These words are the official slogans of the Party, and are inscribed in massive letters on the white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth, as Winston observes in Book One, Chapter I. Because it is introduced so early in the novel, this creed serves as the reader’s first introduction to the idea of doublethink. By weakening the independence and strength of individuals’ minds and forcing them to live in a constant state of propaganda-induced fear, the Party is able to force its subjects to accept anything it decrees, even if it is entirely illogical—for instance, the Ministry of Peace is in charge of waging war, the Ministry of Love is in charge of political torture, and the Ministry of Truth is in charge of doctoring history books to reflect the Party’s ideology.
That the national slogan of Oceania is equally contradictory is an important testament to the power of the Party’s mass campaign of psychological control. In theory, the Party is able to maintain that “War Is Peace” because having a common enemy keeps the people of Oceania united. “Freedom Is Slavery” because, according to the Party, the man who is independent is doomed to fail. By the same token, “Slavery Is Freedom,” because the man subjected to the collective will is free from danger and want. “Ignorance Is Strength” because the inability of the people to recognize these contradictions cements the power of the authoritarian regime.
This Party slogan appears twice in the novel, once in Book One, Chapter III, when Winston is thinking about the Party’s control of history and memory, and once in Book Three, Chapter II, when Winston, now a prisoner in the Ministry of Love, talks to O’Brien about the nature of the past. The slogan is an important example of the Party’s technique of using false history to break down the psychological independence of its subjects. Control of the past ensures control of the future, because the past can be treated essentially as a set of conditions that justify or encourage future goals: if the past was idyllic, then people will act to re-create it; if the past was nightmarish, then people will act to prevent such circumstances from recurring. The Party creates a past that was a time of misery and slavery from which it claims to have liberated the human race, thus compelling people to work toward the Party’s goals.
The Party has complete political power in the present, enabling it to control the way in which its subjects think about and interpret the past: every history book reflects Party ideology, and individuals are forbidden from keeping mementos of their own pasts, such as photographs and documents. As a result, the citizens of Oceania have a very short, fuzzy memory, and are willing to believe anything that the Party tells them. In the second appearance of this quote, O’Brien tells Winston that the past has no concrete existence and that it is real only in the minds of human beings. O’Brien is essentially arguing that because the Party’s version of the past is what people believe, that past, though it has no basis in real events, has become the truth.
In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.
This quote occurs in Book One, Chapter VII, as Winston looks at a children’s history book and marvels at the Party’s control of the human mind. These lines play into the theme of psychological manipulation. In this case, Winston considers the Party’s exploitation of its fearful subjects as a means to suppress the intellectual notion of objective reality. If the universe exists only in the mind, and the Party controls the mind, then the Party controls the universe. As Winston thinks, “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?” The mathematical sentence 2 + 2 = 5 thus becomes a motif linked to the theme of psychological independence. Early in the novel, Winston writes that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” The motif comes full circle at the end of the novel after the torture Winston suffers in the Ministry of Love breaks his soul; he sits at the Chestnut Tree Café and traces “2 + 2 = 5” in the dust on his table.
And when memory failed and written records were falsified—when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.
This quote from Book One, Chapter VIII, emphasizes how one’s understanding of the past affects one’s attitude about the present. Winston has just had a frustrating conversation with an old man about life before the Revolution, and he realizes that the Party has deliberately set out to weaken people’s memories in order to render them unable to challenge what the Party claims about the present. If no one remembers life before the Revolution, then no one can say that the Party has failed mankind by forcing people to live in conditions of poverty, filth, ignorance, and hunger. Rather, the Party uses rewritten history books and falsified records to prove its good deeds.
And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.
Julia speaks these lines to Winston in Book Three, Chapter VI, as they discuss what happened to them in Room 101. She tells him that she wanted her torture to be shifted to him, and he responds that he felt exactly the same way. These acts of mutual betrayal represent the Party’s final psychological victory. Soon after their respective experiences in Room 101, Winston and Julia are set free as they no longer pose a threat to the Party. Here, Julia says that despite her efforts to make herself feel better, she knows that in order to save herself she really did want the Party to torture Winston. In the end, the Party proves to Winston and Julia that no moral conviction or emotional loyalty is strong enough to withstand torture. Physical pain and fear will always cause people to betray their convictions if doing so will end their suffering.
Winston comes to a similar conclusion during his own stint at the Ministry of Love, bringing to its culmination the novel’s theme of physical control: control over the body ultimately grants the Party control over the mind. As with most of the Party’s techniques, there is an extremely ironic strain of doublethink running underneath: self-love and self-preservation, the underlying components of individualism and independence, lead one to fear pain and suffering, ultimately causing one to accept the principles of anti-individualist collectivism that allows the Party to thrive.