Aldous Huxley’s Quest for Values: Religion

Huxley’s ideas have been subjected to much criticism. Those which have been most criticized deal with religion; they have been attacked not only by the critics who have been disturbed by their religious and philosophical implications, but by those who have been bored by Huxley’s occasionally excessive didacticism.

Given the nature of spiders, webs are inevitable. And given the nature of human beings, so are religions. Spiders can’t help making flytraps, and men can’t help making symbols. That’s what the human brain is there for—to turn the chaos of given experience into a set of fairly manageable symbols. Sometimes the symbols correspond fairly closely to some of the aspects of the external reality behind our experience; then you have science and common sense. Sometimes, on the contrary, the symbols have almost no connection with external reality; then you have paranoia and delirium. More often there’s a mixture, part realistic and part fantastic; that’s religion. Good religion or bad religion—it depends on the blending of the cocktail.
— Aldous Huxley, Island

Huxley’s ideas have been subjected to much criticism. Those which have been most criticized deal with religion; they have been attacked not only by the critics who have been disturbed by their religious and philosophical implications, but by those who have been bored by Huxley’s occasionally excessive didacticism. D. Mar­shall, writing in the 1930’s, attacks the “neo-pagans of what might be called the Lawrentian party—D. H. Lawrence himself, Aldous Huxley, Richard Aldington.”1 C. E. M. Joad objects to Huxley’s mysticism because it is at variance with Joad’s personal interpretations of Christianity. Both William York Tindall2 and Richard V. Chase3 decry Huxley’s association with Gerald Heard, the British anthropologist who has preached the mystical spiritualism of the East in preference to the materialism of the West; Chase writes: “The secluded spirit may find peace or the fleeting vision of Utopia in the ecumenical church of the mind, but looking from the gray shadows and intervening in the sunlit world, the spirit pays the price of its isolation, by losing all its elegance and becoming pompous and crude. The mystic mutation of the spirit is austere megalomania, but megalomania is not the way of nature . . . ,”4

Although Huxley’s comments on religion can be criticized, they can hardly be ignored. He saw the potential value of the arts, education, government, love, nature, and science as ways to a better life, but he criticized those who regarded these means as ends in themselves. His search for ultimate answers led him, in his examination of religion, into all kinds of paradoxical complexities which were not resolved very clearly in his works and into all kinds of generalizations which have little meaning when subjected to detailed scrutiny. For example, he will sometimes speak of Christianity or Judaism as if they were monolithic entities. Furthermore, when he talks of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, or Mohammedanism, he does not consider the evolutionary changes that have been incorporated into these beliefs so that when he makes criticisms about them, one is not sure, for example, whether he is castigating the Mohammedanism of the late Middle Ages or the Mohammedanism of today.5 Similarly, when he talks about Judaism, he does not take into account the four branches in existence today: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform. One wishes at times that he would follow his own advice that he gave to the reader regarding governments, that one should not think of all-inclusive terms such as state, party, or country; one should think in terms of individuals. It makes a difference when one is talking about “Christianity,” for example, whether one is discussing Henry the Eighth or Martin Luther.

There are other difficulties besides trying to find specific meaning in the welter of generalizations one finds in Huxley’s comments on religion. There is the difficulty in trying to grasp Huxley’s attempts to reconcile religion with philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, and government. There is also the problem of endeavoring to find a relationship between religion considered as a metaphysical concept and religion considered as ritual and as a practical guide to mundane problems. Huxley himself indicates in The Perennial Philosophy the manifold facets of the problem when he writes: “In studying the Perennial Philosophy we can begin either at the bottom, with practice and morality; or at the top, with a consideration of metaphysical truths; or, finally, in the middle, at the focal point where mind and matter, action and thought have their meeting place in human psychology” (p. 1). What makes it difficult is that Huxley, at times, seems to be going in all three directions simultaneously.

Huxley’s first comments on religion indicate that he began as a sardonic skeptic. In one of his earliest novels, Antic Hay, for example, we find one of the characters commenting on God: “I am that I am …. But I have with me … a physiologue, a pedagogue and a priapagogue; for I leave out of account mere artists and journalists whose titles do not end with the magic syllable. And finally . . . plain Dog, which being interpreted kabalistically backwards signifies God. All at your service” (p. 79). In Jesting Pilate, published in 1926, he writes that it may be true that “religion is a device employed by the Life Force for the promotion of its evolutionary designs. . . . [However, one might] be justified in adding that religion is also a device employed by the Devil for the dissemination of idiocy, intolerance, and servile abjection” (p. 58). In his essay “One and Many” (Do What You Will, published in 1929), he declares himself “officially an agnostic.” He develops the theory that God is simply a projection of the human personality and that “men make Gods in their own likeness. To talk about religion except in terms of human psychology is an irrelevance” (p. 1). He ridicules the anthropomorphic conception of God because it reflects the weaknesses and aspirations of the society in which its particular God is worshiped. Using himself as an example, he writes that when he is enjoying good health and when the weather is propitious, then he can well believe that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” On other occasions, “skies and destiny being inclement, I am no less immediately certain of the malignant im­personality of an uncaring universe” (p. 2). In a poem he wrote in 1925 called “Philosophy,” he says that it is difficult to hear what God is saying because “God stutters.” He would prefer to believe in the sanctity of what he calls the “Human Personality” than in the “myth” of God. “We do at least know something of Human Personality, whereas of God we know nothing and, knowing nothing, are at liberty to invent as freely as we like” (Do What You Will, p. 141). The reason that people believe in this “theological game” is that they find it much more psychologically satisfying to conform to habit than to be subjected to the discomfort of rebellious skepticism.

