Walden Two by B.F. Skinner // Review

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Walden Two is the second book in this little trilogy of humanistic, 20th century literature I’m reading for school (Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was first).  It’s about a community of the same name, built by one T.E. Frazier, out in the middle of nowhere somewhere in America.  The book follows Frazier’s old colleague, Professor Burris, as he reconnects with Frazier and travels, with two young men, their girlfriends, and the irascible Professor Castle, to visit Frazier’s little utopia.

To start with, B.F. Skinner was quite obviously a scientist – not a writer.  Walden Two takes on more the tone of a dissertation, very lightly veiled in the form of a novel.  There was very little plot to speak of, other than Burris’s growing understanding and acceptance of Walden Two, and some minor subplots concerned with the acceptance or rejection of the other characters.

Skinner also plainly didn’t understand the meaning of the “show, don’t tell” rule.  Instead of letting us see and experience the subtext and atmosphere of the many long, philosophical discussions and arguments through dialogue and character actions, he instead chooses to inform us quite blatantly.  I’m still not sure whether that annoyed or amused me.

“You can hear my mind creak in the pompous cadences of my prose.” – Walden Two

Oh, and then there’s the worldview question.  The entire point of Walden Two is that, if you understand and apply behavioral science, you can create a society where everyone is happy, because they want to do what’s best for them.

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And indeed, Walden Two seems like a great place to live – you only work about four hours a day, there are plenty of stimulating leisure activities (you can read all you want, or create any kind of art), and everyone gets along amazingly well.  The entire community, from the schedules to the teacups, is designed for optimum efficiency and functionality.  Contrary to expectations of a utopia, there’s no tyrannical dictatorship or too-powerful government; in fact, negative discipline apparently isn’t even a thing.

“The question is:  Can men live in freedom and peace?  And the answer is:  Yes, if we can build a social structure which will satisfy the needs of everyone and in which everyone will want to observe the supporting code.” – Walden Two

Frazier holds that man is merely a product of his environment – neither inherently good nor inherently bad.  With that in mind, he has created a community where the behavior can be engineered to create more or less perfect people.  Children are painstakingly cared for and trained right from the start, to make them impervious to annoyances and jealousy.

“We have no truck with philosophies of innate goodness – or evil, either, for that matter.  But we do have faith in our power to change human behavior.  We can make men adequate for group living – to the satisfaction of everybody.” – Walden Two

But the problem with this system is that it severely misrepresents human nature.  Our hearts are deceitful and desperately sick, as Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us.  Frazier – along with the author – holds a very humanistic view of man, disregarding both revealed Scripture and centuries of human experience.  He doesn’t realize that his system simply will not work.  When humans live in community on this earth, there will always be problems.   The only way we can ever live in harmony is by a power higher than ourselves – a power found only in Jesus Christ.  And even we as Christians, though we are saved and Jesus is sanctifying us and we have true fellowship through Him, will never be fully free from sin until heaven.

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There is no truth in Walden Two.  Religions are counted along with philosophy as various sources of helpful principles, but are mostly dismissed as unhelpful and even counter-productive.  Even the one character who seems to hold to absolute morals, Professor Castle, can’t give a good reason for their existence – he just knows they have to be there.  And in the end he’s portrayed as stubborn and somewhat pigheaded.

I can’t leave out one last thing:  how the novel looks at Jesus.  Frazier sees Him merely as a colleague, somewhat less informed than himself; a good man who happened to stumble upon a great principle.  But as we go on, we see there’s more to it.  In a scene full of biblical allusions towards the end of the book, Frazier is depicted as almost godlike.

“He was lying flat on his back, his arms stretched out at full length… and I reflected that his beard made him look a little like Christ.  Then, with a shock, I saw that he had assumed the position of crucifixion.” – Walden Two

In fact, Frazier directly compares himself to God, adding blasphemously that he’s had a good deal more success.  But isn’t this the worldview of modern man?  Man is god, or all the god there is.  Man is shaped by his society – unless he can create his own destiny.

While I won’t say I enjoyed Walden Two, it was certainly a very interesting, and enlightening, read.  I gather it’s something of a classic, and I believe it’s important to read books like this, so we can understand the world in which we live today.

//Note – the characters employ the d-word rather readily, and there is one use of the b-word (there may have been other words, but I wasn’t really looking; my apologies).  There are also a couple mild sexual references, though nothing inappropriate.//

Have you read Walden Two?  What did you think?  Have you seen this worldview in today’s literature?

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6 thoughts on “Walden Two by B.F. Skinner // Review

  1. Wow. I’d actually never heard of Walden Two before a few months ago. *calls to the other room* See, mom? Kdramas are teaching me cool things. *grins* I did look it up on Wikipedia, but your review is much more enlightening than that. I had no idea that he compared himself to God– seems like a pretty sad summary of the humanistic worldview.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s cool! How did you hear about Walden Two on a Kdrama though? xP Yeah, it is pretty sad when you think about it, although it’s supposed to be a happy book :/ (Unlike The Plague, which I’m currently reading!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. *laughs sheepishly* It was mentioned in a kdrama called Liar Game– someone had made a psychological experiment with the name Walden Two, which basically made the psychopathic villain what he was. It was pretty creepy/cool, and it made me curious about the real book and its effects on society, so I looked it up! 🙂
        The Plague? *looks it up* O.o That sounds…disturbing. I’m suddenly feeling very fond of Shakespeare.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh wow, that’s… interesting. xP I have a friend who watches Kdramas, but I’ve never actually seen one.
        Yeah, The Plague is rather disturbing. Camus was definitely a better writer than Skinner though! =P

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Really? I’ve finished…*counts on fingers* Maybe five?? You should try watching one, if you don’t mind reading subtitles! ^^
        That’s good– if you have to read a book infested with dead rats and dying people, it should at least be written well. 😀

        Like

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