"I am. I think. I will." So opens the chapter in which Equality 7-2521 re-discovers the lost and holy word, the forbidden idea for which the Saint of the Pyre was burned at the stake. The acquisition of this knowledge fulfills the intellectual quest on which Equality 7-2521 had embarked as a 10-year-old — the attempt to discover and understand the Unspeakable Word.
He had searched for meaning in life, and now realizes that he is the meaning. He had wished to find a warrant for being, but now understands that he needs neither warrant nor sanction. He is the warrant and sanction of his existence. He is overcome with the emotional experience of his intellectual realization: he has a right to his own life. He is not a mere appendage of a group. He can choose his own path in life — his own interests, his own profession, his own wife, his own home. He is a free man, able to choose his goals, and then work strenuously to achieve them. Related to this is his realization that no individual — neither himself nor any other human being — is a tool to be employed by others for some end they seek to accomplish. Humans are not servants, he claims, to bow and scrape before society, to render obedient service. An individual is "not a sacrifice on their altars."
Equality 7-2521 realizes, after studying the books of the Unmentionable Times, what the proper relation is between individuals. He owes no unchosen obligations to his brothers and sisters, nor do they owe him such. He states that he is neither a friend nor a foe to others, "but such as each of them shall deserve." Love, he claims, must be earned — and that requires more than the sheer fact of being born; it requires the attainment of virtue.
Equality 7-2521 will choose friends from among his fellow humans, but neither masters nor servants. He says that he will love and respect his friends, but neither command nor obey them. And when humans come together in friendship and in love, they will join hands only beyond each one's "holy threshold," and each will respect the personal boundaries of the other. Looking back on his past life in the city — and thinking sorrowfully of those innocent people still trapped there — he realizes that the horrors of his former society are the result of destroying the personal boundaries that each individual properly claims as their own. Equality 7-2521 proclaims that he is forever done with the code of "we," with this creed of evil and destruction. He sees clearly the beneficent consequences that can result — as they did in the past — when society recognizes the sacred rights of individuals to mind, soul, values, and life. He observes the face of a god, the god sought by humans since the inception of the world, the god who will grant joy and peace and pride. "This god, this one word: I."
Equality 7-2521 has learned more than the word "I" from studying the texts of the Unmentionable Times. He has begun to understand the individualistic philosophy that underlies the meaning and value of this word. Equality 7-2521 had always understood this philosophy implicitly — he had felt that it was true and had lived it in action. But prior to the events of this chapter, he had not the conceptual understanding of such a philosophy; he lacked the vocabulary — the very words — necessary to think about it. In reading the lost books, he discovers the words and the thoughts that explain and validate what he has always felt. At the emotional level, he had always believed an individual has the right to his own life. Now, for the first time, he knows this is true, understanding it as an explicit, fully articulated intellectual theory.
The emotional power of this chapter must be noted. Leading to this point in the story have been pages of unrelenting collectivism. The reader has been immersed in a world in which all shreds of individuality have been ruthlessly extirpated, in which the word "we" is the only form of first-person reference known, and in which the group holds unquestioned dominion over an individual's life. Now, as Equality 7-2521 opens the chapter with the words, "I am, I think, I will," the impact of those words is profound. Equality 7-2521 has been liberated in a way far more fundamental than his physical escape. He is finally freed from the collectivist philosophy with which he has been indoctrinated all his life.
Formerly, the collectivist state owned his mind, for he still accepted the truth of their principles. Even in his acts of rebellion — during his scientific research when hidden in his tunnel, when illicitly wooing the Golden One, as he made his escape into the Uncharted Forest — he still believed that what he did was wrong. He still thought of himself as a transgressor worthy of punishment. He had rejected the collectivist code emotionally and in action. He had asked questions and tried to understand. But given his necessarily limited amount of knowledge, he had not the capacity to reach a full level of comprehension. When he reads the books of those of the lost times, however, he acquires the vocabulary of freedom. His opening words of the chapter have all the meaning and emotional power of his final liberation from slavery.
The fundamental purpose of this chapter is to explain what the events of the book have dramatized. The story has already shown that the subordination of the individual to the group leads to nothing but destruction in human life. Now Ayn Rand, through the intellectual discoveries of the hero, provides a philosophical explanation. The "I," Equality 7-2521 understands, represents the fundamental truth about a human being's nature. A human's mind and spirit are personal attributes; they do not belong to others and are not communal property. A person's innermost thoughts — hopes, dreams, values, aspirations, loves — belong exclusively to that person. These thoughts are the priceless items that give life its meaning and are not to be seized by others for any purpose whatever. If the content of a person's mind is to be dictated by the state, then no human life is possible, only the existence of a worker ant in unrelenting toil to the colony. The "I," or self, is sacred and must be preserved at all costs.
The "we," or group, can be a positive force in humanity, but only when it is understood to be a derivative phenomenon. Human beings can form a society beneficial to all of its members only when they recognize the sovereign right of each individual to his or her own life. Equality 7-2521 knows full well what it is like when society does not recognize this truth — indeed, he has had the lesson taken out on his hide. When the individual is denied this basic right, all that is then possible is a slave society.
