“There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think”

Shortly after I finished my medical degree, I pursued a master’s degree in finance. The 2008 market crash was pretty terrible for Ireland – and I was curious to find out get out of the medical bubble and learn about the world. After 5 years of medicine, everyone who wasn’t a doctor seemed well-rounded, but one of the most well-rounded wonderful friends I made during that masters suggested that I read Principles by Ray Dalio back in the day.

Dalio is the founder of (probably) the most successful hedge fund. Unlike all those 10-steps-to-success type books by various billionaires, Principles lacks the motivational element and has lots of cold rational logic. I found it to be a fascinating read.

You will find lots of free pdf copies of Principles online. The paid (expanded) version is a recent development. The book was in open access for years. The fact that it’s free is one of the things that made it different to books written by the likes of Richard Branson. I wonder what Dalio is up to with the paid version. The capitalist in him must be rebelling against giving out free stuff, I guess…

More recently, Dalio mentioned that reading Ayn Rand would be key to understanding the mindset of Trump era economics and politics. I poked around a few articles about Rand and was surprised to find that her philosophy was rejected by critics and academics. I’d never heard of these words in the same sentence. What does it mean to reject a philosophy? Turning to a family member beside me with this naive question, I received a less than naive answer: it is a situation where a philosophy isn’t politically expedient. Oh dear.

Nevertheless, her thoughts reminded me of Nietzsche. I don’t think he spoke about economics very much, but if he had, I am sure he would have said exactly what Rand had to say.

So I started with Atlas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand philosophy reviewed Atlas Shrugged

Is Atlas Shrugged a pleasant read?

Just like Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged a philosophical book dressed up as a novel. For the more analytical among us, it’s definitely a stimulating read. The characters are a little flat and improbable, but that’s just the nature of these type of works. A few cringy sex scenes. A touch of naive feminism.

Rand writes in impossibly long sentences and can seem excessively intellectual-for-the-sake-of-being-intellectual. Over 1,000 pages of that can get tiring.

Is Atlas Shrugged a worthwhile read?

The book addresses some issues we face today in the West in a way that nobody would ever dare in this day and age. We can barely take a breath without getting a licence, insurance and paying tax on it. We’re not actually free to speak our mind out here, even though we pride ourselves on it. There has been a lot of violence in US universities against right wing groups citing social justice as a legitimate justification.

In such a world, Rand’s writing is a breath of fresh air – but not for long. The discerning reader soon realises that Rand painted an impossible utopia, just like the communists she so hates, and that she is simply wrong in many of her sweeping statements.

What’s Atlas Shrugged about?

It’s about a (slightly) dystopian United States with a touch of sci fi. Prepare for a lot of talk about railways, oil, steel and trains. A government nationalises the major corporations in a fever of extorting socialism. You can hazard a guess where she got her inspiration.

Who is Ayn Rand?

She was an atheist woman of Russian Jewish bourgeoisie origins. As a 20 year old, she left the USSR and settled in the US. Interestingly, she became an atheist before it was cool strongly recommended by the Soviets. Her father was a businessman. He was stripped of his fortune during the Revolution of 1917. Legend has it that the first book she purchased in the US was Thus spoke Zarathustra. 

Incidentally, it is thought that she is an INTJ, so our ENTP crowd are likely to like her style.

Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand objectivism philosophy explained

What did Ayn Rand believe?

1. Rand believed that religion and socialism are evil

Rand isn’t just against religion, she believes that socialists are basically Religion 2.0.

Both [religion and socialism] demand the surrender of your mind, one to their revelations, the other to their reflexes. No matter how loudly they posture in the roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter—the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit—the destruction of his mind.

Neither religion nor socialism welcome questioning:

The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question… Both kinds demand that you invalidate your own consciousness and surrender yourself into their power.

2. Rand rejected true world theories

Although Rand herself said “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle”, this is more or less straight out of Nietzsche:

[Religion and socialism] claim that they perceive a mode of being superior to your existence on this earth. The mystics of spirit call it ‘another dimension,’ which consists of denying dimensions. The mystics of muscle call it ‘the future,’ which consists of denying the present.

3. Rand thought that reality and perception are completely separate

Shakespeare said that nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Rand begs to differ:

They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated.

A savage is a being who has not grasped that A is A and that reality is real. 

