Happiness, Peace, and the "Greater Good" Discourse in Brave New World
The first time I read Brave New World, I felt that I was far too young. This book dealt with drugs and sex and suicide, topics I had seldom encountered so bluntly as a preteen; but I am glad I did, because it has shaped the way I see the world ever since. Its bold and harsh commentary on pleasure as either vice or release, on social hypocrisy, on the acceptance of oblivion, on the obliteration of humanity and culture was unlike any I had read — besides, possibly, Lord of the Flies or A Clockwork Orange, which I devoured soon afterward.
It remains a behemoth in American literature for a reason. Much of its timelessness has to do with the fact that it is, at its core, a statement on human nature; as long as we remain, these haunting tales about the hidden pockets of our souls will be relevant.
Much of Aldous Huxley’s work can be (and has been) dissected thoroughly over the years, unveiling constant new layers of complexity. Sometimes, I read it solely for the powerful prose. Other times, I read it to pick apart the characters who are contradictions upon contradictions. I went through an anxious phase, a few years ago, where I became overly preoccupied with the dangers of genetic modification, so reading Brave New World at that point in time was simultaneously therapeutic and a masochistic way to kindle my anxieties.
In the interesting years since the 2016 election, however, the book has taken on a new sense of gravity, one of the most unexpected thematic aspects (for me) coming back to sound on my conscience, like a resounding gong. So busy was I bemoaning the treatment of nature, of art, of the family unit that I often relegated the dichotomy between painful truths and escapist pleasures at the back of the list — that is, until now.
The year is 2540, or 632 years AF (After Ford), and the setting is England, or the ‘World State’. This society is a would-be utopia where pleasure is the priority: sexual libertinage is the norm, people have no parents, and commitment is discouraged. Drugs (specifically the drug of choice soma) is authorized and abundant, and orgies, and leisure abound. But of course, as is the case for any dystopian future, reality is much more grim. Consumerism and innovation have replaced humanity, and this affects the realms of science, technology and religion, among many others.
In chapters 16 and 17 of the novel, the reader is confronted with two antithetical points of views, which pit pleasure against truth, and which are heralded respectively by the “Savage” John and the World Controller Mustapha Mond. If both men are to be believed, the onset of one necessitates the eradication of the other.
And yet, they both claim this stance for the greater good, and for the sake of happiness. This said happiness, for John, takes the form of sacrifice and pain while Mustapha Mond favors stability and instant gratification. While it is universally understood that the society depicted in Brave New World is not a desirable one, one cannot help but be seduced by the ideas put forth so eloquently by the Controller, which laid the ground for my internal debate: is the happiness that John speaks of such a big price to pay for stability? In other words, knowing how societies across time and place have been long divided, corrupted and torn apart, is this greater good that Mustapha Mond speaks of such a repulsive thing after all?
I have often asked myself this, and deemed it an easy one to answer, depending on how complacent and/or guileless I was feeling at the time: of course the World State would be a horrible place to live.
But I found myself for the first time, two years ago, pausing before it. Adulthood is thankless in general, but coupled with many debilitating factors such as mental illness and the uncertainties of finances, school, work and strained relationships, it is an even more punishing phase of life.
And then the election happened, and with it, the rearing of the ugly heads of brazen misogyny, open intolerance, and other forms of devastating societal blights. These things have always been here, or course, but the sharp uptick in rampancy has made disillusionment impossible to shake off.
I could not believe I was allowing my thoughts to go there, and yet, there they went: being able to escape the world, or else pacify it at all cost, two of the most fundamental things Brave New World condemns, had become too tempting to ignore.
How had I suddenly found myself agreeing with Mustapha Mond?
When we meet John, the “Savage”, he is a breath of fresh air: he has never lived in the World State and does not espouse the way of life of the other characters, Bernard Marx, Helmoltz and Lenina Crowne.
