Teaching Philosophy with Atlas Shrugged: Francisco vs. Hume on Reason and Emotion

Pike’s Peak, Colorado Springs. Photo by the author.

It’s been a while since I last blogged about my class based on Atlas Shrugged. We are now nearly done with two thirds of the semester. This has probably been my most enjoyable teaching experience to date, and not just because I am sympathetic with the philosophy we are discussing. I’ve fallen in love with the idea of teaching philosophy through fiction. Students are much more intensely drawn into discussing the ideas of a novel whose characters they come to know, even when they do not necessarily agree with the ideas. It is a pity that so few philosophers chose to dramatize their ideas in literary form.

Rather than saying more about my experience with the course (which is still in progress), I’d like to share another example of how I used another chapter (Part I, Chapter 6: “The Non-Commercial”) to discuss an important philosophical theme and relevant figures. I’m sure that when I first read this chapter more than 20 years ago, I would have realized the role of the chapter in heightening the drama between Rearden, Dagny, and Lillian. Who could forget the scene in which Dagny trades her diamond bracelet for Lillian’s bracelet made of Rearden metal? But I’m also sure, like many readers, I did not pay enough attention to the psychological undercurrent of the chapter, which touches on an important issue in moral psychology.

Chapter 6 opens with Hank Rearden, steel industrialist, agonizing over attending his anniversary party. Looking into a mirror, he recalls his wife’s efforts at inducing guilt over his love for his work, which he likens to membership in a “dark religion” (123). Rearden says to himself that he has a duty to serve his wife and to attend the party, but even still he can find no motivation to attend and he cannot feel the guilt his wife wants him to feel. This perplexes Rearden, because “throughout his life, whenever he became convinced that a course of action was right, the desire to follow it had come automatically” (126).

Why, if this generalization is true, does Rearden still does not feel any motivation to attend? My students suggest that perhaps he does not really think he has that duty. Perhaps they’re on to something. This opening scene sounds the first notes of a leitmotif that will arise numerous times throughout the chapter. Though I note that the chapter deals with a number of other important philosophical issues, it is very interesting to notice this chapter’s treatment of the relationship between reason and emotion.

In spite of his anxiety, Rearden forces himself to attend the party and after dodging a number of guests, he finds refuge at a window looking out over the countryside:

He stood, looking out. Far in the distance, the red glow of Rearden Steel moved in the sky. He watched it for a moment’s relief.

He turned to look at the drawing room. He had never liked his house; it had been Lillian’s choice. But tonight, the shifting colors of the evening dresses drowned out the appearance of the room and gave it an air of brilliant gaiety. He liked to see people being gay, even though he did not understand this particular manner of enjoyment.

He looked at the flowers, at the sparks of light on the crystal glasses, at the naked arms and shoulders of women. There was a cold wind outside, sweeping empty stretches of land. He saw the thin branches of a tree being twisted, like arms waving in an appeal for help. The tree stood against the glow of the mills.

He could not name his sudden emotion. He had no words to state its cause, its quality, its meaning. Some part of it was joy, but it was solemn like the act of baring one’s head—he did not know to whom (131).

Soon Rearden meets Francisco d’Anconia (for the first time), and Francisco proposes what Rearden has just been thinking:

“It’s a terrible night for any animal caught unprotected on that plain,” said Francisco d’Anconia. “This is when one should appreciate the meaning of being a man.”

“Funny. . . […] You told me what I was thinking just a while ago […] only I didn’t have the words for it.”

“Shall I tell you the rest of the words? […] You stood here and watched the storm with the greatest pride one can ever feel—because you are able to have summer flowers and half-naked women in your house on a night like this, in demonstration of your victory over that storm. And if it weren’t for you, most of those who are here would be left helpless at the mercy of that wind in the middle of some such plain” (140-141).

Francisco draws attention to the fact that Rearden’s feeling is not an accident. He’s been standing at a window, comparing the gay interior of his home to the stormy scene outside (which stands in further contrast to the warm glow of his mills). I mention to my students that Rearden is not the first to have felt such a feeling. Many poets and philosophers have experienced a variation on this feeling, often calling it “the sublime.” One famous theorist about the sublime, Edmund Burke, described it in 1757: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.”

