Friday, June 5, 2015

Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" and biblical symbolism: God, Government and Satan

Ayn Rand's magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged" was published a little under sixty years ago. At the time, the novel - and the philosophy behind its key message - was considered unfashionable and even controversial, as it went against every moral fibre of the society that existed at the time. As one of the main advocates of pure Capitalism (i.e. a society and economy effectively without government interference), Rand took the economic ideas of the "Austrian School" and created a "moral code" from them:she called this new philosophy "Objectivism". As this novel was published in the middle of the so-called "post-war consensus", her ideas took conventional morality and turned it on its head.

Rand's sense of morality - of right and wrong - is displayed and explained in stunning clarity in"Atlas Shrugged". It tells a morality tale, but one relevant to modern times and written in an accessible, highly-readable form. As a piece of literature it is a true masterpiece; a contemporary work of art. It is breathtaking, terrifying, electrifying yet dangerous. It is breathtaking in the enormous scope of vision, a piece of literature over a thousand pages long that takes in everything from big industry to the lowest poverty. It is terrifying in its description of gradual social breakdown, with its predictions of how government can easily lose sight of how society functions. It is electrifying in the manner of how morality and ideas are explained with cut-glass sharpness and a refined clarity of thought. And yet, as a piece of writing, it is also dangerous: dangerous for the great convincing intelligence shown in its pages, but also the horrible truth of what these ideas mean in the real world.

As dangerous as "The Communist Manifesto" was to society when its ideas began to put put into practice, the ideas of "Atlas Shrugged" have been as dangerous to society when implemented by governments for the past thirty-five years. Communism brought about the poverty of any society that implemented its ideas; meanwhile, trying to implement "pure" Capitalism in the last thirty years simply resulted in a complete collapse in the system. Russia after Communism was as good an example of this as any: the result was complete anarchy and a depression-style collapse in living standards. And lest we forget, it was only "government" that saved the global system from complete collapse in 2008.
For both pure Communism as preached by Karl Marx, and pure Capitalism as described by Ayn Rand, are simply dangerous - but convincing - pipedreams; opposite versions of a nightmarish dystopia.

The Word Of Rand

As said earlier, Atlas Shrugged is a morality tale. It is a document, in fictional form, of Rand's view of the world. 
In essence, the story revolves around several "heroic" characters who are people of industry. These characters (such as Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, who dominate the first half of the story) are moral purists, who wish to make (more) money and become (more) successful, it seems simply for the sake of becoming better. Their goal is not to do things for the benefit of others (e.g. society, or their family) but doing things that further their own goals. Any positive effect that others gain from their success is incidental. Moral purity and philosophical (and psychological) strength are key attributes, as are honesty and the principle of self-reliance. As a result, these characters have little time (and respect) for those around them that do not follow those same ideas.
Rand is a fervent believer in America as "the land of the free". In her eyes, America is the nearest thing - given she was an ardent atheist - to "heaven on earth". America for Rand was a place founded on the principles of freedom and the right to self-betterment through individual struggle and excellence without government interference. In "Atlas Shrugged", these "heroic" characters gradually fall victim to efforts by the government to prevent them from fulfilling their wishes to "become better" under their own terms. A succession of government rules obstruct them and create disincentives to working as they would wish, as the government sees these industrialists as "greedy" and "anti-social". These "heroes" are forced to either accept government's many rules, or quit.
In the end, the industrialists are shown another way of doing their work, without government interference in the "New Atlantis", which they flock to, and then thrive in.

God, Government, and The Bible

Rand sees this "New Atlantis" as a society where the only rule is that of nature and "rational self-interest". Conversely, the land of "government" is one of rules that stifle the free will and betterment of individuals who seek to make their own success and fortune - in effect, because they are rivals to the exclusive power of "government".

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament, and especially the fate of Satan, might see some interesting parallels with the morality tale of Atlas Shrugged - albeit with an important twist. 

