A Socratic Question

Back in high school, during a Socratic seminar for senior English, a question was raised. Specifically, that day concerned George Orwell’s classic, 1984. The seminar was a forum for the class to discuss points of interest within the literature through a Socratic questioning process. The purpose of such an exercise was to promote critical thinking and open-ended discussion about the salience of the ideas within the book.

Unfortunately, much of the class was less than enthused to bring their own words and arguments to bear during the course of the seminar. Most sat quietly and listened to the few who would speak on a weekly basis. As it was this day, specifically with myself and my good friend sharing the floor for much of the time. I raised a question, having my personal answer to it lightly prepared:

“In the world of 1984, will the Party ever be overthrown?”

The inquiry seemed simple enough. Yes the Party will be overthrown, or no the Party will not be overthrown (the Party’s continued existence the focal point, but with the proles foreshadowed rebellion in mind, i.e. an overthrow). There were many potential reasons for both arguments, that is why I believed it to be a good question to ask the group. Having an idea for what my answer would be, I let the question linger and opened the floor for others to weigh in.

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Expecting his input, but not his answer, my good friend responded yes, the Party will be overthrown eventually. He believed it came down to the innate power of human nature within Man, Man’s ultimate desire for freedom, etc. Ultimately, the proles would rise up against the oppressive regime and restore balance to society, as human history had shown time and time again. As we all know, throughout the storied course of human civilization, empires rise and fall. As my good friend believed to be the case with the Party, in Orwell’s fictional dystopian society. The dark side of human nature got us into the mess, and the good side of human nature would be that light to guide mankind back out of the darkness.

I accepted the argument, which I believed to be fair in many ways. However, I did not expect this answer from my friend (who I thought might agree with me) and thus was strangely more determined to counter the argument with my own, which was now bolstered by a new idea he brought to the table.

My own answer was a resounding no. The Party would never be overthrown, their position was truly unassailable.My argument was two-fold:

My argument was two-fold:

1) Orwell wrote 1984 for many reasons, I think one of which was to meticulously construct the perfect dystopian empire, and a kind of warning. The Party – an indestructible force of evil, created by man and his institutions, which would oppress and destroy all sense of freedom within human civilization throughout the world. The surveillance, the never-ending wars, the torture, the revision and erasure of the past – all were the foundation for an everlasting dominion. It was a social commentary and a warning to mankind – don’t ever let things get to this point or it will all be over. My point being, Orwell created the Party to be a moral absolute, the perfect totalitarian force which had the means, unrealistic/fictional in nature, to be perpetual in its reign. That was the point. The bleak nature and pessimism permeated throughout the 1984 universe is meant to showcase this reality. The fact that The Party with all of its perfect resources and perfected indoctrination and perfect control, couldn’t actually exist in our reality was the crux – this fictional “Orwellian” dystopia was composed of the perfect elements of design, form, and function of an unbeatable entity. Thus, they could not be overthrown. Allowing for an inevitable and successful prole insurrection would severely harm the moral Orwell was trying to convey. (However, the really scary thought living longer and seeing more in today’s world – The Party really doesn’t seem so fictional anymore.)

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2) And as a direct counter to the argument in favor of human nature, simply put, the Party was in the process of successfully destroying human nature. In two ways, I believed the inherent good in human nature would become irrelevant within the world of 1984: through the Party’s ability to alter the past and break the human spirit. With the past being continuously rewritten, mankind would have nothing to compare the state of their current existence to, nothing to stoke the flames of rebellion. Winston and others his age are of the last generation to have vague memories of what it was like before the Party. Once they are dead, all self-referencing criterion to the past will be eliminated, with the Party’s master-crafted fiction there to replace it. Without that context, a large part of what empowers human nature would be destroyed – learning and experiencing from the past reality. Most significantly, the Party had the ability shatter the most powerful human emotion, love. Some would argue, and my friend did, that destroying human nature is simply impossible. As we see within the novel, completely breaking a human spirit is possible and it is monstrous. The human spirit is the indomitable force that has carried us through evolution, sentience, and all the things we have accomplished throughout human history. But with our sentience and “indomitable human spirit” comes free will and the capacity for great evil. With the right information (constant surveillance), conditions (Room 101), and dark genius (O’Brien) – any man can be broken, his love destroyed, his human spirit bent to whatever ideal or reality presented to him. And if one can be turned, with the perfect design and economy of resources, an entire society can be turned, and ultimately the entire world. Just as they had accomplished. And the obliteration of the past (which Man relies so heavily upon for emotional solidarity, nostalgia, and context) ensured The Party’s immortality.

