Ironically, dystopian fiction can be an escape into the very thing that readers seek to escape from. The stress of oppressed characters relates to the real world, and tales of transcending bad places (“dys” “topias”) comprise part of a reader’s path toward peace. In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag seeks to reclaim literature and art suppressed by the government; Winston Smith fights to evade Big Brother’s Thought Police in Nineteen Eighty-Four; and John (“the Savage”) in Brave New World desperately rails against a pleasure-numbed populace. Stories of humble heroes struggling for independence and individuality against corrupt States and societies continue to attract droves of readers. One of these warriors can be found in Ayn Rand’s Anthem — her 1938 dystopian novella.

Anthem is a lesser-known forerunner to her more popular and developed novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The protagonist’s name is Equality 7-2521, and he fights to recapture his most important possession: his Self. Being philosophically-minded, he discovers and expresses profound ideas along his journey to freedom.[1] By the end of the novel, Equality has become an early personification of Objectivism, Rand’s self-formulated philosophy. This essay examines some philosophical underpinnings of Anthem and discusses them in light of Christian teaching. In Atlas Shrugged, Randian philosopher Hugh Akston wisely advises Dagny Taggart to “check your premises.”[2] We second Akston’s axiom, yet conclude that Objectivism fails rationally to measure up to Christianity.

Anthem is set in an undefined future following a culturally momentous “Great Rebirth,” which buried a supposed dark age called the “Unmentionable Times.” The forgotten past comprised “towers which rose to the sky . . . wagons which moved without horses . . . lights which burned without flame.”[3] These familiar modern fixtures (skyscrapers, automobiles, and electric lights) have been destroyed and their history erased by totalitarian leaders, plunging mankind technologically backward a couple millennia. Equality inhabits an inordinately controlled collectivist State, run by the World Council. Many ruling bodies exist: a Council of Vocations, of the Home, of Scholars, and of Eugenics. The marble Palace of the World Council has the following carved on it:

WE ARE ONE IN ALL AND ALL IN ONE.

THERE ARE NO MEN BUT ONLY THE GREAT WE, ONE, INDIVISIBLE AND FOREVER.[4]

The Councils organize society via various Homes — those of the Useless, Infants, Students, Scholars, and Leaders. The alternatives to complete obedience to the Councils are harsh punishment until compliance or death by starvation or animal attack in the Uncharted Forest outside the cities. To say the least, compared to many peaceful societies we know, the authoritarian world of Anthem is bleak.

Grasping Rand’s opposition to collectivism is key to understanding Objectivism. She vehemently opposes putting society’s interests before those of the individual, writing in a 1946 forward to Anthem, “Those who want slavery should have the grace to name it by its proper name . . . collectivism.”[5] Collectivism is employed here in both the economic sense of state ownership of property and means of production and in the general sense of prioritizing the group over the individual. In a way, collectivism is altruism writ large and codified by a government: every individual is supposed to live for everyone else. It follows that Rand, who thought altruism evil, would naturally resist collectivism.[6] Equality becomes a prototype of all Rand’s protagonists — someone who adheres to the ethical egoism which dyes all layers of Objectivist thought. To live morally, he must always place his interests first and never sacrifice his egoist values for any running contrary to them.

Equality’s desire for society’s enlightenment and freedom from its dystopian shackles seems the sole hope for Anthem’s downtrodden masses. He intuits what Rand calls “the virtue of selfishness,” and begins, in the course of the novel, to follow it despite the State’s prohibition to do so.[7] Various “Transgressions of Preference” evince the individualism slowly growing within his spirit.[8] He is taller than average, symbolizing his more stretched, far-reaching mind (contrasting with the stultified thought of his peers).[9] In the beginning, Equality wishes “to speak for once to no ears but our own.”[10] He says “our own” because all characters in Anthem self-refer in the plural, their sense of individuality having been all but abolished by the State. Ostensibly unprompted, he begins to realize that always putting others first fails to produce the fulfillment which the Council preaches it should. However, his upbringing causes a persistent cloud of confusion regarding why he cannot resist what the State calls “the root of all evil,” which is pursuing his personal desires and not those of his “brothers.”[11] [12]

Although “the laws say that none among men may be alone,” early whispers of Equality’s Objectivism are demonstrated in his solitary creative endeavors.[13] Finding solace in a dark tunnel under the earth, he re-invents a piece of technology the State snuffed out — electric light. He is egoistic since he invents alone, contrary to the Council’s wishes; and he remains insulated from peer comment or critique. Rand would have it no other way. Subjecting Equality’s work to the oversight of a committee or group would stunt and debase his product. In The Fountainhead, Kent Lansing opines “that groups of men are vacuums. Great big empty nothings,” meaning they are directionless voids that lack an anchor for rational decision-making.[14] In Anthem, Equality presents his light to the World Council of Scholars, but is vigorously rejected because he dares to hold himself “as one alone and with the thoughts of the one and not of the many.”[15] He has disregarded the Council’s tenet that “What is not done collectively cannot be good.”[16] And the light of his invention carries a figurative aspect: it outshines the dimness of the Council’s scientific collaboration, which has only produced the candle . . . approval for which has taken fifty years.

