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Human Dignity and Human Nature
Vonnegut developed [his critique of progress] to near-perfection in one of his finest books and his first novel, Player Piano, a chillingly prescient account of the rise of a meritocratic, automated America in which advancement up the economic ladder becomes the main measure of human success. Test scores and I.Q.s obsess those who seek entry into the meritocratic ascendancy. Degrees must be from the “right” college, and no one with a decent job lacks an advanced degree (even the secretaries have Ph.D.s). Because the production of goods can be increasingly accomplished by machines, the world is not divided between haves and have-nots (even the least well-off workers live in middle-class comfort) but between those accorded dignity and those denied it. The visiting Shah of Bratpuhr regards workers (most of whom dig holes on the government payroll) as nothing more than takaru, or slaves. In one telling scene, the secretary of state attempts to explain to the Shah that these are actually citizens, but the Shah understands citizen merely to be the translation of the word takaru. His interpreter explains, “In the Shah’s land are only the Elite and the Takaru.”
According to the trajectories observed by Vonnegut, Bratpuhr does not lie far ahead in America’s economic future, which will consist of an upwardly mobile and successful elite versus a mass of increasingly underemployed service-industry workers who seek above all not the comprehensive equality of “Harrison Bergeron” but the dignity of knowing their life and work matter. As a revolutionary in Player Piano explains, “At the bottom of [the longing for a savior] will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth—hell, dignity.” What citizens seek is the knowledge that their lives have mattered; that their efforts can contribute to the good of the polity and the benefit of future generations. The practical result of much technology, even when pursued for seemingly good ends, Vonnegut argues, is to render human work increasingly meaningless and human relationships irrelevant. Vonnegut’s critique would remind us that there is a pleasure, a reward to playing a piano with one’s own hands that cannot be captured in the perfect mechanism of a player piano.
Many Vonnegut stories and novels point implicitly to the idea that humans have certain natural ends whose realization is necessary to live a good life. A fully realized human life would encourage the ties that bind the generations together, honor contributions to our communal good, and attain dignity for ourselves through our participation in the community. This is a conception of human good that would accept the limits of nature (like mortality) as a necessary boundary to the indiscriminate employment of technology, and defend culture as the necessary precondition of human flourishing.
Folk Societies/Lonely and Restless
Vonnegut’s belief in a discernible human nature that requires a certain culture and cultivation for full flourishing was awakened, or perhaps confirmed by, his brief experience from 1945-1947 as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. In an address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971 (included in a volume of non-fiction writings, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, 1974), Vonnegut speaks of his encounter in Chicago with the cultural anthropologist Robert Redfield, whose essay "The Folk Society" was formative to the novelist’s thought.
[Redfield] acknowledged that primitive societies were bewilderingly various. He begged us to admit, though, that all of them had certain characteristics in common. For instance: They were all so small that everybody knew everybody well, and associations lasted for life. The members communicated intimately with one another, and very little with anybody else…. There was no access to the experience and thought of the past, except through memory. The old were treasured for their memories. There was little change….
I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren't any folk societies for us anymore.
How lucky you are to be here today, for I can explain everything. Sigmund Freud admitted that he did not know what women wanted. I know what they want. Cosmopolitan magazine says they want orgasms, which can only be a partial answer at best. Here is what women really want: They want lives in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative, and no act or object is without holiness. Chemicals make them want that. Chemicals make us all want that.
Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things rather than persons. When anything happens to us which would not happen to us in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel like fish out of water. Our chemicals demand that we get back into water again. If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times—well, so do fish on river banks, for a little while.
If we become increasingly apathetic in modern times—well, so do fish on river banks, after awhile. Our children often come to resemble apathetic fish—except that fish can't play guitars. And what do many of our children attempt to do? They attempt to form folk societies, which they call "communes." They fail. The generation gap is an argument between those who believe folk societies are still possible and those who know they aren't.
Vonnegut argued that modern humans are lonely and restless because of their “chemicals,” a pseudo-scientific word (in an address delivered to science lovers) for what might just as well be called “nature.” It is our nature to live in certain kinds of societies, and our modern loneliness, indignity, and unhappiness stem from the fact that modernity has extirpated those societies. Of course, folk societies are not the same thing as the polis, which Aristotle declared was man’s natural home, but then again, neither is the modern nation state; and so there may be as many unasked questions and unexamined assumptions in Vonnegut’s notions as in many of our own. Nonetheless, Vonnegut seeks to point out that it is the human propensity and natural ability to invent machines and devices that help makes the extirpation of natural communities possible, even inevitable. Our ability to manipulate our environments—to conquer nature, with the exception, it seems, of human nature—contributes unavoidably to human unhappiness. In a novel he considered to be his finest (Galapagos, 1985), Vonnegut portrayed a future in which Darwinian evolution results in the loss of our opposable thumbs and our dangerously large brains, two features that turn out to have been unmitigated disasters for humanity and the planet. Having abandoned our natural condition which demands that we live in “folk societies,” Vonnegut argues that nature will reassert itself and undo what technology has artificially created. An overarching theme of his work seems to be that nature will reassert its governance over humanity, unless we humans do ourselves in first.