Samuel Butler : Erewhon

After reading the back cover and introduction of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon I found myself wondering why I’d ever bought the book, but in the end it proved to be unexpectedly interesting. This is nothing if not an unusual work. It’s generally described as something between utopian fiction such as Thomas More’s Utopia or Aldous Huxley’s Island, and satirical works such as Gulliver’s Travels. I’d say it’s much nearer to the latter and also contains elements of dystopian literature. Unlike More or Huxley, Butler rarely presents any aspect of Erewhonian life as being unmitigatedly good, i.e. as something which he thinks the Europeans ought to adopt. Like Swift, he uses the book as a vehicle for his personal opinions on various subjects, and specifically to criticise what he doesn’t like about his own society, but he isn’t the least bit consistent in the manner in which he goes about this…

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Often, the book consists of pure satire which might well have come straight out of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, for instance when the professor says:

It is not our business […] to help students to think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do. Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do. (p.189,9)

Sometimes, e.g. regarding their views on competition, he makes the Erewhonians the exact opposite of the Europeans, and while ostensibly criticising the bizarreness of their ideas, actually shows them to be a much more sensible alternative:

I told them of Homer’s noble line to the effect that a man should strive ever to be foremost and in all things to outvie his peers; but they said that no wonder the countries in which such a detestable maxim was held in admiration were always flying at one another’s throats. “Why,” asked one Professor, “should a man want to be better than his neighbours? Let him be thankful if he is no worse. (p190,9)

On other occasions he has the Erewhonians do something which is totally ridiculous, and duly criticises it as such, while their behaviour has very obvious similarities to something the Europeans take for granted. A good example of this is the way ‘The Colleges of Unreason’ teach ‘hypothetics’ and ‘the hypothetic language’, an obvious reference to the great emphasis European education puts on Latin, Greek and the classics to the detriment of more practical subjects:

The main feature in their system is the prominence which they give to a study which I can only translate by the word “hypothetics.” They argue thus — that to teach a boy merely the nature of the things which exist in the world around him, and about which he will have to be conversant during his whole life, would be giving him but a narrow and shallow conception of the universe, […] Thus they are taught what is called the hypothetical language for many of their best years — a language which was originally composed at a time when the country was in a very different state of civilisation to what it is at present, a state which has long since disappeared and been superseded. Many valuable maxims and noble thoughts which were at one time concealed in it have become current in their modern literature, and have been translated over and over again into the language now spoken. Surely then it would seem enough that the study of the original language should be confined to the few whose instincts led them naturally to pursue it. But the Erewhonians think differently; the store they set by this hypothetical language can hardly be believed; they will even give any one a maintenance for life if he attains a considerable proficiency in the study of it; […] it appeared to me to be a wanton waste of good human energy that men should spend years and years in the perfection of so barren an exercise, when their own civilisation presented problems by the hundred which cried aloud for solution and would have paid the solver handsomely; […] (p.185,7)

Things become much more complicated when it comes to one of the main themes of the book, i.e. the way in which the Erewhonians deal with illness, poverty and crime. Here they also do the exact opposite of the Europeans, i.e. treating crime with sympathy and attempting to cure it, while repressing and punishing poverty and illness. On the surface, what he’s doing here by reversing the normal attitudes on illness and crime is simply to combine two of the techniques already mentioned, thereby creating a double-edged weapon with which to fight for his relatively enlightened views on crime and punishment. On the one hand he attributes to the Erewhonians the view that criminals are victims of their circumstances – a bad upbringing, poverty, the misfortune of falling into bad company, etc. – and should be pitied rather than condemned. He also shows that they see crime as being potentially curable and that their purpose in punishing a criminal is not just to re-establish the balance of justice – for him just a euphemism for taking revenge – but to reform the criminal and turn him into a useful member of society. While ostensibly ridiculing the Erewhonians’ ideas, so different from his own and those of his readers, he effectively presents their attitude as sensible and practical, society being better served in the long run by curing crime rather than just making the criminal’s life as miserable as possible. On the other side of the equation, however, he seems to be doing something totally different: he presents the Erewhonians’ ideas on illness as being completely ridiculous – and here none of his readers could possibly think he wasn’t being serious – and because they’re obviously an exact copy of how the Europeans deal with crime he’s implicitly criticising the standards and methods of his own society in this respect. In other words he’s using the Erewhonians’ attitudes to crime and illness, respectively, to present positive and negative versions – how things should be done, and how they shouldn’t – of his views on crime and punishment.

