Revisiting Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’

Samuel Butler’s EREWHON (1872) and EREWHON REVISITED (1901) may have been the first dystopian science fiction novel.  It is a literary curiously—broad social satire within a “lost kingdom” adventure story.

I’ve had a copy lying around the house for years, and just recently got around to reading it.  What’s interesting is how what Butler must have thought were the most outrageous parodies of British life of his day are the parts that have the most relevance today.

Butler was what we’d now call a cultural radical and an economic conservative.  He questioned Church of England dogma and Victorian morality, but was all for business enterprise and the British Empire.  His Erewhom novels are what he is most remembered for.

The plot of Erewhon is that an adventurous young Englishman named Higgs, in a British colony much resembling Australia, crosses a mountain range and finds himself in a nation where everything is a kind of mirror-image of how they do things in Britain.

Erewhonians do not feel shame or guilt about moral offenses.  Rather they regard them as Britons do physical ailments, and discuss them just as freely.  If you have “a touch of embezzlement,” you turn to a family “straightener,” who would prescribe a treatment such as a diet of bread and water for a specific number of weekss.

Physical ailments, on the other hand, are regarded as Britons regard moral offenses.  They are known to occur, but they aren’t talked about, and are severely punished when exposed.

Certain Erewhonian reformers suggest leniency for minor illnesses, such as the common cold, while admitting the need for harsh punishment of more severe offenses, such as pneumonia.  But conservatives say this would mean subjecting people to the power of “doctors,” who would be able to interfere in family life.

Erewhonians have called a halt to technological development. Their philosophers have pointed out the parallels to human evolution of the evolution of machinery. 

They point out that machinery has grown more complex, and is being constantly improved through natural selection.  Human beings devote more and more effort to finding fuel and raw materials for machines, and keeping machines in repair.  It would have been only a matter of time, they said, before machines rule.

No doubt Butler was just kidding, but nowadays many people are worried about runaway artificial intelligence and self-replicating machines. 

I read a comment on some Internet thread saying that there are only three real threats to human existence.  They don’t include nuclear war, overpopulation, global warming or a meteor impact because all of these would leave a remnant from which the human race could be reconstituted.

No, these people say, the existential threats are (1) runaway artificial intelligence, (2) extraterrestrial invasion and (3) someone turning off the simulation of reality we’re all living in.  I wonder what Butler would have made of that.

Other Erewhonian philosophers developed a philosophy of animal rights, which Butler no doubt thought a joke, but which foreshadowed the serious animal rights philosophy of today.

The Erewhonians during a period of their history decided it was wrong to kill animals, because they are sentient beings like ourselves.  But then they reflected that no harm is done by eating an animal that died a natural death. 

So every steak or chop in every butcher shop had a little card certifying that it came from an animal that had been run over by a vehicle or struck by lightning.

The animal rights philosophy was followed by a philosophy of the rights of plants.  Surely, one philosopher argued, plants are just as alive as animals.  They, too, struggle for a place in the sun, although at a slower pace than animal life.  Surely it is just as wrong to murder a plant as to murder an animal.

The Erewhonians are a dark-complected Caucasian people, resembling the Italians.  The fair-haired Higgs decides they are the ten lost tribes of Israel, and hopes for the glory of converting them to Christianity.

But they have their own religion and morality, based on striking a balance between truth and falsehood, good and evil, and sense and nonsense.  Their motto is: He that sins aught / does more than he ought / but he that sins naught / has much to be taught.

Higgs escapes in a balloon.  He secretly returns 20 years later, to discover that he has accidentally founded a new religion, Sunchildism, based on the idea that his flight from Erewhon was a miracle and he is a literal child of the sun.

Much philosophical discussion ensues on the dangers of undermining religion, and whether Sunchildism can be considered true in some metaphorical or allegorical sense.

Higgs argues that religious dogma in some form is necessary to counterbalance scientific dogma.  Either one unchecked, in his view, is as bad as the other.

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One Response to “Revisiting Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’”

  1. William Elwell Says:

    interesting in the same sense of articles about Germany winning WW!! or of mirror universes where everything is backwards. This brings to mind that Whereon civilization exists today o rat least part of it. Thanks for an interesting review.


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