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All of this was the result of the commentary on the darkest side of human nature and governance Orwell meant to convey – that of the most advanced, and unassailable, evil empire in human history. By the end, my friend and I could both agree his warning had been duly noted to us as the readers.

The first point was lightly prepared as my answer to my own question and the second point I theorized in the moment, in response to my friends’ line of thinking (that of human nature prevailing and of the intrinsic worth of the human soul/condition). Here I have written the basis, and fleshed out, the ideas presented in class. But what actually transpired in the classroom that day still inspires me today. Neither of us prepared for a full blown debate, the answers were more impromptu and instinctual, passionate in our beliefs. Back and forth, we argued our respective points, each bringing up ethos, pathos, logos and the relevant evidence we needed to prove what we were trying to say. The class, and our teacher, listened and looked on in silence and eager anticipation of what might come next. I could see it in their eyes when I paused long enough to survey the room. It doesn’t matter if you or anyone in class that day thought our analysis was right or wrong. What mattered was the flow of ideas, the critical thinking, the articulation of thought, the presentation of thoughts, and the respect we had for each others’ viewpoints and refutations. We had put on a show for the class. Truly, I didn’t know I was even capable of such a discussion. It was a tremendous moment for my self-confidence and my friendship with my opponent.

I learned two things: in everything, believe in your own thoughts, ideas, and actions while respecting and appreciating the minds of those around you; and always deal your mind, your instincts, your imagination, your truth, whatever it may be, with absolute sincerity. I think human interactions based upon these principles surely create, develop, and progress our cause.

I have changed; my answer to the question hasn’t changed. Given the circumstances in the novel, the Party is permanent. But I maintain hope in mankind, and the prevailing good of human nature. I have faith that an entity such as the Party will never be allowed to exist in our world.

 

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Freud and Jung, A Lunchtime Encounter

Freud: …I agree it is enticing, but it is Neverland.

Jung: Do you not know? One never dies in Neverland.

Freud: Except people die. They stop living.

Jung: You have me there. Seems to be a system in need of balance.

Freud: If you want to ignore that biological fact, you sir are a moron or a zealot. Or both.

Jung: But The Neverland we speak of is only partially about immortality dear Freud… That wish may also be my own projection, as I admit to have lusted after it. I think it is more about bringing the two worlds together: As above, so below my dear boy. A profoundly healing, paradigm-shaping stream in the Zeitgeist. One where we can reconnect to what it means to be Man, have an ancestry, be in dynamic symbiosis with one’s environment, and ultimately realizing that one creates reality.

And I have been both a zealot and a moron too. Both separately, and at the same time. Why, only see my treatises on the psychology of religion!

Freud: Why is returning to superstition progress? It merely gives man an excuse to be self-indulgent and abusive to his person.

Jung: Your words sting and betray a foul mood…. (chuckles). I would gander to say it is not superstition. A lot of the old ways were, but now the new physics and sciences are coming to meet halfway. The empiricism of this century might as well be the superstition of the former. How might you explain the train of coincidental events, meetings, situations, and people you and I have experienced since we decided to go skiing in these frosted Alps?

Freud: Chance.

Jung: That theory is unsatisfactory in the face of the data. You cannot explain it away with this or that social theory, or our very old friend chance. Just as with that young woman we met earlier: do you intend to explain away her dreaming of our conversation in the train station a fortnight ago?

Freud: There’s no orchestrator Carl. There never was.

Jung: You know coincidence is the rallying cry of rationalistic materialism. It is what one has left over from a theory that cannot explain everything, especially one whose expressed mission is just that! That is, to reduce the world of objects into matter and substance, measured and concretized. The human experience will not be bounded as such. I don’t believe in an orchestrator either. We are that conductor.

Freud: (puffs on pipe) Which is horrifying, I should think.