There is an discernible parallel with the story of the colonist John Smith, except that it is flipped: here, John is considered the anomaly, similarly to the way warped and injudicious opinions about Native Americans would have labeled them uncivilized, barbaric. Huxley’s John is dubbed “Savage”, and brought into a new society where he discovers a horrifying spectacle: being still accustomed to the notions of so-called morals and commitment, he is repulsed by the World State, but at the same time, he feels ashamed for wanting the very things he cannot bring himself to accept, and this internal battle will result in his eventual suicide. John represents an interesting struggle between the pull of tradition and culture, and the pull of temptation.
Bernard, Helmoltz and Lenina have been brainwashed to accept the World State lifestyle, and while they are themselves anomalies, compared to the rest of Huxley’s society, they still find John odd, strange. Their skewered view of life clashes with John’s, who has always known culture (namely Shakespeare), traditional religion, and a drug-free life. But it soon becomes clear that the conditioning is not only a one-way occurrence: in the same way that the characters are unable to comprehend his way of life on the Reservation, John is just as disoriented when he goes to the capital.
The verses of Shakespeare he spontaneously recites are no less mystifying than the slogans the other characters spew out, at times, out of habit or for lack of better words. They are all a product of their rearing, whether they realize this or not. All of this contradicts the idea of fate that concerns people individually (I was meant to find my own meaning in life, not given my own meaning in life), and this grim portrait of inescapable destinies and lack of control subtly shows that the characters will be powerless against the events to follow.
On the other hand, we have Mustapha Mond (‘monde’, or world in French, as it happens). He is sociopathic, but wears the costume of a benevolent, articulate, and self-possessed father figure.
The chapters in question (16 and 17) reveal that Mustapha Mond used to be a curious and revolutionary scientist, and what is more, still has access to the very thing he bans, namely books, religious or otherwise. He has chosen to abandon that way of life for one of control and stability. He does not deride the old world, but rather, believes that humans were enslaved to immaterial things like their emotions and their unpredictable desires and beliefs; he would rather they be enslaved to material things that can be reproduced endlessly, and tailored to tastes and demands.
What could go wrong, right?
Mond, additionally, admits to abominable theories, like the inequality of human beings, the beauty of science used on genetics and creation, and the inherent hierarchy of things depending on their value. He gladly admits that ancient societies, with their beauty, art, and passion were beautiful, but he renounces this in favor of longevity (which ironically contradicts the instant gratification of mass consumption) and stability; this, he would rather do under the cover of hedonism rather than totalitarian oppression.
Perhaps the most bothersome aspect of Mond’s ideology is that some of it almost makes sense — or rather, is presented in a beautiful package of eloquent argumentation; and while I never agreed with him, I did always respect that his dystopia took the form of pleasure and recreation, rather than the obliteration of it, even if it’s only surface-deep. We have all read Orwell’s 1984, witnessed the repugnant violence of Gilead (The Handmaid’s Tale), panted through the clawing horror of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale.
Yes, Brave New World is a poison-filled candy, but at least it tastes good.
While I also always believe that Mond has the capacity for a chilling brand of cruelty, he does not make overt use of force in the book — after all, despite rebelling in the novel, neither John, Bernard nor Helmholtz are killed, when they would have easily been disposed of in a story like Fahrenheit 451.
Everything with Mond is in the power of suggestion. John proves to be a formidable opponent to the World Controller, but at the end of their discussion, Mond is not "defeated"; still, I always admired John’s zeal and willingness to see the torch burn to its end, because I myself was infused with the same sense of righteous passion.
But, as I watched far-right groups get emboldened across the world in the last two years, I began to eye John’s passion with the condescension of a jaded, weathered old soul.
The man has no idea what he’s talking about.
Better yet: human beings are terrible, have always been terrible, will always be terrible, and maybe this world isn’t worth fighting for. Maybe we do deserve to be screwed over, because of how we’ve screwed over all the second chances History has given us.
And indeed, as initially monstrous as Mond’s stance might appear when confronted with the society we the readers have always known, one starts to see more sense in it than what John naively endorses.
