Brave New World: the importance of thinking freely

Huxley shows us that failing to think for ourselves leaves us open to domination.

Luke Gittos
Columnist

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Aldous Huxley worried about love. In an essay written in 1943, which formed part of his collection Do What You Will, he discussed a rebellion by young people of the 20th century against the sexual morality of the Victorian era. The problem was that lots of young people were having sex. They were having sex in a way that seemed completely unmoored from what was deemed acceptable at the end of the 19th century.

Huxley was not a prude. In his later life he expressed what was close to revulsion with the Victorian nuclear family. But he also expressed concern that something important could be lost with this new sexual revolution. He wrote that a ‘sordid and ignoble realism offers no resistance to the sexual impulse, which now spends itself purposelessly, without producing love, or even, in the long-run, amusement’. If Huxley was sceptical of the nuclear family, he did not see much potential in unrelenting promiscuity either. Young people in the 1940s, he said, no longer ‘love with a large L’.

Huxley’s Brave New World, written 10 years before the essay quoted above, is a novel in which love and relationships have ceased to mean anything. It depicts a world in which reproduction is tightly controlled by growing babies in mass hatcheries. In this world, ‘Everyone belongs to everyone else’. Sexual promiscuity is seen as a social duty. Huxley was a member of the Bloomsbury set, a group for writers who delighted in attacking and inverting Victorian things like traditional marriage. But the promiscuity of the New World citizens is empty. Sex has been reduced to the temporary satiation of physical impulses. This is why even children in Brave New World have to engage in ‘erotic play’.

The language of Brave New World reflects this loss of meaning. Words which once described familial bonds – ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘birth’ – are all remembered as expletives, spoken by previous generations of humans. When our protagonist Bernard Marx sees a ‘savage’ breastfeeding a child, he is ‘surprised by the intimacy’ of the relationship. It is this intimacy that has been done away with in the New World, along with the terms that once described intimate relationships. Promiscuity is the only way to satiate one’s own urges, without the emotional risk of commitment.

It is not the only aspect of social life which has been rendered meaningless. Bernard Marx meets John, a ‘savage’ from ‘the reservation’, a small area of the world that has not been subject to social controls. When John returns to the New Word, he brings with him his knowledge of Shakespeare. He quotes Juliet’s speech in which she implores her mother to allow her to die, and be buried alongside her cousin Tybalt, rather than marry someone she does not love.

But the strength of Juliet’s feeling is incomprehensible to the citizens of the New World, as is her sadness at death. When Linda, John’s mother, is portrayed dying on a ward, drugged and oblivious, her carers politely question why John would feel any loss. The elderly in the New World are executed at 60 years of age, when they have allegedly exhausted their social value. Love and death both require us to make choices and take risks with our emotions. And risks are not acceptable in a world as tightly controlled as Huxley’s.

Huxley’s book is often described as prescient for its remarks on reproductive technology. But it was arguably prescient in a different and more powerful way. Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931. This was more than three decades before Hannah Arendt, the German philosopher, would attend the trial of Adolph Eichmann and describe the ‘banality’ of his evil. Arendt controversially claimed that Eichmann was not evil because he chose evil, but because he did not choose at all. He did not think and make judgments about what he was doing. Instead he blindly followed the legal order of the Nazi regime. Eichmann’s evil, his moral failure, was in his failure to think.

The banality of evil is the very foundation of life in the Brave New World. The only reason the citizens of the New World are content with their lives is because they are unthinking. We, as the readers, are forced to question why this regimented, eugenic society could be described as evil. Huxley is asking us: ‘What is the problem here?’ He sharpens this question through one important addition to the New World. One which is absent from Oceania in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the dystopias of HG Wells. The magic ingredient in Huxley’s dystopia is happiness.

The characters of Huxley’s book are happy. When Bernard Marx asks Lenina, ‘Don’t you wish you were free?’, she responds, ‘I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ Lenina’s understanding of freedom is a freedom from discontent. The happiness that is achieved in the New World is an unthinking bliss.

The only character in the book who has ‘chosen’ anything about their happiness is the Controller, Mustapha Mond – a member of the New World elite, who reveals that he was offered the opportunity to travel to place himself in exile. Mond reveals that he chose to stay in the New World and ‘serve happiness’. He is sure to clarify: ‘other peoples’ happiness, not my own.’ Mond’s phrasing illustrates something important about the happiness of the New World. ‘Serving happiness’ does not make oneself happy. New World happiness is merely a system of social control: something that can only be ‘served’, rather than truly felt.

Huxley’s book is famed for its portrayal of the New World babies, who are prepared for their preordained life through psychological conditioning. They are barraged with repeated words and phrases throughout their sleep to prepare them for their designated career path. But what people forget about Huxley’s world is that this conditioning does not end in the hatchery. The adults of the New World continue to condition one another through their self-censorship and linguistic correction.

