“As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure…” -Neil Postman, Foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)
Published in 1932, Aldous Huxley’s fictional microcosm within Brave New World is set in the novel’s “year of stability,” 632 years after the commercial advent of American car magnate Henry Ford (d.1947). Ford’s widely successful Model T was the first automobile manufactured solely through mass-production using methods such as the conveyor belt assembly process. Ford is the deity and prophet of the novel’s World State. His industrial philosophy dominates the lives of almost everyone within the novel alongside the motto of the World State: “COMMUNITY. IDENTITY. STABILITY.”
The stability of the World State is maintained by a combination of extensive developmental conditioning and the genetic engineering of its inhabitants. It is a world of 2 billion citizens who share 20,000 surnames, not born as a result of natural pregnancy but instead “hatched” within the State Hatcheries. They are genetically engineered into hierarchies to fulfill the demands of their predestined, caste-based social roles. The “virtues” of passive obedience, excessive material consumption, and senseless promiscuity are inflicted upon the inhabitants of Huxley’s world from infancy, whether through “sleep-teaching” or naked “erotic play” where upper-caste children are conditioned to be sexualized objects from toddlerhood onwards.
Later in life, citizens across social-strata are given free handouts of soma, the State-approved psychoactive opiate providing them with instant, paradisal bliss without negative side-effects. The pre-ordained caste system of Huxley’s world, involving the highly intelligent managerial Alpha classes to the sub-groups of Epsilon serfs — genetically engineered with low intelligence and programmed to love their endless menial work — ensures that the production wheels of the World State are in constant motion.
What was true during the latter half of the twentieth century still rings true in our modern day. Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four cast shadows over the collective future of the world. Orwell’s brilliant work of political writing brought us Big Brother, “doublethink,” Newspeak and “thoughtcrime” alongside the Ministries of “Peace,” “Truth” and “Love”; the first being concerned with war, the second concerned with spreading lies, and the latter being a literal torture-palace.
Huxley’s Brave New World proposed a different form of totalitarianism; one that was achieved through unadulterated technological development. A world where its inhabitants are engineered to adore the tyranny they live under and are coerced to serve it, in almost every case, without brute force. The concepts addressed within the novel pose perennial questions: happiness versus freedom? Utopia or dystopia? How ought humans organize and live within society? Precisely how detached are we from the many things that make us human, and provide us with meaning and genuine fulfillment in life?
Addiction to Excess
Citizens of the World State are encouraged to take soma as a catch-all remedy to all of life’s unpleasant feelings and moments. Insidious are the hypnopaedic sayings of “a gram is better than a damn.” While the drug creates a sense of blissful timelessness, it severs the characters from reality and the natural instincts of their souls. Alpha Henry Foster and one of his many lovers Lenina Crowne experience soma as raising “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”1 When unpleasant feelings strike, citizens and characters alike take soma “holidays” to flee from their intrinsic humanness. Lenina becomes utterly absorbed in this escapism. After a day of “queerness and horror” at the Reservation, a place where the word state technologies do not exist, she swallows six half-gram tablets of soma and lays still on her bed for eighteen hours.
Soma generates artificial transcendence and rewards citizens for rejecting the suffering of the real world and their inescapable mortality. Citizens cannot escape the World State’s chemical coercion. When John (a character born naturally on the Reservation) remarks that soma makes citizens of the World State “slaves,” he means that despite the hierarchy and manufactured feeling of responsibility, ultimately no caste is exempt from its coercive paradisal bliss in submission to the world state, even the Alphas. It chains them to their excess: whether excessive promiscuity, excessive material consumption, or blind love of back-breaking menial labor.
Life in Huxley’s novel is devoid of any moral foundation for citizens to derive meaning and direction from. Instead, the World State prioritizes the short-lived happiness that follows immediate gratification at the expense of truth and meaning. Taking a step back into the real world, it is worth remembering that life’s greatest Truths carry unmistakable power. God’s immutable Oneness, the clarity of the Prophetic ﷺ direction, the purity of love and the simplicity of human connection provide us with a contentment and wholeness not found in Huxley’s world.
Imposition of Ghaflah (Heedlessness)
Under the illusion of choice between the equally mind-numbing and blissful, Bernard Marx, an outcast Alpha concerned with advancing his social status, is unable to understand his friend Hemholtz’s insistence on meaning and tragedy. Though he initially seems like the novel’s protagonist, his misfit attitude and independence of thought is a thin façade stemming from insecurities (due to an imperfect birth that’s left him shorter than his peers). His motivations drive him towards acceptance in society, and his superficiality rears at John’s arrival and subsequent popularity.
