One year before graduating high school, I befriended a math teacher. His entire essence was the very antithesis of other, more traditional, teachers. Openly engaging in conversations that surpassed functions and trigonometry, he was well-received by students as an honest teacher, genuinely driven by the development of his pupils.
A year later, he was halfway across the earth — a globetrotter on sabbatical. While away, he maintained a blog that outlined his travels to keep friends, family, and students abreast of his adventures. It was through this website that I had first contacted him, planted the early seedlings which have yielded a steady correspondence now spanning several years.
For months, we played technological-tennis — bouncing messages back-and-forth – discussing travel, book recommendations, and profound questions of life. Without this all sounding too tacky, it was a gradual process. The inaugural message didn’t read, What’s the meaning of life?
Our relationship began following a foreboding email. Contained within was the entire text of Alexander Pope’s poem, A Little Learning, which begins:
A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.
If memory serves, he was advising me to not “overthink everything.” I have come to learn the value of this lesson gradually as I mature, as I shoot for the stars in intellectual endeavours only to fall cosmically short of my desired destination. But never have these lines came back to my head, chapter and verse, as quickly as when I was reading Brave New World.
Brave New World is a 1932 novel written by English author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. The book, set in a futuristic, post-industrial, world state follows a group of elite citizens. The entire world was borne of Henry Ford’s assembly-line productivity advancements, which have gradually been applied to governance. Ford is a mythological deity in this society, with prayers being uttered in his name, dates being referenced as before or after his death, and sayings like, “For Ford’s sake.”
In this new world, society has been programmed by government. Government has complete control of everyone, and everything. Reproduction is no longer an inter-personal affair between lovers, but a computerized process where spermatozoa and eggs are fertilized on an assembly line. The zygotes are divided numerously (96 times, in fact) through a scientific advent dubbed the “Bokanovsky process.”
While being assembled and augmented, these future humans are molded into certain castes. From highest (which produces the fewest) to lowest (which accounts for the bulk of their demography), the fetuses are programmed to function in the following classes: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. From one tier to the next, fetuses are programmed to be proportionately smaller, less intelligent, and assigned specific colors for identification purposes. Accordingly, Epsilons might be half the size of some alphas.
The purpose of such programming is to achieve a state of “perfect balance,” where humans work jobs and live lives they are just right for. The result of this system is stability: no recessions, no suicides, nothing but life, living, and good health.
Things as primitively human as sex are public programming. Everybody sleeps with everybody whenever they want. From a young age, infants are nurtured to be sexually promiscuous with peers. Because of the efficiency this system grants, workers only need to put in a nominal amount of time every day before engaging in pure hedonism — rampant sex, seductive entertainment, commercial purchasing and consumption. They have it all. All in the name of stability and productivity.
The story follows Bernard Marx, an alpha-plus who works for the government, but seemingly retains the human urges to learn and love. These expectations prove frustrating in a world where art and religion (and, well, life) are all government-made: intended to appease the population into docile submission. Keep them thoroughly engaged enough to never question anything, never give them free, unoccupied time to even think about such matters.
But most everyone who surrounds Bernard enjoys this decadent life. They have no worries. Bernard, on the contrary, is perpetually troubled. He feels trapped in a dull world, surrounded by helpless machines.
And this is where Huxley’s genius shines. Because many other dystopian novels — that both pre- and post-date Brave New World — tend to paint the government as pure evil. In this world, however, there is no clear evil. Virtually all citizens live an incredibly enjoyable existence, and the few who don’t (like Bernard) tend to live crappy ones. Thus, the author forces the reader to question the obvious question: Are Machines Happier than Men?
For example, a prescient scene unfolds while Bernard is on a date with Lenina — a secondary character. They are stopped in a helicopter over the English Channel, and Bernard turns off the radio. He wants to sit and enjoy the view, simply relax for a moment. And Lenina — wholly unaccustomed to vacant time, suddenly goes absolutely insane. She finds herself thinking about life and the world, and screams at Bernard to turn the radio back on and continue home so they can have sex.
In Lenina — the average citizen of Huxley’s world — I see the increasingly average citizen of today: vapid and empty, lacking direction, losing their humanity one technological sacrifice at a time. Desperately in constant need of titillation and amusement. Lacking spirituality or purpose of any sort. Lost souls trying to keep their heads in a world that can cripple the unoccupied mind.
When I peruse the web occasionally and witness sensationally divisive news stories, BuzzFeed articles, and reality TV show posts…I see exactly what Bernard did: Half humans. Zombies in a rat-race.
BUT, of course, none of these should come across as having negative connotations (although the wording might suggest so). Because it very well could be the case that the alternative is a slow, and painful death. Mental emaciation, a steady starvation of the soul, and annexing of the mind.
The truth of the matter is that while I see others in the rat-race, I’m looking for the same cheese. Navigating an impossible maze to answer the unanswerable: questions of meaning, spirit, and soul.
And as I read this book, my metaphorical glass refilled time and again, emptied by gulp upon gulp as I found myself becoming intoxicating at the Pierian springs that Pope alluded to. Plunging down, one sip at a time, into intellectual anarchy. A little learning really is a dangerous thing…