Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nature and Nurture in Utopias

This was written for a Utopian Novel class

The debate about nature vs. nurture is ancient, and as many people know, it is not confined to questions of anthropology. Christians accept human nature as necessarily fallen because it has been corrupted and vitiated by original sin. Others, like Rousseau, advance the “noble savage” theory wherein all mankind was “naturally good” before disgusting, corrupting influences like civilization and religion ruined the race forever. Among Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, The Time Machine, and Brave New World, however, only Aldous Huxley chooses to examine the effects of “nurture” across an entire globe instead of just on an isolated island – and that is indeed what makes his analysis brave, new, and of an entire world.

There is a certain “willing suspension of disbelief” that goes along with reading any work of fiction. But in the Utopian genre, that suspension is fretted with either humor or regret, because the fundamental questions of society and human nature are being pointedly asked. What man who loves peace wasn’t pained as Gulliver, eager to prove his Houyhnhnm friend wrong about just how many men could be killed in war, went on to delineate the weapons of destruction in gruesome fashion? What man didn’t laugh as he followed Thomas More’s reductio ad absurdum regarding the marriage contract all the way to a prearranged examination of the potential spouse’s naked body? Surely, the most relevant epigraph for reexamining our human nature and social structures in the light of the Utopian genre must come from Hamlet’s mouth: “There is nothing either good or evil, but, thinking makes it so” (Hamlet II.ii).

Utopia – St. Thomas More

Over time some have wondered aloud how a devout Catholic allowed himself to participate in such a thought experiment. On one hand the answer is easy and available to most people – he was a humanist and like Erasmus, he was propagating a humanist point of view. Yet at the same time it is not a Catholic position to put forth any society as one to be imitated that is devoid of grace – or is Utopia devoid of grace?

Utopians have religion, but it is “religion” in the ecumenical way that people refer to “Christians” or “People of the Book” today. Indeed, Thomas More’s anticipation of the problematic formulations of the heterodox Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae seems to be very close to violating Pius XI’s position in Quas Primas, which is that error has no rights. More’s exact wording reads: “For this is one of the most ancient laws among them, that no man shall be blamed for reasoning in the support of his own religion” (154). Taken in and of itself, this would seem to imply a liberty of conscience, which the Church has always permitted. However, the Church has not always allowed the external expression of that internal thought. And that’s where examining our context gives us more perspective on More’s quote. He had been discussing someone who was speaking about Christianity with “more zeal than wisdom” and began to call all other religions “children of everlasting damnation.” Surely More was disgusted by those in his own time who preached in this manner. He preferred the cold-blooded logic of argument and hoped that others would follow his lead.

Yet, even Utopia is not Utopian. Laws exist – very specific laws which grant that someone must have transgressed them in the past. And so we come to the quandary of More’s society ruled by reason: why is it that men do not do the good they know, but indeed the evil they hate? More knew his Plato and Aristotle, but he also knew his St. Paul, and so his answer is that even if men live in a society governed and habituated by true reason and further, those men take steps to eliminate and minimize darkening of that reason, laws still have to be enforced, as in any society, for it to work. Some – that every man must work – seem quite reasonable by any standard. Others – like enforced celibacy for life should fornication occur prior to marriage – might make even the most stringent Dominican inquisitor uncomfortable.

And where does More stage all this? On an island. And why, precisely? Because he knows that he can perhaps make this case for one particular area, but it would be a bridge too far to imagine a whole world dominated by a system of thought. He would leave that for the authors who would take up the gauntlet he threw down.

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

Swift follows More’s insularity not just once, but in all the episodes of his novel. Even as we end the book, in the real world, we are on the island of England. And surely we cannot blame Swift. This makes the construct easier for the author – but for the reader too – for if we believe that at this very day and hour there are humans who prowl around half-naked and occasionally eat each other, then surely we can believe in an island of Mr. Eds.

While More confined his commentary to his problems with enclosures, welfare, the poor, and the aristocracy, among other things, in England, Swift gives us a more European view. Nothing, small or large, escapes his pen. He comments on the diet of many Europeans as he makes his crude bread from oats – “common enough in many parts of Europe.” As he lacks salt, he calls it a luxury, and then further an invention solely as a “provocative to drink.” He also engages some critical religious questions of the day – ones that burned hot in Europe for many years after Luther and Henry VIII – be they the rectitude of transubstantiation or the veneration of holy objects. Swift follows More’s lead in dismissing, at least in this construct, the notion that a religious truth can be objective truth. Instead, he limits these questions by contextualizing the highly metaphysical question of transubstantiation with the rather less important, and not metaphysical, question of the colors of vestments for Mass. Using this conflation he’s able to reduce these important questions to a “difference of opinion.”

Yet Swift’s disdain for human nature runs much deeper than More’s. He finds Europeans wretched and corrupted by civilization, but what he presents as humans in the state of nature – Yahoos – are much more repulsive. Where More provides a norm, Swift provides a Janus with no reflection of the better angels of our nature. But perhaps that is Swift’s precise take on Utopia. We can be openly savage and disgusting – as the Yahoos are. Or we can be savage through the perspective of the truly civilized and peaceful Houyhnhnhms – by examining our contentious political dealings, wars, double-dealing professions, and ways of life. Swift perhaps is asking the more difficult question – what do we propose as the sectio aurea?

