Updated: Aug 14
Harnessing science and technology, how far will a government go to ensure perpetual happiness for their citizens? And at what cost? In his masterpiece, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley offers answers -- and even more questions.
The Appeal of Stability
As human beings, our evolutionary purpose is to survive and thrive. But to do so, we need stability. Because without a stable environment (and society), surviving and thriving becomes quite hard. (See Mad Max.) Stability appeals to us because we've evolved to value it. During periods of stability -- when living in mild climates with abundant game and few tribal enemies -- our ancestors flourished and prospered. Yet, the threat of instability (the worst-case scenarios of war and famine) always loomed in their heads. But what if the chaos could be controlled? What if, somehow through a variety of means, stability could mitigate such chaos? Enter the State. From its inception, civilization has promised (and often delivered) the security, stability, and certainty we crave as human beings. Yet, our caveman instincts still remain. Despite state-sponsored stability, our fears still remain. We fear losing our job, our house, our marriage, our loved ones, our dignity, our sanity, and on and on and on... we fear. But what if that fear went away for good? What if the state and technology became so powerful and advanced, that you could live a life free not just from fear, but from war, crime, sadness, and suffering? What if you could live perfectly safe and perpetually happy? Enter Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World.
Aldous Huxley is one of the most influential and important writers about the modern human experience. And in his 1932 masterpiece, Brave New World, he offers a glimpse into a future free of pain and suffering. Similar to George Orwell’s 1984, which it’s often compared to, Huxley's work served as a warning against the final and inevitable stage of state-sponsored "progress." He reminded readers that the more we allow others to think, do, and provide for us, the more enslaved we become. Being free, he insisted, meant making hard choices, doing hard things, and often going your own way. In short, being free meant living within all the uncertainties of life -- warts, tears, and all.
The timing of Huxley's book could not have been better. Decades before, Nietzsche warned the world that “God is dead.” Soon after, the First World War decimated Europe, the Spanish Flu killed even more, and the Great Depression spread suffering worldwide. Into the void came utopian social movements full of promises. They promised to replace religion with charismatic demagogues as the new priests and ideologies as the new gods. In no small way, they promised heaven on earth. And above all, they promised stability.
Writing Brave New World from London during these times of chaos (and promised stability), Huxley tells the story of a world free of countries, alliances, and war. He tells the story of a single world government known as the World State.
In this brave new world controlled by the World State, everyone is satisfied with their life. There’s no crime, hunger, or suffering; consequently, there's no need for heroes. Also, because all reproduction and rearing of children is handled by the state, no one has a parent, spouse, or child. This way, you will never again feel the loss of a loved one. And because of state-sponsored organizations, castes, and medicine, you will never feel lonely or depressed. Perpetual happiness and sexual gratification (monogamy is discouraged) is all you will feel as a citizen of the World State.
In this new world of science, technology, and pure reason, there’s even a perfect number of humans – never too few and never too many. And if there is a large earthquake and thousands die, the scientists simply turn up the dial to spawn more humans for that region. Besides their stability in numbers, the World State also engineers the perfect types of humans for every societal role. From ditch diggers to scientists, everyone has a role they’re born to perform. Consequently, everyone feels good about themselves and their contribution to the common good, which is defined as universal happiness. And with everyone happy, the World State produced every government’s dream: an obedient citizenry free of dissidents.
Huxley's book begins inside the concrete colossus of this new world, a 34-story building called the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center. Above its grand entrance is the World State’s motto: “Community, Identity, and Stability.”
Through the building’s narrow windows, sunlight pierces across polished marble floors of the lobby as aromatic smells waft from ceiling air ducts. Confident workers, always on the move, are dressed head to toe in white and smiling as they crisscross the lobby towards various doors and elevators. They're busy because they have an important job to do; because inside the Hatchery’s walls, the miracle of life is planted, engineered, tweaked, and conditioned. In doing so, the World State delivers a final chapter on human progress: Perfection.
In the lobby, Huxley introduces readers to the Hatchery’s Director. Standing tall in a white lab coat, he’s leading a tour of promising students and future World State leaders. “And this,” he tells the students while opening a door, “is the Fertilizing Room.” Walking into the space, students see a series of incubator doors, each housing thousands of test tubes. Within each test tubes, they learn, World State scientists are “budding” single eggs into as many as a hundred eggs, thereby creating a hundred identical human embryos with the same physical and intellectual characteristics and propensities. All one hundred of these look-alike embryos destined to fulfill the same societal role. “This,” the Director proclaims with his arms spread wide, “is stability.”
Amid the nods of approval and note taking, the students soon trail the Director from the Fertilizing Room through a long hallway and down a staircase deep into the Hatchery’s basement. Opening the giant doors, they enter a colossal subterranean warehouse 220 meters long and 200 meters wide. This is the Embryo Store. Here, in the warm and humid darkness where only red light is permitted, lies the World State's concrete womb. Adjusting their eyes to the darkness, the students soon see an endless stream of bottles slowly inching forward on conveyer belts like bottles moving extra slow at a soda pop factory.
Yet, these bottles are much bigger than soda bottles. At the beginning of their journey, each glass bottle, (about the size of the 5 gallon water jug you see in offices) holds an tiny embryo pulled from a test tube inside the Fertilizing Room. Moving thirty-three centimeters an hour, the bottles creep down and back along an area nine times the size of a football field. From beginning to end, each bottle's contents follow a 267-day journey on the conveyor, slowly growing from embryo to fetus to eight pound baby.
