“Who is John Galt?” These are the opening words of Atlas Shrugged, the seminal novel by Ayn Rand. The question sets up a mystery that Rand gradually reveals throughout the next 1100 pages.
But it is also a very telling question, asking each reader to decide who and what John Galt really is to them. In this sense, Atlas Shrugged is a work of interactive fiction. It requires the reader to take a personal stand regarding the characters, situations, and philosophy of the book. Rand did not want her readers to absorb her message passively, but to become intellectually and emotionally involved with the story and her philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged is the story of what happens to the world when the top creative and intellectual people “go on strike”. They refuse to use their minds to support a corrupt government and a society that glorifies mediocrity. John Galt is the man behind the scene (for most of the novel) who starts this revolution.
Who – or What – Else is John Galt?
Here are a few of the beliefs people in Atlas Shrugged hold about him:
- John Galt is the destroyer, the unseen force who tears civilization apart by removing the greatest creative and productive minds from the world.
- John Galt is the idealized symbol of man as a creative, intelligent, competent, and above all productive species. He uses his mind and his body to build and create great works.
- He is uninterested in scientific discovery; he would rather find a way to make money from his ideas.
- John Galt? He is the man who said that he would stop the motor of the world… and did.
- In a world of relative morality, vacillation, and uncertainty, John Galt holds absolute, fixed moral beliefs. He knows exactly what he wants, and what is right. “A is A”, he states unequivocally. “Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking.”
- John Galt is an arrogant, egotistical son of a bitch who doesn’t care about anyone except himself.
Who is John Galt to you? Your answer tells a lot about who you are and how you see yourself.
Is the Right Right?
Was Ayn Rand liberal or conservative? She rejected both labels, as well as the term “libertarian”. Rand scholar Chris Michael Sciabarra wrote, “The left was infuriated by her anti-communist, pro-capitalist politics, whereas the right was disgusted with her atheism and civil libertarianism.”
These days Ayn Rand is most often quoted by ultra-conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the Tea Party Movement. These are not my kind of people, although I have a number of conservative friends. I consider the political and religious right to be demagogues with no respect for personal freedom or individuality.
However, I can’t really argue with their view of John Galt, Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged. The objectivist philosophy – that reason must have precedence over platitudes – is a conservative philosophy. John Galt argues that granting wealth as a reward for labor and creative work is the only true virtue. Charity to people who will not, or cannot, work to make a living is the greatest sin. On the surface, Atlas Shrugged is a condemnation of the policies of the Democratic Party, and particularly of the liberal left wing.
Atlas Shrugged is a big, complicated book. It says much more than that worthless people are leeches on the spirits and production of valuable people. It also contains gangsters, people who consciously take advantage of the system to steal from rich and poor, smart and stupid, industrialists and welfare recipients alike. I see many of the people who wave Atlas Shrugged as a banner as belonging more with the gangsters than the heroes. They agree with Ayn Rand that their labor should not be used to support the stupid or the poor, but they are quite happy to take more than their own fair share at the expense of others.
These are the hypocrites who are far more dangerous than the merely incapable. They are the ones who will point a gun at your head or mine to make us agree with their rules, pay lip service to their gods, and sacrifice our ability and creativity to feed them and their friends. These are the true villains, but they cannot recognize their own villainy.
My John Galt… And Yours
Who is my John Galt? He is a man of very high intellect and even higher integrity. He works incredibly hard at any task he takes on. He is someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, but instead always wants to experiment, learn, create new things, and improve. Although he chose not to reveal his amazing motor to the world, he could not be satisfied until he had completed its design, tested it, and improved on it even more. To the extent that I have spent my life learning, creating, and solving problems, I have something of John Galt in me. In my insistence on always telling the truth and striving to do what is right, John Galt is by my side.
Galt would shake his head in disappointment at the times I have given up, or chosen entertainment over productive work, but he would respect my refusal to do mediocre work when that might have been enough to “get by”. I might not receive an invitation to Galt’s Gulch, but I can still hold my head high for what I have done and for what I will still do in the future.
Who is your John Galt? What are you doing to live up to his standards? Can you honestly say, as he expected anyone worthy of his standards to do, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine?” Will you find the best within you, and make it better? That is the challenge of Atlas Shrugged, and just as much the challenge of the true Hero.
“Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” – John Galt in Atlas Shrugged