Atlas Shrugged as a Response to Plato's Republic

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Forced to Rule: Atlas Shrugged as a Response to Plato’s Republic
Roderick T. Long
Forthcoming in Edward W. Younkins, ed.,

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion
In Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand offers us two brief glimpses of her protagonist, John Galt, as a young man. In both cases the youthful Galt is rising to address a crowded room. The first instance, narrated to Dagny Taggart by the hobo Jeff Allen, occurs at the mass meeting where the workers of the Twentieth Century Motor Company are voting to put into practice the Marxist slogan From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Allen tells Dagny:
When he stood up, we suddenly turned dead-still. … He stood like a man who knew that he was right. ‘I will put an end to this, once and for all,’ he said. (Rand 1996, p. 617.)
The second instance (though chronologically earlier in Galt’s career) appears in a recollection by philosophy professor Hugh Akston of his first meeting with Galt. As Akston explains to Dagny:
At the end of that lecture, John got up to ask me a question. It was a question which, as a teacher, I would have been proud to hear from a student who’d taken six years of philosophy. It was a question pertaining to Plato’s metaphysics, which Plato hadn’t had the sense to ask of himself. (Rand 1996, p. 721.)
Is it a coincidence that Rand pairs a passage in which Galt rises to challenge the collectivism of the Starnes plan with a passage in which Galt rises to challenge the philosophy of Plato? Or is Plato very much on Rand’s mind throughout Atlas Shrugged?

While a number of Plato’s works could be relevant here,1 I shall focus on his most famous work, the Republic – which, like Atlas Shrugged, attempts to integrate metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political themes into a single unified vision. My suggestion is that Atlas Shrugged is intended by its author to offer a sustained critique of, and alternative to, some of the central ideas of Plato’s Republic.2

The chief topic of the Republic is the nature of justice, both in the individual and in society. Plato’s account of individual justice is in fact one that shares considerable affinity with Rand’s egoistic ethical outlook (perhaps not so surprisingly, since Rand’s ethics is a development of Aristotle’s ethics, which in turn draws on these aspects of Plato’s); indeed, the Republic’s central ethical claim is that there is no conflict between justice and self-interest – that a life of moral integrity, properly understood, is the fulfillment of an individual’s flourishing, not an obstacle to it. This of course is a theme that runs throughout Rand’s work as well. The unjust man, Plato likewise tells us, measures his success by the extent to which he outdoes other men, whereas the just man pays no attention to such comparison with others and instead measures his success by how well he measures up to an objective standard (I. 349b-350c); this is precisely Rand’s contrast between the second-hander and the creator, as dramatized in The Fountainhead. Moreover, Plato identifies the objective standard in question as the requirements of successful human life-functioning (I. 352d-354a), which is also the position endorsed in Galt’s Speech (Rand 1996, pp. 926-27).

But when we turn to Plato’s account of social rather than individual justice, any parallels with Rand quickly disappear. Plato advocates a highly regimented and micromanaged class society; endorses eugenics and thought control; condemns private property and material wealth; and demands the sacrifice of individual welfare to the welfare of the community as a whole. The entire system is to be ruled by wise and just philosopher-kings, who are to derive no personal benefit from their rule; and if these philosopher-kings are reluctant to rule, they must be compelled to do so:

The nature of the true ruler is to seek not his own advantage but that of the ruled. … Any man of understanding would prefer to receive benefits from another rather than to benefit another. … Good men will not be willing to rule for the sake of money or renown. … Some compulsion or punishment must be imposed on them if they are to be willing to rule. (Republic I. 347b-d.)3
We must not permit [philosophers] what is now permitted them: … to refuse to go down among the prisoners. … When we compel them to care for the others we shall say …. we have arranged for you to be born … as kings and leaders in the hive. … You are better and more completely educated … so you must each descend in turn to live in common with others. … For the city whose rulers are least eager to rule must be best governed and freest from strife. (Republic VII. 519d-520d.)
What explains the Republic’s odd fusion of ethical individualism and political collectivism? In particular, how can Plato offer us an ethical theory in which morality requires no sacrifice of self-interest, and then append to this a political theory according to which the wisest people will be so reluctant to perform their duty that they may have to be compelled? Plato seems to tell us in a single breath both that accepting the job of philosopher-king involves a necessary sacrifice of one’s personal happiness for the greater good, and that the philosopher-kings really will be supremely happy after all.4 (IV. 420b-d; V. 465e-466a; VII. 519e-520a; IX. 587b-588a.)

