My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A couple years ago I was visiting my local Borders (r.i.p., old friend) looking for something to read, and I happened to remember an article I had read on Objectivism and Ayn Rand. The cover of Atlas Shrugged had always intrigued me when I had, on past visits, perused the literature section, so I thought I would give old Ayn a look-see. Of course, a door-stop like Atlas was a little intimidating at the time, so I picked up the thinnest book I could find, which happened to be Anthem.
And short it was indeed. I read the whole thing in one sitting, right there in the bookstore. And then and there, I realized that I really, really liked Ayn Rand.
Now, a lot of folks really, really do not like Ayn Rand. To be sure, she gets a lot of hate. I’m not sure any of it is deserved, but I can understand where the haters are coming from. Her philosophy is controversial, and if misinterpreted (which all the haters seem hell-bent on doing), it can seem like it is condoning unbridled selfishness, which it is not (not, at least, by most people’s definition of selfishness. Ayn Rand herself would have said selfishness is good, but she was talking about rational self-interest, not some sort of Bernie Madoff “let me grab all this money I haven’t earned at other people’s expense” type selfishness. In point of fact, much of her writing is a denunciation of exactly that sort of thing).
A central tenet of Objectivism, and therefore of Rand’s writing, is the celebration of the human spirit—not a mystical spirit or “soul,” but rather that spark of uniqueness that makes us individuals, that makes us thinking, rational beings. Using reason and intellect, humankind can (and should) create great and wonderful works.
Having grown up in Soviet Russia, Rand experienced first-hand how the collective, the State, can destroy the individual. From her experiences, she grew to distrust, even to despise, any government who put the good of the State above the good of the individual. In her experience, Communism, a system that strived to make everyone equal, created only poverty and misery for those it claimed be helping. Its policies hindered progress and stymied innovation. And “equality” was only an illusion, as it always is. Those in charge lived well at the expense of others, as they always do.
Colored by her early experience, Rand declared any attempt at collectivism to be evil. And thus, we have Anthem, an argument of exactly that, as well as an exaltation of the human spirit.
Anthem tells the tale of Equality 7-2521, a man who lives in a world where the word “I” is unknown and unspoken, where the concept of individuality is unthinkable. All men must strive to be like all other men, a concept proclaimed by the words carved over the doors of the World Council: “We are one in all and all in one. There are no men but only the great WE. One, indivisible and forever.” In this world, the greatest technical innovation is the candle, which has not been improved upon for decades.
Equality 7-2521 is not like other men. He is taller, stronger, and highly intelligent. But these things are not looked upon favorably; they are a curse, for one should not be above their fellows in any way. He is ashamed, but even so he questions why things are as they are. He wants to be a scholar (which is bad, because wanting something is committing the Sin of Preference), but when he comes of age the Council of Vocations designates him as a street sweeper.
While performing his duties, he finds a tunnel, in which he discovers technology of a long-gone time. He begins to experiment with this technology, an electric light source, and teaches himself how it works. When he takes his discovery to the Scholars, they are horrified, and he must flee from them or be punished (perhaps put to death). From there, he goes on a journey of discovery that culminates in him falling in love (the Sin of Preference yet again), and reclaiming the most sacred of all words—“I.”
There are other authors who explore the theme of the individual verses the collective, including George Orwell. In Orwell’s 1984, the world has reached a condition where the State is all-powerful, and the book’s message seems to be this: if we allow the world to reach this point, there will be no hope. At the end of 1984, Winston, a man striving to think and love as an individual, is completely defeated, his will destroyed by the power of the State. It is a depressing and defeatist view. In contrast, Anthem celebrates the individual, leaving hope that, even in the worst of conditions, the human spirit can still triumph.
Ultimately, the message of Anthem is powerful and uplifting. It seems to say that there will always be those individuals, those Howard Roarks or John Galts or Equity 7-2521’s, who will strive against the bounds of society to fight for the rights of the individual and push progress forward. They do so for their own sake (as they must, according to Rand’s Objectivism), but in doing so, as a side-effect, they benefit those around them, and make the world a better place.
Objectivism may not be a perfect philosophy, but there is a lot of food for thought in the writings of Ayn Rand. I recommend them highly, and Anthem is a great place to start.