Erewhon HTML version

18.Birth Formulae
I heard what follows not from Arowhena, but from Mr. Nosnibor and some of the
gentlemen who occasionally dined at the house: they told me that the Erewhonians
believe in pre-existence; and not only this (of which I will write more fully in the next
chapter), but they believe that it is of their own free act and deed in a previous state that
they come to be born into this world at all. They hold that the unborn are perpetually
plaguing and tormenting the married of both sexes, fluttering about them incessantly, and
giving them no peace either of mind or body until they have consented to take them under
their protection. If this were not so (this at least is what they urge), it would be a
monstrous freedom for one man to take with another, to say that he should undergo the
chances and changes of this mortal life without any option in the matter. No man would
have any right to get married at all, inasmuch as he can never tell what frightful misery
his doing so may entail forcibly upon a being who cannot be unhappy as long as he does
not exist. They feel this so strongly that they are resolved to shift the blame on to other
shoulders; and have fashioned a long mythology as to the world in which the unborn
people live, and what they do, and the arts and machinations to which they have recourse
in order to get themselves into our own world. But of this more anon: what I would relate
here is their manner of dealing with those who do come.
It is a distinguishing peculiarity of the Erewhonians that when they profess themselves to
be quite certain about any matter, and avow it as a base on which they are to build a
system of practice, they seldom quite believe in it. If they smell a rat about the precincts
of a cherished institution, they will always stop their noses to it if they can.
This is what most of them did in this matter of the unborn, for I cannot (and never could)
think that they seriously believed in their mythology concerning pre-existence: they did
and they did not; they did not know themselves what they believed; all they did know
was that it was a disease not to believe as they did. The only thing of which they were
quite sure was that it was the pestering of the unborn which caused them to be brought
into this world, and that they would not have been here if they would have only let
peaceable people alone.
It would be hard to disprove this position, and they might have a good case if they would
only leave it as it stands. But this they will not do; they must have assurance doubly sure;
they must have the written word of the child itself as soon as it is born, giving the parents
indemnity from all responsibility on the score of its birth, and asserting its own pre-
existence. They have therefore devised something which they call a birth formula--a
document which varies in words according to the caution of parents, but is much the
same practically in all cases; for it has been the business of the Erewhonian lawyers
during many ages to exercise their skill in perfecting it and providing for every
These formulae are printed on common paper at a moderate cost for the poor; but the rich
have them written on parchment and handsomely bound, so that the getting up of a