In memoriam: 50 years ago today

On this day 50 years ago, the news of the deaths of two authors, whose writings were to become warning texts for bioethics, was overshadowed by the assassination of JFK on the same day as their deaths. The two were C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley.

Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man, a volume whose brevity belies its consequence. It starts by defending the existence of objective value (which Lewis refers to as “The Tao”); it ends with a prediction of what will happen when men who have abandoned any idea of objective value turn the focus of their project to conquer Nature onto conquering human nature. The result, writes Lewis, will be “The Abolition of Man.”

Man’s conquest of himself means simply the rule of the Conditioners over the conditioned human material . . . If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of its planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. . .and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold. (Lewis, 86, 80)

Published in 1947, its sobering warnings are proving to be disquietingly accurate.

In 1932, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, a bio-dystopian vision that is also proving to be chillingly prophetic. His is a world in which every denizen has everything his heart ever desired — except, of course, his freedom.  It is a world in which those techniques that act directly upon the human person have been brought to perfection; and the people who are the product of such techniques we barely recognize as human (although we may recognize certain tendencies in our own world towards such post-humanism). All parental instincts, all notion of sexual fidelity, all aspiration and originality, all reflection, all meaning and purpose, all sadness, all fear of death, all moral judgments of any kind, all strong emotion — in short, anything that might disrupt a person’s function in a technological world — have been efficiently conditioned out of man. The inhabitants of this mad world think they are free, but they are in reality just happy. The character Bernard, one of the psychologists whose job it is to oversee the mass conditioning of the population, begins to realize this subversive truth:

“. . .what would it be like if I were free — not enslaved by my conditioning.”

“But Bernard, you’re saying the most awful things.”

“Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

He laughed. “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We begin giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way.” (Huxley, 91)

The most efficient way to run a technological world is to adapt the people who live in it so that they are happy in their artificial environment. So Huxley envisions mass happiness, produced in mass humanity, by efficient technologies of conditioning, mass media, consumerism, medication, and eugenics, guided not by considerations of morality (because the Tao has been remade), but only of happiness, comfort, leisure, and social stability.

Although he did not die 50 years ago today, Jacques Ellul described in maddening detail our world already more than halfway to Lewis’s and Ellul’s dystopian visions. In The Technological Society, he wrote

Who is too blind to see that a profound mutation is being advocated here? A new dismembering and a complete reconstitution of the human being so that he can at last become the objective (and also the total object) of techniques. Excluding all but the mathematical element, he is indeed a fit end for the means he has constructed. He is completely despoiled of everything that traditionally constituted his essence. (Ellul, 431-2)

With the final integration . . . by means of these human techniques, the edifice of the technical society will be completed. It will not be a universal concentration camp, for it will be guilty of no atrocity. It will not seem insane, for everything will be ordered, and the stains of human passion will be lost amid the chromium gleam. We shall have nothing more to lose, and nothing to win. Our deepest instincts and our most secret passions will be analyzed, published, and exploited. We shall be rewarded with everything our hearts ever desired. (Ellul, 426-7)

Everything — except, of course, our freedom.

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Janice Benson
Janice Benson

I appreciate your thinking on this, Joe and the quote from Ellul :”it will not be a universal concentration camp for it will be guilty of no atrocity”.
However, you focus on our move away from “considerations of morality” in our bourgeois pleasures and past-times of reality TV and leisure time activities. I speculate that the mass of poor people around the world and even in our violence-plagued innercity Chicago neighborhoods would feel just fine about having the resources to ‘be rewarded with everything our hearts ever desired”(E)…”happiness, comfort, leisure and social stability. “(JG)
thanks for your thoughts, once again!
janice b