UTOPIAN HAPPINESS AND CHOICE

UTOPIAN HAPPINESS AND CHOICE

 

Although written more than 250 years apart in vastly different styles—one being a poem set in Eden, the other a novel set in London of 2540—in both John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the definition of what constitutes a utopia appears to lie in happiness. The texts suggest that a utopian society can only be produced under complete subservience of a population to a rule or ruler; in this way, the relationship of Adam and Eve to God in Milton’s Paradise Lost is similar to the relationship of citizens to their community in Huxley’s Brave New World. This subservience hinges on an abandonment of curiosity of the citizens because the supposed utopias of these texts are founded on hiding the truth from their citizens while keeping them happy and satisfied. Both utopias are predicated upon removing choice and autonomy from their citizens.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve are in Eden, a walled community that is overseen by God and his angels, in which Adam and Eve live and work tending the garden. This structure is similar to that of many utopian governments: The citizens live under the law of a government (in this case God) that they do not fully comprehend, and an emphasis is placed on keeping the citizens busy and happy so that they are not tempted to ask questions or go against the law. In Joshua Scodel’s article “Paradise Lost and Classical Ideas of Pleasurable Restraint,” he discusses the idea of “pleasurable restraint” as it pertains to Adam and Eve’s relationship, as he defines self-restraint as “both a moral discipline and the source of truest pleasure” for unfallen Adam and Eve.1 Scodel also notes Adam’s affirmation of this concept when speaking to Raphaelas he says, “pleasantest to thirst / And hunger both, from labour, at the houre / Of sweet repast.”2 In the utopia of Eden, work and pleasure—two elements used to pacify a society—are blended together to become one large pacifying force, and a heavy emphasis is placed on continual work, even if there is no need for it. Eve, in speaking to Adam, points out that “what we by day / Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind, / One night or two with wanton growth derides / tending to wilde,” which suggests that the work they are doing is consistently and repeatedly being set up to keep them occupied, pacified, and satisfied.3 Thus, when Eden fails to pacify and excite them—or, when Adam and Eve become desirous for more than what Eden offers—the utopian system of Eden begins to fail.

Patrick Brantlinger’s article “To See New Worlds Curiosity in Paradise Lost” addresses this desire for more, suggesting that it creates curiosity and offers that this curiosity may be what leads to sin. He states, “Satan’s chief bait is science, and his chief trap is curiosity, by which he wins Eve if not Christ or Milton.”4 It is only after Adam and Eve wish for more than what their utopian system offers that they become susceptible to Satan and sin. It is even noted that Satan’s plan is to “excite their minds / With more desire to know,” which reaffirms this idea: It is only when the people living with a utopian system become filled with the “desire to know” more than they are allowed that they begin to strive to escape from their environment.5 It is imperative, therefore, that utopias not only keep information from their people, but also keep their people from knowing that information is being withheld, to keep them from having this desire, because desire is the opposite of satisfaction or, as Huxley in Brave New World puts it, “to be excited is still to be unsatisfied.”6 The Satan of Paradise Lost knows this, as well that Eden is predicated on keeping Adam and Eve satisfied and decides to “excite” them in order to bring about their unfulfillment. In this way, the two opposing sides are clearly defined: one offers mindless happiness and occupation; the other offers critical thinking and pursuit of curiosity.