Huxley’s New World state recognises that people’s inner life can be revolutionary and dangerous. To control language is to control the medium for thought, and therefore to put off rebellion. Huxley’s language-policing New World citizens echoes John Stuart Mill — they remind us that the most powerful form of censorship and social control can be found in the ‘tyranny of custom’. Huxley’s New World state is powerful, but the New World order is not the all-seeing totalitarianism of Big Brother – it is the unthinking compliance of its citizens and their relentless mutual censorship that allows the Brave New World to function.

Arendt, writing in The Human Condition, conceives the intimate sphere as the realm of ‘radical subjectivity’. It is the space in which we are free to think and experiment with our thoughts without the need to present them in the public sphere. People are most vulnerable to domination when their inner life and their ability to experiment with their own thoughts, to think on their own terms and in their own words, has been exhausted.

New World citizens are in exactly this position. At the reservation, John the savage ‘had suffered because they had shut him out of communal activity. Now in London he was suffering because he could never escape communal activities – he could never be quietly alone.’

Huxley’s Brave New World is an exploration of the kind of happiness that arises from a state of unthinking. It is a book about what happens when we cease to have any inner life to speak of; when the line between our ‘radical subjectivity’ and our obligations to public life break down. In this sense, Huxley’s observations on the radicalism of our inner life are more prescient than his remarks about technology or reproduction.

We are all constantly in danger of the domination that arises from failing to think for ourselves. Huxley teaches us that human beings are only truly happy with the truth, and when we think for ourselves. There is no happiness in the state of ‘serving happiness’ – that is, in unthinking conformity.

Luke Gittos is a spiked columnist and author. His latest book Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why We Should Repeal the Human Rights Act, is published by Zero Books. Order it here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Linda Payne

13th July 2020 at 7:22 pm

How do you define happiness? For one having some control over your life to be able to make your mark in the world through your own talents, the actual doing is the key if you have a good job you like and are paid well for it then you are lucky, many people who are talented do not get to do this because capitalism demands system clones and drones in call centres/supermarkets/offices or worse the dole where your whole life is demanded for poverty existence. Now I know why the middle classes defend their position so rigorously, they have what we all aspire to but few obtain

Gordon O Gopher

13th July 2020 at 7:15 pm

I agree.

S. Garside

13th July 2020 at 7:03 pm

2nd attempt at posting this; first one failed mod for some reason:

In a tangential sort of way, the warning against “unthinking” that this article correctly points out has been known about for far longer than Huxley.
It is contained in the seemingly anodyne phrase “Evil is the absence of good” attributed to St Augustine of Hippo. If “Goodness” is an actual thing and “Evil” is the absence of that thing, then by not thinking (and banality), we don’t create “Goodness” in the world, and therefore “evil” will follow. Sp-eye-ked and pop-Theology together at last.
Look up “Absence of good” on Wikipedia.

Mor Vir

13th July 2020 at 7:52 pm

It is not theology, it is ontology and it dates back to Aristotle. It has got nothing to do with Augustine or Christianity. Aristotle’s ontology was widely known before the Christian Dark Ages. Christianity (Bible) has no ontology and it does not get to steal pagan Greek philosophy as its own.

Mor Vir

13th July 2020 at 8:39 pm

The Bible has a pre-Aristotelian approach to ‘evil’. For Aristotle, the ‘good’ is synonymous with being; evil is disorder or non-being and as such it has no cause; only being has a cause not non-being; rather non-being is the absence of causality. The Bible however conceives ‘evil’ as caused (created) by a god, just as darkness is; both darkness and evil are spoken of as beings that are caused.

Isaiah 45:7

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

Other translation render ‘evil’ as ‘calamity’ but it makes no difference; calamity as disorder (evil) is not caused (or created) but allowed, either deliberately or by negligence. The relation between the postulated first cause (a god) and evil (perchance a calamity) is still given as one of causality rather than the absence of causality. Thus the Bible is contrary to Aristotelian ontology.

Btw. good is not an ‘actual thing’, it is a relation not a thing and it may be actual or potential just as being, with which the good is synonymous, may be actual or potential. : )

S. Garside

13th July 2020 at 11:15 pm

I did say “POP-Theology” with the emphasis strongly on POP. “Ontology” is better.
The simple point I was trying to make is that such ideas as evil coming from unthinking and “the banality of evil” have been explored WAY before Huxley, however I am glad that Huxley did think on it.
Augustine just popped into my head as an ancient and famous source of such thoughts and whose thoughts on this matter have been distilled “nicely” to that maxim. It’s a maxim I think is true.
BTW, didn’t Augustine live *before* the Dark Ages, ie at the tail-end of the Western Roman Empire?