The vacuum created by Huxley’s rejection of an anthropomorphic religion was filled in the 1920’s by his espousal of the Lawrentian doctrine of the instinctive life. Man should not favor what was felt to be a false spirituality but should live passionately and instinctively. In Point Counter Point, Mark Rampion (who is supposed to represent D. H. Lawrence) speaks of the three diseases plaguing mankind: “Jesus’s and Newton’s and Henry Ford’s disease.” All three diseases could be eliminated, both Lawrence and Huxley felt, by the rejection of science, technology, and traditional Christianity. In Do What You Will, published the same year as Point Counter Point, Huxley makes the same points. He writes that the world is faced with three dangers: (1) monotheism and the menace of the “super-humanist” ideal; (2) the “worship of success and efficiency”; (3) “the machine.” Monotheism and the super­humanist ideal constitute a danger because they are not based on any foundation in reality and thus do not allow the living of the fully instinctive life. “The worship of success and efficiency constitutes another menace to our world. What our ancestors sacrificed on the altars of Spirituality, we sacrificed on those of the Bitch Goddess and Taylorism” (p. 83).6 The machine is a menace because it robs man of his creativity and makes him merely a passively efficient robot. These three menaces have killed people’s instinctive love of the fully integrated life, and the “result is that they lose their sense of values, their taste and judgement become corrupted, and they have an irresistible tendency to love the lowest when they see it” (p. 88).

When we analyze Huxley’s comments on Judaism and Jews and on Christianity and Christians, we can readily appreciate why the Nazi propagandists used some of his statements in their attacks on Western democracies.7 In 1929, in Do What You Will, for example, he made the following attack on the Jews: “Their mission, in a word, was to infect the rest of humanity with a belief which . . . prevented them from having any art, any philosophy, any political life, any breadth or diversity of vision, any progress. We may be pardoned for wishing that the Jews had remained, not forty, but four thousand years in their repulsive wilderness” (p. 18).8 He blames the monotheistic religion of the Jews for the emphasis given by other peoples to wealth and materialism and for the sentimentality current in music.9 It should be pointed out, however, that this blatant anti-Semitism disappeared after the advent of Hitler. In his later books, Huxley deprecates the savagery of the Nazis; in one of his novels, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, one of the minor characters is a sympathetic Jew who falls a victim to the ruthless business cunning of Jo Stoyte, a non-Jew.

The kind of misfired generalization which characterizes his attack on the Jews also characterizes his castigation of what, at different times, he calls “Christianity,” “Puritanism,” “Calvinism,” and “organized religion.” His objections to Christianity are several: first of all, he attacks the cmel persecutions of the more fanatical Christians. In the following excerpt from Do What You Will, he is singling out the puritans, but it resembles his attacks on other Christian groups in many other works:

The puritan was free to range the world, blighting and persecuting as he went, free to make life poisonous, not only for himself, but for all who came near him. The puritan was and is a social danger, a public and private nuisance of the most odious kind. Baudelaire was a puritan inside out. Instead of asceticism and respectability he prac­ticed debauchery. The means he used w’ere the opposite of those employed by the puritans; but his motives and theirs, the ends that he and they achieved, were the same. He hated life as much as they did, and was as successful in destroying it. (Pp. 192-93)

The cruelty which Huxley found so distasteful in the puritans is also the cruelty he discovers, in The Devils of Loudun, among the Catholics in the centuries during the Inquisition. “In medieval and early modern Christendom the situation of sorcerers and their clients was almost precisely analogous to that of Jews under Hitler, capitalists under Stalin, Communists and fellow travelers in the United States . . .” (p. 122). He describes the brutality of the Catholic hierarchy toward one of their own priests who refused to admit that he was inhabited by a devil. Their cruelty did not stem from their alleged hatred of heresy alone; it arose, according to Huxley, because their entire religion was motivated by hatred:

“Ecclesiastical history exhibits a hierarchy of hatreds, descending by orderly degrees from the Church’s official and ecumenical hatred of heretics and infidels and the particular hatreds of Order for Order, school for school, province for province and theologian for theologian” (pp. 19-20).

Huxley also blames both the puritans and Catholics for making people believe that this world was but a gloomy journey to a posthumous celestial euphoria. “Christianity has always found a certain difficulty in fitting the unfatigued, healthy and energetic person into its philosophical scheme” (Texts and Pretexts, p. 287). If perchance Christianity does come upon a person who says that he is quite happy for the moment, then it reminds him that this state of well-being is but illusory and certainly temporary; every silver lining is hiding an imminent cloudburst. The Greeks, Huxlev avers, were far wiser in being realistically pessimistic and in using this pessimism to justify their epicurean and instinctive way of life. Huxley here seems to ignore the fact that the same society which gave rise to the Epicureans also produced the Stoics.

Huxley attacks other features in Christianity. He seems to take unusual delight in pointing out that often the priests themselves did not practice the austerity they so unctuously preached. Thus, in The Devils of London, he points out that essentially there were two Urbain Grandiers: Grandier the sensualist and Grandier the sermonizing priest. He describes how between Grandier’s weekly debaucheries he was preparing sermons filled with “What eloquence, what choice and profound learning, what subtle, but eminently sound theology!” (pp. 26-27). When Grandier hears the discomforting news from one of his female parishioners that he is the father of her unborn child, Huxley describes his hypocritical reaction:

Shifting his hand from the bosom to the bowed head and changing his tone, without any transition, from the bawdy to the clerical, the parson told her that she must learn to bear her cross with Christian resignation. Then, remembering the visit he had promised to pay to poor Mine, de Brou, who had a cancer of the womb and needed all the spiritual consolation he could give her. he took his leave. (P. 35)

In his essay “Variations of a Philosopher,” published in Themes and Variations, Huxley analyzes the term shepherd to demonstrate how, like sheep, people never stop to consider that “a shepherd is ‘not in business for his health,’ still less for the health of his sheep.” If a shepherd takes good care of his flock it is only to fatten them for the eventual slaughter. People should consider the meaning of shepherd before speaking sentimentally about their pastors:

Applied to most of the States and Churches of the last two or three thousand years, this pastoral metaphor is seen to be exceedingly apt —so apt, indeed, that one wonders why the civil and ecclesiastical herders of men should ever have allowed it to gain currency. From the point of view of the individual lambs, rams and ewes there is, of course, no such thing as a good shepherd; their problem is to find means whereby they may enjoy the benefits of a well-ordered social life without being exposed to the shearings, milkings, geldings and butcheries which have always been associated with the pastoral office. (P. 57)

