I don’t read books or listen to audiobooks as often as I should. But I couldn’t resist borrowing Anthem by Ayn Rand when I saw it was available. Something about this book has always fascinated me ever since I first read it in high school, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think it fascinates me the most because it is Ayn Rand’s attempt at showing how precious humanity is…by having the main character be stripped of it, and having to rediscover it throughout the course of the book.
In the future setting of the book, the main character, named Equality 7-2521, lives as part of a collectivist society. This greatest crime one can commit within this society? Uttering the word I, and living for oneself. The word I is the ultimate act of rebellion. It goes against everything the collectivist society stands for, and the State is keen on crushing any individuality in order to prevent another rebellion.
At some point in the past timeline of the book, there was a war between many people who championed extreme collectivism, and a minority who still believed in human individuality. Unfortunately, the pro-individuality side lost badly, and the future society was plunged into a Dark Age. Individual freedoms were wiped out. Scientific discovery was set back decades, even centuries. Any scientific discovery from what was referred to as “The Unmentionable Times” (i.e. the present day), was completely destroyed. Even the language itself was changed to wipe out individual expression. For example, individual people always referred to themselves as we/our in regular speech. There was absolutely no use of the word I. One was also expected to “live for their brothers” rather than pursue their own dreams and happiness. The State is basically God, and tells the people what to do with the rest of their lives, as well as who to associate with, and who to love.
Over the course of the book, Equality 7-2521 (later naming himself Prometheus), and his woman, Liberty 5-3000 (later called Gaia), rediscover their individuality through their love for each other. They leave their respective peasant and street sweeper communities, and disappear into a nearby forest. There they eventually find a perfectly intact house. Prometheus finds a library full of books within the house, and vows to use his brilliant and questioning mind to learn everything he can. That way he can teach his and Gaia’s future children all that was lost before the Dark Age, in the hope that future generations would bring humanity back into the light. Most importantly, he will teach his children to value individualism and self-expression, starting by teaching them the word “I.”
That’s the crux of the book, but I would still highly recommend reading it or listening to it yourself! I borrowed my copy from the Ohio Digital Library and listened to it on my iPhone. Just Google “Ohio Digital Library” and the site should come up. From there you can register an account, get a digital library card and check out all sorts of books absolutely free!
Modern Day Themes
I most definitely disagree with Ayn Rand’s purely humanist philosophy on life, that there is no higher cause to life than living for one’s own happiness. It reeks of arrogance, and is an overinflated opinion of Man’s own importance and greatness. Man is capable of great brilliance. But we are also just as capable of mind-boggling stupidity. I see it every day. We’re deeply flawed creatures. Furthermore, it is possible to live selflessly for those we love, and still have a rewarding and fulfilling life when it comes to our own goals.
However, I completely understand how she arrived at her humanist philosophy. She had an incredible dislike of organized religion, and other “State-like entities” that often tell people what to do, what to think, and how to feel. I’m the same way. The Government, Catholic Church, and other entities overstep their boundaries at times when it comes to dictating certain things to people. In order to create her futuristic dystopian society for Anthem, Ayn Rand just cranked this up to the absolute max. She created a nightmarish scenario to get her point across.
I see the potential seeds being sown for a society similar to that one if we are not careful and alert. In the same way that the extreme collectivist society in the book was benevolent on the surface, but sinister in its true motives, our society could be shifting toward that a little bit.
In the guise of inclusiveness and not offending anyone, political correctness is often lorded over people. People are policed on what is and is not appropriate to say, do or believe. If you go along with the prevailing opinion of society, no matter what that is, you are loved by many. However, say or do anything that conflicts with what society deems acceptable, and you are branded a racist, facist, or any kind of -phobe or -ist known to man. Whether you truly are guilty of anything or not is irrelevant.
Another similarity between the world of Anthem and our own, is the blurred line between what is the truth and what is not. In the book, The Elders of the society are part of the World Council, the governing body of the future Earth. They are the gatekeepers. The ones who decide which scientific discoveries are worthy of being introduced to mankind. They also decide what is true, and what is false. And they come to each and every one of their conclusions among themselves, never allowing for any outside discussion or dissent from the people. In a similar way, social media giants Facebook and Twitter, along with big media networks such as Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and others, try to gain a monopoly on what the truth is. They do this by touting the “truth” of their news stories while branding anything to the contrary as false. Meanwhile, nobody really knows what the truth is. All we are is angry and confused.
Lastly, groupthink is present absolutely everywhere in Anthem. From the insulated decisions the Elders make in guiding the society, to the beliefs of the people and their visceral reaction to anything opposite to those beliefs, any dissenting opinion is shamed and shut down. This is done by any means necessary, from simple scolding, to being lashed with a whip, right up to being burned at the stake. While our present-day society is nowhere near that barbaric here in America, there are two massive echo chambers which function on groupthink. Speak or do anything contrary to what they believe, and any number of things could happen. From simple shaming, to physical violence, to death in extreme cases, such as in the murder of Jessica Doty-Whitaker.
Anthem was written in 1937. But it’s startling how 2020 America looks like it might be in the beginning stages of a society like that. Thankfully, there is still plenty of time to reverse course. The main way we do this, is to recognize our individual gifts and talents which make us unique individuals, and use them for the betterment of the world, and those around us. We must also not be afraid to call out what is false and wrong where we see it, no matter the pushback. To me, Anthem serves as a call to do these things.
Appreciate your uniqueness. Use the unique gifts you’ve been given. Hold fast to knowledge and the truth. And NEVER, EVER, give up your individuality and personal freedom for anything. For in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”