Modern Society: Progress or Failure?
In “Brave New World”, Mustapha Mond & John “The Savage” Debate Advantages/Disadvantages
Chapter 17 of Brave New World examines the quality of modern life.
World Controller Mustapha Mond (named after Jewish Zionist Alfred Mond) is a progressive, liberal ruler who claims modern life is better because more people are “happy”.
John “The Savage” is a traditional, conservative, blonde European man who believes life is worse and likes the way things were. He criticizes modern society for abandoning real art, science, and religion.
Here is a condensed version of their discussion:
“ART, SCIENCE–you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness,” said the Savage. “Anything else?”
“Well, religion, of course,” replied the Controller. “There used to be something called God–before the Nine Years’ War. But I was forgetting; you know all about God, I suppose.”
“Well …” The Savage hesitated. He would have liked to say something about solitude, about night, about lying pale under the moon, about the precipice, the plunge into shadowy darkness, about death. He would have liked to speak; but there were no words.”
The Controller, meanwhile, had crossed to the other side of the room and was unlocking a large safe set into the wall between the bookshelves. The heavy door swung open.
Rummaging in the darkness within, “It’s a subject,” he said, “that has always had a great interest for me.” He pulled out a thick black volume. “You’ve never read this, for example.”
The Savage took it. “The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments,” he read aloud from the title-page.
“Nor this.” It was a small book and had lost its cover.
“The Imitation of Christ.”
“Nor this.” He handed out another volume.
“The Varieties of Religious Experience. By William James.”
“And I’ve got plenty more,” Mustapha Mond continued, resuming his seat. “A whole collection of old books. God in the safe and Ford on the shelves.” He pointed with a laugh to his avowed library–to the shelves of books.
“But if you know about God, why don’t you tell them?” asked the Savage indignantly. “Why don’t you give them these books about God?”
“Because they’re old; they’re about God hundreds of years ago. Not about God now.” Mond replied.
“But God doesn’t change.”
“Men do, though.”
“What difference does that make?”
“All the difference in the world,” said Mustapha Mond. “One of the numerous things in heaven and earth that ancient philosophers didn’t dream about was us, the modern world. You can only be independent of God while you’ve got youth and prosperity; independence won’t take you safely to the end.”
He added “Well, we’ve now got youth and prosperity right up to the end. What follows? Evidently, that we can be independent of God. ‘The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.’ But there aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous.”
“Then you think there is no God?” the Savage asked.
“No, I think there quite probably is one” the Controller answered.
“Then why? …”
Mustapha Mond checked him. “But he manifests himself in different ways to different men. In premodern times he manifested himself as the being that’s described in these books. Now …”
“How does he manifest himself now?” asked the Savage.
“Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren’t there at all.”
“That’s your fault.”
Mond answered “Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness. That’s why I have to keep these books locked up in the safe. They’re smut. People would be shocked it …”
The Savage interrupted him. “But isn’t it natural to feel there’s a God?”
Mond replied “you might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons–that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to.”
“But all the same,” insisted the Savage, “it is natural to believe in God when you’re alone–quite alone, in the night, thinking about death …”
“But people never are alone now,” said Mustapha Mond. “We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it’s almost impossible for them ever to have it.”
The Savage nodded gloomily. He asked “Doesn’t there seem to be a God managing things, punishing, rewarding?”
“Well, does there?” questioned the Controller in his turn. “You can indulge in any number of pleasant vices with no risks The gods are just. No doubt. But their code of law is dictated, in the last resort, by the people who organize society; Providence takes its cue from men.”
“Are you sure?” asked the Savage. ” The gods are just. Haven’t they used our pleasant vices as an instrument to degrade us?”
“Degrade us from what position? As a happy, hard-working, goods-consuming citizen, we’re perfect. Of course, if you choose some other standard than ours, then perhaps you might say we are degraded. But you’ve got to stick to one set of rules.”
The Savage said “If you allowed yourselves to think of God, you wouldn’t allow yourselves to be degraded by pleasant vices. You’d have a reason for bearing things patiently, for doing things with courage.”
Mond replied “There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant.”
The Savage asked “What about self-denial, then? If you had a God, you’d have a reason for self-denial.”
“But industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”
“You’d have a reason for chastity!” said the Savage, blushing a little as he spoke the words.
Mond explained, “But chastity means passion, and passion means instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”
“But God’s the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic. If you had a God …”
“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended–there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears–that’s what soma is.”
“But the tears are necessary. There’s an old story about young men who wanted to marry a beautiful woman so they had to do a morning’s hoeing in her garden. It seemed easy; but there were flies and mosquitoes, magic ones. Most of the young men simply couldn’t stand the biting and stinging. But the one that could–he got the girl.”
“Charming! But in civilized countries,” said the Controller, “you can have girls without hoeing for them, and there aren’t any flies or mosquitoes to sting you. We got rid of them all centuries ago.”
The Savage nodded, frowning. “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. It’s too easy.”
“What you need,” the Savage went on, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here. Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”
Mond answered “There’s a great deal in it, but there’s inconveniences.”
“But I like the inconveniences” the Savage said.
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
There was a long silence…
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.”