The Premises of Progress
The other day, a serious student who is reading Brave New World wrote with some musings and questions inspired by the World Controller’s explanation, in one of the later chapters, of the World State’s reasons for prohibiting all access to the great art and thought of the past. I reproduce her main questions (in italics) and my replies, below, with only a few cosmetic alterations, as this dialogue gave me a convenient opportunity to outline the logical foundations of the progressive revolution through which we have all lived.
Reading this part, I was wondering about the significance of human existence. In that society, everyone seems to be a component part of the society and a meek slave for a stable, thriving industry. It is hard to see anyone as an individual with his or her own mind and thoughts, let alone a mature adult.
Once you accept certain basic premises of the progressive mind (and you must accept all of them), this corrupt way of thinking begins to make perfect sense.
First, you must accept that there is no such thing as human nature, but rather that what people used to call human nature was really just a bunch of bad habits reinforced by following the same faulty thinking again and again. Overcome those habits (that is, erase or diminish the natural inclinations and purposes of human life), and what are you left with? A world in which humans are nothing but the products of their societies, cultures, or material conditions – whichever way you wish to express it.
Second, if humans (who have no essential nature) are only products of their social (material) conditions, then this means society actually defines the individuals who live in it. In other words, society is the primary being, and humans only the secondary byproducts of that primary being. (This is the exact reverse of the conclusion that follows from believing that there is a human nature.)
Third, if humans are merely products of their society, then the society as a total structure is more important, essential, and worthy of concern and attention than the individual people who live in it. In addition, if humans are merely social products, then in deciding what a “good life” is, one must focus not on what humans naturally need (since we have no nature), but on how to make society run effectively and successfully so that it can produce the right kind of people.
Fourth, if there is no natural standard of human thought, feeling, or needs, then such uncomfortable experiences as pain, sadness, anger, aspiration, fighting, disagreement, argument, longing, and so on, seem to have no proper function in human social life, but to be mere unfortunate accidents produced by poorly organized societies.
Fifth, if those uncomfortable experiences that make human life more difficult and strenuous (and also more meaningful, exciting, and rewarding) are mere accidents of bad social structures, then producing better social structures in which those negative experiences are eliminated or reduced seems to be the highest goal of social organization.
Sixth, if the wellbeing of society as a whole determines the proper life experience of all the people in the society, it is insane to leave the social structure to develop freely. In other words, the elite individuals who see the first five premises clearly, and understand the logic of them, must be given the authority to regulate and control society to ensure that the social institutions are the correct ones for achieving the human result we desire, namely a life without conflict, pain, or doubt – without all those experiences that cause instability and insecurity, whether personal or social.
Hence, for their own good, all the individuals in the society must have their lives, knowledge, choices, and thoughts limited and regulated by the few masterminds who understand what kind of society will maintain the most stable and secure life for everyone, since this will by definition be the best society, eliminating all the negative experiences that made life imperfect and painful for everyone back in the ignorant days of the belief in “human nature.”
And now, it seems that we have opened the era where humans are actually replaced in our intellectual jobs, more than degenerated into an idiot. There’s nothing but a body left, and as Huxley predicted, human bodies are appeased with delicious food or sexual pleasure and used for the physical tasks that cannot be replaced or are inefficient to be replaced by advanced technology.
Well, the “intellectual jobs” are either being replaced, or at least reduced to something more like a pre-programmed set of tasks, guided by administrative rules that have a similar function to computer programs and artificial intelligence, which is that they determine what the “intellectual worker” can and cannot think within his work. A clear example of this is the modern university, where professors – certainly in the humanities and social sciences – are basically forced to leave their independent minds at the door when they step into their safe, cozy lifetime appointments. You must agree in advance to think the proper progressive thoughts, and to change your thoughts in the proper way whenever progressivism decides that yesterday’s universal truth is now a moral crime. If you won’t accept those conditions, then you cannot get hired. This guarantees that the entire faculty of professors will become more and more uniform in its opinions about all social, moral, and political questions. The result of this, which we see more and more today, is that the professors, not to mention their students, rarely have any objection to greater restrictions on free speech. In fact, they increasingly believe it is their duty to limit the opinions that may be expressed on campus. And they use words like “insensitivity” or “systemic racism” (or sexism or homophobia or whateverism) to justify shutting down all disagreement or open discussion, whereas open and free disagreement and discussion used to be considered one of the primary social purposes of the university. The university was a “safe space” for unconventional or controversial thinking. Now it is a “safe space” for activist groups that feel “triggered” by criticism or uncomfortable ideas. Genuine freedom of thought and speech is now considered the enemy of the university. This is the number one mechanism of destroying freedom: Eliminate the modern institution that was originally designed to encourage the free thinking and open discussion that make every other kind of freedom possible.
Then, in such a society, humans, who used to achieve their missions, discuss life and ideas, or probe the immaterial world as a thinking animal, hand over their thinking to a machine or society to decide their life, and function as a worker till their death?
It doesn’t matter whether it is to a literal “machine” or to the state. The result is the same. Stability and security purchased at the price of every other human good.
