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Ayn Rand’s novella ANTHEM, published in 1938 and revised in a 1946 edition, is set in a fictitious collectivist community, one smaller and simpler than Kira’s historical setting in WE THE LIVING. Rand’s ANTHEM is presented as a journal kept by her protagonist whose name is Equality 7-2521. He records that he dares to choose, in the secrecy of his own mind, work he hopes to do when leaving the Home of the Students. He loves the Science of Things. He hopes he will be selected to be a scholar, but the authorities appoint him to be a street sweeper.

The technology of his isolated community is very primitive in comparison to an earlier lost civilization (ours). His people have candles, but not electricity. He discovers a subway tunnel from the ancient civilization, and he begins to experiment with electricity in secret at night. In his own community, each refers to himself as “we”. Of his secret work at night, he thinks: “We alone, of the thousands who walk this earth, we alone in this hour are doing a work which has no purpose save that we wish to do it” (1946, 23). In his love of the science of things, he is similar to Kira, and to Howard Roark and to John Galt, the principal protagonists of Rand’s later fiction. He is similar to Kira also in her “wanting to learn a work I like only because I like it,” and he is similar to her in standing against society made collectivist.

Comes a moment to Equality 7-2521: “This moment is a sacrament which calls us and dedicates our body to the service of some unknown duty we shall know. Old laws are dead. Old tablets have been broken [by me]. A clean, unwritten slate is now lying before our hands [my hands]. Our fingers are to write” (1938, 125–26). The talk of breaking old tablets is an echo of Nietzsche’s  “On Old and New Tablets” (Z III). However, the moral principles Equality 7-2521 would replace are the ones he had known in his one and only society, not the ones of wider world and history. He is not on the brink of writing principles entirely different from ones known in the ancient times, the times of the reader. His task of moral philosophy is not the task of the God of Moses nor the task of radical and continual transvaluation and self-overcoming that Zarathustra gives to human creators.

Rand wrote ANTHEM (1938) in the summer of 1937. In her manuscript for ANTHEM, she continually tries to suit ideas of Nietzsche to her story, then scratches them out (Milgram 2005; Mayhew 2005). Naturally, I wonder if she was not also, in some of those same strokes of the pen, writing down ideas of Nietzsche that she had seen attractive as truth, or at least promising as truth, then rejecting them as inadequate to her own grasp of the truth. Writing one’s ideas down and reading them helps one think better.

Near the end of the fable ANTHEM, our true searcher Equality 7-2521 announces:

“And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men have come into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.

“This god, this one word: ‘I’.” (1946, 90)

In his community of origin, Equality 7-2521 had wanted to know the meaning of things, the meaning of existence. He had wanted to know the secrets of nature, and he had come to suspect there is some important secret of human existence unknown to all. After fleeing his collectivist society, he becomes alone the live-long day. He comes upon an uninhabited fine house and learns from its books many wonders of the advanced science of the ancient civilization. He discovers the word “I”. That is, he discovers that word and attains the concept “I” distinctly and firmly set.

He no longer writes “we” or “we alone” or “we alone only” in his journal to refer to himself. A new chapter begins. He writes: “I am. I think. I will” (1946, 86).

With this fundamental discovery, Equality 7-2521 has become a Prometheus, whose name he takes for his own. He continues:

“What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.

“I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning.” (1946, 86)

There is one word “which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory. / The sacred word: EGO” (1946, 98).

That last quotation is the close of the story. At the time this story was written (1937), there were no atomic weapons, no nuclear arsenals, and I think it was an ordinary assumption among people not Christian that human kind would continue effectively forever on the earth. Consider too that ANTHEM is a poetic work, and in poetic expression, as in dreams, conjured images condense multiple associations. In the case of poetic expression, the suggested associations are set up by the wider text. To write that the word “ego” and that which it names cannot be eradicated from the earth might be playing on multiple meanings of “earth”. One meaning is the third planet from the sun; another is the dwelling place of mortal men, as distinct from mythological realms of immortal beings; another is the collection of human inhabitants on the planet. Rand’s uses of “earth” with talk of ego in ANTHEM can rightly carry those three meanings simultaneously. I think the most salient of these meanings in Rand’s use here is the second one. She is not only making a statement about the endurance of ego among all possible societies (the third meaning). She is most saliently making a statement about ego in relation to all the earth, to all the abode of human existence.