Jung: (draws on pipe) We yearn for a god outside ourselves, but will not listen to nor turn round and face the one chained within…

It is, I fear, as you say. It may be far more terrifying than some bearded patriarch roasting you for eternity in hell for having congress with your lover before ceremony. There is no one to save you or punish you, only yourself. A notion, simultaneously, bearing the most empowering news to the human race and at once casting us into the cold night of eternity.

Freud: So why are we all such brutes? Look at what stirs in Germany. Do you think men rational and capable of such a destiny?

Jung: Because sir, we struggle with our environment and our upbringing. We come in with nothing. Only our family to nurture, love, and teach us how to be in this unknown world full of self-sacrifice on the one end and cruelty on the other. Our food & drink, the social climate, classism, self-doubt, all this business of empathy, not knowing what the other is thinking or let alone feeling…..

Add to this the considerable fact that our parents and nurses, who raised us and gave us the best chance, hopefully better than they had, do not actually possess the slightest clue as to what is going on in this experience either. You are on your own. As a species we are still quite poor at raising our young. In fact, no biological species extant studied by the evolutionary biologists has seemed to have sorted it out. Many species’ only input is the process of birth itself.

Freud: (scoffs loudly)

Jung: Our forebearers at least go to the trouble to build us up or muddle us up, indeed often both. We come equipped with the best phylogenetic equipment they received from their parents, and so on and so forth. And so anon from the very loins of Adam I should think.

Freud: I am quite disappointed in the process if I am to be frank.

Jung: Doctor, by God we are hustling the best we can! With what we have available. I find it quite beautiful, like the sunset filtering through the misty Danube. It humbles as well as teaches, as when reaching the peak of a mount. To be present with one’s circumstances.

Freud: And yet look to the economy, to the western states, and never good enough it seems. Every solution creates more and more problems in this social organism. Russia has become a gunpowder drum set to spark alight.

Jung: (sipping wine thoughtfully) The glass is half-full though, in my honest opinion. All of this knowledge implies that one can create whatever wish they care to think and apply oneself towards. The more magnificent the idea the more work needed of course. You are so world-wearied friend, and yet, in your long years you have not tasted a fraction of the totality of what this human family has to offer.

Freud: The glass is half full for whom? (coughing violently, sipping cognac)

Jung: I know your ennui, I really do. It gnaws at this philosopher constantly. The cognac glass, as it were, is half-full for humanity.

Freud: My young colleague, is this not just self-soothing poetry?

Jung: I may confess to the membership of young upstarts a such. A new intelligentsia broaching into the realms of altered consciousness. Indeed many of the Germans and Americans, in the infantile field of psychological analysis, seek to go further. And many seekers were born into this twentieth century, coming of age right as the cycle begins to turn in the Ivory Tower.

Freud: With little to no substance nor truth? Except, perhaps, those damned Americans.

Jung: It is just so. I argue furiously just as much for myself Sigmund, to assuage all of my fears! About failure, and death, and my own hubris’ annihilation.

Freud: See Jung? That is tremendously unsatisfactory for me.

Jung: (inhales deeply) Bah! Enough with this mood fellow, I strive to be a sentimentalist.

Freud: Probably an easier way to live. It is a pleasant bias. And I’m being a bit contrary just to spite you friend, to be honest. And that’s a load of bollocks by the way…

Jung: So morose. Hell hath damned souls to this mental torment, yet undamned they are. Such melancholia in the spirit! This is good though, as yet I need a oppositional opinion to compensate for my very own proclivities.

Freud: My word! (chuckling) Adler and yourself have this grandiosity sometimes that causes me indigestion.

Jung: I am a guilty man when it comes to such realms. I love the Muse: the drama, the narrative, the uplifting transcendence that it arouses…

Freud: For you. Only for you.

Jung: Come now Freud, the life amid the masses may grow a bit moribund, mundane, ever morose, as we have discussed. Man craves a grand narrative, outside of himself, up and above his animal sufferings.

Freud: (loading more blend into his pipe bowl) Yes, as long as Man recalls that it has a time and a place. And that it is not always appropriate or appreciated.

Jung: I am curious though, what specifically makes you so sick about the grandiosity?

Freud: (stands up, dusts off waistcoat) I am afraid my friend, such a revelation will have to wait until tea. I am off to my appointment. Be well, and adieu monsieur.

Jung: And adieu… (sits back)