Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, written in 1931, presents a future in which everyone (well, almost everyone) is happy.  Five hundred plus years from now earth is ruled by ten World Controllers, the executives of the World State.  Stability has been achieved via control of reproduction, psychological conditioning, and careful management of information.  Members of each of the five castes are trained and indoctrinated from before birth to engage in only those activities appropriate to their caste.  Science has been whittled down to technology, and the arts have been replaced with propaganda disguised as entertainment.  Actions that threaten the stability of the existing order result in warnings, and, absent improvement, in exile.

None of this sounds felicitous to we early twenty-first century Westerners, who have  been conditioned to value not stability but freedom and independence.  Still, the World State has apparently achieved its goal of making people happy.   Everyone is given work appropriate to his or her abilities.  There is an abundance of material goods and plenty of diversions, from Obstacle Golf to the feelys (like movies, only tactual as well as visual).   Everyone enjoys the pleasures of constant consumption—clothes, travel, sport, and entertainment.  No one ever has to wait for more than a short time before his or her desires (especially sexual desires) are gratified.  Whenever a person is  troubled, he or she takes a dose of soma,  a drug that banishes all unhappiness.   Mustapha Mond (one of the World Controllers and a defender of the existing order) describes soma as having “All of the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” (p. 36, Bantam Classic Edition)  

To make certain that happiness reigns, every imaginable problem has been eliminated or controlled. Unpleasant relationships with one’s parents can’t occur if there are no parents; reproduction takes place in the laboratory, gestation occurs in a bottle, and children are raised in conditioning centers.  Marital problems can’t occur since there is no marriage; everyone is promiscuous, and attachment to a member of the opposite sex is frowned on as antisocial.  The twin plagues of decrepitude and death have been tamed, the first by eliminating all physiological signs of age so that even sexagenarians about to die “had the appearance of childish girls,” the second by training:

“Death conditioning begins at eighteen months.  Every tot spends two mornings a week in a Hospital for the Dying.  All the best toys are kept there, and they get chocolate cream on death days.  They learn to take dying as a matter of course.” (p. 110)

All of this social engineering is in the service of happiness, which in turn is in the service of stability.  The aim is to make everyone prefer those things that contribute to  the established order.  As the Director of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center puts it, “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.” (p. 10)

So, if what people want is happiness, wouldn’t this be a perfect society?  To Huxley, the happiness comes at too great a cost.  That cost is evident in a conversation between Mustapha Mond and the Savage, who, having grown up on a reservation in New Mexico, is an outsider critical of the current order.  The Savage asks, why is Shakespeare outlawed?  He’s so much better than the feelys.  Mond argues, “You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art.  We’ve sacrificed the art.” (p. 150)  The same goes for science:  “Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy.” (p. 153)  And then there is religion: “God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness.  You must make your choice.  Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness.”  (p. 159)  Besides, who needs the consolations that God provides if there is lifelong youth and prosperity?

The type of happiness achieved by the World State is obviously shallow, consisting entirely of  enjoyable moods and frequent pleasures.  For Huxley, not only is this happiness not worth the loss of art, science, and religion, it also isn’t worth the loss of freedom.  At one point, the Savage interrupts distribution of soma to a group of Deltas (the next-to-lowest caste), trying to convince them to stop drugging themselves and become free instead.  They stare at him dumbly, then charge him when he has the audacity to throw boxes of soma out the window.

Though among Americans freedom may surpass happiness as a cultural icon, plenty of us, like the Deltas, enslave ourselves to whatever we think will make us happy.  I found the Delta’s lack of maturity more troubling.  Exasperated by their resistance, the Savage asks, “Do you like being babies?”  And it’s not just the Deltas but everyone who is a baby.  Free of commitments, failures, or concern over mortality, the new worlders seek only childish pleasure.  The Savage encounters immaturity even in a ward for the dying:

“Faces still fresh and unwithered (for senility galloped so hard that it had no time to age the cheeks—only the heart and brain) turned as they passed.  Their progress was followed by the blank incurious eyes of second infancy.  The Savage shuddered as he looked.” (p. 135)

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians.  “When I became an adult, I put away childish things.”  There seems little to recommend a happiness that never achieves adulthood.