He was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past

Sunday, August 27th, 2023

Jason Crawford recently read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and it’s not really about Butlerian Jihad:

It is best known for its warning that machines will out-evolve humans, but rather than dystopian sci-fi, it’s actually political satire. His commentary on the universities is amazingly not dated at all, here’s a taste:

When I talked about originality and genius to some gentlemen whom I met at a supper party given by Mr. Thims in my honour, and said that original thought ought to be encouraged, I had to eat my words at once. Their view evidently was that genius was like offences—needs must that it come, but woe unto that man through whom it comes. A man’s business, they hold, is to think as his neighbours do, for Heaven help him if he thinks good what they count bad. And really it is hard to see how the Erewhonian theory differs from our own, for the word “idiot” only means a person who forms his opinions for himself.

The venerable Professor of Worldly Wisdom, a man verging on eighty but still hale, spoke to me very seriously on this subject in consequence of the few words that I had imprudently let fall in defence of genius. He was one of those who carried most weight in the university, and had the reputation of having done more perhaps than any other living man to suppress any kind of originality.

“It is not our business,” he said, “to help students to think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do. Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do.” In some respects, however, he was thought to hold somewhat radical opinions, for he was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past.


  1. Jim says:

    Should current universities ever deem it necessary to ensure that students think as the most degenerate conceivable professors thought in 1875, with no regard to their thinking “for themselves” or any other such fanciful thing, the result will be an immediate, almost unimaginably great increase in quality, very soon affecting all levels of society to the benefit of all. The great mass of humans are glorified automatons who believe what is fashionable to believe and think what is fashionable to think. To demand that any man, of any age, of any class, decide, as if from first principles, what to think or believe or propound, is to demand the unreasonable, the irrational, the impossible, hardly different in truth to demanding that a good war horse learn bookkeeping.

  2. Bruce says:

    Butler’s ‘Notebooks’ were more fun for me to read than his novels. I’d like to read a Norton Annotated version of the copy of Butler’s ‘Notebooks’ Suzuki used to more or less revise Buddhism. It’s in Illinois in the house Suzuki lived in.

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