Musings on Ayn Rand’s Anthem

I read the slender 68-page Anthem in preparation for eventually moving to the more well known (and by far longer) novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

As an introduction to Rand’s objectivist philosophy, Anthem reads like an extended parable. A lesson on the natural outcome of collective thinking, and a reminder of the strength of the human mind to overcome its limitations.

I do think that Rand goes into overreach when writing on the self, and crosses into solipsism — that is only thinking of oneself. Rand is ultra materialist, to the point where she trips on her own logic. The difficulty with embracing total empiricism, granting existence to only what one can observe, does frustrate innovation and development. The rejection of any kind of concept of we rejects the basis of collective endeavor, which limits the degree to which people can improve their lot.

Indeed, if politics can loosely be defined as the endeavor by humans to work together and apply values within a grouping of people, then politics would be anathema to Randism. The last word in the book, which the author describes as being the most important; is ego. But even Freud theorised that the ego is measured against the super-ego, or ‘big other’, and identity and behavior is subject to this contest.

Perhaps it is simply the world we currently live in verses the world Rand wrote in which makes her seem so extreme. In her time there was a very real totalitarian system based on socialist collectivist ideals. She was very much writing in opposition to this, but viewed in this anti-totalitarian light it is hard for me to give her much credit. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is a much better indictment in that way, and has weathered the intervening years much better.

On the objectivist philosophy I don’t think people need any further reason to think and act selfishly. I also reject the basis Rand has for saying an action taken that benefits others is undertaken selfishly. That when she did something for her husband it was because she took selfish pleasure in it. She has a good point, but I think objectivists apply it too stringently.

Some things are simply worth it for their own sake, and for people who do things on this basis I think they are truly not acting selfishly. I can see why Ayn Rand continues to be influential some thirty years after her death, she gives some people the intellectual excuse to be utterly self-interested, and since that mentality has a fertile ground in consumerist times, I expect her shadow will be a long time hanging around.

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