For the last month or so, Rebecca Ferguson and I have been discussing the character of Juliette Nichols as she prepares to portray Jules for the upcoming TV show. One of our recent emails descended into a philosophical discussion, which I thought readers might find interesting. With Rebecca’s permission, and picking up halfway through the email, I share it with you all here:
The philosophical underpinnings of the novel WOOL goes back to an age-old question about human nature. There are two broad views about our goodness or lack thereof. One school (often associated with the philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau) says that humans are born innately good and it is society which corrupts us. This is the “Noble Savage” theory of human morality. The other school (linked to philosopher Thomas Hobbes) says that humans are born immoral and that civilization gradually tames us. That without a strong system of laws, we would run amok. This is called the “Leviathan” theory of human morality.
The debate between these two schools has defined human existence. It’s the difference between conservatism and liberalism, between hippie communes and brutal dictators. Most of us probably believe that neither school is 100% true, but the direction we lean informs our view of our fellow man and society. Do kids need to be strictly punished or allowed to explore and flourish? Should criminals be locked away for good or rehabilitated? Should we dominate the earth and bend it to our whim, or should we preserve it in order to not let ourselves be destroyed?
I have sad news to report: science has come down far more in support of Hobbes’ pessimism than Rousseau’s optimism. Kids lie willingly and often, as though the talent were inborn. Communes fall apart largely because of the freeloading and laziness of the worst among them. Societies without laws descend into anarchy. However (and this might be the biggest however in human history): rules are like water in that we need them, but too much and you drown.
This is where my own theory comes into play: I think humans are really good at seeing cause and effect. We do A and B happens. A caused B. More of A will lead to more of B. We learn these rules easily and readily. We have a hard time unlearning them when the causal relationship breaks down. Sometimes you get to a point where more A does not lead to more B.
Money and happiness is a great example. If you graph income and happiness on separate curves, they match up for a long while. Having money makes us happier, because we worry less, we can afford nicer things, more leisure time, security for our families, freedom, etc. However, numerous studies have found that after a while these curves “decouple.” Money can keep going up, but happiness levels off. The growing disconnect can lead to depression, as people keep adding A and don’t get any more of B. There’s a limited amount of happiness we can feel (B), but an unlimited amount of money we can imagine having (A). The difference has driven people mad.
The same is true of rules. If we add rules (A), we usually get a healthier society (B). As a parent, you must know this even better than I do! Kids even seem to enjoy having the structure of some rules, because it makes the world feel predictable and fair. They go insane in the rare households that shirk all rules. But you probably also know that too many rules don’t lead to perfect harmony. You can’t keep adding A until you get an ideal B. There’s a limit to how well people can function with one another. Society breaks down when we think that if we just had a few more rules, everyone would be perfectly happy and well-behaved. The truth is that there are limits to how well a society can function, just as there are limits to human happiness. And yet we often keep testing cause and effect, hoping to drive B to the moon. It’s like giving water to a thirsty person until they drown.
In the silo, these two schools of philosophy are embodied by Juliette and Bernard. Bernard believes in Hobbes’ Leviathan. People only get along if they live under the crushing weight of a mountain of rules. Juliette is Rousseau’s Noble Savage. She thinks if you got rid of all the rules and just let people do what comes naturally, that everything will sort itself out and we’d all be a lot happier. Both of them are wrong. Bernard will never live to see that he was wrong. Juliette will come to a middle ground of truth eventually. And it is Lukas who will help her get there.
Lukas is an interesting character. I see him as a hero for being the very sort of milquetoast that we rarely imbue in our protagonists. We like protagonists at the extremes. Compromise isn’t sexy. But compromise is where we find harmony and truth.
IT is the Leviathan and Mechanical are the Noble Savages, and Lukas is torn between the two. He’s in love with a mechanic, but he works for IT. He is drawn to Juliette’s lawlessness, but he is reading the Legacy, a set of books that detail how the world came to an end and how easily the silo can collapse and kill everyone in it. He wants to live like Juliette, but he fears that his boss Bernard is correct, and the only way to keep everyone alive is through manipulation and untruths.
The reality is that Bernard’s way (the way of the Leviathan) is pure laziness. It’s the easy way. Just set strict rules and punish offenders with the dispassion of a machine. It’s our mandatory sentencing laws in the American justice system, where we are not allowed to take individual circumstances into account. Or how a banking algorithm determines whether an applicant gets a loan, because getting to know that person and deciding to invest in them is too much work. Racism and misogyny come from the same sort of laziness. It’s a shortcut. Lukas and Juliette will realize that a better system means a lot more work, but that it’s worth it.
By the time Juliette becomes mayor, she will have seen what happens to a silo with too many rules and lies … and also what happens to a silo that breaks free and reaches for ultimate truth and maximum freedom. The tightrope act required to exist in the middle must terrify her, but how can a good person choose anything but this? How can a good parent not choose to set rules but also know when they are able to be broken? How does thoughtful inconsistency not become the highest ideal at some point? It must. The exceptions are what define us, not the rules they burst through. The challenge is acquiring the wisdom to know what exceptions matter and when. This is what makes for a good judge, free from mandatory sentencing. It’s what makes for a good banker, free from algorithms.
By the end of her journey, Juliette is the ultimate example of this tightrope act between leviathan and noble savage. She has the fiery spirit that allows exceptions but the keen mind that sees how all the rules should interlock like perfectly oiled cogs. She learns to not fear confrontation with people; she learns to be patient with others, and just as importantly learns to be patient with herself. To me, she embodies the ideal human adventure from our imperfect, beautiful selves to whatever wise and kind soul we might become before we die. We will never be perfect (a maximum amount of B), but we should never stop trying (a nonstop dose of A).