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The Aristos

John Fowles

  The Aristos

  John Fowles

  The Aristos


  This Edition Revised by the Author


  This book was first published against the advice of almost everyone who read it. I was told that it would do my ‘image’ no good; and I am sure that my belief that a favourable ‘image’ is conceivably not of any great human – or literary – significance would have counted for very little if I had not had a best-selling novel behind me. I used that ‘success’ to issue this ‘failure’, and so I face a charge of unscrupulous obstinacy. To the obstinacy I must plead guilty, but not to lack of scruple; for I was acting only in accordance with what I had written.

  My chief concern, in The Aristos[1] is to preserve the freedom of the individual against all those pressures-to-conform that threaten our century; one of those pressures, put upon all of us, but particularly on anyone who comes into public notice, is that of labelling a person by what he gets money and fame for – by what other people most want to use him as. To call a man a plumber is to describe one aspect of him, but it is also to obscure a number of others. I am a writer; I want no more specific prison than that I express myself in printed words. So a prime personal reason for this book was to announce that I did not intend to walk into the cage labelled ‘novelist’.

  However, it was not just the matter of the book that offended. It was the manner as well – the dogmatic way in which I set out my views on life. But that too sprang from a desire to nourish individuality. By stating baldly what I believe I hope to force you to state baldly to yourself what you believe. I do not expect agreement. If I wanted that I should have written in a very different form and style, and wrapped my pills in the usual sugar coating. I am not, in short, pleading a case.

  There is a very current view in our world that philosophy should be left to the philosophers, sociology to the sociologists, and death to the dead. I believe this is one of the great heresies – and tyrannies – of our time. I reject totally the view that in matters of general concern (such as the meaning of life, the nature of the good society, the limitations of the human condition) only the specialist has the right to have opinions – and then only in his own subject. Trespassers will be prosecuted signs have, thank goodness, become increasingly rare in our countryside; but they still spring like mushrooms round the high-walled estates of our literary and intellectual life. In spite of all our achievements in technology we are, outside our narrow professional fields, mentally one of the laziest and most sheep-like ages that has ever existed. Yet another purpose of this book is to suggest that the main reason dissatisfaction haunts our century, as optimism haunted the eighteenth and complacency the nineteenth, is precisely because we are losing sight of our most fundamental human birthright: to have a self-made opinion on all that concerns us.

  By using the same method as Nelson for not reading unwanted signals, some critics have further seen in this book and in my two novels – The Collector and The Magus – evidence that I am a crypto-fascist. All my adult life I have believed that the only rational political doctrine one can hold is democratic socialism. But what I have never believed in is quasi-emotional liberalism of the kind that has become popular these last twenty years; the kind of view that goes more with avant-garde social milieu and fashionable newspapers than with any deep-held conviction or reasoned attempt to destroy reaction. Nor similarly have I much time for the theory that socialism is the sole property of the proletariat and that the chief voice in socialist policy must always be that of organized labour. We may owe the rise of socialism very considerably to the trade union movement; but it is time the umbilical cord was cut.

  The principal theme in this book – as also in The Collector – has been similarly misunderstood. In essence it comes from a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. We know very little of Heraclitus, since he lived before the great age of Greek philosophy, and all that remains of his work are a few pages of frequently obscure fragments. In a famous book – The Open Society – Professor Karl Popper has made a convincing case against Heraclitus (if for nothing else, because he influenced Plato) as the grandfather of modern totalitarianism. How Heraclitus saw mankind divided into a moral and intellectual élite (the aristoi, the good ones, not – this is a later sense – the ones of noble birth) and an unthinking, conforming mass – hoi polloi, the many. Anyone can see how such a distinction plays into the hands of all those subsequent thinkers who have advanced theories of the master-race, the superman, government by the few or by the one, and the rest. One cannot deny that Heraclitus has, like some in itself innocent weapon left lying on the ground, been used by reactionaries: but it seems to me that his basic contention is biologically irrefutable.

  In every field of human endeavour it is obvious that most of the achievements, most of the great steps forward have come from individuals – whether they be scientific or artistic geniuses, saints, revolutionaries, what you will. And we do not need the evidence of intelligence testing to know conversely that the vast mass of mankind are not highly intelligent – or highly moral, or highly gifted artistically, or indeed highly qualified to carry out any of the nobler human activities. Of course, to jump from that to the conclusion that mankind can be split into two clearly defined groups, a Few that is excellent and a Many that is despicable, is idiotic. The gradations are infinite; and if you carry no other idea away from this book I hope you will understand what I mean when I say that the dividing line between the Few and the Many must run through each individual, not between individuals. In short none of us are wholly perfect; and none wholly imperfect.

