Scott H Young

Review of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged


If you’ve been following this blog over the last few months, you’ll know I just finished reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Epic in scope (Atlas Shrugged is 1200 pages) the two books make the case that selfishness is the ultimate human ideal and that human progress is based on a man’s ego.

Although many of you have no doubt read these books, I wanted to do a quick overview on my take on Rand’s philosophy. There are many parts with the books I agreed wholeheartedly and other areas where I believe Rand has made errors in reasoning. However, if you want books to challenge you to think, these two would have to be at the top of anyone’s list.

Who is Howard Roark?

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect who lives to make buildings. Serving other people, material wealth and recognition are unimportant compared to that he lives according to his vision of how a building should be. Roark is Rand’s personification of the supremely ethical man who reasons with his own mind, lives his own life and has himself as the center of his own purpose.

At the beginning of the book I disliked Roark. He is hopelessly stubborn and often suffers because I feel he fails to communicate his vision to other people. Later in the book, however, you start to admire Roark as his system of values unfolds and it becomes clear he isn’t willing to compromise his truth to become popular.

Atlas Shrugged follows a similar group of characters, this time involving a man who refuses to produce his greatest invention because a corrupt government would steal it from him. I felt Shrugged offered a better glimpse at Rand’s philosophy, but had less entertainment value than the Fountainhead.

Values of Objectivism

Reading the two books challenged many of my assumptions, including:

  • Purpose in life is to serve others.
  • Non-profit is superior to profit.
  • Selfishness is evil; selflessness is good.

I’ve changed some of my perceptions because of these two books. Here are a few ideas I found useful in the book:

Money is Good

All other things being equal, the person who makes more money contributes more value. If you accept the basic idea that money is a medium of exchanging value, then the person who earns $400,000 in a year should create about ten times the value that a person earning $40,000 per year. This is Economics 101, but so often you hear about greedy rich people hurting the world instead of being the maximum contributors.

You Can’t Think With Another Persons Brain

Rand phrases so well an idea I’ve tried to capture in my own writings. That is, rationality (thinking with your own brain) is the ultimate ideal you can live for. Rand even suggests that living can only happen if you accept the proposition that you think with your own mind. Much of The Fountainhead goes to push this belief by showing the flaws of characters who live their lives through the opinions of other people.

In discussing my own atheism, many people claimed that rationality meant rejecting everything that could not be proven. This is a misunderstanding. Rationality, in the context Rand and I describe it, means simply that you think with your brain, that you can accept A is A and that 2 + 2 = 4. Thinking with thoughts instead of instinct. (You can be a rational theist, but it means you base your belief on something other than faith)

Life is Solitary

I don’t mean solitude in the traditional sense. Simply that your life can’t be lived by another person. Your thoughts, your values and your principles need to be the central force. You can’t pass over responsibility for living to your family, friends or the latest guru telling you what to do.

Flaws in Objectivism

Rand gets considerable backlash, in my opinion, because she positions herself for either complete acceptance or rejection. Either you completely agree with everything she says, or you’re irrational and straying from the truth. This format is similar to anyone who has seen a cult, and indeed many people would say that Rand’s ideas are nothing more than that.

To accept all of Rand’s ideas from a purely logical standpoint would mean accepting hundreds of different steps in reasoning and inference. While I think many of her ideas have merit, I’ve yet to see any major philosophical proposal make more than a few steps in logic without leaving room for counter attacks.

Ironically, the values Rand promotes (thinking with your own mind, rationality) are precisely the opposite she enforces by positioning her book as the rationalists Bible. We already have a system of organized thoughts which claims to be rational but demands complete acceptance; it’s called religion.

There are a few major glaring flaws in Rand’s books and many areas which I feel are weak enough for debate. Here are a few I’ve noticed, but I challenge you to read the book and come to your own decisions:

How is Utopia Selfish?

*Spoiler Alert*

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand creates a fictional utopia where everyone is happy and productive because they work entirely for themselves and trade with each other based on value, not need. Aside from being a completely ridiculous exaggeration, the utopia Rand creates weakens the fundamental arguments for selfishness.

You can’t argue for complete selfishness by claiming a utopian society will be the result. The fact that you value a society in which everyone is happy and prosperous implies that you care about something beyond your own selfish ego. To someone who fully believed what Rand preaches, their version of utopia could equally be a society in which everyone is miserable and suffers other than themselves.

What Values are Important?

If you are completely selfish, then how would children be raised or how would you recover from a short-term setback? Rand tries to sneak away from this issue by claiming that the selfish person will uphold their own values. Many of her protagonists are willing to die for what they believe in.