The Christian has common ground with Equality’s disobedience to his ethically bent authorities. The Catholic catechism summarizes the situation: “If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.”[17] More to the point is the tendency of Objectivists to be overly self-dependent. Individual inventions can be greatly refined and sharpened when they are created not solitarily, but with the constant input of like-minded individuals. Diana Glyer’s groundbreaking research into the Inklings (the literary group comprising C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others) shows that great artists do not, as is typically believed, make masterpieces all alone. They receive much help, encouragement, and criticism from wise peers and good friends. Glyer summarizes her research in Bandersnatch, concluding, “creativity starts to look a lot less like a lone genius struck with a single breathtaking insight and a whole lot more like a series of sparks coming from different directions, each spark inspiring something new.”[18] Equality thinks he can invent successfully on the insulated island of his own research and work. In the end, he attains his goals, given his flight to live and work in peace on a mountain. But fiction can figure any fancy; a more truthful portrayal would have had placed his invention first in the incubation of an Inklings-esque fellowship. Instead, Rand’s suspicion of the merit of such associations peeks through the pages. In the real world, research and invention need feedback because bouncing ideas off others assures a closer approximation to truth. Cross-checking data with fellow professionals guards against the “armchair scientist” (possibly becoming “mad scientist”) phenomenon. Our fallible faculties of reason need guidance from what Plato calls “dialectic” — the healthy debating and discussing of ideas so as to approach truth. Dialectic is necessary to prevent singular minds from wandering off alone toward intellectual morbidity.

The Councils oversee all interaction between the sexes in Anthem’s world, so when Equality encounters “The Golden One,” (Liberty 5-3000, his future lover) he has to conceal his intense admiration for her. Liberty’s physiology symbolically hints toward Rand’s conception of a self-actualized human. Equality observes that her body is “straight and thin as a blade of iron,” and her “eyes were dark and hard and glowing, with no fear in them, no kindness and no guilt.”[19] These attributes draw Equality to her and eventually, he absconds with her into the Uncharted Forest — a quite rebellious decision, given that “men are forbidden to take notice of women.”[20] At this point in the story, Equality’s Objectivist tendencies are bolder: he does not hesitate to encourage Liberty to be his companion in the wild. Illicit fraternization with Liberty brings new enjoyment which boosts the process of sprouting the egoist seed within Equality.

These examples are only physical manifestations of Equality’s burgeoning philosophy which is conditioned not only by his disposition but his reasoning. He thinks, “I owe nothing to my brothers,” and, “What is my life . . . if I am to obey?”[21] [22] He concludes regarding his invention, “It is above all our brothers to us.”[23] These musings exemplify the core of Rand’s ethics in that to be moral, one must be selfish. The Objectivist cannot be obligated to serve others before himself. He may start an orphanage, but he must not sacrifice his convictions in the process; donating to the poor is not forbidden unless it exhausts the benefactor’s necessities. The priority of his profit precedes the needs of his beneficiaries. Among dangers to the altruist, to be avoided at all costs by the Objectivist, is becoming physically or emotionally drained or morally compromised by an inescapable duty to others. Objectivist morality hangs on never compromising one’s values. Christianity also preaches to preserve one’s values, but what is moral and valuable is still up for debate. Equality makes his beliefs clear: “I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. . . . as alms for the poor of the spirit.”[24] There is no hint of (in fact there is opposition to) Christ’s “sell what you have and give to the poor.”[25]

Christian teaching brims with injunctions or encouragements to serve others before serving oneself. A quintessential example is St. Paul’s, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”[26] By embracing altruism and charity, Christianity opposes the social Darwinism which seems to many the moral easy road.[27] Furthermore, placing others’ interests before one’s own features prominently among the tenets of the Tao  (or traditional morality) according to Lewis’s well-argued The Abolition of Man. Lewis shows that most past cultures promote altruism: a Hindu writing states, “Children, old men, the poor, and the sick, should be considered as the lords of the atmosphere;” and a Roman writing runs, “Men were brought into existence for the sake of men.”[28] [29] One would be hard-pressed to find a healthy society touting selfishness as its primary moral tenet.

