Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and John Galt: a modern-day Lucifer, or Satan in disguise?

In "Atlas Shrugged", the character John Galt dominates the third part of the story (Book Three). It is Galt who has been responsible for persuading the "best and brightest" to join him in his "New Atlantis", in a remote valley, where these people can live their lives according to their own efforts, without involvement of government.

As said in my earliest articles on this subject, biblical symbolism runs a deep vein through the novel: in its scope and ambition, "Atlas Shrugged" could well be called the most influential piece of fiction of the 20th century. This is the "Fall From Heaven" of the beginning of the Old Testament, but seen from the perspective of Satan/ Lucifer.

Furthermore, in the same way that Satan and his allies are banished to live their own form of existence in Hell, Rand has Galt and his followers living their "pure" form of life from complete scratch, with nothing from their successful and rich lifestyle of the outside world. In the remote valley these "exiles" live in, all their efforts are made by their own hand alone. They build their own houses themselves; they live simply (at least, appear to). From a psychological point of view, they have sacrificed their materialistic ego (i.e. their riches in the outside world) for the sake of a moral ego (i.e. the pride they have in doing things by their own efforts and in their own way). In "Atlas Shrugged", these "best and brightest" have made the ultimate material sacrifice in order to live true to their ideas; it could be argued that Satan and his followers were made to make the pay the same price by God when they were banished from Heaven.

John Galt is the mouthpiece of Rand's philosophy, spelled out in various ways in the novel. Galt explains Rand's own thinking on morality and the nature of government: Galt has stopped "the motor of the world" by taking away the "best and brightest" in society. In other words, Galt simply equates wealth with talent and effort; you cannot have the former without the latter. This is the basic premise of the novel, stripped of its baubles and fancy rhetoric. All those in his "New Atlantis" are rich because they are clever and/or hardworking. People are poor, therefore, because they are stupid and/ or lazy. It is as simple as that.
His moral objection to life in the outside world, where government controls much of day-to-day life, is that he refuses to live in a society where he sees the clever having to work for the sake of the stupid, and the hardworking for the sake of the lazy.

Galt's own vow is that he swears to "never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine". In Galt's eyes, this is the only moral way for a man to live: by his efforts alone.

Light-bringer or destroyer?

This philosophy as hardly anything new, as George Monbiot explains. The question is: whose philosophy is it? Blaming poverty on the poor has a long history, most recently expounded by George Osborne with his "strivers versus skivers" rhetoric. It goes down well because, like all successful ideas, it is easy to explain - regardless of the reality.

According to Christian belief  "the meek shall inherit the earth". According to Galt, it is the strong who shall inherit the earth. If Galt and his followers represent the "best and brightest", then "government" must seemingly represent the opposite - the worst and the weakest. What Galt finds offensive (i.e. immoral) is the strong being obliged to support the weak. Underpinning the tenets of Rand's philosophy - Objectivism - is the idea of social Darwinism. Society can only progress if its weakest elements are allowed to die. Accordingly, in a society where everyone is responsible for his own efforts, it is natural that the weakest specimens of society will not succeed. When neo-liberals and Conservatives talk about how "inequality is good", this is what they mean; they see it as being "natural".

So who is John Galt then, really? What does he represent?
My previous article on this subject mentioned "Luciferianism", and the role that some see Lucifer (Satan's name before The Fall) having in promoting the pursuit of objective knowledge. Lucifer is the "light-giver", whose gift is to free man from the shackles of God's narrow doctrine. Seen in this way, Lucifer's role is to test and push mankind on to better things; a kind of "disciplinarian teacher" for humanity. This seems to be the role that Galt is playing in "Atlas Shrugged", punishing society - robbing it for its "best and brightest" -  for the sake of itself. This theme, and further biblical references, are continued in the second article about the role of John Galt here.

Perception is one thing; the reality is another. Rand may seem inequality as "just", but that does not make the world "just". Those nations with the highest levels of inequality are not the most successful ones in the world; on the contrary, all the evidence suggests that nations with low levels of inequality (e.g. in Scandinavia) are those with the highest levels of development.
John Galt may be an idol for the neo-liberal scene, and people like the "TEA Party", but Galt represents a philosophy that ridicules the concept of empathy. And we all know what a society without empathy can be capable of.

On the one hand, Galt seemingly symbolises the "best" in humanity - its pursuit of knowledge and excellence, and its individualist spirit. But on the other, Galt symbolizes the very destruction of the concept of "humanity" - by destroying the very concept of human empathy, teaching it as something immoral and obscene.

In this way, "John Galt" may well be termed as a new, modern form of the Trickster: the "serpent" that encouraged Adam and Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit, and then suffered God's wrath.

It is in Galt's "manifesto", discussing in detail the symbolism of the Fall Of Man, that reaches the crux of Ayn Rand's philosophy, and the real meaning of her work.

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