  On the other hand, history – not least in the twentieth century – shows that society has persistently seen life in terms of a struggle between the Few and the Many, between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. My purpose in The Collector was to attempt to analyse, through a parable, some of the results of this confrontation. Clegg, the kidnapper, committed the evil; but I tried to show that his evil was largely, perhaps wholly, the result of a bad education, a mean environment, being orphaned: all factors over which he had no control. In short, I tried to establish the virtual innocence of the Many. Miranda, the girl he imprisoned, had very little more control than Clegg over what she was: she had well-to-do parents, good educational opportunity, inherited aptitude and intelligence. That does not mean that she was perfect. Far from it – she was arrogant in her ideas, a prig, a liberal-humanist snob, like so many university students. Yet if she had not died she might have become something better, the kind of being humanity so desperately needs.

  The actual evil in Clegg overcame the potential good in Miranda. I did not mean by this that I view the future with a black pessimism; nor that a precious élite is threatened by the barbarian hordes. I meant simply that unless we face up to this unnecessarily brutal conflict (based largely on an unnecessary envy on the one hand and an unnecessary contempt on the other) between the biological Few and the biological Many; unless we admit that we are not, and never will be, born equal, though we are all born with equal human rights; unless the Many can be educated out of their false assumption of inferiority and the Few out of their equally false assumption that biological superiority is a state of existence instead of what it really is, a state of responsibility – then we shall never arrive at a more just and happier world.

  Elsewhere in this book I maintain the importance of the polar view of life; that individuals, nations, ideas are far more dependent for strength, energy and fuel on their opposites, enemies and contraries than surface appearances suggest. This is true too of the opposition between the Few and the Many, the evolutionally over- and under-privileged. There are healthy products, besides the obviously unhealthy ones, in this embattled condition. But if one word could
sum up all that is wrong with our world, it is surely inequality. It was inequality, not Lee Harvey Oswald, that killed President Kennedy. Hazard, the great factor we shall never be able to control, will always infest life with inequality. And it seems madness that man himself should continue blindly to propagate this vicious virus in our world instead of trying to limit it.

  This was the deeper message in The Collector; and in this present book. Whatever it may be it is not, I think you will agree, a fascist one.

  This edition contains new material, but it is shorter (though not meant to be attempted at one sitting) than its predecessor and, I sincerely hope, much clearer. One other criticism of the first edition I fully deserved. There was an irritating swarm of new-coined words. These I have almost completely abolished.


  I should like to take advantage of this New American Library edition to say that I have, since this book was first written, become increasingly interested in its relevance to the American experience. There are two main reasons for this. The United States is the key society in our world – ‘key’ both in the narrow sense of its being the guinea pig among human societies and in a broader one: the country where the struggle between individual freedom and social equality is being conducted (largely because of an innate national honesty) at its most naked and revealing. The second reason is an ever-deepening affection and respect for better qualities of the American ethos combined, alas, with an ever-deepening distress at its less happy effects.

  I hope shortly to finish what will constitute a kind of appendix to The Aristos: a sympathetic critique, in the light of some of the ideas here, of the country that has for so long held so many of us Europeans in its complex spell.



  1 The book you are about to begin is written in the form of notes. This is not laziness on my part, but an attempt to suppress all rhetoric, all persuasion through style. Many of the notes are dogmatic expressions of opinion; and here, similarly, my intention is not to bludgeon into belief, but to banish all possibility of persuasion by artificial means. I do not want my ideas to be liked merely because they are likeably presented; I want them to be liked in themselves.

  2 This is not a dialogue, but only one side of a dialogue. I state; you, if you wish, refute.

  3 Some of what I say suffers from the usual defect of speculation and generalization; there is no proof. What proof there is lies in your agreement; what disproof, in your disagreement. Many modern philosophers would claim that unverifiable statements are scientifically meaningless; but I cannot agree that philosophy is, or will ever be, only a science.*[2]

  4 I am a poet first; and then a scientist. That is a biographical fact, not a recommendation.

  5 I believe in the essential sanity of man, and what follows is a memorial to that belief.



  1 Where are we? What is this situation? Has it a master?

  2 Matter in time appears to us, with our vested interest in survival, to be governed by two opposing principles: Law, or the organizing principle, and Chaos, or the disintegrating one. These two, the one to us sorting and erecting, the other to us demolishing and causing havoc, are in eternal conflict. This conflict is existence.

  3 All that exists has, by existing and by not being the only thing that exists, individuality.

  4 The known universe is uniform in its constituents and its laws. All in it, or each individual thing, has a birth and a death in time. This birth and this death are the insignia of individuality.

  5 The forms of matter are finite, but matter is infinite. Form is a death sentence, matter is eternal life.

  6 Individuality is necessary for both the sensation of pain and the feeling of pleasure. Pains and pleasures both serve the one end of the whole: survival of matter. All pains and pleasures are partly what they are because they are not shared; and because, being functions of an individual, they end.