Part of the solution to this enigma may lie in the fact of Plato’s extreme pessimism about the prospects for the success of wisdom and virtue in the real world – a pessimism no doubt reinforced by the fate of his beloved teacher Socrates. The wisest pilot, Plato tells us, will be thrown overboard by his crew (VI. 488b-e); the man who tries to free his fellow-prisoners from the cave will be executed (VII. 516e-517a); ordinary people are so hopelessly corrupt that a just society can never be achieved unless everyone over ten years old is first expelled (VII. 541a), and even then such a society would be doomed to decay in the course of time (VIII. 545d-547c). Hence while Plato insists, rightly from Rand’s point of view, that virtue is the path to happiness, he sees no prospect for the virtuous person to attain worldly success in ordinary life, and so is led to an otherworldly conception of happiness. True reality lies in the realm of theoretical abstractions, secure from the clutches of the rabble; the material world with its imperfections and disappointments is only a realm of shadows. As for the ideally just society, it “makes no difference whether it exists anywhere, or ever will exist,” since it is “a paradigm established in heaven for anyone who wishes to contemplate it.” (IX. 592b.) The mind, frustrated in its efforts in the material realm, is unfettered and unimpeded only in the realm of spirit.

I don’t claim that this is the only motivation for Plato’s otherworldly metaphysics and epistemology;5 there are purely philosophical reasons driving him as well. Indeed, Plato’s pessimism may be partly the effect rather than the cause of his metaphysics. But whatever the etiology, Plato’s dualistic worldview plausibly serves as the glue holding his ethical individualism and political collectivism together. Since real-life society is hopelessly enmired in materialistic corruption, only the edicts of people like him, ruthlessly enforced, could possibly bring order; the abolition of private property and personal affection is simply a corollary of the necessity of subjecting the distractions of appetite and material concerns to the higher ideals of reason and spirit.

In Atlas Shrugged the primary fictional embodiment of this Platonic ambivalence is the character of Robert Stadler, the brilliant physicist who in true Platonic fashion worships theoretical science but has only contempt for applied science.6 Stadler justifies his quest for political power in terms reminiscent of Plato’s own pessimism about ordinary human beings and the rational man’s prospects for success in an irrational world:7

They’re mindless animals moved by irrational feelings – by their greedy, grasping, blind, unaccountable feelings! They seize whatever they want …. The mind? Don’t you know how futile it is, the mind, against those mindless hordes? Our weapons are so helplessly, laughably childish: truth, knowledge, reason, values, rights! … You don’t know how lonely I was, how starved for some spark of intelligence! … Why should a mind like mine have to bargain with ignorant fools? They’d never contribute a penny to science! Why shouldn’t they be forced? … Don’t you know how noble a purpose it was – my vision of the future of science? Human knowledge set free of material bonds! (Rand 1996, pp. 1023-4.)
Plato’s insistence that intellectuals should rule, and his own failed efforts to implement his ideas by influencing the tyrant of Syracuse, are finally echoed in Stadler’s futile attempt to “seize control of Project X and … rule a part of the country as his private feudal domain.” (p. 1032.)

From Rand’s perspective, the nature of Stadler’s mistake – and of Plato’s – is to bifurcate the human identity into opposing material and spiritual aspects, “a struggle between a corpse and a ghost” (p. 939), and to dismiss the material aspect as devoid of moral value. On the contrary, Rand has Galt insist, “an enormous investment of virtue – of intelligence, integrity, energy, skill – is required” to build the industrial civilization which mystics like Stadler dismiss as the concern of “vulgar realists.” (p. 948.) Stadler finds it “outrageous” that Galt, a man with “the genius of a great scientist,” would choose to be a “commercial inventor”; like Plato, he sees such a choice as a subordination of spirit to matter, of reason to appetite. “Why,” he wonders, “did he want to waste his mind on practical appliances?” Nor does he understand Dagny’s answer: “Perhaps because he liked living on this earth.” (p. 337.) For Stadler, to live on this earth is to surrender the mind.

