Few books are as loved and as hated as Atlas Shrugged. Exploring Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand’s Magnum Opus is a collection of standalone essays by Edward W. Younkins, executive director of Wheeling University’s Institute for the Study of Capitalism, bookended by a synopsis of Atlas Shrugged and an explanation of Objectivism, the philosophical movement following in Rand’s footsteps. The book brings together new and old material: a couple of chapters were previously published, a couple of chapters are new, and another chapter was taken from a presentation at a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged in 2007. It is a useful companion to Rand for scholars interested in her work and teachers who use it in the classroom.
Younkins takes Atlas Shrugged seriously as a work of philosophy, literature, and economics, as a commentary on business, and as an analysis of social change. Atlas Shrugged has been enormously influential, so much so that organizations like the Ayn Rand Institute distribute copies like the Gideons distribute Bibles, and philanthropists like John Allison have given large sums to support the academic study and teaching of Rand’s ideas.
One of the more frequent criticisms of Atlas Shrugged that you’re likely to see points out that the characters are unrealistic and one-dimensional. Younkins takes on this objection and explains how this is a deliberate move on Rand’s part, and one that Bryan Caplan has noted could be leveled at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. As Younkins writes, “By eliminating irrelevant and trivial attributes and actions, her characters become moral projections.” It means that her characters are in a lot of ways, inhuman; however, Rand makes this choice deliberately in order to be as clear as she can be about her philosophical ideals.
You can usually tell that someone hasn’t really read or understood Ayn Rand if they think her books are mere apologetics for grasping, materialistic greed that seeks profit at any cost. First, this is hard to square with the fact that her other major novel, The Fountainhead, is about an architect who refuses to compromise his aesthetic and moral principles even when doing so would be quite lucrative. Second, Atlas Shrugged isn’t about the virtue of getting money. The book’s villains like James Taggart and Orren Boyle do plenty of that through political machinations that either throttle their competition or cut out the middleman and simply funnel government subsidies directly into their pockets. As Younkins writes of James Taggart, “He wants to be rich without earning wealth and to be loved and admired without earning the right to be loved and admired. Jim is motivated by his hatred of good men and his desire to kill them.” Reading this description reminds me of Murray Rothbard’s description of Karl Marx’s “hatred of God as a creator greater than himself.” Atlas Shrugged is about making money by innovation and exchange. Rand’s heroes are not virtuous because they are rich. They are rich because they are virtuous.
Younkins points out how Rand repurposes and reconfigures classic myths. John Galt, Rand tells us, is Prometheus, but Prometheus who takes fire back. Rand’s fictional composer Richard Halley asks in an opera “What if Phaethon’s ride was successful?” Midas Mulligan’s ability to evaluate investments is an unalloyed blessing, and one he withdraws when he is compelled to lend money to people who will almost certainly waste it. Atlas Shrugged makes a lot more sense when you understand that Rand’s characters are basically gods both good and evil.
As the book is a collection of standalone essays, it suffers a little from repetition; more than once, readers will ask “Haven’t I already read this?” and realize they’re reading a repetition of something that was in an earlier chapter. This space might have been used better going deeper into some of the issues the book raises. Dr. Younkins runs an institute at a Jesuit university, and I would have loved to see an exploration of the tensions between Rand’s ideas and the Jesuit tradition. I think Rand is far too dismissive of religion, but the devout are too dismissive of Rand (John Piper is an important exception)–or of individualism and capitalism. One of my “favorite” characters in Atlas Shrugged is Eugene Lawson, “the banker with a heart,” who gave no thought to profitability, bankrupted his community with his good intentions, and blamed everyone else for falling short of his lofty ideal. Younkins discusses Lawson’s folly on page 100, but I think there is a lot that remains to be said about his (ig)noble experiment and how it fits in with different ethical traditions–or doesn’t. I’m drawn to Atlas Shrugged as an economist and a Christian because it is such a piercing explanation of how much ideas matter and how much intentions don’t.
Atlas Shrugged is a profoundly influential book, one of the most influential of the post-World War II era, and it deserves a prominent spot on college syllabi ranging from freshman to graduate seminars. It is a book filled with ideas that everyone should spend a lot of time considering, and Edward Younkins’ Exploring Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand’s Magnum Opus will make that pondering easier and more fruitful.