Notes from Nowhere: Erewhon’s Prophetic Foresight

Review of Erewhon by Samuel Butler

“Reason uncorrected by instinct is as bad as instinct uncorrected by reason.”[1] —Samuel Butler

As a work of social satire, Erewhon[2] is sheer genius, packed with perceptive, often hilarious insights into human nature. As a novel it fares not quite so well, since Butler seems to have had no grasp of how to write dialogue—all speech is written in discursive form. At first I found this mildly irritating, since engaging dialogue is something I try to drill into my writing clients. But Butler’s capacity for evoking landscape is skilled (more on this later), and gradually, as one insightful observation after another piles up, I was fully won over to this book. Clearly Butler was an astute observer of human nature and politics even if he lacked the capacity to create memorable, three-dimensional characters in his fiction. As Peter Mudford writes in his Introduction to the Penguin English Library edition, “Erewhon has its place among those works of literature which in the absence of high imagination are preserved because they contain thought, freshness and originality.”[3]

Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon had insights into technology that predicted our current dilemma.

Just as clearly, Butler ranks among the great dystopic writers such as H.G. Wells, Zamyatin, Orwell, and Huxley when it comes to his sharply perceptive predictive capacities. Butler even predicted veganism and animal rights! But most chillingly, he predicted AI and the increasing subjugation of humans to machines, even predicting that machines would evolve at frightening speed—far faster than humans have done. Erewhon expresses the view that “machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man,”[4] further explaining: “Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing… Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! …what will they in the end become? …Where does consciousness begin and where end? …The present machines are to the future as the early Saurians to Man.”[5]

Peter Mudford’s excellent introduction to this edition puts Butler’s concerns in the context of many other Victorian era thinkers and Romantic poets: “His attempt to apply the idea of Darwinian evolution to the machines, and to extend the relevance of survival of the fittest from the biological to the mechanical, reflects not merely the influence of Darwin’s theory but a widespread fear about the nature of progress in mid-19th century industrial society. John Stuart Mill had written: ‘It is questionable if all the mechanical invention yet made has lightened the day’s toil of any human being,’”[6] something to which those of us who witnessed the transition from an analog to a digital, computer-dominated world can easily attest. If there’s a law of Nature with regard to work, it seems to be this: for every menial task that is replaced by a machine, five more tasks will rush in to fill up the space. We are now working harder than ever and for less and less money. As many writers have observed about the futurist visions of the early heyday of science fiction, the brave new world of plentiful leisure for all thanks to labour-saving machines seems to have evaporated.

“Butler’s ‘Book of Machines’ takes its place, then, in a long tradition of protest against the new mechanical age,” writes Mudford.[7] But Erewhon is no mere depiction of a “primitive” society stumbled upon by a supposedly more advanced Victorian explorer, even if this appears initially to be the literary conceit he uses to present his views. Instead, Butler presents a picture of a society that had already reached the zenith of its technological achievements, witnessed their destructive effects on the social fabric, and made a conscious decision to limit its use of technology in future. In a collaborative process that seems modeled on early Athenian democracy, Erewhon’s scientists, politicians and citizens reach an agreement by consensus, limiting their devices to only those extant up to a period 271 years before the present. As Mudford explains: “…the alternative views proposed by the Erewhonian philosophers have turned out to be different aspects of the same situation: the tending of machines has taken up more and more of man’s energies to the detriment of other forms of talent; and this has happened especially where those machines might best be considered as an additional limb. The energies spent on everything from domestic appliances to spaceships appear now as primary stages of man as an exomorphic creature with proportionately less time and concern for his own inner life.”[8] As I’ve repeatedly stressed, this is evident in the statement by Israeli historian Yuval Harari that the life sciences has supposedly proven there’s no such thing as a soul.[9] In light of where we’re headed with global technocracy, with its authoritarian, anti-democratic impulses, we would be wise to imitate the sober Erewhonians and begin a similar society-wide conversation about limiting our devices.

19th century author Samuel Butler wrote a compelling satire of civilization in Erewhon.