At the core of ANTHEM, her manifesto of individualism, Rand sets a foundational sequence of thoughts: “I am. I think. I will.” Although Rand lists “will” as third in her 1938 foundational sequence, third in sequence of philosophical reflection; she awards “I will” some preeminence over “I am,” which she characterizes as self of truth, and over “I think,” which she characterizes as protector of self (1938, 128–29). Of words, “only three are holy: ‘I will it’” (129). Further:

“Where I go, there does my will go before me. My will, which chooses, and orders, and creates. My will, the master which knows no masters. . . . My will, which is the thin flame, still and holy, in the shrine of my body, my body which is but the shrine of my will.” (129)

This opposes 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, which would have the body of a righteous individual be temple of the Holy Spirit and would deny self-ownership of one’s body, which has been bought by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Prometheus’ line “Where I go, there does my will go before me” says I go only where I will, but expresses it in echo and in substitution of various King James biblical passages saying God is with one and goes before one to subvert threats or create lights in one’s path. Moses says to Joshua: “And the Lord, he IT IS that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee” (Deut. 31:8). Additional parallels (anti-parallels) between ANTHEM and the Bible are observed in Simental 2013, 100–105.

I do not think that the preeminence of “will” in Rand 1938 is a tuning to Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. It looks to be, rather, a bannering of liberty.

In her 1946 edit of ANTHEM, Rand posed ego as stay of the earth not because ego is earth’s heart, spirit, and glory, but because ego is the earth’s heart, meaning, and glory. In ATLAS SHRUGGED, Rand would leave off all talk of man or ego as stay, heart, or meaning of the earth. But in her 1946 rendition of ANTHEM, “meaning” opens a new possible interpretation of its closing line. Without a meaning maker, there is not meaning in the world. It is similar to the situation with truth and fact. Without holders of truth, there is fact in the world, but truth is absent. This is actually more than a parallel. Meaning could be taken as a blend of truth and value. With no holders of truth or value in the world, meaning is absent from the world. With no truth, value, or meaning in the world, the world as human abode does not exist.

That angle suggests an enhancement to the sense of “earth” as the human abode in the original proclamation. Ego brings heart and spirit to the character of the human abode. Ego brings spirit-life. Ego brings into the world what preciousness, what value, there is in the world. Without spirit-life that comes with human being, the world as human abode does not exist.

Earth in the sense of the dwelling place of mortal man is not the only sense of “earth” suggested in Rand’s statement that “ego” is “the word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the spirit [or meaning] and the glory.” Rand drew a picture in ANTHEM, and again in FOUNTAINHEAD, in which individual human being in his or her desiring, thinking, willing self is the final end of the earth in all its components, in all its minerals, seas, and forms of life. This teleological order of things is not portrayed as being there with the earth devoid of man, but as there with man upon the earth, making it his own. Beyond that, the further suggestion that the earth in the plain full sense depends on human ego is a discomfiting line of thought and one to be deflected. That problematic further suggestion in the closing line of ANTHEM points to an inadequacy of Rand’s philosophical foundation put forth in that work. However adequate for the internal context of that fiction, that foundation is inadequate to full philosophy for human life in the actual world, ours today, fully real. “I am” is not necessary to all fact even though it is necessary to all truth. A foundational philosophy aiming to uphold realism and objectivity must take its most basic truths from most basic facts, and “I am” does not fit that bill. “Existence exists,” Rand’s axiom for her mature philosophy (1957), is the better base and necessity.

Early Rand and her Kira stood solidly for objectivity, which is attacked in the Red student speech. Rand’s protagonist in ANTHEM is given these lines: “All things come to my judgment, and I weigh all things, and I seal upon them my ‘Yes’ or my ‘No’. Thus is truth born. Such is the root of all Truth and the leaf, such is the fount of all Truth and the ocean, such is the base of all Truth and the summit. I am the beginning of all Truth. I am its end.” (1938, 128)

This sounds subjectivist, like the ancient God-sayings it echoes and would replace. It might seem that Rand was climbing down, between 1936 and 1938, into the Nietzschean cavern of subjectivity or at least was stepping down into the Kantian ravine. I think, rather, she is only affirming in this passage that all judgment of truth is individual and that all truth we render from the world is for our own final value. Those lines in ANTHEM (in 1938; excised in ’46) are preceded by these: “It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.” Something is seen, and with the subject, it is rendered beautiful. Something is heard, and with the subject, it is rendered song of existence. Something is given, and with its recognition, it is rendered truth.

Rand does not create a superhuman for the meaning of the earth. Does her Prometheus create a meaning of the earth? His namesake does not invent fire.

Rand’s protagonist unlocks a type of human that finds the meaning of human existence; not in super-terrestrial personages and their affairs, but in complete human individuals on earth. “I am a man. This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before!” (1946, 87).

