Ok, let me take another stab at the take-home Objectivist message from Atlas Shrugged. The other day I showed how Augie uses objective fact to drive spiritual progress, but I didn't really tie back to Rand's book.
Atlas Shrugged has two (and only two) kinds of characters – the Good kind we are supposed to admire and identify with (Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon, Ellis Wyatt, etc.), and the Bad kind by whom we are supposed to be repulsed and exasperated (Jim Taggart, Mrs. Reardon, and a long line of looter businessmen, politicians, and journalists). Everyone is black-or-white. Ordinary man-on-the-street types are just muted versions of the same two colors: men and women silently longing for real virtue, or quietly wallowing in self-pity.
The Good characters are constantly paying attention to objective measures – "Can I get the railroad built?" or "Will the bridge hold up?" – and ignoring all the subjective factors – "Do people like me?" or "Am I having any fun?" Meanwhile, all the Bad characters are doing just the opposite, making excuses about their objective failures – "It's not my fault the factory went under" – and justifying themselves with their lofty intentions – "I think we should care about the common man" or "Let's consider the social obligations."
Rand repeats this formula again and again and again, for hundreds of pages, until her philosophic attitude becomes embedded in our consciousness. Repetition of examples is a powerful teaching tool – generally, human beings learn faster from a bunch of examples than from abstract descriptions of ideals. Some of the more influential pop moral teachers, like "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger, hash countless case studies until their audience gets an instinctive feel for their philosophic principles. They might not be able to answer, "What are Dr. Laura's five basic principles?" but they will be able to look at any situation and know, "What would Dr. Laura say about this?" Augie Turak does the same thing, mostly through story-telling. He does articulate the abstract principles, but the reason people understand him is because he illustrates with countless examples and analogies.
After a few hundred repetitions of the same sort of dialog, the reader starts to recognize the patterns of the Good and the Bad characters. The Good ones are supposedly coldly rational and have no interest in other people – and yet they are the ones who really care about things that really matter. Dagny is more concerned about the state of the country more than anyone else around her, because she sees the economic collapse that awaits them if she doesn't build her line. Dagny and Reardon claim to be utterly selfish, but in the end they provide other people the things they need most: confidence in their commitments. They speak the truth, and they do what they say they are going to do. Because they are supremely rational, they value what is obviously good and effective and shun whatever isn't. Their attention is fixed on material achievement, but they ultimately see the material realm as the matrix within which the spirit operates: a railroad might be solid steel, but it's really the manifestation of the engineer's thought and intent. The key point is: their virtue derives from paying attention to the objective.
The Bad ones, however, are doing just the opposite. They claim to be full of selfless values and concern for their fellow human beings, but actually they are completely self-absorbed. The worry constantly about who will blame them for their failures, who will like them for their flattery; meanwhile, they neglect to actually get anything done. They talk endlessly about their good intentions, and never stop to evaluate the actual objective effects of their action or inaction. Because everything they care about – praise, blame, intention, whim – is in their own heads and disconnected from objective reality, their philosophies (if they have any at all) are shot through with contradictions and irrationality. All values get turned on their heads: virtue must apologize for itself, greatness must be humbled, weakness is to be praised and served in the name of "fairness", profit is bad and failure is good. They claim to be unconcerned with brute physical existence and committed to "higher" things, and yet when they look at a factory or a railroad all they can see is physical labor and substance, and have no understanding whatsoever for the mental and spiritual virtues that made it possible. They are selfish and stupid and irrational, because they are disconnected from the objective.
I guess I should also point out that Augie is not an Objectivist. For all I know, he never read Ayn Rand at all. But I feel the same spirit moving in both their philosophies – they love the Truth, and want people to live according to the Truth, and they have utter contempt for delusion and self-deception.