Atlas Shrugged Essay (Third Place Winner!)

The following is the essay I submitted to the Atlas Shrugged Essay Contest, which won 3rd place. If you haven't read the book, be warned: there are SPOILERS below. 

Ragnar Danneskjöld says he loves that which has rarely been loved, namely, human ability. What do you think he means? How does his position relate to the idea: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”? Do you agree or disagree with Ragnar’s attitude? Explain.

In a private letter to Colin Clive, Ayn Rand once wrote “You see, I’m an atheist. And I have only one religion; the sublime in human nature. There is nothing to approach the sanctity of the highest man possible, and there is nothing that gives me the same reverent feeling, the feeling when one’s spirit wants to kneel bareheaded. Do not call it hero-worship, because it is more than that. It is a kind of strange and improbable white heat, where admiration becomes religion and religion becomes philosophy and philosophy, the whole of one’s life.”​ ​This, I think, is what Ragnar Danneskjöld means by his love for human ability. It is his love for the highest––“the sublime”––in human nature.

Like Rand, Ragnar’s intense love for human ability births in him the aim to become a philosopher. But there is a problem––an enemy––and as with the other heroes in the novel, Ragnar cannot fully actualize his chosen life purpose until that enemy is overcome. What is the enemy? It is not any particular person, or group of people––but an idea; a moral code, which everyone has accepted, and no one dares to question. It is the moral code expressed in the maxim, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That maxim––which preaches “that need is holier than ability, and pity is holier than justice” (723)––and all the “hell-horror, evil” (611) which it gradually unleashes upon society, is the great enemy of human ability. Ragnar’s zeal to defend the object of his love against this moral code is what drives him, “the man of enlightenment,” to “become the man of violence” (725).

Ragnar’s violence, though, is not arbitrary. His violence is solely against those who ​initiate violence in the name of that twisted moral code. It is violence against businessmen, like Orren Boyle and James Taggart, who clamor for government regulations on ability in order to stifle their competitors––in the name of helping those in need; against politicians, like Mr. Thompson and Wesley Mouch, who punish human ability in order to pander to the needy masses––in the name of the greater good; and against intellectuals, like Dr. Floyd Ferris and Dr. Simon Pritchett, who defame, denounce, and even deny the existence of human ability in order to secure for themselves a false sense of superiority over those more able than they––in the name of aiding the weak-minded.

All of these men, who preach some version of that anti-ability creed, are responsible for damning human ability, and thus bringing society to the point where force––rather than ability––is the standard; where the only way to live is either “to be a looter who robs disarmed victims or to be a victim who works for the benefit of his own despoilers” (530). Ragnar (rightly) abominates such a society in which the men of ability are condemned to be victims. His violence, then, is in defense of those victims––not because they’re victims, but because they do not deserve to be victims; because they are the men of ability, whom Ragnar loves with an intransigent passion. In representing the apex of human ability, those victims of that dark moral code represent Ragnar’s “only love, the only value [he] cares to live for” (535). That’s why , in defense of his “only love,” Ragnar, the philosopher, becomes Ragnar, the pirate.

However, Ragnar is not the only one driven by an enduring love for the heights of human ability, and the determination to defend it against the “morality of cannibals” (679). The other strikers share that love and motivation. It is Francisco’s love for ability in the person of Dagny that ultimately convinces him to join the strike. “I had to save you,” he tells her, “to let you find your city––not to let you...find at the end of your road... a fat, soggy, mindless cripple... swallowing the gin your life had gone to pay for! ...Dagny, that was what I saw and that was what I couldn’t let them do to you! Not to you, or to any child who had your kind of look when he faced the future” (703). Likewise, Mulligan’s love for ability in the person of Rearden is what convinces him to join the strike. “I had a vision,” he explains, “I saw the bright face and the eyes of young Rearden, as he’d been when I’d met him first. I saw him lying there at the foot of an altar, with his blood running down into the earth––and what stood on that altar was Lee Hunsacker, with the mucus-filled eyes, whining that he’d never had a chance... It wasn’t hard for me to close the bank and go” (681).

That love for human ability is not just a motivator for the heroes; it is also the antidote to the moral poison for those, like Rearden, who have bought in––whether in whole, or in part––to that creed of self-sacrifice. Like allowing an “impurity into an alloy of metal” (420), Rearden unwittingly accepts part of that ability-hating moral code, and suffers from agonizing internal turmoil as a result. In the midst of his internal agony, he finds himself strangely drawn to Francisco, and doesn’t realize why until Francisco explains: “It’s because I’m the first man who has given you what the whole world owes you... a moral sanction” (421)––a sanction for being a man of ability. Ragnar also helps Rearden when he “risk[s] his life” (529) to gives him the gold,

knowing that it is not the gold which Rearden needs, but “the justice which it represents, and the knowledge that there are men who care for​ ​justice” (529). When Ragnar speaks of justice here, he means the proper reverence owed to ability; he means that Rearden’s ability deserves praise and admiration, not the scorn and derision he receives from society.

That link between justice and admiration for ability is the reason Ragnar can simultaneously say that his love is “justice” (531), and that his “only love” is “human ability” (535). They are the same thing, and Ragnar knows it. This is why Ragnar––the “friend of the friendless” (529), who risks his life to vindicate the lives and fortunes of the men of ability, in the name of his love for that ability––stands forth as a paragon of justice, like “an avenging angel” (530), for all real-life lovers of “the sublime in human nature” to emulate.

Works Cited

Rand, Ayn. ​Atlas Shrugged​. New York: Signet, 1957.
Rand, Ayn. ​Letters of Ayn Rand. ​Ed. by Michael S. Berliner. New York: Penguin, 1997.

This essay is the property of The Ayn Rand Institute and has been posted here with ARI's permission.  

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Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.