The fact that we can perceive things that aren’t what they initially seem doesn’t take away from the separation of reality and perception:

The day when he grasps that the reflection he sees in a mirror is not a delusion, that it is real, but it is not himself, that the mirage he sees in a desert is not a delusion, that the air and the light rays that cause it are real, but it is not a city, it is a city’s reflection—the day when he grasps that he is not a passive recipient of the sensations of any given moment, that his senses do not provide him with automatic knowledge in separate snatches independent of context, but only with the material of knowledge, which his mind must learn to integrate—the day when he grasps that his senses cannot deceive him, that physical objects cannot act without causes, that his organs of perception are physical and have no volition, no power to invent or to distort, that the evidence they give him is an absolute, but his mind must learn to understand it, his mind must discover the nature, the causes, the full context of his sensory material, his mind must identify things that he perceives—that is the day of his birth as a thinker and scientist. (Note that this is all one sentence!)

4. Rand postulated that a contradiction is the marker of a mistake

A touch of Aristotle:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

Emotion that isn’t congruent with thought indicated an unresolved conflict:

An emotion that clashes with your reason, an emotion that you cannot explain or control, is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.

5. Rand believed that refusing to think is a crime

Much as I disagree with Rand on many points, I do agree with this:

There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. 

To varying extents, we are all guilty of this – and our parents are, of making us trust authority over our own judgement:

A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of dependence that he renounced his rational faculty.

If you’ve given up on thinking, emotion is all that’s left:

From then on, afraid to think, he is left at the mercy of unidentified feelings. His feelings become his only guide, his only remnant of personal identity, he clings to them with ferocious possessiveness—and whatever thinking he does is devoted to the struggle of hiding from himself that the nature of his feelings is terror.

It’s not possible to be rational while only being rational about certain things:

Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.

Resorting to mysticism means an inability to convince:

Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator… A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement.

If anyone wonders what it would be like to be Antichrist, just post the below on Instagram:

To a savage, the world is a place of unintelligible miracles where anything is possible to inanimate matter and nothing is possible to him.

6. Religion is a racket according to Rand

I went to an uber-Catholic school at one point. I recall my teacher telling me with great conviction that Jesus died for us. This thing we hear all the time is actually quite a confusing statement, so I asked why he had to die for us. The teacher proceeded to explain the concept of the original sin – and all I was thinking of, sure what have I to do with that? If forgiveness is more or less the ultimate virtue in Christianity, how come God is still holding Adam and Eve’s mischief against us? Rand seems to be of the same opinion:

The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin. A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral.

Here is her summary of how religion rose to power:

For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket—by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners.

7. Universal basic income has no place in a Randian world

Rand is pointing out the Ponzi scheme in UBI:

They proclaim that every man born is entitled to exist without labor and, the laws of reality to the contrary notwithstanding, is entitled to receive his ‘minimum sustenance’—his food, his clothes, his shelter—with no effort on his part, as his due and his birthright. To receive it—from whom? Blank-out.

8. Decisions: make them or die, says Rand

Rand advocates extreme responsibility. It one of the main virtues to her. A person who doesn’t take responsibility doesn’t deserve to live:

Calmly and impersonally, she [the main character], who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.

9. Trade is the ultimate human relationship

There is a lot of worshipping of the dollar in the book. Rand says that trade is great because it is consensual and it creates value for both parties:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss—the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery—that you must offer them values, not wounds—that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods.

Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. 

But what about love, I hear you ask? Her views on love are all about self-interest. Ultimately, love is a deal people make.

The Randian Ubermensch:

  • unconditionally loves life
  • has infinite belief in himself
  • is driven by intellect and self-interest
  • doesn’t wallow in weakness
  • takes responsibility for absolutely everything that happens to him
  • does not sacrifice and takes the oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.”

ayn rand objectivism is wrong

Holes in Rand’s philosophy

1. Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance

Rand says:

As there can be no causeless wealth, so there can be no causeless love or any sort of causeless emotion. 

There are all of these things in real life. Not for good reason, but they do exists. This is the main reason her philosophy isn’t useful: Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance.

Very often people who succeed overdefine their successes (and failures). It’s almost like survivor’s guilt: “I made it because I tried. If you haven’t made it, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.” We all know that that’s not how things are in reality. In the long term, yes, Fortune favours the bold – or so I tell myself.

