What Is Ayn Rand’s Concept of Prime Mover About?

Introduction

Rand uses the term Prime Mover in a key scene in The Fountainhead, and also in the book’s introduction. At first glance, it can be kind of unclear what she means. And Rand’s not a vague writer — she writes precisely. So what does this term mean? 🤔

J INVESTIGATES! 📚🔍👀

To start with, let’s just look at the term itself. A Prime Mover sounds like a first or initial or main (Prime) entity which moves something.

So two things to ask: what is the entity? And what is being moved? Some possibilities:

1) A Prime Mover is a thing within some physical object, which literally causes it to move (like an engine). So in this case an engine would be a Prime Mover and a car would be that which is moved. I’m going to call this a Physical Prime Mover.

2) A Prime Mover is some “spiritual” or “inspirational” element within a person, which causes that person to create or achieve something. So for example, a filmmaker’s desire to see their vision of a movie realized could be the Prime Mover within a filmmaker. The desire metaphorically “moves” the filmmaker. I’m going to call this an Inner Prime Mover.

3) A Prime Mover is someone who accomplishes some great achievement, pushes some field forward, etc., through their creativity and productive energy. So in this case someone like Rand, or Rockefeller, or Feynman would be the Prime Mover, and you could say that society as a whole is what they metaphorically move. I’m going to call this a Human Prime Mover.

4) A Prime Mover is an entity that gets the whole universe started. So, certain conceptions of God, basically. I’m going to call this Aristotle’s Prime Mover for reasons which will become apparent 🙂

Now, what’s interesting is that all of these are actual uses of the term “Prime Mover”. And I’m going to argue below that Rand herself uses Prime Mover in at least two of the senses just mentioned (Inner and Human).

I think that for a full understanding of what Rand meant by Prime Mover, some understanding of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is essential, and some familiarity with the scientific/technical meaning of Prime Mover (which corresponds to what I called the Physical Prime Mover above) is a good idea. So I’ll be discussing those topics as well.

Rand’s Direct Uses of Prime Mover

There is one reference to the term Prime Mover within the story of The Fountainhead, in Roark’s courtroom speech near the end of the novel (emphasis added):

No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men.

His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man’s spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness. To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego.

The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. [Justin’s note: Another term for this would be a FOUNTAINHEAD] The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.

And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.

I think many people would read this as talking about the Human Prime Mover. I certainly thought that was the case myself, and even made a video based on that interpretation (see here)

But its worth parsing the text very carefully. If you do, another possibility becomes clear.

Note that the part that mentions Prime Movers…

“that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover.”

…is actually talking about “power.” So Rand is writing that the secret of the creators’ power ⚡️– as distinct from the creators themselves — is that the power was a Prime Mover, or analogous to a Prime Mover.

So it seems like Rand might have the Inner Prime Mover meaning in mind here.

There is also some discussion in the author’s introduction section of The Fountainhead , which seems to be about an Inner Prime Mover (emphasis added):

Was The Fountainhead written for the purpose of presenting my philosophy? Here, I shall quote from The Goal of My Writing, an address I gave at Lewis and Clark College, on October 1, 1963: “This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself—to which any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means.
“Let me stress this: my purpose is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers

My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark [or the heroes of Atlas Shrugged] as an end in himself …

“I write—and read—for the sake of the story…. My basic test for any story is: ‘Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself?’

Rand is the entity being moved here. So that’s Inner Prime Mover.

Also of note, Rand titles Part I Chapter 4 of Atlas Shrugged “THE IMMOVABLE MOVERS.” I’ll talk a bit more about that below.

One last bit of textual evidence directly from Rand on Prime Mover — in the Ayn Rand Marginalia book, there appears the following passage by John Herman Randall from his book Aristotle:

the only fact that justifies nature to man, is that the world exists to make life possible, and at its fullest, to make possible the best life, which for Aristotle is the life of sheer knowing, “Nous nousing nous.”

And Rand comments on this:

“The psychological pride of the Unmoved Mover”

Note that Unmoved Mover is commonly treated as a synonym of Aristotle’s Prime Mover (which I’ll talk about in the next section). The meaning here is a bit ambiguous, but in the context of the author discussing man, man’s life, etc., and Rand talking about Pride (an Objectivist virtue) it seems like she’s thinking of the Human Prime Mover meaning.

