Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Huxley’s Mirror” first appeared in the October 2003 issue of Touchstone.
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The Future of Man in the Brave New World
by Vigen Guroian
Over the course of the past century, two modern dystopias captured readers’ imaginations more than any other literary works of their kind. Many read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) as prophecy or admonition that if humankind were not careful, the future might look like one or the other. Of the two, Orwell’s novel seemed the most possible. It depicted a technologically advanced version of the sorts of totalitarian regimes with which the twentieth century was all too familiar. Today, however, Brave New World may be the more relevant. Recent extraordinary advances in biomedicine, biotechnology, and communications that Huxley uncannily anticipated have given it unexpected relevance, over seventy years after it first appeared.
Yet in Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, even Huxley doubted that the reproductive technology that made his imagined world so radically different from anything man had experienced in the past was likely to come very soon. “Babies in bottles and the centralized control of reproduction are not perhaps impossible,” Huxley opined, “but it is quite clear that for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random.”
Almost a half-century later, “babies in bottles” are not yet on the horizon, but “designer” genes and cloned babies are. Over the past fifty years, mankind has been developing a dizzying array of biotechnologies (e.g., artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, and gene-splicing) that if fully implemented or mandated by government would leave increasingly little in human reproduction to chance. Thus, the imminent prospect of cloning a human being, while it may be the most compelling sign of this revolution, is by no means the only step along a well-marked path toward mastery of our genetic makeup. All of this has prompted a number of social critics to return to Brave New World with renewed interest as an admonitory tale.
Here, however, I am less interested in adding to recent speculations about the scientific and technological advances that could cause our society to resemble Brave New World than with some of the moral and theological questions the story itself raises about the wisdom of altering our own nature. In the preface to the 1946 edition of Brave New World, Huxley explained that his principal purpose was not to write a political novel about the external arrangements of a future society but to describe a revolution inside human nature itself brought about mainly by the biological sciences.
An Artful Satire
Huxley did not write Brave New World as prophecy. It is, instead, an artful satire in the great English tradition of Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. Huxley juxtaposes two vastly different future societies. The first, the so-called Brave New World, is a global order that claims to have rid the earth of suffering and perfected the universal human goal of happiness. Liberalism and democracy have been mercifully put to rest. In their place, a regime of social engineers keeps the people happy. These managers are Brave New World’s version of Plato’s philosopher king. Consumption and entertainment conjoin the social mass, and a drug-aided religion of social solidarity supplies cords of concord and fantasies of perpetual bliss.
As one first enters the story, the Brave New World seems to have little resemblance to contemporary society. But quickly it is evident that certain noteworthy characteristics and trends of contemporary society have taken strange and unexpected form. Like other great satirists, Huxley aims to demonstrate that what looks like normality to those immersed in the present may not be so. He wants to remind the reader of values and criteria of judgment that have preserved and enhanced that which is most noble in man. At bottom, Huxley is not only a satirist but, as satirists often are, a humanist as well.
In Brave New World the state employs advanced biological and behavioral sciences to manufacture and control its citizens. And this is certainly our major interest. But Huxley also holds up to scorn and ridicule many other aspects of the contemporary world to which modern people are attracted and in which they often invest a great deal of value. These include consumerism, commodification of the body, recreation and entertainment, and the cult of celebrity.
Even this tightly managed global civilization finds it necessary, however, to maintain sequestered “primitive” societies, Native American Reservations, such as the one in New Mexico, where John, the principal protagonist of the story, has been raised. The Reservation is a degraded throwback to “past” societies. In it, traditional religion and family relations persist, while love and hatred and freedom and violence play themselves out in familiar ways.
Here again, even in this dark and primitive society, the reader sees significant elements of the modern world. While the Indians’ sense of honor and adherence to strict rules of sexual conduct and religious practice may be admirable, their lives are marked also by brutality, abject poverty, and disease. Would one really want to live in this society? John, who was raised on the Reservation but whose mother is from the “civilized” Brave New World, struggles with a kind of dual citizenship. Where does he belong, on the Reservation or in the Brave New World? Where does man belong and what is his true nature? Huxley’s strange tale evokes these questions.
Huxley’s novel is not inspired by a Christian worldview. Nor is it especially sympathetic to the Christian religion. Nevertheless, Huxley, as a social critic, knew that more than ethical decision-making, however scrupulously gone about, is at issue for the future of our contemporary world. Freedom and morality have a social and historical context. A whole social world is at stake, and in the Western world, Christianity has played a vital, central role in the formation of culture.