Although Rand tries to use this sneaky attempt at logic to tie off some of the problems with complete selfishness, she ends up tripping. What about a man that highly valued complete the selflessness that Rand fights against? He might do many of the things Rand despises, yet still fit her broadened model of the completely selfish man if those were his values.

Rand’s argument is that a man (or woman) should follow his own values. The problem is that this leaves out the step of what values are important. The idea that a person should follow the values they have is almost a truism. Some of the most despicable characters in Rand’s books, Elsworth Toohey, for example, could be said to follow their own code of values which are completely opposite from Rand’s.

Environmental Destruction

Global warming wasn’t a hot topic when Rand wrote her books, but it does bring up an issue Rand completely ignored. Everyone acting entirely in their own selfish interests can have unavoidable consequences. Without some form of organization or controls that hurt individuals, a society could cannibalize itself.

A great example of such a situation would be a large field where twenty shepherds raise their flocks of sheep. The more grass sheep eat, the healthier they are and the greater profit for an individual shepherd. However, if all shepherds force their flock to graze to the maximum, the land will eventually become over-grazed and useless.

In this case, uncontrollable capitalism lacks the necessary safety feature to restrict shepherds down to a sustainable grazing level. Taking most ideas to extremes (selflessness, selfishness, communism, fascism) can cause consequences that such simplified ideologies completely ignore.

Putting the Pieces Back Together

There are definitely a lot of great ideas in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I don’t want to imply that my few criticisms should mean the entire books are garbage. They are both excellent novels from a philosophical and entertainment standpoint. I recommend you read them for yourself and come to your own verdict. I suppose then you will still be following Rand’s ultimate ideal of thinking for oneself.


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24 Responses to “Review of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged”

  1. Brian says:

    Nice commentary on these books.

    My wife and I have read and loved these, but feel similar to you that we value some of what she has to say, but feel her all or nothing leaves something out.

    The biggest example is my wife and I. I can be selfish at work, but I’m not selfish with my wife. I would do anything for her for love. Rand’s depiction of love and selfish, base sex is not my idea of normal love and sex, and is in fact fairly offensive.

    One slight rebuttal to you, but more the world’s view of Rand,
    you bring up the idea of the commons, where everyone would abuse it for their own selfish interests. I’ve heard that applied to Enron also, that it was Rand’s philosophy to the extreme end and hurt many people.
    I think both are wrong, because I like to think of long-term selfishness. Yes, I could graze on the commons too much, but then I know I would be contributing to it not being there next year or for the next 10 years, which would hurt me in the long term, and thus not be in my selfish best interest. (I won’t go into depending on everyone to think that way)
    But, in the case of Enron, over a scale of 10-20 years those executives would have probably made less money (caught or not) by raping their companies. They knew they would have to pay the piper eventually. Their best selfish long term interests would be to build their company legitimately. Grow the stock and their salaries legitimately and reap the rewards.
    Taking care of the environment would fall into long-term selfishness. Unfortunately it’s so long term it wouldn’t fit in Rand’s philosophy. I consider it selfish in my sphere to want to give the best to my children and future grandchildren though, which includes saving for their college, but also protecting the earth for them.

    Anyway, I enjoy your blog. Funny, because I’m sometimes opposite in philosophy. I’m very religious. But, I find a lot of value in much of what you write.
    The world would be boring if we all agreed. :)

    thanks, keep up the good work.

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks for your review and analysis. I’ve heard the name’s of these two books being passed around for years among circles interested in various aspects of personal development. I never could bring myself to read them though, mainly because they were so long.

    I always hear people argue about her philosophy in simplistic, stark terms. Like you either have to totally accept her philosophy or totally reject it. From what you’ve described, it just sounds like food for thought, and that the best answer is somewhere in the middle.

    At times it may be best for people to stick to their own values and pursue their own interests. At other times they should be more selfless. How can someone say people should always be selfish or always selfless? I like how the book challenges the ideal that people should always be selfless. That’s pretty valuable, even if it’s ridiculous for them to go to the extreme with it.

  3. Kem says:

    My question after reading The Fountainhead was ‘Who raised Howard Roark?’ It is as if he sprung fully-formed from Zeus’s forehead.

  4. [...] Review of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (tags: objectivism rand ayn) [...]

  5. sachin says:

    Nice review.
    One more point to add. If Aynn Rand is a staunch believer of individualism, why is she interested in writing a book for the society, which again is a collective philosophy

  6. Scott Young says:

    To answer a few questions:

    1) I don’t believe Rand’s version of selfishness could in any way be described as “short-term”. She goes to great efforts separating her philosophy from selfish hedonism (the pursuit of immediate pleasure).