In the Bible, Satan is God's most powerful (and beautiful) angel. Satan seeks to be as powerful as God, and (according to the theologian Origen) seeks greater free will from the will of God. When God makes man in his own image, he refuses to kneel before man when God requests it. These factors result in the "war in heaven", which culminate in the ejection of Satan and his followers from Heaven and their banishment to Hell, which Satan becomes the ruler of. It is therefore only in Hell where Satan and his followers are truly "free".

Of course, the Bible goes out of its way to portray Satan as the embodiment of evil, but this is a misleading simplification, even when directly reading the Bible itself. Satan's key role in Genesis is the temptation of Eve with the apple from the Tree Of Knowledge (Of Good And Evil), which would make her and Adam "like God". Satan's other name is Lucifer, which is Latin for "light-giver", and it was this role - as the giver of "light" or knowledge - that Satan is punished for by God after the temptation of Eve. In other words, Satan's role in Genesis is to encourage the first man and woman to better themselves, while also highlighting God's arbitrary and deceitful nature.

Rand's grand morality tale, "Atlas Shrugged", could then be called a re-imagining of the tale of Satan's fall from Heaven told from the perspective of Satan rather than God. Substitute the word "God" for "Government" and Satan and his followers for the "heroic" industrialists, and the narratives are in many ways parallel, except that the sense of perspective is reversed. In the Bible, Satan and his followers are forced to leave Heaven as they refuse to follow God's (arbitrary) commands and (to their minds) twisted philosophy, and feel held back from their full potential. In "Atlas Shrugged", the "heroes" flee the control of "government" for the same reasons.

It could also be argued that God represents to Satan the same idea that "government" represents to Rand. Satan rebelled against God partly because of what he saw as God's arbitrary power, but also because Satan refused to bow before man, God's creation. In this way, Satan refused to offer man his unconditional love or respect, as he felt it was undeserved or unearned. This idea (of "conditional love" or undeserved respect or charity) also features strongly in Atlas Shrugged. For example, Hank Rearden, one of the industrial "heroes", refuses to give a job to his brother because he is unqualified and undeserving. Later, he threatens to throw his brother out of his house, rather preferring to see his brother on the street than getting charity from him for simply being part of the family. Rand's philosophy reels against the idea of charity and "brotherly love" precisely because she sees it as unearned, detrimental and pointless. Satan, given his attitude towards man, would doubtless agree: part of what Satan stands for is the opposite to the concept of Judaeo-Christian selfless, "brotherly love". Satan represents the advancement of the "self" to its moral conclusion - severing connection to "God", and the rejection of the idea of selflessness and self-sacrifice for (undeserving) others e.g. by refusing to unconditionally "love" man, or to blindly obey God's commands.

To follow "God", then, is to abandon the idea of the "self" for the benefit of the whole; this is what Satan rejects, resulting in his Fall From Heaven. Likewise, Rand's philosophy rejects the idea of "government" having the right to arbitrary power over individuals, and in her novel, Atlas Shrugged rails against this (calling those who support government's arbitrary power "looters"), and also strongly rejects the idea of (wealthy and talented) individuals sacrificing for the benefit of others who are poorer (and less talented) - the "heroic" industrialist Hank Rearden, during his trial in the novel, calls himself a "sacrificial victim". However, he refuses to accept this quietly.

Seen in this light, "Atlas Shrugged" not only turns conventional morality on its head, but its symbolism - to those knowledgeable of The Bible - makes a morality tale like the "Fall From Heaven" seem instead a "Flight From Hegemony": Satan and his followers escaping the "tyranny" of God's power and  "sacrificial" morality to establish their own "freedom" outside of Heaven. In Atlas Shrugged, the "heroic" industrialists similarly wish to escape the "tyranny" of government. So Rand could - arguably - be called a "Satanist" of a kind, looking at the evidence above.

Dangerous stuff, indeed...

(Part Two of this thread continues here)

No comments:

Post a Comment