None of the above necessarily challenges the standard view which will have been held by most of Butler’s readers in 1872, and probably still is by most people now, that there’s an essential difference, i.e. a difference in kind rather than in degree, between crime and illness, namely that crime, regardless of the extent to which it can be explained by circumstances beyond the control of the criminal, still always involves an element of choice which illness doesn’t. Because a potential criminal has free will, at some point he might have chosen not to commit the crime, and is therefore responsible for his actions and should suffer the consequences. By presenting the Erewhonians’ case so well, however, and by so effectively pointing out the similarities between crime and illness, Butler goes a long way towards blurring this distinction. Firstly he brings poverty and insanity into the discussion, two cases which, even according to the standard view of things, are on the borderline between crime and illness: the extent to which poverty is the fault of the poor is entirely a matter of (political) opinion, and poverty has been treated according to both viewpoints in different times and places, while insanity, while generally regarded as being entirely outside the control of the victim, is often treated more like a crime than an illness:

Again, take the case of maniacs. We say that they are irresponsible for their actions, but we take good care, or ought to take good care, that they shall answer to us for their insanity, and we imprison them in what we call an asylum (that modern sanctuary!) if we do not like their answers. This is a strange kind of irresponsibility. (p.121,1)

At one point he mentions kleptomania, an obvious case in which the distinction between crime and illness is often unclear to society.

Secondly, and on another level, Butler is well aware of the fact that seeing crime and illness as two entirely different phenomena depends on the existence of such a thing as free will – something he doesn’t appear to have any faith in whatsoever:

A man is the resultant and exponent of all the forces that have been brought to bear upon him, whether before his birth or afterwards. His action at any moment depends solely upon his constitution, and on the intensity and direction of the various agencies to which he is, and has been, subjected. […] as he is by nature, and as he has been acted on, and is now acted on from without, so will he do, as certainly and regularly as though he were a machine. We do not generally admit this, because we do not know the whole nature of any one, nor the whole of the forces that act upon him. We see but a part, and being thus unable to generalise human conduct, except very roughly, we deny that it is subject to any fixed laws at all, and ascribe much both of a man’s character and actions to chance, or luck, or fortune; but these are only words whereby we escape the admission of our own ignorance; and a little reflection will teach us that the most daring flight of the imagination or the most subtle exercise of the reason is as much the thing that must arise, and the only thing that can by any possibility arise, at the moment of its arising, as the falling of a dead leaf when the wind shakes it from the tree. For the future depends upon the present, and the present […] depends upon the past, and the past is unalterable. The only reason why we cannot see the future as plainly as the past, is because we know too little of the actual past and actual present; […] What we do know is, that the more the past and present are known, the more the future can be predicted; and that no one dreams of doubting the fixity of the future in cases where he is fully cognisant of both past and present, and has had experience of the consequences that followed from such a past and such a present on previous occasions. He perfectly well knows what will happen, and will stake his whole fortune thereon. (p.215,9)

This passage contains a beautifully succinct demonstration, in fact a proof in one sentence, of the logical impossibility of the objective existence of such a thing as ‘free will’: “the future depends upon the present, and the present depends upon the past, and the past is unalterable.” You might also say, if the past is unalterable, then so is the future…

The Erewhonians’ views on time, which are somewhat reminiscent of those in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, are also very relevant to the question of free will:

The Erewhonians say that we are drawn through life backwards; or again, that we go onwards into the future as into a dark corridor. […] They say at other times that the future and the past are as a panorama upon two rollers; that which is on the roller of the future unwraps itself on to the roller of the past; we cannot hasten it, and we may not stay it; we must see all that is unfolded to us whether it be good or ill; and what we have seen once we may see again no more. It is ever unwinding and being wound; we catch it in transition for a moment, and call it present; our flustered senses gather what impression they can, and we guess at what is coming by the tenor of that which we have seen. […] When the scene is past we think we know it, though there is so much to see, and so little time to see it, that our conceit of knowledge as regards the past is for the most part poorly founded; neither do we care about it greatly, save in so far as it may affect the future, wherein our interest mainly lies. The Erewhonians say it was by chance only that the earth and stars and all the heavenly worlds began to roll from east to west, and not from west to east, and in like manner they say it is by chance that man is drawn through life with his face to the past instead of to the future. For the future is there as much as the past, only that we may not see it. Is it not in the loins of the past, and must not the past alter before the future can do so? (p.167,0)

If there remains any doubt about the fact that, due to both practical and theoretical considerations, Butler saw no essential difference between crime and illness, then the following quote should be enough to dissipate it:

Was there nothing which I could say to make them feel that the constitution of a person’s body was a thing over which he or she had had at any rate no initial control whatever, while the mind was a perfectly different thing, and capable of being created anew and directed according to the pleasure of its possessor? Could I never bring them to see that while habits of mind and character were entirely independent of initial mental force and early education, the body was so much a creature of parentage and circumstances, that no punishment for ill-health should be ever tolerated save as a protection from contagion, and that even where punishment was inevitable it should be attended with compassion? (p.135,5)

When I first read about these strange ideas of the Erewhonians regarding illness, poverty and crime, they just struck me as silly – just as silly as some of the strange things people get up to in Gulliver’s Travels – but what I’ve already written should be enough to show how well, how seriously and with what a great degree of intelligence and insight Butler treated them. The same goes for another major theme of the book, namely the fact that the Erewhonians had banned and destroyed all machines after a philosopher had predicted that they would take over the world. But here again, Butler presents the Erewhonians’ case so convincingly that we’re left wondering whether they might not have been right after all. He uses Darwin’s ideas on natural selection, combined with some very intelligent philosophical speculation on the nature of consciousness, intelligence and life, and some useful insights into the relationship between men and machines, to present quite a convincing case for the possibility that machines may one day become the dominant life-form on Earth, so that “we rank no higher in comparison with them, than the beasts of the field with ourselves” (p.221,2). And all this at a time in which the pinnacle of technical achievement was the steam engine! What would Butler have said about our current state of dependency on machines?

In chapter 15, ‘The Musical Banks’, Butler delivers some biting satire on the hypocrisy of ‘respectable’ organised religion, and perhaps especially that of the Church of England. He shows the Erewhonians indulging in totally meaningless rituals which are nothing but a hypocritical pretence. These very negative views on organised religion do not, however, imply that he doesn’t believe in some sort of a God and some sort of an ‘other world’, or that he has anything against pure religion itself:

[…] all countries have, and have had, a law of the land, and also another law, which, though professedly more sacred, has far less effect on their daily life and actions. It seems as though the need for some law over and above, and sometimes even conflicting with, the law of the land, must spring from something that lies deep down in man’s nature; indeed, it is hard to think that man could ever have become man at all, but for the gradual evolution of a perception that though this world looms so large when we are in it, it may seem a little thing when we have got away from it. When man had grown to the perception that in the everlasting Is-and-Is-Not of nature, the world and all that it contains, including man, is at the same time both seen and unseen, he felt the need of two rules of life, one for the seen, and the other for the unseen side of things. For the laws affecting the seen world he claimed the sanction of seen powers; for the unseen (of which he knows nothing save that it exists and is powerful) he appealed to the unseen power (of which, again, he knows nothing save that it exists and is powerful) to which he gives the name of God. […] perhaps the religious systems of all countries, are now more or less of an attempt to uphold the unfathomable and unconscious instinctive wisdom of millions of past generations, against the comparatively shallow, consciously reasoning, and ephemeral conclusions drawn from that of the last thirty or forty. The saving feature of the Erewhonian Musical Bank system […] was that while it bore witness to the existence of a kingdom that is not of this world, it made no attempt to pierce the veil that hides it from human eyes. It is here that almost all religions go wrong. Their priests try to make us believe that they know more about the unseen world than those whose eyes are still blinded by the seen, can ever know—forgetting that while to deny the existence of an unseen kingdom is bad, to pretend that we know more about it than its bare existence is no better. (p.146,3)

Butler’s religion could be called mystical, and his God is an unknowable one, which, as far as I’m concerned, puts him way above the level of the average naively believing churchgoer (insofar, that is, as the average churchgoer actually believes what he claims to believe!). He also makes some intelligent comments on the evolution of religion together with other aspects of human culture, recognising that man could never “have become man at all” (i.e. developed into what he is today) without the development of some sort of religious consciousness. He isn’t satisfied, however, with the obvious explanation that this religious consciousness offered some sort of evolutionary advantage in the struggle for resources (for instance the fact that people who believe in an afterlife are more likely to be brave or to offer themselves up for the community), an explanation which in itself says nothing about whether religion is a good or bad thing. It seems to go without saying for him that the fact that man has developed into what he is today is a good thing and therefore that this religious consciousness must also be a good thing. So far we’ve really only been talking about whether religion is useful for society, but Butler also falls into the trap of thinking that because so many people have believed in something (“the unfathomable and unconscious instinctive wisdom of millions of past generations”), then there must be some truth behind their belief, in fact more than can be found in the more recent, rational ways of trying to understand the world (“the comparatively shallow, consciously reasoning, and ephemeral conclusions drawn from that of the last thirty or forty”).

