Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thoughts on the Novel: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Unlike many dystopian novels that provide discourse and critique on politics and human values, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, written in 1937, delves into a deeper discourse on human nature and juxtaposes the concepts of living for the collective whole (the “we”) and for the self (the “I” or “ego”).  I’m not going to give a summary of the book since I mainly want to discuss a few thoughts related to this juxtaposition of “we” and “I” as presented in this book (very briefly so I apologize in advance for any poorly laid out ideas).  I encourage anyone who hasn’t read the book to do so and it can be found as a free download in both ebook and audiobook form from various sources on the web.

Society in Anthem revolves around the peace and equality of the collective whole. The goal of the society is to provide a social construct where everyone is equal, all jobs are equal, all working knowledge is equally accessible, and where there is no “I”, only “we”. In fact, people here do not even know the word “I” and refer to themselves and the whole indiscriminately as “we”. The people in Anthem are trained to be more like clones than individuals. By stripping away individualism, people do not need to rate or compare themselves to everyone else. Since only the most intelligent could possibly comprehend advanced knowledge and technology, knowledge and technology have all been stripped down to only what everyone can understand equally so that no one is smarter than anyone else. In fact, when the main character tries to introduce electric light as an invention to further mankind, it is rejected over the candle primarily because the knowledge that would be comprehended by few would give them power over those who couldn’t comprehend.  Society of the “we” is simply to live as “we”, not to advance itself and fall victim to the times of inequality and knowledge of their past (modern civilization).

The moment people decided to reject the “I” and accept the equality and unity of the “we”, they forever limited the power of the collective whole to the weakest link.  This idea seems counter-intuitive at first because working as a group allows people to make great advancements in science, technology, and society.  There is a distinction that should be made though of a group of individuals working together, with their own individual perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses, to a single collective hive-type society, where every single unit of the whole has a specialized function to maintain life for the whole without individual conceptions that their purpose is any higher or lower than anyone else. In a collective “we”, individualism (i.e. the ego) would destroy the entire structure of the whole with impulses such as individual desires and goals that would conflict with those of the collective good.  While maintaining peace and satisfaction of the collective good through absolute equality may be a noble cause, it stifles any progress since the initiation of each new idea or invention must be carefully planned out to carefully maintain the delicate and structure of that equality. Thus, if equality means unanimous peace at the cost of progress, then inequality is the biggest threat to aspirations of peace in society as it is and has always been. Since inequality stems from the ego, or individuality, then human nature itself is the largest hindrance to achieving peace among its own race.

The juxtaposition of ultimate peace and disorder, the “we” and the ego, and of equality and inequality, forces us to accept a couple of implications. If humanity strives for absolute peace of the collective whole through equality, then the pleasures of individual desires and experience must be given up. Conversely, if we strive to fulfill the desires and goals of the ego, then humanity at the same time must accept that conflict is the result. While Anthem abstractly places these absolute positions on opposing pedestals, we all have desires stemming from the ego and desires for the whole. Rather than live for one or the other, isn’t life about living with a compromise between the two?

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