Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley; drawing by David Levine

In his study The Huxleys, Ronald W. Clark discusses T. H. Huxley’s feeling of responsibility for the blow struck against religious believers as a result of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, which he supported so ardently:

…having realized that the ethical standards of Christianity, which he did respect, might well go out of the window with the religious dogmas for which he had only contempt, he saw the new requirement. This was nothing less than the construction of a new ethical formula, a new set of beliefs, a new pattern of rules by which humanity might live.

Huxley’s grandson Julian, on the first page of his Memories, states that his grandfather “coined the word agnostic to describe his own religious position.” He refused to believe in the existence of the God of the Old and New Testament and the Christian religions. But the nonexistence of God could not be proved either.

In the lives of T. H. Huxley and of his grandsons, Julian and Aldous, concern about the existence or nonexistence of God and a yearning for religion have been extended. Giving the Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 1893, T. H. Huxley took as his theme ethics and evolutionary theory, setting up the conscious moral purpose of man against Nature without moral purpose. Fifty years later when Julian Huxley was asked to give the Romanes Lecture he discussed evolutionary ethics, putting forward his theory of evolutionary humanism, that the task of evolution, which had begun unconsciously in inorganic and animal nature through natural selection, must now become purposive and ethical within society.

It is as though, having replaced the Victorian theology with Darwin’s evolutionary machine, members of the Huxley family have felt responsible to the public either for giving the machine religious and ethical characteristics, or for putting God back into it.

Humanism of the evolutionary variety, although it has many non-Huxley supporters, seems a special preserve in which Huxleys, with an inherited bad conscience toward an existent or nonexistent God, and toward a public deprived of the benefits of such a present or absent deity, endeavor to fill a theological and moral vacuum. In doing this before a public they provide the spectacle of the evolution of their family consciousness from generation to generation, Romanes Lecture to Romanes Lecture. Julian Huxley’s version represents, I suppose, a more evolved stage of his grandfather’s addressing himself to the same problems of evolution and ethics, to which Herbert Spencer (Ronald W. Clark quotes) objected that “the argument went practically…back to the old theological notions, which put Man and Nature in antithesis.”

Evolutionary humanism is a theory which seems open to the kind of objections that were made to Utilitarianism. Reading Julian Huxley’s Romanes Lecture when it was first published during the war, I felt apprehensive. For if evolution was the criterion of human values, Hermann Goering might turn out to be, on this scale, further developed than the lecturer. For unless values external to the process of evolution are introduced, there is no criterion to judge between development which is good and that which was evil. Yet if one believes, as I do, in the natural goodness of the Huxleys, it seems not unthinkable that there is a Huxley grandchild now living who in 1993 will give a third Romanes Lecture to put back the moral mainspring into the machine from which Darwin took it out.

T. H. Huxley’s wife was church-going, unshaken by Evolution. The wife of his son Leonard, mother of Julian and Aldous, was the niece of Matthew Arnold. An aunt was Mrs. Humphrey Ward, who wrote Robert Elsmere which Julian Huxley describes in his Memories as “a remarkable study of the religious turmoil, aftermath of the Tractarian movement.” In the end the hero, Robert Elsmere, who is a rector, “resigns from his living but remains a believer in Jesus as an outstanding moralist, an apostle of love and forgiveness, but not of damnation for all sinners and non-Christians (that was added by Paul and the early Fathers of the Church).”

The Huxleys seem, as a family, the embodiment of the conscience which tore liberal Victorian sensibilities apart in battles between scientific truth, religious belief, good works, and progress. The reader of Mr. Clark’s book forms the impression that strains representing all these forces at their best and most enlightened are in the family blood. However it is not conscience that has made this family survive but extraordinary cleverness, their encyclopedic brains. The continuity of family consciousness and conscience into the twentieth century gives the Huxleys a strange air of being unworldly animals in a progressive zoo: a kind of Whipsnade in which there are no cages and the animals seem freer, nobler creatures than the coarse-handed grubby visitors. When I was working at UNESCO, a French colleague said to me one day that he devoutly wished Julian Huxley had been God the Father. Why, I asked. “Because he would have invented thousands more animals than those we have, and they would all have been gentle and charming.”


