Atlas Shrugged Chapter 27: “This is John Galt Speaking”

I had a joke to put here, but I decided: I’m tired of the smarmy jokes. This book is having an odd effect on me, this chapter in particular.

Chapter summary: The Powers that Be have set up a global broadcast so that the President can make a state of the world announcement, but John takes over the airwaves and instead gives a very long speech. Most of the chapter is that speech.

The only fair treatment for this chapter is to double back on it after I’ve finished the book. It is Rand’s philosophy laid out as completely as possible, and as such trying to sum it up and reflect on it in a single post seems unfair.

One long passage that I do want to comment critically on, though, is her commentary on mystics who want to deny reality. This is a recurrent theme throughout the book. In this chapter, it seems most tempting to assume she’s criticizing religion, but it comes up more often elsewhere in terms of university professors, particularly Simon Pritchett, Hugh Akston’s successor at Patrick Henry University. Wikipedia describes him well:

He believes that man is nothing but a collection of chemicals, reason is a superstition, it is futile to seek meaning in life, and the duty of a philosopher is to show that nothing can be understood.

It occurred to me to wonder if Rand was instead (or additionally, or primarily) rejecting postmodernism rather than religion. Rand had received a degree in philosophy during a time when postmodernist thought was emerging as a dominant paradigm, and she had rather famously rejected all philosophers but Aristotle (which she honored through the names of the three parts of Atlas Shrugged).

As such, it seems to me that those portions of her criticism are now somewhat dated. Certainly postmodernism remains a relevant force in contemporary philosophy, but it is just as often caricatured and treated as a joke. The Wikipedia article notes that “declarations of postmodernism’s demise have become a critical commonplace” (quoting Andrew Horobek in 2007). This is a case, then, that both the author’s background and the era in which the book was written have to be taken into account in the interpretation (which is a very antipostmodernist position for me to take).

I did find myself agreeing with John Galt’s monologue more often than I disagreed with it. I think liberal unease with Rand is due surely in part to the absolutism of her ideas but also largely in part to her word choice. She promotes self-reliance; Henry David Thoreau promotes self-reliance. She promotes civil disobedience; so does he. And yet, Thoreau remains a liberal hero and Rand a liberal nemesis. Why?

Her reliance on words like “greed” and “selfishness” and the misunderstood “egoist” doesn’t help, but her choice of “egoist” instead of “egotist” for a chapter heading is likewise telling: An egoist is someone who considers himself first, while an egotist is someone who only considers himself. Galt, when discussing sacrifice, importantly notes that it is not a violation of his philosophy for people to help other people; it is a violation for people to be forced or coerced through guilt or shame to help other people. Finally, Rand gets to the point: Compassion, charity, and such are meaningless unless their origins are intrinsic.

As I said, I hope to return to this chapter again once I’ve finished the book (and, possibly, a re-read of Huxley’s Brave New World is in order).

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