George Orwell (1903)
It was on this date, June 25, 1903, that Eric Arthur Blair was born in Motihari, India, later to become the famous political satirist George Orwell. His tour with the Imperial Police in India, and his wartime work for the BBC, gave him an in-depth look at military and government politics and bureaucracy. He fought in an anarchist militia for the Trotskyist government in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. This he recounted in Homage to Catalonia (1938). As he later pointed out, “One must choose between God and Man, and all ‘radicals’ and ‘progressives’, from the mildest liberal to the most extreme anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.” Yet Orwell recognized the brutality of the Stalinist regime in Russia. This in turn fueled his ideas that almost all forms of government are corrupt.
Orwell’s fame rests largely on two books he published in the 1940s: Animal Farm (1945), played out with beasts on a farm, where the pigs rule, a devastating satire of Stalinism; Animal Farm featured a raven named Moses who described to the animal masses a great mountain in the sky, called Sugar Candy Mountain, that all would go to when they died.
The other Orwell masterwork was 1984 (1949), a satire featuring a future totalitarian bureaucracy. Big Brother is seen only in pictures and descriptions, never in real life, you must follow the instructions; everything he does is good by definition; to speak against Big Brother is a Thoughtcrime. It is this novel that comes closest to a critique of God:
On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed down from the wall. It was one of these pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath ran. (1984)
It is because of 1984 that we have come to use the sinister adjective, “Orwellian.” In his 1935 book, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Orwell wrote, “When I eat my dinner I don’t do it to the greater glory of God; I do it because I enjoy it. The world’s full of amusing things — books, wine, travel, friends — everything. I’ve never seen any meaning in it all, and I don’t want to see one. Why not take life as you find it?” Orwell had little use, either, for the Christian idea of sainthood:
No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid…. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.*
On the subject of politics, Orwell tended more toward socialism than capitalism, even as he criticized Communist Russia for not being socialist enough. But his chief grief with the world was unquestioning conformity, political or religious. In a review of poet T.S. Eliot, Orwell wrote:
In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree. The reason is that the Christian churches still demand assent to doctrines which no one seriously believes in. The most obvious case is immortality of the soul.
George Orwell died of tuberculosis in London on 21 January 1950.
*”Reflections on Gandhi,” in Shooting an Elephant (1950).
Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.