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Philip K. Dick, Lord Acton, and the nineteenth century that never ended

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The American science fiction author Philip K. Dick was a strange guy. In addition to being a prolific author of many science fiction classics like The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Minority Report (All these and many more adapted for film and television) he was also a prolific diarist. Many of these diary entries were edited and published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick in 2011.

A recurring theme in these diary entries is his strange Gnostic notion that history itself had been stopped in the first century AD, that our world is in fact merely an illusion, and that, “the Empire never ended.” These bizarre theories found their way into his late semi-autobiographical novels and I was reminded of them when preparing for my lecture at next week’s Acton University.

My talk, ‘Lord Acton, Liberty, Conscience, and the Social Order,’ has a section dealing with what Lord Acton saw as the major threats to liberty in his day which are, alas, still major threats in our own. The nineteenth century never ended. Acton outlines these threats in his brilliantly essay ‘Nationality’:

Theories of this kind are just, inasmuch as they are provoked by definite ascertained evils, and undertake their removal. They are useful in opposition, as a warning or a threat, to modify existing things, and keep awake the consciousness of wrong. They cannot serve as a basis for the reconstruction of civil society, as medicine cannot serve for food; but they may influence it with advantage, because they point out the direction, though not the measure, in which reform is needed. They oppose an order of things which is the result of a selfish and violent abuse of power by the ruling classes, and of artificial restriction on the natural progress of the world, destitute of an ideal element or a moral purpose. Practical extremes differ from the theoretical extremes they provoke, because the first are both arbitrary and violent, whilst the last, though also revolutionary, are at the same time remedial. In one case the wrong is voluntary, in the other it is inevitable. This is the general character of the contest between the existing order and the subversive theories that deny its legitimacy. There are three principal theories of this kind, impugning the present distribution of power, of property, and of territory, and attacking respectively the aristocracy, the middle class, and the sovereignty. They are the theories of equality, communism, and nationality. Though sprung from a common origin, opposing cognate evils, and connected by many links, they did not appear simultaneously. Rousseau proclaimed the first, Babœuf the second, Mazzini the third; and the third is the most recent in its appearance, the most attractive at the present time, and the richest in promise of future power.

Radical egalitarianism, socialism, and nationalism are still very much with us and have strong advocates in the twenty-first century. This should come as no surprise for, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) I still return to Philip K. Dick’s bizarre beliefs because, mistaken as they are, they resonate with our experience in this way. Acton’s battles are still our own. His vision of a free and virtuous society is still in need of defending. This can be dispiriting, we feel often times that no progress is made, but is also reassuring in that we have a great tradition on which to draw both knowledge and inspiration.

 

(Photo credit: Niki Sublime. CC BY 2.0.)

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.

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