their lives. The pro-achievement, pro-enjoyment philosophy they practiced in their work twisted and struggled in vain to integrate with the moral principles of sacrifice and suffering they accepted from the looters. The result could only be inner torment.
This inner torment is what made Ellis Wyatt send his wine glass crashing against the wall in a “gesture of a rebellious anger, the vicious gesture which is movement substituted for a scream of pain” (250). “We’ll try to think that it will last,” he said, referring to the recent achievement of the John Galt Line (250). It is what made Dagny suppress her ultimate longing to “find a consciousness like her own, who would be the meaning of her world, as she would be of his” (220). It is what made Rearden condemn his own lust for such a consciousness. “What I feel for you is contempt. I wanted you as one wants a whore for the same reason and purpose,” he said to Dagny, the woman of mind and virtue whom he worshipped (254).
Among the frustration and despair of the producers, however, existed the dim conviction that a happier, more rational existence was possible. When Rearden learned of Wyatt’s blazing oil fields, he “laughed in triumph, in deliverance, in a spurting, living exultation and the words which he had not pronounced but felt, were: God bless you, Ellis, whatever you’re doing!” (363).
It was the sovereignty of the mind that transformed this dim conviction into the exalted sense of life Galt and the strikers possessed. The enslaved producers applied their minds to judge the morality of the looters and the strikers’ alternative, the Morality of Life. It was up to the individual mind of each victim to see and accept the truth. They learned that the morality advanced by the looters demanded sacrifice and death; that they were imposing disaster and destruction on themselves by sanctioning and sustaining the looters; that thinking and creating values, in other words, making money, was the essence of morality; that they were moral and deserving of happiness because they acted on the Morality of Life.
The effect of this achievement of the mind was an immense deliverance. Minutes after Ken Danagger saw the truth in Galt’s message, he commented to Dagny that it was a beautiful day, perfect for taking a boat trip around the island of Manhattan. “This was the Ken Danagger who had never had a personal friend, had never married, had never attended a play or a movie, had never permitted anyone the impertinence of taking his time for any concern but business” (442).
Once the producers faced their inner torment just as they had once faced only their work with unrelenting rationality—they achieved the philosophic understanding of the looters’ evil and impotence, and their own heroism and creative power. They reached spiritual Atlantis: the simple, proud feeling that life can and should be about achievement and joy, not disaster and suffering.
Just as the individual must revere the power of the mind, so must the world. When Galt glorified the simplest act of addition, he glorified the mind and its capacity to reason. In Atlas Shrugged, the mind plays the role of Atlas, the noble power that carries the world with its strength.
At the root of all knowledge, wealth, technology, and progress is the mind. Rearden Metal, Hammond cars, and Wyatt’s method of extracting oil are all supreme values to man’s life. They add to the products and services available for his consumption. They improve his comfort, luxury, and efficiency. They are only made possible by the function of the mind obtaining knowledge and creating values out of that knowledge. Life requires values; values require thought.
Without thought, there are no values, and no life. The strikers of Atlas Shrugged demonstrate this idea by withdrawing their minds from the world. With no one able to run copper mines or coal mines or steel mills; with no one able to produce automobiles or motors or electrical appliances; with the nation’s greatest transcontinental railroad collapsing because its Vice-President had to do the “thinking for a man unfit to be a night dispatcher,” the world had to collapse (687).
Then the strikers could return to the ruins and begin anew, armed with the vision of life Dagny confirmed when she first saw Galt in the valley: Man as fearless, guiltless, joyous, exalted, heroic, and dedicated to a life absolutely worth living. Upon this sense of life, contained in the vision of Midas Mulligan plotting the locations of his future investments; of Rearden and Wyatt discussing railroads, locomotives, and freight rates; of Halley’s Fifth Concerto filling the valley; of Francisco’s “laughter of greeting, triumph, and release,” (1168); and of Dagny and Galt standing atop the highest ledge of a mountain to face the world, Atlas Shrugged pronounces one simple blessing: “But of course” (701). This is what is important, it says. This is what is worth fighting for.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged (hardcover). New York: Dutton, 1992.