Brave New World

Have any of you read Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World?  I want to spend a little time and reflect on some of the themes in the book.

It takes place in the year 2540, far in the future.  We’re introduced to a strange society that has went to great lengths to eliminate every form of human suffering, but in ways which would leave many of us uncomfortable.

They have advanced machines which can do pretty much anything, leaving the people with few important roles to play.  However, they do have several castes within their society and everybody is genetically grown and conditioned from birth to do their function, whatever that may be.  They never age, though they do die, but that’s because they chose to.  They simply lie down in a special bed when they reach age 60 or so, and they’re given massive doses of drug called soma.  Then they just peacefully leave this world in a state of bliss.

Soma was developed as a drug to put a person in a conscious state of bliss without impairing their cognitive abilities or side effects.

What little forms of tedious work are left, specific types of humans (Episolons) are bred and grown specifically to do those jobs.  They’re engineered to be mentally deficient.  They’re just smart enough to do their little job and that’s it.  They’re also given soma to leave them in a state of bliss as they do their boring tasks.

Soma is used any time a person is feeling lonely, stressed, or down.  They never experience discomfort of any kind.  They instantly snap out of it, feeling joyful, connected, and in love with everyone and everything.  They also have machines of all kinds which massage,  amuse, and comfort them in every possible way.

Their culture stresses very different values from our own.  Since genetics technology exists to grow children, none of them have families in the traditional sense.  Everybody belongs to everyone.  Taking soma, they all feel connected and one with one another.  Women and men are encouraged to have as many sexual partners as possible, sharing one another’s bodies.  Their social values encourage them to sleep with a different person each night, if possible.

Romantic relationships are discouraged because it isolates the two people from the others.  There’s no competition either in the workplace or for sexual partners.  Each person is specifically bred in their caste to do their function, and their minds are molded to only want to be what they are.  They’re completely content.

Death is not a problem.  Nobody ever gets sick or old.  They die gracefully and of their own volition.  They have no family which they leave behind, and their society goes on.

When I spent today thinking about this society, though it seems shallow in a way, I also have to admit it’s far superior to our own world.  I don’t know if this life has any real purpose to it, but I do know it’s filled with lots of suffering and I’ve never been able to justify it.  People fight to command resources.  They look at the world around them and are discontent, wanting more beautiful homes, cities, and things.  They fight for lovers.   They struggle to find purpose and meaning. They fall in love and are rejected.  They get sick.  They get bored.  They feel alone.  The list goes on and on.  What if you could live a life that never had any of that?

They’ve managed to create a world without conditional happiness.  In this world we live in, we have to make decisions every day with little clue where any of it will lead to.  We choose to have friendships, romantic relationships, and careers, but things rarely go as planned.  We silently cross our fingers hoping that everything will work out in the end, but we never know for sure.

The vast majority of us spend our lives trying to fill an emptiness inside of us, hoping to feel alive.  We want excitement, joy, curiosity, wonder, and love.  It’s a real struggle to find that place of peace and contentment, where you’re just glad to be alive.  Where you love your work.  Where you love the people you’re around.

I found myself thinking that if I had the choice, I can’t think of any rational reason why I shouldn’t want Huxley’s future world. I imagine feeling total peace and bliss at all times, feeling loved by everybody and a part of a larger social order which adores and values me.  Being totally safe and secure.  Never hungry, sick, or in pain or any discomfort.  Pleasures of every kind.  Every woman would look beautiful to me, and they’d all love me and be receptive.  I’d love myself.  I’d love others. I’d laugh and play and relax.  I’d eat and goof off.

You’d live in a sort of beatific dream.  A temporary paradise. From birth to the grave, everything around you is, “You’re loved, you’re wonderful, enjoy all these nice things!”  Then you’d peacefully lay down and die in a soma stupor of total bliss, not even the least bit afraid or anxious.

Even still, something deep down within me, in some inexplicable way, screams out, “NO!”  It’s almost as if a deep essence within me knows there’s greater things in store.

I wonder if there is some greater good in the things we suffer?  It reminds me of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  They ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and then were dispelled from paradise.  As I was talking about the other day, the Western tradition values knowledge, to seek the truth.  If that’s our goal, to understand the universe, to grow greater and more powerful, then this sort of society has to be rejected.  In Huxley’s world, we’re all soma addicts, living in a drug induced stupor.

Every time I’ve grown and became a deeper, more thoughtful person, I’ve had to venture off into the darkness and experience things which I was terribly uncomfortable with at the time.  I was confronted with obstacles and people I did not understand, but I learned and grew from the experiences.  I think the unknown darkness is where your greatest growth will take place, if you’ll venture there.

If you’re religious, you have let go and read those books which everyone’s been telling you are written by servants of the devil.  If every relationship you’ve ever been in has went up in flames, it’s time to date men and women who are totally different from who you’ve been with in the past, even if that leaves you very uncomfortable. If every ambition you’re pursued has failed and left you flat on your face, you have to try something you’ve never done before, even things you may be deeply prejudiced against.

You’re bound to fail, be heartbroken, and feel hopeless.  There’s going to be fear, anxiety, and anger.  You’ll become disillusioned in the things and people you loved most.  You’ll feel lost and find yourself spinning.  You’re going to see things which you don’t want to see again.  There will be scrapes, bruises, and scars.  There’s no avoiding this process.

The spirit of our age is that if you’re happy, you’re in some sense more successful than someone who isn’t.  I was with a friend a while back and he was telling me about some simple man he met while on a vacation, and he just gushed about him.  He told me how he was smiling and enjoying life.  I don’t think I would admire him like my friend.

