George Orwell’s dystopian society in 1984 is the ultimate portrayal of what Immanuel Kant discusses is a human fault in his essay, What Is Enlightenment?
If Kant were to read Orwell’s work, he would be fearful of the day the society of 1984 came to life. But without a doubt, he would agree with many of the points Orwell makes about the individual right to think for yourself.
In short, 1984 takes place in a parallel version of the world in which the government, Big Brother, controls and watches everything people say or do.
The power that Big Brother holds goes so far as to control the language that the people use– Ingsoc, the universal language that is assumed to have replaced English.
Because the government controls the language used by its people, it can therefore control how the people think and even what to think. Further messing up coherent thought and logic, Big Brother controls the media outlets that the people are subjected to viewing and hearing. As explained in a fictitious book titled “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” presented inside 1984, “the invention of print […] made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further” (Orwell, 205). The government, unbeknownst to its people, also manipulates history itself. Changing the recordings of past events or broadcasting news that contradicts what was told the previous day are just two ways that Big Brother functions in doing this.
The question is–how in the world do the people of this society not realize everything that is going on?
The answer? They are incapable of thinking for themselves.
What both Orwell and Kant value the most is an individual’s right to think. Kant says that in order for an individual to be enlightened, “[…] nothing is required but freedom […] namely, the freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all that matters” (18). The people in the world of 1984 have been under complete control of their government for so long that they have never learned to think for themselves. There was never a need to!
The reason that no uprisings or “Enlightenment” period happened in all of that time is because the people of 1984 do not realize their own oppression. Kant calls these thinking impairments “minorities.” Kant explains in his essay that “[…] it is difficult for any single individual to extricate himself from the minority that has become almost nature to him” (17). Orwell proposes that it is also possible for people to open their minds, however he says “[u]ntil they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious” (70). This is where a saying that Kant mentions from Horace comes into relevance. “Sapere aude” translates into “dare to be wise” (17). In order for the people of 1984 to gain back their freedom of thought and wake up from their slumber of ignorance, they must consciously choose to think about how they personally feel. From the news to their living conditions to their opinion of their government, everything is fabricated by Big Brother in order to keep the people under their command, proving Kant’s theory correct that it is difficult for people to set themselves apart from their bonding with mainstream society.
Kant gives an argument that a society can slowly become enlightened, however in Orwell’s dystopia, it seems nearly impossible. Why? If you’d like to find out, I suggest you read the book because it is open to interpretation. (I will add that this has become my favorite book of all time, just saying.)
The power and right to think for yourself is an overlooked privilege that many people have but not all people have. In order to prevent the world from becoming the scary place 1984 depicts, you must exercise your rights. So, I have a question to ask. The featured photo above states: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” which is a statement from 1984.
What is your interpretation of this? Keep in mind the kind of world that takes place in the story..
Kant, Immanuel. What Is Enlightenment?. Königsburg, 1784.
Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics, 1950.