How the hard road to freedom can be a costly one.
The world wants you to be typical – in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen. You have to pay a price for your distinctiveness, and it’s worth it. The fairy tale version of “be yourself ” is that all the pain stops as soon as you allow your distinctiveness to shine. That version is misleading. Being yourself is worth it, but don’t expect it to be easy or free. You’ll have to put energy into it continuously.
- Jeff Bezos
How to Live
In Part 1 (of 2) on this series about Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World, we looked inside Huxley's technocratic World State and its Hatchery and Conditioning Center, where every human embryo, fetus, and baby is grown to fulfill a societal role and serve the common good. Through this engineered, conditioned, and organized society, World State leaders have created a civilization free from crime, war, fear, and suffering. And to ensure no one ever suffers again, they provide every citizen with a happy drug called soma.
Through permanent stability, the World State's population will never again ask questions or feel anxiety. Each caste of citizen -- the Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons -- will embrace their societal role and accept their blissful reality.
Without even knowing it, they’ve all taken the blue pill.
In this famous scene from The Matrix, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) explains to Neo (Keanu Reeves) that his reality – all that he sees, hears, touches, smells, and tastes – is nothing but a computer simulation. “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” he tells Neo.
When Neo asks, “What truth,” Morpheus replies, “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”
Then Morpheus gives Neo a choice. He can take the blue pill -- the easy way out -- and forget that the world he knows is really a simulation. By taking the blue pill, he can return to blissful ignorance, believing he’s free and that the world he experiences is real. Or… he can face the truth. If he takes the red pill, Neo will escape the computer simulation and finally exist as a sentient human being. But the freedom of the red pill comes with a cost. Though free, Neo will live underground without sunlight and in constant danger. He will sleep on a steel cot and eat slop for every meal. His life will become hard and even torturous. But it will be real.
As Neo reaches for the red pill, Morpheus warns, “Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more…”
When Neo swallows the red pill, he chooses the hard road to freedom. By doing so, he will lose friends, feel betrayal, and gets the shit kicked out of him by real life. But he will also feel agency and the freedom to make his own choices. Only by choosing the hard road to freedom can Neo finally fulfill his potential and become a hero.
Stability versus Freedom
This dilemma between the safe and hard choice, between dillusion and freedom is as old as western civilization. In Plato’s famous Cave Allegory, the great philosopher writes about prisoners chained inside a cave facing a wall. On the wall are moving shadows in various forms. They believe these shadows are reality. And then one day a prisoner escapes the cave and sees a more three-dimensional world of depth and color outside. When he returns to the cave and explains that the shadows they believe to be reality are nothing but a mirage, the prisoners ridicule him and refuse to listen. For the masses, the cave represents stability. Any challenge to this perception is rejected because it defies their deepest beliefs, identity, and reality. Chained inside the cave, they’re safe, stable, and happy -- and they don't want to hear anyone trying to convince them otherwise.
As much as we Americans say we love freedom, as a species we love stability more. More often than not, we choose the blue pill – the safe non-choice, the path of least resistance, the status quo. But every now again, when encouraged by a mentor, enlightened by a book, or just emboldened by our frustrations or ambitions, we take the red pill like Neo. In doing so, we become fully human (men and women of action) and once again answer that age-old question, “How to live?”
In Brave New World, no World State citizen asks “How to live?” because they're unaware of any other way to live. They are deep inside the cave, accepting -- even embracing -- all that they see, read, and are told.
The citizens cling to their beliefs because they're engineered and conditioned to do so. Huxley writes, "One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them." Thus, he adds, "Providence takes its cues from men." Through slogans and dogmas -- generated by media and government, and repeated by friends and colleagues -- everyone comes to accept one reality as if that's all there is and all there will ever be.
But what happens if someone comes along and whispers, "there's more..."? What if someone says there's another way to live (outside the cave), a way where you can feel a kaleidoscope of emotions -- happiness and sadness, love and loss, freedom and regret? Will the citizens in the cave continue to take the path of least resistance (the blue pill) or will they opt for the hard road to freedom (the red pill)? As a human being, you probably already know the answer.
