Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – August 17, 2002 – Dog & Duck Pub
|Attending:||John Mays, Jimmy Martin, Alan Hunt, Bob Hardister, Matt Thomas, Pete Hansen, Steve Pickens, Steve Britt, Eli Pickering|
|Book for Discussion:||Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand|
John: We have two objectives this evening: to discuss Ayn Rand’s fitness as an author, and to discuss the philosophy of Objectivism. The first point can be covered quickly. Her merit as an author is limited. The book was entirely too long. It proves only her propensity to write inexhaustibly on the subject of Objectivism.
Matt: Her point is made in the first 100 pages.
John: John Galt’s 60 page diatribe toward the end is pitiful.
Bob: Character development was decent in some cases.
Pete: Not all of the speeches were bad. D’Anconia’s speech at Taggart’s wedding was well done.
John: The novel, as a literary device, has a duty to portray a realistic story. Atlas Shrugged is not realistic, and so fails as a novel.
Matt: Agreed. The world she creates is beyond believability. The idea that a couple dozen captains of industry disappear and the entire country turns communist in 12 years is unrealistic.
Pete: The story is contrived. It fails to deal with constitutional issues that inevitably must arise. This story has 3 types of characters; the heroes who are egoists and capitalists, the villains who are moochers, looters, mystics, and lastly the huddle blind masses.
John: Another weakness of the novel is Rand’s portrayal of the heroes. The are all prototypical Greek gods, with chiseled physiques, blonde hair and blue eyes. They are not believable as real men. Nevertheless, Rand longed to find such men in real life.
Alan: And have sex with them.
Pete: Conversely, the villains were weak, shrill, whiny, fat, and transparent.
Bob: In the introduction to Fountainhead, Rand states her goal is first and foremost to write a good novel. To her credit, she is very romantic with the love stories.
Steve B: This is not a great novel, but by reason of the fact that she has a greater purpose than just telling a story. The real importance of this book lies with the philosophical message.
Eli: Agreed. The characters are so polarized and their actions so transparent so that the reader can understand the philosophy. Plot and character development, specifically the depth of her characters are sacrificed so Objectivism can take precedence.
John: Dorothy Sayers notes her first duty in writing The Man Born to be King was to write a good play. She was true to the art in which she toiled. If Ayn Rand meant to do the same, as she claims in the introduction, she has failed.
Jimmy: The story is shallow because Objectivism is shallow.
Matt: Dagny’s relationship with Rearden romanticizes adultery.
Eli: In support of Matt’s assertion, listen to this passage on page 922 (Dutton Press, 35th Anniversary Edition). Dagny and Hank are having dinner sometime after Dagny’s radio address where she admits their affair, "People were looking at them with anxious curiosity, with envy, with respect, with the fear of offending an unknown, proudly rigorous standard, some almost with an air of apology that seemed to say: ‘Please forgive us for being married’." That is nauseating. I almost put the book down for good after reading that.
John: At best this book should fall into the category of entertainment. Some books are meant to probe deeper truths, and some are meant to entertain. This story was certainly entertaining at points, but not great literature.
Pete: It fits neither category. This is a philosophical novel, meant to exercise her philosophy through a world she creates.
Bob: From an atheistic point of view, the story works fine, but from a Christian point of view it doesn’t work at all. Rand outright labels Christians as mystics, and part of the problem with the world.
Pete: The introduction includes this quote from Rand on page xv, "Incidentally, as a sideline observation: if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing:  translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means… translating an old abstraction through new means… creating a new original abstraction and translating it through new, original means. This, as far as I know, is me- my kind of fiction writing. May God forgive me (Metaphor!) if this is mistaken as conceit." In other words, Atlas Shrugged is in a category of its own, with Rand as the bold trailblazer of a brand new kind of fiction. What arrogance!
John: And also very telling that no one has bothered to follow in her footsteps.
Steve B: One of the books biggest flaws was its complete misrepresentation of the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Matt: Selected passages were well written. On page 518, "A gray cotton, which was neither quite fog nor clouds, hung in sloppy wads between the sky and mountains, making the sky look like an old mattress spilling its stuffing down the sides of peaks. A crusted snow covered the ground, belonging neither to winter nor spring. A net of moisture hung in the air, and she felt an icy pin-prick on her face once in a while, which was neither a raindrop or a snowflake. The weather seemed afraid to take a stand and clung noncommittally to some sort of road’s middle; Board of Directors’ weather, she thought." This is gorgeous prose.
Alan: You're being too generous. I'm no great writer, but if I wrote an 1100-page novel, even I would occasionally produce a page of "gorgeous prose."