    My argument about the shepherds is a common one in economics. The basic idea is that no individual shepherd benefits from restricting his/her grazing. Since there are many shepherds, if I restrict my intake, only I lose. Without a collective pressure, this natural system cannibalizes itself. A long-term selfish approach for restricting intake would require that my restrictions reduce the possibility of overgrazing. In cases where there are many shepherds, this is unlikely.

    Sachin,

    Ayn Rand actually stated that she wrote the book for herself, to organize her own thoughts and creating her own manifestation of truth. So I don’t believe she is hypocritical in her philosophy.

    -Scott

  7. [...] Scott H Young posted a pretty comprehensive review of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism as presented in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Laura and I have read both books and we highly encourage everyone to start with The Fountainhead, rather than Atlas Shrugged which neither of us liked. [...]

  8. alex says:

    “A great example of such a situation would be a large field where twenty shepherds raise their flocks of sheep. The more grass sheep eat, the healthier they are and the greater profit for an individual shepherd. However, if all shepherds force their flock to graze to the maximum, the land will eventually become over-grazed and useless.”

    That is exactly why shephards would not allow their sheep to graze to the maximum. There is an economic incentive to preserve the value of your own land. Shephards would not allow their land to be ravaged and destroyed by over-grazing because that would destroy all future potential for profit. It would be a terrible financial decision.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Alex,

    The key word in that passage is “twenty”.

    The example I’m relating is called the Tragedy of the Commons in classic economics. Each individual shepherd has no incentive to undergraze his flock unless all the others do so as well. Without some collective action, the rational decision for each shepherd is to overgraze.

    -Scott

  10. john says:

    I’m starting into part 3 of AS, and am nearly to the point of vomiting blood. This book is the worst drivel I’ve ever read. Take the words “astonished” and “smile” (and maybe “bitter”) away from Ayn Rand and the book is 200 pages shorter. For someone who prides the logic power of the human mind she sure does make a lot of mental lapses in her descriptions, probably in excess of 1000 cases where her descriptions of someone’s smile have so many adjectives that they self-contradict. Not to mention walking off in a swirling mist seconds after telling us about the clear, starry night … and on and on. If she’s so lazy as to not do better editing, why should I give credence to the supposed logic of her ideology (oh, sorry, philosophy). She wrote pure junk.

  11. thom roman says:

    To Inject some other thoughts to the Rand ‘Fountainhead’ >moviethis is not a trial of principals, that is a civil matter> this is a trial of criminal action (blowing up the Courtland project), of which Roark admits guilt. However, The verdict is rendered ‘Not Guilty’.
    Thereby Rand states that ‘principal’ justifies criminality, that one’s selfish ego and personal intepetatiions of ideals and personal ambitions justifies crime of any magnitude.
    Rand as intelectual as she thought herself to be, missed the mark entirely. Manipulated the verdict to project her agenda of > truth? Roark by all means was gulity, he possibily endangered the lives of other people, he destroyed other peoples property; of which he had no right to whatsoever. He had no agreements with any of the principal owners, having assigned all rights to the stooge architect, nothing on paper, just a handshake. Roark acted in a total selfish vengence seeking manner with a total and wanton disregard to the rights of other people, and to those other ‘poor’ who may have benefited from the project. Roark destroyed and impacted upon other lives because of his personal hurt pride and sefishness of his ego; wanting his ‘work’ to be reconized, above all others, thereby achieving fame, and in doing so profit to his swelling treasury; aquistions of more clients; through his sensationalistic publicity demolition stunt.

    This “Rand’ Roark trial was a gross miscarrige of justice. Rand using her ‘fancy’ idealism to get her own agenda across, to ‘preach’ her own ‘gospel’ of ‘purity of truth and the example illustration she projects is greatly flawed and in direct conflict with her own professed, supposed ideals.

    Her ‘Fountainhead Book’ is a lesson study of hypocrsy, nothing more. Roark rapes the rich bimbo, she falls slave to him, willing assists and is made accomplice to his crime, to the point of endangering her own life. Roark controls the bimbo’s mind to satify his own personal selfish ego with destructive force. Roark embodies the ‘Super Ego’ > all for ones own self; Rand’s camo-cover of, idealistic…my work belongs to me, it is a creation of my mind; I hold steadfast to my principals not matter what…(even to the Bimbo’s husband committing suicide; is purely transparent.
    Roark claims he made an agreement not to have his work spoiled. He made the agreement with the Stooge designer, not with the owners of the project. His grievence is with the stooge architect.

    So, let me get this right: Rand’s book sells second to the Bible; and students study her works, considering them ‘great’; a number of institutes have been established under her ‘teachings’…Go figure; what a con architect she was.

