Individualism, Collectivism, and the Unconquerable Image of God

I worship individuals for their highest possibilities as individuals, but I loathe humanity, for its failure to live up to those possibilities. –Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s Anthem stands as a classic example of the power of fiction to accomplish by way of story what can only with great difficulty be accomplished by traditional argument or essay. The book is an examination of the force of collective consciousness, and in this case, the brutal violence that results from the eradication of individual consciousness and will. But it is also a testament to the impossibility of conquering the human spirit, and by extension, a testament to the profound protection of God, who has wisely chosen to make it impossible for one human being, or any group of human beings, to destroy the individual sovereignty of another.

Anthem’s artistic merit lies, at least in part, in Rand’s well-executed pairing of form (the way the book is written) with content (the ideas themselves). At first, it’s not an easy book to read, because the text is a journal record written by a man who has no access to first person singular pronouns or the ideas that come with them – he cannot use words like “I,” “me,” or “myself,” because he does not know them. His society has eradicated them in an attempt to destroy the kind of individuality that causes revolutions.

Here’s an example from the beginning of the book: “Our name is Equality 7-2521, as it is written on the iron bracelet which all men wear on their left wrists with their names upon it. We are twenty-one years old. We are six feet tall, and this is a burden, for there are not many men who are six feet tall… But we cannot change our bones or our body.”

What Equality 7-2521 (yes, this is his name) means by “we” is “I,” but he cannot say “I,” because the word does not exist in his world.

The first time I read Anthem, I found myself “translating” the book in my head as I read. I knew that Equality 7-2521 was an individual person, and so I started reading “I” every time I saw “we.” I was experiencing what psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance – my mind was having trouble reconciling what I was reading to what I knew to be true, and so I automatically “fixed” the words on the page without even thinking about it.

And I think that this dissonance is exactly Rand’s point. Without me even realizing it, she put me in the shoes of her main character. My battle was the same as his – the bounds of the language I was reading, and he was writing, were insufficient to accurately describe the most basic, undeniable facts about reality.

C.S. Lewis once described the power of reality this way: “What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.”

Lewis had in mind our moral choices, but I think his idea applies to any situation in which we confront the created world. God has embedded within our reality certain undeniable truths, among which is the necessity of both individuality and community. And as is the case in so many facets of our existence as human beings, God’s natural revelation, when we are appropriately attentive to it, pushes us toward balance.

Every one of us, like Equality 7-2521, is “unconquered” in our individuality. We simply do not have the ability to once and for all surrender ourselves, mind, body, and will, to a collective. But neither do we have the power to exist in total isolation from our kinsmen.

Here I find what is perhaps the most timely of Rand’s ideas. When Equality 7-2521 finally escapes his society and begins to assert his individual will, he is alone. But shortly after his escape, a woman named Liberty 5-3000 chases after him and finds him in the forest.

Ironically, his life in the collective made relationship impossible, because in the collective it was illegal to think any thought that did not belong to the society. Because individual consciousness was subsumed into the collective mind, no individual person had anything to give to another individual person.

But when Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 gain their individuality, they gain with it the ability to relate to one another. And in showing us the impotence of the “relationships” that exist in the collective society, Rand makes quite clear that giving, that is, service, is the most basic and practical foundation of all human connection.

Clearly, Rand intentionally draws our awareness to the impossibility of finally conquering the individual human spirit, but even in her forceful reaction to the communal consciousness of her fictional society (and perhaps also to those communal societies she saw being attempted during her lifetime), Rand cannot ultimately escape our innate need to connect with one another (and this, I think, is the most fatal weakness of her individualist philosophy).

In this impossibility – the inability, even in fiction, to imagine a truly autonomous and isolated human life – I see once again God’s protection, and I see His image lived out in the deepest expressions of human consciousness.

Like God, we are not alone. And like the community in which He eternally exists, our communities are only as strong as those individuals of whom they consist.

In short, our examination of our reality continually reveals to us the fact that the most foundational, grounding value of all existence is love; that is, the unselfish, continual giving of oneself that begins with strength and ends with the kind of fullness (that is, glory) that can only come from willingly emptying ourselves.

Like God, we are one, unified, individual, and we cannot be other. And like Him, we are unconquerably tied to one another in the inescapable community of our shared humanity. We are simultaneously both “we” and “I,” and the tension of living within both these realities is where God teaches us the true beauty of His Trinitarian essence.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged , , , , by pcfaust. Bookmark the permalink.

About pcfaust

Paul is the Pastor of Young Adults and Ministry at Grace Church of Arvada in Arvada, Colorado. He completed his Master of Arts in English at Liberty in May of 2012, and he's recently been contemplating the way that God continually reaches out to "outsiders" - people that aren't usually considered His favorites. He also likes to make up nonsense words with his three year old son, and he hasn't yet figured out how he ended up married to such an incredibly beautiful woman.

3 thoughts on “Individualism, Collectivism, and the Unconquerable Image of God

  1. Excellent insights, Paul. Your point about each of us being both an “I” and a “we” reminds me of Martin Buber’s work—the moment we say “I,” we by default include “thou,” the other, the ones around us of which we are all a part. I’m also reminded of Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” in which one of the characters realizes the shared responsibility we all have for each other. Though we may not be directly involved in some evil act out there in the world, we all are guilty for the injustices that we allow in our community. Our passivity breeds liability. John Donne said it best: “No man is an island”—we are connected and affected by the actions of others. We collectively make up mankind, and we are all in this together.

  2. Good thoughts Paul! Great thoughts to counter the millennial culture at large that is clawing at and trying to claim its identity in individuality. I love the tie-in to God’s Trinitarian nature. The beauty of the Trinity is that they (God, Spirit, & Son) are all intrinsically different in nature and in purpose. Yet, at the same time, they cannot and do not function or exist outside of their community. Hense, we are all created in the likeness of God, or rather, created in the likeness of God, Spirit, & Son.

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