Anthem is a novella of approximately 82 pages written by Russian-American philosopher and writer Ayn Rand, whose most famous work “Atlas Shrugged” was once considered to be among the most influential books in America, second only to the Bible. Rand’s name and philosophy still has a great following in America and across the world. With her name come strong reactions, and rightly so. Essentially, Ayn Rand is an advocate of capitalism and staunch opponent of the concept of altruism, which we can define as being the doing of something for somebody else’s benefit at one’s own sacrifice. If you are interested in learning more about Ayn Rand’s philosophy, I shall link up some videos at the end of this post.
Her work Anthem depicts an absurdly communal society, in which all forms of individuality have been stamped out, even saying the word “I” instead of “we” earns death, and in which the world is trapped in this static state, for technological advancement is only ever tentatively allowed, in the rare occasions when it is. Rand’s construction of this society is unambiguously linked to Plato’s Republic and this entire work can be seen as a criticism of Plato’s ideas concerning society. However, I do not feel that Rand has managed to accurately portray Plato’s ideas, instead interpreting them in a heavily biased way, portraying him as an authoritarian nightmare. This is not just!
I am going to highlight where Rand went wrong and what I interpret Plato to mean.
Firstly, in this world that Rand has shown us, each man and woman is told how they are to spend their lives, their profession is assigned to them. This is found in Plato. However, in Anthem, the men and women are not assigned their role through any form of system, it seems to be entirely arbitrary. Within the Republic, men and women are assigned their role within society based not their aptitudes and abilities. As every person has more than one thing that they are good at, this would thereby mean that every individual would have options about what they would chose to do, as long as they had a certain degree of talent. Rand’s character is obviously intelligent, but he is assigned the role of Street-sweeper completely arbitrarily. In the Platonic society, this would not be permitted to happen.
Rand presents this pseudo-platonic world as if it were this grand empire which stretches over the entire civilised world. Essentially, men are forced to be part of this empire, forced into living according to this one centralised system. This is not the same within Plato. Plato presents a society which he states could not operate at a global level. His Republic only works on a relatively limited scale, with there evidently being room for other forms of society to exist outside it. Therefore, whilst Plato thinks the Republic is the best way to live, he does not say that those who wish to leave should be forced into living within it. Instead, he argues that people should be able to leave and enter the Republic, so long as those in the Republic live under its rule.
Anthem also shows this society as being one in which technology and human progress is stunted and limited due to fear of the individual becoming more important than the collective. This is not something you find in Plato. Due to the nature of his Republic, the fact that talents are encouraged to grow and develop fully and that there is the unifying ideal that everyone within the Republic would seek the best for everyone, technological advancement would become of great importance and would become a lot more possible than in today’s western society, in which finance and competing goals serve to impede much advancement. Rand’s argument that technology and progress would be enhanced due to individualism is simply not correct. Individualism might produce ideas much faster, but realising such ideas becomes far more difficult.
One point which absolutely horrified me was when Rand described the society as preventing people from writing or drawing because they were not sorted as scribes or artists. Whereas Plato might have assigned scribes to serve as bureaucrats or historians, though I doubt he would, considering that he was not one for pointless levels of bureaucracy. However, Plato would never assign someone’s life role to be that of an artist, for he was notoriously anti-art (due to his considering it to be a copy of a copy). No, in an ideal Platonic society, the ordinary people would be able to pursue their interests in art and in literature and self-expression how they wish. Though Plato does devote much of his work to which types of this should be suppressed, he is mostly referring to the Guardians, not to the common people.
Though ultimately Ayn Rand is trying to use Anthem as a wider criticism of authoritarianism and of communal ideals of living, such as Marxism, the societal model she presents is a debased version of Plato’s Republic and one which is not very well understood. Hopefully, I have shown you why you should never trust Ayn Rand.
Here are the videos I mentioned before. If you are interested in her effects on America, you should search for the documentary series “Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, 1. Love and Power”