Notes on Ayn Rand’s book “Anthem”

Ayn Rand weaves a beautiful tapestry whose threads illuminate the concept of the sacred dignity of the individual.  This dignity should be fought for and all attempts made to place this dignity on the highest ground and make it unassailable to the debasing tyranny of the masses and their doctrines of communal living and platonic ideologies.

One might falsely interpret her writings to endorse wholesale selfishness, especially in light of her having written a tract establishing the virtues of selfishness.  However such a hasty conclusion would ignore the fact that her main characters often live with a passion to love and be loved but struggle to do so amidst the furies of a godless state or society that demands they sacrifice their souls and beings for the benefit of the intangible whole.  Her characters discover their precious egos in a world too devoid of soul mirrors to gaze into.  These self-discoveries result in her characters finding freedom from society’s imposed slaveries even if such freedom only comes at last by death (her main character end the story in “We the Living”  bleeding to death in the snow while trying to escape her communist country after being shot by a border patrol soldier who thought he saw something human-like moving in the distance).

In the end man must live for himself, but if he still has love and hope to share then the flames of charity will warm not only his own heart but the hearts of those he blesses with his love.  Then he can experience the godly gift of his true inheritance.

“Anthem” is a short story about a futuristic society where no one talks in the singular even when referring to themselves.  The story is written in the first person by Equality 7-2521 who tells us a little about himself in the beginning of the story by saying: 

Our name is Equality 7-2521, as it is written on the iron bracelet which all men wear on their left wrists with their names upon it.  We are twenty-one years old.  We are six feet tall, and this is a burden, for there are not many men who are six feet tall.  Ever have the Teachers and the Leaders pointed to us and frowned and said: “The is evil in your bones, Equality 7-2521, for your body has grown beyond the bodies of your brothers.” But we cannot change our bones nor our body.

This main character starts out living like the rest of his collective, medieval brothers.  But his assignment to a profession approaches and he resents being assigned the life-long role as street-sweeper when he really wanted to be a scholar who might question the laws of nature and make discoveries for the good of the whole community.  The rest of the story progresses from this struggle to continue his ambition to question and ponder things on his own regardless of the views of the authorities.  Although his life is highly regemented to him by his leaders, he finds a way to escape from society for a few hours a day during their mandatory entertainment hours.  He eventually discovers how close minded and backwards the scholars of his people are.  He finds a way to have a relationship with a woman even though contact with women was forbidden except once a year at the time of mating.  After being nearly beaten to death after being caught not coming to his communal home at the right hour of the evening, he escapes from prison.  He then vainly tries to impress upon the scholars of his community the valuable knowledge (he rediscovers electricity) he has learned in the ancient tunnel he found where he has been able to find daily solitude by slipping away from the mandatory entertainment (public theatre).  They aren’t impressed by his showing them a lightbulb light up (such a discovery might put their candle makers out of business) and reprimand him for his original thinking.  He quickly runs away into the forest on the outskirts of town where no one has gone and returned from.  His woman friend follows him into the forest and they survive together in the wilderness.

Like “We the Living”, Ayn Rand develops her story to a point where one or more of the main characters deliver profound speeches or is portrayed in such a manner as to teach us concerning the dangers and failings of communist societies and the necessity for man to preserve his dignity in living and thinking for himself and thereby deciding his own destiny.   Ayn also emphasizes through one such speech how important the autonomy of the family unit is in preserving the dignity of the individual.

Excerpt demonstrating how the “we” in its negative connotations doesn’t apply to the sacred bond of man and woman in establishing a family:

It was on our second day in the forest that we heard steps behind us.  We hid in the bushes, and we waited.  The steps came closer.  And then we saw the fold of a white tunic among the trees, and a gleam of gold. 

We leapt forward, we ran to them, and we stood looking upon the Golden One.

They saw us, and their hands closed into fists, and the fists pulled their arms down, as if they wished their arms to hold them, while their body swayed.  And they could not speak.

We dared not come too close to them. We asked, and our voice trembled:

“How come you to be here, Golden One?”