Mor Vir

14th July 2020 at 11:10 am

No worries.

Yes, Augustine (d. 430) was very much at the tail-end of classical civilisation. Greek philosophy was very well known in the Roman Empire, and Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism were the dominant philosophies among Roman citizens. Cicero wrote about the three ‘schools’ in De Finibus.

The works of the pagans were lost/ destroyed during the Christian Dark Ages, and the philosophy of Aristotle did not reappear in Europe until the thirteenth c. when it was re-introduced through the works of Arabs like Avicenna and Averroes.

Aristotelianism was adopted as the ‘scholastic’ foundation of theology by Aquinas and other scholastics, which was a scandal at the time, the fusion of Christianity with the very paganism that St. Paul had denounced in the NT.

Franciscans in particular were opposed to the fusion and they stuck with Augustine (who had earlier been influenced by Greek philosophy anyway.) Scholasticism led to its own divisions, particularly between Dominicans and Jesuits over grace and predestination in 16th c.

RCC largely abandoned Aristotelianism and scholasticism in the 20th c. for modern philosophies and ideologies, but it still occasionally finds a place in devotional works.

James Knight

13th July 2020 at 6:12 pm

The irony is I now hear people use the phrase “Brave New World” without irony.

Ellen Whitaker

13th July 2020 at 6:07 pm

The question is whether or not human thought and behavior are infinitely malleable; whether there can exist any form of human organization that violates human nature, or whether we have the potential to adapt to anything. An interesting question for these times. It looks like we’re heading (at best) towards some kind on human/machine symbiosis, in some ways like Star Trek’s Borg. Individuality will be much clear-cut than it is now, and no one will ever be alone inside their own heads (think of being on Twitter 24/7, without the desire/ability to disconnect).

Dave Angel

13th July 2020 at 4:39 pm

When I read BNW, about 30 years ago, I assumed it to describe a surreal, appalling dystopia – now I see that others were reading it as a marvellous utopia to be admired and brought into being. It chills my blood that these godless, atomistic nutters are gaining control.

Busiouty Busiouty

13th July 2020 at 4:32 pm

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Busiouty Busiouty

13th July 2020 at 4:31 pm

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Linda Payne

13th July 2020 at 2:32 pm

The myth of sisyphus is a good read; as for the banality of evil, that can be found in some nucleur families basically replicating the oppression of the society of the time

Ed Turnbull

13th July 2020 at 12:58 pm

Interesting piece, and very pertinent in light of the widespread Covid-conformity that’s allowed government to steal our liberty.

Paul Chamberlain

13th July 2020 at 11:44 am

I think this article is both timely and overdue. I have often wondered why George Orwell is quoted so much more frequently than Aldous Huxley but I now think the reason is obvious. Orwell in 1984 warns us about the dangers of a repressive state that smothers thought by the use of language and the secret police. Huxley warns us of a society where the population has been conditioned by pandering to its materialistic needs and becomes a willing agent of the system. I ask you, which one might make Western societies rather more uncomfortable? I think Stephen J has hit the nail on the head, in many ways it was Huxley who got it right.

Mor Vir

13th July 2020 at 11:37 am

Huxley famously went on to become a staunch advocate of hallucinogens (Doors of Perception, 1954) and L sD in particular, themes that Timothy Leary would pick up. Surveys suggest that 10% of USA adults (32 million) have tried it, with similar figures in UK and Europe. On the importance of thinking freely:

“While one is under the drug one has penetrating insights into the people around one, and also into one’s own life. Many people get tremendous recalls of buried material. A process which may take six years of psychoanalysis happens in an hour — and considerably cheaper! And the experience can be very liberating and widening in other ways. It shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside. It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is. I think it’s healthy that people should have this experience.” (Huxley, The Paris Review, 1960)

Mor Vir

13th July 2020 at 10:13 am

The irony is that Huxley agreed with Churchill and he supported eugenics and the forced sterilisation of the ‘intellectually inferior’, although he did not go as far as to advocate labour camps for the internment of the lower classes like Churchill. Huxley also supported political dictatorship and Third Reich eugenics policies. It is important not to whitewash the past. BNW is often read as simply satire rather than an ambivalent picture of where he thought that the world was headed according to his own political opinions.

