Lessons From a Utopia (Dystopia)

By: jmb275
January 4, 2012

I like dystopian novels. I think that if many of the ideals espoused by most people were executed to perfection the result would be captured by one of the many dystopian novels that have been written. I think this says something very important about ideals, paradox, uncertainty, and truth.

I’ve been reading “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. In many ways it’s the same as the more famous “1984″ by George Orwell. In both utopian societies, people are controlled to the end envisioned by a ruling class. In a nutshell, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us, and Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

If you’re unfamiliar, in “Brave New World” everyone is happy…all the time. Everyone is always satisfied. People are genetically engineered (in a test tube), and later emotionally engineered to fulfill certain roles in societies. Some are janitors, some emotional engineers, others are factory workers. Everyone is conditioned throughout childhood to have the set of preferences and proclivities to be a happy, successful, and most importantly content member of society. Early in the novel, as the Director of one of the genetic engineering facilities is taking a group of students on a tour, he remarks:

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 1

The main theme in society is that everyone belongs to everyone else. If a man wants to have sex with a certainwoman, great (and she is, in a sense obligated to give it up)! Same goes for women. Most importantly is soma, the required drug that makes everyone happy and content. Anytime feelings of sorrow, discontent, depression, etc. arise, soma is taken and the drug induced “vacation” ensues. Indeed soma has

All of the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.
-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Ch. 3

In this society history doesn’t exist, Shakespeare is wiped out, God and Christianity are replaced with Ford (yes, that Ford) and soma. Anything that creates discontent is removed. For recreation people go to the “Feelies” wherein they watch an erotic film while being physically stimulated by a machine.

Everyone is happy, all the time…except one guy. Bernard Marx, the main protagonist, feels like an outsider, a heretic. He remarks several times early in the novel that he longs to experience sadness, unhappiness, discontent. He knowingly avoids taking his soma to avoid the false sense of happiness associated therewith. At one point he states to Lenina (whom Bernard likes):

Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?

to which Lenina responds:

I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.

There are a few points I’d like to explore:

  • In Mormonism we often associate happiness with duration, or longevity of that happiness, assuming that pleasure is more short lived. We call the kind of happiness we desire “joy” to distinguish it from fleeting pleasure. But rarely (at least in my experience) do we really distinguish the kind of happiness and joy that is superior to pleasure. Indeed, in “Brave New World” the people are happy, ALWAYS. Their happiness is not short lived, it is constant, and perpetual. But that is different than the kind of “joy” we desire and talk about in Mormonism (indeed in most religions).

    What we really want, in Mormonism, is not contentment and satisfaction of the physical body, or the removal of all unpleasant things from our life. I think we’re really seeking a kind of pseudo-buddhist detachment peace that comes from an emotional detachment from our earthly situation coupled with a desire to become like an idealized god, couched in the faith that he loves us unconditionally, and facilitated by the renewal process we call repentance. That’s what we call “joy.”

  • We have come to believe that negative feelings and thoughts, sin, danger, temptation are bad. It was very revealing for me to observe that perhaps a world without those things was no paradise at all if the freedom to experience them is taken away, even if that freedom comes by nothing more than a constant stream of happiness and pleasure. Perhaps we need to change how we view those things and instead see them as indispensable experiences that remind us that we are alive and human.

    Indeed, too often I believe we are so focused on the end goal, or the outcome, and we judge each of them so quickly that we entirely forget and forsake the process that gets us there. We forget what we’re doing because we’re so focused on the next task that gets us toward our goal. We forget how to be because we’re so focused on what we’re trying to become. But the process itself inherently involves a struggle, usually some pain and suffering, and at least some sacrifice. In chapter 17, Mustapha Mond (one of the great controllers of society) says:

    There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that’s what soma is.

    I suppose that for me personally, this causes me to take pause to acknowledge the sins, the temptations, the negative thoughts and let them be present in my life. Not as long term residents (an entirely different matter) but as short term guests, as thoughts in the constant stream of consciousness that do not define me but are part of my human experience. And I can appreciate that experience. It reminds me I’m having the experience of being alive.