Another important theme of the book is conformity, a quality much prized by the Erewhonians:

When I talked about originality and genius […] and said that original thought ought to be encouraged, I had to eat my words at once. […] A man’s business, they hold, is to think as his neighbours do, for Heaven help him if he thinks good what they count bad. And really it is hard to see how the Erewhonian theory differs from our own, for the word “idiot” only means a person who forms his opinions for himself. (p.189,3)

Having just witnessed the trial of a man accused of pulmonary consumption and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, he says:

I confess that I felt rather unhappy when I got home, and thought more closely over the trial that I had just witnessed. For the time I was carried away by the opinion of those among whom I was. They had no misgivings about what they were doing. There did not seem to be a person in the whole court who had the smallest doubt but that all was exactly as it should be. This universal unsuspecting confidence was imparted by sympathy to myself, in spite of all my training in opinions so widely different. So it is with most of us: that which we observe to be taken as a matter of course by those around us, we take as a matter of course ourselves. And after all, it is our duty to do this, save upon grave occasion. (p.119,0)

That last sentence, in which Butler claims (apparently seriously) that the general human tendency to copy the opinions of those around one – i.e. to conform – is actually a duty in most circumstances, reveals a conservative side to his nature which can often be observed alongside his more radical tendencies. There often seems to be a certain tension between the strange and often radical ideas he expresses in his book and a desire to continue to be seen as a respectable member of English society. In his preface to the second edition (1872) he states:

I have been held by some whose opinions I respect to have denied men’s responsibility for their actions. He who does this is an enemy who deserves no quarter. I should have imagined that I had been sufficiently explicit, but have made a few additions to the chapter on Malcontents, which will, I think, serve to render further mistake impossible. (p.30,3)

The following passage forms part of these additions:

[…] it seems to me that there is no unfairness in punishing people for their misfortunes, or rewarding them for their sheer good luck: it is the normal condition of human life that this should be done, and no right-minded person will complain of being subjected to the common treatment. […] What is the offence of a lamb that we should rear it, and tend it, and lull it into security, for the express purpose of killing it? Its offence is the misfortune of being something which society wants to eat, and which cannot defend itself. This is ample. Who shall limit the right of society except society itself? And what consideration for the individual is tolerable unless society be the gainer thereby? Wherefore should a man be so richly rewarded for having been son to a millionaire, were it not clearly provable that the common welfare is thus better furthered? We cannot seriously detract from a man’s merit in having been the son of a rich father without imperilling our own tenure of things which we do not wish to jeopardise; if this were otherwise we should not let him keep his money for a single hour; we would have it ourselves at once. For property is robbery, but then, we are all robbers or would-be robbers together, and have found it essential to organise our thieving, as we have found it necessary to organise our lust and our revenge. Property, marriage, the law; as the bed to the river, so rule and convention to the instinct; and woe to him who tampers with the banks while the flood is flowing. (p.120,1)

I, for one, find it difficult to decide whether Butler is being entirely serious here. On the surface he is, and I can imagine his more conservative readership taking all of the above at face value, but am I mistaken in reading a very different message between the lines? Can the obviously intelligent person who’s been so critical of his own society and thrown so much doubt on things taken for granted by practically everyone really mean what he says here? Isn’t he exaggerating just a little bit, going just slightly too far in his enthusiastic approval of the current state of things, and thereby sending a message to anyone willing to receive it that his conservatism is just a convenient pretence set up for his own protection? Or is it just that the more conservative of his expressed opinions are so diametrically opposed to mine that I can’t imagine anyone of Butler’s obvious intelligence really meaning them? An interesting question…

I think the answer may well be that Butler really does have a distinctly conservative side to his nature. In one passage, for instance, he talks about certain radical Erewhonian ideas regarding the superiority of age or youth, and the suggestion that they take it in turns to run things. From the way in which he compares this in passing to the question of women’s rights in Britain, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that he finds that idea just as ridiculous:

They have another plan about which they are making a great noise and fuss, much as some are doing with women’s rights in England. A party of extreme radicals have professed themselves unable to decide upon the superiority of age or youth. […] They say that each age should take it turn in turn about, week by week, one week the old to be topsawyers, and the other the young, drawing the line at thirty-five years of age; but they insist that the young should be allowed to inflict corporal chastisement on the old, without which the old would be quite incorrigible. (p.180,1)

