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"Who is John Galt?"
16. December 2020 at 16:28
In the last few months, Ethiopia has witnessed internal strife that has led to internet shutdowns, demonstrations, and arbitrary arrests of citizens and journalists who have dared to challenge the government apparatus as it were. I recently had the opportunity to have a chat with one such journalist, who has been threatened and intimidated because of their articles.

As a defender of truth, the journalist has been keen on making the government accountable through their opinion pieces in one of the popular newspapers, Addis Fortune. It would seem that their critical appraisal of the government's performance has rattled some people in Prime Minister's Abiy's administration who have since resorted to fear and intimidation tactics. The journalist's experience made me think of John Galt and what he represents in our current society. You are probably wondering:

“Who is John Galt?”

Well, this is the question that is posed at the very outset of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. While the book has faced its fair share of criticisms, it is an interesting read and you can glean from it what you wish. "Who is John Galt?" is the sort of question that seems to have no answer but the reader’s expectation is that it has to have one. Indulge me for a moment. In Greek mythology, Atlas is a god who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders therefore the question that comes to mind is why did he shrug and what is the effect given that he carries the world on his shoulders?

Cause and effect are defined absolutes, products of reason and logic that are constructs of the mind which are critical in understanding our environment. For instance, where we have an effect and are uncertain as to cause, logic dictates that we work our way backwards by formulating a theory, establishing variables that depict probable causes, eliminating or factoring in outliers and thereafter arriving at an inference as to cause based on available data. Where we have the cause, it is easy to hypothesize the effects and come up with solutions.

In this case we can posit that the effect is Atlas shrugged but the unanswered question is why?  “Who is John Galt and how does he play into the story?” To answer this question we will have to use our formula for cause and effect. Atlas was a hero in Greek mythology and likewise we can commence by assuming that John Galt is either the hero or villain in this story. At this point we are uncertain about who he is as he is presented as a mystery. Is he a person? Is he a symbolism of an ideology or class of persons? Is he just an expression? Or does the question “Who is John Galt?” mean all three? 

“Who is John Galt?” as an expression


The author poses this question strategically at the beginning of the book with two goals in mind: to peak our curiosity and to introduce either the hero or villain of the book. The question of who he is remains some sort of mystery for the next three parts of the book. As the story unfolds we also edge closer towards an answer.

 “Who is John Galt?” has been used by various characters in the book as a meaningless phrase”, an empty piece of slang” or an expression that signifies lack of answers or solutions (14, 23, 25, 116, 354, 379, 508), despair (57,310,145,441), helplessness (145, 270, 546, 578), lost ‘treasure’ (952), and defeat (73, 407,600,639,783, 871). It is no wonder Dagny tells the Old man that “I don’t like what they seem to mean when they say it” (57, 58). It is a phrase whose origins are unknown and “nobody seems to be able to explain just what it stands for, yet they all use it as if they knew the meaning” (57).

For instance in his conversation with Eddie, Pop Harper tells him how it is of no use trying to do anything anymore. He juxtaposes the prevailing circumstances in the country to his own life whereby he tells him “I’ve got a pain in my chest. Couldn’t get any cough drops this morning, the drugstore on our corner went bankrupt last week. The Texas – Western railroad went bankrupt last month…Oh well, what’s the use? Who is John Galt?” (10). Harper seems helpless. All around him everything is falling apart, from businesses to the tools he uses to ply his trade to his very own health. He appears to have no control over all that is happening to and around him.

When the Taggart Comet is sent off on a siding and Dagny inquires as to why it has not moved for nearly an hour, the Conductor tells her that it is because the signal is broken and is stuck on red light. As a result of that, he refuses to run the train despite Dagny’s orders only telling her that “our job’s to wait for orders” (14) and “we’re not moving till somebody tells us to” (14). When Dagny asks them how long they proposed to wait till somebody tells them to move the train, the engineer shrugs and tells her “Who is John Galt?”(14) .The engineer presents himself as a mindless robot. He knows the problem and the root cause yet he refuses to resolve it despite a solution being presented to him. He is a prisoner of his mind as he refuses to acknowledge reason and logic.

In a conversation with his friend Paul Larkin, where Hank Rearden seems to show his dislike of having to employ someone in Washington to protect him from the legislature, he asks Paul “what’s wrong with the world?”(37) simply because he does not see why the growth of his business should depend on less competent men who want to feed off the work and achievements of others in the pre-text of public welfare which in essence is “the welfare of those who do not earn” (944). Larkin in response tells him: “That’s Life. Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”(37,38).