There are still other serious faults that Huxley has found with “most of the States and Churches of the last two or three thousand years.” He complains that “Compared with that of the Taoists and Far Eastern Buddhists, the Christian attitude towards Nature has been curiously insensitive and often downright domineering and violent” (Perennial Philosophy, p. 77). Encouraged by “an unfortunate remark in Genesis,” Christians have treated animals as things to be exploited for their own benefit. Furthermore, Huxley is very bitter because the church has not offered any kind of opposition to the waging of wars. In Ape and Essence, where his bitterness has perhaps reached its most intense pitch, he writes:

The brass bands give place to the most glutinous of Wurlitzers, “Land of Hope and Glory” to “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Followed by his very Reverend Dean and Chapter, the Right Reverend, the Baboon-Bishop of the Bronx advances majestic, his crozier in his jeweled paw, to pronounce benediction upon the two Field Marshalissimos and their patronage proceedings. (Pp. 45-46)

If we look at the ministers in Huxley’s novels, we find that they are all satirically drawn. In Crome Yellow, we have the Reverend Bodinham, who is much disturbed because his prediction of the coming of the Lord (“He’ll sneak around like a thief’) has not been realized. In Antic Hay, we have the Reverend Pelvey, whose ineffectiveness as a preacher is satirically demonstrated: while the Reverend Pelvey is preaching, one of the audience to whom his religious message is directed is thinking of “trousers with pneumatic seats.” In Eyeless in Gaza, Mr. Thursley, a minister, is successful in his sermons and in the publication of his articles in the Guardian, but he becomes uncontrollably angry when his wife fails to fill up his inkwell. In Time Must Have a Stop, Huxley pictures the minister father of Mrs. Thwale as a completely futile man; while the minister is trying to reform the world, he does not realize that his daughter is becoming bitterly opposed to religion: ironically enough, it is the minister’s daughter who worships material comfort and commits adultery.10

Of all the Christian faiths, he seems to have the greatest respect for Catholicism and the greatest admiration for Quakerism and those early Christians in whom he found mystic strains. The Quakers he admires for their opposition to war and for their contributions in alleviating some of the world’s social and economic sufferings. As for his attitude towards Catholicism, in Proper Studies he writes:

Catholicism is probably the most realistic of all Western religions. Its practice is based on a profound knowledge of human nature in all its varieties and gradations. From the fetish-worshipper to the metaphysician, from the tired business man to the mystic, from the sentimentalist and the sensualist to the intellectual, every type of human being can find in Catholicism the spiritual nourishment which he or she requires. For the sociable, unspiritual man Catholicism is duly sociable and unspiritual. For the solitary and the spiritual it provides a hermitage and the most exquisite, the profoundest models of religious meditation; it gives the silence of monasteries and the bareness of the Carthusian church, it offers the devotional introspection of A Kempis and St. Theresa, the subtleties of Pascal and Newman, the poetry of Crashaw and St. John of the Cross and a hundred others. The only people for whom it does not cater are those possessed by that rare, dangerous, and uneasy passion, the passion for liberty. (Pp. 186-87)

Presumably it is Huxley’s “passion for liberty” which constitutes one of the reasons for his objection to Catholicism. But there are other reasons. I have already spoken of his attacks on Christianity because of its failure to oppose wars and its encouragement of ma­terialistic success even to the extent of treating animals as mere property; Huxley does not exculpate Catholicism from his gener­alized attack on Christianity. He also objects to Catholicism (at least to Catholicism as it is practiced in England) because it stresses the ritual at the expense of the more meaningful “mental prayer.” In Eyeless in Gaza, we note the following extract from the diary of Anthony Beavis: “For English Catholics, sacraments are the psychological equivalents of tractors in Russia” (p. 386).

His objection to ritual is not confined to Catholicism alone; he seems to find little value in the ritual of any religion. In Eyeless in Gaza, he describes a funeral in which he satirizes the significance of the accompanying ritual. After describing the playing of the organ, the “little procession of surplices,” the flowers, the singing and the intoning of the funeral prayer, he points out the ineffectiveness of all this ritual on Anthony Beavis: “But Anthony hardly heard, because he could think of nothing except those germs that were still there in spite of the smell of the flowers, and of the spittle that kept flowing into his mouth . . .” (p. 25). Similarly, in Ape and Essence, he describes the procession in honor of Belial and refers to “the collective imbecility which are the products of ceremonial religion” (p. 108).

In his essay “Religious Practices,” published in Ends and Means, he notes that ritual is but one of the tour practices which he has observed in religion; he writes that ritual should not excuse people from “moral effort and intelligence” and should not lead to “neglect of God.” The second religious practice, asceticism, may increase the individuals power of perception, but it is generally undesirable because it can become too rigorous on the body and because it tends to flatter the ego by becoming an end in itself. Belief in a personal deity, the third religious practice, may improve one’s character but is also undesirable because it leads to oppression, injustice, and hatred; the people believing in an anthropomorphic conception of God tend to project upon God their own personal shortcomings.11 The fourth religious practice, meditation, can he valuable only if it is self-transcendent and entertains thoughts of the essence of the divine Godhead.

There is one other feature of traditional Christianity, the value of which Huxley has questioned: the belief in a future life of punishment or reward. In his essay “Squeak and Gibber.” published in his Music at Night, he dismisses the concept of Heaven and Hell. He prefers to agree with the “Scientific Psychical Researchers,” whose views on the future life

seem to be almost indistinguishable from those held by Homer and the author of Ecclesiastes. For all that survives, according to these researchers (and the existing evidence, it seems to me. does not justify one in going any further) is what Professor Broad calls a “psychic factor”—something which, in conjunction with a material brain, creates a personality but which, in isolation, is no more personal than matter. (Pp. 91-92)

This disbelief in a future life should not be discouraging, however, for it was Jesus, Huxley reminds the reader, who stated that the Kingdom of Heaven lies within us during our earthly life.

