Check Your Premises

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Teaching Philosophy with Atlas Shrugged: Aristotle and Francisco on Ultimate Ends

Ben Bayer

I am very privileged to be teaching a course this semester called "Philosophical Themes in Ayn Rand." I've been teaching philosophy in one capacity or another since 2002, but this is the first time I've ever proposed or taught a course focused on Ayn Rand's ideas. The main text of the course is Atlas Shrugged, but I've also assigned a series of secondary readings from classical philosophers whose ideas can be compared or contrasted with Rand's. The purpose of the course is to bring philosophical ideas alive through the reading of a philosophical drama, and to bring Rand's ideas into dialogue with the Western philosophical tradition, a dialogue that is too late in coming.

I'm not the first to teach a course like this. Allan Gotthelf, Tara Smith and Greg Salmieri have each taught similar courses in the past. With gratitude to Greg, I've adapted many of the readings from his syllabus. You can see my adaptation (which is still under construction as I move through the semester) here.

I'm only a few weeks into the semester, but already I think that both I and the students are enjoying the experience. I thought I would start writing a series of blog posts about this experience, focused mainly on interesting points of contact between Rand and other philosophers that I've urged students to examine. This week, I'll comment on one of the first major comparisons I asked students to make, between Book I, Chapter 5 of Atlas ("The Climax of the d'Anconias"), and some selections from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. (Minor plot spoilers follow.)

In Chapter 5 of Atlas, the reader first learns the backstory between two of the protagonists of the novel: Dagny Taggart, now the operating vice-president of Taggart Transcontinental railroad, and Francisco d'Anconia, president of d'Anconia Copper. We learn that Dagny and Francisco spent their summers together in their childhood, and that Dagny revered Francisco for his superlative ability to accomplish any task he set his mind to. Her mother suggests at one point that his family motto should be "What for?," because Francisco asks the question of "every activity proposed to him." And we learn that he takes it seriously: every subject he studies in school and every "extracurricular" activity (e.g., working in a copper foundry in Cleveland at 16) is directed to one goal: earning the right to inherit and run the family business. This single-mindedness is mocked by James Taggart in a memorable exchange:

“What are you after?”

“Money.”

“Don’t you have enough?”

“In his lifetime, every one of my ancestors raised the production of d’Anconia Copper by about ten per cent. I intend to raise it by one hundred.”

What for?” Jim asked, in sarcastic imitation of Francisco’s voice.

“When I die, I hope to go to heaven—whatever the hell that is—and I want to be able to afford the price of admission.”

“Virtue is the price of admission,” Jim said haughtily.

“That’s what I mean, James. So I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all—that I was a man who made money.” (Atlas, p. 94)

Here I tell students that there is more to this conversation that we'll return to. But first I ask them, what other question might one ask of Francisco at this point? They see that it is sensible ask Francisco his own question one more time: what does he want to make money for? And if he gives a reason, call it X, we could still ask him, what does he want X for?

It's at this point that I bring up Book I of Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle famously suggests that there must be some ultimate good, for otherwise we would choose everything for the sake of something else, generating an infinite regress of "what for?" questions. This ultimate good would be something we desire for its own sake, not for the sake of something else. Aristotle also suggests that the ultimate good may be some activity, not necessarily a product separate from activity.

I then ask the students if there is anything Aristotle says about the nature of the ultimate end that is of relevance to the exchange between Francisco and James. They notice that he argues that a life of moneymaking could not be the ultimate good. In addition to arguing against a life of pleasure and a life of honor, Aristotle famously argues that money is valuable only as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. But then I ask, is there anything Francisco would have to say against Aristotle? Indeed there is, because that conversation quoted above was not complete:

“That’s what I mean, James. So I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all—that I was a man who made money.”

“Any grafter can make money.”

“James, you ought to discover some day that words have an exact meaning.” (Atlas, p. 94)

I ask what students think Francisco means by this last remark. What word's meaning is he drawing our attention to? Students suggest that he may think that money is a consequence or reward of something else. I add that "making money" is not necessarily the same as "getting money," and I remind them that Aristotle himself has stressed that the the ultimate good may consist of some activity that is desired for its own sake. What activity might Francisco have in mind? Some students suggest making something of value, of which money is the reward. Later when Jim is not around, Francisco gives us an idea of what activity he has in mind:

She heard him chuckling, and after a while he said, “Dagny, there’s nothing of any importance in life—except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It’s the only measure of human value. All the codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues. The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard. When you grow up, you’ll know what I mean.” (Atlas, p. 98)

Here he makes clear that it is not getting money but making it through productive work that matters. His characterization of the code of competence as "the only system of morality that's on a gold standard" (another monetary allusion) could not be an accident here. One might think that someone whose motto is "What for?" would always be acting for the sake of some goal in the future. But in the same paragraph where we learn of that motto, we find that "Let's find out" and "Let's make it" are other mottos that describe "his only forms of enjoyment." For Francisco, there's a sense in which both learning and building are not only a means to an end, but activities enjoyed for their own sake.

