Friendship in Atlas Shrugged

by Peter Saint-Andre (2007)

First published in Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion (Ashgate Press), pp. 273-81.

"Friendships are more valuable than gold." --James Taggart

"Love is the expression of one's values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another." --John Galt

Although the novels of Ayn Rand are usually considered to be thinly-veiled philosophical or even political treatises, softer themes often figure prominently within them. Indeed, from one angle Atlas Shrugged (Rand 1957) can be seen as something of a meditation on love and friendship. In this brief essay, I investigate both Rand's philosophical insights into the nature of friendship and the extent to which the relationships between the four main characters in Atlas Shrugged (Dagny, Francisco, Rearden, and Galt) live up to Rand's ideal.

Dagny and Francisco

Dagny and Francisco are childhood friends (94) long before they become lovers. Yet after they become romantically involved, theirs is a strange friendship. While in college, Francisco "did not come to visit her in New York, that winter, even though he was only a night's journey away. They did not write to each other, they had never done it" (97); Dagny "knew nothing about the events of his life, had never known and would never need to know" (98); she "did not question him about the university" or even about his two friends there (ibid.), who it turns out later are Galt and Ragnar; "She knew little about Francisco's life. It was his last year of college; he seldom spoke of it, and she never questioned him" (108); "She did not see him often in the next two years. She never knew where he was, in what city or on what continent, the day after she had seen him" (109-110); "He said, 'There's something wrong in the world. There's always been. Something no one has ever named or explained.' He would not tell her what it was" (110); "He was twenty-three when his father died and he went to Buenos Aires to take over the d'Anconia estate, now his. She did not see him again for two years" (110); he began to write to her "at random intervals" but "he wrote about d'Anconia Copper, about the world market, about issues affecting the interests of Taggart Transcontinental" and never, it seems, about their relationship (110); he does not tell her that he loves her until more than ten years after their relationship has ended (111, 463, 463, 576, 711, 712); and before breaking off their relationship to go on strike he refuses to tell her why he is doing so or to share his thoughts and feelings with her (113), preferring to leave her frightened (113) and doubtful (191) even though he acknowledges that his course of action is cruel (113) and hurtful (114).

Much is missing from the relationship between Dagny and Francisco. Most basically, they hardly ever spend time together, which effectively prevents their relationship from blossoming (cf. Aristotle 1984, 1156b26-27). Although they share an interest in productive work, they do not engage in shared pursuits of the kind that might define a common life between them (Aristotle 1984, 1167a22, 1172a5, 1241a16-18, 1245b3; Lewis 1960, 43; Sherman 1989), perhaps because such pursuits would require the kind of time, energy, and commitment that would be difficult for highly productive individuals to devote (Telfer 1970, 267) and that therefore would be at odds with what I call the ethics of the great task (Saint-Andre 2009). Furthermore, whereas intimacy and reciprocal self-disclosure are important aspects of friendship (Thomas 1990, 49), the lack of communication between Dagny and Francisco is of epic proportions. This is critical to the suspense of the story (it would not do to have Dagny visit Francisco at college and thus meet Galt early in the novel), but the result is a relationship that borders on the dysfunctional. While Dagny and Francisco evidently have strong feelings for each other, feelings are not enough for a thriving relationship. Thus we must look to other relationships in Atlas Shrugged for a paradigm of friendship.

Galt and Francisco

During Francisco's college years, he becomes inseparable friends with two fellow students: Ragnar Danneskjöld and John Galt. Very little interaction between Francisco and Ragnar is presented in the novel, but two telling passages elucidate Francisco's attitude towards Galt. The first is the scene in which Rearden discovers that Francisco was Dagny's former lover (598):

[Francisco] was looking at Rearden, but it was not Rearden he was seeing. He looked as if he were facing another presence in the room and as if his glance were saying: If this is what you demand of me, then even this is yours, yours to accept and mine to endure, there is no more than this in me to offer you, but let me be proud to know that I can offer so much.