Huxley’s few references to Mohammedanism indicate a dislike for that religion also. In the essay “In a Tunisian Oasis,” published in The Olive Tree. he writes that “Too much insistence on the fatalism inherent in their [Arabs’] religion has reduced them to the condition of static lethargy and supine incuriousness in which they now find themselves” (p. 281). He blames the Arabs’ religion for the fact that “half their babies die. and that, politically, they are not their own masters” (p. 290). This “static lethargy and supine incuriousness” which he attributes to the Mohammedan religion sounds rather incongruous when juxtaposed with the comment he made about Mohammedanism some eight years later in The Peren­nial Philosophy:

Primitive Buddhism is no less predominantly cerebrotonic than primitive Christianity, and so is Vedanta, the metaphysical discipline which lies at the heart of Hinduism. Confucianism, on the contrary, is a mainly viscerotonic system—familial, ceremonious and thoroughly this-worldly. And in Mohammedanism we find a system which incorporates strongly somatotonic elements. Hence Islam’s black record of holy wars and persecutions—a record comparable to that of later Christianity, after that religion had so far compromised with unregenerate somatotonia as to call its ecclesiastical organization “the Church Militant.” (P. 158)

These then, briefly summarized, are Huxley’s attitudes toward religion up to the time he embraced mysticism: despite his declaration that he was “officially an agnostic,” his comments indicate more skepticism than agnosticism. lie found little to admire in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He blamed Judaism for narrowness of vision and excessive preoccupation with material success; he castigated Christianity for its cruel oppression of heresy, its occasional hypocrisy, its failure to object to the existence of wars; he criticized Islam for its pessimism and fatalism. It should be remembered, however, that what he was specifically rejecting in these three religions was the nonmystical element; wherever he found elements of mysticism, as he did in the Book of Ecclesiastes; in the writings of such mystic Christians as St. Augustine, St. Ber­nard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart, Walter Hilton, William Law, St. François de Sales, Thomas Traherne, and others; in the Sufi books of Islam, he accepted their teachings of contemplation, renunciation of worldly preoccupation, and the practice of love. It is, therefore, not so much religion itself that he was rejecting but what he felt was the perversion of the religious essence. During the 1920s, he was not yet philosophically prepared to embrace actively the practice of mysticism; consequently, he tentatively endorsed the instinctive philosophy of D. H. Lawrence and the hedonistic teachings of the Epicureans. But despite his rejection of nearly all the traditional concepts of God, he almost intuitively felt that there was a way to God which existed despite the “incorrect” notions about God that have been held for the last several thousand years. As early as 1926, in Jesting Pilate, we find him writing: “The fact that men have had stupid and obviously incorrect ideas about God does not justify us in trying to eliminate God from out of the universe. Men have had stupid and incorrect ideas on almost every subject that can be thought about” (p. 219).

The substitutes that people have created for religion were also rejected by Huxley. In his essay “The Substitutes for Religion,” in Proper Studies, he analyzes these substitutes and disapproves of all of them as sources of enduring value. The first substitute, nationalism, is rejected because it breeds wars. The second substitute, egalitarian democracy, is inadequate because it is impractical and because it lacks the pageantry of nationalism and does not attract as many people as does nationalism. The third substitute, the practice of ritual, is objectionable because it becomes an end in itself and may lead to such excesses as the Ku Klux Klan. Art, the fourth substitute, was formerly a handmaiden of religion but now has become an object of idolatrous worship:

That it is an extremely inadequate substitute must be apparent to any one who has observed the habits of those w ho lead the pure, aesthetic life. Where beauty is worshipped for beauty’s sake as a goddess, independent of and superior to morality and philosophy, the most horrible putrefaction is apt to set in. The lives of aesthetes are the far from edifying commentary on the religion of beauts’. (P. 218)

The fifth substitute, the religion of sex, is equally undesirable because those who practice it become victims of their own self- abasement, and those who object to its immorality become merely self-righteous “smut-hounds” (a term Huxley borrows from H. L. Mencken). The sixth substitute, business, leads to the deification of money and “offers no coherent explanation of any universe outside of that whose centre is the stock exchange” (p. 221). The seventh substitute is found in “crank” beliefs such as homeopathy and antivivisection, obviously inadequate as a source of value. The eighth substitute, a belief in superstitions which manifests itself in such forms as belief in luck charms and fear of microbes, is again unworthy of consideration as a guide to intelligent living. The final substitute is the deification of artists, doctors (especially nerve doctors and psychiatrists), and lawyers. Huxley is against this substitute because to put faith in human beings is to put faith in fallible and corruptible individuals. In summary, Huxley states that there are no adequate substitutes for religion. The dilemma for Huxley during the period from the end of World War I to about 1935 was that he could not accept the substitutes for religion and was not yet ready to embrace the mysticism he later did adopt. His dilemma is evident in the sardonic tone of the following passage from Texts and Pretexts:

There are escapes into drink, into sensuality, into play, into daydreaming. None of these, however, provides the perfect refuge. Lust exhausts itself; there are nights of self-questioning insomnia after the day-dreams, mornings of sick repentance after the alcohol; as for play, only an imbecile could bear to play away his existence. No; of all the death-surrogates incomparably the best is what is called— rightly, after all—the higher life. Religious meditation, scientific experiment, the acquisition of knowledge, metaphysical thinking and artistic creation—all these activities enhance the subjective sense of life, but at the same time deliver their practitioners from the sordid preoccupations of common living. They live, abundantly; and they are, in the language of religion, “dead to the world.” What could be more satisfactory? (Pp. 296-97)