Most of the main characters appear to have inherited their fortune. John Galt, the real hero of the story, the inventor of the marvellous engine, didn’t. He wouldn’t have risen to the top by inventing an engine in real life. His invention would have been coopted by the owner of the huge corporation he worked for. He would probably get a gift voucher at the Christmas party. Where is the guy who invented the internet now? “It wasn’t one person.” True. But it wasn’t one person who made computers, smartphones, Facebook or whatever – yet we can put a name to these things because someone managed to make it into their own business.

Ayn Rand opposes that horrible Soviet-like “Equalisation of Opportunity” act in her novel, but this is why her philosophy has done little to address the downsides of socialism: she doesn’t address their main concern – that chance plays a large part in one’s life.

2. Rand looks for patterns where there aren’t any

A closely related point is that Rand believes that everything can be made into science.

The links you strive to drown are causal connections. The enemy you seek to defeat is the law of causality: it permits you no miracles.

Causality is a very ambitious concept to manoeuvre with. During my study of statistics I understood that causality is all smoke and mirrors. All we have are some intuitive concepts of what causes what. There is no real way to prove causality.

Looking for patterns in randomness has always been a hobby of the human race. Rain is caused by the generous sacrifices to the goddess of agriculture in the previous years. Investment returns are caused by prior results. A successful career follows from great interview performance. No. They aren’t. Some things are just random. Rand didn’t understand that.

3. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control

…it cannot be done to you without your consent. If you permit it to be done, you deserve it.

Here is more of Rand’s blame-the-victim philosophy. In certain contexts, the above is true, but it’s not quite as black and white as Rand makes out. What if your parents are addicted to drugs and you are addicted now too. Did you deserve it? Were you wrong to trust the people who gave you life and basically were your life for a long time?

This is how people get to be neurotic in the modern world: beating themselves up for not being able to control things… that they cannot possibly control. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control.

4. Rand confuses useful assumptions and absolutes

‘We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge—’There are no absolutes,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute—’You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

Socrates got a beating there. To my mind, Rand is overambitious. A reasonable human being will operate on her assumptions, but they will not take them to be the only possibility.

5. Rand forgets the darker side of trade

To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will.

What about selling heroin, Ayn?

And, Ayn, if you don’t hire me to be your security guard, I will break your windows.

It’s not just the Church that blackmails people.

6. Rand believes we live in a meritocracy of irreplaceable minds

In Atlas Shrugged, the brightest, most industrious people escape into a hidden world one by one as their creations get nationalised. This leads to a failed state; everything comes to a stand-still. Would this happen in reality?

This assumes that we live in a meritocracy. I believe in the power of genetics more than most people, but not everyone who inherits their parent’s empire is going to be as good as them. Rand acknowledges this fact in her character Jim Taggart, but seems to imply that the best will still rise to the top.

I don’t think that the world would be quite so helpless without its aristocracy. Every significant change of power in history has led to the destruction of the previous regime’s nobility. They just kept going anyway though: new nobility found its feet pretty quickly. When Atlas gets tired, he just adjusts his grip.

7. Rand states that happiness is the purpose of life

What a nice and simple formula. Only it is as foggy as dividing by zero. What does it mean to be happy, Ayn?

ayn rand nietzsche philosophy

What is my verdict on Rand’s philosophy?

I do agree that reality exists without our consciousness (this is the central idea of objectivism).

I admire her love of life, reality, intellect and industrious creation of value.

I think she simplified the complex and destroyed her credibility.

Her work is more of an ideology with defined values than a philosophy that helps to understand the word.


Love of labour: a bad romance with the illusion of security

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But this time it is really different:

employment is an illusion of security

What an uncomfortable graph. Sometimes when things scale, they are just a bigger version of the small thing. However, at times, they also develop new properties. A population of cells becomes an organ – and has new properties. A large teddy bear can be used as a pillow, while a small one cannot.

What can a large human population do that a small one couldn’t? What does it mean for the individual?

The above graph of world population vs time scares me because we’re going into the unknown. In a sense, each one of us is less important. It takes much more to compete. If you are “one in a thousand”, in 1800 that would have got you places. Today, not so much.

What does that mean for individuals? Can such a demand for food, water and energy be met, never mind sustainably? How do we find a place in such a competitive imminently expanding world? Albeit we’re no longer accelerating the growth, the sheer numbers are a little bit unnerving.

competing with a growing population

Not to fall into conspiracy theories or 1984/Brave New World despair, but for the sake of an analogy, consider cows, or minks, or any other farmed animal. I’ve always felt that breeding animals to kill them is a kind of (?necessary) evil, but it is somehow made better by the fact that they are bred. They don’t have to worry about food and get to have lots of babies. In a roundabout way, they have won in the Darwinian casino.