Selfishness is subverted by realizing that the question, “what is ethical?” acknowledges a standard of behavior which the healthy, sane mind recognizes as superior to the so-called ‘Law of the Jungle.’ Even T.H. Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) realized “the practice of that which is ethically best . . . is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.”[30] If taken too far, selfish behavior crosses a boundary into a land which demands an appeal to standards other than the self’s bare interest. Variously, these have been traditional morality: human rights, laws of the land — any ethical bar to which selfishness must at some point acquiesce. Without these, there is no reasonable check to limit selfish behavior.

Another rationale for the altruism of Christian ethics is that there is no guaranteed conflict-resolution mechanism for ethical egoism. Since conflict in human interaction is inevitable, the logical end of ethical egoism is — in Hobbes’ words — “war, and such a war as is of every man against every man.”[31] Rand is proud to establish competition and greed as animating principles of Objectivism. But her system inevitably cannot check a gravitation toward hostility in disagreement. Charity naturally seeks submission to mutual service in conflict, which results in peace. Logically, two parties, each prioritizing the other’s good, could conflict. But in cases wherein charity prevails, humility is the common denominator, which is not naturally harmful or cruel but benevolent. Therefore, even in disagreement, the altruist first considers the other’s good, not the possible advantage to be gained.

To be self-consistent, Equality’s philosophy depends on the belief that man is not fallen (as Christians teach), but is infinitely able to master circumstances, overcome obstacles, and thrive. Rand never cites specifically what Lewis calls “Wellsianity,” but in essence she agrees with it.[32] Lewis notes that Wellsianity has also been called Evolutionism or Developmentalism: “In the popular mind the word ‘Evolution’ conjures up a picture of things moving ‘onwards and upwards’, and of nothing else whatsoever.”[33] Similarly, Equality believes “The spirit of man will remain alive on this earth.”[34] Supposedly, natural selection has endowed man with a virtually indomitable dynamism. No rising seas of immorality or sprawling kingdoms of collectivism will completely quell the inherent drive in man toward something like Nietzsche’s ubermensch.

Distinguished from general evolution, Evolutionism it is the now-debunked philosophical stance that species will tend to improve under natural selection. The problem is that nothing guarantees that nature will gift man, or any other species, with a good future versus cursing him with corruption. G.K. Chesterton rightly remarks, “some people try to anticipate nature by doing something, by doing anything. Because we may possibly grow wings they cut off their legs. Yet nature may be trying to make them centipedes for all they know.”[35] A universe with a mind or spirit, and therefore possibly intention, could conceivably cause its own improvement. But Equality can only claim for nature a mechanistic, blind, impersonal life-force unrolling down through the eons. His certainty that “Centuries of chains and lashes will not kill the spirit of man” is unfounded.[36] Equality’s atheism not only disallows a literal spirit for man (he uses “spirit” figuratively) but any spirit which could be immanent in, or transcendent to, nature.[37] For any evolutionary improvement, he can only cite the perpetual, arbitrary collision of atoms on atoms. And chance is no secure footing for man’s sure resistance to nature’s whims. The lack of any guarantee of human progress is yet another reason for faith in something greater than oneself or man qua man. Again the Christian message is superior: God’s providence and sovereignty will renew all things and bring them to perfection in due time. What has traditionally been called the “new heavens and a new earth” will manifest by virtue of God’s will.[38]

Equality’s self-confidence partially originates in his belief that man is unlimited in his self-improvement potential. The Christian reply to this popular belief is that man is fallen by nature and in need of divine assistance. Theoretically, he could always act reasonably (that is, morally); but in reality he will soon reason imperfectly or incompletely, resulting in flawed behavior. Man can only self-perfect so far on his own. A novice tightrope walker could attempt the feat of walking a rope spanning skyscrapers, but failure is imminent without prior assisted training. The same goes for man’s moral life: without divine help, it cannot be fully actualized because man lacks the intrinsic ability to do so. This can only be done under God’s patronage. If man’s capacity for uprightness were unlimited, he could be good alone. It is only common sense that rules are superfluous if man were never unruly. But history demonstrates humankind’s ineradicable evil and the perennial necessity of, for example, enforceable law. Hence the futility of Equality’s claim that “This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before!”[39] This worshipful attitude toward self is not spiritually cost-free, since it leads to the depletion of spiritual resources (strength, mercy, and grace from God) essential to progress toward maturity and authenticity.