Having rejected the nonmystic aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, having rejected the substitutes of religion which have infiltrated society, Huxley was ready to embrace what he felt would be a more satisfying source of value—mysticism.1– Mysticism is not an easy concept to define. As Huxley himself wrote, there are elements of mysticism common to nearly all religions. Inasmuch as he embraces not the mysticism of any particular religion (although he leans more toward Buddhism than to any other) but rather mysticism itself as a kind of philosophical concept, perhaps the definition given by Evelyn Underhill, two of whose books he lists in his Perennial Philosophy, best clarifies Huxley’s approach to mysticism: “I understand it to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.”13 It is significant that the one book of Huxley’s entirely devoted to a critical survey of mystical writings in all religions and in all ages is called The Perennial Philosophy, not The Perennial Religion. It is also important to note his admission of incompetence in this subject and his unwillingness to discuss “the doctrinal differences between Buddhism and Hinduism” (p. 9). In examining the development of mysticism in Huxley’s thought, therefore, I shall not delve into the doctrinal differences among the various religions in which mysticism is found.14

Huxley’s first comments on mysticism were hostile. In 1928, for example, he was writing in Do What You Will: “the mystics are never tired of affirming that their direct perceptions of unity are intenser, of finer quality and intrinsically more convincing, more self-evident, than their direct perceptions of diversity. But they can only speak for themselves. Other people’s direct intuitions of diverse ‘appearances’ may be just as intensely self-evident as their intuition of unique ‘reality’ ” (p. 38).15 But in another essay in the same book, he admits that “It is also true that, in certain circumstances, we can actually feel, as a direct intuition, the existence of the all-comprehending unity, can intimately realize in a single Hash of insight the illusoriness of the quotidian world of distinctions and relations” (p. 63). Even in his earlier novels, we detect some elements of mysticism—the urge for a contemplative life, the distrust of the life of action. Thus, in Those Barren Leaves, Calamy (who at the end of the book retires to the hills to start a life of pure contemplation) says: “The mind must be open, unperturbed, empty of irrelevant things, quiet. There’s no room for thoughts in a half-shut, cluttered mind” (p. 347). Later in the book, he comes out even more strongly for the contemplative life:

No, it’s not fools who turn mystics. It takes a certain amount of intelligence and imagination to realize the extraordinary queerness and mysteriousness of the world in which we live. The fools, the innumerable fools, take it all for granted, skate about cheerfully on the surface and never think of inquiring what’s underneath. They’re content with appearances, such as your Harrow Road or Café de la Rotonde, call them realities and proceed to abuse any one who takes an interest in what lies underneath these superficial symbols, as a romantic imbecile. (P. 370)

It should not be concluded from excerpts like these that Huxley completely believed in mysticism back in the 1920’s; but even when he denies the mystic’s claim of achieving unity with God, he qualifies this denial by writing that “that does not in any way detract from the value of mysticism as a way to perfect health” (Jesting Pilate, pp. 217-18). Similarly, in Brave New World, published in 1932, he is more against the tendency of the world to drift into a technological “utopia” than he is for mysticism; but in this book, also, we detect unmistakable signs of his eventual conversion to mysticism; as Mustapha Mond is signing the papers banning a work on “A New Theory of Biology,” we learn that one of the reasons for his proscription of the book is that people might begin to think that “the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge” (p. 211).

Eyeless in Gaza, published in 1936, contains Huxley’s first complete endorsement of mysticism. Through his central character, Anthony Beavis, he outlines the details of his mysticism which he was to elaborate in later works. It is in this book that he first advocates the achievement of a union with God. Evil is that which separates man from his fellow man; manifestations of evils such as hatred, greed, and lust should be avoided. Good is that which unites; love, compassion, and understanding are manifestations of unity. Huxley admits that this unity is difficult to achieve, but man should at least try to achieve this unity through meditation and inner peace. Through the attainment of this inner calm, he will be better able to withstand the external evil which is the condition of the world. Anthony Beavis’ notebook expresses Huxley’s mysticism:

Empirical facts:
One. We are all capable of love for other human beings.
Two. We impose limitations on that love.
Three. We can transcend all these limitations—if we choose to. (It is a matter of observation that anyone who so desires can overcome personal dislike, class feeling, national hatred, colour prejudice. Not easy; but it can be done, if we have the will and know how to carry out our good intentions.)
Four. Love expressing itself in good treatment breeds love. Hate expressing itself in bad treatment breeds hate.
In the light of these facts, it’s obvious what inter-personal, inter­class and inter-national policies should be. But, again, knowledge cuts little ice. We all know; we almost all fail to do. It is a question, as usual, of the best methods of implementing intentions. Among other things, peace propaganda must be a set of instructions in the art of modifying character. (P. 156)16

In Ends and Means, be repeats some of the thoughts concerning mysticism he expressed in Eyeless in Gaza, but he also adds some new features. He again writes that “Meditation … is the technique of mysticism” (p. 332). But he emphasizes in this book the necessity of intuition in attaining detachment from the world of animality. He again stresses the importance of will power in achieving the intuitive experience that will bring about the mystical state: “What we perceive and understand depends upon what we are; and what we are depends partly on circumstances, partly, and more profoundly, on the nature of the efforts we have made to realize our ideal and the nature of the ideal we have tried to realize” (p. 333). Huxley particularly urges the reader to remember Irving Babbitt’s statement that meditation produces a “super-rational concentration of will.” He concedes that all of us have animal instincts which cannot be ignored, but he does not want us to devote our entire attention to the satisfaction of these instincts. “Goodness is the method by which we divert our attention from this singularly wearisome topic of our animality and our individual separateness” (p. 346). This loss of preoccupation with bodily needs may cause some temporary physical suffering, but it is more than adequately compensated by the knowledge and inner serenity which accompany the mystical experience. The nonattachment of mysticism is infinitely preferable to the attachment of the individual to the pursuit of the life of meaningless action.

