Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ayn Rand's Anthem

Tibor R. Machan

In 2007 there were several celebrations focused on the 50th anniversary of
the publication of Ayn Rand's blockbuster novel, Atlas Shrugged. It is a
monumental work in which Rand shows, dramatically, how vital the active
human mind is for our survival and flourishing and how one crucial
precondition for this is political-economic liberty. A mind must be free
so it can explore and create and thus lead to a productive and happy life.
And in large measure America is evidence of this fact, both in its
achievements and its follies--the most evil thing about slavery is that
human beings are being used by others without their consent, without their
free choices recognized as necessary in their lives.

Another less well known work of Miss Rand, the novella Anthem, has
recently been rendered as a budding stage presentation. This gem
chronicles the life of a man in a totally egalitarian society where human
innovation and initiative are prohibited and everyone is regarded as part
of a huge collective without even a scintilla of personal identity. The
protagonist eventually comes across an abandoned dwelling containing books
and manuscripts from an earlier time which no one is allowed to mention,
let alone study. He summons the courage to check out his discovery and
comes to learn that a most important, fundamental absence is plaguing his
community, namely, the systematic, official denial of human individuality,
of the "I" or "self" or "ego." The climax
of the novella is the protagonist beautiful affirmation of the
"I"--it is a riveting hymn that Rand has forged that honors the
human self. (Later Ayn Rand's major student, Nathaniel Branden, wrote a
book developing this point, titled Honoring the Self.)

There was a showing the other day of this new staging of Anthem and I was
privileged to be among those in the audience. Although still in an early
phase of development, the staging does capture, with great power and
beauty, the theme of the novella and as I saw this unfold it occurred to
me that Anthem is perhaps one of the best celebration of the spirit of the
American Revolution. After all, what that revolution was all about is the
liberation of the human individual from the centuries of oppression by
monarchs and other rulers. That is the meaning of the Declaration of
Independence's focus on everyone's unalienable rights to life, liberty and
pursuit of happiness. Your life is no one else's but your own, the
Founders made clear, and only if you give others permission do they gain
the authority to intervene in it, as when a doctor or coach gains such
permission by a patient or team member, respectively.

Detractors have tried to derail the American Revolution by caricaturing it
as promoting an unrealistic "rugged" individualism, that is to
say, the silly idea that we are separate from everyone and can survive
entirely on our own, self-sufficiently. That is simply not what the
Founders nor Ayn Rand had in mind. Our social nature is granted but it
needs to be freely affirmed by each of us instead of imposed upon us by
various self-anointed thugs or even democratic majorities. Other
detractors are more sophisticated and have advanced the absurd idea that
we do not exist as individuals at all, that "I" is a
fabrication. In a recent issue of Science News--a supposedly scientific
publication--the editors saw fit to highlight in a special sidebar the
views of Douglas Hofstadter, author of I am a Strange Loop, arguing that
"The 'I' we create for each of us is a quintessential example of ...
a perceived or invented reality...." Others, in the field of
neuroscience, have been claiming that human beings have no free
will nor, indeed, a conscious mind. Instead, we function automatically and
only believe, ignorantly, that when we act we do so guided by our
thinking. Instead, they argue, we areentirely pre-programmed to act!

These attacks on the human self are only the latest in the history of
human reflection being put into the service of dictators and other rulers
who want us all to agree that we are inconsequential as individuals and
that only the collective matters, only the "we" is important in
human affairs. Even though a little reflection shows how transparently
misguided is this notion, many are not inclined or equipped to address
the idea and this makes it simpler for those who want to anoint themselves
as the representatives of "we" to lord it over the rest of us.
Because all such "we" talk is, in fact, nothing but the
"I" talk of those who want there to be just a few ruling egos.

One cannot emphasize enough how significant this dispute really is. After
centuries of oppression a larger and larger segment of humanity has
finally begun to realize that what is really important politically, even
ethically, is the human individual. The rest is not unimportant but its
importance is derivative, secondary. If this is denied, the result is that
just a few will rule the rest because there really is no
"society," a "we," other than a great many egos in one
another's company. Once this is acknowledged, those would be rulers will
have lost their phony rationale to rule. So clearly they are not going to
simply give up.

So as to give these points their dramatic impact one could do much worse
than read or reread Ayn Rand's Anthem. It is a riveting celebration of
the individual human spirit.

No comments: