What's the Use? by Robin Phillips

What's the Use?

In Aldous Huxley's dystopian classic Brave New World, thereis a scene where "the Director" is giving students a tour of a nursery designed to produce ideal humans. At one point he pauses to clarify why hatred of flowers is being programmed into the lower classes. He explains that love of nature serves no practical purpose in the modern society: "Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes."

The word "gratuitous" is not a common term in modern vocabulary, and it tends only to be used in a pejorative sense, as when we say that a film has "gratuitous sex and violence." Yet the word comes from the Latin gratuitus, which means to give freely. Something is gratuitous if it is extra, gracious, and in abundance, beyond what is strictly necessary or useful.

The masterminds in Huxley's dystopia hated the love of nature precisely because of its gratuitousness—because it was inefficient in serving the machinery of the state. Although Brave New World is fictional, it offers extraordinary insight into the psychology behind real-world totalitarian regimes. A hallmark of twentieth-century experiments in utopia was the belief that man's aesthetic faculties should be channeled to useful ends, and that works of imagination and beauty should be tools serving political goals. This is one of the reasons Communist officials in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did not seek out only political dissenters to send to prison camps, but also artists and intellectuals.

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Robin Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King's College, London, and is currently working on a Master's in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.


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