  7 Law and Chaos, the two processes that dominate existence, are equally indifferent to the individual. To Chaos, Law destroys; to Law, Chaos. They equally create, dictate to and destroy the individual.

  8 In the whole, nothing is unjust. It may, to this or that individual, be unfortunate.

  9 There can be no power or god in the whole that is concerned for any one thing, though there may be a power concerned for the whole.

  10 The whole has no favourites.


  11 Humanity on its raft. The raft on the endless ocean. From his present dissatisfaction man reasons that there was some catastrophic wreck in the past, before which he was happy; some golden age, some Garden of Eden. He also reasons that somewhere ahead lies a promised land, a land without conflict. Meanwhile, he is miserably en passage; this myth lies deeper than religious faith.

  12 Seven men inhabit the raft. The pessimist, for whom the good things of life are no more than lures to prolong suffering; the egocentric, whose motto is Carpe diem – enjoy today – and who does his best to get the most comfortable part of the raft for himself; the optimist, always scanning the horizon for the promised land; the observer, who finds it enough to write the logbook of the voyage and to note down the behaviour of the sea, the raft and his fellow-victims; the altruist, who finds his reason for being in the need to deny himself and to help others; the stoic, who believes in nothing but his own refusal to jump overboard and end it all; and finally the child, the one born, as some with perfect pitch, with perfect ignorance – the pitifully ubiquitous child, who believes that all will be explained in the end, the nightmare fade and the green shore rise.

  13 But there was no wreck; there will be no promised land. If there ever were an ideal promised land, a Canaan, it would be uninhabitable to humans.

  14 Man is a seeker of the agent. We seek an agent for this being in a blind wind, this being on a raft; the mysterious power, the causator, the god, the face behind the mysterious mask of being and not being. Some make an active god of their own better natures; a benevolent father, a gentle mother, a wise brother, a charming sister. Some make an active god from attributes: such desirable human attributes as mercy, concern and justice. Some make an active god of their own worse natures; a god who is sadistically cruel or profoundly absurd; a god who absconds; a black exploiter of the defenceless individual; the venomous tyrant of Genesis 3:16-17.

  15 Between these tribes, the firm believers in an active good god and the firm believers in an active bad one, the great majority shift and surge, a milling herd caught between Pangloss and Job. They pay lip service to an empty image; or believe in nothing. In this century they have drifted towards Job. If there is an active good god he has, since 1914, paid very poor wages.*

  16 Yet as man sees through one reason for living, another wells from the mysterious spring. It must be so, because he continues to exist. This inexplicable buoyancy irritates him. He exists, but he is abused.

  17 Man is an everlack, an infinite withoutness, afloat on an apparently endless ocean of apparently endless indifference to individual things. Obscurely he sees catastrophes happening to other rafts, rafts that are too distant for him to determine whether they have other humans aboard, but too numerous and too identical for him to presume that they have not.

  18 He lives in a survived yet always uncertainly surviving world. All that is has survived where it might not have survived. Every world is and will always be a Noah’s ark.

  19 The old myth that his raft, his world, is especially favoured and protected now seems ridiculous. He has seen and understood the message from the distant supernovae; he knows the sun is growing larger and hotter and that his world will one day be a white-hot ball in a sea of flames; and he knows that the hydrogen bomb of the sun may burn up an already dead planet. There are other hydrogen bombs waiting and closer at hand. Inwards and outwards the prospect before him is terrifying.*


  20 But mankind is in the best of all possible situations fo
r mankind. It may not be the best possible for you or for me, for this or that individual; for this or that age; for this or that world.

  21 It is the best possible for us because it is an infinite situation of finite hazard: that is, its fundamental principle will always be hazard, but a hazard within bounds. A hazard without bounds would be a universe without physical laws: that is, a perpetual and total chaos.

  22 A god who revealed his will, who ‘heard’ us, who answered our prayers, who was propitiable, the kind of god simple people like to imagine would be desirable: such a god would destroy all our hazard, all our purpose and all our happiness.

  23 Hazard has conditioned us to live in hazard. All our pleasures are dependent on it. Even though I arrange for a pleasure, and look forward to it, my eventual enjoyment of it is still a matter of hazard. Wherever time passes, there is hazard. You may die before you turn the next page.

  24 I am is I was not, I might not have been, I may not be, I shall not be.

  25 In order that we should have meaning, purpose and pleasure it has been, is, and always will be necessary that we live in a whole that is indifferent to every individual thing in it; and the precise form of its indifference is that the duration of being and the fortune during being of each individual thing are fundamentally but not unconditionally in hazard.

  26 What we call suffering, death, disaster, misfortune, tragedy, we should call the price of freedom. The only alternative to this suffering freedom is an unsuffering unfreedom.


  27 Imagine yourself a god, and lay down the laws of a universe. You then find yourself in the Divine Predicament: good governors must govern all equally, and all fairly. But no act of government can be fair to all, in all their different situations, except one.