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Who Is John Galt?

Who Is John Galt?

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March 15, 2024

“Who is John Galt?”

The question is the first line of Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged.

Today you might see the question on signs held by political protesters, who recognized in Rand’s novel a warning of what happens when people abandon reason, and cede freedom to an overreaching government.

In Atlas Shrugged, the phrase “Who is John Galt?” was a kind of verbal shrug, an expression of a resigned futility in the face of a world falling apart. A despairing admission that things are unknowable, and unfixable.

Henry Rearden: “What is wrong with the world, Paul?”

Paul Larkin: “Don't ask useless questions. How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”

But to the heroine of the novel, Dagny Taggart, the catch phrase is infuriating. After all, she’s a railroad executive, a woman accustomed to finding answers and overcoming obstacles.

And the questions driving her are: Why is the world falling apart? Why are the smartest and most productive men she knows disappearing? And who is to blame?

As she sets out on her desperate search for this “destroyer,” she discovers there really was a man named John Galt, an engineer who worked at the 20th Century Motor Company, who abandoned his invention of a motor that harnessed static electricity, and who threatened “to stop the motor of the world.”

As one brilliant and productive genius after another disappeared, leaving their mines, their oilfields, their factories, their companies behind, Dagny saw that John Galt was in fact succeeding in his diabolical plan.

It wasn’t until her chase crash landed her in John Galt’s secret lair—where he’d gathered all the great minds who’d gone missing—that she learned that “the motor of the world” wasn’t a machine, it wasn’t a particular person, but rather it was the creative power of the human mind. And it was the creative mind on strike, unwilling to work for its own destruction, unwilling to be enslaved to the “moochers and the looters” of the world, that was responsible for the ruin she saw all around her.

In the character of John Galt, Ayn Rand presented her image of the ideal man: A man of reason, ambition, productivity, and achievement who pursued his rational self-interest, with his own happiness as his highest goal.

And in that sense John Galt represents the best within each one of us. Or as lululemon founder Chip Wilson has said, “We all have a John Galt within us, yearning to be free.”

Recognizing this, the question “Who is John Galt?” becomes not an expression of futility in the face of unknowable causes and unfixable problems, but rather a defiant assertion of “I can and I will”—of our individual agency, and our ability to face challenges and achieve our goals.

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