Love my substratum: A philosophical note on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”

March 6, 2019 by  

In the history of philosophy, there are at least two famous instances of positing the existence of an entity having no identity: Aristotle’s “prima materia“, and John Locke’s “substratum“.  In her novel Atlas Shrugged, author Ayn Rand concretizes the problem associated with the idea of an entity lacking an identity by way of a passage concerning love.

Aristototle introduced the world to the idea that a “substance” (what normal people might call a “thing”, and what Objectivists would call an “entity”) is comprised of matter and form.  For example, gold is matter that can be shaped as one likes.  The same matter can take many differing forms, resulting in such differing substances as a wedding ring, or a length of wire, or a statue.

Aristotle posited that the most basic matter is not a substance per se, because it has no form.  It is matter without form.

Approximately two millennia later, English philosopher John Locke spoke of what he called the “substratum“.  The substratum was put forward as, essentially, that thing which has properties; that which is red, or sweet, or hard, or round.  Philosophy professor and Objectivist Leonard Peikoff describes Locke’s substratum this way:

“Is there any necessity in these coexisting qualities staying together? Well, [Locke] says, there must be something which holds them together. An entity, a material entity, must consist of something over and above its qualities. There must be some kind of support or bearer. And this phenomenon he calls the “substratum,” which means “the spread under.” It is, in effect, like a metaphysical pincushion, or like a metaphysical glue, in which all the various qualities are stuck and which keeps them all together.”

The problem shared by Aristotle’s prima materia and Locke’s substratum is that they are essentially entities having no identity whatsoever; no properties of any kind.  Indeed, Locke described the substratum as “something, I know not what”.  Such is an impossibility.  It is axiomatic that that which exists exists as something in particular.  As Ayn Rand put it: “Existence is identity”. Every entity has qualities that make it what it is, and that make it not what it isn’t.  Thus, there can be neither prima materia nor a substratum.

The reader will appreciate that one cannot love that which does not exist.  One cannot love, as examples, prima materia or a substratum.  Yet such an impossible love is exactly what Jim Taggart, the central villain of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, demands of his wife, Cherryl.

Jim is the president of a failing railroad company.  His constant effort is to get something for nothing by schmoozing with politicians who can expropriate his competitors and line his company’s pockets.  To save the railroad, his rational, honest, and productive sister, Dagny Taggart successfully builds the “John Galt Line” to a thriving industrial area in Colorado.  Unhappy with the success with which his sister’s rational approach was met, Jim enters a diner where he meets Cherrl Brooks.  Cherryl mistakes Dagny’s success for Jim’s, and mistakenly thinks that Jim has all of what are in fact Dagny’s virtues (i.e., the honesty, integrity, productiveness that made Dagney’s success possible).  Cherryl marries Jim, who allows her to think that he is the sort of person who makes the success of the John Galt Line possible.  Cherryl ultimately learns that her husband is a fake; a big flabby nothing who uses laws and force to destroy competitors and seize their wealth. Cherryl falls out of love with Jim. They have the following conversation:

“You don’t love me,” he said accusingly. She did not answer. “You don’t love me or you wouldn’t ask such a question.”

“I did love you once,” she said dully, “but it wasn’t what you wanted. I loved you for your courage, your ambition, your ability. But it wasn’t real, any of it.”

His lower lip swelled a little in a faint, contemptuous thrust. “What a shabby idea of love!” he said.

“Jim, what is it that you want to be loved for?”

“To be loved for!” he said, his voice grating with mockery and righteousness. “So you think that love is a matter of mathematics, of exchange, of weighing and measuring, like a pound of butter on a grocery counter? I don’t want to be loved for anything. I want to be loved for myself—not for anything I do or have or say or think. For myself—not for my body or mind or words or works or actions.”

“But then…what is yourself?”

Of course, it is not the case that Jim lacks an identity.  He is neither prima materia nor a substratum (though nothing is beneath him).  Rather, his identity is that of which he is not proud; that which he knows nobody could love.  He knows he is dishonest, that he has no integrity, and that he produces nothing at all.  He is not nothing, but he is as good as nothing, and he knows it.  For that reason, he wants to be loved despite his qualities; he wants to be loved as an entity lacking any identity, because his identity is unlovable.  He has nothing of value to trade for another’s love.  He wants something for nothing.

It is perhaps poetic justice that Jim ends up with exactly what a nothing deserves in return.  I do not think it a spoiler to say that Jim ends up married to a sort of prima materia.


Comments are closed.