Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis
Chapter 17 Summary
Once Bernard and Helmholtz are taken away, John and Mustapha Mond are free to continue their debate, this time speaking on the theme of God. John, who has only read Shakespeare, has a very limited understanding of Christian theology, but Mustapha Mond, who has access to a library of books that the State calls "pornographic," has read a great deal about various religions and come to the conclusion that it's possible to be independent of God. Men have changed, he says, and the endless youth and prosperity they've constructed for themselves allows them not to think of or to even be aware of the existence of God. Consequently, God manifests as an absence, in which the general public is free to do whatever it wants.
John protests to this idea, citing passages from King Lear that would seem to suggest that God is manipulating all things, but this outdated allusion has little to no relevance in this new world. As Mustapha Mond says, the philosophers of the past failed to account for them, the State and all its citizens. None of the great thinkers of the past considered the possibility of this particular future, which makes it easy for people like Mustapha Mond to dismiss their theories. As a result, he has no real need of nobility, heroism, or any of the things John values. These all lead to suffering and discomfort, which the State wants to avoid at all costs. John insists that this is what he wants for himself, however, and Mustapha Mond, unable to change this, sends John somewhere where he can torture himself all he wants.
Chapter 17 Analysis
The Bible. Mustapha Mond shows John a copy of this book, which John has never read, but doesn't quote it or delve too deeply into its theology. Instead, he speaks generally of God and religion, using the other books in his library to prove his points.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare. When Mustapha Mond shows John his library full of important theology and philosophy books, John alludes to but doesn't quote the following lines:
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (I.v.166-167)
He thinks philosophers have a limited view of the world, a position that Mustapha Mond happens to espouse, though for different reasons.
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. A Christian devotional, perhaps the second most popular one after the Bible. Originally written in Latin, it has since been translated into many languages. It's hard to imagine that this or any of the books in Mustapha Mond's library actually survived the centuries since they were published, but the reader is asked to suspend their disbelief so Huxley can make his arguments.
King Lear by William Shakespeare. When trying to prove the existence of God to Mustapha Mond, John quotes these lines:
"The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes." (V.iii.203-206)
"Thou hast spoken right, 'tis true;
The wheel is come full circle: I am here." (V.iii.207-208)
The former is delivered by Edgar and the latter by Edmund, Edgar's illegitimate brother. Both of these passages indicate that God is still very much in power and that He is observing, punishing, and manipulating people, just as He always has. Nevertheless, Mustapha Mond is unconvinced of God's continued relevance, and John effectively loses the argument, though he would appear to get what he wants: the freedom to suffer.
François-Pierre-Gonthier Maine de Biran (1766 - 1824). A French philosopher who has more or less slipped into obscurity.
John Henry "Cardinal" Newman (1801 - 1890). A 19th century cardinal and theologian who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. He's a candidate for sainthood, but won't be canonized unless the Catholic Church can prove that he has performed two miracles after his death. Mustapha Mond quotes a passage from one of his works that includes the lines, "We are not our own masters. We are God's property." Mustapha Mond, of course, doesn't agree and asserts that human beings are now independent of God.
Othello by William Shakespeare. When John defends the idea of suffering, he quotes the lines:
"If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have wakened death…" (II.i.170-171)
These lines express Othello's desire that there be regular intervals of turmoil so that there can also be regular intervals of happiness and peace. This is what John desires, and Mustapha Mond will, if not give this kind of existence to him, then allow him to cry and create it for himself.
Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare. When John tries to argue that value isn't relative, he quotes the lines:
"It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein 'tis precious of itself
As in the prizer." (II.ii)
Mustapha Mond balks, thinking this too absolute an idea, and then explains that there's no reason to value goodness or virtue or to assume that so-called "vices" are evils rather than mere tools to achieve happiness. John, for all his talk of freedom and happiness, still sees the world largely in black and white, espousing an austere sense of morality that even people in today's world would find overly restrictive. Mustapha Mond finds it ludicrous and won't allow it to disrupt the social order.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Composed of the author's Gilford Lectures on natural theology, the book consists of his theories on religion and science, the latter of which had been overlooked in academia at the time. James believed that direct religious experience was as essential part of the human condition and argued that "religious happiness is happiness." Mond, however, believes that happiness is happiness and that humanity has no real need of religion.
Religion. This theme has been explored in previous chapters via the Solidarity Services and the figure of the Arch-Community Songster, who is here likened to Cardinal Newman. When one considers these religious experiences in tandem with the philosophy that Mustapha Mond elucidates, it becomes abundantly clear that this brave new world has borrowed selectively from theological texts and in so doing reduced religion to a collective experience not unlike that of a cult. In their world, there is no angry God judging the sinners and heathens. There is no sin and, consequently, no reason to punish people. There is only power, and "religion" is just a tool that the State uses to consolidate its power.
Suffering. In part because he has spent his adolescence reading Shakespeare and in part because he grew up in difficult circumstances, John glorifies suffering, thinking of it as the highest virtue, which he's desperately attempting to achieve. Naively, he believes that he can escape this "brave new world" and purify himself of the base pleasures and vices he's enjoyed or witnessed there. Unfortunately, he won't be able to, and we'll see what comes of that effort in the final chapter.