Published November 26, 2009
The Economist reported on the dramatic surge of sales of "Atlas Shrugged," likely to exceed 400,000 copies this year, crediting the eerie parallels between Rand’s story and governmental takeovers of the financial markets. But her appeal reaches much deeper than politics.
As an educator I can attest to the fact that she is wildly popular among the young, who typically are not very political. Some 27,000 students submitted entries this year to essay contests on her novels and, in the past three years alone, high-school teachers have requested over 900,000 copies of "Anthem" and "The Fountainhead" to use in their classrooms. They know that students respond to her stories and heroes as to few other books.
Sadly, however, it remains all too common for a young person to be told--as I was told in high school--that interest in Rand is a stage he will (or should) grow out of. You may have seen versions of this attitude in the many recent stories about her. “It’s fine to believe in that now,” the refrain goes, “but wait until you’re older. You’ll discover that life isn’t like that.”
But when you actually consider the essence of what Rand teaches, the accusation that her philosophy is childish over-simplification stands as condemnation not of her ideas but of the adult world from which the accusation stems.
The key to Rand’s enduring popularity is that she appeals not to the immaturity but to the idealism of youth. She wrote in 1969: “There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days--the conviction that ideas matter.” The nature of this conviction? “That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.”
To sustain this youthful conviction throughout life, Rand teaches, you must achieve a radical independence of mind. Independence does not mean doing whatever you feel like doing but rather forging your convictions and choosing your actions rationally, carefully, scientifically. It is refusal to subordinate your ideas or values to the “public interest,” as liberals demand, or to the “glory of God,” as conservatives demand. It is refusal to grant obedience to any authority, human or divine.
The independent mind rejects faith -- secular or supernatural -- and embraces reason as an absolute. “The noblest act you have ever performed,” declares the hero of "Atlas Shrugged," “is the act of your mind in the process of grasping that two and two make four.” Rand meant it.
The conviction that ideas matter represents a profound dedication to self. It requires that you not passively absorb your society’s moral views, however well-entrenched, but instead question and study the entire field of good and evil. Perhaps alone among modern novels, this is what "Atlas Shrugged"--with its critique of Judeo-Christian, Kantian and Utilitarian morality, along with its presentation of a new moral code of rational self-interest--demands of its readers.
“To take ideas seriously,” Rand writes, “means that you intend to live by, to practice, any idea you accept as true,” that you recognize “that truth and knowledge are of crucial, personal, selfish importance to you and to your own life.”
Her approach here is the opposite of the view that ideals transcend this world, one’s interests and human comprehension--that idealism is, according to a former President whose words are echoed by virtually every leader today, “to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself.”
In a world that equates idealism with otherworldliness, faith, and sacrifice of self, while simultaneously reminding us that, as a conservative commentator puts it, “perfection in the life of man on earth” is impossible--Ayn Rand stands alone. She argues that perfection is possible to man the rational animal, if you are ready to work for it.
Hold your own life as your highest value, follow reason, submit to no authority, pursue unwaveringly the true and the good, create a life of productive achievement and personal, selfish joy--enact these demanding values and virtues, Rand teaches, and an ideal world, here on earth, is “real, it's possible--it's yours.”
Does an adult world that dismisses this philosophy as “simplistic” not convict itself?
Thankfully, Rand had the courage to take on that world and challenge its rampant skepticism, eager cynicism and unyielding demand for compromise, to portray and explain--at the most fundamental level--the heroic in man.
What I tell my students is that they must never let that world extinguish their dedication to, in "Atlas Shrugged's" words, “the best within us.”
Dr. Onkar Ghate teaches at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center, and was a contributor to Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew, as well as other books on Rand’s fiction and philosophy.