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Brave New World, Plato’s Republic, and Our Scientific Regime by Matthew J. Franck

In government, literature, philosophy, politics, science, science fiction, sexuality, society, sociology, writers on May 18, 2014 at 08:24

From: Brave New World, Plato’s Republic, and Our Scientific Regime by Matthew J. Franck, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

 

“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.”

But an even more telling comparison can be made — that Brave New World is a modern counterpart to the “city in speech” built by Socrates and his young interlocutors in Plato’s Republic. Whether Huxley saw the similarities himself is far from clear. In neither the “Foreword” added to the 1946 edition nor his lengthy 1958 essay Brave New World Revisited, which is published together with the novel in some editions, does he indicate any consciousness of a parallel. Nor do his Complete Essays (published 2000 – 2002) shed light on this. His biographer Murray mentions no such connection in Huxley’s mind either; nor does his earlier biographer Sybille Bedford. Yet it may not be necessary to confirm any precise authorial intention on Huxley’s part to imitate Plato. Whereas Huxley’s other novels are largely forgotten today by the general public, and his later visits to the themes of Brave New World are those of a crank whose imaginative gifts have deserted him, in writing his greatest work he seems to have been in the grip of an idea larger than himself. Plato’s Socrates tells us in the Apology that when he “went to the poets” to “ask them thoroughly what they meant” in their greatest poems, he found to his surprise that “almost everyone present, so to speak, would have spoken better than the poets did about the poetry that they themselves had made.” For as Socrates said (not without some biting irony) in Plato’s Ion, “all the good epic poets speak all their fine poems not from art but by being inspired and possessed, and it is the same for the good lyric poets.” Perhaps during the mere four months it took Huxley to write Brave New World, he was “possessed” in this way and remained forever unconscious of his debt to Plato.

In its political teaching, the Republic is as much a dystopian poem as is Brave New World. With every step in his radical project of instituting uncompromisingly perfect justice — from the noble lie, to the abolition of the family among the guardians, to the eugenics program that brushes aside the incest taboo with a wave of the hand, to the impossible proposal that the city be ruled by philosophers, to the absurd suggestion that the city be founded by exiling all of an existing city’s residents over ten years of age — Socrates reveals humanity’s inability to overcome the limits that our nature imposes. We love the good, but we also love what is our own. Nature draws us toward other particular persons whom we embrace and love as our own; it gets in the way of our commitment to the collective good of the community, which has, in the best case, its own just yet conflicting demands on our love. Nature, or nature’s God, has made us embodied souls, or ensouled bodies. We can live neither wholly for others nor wholly for ourselves, and this is no less true for the philosopher than for others. The project of perfect justice in which each of us is a “cell in the social body” is not within our grasp.

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Reposted with permission: The New Atlantis

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