Today’s world prides itself on providing stability and freedom to its constituents: a constant stream of Netflix shows and movies, pornography, libertine relationships, and drugs offering endless varieties of physical bliss. It is oversaturated with general self-care propositions and the deification of physical pleasure. It mollifies the mind with material comfort, as Lenina aptly responds, “I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time.”
The mantra of unhappiness as the ultimate evil is a convenient principle for the World State, allowing them to maintain their power while extracting profit. We can see this today in the race to over pathologize normal human behavior or in consultants designing rituals to futilely imbue the workplace with the meaning people are craving but atheism and secularism have starved them of. One psychology professor likens the enforcement of employees to put on a happy face and eliminate negative thoughts in the workforce to “thought control,” all while America grapples with rising mental health issues.2
Huxley warns against this right to happiness drawing out its both of a state’s use of technology to control their population and of a gluttonous society that cannot think for itself, in perpetual itch for more. The void created by the World State, one that Hemholtz and John are aware of but Lenina and Bernard (in the end) fail to fully comprehend, is temporarily assuaged by the luxuries provided to its citizens. But like a vessel with a crack, one’s appetite for more is never filled. When the fake spiritual highs of orgy-porgys leave an ache, citizens run to indulge the opulence of physical things and state-enforced promiscuity.
Mustapha Mond, one of the men who run the World State, tells John that he’s asking for “the right” to be “unhappy.” Meaning, the right to feel as one naturally experiences. In this pivotal discussion, Huxley illustrates that this is a world in which debating meaning simply falls to irrelevance and irreverence.
Vulnerability and Expression
Brave New World represents a society that suppresses the natural expression and melancholy of life. This is exemplified in multiple ways: in the descriptions of Hemholtz writing poetry and his buried yearning for basic expression, stifled by his genetic and socially engineered life at the “top of the food chain.” A second example is Lenina’s reaction to John’s marriage proposal, occurring in part due to her inability to understand his feelings of love (whether true or false). His outburst of anger is juxtaposed with the death of his mother, stripped of the ability to grieve alone and lack of closure.
In another scene, Mond and Bernard reflect on the Reservation: Mond’s clear painful recollection of lost love, going on to insult and threaten Bernard with deportation; the externalized and internalized punishment for vulnerability, remorse, pain and regret. This perhaps stems from the shame of love in Huxley’s world where monogamy and commitment is seen as revolting, and sexualization from birth is adored. The resistance to the natural human experience in the book; birth, pregnancy, marriage, family, pain, suffering and meaningful contentment, are all fought against and replaced with soma, feelies, open relationships, and self-preservation.
Compare this to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Pierre undergoes a metamorphosis from bastard child, to hedonist, to Free-Mason, to semi-soldier, to prisoner of war and finally a refined, wise, gentle young man who is granted God’s mercy after repeatedly learning and applying the lessons of his suffering in life. His search for meaning and overcoming the worst impulses of humanity, in part to escape the manipulations of others, presents a hopeful outlook on human nature. While Tolstoy was critical of organized religion, he also believed in the importance of spirituality and connection to something greater than oneself. War and Peace acknowledges the complexities and tragedies of life, while also celebrating its joy, beauty, and redemption found in faith. In doing so, Tolstoy provides a counterpart to the mechanistic and sterile, pleasure-seeking existence of the characters in Brave New World.
Transhumanism and the Loss of Human Dignity
The concept of transhumanism, the belief that humans can and should transcend their current biological limitations through technology, is one of the key themes in the book. While the novel was written long before the term “transhumanism” was coined, its vision of a world where humans are genetically engineered, behaviorally conditioned, and kept in a state of perpetual happiness through the use of drugs and entertainment, is a precursor to many of the ideas espoused by transhumanists today.
At its core, transhumanism is a movement that seeks to engineer a paradise on earth by using technology to eliminate suffering and enhance human abilities. However, as Huxley’s novel demonstrates, this quest for utopia comes at a steep price: the loss of human dignity and the destruction of what makes us human.
In Brave New World, the World State has not yet achieved immortality in its labor force, but it does liberate individuals from their human qualities. Through the destruction of traditional religious and moral values, society smoothes the way for a radical form of transhumanism, which aims to engineer a paradise within the World State. Death, like birth, is trivialized.
““Now, who wants a chocolate éclair?” she asked in a loud, cheerful tone.
“Me!” yelled the entire Bokanovsky Group in chorus. Bed 20 was completely forgotten.
