The Virtue of Independence in Atlas Shrugged

By Diana Mertz Brickell

Date: Mon, 6 Jun 1994 17:40:42 -0500

From: Diana Mertz Brickell


Subject: IHS Atlas essay

Note: This essay was written for the Fourth Annual Fiction Essay Contest sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, 4084 University Drive, Suite 101, Fairfax, VA 22030-6812.

Reprinted with permission.

The choice between self-reliance and dependence is one of the most fundamental alternatives of each human's existence, for the decision made between these two states of being permeate every aspect of a human's life.

Every character in a novel is also faced with this fundamental choice, and even if the theme of personal freedom is not explicitly discussed in a work of fiction, the degree of independence and autonomy that is given to each character will have a profound impact on how each responds to the conflicts within the novel.

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged deals explicitly with the impact that personal liberty, or rather independence, has on an individual. Each one of the characters in the novel is explicitly affected by his views of what independence is and how it relates to his life. To the heroes of Rand's novels, independence is not an outward relation to the world, but rather an inner state concerning an individual's approach to reality. To be independent means that one holds and acts upon the idea that the mind is the only valid source of judgment about the world and that the burden and responsibility of judgment falls solely on the individual. An independent person realizes that no man can think for him (nor would he want such to possible) and thus does not rely on others of make judgments or decisions for him. Mirroring life, in Atlas Shrugged, to the extent that each character holds independence as a virtue is the extent to which he succeeds in obtaining his own happiness; to the extent that a character refuses to depend on his own mind and his senses is the extent to which he self-destructs.

In evaluating Rand's treatment of the idea of personal liberty, there is one character, albeit a minor one, that perfectly illustrates how holding independence as a virtue radically affects one's life; that character is Cherryl Taggart. She is the character who pays the highest price for her self-reliance and independence; it cost her her life. Cherryl is a dime store clerk who strives to rise above the ghettos in which she was raised, and upon meeting James Taggart, she honestly believes the false image of power that he puts forth. Striving to make herself worthy to be the wife of such a man, Cherryl learns how to comport herself in Taggart's society, but with each improvement that she makes, James turns more resentful and bitter. Actively seeking to eliminate the contradiction between the honorable man she thought she married and the contemptible man to whom she finds herself married, Cherryl finally comes to realize the extent of Taggart's dishonesty and manipulation.

Cherryl then seeks out the person whom she had unknowingly admired, the real mover behind Taggart Transcontinental, Dagny Taggart. Dagny tells Cherryl that her self-reliance and independence are virtues, and that she should never let anyone tell her otherwise. Cherryl returns to her house, armed with the confidence that her implicit beliefs about what man should be were always right, only to find herself in another confrontation with James, in which she learns that he specifically chose her, with her proud, fighting sense-of-life, solely to destroy her. The knowledge that all James wanted to do was see himself capable of destroying the good in another human being is too horrific, too evil for Cherryl to bear and sends her wandering the streets of New York. When a social worker tells her that there is "no concern for the pain of the innocent" Cherryl, fully conscious of the magnitude of her decision, runs down the street, over a parapet, and to her death.

There are three central ideas that Cherryl and the other heroes of Atlas Shrugged hold that clearly give rise to their independence. Through the recognition and implementation of these three ideas, each hero succeeds in acting in his own independent self-interest and furthers his happiness.

The first necessity, of course, is the virtue of rationality. Each of Rand's heroes has a firm commitment to their own minds and senses as their sole guides in life. They know that without the active, focused use of their mind, they would be unable to survive against the harshness nature. Although Cherryl does not have the unshakable conviction in many of her beliefs as Dagny does, mainly due to the corrupt culture by which she has been surrounded all her life, her commitment to the use of her own mind is unshakable. It is important to differentiate here between Cherryl's lack of knowledge and her commitment to the use of her mind. Cherryl's lack of knowledge about the dishonesty and malevolence of those like her husband does not stem from any failing on her part. In fact, due to her virtue and naivete, she does not understand how any human could evade on the scale required to seek only destruction of values as the looters do. It is her commitment to the efficacy of her mind that leads her from a lack of comprehension to an understanding of the looters, and eventually to her choice of death.

The second idea that plays a central role in the independence of Rand's characters is that each rightfully thinks himself worthy of the joy and happiness he strives to earn. Although most do not realize that they have a right to claim the happiness they have earned from the beginning of the novel, through a process of growth and learning, they come to realize that they must reclaim their happiness in all aspects of their life. For example, Hank Rearden refuses to fully acknowledge that he loves Dagny and that he deserves the happiness he reaps from the relationship for the duration of their entire relationship. Until Dagny's speech on the radio exposing their affair, Hank thinks himself duty-bound to a manipulative wife whom he does not love, but in hearing to Dagny talk of the nature of their love for each other, he realizes that he does love Dagny, that he is worthy of experiencing that love. At the same time Rearden realizes that he has lost his love to another, but that every moment of the relationship was worth the pain of losing it. In Cherryl's case, at first she thinks herself unworthy of the love of a man she thinks so admirable, and so she strives to make herself worthy of his (feigned) emotion for her. But when she does earned that love, she realizes that James had never been worthy of a woman like herself. Both Hank and Cherryl struggle to find happiness in places where it cannot exist, until finally realize that they cannot hope to find happiness among people who refuse to accept their commitment to themselves and reality.