I’m really fascinated by the idea that we become so focused on satisfying our physical needs, avoiding negative things, and indulging in our passions and desires that we lose contact with the experience that being human has to offer us. Libertarian and rationalist thinkers have long feared the tyranny that would result if we lost our rights and became subject to a dictatorial regime, but they seem to have ignored the enslavement that could come by avoiding conflict at all costs, by distracting ourselves with an infinite array of gadgets, gizmos, social constructs, and the satisfaction of our physical desires at the expense of our right to struggle!

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18 Responses to Lessons From a Utopia (Dystopia)

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 4, 2012 at 7:16 AM

    The story of Odysseus and the Lotus Eaters springs to mind. Do we eat the Lotus, or the Opium or the Soma or the internet or do we find a different sort of meaning? Should there be a different type of meaning?

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  2. Jon on January 4, 2012 at 8:12 AM

    Good summary.

    I don’t think that libertarians have ignored this aspect, just not focused on it. In interviews and such you will occasionally hear the complaint of people being distracted by sports and video games.

    In the great short book “The Politics of Obedience” by Étienne de La Boétie and written in the 1500s Boétie goes over how the people are left content by their circuses and bread that the kings give them, and the people are happy even though the king takes more away then they get back.

    I kind of see “Brave New World” as a time leading up to “1984″ where the people become enslaved without there knowledge. There are many dissenters out there, unfortunately they are on the “outskirts” and labeled “crazy” by those that are taking the soma. But once you take the red pill, there is no going back.

    As for the religious tie in, that was a nice analogy, makes me view the world differently.

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  3. Jon on January 4, 2012 at 8:13 AM

    Oh, I was going to post a link to the book that has different formats for free:

    http://mises.org/resources/1218

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  4. jmb275 on January 4, 2012 at 11:15 AM

    Re Jon-

    I kind of see “Brave New World” as a time leading up to “1984″ where the people become enslaved without there knowledge.

    I guess I see that as the point of “Brave New World.” There is no NEED for a 1984 because someone IS already in control, the people are already enslaved. It’s just that they’re enslaved and don’t know it. In “1984″ the people know they’re enslaved by an unjust and totalitarian regime. The people in “Brave New World” are too, they’re just blind to it because they’re too distracted to care. The people who become aware of that enslavement are sent to Iceland as was Bernard Marx.

    Personally, I think most of us have identified the wrong enemy. I think Huxley was far more visionary for our time than Orwell. Don’t get me wrong, Orwell had fodder like Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, etc. but Huxley really nailed it on our ability to become so distracted as to render ourselves as slaves.

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  5. Jon on January 4, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    jmb275,

    I agree for the most part on what you are saying, but we see now days aspects of 1984 (which I need to reread sometime, I haven’t read it since I was a kid). Like always having an enemy that doesn’t truly exist (war on terror). Check points (was that in 1984) (TSA, which expanding beyond airports), military roaming the streets (militarized police, night time raids for no reason), etc.

    I guess maybe Huxley was right in that these affronts to humanity are done more in secret and if they are in the open everyone thinks it is good.

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  6. prometheus on January 4, 2012 at 2:58 PM

    From the Matrix:

    Cypher: I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After 9 years, you know what I have learned? [Eats the piece of steak and sighs contently] Ignorance is bliss.

    Honestly, I think that life is far more illusory than we might think. At least I am coming to lean more that direction. Considering the way out brains process sensory information, the physical limitations of our senses, and the active reconstruction the brain makes of our memories, I wonder how much of the “real world” we are even aware of.

    Thought provoking post – especially this quote:

    ‘“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do.’

    It really is the secret of happiness. Of course, enforcing it with drugs and sensory manipulation, not so happy-making ……

    I am also reminded of the Uglies, by Scott Westerfield. Same idea of keep people happy so they are compliant. I wonder, though, if we are really aware of how we use the compliance-through-contentment method in life. I mean, should we seek out discontent in order to be free? If we are content with what we have, is that wrong? Should we seek to make others content in order to get what we want (ie. compromise, seeking win-win solutions, writing peace treaties, etc.)?