John is repulsed by the fact that things like culture and love have been relinquished for consumption and superficiality; however, this argument is a feeble one, if we consider that even in the world we readers live in, where aforementioned culture, religion, artistic expressions and the like are established, they have not brought about the respect or faith that John is so keen to defend.
Loving bonds are betrayed nonetheless, art and culture are derided by many, and the existence of God has long been questioned and tested. The authenticity that John deplores has not always been as present as he would like us to believe (Mond addresses this when he states that “people believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to believe in God” (235)). It would, then, be innocent to presume that this is a predilection that we naturally tend to embrace; in this perspective, the “Brave New World” is not so undesirable. Mond’s following statement on the World State captures this notion best:
There aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is social order? (233)
Conditioning has saved society from the aforementioned conflicts and struggles, and is this not what humanity has been striving for, for eons? John paints a rosy picture of the world as it was before, and as it still could be, quoting Shakespeare’s most poignant verses in the process. But there is another, from Romeo and Juliet that supports Mustapha Mond's motivations more than his own:
These violent delights have violent ends/And in their triumph die, like fire and powder/Which, as they kiss, consume./ …Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so./Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow. (109-111)
Mond argues in favor of the sort of stability that has always eluded us, that which we have always taken for granted. It used to ring hollow in my ear, because in it, I saw something inauthentic, hypocritical. But still, the gong resounded again. His are not just airy theories. Mond makes it easy for people to follow his doctrine, instead of endorsing forceful domination:
The world is stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. … They’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. (220)
The means are, in no way, laudable; but the ends, in light of centuries of struggle is not a horrible thing to strive for. Caste systems, unequal distribution of riches, as well as nonsensical social hierarchies having almost torn humans apart, a world in which everyone belongs somewhere and is satisfied is more than conceivable: it almost seems right.
As tantalizing as Mustapha Mond might appear, a closer examination of his stance proves otherwise. Let’s take a look at two of his central arguments, namely:
We haven’t any use for old things here. … Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. (219)
God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. (234)
Art and culture, first of all, are not as obsolete and useless as Mond would have us believe: they are rich pillars of society, outlets for powerful emotions which can inspire rousing sentiments in people, and the total lack thereof has given way to that which John condemns: indecency. While John has a tendency to jump to conclusions, as I mentioned above, one could argue that Mond’s society promotes promiscuity (of an economic, social and/or ethical nature). This in turn, if Huxley is to be believed, has led to the breakdown of notions such as trust, loyalty and principle.
This seemingly perfect society, moreover, that purports to keep unhappiness and anxiety at bay hasn’t exactly done that: soma, the vice of choice, seems to be less of a recreational drug than an antidepressant. Lenina is frequently ill at ease, as are Helmholtz and Bernard, proving that there is no escaping our own nature: why would we want distraction from a reality that should be superlative, perfect, exciting?
Another element makes Mond’s idea of the greater good rather less convincing: the fact that he himself doesn’t even seem altogether convinced by it. In fact, he downright admits to regretting the existence he used to lead. He is in contact with the very thing that he helps ban (books, Bibles, art), and was once in the same position as the three rebels (Helmholtz, Marx and John) — he simply chose to cast his die in favor of conformism.
This humanizes him while simultaneously making his motivations seem even less humane. He even agrees with Helmholtz when the latter calls his vision a horrible one:
Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations of misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand. (221)
This, along with the island where all the other intellectuals who don’t agree with the regime are exiled, is a testament to the repeated failings of this seemingly ideal system.
Lastly, Mond at times contradicts himself: he rejects commitment because it involves passion, yet he endorses stability. He rejects deep or long-term feelings, yet claims,
If ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, … there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. (237-8)
Finally, his society is founded on science and innovation, and yet he admits that “even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. … It isn’t only art that’s incompatible with happiness; it’s also science. Science is dangerous …” (225).
All of this, however, does not prove that Mond is completely wrong: it only proves that this debate is not so easily resolvable.