ANTHEM does not teach humans to create (or to beget) the meaning of the earth, but to discover it. “This spread of naked rock and peaks and moonlight is like a world ready to be born, a world that waits. It seems to us it asks a sign from us, a spark, a first commandment. We cannot know what word we are to give . . . . We are to speak. We are to give its goal, its highest meaning to all this glowing space of rock and sky” (1946, 84). I really do not see Rand setting up some sort of Fichtean or Nietzschean perspective on the relation of ego and world. She is saying that whatever goals there are in inanimate and animate earth, they reach their final end in their crowning glory: the individual human knower of joy and living; the individual judge of truth; the individual will free over his or her ends; in a word “ego”. Notice that at this stage of Rand’s development only sentient living processes, specifically, human ones, can be ends not for the sake of something else. And these final ends are human, not superhuman.

In actual development, we begin to use the personal pronouns “I, me” at age two. Knowing one’s proper name and knowing how to use first-person pronouns does not yet include realization of the deep fact “I am an I” or “I am me” or, as Dolf Kohnstamm 2007 puts it, “I am I”. At age two one can construct scenarios with dolls or other figures representing individual persons. One can make up dialogues, not only participate in them. The ability to converse with oneself as if between two characters is a plausible step necessary for coming to the insight “I am I”, where the first “I” is self as patient, actor, and controller, and the second “I” is self as in contrast to any other self (Kohnstamm 2007, 164, 174). Thinking “I am I” importantly includes thinking the identity of those two characters. Rand’s Prometheus accomplishes the same recognition as part of the thought expressed by his newly found word “I” whose meaning is explicated as his unique and uniquely possessed body, shrine of his unique spirit, and explicated by his triplet “I am, I think, I will.”

It will be recalled that Equality 7-2521 had been seeking some word and concept that had been excised from his society. People there are missing the personal pronouns “I” and “me” and the possessives “my” and “mine.” Each refers to himself or herself by proper name or as “we” and refers to another individual by proper name or as “they” (or as ”you” taken as plural).

The discovery of “I” by Equality 7-2521 is an episode of exhilarating liberation and profound fulfillment, though also overwhelming sorrow for mankind in its state of not knowing “I”. Given the spontaneous, untutored character of the “I am I” episodes in real persons displayed in Kohnstamm’s book, one might wonder whether the absence of the pronoun “I” in the fictional society that was Equality 7-2521’s cradle is really possible. Probably not, though it is a neat ploy to Rand’s purpose of showing the importance, the preciousness of man the individual, as against the collective. For thoughts of Kohnstamm on “I am I” in a couple of actual collectivist societies, see his pages 175–80.

Equality 7-2521’s native society is without mirrors. Were we to bring one into their village, they would soon comprehend themselves in it, just as Equality 7-2521 does later in the story, seeing his face in water, and just as each of us did before age two. Earliest comprehension of mirrors and one’s body in them does not entail the comprehension “I am I” (Kohnstamm 2007, chap. 4). Similarly it is in the journey of Equality 7-2521. He has not yet roundly and profoundly grasped “I” and “I am I” when first seeing his reflected face.

Equality and his fellows had been trained to deflect awareness from the self and direct attention to the group by saying “we” where we should say “I”. Forbidding the word “I” with its meaning attained in the understanding “I am I” would be idle without currents of the forbidden within subjects under the law. Such currents are on show to the reader in the person of Equality 7-2521. I suggest, however, actually, “we” in the indoctrinated sense of a joint singular life and will and thought of the collective can only have meaning to one who has gotten “I am I.” The author of the fictional adventure knew the reader would come equipped with that grasp.




Mayhew, R. 2005. ANTHEM: ’38 & ’46. In Mayhew, ed., 2005.

Mayhew, R., editor, 2005. ESSAYS ON AYN RAND’S Anthem. Lexington.

Milgram, S. 2005. ANTHEM in Manuscript: Finding the Words. In Mayhew, ed., 2005.

Rand, A. 1938. ANTHEM. Cassell.

——. 1946. ANTHEM. Pamphleteers.

Simental, M.J. 2013. The Gospel According to Ayn Rand. THE JOURNAL OF AYN RAND STUDIES 13(2):96-106.


In this photo are the lights in Colorado Springs and Pueblo and in the mountains---a bit of our human world lost in the world inherited by Rand's Equality 7-2521. One very beautiful aspect of Rand's story I did not touch on was the love story developed all along the way. There is also a very important philosophical point in this work---a viewpoint carried forward into Rand's mature philosophy---I did not mention. I think that particular stance of hers a profound mistake. I'll try to return to this thread and address that error after the fundamental paper for my own Rand-related philosophy has been published this summer, which framework includes the fix of this error.

Edited by Boydstun
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