Atlas Shrugged: 12 Insightful Quotes From Part One
Atlas Shrugged is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it once a year since 2014 (except 2016), and new ideas and sections have stuck out each time.
Post by Ryan Ferguson
Ryan hosts the World Wanderers podcast. He has been a participant in Praxis and the Carl Menger Fellow at FEE.
Foundation for Economic Education
CC BY-SA 4.0
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Following are some of my favorite quotes and notes from Part One: Non-Contradiction.
Dagny’s rise among the men who operated Taggart Transcontinental was swift and uncontested. She took positions of responsibility because there was no one else to take them. There were a few rare men of talent around her, but they were becoming rarer every year. Her superiors, who held the authority, seemed afraid to exercise it, they spent their time avoiding decisions, so she told people what to do and they did it. At every step of her rise, she did the work long before she was granted the title. It was like advancing through empty rooms. Nobody opposed her, yet nobody approved of her progress.”
It is so easy to separate yourself from the crowd in your career. Early on, it may feel like you have nothing to offer, but if you simply take care of what you are responsible for—if you do what you say you will do and use your mind—you will separate yourself from the crowd very quickly.
If you invest in doing your job well, if you take pride in it, and you’re consciously working to improve at your craft, then within a very short time you will look around and see that you left the crowd behind.
Francisco found it natural that the Taggart children should be chosen as his companions: they were the crown heirs of Taggart Transcontinental, as he was of d’Anconia Copper. “We are the only aristocracy left in the world—the aristocracy of money,” he said to Dagny once, when he was fourteen. “It’s the only real aristocracy, if people understood what it means, which they don’t.”
“Francisco, you’re some kind of very high nobility, aren’t you?” He answered, “Not yet. The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.””
I love the line “The aristocracy of money.” People like to lump the rise of the powerful merchant as an inevitable fact of history, but it is an exceptional development. For all of human history, the powerful were 100% parasites. Gang leaders that had brutalized their way to the top and passed down through the family. They were in an immoral position, and not one deserved to be there.
But the merchant class rose to power from creating value for society. Many of the children of money turn into the same parasites as the children of lords and ladies, but not among the best. These two quotes go together. What makes the d’Anconia’s great is the realization that it is not blood, but the ideas that make them who they are.
Jim was approaching his senior year in a college in New York. His studies had given him a manner of odd, quavering belligerence, as if he had found a new weapon.”
I love that line “odd, quavering belligerence as if he had found a new weapon.” This describes well the college student who has just finished their first year of sociology classes and been taught that they can condemn every productive person on earth because they are inherently racist, sexist, transphobic, etc. It is not the attitude of the philosopher, but of the wounded child who has found a new foundation to make himself feel special and to condemn the world.
That winter, she stripped her life down to the bright simplicity of a geometrical drawing: a few straight lines—to and from the engineering college in the city each day, to and from her job at Rockdale Station each night—and the closed circle of her room, a room littered with diagrams of motors, blueprints of steel structures, and railroad timetables.”
So many people are so resistant to simplify their lives down to the things that matter. Don’t be afraid of specialization and simplicity, embrace it. That is what will make you great regardless of what it is you work on.
She was about to answer “No,” but realized that the truth was worse than that. “Yes,” she answered coldly, “but it doesn’t matter to me that I want it.”
[Dagny in conversation with Fransisco.]
Dagny values her self-esteem over desire. Many people don’t get this; they condemn themselves for their feelings, or they act on them as if they have no capacity to override them. What makes us human is our ability to act on what is right, despite others' feelings.
You don’t care for anything but business.” He had heard it all his life, pronounced as a verdict of damnation. He had always known that business was regarded as some sort of secret, shameful cult, which one did not impose on innocent laymen, that people thought of it as of an ugly necessity, to be performed but never mentioned, that to talk shop was an offense against higher sensibilities, that just as one washed machine grease off one’s hands before coming home, so one was supposed to wash the stain of business off one’s mind before entering a drawing room.
He had never held that creed, but he had accepted it as natural that his family should hold it.