But they whispered only:

“We have found you…”

“How come you to be in the forest?  we asked.

They raised their head, and there was a great pride in their voice; they answered:

“We have followed you.”

Then we could not speak, and they said:

“We heard that you had gone to the Uncharted Forest, for the whole City is speaking of it. So on the night of the day when we heard it, we ran away from the Home of the Peasants. We found the marks of your feet across the plain where no men walk.  So we followed them, and we went into the forest, and we followed the path where the branches were broken by your body.”

Their white tunic was torn, and the branches had cut the skin of their arms, but they spoke as if they had never taken notice of it, nor of weariness, nor of fear.

“We have followed you,” they said, “and we shall follow you whereever you go.  If danger threatens you, we shall face it also. If it be death, we shall die with you.  You are damned and we wish to share your damnation.”

They looked upon us, and their voice was low, but there was bitterness and triumph in their voice.

“Your eyes are as a flame, but our brothers have neither hope nor fire.  Your mouth is cut of granite, but our brothers are soft and humble.  Your head is high, but our brothers cringe.  You walk, but our brothers crawl.  We wish to be damned with you, rather than blessed with all our brothers.  Do as you please with us, but do not send us away from you.”

Then they knelt and bowed their golden head before us.

We had never thought of that which we did.  We bent to raise the Golden One to their feet, but when we touched them, it was as if madness had stricken us. We seized their body and we pressed our lips to theirs. The Golden One breathed once, and their breath was a moan, and then their arms closed around us.

We stood together for a long time.  And we were frightened that we had lived for twenty-one years and had never known what joy is possible to men.

Then we said:

“Our dearest one.  Fear nothing of the forest.  There is no danger in solitude.  We have no need of our brothers.  Let us forget their good and our evil,  let us forget all things save that we are together and that there is joy as a bond between us.  Give us your hand.  Look ahead.  It is our own world, Golden One, a strange unknown world, but our own.”

Then we walked on into the forest, their hand in ours.

And that night we knew that to hold the body of women in our arms is neither ugly nor shameful, but the one ectasy granted to the race of men.

excerpt serving as a Creed of individualism: (this is sheer poetry)

I shall choose my friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters.  And I shall chose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey.  And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire.  For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone.  Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled.  Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold. 

For the word “We” must never be spoken, save by one’s choice and as a second thought.  This word must never be placed first within man’s soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man’s torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie. 

The word “We” is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.

What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it?  What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me?  What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and the impotent, are my masters?  What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?

But I am done with this creed of corruption.

I am done with the monster of “We,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.

This god, this one word:

“I.”

an excerpt that demonstrates the inevitable fall of mankind when they embrace socialism and communism:

…I look upon the history of men, which I have learned from the books, and I wonder.  It was a long story, and the spirit which moved it was the spirit of man’s freedom. But what is freedom?  Freedom from what?  There is nothing to take a man’s freedom away from him, save other men.  To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.  That is freedom.  This and nothing else. 

At first, man was enslaved by the gods.  But he broke their chains.  Then he was enslaved by the kings.  But he broke their chains.  He was enslaved by his birth, by his kin, by his race.  But he broke their chains.  He declared to all his brothers that a man has rights which neither god nor king nor other men can take away from him, no matter what their number, for his is the right of man, and there is no right on earth above this right.  And he stood on the threshold of the freedom for which the blood of centuries behind him had been spilled.

But then he gave up all he had won, and fell lower than his savage beginning.

What brought it to pass?  What disaster took their reason away from men?  What whip lashed them to their knees in shame and submission?  The worship of the word “We.”

When men accepted that worship, the structure of centuries collapsed about them, the structure whose every beam had come from the thought of some one man, each in his day down the ages, from the depth of some one spirit, such spirit as existed but for its own sake.  Those men who survived — those eager to obey, eager to live for one another, since they had nothing else to vindicate them — those men could neither carry on, nor preserve what they had received.  Thus did all thought, all science,  all wisdom perish on earth.  Thus did men — men with nothing to offer save their great number — lose the steel towers, the flying ships, the power wires, all the things they had not created and could never keep.

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