Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Exploring the Brave in The Brave New World

There's a persistent theme that cropped up in our texts this week, but particularly in The Tempest and Of Cannibals, and that is the idea of colonialism and the self-perceived superiority of a culture or people. The Brave New World, for all it's enlightenment and rebirth was, as the Norton Anthology describes it, "a profoundly intolerant age. There was very little willingness to accept the legitimacy of structures of belief, patterns of behavior, systems of rules and social organization other than one's own." We see this with the portrayal of Caliban in The Tempest  and the depictions of the Cannibals in Montaigne's essays.

While Prospero and Caliban seem to represent complete opposite sides of society—the civilized vs the primitive (but who's who?)—their similarities are uncanny. Both characters are outcasts whose right to their kingdom was usurped. And although they are similar in their circumstances, and possibly in their nature, neither one ever makes the effort to create a relationship or forge a connection between their maybe-not-so-different worlds.

 Montaigne, Shakespeare, Heriot, and even More tried to explore this theme of otherness by giving us societies full of irony or even perfection and as a result we can recognize that maybe The Brave New World required braveness not so much in the conquering, but rather in acknowledging the strangeness of others and ourselves when measured against each other. Because to find the hypocrisy that Montaigne points out in Of Cannibals ("I am not sorry we note the barbarous horror of such an action, but grieved that, prying so narrowly into their faults, we are so blinded in ours...") requires a cultural self-awareness that may be easier theorized than done.

The proclivity to favor one's own culture and beliefs above those of other's beliefs is known as ethnocentrism, and it is something that we grapple with even today. As we observe the differences between an us vs a them, do we accept the theory that morality is relative and that some practices or beliefs are acceptable under certain cultures and not others? Or do we cling to our vision of ourselves as the true and only source of right and reason in hopes that others will be guided by our "light"?

In truth, I don't have an answer—but neither did the Renaissance greats—and so the question remains demanding that we seek our own answers and perhaps even find a compromise of our own.

Works Cited:
"Of Cannibals, Kings and Culture: The Problem of Ethnocentricity." The Stone. The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2013. Web. 08 Sept. 2015. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/on-ethnocentrism/?_r=0>.Times, 17 Feb. 2013. Web. 08 Sept. 2015. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/on-ethnocentrism/?_r=0>.


  1. I agree: we've done a lot of thinking recently in regards to how we coexist with other cultures and values. It's a huge part of the debate right now over homosexuality, religion, race - everything, really. And I've seen a huge push to uncover the truth behind the cultural slant in our history books. It'll be interesting to see how our story changes in the next decade, and how our self-identification as Americans changes with it.

  2. I thought you hit it on the mark in saying in parenthesis "but who's who?" That was definitely the argument during this time and I think some aspects still ring true today.

  3. It's interesting that you reference Caliban when so many critics use him as a point of argument. Was Shakespeare one of those Renaissance thinkers who believed the New World occupants to be savages or does he use Caliban to criticize the domineering ethnocentrism of the settlers?

  4. I also strongly identify with that question; 'who is who?' Social awareness brings perspective and empathy, but it robs you of your ability to label. Suddenly you may or may not be savage, civilized, right or wrong. You might be all at the same time. When there is the possibility for all labels, labels become meaningless and identity is undefined.

  5. So interesting that these issues have carried over into our day. Are these questions better left unanswered, or are we under moral obligation to find our own solutions/meanings?