But then I wondered: if cows and minks are bred for their meat and their fur, are we kind of… bred for economic growth?

Each one of us has to comply with the assertion that success comes from having lots and lots of things in order for this to be perpetuated. Few people look for fame and fortune to exercise some kind of power (if you prefer “change the world”) – and to be fair I have respect for such people.

employment in the context of a growing population
“Idle as trout in light”

I get the sense though that to most people, fame and fortune is an end in itself. Furthermore, I suspect it is a product of our culture rather than just hedonism. For a proper first principles hedonist, it would never make sense to work so hard to have things they will never get time to enjoy.

I’ve always found it fascinating that the very people I know from school that were so rebellious that they just wouldn’t comply with the simplest of instruction become exemplars of compliance and obedience when there is a paycheck involved.

It’s someone’s birthday?

“I’ve work tomorrow.”

Can’t stand the sight of the boss?

“I have to go to work.”

Wife giving birth?

“I better get to work, so.”

It seems that no amount of personal problems can stand in the way of being at work. And when it does happen, the rest of the working tribe treats it as some kind of weakness and/or deceit to get out of doing work.

Buckminster Fuller comes to mind:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

“Inspectors of inspectors”… The irony. A friend of mine, a former employee of a multinational once pointed out: we have trackers for trackers. Entire days are spent changing amber to green and red to amber.

Some also theorise that very few jobs require 9-5 x 5 days a week. A lot of time is spent being idle. Why then do the employers insist of you being there? I would argue it isn’t the employer: it’s the culture. Some people won’t take their job seriously if they are given the autonomy to manage their own time (though I always bet on the opposite when looking for people in my own ventures).

If you think about it, it’s kind of disrespectful to insist that someone is there just so that their boss has the option of coopting them into some work engagement. Another interesting (?side) effect is that predictably a person has no strength to create anything outside of work. An eight hour day of being surveyed and judged, a draining commute, an uncomfortable suit and a toilet seat you cannot sit on… As Taleb puts it:

“In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority –something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flouted they scorn of material possessions.”

I wonder if it is becoming harder, though, to be a gyrating roaming monk (these days they have a Mac and are called digital nomads) given that the population is growing. Is there room to be an individual? Nietzsche has his concerns:

“Those who commend work. – In the glorification of ‘work’, in the unwearied talk of the ‘blessing of work’, I see the same covert idea as in the praise of useful impersonal actions: that of fear of everything individual. Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work – one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late – that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfactions. Thus a society in which there is continual hard work will have more security: and security is now worshipped as the supreme divinity. – And now! Horror! Precisely the ‘worker’ has become dangerous! The place is swarming with ‘dangerous individuals’! And behind them the danger of dangers – the individual!”

It’s pretty clear that Nietzsche’s talking about institutional employment.

This essay of mine isn’t about robbing the rich or some other way of getting out of work. It’s not promoting Zuckerberg’s universal basic income. It’s about the fact that work is indeed glorified. Much of what is called work is being trapped in purposelessness.

employment is an illusion of security

And it’s not even work that is glorified: nobody cares about the labour of a painter who hasn’t (yet) made their hobby into a job or a blogger, or whoever. It is the stamp of approval from some institution that people really respect. Perhaps, it is just easier to relate to.

I suppose, being Russian, I can’t help but be reminded of how easily institutions fail. Countless Russian firms have risen to unbelievable heights and quickly died in the last 20 years. Even the USSR itself: seeing such a behemoth collapse shatters one’s faith in institutions.

And it wasn’t even that weak, with real industry and gargantuan natural resources. In a completely different context, where I am now – Ireland – also has become a State and gone through a couple of different names in the XX century. That empire disappeared too.

Nietzsche above and Taleb (in multiple works) have spoken about this security that people look for. The security that people trade a portion of their freedom for. Clearly though, it is an illusion. Remember 2008?

nietzsche fuller taleb on work and employment
The chap in the pink shirt knows how to party like it’s 1728

Meanwhile, the seaside restaurant beside me boasts having been established in 1728. Chin chin, Mr Taleb, and chin chin to everyone being creative and working hard to not lose your individuality among the impending billions.

philosophers on employment
Chin chin!