The reader learns that the inhabitants of the Brave New World are kept deliberately ignorant of biblical faith and so are not able to articulate a value or meaning for their lives apart from strict standards of social usefulness. They have no knowledge of the bedrock religious beliefs upon which Western culture, with its respect for the transcendent worth of the individual, was founded. In their world, the worth of the individual is measured not by the character or law of God but by the individual’s contribution to social stability and the general happiness of all.
In a conversation with John, who has some knowledge of the Christian faith, one of the ten World Controllers proudly explains why Christianity is no longer needed. Mustafa Mond responds to John’s plea that for the sake of human dignity and mankind’s struggle to be noble, the people of the Brave New World should know about God. John exclaims: “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. I’ve seen it with the Indians.” Mustafa Mond answers:
Reconstruction or Disassembly?
Like More and Swift, Huxley takes us to “other worlds” that are sufficiently unlike ours so that, initially, our guard comes down. Yet they are also sufficiently familiar that we cannot wholly disassociate ourselves from them. They are like the mirrors in an amusement park that by distorting and exaggerating our physical features cause us to look at ourselves in startling new ways. In these mirrors, we are made even to see dark possibilities of the contemporary world, which, under ordinary circumstances, we do not easily detect. By tampering with man’s biological and sexual constitution to promote health and quality of life, for example, we may be embarking upon a course that brings about, in C. S. Lewis’s famous phrase, “the abolition of man.”
The controllers and managers of Brave New World have replaced sexual procreation with the standardized manufacture of human beings. By means of an advanced cloning technology, the individuals of the Brave New World are genetically tailored to perform productive functions and exercise consumptive behaviors that keep society a well-oiled machine.
The controllers have abolished marriage and the family to satisfy desire for individual autonomy, sexual freedom, and unrestricted pursuit of entertainment and recreational pleasure, and to eliminate discord and disorder. In the place of marriage and the family, they have installed a total system of behavioral conditioning that renders the denizens ready to live in total loyalty to the state. They live by the motto “Every one belongs to everyone else” and have been constituted so as to be unfit to carry on a lasting relationship with any one person in particular.
Huxley thus highlights trends in contemporary society that he suspects may lead eventually to the erasure of some of the fundamental attributes of our humanity. Although Huxley was not a Christian believer, the Christian tradition and Victorian legacy had sufficiently shaped his moral imagination that he believed that human sexuality is not simply an animal passion to be used merely for pleasure, and that sexual promiscuity abases human culture. He embraced, in his own secular fashion, the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the person. He understood that wisdom and moral truths settled for millennia in Western culture were under assault. And that troubled him.
In Brave New World, Huxley does not unambiguously defend traditional religious and moral norms. But a writer of fiction is not obliged to. It is sufficient that he imaginatively bring these matters to his reader’s attention and challenge him to weigh them seriously. One aim of the satirist is to rouse the reader to a recognition that the core beliefs and sentiments about human nature he takes for granted are not self-evident to everyone and might not survive if the right conditions do not exist—if, for example, the religious or philosophical traditions out of which they have arisen atrophy.
Who can deny that some of the strongest sentiments about the value of individual human life that modern people, even non-religious persons, hold grew in the soil of the Christian religion? Is it not plausible that when that religion weakens, people may forget these sentiments, despite the efforts of some to ground them in philosophical reason or secular ethics? In the Brave New World, no one gives a second thought to whether it is immoral, inappropriate, or distasteful to engineer the distinct genetic composition of each and every individual, or let the state decide when the time has come for a person to be euthanized for the good of the social whole.
As I have said, Brave New World is not a political novel. It is, rather, a humanistic work. Huxley dares his reader to reconsider the nature of the sexual revolution and where it might be headed. He poses the question of whether, through the biological sciences and psychology, modern man has already begun to disassemble himself. He cautions modern folk, who think or assume that they can continuously redefine or reconstruct primary forms of human relationship without risk of debunking them, that their actions may lead to unintended, unanticipated, and unwanted consequences.
Early in the novel, Mustafa Mond addresses a group of students on tour at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center. He asks them to try to imagine what it was like to have a “viviparous mother.”
When I introduce Brave New World to students in ethics courses, many resist this scene. It discomforts them. Their sentiments lean in the other direction. They do not know quite how to handle the repulsion of the inhabitants of Brave New World toward marriage, parenthood, and family. They have difficulty translating their own deepest sentiments into moral arguments. Though they imagine that their views about God are relevant to their views about human nature and society, the theists in the classroom do not know how to make the connection.
