Be Careful What You Wish For

The late, great Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, his magnum opus, all the way back in 1932. Yet it remains, even today, one of the most prescient and potentially accurate literary pictures ever painted of a dystopian human future.

Unlike Orwell’s 1984 the civilization in Brave New World is placated, rather than forced, into submission. Instead of freedom, people are given Soma, the idealized fictional drug imagined by Huxley as part-amphetamine, part-opiate, and part-hallucinogen.

Brave New World seems a much more likely scenario than that of 1984. In fact, some of what Huxley’s predictions have already come true.

But the puzzling thing here is that it’s not precisely clear what the problem is with the society portrayed in Brave New World. It’s not, after all, one in which there’s an evil, totalitarian dictatorship like that of 1984. On the contrary, the people living in Huxley’s Brave New World are by all accounts happy. What’s so bad about that?

There’s a false, artificial kind of happiness that exists in Huxley’s Brave New World. We, the readers, know it and a few of the book’s main characters (like John the so-called “savage,” Bernard Marx, and Helmholtz Watson) know it. It’s never explicitly identified, the false-happiness, only implied. Huxley may have done this not to create drama but rather because anything beyond implication would be too complicated for words.

In Brave New World the children are taught what Huxley calls “hypnopaedic slogans” while they sleep. These slogans — along with other, more subtle conditioning methods — serve to inform and influence the values and the behavior of the masses.

“Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.”

This, if anything, is the mantra of instant gratification. Lenina repeats it almost involuntarily to Bernard Marx, like a reflex, while he is protesting just how quickly the two of them slipped into having sex. Bernard was interested in Lenina and indeed, yes, he DID eventually want to have sex with her. But he found it, as he said, “immature” to bed together on the first night. It was as if they were acting like “infants” he said.

The desire for instant gratification is a pernicious symptom of modern life. Everything is at our fingertips. The average person of today has more power and riches than the kings and queens did of the past. And yet, we want more.

We — we all — think that the answers to all our problems are out there. Out there somewhere in the external, material universe. Waiting to be found. But they aren’t. The answers lie within. For in the 17th chapter of Saint Luke it is written that the kingdom of God is within man. Not one man, nor a group of men. But within all men. Within me and within you, you the people have the power! The power create happiness, and the power to make this life (as Charlie Chaplain said) free and beautiful.

“Nothing in the world” is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

The dedicated long-term pursuit of something is one of the most rewarding experiences a human being can have. That, to me, seems to be the fundamental issue most people have: That they believe that the destination is all that matters.

But the analogy of life as a journey is profoundly flawed and subtly pernicious. As with all journeys it implies that what matters is the destination. You’re moving forward to get somewhere. But that’s not what life is. Life, as Alan Watts has said, is more like a song or a dance. You don’t listen to a song to hear its ending. And you don’t dance to get somewhere. The purpose of dancing is to dance. And the purpose of music is to listen. Those who don’t learn to live in the present, to enjoy the actual process of living, with all its struggles and successes, are doomed to living a life filled with doubt.

As Debbie Millman has said, “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”

“Ending is better than mending.”

The cult of consumerism. Buy, buy, buy. I’m at risk here of sounding like an old fogy, but it’s true: we, as a society, are addicted to material possessions. We value and devalue people based on what they own, and we are continually chasing newer and shinier objects.

“When the individual feels, the community reels.”

This hypnopaedic slogan is one of Huxley’s most interesting. It deals with so-called “high-art.” The kind of art — whether it be literature, music, film or otherwise — that makes us feel things beyond just pure pleasure.

The art in Brave New World is mindless and low-brow. The movies (or as they’re called in feelies) are comprised mostly of sex and explosions. Think Michael Bay without the creativity.

High-art, according to Huxley, is an enemy of happiness.

You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. ~ Mustapha Mond From ‘Brave New World.’

This, I think, is probably correct. And while lots of great art is indeed pleasurable, it’s more catharsis than that of pure, ecstatic happiness. Is reading a book like “To Kill A Mockingbird” pleasurable? Yes, but not in the same way as say — say, eating a piece of candy. And that’s a good thing.
Huxley questions the assumption that happiness is the end-all-be-all. He’d argue, and I’d agree, that it isn’t.

That’s not to say that happiness is unimportant. It is. But only as a byproduct. True happiness cannot be pursued or attained directly.

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. ~ Viktor Frankl.

But I now thought that this end [one’s happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness[….] Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way[….] Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. ~ John Stuart Mill.

“History is bunk.”

Henry Ford is the god of Brave New World. Time is measured in A.F., or “after Ford,” and people use expressions like “What in Ford’s name…” So it should come as no surprise that the “history is bunk” hypnopaedic-saying is an actual quote from Henry Ford himself. Although, admittedly, the context in which he said it is dubious at best.

History has no place in a society where science and progress reign supreme. People in Huxley’s Brave New World focus only on their immediate present and, sometimes, the future. But never, never the past.

We’re seeing variants of this problem rear its ugly head in society today as national interest in history continues to decline. This is due in large part to how poorly history is being taught by parents and in schools. Many students fail to see the point in learning facts and figures about who did what and when. But, in fact, nothing can be more relevant than history.

History is not merely a series of facts and figures — and it shouldn’t be taught that way — history is the story of humanity. There is no place better than the past for guidance about the future.

“A gramme is better than a damn.”

This slogan represents the crux of Huxley’s book. It is the epitome of the hedonistic-utilitarian philosophy: Maximize happiness at the expense of all else.

There’s a scene in the book where John the Savage visits his mother in the hospital. While he’s there, she dies and, quite naturally, John is distressed by this. But the people in the hospital, they look at him like he’s insane for being distressed. For people in the Brave New World do not mourn death. Whenever they feel a bit sad they merely take some Soma and presto! Sadness gone. They refuse to experience any form of pain, regardless of how righteous or appropriate.

We can see this to an increasing degree in the real world. Especially in our phobic fear of both silence and solitude. Two of a life-well-lived’s most necessary ingredients.

Flip the television on! Turn on the radio! Click that video! Chatter mindlessly! God forbid one sits alone and in silence and does some introspective thinking. That would be absurd!

True happiness cannot exist without both pain and pleasure. They are two sides of a whole and any attempt to remove one will corrupt the other.

The only way to conquer pain is to stop running from it. Understand pain for what it is and acknowledge its existence and necessity. For by running from pain or, worse, by covering it up with artificial pleasures you are only exacerbating the problem. You’re only making it worse.




This isn’t real

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Philosophy as guiding force in the darkness of the night

An Autobiography: The story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

An Autobiography: The story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

The Art of Philosophy

Letter to those who during this pandemic are thinking of changing, leaving, starting again.

Innovation: Why do Metaphors Work?

Consciousness: the internal hum of existence

Consciousness is a Traffic Camera or a Traffic Light?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


This isn’t real

More from Medium

Reflection on Purpose and a Different Existentialism

What I talk about, when I talk about future

Random Life Reflections #1