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An Essay Dissecting Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?

Updated on January 14, 2014

Ayn Rand in Her Philosophy

Ayn Rand was a woman of many intricate theories and ideals. She is considered the mother of egoism, a philosophy that posits that men (and women) should be selfish in their endeavors because that is what it is in their nature to do. Egoism is a fascinating and much misunderstood philosophy, which perhaps I will cover another time. Atlas Shrugged, being one of Rand's most celebrated works, has been oft-quoted, oft-praised, and adversely oft-maligned. It has also been pored over to the nth degree, with philosophers, students, professors, and politicians alike all trying to glean some meaning and truth from within its pages. This is not an easy thing to do. The biggest of all these questions is, of course, "Who is John Galt?"

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Who is John Galt? To Dagny Taggart, he is the core of a distasteful slang, a nothing-word; he is no one, because he is nothing but an empty question on the lips of lesser men. It is a question that qualifies nothing more than the despair of futility and ennui of the common man in the world in which they exist in Atlas Shrugged. Who is John Galt? Again, to the common man, he is the unanswerable, the inexplicable, and the unknowable bleakness of their reality. He is the everything and the nothing to everyone and no one.

But who is John Galt, truly? A Godot-like figure, omnipresent in society, who is a paragon of the ideal and rational man. John Galt is genius, conviction, and morality made flesh. Once only a simple engineer at Twentieth Century Motors, he became, ironically, the antithesis of his determination. His name became synonymous with despair and the ineffectuality of questioning that which cannot be answered. However, when Gerald Starnes told the workers of Twentieth Century Motors that “none of them may now leave this place, for each of us all belongs to all the others by the moral law we all accept” the young idealistic John Galt stood and said that he did not, and vowed “to stop the motor of the world”. The owners of Twentieth Century Motors were endeavoring to make the common workers vote for the chains with which they would be bound, and smile while they rattled. John Galt saw what these common men could not. He saw the evil for what it was: the smothering of ideas and production for the profit and industrialization of the human soul. Galt vowed at that moment to prohibit the most passive of evils, the evil of enslaving society to obsequiousness by society’s own instruments. To attain this lofty goal, Galt became the invisible destroyer of those industries that would rape the intellectual property of progression and name it universal; he would obliterate the society that would be shackled by the morality that states that nothing is yours, but must instead be made everyone else’s but yours. And further, a morality that states that anything less than total self-sacrifice is vile and repugnant; worthy of social degradation and exile. In the meeting in which Directive Number 10-289 is hammered out, the most corrupt of the captains of industry gather to decide that their subjective morality is such a thing that can be legislated – as long as there was enough guilt to strike in the hearts of man- Eugene Lawson blames the need for such a directive on the shoulders of the business tycoons who have, in their view, monopolized the remaining industry in the world, and therefore have left them, the princes of profit without their crowns of equal dividends. He posits angrily that it is due to their “lack of social spirit” and that “they refuse to recognize that production is not a private choice, but a public duty.” More revealingly, he goes on to state:

“It’s intelligence that’s caused all the troubles of humanity! Man’s mind is the root of all evil…Those who are big are here to serve those who aren’t. If they refuse to do their moral duty, we must force them.”

John Galt desired to become the opposite of futility, and his ultimate desire was to usher in a new epoch of history in which the common man became the enlightened man. And this enlightened society would reject the viral moral creed of forced self-sacrifice postulated by men like Eugene Lawson and James Taggart, and instead would embrace the world of intellectual progress, ideas, genius, and most importantly, a world that understood that a rational society cannot force the sacrifice of one’s self to any entity but their own; a government that decrees otherwise must fall and its creators must fall with it or such a society would simply progress to obscurity rather than utopia.