In his next novel, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Huxley further elaborates his theories of mysticism. When Pete asks Mr. Propter, the mystic in the novel, what good is and where it is to be found, Mr. Propter replies:

On the level below the human and on the level above. On the animal level and on the level . . . well, you can take your choice of names: the level of eternity; the level, if you don’t object, of God; the level of the spirit—only that happens to be about the most ambiguous word in the language. On the lower level, good exists as the proper functioning of the organism in accordance with the laws of its own being. On the higher level, it exists in the form of a knowledge of the world without desire or aversion; it exists as the experience of eternity, as the transcendence of personality, the extension of consciousness beyond the limits imposed by the ego. Strictly human activities are the activities that prevent the manifestations of good on the other two levels …. Directly or indirectly, most of our physical ailments and disabilities are due to worry and craving. We worry and crave ourselves into high blood pressure, heart disease, tuberculosis, peptic ulcer, low resistance to infection, neurasthenia, sexual aberrations, insanity, suicide. Not to mention all the rest. (Pp. 99-100)

In addition to liberation from the fetters of the ego, Mr. Propter also wants liberation from time, which he describes as “a pretty bothersome thing.” Furthermore, the cultivation of virtues is not sufficient; it must be the cultivation of the right virtues—specifically, understanding and compassion. The possession of the other virtues is no guarantee of virtuous conduct: “Indeed, you can’t be really bad unless you do have most of the virtues. Look at Milton’s Satan for example. Brave, strong, generous, loyal, prudent, temperate. self-sacrificing” (p. 95 . But because Milton’s Satan lacked the qualities of understanding and compassion, he could not be a virtuous leader.

In Grey Eminence, published in 1941, Huxley gives two additional suggestions to those who would embrace mysticism: first, the good achieved by a practice of mysticism “is a product of the ethical and spiritual artistry of individuals; it cannot be mass-produced” (p. 303). Second, people should beware of “only false, ersatz mysticisms—the nature-mysticism of Wordsworth; the sublimated sexual mysticism of Whitman; the nationality-mysticisms of all the patriotic poets and philosophers of even race and culture, from Fichte at the beginning of the period [the nineteenth century] to Kipling and Barrès at the end” (p. 77). The only valid manifestation of mysticism is that based on an intuitive knowledge and love of God.

In the introduction to The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley writes: “This book … is an anthology of the Perennial Philosophy; but, though an anthology, it contans [sic] but few extracts from the writings of professional men of letters and, though illustrating a philosophy, hardly anything from the professional philosophers” (p. viii). Only those who have made themselves “loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit” are capable of apprehending the nature of this perennial philosophy, which, he says “is primarily concerned with the one divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds” (p. viii). The book is divided into twenty-seven chapters dealing with various aspects of human and divine experience. The importance of the book, how ever, lies not in the selection of excerpts from the writings of others (excellent as they may be) but rather in the ample comments Huxley makes on these excerpts.

Even phase of human activity, he says, must be judged in terms of its hindering or facilitating the achievement of the ultimate purpose of life: “In all the historic formulations of the Perennial Philosophy it is axiomatic that the end of human life is contemplation, or the direct and intuitive awareness of God” (p. 294). That society is good which emphasizes not technological advances but makes possible and desirable the pursuit of contemplation. The love released by the exercise of this intuitive contemplation will cure many of the evils plaguing mankind. This love will lead man to treat Nature kindly; the earth’s resources will no longer be ravaged by people motivated only by self-interest. Similarly, this love will restore man’s creativity in work so that he will no longer be a slave to the machine. This love will also eliminate political oppression of people because presumably even their leaders will be guided by a sense of love instead of a desire for power. Above all, it will release the individual from bondage to selfhood and the fetters of time and sensual demands. The liberation from these fetters will even rid us of the ailments of “most of the degenerative diseases”: our heart, kidneys, pancreas, intestines, and arteries are now subject to deterioration because we do not live in harmony with “the divine Nature of Things.” Self-denial will not only bring us into union with the essence of the divine Godhead, but will, in so doing, relieve us ultimately of our physical pain.

Man should not be troubled by such problems as the origin of this Divine Ground or the seeming injustice of seeing evil people prosperous and good people impoverished. God is because He is: “Only when the individual also ‘simply is,’ by reason of his union through love-knowledge with the Ground, can there be any question of complete and eternal liberation” (p. 238) .17 As for the seeming injustice of the bad man enjoying prosperity and the good man afflicted with poverty, Huxley offers the following explanation: “The bad man in prosperity may, all unknown to himself, be darkened and corroded with inward rust, while the good man under afflictions may be in the rewarding process of spiritual growth” (p.239).

Until the “Perennial Philosophy” is adopted and recognized as “the highest factor common to all the world religions,” until the worshipers of every religion renounce their egocentric, time-based, and false idolatries, then “no amount of political planning, no economic blue-prints however ingeniously drawn, can prevent the recrudescence of war and revolution” (p. 200). What is the way to achieve this ideal state? To answer this question, Huxley recommends Buddha’s “Eightfold Path”:

Complete deliverance is conditional on the following: first, Right Belief in the all too obvious truth that the cause of pain and evil is craving for separative, egocentred existence, with its corollary that there can be no deliverance from evil, whether personal or collective, except by getting rid of such craving and the obsession of “I,” “me,” “mine”; second. Right Will, the will to deliver oneself and others; third. Right Speech, directed by compassion and charity towards all sentient beings; fourth. Right Action, with the aim of creating and maintaining peace and good will: fifth. Right Means of Livelihood, or the choice only of such professions as are not harmful, in their exercise, to any human being or, if possible, any living creature; sixth, Right Effort towards Self-control; seventh, Right Attention or Recollectedness, to be practised in all the circumstances of life, so that we may never do evil by mere thoughtlessness, because “we know not what we do ”; and, eighth, Right Contemplation, the unitive knowledge of the Ground, to which recollected­ness and the ethical self-naughting prescribed in the first six branches of the Path give access. Such then are the means which it is within the power of the human being to employ in order to achieve man’s final end and be “saved.” (Pp. 202-203)

Huxley is not excessively optimistic that these prescriptions will be followed by most people; “But then no saint or founder of a religion, no exponent of the Perennial Philosophy, has ever been optimistic” (p. 211).