  12. Scott Young says:

    Thom Roman,

    I certainly wouldn’t have written the story that way, if I were Rand. (And yes, I believe the “not guilty” verdict was more than a little ridiculous). I think there is definitely room for criticism of Rand’s ideas, but I see them as an intellectual starting point, not an end in themselves.

    -Scott

  13. [...] Via Scott Young’s blog, I found out about Ayn Rand and her books. Last month I read The Fountainhead. Actually, I listened to the audio book (it’s cheaper on Audible) in my car. If it wasn’t for the audio book, I probably would have never finished it. Especially the first part is a little too slow in my opinion and it’s in the last two parts that Ayn Rand’s vision of the perfect man becomes clearer. The least I can say is, that it’s interesting. It does raise questions which you’ll probably like to think about. While it might be a bit slow in parts, I’d still recommend it to any one interested in thinking about a perfect world with perfect people. [...]

  14. Paul Shovlar says:

    I am struggling to complete my reading of Atlas Shrugged, because it is so awful. For me it fails on every level, it is neither entertaining nor educational. One can no more believe in her characters than in her so called philosophy of “Objectivism”.

    Its particular difficult to give her “philosophy” any credence at all at this time (February 2009) when the world is struggling through the worst ever shock to capitalism, the “Credit Crunch”, that it has experienced. On a daily basis we are seeing revelations of the extent to which recklessness and selfishness and lack of regulation have damaged our economies and livelihoods.

    I almost feel like I’m going deaf with the constant drum-banging that Rand indulges in, she never lets up.

    Why is it so long, did no-one bother to edit this monstrosity?

  15. Scott Young says:

    Paul,

    She didn’t have it edited and refused anyone the opportunity to edit it. Agreed, the book could easily have dropped 600-800 pages without losing the plot or theme.

    Her characters are also too often black and white, because they are instruments for depicting her philosophy, rather than creating realistic human beings. In this way, I felt she wrote the book more like a Greek Myth or fable than a novel.

    The book is definitely far from perfect, both as a piece of literature and work of philosophy. There are some interesting ideas, but I think anyone who swallows them without question is ignoring some glaring flaws.

    -Scott

  16. Tim says:

    I see your point about environmental destruction, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a given when considering Objectivism. The ‘great minds of the world’ in Atlas Shrugged are responsible for creating many advanced products and processes, the most prominent being the motor that’s shrouded in mystery throughout most of the book. If the motor can produce 1000 times as much energy as the next best motor but do so with much less effort, wouldn’t this benefit the environment? These products and processes are created to raise efficiency and to lower the consumption of resources. In your example, the problem would be solved by, for example, creating some sort of fertilizer to expedite the growing of grass so overgrazing would not occur, rather than letting all natural resources run out.

  17. Scott Young says:

    Tim,

    The tragedy of the commons isn’t specifically about the environment. It’s an economic game-theory analysis of when entirely self-interested competitors can ruin themselves using market forces. And it is the primary logical argument for some form of governmental intervention.

    But, I firmly believe that the solution to our environmental crisis will come from new entrepreneurs not Al Gore or Joe Schmo.

    -Scott

  18. Kevin says:

    Scott;

    Excellent take on AS. I do need to point out one glaring mistake you make in your ‘tragedy of the commons’ example re: the sheep. In a true selfish society, there ARE no ‘commons’. The example you put forth can only happen when the state owns the land and the shepherds pay no rent, such as a public park. In the presence of private ownership of the land, rent would go up based on how much grass the sheep are eating, as this would harm the long-term profit of the landowner. As a result, sheep wool prices would go up and the demand for wool products on the market would fall, to be replaced by a more efficient, less expensive material. The landowner might well decide that his land is better used for other purposes, as well.

    When there are no commons, there are no tragedies.

  19. Scott Young says:

    Kevin,

    Perhaps a better example would be a stream that several farmers use for fish and clean water on their farmland. If there is no public property (all farmers own sections of the stream individually), there is still the problem of the commons. Farmers earlier up the stream could overfish or pollute the stream with fertilizers to the detriment of other farmers that own different sections of the stream.

    The simple fact is that we have to live together in a society, and although you can support a laissez-faire economy with justifications, there is a limit to extreme individualism.

    -Scott

  20. Kevin says:

    Scott;

    Yes, you might have someone abuse their property rights and harm others, but in a truly free market, there are private contracts to protect those who are harmed, not unlike the contract I have with my homeowners association that states I must pay a hefty fee if I remove a tree from my property without their vote; yes it is my tree, but the removal of that tree harms their property value, so I am under contract to consider their interests. The same contract prevents me from painting my house bright pink, etc.