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  7. hawkgrrrl on January 4, 2012 at 8:11 PM

    jmb275: “I think we’re really seeking . . . emotional detachment from our earthly situation coupled with a desire to become like an idealized god, couched in the faith that he loves us unconditionally, and facilitated by the renewal process we call repentance. That’s what we call “joy.”” I think that’s an apt description. Yet, I’m not sure a majority of Mormons are really so wrapped up in happiness that they don’t feel frustrations, struggle with temptations, etc. I do think those who are constantly focused on the future (what is not) miss out on the present (what is), or as you say, being so focused on becoming, we forget to be. But I’m not sure that’s more common amongst Mormons; Mormons are just specifically focused on an afterlife of rewards.

    And I do think that’s a mistake. How can you live for eternity if not in the moment? In living in the moment, you are living in eternity.

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  8. jmb275 on January 4, 2012 at 8:32 PM

    Re prometheus-

    I wonder, though, if we are really aware of how we use the compliance-through-contentment method in life. I mean, should we seek out discontent in order to be free? If we are content with what we have, is that wrong? Should we seek to make others content in order to get what we want (ie. compromise, seeking win-win solutions, writing peace treaties, etc.)?

    Yeah, those are great questions. I don’t think we should seek discontent, but we shouldn’t fight it either. In BNW, Marx was banished to Iceland for being heterodox. As long as we can continue to embrace our heterodoxy I think we’re doing well. Like I said in the OP, we should just let discontent be, acknowledge it as part of the human experience, reminding us that we’re not being manipulated. Everyone has tough times and the occasional blues, they’re not too hard to come by. When they do come, we should observe them as thoughts in the constant stream of consciousness and nothing more.

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  9. Jon on January 4, 2012 at 9:59 PM

    Prometheus,

    Made me this of this that I posted before, I think I’ll post it again:

    From Aesop’s Fables:

    There was once a Wolf who got very little to eat because the Dogs of the village were so wide awake and watchful. He was really nothing but skin and bones, and it made him very downhearted to think of it.

    One night this Wolf happened to fall in with a fine fat House Dog who had wandered a little too far from home. The Wolf would gladly have eaten him then and there, but the House Dog looked strong enough to leave his marks should he try it. So the Wolf spoke very humbly to the Dog, complimenting him on his fine appearance.

    “You can be as well-fed as I am if you want to,” replied the Dog. “Leave the woods; there you live miserably. Why, you have to fight hard for every bite you get. Follow my example and you will get along beautifully.”

    “What must I do?” asked the Wolf.

    “Hardly anything,” answered the House Dog. “Chase people who carry canes, bark at beggars, and fawn on the people of the house. In return you will get tidbits of every kind, chicken bones, choice bits of meat, sugar, cake, and much more beside, not to speak of kind words and caresses.”

    The Wolf had such a beautiful vision of his coming happiness that he almost wept. But just then he noticed that the hair on the Dog’s neck was worn and the skin was chafed.

    “What is that on your neck?”

    “Nothing at all,” replied the Dog.

    “What! nothing!”

    “Oh, just a trifle!”

    “But please tell me.”

    “Perhaps you see the mark of the collar to which my chain is fastened.”

    “What! A chain!” cried the Wolf. “Don’t you go wherever you please?”

    “Not always! But what’s the difference?” replied the Dog.

    “All the difference in the world! I don’t care a rap for your feasts and I wouldn’t take all the tender young lambs in the world at that price.” And away ran the Wolf to the woods.

    There is nothing worth so much as liberty.

    I think you can live in a world that is harsh and still have love and have win-win situations where you don’t use (first-strike) aggression to get what you want.

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  10. prometheus on January 5, 2012 at 8:49 AM

    That was an great fable, Jon. I read into it this time something I had never noticed before:

    The wolf, by his choices, is free to do things that the dog is not. The dog, however, by choosing differently, is free to do things that the wolf cannot.