Dagny, by contrast, represents an integrated, anti-Platonic view of spirit and matter. During the first run of the John Galt line she reflects on the spiritual meaning of the machinery surrounding her:
These things and the capacity from which they came – was this the pursuit men regarded as evil? Was this what they called an ignoble concern with the physical world? … Was this the surrender of man’s spirit to his body? … Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?” – like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel. … They are alive, she thought, because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power – of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity, to set its purpose, to give it form. (Rand 1996, pp. 230-35.)
But the productive workers, the craftsmen and laborers who wrestle directly with tainted physical reality, are relegated to the lowest and most mindless level of Plato’s ideal society; yet for Rand they are the Atlases whose minds make that society’s existence possible.

As Francisco d’Anconia tells Dagny:

Dagny, we who’ve been called ‘materialists’ by the killers of the human spirit, we’re the only ones who know how little value or meaning there is in material objects as such, because we’re the ones who create their value and meaning. … Dagny, learn to understand the nature of your own power and you’ll understand the paradox you now see around you. You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you, you create them, you own the one and only tool of production. Wherever you are, you will always be able to produce. But the looters – by their own stated theory – are in desperate, permanent, congenital need and at the blind mercy of matter. … Who gave them the means to enslave you? (p. 571.)
When Hank Rearden comes to a similar insight he thinks, significantly, of Plato: Rearden imagines himself speaking to “a long line of men stretched through the centuries from Plato onward,” telling them that “if I had not made it my highest moral purpose to exercise the best of my effort and the fullest capacity of my mind … you would have found nothing to loot from me ….” (Rand 1996, p. 517.) It is material production, driven by embodied intelligence, that sustains the Platonists even as they fantasize about disembodied intelligence, cast aspersions on vulgar material concerns, and struggle to maintain their ideological control over the producers.

Rand’s choice of Atlantis as a symbol for her utopia of liberated producers may also be directed in part against Plato. The first recorded reference to (and probably invention of) the legend of Atlantis occurs in Plato’s dialogues Timæus and Critias, where Atlantis is explicitly introduced (Timæus 17c-27b; Critias 110c-114c) as the enemy of a city organized along the lines of Plato’s Republic – thus making Atlantis the original anti-Platonic society.8 (It’s also worth noting that “Atlantis” and “Atlas” are cognates, and that Plato identifies Atlas as the first ruler of Atlantis: Critias 114a.)

It is appropriate that Rand pairs Galt’s challenge to the Starnes plan with Galt’s challenge to Plato; for the Starnes plan, though explicitly based on a Marxist slogan, owes much to the earlier communist ideal of the Republic. Plato argues that the abolition of private property would bring an end to conflict and envy in society, and promote civic harmony (V. 464a-465c); but in his critique of the Republic, Aristotle – the philosopher that Rand has Ragnar Danneskjöld call “our teacher’s first teacher” (p. 1059; cf. p. 1068) – replies that common ownership would on the contrary be likelier to increase social strife, since “recriminations are bound to arise between those who enjoy or receive much while working little and those who receive less but work more.”9 (Politics II. 2. 1263a12-15.) Rand’s account of the collapse of the Starnes plan reads like a commentary on this text of Aristotle’s:
When it’s all one pot, you can’t let any man decide what his own needs are, can you? If you did, he might claim that he needs a yacht …. So it turned into a contest among six thousand panhandlers, each claiming that his need was worse than his brother’s. … We began to hide whatever ability we had, to slow down and watch like hawks that we never worked any faster or better than the next fellow. … Love of our brothers? That’s when we learned to hate our brothers for the first time in our lives. (pp. 608-12.)
When the plan fails, Ivy Starnes, one of its chief instigators, takes predictable refuge in the Platonic complaint that “the plan was a noble ideal, but human nature was not good enough for it” (p. 616), and embarks on a quest for “the release from bondage to flesh, the victory over physical nature, the triumph of spirit over matter” (p. 301) – while renouncing as a “world enslaved by matter” the realm of “machines, manufacturers and money” that represents, for Rand, the only true locus of spirit’s triumph over matter. Starnes, like Stadler (though not his equal in intellectual stature), is an embodiment of Platonism.

