The Purpose of Life Is Not Happiness
Happiness is never glamorous.
“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.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Aldous Huxley spent the entire summer of 1931 writing ‘Brave New World’. He was living in France at the time and had already established himself as a writer. Huxley had published four satirical novels prior to Brave New World, as well as a book of poetry. He also edited the literary magazine Oxford Poetry.
‘Brave New World’ is Huxley’s most famous novel and rightly so. I do not think there is any other book that has had such a profound impression on me. The comparison with Orwell’s ‘Nineteen-Eighty Four’ is fitting, but the vision and foresight in Brave New World, the sheer audacity it displays is unrivalled. Clearly, Huxley was a genius, a rather bold, daring intellectual eager to discover the delicate realms of both utopia and dystopia.
The context for ‘Brave New World’ is an international scientific empire that has managed to manufacture a society where truth and reason are less significant than happiness and comfort.
The entire society has been sterilised; there is no disease or emotional pain. The people are ignorant of the concept of love, it is traded for promiscuity and casual relationships. Old age, nature, thought and anxiety are removed and a rigorous structure of psychological conditioning is practiced upon the youth. A strict ban on books, philosophy and religion is in place — the people view this as protection from harmful material. Each of these pursuits are a distraction from happiness for they are all too uncomfortable and confusing for a people in pursuit of pleasure.
A drug called ‘soma’, an opiate with no withdrawal symptoms, is widespread and used to numb emotions and feelings. It is necessary to maintain social order; the people cannot imagine a life without it for it carries “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”
“In Brave New World the soma habit was not a private vice; it was a political institution…” writes Huxley. “The daily Soma ration was an insurance against personal maladjustment, social unrest and the spread of subversive ideas. Religion, Karl Marx declared, is the opium of the people. In the Brave New World this situation was reversed. Opium, or rather Soma, was the people’s religion.”(Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited)
All of those beautiful human emotions — pain, sorrow, trust, delight — are never experienced and people are instead reduced to a nothingness existence.
Huxley’s idea of the perfect totalitarian state would not punish wrongful behaviour, but would instead ease people into loving their servitude through pleasure and desensitisation. There would be an exchange from the black leather boot and the cracking whip to drugs, sex, pleasure and gentle conditioning. This would provide the people with no reason to rebel against authority. No discontentment could come between the ordinary man and the state.
The principles of Henry Ford’s assembly line stretch throughout the novel, indeed the people view Ford, alongside Sigmund Freud, as the creator of their civilisation.
It is a society of predictability, certainty, pleasure and comfort.
The novel introduces a foreigner, John the Savage, to the civilised World State. John was born outside civilisation on the Savage Reservation. He falls in love with the works of Shakespeare early in his life. Through Shakespeare, he learns of tragedy, love, loyalty and pain — all foreign ideas to the civilised people. He is able to verbalise his own feelings with the words of Shakespeare and in doing so, he recognises the true beauty of human emotions.
Shakespeare provides John with a framework to rebel against the civilised world. John commits himself to the language and ideal of poetry and to nature’s truth and consequently, he rejects the sterilised essence of the world he has found himself in. John is the tragic hero of Brave New World, a character whose idealism eventually leads to his demise.
“Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
― George Orwell
The force that drives Huxley’s dystopia is the Western culture of seeking the end, the belief that one’s reason for being here is only for happiness. It is supposed, perhaps unknowingly, that there will come a time when our suffering will be finished and the journey will finally come to an end. There is a destination somewhere over those blue remembered hills where all our struggles will end — where heaven and horizon will collide. We will be happy, healthy, without depression, worry or anxiety, sitting comfortably with total harmony within ourselves.
Life, by its very nature, is never free of struggle. But, people are incessant in their belief that the day will come in the future when it will all be over.
Brave New World, Huxley believed, would be the end consequence of this foolishness. Ultimately there will come a time when people will value their happiness over freedom. Pleasure, then, would be followed to its conclusion and willingly allowed to become the foundation of society.
“Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited)
Huxley understood the myth of arrival, the idea that life is a journey, to be an illusion. Many will come to appreciate this, some sooner than others. The ‘good life’ is seen as beyond reach and such a realisation can cause disillusionment and despair. Even when one finally grasps all that is believed to fund happiness, the initial haste eventually withers away. For humans are accomplished at acclimatising to new heights.
It is this misery and despair, caused by the myth of arrival and life’s constant struggles, that creates the quiet desperation necessary for a people to accept happiness over their freedom. But, the question must be asked as to what we will miss once we make this decision. Truly, reflection and thought is needed about what matters and about what makes us who we are.
Because the faster the world becomes and the less time we have to stop to reflect, the more we are amnesiacs, sleepwalking towards a destination that we did not choose.
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
Aldous Huxley was presenting a choice between freedom or pleasure. Humans have a natural instinct for freedom, a burning drive to follow the beat of one’s own heart. There is no dignity, no pride or love without freedom as to be free is our most natural state and to lose it in such a mindless way betrays all that we are. It is a sad time when many would not only welcome their enslavement, but would rejoice when finally all responsibility is taken away.
Freedom is inseparable from responsibility. We have the freedom to speak our minds, yet the responsibility to make sure we are clear and meaningful. We have the freedom to act, but the responsibility to act appropriately. See, responsibility only brings ache, pain and burden. It almost never brings pleasure. But, without responsibility, without autonomy, we can no longer find the answers within ourselves, but must instead seek guidance elsewhere.
However, with careful reflection, we have to stop and question the conventional wisdom surrounding the idea of happiness. And so the question arises, do people truly want to pursue happiness as an end in itself?
Or do they want to struggle against the wind, to fight for their family, to bleed against their misfortune, to break their own heart, to bite their own lip, to put down bribery, to follow their omens, to hang on tight to their past, to move beyond the edges, to love so passionately that they lose themselves, to slay their demons and to discover new creations?
No, happiness is never as virtuous as it seems. Rather, you only believe so whilst you are sat alone in the cellar, distant with the memories of the past. But, this, of course, is amnesia.
Aldous Huxley was warning the individual against the belief that the object of life is happiness. Those moments of happiness that everyone has experienced are rare and fleeting, yet we cling onto them for dear life as if the same script is supposed to extend forever. Instead, rather like John the Savage, each person should follow a purpose, a vocation, an ideal, a fight or a love.
A meaning to one’s life should embrace a struggle for it is necessary to move through time believing your suffering holds a great purpose. Thus it is not a question of a meaning to life itself, but instead a meaning to the suffering endured through life.
Life without depth, without suffering is shallow and meaningless. You have to answer the deepest questions that life brings. And, by pursuing constant satisfaction you invite a hollow existence.
A purpose to life, a struggle against nature or a deep breath amid chaos is almost always more glamorous than happiness. Aldous Huxley believed that a shift in our perspective, amongst other things, is needed if we are to avoid what at this moment seems inevitable.
“Man, the bravest of animals, and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche)
Thank you for reading.
Harry J. Stead