Fighting Tyrants in Animal Farm by George Orwell
After reading "Animal Farm" it's easy to walk away feeling dejected and downtrodden. During the course of a lifetime, an adolescent's early admiration for Napoleon's power and cunning turns gradually toward empathy for the plight of Benjamin - the farm's resident cynic. Donkeys have long memories, and Benjamin is no exception. He has lived long enough to know that one should not favor rhetoric over experience. Fortunately, after fifty-years since the book was first published, it continues to be read in schools across America. Eric Blair, whose pseudonym was George Orwell, made the purpose of his writing very clear :
"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism... "Animal Farm" was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole." - "Why I Write" (1947)
Reading "Animal Farm" has become as emblematic for American education as singing "Beasts of England" was for Animalism. Interestingly, despite being a product of the post-war era, Orwell utilizes themes that predate the advent of Communism by nearly 2500 years. The Greek writer, Aesop, wrote a fable entitled "The Frogs Who Demanded a King" whose moral was:"It is better to be ruled by passive, worthless men who bear no spitefulness (e.g. Mr. Jones, Manor Farm) than by productive but wicked ones (e.g. Napoleon, Animal Farm)." - "Aesop: The Complete Fables" (1998) In addition, the cart-horse Boxer's sense of duty, hard work, and false hope resembles the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Even the transition of Manor Farm to Animal Farm and back again resembles the four stages of government outlined in Plato's Republic - monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Unfortunately for the reader, Greek thought tended to be rather deterministic; leaving us with little hope when reading "Animal Farm" within this deeper context. Even C.M. Woodhouse, the conservative British Member of Parliament from Oxford, who wrote the book's introduction, tells us that the moral of the story is: "Life is like that - take it or leave it."
Are we to accept this? This conflicts with our innate sense of justice. For example, is it fair (or even inevitable) that certain classes in society should enjoy more privilege and prestige, though they contribute less than others, solely because of their unique, yet, intangible knack for organizing and leading? Orwell raises this issue when he writes:
"The pigs did not actually work, but directed and supervised the others. With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should assume the leadership" (35)... "We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organization of this farm depend on us" (42).
But while the whole of Greek philosophy seems to disproportionately weigh in favor of Benjamin's perspective on life; we must surely ask ourselves whether or not there exists some positive purpose as to why this book continues to be read so ubiquitously. After all, we read "Animal Farm" with the implied understanding that some good shall come from it. Fortunately, we may find solace in the political philosophy of Englishman, John Stuart Mill. He advocated a style of participatory democracy. Perhaps Mill can breathe new hope into politics, provided people accept their civic responsibility and remain vigilant. We must not become despondent like Benjamin. Otherwise we risk losing our freedoms by living under the yolk of tyrants like Napoleon.