In contrast to Satan’s attempt to excite Adam and Eve’s minds, Raphael, an extension of God’s will and the enforcer of Eden’s principles in Paradise Lost, constantly appears to be trying to pacify them. When Adam asks Raphael about his beauty and goodness, Raphael replies, “Wonder not then, what God for you saw good,” and then later: “If ye be found obedient and retain / Unalterably firm his love entire / Whose progeny you are. Meanwhile enjoy / Your fill what happiness this happy state / Can comprehend, incapable of more.”7 In these responses, it becomes clear that Raphael is trying to quell any curiosity or desire that Adam has, not necessarily by answering his questions outright, but by suggesting that he stop wondering, be obedient, and ultimately just enjoy what he can understand and not try to understand more. This is again explicit in Raphael’s words to Adam preceding their discussion of the stars and celestial bodies:, “I have received to answer thy desire / Of knowledge within bounds; beyond abstain / To ask, nor let thine own inventions hope / Things not revealed.”8 Again, Raphael expresses that he is not necessarily there to fulfill Adam’s desire for knowledge, but to teach him what Raphael (and by extension God) deems acceptable and important. In Michael North’s article “Expressing the Spirit: The Significance of Certain Repetitions in Paradise Lost” he analyses Raphael’s response to Adam, saying that, “instead of answering, Raphael re-forms the question itself, magnifying those parts of it that exhibit reverence toward God, and pointing out to Adam the importance of what he already knows.”9  North brings up Raphael’s admonishment that Adam should “be lowly wise: / Think only what concerns thee and thy being.”10 All of these answers serve not only to keep Adam from the information he seeks, but to explicitly quell his desire to seek it. Raphael is explicitly informing Adam that he already knows what he should know, and that the best solution is only to concern himself with his own being, which, as established before, is wholly occupied with the work and supposed satisfaction provided by Eden.

The most pointed aspect of this conversation regarding the acceptable bounds of inquiry is Raphael’s reforming of the question, where he changes the meaning of key words and implicitly redefines them for Adam. In his article, North addresses many specific scenarios, such as when Adam uses the phrase “reasoning I oft admire,” and Raphael later states, “the rest / From Man or Angel the great architect / Did wisely to conceal and not divulge / His secrets to be scanned by them who ought / rather admire.”11 In addition to an explanation to Adam about how God’s mystery should be revered and not examined, North argues, “When Raphael says ‘admire,’ he gives it the more modern sense of ‘wonder mingled with reverence’ (OED)” as opposed to Adam, who means it as “filled with wonder and puzzlement.”12 In this instance of Raphael slightly altering Adam’s meaning, he changes the meaning to skew toward a love and respect of God, and with a hint that he “should look upon the unknown and unknowable with awe,”13 With these alterations in definition, one could view this exchange as an attempt to brainwash Adam; that is, for Raphael to look specifically at the words Adam uses to think and ask questions, and to force a new meaning onto these words, and in so doing, to pacify his curiosity and force his thoughts into loving and obeying God. Raphael’s attitude toward Adam interacts with the notion of curiosity in a utopia, suggesting it may be viable or even necessary to force the citizens to think in a specific way and to quell their desire for knowledge or growth. Such an attitude attacks, at a foundational level, the citizens’ desire to rebel by forcing them to think in only terms that support the regime.

Finally, the Fall itself must be addressed, as must Eve’s role in Eden and in the epic poem. Eve, even more so than Adam, appears to desire more than what is available in Eden, first complaining about the workload in Eden and about Adam’s inability to work with her in Book IX, and on multiple occasions, she dismisses a fear of the unknown. She accuses Adam of a lack of faith in her in this regard, where she states, “His fraud is then they fear, which plain infers / Thy equal fear that my firm Faith and Love / Can by his fraud be shaken or seduced,” showing her own pride that she could not be shaken.14 She continues on with the question “How are we happy, still in fear of harm? / But harm precedes not sin; only our foe / Tempting affronts us with is foul esteem.”15 Eve uses this sequence to dismiss Adam and get him to leave her alone for a time, but also alludes to the intriguing nature of Satan’s ploy. The use of the phrase “only our foe / tempting” is a specifically important ordering of words, as, while Eve seems to be dismissing Adam’s fears as nothing to worry about, the sequence of words itself states that the only thing they have to worry about is the temptations of their foe, Satan. Thus, in a utopian reading of the exchange, Eve is explicitly spelling out that the only thing to fear is temptation, something that would spur them to desire more. When she and Satan finally meet, then, it is prudent to examine the method in which Satan goads Eve into trying the fruit, that is, how he goes about tempting her. In his argument, he states, “Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe / Why but to keep ye low and ignorant, / His worshippers.”16 Suddenly, the temptation is now based around the desire to know (thus Satan’s use of the word ignorant), and each of these provocations are posed in the form of a question that is left unanswered. Just as Raphael twisted the meanings of words to his benefit, Satan is using all of the syntax at his disposal to convince the mind of Eve to be curious, to desire to ask questions, and to desire the answers to these questions above all. This desire and curiosity leads to Eve to make the choice to eat the fruit and the eventual fall of Adam and Eve from Heaven, the banishment from a utopia for desiring more and choosing to pursue it.

