Monday, June 24, 2013


Like many other students entering high school in the fall, Oldest Daughter has a list of books she is supposed to read this fall.

As I suspect is true for many of her peers, one of the books on her summer reading list is "Anthem." Written by Ayn Rand, “Anthem” is a hymn to the importance of the individual, set in a dystopic future where individual choice and even individual identity have all but been eradicated . The protagonist is a man named Equality 7-2521, although he later chooses the name Prometheus, because he hopes to return the spark of individual value to a world that has lost it.

“Anthem” is Rand's first work to advance her Objectivist philosophy, which grew in large part as a response to the Bolshevik Revolution during her childhood, and her family's ensuing loss of wealth and comfort. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, her family had enjoyed a comfortable existence in Russia. That all came to an end afterward.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the dystopia in "Anthem" is a grotesquerie of collectivism. In the course of the story, Equality 7-2521 recounts the various sins he commits: a desire to learn and to understand the world, rather than being content with being a street sweeper, the job that was assigned for him by the committee; singing and being happy, because everyone is already happy in this dystopic paradise, and he should not presume to be happier than his fellows; feeling and friendship and love for specific people, because that means he favors some people over others; and of course, being taller and healthier than others, because difference is wrong.

In that sense, "Anthem" has an empowering message for teens and other young readers who may feel social pressure from their own peers to be something other than what they want to be, or to do things that don't interest them. It is a good thing for people to pursue their own dreams, forget their own identities, and conform to others' expectations for themselves, rather than to forge their own identities and pursue the things that interest them.

But one of the things that irks me about Rand's philosophy, especially as I've seen it applied by libertarians in recent years, is that it rejects the notion of responsibility to one another. (Equality 7-2521 is pretty clear on this point in Chapter 11.)

The other thing is that, particularly in books like "Atlas Shrugged," Rand inverts the order of the world and claims despite all logic that it is the wealthy and the powerful who are oppressed and exploited by society, and not the people whose hard work makes their success and fortune possible.

In order for a society to truly function and not come apart at the seams in a generation, it is necessary for us to respect the inherent worth we have as human beings created in the Imago Dei, something Equality 7-2521 explicitly and repeatedly rejects in his grand-sounding but ultimately self-serving essays at the end of the book.

Ironically, as  Equality 7-2521 becomes the the first of Rand's characters to espouse this worldview, he claims for himself the name "Prometheus." Unlike Rand's sympathetic but ultimately unlikeable hero, the original Prometheus was driven by compassion for others and a concern for their welfare that came before his own.

By bringing fire from Olympus to Earth, Prometheus earned the ire of Zeus and for a thousand years was tormented daily by an eagle that came to tear out his liver, which would regrow every night so that he could suffer anew in the morning.

Which Prometheus would you say is the better, and more moral role model?

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.