Despite her disdain for religion, Rand’s Anthem wreaks of religious allusion. However, the religion in focus of the plot of Rand’s novella is the faith of Ego.
There is much that can be said about Ayn Rand. In fact, most of what is said about her – even on the Right – is particularly nasty or hypercritical. Though identified as a philosopher, no Philosophy department at a University takes her seriously; though labeled as a libertarian, most libertarians make a point of distancing themselves from her; though clearly a successful author, most readers belittle her legacy and disparage her works as “excruciatingly awful” or “preposterous.”
In at least one respect, however, criticism of Rand is unreasonable. For whatever reason that is clearly beyond detection of her vehement critics, people still keep turning the pages of her books. As has been previously marvelled in this journal, everyone from Paul Ryan to Clarence Thomas to Neal Peart unapologetically admit to having read, not to mention enjoyed, her works.
One of these works: Anthem, published in 1938, tells the story of a man trapped in a bleak future; when, to borrow from the sleeve of my own copy: “mankind has entered another dark age characterized by irrationality, collectivism, and socialist thinking and economics.” In this world, men and women are without names (other than numbers following a word such as “collective” or “equality”), romantic love is not allowed, technological and economic advancement is limited, and, most importantly, the use of the word “I” is banned.
The plot of the novella revolves around the main character, Equality 7-2521 (or “Prometheus,” as he later calls himself), and his quasi-religious journey to find the “Unspeakable Word,” and thus his individualism and purpose. It should be said, although I don’t think it yet has, that despite her disdain for religion, Rand’s Anthem wreaks of religious allusion. However, the religion in focus of the plot of Rand’s novella is the faith of Ego.
At one point, a “transgressor” is burned alive for using “I,” the illegal word. The main character identifies him as a Saint, “the Saint of the Pyre.” I would prefer he be called a Hussite Individualist, since the character is a cookie-cutter Jan Hus; who was arguably the first Protestant. (Burned alive at the stake in Catholic Bohemia in 1415.)
Therefore, if the Saint of the Pyre is Jan Hus, then Equality 7-2521 must be Martin Luther (who nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church and made his fictitious “Here I stand” speech to Charles V one hundred years later). Equality 7-2521 is inspired by the man who was burned alive. Upon his escape from the totalitarian and collectivist society he lived in, and upon discovering “I,” Equality 7-2521 salutes those before him who fought the same fight against collectivism. “Theirs is the banner in my hand,” he says.
Equality 7-2521 is forced to flee from his city and finds refuge in his own Wartburg Castle – an abandoned house in the woods, where he and his love interest decide to live out the rest of their days in peace. In this paradise, though isolated, he and his partner know the true faith, and there they will carry it out. Equality 7-2521 escapes to the woods after a failed attempt to appeal to the Council of Scholars, which is the final authority on all questions in the dystopia. He had been studying the remains of a broken light from humanity’s past. When he had figured out how to make the device work (for reference, the Council of Scholars had barely discovered candles), Equality 7-2521 brought his work to the Council. Like Luther at the Diet of Worms, Equality 7-2521 was denounced as a heretic and forced to flee.
Arguably, however, if religious allusion is indisputable in Anthem, then Equality 7-2521 is obviously Adam; not a mere Protestant reformer. When he and his love interest, who he calls “the Golden One,” escape from the city after his conflict with the Council of Scholars, they retreat to an overgrown forest where no one will find them. In this new environment, they explore their individuality and sudden freedom to do as they please when they please. Additionally, the two take on Adamite characteristics in the fact that they hunt for themselves, live among nature, wander and migrate, and take no shame in their dishevelled appearances.
Furthermore, as previously mentioned, they come upon an abandoned house that they then claim as their own. In the house are books and books of past languages and science and everything that could possibly allow Equality 7-2521 to unearth humanity’s past achievements. He decides, then, that he and his love will stay here and carry on a legacy.
“[The Golden One] is pregnant with my child. Our son will be raised a man. He will be taught to say “I” and to bear the pride of it. He will be taught to walk straight and on his own feet. He will be taught reverence for his own spirit.”
Here on this mountain, I and my sons and my chosen friends shall build our new land and our fort… And word of it will reach every corner of the earth.
In the end, Equality 7-2521 uncovers the Unmentionable Word, the word that the Saint of the Pyre had died for. When he reads the word, he claims to have cried for all those who had died in its pursuit, as well as those who have been denied its understanding by collectivism. Equality 7-2521 then seems to establish a sort of holy trinity of Randite ideas, the holy words being: I, Reason, and Ego. Rand ends Anthem by having Equality 7-2521 carve into stone the word Ego, the faith to which he adheres.
Anthem is seventy-or-so pages that summarize what Ayn Rand would later come to call Objectivism. Nestled within a short science fiction story, Rand expounds on the virtues of freedom, individualism, and reason. To spare yourself the so often over-exageratted painful prose of Atlas Shrugged, one should quickly breeze through Anthem.