Critical Essays The Role of Free Will in Anthem

Ayn Rand depicts characters that make important choices; her characters select from alternatives available to them — significant and sometimes life-and-death issues. Equality 7-2521 is the most obvious example, but not the only character in the book to make such choices. He chooses to wonder about the Unspeakable Word when he could (and, according to this society, should) decide not to. He chooses to conceal both the existence of the tunnel and his experiments, refusing to bow to the Councils' will. He chooses not to tell his captors where he has been though they torture him. He selects International 4-8818 and the Golden One for his intimates from all members of society. He chooses to flee into the wilderness rather than turn his light and his life over to the Councils. In his undaunted willingness to take control of his life, he is the most compelling example of this capacity to choose.

The negative characters make choices as well. The most obvious example is the one made by the World Council of Scholars when Equality 7-2521 presents the electric light. After recovering from their fear, they recognize the value the light possesses. They know the invention will put out of business the newly developed candle industry and will upset the plans of the World Councils, who will now have to incorporate the new invention into society. It is not that the Scholars do not see the light's value. The question is whether they want to take advantage of its value. The alternatives before them are starkly clear: electricity, technological progress, and independent thought; or candles, technological backwardness, and thought control. They make their choice. They select more than candles over electric light; they choose suppression and dictatorship over independence and political freedom. They choose primitive stagnation over progress. They choose squalor and misery over prosperity. They choose the same path of conformity they have followed all their lives rather than an uncharted course of independent thinking. The Scholars have the power to make important choices. Unfortunately, they choose based on their lust for power.

Equality 7-2521's friends also have free will. International 4-8818 makes an understated but important choice in the story. He is faced with a difficult decision when Equality 7-2521 states that they will not report the existence of the tunnel. If he decides not to report it, he is going against everything he has been taught, every law decreed by the Councils and, consequently, is risking his life. If, on the other hand, he chooses to inform the Councils, he not only violates the trust of his good friend but also likely condemns his friend to a death sentence. International 4-8818 makes the extraordinary decision to repudiate everything he has learned to stand by Equality 7-2521. If he makes a different choice, Equality 7-2521 is lashed to death before he ever begins his research, he does not invent the electric light, and he does not discover the meaning of the word "I." International 4-8818's choice to support Equality 7-2521 is vital to the outcome of this conflict.

The Golden One likewise makes a life-altering decision in the face of alternatives. When she hears that Equality 7-2521 has fled into the Uncharted Forest, she is confronted by a difficult dilemma. If she chooses to pursue Equality 7-2521, she faces excommunication from the only society she has known and probable (from her perspective) death in the untamed wilderness. But if she selects the physical and psychological safety of the culture in which she was raised, then she loses the man she loves. The Golden One's choice is as bold as International 4-8818's. She chooses to risk all, including her life, to find Equality 7-2521. In her choice, too, the stakes are high. If she selects the safety of conformity, then Equality 7-2521 is alone, and his attempt to initiate a new society is undercut by his lack of a wife.

Even the society of drones who blindly follow the edicts of the Councils are shown to do so voluntarily. These people are not brainwashed by means of drugs or physical torture; they are not beaten into submission. Rather, they simply conform. They go along with what they are taught. They do not question the councils, even in their own minds. They are not like Equality 7-2521 or the Golden One. They show no independence of spirit. It is true that no open dissent is tolerated by the rulers — and punishment for disobedience is swift and, in some cases, terminal. But none of the followers shows any indication that, like Equality 7-2521, they have nurtured — in private and quietly — a mind of their own. The entire populace of the city stood in the public square and witnessed the execution of the Saint of the Pyre. But so far as we know, none of the others is haunted by the memory nor seeks the meaning of the Unspeakable Word. Certainly, nobody but Equality 7-2521 defies the Council's commands to pursue personal values. All that the citizens have been taught is that the wisdom of the Councils is complete — so they accept it and obey.

