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On #God: #Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and #Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy

posted Nov 5, 2013, 3:31 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

On God:
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy

By Peter Joseph Moons

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the future technological age is one where a governing political party employs technology to enforce its doctrine and keep citizens from deviating into heretical thought and action.  There is an overarching theme of a supreme being in this work, Big Brother, who is involved in the minutiae of the citizens’ existence.  To facilitate the maintenance of belief in Big Brother and English Socialism (INGSOC), the sole political Party, technology is used as a means of control.  As Neil Postman noted, “The source of the world's greatest narratives has been religion.”[1]  In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the narrative is that Big Brother loves the people and they owe him love and obedience in return.  In contrast, in Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes’ God is an “all-knowing, all-powerful”[2] creator who is “perfect and infinite.”[3]  The two narratives about the supreme being are nearly opposite.  In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the concepts of good and evil are infused with religious symbolism while the INGSOC Party uses technology to govern the population.  Thus, Orwell and Descartes treat the idea of a god and man’s relationship to god differently.


Descartes’ notion of God as a superior being is similar to Big Brother.  Descartes describes God as an “all-knowing, all-powerful” creator[4] who is both “perfect and infinite.”[5]  Descartes notes that humans are capable of error but that God is perfect, and thereby incapable of mistakes, deception, or “malice.”[6]  This doctrine shows how man’s imperfection contrasts with God’s perfection.  In this regard, Big Brother is a mirror image of God as envisioned by Descartes: both are ontologically perfect in the eyes of their believers.  Orwell describes Big Brother as caring about the citizens of Oceania, as leading the fight against the enemy, as guiding the economy, providing material comforts to the people,[7] and even being the people’s “Savior.”[8]  Of course, the only thing that Big Brother demands in return for all these benefits is total obedience[9] and herein lies the contrast with the God of Descartes.  The former demands love in return for his work while the latter does not seem to require anything at all, save perhaps an implied acceptance of his perfection.  Further, Big Brother is a vengeful god, smiting enemies of the Party in public and private.[10]  Descartes describes his God as existing in the background, not like Big Brother, visually omnipresent and constantly reminding everyone who he is and the depth and breadth of his power.


Another difference between the gods of Orwell and Descartes is that the former does not allow for deviation from the established beliefs, while Descartes’ God gave man free will.[11]  This power of decision, combined with weakness for being deceived, means man can make mistakes in life.  Descartes apparently accepts this construct as part of being human.  Conversely, Orwell’s Big Brother will crush anyone who goes astray from the Party.  Therefore, the dichotomy is strong: free-willed man knows he can make mistakes owing to his susceptibility to being deceived versus the obedient man who must constantly check his thoughts to maintain his purity and satisfy the demands of Big Brother and the Party.  The former is free to make moral decisions while the latter follows the precepts set before him.  If one is a follower of Big Brother, then, their life should be uncomplicated as long as they adhere to the Party’s doctrine.  Orwell realizes that this strict construct is impossible for man, thus he includes the concept of Thoughtcrime and the Thought Police,[12] to keep citizens obedient.


Perhaps the most evil example of technology in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the telescreen.  As Postman says in Technopoly, the future of science and experts in scientific fields lies in the accumulation and analysis of data.  The telescreens are two-way communications tools.  First, they are the vehicles through which data is collected on each person.  Just as Descartes implies that God is perfect and all-seeing,[13] the telescreens see everything that Party members, and perhaps the Proles, do and say.  The screens are how the supreme being of Big Brother watches and judges people, who have to assume they are always under observation.[14]  Since Big Brother is on the telescreen, which transmit his image, words, and thoughts, his face on the telescreen becomes a “traditional religious” symbol for all to worship.[15]


This powerful ability through the telescreens is something of a perversion of technology that Postman implicitly warned against.[16]  In Winston’s world, nothing is kept out of the view of Big Brother, whose eyes follow people everywhere, with only one exception: Only select Inner Party members have the ability to turn off their telescreens, but only for a short duration.[17]  This capability is one that Winston finds miraculous.  Second, telescreens are the disembodied vision and voice of Big Brother.  Thus, every transmission is designed to influence the viewer, which results in no independent thought.  Winston, having fallen away in his belief in INGSOC, avoids the telescreen and its omniscience from the beginning of Orwell’s tale.  Conversely, Descartes accepts God’s power.[18]  Descartes, would he be transported to Oceania, would be the true believer that the Party wants in its ranks.