Equality embodies another Objectivist teaching, defined in John Galt’s famous speech over the airwaves in Atlas Shrugged. He announces, “Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue. Moral perfection is an unbreached rationality—not the degree of your intelligence, but the full and relentless use of your mind, not the extent of your knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute.”[40] Objectivism hinges on a complete trust in the efficacy of human reason. Interestingly, if a Christian sides with Lewis, who says, “I am a rationalist,” he could mostly side with Rand’s view of reason.[41] But the catch lies in definitions.

Unlike the Objectivist outlook, Christianity acknowledges that reason participates mystically with the divine logos — the perfectly rational mind of God. Employed only within a secular humanist or materialist paradigm, reason would be, as Chesterton puts it, “reason used without root, reason in the void.”[42] This is the Objectivist practice. Philosopher Karl Popper mentions what Equality is blind to: “[our observational experience] consists of a web of guesses — of conjectures, expectations, hypotheses with which there are interwoven accepted, traditional, scientific, and unscientific, lore and prejudice.”[43] Due to the relativizing effects sensation and imagination can have on cognition, along with the impact of morbid or perverse appetites, the mind can easily reckon truth as error, and vice versa. Reason in conjunction with the logos, acknowledging and heeding divine revelation, will not so easily be led astray. Equality’s knowledge quest is fundamentally materialistic (making his science not exactly an exact science) and metaphysically incomplete. Christian epistemology is saved from Chesterton’s “void” by humbly leaning on supernatural revelation and collaboration with the mind of God.

Regardless of Equality’s few Christian-friendly dispositions and behaviors, many non-Christian and even anti-Christian elements emerge in Anthem. Viewing Rand’s axioms via a Christian lens demonstrates that Christianity not only is the more rational, but more hopeful option. Spiritually, charity brings freedom, while selfishness results in bondage. The former opens up the spirit to new and refreshing vistas, while the latter collapses it into a drab prison. The prime example of charity is the perpetual living for the Other which is an eternal, self-giving act of the Trinity. God is always actively giving Himself up for the Son and the Holy Spirit, and this is reciprocated by each, always and everywhere. As someone relinquishes selfish ambitions and makes sacrifices for others, his heart opens to a vital and constant dependence on God:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?[44]

The Christian story is that man is infinitely important and valuable, but for different basic reasons than Objectivism invokes. He is a creation, whose first focus should be upward at his Creator, not inward at himself. Rand saw faith and reliance on God as negative — as the life of a zombie or automaton.[45] The true picture is a hopeful, happy, fulfilling one: the grace and love God offers people is ample reason to look joyfully at creaturely status in a positive way. Man can live in harmony with his Creator, and still enjoy sufficient play of rational thought for his intellectual satisfaction. It would have been better if Equality had come to grips with this, drawing Anthem, still a clever and engaging dystopia, a bit closer to reality.


[1] ‘Equality’ from here on.

[2] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1996), 308.

[3] Ayn Rand, Anthem (New York: Signet, 1995), 19.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., xvi.

[6] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1969), ix.

[7] Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.

[8] Rand, Anthem, 30.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 18

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Ibid., 21.

[13] Ibid., 17.

[14] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Signet, 1993), 311.

[15] Rand, Anthem, 72.

[16] Ibid., 73.

[17] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 517.

[18] Diana Glyer, Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings (Kent: Black Squirrel Books, 2016), 149.

[19] Ibid., 39.

[20] Ibid., 38.

[21] Ibid., 96.

[22] Ibid., 97.

[23] Ibid., 76.

[24] Ibid., 95.

[25] Matthew 19:21 (NABRE).

[26] Philippians 2:3 (NABRE).

[27] Today, ‘charity’ mostly means giving to the needy, but the Christian sense is more often ‘love,’ i.e., seeking the other’s good.

[28] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, in The Essential C.S. Lewis (New York: Touchstone, 1988), 462.

[29] Ibid., 460.

[30] T.H. Huxley, “Evolution and Ethics,” Clark University, accessed August 23, 2019, https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE9/E-E.html.

[31] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 76.

[32] C.S. Lewis, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 82.

[33] Ibid., 85.

[34] Rand, Anthem, 104.

[35] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image Books, 2014) chp. 7, iBooks.

[36] Rand, Anthem, 98.

[37] Rand would have meant by “spirit” merely “consciousness,” http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/trader_principle.html.

[38] 2 Peter 3:13 (NABRE).

[39] Rand, Anthem, 95.

[40] Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 969-970.

[41] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: CUP, 2013), 265.

[42] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chp. 2.

[43] K.R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. II — The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), 388.

[44] Matthew 6:25-26 (NABRE).

[45] Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 969.

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