But Equality 7-2521 now understands that if society recognizes individuality, then benevolent interaction in numerous forms becomes possible. Clearly, persons who respect each other's rights and boundaries can bond in close friendships of the kind between Equality 7-2521 and International 4-8818. Similarly, if human beings recognize the unique and distinctive characteristics of each individual, then they are capable of romantic love, such as the relationship between Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One. Recognition of each person's unrepeatable attributes of selfhood makes it possible to choose, to value, to have preferences.
Friendship and love are both discriminatory. They are preferential and not given equally to all comers. The feelings of friendship and love that give rise to close human relationships are selective responses given only to rare individuals who embody in their lives and persons the qualities that the chooser values. Such individualized responses are not possible in a society so collectivized that all recognition of individuality is expunged from thinking. Friendship, love, and valuing are functions of the self. All these inner actions are performed exclusively by individuals, not by groups; these actions are personal, not social, in nature. Societies, Equality 7-2521 now realizes, are merely groups of individuals. Societies are secondary manifestations; the individual is fundamental.
Further, although Equality 7-2521's study of his ancient texts of individuality and freedom may not be sufficiently advanced to give him knowledge of economics, a further benefit to humankind exists from living in a society that recognizes and respects individual personhood: a division of labor economy. For when individuals have "inalienable rights," as one of the writers of that ancient civilization proclaimed, then they are free to choose their own interests, including their professions. When individuals pursue the careers they love, as Equality 7-2521 does with scientific research, they are motivated, even to the point of crouching in a hidden tunnel to gain several precious hours alone for their studies. Persons with that degree of incentive are significantly more productive than those whom the state forces into an occupation. As individuals with rights, they are willing to work longer and harder, for they both love their work and keep its proceeds. Such a free, capitalistic economy is far more prosperous than the collectivist dictatorship under which Equality 7-2521 formerly existed. As Equality 7-2521 studies further, he no doubt will gain these insights into economics. They are applications of what he has recently learned: that only when society realizes that each one is a sovereign individual with rights not to be abridged by the group, does life in human society become fulfilling. In the absence of this knowledge, all live under the oppressive tyranny of the collective.
The name of the moral theory that Equality 7-2521 has struggled to reach, and finally understands in this chapter, is egoism. The root word, ego, means "self" or "I." The theory of egoism states that individuals should be the beneficiaries of their own actions, should strive to attain their own happiness, and should not sacrifice the self. The code that Equality 7-2521 re-discovers, and that is endorsed by the author, is known as rational egoism. This theory holds that an individual should earn the things on which happiness depends. By means of education, hard work, and honest effort, persons should strive to reach those goals that will make them happy. Rational egoism rejects the victimization of others as a means of reaching happiness; it is a theory upholding the right of all individuals to work diligently and earn the things that bring meaning and joy into their lives.
When the moral code of rational egoism is applied to politics, it leads to a system of limited, constitutional government that protects an individual's inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The ethics of rational egoism leads to a politics of individualism. Equality 7-2521 understands by means of his reading that, in the past, the moral code of rational egoism was expounded by some thinkers and led to political freedom for millions of individuals. This moral code and its political consequence are what Equality 7-2521 seeks to revive in his society.
In Equality 7-2521's society, egoism is considered evil and has been expunged over the centuries from its memory. In its place, society has taught an opposite code — the theory of altruism. Altruism states that individuals have a moral obligation to sacrifice themselves for others, that satisfying the desires of other persons should take precedence in an individual's life. Under this moral code, an individual has no right to his or her own life but exists solely as a servant of others.
When an altruist moral code is applied to politics, it leads to an individual's enforced servitude to society. On this view, an individual has no inalienable rights, but exists solely to serve the state. Just as a moral code of rational egoism leads directly to a politics of individualism and freedom, so the morality of altruism leads to a politics of collectivism and dictatorship. Equality 7-2521's reading teaches him that the widespread acceptance of altruism is what makes possible the horrors of the collectivist dictatorship he has recently escaped. Equality 7-2521 seeks to liberate his society from this moral code and its ensuing politics of slavery.
Equality 7-2521's education now includes an intellectual understanding of the moral code by which he will live, and the code he will shun. He understands that egoism is a code leading to benevolence, an attitude of kindness and goodwill toward others. He sees from his own life, as well as from his study of the free societies of the past, that when persons are encouraged to live their own lives, they are fulfilled and happy within themselves. Because they do not have to sacrifice themselves for others, people are no threat to them. Each has a right to self-fulfillment, so each, therefore, has value. The rational egoist, Equality 7-2521 now grasps, recognizes that human beings have rights and treats them accordingly — with respect and goodwill. Kindness toward others depends on the recognition that each individual possesses inalienable rights.
Additionally, based on the brutality of the collectivist society he has escaped, Equality 7-2521 realizes the horror of the altruist code. When persons have no rights — when they exist solely to serve the state — then they become just so many sacrificial animals. The code of self-sacrifice leads inevitably to slavery. In spite of their claims to human love, those who advocate human sacrifice have no love for human beings. If they did, they would not urge the surrender of personal values and the sacrifice of the self to the group. Rather, they would urge all to pursue their values, to achieve them, and to reach a state of joyous fulfillment. The code of rational egoism that Equality 7-2521 plans to offer will lead humankind to personal success and happiness. The code of altruism from which he hopes to deliver them leads only to slavery and misery.