He seems to be telling Rearden that the status quo will be maintained because it is what is good according to his value system. The questions he poses are indicative of the person he is - a moocher which he justifies by his flawed value system –morality of sacrifice – that is at cross-purpose with Rearden’s morality of reason.

 “Who is John Galt?” as a symbolism


Just as Atlas, John Galt is portrayed as a hero of some sort - “Everybody seems to know him but they never tell the same story twice” (479). Some say that he was “a millionaire, a man of inestimable wealth” who found the legend of Atlantis which had been lost to mankind and was a place where only spirits of heroes entered as they carried the secret of life within them (143). They say that he sank his ship and went down with his men. Others say that he was “the greatest explorer that ever lived” (167) who found the fountain of youth but never came back.

When Dagny says “we are” (255) she believes that each one of them is John Galt.

According to Francisco, all the stories that have been told about John Galt are all true. He says that John Galt “is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought to men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains and he withdrew his fire –until the day that men withdrew their vultures” (479).

Francisco is quite right in this regard. John Galt is used to symbolize men and women of ability who are not afraid to venture out and take risks; of ideas, wealth, reason and understanding who work hard to achieve their goals. In all the stories, his findings – Atlantis and Fountain of youth - are symbolic of what men once had before but it is now lost on them. They represent the loss of a value system – effort, reward - morality of reason that had once thrived freely in the minds of men. Now, everyone succumbs to a value system of sacrifice, public welfare – morality of sacrifice that is self-destructive in and of itself. They represent lost treasure.

These findings expose men such as James Taggart who wait for someone else to put in the effort so that they can derive the benefits that accrue. Such men use their flawed value system to justify their nature of looting. They know that their world is a sham but they would rather continue living in it than confront reality.

Each person is a John Galt in the sense that human nature is such that man is guided by reason. His ability to think and create is what makes him human. Without reason, he is no different from any other object. Whether or not he chooses to acknowledge reason, the fact remains that denial of reason vitiates his very existence. After all isn’t man’s understanding of himself a product of reason?

Francisco likens John Galt to Prometheus who according to Greek mythology was punished by Zeus for having brought to men the fire of the gods. The “fire of gods” and “fountain of youth” symbolize knowledge, intellect, ability to produce, and technical know-how that John Galt, Ellis Wyatt, Dan Conway, Francisco D’Aconia, Hank Rearden, among others bring to the country. Just like Prometheus withdrew his fire, John Galt orchestrated the strike of all these men of intellect because he realized that they were no longer “regarded as part of the public”(944) and were being sacrificed to the morality of sacrifice whose main objective is to ensure the survival of the looters at the expense of the inventors and innovators. The strike is the final card which John Galt uses to demonstrate to the looters the inevitable collapse of their value system and ideology.

John Galt the Person


It is not until Part III that we meet John Galt. He is “a man of ability” (944) who refuses to suffer martyrdom at the hands of the looters. “A man of reason” (950), an intellectual, an inventor who created the motor, a philosopher who tries to define a rational perspective of existence by demonstrating to his fellow men the inherent flaws in the ideology of sacrifice which they have adopted.

John Galt by his very nature is a rational being who premises his actions and decisions on reality and facts. He is constantly in search of truth which he is more than willing to accept regardless of whether it is frightening, unpleasant or painful. He considers reality as the handmaiden of success and happiness. This has made him a strict adherent to reality and as such shuns escapism which he believes leads to self-destruction.

He is a leader in his own right who spearheads a strike that has tremendous impact on the world’s social systems. He is a man of prodigious skill and intellect who revolutionalises man’s understanding of energy. Most importantly, he is the hero, our Atlas who having borne the weight of looters for a long time, decided to expose them.

Concluding remarks

In light of the foregoing, we see that John Galt is the epitome of an ideal man with a seemingly ethereal persona yet surprisingly relatable. His exceptional intellect and unwavering adherence to reality make him a role model for many especially in our times. A trait which we can all replicate is his allegiance to perceive reality, fidelity to facts (regardless of our feelings), and determination to challenge principles, systems etc that are geared towards exploiting peoples’ minds. Galt challenged the implementation of communist principles at the Twentieth Century Motor Company through a strike which he believed was the only way to liberate men from imprisonment of their minds. The journalist that I interviewed is challenging the performance of Prime Minister's Abiy's administration by literally speaking truth to power despite all the obstacles erected in their path. The world which we desire requires that we unchain ourselves from the hands of looters and their self-destructive ideologies and principles. The only question left to ask is: Are you or will you be John Galt?

Cite This Article As: Maulline Gragau. ""Who is John Galt?"." International Youth Journal, 16. December 2020.

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