As they move along the belt, “glinted [like] rubies… among the rattle and hum of machinery,” Huxley writes, each bottle is labeled for a specific destiny. For example, the bottles labeled “Alphas” get the most oxygen, while the Betas, Charlies, and Deltas get progressively less. Finally, the bottles labeled Epsilons (the future unskilled laborers) garner the very least amount of oxygen, forever limiting their cognition.
Other batches of bottles along this nine-month carousel are manipulated even more. The fetuses of future rocket pilots are kept in constant motion, the Director explains, "to improve their sense of balance.” While the fetuses of future chemical workers, he adds, are exposed to toxins that improve their “toleration of lead, tar, and chlorine.”
The Director (never named by Huxley) ultimately summarizes the Hatchery’s mission like this to the students: “We predestine and condition. We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future…," he pauses, "Directors of Hatcheries,” he says with a smile.
Suggestions of the State
Once decanted (i.e. born), the infants are moved to various stages of conditioning throughout the giant Hatchery and Conditioning Center. Just as before in the embryotic and fetus stages, the babies are segregated by caste. The Alphas in one wing, and so on down the line to the dim-witted Epsilons. When the students enter the “Neo-Pavlovian Controlling Rooms,” Huxley writes, they see nurses “trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps.” Then they watch those nurses line up bowls of roses and stacks of books. After that, the Director commands, “bring in the children.”
Soon, nurses rush in scores of Delta babies, setting them down to face the flowers and books. “Now,” the Director orders. Always obedient, the head nurse pulls a lever blaring a shrieking siren. “And now!” he says again. Pulling a second lever, the nurse unleashes electric shocks on every Delta baby in the room. “Again!” the Director shouts, and over and over again, more sirens blare and more electric shocks are given.
“Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks,” the Director tells the students. After two hundred repetitions, he says, these Deltas will grow up with an “instinctive hatred of books and flowers.” This is all done to serve the common good. Because it's always best, everyone would agree, that workers love the factory more than nature and mindless amusement more than books.
Continuing his tour, the Director takes the students to another Conditioning Room, this one filled with 8-year-old Bravos. Entering their berthing area, the Director walks quietly down the aligning cots where eighty boys and girls lay asleep. Never to waste a moment, the World State requires conditioning for children not only when they’re awake, but when they sleep as well. They call it “sleep teaching.”
As the young Bravos sleep, the Director amplifies the sound from tiny speakers in the children’s pillows so his entourage can listen in. This is what they hear: “I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write… I’m so glad I’m a Beta. [While} Alpha children…," the recording continues, "work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard.”
This sermon is repeated fifty more times before the children awaken. Then they’ll hear it three times every week for thirty straight months. They’ll also hear other sermons during other times while awake and asleep. Through it all, they’ll learn their state-sponsored creeds and clichés (what to believe). They'll also learn about their valued place in society ( their tribe and identity). In all, Huxley writes, they’ll learn “words without reason.” Which really means they'll go through life with few questions and lots of answers. They'll have the lasting gifts of certainty and peace of mind.
Over time, like wax dropping and encrusting around a child’s mind, the Director explains, the child’s mind becomes ossified by these suggestions, and eventually, those suggestions become the child’s mind. Then, the Director adds, those suggestions will become “the adult’s mind too.” These suggestions, he proclaims, are the “suggestions of the state.” And there it is, barbarians, man has been officially conquered and stabilized by the state.
I’m going pause now and let you take all of that in… because it's a lot.
In 1984, Orwell describes state sponsored torture as a solution for those who defy the “suggestions of the state.” Yet, what scares me the most about Huxley’s Brave New World is that state sponsored torture is no longer even necessary. Obedience begins at birth through engineered embryos, is continued in childhood through mental conditioning, and is completed in adulthood through blind acceptance. The result becomes citizens who don’t even realize they’ve been coerced because the suggestions of their minds are identical to the suggestions of the state. This means that every idea they’ll ever conjure – ideas they consider to be their own – are actually state sponsored ideas. Under these circumstances, a free existence is not only impossible, but it's unthinkable. The state has replaced God and your parents. It has created you, raised you, taught you, and owns you. Not only that, there's actually no distinction between you and the state. You are a brick in its wall. Thus, when you are the state and the state is you, you can no longer rebel. Because who are you going to rebel against? Yourself?
Thus, the World State in Huxley’s smiling dystopia has finally and forever reached it's inevitable endpoint: the elimination of the self.
The citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World don’t know about concepts like freedom and slavery. They only know what they know. That said, what if there’s a glitch? What if someone comes along and says, “there’s more."
What if someone offers the hard, lonely, and unstable road to freedom (the red pill) -- the apotheosis of the self -- instead of settling for the easier faceless road towards collective safety, security, and stability (the blue pill)?
In Part II, we’ll explore this question of freedom versus stability through the book’s plot and protagonist, a barbarian from a prehistoric and isolated sector of the World State. In this sequel, “The Self Strikes Back!”
Until next time, barbarians. Keep asking hard questions and doing hard things. As a friend of mine often says, “Strength is a choice.” And as we’ll see in Part 2, so is freedom.
Click here to read Part 2.