Rand & Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover

To understand the concept of the Prime Mover or Unmoved Mover, it is very helpful to know the origin. The Prime/Unmoved Mover is a concept in Aristotle’s philosophy, and Rand was very familiar with Aristotle and admired his philosophy greatly (as the titles of the parts of Atlas Shrugged, among lots of other evidence, demonstrates)

Leonard Peikoff presents Aristotle’s theory of the Prime Mover here. Aristotle’s problem situation was that he wanted to explain “motion” — not physical motion per se, but all change:

Now let’s ask the question: What keeps it all happening? What keeps things striving to actualize their forms? What keeps things on the go? Why are the acorns out to become oaks, and the baby busily changing into a man, and the water flowing downhill, and the sculptor shaping his statues, etc.? Why does the universe not run down, stop dead, become motionless? In a word: what is the cause of motion? And by “motion” in this question, we mean any change, any happening, any occurrence. […]

Now let us engage in a chain of reasoning here with Aristotle, and let us call this factor (whatever it is) that is responsible ultimately for motion “the Mover” (and if you want to anticipate, you can give it a capitol “M”). What can we infer about it? Well of course, the first thing is, it must be an eternal existent, since it is the cause of motion, and motion is eternal. Well let us ask the question: Can the Mover itself move? Answer—no; this Mover must be itself unmoved and even immovable.

The reason Aristotle wants the Mover to be unmoved is that he is trying to avoid an infinite regress. He wants to avoid the question: “what moves a Mover that can itself move?”

Peikoff goes on to describe other characteristics of the Mover, before telling us that, essentially, the Prime Mover moves stuff by serving as an inspiration to an intelligence connected to one of the celestial spheres, and that that’s what gets the whole process of motion and change in the universe going. (Side comment: From a modern perspective, its kinda weird stuff, but keep in mind that all fields were in their early days, including astronomy)

Peikoff then talks about the nature of Aristotle’s Prime Mover. The Prime Mover is a mind, so it thinks. But it can’t move, it can’t have a process of reasoning, it can’t have senses (because these are all the processes that the Prime Mover is supposed to explain) (Side comment: Aristotle’s Prime Mover doesn’t make a lot of sense, honestly.)

A mind needs some object of contemplation though. Peikoff:

Well what is the object of its contemplation? Well, it can only contemplate something which is motionless, obviously. And the only thing which is motionless is the Prime Mover. And consequently Aristotle draws the conclusion that the Prime Mover thinks or is conscious only of Himself. […]

He describes it as pure self-consciousness, thought thinking about itself. Now this eternal, immutable, perfect, utterly self-absorbed mind responsible for the motion of the universe Aristotle frequently calls theos, “God.” And this is therefore regarded as Aristotle’s God.

So this is Aristotle’s Prime Mover. And we can see how Rand took some stuff from Aristotle’s views on this topic, which he meant as an actual explanation of reality, and incorporated them as nice metaphors in the context of her own philosophy. For example, the Unmoved Mover thinks only of himself in the context of Aristotle’s philosophy because Aristotle is trying to avoid an infinite regress problem. But, in the context of Rand’s philosophy, “the Prime Mover thinks or is conscious only of Himself” has a completely different — rationally selfish, self-oriented, first-handed — meaning.

With that background on Aristotle’s Prime Mover theory, it should be clear why the expression “move[s] the world” — which appears 3 times in The Fountainhead — would be relevant to understanding and interpreting Rand’s use of the term Prime Mover. Aristotle’s Prime Mover is a literal world-mover 🌎 (by way of inspiring celestial-sphere intelligences, at least…)

From the author’s introduction of The Fountainhead:

It does not matter that only a few in each generation will grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature—and that the rest will betray it. It is those few that move the world and give life its meaning—and it is those few that I have always sought to address.

The use of “move the world” here seems compatible with the Human Prime Mover. Grasping any truth is the act of an individual — a person. And to grasp the full reality of man’s proper stature would require deep philosophical understanding; to achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature would require a very productive life. So Rand’s talking about individuals achieving great things here. People moving the world. Human Prime Movers.

Technical Meaning & Motive Power

There is also a technical meaning of Prime Mover in engineering. This would be the Physical Prime Mover meaning.

