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Essay

The early twentieth century was a time of enormous optimism. The era of true science had come, and, with it, the possibility of a new kind of human — enlightened, peaceful, never in want — a human being made by, and in the image of, science.

The optimism was expressed in a series of utopian novels, among them, H.G. Wells' Men Like Gods. In 1923, long before Star Trek, long before string theory or M-theory, Wells tells of a parallel universe. A scientific experiment in this parallel place accidentally brings a small group of Englishmen to a planet called Utopia.

A Utopian explains their system of social regulation: "Our government is in our education." Wells describes it as a "world of subjugated nature." It is also a place of severely limited human population.

When a Utopian asks, "And you make love?" one of Wells' 1923 Englishmen replies, "Not habitually, I can assure you. Not habitually."

Key to the parallel world's success has been the elimination (with minor exceptions) of private property. Wells wrote, "The Utopians went through a time much like our own which they now refer to as, ‘the Last Age of Confusion.'"

He described a world without "concentration of authority . . . Decisions in regard to any particular matter were made by the people who knew most about that matter."

With this statement, he ventures into a land of severe naivete. Do those most learned on any given subject have a track record of finding unanimity on difficult issues? They rarely even agree on who among them are the real experts. To think of ceding control of the world to specialized academics is scary indeed, but, in various forms, it is still being proposed today.

When pressed on the issue of dealing with someone who disagrees with one of society's rules, the "earthlings" are told, "We should make an inquiry into his mental and moral health."

Psychological manipulation, including the threat of institutionalization, makes this Utopia seem more and more horrible . . . except to Wells, who never seems to grasp the nightmare elements of his fantasy. He wrote:

It was only towards the climax of the Last Age of Confusion in Utopia that psychological science began to develop with any vigor, comparable to the vigor of the development of geographical and physical science during the preceding centuries. And the social and economic disorder which was checking experimental science and crippling the organized work of the universities was stimulating inquiry into the processes of human association and making it desperate and fearless.

H. G. Wells foresaw a triumph of science where a new kind of human being was created — so new as to hardly still be human.

There can be no doubt of Wells' brilliance. His telling of the economic undoing of "the Last Age of Confusion" sounds dreadfully familiar:

The effort to make passed out of Utopian life, triumphantly superseded by the effort to get. Production dwindled down towards the vanishing point. Accumulated wealth vanished. An overwhelming system of debt, a swarm of creditors, morally incapable of helpful renunciation, crushed out all fresh initiative.

This may sound like H. G. Wells looked down the corridor of time to our own, but, in fact, he was simply describing the era (just before the great depression) in which the book was written. In other words, things change and things stay the same.

The most important thing about Men Like Gods may have been the books it helped prompt, like C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, George Orwell's 1984, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932. For a 1946 re-release of the novel he wrote a new Forward in which he said:

I have been told by an eminent academic critic that I am a sad symptom of the failure of an intellectual class in time of crisis. The implication being, I suppose, that the professor and his colleagues are hilarious symptoms of success. The benefactors of humanity deserve due honor and commemoration. Let us build a Pantheon for professors. It should be located among the ruins of one of the gutted cities of Europe or Japan, and over the entrance to the ossuary I would inscribe, in letters six or seven feet high, the simple words: Sacred to the memory of the World's Educators. SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS, CIRCUMSPICE.

[Si monumentum requiris, circumspice means, "If you seek his monument, look around."]

"The Really Revolutionary Revolution"
Huxley warned of something he called "the really revolutionary revolution." He wrote:

The really revolutionary revolution is to be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings.

He warned of Wells' dehumanizing new science and its kinship to the ideas of the man for whom sadism is named — the Marquis de Sade:

Sade regarded himself as the apostle of the really revolutionary revolution, beyond mere politics and economics — the revolution in individual men, women and children, whose bodies were hence forward to become the common sexual property of all and whose minds were to be purged of all natural decencies, all the laboriously acquired inhibitions of traditional civilization.

The Marquis de Sade understood something that Huxley's Brave New World characters and today's really revolutionary thinkers have embraced — to tear down an old system of morality and thought, undermine sexual standards and values. Make wrong right in the area of sex, and "the really revolutionary revolution" is on.

Like Wells and other social critics, Huxley's good at the easy part — at saying what won't work and why. But he's terrible at solutions. He doesn't see that his solutions are variations on the same themes he's already told us won't work. He can often be reduced to the same thing as Wells — "People should act right."

Like so many idealists before him, H. G. Wells grew weary and discouraged in the end. The Wikipedia article on him says, "In his last book Mind at the End of its Tether (1945) he considered the idea that humanity being replaced by another species might not be a bad idea. He also came to call the era ‘The age of frustration.'"

The Really Utopian Utopia
The Bible tells of another kind of Utopia — a place where the inhabitants have been changed, but in this one, they are not only remade, but redeemed and restored by their original Maker. This is the Christian hope. A time of perfect joy and fulfillment is coming. And its beginning is not far away. In fact, it's here, now — in us. God works in us, and we are part of His master plan for the ages. It's not about convenience, money, or impressing the neighbors. It's about Him. It's about our becoming what we were made to be.

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. —1 John 3:2

The Really Utopian Utopia
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Posted: 12-5-2008

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