This morning I awoke with the crescendo of Ayn Rand’s symphonic masterpiece Atlas Shrugged still ringing in my mind. I finished re-reading it late last night. A truly great novel not only has a good sense of beat and dialogue (something that Atlas Shrugged sometimes misses due to the long speeches) but also has an ending that is considered a homerun. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand pulled this off.
Without giving away the ending for those who have not yet read it, I will only say that it rings true and finishes with flair. In the last several chapters of the book the protagonists (heroes) and the antagonists (villains) all reach the final, logical end of their ideas put to action. There is no other way the story could have ended – and Rand did not attempt to create one. If you want to read a story that shows how the individual decisions taken sometimes in good faith and sometimes for the right motivations can turn out so wrong – if you know that freedom and prosperity cannot be advanced through the use of un-free programs and principles – you must read Atlas Shrugged.
To be sure, the novel is long; something its detractors constantly complain about. But this too serves a purpose. In the modern world, totalitarian dictatorships are rarely installed through lining up enemies on the Malecon for summary execution such as happened in Cuba or throwing hundreds of thousands into prison like North Korea. These days the jails are built gradually, a noose that tightens slowly around the necks of once-free men. As is demonstrated in modern day Venezuela, the story of seizing people’s freedom requires a long time to tell.
There is however one issue that has always bothered me about Ayn Rand – and it does not come from her books. It arises from her rejection of faith. The heroic in man that Rand so admires could never have come to be without a God – Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’. For those of us who do not believe that we crawled out of the muck and the mire to build our civilizations; for those of us who believe that human beings are set apart from the animals as special agents of creation, through our very ability to create; we know that this ability comes from the image of God imprinted on our consciousness. From the beginning of time this has been recognized as true; from Ecclesiastes ‘eternity in our hearts’ to Roman’s ‘laws of God written on the hearts of man’ and making its way through Jefferson’s ‘truths we hold self-evident’; all the great thinkers have accepted that there are special laws that govern humanity. These natural (moral) laws are just as real as the physical ones – and they come from the same place. It is this that Rand struggled with so much. She attempted to define her own creation-based-morality but without accepting the source of natural laws required to sustain it – the foundational principles such as private property, faithfulness to our contracts (including marriage), honor of family, and the preeminence of due process; all central to civilization and written first so long ago on tablets of stone by God.
But we can no more deny these, than we can deny gravity.
The truth is that when you deny these natural laws – and their source – you are compelled to identify an alternative way of deciding what is right. Responding to this uncertainty, people cling desperately to the axiom of ‘majority rules’ and put their nouveau morality to the vote; rapidly setting up governments to police their majority-based-morality. The irony is that this exactly what Rand spent her life fighting. And the reality is that we do not need government to tell us what is right and wrong (even if they got it right, which they rarely do). God already has – it only remains for us to follow these rules. Yet in her worship of rational thought, she rejected the creator of reason and by extension His ‘self-evident’ truths. This was the fundamental flaw – the unfinished foundation that made the whole impressive edifice of objectivism unstable.
The hero that Rand was so passionate about and so eloquent in defending was the one man she could not accept – a man of faith. As Frederic Bastiat said, “Man is not just an intelligent man, and he is not merely a calculating being. He has a soul…”
There are many who will object to what I’m saying. Some because they object to the idea of a creator; some because of bad experiences with organized religion; and others because they use libertarianism as a defense for libertinism. To all of you, I would ask a simple question, “If we take away natural law, its source and its self-evident truths, how else can we possibly know what is right?” Not even Ayn Rand with her colossal intellect could answer this question.
Joel D. Hirst is a novelist, author of “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio” and its Spanish version, “El Teniente de San Porfirio: Cronica de una Revolucion Bolivariana”