A consequence of the radiant isolation of the most distinguished members of this distinguished family is that intellectually their minds don’t quite mesh with those of their contemporaries. This incompleteness of contact or communication rather undermines their cleverness, causes other people, their inferiors, sometimes to feel superior to them. Julian Huxley recounts with bewilderment, if not incomprehension, the story of his having been dismissed from the secretaryship of the London Zoological Society. In view of his great services to that institution, the treatment he received does seem surprising. The reason for it of course is that he understood the animals far better than he did the Fellows, just as later he was to understand the noble intellectual causes which UNESCO represented much better than he did the powerful American committee which in effect dictated the arrangements of this organization.

With Aldous Huxley this non-meshing with surrounding life leads to his failure in his novels either to invent characters who are convincing human beings or to write (as he sometimes thought he was doing) artificial comedy in the manner of Peacock. His characters seem to fall halfway between some real-life model (Lypiatt, the artist in Antic Hay, Rampion in Point Counter Point) and puppets invented to demonstrate attitudes and behavior. One reads them for passages which affect one as essays. Brave New World is far and away the most successful of his fictions because it is scarcely a novel at all and most an essay.

Taken as a whole, his letters are immensely rewarding, though in them as in his novels, he seems best as essayist. The letters he wrote from school and university come nearest to conveying that gesture of the mind and spirit from writer to recipient which we find in the letters of Keats or D. H. Lawrence. It is only in these that one feels Aldous Huxley enjoyed sending or receiving a letter as he would have enjoyed conversing with a friend. He admits indeed that he regards writing letters as an obligation rather than a pleasure. All the same, it is an obligation which he discharges extremely well even when at his most dutiful he is writing a packed newsy letter to his father Leonard Huxley, describing things that (after eighteen months of near-blindness which began when he was sixteen) he sees with great difficulty. (His bad sight must indeed have robbed letter writing of zest.)

In the letters he writes on his travels he describes scenes intensely experienced and observed, without touristic reactions that are clichés. “Indians, from the great Moguls downwards, have always described Kashmir as the earthly paradise—and so it is, of course, in comparison with the Panjab in summer. But the Panjab in summer, is the earthly hell….” And so he continues with a description of Srinagar, the country, its people and customs, which has the crystal detail of a map looked at through a magnifying glass.

In the letters of his youth one gets an inside view of his life written at a time when in his published writings he appeared heartless, cynical, a bit callow, and at times sentimental. While he was schoolmastering at Eton he had an almost sinister reputation as a diabolic Bohemian when visiting London. He writes in 1918 that his detractors “think me a sinister and crooked sort of devil.” No one reading these letters, written from the inside, can suppose that his diabolism was anything but a very thin and papery mask. He did, however, regard himself as very clever—he had much evidence to demonstrate this—and he was very conscious of the stupidity of others, particularly of politicians and men in public life.

One wonders which is the greatest, the stupidity or the wickedness of our rulers. I think their stupidity; the ideas which inspire them are fundamentally stupid, the way in which they carry them out is criminal.

That is in 1918. Eight years later, writing from Italy to the poet Robert Nichols he complains about the English whom he meets on his visits home.

I agree with you about the incomprehensibleness of some of our contemporaries; it seems to me the fruit of a profound stupidity. Einstein is incomprehensible because he is too intelligent; dogs are incomprehensible because they are too stupid. These smart young French and imitation French who want to abolish psychology, abolish reason, abolish speculation, analysis, everything beyond immediate sensation, the more violent the better, and mere animal action are just stupid.

At the end of his life he wrote a letter to his son Matthew warning him against the sense of superiority which he considered a Huxley characteristic, and against passing judgment on other people: “Huxleys especially have a tendency not to suffer fools gladly—and also to regard as fools people who are merely different from themselves in temperament and habits.”


The young Huxley is often self-mockingly but also perhaps sincerely self-congratulatory regarding his own work. When it comes to his admiring his own poems, one sees that he lacks judgment, and that an unsureness which certainly affects his views about literature (he never seems to have made up his mind what place literature had in his scale of values) extends to other things, for instance his readiness to accept evidence provided by spiritualist séances and to attempt shortcuts to spiritual experience through drugs. One of his reports (quoted in Laura Archera Huxley’s memoir This Timeless Moment) on the effects of listening to Bach when under the influence of mescaline can surely only be taken as indicating that he came to think of music as a means of communicating a mystical experience which lay beyond the music. A way of intensifying the experience and hotting or speeding up the message was to listen to the music when taking the drug:

Let me advise you, if ever you use mescaline or LSD in therapy, to try the effect of the B minor suite. More than anything, I believe, it will serve to lead the patient’s mind (wordlessly, without any suggestion or covert bullying by doctor or person) to the central primordial Fact, the understanding of which is perfect health during the time of the experience.

