A Curious Aspect of Progress: Inquiry vs. Oppression in ‘Anthem’
“We wished to know. We wished to know about all the things which make the earth around us” (23). Herein Ayn Rand’s hero expresses a universal truth: Homo sapiens are a curious and ever-changing species. For tens of thousands of years, our curiosity has been a driving force behind our intellectual and social development. Scientific thought thrives under the conditions that curiosity brings forth. Equality 7-2521 poses this curiosity in a time where it is forbidden, and contrary to everyone else, he sees development morally and intellectually. Ayn Rand portrayed such a future because she believed that the removal of curiosity through communism would lead to the downfall of humanity and its progress. Without this important aspect of both science and human nature, technological and scientific advancement is impossible. The totalitarian government of Anthem eliminated curiosity and therefore halted technological progress.
In contrast to countless dystopian future novels, the story of Anthem shows a society that has reverted to the dark ages in the sense that scientific and social progress is at a standstill; the government’s total rejection of individuality is completely stopping personal curiosity. The society of Anthem is stagnant both socially and technologically without curiosity. This is clear when Equality displays intelligence and asks questions as a child, but rather than be rewarded, he is punished and given a job that allows no chance to ask such questions. They are actively stopping all forms of curiosity. When his society frowns upon intellect, saying “this is a great sin, to be born with a head that is too quick” (21), it is understandable that they haven’t seen change for generations. Curiosity has been eradicated to the extent that even the Council of Scholars is afraid of challenging their own beliefs, and they become frightened at the thought that they might be wrong. They forbid new discoveries, having not made one for one hundred years, and when shown the new technology that Equality offers, they “leapt to their feet, they ran from the table, and they stood pressed against the wall, huddled together” (70). This mindset makes it impossible for any change to happen and it closes the doors to progress.
Equality stands as the direct contrast to the closed-minded world that Ayn Rand created. While the government lacks curiosity and individuality and hasn’t unchanged for generations, Equality has both of these traits and has seen massive intellectual development during his life. This fact alone suggests that curiosity is necessary for any form of technological advancement for it is the major difference between Equality and his society. Despite the fact that his society forbids education outside of school, Equality’s passionate curiosity pushed him to spend every night in the tunnel and by doing so, he gained more knowledge about the natural world than the combined brainpower of his society. Without his curiosity he would have never challenged the fact that “Council of Scholars has said that there are no mysteries, and the Council of Scholars knows all things” (23). His curiosity led to him viewing himself as an individual rather than a part of his entire society and without this, his journey to independence would be halted.
Not only is Anthem an interesting and thought-provoking novel, it is also heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s experience with communist Russia and her political beliefs that came from it. The world she created was one that let communism take hold and allow society to “become enslaved by the word ‘we’” (102). She believed that communism was an evil and unjust ideology and that it would lead to the downfall of humanity by eliminating individuality and all things that come with it. With all humans being an extension of the state she viewed it impossible for people to have original thoughts and this would inevitably lead to stagnation for all aspects of society.
Although it can be argued that having the government control the educational system would lead to a more strict education that requires all students to learn, it doesn’t allow room for curiosity with its strict educational requirements and it hinders progress by restricting those that learn a different way. These same issues are present when Equality goes through the Home of the Students. With this form of education it is frowned upon to ask too many questions and “the learning was too easy” (21) for him. If a society lacks an educated civilian population, technological progress will be halted by a general lack of information. Both of the educational problems that are present in Anthem have basis in reality and it is reasonable for Ayn Rand to be wary.
The two opposing forces in Anthem are the society itself and Equality 7-2521. While the latter represents close mindedness and lacks any form of advancement, Equality shows the importance and necessity of curiosity for technological improvement. Science and technology is rooted in curiosity and is impossible without it. This conclusion is undeniable when he learned, invented, and discovered using nothing other than wit and curiosity. The society in which he grew up feared the unknown and pushed away anything that challenged their traditional beliefs and has been unchanging for generations. No type of progress can occur under these conditions; curiosity is vital to all forms of technological advancement.
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