Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged": morality, Christianity and Lucifer

In a recent article the author went into some detail about the biblical symbolism evident in the story of "Atlas Shrugged". It is ironic that Ayn Rand's seminal masterpiece - given that she was a profound atheist -  is so full of Christian imagery. But her work on this great novel displays the contempt she had for the "conventional morality" of the day, when "Atlas Shrugged" was published in the 1950s, with the novel acting as a philosophical marker for a different form of morality, which she called Objectivism.

As argued in my previous article on this subject, Rand's morality tale bears some strong similarities to a retelling of the story of Satan's fall from heaven in the Old Testament - but crucially, with the moral perspective reversed. As Atlas Shrugged is about industrial "heroes" fleeing the constraints of government,  a "revision" of the Fall From Heaven sees Satan and his followers lose their battle with God, and decide to flee to exist independently from God's power.

I said (in jest) that Rand could be said to be a kind of "Satanist"; but more accurately, she could be called a "Luciferian". Her philosophy of extolling independence, self-love, the pursuit of knowledge and rationalism comes very close to the ideas also shared by Luciferianism. Lucifer himself represents the symbolic "Fallen Angel".
Lucifer (Satan) is seen as the symbol of the pursuit of ultimate knowledge and personal growth. More exactly, this is the name given to Satan before "The Fall". Seemingly inspired by the pursuit of knowledge and self-advancement, he grows frustrated with God's arbitrary use of power, seeks more independence, and refuses to bow down to man, God's creation. And yet, after The Fall, in the guise of The Serpent, his temptation of Eve may better be seen as a method of trying to lift the veil from the first humans' eyes about God's intentions and deception (by eating from from the Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good and Evil the humans will be "like God"). What are Satan's motives here? By labeling Satan's motives as purely evil, this is something that Christian theology struggles to convincingly answer.

Rand's use of biblical symbolism in the novel is self-evident in some of phrasing she chooses: using words such as "hymns" to describe the ideas expressed by the heroic characters in Atlas Shrugged; the industrialists talking of themselves as "sacrificial victims"; and the pirate Ragnar Danneskjold describing himself as an "avenging angel". This is the morality of Christianity turned on its head.

The Anti-Pope

In the modern day, the current Pope, Francis, has been seen as a paragon of Christian virtue: going back to the "old values" of a "poor" church that focuses as much on social welfare as spiritual purity. Rand's philosophy stands for the exact opposite to this idea of altruism and self-sacrifice. Her morality is one based on people's value being based purely on the talents, not their "need". In her eyes, people are rich due to their own talents and efforts; likewise, people are poor for their lack of the same properties. This is not something for "society" or government to be concerned about; it is a matter of individual responsibility. In other words, "inequality" is the state of nature. Modern-day Conservatives talk of the same thing.

Pope Francis talks about ideas such as love for our fellow man; in "Atlas Shrugged", the government of the day uses the same language, while Rand twists this thinking into meaning the exact opposite: turning the rich into the victims, and the poor into looters. In Part Two, Chapter Seven of the novel, the pirate character, Ragnar Danneskjold, talks about how he is effectively a "Robin Hood" for the rich: taking back the money "stolen" from the rich by the government (on behalf of the poor) and returning it back to them. Rand also (through the character of Danneskjold) gives an astonishing attack on the "morality" of the legendary Robin Hood, damning his methods as the epitome of evil. As the pirate says:
"He is a man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights; that we don't have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does. He became a justification for every mediocrity who, unable to make his own living, had demanded the power to dispose of the property of his betters, by proclaiming his willingness to devote his life to his inferiors at the price of robbing his superiors"

This gives a small example of the morality behind Rand, and her ability to make the counter-intuitive appear logical. To her mind, because Pope Francis wishes to "help the poor", he represents evil in human form.

Where does this leave ideas such as "love" or empathy? As said earlier, people like Pope Francis extol the idea of self-sacrifice and love for our fellow man. In Rand's morality, these ideas are anathema: "love" can only be earned. "Empathy" appears entirely absent from Rand's value system.

A "psychopathic" morality?

"Empathy" is generally understood to be the ability to recognise how someone else feels emotionally, and being able to respond to this appropriately. In the field of psychology, psychopaths (who represent around 1% of the overall population) are distinguishable for their absence of human empathy. Because of their lack of empathy, they cannot understand or react to, for example, human suffering. This results in their being capable of extremely callous and cold-hearted behaviour.

Going back to the example of Satan, it could be argued that descriptions of his actions in Christian literature mark him as being one of the prime examples of a psychopathic character in scripture. What many consider "evil" could likewise be called "psychopathic". While the terms can never be exactly interchangeable, it is true that psychopathy is responsible for a great deal of crime and social ills.

With this in mind, Ayn Rand's philosophy has been held to blame for the neo-liberal economic model that has ruled much of the world for the past thirty years. It is this system that has resulted in a widening gap between rich and poor, the re-shaping of the global economy, as well as being responsible for the conditions that caused the financial crisis of 2008, which many people even now are still feeling the after-effects of, seven years later.

The moral system that underpins the economic system of today's world was written by Ayn Rand. For this reason, it could well be said that "Atlas Shrugged" was the most influential - and dangerous - novel of the 20th century. It takes a special kind of genius to take an idea that almost everyone considers to be immoral, and transform it into the appearance of the highest virtue.
In many ways, "Atlas Shrugged" is a kind of Bible of our time. It certainly reads like one, and may well also have been responsible for causing human suffering in the same way as the Word Of God, thanks to the "Pied Piper"-like quality of the words contained in its many pages.

In "Atlas Shrugged", the "Pied Piper" role is played by the character John Galt, whose role is explored in more detail in the following article.

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