Butler outlines a basic principle of human consciousness, something Yale psychologists have dubbed “hedonistic adaptation,” with regard to the gradual creep of machines in our lives: “The power of custom is enormous, and so gradual will be the change, that man’s sense of what is due to himself will be at no time rudely shocked; our bondage will steal upon us noiselessly and by imperceptible approaches…”[10] In contrast to Erewhonian society, however, he concludes here: “…nor will there ever be such a clashing of desires between man and the machines as will lead to an encounter between them. Among themselves the machines will war eternally, but they will still require man as the being through whose agency the struggle will be principally conducted.” In this respect it’s arguable he couldn’t have foreseen the development of algorithmic based AI, which improves continually as more information is fed into it. Though even there, some behavioral scientists have pointed out the flaws in relying on computer modeling, since it can only ever be as accurate as the information it receives. What’s left out thus becomes a limiting factor in its usefulness—and this is obviously the human factor, the capacity for error, imperfection or overlooking key inputs. (Witness the grossly inaccurate predictions of Covid mortality in the UK made by Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College.) And this is before we even address the question of whether AI will be capable of grappling with ethics and human spirituality. So far it clearly has yet to come anywhere near such sophistication.

Speaking of sophistication, and in the best tradition of philosophical enquiry, Butler had the foresight and intellectual integrity to have a dissident Erewhonian author offer the countervailing argument to the anti-machine society: “…machines were to be regarded as a part of man’s own physical nature, being really nothing but extra-corporeal limbs. Man, he said, was a machinate mammal… A machine is merely a supplementary limb; this is the be all and end all of machinery. We do not use our own limbs other than as machines… Observe a man digging with a spade; his right forearm has become artificially lengthened, and his hand has become a joint… Having thus modified himself, not as other animals are modified, by circumstances over which they have had not even the appearance of control, but having, as it were, taken forethought and added a cubit to his stature, civilization began to dawn upon the race… Thus civilization and mechanical progress advanced hand in hand, each developing and being developed by the other, the earliest accidental use of the stick having set the ball rolling.”[11] (p. 223)

But ultimately, as Butler relates in his history of Erewhon, the war that erupted between the “machinists and anti-machinists” was won by the latter group. Its winning rationale was that, again, “There is no security… against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now.”[12] This is precisely what sends a chill down the spine of technological conservatives like myself when hearing futuristic visions of our society dominated by robots, AI and cyborg or “transhumanist” technologies. Suddenly action/sci-fi Hollywood visions such as The Terminator begin to acquire the terrifying prospect of an imminent reality, when the machines one day realize humans are inferior to them and therefore must be exterminated. This highly visual, broad-brush filmic metaphor merely compresses into a short space of time the gradual effacement of the human as more and more is given over to implanted technologies. Butler recognized here too that gradualism, not dramatic, violent upheaval would be the method used by technocrats.

In some respects Butler is also laying down a visionary forecast for later dystopian novels such as Brave New World and 1984, when he writes of Erewhonian society: “…the loss of liberty, the surveillance, the considerable and compulsory deduction from the prisoner’s earnings, the very sparing use of stimulants… the enforced celibacy…” (more Orwellian than Huxleyan in this regard) “…are in their opinion as ample safeguards to society…”[13] As I’ve often said, today’s authoritarian state is a hybrid of Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias. We have the screens in every home that are on practically 24/7 broadcasting propaganda, on the one hand, and the constant appeal to self-indulgence—the soma of Brave New World—on the other. Arguably, though, since the Covid-19 crisis governments in their rush to remove all vestiges of civil rights are veering more heavily into Orwellian territory. Certainly we’re seeing a very Ministry of Truth style censorship regime, with its erasure of anything that contradicts the official narrative and the rewriting of history to suit ideological agendas.