Atlas Shrugged does not represent Rand’s first fictional engagement with the ideas of the Republic. The dystopian society depicted in her early novella Anthem – with its government assignment of professions, state regulation of breeding and reproduction, and abolition of the family – indeed seems more closely modeled on Plato’s ideal society than anything in Atlas Shrugged; and the prohibition of the word “I” in favor of “we” is a natural development of the Republic’s requirement (V. 462b-464d) that all citizens say “mine” and “not mine” about the same things.10 But there is one crucial aspect of the Republic that is not taken up until Atlas Shrugged: the notion of the philosopher-king’s being forced to rule. The hero of Anthem is not forced to rule; he is relegated to the Home of the Street-Sweepers. His intellectual prowess is rejected, not pressed into the service of the collective. But in Atlas Shrugged the villains first threaten Galt (pp. 1005-1010) and then finally torture him (pp. 1042-1049), all in an effort to get him to agree to become their ruler. “We want you to take full power over the economy of the country,” Dr. Floyd Ferris tells Galt. “We want you to become a dictator. We want you to rule. Understand? We want you to give orders and to figure out the right orders to give.” (p. 1043.) This central paradox of Atlas Shrugged is lifted straight out of Plato.

The villains’ attempt to coerce Galt into becoming their dictator dramatizes Rand’s thesis that the Platonic contempt for material production disguises an unacknowledged dependence on just such production – an insight Rand had not yet reached in Anthem. It is the willingness of the Atlases of production to be harnessed, their willingness to keep the system going, that maintains the “mystics of spirit” in power. Forcing Galt to “rule” means forcing him to use the power of his intellect to figure out “the exact measures you’ll take to save our system” (p. 1043), to “give the orders” and “issue the directives” that will “make things work” (pp. 1007-8).

The hollowness of the entire system is revealed when the Atlases “shrug,” withdrawing their cooperation. As in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic,11 true power ultimately lies with the subjugated producer, not with his subjugator – since the subjugator depends on the producer but not vice versa. This dependence is most chillingly dramatized in the final torture scene, when Galt forces his parasitic captors to realize that their very ability to operate the torture device they are using on him depends on the cooperation of productive intellects like himself (p. 1047).

Plato’s work is torn by an unresolved ambiguity as to whether the soul’s descent into the material realm is a regrettable calamity (e.g., Phaedrus 246b-249c) or a providential imposition of order on unruly matter (e.g., Timæus 41b-42c); as we’ve seen, there is an analogous ambiguity in the Republic as to whether the philosopher-king’s acceptance of the responsibilities of political administration makes for a life of painful duty or joyous fulfillment. The source of Plato’s ambivalence here, Rand shows us, is his contempt for involvement in material concerns combined with his reluctant half-recognition that the theoretical and spiritual activities he values depend for their continued existence on just such involvement. Hence the realm of worldly affairs appears to him both as a distraction to be shunned and as a necessity to be embraced; he cannot resolve the contradiction because it is based on a deeper unresolved contradiction, a matter/spirit dichotomy. Since life depends on material business, such business, Plato feels at one level, must be embraced as a value; yet life should, Plato feels at another level, be independent of such unreliable concerns, and so material business is simultaneously disvalued.

Plato’s conflicting attitudes on this issue also shed light on the Republic’s unstable union of ethical individualism and political collectivism. The moral life, Plato sees, must be one of joyous and successful self-interested flourishing. But since on Plato’s view the everyday world is irremediably hostile to such flourishing, the realm of success must be a purely spiritual one. All involvement with material production, then, though admittedly necessary, acquires the flavor of a sacrifice of personal happiness, a departure from the realm wherein fulfillment is possible, a life lived for others rather than oneself – and so the individualist aspect gives way to the collectivist one. The logic of Plato’s position thus sets his own fundamental values in conflict with one another.

Failing to recognize the spiritual aspect of material production, Plato distinguishes the intellectual class that must give the orders from the producers who must carry the orders out. But because, as Rand sees, the spiritual and material aspects of production cannot truly be so divided, the supposedly exalted philosopher-king inevitably ends up taking on the characteristics of just one more subjugated laborer. John Galt, at once an engineer and a philosopher, likewise combines the character of Plato’s producers, compelled to labor, and the character of Plato’s philosopher-kings, compelled to rule. And Galt’s refusal either to rule or to obey – his vow neither to “live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” (Rand 1996, pp. 670-72) – shatters the foundation of the Platonic system and brings it down in ruins.