Infinite appetite for distractions

“…reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays….”

Brave New World is one hell of a book. I am so impressed with it, I barely know where to start. This book made me understand why people write fiction. Until now, fiction always seemed lyrical – and only accessible to those with a particularly creative rather than an analytical mind. For example, poetry always made more sense to me than fictional prose – because it doesn’t usually require one to conjure up things that have never happened, but rather seeing things that others mightn’t see in what did happen. Huxley strikes me as analytical – but well able to articulate his analysis through an elaborate metaphor that is Brave New World. The story line didn’t flow and felt contrived to me. However, the descriptions and the dialogue more than made up for it.

The book came out in 1931. Interestingly, it was banned in Ireland “for being anti-family and anti-religion.”

The beauty of the book is that we aren’t strongly drawn to side with one side over the other. While one side is infinitely more familiar and natural, the other eerily makes a lot of sense. Hence, it isn’t just a praise of our “old” values, but an insightful examination. I don’t know that Huxley meant it that way – but that’s how it reads to me today. Consider this, for example. Opposing the brave new world, we have John, a boy who grew up in a close-knit tribe and whose morals are deeply aligned with those of Shakespeare’s heroes. So far – so good. However, he had a troubled mother and grew up without a father. This clearly left a mark on him – and would never have happened in the brave new world. He also self-flagellates. Minutes after confessing his endless love to a woman, he violently disowns her – for wanting to have sex with him. He ultimately commits suicide. Not so good. John is implicitly compared to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, nearly all of them – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Romeo as he is pensive, ambitious, proud and impulsive.

While there are lots of insights to be derived from this book, I am not convinced of how new this brave new world really is. Is this regime really much different to what we have had before?

Most of all, for me, this book is a distilled vision of how human nature shows up when people are put into a very particular set of circumstances.

Brave New World meaning


The biggest highlight is Chapter 16. The Controller, the man who runs this new world, is a tyrannical yet highly intelligent and calm person. He is the one who makes the rules of the brave new world. He reveals how he made his decisions. Ironically, it reminds me of the last chapter of every Harry Potter book – where we always find out the real behind-the-scenes from Dumbledore.

/I really need to read more. But while we’re here, could the fact that Dumbledore’s first name is Albus be an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s first name – as J.K.R. took on some of the structure, (even though it’s not necessarily unique to Huxley)?/

What’s interesting is that, on a certain level, the arguments presented by the Controller seem both logical and humanitarian. Here are some highlights:

On the subjected of happiness versus grand feats:

“Civilisation has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism.These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organised society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic […] [In this society] 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’ve 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. […] The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. […] 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.”

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

On the subject of social order:

John asks: Why don’t you make everybody an Alpha Double Plus while you’re about it? For those who haven’t read the book, Alpha Double Plus is a genetically superior person who is educated (“conditioned” – and I believe that’s a fair word) to be aware of their individuality.

“We believe in happiness and stability. A society of Alphas couldn’t fail to be unstable and miserable. Imagine a factory staffed by Alphas that is to say by separate and unrelated individuals of good heredity and conditioned so as to be capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities… An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work – go mad, or start smashing things up.

Alphas can be completely socialised – but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work. Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance. His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run. He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed.”

The Controller cites the Cyprus experiment, where Cyprus was cleared and populated with Alphas – resulting in civil war. While this is obviously not a real reason to substantiate Huxley’s assertion that a caste system – whether deliberate or not – makes society more stable, it shows that the Controller didn’t make this decision out of pure tyranny – but instead out of a rather unethical overuse of science. Yes, we usually say it is unethical to experiment on humans – at least in a social way, but perhaps it is also unethical to live in ignorance. Plus, in our real new world, it happens. Notably, Facebook experimented with our moods by adjusting our feeds – without letting us know, of course.

Brave New World philosophyOn the subject of the necessity of stupid work:

“Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?”

… This reminds me terribly of the life of the graduate intake of a corporation. Soma, “a holiday from the facts”, is described as alcohol without a hangover – I think most people wished for that at some point. The feelies are terribly reminiscent of VR. Earlier on in the book there was a reference to conditioning people to love expensive outdoor sports (rather than simply loving nature – as this alone doesn’t generate economic activity). Fancy sports is also a corporate favourite. There are reasons why that is besides a Huxley-themed conspiracy theory, but it’s interesting to note.