“So far as our knowledge goes, negative eugenics – or the sterilisation of the unfit – might already be practised with tolerable safety. On the positive side we are still very ignorant – though we know enough thanks to Mr Fisher’s admirable work, to foresee the rapid deterioration, unless we take remedial measures, of the whole West European stock. Eugenics are not yet practical politics. But propaganda could easily make them practical politics, while increase in knowledge will make them also purposive and far-sighted politics.” (Huxley, BBC 1932)

“If conditions remain what they are now, and if the present tendency continues unchecked, we may look forward in a century or two to a time when a quarter of the population of these islands will consist of half-wits. What a curiously squalid and humiliating conclusion to English history. What is the remedy for the present deplorable state of affairs? It consists, obviously, in encouraging the normal and super-normal members of the population to have larger families and in preventing the sub-normal from having any families at all.” (Huxley, What is Happening to Our Population?, 1934)

“We may either persist in our present course, which is disastrous, or we must abandon democracy and allow ourselves to be ruled dictatorially by men who will compel us to do and suffer what a rational foresight demands.” (Huxley, 1931)

Discussion:

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books-planning-for-a-braver-world-this-year-marks-the-centenary-of-aldous-huxleys-birth-his-most-1401963.html

James Clark

13th July 2020 at 10:00 am

“They are woke, they are wrong.” the sort of free thinking encouraged by spiked.

Stephen J

13th July 2020 at 8:52 am

I am constantly surprised at the reaction I get when I mention to someone that “cash” is going to disappear, that there will be no private money or transactions once it has gone. Already the covid confection has given many large corporates the chance to convert all of the takings at the till as credit. I understand that in the biggest most inhumane nation on the planet (China), cash has already disappeared, and that control, both by government and corporate business of ordinary folk’s lives has ratchetted by a significant amount.

Well that is a significant part of our new world, I am not so sure about it being brave though.

Another part as the writer mentions, is language. The authorities are controlling ever more of what and how we say things, and that begins with state education, where we are taught what to think (if anything) rather than how to think.

We used to think that Orwell and his writings were what the authorities are aiming at, when all along it was Huxley that got it right.

Socialism equates to total control, and the fastest way to get there is to engineer people so that they do not think… ever.

Mor Vir

13th July 2020 at 10:32 am

UK is a capitalist state not a socialist state. The hard truth that many people seem to be avoiding is that that is how capitalist states act too – in the here and now. Perhaps the truth is just too horrible to face.

The West presents itself as ‘free’ simply as propaganda for the masses not as an intention or a plan let alone as an honest description. Reality is to be understood according to reality not according to propaganda. Things are what they are not what they say that they are.

‘The authorities are controlling ever more of what and how we say things, and that begins with state education, where we are taught what to think (if anything) rather than how to think.’

Mor Vir

13th July 2020 at 10:58 am

* Things are what they are, not what they say that they are.

Mi scusi

Stephen J

13th July 2020 at 1:18 pm

Yes but I was talking about the authorities…. and they are socialist to a man.

In capitalism, people exercise “self control”.

Mor Vir

13th July 2020 at 1:45 pm

You are going by fake definitions rather than realities.

dom torato

13th July 2020 at 6:47 am

Huxley was not a prude. In his later life he expressed what was close to revulsion with the Victorian nuclear family. HERE► Read More

Steele Rudd

13th July 2020 at 3:54 am

Brave New Word, in par 5?
It seems there’s an l missing…

Stewart Ware

13th July 2020 at 7:33 am

A failure of sub editing and proofreading. Sad.

Gary Mull

13th July 2020 at 2:41 am

An interesting article.

what if 3 teenage girls in the 22nd century think freely for many months then decide to demolish a statue of Clive of India?

And what if the rest of the population of the U.K. is so blissed out/dominated/mind controlled/engaged in group think/pacified and terrorised by the state that it had never occurred to a single one them to do the same?

Do you see the problem with websites like this one constantly referencing Orwell/Huxley and trying to define the limits of what younger Brits and Americans should be saying/doing/thinking?

Conformity and group think come in many, many, many guises such that a 12 year old working class girl could maybe lecture a classroom of older, well educated Spiked contributors on why they’re ‘pathetic sheeple” (her words).

Philip Humphrey

13th July 2020 at 2:32 pm

Isn’t it more likely that instead of thinking freely, they are merely conforming to what they’ve been taught by the education system, the BBC etc.? Acting out the toppling of the statue is a fairly predictable outcome of that teaching. My concern with “wokeness” or PC is that it seems to be a mental prison that many cannot escape from. If your whole world and way of thinking is formed around race and dividing the human race into “oppressors” and “victims” simply by their genetic heritage, it’s very hard to escape from that. Important questions like why are we here, what is the meaning of life (if there is any), what are human beings, and all the mysteries of science and the universe are ignored and played down. It’s a very sad existence.

James Knight

13th July 2020 at 6:26 pm

One of the protesters in London did not know if Churchill was still alive. The problem was never these protesters or even the vandals and rioters. Like the climate strikers, these look more like acts of obedience and conformism. The problem is mainstream institutions taking the knee to over-grown kids who are made in their own image.

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