And of course the error of the “thinking machines” fantasy is the idea that we will all have more knowledge when we have a universal information chip in everyone’s head (or hand). On the contrary, we will simply be teaching people that real knowledge – an individual accomplishment – is irrelevant and worthless, because all the information you ever need is available at the click of a button. It is obvious that if we all follow this model – “knowledge equals information access” – then there will never again be an original idea, a truly new theory, a beautiful new artistic insight, or any deep belief, wisdom, or faith. For the individual spiritual development which makes such things possible – after years of private struggle, frustration, and longing – will never be permitted to begin.
Reading this book, I realized how degraded and spiritually wretched we have become compared to the past, while we praise ourselves about how advanced we are, and thought we have become so cynical about our souls considering a stable, comfortable, and physically affluent life as the best.
Degraded for sure, almost deleted.
However, I wonder why it is in this modern era when our civilization is this much corrupted, while values such as productivity, efficiency, comfort and stability were not completely disregarded but were also considered important in the past.
Certainly they were considered important. However, to go back to the progressive premises above, men used to believe in human nature. They might have disagreed about what that nature was, or which elements were most essential, but they all agreed that there was something real about us, independent of “culture” or society or material conditions. One of the results of this belief, for those who look seriously at the facts of history and all the rises and falls of civilization in the past, is the understanding that humans cannot be perfected. There will always be contradictions and conflicts within us (and among us), because our nature is not perfectible, or at least not perfectible by outside influence, such as by government.
So while the greatest thinkers of the past made brilliant arguments about the best way for a human to live, or the highest activity that we should seek, they always knew that in the practical world, the purpose of their wisdom was to give us a standard to reach for, or an appreciation of what was possible for us. Their purpose was never to erase the past and “fix” human life in a complete and unlimited way. That notion of fixing humans, correcting human nature, eliminating the mistakes of past humans, and achieving a perfect society, is a purely modern fantasy. And it is a fantasy that grew out of changes in modern philosophy and modern science. It didn’t have to grow this way, but it did, and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the world saw the beginning of what we now call progressivism: the belief that society is more essential than the individual, that achieving a general wellbeing for society in the abstract is the proper goal, and that sacrificing great ideas and beauty to achieve peace and stability is reasonable, and will lead to universal happiness. Once you accept the premises above, no amount of evidence against your belief will ever shake you out of the faith. Progressivism is the new faith – not a faith in God, gods, or Being. A faith in power, government, and the rule of masterminds.
Society would have had norms to maintain its power and always wanted to have people to conform to the norms. People who were against the norms were not welcomed and even executed. Nevertheless, there were artists and philosophers in history, beautiful works and great ideas.
Yes, the past had those conflicts and stresses too. But the past was different because the conflicts and stresses within and between societies were actually among the causes of great art and philosophy. The great individuals were working somewhat in the shadows, discussing their ideas in private, teaching other individuals so that their wisdom or art would not be lost, and would eventually become influential in improving society. (Socrates is a great and obvious example of this.)
Today, by contrast, we have the technology, and have developed forms of society and government (totalitarianism), that can almost totally eliminate privacy, and we have shined the light into every corner, so there are few “shadows” left for private thought. In addition, we have universal government schooling – which never existed before the nineteenth century – so that no one grows up independently, but everyone is raised by the government, learning only what the government wants everyone to think and know. Finally, our countries are mostly large and centralized in their systems of government, so there is very little difference of attitude or interest in various regions – no regional differences, and therefore it is much easier to make everyone think the “proper” thoughts.
My question is that it seems that we don’t have those people now, and if it is generally true, then why do we not have those people? Why did beautiful arts evaporate and great ideas cease to flourish?
Yes it is generally true. Why don’t we have such people? Partly because beautiful art begins with beautiful feelings about beautiful beliefs. If no one believes anything, beyond the basic “facts” of material science and technology, and if no one is encouraged to develop feelings deeper than wanting to be liked and accepted, or wanting to feel pleasure, or wanting to be rich, then what is left to inspire great art? Great art is for God, or for eternal love, or for the search for true and perfect beauty. But if there is no truth beyond material science, and no human nature, then all those old inspirations are gone.
The problem is not the science and technology themselves, but rather the underlying beliefs that have made science and technology the only kind of knowledge that matters for us. Materialism in the modern sense does not have any way of inspiring art or ideas, because materialism eliminates human beings, and tells us that human thought and emotion are illusions.
Then the past societal structure wasn’t harsh for those people?
It was often very harsh for them, in many ways. Many were killed, ignored, or mocked into irrelevance in their lifetimes. But there is a big difference between struggling through one’s life on the one hand, and being suffocated in the cradle on the other. In the past, great individuals suffered enormously for their effort to join the great conversation, and to keep that conversation alive. Today, they are merely (as much as possible) suffocated before they even know what greatness means, let alone that they themselves might have reached it, and this is achieved largely by blocking all access to the alternative ideas and beauties that the past is straining to reveal to us.
Recognizing this change in the social and psychological dynamics during our progressive age, and demonstrating in concrete terms how this change could be achieved and hardened into a permanent spiritual trap through a combination of aggressive indoctrination and unceasing material gratifications, was Huxley’s greatest political insight in Brave New World.