Mond and John stand categorically on two standpoints of a same debate, and their respective opinions on the Model Society are completely tinted by their own experiences: for John, passion and truth entail pain, while for Mond, stability necessitates sacrifice:
Knowledge was the highest good, truth the simplest value …. Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. … Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. … What’s the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? … People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. … 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. (228)
But why must they be mutually exclusive? Why can’t we strive for stability and happiness? There is no shameful motivation in what Mond wants, and what John espouses is morally right. I have come to see this in recent years especially, when every day feels like it could be the one that triggers a war, or at best, another divisive argument that rips our cohesion apart.
But the unwillingness to find stability in happiness and happiness in stability is where the flaw lies. As long as the defenders of one and the other are unwilling to moderate and compromise, John’s society will always seem unstable to Mond, and Mond’s society will always seem monstrous. The previous quote demonstrates that indeed, when one has gone through wars and the horrors that mankind is capable of, the happiness that John speaks of is seemingly not such a big price to pay for stability. When people are torn apart by massive casualties and we all walk on unpredictable grounds, it isn’t unreasonable to want something more quiet, something more boring, almost.
The nuance is that this is only a temporary solution. We need collective stability, but not so that we can grow apathetic and stick our heads in the sand like self-righteous ostriches: we need it so that we can rest a bit, catch our breaths before attempting to rebuild, learn from our mistakes.
Similarly, while his vision is melodramatic, (“I like the inconveniences. … I don’t want comfort. … I want real danger … . I want sin. … I’m claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; … the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind. … I claim them all.” (240)), life as John imagines it is necessary: he says to Mond “getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. … But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. … It’s too easy” (238). Pain is inevitable, but we need it, because it makes us, as a whole, more empathetic, more aware, more cautious, and more wise.
And so, while it is understandable that sometimes, we want nothing more than to board a space shuttle and fling ourselves away from everything and everyone, Mond’s vision of stability is, ultimately, nothing more than cowardice. It is hollow and superfluous — almost passive. If pleasure and contentment are so easy to acquire, then they become a commodity, and thus, worthless. If they are worthless, they sour, becomes harder to bury or escape, as the unhappiness of the main characters attests. What is more, peace is not a destination: it is a constant, constant work in progress, a process we must never let rest for too long. As the world changes, we must change with it, and adapt our notions of justice to be as far-reaching and all-inclusive as possible.
I realized this, as I contemplated my old question again, the last time I revisited the book: is this world even worth fighting for? Do we deserve to be given so many second chances?
Answer: our world is only as strong as we are willing to suffer for it.
That aforementioned gong has resounded in my head with mounting urgency; and having seen the world go through so much in recent years, the pendulum swinging to the extremes, and still swinging for more, I believe that I have finally come to understand the true meaning of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
What John strives for appears, at first, as a bittersweet way of life: pain for passion, trauma for beauty, and misery for truth. In light of the many horrors mankind has instigated, the stability that Mond embraces is commendable. In light of the bone-deep exhaustion I and countless others have felt, it is understandable. Faced with Mond’s smooth, gentle coercion — hell, it is even desirable.
But ultimately, the happiness John espouses is indeed an onerous price to pay for serenity. We need to strive for both: for peace that is genuine, and for happiness that is deserved, lest we rest on laurels we haven’t earned and strive for ease over effort; only then can we be genuinely happy, for our societies will (hopefully? possible? maybe?) be dependable ones.
It is our responsibility to not let the ball drop, not when political rhetoric has become vitriolic, not when empathy has become sorely, sorely lacking. Not when suicide rates have literally skyrocketed, not when we are dealing with crises on so many levels.
No matter how daunting, no matter how virtually impossible the task. We’ve seen countless other examples of History sidling down atrocious paths, and others just like us, just as unsure and scared and clueless, have picked up the torch and done their best.
In the words of Albus Dumbledore: “Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy”.
Yes, this world is worth fighting for.
If not for us, for those who will come after us. I say this with an edge of cynicism, with a twinge of fatigue, with even an iota of skepticism, but I say it still.