But then I ask students, how does this differ from what Aristotle regards as the ultimate good? His answer, they point out, is a rational being's engagement in pure contemplation. He regards this as the ultimate good because it is desired only for its own sake, not for the sake of something else—which distinguishes it from technological engineering and money-making of the kind Francisco is concerned with. So what accounts for the difference here? Why does Francisco, who is reported in this chapter to have studied Aristotle in college, disagree with Aristotle? And why does Aristotle have this low regard for practical activity? I note that his attitude is not unlike the elderly professor of literature who, in this chapter, chides Francisco when he is found dismantling a car in a junk heap:

“A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries, absorbing the culture of the world.”

“What do you think I’m doing?” asked Francisco. (Atlas, p. 93)

Last of all: if one were to focus on Francisco's "What for?" question in the wrong way, and assume he was always looking to the future, one might not only neglect the way he sees work as an end in itself, but also think he took a ridiculously "all work and no play" approach to life. He does like to play with dismantled cars, and lose the occasional tennis match to Dagny. But there's more to life than this, right? The chapter is quite explicit about what more there is. I'm speaking, of course, of the sex scene between Francisco and Dagny. Here is the relevant portion, with noteworthy portions in boldface:

She was not astonished and she did not mind the prospect of walking five miles. It seemed natural: natural to the moment’s peculiar reality that was sharply clear, but cut off from everything, immediate, but disconnected, like a bright island in a wall of fog, the heightened, unquestioning reality one feels when one is drunk.

The road led through the woods. They left the highway for an old trail that went twisting among the trees across miles of untouched country. There were no traces of human existence around them. Old ruts, overgrown with grass, made human presence seem more distant, adding the distance of years to the distance of miles. A haze of twilight remained over the ground, but in the breaks between the tree trunks there were leaves that hung in patches of shining green and seemed to light the forest. The leaves hung still. They walked, alone to move through a motionless world. […]

She lay still—as the motionless, then the quivering object of an act which he did simply, unhesitatingly, as of right, the right of the unendurable pleasure it gave them. […] She lay on her back, looking up at the sky, feeling no desire to move or think or know that there was any time beyond this moment. […]

[H]er last thought was of the times when she had wanted to express, but found no way to do it, an instant’s knowledge of a feeling greater than happiness, the feeling of one’s blessing upon the whole of the earth, the feeling of being in love with the fact that one exists and in this kind of world; she thought that the act she had learned was the way one expressed it. (Atlas, pp. 104-106)

There's even more of this language about the "motionless world" in the wider context of the scene, when Dagny is waiting for Francisco to arrive at the Rockdale station. I was struck on this re-reading by just how much this scene portrays the sex act as cut off from all thoughts of the future, in a way where time seems to stand still. This draws attention to the status of love or sex as an end in itself. And of course it clearly raises the question of whether sexual pleasure of the best sort is animalistic in the way that Aristotle says does not constitute the good life.

I was impressed by how tightly integrated this chapter is around a portrayal of purposefulness as a means to an ultimate end, with an emphasis on the spiritual nature of the two major components of that end: work and sex. Even the chapter title, I've realized, is not just a reference to the fact that Francisco is described as "the climax of the d'Anconia," a reference to his supreme ability. Recall the definition of "climax": "the most intense, exciting, or important point of something; a culmination or apex."

The emphasis on Francisco's purposeful movement toward his goals deepens the suspense, not only about why Francisco would disagree with Aristotle, but also, crucially, why he of all people would have accidentally invested in the San Sebastian mines disaster: he has lost millions and it has been revealed that there was never much evidence to suggest that the mines were viable in the first place. At the end of the chapter, we see the following exchange:

“Francisco,” she whispered, “did you do it on purpose?”

He raised his head; she was startled to see that his face had a look of infinite weariness. “Whether I did it on purpose,” he said, “or through neglect, or through stupidity, don’t you understand that that doesn’t make any difference? The same element was missing.” (Atlas, p. 115)

What element could this be? Does it bear some relation to Francisco's view of virtue? Is there any connection to Aristotle? Students will have to wait to find out! What a fantastic philosophical mystery story.

UPDATE (2/9/2016): Added minor plot spoiler warning in paragraph 3.)

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