I just read Atlas Shrugged again. This is the book that I always have with me when I travel. It has certainly been the most influential book in my life. I thank my mother for loaning her copy of it to me to read in high school. I remember that one day in AP English we had a substitute teacher (whose name I remember but shall remain nameless here) who made the period a free reading period and when he saw that I was reading Atlas Shrugged he said, “That book is poison.” He later became a school principal. I thank my parents for encouraging me to read whatever I wanted without censorship. My sophomore year Algebra II / Trigonometry teacher, Don DeWitt, handed out copies of the following Atlas Shrugged quote to us:
No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it. It is only with your own knowledge that you can deal. It is only your own knowledge that you can claim to possess or ask others to consider. Your mind is your only judge of truth — and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal. Nothing but a man’s mind can perform that complex, delicate, crucial process of identification which is thinking. Nothing can direct the process but his own judgment. Nothing can direct his judgment but his moral integrity….A rational process is a moral process. You may make an error at any step of it, with nothing to protect you but your own severity, or you may try to cheat, to fake the evidence and evade the effort of the quest — but if devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes responsibility for thinking. (Signet 35th anniversary paperback edition, p. 943)
There are two major incongruities in Atlas Shrugged for me. The first one is the use of the cigarette as a symbol of man’s mastery over the element of fire. (See p. 65 for relevant quote) It’s an anachronism. The copyright on the book is 1957. Given what we know today about the actual effects of cigarette smoking that weren’t widely known then, I don’t think this language would be used if the book were to be written today. Leaving room to acknowledge that better information is likely to come along (where is my teleporter machine?) is a core value of this philosophy. During the confrontational scene in Dagny’s apartment between Francisco and Rearden, Francisco says, “Within the extent of your knowledge, you are right.” (p. 599) And really, that’s all that’s possible for any of us in our thinking.
The other thing that always jars me is that I have never wished to see a billboard while driving or hiking or living in the mountains. Never. When Dagny and Rearden are taking their first vacation together during which they find the remnant of the motor there is the following exchange. “What I’d like to see,” said Rearden, “is a billboard.” (p. 266) and then on the next page Dagny says, “…think how often we’ve heard people complain that billboards ruin the appearance of the countryside….They’re the people I hate.” (p. 267) When I sit on my patio and look down Eldorado Canyon, I don’t think, “Oh, I’d love to see a copper smelter right there and some open pit mining right there next to it.” Never.