Is life really that simple?  I think about a doctor working in the emergency room, saving what lives he can, having to watch people die and suffer, on the verge of death each day.  That has to be depressing, especially when many of the people you treat are addicts who over-dosed on drugs.   You see the young man’s mother rush in just as the patient flat-lines and watch her burst into tears.

I think about those who take care of the mentally ill, the helpless, and those in poverty.  They say social workers suffer from depression more than any other occupation. But is that surprising?  Every day they have to sit and listen to people tell them how they were raped, locked in closets and beaten by uncaring parents, and abandoned by a society which doesn’t seem to care.

Or what about political leaders who fight for important reforms, dealing with entrenched special interests, protecting the people.  All the lies, the propaganda, and misinformation.  Who really wants to spend their life saving the world from greedy low-lives?

It’s not all fun and games.  I have nothing against that simple man’s happiness, but I won’t be lifting him to any pedestal unless he’s seriously helping to alleviate human suffering and improve our society.

There’s a large portion of the population who just hope they can ride off of others work and contributions.  When things get ugly, they hope someone will show up and save the day, then they can get back to their little world.  Someone else can study hard to learn how things work.  Someone else can work hard to fix things.  Someone else can stand out in the rain and fight for important social changes.  But not them.  It’s easy not to care.

I suppose I reject Huxley’s utopia out of a blind faith in our potential for more.  Then again, I’m a romantic.  I don’t completely reject sadness from the human experience.  It comes down to whether or not we allow a world of conditional happiness.  If we’re to explore the unknown and grow, we have to allow it, because we have to experience new things.  That growth comes at a huge cost.  We can always live in a delusional paradise filled with happiness pills, superstition, and false joy, never asking why we live the way we do, or do the things we do, protected by advanced technology left to us by former generations who greatly suffered.  We’ll one day have the power to artificially put the world back into an age of innocence, but I say we move forward.

2 thoughts on “Brave New World”

  1. I’m not sure why you decided to completely omit sixteenth chapter in this post, because as I see it, this is exactly what Brave New World was written for. I didn’t paste it entirely, so I think you might want to reread it.

    ‘ “One would think he was going to have his throat cut,” said the Controller, as the door closed. “Whereas, if he had the smallest sense, he’d understand that his punishment is really a reward. He’s being sent to an island. That’s to say, he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who’s any one. I almost envy you, Mr. Watson.”
    Helmholtz laughed. “Then why aren’t you on an island yourself?”
    “Because, finally, I preferred this,” the Controller answered. “I was given the choice: to be sent to an island, where I could have got on with my pure science, or to be taken on to the Controllers’ Council with the prospect of succeeding in due course to an actual Controllership. I chose this and let the science go.” After a little silence, “Sometimes,” he added, “I rather regret the science. Happiness is a hard master–particularly other people’s happiness. A much harder master, if one isn’t conditioned to accept it unquestioningly, than truth.” He sighed, fell silent again, then continued in a brisker tone, “Well, duty’s duty. One can’t consult one’s own preference. I’m interested in truth, I like science. But truth’s a menace, science is a public danger. As dangerous as it’s been beneficent. It has given us the stablest equilibrium in history. China’s was hopelessly insecure by comparison; even the primitive matriarchies weren’t steadier than we are. Thanks, l repeat, to science. But we can’t allow science to undo its own good work. That’s why we so carefully limit the scope of its researches–that’s why I almost got sent to an island. We don’t allow it to deal with any but the most immediate problems of the moment. All other enquiries are most sedulously discouraged. It’s curious,” he went on after a little pause, “to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate. True, ideas were beginning to change even then. Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered. Still, in spite of everytung, unrestricted scientific research was still permitted. People still went on talking about truth and beauty as though they were the sovereign goods. Right up to the time of the Nine Years’ War. That made them change their tune all right. What’s the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled–after the Nine Years’ War. People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for. You’re paying for it, Mr. Watson–paying because you happen to be too much interested in beauty. I was too much interested in truth; I paid too.”
    “But you didn’t go to an island,” said the Savage, breaking a long silence.
    The Controller smiled. “That’s how I paid. By choosing to serve happiness. Other people’s–not mine. It’s lucky,” ‘

    It’s really weird to say for a “libertarian” but I really do like this society. You’re crazy and want absolute freedom & science or you’re an average Joe and want soma and feelies? Either way, you have a choice.

    “Even still, something deep down within me, in some inexplicable way, screams out, “NO!” It’s almost as if a deep essence within me knows there’s greater things in store.”

    This is exactly Mustapha Mond 30 years ago.

    1. I have a hard time deciding whether I’d want to leave to an island or not. I really don’t know. I don’t think it’s weird for a libertarian to think the way you do. When you can control what people want by drugs and other alterations of the brain, you have to rethink everything. Once we have nanomachines and advanced brain-computer interfaces, sedating, stimulating, and controlling people’s emotions will become possible.

      Video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment are precursors to easy gratification. Live the life of James Bond, or whoever you want to be. Eventually there will be full virtual-reality, and there will be myriad forms of cheap gratification. Action, violence, sex. Total animal stimulation. In a way, it’s a form of pacification, but so many people feel alive when immersed in these things so it’s hard to come against them, especially if nobody is being harmed. A drug like soma is just the absolute quickest way to feeling happy.

      Do I want the truth? Is there anything more valuable than happiness? Everyone in that society is happy. When I think about this life, I see so many people who are unhappy, and there isn’t any way to fix the problems we face. Not that I see anyways. I like their society too. It’s more humane, and as you point out, if a person “wakes up” and questions their society, they’re allowed to leave to an island. They have the choice, in a way, I guess.

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