He took it for granted—wordlessly, in the manner of a feeling absorbed in childhood, left unquestioned and unnamed—that he had dedicated himself, like the martyr of some dark religion, to the service of a faith which was his passionate love, but which made him an outcast among men, whose sympathy he was not to expect."
Business is the thing that supports our lives and our societies. Business is life. It is our biggest, most valuable, and most productive use of our time, but most people view their business or their work as something they shouldn’t enjoy, something that they should forget about in the few hours a day when they are not working on it. This is a wrong and depraved way to view our craft.
The philosophers of the past were superficial,” Dr. Pritchett went on. “It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn’t any.”
“The literature of the past,” said Balph Eubank, “was a shallow fraud. It whitewashed life in order to please the money tycoons whom it served. Morality, free will, achievement, happy endings, and man as some sort of heroic being—all that stuff is laughable to us. Our age has given depth to literature for the first time, by exposing the real essence of life.”
“Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature,” said Balph Eubank contemptuously. Dr. Pritchett, on his way across the room to the bar, stopped to say, “Quite so. Just as logic is a primitive vulgarity in philosophy.” “Just as melody is a primitive vulgarity in music,” said Mort Liddy.
I enjoy this series of quotes from the Reardons' anniversary party. It is a great display of the direct connection between philosophy and art. How the irrational and senseless art that is so popular in society is a direct result of the abandoning of rational philosophy.
Unless you mean—in order to gain my confidence?” “No. I don’t like people who speak or think in terms of gaining anybody’s confidence. If one’s actions are honest, one does not need the predated confidence of others, only their rational perception. The person who craves a moral blank check of that kind, has dishonest intentions, whether he admits it to himself or not.”
Fransisco to Hank Reardon on their first meeting at the Reardon anniversary party.
I couldn’t help it, Miss Taggart,” Ben Nealy had said, offended. “You know how fast drill heads wear out. I had them on order, but Incorporated Tool ran into a little trouble, they couldn’t help it either, Associated Steel was delayed in delivering the steel to them, so there’s nothing we can do but wait. It’s no use getting upset, Miss Taggart. I’m doing my best.” “I’ve hired you to do a job, not to do your best—whatever that is.”
As a child, you receive unconditional love and good regard from your parents. As an adult and a professional, you are valued for getting your work done. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions, how hard you work, or how much you tried to get it right, all that matters is what you’ve done.
Something ought to be done,” said Mr. Mowen. “A friend of mine went out of business—last week—the oil business—had a couple of wells down in Oklahoma—couldn’t compete with Ellis Wyatt. It isn’t fair. They ought to leave the little people a chance. They ought to place a limit on Wyatt’s output. He shouldn’t be allowed to produce so much that he’ll swamp everybody else off the market. . . . I got stuck in New York yesterday, had to leave my car there and come home on a damn commuters’ local, couldn’t get any gas for the car, they said there’s a shortage of oil in the city. . . . Things aren’t right. Something ought to be done about it . . .”
Avoiding conclusions or responsibility for the conclusions you are advocating, but simply demanding that problems be solved. Then when the obvious trade-offs show up for the last policy you advocate for: “I can’t be blamed.”
I intended to ship you your share of it, I fully intended it, but I couldn’t help it if we lost ten days of production last month on account of the rainstorm in the whole of north Minnesota—I intended to ship you the ore, so you can’t blame me, because my intention was completely honest.” “If one of my blast furnaces goes down, will I be able to keep it going by feeding your intention into it?”
Another example of a man of opinion trying to be let off the hook with his good intentions.
You haven’t any right to despise me.” She stopped to look at him. “I have expressed no opinion.” “I am perfectly innocent, since I lost my money, since I lost all of my own money for a good cause. My motives were pure. I wanted nothing for myself. I’ve never sought anything for myself. Miss Taggart, I can proudly say that in all of my life I have never made a profit!”
Her voice was quiet, steady and solemn: “Mr. Lawson, I think I should let you know that of all the statements a man can make, that is the one I consider most despicable.”