Although psychological theories such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs state that the prerequisites for human survival are food, shelter, and clothing, moving higher up the motivational pyramid requires an additional element: freedom. Yet, the importance of freedom is too often overlooked, tainted by rhetoric that emphasizes the common good. Ayn Rand’s novel “Anthem” introduces us to a dystopian society and one man—Equality—who sanctifies opposite values, forcing us to consider what is sacred, and how we deal with transgressors. Equality’s society is collectivism taken to its extreme end, where the word “I” no longer exists.
In Anthem, society has undergone a fundamental inversion of how it views liberty and individuality. Unlike most modern societies, where the default position is that an activity is allowed unless specifically prohibited, Equality’s society takes the opposite approach, in that “everything not permitted by law is forbidden” (p.16). This society starts from a default position of zero rights and freedoms, except those which the state gives, which vastly limits the scope of individual freedom. However, in my opinion, the most frightening part is not the default position of prohibiting everything not permitted by the state, or the enforcement by lashing, but rather that individuals are happy to conform to this tyrannical system. This unfounded acceptance can only stem from moral principles that the state has artificially injected: the consecration of sacrifice and the vilification of individuality. In essence, the society has successfully induced individuals to see “independent beings” as transgressive, while viewing utter submission and sacrifice as a sacred, moral good.
At first, Equality blindly accepts the values of this society, where he “gladly and willingly” (p.13) receives his job of a street sweeper, conforming to social pressure. However, he soon realizes the flaws inherent in the society he inhabits and begins to unconsciously push back, writing and thinking for himself, both of which are “sins” in his world. Thinking and writing give Equality the power to reason, and he naturally departs on a journey of questioning social norms, and slowly crystallizing his view of “sacred.” An important turning point comes when he looks into a stream, sees his reflection, and recognizes his intellectual and physical superiority. Equality realizes that society vilified his apparent excellence as a curse and, instead of entirely surrendering to his society, he begins to develop self-respect and realizes the sacredness of an independent, sentient being.
When Equality’s invention of a light bulb is rejected by the council of scholars, and he is accused of the “sin of not creating and owning something collectively,” he desperately protects his brainchild, going so far as to depict his property to be his veins and flesh. This implies that Equality considers his property, a lightbulb made through creative expression, to be an extension of himself, and to deny his right to his property would be to deny his very existence. Realizing this is another large step in Equality’s transgressive journey, as he sees that the right to hold property is a sacred boon that must not be deprived from man.
Another significant milestone in Equality’s journey comes when he declares his love for the Golden one, giving her the name “Gaea.” By naming her, Equality is manifesting specific, voluntary love rather than the indiscriminate love that society dictates. Having also realized the importance of love for oneself, Equality resolves to construct his own world and, realizing that to live means to be oneself, attempts to throw off society’s binding, collectivist shackles.
Equality’s key values seem to eventually lead him to “rational self-interest,” namely, deciding the best option for oneself without any external influence. On the other hand, Equality claims locating “we” in front of “I” to be “the great monster,” implying that he sees sin as denying another being’s self-interest and reducing him or her to a mere tool of society. However, a meaningful clarification is that Equality’s definition of liberty would end where an individual’s rights directly impedes on the rights of another individual. He does not appear to be an anarchist, he disapproves of crimes that infringe on the rights of others, and would presumably justify the existence of some form of government and authority on the grounds that policing is necessary. Yet, based on his own experiences, he would seem to agree that individuals must possess the right to dissent, even when someone else does not like what is being said. As such, Equality would never impose his definitions of sacred or sinful upon another individual, as it would potentially infringe on their self-interest.
In a legal sense, most democratic societies resemble the viewpoint that Equality holds, allowing for ownership of property, the right to make decisions and pursue one’s self-interest, and the protection of our rights from infringement by others. On paper, liberty is sacred, with the U.S. constitution defining the moral reason of the government’s existence as to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” By delineating what is forbidden, rather than what is permitted, individuals are given extensive choices and freedoms.
However, socially, we glorify sacrifice and extoll those who act in the collective interest. Philanthropic billionaires such as Bill Gates are venerated, even though philanthropy may not be the most rational, self-interested choice. Conversely, many sections of society scorn those who use their wealth for selfish, self-interested purposes, such as buying expensive cars or houses, even when these uses don’t infringe on the rights of others. Granted, such perceptions are not inscribed in the law and only exist in the social consciousness; yet, the notion that an action is “sacred” implies that it is the highest and most noble value that an individual must aim for, and an obligation that we must all pursue. Through the narrative that it is sacred to dedicate oneself to societal good and that it is transgressive to be selfish, individuals are subject to a binding social pressure to conform. The religious mantra to “love your neighbor” portrays indiscriminate love as both sacred and obligatory, while familial obligations present a uniform narrative of a “good” family member, such as a father working day and night, or a mother sacrificing her dreams for the sake of the family.
In my experience, many such collectivist consecrations are more visible in non-western contexts, with various Asian states glorifying dedication to the state is the highest purpose of an individual. My home country of South Korea retains military service: months or years spent mandatorily serving the state. Those who refuse to serve are punished by the state, while those who are granted legal or medical exemptions are often looked down upon in social settings. Likewise, the fraternal bonds between men who served together are glorified as lifelong, sacred, social ties. Even in the U.S., past military service is viewed by large tracts of society as an unwritten prerequisite to stand for high public office.
Military service aside, most modern, democratic societies remain free and legally permissive, allowing for Equality’s hallowed values of rational self-interest, social norms and collectivist pressures seem to favor some elements of Equality’s society. Adopting these social pressures into law would appear to be a mistake, setting us on the path towards the dystopian society presented in Anthem.
McLeod, S. A. (2007). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Mcleod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 5 Feb. 2007, www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html. Accessed 20 May 2020.