George Orwell comes up regularly in political conversation. Often his invocation is apt, as when we speak of the twisting of language to favor the powerful. But often it isn’t, with attempts to portray any political opponents or governmental actions we happen to dislike as ruling with an iron fist. The famous dystopian vision of 1984 certainly bore much resemblance to since-crumbled authoritarian regimes, but the problem for wannabe despots is that hope, belief, and faith are always more than a match for an iron fist, and have been for millennia. No, the best way to push aside that which makes us human in favor of an anti-culture is seduction. And that’s why Brave New World by Aldous Huxley resonates far more with what we face in modern society than the Orwellian vision of an oppressive future.
Huxley understood that once seduced into accepting a materialistic view of life, people would police each other better than any government ever could. In his novel Brave New World, those who question a life of work, drugs, and sterile sex are instantly looked upon with suspicion—if not disgust and fear. All must work mindlessly so that they can consume the goods that keep the Brave New World’s economic system going. Any time not working is spent with sex or at the pornographic “Feelies”—films that include physical interaction with the sex on screen—and any feelings of unease are banished with a dose of the drug Soma. Self-reflection, deeper thinking about the human condition, these simply aren’t done. It makes others uncomfortable, and those who attempt to do so are shunned.
So, have we entered a Brave New World?
Last year the popular science fiction website io9 ran an article titled “Why Brave New World is No Longer the Terrifying Dystopia it Used to Be”, concluding that Huxley’s vision of a future where people are lulled into passivity by consumerism, drugs, and sex isn’t that scary when we choose it for ourselves. “In fact, Huxley’s vision of a false utopia seems grossly old-fashioned and moralizing to our modern eyes,” the writer says. It’s likely than many others would have the same reaction.
We’ve entered an era where, for many, life isn’t too much different than in Brave New World. Work, buy, sex, drugs, porn, rinse, repeat. But there’s two areas where Huxley was too pessimistic in his vision. And those concern the natural attraction to morality and transcendence.
Aldous Huxley, an agnostic, did not fully see the connection of morality and freedom with religion, despite passages of Brave New World that commend a theistic worldview. In later life he would begin searching for transcendence not through knowledge of God, but experimentation with psychedelic drugs and cultic syncretism. This inability to look deeper led him from pessimism about the world in general to a search for meaning down the dead ends of what, ironically was the beginning of the counter-culture which has now become the prevailing worldview in many parts of the world today: a world to which his flawed but prophetic vision has an eerie resemblance.
But can people be redirected toward a transcendent understanding of the world informed by religious faith? As Pope Benedict XVI noted ten years ago, despite widespread distrust of religion, morality is still compelling and “fascinates young people, who work for peace, for non-violence, for justice, for the poor, for creation.” Benedict notes that alongside this enthusiasm for these aspects of morality, however, there is a rejection of other aspects: those concerning life, marriage, sexuality. The solution, he says, is “on the one hand, not to make Christianity seem merely morality, but rather a gift in which we are given the love that sustains us and provides us with the strength we need to be able to ‘lose our own life’. On the other hand, in this context of freely given love, we need to move forward towards ways of putting it into practice, whose foundation is always offered to us by the Decalogue, which we must interpret today with Christ and with the Church in a progressive and new way.” There is always hope that our brave new world may be shocked anew into looking beyond the seduction of our technocratic society and finding true meaning. And it’s our task to help make it happen.