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

If Swift presented us with a Janus, Wells cuts that coin in half and separates it as two different races. For if we are what we do, over time, we will change what we are. The Eloi and the Morlocks are Wells’ anticipation of the critique of industrial society and capitalism made more concretely and directly by his later countrymen, Chesterton and Belloc. While Wells purports to be in the world of the future, given the confines of the novel, we are still within the island-construct of More and Swift. The Time Traveler’s journeys within the future are rather limited, and as such we still perceive them as being within an island of sorts.

Wells’ portrayal is all the more surprising in that in directly contradicts the onward and upward reasoning that was the mode of his day: we are better than we once were, those of us who come after us will be better yet. Wells’ treatment of two warring impulses in man – the desire to work so that he might be fed, clothed, and sheltered – and the desire for comfort which allows feeding, clothing, and sheltering to be the demesne of others, while you sit or sleep comfortably in an armchair, perhaps while copulating – results in an eventual divorce into two species.

Gone is the more specific social commentary that peppered Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels. Wells is simply warning us in the same way Hilaire Belloc would in The Servile State:

The future of industrial society, and in particular of English society, left to its own discretion, is a future in which subsistence and security shall be guaranteed for the proletariat, but shall be guaranteed at the expense of the old political freedom and by the establishment of the proletariat in a status really, though not nominally, servile. At the same time, the owners will be guaranteed in their profits, the whole machinery of production in the smoothness of its working, and that stability which has been lost under the capitalist phase of society will be found once more.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

When the Savage quotes Miranda on the prospect of going to see “Civilization” Bernard laughingly chides: “…hadn’t you better wait until you actually see the new world?” (130). Yet the Savage is right. Huxley’s world is Brave and New – and no longer is Utopia an island. In Huxley’s world, Utopia is a way of life. In enthroning happiness as the summum bonum, Shakespeare’s very words have become irrelevant. As Mustapha Mond so adeptly notes towards the close of our novel: “…you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now” (198).

Huxley has taken the separated Eloi and Morlocks and combined them in a test tube, added growth hormone, then divided them into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, and so on. We now have the sexually promiscuous, focused on happiness part fused with the everyone-must-do-his-role part. Huxley has taken our separated Janus and made it the benign face of Mustapha Mond. Ironically, Huxley has not taken us to the future, but rather back to the Middle Ages while removing Christ and His Church. In that society that counted “age quod agis” as one of its nostrums, Brave New World is but a mirror. You did what you did, in a consistent routine. You were happy in your place, and death was something natural, to be accepted, and not to be mourned.

It’s not just the fact that Huxley is modern that makes this work more read and more popular than our three aforementioned predecessors. It’s the fact that Huxley’s portrayal is not only stunningly accurate, but many parts of it have already been fulfilled. Soma and the feelies have been combined into the “I” based entertainment that dominates our culture - iPhones, iPods, YouTubes. It’s what you want, when you want it. Everything is about entertainment – even news. It is telling that, as one editor of the Kansas City Star once told me, that USA Today, America’s most popular newspaper, is 60% graphic-based. As Andrew Postman, in his introduction to his father’s prescient and ever-relevant Amusing Ourselves to Death wrote: “our bottomless appetite for TV will make content so available, context be damned, that we’ll be overwhelmed by ‘information glut’ until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we’ve lost as long as we’re being amused” (vii). Huxley has done more than take us to a sanitized, perverted, religion-free version of the Middle Ages. He has resurrected the sophistry that man is the measure of all things. What matters is not what you think – in fact, thinking is out altogether – but rather what you feel or hear or taste or touch. It would be simple to call it Cartesian, but the Cartesians actually cared about the consequences. The denizens of Brave New World do not.


Despite their differences in approach and the variances of their predictions about humanity, the Utopian genre, especially typified by these four novels, continues to provide relevant commentary about contemporary society. Each novel has something relevant to say about our current state of affairs. More would note that far from introducing a revolutionary novelty in the doctrine of religious liberty, the heresies of syncretism and indifferentism have come to dominate. Swift, in all of his Irish-children-eating fantasies could never have imagined that we have not just come to use animals as machines, but we even “farm” them with machines now – growing them in industrial cesspools, forcing them to eat something their stomachs are not accustomed to – truly, as the Mad Cow outbreak showed – nature is still rebellious when it is violated. Wells might have laughed to see that the Eloi do live aboveground, in high apartments and skyscrapers, and do solely live for money and play.

But it is perhaps Huxley’s reaction, captured in the words of Christopher Hitchens in an introduction to Brave New World, that is most relevant:

The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle, and Huxley assists us in attaining this valuable glimpse of the obvious, precisely because it was a conclusion that was in many ways unwelcome to him.

Implied in Hitchens’ summary is the understanding that ultimately all Utopian authors come to: if reason is not the sole answer, what is? And for those who reject or disdain notions of grace or conscience as salves or informers of reason, the answer must truly be frightening.

Works Cited

Belloc, Hilaire. The Servile State. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1977.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Roslyn, NY: Classics Club, 1947

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

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