For the reader new to the novella Anthem, Ayn Rand’s prose may seem jarring at first. Our narrator, Equality 7-2521, speaks with a sophistication reminiscent of a past age, as well he might, for he lives in a modern dystopian paradise, a glorified Street Sweeper. He speaks in an odd way, referring to himself in a fashion conjuring images of Tolkein’s mind-rotted Gollum: “Our name is Equality 7-2521… We are twenty-one years old.” Yet Equality 7-2521 does not possess a rotten mind; indeed, far from it. Equality thinks too much, and for society, that is too dangerous.
Equality presents a challenge to the collectivist society which has spawned him in a mating ward, as Ayn Rand presented a challenge to the communist idealism that transformed her native Russia. Both valued the individual above the unabated will of the state; and in Rand’s Anthem, Equality exists in a society where individualism has been eradicated. And so Equality speaks from the position of the state: “We are twenty-one years old”, rather from the perspective of the individual: “I am twenty-one years old.” There can be no individual will or self-identification because it interferes with the unchanging metaphysical purpose of the state.
Yet, it is the scholars and the intellectuals who have crafted an individual-deprived state; and it is the common man –the common, lowly street sweeper –that dares to think independently of the state, before understanding just what it is to think independently of the scholars and intellectuals that conform to established patterns of thought. Equality is not just concerned with the labors assigned him by the rulers; he is concerned with and intrigued by the natural world. He “rediscovers” electricity in a tunnel he stumbles upon, and he stumbles upon love when he first sees the girl he refers to ever after as “The Golden One”. Rand ultimately likens Equality to Prometheus, and the Golden One to Gaea, although one might well walk away from Anthem with the understanding that Plato’s chained individual has escaped the cave.
Rand’s Anthem is short and pointed, yet there is a tenderness to her writing that captivates the reader, and draws one away from the overbearing and suffocating city in which Equality dwells. Hopelessness gives way to light, to the love Equality finds in the Golden One, and in himself. It is in these small moments of poetic justice that the reader escapes the city with Equality and the Golden One, following them across the fields and into the woods, to discover relics of a long forgotten past: an old home, clothes of varying colors, and above all, books. It is through learning and understanding that Equality becomes Prometheus, and the Golden One Gaea, and through their leaning that they understand freedom and the individual.
The house becomes Equality’s Walden in certain respects; and he endeavors to begin society anew. Yet it is in Equality’s sense of individualism, so adverse to collectivist orthodoxy, that leads him to declare that he must be free of his brothers to be free. Yet, such an extremist sense of individualism is tempered by his later declaration that he will one day fight for the rights of other men. But Rand did not complete the idea: Freedom isn’t necessarily being free of one’s brothers, but being able to be free among them. Aristotle finds in man a rational, social animal, and Rand’s Equality is already longing for a new society to rediscover the knowledge of the past that paves the way to a better future. Equality can be seen as the progenitor of a social contract, just as the American Founders were the progenitors of the United States Constitution.
Undeniably, one of the most important messages the reader takes away from Rand’s Anthem is one of self-autonomy. Sapped of individual spirit, and will, and choices, the society for which the citizens are mindlessly prepared ceases to progress, and human freedom is systematically sacrificed and destroyed for the preservation of the state. It is not the hallowed halls lined with the intellectual elite or the commanding rooms of leading classes that drive the power of nations. Rather, the power of nations resides in the voluntary state and free condition of its individual people.
(originally published 5/7/10 at futureword.net)