Men of Opinion vs. Men of Action

I’m currently re-reading Atlas Shrugged along with a group of other people in the Praxis community. We just completed chapter 8, the beginning of the resolution to the first act of the book. Near the start of chapter eight, there is a short conversation between Henry Reardon (a major character) and Paul Larkin (a minor character) that demonstrates an important divide between people.

In the story, the government has recently passed a law that makes it illegal for one person to own more than one business. Reardon, who was a titan in the steel, coal, and iron ore industries is forced to sell his iron ore business to Paul Larkin.

Larkin feels guilty about the law and desperately offers his reassurances to Reardon. He promises to always sell the ore to Reardon, to act like Reardon is the rightful owner.

Reardon Replies:

“I don’t like assurances. I don’t want any pretense about how safe I am. I’m not. We have made an agreement which I can’t enforce. I want you to know that I understand my position fully. If you intend to keep your word, don’t talk about it, just do it.

Thrown off balance by the straight talk Larkin replies,

“Why do you look at me as if it were my fault? You know how badly I feel about it…”

This paragraph was written 60 years ago, but it highlights an important divide in people today. The divide between people who value action and people who value feelings. The men of action and the men of opinion.

Do you even like me?

The divide between action and opinion is brilliantly shown in a scene from the play and movie Fences. In the last episode of the Patterson in Pursuit PodcastTK Coleman, brings up the scene as it relates to the conversation of race and our concern about the thoughts and beliefs of others.

In 180 seconds, James Earl Jones communicates a lesson most people go their whole lives without learning.

“Don’t you try to go through life worried if somebody like you or not. You best be sure that they are doing right by you.” – James Earl Jones (in Fences)

Instead of worrying about how others feel about you, concern yourself with their actions. It doesn’t matter what they think, it matters what they do. It matters if they live up to their word, deliver, show up and meet their responsibilities in professional and personal life.

The boy in Fences learned a lesson about how to become a man of action.

Henry Reardon is already a man of action. He concerns himself with the actions of others. He doesn’t care if you like him, he cares that you live up to your word and deliver.

Paul Larkin is a man of opinion. He concerns himself with the feelings of others, but more importantly, he believes that he is virtuous because he thinks the correct things.

He believes he is a good person because he feels bad about what happened to Reardon. But, in reality, he did nothing to stop the law (and actually contributed to the law passing.)

Larkin is a child who never learned the lesson from Fences. He is wrapped up worrying about the feelings of others, something he can never truly know, instead of focusing on the concrete reality of their actions.

He is pleading for Reardon to acknowledge his feelings because he wants to believe his feelings make him a good person.

His shaky sense of self-esteem is built on the idea that you can be a good person so long as you believe the “right” things.

So many people in the world today are men and women of opinion.

It is attractive to think that we should be judged on our opinions. It is easy and it allows us to tell ourselves that we are good people because we are mad about the right things.

It allows us to condemn people creating real value and doing real and hard work. To tell ourselves that we are better than other people because they don’t care about the social cause of the day.

It allows us to deceive ourselves into passivity. For those of us trying to achieve something, it is a crucial trap to avoid.

Your beliefs only matter because they inform your actions. Right belief proceeds right action, but belief is worthless on its own. If you don’t follow through and act with integrity and courage nothing you beleive will matter.

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