The second is a passage in which Dagny realizes who that other presence was (736):

"Hell, no, John!" he said, laughing, in answer to a question -- but she caught suddenly the particular quality of his glance whenever it rested on Galt: it was the quality she had seen in his eyes when he had stood in her room, clutching the edge of a table to outlive an unlivable moment; he had looked as if he were seeing someone before him; it was Galt, she thought; it was Galt's image that had carried him through.

Consider: historically, when most people have visualized an unseen presence to whom they freely offer up whatever is demanded of them, that presence has been a god. Although Rand was a secularist, she did seek to bring religious concepts down to earth (Rand 1968), and the quality that Dagny saw in Francisco's eyes was worship. Indeed, Francisco comes perilously close to imputing godhood to Galt during a conversation with Dagny (594):

You know, Dagny, we were taught that some things belong to God and others to Caesar. Perhaps their God would permit it. But the man you say we're serving -- he does not permit it. He permits no divided allegiance, no war between your mind and your body, no gulf between your values and your actions, no tributes to Caesar. He permits no Caesars.

Galt permits no Caesars. Is that because he is a jealous god?

Even if Galt is not literally a god, he is, significantly, described as a godlike person who "had come into the world like Minerva, goddess of wisdom" (731). And, as Aristotle points out, "the friendship of ... men to gods is a relation to them as to something good and superior" (Aristotle 1984, 1162a4-5), a relationship in which "it is perhaps enough ... to give them what one can" (Aristotle 1984, 1164b4-5) since "they surpass us most decisively in all good things" (Aristotle 1984, 1158b35); the result is that friendship with them can never attain the equal trade that is characteristic of healthy human friendships (Aristotle 1984, 1158b26 ff., 1162b27 ff.).

In his relationship with Galt, Francisco "gives what he can" -- his inheritance, his career, his reputation, his woman -- and he even does so joyfully. Because Galt is far superior even to Francisco, their friendship, too, does not provide a model for normal human relationships.

Dagny and Galt

The relationship between Dagny and Galt is even more strikingly colored by Galt's godlike qualities. Although Francisco acts in service to Galt after having befriended him, Galt is portrayed as the motive power of Dagny's existence even before she has met him: "his presence somewhere in the world had been her motor through the years before she ever heard his name" (930). Even quite early in the novel she realizes that despite all her achievements "there was still one response, the greatest, that she had missed. She thought: To find a feeling that would hold, as their sum, as their final expression, the purpose of all the things she loved on earth... To find a consciousness like her own, who would be the meaning of her world..." (210). Dagny realizes that Francisco and Rearden always represented a future potential to her, whereas Galt represents the "final form of the promise that had kept her moving" (718). As Dagny explains it to Rearden, Galt "is the love I had wanted to reach long before I knew that he existed, and I think he will remain beyond my reach, but that I love him will be enough to keep me living" (800). Thus Dagny is quite willing to renounce a love that she can achieve in real life (with, say, Francisco or Rearden) for the sake of a one-way, unrequited love that would forever remain beyond her reach (so much for "a philosophy for living on earth"!). It is clear at the end of the novel that Dagny and Galt will probably marry, but it is less clear that their romantic relationship is based on friendship rather than the superiority of one of the parties (see Shanley 1981, 276-278). Further, given the fact that Dagny sees Galt as "the meaning of her world", one can doubt whether she has retained a healthy measure of distance from him (see Cicero 1967, xxii.82; Paton 1956, 140; Emerson 1841, 231; Rand 1937, 96). Thus here again we see that Galt's godlike qualities lead even strong characters to "give what they can" with little thought of an equal trade.

Indeed, given Galt's overwhelming superiority as a person, it is difficult to see why he would want or need friends. Consider a relevant passage from The Fountainhead (Rand 1943, 136):

Heller, the fighter against compulsion, was baffled by Roark, a man so impervious to compulsion that he became a kind of compulsion himself, an ultimatum against things Heller could not define. Within a week, Heller knew that he had found the best friend he would ever have; and he knew that the friendship came from Roark's fundamental indifference. In the deeper reality of Roark's existence there was no consciousness of Heller, no need for Heller, no appeal, no demand.

