By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength.’ These three short sentences are a central part of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): a book which is probably the best-known dystopian novel ever written.
It’s also one of the books most people lie about having read, perhaps because they feel they already know the overarching plot points and key ideas within the novel, so well-known are they even to non-readers.
But what precisely does ‘War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength’ mean in the context of Nineteen Eighty-Four?
George Orwell (1903-50), born Eric Arthur Blair, was one of the most remarkable writers of the first half of the twentieth century. His essays are among the best in the English language, not least because of their clear-headedness, married with a clarity of expression. Indeed, Orwell even wrote an essay about the need for political language to be clear and direct; we need his advice now more than ever.
As well as writing numerous essays and short journalistic pieces, he also wrote a number of novels. Two of these, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, remain popular and widely studied in schools and universities.
Orwell’s last novel before his untimely death from tuberculosis was Nineteen Eighty-Four, completed in 1948 and published a year later. The novel is a classic example of dystopian fiction, and depicts a near future in which Britain has become a one-party state, in which thinking the wrong thoughts can be a crime (see ‘thoughtcrime’) and land you in trouble with the ‘thought police’. The dictator who rules over this totalitarian state is known as Big Brother.
The protagonist is Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth (a body partly inspired by Orwell’s time spent working at the BBC) where old historical records are altered, to remove any embarrassing facts that don’t fit with the party line.
Early on, we are introduced to the ‘War is Peace’ slogan, along with the accompanying slogans ‘Freedom is Slavery’ and ‘Ignorance is Strength’:
The Ministry of Truth – Minitrue, in Newspeak – was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
And again, later, Winston recalls these slogans from the Ministry of Truth, before finding them inscribed in other places, too:
Like an answer, the three slogans on the white face of the Ministry of Truth came back to him:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
He took a twenty-five cent piece out of his pocket. There, too, in tiny clear lettering, the same slogans were inscribed, and on the other face of the coin the head of Big Brother.
This quotation, presenting three sets of axiomatic statements which are fundamentally contradictory, exemplifies the ways in which the totalitarian society in Orwell’s novel alters the meanings of words in order to manipulate people’s understanding of the world around them.
How can war be its opposite, peace? How can freedom be enslaving, when the two things stand in stark opposition to each other? And how can ignorance be lauded as a strength? It is from such topsy-turvy statements that the dystopian world of Orwell’s novel was created.
But ‘War is Peace’ is explained in more detail in the ‘book within a book’ that features in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This (fictional) book is titled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism and its author is Emmanuel Goldstein, a rival of Big Brother who supposedly runs the Brotherhood, a resistance movement. Chapter III of Goldstein’s book, which Winston reads, is titled ‘War is Peace’, and explains the origins of the Party’s slogan:
The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. […] But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.
War, then, against some imagined enemy helps to mobilise society and keep its hierarchical structures in place. People become unified in a wartime situation and when on a wartime footing. Goldstein goes on:
The very word ‘war’, therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist. The peculiar pressure that it exerted on human beings between the Neolithic Age and the early twentieth century has disappeared and been replaced by something quite different. The effect would be much the same if the three super-states, instead of fighting one another, should agree to live in perpetual peace, each inviolate within its own boundaries. For in that case each would still be a self-contained universe, freed for ever from the sobering influence of external danger. A peace that was truly permanent would be the same as a permanent war. This – although the vast majority of Party members understand it only in a shallower sense – is the inner meaning of the Party slogan: WAR IS PEACE.
Through being united by a common hatred of ‘the enemy’, then, the people of Oceania in Orwell’s novel remain focused on their shared purpose, which is to win the war. But war in the old sense has become meaningless, has ceased to exist: it is merely a device by which the fabric of society is kept going, the way ‘peace’ is maintained.