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The Motive Power that Runs an Ideal Society: Human Integrity in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

Updated on October 29, 2011
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand's heroine, Dagny Taggart, runs a national railroad corporation.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand's heroine, Dagny Taggart, runs a national railroad corporation. | Source

The Motive Power that Runs an Ideal Society

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged , Henry (Hank) Rearden declares at his trial, at the end of his long statement before the court, “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!” (445). Are these the words of a selfish, anti-social man, the dysfunctional cry of an irresponsible social reprobate? The reflective and conscientious reader will agree that one of Rand’s deep purposes in Atlas Shrugged is to expose the false tendency of human beings to set our moral compasses based on others’ opinions or traditional mores. Instead, she shows, through heroes such as Rearden (and Dagny Taggart, John Galt, and Francisco D’Antonia in this novel, as well as Howard Roark in The Fountainhead ), that human beings must find our inner purposes, our unique individual abilities, passions, and destinies, and embrace those passions wholeheartedly. Only then can we ultimately contribute to the world as individuals of true integrity and power. We should each live and create based upon our own inner genius; then, each human being living so, with his or her personal moral compass set to true North, will automatically contribute his/her best efforts to the world, enabling society to run smoothly on premium fuel.

Rand—through Rearden—teaches the worthlessness of living in response to others’ needs, especially when that makes one a victim or sacrificial lamb, traditionally abused so that others might gain false and corrupt strength from one’s suffering. The reader suffers with Rearden in the novel as he slowly, painfully realizes he must live by being true to his inner self (again, the agonizing, lonely struggle of the man of righteousness, seeking to understand and live a life of integrity—the painful journey of the sacrificial lamb.) He discovers how to believe in himself and his passion, not only in his business affairs, the source of the legal charges of unauthorized dealings resulting in the court appearance mentioned above, but also in his private life, his relationships with his wife, Lillian, and his mother and brother. Rearden suffers, trying to create a guilt-ridden appearance of fidelity in his loveless marriage to Lillian while deeply committed to his mistress, Dagny. Only by the long novel’s midpoint, the time of his trial, has he begun to realize he can (and must, ultimately) walk away from Lillian and that he is not responsible for his mother’s and brother’s happiness and welfare. He finally sunders the chains of guilt, the guilt of a superior man laboring under the crushing weight of his inferiors, strangled by chains of interpersonal obligation and social tradition that bind him to taking care of his family and to staying with Lillian.

The tragic irony of a human being in Rearden’s (and Rand’s other heroes’) positions is that choosing to live based on one’s inner passion and destiny—peer pressure be damned—results in pain equal to that felt when one is sacrificed in the service of society’s status quo. It is arguable, and certainly Rand’s creed, that the pure and deserved pleasure of living true to one’s destiny ultimately outweighs any pain involved in choosing that independent path. However, the reader cannot help notice how much suffering Rand’s heroes must endure, just as those of true integrity truly pay a deep price of suffering for that integrity in the real world. One wonders if a world in which none of Rand’s "second raters" and "looters" existed would be the only place in which living true to one’s self would not, at least for a time, force one into the position of a sacrificial lamb.

Wesley Mouch, Jim Taggart and others in power in the novel at the time of Rearden’s trial demand that Rearden sacrifice his powerful business mind and skill in service of the corrupt state. Their demands parallel the accusations levied at Rearden at the trial, among them that Rearden is “a man devoid of social conscience, who feels no concern for the welfare of his fellows and works for nothing but his own profit” (444). The truth is, however, that Rearden, like Dagny Taggart and Rand’s other heroes in Atlas Shrugged , The Fountainhead , and other Rand works, lives for the good of man and the universe fundamentally because he lives for himself. Shakespeare’s famous words from Hamlet , “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man,” are another expression of this principle.

Rearden’s words are not in self-defense against the charges for which he is tried; he needs no defense. Rather they cap his expression of his motivating principles, which grow stronger and clearer, like a coal turning to a diamond, in response to the solidifying pressures Rearden endures, as well as in response to Francisco D’Antonia’s philosophical and emotional mentoring. At the trial, Rearden speaks for himself to those who have ears to hear, including Dagny Taggart and Eddie Willers in the audience and D’Antonia, who, although absent from the trial, faithfully “heard every word of it on the radio” (450).

At the time of his trial, Rearden is in the process of emerging from a cocoon of obligation to his wife, mother, and brother. He knows in his heart that he must live a life of integrity in order to be happy. In such a life, he cannot allow himself; his mind, body, or heart; or that which he owns and makes to become tarnished by guilt-inspired sacrifice or co-opted by empty societal pressures. His responsibility to his inner creative being, his love and loyalty to those of similar ability and character—Dagny, D’Antonia, and ultimately Galt—must take precedence in his life, his decisions, and his work. Thus, his manifesto at his trial is a statement of that loyalty, even though he has yet to meet Galt and find the freedom and rebirth that brings. Standing as he does at the time of the trial, at his personal crucifixion, Reardon speaks with full faith in his inner destiny and true being as one born of the ultimate creative power in the universe, that power which runs an ideal society such as Galt envisions. Rearden’s words, up to and including, “The public good be damned…,” express his fearless fealty to that ultimate light, even at his darkest hour, and sunder his emotional responsibility to others’ values, opinions, and claims over him and over that which he makes.

Works Cited

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged . Turtleback School and Library Binding Ed. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.

Atlas Shrugged Movie Clip: "Henry Rearden Comes Home"

atlas shrugged school and library edition


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