This comes very oddly from the author of Brave New World, which was written partly as a warning against the possibility (or probability) of oligarchical governments using barbiturates, hypnosis, and psychological suggestion to enslave “even the most recalcitrant subjects,” as he wrote to George Orwell. Yet here is Huxley advising a reader to listen to Bach under circumstances which effectively dissolve the experience of the music into the hallucination produced by the drug. That he should have advised this surely shows a suspension of critical sense: critical awareness of the objectivity of the art form employed by Bach, uncritical willingness to use art multiplied by drugs as therapy for a listener who becomes a “patient.”

Fortunately there is very little in Huxley’s letters which suggests that he was morbidly and secretly on the side of those who would use drugs, hypnosis, and psychoanalysis to enslave people. The charitable—and I think just—explanation of the passage quoted above is that he came at the end to think of mystical experience as the most important thing in life, the opening of the doors of perception onto a world of greater reality. He did not wish to pervert art—as this passage suggests—he simply had come to regard it as unimportant except as intermediary between the spectator and the “primordial Fact” or ground of being.

His letters show that he was scrupulous, charitable, benevolent, luminous, saintly even. If pressed by a correspondent, or if pressing himself to arrive at conclusions, he could show real wisdom, of the kind of which his Introduction to Lawrence’s Letters is a shining example. But there are many remarks in these letters to show that when he was not so pressed he could be gullible and lacking in ordinary common sense. Laura Archera Huxley’s memoir reads unintentionally like a sustained report on his (and her) gullibility, as does much of the correspondence here with Dr. Humphrey Osmond.

Politics meant for him not so much “the art of the possible” as the bungling of the unfeasible. In 1945, in a letter to Victoria Ocampo, he writes how he saw the world scene:

Either you choose…to be a totalitarian fascist…and you find yourself involved in the most atrocious military tyranny. Or you choose socialism or communism, call the resulting totalitarianism by the name of “democracy” and end up, if you are sensitive and honest, by finding yourself horribly disillusioned. Or finally you cling to democratic capitalism and find yourself forced, by the logic of advancing technology, to embrace some form of totalitarianism.

Broadly speaking this may be true, but the truth is much too broad. There are little struggles worth taking sides over going on in the world. The despair is a bit facile. One finds Huxley a year before this, in 1944, describing England (to Frieda Lawrence) as a country where electric light bulbs are swiped out of railway carriages by the hundreds of thousands, windows wantonly broken, upholstery slashed, furnishings demolished, the sex life Sodom and Gomorrah, the government completely tyrannical, and members of parliament not even bothering to turn up for important debates. Although his informant was a Quaker, one feels that some kind of wishful thinking is operative in his easy acceptance of such a distorted picture.

He thought that the world would be confronted by cataclysmic wars, tyrannies, starvation, etc., as the result of overpopulation. This would exaggerate conditions, already existing, which ruled out the possibility of the only reasonable solution of the problems in our society, on anarchosyndicalist lines of small independent communities having dealings with one another.

Essentially Aldous, like his brother Julian, thought that politics, as they are reflected today in statesmen and political parties, could not solve the overwhelming problems confronting the world. What was required was some complete change in men’s aims, perhaps also in man’s nature. It seemed though to Aldous that a complete transformation of this kind was possible only among a few members of an elite.

Julian Huxley thought that a changed social consciousness could be produced by planning and organization in the context of a humanist philosophy of religious intensity. Aldous, who thought of change as a matter of individual being rather than of group action, viewed Julian’s proselytizing a bit sardonically. Describing Julian’s activities on an American visit during the war he writes to Christopher Isherwood:

He whirls indefatigably about the country lecturing and having talks with innumerable people about the blue prints of a future society, whose adumbrations, in his essays and letters, fill me, I must confess, with a good deal of gloom.