Chapters 26 and 27, The Views of an Erewhonian Prophet Concerning the Rights of Animals and The Views of an Erewhonian Philosopher Concerning the Rights of Vegetables, both added in the 1901 edition, also reveal a lot about Butler. In spite of saying at one point that “many nations [go without animal food] and seem none the worse, and even in flesh-eating countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, the poor seldom see meat from year’s end to year’s end.” (p.232,2), he seems to basically assume that it’s common sense, i.e. that it should be obvious to any right-minded person, that eating meat is a good idea, that not doing so is detrimental to one’s health, and that only dry academic arguments and idle theorising, completely devoid of common sense, could ever persuade anyone to become a vegetarian. He uses the question of meat-eating to make a more general point about the benefits of common sense and the traditional way of doing things, as opposed to new-fangled ideas thought up by impractical intellectuals with nothing better to do. He starts with:

It will be seen from the foregoing chapters that the Erewhonians are a meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose, and quick to offer up common sense at the shrine of logic, when a philosopher arises among them, who carries them away through his reputation for especial learning, or by convincing them that their existing institutions are not based on the strictest principles of morality. (p.227,0)

He goes on to say:

Some two thousand five hundred years ago the Erewhonians were still uncivilised […] They had no schools or systems of philosophy, but by a kind of dog-knowledge did that which was right in their own eyes and in those of their neighbours; the common sense, therefore, of the public being as yet unvitiated, crime and disease were looked upon much as they are in other countries. But with the gradual advance of civilisation and increase in material prosperity, people began to ask questions about things that they had hitherto taken as matters of course, and one old gentleman, who had great influence over them […] took it into his head to disquiet himself about the rights of animals — a question that so far had disturbed nobody. […] Being maintained at the public expense, he had ample leisure, and not content with limiting his attention to the rights of animals, he wanted to reduce right and wrong to rules, to consider the foundations of duty and of good and evil, and otherwise to put all sorts of matters on a logical basis, which people whose time is money are content to accept on no basis at all. As a matter of course, the basis on which he decided that duty could alone rest was one that afforded no standing-room for many of the old-established habits of the people. (p.227,7)

The above-mentioned philosopher demonstrates that animals are our fellow-creatures with whom we have much in common, and that if it’s wrong to kill and eat another human being then it must also be wrong to kill and eat an animal. The killing and eating of animals is forbidden by law, and that remains so for several centuries even though most people seem to continue with their old carnivorous habits either secretly or by devious means. Eventually a certain professor of botany demonstrates that the differences between plants and animals are minimal, so that the killing and eating of plants must also be wrong, and by what could be described as a common sense backlash the old vegetarian laws are repealed:

Thus, after several hundred years of wandering in the wilderness of philosophy, the country reached the conclusions that common sense had long since arrived at. (p.242,2)

He concludes:

One would have thought that the dance they had been led by the old prophet […] would have made the Erewhonians for a long time suspicious of prophets […]; but so engrained in the human heart is the desire to believe that some people really do know what they say they know, and can thus save them from the trouble of thinking for themselves, that in a short time would-be philosophers and faddists became more powerful than ever, and gradually led their countrymen to accept all those absurd views of life, some account of which I have given in my earlier chapters. (p.242,4)

While making the very valid point that people should learn to think for themselves rather than blindly trust ‘the experts’, Butler also shows that for him the very idea that animals might have rights is obviously nonsensical – just as much, I suspect, as the idea that women might be entitled to the same rights as men. I wonder what he thought about the right to self-determination of the original inhabitants of the British colonies, or, if he was alive today, what he would have thought of gay rights?!

I imagine that Erewhon was generally perceived in Victorian Britain as an amusing little book which offers much food for thought, in which Butler plays with ideas and makes fun of the society he lives in, but I think it deserves to be taken slightly more seriously. Butler reveals himself to be a philosopher at least as much as a satirist, and you don’t have to look far beneath the surface of his fantastic travel tales to find him contemplating questions of free will and determinism, morality and responsibility, and even the nature of time. Even if they’re often balanced by an equal dose of conservatism, he presents some genuinely radical ideas which remain as interesting now as they were in 1872.

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Details:

author Samuel Butler
title Erewhon
first published 1872-1901
language English
read 30/08/2013 – 09/09/2013

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