Much like Eden, the society of Brave New World can be viewed through a utopian lens in which the citizens are kept busy and satiated by their government and are similarly discouraged from asking questions. While, unlike Adam and Eve, they are not kept constantly busy with physical labor they are kept satisfied by other means: playing games, taking the drug soma, seeing feelies, among other pleasurable diversions. In fact, the people of the Brave New World are told to constantly try to make themselves happy, and this logically would seem very easy to convince them of, for who doesn’t want to be happy? The civilization of the Brave New World doesn’t necessarily take away choice; it just always allows for the people to choose to be happy and satiated and the leader assumes that people will choose this option. That is not to say that there has been no programming done. Much like Raphael’s “brainwashing” of Adam in their conversation in Paradise Lost, Brave New World introduces the idea of hypnopaedia, the sleep-conditioning of the children of the Brave New World. The purpose of this and other conditioning is simple and clearly stated by the Director, who states, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”17 Thus, the government of the Brave New World ensures stability and functionality by conditioning people to enjoy their lives, which would give them no reason for curiosity or pursuit of higher ideals, and those who are momentarily unhappy can subscribe to soma or distract themselves by playing games.

In addition to the conditioning and distractions that the government of the Brave New World provides to its citizens, there is also an emphasis on withholding information from its citizens, especially related to scientific progress. In a scene where Mustapha Mond, given the apt title of “World Controller,” is reviewing new scientific achievements, he denies the research of one of the scientists and has him monitored closely, as he deems the work “highly ingenious, but heretical.”[18.Huxley, Brave New World, 162.] The statement not only shows the capacity for those in control to deny the information to their citizens, but the line itself contains religious sentiment in the use of the word “heretical.” Since there is no Church or official religious institution in the Brave New Word, this likens the government to a deity with respect to its citizens and, by extension, connects the concept of a utopian government to a God looking over its people. The act of forbidding a contradictory idea so that it might not upset the people reveals a codependency of the government and the people: the government needs the people to believe in it first and foremost, and then, with the banning of new ideas and progress, the people need to rely on the government in order to stay happy, safe, and satisfied, losing all other options and autonomy. In fact, Mond denied the scientist’s work because, it might make the people “lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere.”18 This statement, too, is fraught with religious sentiment of belief, but also emphasizes the urgency that the ruler places on forbidding knowledge from the people. The restrictions on knowledge add to their passivity—for how can they pursue a goal that they do not know exists?—and effectively removes their ability to choose anything but what the government lays out for them, as they do not know any better.

The official stance against knowledge gains nuance in the conversation between John the Savage and Mustapha Mond at the end of Brave New World. Mustapha establishes a binary between public happiness and artistic freedom, stating clearly, “You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art.”19 A binary split between happiness and freedom rises across many utopian societies, but the most interesting part of his statement is how he alludes to choice, as the citizens of the Brave New World are not given a choice about many things: their status at birth, conditioning, jobs, and other circumstances that will shape their lives. are all determined without any of their input. Thus, he is not suggesting that each person has to choose, but that someone in charge—like a government or God—must be in charge of people, in order for there to be happiness. He further emphasizes this statement, saying “universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t.”20 His statements raise the question as to whether or not people should be given autonomy over their own actions if it will lead to pain and mayhem. The implication is that the only way to have a utopia is to take away a population’s ability to choose so that they cannot choose wrong, and this is the only way to keep civilization going. In Roger Paden’s article, “Ideology and Anti-Utopia,” he argues that the absence of religion is not a natural state, but rather that, “By suppressing art, science, and religion, Mond hoped to undermine those values in order to reduce people to a condition of slavery so as to better control them for their own and for society’s good.”21 This “condition of slavery” is an apt term in describing the people of the Brave New World: They have no autonomy over their own choices and are forced to serve a master, knowingly or not. They are slaves to their own happiness and satisfaction, unwilling and unable to revolt or resist.