Just like Roark, Galt seems fundamentally to have no need, awareness, or feeling for other people. Why should he, since he is at root self-sufficient? One might argue with the Stoics that friendship is not truly needed for someone of Galt's caliber but that it is nevertheless desired because it presents opportunities for noble action (Seneca 1917, 121; cf. Cicero 1967, ix.29-30), but that does not seem to be a promising foundation for an Objectivist approach to friendship.

Francisco and Reardan

Perhaps a friendship between two mere mortals will provide a better model. The friendship between Francisco and Rearden is portrayed as "irresistably right" (926): they are described as like childhood friends (392, 926) and their relationship is referred to as a kind of love (431, 599). Francisco inspires in Rearden "a feeling of expectation that held curiosity, amusement, and hope" (386), "a smiling, light-hearted feeling, the feeling of being certain that it was right" (386), "a joyous feeling that seemed like a flow of energy added to his own" (431), a feeling of "an incredulous wonder" (926). Rearden thinks to himself that he needs Francisco because "I need the knowledge of one single man whom I can trust, respect and admire" (459), a man who could be his "spokesman" (386) and "sole ammunition" (459) in his struggles. Yet the relationship is not a one-way transfusion of energy, for Francisco too loves Rearden (599) and finds the same effortless joy in their relationship.

This is far from the indifference and self-sufficiency of Roark toward Heller or of Galt toward others: Rearden and Francisco need each other and have deep feelings for each other. In large measure this is because Rearden and Francisco are equals: the godlike Galt is not involved and their love is not romantic love between the sexes, which for Rand always seems to have involved some superiority on the man's part.

Here we may finally have a relationship in which each is to the other truly "another self" (Aristotle 1984, 1166a30, etc.). In general, that would seem to imply several things:

  1. That the friendship is a source of self-knowledge (Sherman 1989, 106; Cooper 1980, 317-334; Branden 1980); Rearden experiences this most deeply, since he learns a great deal about himself and his values through his many conversations with Francisco.

  2. That the other-regard of friendship mutates into self-regard (Aristotle 1984, 1168a35 ff.; Aquinas 1947, 172) and that friendship thus may be a path toward overcoming the opposition of egoism vs. altruism (Aquinas 1947, 167, 178, 182; Kant 1930, 211; Emerson 1841, 230); this appears to be true of both characters: consider the scenes at Rearden's mills in which Rearden saves Francisco's life during the furnace break-out (429-433) and in which Francisco returns the favor during the staged worker uprising (924-927).

  3. That the love of the other relies on love of self -- that in order to love another as I love myself, I must first love myself (a position not original to Rand and expressed even by medieval Christian philosopher Aelred of Rievaulx in the 12th century A.D.; see Aelred 1974, I.35 and also Lewis 1960, 43); here again this is especially true of Rearden, who struggles with accepting his love of Francisco until late in the novel when he has learned to appreciate and love his core characteristics and values.

More than any other relationship in the novel, the friendship between Francisco and Rearden is dynamic. Far from gazing into each other's eyes, worshipping each other, or otherwise treating each other as the literal mirrors of the ancient image of friendship, their relationship is characterized by both tension and dynamic interaction, not static reflection (cf. Emerson 1841, 230). Their relationship has its ups and downs, which makes it far more interesting and instructive than other friendships in Atlas Shrugged.

Randian Theory

How consistent are the foregoing friendships (or, indeed, normal human friendships) with Rand's theoretical discussions? In his radio speech, John Galt says (959): "Love is ... the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another." What does it mean for love to be a price that buys joy? The basic thought seems to be that much as money buys things, so love and friendship buy joy. This may appear to be a crassly transactional approach to personal relationships: "I'll give you some love if you'll give me some pleasure." Yet there is classical precedent for a view something like Rand's "trader principle" in the ethics of Aristotle, who writes that in complete or perfect friendship "each gets from each in all respects the same as, or something like what, he gives; which is what ought to happen between friends" (Aristotle 1984, 1156b34-35). Aristotle also notes that "each, then, both loves what is good for himself, and makes an equal return in goodwill and in pleasantness; for friendship is said to be equality, and both of these are found most in the friendship of the good" (Aristotle 1984, 1157b34-1158a1). Thus Rand updates Aristotle's idea of equality or similarity of result with her principle of trade in healthy human relationships. This viewpoint also seems to be consistent with what the evolutionary psychologists call "reciprocal altruism" (Trivers 1971), which in its more sophisticated forms (Tooby and Cosmides 1996) might better be described as reciprocal benevolence.

