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Misreading a Classic: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

            Ray Bradbury’s famous novel Fahrenheit 451 is a story about a society in which books are illegal and the job of firemen is to burn books.  It has often been misunderstood as a protest against government censorship because it was published in 1953 during the height of the anti-Communist movement in the United States led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House on Un-American Activities Committee.  This superficial political reading of Fahrenheit 451 misses the depth of Bradbury’s critique of modern mass society, its technology and its false view of the nature of happiness.

            In a key section Fire Chief Beatty explains how book burning became the job of firemen.  It is through Chief Beatty’s narration that Bradbury ironically delivers his devastating critique.

            Beatty claims that the speed of mass life “whirls man’s mind around so fast” that it “flings off all unnecessary time-wasting thought” (p. 55).[1]  Movies, radio and television accelerate the pace of life.  Books take too long to read.  Reasoned argument is interminable.  A society addicted to speed will naturally censor books and reasoned argument by listening only to slogans and the instantaneous impressions of pictures. 

            The multiculturalism of mass society inhibits the free expression of thought.  Bradbury’s Beatty uses the word “minorities” to describe the trend, but by “minorities” he means any interest group whether racial, ethnic, vocational, religious or regional.  In order not to offend anyone and make greater profits, writing had to be a “nice blend of vanilla tapioca” (p. 55) or “leveled down to a sort of paste-pudding norm” (p. 54).  Censorship does not need to be enforced by the government, when the standard for expression is not offending anyone rather than stating one’s convictions about the truth.

            Mass education discourages the unique and the talented and enforces uniformity and mediocrity.  “We must all be alike.  Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal” (p. 58).  Schooling must begin earlier in order to counteract the individualizing influence of the home environment.  Education must also focus on facts and not thinking.  “… Chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed.  And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.  Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.  That way lies melancholy” (p. 61).  Let education be practical and geared toward a vocation.  They can read trade journals, but never let them be troubled by thoughts about why they exist or the meaning of the universe. 

            In his criticism of modern education Bradbury raises the issue of happiness.  The firemen are “custodians of our peace of mind” (p. 59).  How does the free and open exchange of ideas endanger peace of mind, which is the modern conception of happiness?         

            First, people become “unhappy with conflicting theory and thought” (p. 62).  Making thoughtful choices on life’s important issues is challenging and can be distressingly painful, but if Aristotle is right that man by nature wants to know, then shielding people from the process of finding the truth keeps them from maturing as humans and experiencing a deeper personal happiness. 

            Second, an education that encourages excellence and the free exchange and defense of ideas reminds us that there are people more intelligent than we are.  Chief Beatty says that the firemen protect our peace of mind so that we are not overcome by “our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior” (p. 59).         

            Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a warning that censorship is more a product of the culture of mass society and a false view of happiness than of direct government suppression of books.  As a Christian, let me share two concerns that come to mind after reading Bradbury’s novel.

  • The pragmatic mindset of many Christians makes them impatient with and even antagonistic to the demanding task of understanding the faith that we believe.  A church that will not endure careful biblical and theological teaching is doomed to a shallow faith and ineffective witness.
  • In 1 Corinthians 1:23 the Apostle Paul describes the message of Christ crucified or the gospel as a stumbling block.  It is offensive to hear that God should demand such a high price for the forgiveness of our sins and that we are not pleasing to God because of our sins.  There is legitimate concern about legal restrictions on preaching the gospel in contemporary society.  Nevertheless, a far graver concern is that there are churches that do not display the cross because some might be offended by it.  This is the self-censorship of multiculturalism that Bradbury warned of.  It will result in a denial of the gospel.

            Take the time to read Bradbury’s very relevant Fahrenheit 451.  Think about it long and hard and talk about it.  It will shake your peace of mind so that you can find true happiness. 

            For those in the Topeka area I encourage you to attend Cair Paravel Latin School’s Aslan Lecture on Monday, February 17th at 7:00 pm.  The speaker is Dr. Robert Woods, a Ray Bradbury scholar.  His lecture is titled “How a ‘Crazy’ Teenager and a Retired Professor Could Save Education.”  For more details follow this link


[1] All quotations are taken from the Random House Del-Rey Book, 1991 edition.

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