The ending of Brave New World, however, provides an interesting commentary on those who refuse to succumb to  passivity, such as John and Helmholtz. John, in his conversation with Mond, when asked if he would claim all the evil and sickness and terrible things that have happened to humanity, states, “I claim them all.”22 He makes the choice to remove himself from the utopia of Brave New World, as does Helmholtz. The importance of these choices cannot be understated: Helmholtz gets to choose which island he gets to live on, which means that he is able to escape the utopia and continue living. John, unable to choose an island to live on, is forced instead to take the only choice justify to him: suicide. The Brave New World, as a utopian government, in this case did allow for some autonomy over choice, even if the only choice was between happiness and leaving.

The choice between happiness and leaving appears in Paradise Lost as well. The only choice that Adam and Eve were allowed was based upon their only restriction: They could choose to eat the fruit, or they could choose to remain passive in Eden. It is the capacity for choice that appears to be destructive to utopian societies, and thus, once Adam and Eve make their choice, they are forced to leave their utopia. Additionally, their choice is characterized as eating from the Tree of Knowledge; once they eat from it, they become more aware of their circumstances. If this were to happen under the government of Brave New World, the parties involved would be forced out immediately, which is exactly what happens to Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. That being said, the text ends with a positive tone, stating, “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and providence their guide; / They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow / Through Eden took their solitary way.”23 The act of leaving the utopian society in both Paradise Lost and Brave New World is presented as a positive experience, as if, with their new knowledge and opened eyes, they would not be happy within the society anyway, and if someone is unhappy in a society predicated on happiness, it suffers.

Since these utopian societies are produced under the subservience of a population to a rule or ruler, such as Adam and Eve to God in Milton’s Paradise Lost or the citizens to their government in Huxley’s Brave New World, the utopian societies can be characterized as restrictive to thought and choices of their people. These utopias attempt to keep their citizens happy by hiding information that would be necessary for them to make difficult decisions or cause any inkling of unhappiness. Notwithstanding, in Brave New World and in Paradise Lost those in power are surprisingly accommodating to those who are not happy within the system. While banishment may seem like a severe punishment, if the citizens of the utopia are not happy, then the question is raised of why they would want to stay in the first place. This course of action is obviously done to preserve the false absolutism of the society; however, in a sense a society in which those who are not happy are free to pursue their dreams (even if it is by leaving the society) cannot be considered wholly restrictive or tyrannical and may, in fact, be ideal enough to be considered utopian.

  1. Joshua Scodel, “Paradise Lost and Classical Ideals of Pleasurable Restraint,” Comparative Literature, 48.3 (Summer 1996): 189, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1771642.
  2. John Milton, Paradise Lost (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005), 8.212-14.
  3. Milton, Paradise Lost, 9.209-12.
  4. Patrick Brantlinger, “To See New Worlds Curiosity in Paradise Lost,” Modern Language Quarterly, 33.4 (1972): 357, Humanities Source https://doi-org.proxy.library.nyu.edu/10.1215/00267929-33-4-355
  5. Milton, Paradise Lost, 4.522-23.
  6. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 86.
  7. Milton, Paradise Lost, 5.491;5.501-05.
  8. Milton, Paradise Lost, 7.119-22.
  9. Michael North, “Expressing the Spirit The Significance of Certain Repetitions in Paradise Lost,” Essays in Literature, 7.2: 168, Humanities Source, EBSCOhost.
  10. Milton, Paradise Lost, 8.173-74.
  11. Milton, Paradise Lost, 8.25; 8.71-5.
  12. Michael North, “Expressing the Spirit,” 169.
  13. Michael North, “Expressing the Spirit,” 169.
  14. Milton, Paradise Lost, 9.286-288.
  15. Milton, Paradise Lost, 9.326-28.
  16. Milton, Paradise Lost,9.703-06.
  17. Huxley, Brave New World, 26.
  18. Huxley, Brave New World, 162.
  19. Aldous Huxley, 199.
  20. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World 205.
  21. Roger Paden,“Ideology and Anti-Utopia,” Contemporary Justice Review. 9.2 (2006): 223, British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference Proceedings. proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsbl&AN=RN190021577&site=eds-live.
  22. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 215.
  23. Milton, Paradise Lost, 12.646-49.
 
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