If you are familiar with Objectivism, then two words from the following Merriam-Webster definition of the concept “Prime mover” should immediately jump out at you (emphasis added):

an initial source of motive power (as a windmill, waterwheel, turbine, or internal combustion engine) designed to receive and modify force and motion as supplied by some natural source and apply them to drive machinery

Motive power!! 😮

Motive power is a big idea in Atlas Shrugged both literally (with the trains 🚂) and metaphorically. A search on an ebook version of Atlas Shrugged indicates the term comes up 20 times. It actually comes up 3 times in The Fountainhead too!

I think motive power and Prime Mover are related concepts. In particular, metaphorical uses of motive power and what I’ve been calling the Inner Prime Mover seem related.

There’s plenty of literal uses of the term motive power. Here’s one example from Atlas Shrugged, and note the chapter title and the line “to keep it immovable” (emphasis added):

CHAPTER IV

THE IMMOVABLE MOVERS

Motive power—thought Dagny, looking up at the Taggart Building in the twilight—was its first need; motive power, to keep that building standing; movement, to keep it immovable. It did not rest on piles driven into granite; it rested on the engines that rolled across a continent.

And then pretty shortly thereafter in the same chapter, a metaphorical usage of motive power (emphasis added):

She had always been—she closed her eyes with a faint smile of amusement and pain—the motive power of her own happiness. For once, she wanted to feel herself carried by the power of someone else’s achievement.

Dagny being the motive power of her own happiness sounds a lot like Rand saying her “prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark […] as an end in himself.”

Here’s some more uses of motive power in a metaphorical way from Atlas Shrugged (note that this isn’t comprehensive, just some examples). Hank Rearden thinking about stuff (emphasis added):

He observed, indifferently, the devastation wrought by his own indifference. No matter how hard a struggle he had lived through in the past, he had never reached the ultimate ugliness of abandoning the will to act. In moments of suffering, he had never let pain win its one permanent victory: he had never allowed it to make him lose the desire for joy. He had never doubted the nature of the world or man’s greatness as its motive power and its core.

This is about individuals having motive power and driving the world. It corresponds to Human Prime Movers.

Francisco talking to Hank (emphasis added):

Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? What standard of value lies at its root? What is its ultimate purpose? Do you think that what you’re facing is merely a conspiracy to seize your wealth? You, who know the source of wealth, should know it’s much more and much worse than that. Did you ask me to name man’s motive power?
Man’s motive power is his moral code. Ask yourself where their code is leading you and what it offers you as your final goal. A viler evil than to murder a man, is to sell him suicide as an act of virtue.

More Hank Rearden inner monologue (emphasis added):

He thought: Guilty?—guiltier than I had known, far guiltier than I had thought, that day—guilty of the evil of damning as guilt that which was my best. I damned the fact that my mind and body were a unit, and that my body responded to the values of my mind. I damned the fact that joy is the core of existence, the motive power of every living being, that it is the need of one’s body as it is the goal of one’s spirit, that my body was not a weight of inanimate muscles, but an instrument able to give me an experience of superlative joy to unite my flesh and my spirit

These last are talking about a motive power within man. So they correspond to the Inner Prime Mover.

And back to The Fountainhead, here’s Roark explaining second-handedness to Wynand, by way of his observations on Keating (emphasis added):

I’ve looked at him—at what’s left of him—and it’s helped me to understand. He’s paying the price and wondering for what sin and telling himself that he’s been too selfish. In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? Greatness—in other people’s eyes. Fame, admiration, envy—all that which comes from others. Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them. Others were his motive power and his prime concern. He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.”

Saying that others were Keating’s motive power seems like saying he lacked an Inner Prime Mover. Keating killed his Inner Prime Mover by denying his own preferences regarding e.g. becoming a painter. Thus, he turned to the approval of other people as the driver of his life and choices.

Conclusion

I think Rand used Prime Mover, and some closely related terms, in at least two senses. The first sense, which I’ve called the Human Prime Mover, describes individuals accomplishing great things in the world, and thus moving the world forward. The second sense, which I’ve called the Inner Prime Mover, describes some driving inspirational or creative element within someone which moves them to do great things.

As you can see, Prime Mover can mean lots of stuff. In the Objectivist context, I think it might be a good convention to use Prime Mover for what I’ve been calling Human Prime Mover. And to use something like “motive power” for what I’ve been calling Inner Prime Mover.

2 thoughts on “What Is Ayn Rand’s Concept of Prime Mover About?”

    1. making an uber comments section for my infrequently updated blog that few people read seems like premature optimization to me. FI exists, people can discuss there. and i have rudimentary comments here. good enuf

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