A Young Ayn Rand, Likely Dreaming Up Subversive Philosophies

The Strike and the Soliloquy

The strike instigated by John Galt, was inherently necessary to achieve this lofty goal. The great minds of society, the intellectuals and thinkers, the philosophers and historians, the inventors and true gods of industry are the vastly more important cog in the machine than the mindless captains of industry. Their status should rightfully be exalted and not be scattered to governmental unification to be consumed piecemeal by those who not only don’t understand their ideas, but have no desire to do so. When John Galt began to quietly recruit the greatest minds of his world, the motor of the world did indeed begin to shut down. While the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld did his part aggressively, literally shutting down those members of industry who would put the world in chains, Galt set about his goal with total focus and determination for the preservation of the rights of mind, and he did so passively; indeed, invisibly, as he was nothing more than a colloquialism for the irrational world until he made his intentions known.

With Hank Rearden as the final piston in the metaphorical machine, John Galt can finally do just that. His strike has become the arrow in the heart of industry, and as a result, it has collapsed. Do the ends justify the means? Was John Galt’s strike not just necessary, but morally and rationally valid? The answer to that lies in the total destruction of the society that had been driven by the creed of self-sacrifice. As in the universe of Atlas Shrugged, there comes a point in which all societies face either stagnation or progression. When the society’s own policy drives it past the point of no return, nothing short of an explosion can halt the path to annihilation; the strike of John Galt is Atlas Shrugged’s explosion. He refuses to acknowledge stagnation and will push for progression no matter the cost – which, indeed, is a high one. Nevertheless, his point has been made: the thinkers in the world are that world’s prosperity. Without them, society will languish and die.

Considerations to the economic disaster aside, the point of the intellectual strike of John Galt and his ilk is the emphasis of reason and rationality, and that these are not inherently human traits, but instead instruments of choice. Reason cannot be forced, just as self-sacrifice cannot be forced; to sacrifice the self is just that, a sacrifice. Sacrifice means the loss of something, and in this case it means the loss of one’s self, one’s life. The environment of the truly socialist economy is merely an example of what Galt’s opposition represents: that liberty and freedom are universally present in the human conscience; it is necessary to the success of man for man to be free in every aspect from the aggression of others, be it government or citizen.

The trouble with this is that not all men (or women) are capable of such reason or freedom. The end result of the revealing of the strike is that the looters now either want John Galt dead, or they want him to take over the country, essentially becoming everything he fought against all his life. The ones who are unable to reason must forcefully take the rational mind they cannot possess; it is in this fashion that they are able to make their way in the world, and no other. To the irrational mind, Galt’s refusal to bow to force is unimaginable, for the simple truth that the reasonable mind has no hope of prevailing in the change of the irrational one; both are firmly mired in their own reality. It is only the common mind that is open to reformation and revelation, and so it is for them that John Galt and his followers suffer the inevitable consequences of revolution. The torture of John Galt is a metaphor for battle between the ignorance of power and the idealistic man.

The victory of the enlightened over those who would leave society in the dark precipitates the necessity of starting Ayn Rand’s America from scratch. The strike succeeds because it is righteous, the villainous dictators of industry (not the producers of such) fail because they are immoral in their path, and the world can once again be righted by the thinkers, creators, and rational minds. When the mind of man is free, so then is industry of man.

My Own Reason

One does not necessarily need to prescribe to Miss Rand’s philosophies to see the reason inherent in her words. It is dangerous to some to misunderstand the meaning behind them, however. To be objective, to be an egoist, or to else eschew self-sacrifice is not to say that the only way to live is to thine own self be true – and to no one else. To pursue one’s self-interest is righteous because to do otherwise is to stagnate in your own aspiration. To assume this means that one must also, alternatively, sacrifice all the wants of needs of others in favor of yourself or else be deemed irrational or without virtue is the mistake of the guilty mind. Simply put, to be virtuous you must preserve yourself and your own, but you do not sacrifice your virtue if it is your choice to come to the aid of others. The struggle of Galt, Dagny, Hank, and Francisco, along with all the great inventors of convention, was to enlighten the common mind to the fact that in that choice resides the freedom due all men.

Is Selfishness a Virtue?

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    • littlething profile image

      Jackie S 24 months ago

      I'll admit, I just finished this book, and I love it! There were many, many good points in Atlas Shrugged, and you definitely hit the highlights. There are some scary parallels to today's society. Great hub!

    • Galadriel Therese profile image
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      Galadriel Thoman 24 months ago from Voorhees, New Jersey

      Thank you very much!

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