In these respects, they are typically modern people. They strongly depend on sentiments that once had a sure foundation in biblical faith, but now are like the foam left on a beach after the tide has gone out. Most of my students are repulsed by the prospect of human cloning. Yet they are reduced to naked, emotive responses to Huxley’s persuasive fictional presentation of people who are equally repulsed by monogamous marriage and biological motherhood. Huxley’s insights into our age of sentiment and his ability to put this zeitgeist to a hard test is a genius of his novel.
My students do not lack familiarity with the bio-ethical issues and questions that the press routinely talks about or that countless textbooks rehearse. They are much less familiar, however, with the fundamental Christian dogmas of Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection that ground the religious argument for the sacredness of human life. They are nearly as ill-equipped to defend the case for chaste and monogamous marriage as the inhabitants of Brave New World. Huxley does not make it easy for them to avoid this painful conclusion about themselves.
The Genesis story is reversed in Huxley’s tale. In Genesis, the fullness and completeness of humankind is man-womanhood, not man alone or woman alone. From Adam is drawn Eve, no less a human being than himself. Nevertheless, the two are not whole or complete unless joined by conjugal love to form a one-flesh union. And from this love-union they, in turn, bring another into being, the child who shares their flesh and, receiving their love, reciprocates it with his or her filial affection.
As the late Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey says in his prescient book Fabricated Man (1970): “We procreate new beings like ourselves in the midst of our love for one another, and in this there is a trace of the original mystery by which God created the world because of his love.” This love-union of the two, completed by a third, is the microcosm of human society and sociality and the very similitude of the Holy Trinity.
The Brave New World is a world without such creative love, and as a result, a world in which people are valued solely for their usefulness to the society. Seventy-five years ago, G. K. Chesterton described how modern man’s loss of a transcendent image of himself is exposed by the debate over eugenics. In an article entitled “The Fallacy of Eugenics,” he observed:
In Brave New World and increasingly in our world, people take it for granted that we possess the biological, psychological, and sociological tools to measure whether or not this or that human life is fit to be born or fit to go on living. Some social scientists and contemporary ethicists even make lists of those physical and psychological capacities that they judge an individual must possess to be regarded as a person or have a right to life.
A type of cloning commonly practiced today to reproduce desirable traits in livestock has been perfected in the Brave New World. This is split-embryo cloning, which imitates the natural twinning process. Somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning, by which Dolly the sheep was made and recently deceased due to premature aging, is not imagined. But whichever kind of cloning we take up, this moral consideration inevitably arises and is posed by Huxley in his novel: How are we learning to look at ourselves by practicing this form of procreation?
At first glance, cloning may not seem to entail the sort of instrumental attitude toward human life and its value that I have just reviewed. After all, some will say that cloning promises to be just one more reproductive technology that assists persons to have children who otherwise would not be able to have them, or to help couples insure that their child will not be afflicted by a disease of which they may be carriers. But when men and women forget that they are created in the image and likeness of God and that human personhood, freedom, and community have a divine prototype and origin, they may gradually come to view cloning as a means by which to take up a Promethean project of reinventing ourselves according to just the sorts of instrumental criteria that Lewis describes in The Abolition of Man.
At base, these instrumental criteria, applied to human procreation, fail because they ignore the principal reason human beings desire to have children: the need to love and be loved. Modern folk tend to confuse the biblical belief about the imago dei with the simple assertion that human life is of special value because human beings possess reason and the freedom to choose. Yet even the denizens of the Brave New World may be described as rational and free to make their own decisions. Nonetheless, they are denatured and crippled human beings because they cannot love, perhaps ultimately because they were not conceived in love. They have been designed and conditioned not to love, and, more important, the elimination of marriage, sexual procreation, and parenthood has removed the “natural” conditions in which intimacy and attachment grow.
Love, not reason, is the defining, ennobling characteristic of our humanity. The less we love, the more we are de-natured. The more we love, the deeper is the stamp of the image of God on our nature. Love is relational and is expressed quintessentially through sex, marriage, conjugal union, procreation, and the family. This love is not merely natural; it is divine. Science is unable to explain its mystery or insure through eugenics that people love one another. In the One Godhead, love unites God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in an indivisible union.