    You are absolutely right when you say that we live together in a society, and there are limits to extreme individualism – we have to live together in harmony. But this is exactly the point of Rand’s work – she doesnt imagine a world where every man is an island. Her utopia is one where the forces that monitor our ‘extreme’ individualism are free market forces, profit-seeking actions and private contracts. What we live in today is quite the opposite – the market is instead monitored by government regulaton, common good property nonsense, and taxation.

  21. Silvio says:

    You bring up the Tragedy of the Commons in defense of environmentalism. I’m not certain that’s a good defense. It was a nonsensical paper printed in 1968 that assumed all people are selfish and lazy. Here’s my view on what happens. Everyone puts their cows on the commons until it’s no longer able to effectively sustain the numbers. Then smart people find a different solution as the not so smart people keep doing the same thing. As the smart people leave the commons, things temporarily improve for the not so smart but they never thrive. The smart people end up building their own huge, efficient and extremely profitable ranches and feed the masses. It all works out in the end and people that aren’t cut out to raise cows will find something else to do.

    You should read up on what happened in Jamestown when the colony was first founded. Initially it was setup as a commune. Everyone selflessly shared everything. What ended up happening is that nobody had the incentive to be productive and for years the majority of these people died (of 9,000 only 1,000 survived). When “selfishness” was introduced to the colony, it immediately started to thrive and we know the rest of the story from that point. It’s not that Ayn Rand is onto something new. These philosophies have been around for thousands of years and are proven to work as advertised.

  22. Alan says:

    The particular example of the “commons” may be outdated, but the theory is still applicable and always will be. There will always be externalities (negative and positive) that cannot be captured in a simple two party transaction. The atmosphere is not subject to private property. Nor is the ocean. Currents move. Besides, we don’t understand enough of the world yet to place a monetary value on everything, therefore, until we do, some things must be protected for fear that they will be destroyed for short term profits before their value is realized (example, destroying an undiscovered species to profit from the sale of tropical hardwoods). There will always be some role for regulation as a result. There are also positive externalities for some goods that are shared with those who don’t pay for them. To ensure that enough of those goods are produced, we must have some form of subsidy so that the costs are shared. (eg. we are all better off if our neighbours are vaccinated, educated etc. hence the argument for at least a partial subsidy). Free markets are great, but they are not the best solution to EVERY problem . . . They are should be used as a tool, not a religion.

  23. The Corwyn says:

    Scott,

    Great review! As a quasi-objectivist for many years I’m reading The Fountainhead for the first time and I love it.

    I think the difficulty many people have with Rand’s philosophy is that, while fundamentally true, so much of it is largely impractical; and the all or nothing approach is simply unfeasible.

    The idea of rational self-interest (as opposed to rank selfishness, which much of Rand’s critics lambaste her for an improperly label) often is misunderstood and poorly maligned. We are all, each and every one of us, self-interested people. It is OUR impulses that drive us, and the basis of each of our impulses is SOME benefit to us; either explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious–most of the time either avoiding discomfort or seeking pleasure. Base selfishness is, fundamentally, IRRATIONAL self-interest, which Rand would agree is just as damaging as the mythological idea of pure selflessness. What Rand was against was the idea of sacrificing one’s ideals and values and efforts, and how damaging to society and mankind the ideal of sacrificing (of course, the idea of sacrifice itself present a logical moebius loop that folds back in on itself, which objectivism strives to dismiss) something higher in value for the sake of something lower in value really is. It IS in a man’s rational self-interest to work with others; to spend time with others; to help them.

    As an example: when someone claims they care about someone else’s feelings, it is, technically–at it’s most spartan description–a logical malapropism. Because, on a certain, primal level, you don’t really care about that person’s feelings, you care about how YOU feel ABOUT that person’s feelings. But, we are raised to have an emotional response about people’s feelings, which we mischaracterize as caring about THEIR feelings.

    And therein lay the problem with Randian Objectivism, there’s no room for pragmatism or practicality. The above argument, while true, is difficult for most people to accept, will largely be rejected out of hand, and, at the end of the day, really doesn’t frickin’ matter much.

    :)

    -c

  24. amy says:

    Thank you for this review, Scott. You managed to present a level-headed, considerate review of both Ayn Rand’s philosophy and her most famous novels. I’ve long suppressed my frustration with the ‘all or nothing’ mentality that is so predominant in readers of Rand’s works (after all, her work does tend to encourage all-or-nothing thinking, as you point out), so finding your review tinged by neither obstinate misunderstanding and angry repudiation nor dogmatic adherence was a relief.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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