But questions arise. Is love or friendship truly an "emotional price"? If so, then love would seem to be primarily a feeling or emotion rather than primarily a form of action and commitment; yet we have seen that feelings are not enough for successful relationships. And what could it mean to pay for joy with love? The language of payment would seem to imply that friendships are not more valuable than gold, they literally are spiritual gold: love is the objective currency one uses to pay for the pleasure of interacting with a person one values or esteems. Yet is this what people are doing in friendship? Money can be divided into interchangeable units of measurement, each of which is just as good and useful as the other. But love and friendship are more central to and expressive of your soul than that -- they are constitutive in a way that a currency is not. Particular instances of love and friendship cannot be substituted one for the other, since a relationship is a form of personal commitment and investment. Whereas a mere unit has all of its measurements omitted, the hallmark of close personal relationships is the feeling "don't omit my measurements, appreciate and admire me for my individuality!"

Granted, all of this is overly literal; most likely Rand used the language of trade and currency to draw an analogy between the economic realm and the spiritual realm rather than to equate them. There is a connection here to Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, wherein she writes that the spiritual currency of life consists of thought, interest, and action (Rand 1990, 34; cf. Saint-Andre 1993, 149-158). Because love and friendship involve all three of these, the more productive question is: how are thought, interest, and action involved in love and friendship?

Thought means that friendship involves working to understand your friend, oneself, and the relationship between the two individuals -- thus connecting friendship with the pursuit of self-knowledge and the examined life.

Interest means that friendship involves attending to your friend, valuing your friend, freely willing what is best for your friend, finding important what your friend finds important -- thus connecting friendship with empathy, goodwill, and the emotional life of individuals.

Action means that friendship involves not just thinking about and being interested in your friend, but implementing those values through actions toward and with your friend, achieving good things with your friend, creatively building value together -- thus connecting friendship with the ethics of the great task, where the great task is expanded to include not only the creation of physical or intellectual value but also the creation of a magnificent life.

In a way, such a richer approach to friendship echoes the expansion of economic relationships in recent human history. Agricultural economies were characterized by resource extraction and physical laborers; early capitalism was characterized by goods-trading and merchants; industrial capitalism was characterized by physical production and industrialists; post-industrial capitalism has been characterized by service industries and knowledge workers. Similarly, I think it is best to see Randian friendship at its highest not as the exploitative extraction of value, as the explicit trade of existing goods, or even as the "purchase" of joy with created values of character, but as a kind of ongoing, consultative relationship of reciprocal service between intelligent individuals. Not service in the sense of giving what one can or must to someone who is superior, but in the sense of mutual ministration, knowledge, discovery, empathy, interest, involvement, achievement, and enjoyment. (Interestingly, as work and play increasingly merge in the knowledge economy, so too relationships are becoming more equal and balanced, suggesting that increased integration of mind and body is occurring in both the economic and spiritual realms of human existence.)

Granted, Rand's philosophy of friendship is more of a promissory note than a lived reality for either her characters or, too often, her followers. She limits the value of close relationships to chosen relationships (64) and thus ignores entirely the realm of family life, which for Aristotle and the ancients was a core arena of philia (Cooper 1980, 301-302). She is overly enamored of the image of friends as mirrors for each other, rather than as individuals who are committed to joint action and mutual exploration. Her conception of the great task is too often limited to purely external projects (writing novels, running railroads, and the like) rather than also to building your character, your personal relationships, and your understanding of yourself and of life in general. Thus, in large measure, discovering the value of friendship and integrating it into your life are left by Rand as exercises for the reader. This is unfortunate, since the art of the novel can portray such vibrant examples of human interaction. While the relationship between Rearden and Francisco provides many tantalizing hints, in the end it is up to those who would lead a full and examined life to extrapolate from Rand's novels in order to translate the promise of close personal friendships from abstract theory into full-blooded reality.


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