One would think that Huxleys search for the ideal religion would end where so many of our religions began—in the East. His teleological and axiological quest, however, did not end there. Hux­ley’s soul was always the battleground between the challenging barks of “Darwin s bulldog” (his paternal grandfathers sobriquet) and the melancholy promptings for withdrawal of his maternal granduncle, Matthew Arnold. The urgings for self-transcendence occasionally gave way to scientific probing. And so in his essay “The Double Crisis,” published in Themes and Variations in 1950, Huxley again calls upon science to help solve the world’s problems. It is somewhat difficult to reconcile the advocacy of self­mortification found in The Perennial Philosophy with this advice:

Man cannot live by bread alone; but still less can he live exclusively by idealism. To talk about the Rights of Man and the Four Freedoms in connection, for example, with India is merely a cruel joke. In a country where two thirds of the people succumb to the consequences of malnutrition before they reach the age of thirty, but where, nonetheless, the population increases by fifty millions every decade, most men possess neither rights nor any kind of freedom. The “giant misery of the world” is only aggravated by mass violence and cannot be mitigated by inspirational twaddle. Misery will yield only to an intelligent attack upon the causes of misery. (P. 257)

In the last ten years of his life, he continued to turn to science both to help solve the problems of feeding the world’s excessive population and solving its economic dilemmas and to provide the means to increase his own aesthetic and religious perceptions. All the books published in the last decade of his life—The Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and To­morrow, Brave New World Revisited, Island, and, finally, Litera­ture and Science—indicate Huxley’s return to his first love, science. He himself has experimented with several drugs—mescalin, LSD, and others—to help him increase his aesthetic and spiritual awareness. Huxley’s intention was to utilize science to facilitate the achievement of a beatific union with the Godhead, but one wonders whether in his metaphysical edifice, the temple has not become the waiting room to the laboratory.

In his last published novel, Island, Huxley no longer offers man the choice he offered him in Brave New World, published thirty years earlier: the meaningless diversions of a mechanized utopia and the almost equally narrow existence of the primitive. In his last utopia, Huxley attempts to make the best of both worlds. He had always realized, his attacks on the Judeo-Christian tradition not­withstanding, that “The ethical doctrines taught in the Tao Te Ching, by Gotama Buddha and his followers of the Lesser and above all the Greater Vehicle, in the Sermon on the Mount and by the best of the Christian saints, are not dissimilar” (Ends and Means, p. 327). What Huxley actually wanted was a kind of fusion of the mystical contributions of the East with the technological improvements of the West. What had happened, unfortunately, was that the East and West had borrowed not the best, but the worst features of each other’s cultures; in Ape and Essence, he comments on how Belial “persuaded each side to take only the worst the other had to offer. So the East takes Western nationalism, Western armaments, Western movies and Western Marxism; the West takes Eastern despotism, Eastern superstitions and Eastern indifference to individual life. In a word, He [Belial] saw to it that mankind should make the worst of both worlds” (p. 184). In Island, Huxley found the perfect solution: “Our recipe is rather different: Take twenty sexually satisfied couples and their offspring; add science, intuition and humor in equal quantities; steep in Tantrik Buddhism and simmer indefinitely in an open pan in the open air over a brisk flame of affection” (p. 103). The marriage of science and religion does not seem to work very well in his fictional island of Pala, for at the end of the book the greedy and the vulgar are about to smash the moksha-induced beatitudes of the fortunate ones. The insects at the end of the book are still vulgarly copulating—to the background music of Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto—and the female insect still devours the male after the sexual consummation. It is quite true that Will Farnaby, the novel’s central character, has learned Karuma (Compassion) and has achieved an inner strength to help him withstand the inevitable onrush of idiocy, materialism, and war. But one wonders whether this inner light is the result of wisdom and free will or of the moksha-medicine, “the reality revealer, the truth-and-beauty pill.” Curiously enough, moksha, as the Indian scholar S. Nagarajan relates,18 means “freedom for evermore.” A freedom induced by a drug extracted from mushrooms seems hardly different from the euphoria induced by soma in Brave New World.

Essentially, then, Huxley’s religious quest has been paradoxical and tortuous. He began by mocking and rejecting the Judeo-Christian tradition (though accepting its occasional manifestations of mysticism), flirted temporarily with the Lawrentian doctrine of instinctive living and “blood consciousness,” changed to contemplative investigation, turned to the East for further illumination, and died in the West trying to balance, in an uneasy syncretism, the Caliban of Western science with the Ariel of Buddhist mysticism. One is saddened to observe that the religious syncretism turned out to be a synthetic product, that his metaphysical quest ended with a pharmacological solution.

* * *


1. Marshall, “The War of the Machines, The Enemies of the Modern World, 3. Aldous Huxley,” The Catholic World, CXLV (May 1937), 184.

2. “The Trouble with Aldous Huxley,” The American Scholar, XI (Oct. 1942), 432-64. In his Forces in Modern British Literature (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947), Tindall also berates Huxley’s espousal of mysticism. He writes, for example: “the pity is that good cynics are uncommon in English literature and preachers are a dime a dozen” (p. 211).

3. “The Huxley-Heard Paradise,” Partisan Review, X (March- April 1943), 153-58.

4. Ibid, p. 158.

5. In addition to the two anthologies by Christopher Isherwood (Vedanta for Modern Man and Vedanta for the Western World), the reader is also urged to read the following books to enable him to read Huxley’s comments on the Eastern religions and mysticism with at least a minimum of critical comprehension: Jack Finegan, The Archeology of World Religions: The Background of Primi­tivism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Islam, and Sikhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952); Albert Schweitzer, Indian Thought and Its Development (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1954), trans. from the 1935 ed. by Mrs. C. E. B. Russell; Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1911).

6. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) was an American efficiency engineer who wrote many articles on efficiency for The Proceedings of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. “Taylorism” would therefore be excessive preoccupation with efficiency.

