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…
Often, the book consists of pure satire which might well have come straight out of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, for instance when the professor says:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Having just witnessed the trial of a man accused of pulmonary consumption and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, he says:
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:
The following passage forms part of these additions:
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:
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:
He goes on to say:
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:
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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