The members of this society, including the adults, are like obedient children who unquestioningly accept what their parents tell them. Equality 7-2521, the Golden One, and International 4-8818 question the Councils in their own minds; the others accept what they are told. In the face of the alternative between independent thinking and blind compliance, different individuals make different choices.

It would be mistaken to morally condemn the masses for their unwillingness to keep alive their own minds and spirits. They are not evil but are cowed by the authoritarianism of the rulers. The Councils that mandate blind obedience are evil. Rather, the intriguing question raised by the heroic characters is how they manage to keep alive their own minds in the face of such oppressive pressure to conform. Ayn Rand's purpose is not to criticize the crowd, but to glorify the rare individuals who know, against all teaching and social pressure, that their minds are sacred and not to be surrendered to authority.

Such individuals exist in real life, as well. Children who are raised by tyrannical parents rebel against the arbitrary dogma forced on them. Closer to the situation of Anthem are those brave souls who oppose the governments of Nazi or Communist regimes, men and women who are dissidents or even members of an armed resistance. Countries such as Russia, China, and various East European states were or have been Communist for many decades, with entire generations born, raised, and educated under collectivism. Most of the populace of these countries, as depicted in Anthem, accepted and followed the teachings of their leaders. But some chose to be dissidents, risking their lives by speaking out against the regime, seeking greater freedom, and in many cases going to prison or concentration camps for their convictions. Many were executed for their outspoken activities. The extraordinary heroism displayed by Equality 7-2521, International 4-8818, and the Golden One lacks neither historical precedent nor current example.

But such courage remains extraordinary. No deeper factors necessitate Equality 7-2521's independence. That nothing necessitates his use of the mind is what makes it a choice. However, the question can be asked: What makes it possible? With what faculty or power does he resist the oppressive dogma of his society? The author's answer is that the nature of the individual is to be a thinker. Just as a bird's nature is to fly, a lion's is to hunt, and a cow's is to give milk, so a human's is to think. Birds have wings, lions have claws, and so on. Humans have brains, and successful living on earth requires them to use them. An oppressive family or society, in requiring blind conformity, fights a war against human nature, which is to be a thinking being.

The dictators may succeed in cowing large elements of the populace, convincing them to meekly grovel — but they will never succeed in changing human nature. Their mandates are powerless to alter the earth's orbit around the sun or a plant's necessity to conduct photosynthesis or a bird's need to fly. Similarly, their commands cannot change the fact that a human is a thinking being. Therefore, the possibility of thinkers arising to question those who wish to subjugate others cannot be extirpated.

Dictators fight an endless battle against human nature, for every infant born in every year is a potential threat; they cannot afford to stunt the intellectual development of merely most. The dictators must get them all. For even one like Equality 7-2521 — even one Copernicus or Galileo or Darwin or Thomas Jefferson — is a grave danger to their power. The rulers must be ceaselessly, zealously on guard, regarding the brain of every baby as a potential death threat. The tyrants, in battling human nature, face a hopeless task and are doomed to lose. In every birth is the possibility of an extraordinary individual such as Equality 7-2521, one who chooses human nature rather than the arbitrary dogma of a dictator. These are the heroes responsible for humanity's rise from prehistoric savagery to modern civilization.

There have been dogmatists and dictators from the dawn of history — religious, political, even familial — who in their quest for power have sought to stifle the human mind. Again and again, they have carved out their fiefdoms and declared the human duty to obey; empires have lasted for generations, even centuries. But in the end, thinkers such as Equality 7-2521 arise, who know from childhood that their allegiance is to their mind, not their ruler, and who set forth new thoughts. The age old battle has gone by many names — in Anthem, it is the individual versus the collective — but the primordial antagonists, though taking varying forms, remain the same: those who champion the mind and those who stifle it. This is the fundamental choice confronted by human beings. In Anthem, those on each side are clear.

Pop Quiz!

After inventing the electric light, why does Equality 7-2521 want to know about his appearance?


I never met my grandma, who my mom says lives in a hovel and wants her to move in with us. Then I saw that word in Frankenstein. What's a hovel? I thought it was like a place that had room service.

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