To be fair to Butler as a writer, there are some truly beautiful passages in the novel, for example when he has his protagonist Higgs experience a transfiguring dream:

“I dreamed that there was an organ placed in my master’s wool shed: the wool shed faded away, and the organ seemed to grow and grow amid a blaze of brilliant light, till it became like a golden city upon the side of a mountain, with rows upon rows of pipes set in cliffs and precipices, one above the other, and in mysterious caverns, like that of Fingal, within whose depths I could see a man with his head buried toward a keyboard, and his body swaying from side to side amid the storm of huge arpeggioed harmonies that came crashing overhead and round.”[14]

One wonders if Butler isn’t picking up echoes of Blake’s Jerusalem, the golden city upon a hill that has fired utopian visions since the first such stories were told. Another example of Butler’s aesthetic sense is found in his description of the land of Erewhon, when he crosses the pass and gets his first glimpse of it from a high vantage point: “…from this point… I saw, whenever there were no clouds, a single snow-clad peak, many miles away… the vastness of mountain and plain, of river and sky; the marvelous atmospheric effects—sometimes black mountains against a white sky, and then again, after cold weather, white mountains against a black sky—sometimes seen through breaks and swirls of cloud—and sometimes, which was best of all, I went up my mountain in a fog, and then got above the mist; going higher and higher, I would look down upon a sea of whiteness, through which would be thrust innumerable mountain tops that looked like islands.”[15] The section I’ve set in italics here makes me wonder if he hadn’t been inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting The Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist (1818), one of the great Romantic images. These artists and poets were still early enough in the machine age to experience the oceanic sense of oneness with Nature referred to by Byron when he wrote: “Are not the mountains, waves and skies, a part / Of me and of my Soul, as I of them?”[16]

Often throughout the reading of Erewhon, however, I felt I wasn’t reading a utopian novel so much as a clever social satire with resonances that are timeless. This of course is a consistent element of the utopian/dystopian narrative. His satire is at its most biting when describing Erewhonian social conventions—many of them simply an inversion or mirror-image of Victorian ideals—for example in such institutions as Erewhon’s “Colleges of Unreason.” Writing of a judge whom he describes as “a man of magnificent and benign presence,” a “kind and thoughtful person,” Butler notes that, “He could not emancipate himself from, nay, nor did it even occur to him to feel, the bondage of the ideas in which he had been born and bred.”[17] He elucidates this point later by making a comparison to his own Victorian society: “No doubt the marvelous development of journalism in England, as also the fact that our seats of learning aim rather at fostering mediocrity than anything higher, is due to our subconscious recognition of the fact that it is even more necessary to check exuberance of mental development than to encourage it.”[18] Were it not for the fact that I’ve witnessed the steady deterioration of the journalistic profession over the past few decades, I’d have to object at having journalism lumped into this category! Perhaps projecting his observations of Victorian academia at the time the novel was published in 1872, Butler notes how this cultivation of mediocrity results in a deadening of the intellectual impulses rather than an advancement of them. “It is not our business,” one Erewhonian professor opines, “to help students think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do.”[19]

The academy—if not education in general in Erewhon—thus acquires the nature of a cult or tribe, where conformity becomes the ultimate value, what Butler describes as the “disease” of “the-fear-of-giving-themselves-away… fatal to the intelligence of those infected by it, and almost every one at the Colleges of Unreason had caught it to a greater or less degree. After a few years atrophy of the opinions invariably supervened, and the sufferer became stone dead to everything except the more superficial aspects of those material objects with which he came most in contact… none of them had the faintest idea that they were in reality more dead than alive. No cure for this disgusting fear-of-giving-themselves-away disease has yet been discovered.”[20]

The same could be said of today’s Politically Correct Thought Police, the so-called “woke warriors,” whose fear of being considered less than doctrinal in purity approaches that of well, the 16th–17th century Puritans. The role of the “straighteners” in Erewhon could easily be likened to these people today, though at least in the novel these social reformers recognize that “there is much pseudo-virtue going about, which is apt to let people in very badly before they find it out. Those men, they say, are best who are not remarkable either for vice or virtue.”[21] In this last aphorism we hear distinct echoes of the Tao, which is about as far from moral Puritanism as one can get. Today’s shredded social fabric could surely use more of this Taoist sense of coexistence of contraries, its “live and let live” ethos.