    The constraints of time, space, and individual existence means that for everything we do, there are an infinite number of things not done. Each actor in the fable, by their choices, both open up *and* close off potential future choices. Each choice one makes comes with a built in set of constraints that limit one’s freedoms.

    I find this intriguing, as I had never thought of it that way before. It applies on a societal level (hunter-gatherer v. agrarian v. industrial, etc — each form of social organization enables some choices and disables others), as well as on a personal level (a PhD opens up some doors, closes others).

    And then, particularly with the collar bit, I am reminded of Matthew 11:28-30.

    “28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”” NLT

    When we take that yoke up, certain freedoms are lost (not in the sense that the decision is irrevocable, but in the sense that if we are following Christ, certain choices in our treatment of others are no longer permitted). Other freedoms are gained – the freedom to live in communion with Deity, the freedom to love others without regard for our own egos, and so on.

    Anyway, I know I kind of turned the whole parable inside out :), but it definitely helped me to clarify some of my thoughts on the topic.

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  11. Jon on January 5, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    Great insights Prometheus. I would add that when we all are free and have liberty in Christ, the whole of society will be better off and fat like the dog, but with no ruthless master.

    Like in “Brave New World”, the people were “fat”, but truly their master was but the iron fist covered in velvet.

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  12. jmb275 on January 5, 2012 at 12:46 PM

    Re Prometheus #10
    Really great insight, thank you for that.

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  13. mcarp on January 5, 2012 at 10:52 PM

    You should read “Brave New World Revisited” by Huxley. It is a retrospective, done years later about the ways in which we are becoming like either Brave New World or 1984.

    It is non-fiction and written in 1958 (or so), but most of it could be printed in tomorrow’s newspaper and sound like fresh news.

    I especially like the part where he says that a country that is constantly on a war footing has the ability to deprive its citizens of more and more rights. If that doesn’t describe the last 10 years, then I don’t know what does.

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  14. Jake on January 6, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    I love utopian and dystopian novels. I have always been fascinated by the fact that one mans utopia can easily be a dystopia. The line that separates the two is rather fuzzy.

    You raise a good point about the fact that commercialism and mass media have become a form of enslavement. We are imprisoned by this idea that we need to fulfil our passions and desires and that in doing so it causes us to miss out on enjoying live. John Stewart Mills suggests that anything that tyrannises our live, or dictates and controls how we live is as dangerous to freedom and liberty as a incarcaration.

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  15. jmb275 on January 6, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    Thanks mcarp, I’ve seen it before, but haven’t yet read it. I’ll add it to my queue.

    Re Jake-
    I agree. And yet, I feel like at each step we don’t choose more liberty, but more enslavement. I admit their is likely a balance to be had, but I fear we have moved too far from liberty personally.

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  16. Jake on January 6, 2012 at 4:40 PM

    The question is then why do we chose enslavement over liberty? Why are we so keen at each step to let go over some form of our autonomy and freedom?

    Perhaps it is because we do not see the chains that shackle us down. Perhaps its because to live in slavery is easy then freedom in many ways. Enslavement means we don’t have to think we just follow. I don’t know why we do, only that we have to recognise it and try and break free in some way.

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  17. Jon on January 6, 2012 at 9:22 PM

    Jake,

    I forget where I was reading this now, but back in the day, apparently, some Russians would move to Finland to get out from under the boot. Once they got to Finland some didn’t last to long, they weren’t used to having so many choices, which made it very difficult.

    I wouldn’t say enslavement was better though, just look at the cars they drove. It was like being frozen in time. Thank goodness there are a good many people yearning to be free so that we can have the luxuries we have today.

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  18. FireTag on January 9, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    I think that the existence of trade-offs in the wolf/dog analogy has a lot to say about what constitutes the idea of a reward at all. God doesn’t seem to value a reality in which there is no pain or suffering. He seems to have allowed for the opportunity for us to experience ALL the possibilities of our existence, including the unpleasant ones. Maybe because the opportunity for the experience of everything — even if in parallel universes — is more valuable than even the most pleasurable single experience.

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