I wrote the following essay for a speech class in 1997 and am publishing it now because today is the 50th anniversary of the book's publication. I encourage you to read this fascinating novel. Like it or hate it, it brings a perspective you rarely hear.
If I had not read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, I can honestly say that I would not be standing before you today. For me, Atlas Shrugged put into words the implicit philosophical foundation and values that I had accepted my whole life. After reading it for the first time, I can still vividly recall the moment of completion—I remember the exuberance and joy of suddenly seeing, simultaneously, the course of my future and understanding the path of my past. Even after rereading its thousand plus pages four more times, I still gain new insights and joys each time I pick it up. And I am not alone in experiencing this sort of feeling: a study by the Library of Congress pegged Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book in America, bested only by the Bible. My reaction to this book determined my career choice (read: my future) and my acquisition of morality.
Philosophy is, or should be, a guide to life. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand expounds her philosophy, later called Objectivism, through character development and explicit speeches given by the protagonists. After reading these aforementioned elements, I was struck by the anti-philosophical nature of our culture. I could not help but notice that I had never been exposed to philosophy in all my years of lower education. I had neither listened to nor talked with anyone who had ever explicitly recognized the importance of philosophy. In fact, however, philosophy is of prime importance. As Ayn Rand later said, "The men who are not interested in philosophy need it most urgently: they are most helplessly in its power." It was then, at the ripe age of fifteen, that I determined that I was going to be a professor of philosophy. I have never wavered from that decision, nor have I ever regretted it.
But the fundamental change brought about by reading Atlas Shrugged was not primarily career-oriented—it was personal. Prior to reading Ayn Rand's magnum opus, I had never explicitly defined my morality, my ethical system. What shreds of morality I had were disconnected tidbits of common sense and convention. There was, at best, a hazy definition of what "good" people did. What Atlas Shrugged gave me was a moral system explicitly enumerated and concretely demonstrated through the book's characters and events. Ayn Rand believed, as do I (I might add), that while philosophy, in general, is a metaphysical necessity of man, morality is of particular importance insofar as it is a guide to the good life. Without going into the tenets and principles of her ethics, I will just tell you that it defines a code of selfishness that sets two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition on its ears. The benefit of having an explicit moral code, I have found, is that you know what is the good in any situation at any time. If something happens, I must simply apply the principles and I will know what is the "straight and narrow." Moreover, since you know what the good is, achieving it is that much easier. Think of what uncertainty in morality leads to: personal anarchy.
Atlas Shrugged is an amazing achievement, being both a philosophical treatise and a novel. It is splendidly written and incredibly applicable. I've kept the speech deliberately away from plot and thematic revelations because I did not intend this speech to be a book report. This book is at the root of my philosophy and, thus, at the core of my being. If it had not given me the words to formulate my creed, I doubt I would have pursued a career in philosophy and I would not, therefore be taking this class to help me with my speaking style.