“Oh, God, God, God …” the Savage kept repeating to himself. In the chaos of grief and remorse that filled his mind it was the one articulate word. “God!” he whispered it aloud. “God …”
“Whatever is he saying?” said a voice, very near, distinct and shrill…”3
Any impulse to dwell on deeper impulses is smothered by the distractions provided by society. The World State’s methods to achieve this vision of a perfect society is reminiscent of the vision put forth by David Pearce in his book, The Hedonistic Imperative, where suffering should be replaced with “information-sensitive gradients of bliss.”4
However, the loss of individuality and the elimination of suffering come at a steep price. The society is devoid of any depth or meaning, and citizens are reduced to mere automatons. There is no room for human dignity or respect for individual choice, as everything is predetermined by the state.
Even John, the novel’s tragic hero and ultimate protagonist, is not immune to the effects of conditioning. While his conditioning is not as crude and mechanical as that of the World State, he associates suffering with character, and his violent outbursts towards Lenina and children reveal a deeply flawed individual. As science and technology are deified, and the authority of religiously-derived morals wanes, the World State and the Reservation exemplify two sides of the same coin: the dangers of societies left to their own devices.
The Islamic worldview emphasizes the importance of living a virtuous life in preparation for the afterlife. In this worldview, the ultimate goal of human existence is to achieve proximity to Allah. The transhumanist pursuit of immortality and the eradication of human limitations is a misguided attempt to engineer a form of paradise on Earth. For Muslims, death is not only something to be unafraid of but rather a natural part of the human experience that marks the transition to the afterlife. In this lens, the transhumanist vision of a world liberated from human qualities and emotions can be seen as an assault on the very essence of what it means to be human. The human heart is seen as the seat of the soul and the organ through which one connects with the divine. The attempt to eliminate these qualities in favor of a sterile, utopian society is a denial of the inherent dignity of human beings.
Additionally, the use of genetic engineering and behavioral conditioning to shape human beings in Brave New World raises important questions about free will and moral agency. In Islamic thought, humans are endowed with free will and are responsible for their actions. The attempt to engineer human behavior and eliminate moral agency is a denial of this fundamental principle.
The Islamic understanding of the human values not years of life in quantity, but years of life in metaphysical value. In his commentary on Imam Mawlud’s poem “Purification of the Heart,” Shaykh Hamza Yusuf expounds upon the dangers of allowing worldly desires to taint the heart, resulting in the eclipse of the soul’s illumination and joy. Yusuf reminds us that the guarantee of our eventual demise serves as a reminder that true fulfillment can only be attained through internal tranquility and remembrance of Allah ﷻ.
In stark contrast to the principles of ihsan, the citizens of Brave New World are encouraged to indulge in superficial pleasures and opulence, such as the consumption of soma, the gratification of their carnal desires, and a preoccupation with frivolous entertainment, as a method of escapism. The Islamic tradition, however, extols the virtue of mindfulness and intentionality in even the most mundane of tasks, reminding us that spiritual prosperity is rooted in sincerity and dedication to Allah ﷻ.
Imam al-Ghazali’s Letter to a Disciple similarly emphasizes the importance of discovering contentment and ihsan in our daily lives, urging us to look inward for true satisfaction and fulfillment rather than seeking gratification from external sources. This guidance is especially pertinent in the context of Brave New World, where the populace is conditioned to believe that their happiness is contingent upon indulging in fleeting, transitory pleasures, rather than cultivating an inner sense of peace and satisfaction.
Moreover, the heart is a metaphysical organ that can have a tangible influence on our physical being and conduct. Regrettably, in the dystopian world of Brave New World, the hearts of the populace are ravaged by a sense of insipid emptiness, devoid of any profound emotion or spiritual resonance. As a consequence, the society depicted in Huxley’s novel is one bereft of compassion, empathy, and spirituality.
While we continue to navigate the complexities of our modern world, it is important to reflect on the themes present in Brave New World and the ways in which they manifest in our own lives. Through the prism of Islamic spirituality and tasawwuf, we discern the perilous consequences of hedonism portrayed in Brave New World and the importance of cultivating internal contentment. And in remembering our ultimate purpose and our unceasing connection to Allah ﷻ, we can strive to lead a life characterized by ihsan rather than surrendering to the transitory pleasures of the world.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.Endnotes
- Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World, pp. 77
- Goldhill, Olivia. “‘Positive thinking’ has turned happiness into a duty and a burden, says Danish psychologist,” Mar. 4, 2017
- Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World, pp. 229
- Pearce, David. The Hedonistic Imperative.
Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics.
A graduate in Law, currently completing a Masters in Law in criminal litigation. He is a junior lawyer, a boxer, and a traveler. His interests include Hanafi jurisprudence, legal and South Asian history, constitutional & human rights law, business, and politics.