Steve B: Dagny, throughout her various love affairs, states her need to be dominated by her men. That is the universal truth Rand gets right.
Steve P: For a book written by a woman, Atlas Shrugged is full of testosterone.
Bob: On page 100 d’Anconia states another universal truth related to work ethic, "Dagny, there’s nothing of any importance in life-except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It’s the only measure of human value." But continuing the author strays off the path, "All the codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues. The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard."
Matt: This line was very funny and characteristic of the looters, "I am perfectly innocent, since I lost my money, since I lost all of my own money for a good cause. My motives were pure. I wanted nothing for myself. I’ve never sought anything for myself. Miss Taggart, I can proudly say that in all my life I have never made a profit."
Pete: Rand’s criticism of Christianity is really a criticism of Gnosticism. People like Rand erroneously believe Christians to be so other-worldly that they blow off all worldly activities and responsibilities.
John: In truth the Church herself strayed from its calling to take dominion of the Earth, and failed to maintain a worldly vision. This may not be a totally inaccurate characterization, especially in the 1950s.
Alan: Rand also takes on altruism, especially government’s attempts at altruism forced upon its citizens at the point of the gun.
Pete: According the Objectivists, the highest ideal of man is selfishness, or egoism, and that ultimately selfishness benefits the whole of society.
Matt: There may be a kernel of truth to such a philosophy, in principle, but it overlooks the sinfulness of man. In some cases, selfish activity benefits only oneself.
Jimmy: John Galt’s discourse on original sin (page 1025-26) is a good example of Christianity misrepresented, "Man’s fall, according to your teachers, was that he gained the virtues required to live. These virtues, by their standard, are his Sin. His evil, they charge, is that he’s man. His guilt, they charge, is that he lives."
Pete: Yes, is that not subtle! It appears to be a compelling argument, but it does not correctly interpret the fall.
Steve B: Why does she choose to attack religion with her philosophy? In the context of her comments in the introduction, we see her attempting to lift herself up, and it behooves her to tear down a greater pillar of truth in the process. In other words, religion is the big boy on the block, and it has to go if people are going to buy into Objectivism.
Matt: Rand’s interpretation of the fall is just twisted enough to be believable.
Eli: How has the author mischaracterized the fall?
Pete: Look at her arguments. She claims only after eating the fruit does Adam obtain a reason and purpose for labor. But Adam had those things before eating the fruit. He had reason enough to name the animals, and labor was essential in the garden from the beginning. Each point can be refuted from the Genesis text. Man did not need the fall to obtain reason.
Steve B: In truth, the only irrational act Adam committed was disobeying God, and eating of the fruit.
Pete: Objectivism is undermined by one glaring flaw; if your only allegiance is to yourself, then the looters within their own categories are just as moral as the achievers. In other words, if an individual finds the ultimate expression of selfishness is to assuage his or her own guilt by taking from one person for the benefit of another, then who is to say that act is not moral?
John: Rand takes it as axiomatic that selfishness can not be achieved through the use of force.
Bob: Rand explains in Atlas Shrugged that the fundamental virtue of man is his own achievement.
Eli: The website www.aynrand.org contains a helpful description of all the basic tenants of Objectivism. Metaphysically they believe reality exists as we perceive it, and as described by Aristotle’s law of identity. Epistemologically, reason is our only avenue to knowledge. Our senses provide input to our understanding of things, concepts are formed to categorize what our senses tell us, and logic is the only tool for interpreting concepts. This leads to the objectivist ethic, egoism. How? Because man is a living being, and to continue to live he must act in a certain way to survive. Politically, they insist on Capitalism, and government whose function is to provide only police, military, and a court system to settle disputes. With respect to politics, the Objectivists may have it right.
Steve B: What does it say that you reject their ethical tenants, but embrace the politics from which it is derived?
Eli: Allow me to defend it. Government altruism, or redistribute wealth is not moral because it is not moral to any party taking part. It is not moral for the government to take from me for the benefit of others, because it is stealing. It is not moral on my part that my money is given to others because I did not chose in my heart to help those it may have benefited, and it is not moral for those who receive my money because they are accepting something wrongfully taken from someone else. One can arrive at that conclusion from a Christian perspective. Just because Rand stumbles upon a good idea for all the wrong reasons does not mean we should reject it.
Matt: Also, we have the benefit of history to show that capitalism works.
Pete: I agree with Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology, but balk at the objectivists ethical standard. Self-serving philosophies can not stand, because ultimately they lead to millions of disparate ethical norms, one for every individual.
Steve B: The contrast between Lillian and Dagny was interesting. I don’t see how they are any different. Both just wanted something from Rearden, just in different ways, and neither woman uses the word love to characterize her relationship with him. Rand seems to have no explanation for love.
