A Socratic question

Back in high school, during a Socratic seminar for senior English, a question was raised. Specifically that day’s session concerned George Orwell’s classic, 1984.

The seminar was a forum for the class to discuss points of interest within the literature through a Socratic questioning process. The purpose of such an exercise was to promote critical thinking and open-ended discussion about the salience of the ideas within the book.

Unfortunately, much of the class was less than enthused to bring their own words and arguments to bear during the course of the seminar. Most sat quietly and listened to the few who would speak on a weekly basis. As it was this day, specifically with myself and my good friend sharing the floor for much of the time. I raised a question, having my personal answer to it lightly prepared:

In the world of 1984, will the Party ever be overthrown?

The inquiry seemed simple enough. Yes - the Party will be overthrown, or No - the Party will not be overthrown (the Party’s continued existence the focal point, but with the proles foreshadowed rebellion in mind). There were many potential reasons for both arguments, that is why I believed it to be a good question to ask the group. Having an idea for what my answer would be, I let the question linger and opened the floor for others to weigh in.

Expecting his input, but not his answer, my friend responded yes, the Party will be overthrown eventually. He believed it came down to the innate power of human nature within Man, Man’s ultimate desire for personal rights and freedoms. Ultimately, the proles would rise up against the oppressive regime and restore balance to society, as human history had shown time and time again. Throughout the course of human civilization, empires rise and fall. As my friend believed to be the case with the Party, even within Orwell’s hellish fictional dystopian society. The dark side of human nature got us into the mess, and the good side of human nature would be that light to guide mankind back out of the darkness

I considered the argument, which I believed was strong. However, I did not expect this answer from my friend (who I thought might agree with me) and thus was strangely more determined to counter the argument with my own, which was now bolstered by a new idea he brought to the table.

My own answer was a resounding no. The Party would never be overthrown, their position was truly unassailable, and clearly designed that way by the author.

My argument was twofold:

1) Orwell wrote 1984 for many reasons, one of which was to meticulously construct the perfect dystopian empire, and a kind of warning to civilization. The Party is an indestructible force of evil, created by man and his institutions, capable of the complete oppression and destruction of all sense of freedom within human civilization throughout the world. The surveillance, the never-ending wars, the torture, the revision and erasure of the past — all were the foundation for an everlasting dominion. It was a social commentary and a warning to mankind — don’t ever let things get to this point or it will all be over. My point being: Orwell created the Party to be a moral absolute, the perfect totalitarian force which had the means, unrealistic/fictional in nature, to be perpetual in its reign. People in control and so far gone with their power, they had created a perfect machine to perpetuate oppression. That was the point. The bleak nature and pessimism permeated throughout the 1984 universe is meant to showcase this reality. The fact that The Party with all of its perfect resources and perfected indoctrination and perfect control, couldn’t actually exist in our reality was the crux — this fictional “Orwellian” dystopia was composed of the perfect elements of design, form and function of an unbeatable entity. Thus, they could not be overthrown. Allowing for an inevitable and successful prole insurrection would undermine the moral Orwell was trying to convey. (However, the really scary thought living longer and seeing more in today’s world — The Party doesn’t seem so fictional anymore).

2) And as a direct counter to the argument in favor of human nature, simply put, the Party was in the process of successfully destroying human nature. In two ways, I believed certain tenets inherent to human nature (and crucial for the successful organization of rebellion against the Party) would become irrelevant within the world of 1984
 1. the Party’s ability to alter the past 
 2. and the Party’s uncanny capability of breaking the human spirit.

With the past being continuously rewritten, mankind would have nothing to compare the state of their current existence to, nothing to stoke the flames of rebellion. Winston and others his age are of the last generation to have vague memories of what it was like before the Party. Once they are dead, all self-referencing criterion to the past will be eliminated, with the Party’s mastercrafted fiction there to replace it. Without that context, a large part of what empowers human nature would be destroyed — learning and experiencing from the past and from our history.

More significantly, the Party had the ability to shatter the most powerful human emotion: love. Some would argue, and my friend did, that destroying human nature is simply impossible. However, as we see within the novel breaking a human spirit is possible and it is monstrous. This human spirit is the indomitable force that has carried us through evolution, sentience, and all we have accomplished throughout human history. But with our sentience and “indomitable human spirit” comes free will and the capacity for great evil. With the right information (constant surveillance), conditions (Room 101), and dark genius (O’brien) — any man can be broken, his love destroyed, his human spirit bent to whatever ideal or reality presented to him. For better or worse, humans can get used to anything. And if one can be turned — then with the perfect design and economy of resources, an entire society could also be turned. Ultimately, the entire world could lose itself to this level of control. Just as the Party had accomplished. And the obliteration of the past, which Man relies so heavily upon for emotional solidarity, nostalgia, and context, ensures The Party’s immortality.

All of this was the result of the commentary on the darkest side of human nature and governance Orwell meant to convey — that of the most advanced, and unassailable evil empire in human history. By the end, my friend and I could both agree his warning had been duly noted to us as the readers.

The first point (the author’s intent) was lightly prepared as my answer to my own question and the second point (the possibility of destroying the human spirit) I theorized in the moment, in response to my friends’ line of thinking (that of human nature prevailing and of the intrinsic worth of the human soul/condition resulting in an inevitable and successful prole revolution). Here I have written the basis, and fleshed out, the ideas presented during our arguments. But what actually transpired in the classroom that day was incredible. Neither of us prepared for a full blown debate, the answers were more impromptu and instinctive. But we were passionate in our arguments. Back and forth, we argued our respective points, each bringing up ethos, pathos, logos and the relevant evidence we needed to prove what we were trying to say. The class, and our teacher, listened and looked on in silence and eager anticipation of what might come next. I could see it in their eyes when I paused long enough to survey the room. It didn’t really matter who had the better argument. What mattered was the flow of ideas, the critical thinking, the articulation of thought, the presentation of the discourse, and the respect we had for each others’ viewpoints and refutations. We put on a show for the class. Truly, I didn’t expect or know I was even capable of such a discussion. It was a tremendous moment for my experience in that class, my self-confidence and my friendship with my opponent.

~

I always appreciated the Socratic seminar’s method of extracting great discussions from the simplest of questions. There were no definitive answers and that is the point. What matters is the quality of the communication, the acceptance of new ideas, and the civility of true, meaningful discussion to build higher thinking from. Whether the conversation is about art, or politics, or the grievances within a relationship — these aspects are key to a effective discussion.

Through that class and over the years, I have learned two important things:

  1. In everything, believe in your own thoughts, ideas, and actions while also respecting and appreciating the minds of those around you;
  2. Always deal your mind, your instincts, your imagination, your truth, whatever it may be, with absolute sincerity.

I think human interaction based upon these principles surely creates, develops, and progresses our cause.

Some additional remarks: Over the years since this particular Socratic seminar, my answer to the question has not changed. Given the circumstances in the novel, the Party is permanent. But I have hope in mankind, and the prevailing good within human nature. And I have faith that an entity such as the Party will never be allowed to exist in our world. ~

(events in 2011, written in 2013)