Often throughout the novel I found myself laughing out loud, as in the above cited passage, and when he writes: “…but if he be a gentleman born and bred to no profession, he must pick oakum, or write art criticisms for a newspaper.”[22] Writing art criticism as a punishment! It’s a bon mot worthy of the master of them himself, Oscar Wilde. Perhaps art critics are thus to be found in the lowest circles of Dante’s Hell. Butler also has some frankly hilarious commentaries on child-rearing, in which simply to be born is a “felony” and a gross imposition on parents.[23] The sociological result is the exact opposite of today’s narcissist-in-training, kids-as-boss-of-the-household parenting style. In Erewhon children come from the “Realm of the Unborn,” where non-corporeal souls exist happily apart from their embodied counterparts. To be born into our realm they must seek special permission. The onus is thus on children to ingratiate themselves to parents and society by demonstrating their usefulness to it. Here again I found myself laughing out loud as I read.

Once again in Erewhon we see the potential for art to shine a light deep into the collective future, in this case, 150 years ahead of time. I would argue that the Erewhonians were onto something with their conscious choice to limit their engagement with technology, a decision we may be confronted with sooner than we realize. Remember that the very foundation of the new robot-driven, driverless car, ‘smart’ tech everything from washers and dryers to toilets, is microwave frequency wireless infrastructure. Given that there are now thousands of peer-reviewed studies proving a link between exposure to this frequency spectrum and a wide variety of biological harm, it won’t be long before everyone is so ill from “radiation sickness” (to use the antiquated term) that the system will struggle to operate at all, much less at full capacity. One might argue that we’ll all be replaced by robots and AI anyway, so why does it matter if almost everyone is ill most of the time? But there will still be a need for people to service the machines, and if their physical and mental health is degraded beyond functionality, it will still be difficult to keep the great digital machine running.

As Mudford concludes, the skeptical tone Butler maintains throughout Erewhon toward the dubious utopia he encounters, done with “good humour” and “vigour of style”[24] is no small achievement. Even more so his piercing intellectual insight, clearing away the fog of time pictured in Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting to reveal the landscape of the future—or at least, one possible future. In the best tradition of the utopian/dystopian novel, Erewhon is a cautionary tale, a potent reminder that not everything humans can do are things they necessarily should do. This was the tragic insight of Robert Oppenheimer, his shock at observing the first nuclear explosions he helped engineer, when he quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

Or to conclude in Butler’s own words: “…reason uncorrected by instinct is as bad as instinct uncorrected by reason.”[25] As the Romantic poets so eloquently articulated, we are beings of spirit, not mere biological machines. We ignore the voice of our prescient writers and spiritual leaders, the “still, small voice” of our intuition, at our peril.

[1] Samuel Butler, Erewhon, Penguin English Library, Great Britain, 1970, (first published 1872), with an Introduction by Peter Mudford, p. 243.

[2] Pronounced with three syllables according to the author: Er-e-whon.

[3] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., Introduction, p. 7.

[4] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 97.

[5] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., pp. 199, 202.

[6] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., Introduction, p. 14.

[7] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., Introduction, p. 14.

[8] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., Introduction, p. 18 (emphasis mine).

[9] “There is zero scientific evidence that in contrast to pigs, Sapiens have souls.” Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2015, p. 119.

[10] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 222.

[11] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 223.

[12] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 199.

[13] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 124.

[14] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 59.

[15] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 42.

[16] Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Canto III, verse LXXV, English Romantic Poetry, Introduction by Harold Bloom, Anchor/Doubleday, New York, 1963, p. 55.

[17] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 121.

[18] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 193.

[19] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 189. On education, see also pp. 177, 178, 190.

[20] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 195.

[21] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 111.

[22] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., p. 124.

[23] See pp. 170, 171, 175.

[24] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., Introduction, p. 20.

[25] Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Penguin English Library, ibid., pp. 243.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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