7. Wilhelm Poschmann, “Das Kritische Weltbild bei Aldous Huxley. Eine Untersuchung über Bedeutung, Grenzen und Mittel seiner Kritik” (Diss., Bonn, 1937). See especially “Der Jude als Feind mensehlicher Kultur,” pp. 39-40; “Huxleys Kritik am Demokratismus, Marxismus und Bolshevismus,” pp. 42-48; “Ablehnung des Amerikanismus und des jüdischer Einflusses,” pp. 60-63.

8. That Huxley’s knowledge of Judaism was superficial can be seen from a letter written to Camille B. Honig in 1952. “My silence in regard to Jewish mysticism has a painfully simple explanation— ignorance. [G. G.] Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism has only recently come into my hands—too recently for me to have had time (since I am compelled by a visual handicap to ration my reading) to read it. Before that I had looked at the Kabbalah and quailed before its bulk and complexity. I am not a scholar and can lay no claim to exhaustiveness or accuracy, thinking it best to write of what I happen to know a little about [rather] than to wait until I had made my knowledge a little more (but always how little more!) adequate to the all but infinite subject” (Letters of Aldous Huxley, pp. 659-60).

9. Huxley’s attitude toward the Jews is a curious blend of latent antipathy and some sympathy for the sufferings they often endured. In Along the Road, he sympathizes with those who have to work “eight hours a day in an office for the greater enrichment of the Jews” (p. 79). In Antic Hay, a stranger whom Gumbril meets on the train complains: “Hideous red cities pullulating with Jews, sir. Pullulating with prosperous Jews. Am I right in being indignant, sir?” (p. 263). That this character reflects Huxley’s attitude is seen in a comment that Huxley made to his brother Julian in 1943: “Other curious and rather ominous consequences of war are the increased anti-Semitism which one meets with in all classes, particularly the common people, and the strong recrudescence of anti-negro passions in the South. The first is due to the age-old dislike of a monied, influential and pushing minority [italics added], coupled with a special grudge against the Jews as being chiefly instrumental, in popular opinion, in getting America into the war” (Letters of Aldous Huxley, 486). And yet Leonard Woolf recalls how both Aldous and Julian Huxley helped some of the Jewish victims of the Nazis prior to 1939. (See p. 35 of Aldous Huxley, 1894-1936: A Memorial Volume.) His refusal of Jacob I. Zeitlin’s request to write a public statement about the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Jews (see p. 439 of Letters of Aldous Huxley) indicates that it was not the first time that Huxley was pulled in opposing directions.

10. The satire on ministers is not confined to the novels. In his books of essays, he also minimizes the effectiveness of churchmen when they attempt to practice their “Christian” ideals: “In the lounge, waiting for the coffee, we got into conversation with the clergyman. Or rather, he got into conversation with us. He felt it his duty, I suppose, as a Christian, as a temporary chaplain in the Anglican diocese of Southern Europe, to welcome the newcomers, to put them at their ease. ‘Beautiful evening,’ he said, in his too richly cultured voice. (But I loved him for his trousers.) ‘Beautiful,’ we agreed, and that the place was charming. ‘Staying long?’ he asked. We looked at one another, then round the crowded hall, then again at one another. I shook my head. ‘Tomorrow,’ I said, ‘we have to make a very early start’ ” (“Paradise,” Do What You Will, pp. 111-12).

11. Note also the following: “Belief in a personal God has released a vast amount of energy directed towards good ends; hut it has probably released an almost equal amount of energy directed towards ends which were evil. This consideration, taken in conjunction with the philosophical improbability of the dogma, should make us extremely chary of accepting belief in a personal deity” (“Justifications,” The Olive Tree, 202).

12. After he had embraced mysticism, Huxley no longer regarded religion as a “death-surrogate.” Thus, when Sebastian Barnack, in Time Must Have a Stop, thinks of the substitutes used by people to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of religion—the substitutes of nation, class and party, culture and art—he writes in his diary: “But regard them dispassionately, sub specie aeternitatis. How unutterably odd, silly and satanic!” (p. 291). Religion, to Huxley, was no longer the best of the “death-surrogates,” but a way of life.

13. Underhill, Mysticism, x. Isherwood, who espouses the Vedanta type of mysticism, writes: “Vedanta also teaches the practice of mysticism; it claims, that is to say, that man may directly know and be united with his eternal Nature, the Atman, through meditation and spiritual discipline, without the aid of any church or delegated minister (Vedanta for Modern Man, pp. xii-xiii). To Huxley, mysticism is one of the two branches of spirituality: “Spirituality is the art of achieving union with God, and consists of two branches—asceticism and mysticism, the mortification of the self and that contemplation by means of which the soul makes contact with ultimate Reality” (“Readings in Mysticism,” Vedanta for the Western World, p. 377). It should be noted, however, that Huxley elsewhere speaks out against “the mortification of the self.”

14. William Y. Tindall and Richard Chase have exaggerated the influence of Gerald Heard on Huxley’s mysticism. Huxley met Heard in England in 1935; both belonged to a group of Hollywood writers espousing a Vedanta brand of mysticism. Both were pacifists and contributed to the two anthologies edited by Christopher Isherwood (Vedanta for Modern Man and Vedanta for the Western World); Huxley, however, showed mystical leanings in his work long before he presumably was influenced by the Heard and Isherwood groups in California.

15. For Huxley’s conception of “ultimate reality,” see eh. Ill, above.

16. Dr. Miller and the other mystic characters in his novels have already been discussed in eh. IV, above.

17. See also his two essays, “Seven Meditations” and “Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer,” Vedanta for the Western World, ed. Isherwood.

18. See Nagarajan’s article, “Religion in Three Recent Novels of Aldous Huxley,” Modern Fiction Studies, V, no. 2 (Summer 1959), 153-65.

The essay is based on “Aldous Huxley’s Quest for Values: A Study in Religious Syncretism” in Mansions of the Spirit: Essays in Literature and Religion, ed. George A. Panichas, 1967 by the University of Maryland.

Source: Milton Birnbaum, Aldous Huxley’s Quest for Values, The University of Tennessee Press, 1971


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