Another (thought)-experiment to back this:

“Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them… We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability.”

On the subject of the natural instinct to believe there is a god: 

“You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those old fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! 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.”

Indeed, the premise of effective “hypnopaedia” (repeating statements to children in their sleep for the purpose of teaching them) is that one doesn’t need to understand ethical statements to be able to use them (unlike science – where hypnopaedia fails). It seems that that’s true to me: groups of people tend to have similar values because everyone around them has those values. Most people’s values aren’t derived from first principles, they are adopted through repetition. There are, of course, many reasons for this, e.g. it is a survival strategy and the basis of any community, but… it’s still a dangerous instrument. A particular aspect of hypnopedia seems quite realistic: people are convinced that their caste (a proxy for position in life) is the happiest place they could be. While gratitude is a virtue, it has gotten quite compulsive these days, much like in the book. Every self-respecting Instagram user reminds us of it daily. Then again, before Instagram & co., we had other sources who told us to be grateful – they know who they are. The author also talked about god in Chapter 17, very elaborately with lots of references to philosophy. I don’t think I can dissect that even to the same standard as above. I did very much enjoy his look at Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son from King Lear. The Edmund of the brave new world would have been chilling with the ladies and “looking at the feelies” – not being killed off by the gods as in Shakespeare. Huxley’s argument that this mindless chilling is as good (as bad?) as death – it just depends what standard one holds themselves to.

brave new world analysis

On the subject of truth:

“I’m interested in truth, I like science. But truth’s a menace, science is a public danger.” … We […] carefully limit the scope of researches. […] We don’t allow it to deal with any but the most immediate problems of the moment.”

This applies today. The usual argument is economic necessity determines whether research should be carried out. Indeed, Huxley believes so too, but in a rather twisted way: he says that truth and beauty don’t lead to economic growth. Economic growth, however, is the ultimate value: the goal is to be a “happy, hard-working, goods-consuming citizen”. Brrr.

Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate… Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t… Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.”

Huxley also points out that there is real science – and then there are applications of that knowledge for the good of society – that may have little to do with the bona fide scientific method. Indeed, the fact that Ford is a god in the brave new world is scary. While in the real world, we don’t have a conveyor belt mania to the extent that Huxley feared, we have indeed sanctified phenomenally successful people. While countless people still look to god for guidance, we have seen humongous growth in these business school types (or just, types) who “study successful people.”

On the subject of love:

The indoctrination concerning love is particularly chilling. Perhaps the most likeable character, Helmholtz, who belongs in the brave new world explains what he thought of Romeo and Juliet:

The mother and father […] forcing the daughter to have some one she didn’t want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having some one else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred!

It’s chilling because it’s not wrong. It is robotic. Helmholtz acknowledges that Shakespeare wrote in a way that provokes strong emotions and admired his craft, but Helmholtz wasn’t able for any empathy. Lenina, John’s romantic interest, however, seemed to have some real feelings for him. Her friends though thought that she was unwell.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman said:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

I think this has happened even during my own lifetime. Even among the most educated people I know, coming out with interest and knowledge in some obscure subject often provokes the question why do you know this?  Was your primary degree in X?  I am pretty certain that knowledge acquisition has lost a lot of its perceived value during my lifetime – now that we have Google. The deeper layer, of course, is that the process of acquiring knowledge yields much more than just the knowledge. At the same time, I wonder, has it ever been different? At the end of the day, if nobody wanted to read books or write down their thoughts, why is blogging such a big thing these days? I wonder if back when this book was written – writing – and especially reaching an audience – was primarily the province of those who had gone to Oxford and could afford to not have a day job?

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Welcome to social media. This, I think, is quite unique to our age. Furthermore, in the brave new world, people are never alone – leading to the distractions that perpetuate lack of insight.

Brave New World Revisited

Huxley later wrote in a non-fiction reflection of where the world is now in relation to his Brave New World that we “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Indeed, he even sees religion as part of this distraction:

“’The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.’ But there aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?”

As a concluding remark, if I could, I would definitely make this mainstream in schools. I know in some places it is, but not everywhere. 1984 is a much bigger deal in most places -perhaps as it served a political purpose. This book deserves more attention, I feel. Most school kids struggle to understand Hamlet and King Lear through generating their own insights, but I think they would be able to relate to this much more.

And Happy Christmas, of course.

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