Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 3: Enjoying the Smutty Parts


Part I, Chapters 6 through 10: Readers encounter an eventful party, a career triumph, a torrid affair, and more.

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From: Jerome Copulsky
To: Michael Brendan Dougherty, Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta

Subject: Part I, Chapters 6 through 10

A society anniversary party, crashed by a worthless playboy. The construction of a new railway line and bridge out of an untested new metal. A torrid affair (finally!) and a road-trip vacation. The accidental discovery of a fantastical new invention and a quest to find its inventor. And a climatic act of self-sabotage. A lot happens in chapters six through 10. And we're still only in the first third of the novel! We've got a long, long way to go!

Despite all of this action, Atlas Shrugged is fundamentally an attempt at a philosophical novel, and one that places professional philosophers themselves in small but important roles. Indeed, the chapters under discussion are more or less framed by a contest of philosophies, which underlies the plot of the novel itself.

In chapter six, we encounter at the Rearden's anniversary party one Dr. Simon Pritchett, head of the Department of Philosophy at the once prestigious Patrick Henry University, pontificating on the new philosophy. Take a moment to consider some of his weighty pronouncements:

"Man's metaphysical pretensions," he said, "are preposterous. A miserable bit of protoplasm, full of ugly little concepts and mean little emotions -- and it imagines itself important! Really, you know, that is the root of all the troubles in the world."

"The philosophers of the past were superficial .... It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn't any."
"Reason, my dear fellow is that most naïve of superstitions. That, at least, has been generally conceded in our age."

"The purpose of philosophy is not to seek knowledge, but to prove that knowledge is impossible to man."

Such statements read like a parody of philosophical nihilism, and Pritchett and his interlocutors appear as pseudo-intellectual strawmen, but I think that Rand is dead serious in passages such as these. Deluded by their celebration of irrationality, by their mysticism, by their belief that the universe is a contradiction, Pritchett and his ilk regard the human being as a mere animal, or worse, as a worthless collection of chemicals.

Dr. Pritchett, we soon learn, is the author of The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe, a tome recommended by Jim Taggart of all people. "You think a system of philosophy -- such as Dr. Pritchett's -- is just something academic, remote, impractical?" Jim asks his new paramour a few chapters later. "But it isn't. Oh, boy, how it isn't."

Even Jim realizes that one's philosophy, one's understanding of the nature of the human being and of one's place in the universe, shapes his actions and morality. This is one of Rand's points: Theory and practice are intimately linked. It is a point underscored by the fact that Francisco d'Anconia, the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld, and a mysterious third (I wonder who he can be!) all majored in both philosophy and physics -- thought and action -- at Patrick Henry.

You can imagine Rand thinking, The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

I think Rand is correct, though, in implying that there is a fundamental connection between one's anthropology -- one's understanding of the nature of the human being -- and the social and political order than one advocates.

What are the implications of Dr. Pritchett's system, as Jim understands it? "Unhappiness is the hallmark of virtue. If a man is unhappy, really, truly unhappy, it means that he is a superior sort of person." Suffering is the essence of being. It's clear where Rand thinks the philosophy of Pritchett is taking us. At the party, he tells his listeners that "Once [man] realizes that he is of no importance whatever in the vast scheme of the universe, that no possible significance can be attached to his activities, that it does not matter whether he lives or dies, he will become much more ... tractable."

(That little ellipsis -- it is Rand's -- is doing a lot of work, isn't it?)

The assault upon reason leads to the degradation of the human being leads to slavery.

But there is an alternative. Towards the end of chapter 10, following up on the trail of the mysterious inventor of a radically new kind of motor, Dagny seeks out a remote roadside diner in the Rockies to see the man behind the counter. Enjoying a excellent hamburger,

She studied the man behind the counter. He was slender and tall; he had an air of distinction that belonged in an ancient castle or in the inner office of a bank; but his peculiar quality came from the fact that he made the distinction appropriate here, behind the counter of a diner. He wore a cook's white jacket as if it were a full-dress suit. There was an expert competence in his manner of working; his movements were easy, intelligently economical. He had a lean face and grey hair that blended in tone with the cold blue of his eyes; somewhere beyond his look of courteous sternness, there was a note of humor, so faint that it vanished if one tries to discern it.

As it turns out, the distinguished-looking cook behind the counter is none other than Professor Hugh Akston, the scholar who preceded Pritchett as head of the Department of Philosophy at Patrick Henry. 

Dagny immediately recognizes the name, and what is stands for:

"Hugh Akston?" she stammered. "The philosopher? ... The last of the advocates of reason?"

"Why, yes," he answered pleasantly. "Or the first of their return."

Dagny is shocked to find such an eminent mind working behind the counter at a little diner in the middle of nowhere. When she asks why his is doing his, he says simply, "Because I am a philosopher."

We don't hear much from Hugh Akston about his philosophy and its implications at this point in the novel, and it will take us some time to learn the reasoning behind his decision. (I actually found it refreshing that he didn't go off on a several-page-long monologue.) We are left to wonder what would cause the great philosopher to leave his university position and work as a short-order cook. As Rand would put it, what is his motive? And what are the last advocates of reason advocating ...? Well, we'll just have to read on and see. (I expect many more long speeches on the subject, by the way.) And we will have to judge Rand's novel not only on its artistic merits (of which I am still dubious), but also on the coherence of the philosophical system it is developing and endorsing.


From: Michael Brendan Dougherty
Jerome Copulsky, Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta
Subject: Part I, Chapters 6 through 10

Maybe it is just the smutty parts but I'm starting to enjoy this book now.

I've gotten used to the way the heroes and villains speak to each other about enterprise. And although everything is overdrawn, I found some of the ideas in these chapters more congenial. I do agree with Rand's heroes that truth and freedom go together. (I would, wouldn't I?) And I do agree that the endless manipulation of language enables tyranny. But of course that would be Rand the libertarian in league with me the reactionary, and Orwell the socialist. So maybe it isn't saying much.

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Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Jerome Copulsky

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