In Act II Huxley’s book, a scientist named Bernard from the highest societal caste (the Alpha-plus) decides to travel to the New Mexico Reservation “to have a look at the savages.” Within the World State, a few isolated places – or “reservations” – remain without the technologies and bureaucracies of the modern world. Few citizens know much about these reservations, and only a select group of Alphas are allowed to visit them. Far away, fenced off, and isolated, the reservations exist so World State elite can study the primal behaviors of those who live there, while also feeling a sense of supremacy over them.
When Bernard arrives on his rocket ship, the reservation’s warden (a World State official) greets him and adds spurts of “civilized” condescension about the reservation and its people.
“About sixty thousand Indians… absolute savages… our inspectors occasionally visit… otherwise, no communication whatever with the civilized world… still preserve their repulsive habits and customs… marriage, if you know what that is… no conditioning… monstrous superstitions… extinct languages… ferocious animals… infectious diseases… priests… venomous lizards…”
As the warden shows him around, Bernard recalls a story about another Alpha-plus visiting the reservation with his Beta girlfriend 25 years before. During their stay, the Beta got lost on the reservation and was never seen again. After the Alpha-plus flew back (alone) to London, the stranded Beta linked up with a tribe on the reservation, gaining food and shelter in exchange for sex with some of the married native men (which made her quite unpopular with the married native women). To make matters worse, she learned she was already pregnant with the Alpha-plus’s son. Stuck on the reservation with no access to the World State’s mandated birth control and abortion clinics, she had the baby the ancient way, i.e. no test tubes, fertilizing rooms, or hatcheries.
She named the baby John. Growing up, John realized he looked nothing like the reservation's natives. Consequently, he grew up alone and isolated with his mother. Considering him different, the natives forbid John from attending their pow wows, hunting expeditions, and warrior societies. No matter how hard he tried, or how much hazing he endured, John realized they would never accept him. Then at 12 years old, something important happened to John. One of his mother’s lovers found an old and ragged book – centuries old – and gave it to John. The book was entitled, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
When John opened the book, Huxley writes, “the strange words rolled through his mind; rumbled, like the drums at the summer dances, if the drums could have spoken.” Taught basic reading by his mother, John hardly knew what most of the words even meant. “But,” Huxley adds, “their magic was strong and went on rumbling in his head.” After reading from the book for months (and then years), John began to understand more and more about the human condition. Reading Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and others, he learned about love, courage, and curiosity. He also learned about betrayal, fear, and hatred. Finally, reading this tattered book helped John find the words to explain his own feelings of alienation, along with his constant hope for a better future.
While touring the reservation, Bernard (the Alpha-plus scientist) eventually meets John. By this time, John is solid specimen in his early 20s – strong, virile, and thoroughly native in his habits, except for one: he’s a reader. After a series of conversations, Bernard becomes fascinated by John’s story and intellect. Bernard then realizes that John is the son of the Beta woman stranded on the reservation decades before.
Intrigued by his discovery, Bernard gains permission from World State leadership to bring John back to London for further study. Bernard has made the discovery of a lifetime: someone with World State “parents” who grew up on a prehistoric reservation where people still ride horses, have babies, hunt bison, and worship gods.
Rejected by everyone but his mother on the reservation, John is like any ambitious teenager from a small town: he’s eager to get the fuck out. “Alone, always alone…,” John laments to Bernard about his life on the reservation.
When Bernard offers to bring John and his mother back to London, John lights up. “Do you really mean it?” he asks rhetorically. “To think it should be coming true – what I’ve dreamt of all my life…. O brave new world,” John exclaims, “how many goodly creatures are there here? O brave new world,” he cheers again, “that has such people in it. Let’s start at once,” he pleads.
Like Columbus bringing Native Americans back to Spain in the late Fifteenth Century, Bernard tows John around the World State until John feels less like a human being and more like a zoo animal. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the savage, Huxley writes, “all upper-caste London was wild to see this delicious creature.”