This mutually reciprocated love of the Three Who are One brings into being creation and, most especially, human beings whom God makes in his very own image, to be loved and to love. Love draws man and woman together so that the child who is born to them is a sign, signature, and extension into the world of the love they share.
Where Logic Leads
Early in the cloning debate, the question was raised whether a clone would have a soul and could be treated with the respect due a human person. This was a profoundly mistaken and misleading question. Biblical and Christian anthropology says that the human being is a “living soul,” an expression that the ancients used to identify the whole person, not just a spiritual substance. Every human being is by nature a psychosomatic unity, a living soul. Biblical faith excludes the body and soul dualism that the question implies.
If a living human being is physically present, a soul is present and vice-versa. I think the matter is fairly simple. By whatever means a human being is conceived, that human being is a living soul, whether he be sexually procreated or cloned. Human beings do not possess souls; they are an enfleshed soul or an ensouled body, whichever you please. Body and soul together is the one human being and constitutes a human person in the full moral sense.
The really important question for a Christian responding to the prospect of cloning is not whether a cloned human being has a soul, but whether cloning respects the Church’s understanding of human nature and the meaning of human sexuality and love. This is not solely a subject of dogma and doctrine. It is raised by the performance of the Christian sacraments. For example, what are Christians affirming about a human being, even an infant, by baptizing that individual? What does the union of man and woman form when they are joined in Holy Matrimony? And why do Christians perform funeral and burial services for dead people? How are even dead people valuable to us? Why do Christians conscientiously remember the dead? To all of these questions the logic leads back to love.
In the Brave New World the dead are forgotten. They are forgotten even before they die, as they are sent to hospitals where dying is not only done but hurried up. The hospice has “gone south,” to use a contemporary colloquialism, where the last social service rendered unto the individual is euthanization. The final value of the individual is a societal measurement according to the same utilitarian principle that gave reason for his or her manufacture. As one of the characters explains to a friend, “All men are psycho-chemically equal, just as all provide ‘indispensable services’ to society.” As “every one works for every one else,” so at life’s end every one gives back to society this same value by being cremated.
The logic is undeniable in Brave New World. Because human beings are manufactured for their genetic make-up so as to insure that society runs smoothly, pleasantly, and efficiently, the sum of the pleasure and productivity the individual puts into society comprises his “human” value. In the Brave New World, the unconditionality of love is an endangerment to society because it has no immediate social utility, just as the lover’s affirmation of the immeasurable worth of the beloved is necessarily anti-social since the standard of value is personal and not societal. Are we headed into the same sort of world by our embrace of reproductive technologies that teach us to value our offspring for the genetic makeup we chose for them?
In the Brave New World, our humanity has not only been debiologized but despiritualized as well. This includes the abolition of parenthood, preventing the deep and profound love commitment of husband and wife that spreads mysteriously into the world through the issuance of their fleshly union. The Brave New World is a world without love, and so it also is a desperately lonely place. That loneliness cuts to the core of every citizen and is momentarily relieved but not remedied by soma, the feelie movies, and the orgiastic religion of the Solidarity Service.
Can We Survive?
In Fabricated Man, Paul Ramsey cites an article entitled “The Second Genesis” by the science fiction writer Albert Rosenfeld, published in the June 1969 issue of Life magazine. Rosenfeld warns of the unbearable loneliness that full employment of our new reproductive technologies may bring about and the harm that this will do to our humanum, our humanity. He writes:
Let us be frank and admit that in a divorce and consumer culture some of this has already come about. We are raising many children who at an early age must ask themselves: “To whom do I matter? To whom do I belong?” And when these persons become adults, they may be more likely than others to find it difficult to form strong human attachments. They may even fear to try.
One wishes that this experience would leave us that much more wary of accelerating the pace of separation, alienation, aloneness, and lack of deep human attachments in society. But just the opposite may be happening; it may leave us even more willing to accept this disassembling and reconstructing of our humanity from the inside out as normal or the inevitable price for progress.
Huxley’s novel was seventy years old last year. Yet its message is as fresh as the day it was written, and its admonition that man is in jeopardy of abolishing his humanity through the misuse of his own highest scientific achievement even more timely.
Vigen Guroian is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. Among his books are the second, expanded edition of Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics (University of Notre Dame, 2002) and Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life (ISI Books, 2005). "Family Offices" was given at Touchstone's conference, "Praying and Staying Together," in October 2004.
“Huxley’s Mirror” first appeared in the October 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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