Aldous Huxley's Philosophy

By Hope, Ronald | Contemporary Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Aldous Huxley's Philosophy


Hope, Ronald, Contemporary Review


I WAS sixteen when Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means was published, and a year older when it came my way in the public library. By that time I had romped through Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and Brave New World. Today, the young do not seem so well served by the winners of the Booker Prize, but no doubt that is the plaint of all the generations. However, those of us who grew up in the Huxley era had much to look forward to and best of all, in my opinion, was The Perennial Philosophy, the book of Huxley's prime. And it is, perhaps, worth taking another look at it as we celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

Text and Pretexts had been an annotated anthology of verse. The Perennial Philosophy was an annotated anthology of mysticism, with chapter headings like 'Charity', 'God in the World' and 'Time and Eternity'.

This perennial philosophy -- the phrase is borrowed from Leibniz - is the highest factor common to all religions, a 'minimum working hypothesis', and Huxley's character Sebastian had already reflected upon it in Time Must Have a Stop. The primary assumption is that there is a Godhead behind the universe, behind all appearance. This unity both pervades the universe and is above and beyond it. 'Behold but the One in all things', says the mystic Kabir; 'it is the second that leads you astray'.

Most of us, claimed Huxley, have some consciousness of this unity, a consciousness implicit in our use of words. One is the embodiment of Good; two is the embodiment of Evil. Thus the Greek prefix 'dys', as in dyspepsia, and the Latin 'dis' as in dishonourable; and the German 'Zweifel', which means doubt. Bunyan, he pointed out, had his Mr Facing-both-ways and American slang its 'two-timers'. He might have added the double-crossers.

Granted the underlying unity in all things, Huxley argued that it was possible for human beings to love, know and become identified with the Godhead, to become one with God, and to achieve this identity with God is the purpose and end of human life. It is, of course, a message that has been conveyed by many other thinkers.

This end, however, cannot be realised unless a certain path is followed. We can have direct knowledge of God only by union, and this union cannot be achieved while we remain selfish and egoistic. 'The more there is of I, me, mine', wrote Sebastian, 'the less there is of the Ground'. And the only way of dying to self, of annihilating the Ego, is the way of humility and compassion, the way of disinterestedness. It is because people have been unwilling to follow this path to salvation that human history has been what it has. People don't see why they shouldn't 'express their personalities' and 'have a good time'. 'They get their good times', says Huxley; 'but also and inevitably they get wars and syphilis and revolution and alcoholism, tyranny and, in default of an adequate religious hypothesis, the choice between some lunatic idolatry, like nationalism, and a sense of complete futility and despair'. Everybody realises that this is a sad state of affairs but 'throughout recorded history most men and women have preferred the risks, the positive certainty of such disasters to the laborious whole-time job of trying to get to know the divine Ground of all being. In the long run we get exactly what we ask for'.

Huxley did not, of course, suggest that there was any proof, in the mathematical sense, of the existence of God. We cannot divide matter by nothing and call it infinity, as one of Huxley's fictional characters tried to do. But there is, according to Huxley, abundant evidence that certain people, by no means extraordinary except in this mystical respect, have directly experienced and realised the spiritual Absolute, have become united in God.

Then what of we 'ordinary, nice, unregenerate' people, what can we do about it? The answer is that our will is free and it is up to us. We can either identify ourselves exclusively with our self-ness and its own interests to the exclusion of God, in which case we shall be either passively damned or actively fiendish; or we can identify ourselves exclusively with the divine within us and without, in which case we shall be saints. …

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