In a report to Mustapha Mond, a “Controller” and the highest ranking World State official in Western Europe, Bernard writes this about John’s experiences in London: “The Savage shows surprisingly little astonishment at, or awe of, civilized inventions.” This is because, Bernard writes, the Savage’s “interest being focused on what he calls ‘the soul,’ which he persists in regarding as an entity independent of the physical environment.”
Unlike the babies of the hatchery, John is not engineered or conditioned. He was born free and grew up trusting his instincts and feeling his emotions. And because he was often alone on the reservation, there was no authority to tell him what to believe or how to act. Combine that with his love for Shakespeare, and John is an emotional powder keg ready to blow up the happy, safe, and obedient confines of this brave new world.
This explosion comes when a group of Delta workers are lined up at the end of the workday in London for their weekly issue of soma, the happy drug. Seeing this, John fights through the crowd and dumps out the pills from a large box, screaming, “It’s poison! Don’t you want to be free?” Furious, the Deltas charge John and a riot ensues as the workers become desperate for soma. Fortunately for the World State, policemen arrive with spraying machines, pumping the crowd with “thick clouds of soma vapor into the air.” Two minutes later, the Deltas are inhaling the soma air and are happy once again, “kissing and hugging one another” as a fresh supply of soma pills are brought in for distribution.
Learning of the incident, Mustapha Mond (the World Controller of Western Europe) asks that the “savage” be brought to his office for questioning.
As the story enters Act III, Huxley sets the stage for a debate on the values of Stability (favored by Mond) versus Freedom (favored by John). In Mustapha Mond’s office, the advantages of the blue pill versus the red pill are opened up for debate.
As they meet, Mond says to John, “So you don’t much like civilization, Mr. Savage.”
“No,” John answers.
Making his case for the World State’s civilization, Mond responds:
“The world is stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’re got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.”
John counters, but what about the truth?
Mond laughs, insisting this brave new world offers something better than truth: happiness. The World State, he says, “shift[ed] the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.” In the end, he says, “we’ve chosen machinery and medicine and happiness.” And when you can eradicate suffering, he continues, there is no longer a need for art, beauty, heroes, or even God.
When John explains that he feels most invigorated when taking risks, enduring discomfort, and overcoming hardship, Mond dismisses these notions as primitive. In this brave new world, Mond declares, “we prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don’t want comfort,” John finally screams. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
The next chapter begins with John vomiting in the bathroom. As he gathers himself and exits the bathroom, Bernard (the Alpha-plus who brought John to this brave new world) asks, “Did you eat something that didn’t agree with you?”
John nods. “I ate civilization.”
Alone (Spoiler Alert)
With Mond’s permission, John moves to the English countryside, hoping to escape the sick new world. Instead sadly, World State citizens rush to John's location in their helicopters and hover machines, “staring, laughing, clicking their cameras, [and] throwing peanuts” at him. When the numbers of spectators increase and “the swarm of helicopters [come] buzzing… [like] a dark cloud ten kilometer long” towards his country house, John finally has enough inside this happy new world prison.
Seeing John run into his house, the spectators land their machines and yell, “Mr. Savage,” trying to find him. When they finally do, John is hanging from his staircase.
By putting his faith in this brave new world, John stopped relying upon himself. He thought the new world would alleviate the loneliness, ignorance, and bigotry he felt on the reservation. But it didn’t. John was never conditioned to be happy like the Alphas, Betas, Deltas and Epsilons. John was born free and chose to live free. Because of this, he chose death over enslavement.
John couldn’t return to the reservation that rejected him, nor could he live in a civilization that made him sick. In this way, Huxley portrays John as the alienated modern man -- rejecting the identity and values heaped upon him by civilization and its ruling institutions.
But as Morpheus does with Neo, Huxley offers us a way out (other than suicide). He offers us the red pill. And though it’s a harder road filled with potholes of instability and uncertainty, taking the red pill ultimately means going your own way, doing what you’re drawn to do, and giving your all. In doing so, I believe is the hero’s journey.