Matthew Yglesias criticizes the famous three slogans of the Party in Ninteen Eighty-four for a lack of parallelism; the first two are simple paradoxes, he says, but the third is only paradoxical if one adds further premises.
Unlike Matthew, I’m a great Orwell fan, and have been since before he was fashionable. In my view, Ninteen Eighty-four is badly flawed as a novel, but in this case I think Orwell made his words do just what he wanted them to do.
Winston Smith learns the meaning of the principles both from Goldstein’s subversive book and from O’Brien, the brainwasher. They aren’t intended as paradoxes. “War is peace” because in the world of 1984 war is the normal condition of life, no longer something extraordinary; war is therefore what peace used to be. “By becoming continuous, war has ceased to exist.” “Freedom is slavery” because the stress of making choices, confronting competition, and recognizing one’s own mortality is more than most people can stand; the Party’s rule frees them from that stress. (The defenders of slavery in the antebellum South made a similar point, as did Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.)
“Ignorance is strength” in two ways: the ignorance of the population is the strength of the tyrannical government, and the ignorance of the rulers generates single-mindedness and a can-do attitude. This last principle might be taken as prophetic criticism of our current leadership, but Orwell’s own time provided ample evidence that thoughtfulness could be a source of weakness: see his essay “Wells, Hitler, and the World State.”
I agree with Matthew that William Saletan’s attempt to understand the three principles as profound truths, and to attribute understanding of those alleged truths to the great philosopher now residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is weird.
“Orwellian,” like “Machiavellian,” has two nearly opposite meanings. Both words are usually used, a little unfairly to the authors, to mean “illustrating the sort of evil described by [Orwell or Machiavelli].” But they can also mean “reflecting the wisdom embodied in the works of [Orwell or Machiavelli].”
We seem to have chosen the wrong senses of the words in choosing our current Orwellian and Machiavellian ruling cadre.