Mayhew, Robert. 1997. Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Republic. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
McCloskey, Susan. 2005. “Odysseus, Jesus, and Dagny: Ayn Rand’s Reconception oif the Hero.” In Thomas 2005, pp. 119-143.
Minsaas, Kirsti. 2005. “Structural Integration in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.” In Thomas 2005, pp. 17-37.
Peikoff, Leonard. 1993. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton Plume.
Rand, Ayn. 1996. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet.
-----. 1995. Anthem. New York: Signet.
-----. 1993. The Fountainhead. New York: Signet.
------. 1986. The Early Ayn Rand: A Selection From Her Unpublished Fiction. New York: Signet.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 1995. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Park.
Thomas, William, ed. 2005. The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. Poughkeepsie: Objectivist Center.
Younkins, Edward W. 2005. “The Robert Stadler Story: The Moral Fall of a Man Who Knew Better.”


1 For example, Atlas Shrugged’s treatment of sex and romantic love, as dramatized in the inner conflicts of the character of Hank Rearden, might be read as in part a comment on Plato’s rather different treatment of those subjects in his Symposium and Phædrus.

2 It is a matter of controversy whether Plato is properly regarded as endorsing the arguments he attributes to the Socrates character in his dialogues. I think the correct answer is a (qualified) yes, but I shall not defend that interpretation here, since what matters for present purposes is that Rand in any case thinks so.

3 All translations from Plato or Aristotle are mine.

4 One is reminded of Ellsworth Toohey’s assurance to Catherine Halsey, in The Fountainhead, that one must “kill the most stubborn of roots, the ego,” and “only when it is dead … will you know the kind of happiness I spoke about, and the gates of spiritual grandeur will fall open before you.” (Rand 1993, p. 365.)

5 Though this interpretation of Plato’s motives does cohere well with Leonard Peikoff’s analysis of the myth of the demiurge in Plato’s Timæus:

Matter, we are told, was originally unformed and chaotic; a godlike soul enters and tries to shape the chaos into a realm of perfect beauty. The demiurge, however, fails; matter proves to be recalcitrant; it takes the imprint of beauty only so far, and thereafter resists all efforts to perfect it. Hence, Plato concludes, matter is a principle of imperfection, inherently in conflict with the highest ideals of the spirit. In a perfect universe, matter should obey consciousness without reservation. Since it does not, the universe … is flawed; it is a perpetual battleground of the noble vs. the actual. (Peikoff 1993, p. 29.)

In fairness to Plato it should perhaps be added that the otherworldly character of his philosophy gets considerably moderated in later dialogues like the Sophist and Philebus, while the authoritarian and collectivist character of his politics likewise gets moderated (though admittedly not much) in later dialogues like the Statesman and Laws.

6 The Platonic nature of Stadler’s character has also been pointed out by Younkins (2005).

7 Rand also addresses this sort of pessimism in her play Ideal (Rand 1986, pp. 205-290), as well as by means of the characters of Dominique Francon and Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead.

8 It’s puzzling how often commentators describe Plato’s Atlantis as his vision of utopia. Plato’s utopia is clearly the ideal state described in the Republic, and transposed in the Timæus and Critias to prehistoric Athens. Atlantis by contrast is portrayed as a society corrupted by pride and ambition that wages war against this ideal state.

9 For a Rand-influenced study of Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato’s political philosophy see Mayhew 1997.

10 I would also hypothesize that Equality 7-2521’s journey down into an abandoned subway tunnel to discover an artificial light source is a deliberate inversion of Plato’s allegory of the cave in Republic VII, in which the wise man ascends from the cave of physical reality, lit by the artificial light of the senses, to discover the “real” world of abstract Forms, lit by a sun of pure ineffable intellect. Rand’s anti-Platonic trope of enlightenment lying underground (the Taggart tunnels and cafeteria; cf. Minsaas 2005, pp. 30-31; McCloskey 2005, p. 140) or underwater (the “Atlantis” theme: e.g., Rand 1996, p. 147) runs throughout Atlas Shrugged as well.

11 For the place of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in Rand’s thought, see Sciabarra 1995, pp. 300-310.

R. T. Long – Forced to Rule – p.

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