Another form of religion in Orwell’s book is Party doctrine in terms of what INGSOC considers orthodox thought at the current moment.[19]  The doctrine of INGSOC is constantly reinforced into the minds and bodies of the Party members in order to keep their faith strong.  Examples of this reinforcement are found everywhere.  First, there is the daily morning physical exercise conducted through the telescreens.[20]  Next, the Two Minutes Hate occurs frequently and allows for Party Members to collectively expend energy toward the enemy and be grateful for the savior, Big Brother.[21]  Third, history is constantly written, re-written, and changed again, ad infinitum, so as to maintain the purity of the record, to erase all errors, and show the Party’s wisdom and strength, updated as new events and influences occur.[22]  Then, throughout the week, everyone from children in the Spies to young adults to adult workers must attend meetings, rallies, and demonstrations that promote the maintenance of the Party and enmity of the enemy foreign power.


In these examples, the Party is much like an organized religion or even a cult, designed to occupy, even monopolize, the time, energy, and thoughts of the believers.  Indeed, the Two Minutes Hate is a public catharsis, like an auto-da-fe or the hanging of a heretic.[23]  Similarly, the revision of history, for example to expurgate failings of manufacturing or farming hides, any unfortunate truths from the Party faithful.[24]  The technological implements in Nineteen Eighty-Four, such as the telescreens, the Ministries, and the departments creating and re-writing history, exist to maintain the cultural narrative[25] of Big Brother and INGSOC, who guide the people to victory. Most interesting is that Party Members expend much of their efforts convincing themselves that they love Big Brother and the Party, just like the undercurrent in Descartes is his writing to convince himself and others of the righteousness of his god and his belief.


Evil also exists in the form of Emmanuel Goldstein, the declared enemy of the Party and its believers.  Like the devil, Goldstein seeks to steal men’s souls and bring them from the goodness of the Party to the proverbial ‘dark side.’  Once the believers have fallen away from the Party through Thoughtcrime, however, they can be saved by rehabilitation.  This is of course the process that Winston and Julia went through at the Ministry of Truth, where their brains are treated like any other technological component that has failed: the brain and its thoughts can be repaired with the right amount of attention.[26]  Their detention, torture, and even betrayal of each other[27] allows for the Party to show them that the only remaining truth that will not change is the purity of Big Brother and the Party.  Curiously, Descartes sees the same essence: God is the only one who is pure and cannot deceive.[28]  The difference here is that Oceania’s citizens are forced to believe in and eventually love Big Brother, which is facilitated by force and technology, while Descartes concludes that God is pure and perfect on his own.


Lastly, responsibility of individual actions occurs in the works from Descartes and Orwell.  Descartes makes man responsible for recognizing that God is perfect, for requiring man to recognize God’s perfection, and to acknowledge man is imperfect.  If anything, for Descartes, the deceiver, or devil, is inherent in man.  Conversely, Big Brother requires man to recognize there is an enemy named Goldstein, who, along with the fabled Brotherhood and the Book, is competing for men’s souls.[29]  To stay pure in ideology against Goldstein’s temptations, Party members must denounce their colleagues, their family members, and even themselves.  Returning to Descartes’ idea of free will, men can choose to be deceived or to recognize that they are deceiving themselves.  In contrast, Party members in Nineteen Eighty-Four must denounce anyone engaging in deception.  Ultimately, the ideas of God/Big Brother center on freedom versus control and obedience versus free will.


            In conclusion, similarities exist between Descartes’ concept of God and Orwell’s Big Brother.  For Descartes, God is a superior being, who neither deceives nor is imperfect, and gave man free will.  Big Brother is also superior to all the citizens of Oceania: he ensures their safety and leads them in the endless tri-partite war.  Winston, Julia, and their fellow citizens owe their complete allegiance to Big Brother and the INGSOC Party. In order to ensure compliance, Big Brother responds by having his enforcers monitor their activities full-time through the observational power of telescreens and by actively seeking denunciations of unrighteous behavior or even thinking, thus Thoughtcrime exists.  Ultimately, the difference between these two supreme beings is that Descartes identifies man has having a body, a soul, and a mind, and man filters what he senses and feels through his mind.[30]  With the god Orwell created, Big Brother provides the thoughts and feelings for citizens, thereby replacing individuality, like Descartes has, for the doctrine of the Party.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly, New York: Knopf, 1992, 172.

[2] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Simon and Brown, 2011, 44.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Ibid., 45.

[6] Ibid., 52.

[7] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, New York: Harcourt Brace, 2003, 307.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 48 and 217.

[10] Ibid., 118-119.

[11] Descartes, 57.

[12] Orwell, 14 and 203.

[13] Descartes, 44.

[14] Orwell, 3.

[15] Postman, 165.

[16] Ibid., 28.  Postman notes that new tools can change a culture but not necessarily for the better.

[17] Orwell, 173.

[18] Descartes, 45 and 76.

[19] Orwell, 45.

[20] Orwell, 32-33.

[21] Ibid., 14-17.

[22] Ibid., 45.

[23] Ibid., 17.

[24] Ibid., 41, 48, and 82.

[25] Postman, 179.

[26] Ibid., 117.

[27] Orwell, 32.

[28] Descartes, 85.

[29] Orwell, 14.

[30] Descartes, 74.