There was no pain in their eyes and no knowledge of the agony of their body. There was only joy in them, and pride, a pride holier than it is fit for human pride to be.
While he watches the Transgressor of the Unspeakable Word burn at the stake in Chapter II, Equality 7-2521 makes this observation about the Transgressor’s stoicism. The word the Transgressor has spoken is “I,” a concept forbidden in the society because everyone must work for the good of his or her brothers and any thought that occurs in private is necessarily evil. The Transgressor does not believe in collectivism, and he finds Equality 7-2521 in the crowd and locks eyes with him while he dies, a moment that Equality 7-2521 concludes marks him and destines him to start a new race of men who are individuals. It is the same kind of stoicism that Equality 7-2521 himself demonstrates when he is incarcerated and beaten at the Palace of Corrective Detention for refusing to tell the council about his tunnel when he returns late to the Home of the Street Sweepers.
Equality 7-2521’s observation about the peaceful and even euphoric nature of the Transgressor of the Unspoken Word’s death relates closely to Rand’s belief that humans do not feel bodily pain when they suffer for the sake of an ideal. Rand’s heroes do not feel fear or remorse about their social sins when they are committed in the name of a higher good, namely, the individual. Indeed, for Rand, any action grounded in the individual’s sense of self is admirable. The Transgressor is the only character in Anthem, other than Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One, who demonstrates a sense of self-worth and a willingness to suffer for his autonomy and who thus rises above the constraints of his society.
“Many men in the Homes of the Scholars have had strange new ideas in the past . . . but when the majority of their brother Scholars voted against them, they abandoned their ideas, as all men must.”
These words of a member of the World Council of Scholars, which exiles Equality 7-2521 after he presents his lightbulb, in Chapter VII, reflect the view, pervasive in Equality 7-2521’s society, that any idea not held by all men is worthless. Equality 7-2521’s confidence in the usefulness of his invention is irrelevant, as the council cares not about advancing scientific progress but rather about controlling it. The World Council will not act unless all its members agree and, as a result, has not approved any technological progress in the last hundred years. The philosophy expounded here by the council member reflects the ideals of collectivism, against which the whole of Anthem is written. Rand believes that when society acts based on consensus, the weakest members of society drag down the most exemplary members, with the result that society never achieves its maximum potential. This system represents the we that Rand considers the ultimate evil in society and against which all her heroes, including Equality 7-2521, fight.
“[I]f this should lighten the toil of men . . . then it is a great evil, for men have no cause to exist save in toiling for other men.”
This opinion, which a member of the World Council of Scholars voices in Chapter VII, reflects one of the crucial tenets of collectivism. Not only must all decisions be made by committee, but all men must work not for their own profit but for the benefit of their brothers. If men’s lives are really aimed only at toil, then all pleasure, progress, and invention are barred to them, according to Rand, who believes that the kind of thinking exhibited by the World Council of Scholars leads to the destruction of all joy and technology in society. The result of this way of thinking, according to Rand, is that work becomes oppressive and ruins the lives of those conscripted to it. Rand calls this kind of work slavery and believes that it stifles all creativity and happiness. After this encounter with the World Council of Scholars, Equality 7-2521 comes to realize that work must be done for its own sake or because it benefits the individual, not because it can be of any assistance to society.
Equality 7-2521 utters these words after he discovers the word “I” in Chapter XI. After proceeding through all his life using the word “we” to refer to himself, for the first time he experiences freedom and the joy that accompanies it. Once he is able to express himself using his new word, Equality 7-2521 is able to imagine a whole new life for himself and the Golden One, in which they live on their own land and eat food they produce. Rand believes the “I” must be the primary thought of the individual, while the “we” can be a second thought, at best. When the two are reversed, society becomes oppressive rather than liberating for men, and the dystopian world presented in Anthem comes into being. When the “I” is allowed to maintain its primacy, the world has beauty because the individual sees it and has meaning because the individual wills it. An individual who realizes his or her own self-worth lives only for him- or herself and for the “I” Equality 7-2521 first expresses here.
But I still wonder how it was possible, in those graceless years of transition, long ago, that men did not see whither they were going, and went on, in blindness and cowardice, to their fate.
Part of the exposition of Equality 7-2521’s newfound philosophy in Chapter XII, these words describe his reflection on the history of the human race and on how it came to disintegrate into madness and fear through the evils of collectivism. Anthem is, above all else, a political work, aimed at reforming those who have fallen to what Rand believes is the collectivist heresy, and at giving comfort to those who are still fighting for individualism. Rand believes that individualism will never actually perish because it is ingrained in human existence; it is the root of man’s happiness. Nevertheless, she thinks, it is possible for man to lose sight of the importance of the ego and allow society to become oppressive. Anthem is a wake-up call to those who may be losing sight, and the “graceless years of transition” are supposed to be the years of its publication, when Rand sees communism as taking hold not only in Russia but in the United States as well.