The last idea crucial to independence is a commitment to learning and understanding the truth. A person who has a commitment to the actual facts of reality over and above any range-of-the-moment whim will not be bound by lies to themselves or to others. In committing this whimsical dishonesty, one becomes the virtual prisoner of those lies and evasions, because each fact of reality that contradicts the lies must also be evaded.

Independence is not independence from the facts of reality or one's responsibility to judge them; it is just just the opposite. To practice the virtue of independence, one must commit to being one's own final judge of reality, which one can only do by first identifying the facts of reality. The commitment to identifying the facts of reality is one of Cherryl's greatest virtues, for even having staked her whole life on James Taggart's false image, she is willing to ruthlessly sort out the contradictions that she sees emerging from her husband. If Cherryl had not been so committed to eliminating these contradictions, she would have surely sacrificed her independence to James Taggart's rationalizations and dishonesty, and thus been caught in a web of puzzling contradictions that she would not have dared resolve.

These three ideas: commitment to one's own mind, happiness, and the facts of reality, shape all of character's independence. To the extent that a character did not hold and did not implement these ideas is the extent to which they were dependent on others; to the extent that they did hold and implement these three ideas was the extent to which they were independent and free to seek their own values.

In evaluating whether Cherryl's independence was worth the price she paid, it is important to examine what the impact of not holding or acting upon these three ideas would have been. If Cherryl had not been committed to rationality, if she had not thought of her mind as the guide to every aspect of her life, there would have been no such thing as value in her life. She would never have even sought to rid herself of the slums in which she was raised; her goals would have been centered around avoiding pain and avoiding reality. The joy and efficacy which Cherryl felt at learning and becoming worthy of those she admired was surely worth her life in the end, for if she had not valued those things, one would be hard pressed to call her alive in the first place. If Cherryl had not thought herself worthy of happiness that she had strived to earn, her life would have been left with very little meaning, as happiness is the goal of any rational ethical system. So in struggling against all odds to achieve happiness, Cherryl was motivated to create her own happiness and pleasure, not just flee from pain. And finally if she had not had such a strong commitment to discovering the truth, she would have been lost in a world that was filled with contradiction too frightening to face. A life in which one seeks solely to avoid pain through negating the role of one's mind, refusing to recognize one's happiness, and refusing to acknowledge the facts of reality can surely not be a life worth living. The happiness that anyone can achieve in life is a product of the values one chooses and the virtues with which one seeks those values, and thus a life in which one seeks self-destructive and contradictory values cannot result in any sort of happiness; in fact, it will finally result in a person just fleeing from reality into their own mind. Would such a life worth the value of breathing and being conscious? The answer surely is no.

Cherryl, at least implicitly, acts upon all three tenants of independence, yet the price she pays for her virtue is her own life, which leads to an interesting paradox. Values and virtues are such because they further the life of man, and so when those same values destroy a life, what conclusions may be drawn? The reason that Cherryl pays such a high price for her virtue is that she exists in a society in which the values of a rational human being are no longer values, rather they are condemned as selfish, egotistical, and immoral. Since there was no value for her to seek and because she was not as strong and resilient as Dagny, Cherryl's life offered her nothing but more pain.

She would constantly struggle to remain loyal to the rational virtues and values she had adopted, and would be punished and hurt anytime she did seek value. And so the fundamental choice for Cherryl if she choose to live would have been between sacrificing her virtues to try find some value and being virtuous with no hopes of achieving any value. So Cherryl choose death, for only in death would she be able to maintain her integrity and keep from becoming like the looters that she despised so much.

Cherryl's potential for flourishing in a society governed by rational principles illustrates why ideas are so crucially important in society. In a rationally governed society, Cherryl's virtues would have enabled her to achieve her goals and to feel happiness and pride in the efficacy of her mind. Those people like Cherryl, people who have honest values but are not resilient, unbreakable heroes like Dagny and Rearden, must to be free to pursue their own happiness. Rand's heroes are specifically the people who move the world, but it is people like Cherryl Taggart and Eddie Willers who form its base. If such people are not allowed to flourish, if they are not free to pursue life and value, those movers will have nothing but an empty, worthless world to mold. The potential of so many rational, intelligent people is wasted by the intellectual void of our time. These people must be reclaimed; they must reclaim themselves. They can only do this in a culture where intellect, honesty, integrity, and above all else, rationality is respected and encouraged.

Rand's vision of the heroic is not just for the best and brightest among us; it is for all individuals who value their life and their happiness. It is for those who move the world and for those who serve as its core. The heroic is, like independence, a private relationship with oneself; it concerns one's own potential, the struggle to actualize that potential, and the pride of success. The virtue of independence is vital to this process, because without it, without self-reliance, without the willingness to take the risk and responsibility of being a fully autonomous individual, a person cannot grow and and flourish. And thus the "burden" of independence is not really a burden at all; it is absolutely vital to any human who chooses to live.



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