The following is excerpted from Vigen Guroian's collection of essays, Rallying the Really Human Things.
The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals. ... The only scientific advances to be specifically described are those involving the application to human beings of the results of future research in biology, physiology and psychology. It is only by means of the science of life that the quality of life can be radically changed. The sciences of matter can be applied in such a way that they will destroy life or make the living of it complex and uncomfortable; but, unless used as instruments buy the biologists and psychologists, they can do nothing to modify the natural forms and expressions of life itself ... This really revolutionary revolution is to be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings.
- Aldous Huxley, preface to the 1946 edition of Brave New World
Over the course of the past century, two modern dystopias captured the imagination of people more than any other literary works of their kind. Many read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 as prophesies or admonitions that if humankind were not careful, the future might look like this.
Of the two, Orwell’s novel seemed to portray the more plausible future. It depicted a technologically advanced version of the sorts of totalitarian regimes with which the twentieth century was all too familiar. Today, because of recent extraordinary advances in biomedicine, biotechnology, and communications uncannily anticipated by Huxley, Brave New World seems more relevant.
Yet in Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, even Huxley doubted that the reproductive technology that made his imagined world so radically different from anything man had experienced in the past was likely to come very soon. “Babies in bottles and the centralized control of reproduction are not perhaps impossible,” Huxley opined, “but it is quite clear that for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random.”
A half-century later, “babies in bottles” are not yet on the horizon, but “designer” genes and cloned babies are.
Over the past fifty years, mankind has developed a dizzying array of biotechnologies (e.g., artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, and gene-splicing) that if fully implemented or mandated by government would leave increasingly less to chance in human reproduction. Thus, the imminent prospect of cloning a human, while it may be the most compelling sign of this revolution, is by no means the only one along the well-marked path towards the mastery of our genetic makeup. All of this has prompted a number of social critics to return with renewed interest to Brave New World as an admonitory tale.
Here, however, I am less interested in adding to recent speculations about the scientific and technological advances that could cause our society to resemble Brave New World than with some of the moral and theological questions the story raises about the wisdom of altering our own nature.
In the passage excerpted above, from the preface to the 1946 edition of Brave New World, Huxley explains that his principal purpose was not to write a political novel about the external arrangements of a future society but rather to describe a revolution inside of human nature itself brought about mainly by the biological sciences.
“The sciences of matter can be applied in such a way that they will destroy life or make the living of it complex and uncomfortable.” Huxley writes, “but, unless used as instruments by the biologists and psychologists, they can do nothing to modify the natural forms and expressions of life itself…The really revolutionary revolution is to be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings [my emphasis].”
Huxley did not write Brave New World as prophecy. It is instead an artful satire that follows in the great English tradition of Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. Huxley juxtaposes two vastly different future societies.
The first, the so-called Brave New World, is a global order that claims to have rid the earth of suffering and perfected the universal human goal of happiness. Liberalism and democracy have been mercifully put to rest. In their place, a regime of social engineers keeps the people happy. These managers are Brave New World’s version of Plato’s philosopher-king. Consumption and entertainment conjoin the social mass, and a drug-induced religion of social solidarity supplies genial concord and fantasies of perpetual bliss.
When one first enters the story, Brave New World seems to have little resemblance to contemporary society. But quickly it is evident that certain noteworthy characteristics and trends of contemporary life have taken strange and unexpected form in Brave New World. Like other great satirists, Huxley aims to demonstrate that what looks like normality to those immersed in the present may not be so. He wants to remind the reader of those cultural values and criteria of judgment that have historically preserved and enhanced that which is most noble in man.
At bottom, Huxley is not only a satirist but, as satirists often are, a humanist as well.
In Brave New World the state employs advanced biological and behavioral sciences to manufacture and control its citizens. And this is certainly our major interest.
But Huxley also holds up to scorn and ridicule many other aspects of the contemporary world to which modern people are attracted and in which they often invest a great deal of value, including consumerism, the commodification of the body, our forms of recreation and entertainment, and the cult of celebrity.