Travelers often feel a kind of aesthetic pleasure when gaping at a vast desert or towering mountain. The Romantic poets confused it with a mystical, religious experience. But Burke is right that the pleasure is a function of distance, of one’s removal from the threat posed by natural forces. When the threat is still real, it is difficult to experience the pleasure. Puritan settlers in New England saw the wilderness as devilish. An early visitor to Pike’s Peak, now celebrated for its natural beauty, described it as “dreary” and “desolate.” What made Burke’s distance on such terrible things possible? The Romantic poets did not come to revere the terrible in nature as beautiful until after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Often they were themselves city dwellers who could appreciate the contrast between civilization and nature. Rearden’s version of this feeling is especially pronounced: unlike the ordinary city dweller who would take comfort in being separated by the window from the storm, Rearden has built the mills that made his house and this party possible. Francisco’s explanation suggests that the quasi-religious emotion Rearden is feeling does not involve baring his head to God or to nature, but to himself.

By having Francisco offer an explanation for Rearden’s feeling by reference to his thoughts, Rand is expressing a key point of her moral psychology, her view that emotions are “the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious” (VOS, pg. 27). This view will come to play a key role in Rand’s views on mind-body integration, an even more central theme in Atlas Shrugged. But it is a view that stands in stark contrast to the views expressed by the intellectuals in attendance at Rearden’s party. Dr. Pritchett gives the standard romantic explanation of the feeling of the sublime, that man is “of no importance whatever in the vast scheme of the universe” (127). He says that reason is a “superstition” while instinct is our only guide to living (128).

Borrowing again from Greg Salmieri’s syllabus, I had also asked my students to read a selection from David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. They notice that there is some similarity between Pritchett’s views of reason and Hume’s: for Hume, passion is an “original existence,” neither to be evaluated nor influenced by reason, and reason is (infamously) “the slave of the passions.” Reason can only discover means to the ends that are determined by raw passion. It cannot evaluate the ends: it cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.”

Appropriately, “The Non-Commercial” illustrates the consequences of taking Hume’s idea seriously, not just on a personal level but interpersonally: it shows the variety of ways in which Rearden’s reason is being made the slave of the unevaluated passions of others. Rearden’s thought and effort is shown as having made possible this house for his family and this party for the irrationalist intellectuals who swallow canapes as they bite the hand that feeds them. Even the remnant of the melody of Richard Halley’s Fourth Concerto has been exploited to give form to Mort Liddy’s’s pop score for Heaven’s In Your Backyard.

Francisco has drawn attention to how Rearden is carrying the burden of his family, whom Rearden himself describes as “miserable children.” He says he has approached Rearden “to give [him] the words [he] needs, for the time when [he’ll] need them,” just as he’s given Rearden the words to explain his feeling about the storm (141-142). Indeed, as we discovered at the beginning of the chapter, Rearden needs to understand the words behind his dedication to his work, and his inability to feel guilty about the same.

Rearden is probably the most psychologically complex character in Atlas Shrugged. We learn more at the end of this chapter about his view about his own sexual psychology. After encounters with women who accepted sex as only a “casual pleasure,” he had come to hate his sexual desire, thinking that it was “wholly physical, a desire, not of consciousness, but of matter […] [a] choice impervious to the will of his mind” (152). Rearden unwittingly shares Hume’s (and Plato’s) theory of the emotions: they are nothing but blind animal instincts to which he the rational man is nothing but a “slave.”

How, then, does the end of the chapter help challenge Rearden’s (and Hume’s) theory of the emotions? Rearden himself, at the beginning of the chapter, has noticed that he is usually motivated to do what he thinks is right. And then standing at the window, Francisco explains his feeling about the storm. The chapter even portrays one important way in which Rearden’s feelings change as his thinking changes. Students remember the end of the chapter, where he is once again standing at a window, wondering why Lillian had married him. He remembers that his desire for Lillian had died in the first week of their marriage, when he learned that she is not the woman she represented herself to be, someone who made his own feeling for his work visible to him (152-153). And after he has seen Dagny take the bracelet from Lillian at the party, his sexual psychology is refocused: until now he had still come to Lillian for sex, but now he is free of the desire completely and feels only revulsion for her (153).

As I’ve mentioned, there’s much more going on in this chapter. The chapter title (“The Non-Commercial”) casts light on the contrast between the allegedly non-spiritual commercialists (Rearden and Dagny) and the allegedly spiritual intellectuals and artists at the party. Paradoxically, the chapter presents the commercialists as having deep emotional lives, while the “non-commercialists” are superficial. Rearden views his work in religious terms (though he still sees it as a “dark” religion), he experiences quasi-religious emotions about his material success, and his sexual feelings become refocused on Dagny, who is able to appreciate, in a way Lillian cannot, the sentimental value of a Rearden metal bracelet, which is, as Onkar Ghate puts it, “a material symbol of a supreme spiritual accomplishment.” Of course everyone, whether a commercialist or a “non-commercialist,” has emotions. One thing that may distinguish the ones in this chapter is the extent to which they are willing to evaluate their emotions, a possibility this chapter helps us to examine.

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