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Relativism and 1984

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

I recently finished George Orwell’s 1984, and, having read Brave New World earlier this year, couldn’t help comparing them. Orwell shows a government who manages to preserve absolute rule by torturing its enemies until they come to “love” it. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, seems to suggest the opposite—that the “brave new world” will last because it is so convenient. Orwell’s book is more of a reflection on the Soviet Union; Huxley’s, on the capitalistic West.

But one element of 1984 seemed strangely pertinent. The difference between the views of Big Brother and those of protagonist Winston Smith, before his torture at least, is this—to Big Brother, truth is whatever is convenient. Winston believes that truth does not change, that history is fact, that falsely claiming his country has always been at war with another is wrong.

George Orwell's press photo.

George Orwell’s press photo.

George Orwell, though he never left the Anglican Church, was in his personal life a religious skeptic. A socialist himself, he was frustrated that Russian socialists had so warped the democratic socialism he supported into totalitarianism. But, despite Orwell’s lack of belief in many parts of Christianity, he retained belief in many of the moral values taught by the church. In fact, 1984 might in one sense be viewed as an argument in favor of absolute truth. Of course, today’s relativists hold that position for reasons quite opposite to Big Brother’s. G. K. Chesterton attributed relativism to a sort of misguided humility.

Still, the coincidence is striking. And it begs the question—where is the line between well-intentioned relativism and self-serving relativism? And doesn’t the Party believe itself to be well-intentioned?

I remember a recent discussion on education in which relativism came up. “Students go to college without knowing basic math,” someone said. Another person mentioned seeing an education seminar in which the speaker said that if a student got a basic multiplication fact wrong, but could explain his reasoning, his answer should be treated as correct.

Should students be encouraged to reason? Of course. But reason is a means, not an end. Chesterton held that the hallmark of a lunatic is the inability to make decisions based on anything but reason. In other words, if you try arguing with a paranoiac, you’ll lose. You can say the rest of the world isn’t conspiring against him, but he’ll argue that of course you would say that, since you’re a part of the conspiracy. In other words, reason is important, but truth is vital.

Simply saying that everyone has is own truth is an attempt to respond to the unfortunate fact that people view truth differently. But to say that they are all right—to themselves—merely sidesteps the real question. Which of these views on truth ought society to be built on? They may all be “equal,” but if a devout Muslim wants his children to be taught in their public school that Allah created man from clots of blood, atheists are bound to object. Someone’s viewpoint is going to be the one to influence government, whatever nice sentiments relativists may have about the other views in the meantime.

Winston becomes a committed relativist after his torture. (Not a completely consistent one—everything must be according to Big Brother’s wishes—though there is no such thing as a consistent relativist, because a relativistic attitude toward relativism would be fatal.) In Orwell’s words:

He accepted everything. The past was alterable…. Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in the mind, truly happens.

Or does it? Is the most important thing what we think inwardly, or what is real outside us? Are we really prepared to sentence ourselves to a moral solipsism?

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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Science Fiction


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