Even Huxley’s tightly managed global civilization finds it necessary, however, to maintain sequestered “primitive” societies – Native American Reservations, such as the one in New Mexico where John, the principal protagonist of the story, was raised. The Reservation is a degraded throwback to “past” societies. In it, traditional religion and family relations persist, while love and hatred and freedom and violence play themselves out in familiar ways. In this dark and primitive society, the reader also sees significant elements of the modern world.
While the Indians’ sense of honor and adherence to strict rules of sexual conduct and religious practice may be admirable, their lives are marked also by brutality, abject poverty, and disease. Would one really want to live in such a place? John, who was raised on the Reservation but whose mother is from the “civilized” world, struggles with a kind of dual “citizenship.” Where does he belong, on the Reservation or in civilization? Where does man belong, and what is his true nature?
Huxley’s strange tale evokes these questions.
Like More and Swift, Huxley takes us to “other worlds” that are sufficiently unlike ours that we allow ourselves to put down our guard. Yet they are also familiar enough that we cannot wholly disassociate ourselves from them. They are like the mirrors in an amusement park that by distorting and exaggerating our physical features cause us to look at ourselves in startling new ways. In these mirrors, we are led to see dark possibilities of the contemporary world, which, under ordinary circumstances, we do not perceive.
By tampering, for example, with man’s biological and sexual constitution to promote health and quality of life, we may be embarking on a course that, in C.S. Lewis’s famous phrase, will bring about “the abolition of man.” The controllers and managers of Brave New World have replaced sexual procreation with the standardized manufacture of human beings. By means of an advance cloning technology, the individuals of Brave New World are genetically tailored to perform productive functions and exercise consumptive behaviors that make society a well-oiled machine. They have abolished marriage and the family to satisfy the human desire for individual autonomy, sexual freedom, and the unrestricted pursuit of entertainment and recreational pleasure. In the place of marriage and the family they have installed a total system of behavioral conditioning that renders the denizens of Brave New World ready to live lives in total loyalty to the state. They live by the motto, “every one belongs to everyone else,” yet have been constituted so as to be unfit to carry on a lasting relationship with any one person in particular.
Huxley thus highlights trends in contemporary society that he suspects may lead eventually to the erasure of some of the fundamental attributes of our humanity. Huxley was not a Christian believer. Bu the Christian tradition and Victorian legacy had shaped his moral imagination so that he believed, for example, that human sexuality is not reducible merely to an animal passion for pleasure and that sexual promiscuity abases human culture. He embraced, in his own secular fashion, the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the person. He understood that wisdom and moral truths, settled on for millennia in Western culture, were under assault. And that troubled him.
In Brave New World, Huxley does not defend unambiguously traditional religious and moral norms. But a writer of fiction is not obliged to do so. It is sufficient that he imaginatively brings these matters to his reader’s attention and challenges him to weigh them seriously.
One aim of the satirist is to rouse the reader to a recognition that the core beliefs and sentiments about human nature that he or she takes for granted are not self-evident to every one and might not persist under all conditions – for example, if the religious or philosophical traditions out of which they have arisen atrophy. Who can deny that some of the strongest sentiments concerning the value of individual human life held by modern persons, even non-religious ones, grew in the soil of the Christian religion? Is it not plausible that when that religion weakens, these sentiments may also dissipate, despite thee forts of some to ground them in philosophical reason or secular ethics?
In Brave New World, no one gives a second thought to whether it is immoral, inappropriate, or distasteful to engineer the distinct genetic composition of each and every individual or to let the state decide when the time has come for a person to be euthanized for the good of society at large.
As I have said, Brave New World is not a political novel. It is, rather, a humanistic work. Huxley dares his reader to reconsider the nature of the sexual revolution and where it might be headed. He asks whether, through the biological sciences and psychology, modern man has already begun to disassemble himself. He cautions modern folk, who think or assume that they can continuously redefine or reconstruct primary forms of human relationship without risk, that their actions may lead to unintended, unanticipated, and unwanted consequences.
Vigen Guroian is professor of theology at Loyola College in Maryland. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Ethics After Christendom: Toward an Ecclesial Christian Ethic and Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination.
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