The story-line of the Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is deceptively simple. Bradbury presents a dystopian society in which ubiquitous electronic media inoculate the masses from the emptiness of their, largely externally determined, lives. Most books are banned, but media immersion ensures that most people don’t care one way or the other. The relative few who do care are watched, controlled, eliminated if necessary, and subjected to having their beloved books burned by the so-called “firemen.” One such fireman is the protagonist, Guy Montag. Montag believes himself to be happy, but his unexpected realization that he isn’t drives him on a quest for true happiness. That quest takes him into the forbidden world of books and ultimately away from all that he knows in his sad little world.
Montag’s quest is, as James Filler describes in his recent article in the journal Philosophy and Literature, an ascent. An ascent out of the Cave. Filler does a very nice job of drawing the connections from Fahrenheit 451 to Plato’s Republic. Montag and his fellow citizens are imprisoned by their ignorance, watching fake families on wall-sized TV screens like denizens of the Cave watch figures on the wall. This level of knowledge, or lack thereof, is represented foremost by Montag’s wife, Mildred. Mildred is intractably attached to TV and radio, is blissfully unaware of what she’s missing in the banned books, and yet is not actually blissful but miserable.
Early in the novel, Montag meets a teen-aged girl named Clarisse McClellan, who excels most people by observing not merely the TV families, but real things like nature and the activities of those around her. She asks Montag if he is happy, and this innocent little question, combined with McClellan’s quirky detachment from media culture, serves as the nudge Montag needs to begin to move beyond mere images. Filler compares McClellan to a puppet whose shadow is cast upon the Cave’s wall, but I think it better to liken her to one who sees the puppets.
But of course McClellan does not represent full Platonic knowledge, for her logic is inductive and her knowledge is of merely sensible objects. On Plato’s Diagram of the Line of Knowledge, she represents belief. Montag therefore must move up from her, and does so through his acquaintance with a former literature professor named Faber.
Faber guides Montag into the knowledge to be found in classic literature, that is, into deductive reasoning and the meanings of things. This is knowledge on the ideal level, not merely the sensible and empirical. It is related to the sensible realm, but it is not full knowledge, philosophical knowledge, in the Platonic sense. As Filler points out, Faber represents partial knowledge, mathematical knowledge on Plato’s Line, on the level of the puppeteers in the Cave. But Montag’s quest must bring him out of the Cave, so he must continue beyond Faber.
But before we move beyond Faber, it is well to discuss another guide, one who, as Filler points out, is on a level of knowledge similar to Faber’s. He is, however, a negative guide, one who would prevent Montag from leaving the Cave. He is Montag’s boss, Chief Beatty.
Beatty possesses a great deal of knowledge from the classics. He even quotes them. But they are of no real use to him. He has discarded them because he could find no Truth in them, but only conflict, arguments, and disagreements. Thus, he has also discarded any hope of the liberty toward which the classics might have moved him.
Instead, in his role as a fireman, Beatty promotes the banal, the immediate, sensate gratification of mere images. He sees himself dressed in hero’s clothing because, by burning books, he protects the people from the discord brought by the classics. He, Montag, and the other firemen are “the happiness people.”
Beatty is the source of the novel’s main conflict. Because books are banned, not even firemen are allowed to possess them. After McClellan’s nudge, however, Montag takes a book from a collection about to be burned. As he wrestles with his crime, with trying to keep it secret from Beatty, and ultimately with the content of the book, Montag begins to disconnect from his duties as a fireman. He seeks and receives guidance and assistance from Faber, and tries to draw Mildred with him on his quest. She wants nothing to do with it, however, and betrays him by reporting him to Beatty, who knew all along what was happening. The resulting showdown drives Montag out of the city as a fugitive, disconnected from Mildred’s ignorance, McClellan’s belief, Faber’s mathematical knowledge, and Beatty’s attempts to keep Montag in his old life. Montag is out of the Cave.
Bradbury’s final guide in Montag’s ascent to knowledge is the vagrant Granger. Dwelling outside of the city, the societal Cave, and no longer bound to sensible sources of knowledge like objects or books, Granger and his fellow vagrants welcome Montag into the ideal realm, the realm of knowing the forms, and particularly the form of the Good. Here knowledge is whole, complete, enlightened by the Good.
Each of the vagrants knows a classical work, perhaps several, such that it is said that the vagrant is that work. Granger introduces himself and his fellows as Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Jonathan Swift, Darwin, Schopenhauer, Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Aristophanes, Gandhi, Buddha, Confucius, Thomas Love Peacock, and American presidents Jefferson and Lincoln. He mentions also Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Byron, Thomas Paine, Machiavelli, and Christ. At no point, however, does he mention conflict or incompatibility among them, save for an apparently tongue-in-cheek reference to Swift as the author of “an evil political book.”
There is, however, a great deal of conflict among these individuals’ works. There is conflict that cannot be dismissed as peripheral, or meaningfully deconstructed into mere points of cultural difference. These writers were attempting to draw upon, elaborate, and apply principles that are not confined to their own circumstances. And in doing so they came to conclusions about the nature of things—humanity, the divine, justice, etc.—that are in some cases fundamentally incompatible. And yet Bradbury supplies no sign of incompatibility. It is as though he wishes us to see Chief Beatty as wrong not only for having given up on knowledge, but for having perceived conflict in the first place.
Ignoring the conflicts among the ideas in the classics is not really the bedrock problem, however. The bedrock problem is that by ignoring their incompatibility, we diminish the classics themselves.
Merely to celebrate the classics together for their greatness, without recognizing the seriousness of their conflicts, actually trivializes them. It reduces their quest for Truth about the nature of things to a point of interest or preference, a source of charm or refinement in the collegiate finishing school.
Reduced in this way, the classics can provide only so much for our discerning students. The classics must provoke students to wrestle with their ideas, to decipher and discern, and sometimes, perhaps often, to regard the ideas as doubtful on some crucial point. Absent this, the discerning student will see only arguments over trivialized matters in trivialized works, and slide in next to Chief Beatty in the seat of scoffers.
Russell P. Dawn is Associate Professor of History and Political Thought at Concordia University Irvine