Steve P: Lillian was a looter of love.
Bob: The strength of the novel lies in the author’s ability to depict what is wrong with the world.
Matt: Chapter 6 is well written. Hank and Lillian’s anniversary party was fun to read.
Steve B: Eddie is a Smithers-like buffoon. His character was annoying. Why is he such a looser?
Eli: It is ironic that these captains of industry seem incapable of seeing through d’Anconia when it is clear to the reader very early on he is not what he seems. Yet Dagny and Rearden remain clueless. Give me a break.
Steve P: Where are the children in the novel? How can Rand write for 1200 pages and not include a single child anywhere in the story?
Eli: How does the ethic of selfishness square with parenthood? Having kids and parenting is the most selfless act a person can make. The omission of any parents – child relationship is a subtle admission that Rand has not a clue how to incorporate it into her philosophy.
Steve B: Children who are worth anything will raise themselves, as Dagny and d’Anconia did.
Pete: Throughout the novel there is a since of spirituality among the industrialists. Where does Rand, who rejects mysticism" of all stripes, have a claim to any kind of spirituality?
Eli: C.S. Lewis comments that those who claim not to believe in God, but recognize some purpose or spirituality governing their lives are simply allowing themselves the peace of mind that comes from belonging to something greater than the world around us, but denying they have any responsibility to it. In other words it provides moral comfort that comes with believing in God with none of the less pleasant consequences.
Bob: The author clings to a humanist morality.
Steve B: One thing is for sure, she recognizes man’s responsibility to himself and his work. It would be better to buy into that than the mealy mouth pie in the sky, going to heaven when I die Christian cultural mandate she is responding to.
Pete: Was it not interesting the way the media was portrayed as a source of disinformation to the public?
Matt: Again, though, the realism is missing. In America you can find a media outlet to espouse whatever political view suits you. The media is not in lock step, broadcasting the same information the same way.
Eli: You have to remember that Rand was born in Russia, and was an eyewitness to the Bolshevik Revolution. You can not underestimate the impact that must have had on her as a girl. This may not be true of America today, but the kind of rapid political transformation she describes in Atlas Shrugged did occur in Eastern Europe.
John: Some of the technology is unbelievable. As an engineer, I believe there are yet undiscovered ways to generate energy, and so Galt’s motor is not so far fetched, but the disappearing lab is ludicrous. One minute it is a state of the art lab, and then next it is a dusty old attic. What purpose does this lab serve? Why include it at all?
Eli: The ‘ray shield" protecting the striker’s valley is another of those unbelievable technological achievements. I see it as symbolism. Anyone who cares to look into that valley does not see a community in the bottom, but instead they see a reflected mountain top. Here is a case where A is not A. It is symbolic of the world’s failure to recognize the heroes as beings of reason and achievement.
Bob: The calendar is another symbol, although the significance of Sept 2 escapes me.
Matt: The motive to maximize profits is a good one, and irrespective of how Rand arrives at its importance, a basis for such as assertion is scriptural.
Steve B: Not entirely. What if your company was to invent some revolutionary medicine that could save millions of lives? Should you market it for a profit, or give it to people who need it to live but could never pay for it?
Matt: You are morally justified to make a profit on your new medicine. In fact, modern corporations are beholden to share holders. To give away a profitable invention would betray their trust, and that is immoral.
Steve B: You have no moral obligation to make money. You do have a moral obligation to help those in need.
Jimmy: What about the bum on the street corner who wants money for booze? What moral obligation do we have to him?
Steve B: My favorite question! Why do you think it is bad the bum to use money for booze? That is your own judgment call. Proverbs 31 tells us not to deny the impoverished man his drink, that he may forget his sorrows.
Voting for October:
|(John) The Trial|
|(Eli) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde|
|(Matt) The Art of War|
|(Jimmy) Brave New World|
|(Pete) The First Moderns|
|(Pete) Lady Chatterley’s Lover|
|(Bob) The Sun Also Rises|
|(Bob) The Last Gentleman|
|(Alan) The Man Who was Thursday|
|(Eli) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde|
|(Bob) The Sun Also Rises|
|(Alan) Book of Top 10 Lists|
Secretary’s Note: I want to say so long to Athenaeum member Matt Thomas, whose company and fellowship we have enjoyed for the last time, and who is leaving with his family for Washington DC to go work for the looters. Best of luck, Matt, and God speed.
September 14th at the Dog and Duck Pub
|September:||Tortilla Flats & Cannery Row, John Steinbeck|
|October:||The Sun Also Rises, Earnest Hemingway|