Are all societies based on equitable, fair principles destined to collapse into barbarity and savagery due to inherent flaws? Few ponder this important question. Those who live in a fairly democratic society are used to thinking that equality and fairness are the greatest qualities of a civilization. However, some societies founded on what humans have enshrined as their highest ideals end up collapsing into brutality and destruction. What’s more, sometimes this collapse is due to the very principles on which they are founded. This is because equality can potentially lead to a belief that the only way to achieve total equality is to either bring everyone down into animalistic savagery and squalor or destroy those who might potentially stand in the way-no matter how guilty or guiltless.
On the island in Lord of the Flies, the novel by William Golding, Ralph, one of a group of a group of British preteens being evacuated during wartime, tries to form a boyhood democracy on an uninhabited island. Somewhere over the Pacific, their plane is shot down and crash-lands on the island. The boys emerge from the wreckage of the plane, introduce themselves, and begin discussing what to do now that they are on the island together. One of the boys, Roger, suggests that an election be held, with the two contestants being a boy with a conch named Ralph and a choirboy named Jack. The crowd votes overwhelmingly for Ralph, and he then proceeds to address the congregation: “‘I’m chief then...The choir belongs to you, of course….Jack’s in charge of the choir. They can be-what do you want them to be?’” (23) He then promptly sets about organizing the boys to do tasks like building a fire and making huts. Ralph, along with his brain trust, Piggy, are trying to form the semblance of a democratic, equal “society” far away from an actual one. He sets about creating settlements and parliaments, and uses the conch as a sort of talisman to convince the boys, newly liberated from civilized society, to keep that kind of society going. Ralph’s society has the possibility to be utopian. He has them create a signal fire to alert passing ships, and they build small huts in which to live. It seems as if they are heading down the path of any modern, liberal democracy.
Despite his initial success, the boys’ removal from “traditional” society and the equal representation built into Ralph’s new society leads them down a dark paths, as splinter groups form and fear and destruction lead to savagery and murder. After a pig hunt and a few games, tensions between Jack and his hunters and Ralph and his friends reach a head. Jack decides to call an assembly to discuss the beast and begins trying to persuade the other boys to go with him, using stunning amounts of anti-intellectualism: “‘Ralph thinks you’re cowards….He’s like Piggy. He says things like Piggy. He isn’t a proper chief”. (126) He persuades a group of boys to go off with him, and they paint their faces and hunt for their prey, revelling in their freedom from the authority of both their parents and Ralph’s quasi-government. When Ralph and Piggy eventually confront the once-civilized band of savages, Roger uncaringly rolls a boulder off a ledge, killing Piggy-and shattering the conch- in the middle of a speech: “‘Which is better-to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?’….’Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?’....Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back….His head opened and stuff came out and turned red.” It is clear at this point that Jack and his cohort are so far removed from order and civilization that not only is intelligence, stability, and order to be mocked and insulted, but, in the form of Piggy, it is to be brutally eliminated. They have no idea that they have just destroyed a life and they did not heed Piggy’s final words. Piggy is imploring them to obey the basic laws of decent, liberal, tolerant society, where warfare and violence are frowned upon and the best way of working things out is through compromise and the power of civility and law. But Jack, Roger, and all the others have tapped into something dark both within humanity and within Ralph’s own planned utopia.
In the real world, a similar thing happened over the course of the French Revolution. When the Third Estate demanded more equal representation in 1789, and proclaimed its ideals in the Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen, people thought they were going to build a secular, Enlightenment utopia: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights….The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man...These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression”. Their founding documents, and the influence of 17th and 18th century philosophers, seemed to proclaim a world of liberty, freedom, brotherhood, and equality. However, within a few short years, the country had descended into mass murder and bloodshed. The very nature of an equal society was both liberating for the people of France and a shock to the system of those used to the ancien regime, the old monarchy before the revolution. This lead to a protracted period of revolutionary warfare and chaos.
Rival revolutionary factions battled it out for supremacy-such as the Jacobins, the Girondists, and the Hebertists. The newborn, chaotic republic had a Committee of Public Safety-something of a presidency-and at its height, it was lorded over by Maximilien Robespierre, a former lawyer who embraced his new role with extreme fanaticism. It was he who unleashed the Reign of Terror upon the French people, decapitating thousands with the newly-invented guillotine in an attempt to purge France of those who did not seemingly agree with “revolutionary principles”. Monarchists, Girondists, and everyday citizens were beheaded. The roster of victims is extraordinary. It included King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and King Louis XV’s lover Madame du Barry, among thousands of others. Eventually, things degenerated to such levels that a cult developed around the “goddess” Liberty, and news months with new names were created out of the old year. Even Robespierre was destroyed in a coup, when, according to the book From Dawn to Decadence, “...Two days of stormy debate set off organized tumult in the streets. Robespierre and his team were seized and outlawed….another twenty-two patriots went the way of their predecessors-in a tumbril to the Place de la Revolution”. (430) In both cases, we see paradise lost, utopia corrupted. Furthermore, the seeds of division and destruction had been sown from the beginning in the very systems that Ralph and the French revolutionaries created.Because the governmental systems of Ralph and the French Revolutionaries were based on equality and fair play, every voice was allowed to be heard, no matter how extreme or violent. This lead to small rifts and petty disagreements becoming large and destructive. Without something stable-whether that is parental authority or the monarchy of France-to give people some sort of higher order and regulation, tensions heated up rapidly, and the voices of the loose cannons could not be silenced due to the systems of government relying on everyone having a say. Even in today’s America, this is something we struggle with, if one looks at the massive political polarization going on in society at large and the contentious current presidential election. If we don’t keep the better parts of our liberal, democratic societies on top, we risk succumbing to the sway of demagogues like Jack Merridew and Maximilien Robespierre. We must, as Abraham Lincoln said at the dawn of the American Civil War, where many of these same ideas were put to the test, “....touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Barzun, Jacques Martin. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. First ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.
Golding, William Gerald. Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.
"Avalon Project - Declaration of the Rights of Man - 1789." Avalon Project - Declaration of the Rights of Man - 1789. Yale Law School, 2008. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.Lincoln, Abraham. "The Avalon Project : First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln." The Avalon Project : First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. Yale Law School, 2008. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.