Last time I introduced the novel 1984 by George Orwell (pen name of Eric Blair) and mused about his innovative words and concepts and made a few allusions to some contemporary analogies. Today I would like to dive deeper into some personal philosophical themes that arose.
The first is privacy and its linkage to freedom. Perhaps being a child of the twentieth century, I see privacy as a personal good (under Security).1 The ancient Greek philosophers saw the quest for fame as futile and ultimately meaningless; the corollary then is that a degree of anonymity is valuable, particularly in larger societies where public recognition may impede freedom in action. The Orwellian vision of zero privacy and the control it entails is a patent evil. It seems to me that similarly social media such as Facebook impose some loss of freedom in exchange for dubious meaning of fabricated celebrity.
The second is truth – seemingly as subjective as beauty when controlled by the Party in 1984, but Orwell in fact poses the question for all of us. Is truth found in documents, newsprint, and on-line media, or in personal experience and memory? We have discussed how cultural reality is the most elusive of all levels of reality2, and I believe Orwell is warning us to verify societal truths with multiple sources of information, one’s memory, and careful reflection. In Winston’s words, “Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one,”3 “Sanity is not statistical,”4 and “The heresy of heresies was common sense.”5 The lesson is clear: independent thinking may be frowned upon, but we have a duty to ourselves to persist in it.
The third theme is suffering. Power for Orwell is the ability to make another person suffer. In the police state, even the higher-ups suffer for the collective power of the Party. Symbolically we must accept that suffering is the price of human existence, one of the fundamental principles of the universe. How we handle our particular suffering is the crux of the issue as so many great thinkers (e.g. Buddha, Jesus, Nietzsche, and Viktor Frankl) have taught us. Transcendence of suffering deprives circumstances of their power over us.
The last theme concerns the correct conduct of life. Within the framework of the police state, Winton’s girlfriend, Julia, creates a space for the life she wants. “Life as she saw it was quite simple. You wanted a good time; ‘they,’ meaning the Party, wanted to stop you having it; you broke the rules as best your could.”6 There can be not doubt – we must each choose our own life, whatever the obstacles; and happiness is ever a goal worth seeking. I would add meaning is also worth seeking whatever the hurdles.
In short, the four most important personal philosophical themes that arose in my mind on contemplating 1984 were privacy’s vital role in personal freedom, the nature of truth (especially societal reality), the meaning of suffering, and the conduct proper to an authentic life. I welcome readers to offer others or a critique of mine.
2See on this site Cultural Reality on November 21 and 23, 2018 and Current Reading: Fake News on December 14, 2018.
3Orwell, George, 1984. New American Library, New York, 1977. Page 80.
4Ibid., page 217.
5Ibid., page 80.
6Ibid., page 131.