Against such activity he held up an ideal of being which would influence society. Writing to Julian, he criticizes his brother’s concept of an ideal of Social Man:

For the 20th century the ideal of the Social Man seems, as you say, to be imposing itself. The danger attached to such an ideal is that it so easily has, as its corollary, the ideal of the divine state. I have come now to feel that all these ideals are disastrous, because incomplete; and that no society can hope to keep itself up even to the levels hitherto achieved unless there is something corresponding to a Brahmin class whose ideal is that of the Theocentric Man, not primarily concerned with human values at all, but merely with the business of knowing and making actual in themselves the ultimate reality of the world. (Incidentally, of course, their efficacy in dealing with human problems will be greatly increased when they have achieved this realization.)

Not that Aldous did not have a proselytizing, socially responsive side to him corresponding to Julian’s indefatigable whirling, which, in answer to questioning correspondents, was the cause of many of the letters in this volume being written. In 1959 we find him giving a lecture course at Santa Barbara, on “The Human Situation.” These lectures were, characteristically, divided into “the large-scale manifestation” and the “small-scale level.” The large-scale meant “destruction of natural resources, population growth, advancing technicization of everything, the suicidal traditions of nationalism, etc.” The small-scale level meant “the make-up of the individual, the relations between datum and concept, the nature of art, the actualization of latent potentialities, etc.” Somehow, between this cosmic view of vast world problems and the microscopic one of the nature of the individual, there is the failure of a middle term which might enable the individual to attack the large problems.

Nevertheless individuality was the door to an interior world vaster and more significant than the social external one. Access to this, the Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being, etc., could be attained by humility, prayer and meditation—disciplines; and also by the controlled employment of those very drugs which in the hands of the rulers of the Brave New World would enslave humanity. Used rightly, LSD would produce “a transcendence of the ordinary subject-object relationship. A transcendence of the fear of death. A sense of solidarity with the world and its spiritual principle and the conviction that, in spite of pain, evil and all the rest, everything is somehow all right.”

Among the essays embedded in Aldous Huxley’s letters, one of the most interesting is to Julian on progress. Aldous agrees with Julian that “improvements” are “indispensable,” so long as they serve the subjective needs of the individual and do not make him an object sacrificed to the leaders of the society. At the same time he thinks that “progress can never be consciously experienced by the individuals who are supposedly progressing.” For human beings have an almost infinite capacity of taking improvements for granted. “Every ceiling, when reached becomes a floor, upon which one walks as a matter of course and prescriptive right.” People living in a period which historians may later regard as highly progressive may appear to themselves to be living in a time of decay.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that true change does not result from improvements in conditions, indispensable and desirable as these may be. True change means the transformation of the subjective consciousness of many individuals to the attainment of Nirvana, experience of God, “union with Atman-Brahman.” This means, surely, that the only desirable evolution would be of a kind that changed consciousness in such a way that the individual entered into a changeless consciousness.

It is evident from the terms employed by Aldous Huxley in his discussion of mysticism that he thinks individual consciousness should go back from Western materialism and ideas of progress to an earlier and more all-embracing consciousness of men with different aims. In other words, the purpose of humanist evolution would be to change man in such a way as to get him out of the evolutionary, progressive development of industrial society. Evolution would be devolution.

One may feel that in their social and political ideas, the Huxleys in this generation have become sidetracked. Evolutionary humanism is, as a philosophy, unlikely to fill the vacuum left by the destruction of belief in Christianity. Aldous Huxley’s ideas, where they are mystical, are—as he realized—unlikely to influence society; and where they encourage the spread of drug-taking they may be dangerous socially. At the same time, these letters express things which lie quite beyond his ideas. They express the man who is interesting beyond his views—interesting as these are—just as he is interesting beyond his fiction and poetry.

He was a gifted writer who distrusted his own gift and distrusted still more the kind of prestige that today attaches to art and to being a writer. He was a very clever man who not only sought humility but really attained it. One of his clearest insights, which he states frequently in his letters, is that human beings are conditioned by their circumstance into types which have very little comprehension of one another’s psychological premises. This being agreed, it is implicit in his writing and his letters that he represents a point of view which is largely the result of his conditioning: his family, his physiology, his near-blindness.

Because his limitations are implicit he can be convinced and convincing without being dogmatic, wrong-headed without being wrong. One is always brought back to what is personal in him, his being, his essence, the intelligence, the good will, together with limitations of which he is so conscious that they do not exclude—indeed they indicate—the possibility of other points of view. As well as being a humanist, he is divinely human.

This Issue

March 25, 1971