Aldous Huxley Quotations on the Bible, Christianity, sexual mores, philosophies of meaninglessness, and philosophies of meaning

Aldous Huxley Quotations on the Bible, Christianity, sexual mores, philosophies of meaninglessness, and philosophies of meaning

Aldous Huxley on the Influence of the Worst Aspects of the Bible on the History of Christianity

“Examples of reversion to barbarism through mere ignorance are unhappily abundant in the history of Christianity. The early Christians made the enormous mistake of burdening themselves with the Old Testament, which contains, along with much fine poetry and sound morality the history of the cruelties and treacheries of a Bronze-Age people, fighting for a place in the sun under the protection of its anthropomorphic tribal deity… Those whom it suited to be ignorant and, along with them, the innocent and uneducated could find in this treasure-house of barbarous stupidity justifications for every crime and folly. Texts to justify such abominations as religious wars, the persecution of heretics… could be found in the sacred books and were in fact used again and again throughout the whole history of the Christian Church.”
[Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, p. 328]

“In this remarkable compendium of Bronze-Age literature, God is personal to the point of being almost sub-human. Too often the believer has felt justified in giving way to his worst passions by the reflection that, in doing so, he is basing his conduct on that of a God who feels jealousy and hatred… and behaves in general like a particularly ferocious oriental tyrant. The frequency with which men have identified the prompting of their own passions with the voice of an all too personal God is really appalling.” [p. 276-277]

“According to his very inadequate biographers, Jesus of Nazareth was never preoccupied with philosophy, art, music, or science and ignored almost completely the problems of politics, economics and sexual relations. It is also recorded of him that he blasted a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season, that he scourged the shopkeepers in the temple precincts and caused a herd of swine to drown. Scrupulous devotion to and imitation of the person of Jesus have resulted only too frequently in a fatal tendency, on the part of earnest Christians, to despise artistic creation and philosophic thought; to disparage the inquiring intellect, to evade all long-range, large-scale problems of politics and economics, and to believe themselves justified in displaying anger, or as they would doubtless prefer to call it, ‘righteous indignation.’” [p. 275-276]

Aldous Huxley on Religious Faith and Ethics

“There are some… who believe that no desirable ‘change of heart’ can be brought about without supernatural aid. There must be, they say, a return to religion. (Unhappily, they cannot agree on the religion to which the return should be made.)”
[Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, p. 2]

“In practice, Christianity, like Hinduism or Buddhism, is not one religion, but several religions, adapted to the needs of different types of human beings. A Christian church in Southern Spain, or Mexico, or Sicily is singularly like a Hindu temple. The eye is delighted by the same gaudy colors, the same tripe-like decorations, the same gesticulating statues; the nose inhales the same intoxicating smells; the ear and, along with it, the understanding, are lulled by the drone of the same incomprehensible incantations [in the old Catholic Latin mass tradition], roused by the same loud, impressive music.”

“At the other end of the scale, consider the chapel of a Cistercian monastery and the meditation hall of a community of Zen Buddhists. They are equally bare; aids to devotion (in other words fetters holding back the soul from enlightenment) are conspicuously absent from either building. Here are two distinct religions for two distinct kinds of human beings.” [p. 262-263]

“In Christianity bhakti [or, loving devotion] towards a personal being has always been the most popular form of religious practice. Up to the time of the [Catholic] Counter-Reformation, however, the way of knowledge (“mystical knowledge” as it is called in Christian language) was accorded an honorable place beside the way of devotion. From the middle of the sixteenth century onwards the way of knowledge came to be neglected and even condemned. We are told by Dom John Chapman that “Mercurian, who was general of the society (of Jesus) from 1573 to 1580, forbade the use of the works of Tauler, Ruysbroek, Suso, Harphius, St. Gertrude, and St. Mechtilde.” Every effort was made by the [Catholic] Counter-Reformers to heighten the worshipperʼs devotion to a personal divinity. The literary content of Baroque art is hysterical, almost epileptic, in the violence of its emotionality. It even becomes necessary to call in physiology as an aid to feeling. The ecstasies of the saints are represented by seventeenth-century artists as being frankly sexual. Seventeenth-century drapery writhes like so much tripe. In the equivocal personage of Margaret Mary Alacocque, seventeenth-century piety pours over a bleeding and palpitating heart. From this orgy of emotionalism and sensationalism Catholic Christianity seems never completely to have recovered.” [p. 281-282]

“First Shakespeare sonnets seem meaningless; first Bach fugues, a bore; first differential equations, sheer torture. But training changes the nature of our spiritual experiences. In due course, contact with an obscurely beautiful poem, an elaborate piece of [musical] counterpoint or of mathematical reasoning, causes us to feel direct intuitions of beauty and significance. It is the same in the moral world. A man who has trained himself in goodness come to have certain direct intuitions about character, about the relations between human beings, about his own position in the world — intuitions that are quite different from the intuitions of the average sensual man… [p. 333]

“The ideal of non-attachment has been formulated and systematically preached again and again in the course of the last three thousand years. We find it (along with everything else) in Hinduism. It is at the very heart of the teachings of the Buddha. For Chinese readers the doctrine is formulated by Lao Tsu. A little later, in Greece, the ideal of non-attachment is proclaimed, albeit with a certain, pharisaical priggishness, by the Stoics. The Gospel of Jesus is essentially a gospel of non-attachment to “the things of this world,” and of attachment to God. Whatever may have been the aberrations of organized Christianity — and they range from extravagant asceticism to the most brutally cynical forms of realpolitik — there has been no lack of Christian philosophers to reaffirm the ideal of non-attachment. Here is John Tauler, for example, telling us that ‘freedom is complete purity and detachment which seeketh the Eternal…’ Here is the author of “The Imitation of Christ,” who bids us ‘pass through many cares as though without care; not after the manner of a sluggard, but by a certain prerogative of a free mind, which does not cleave with inordinate affection to any creature.’” [p. 5, 6]

“…as knowledge, sensibility and non-attachment increase, the contents of the judgments of value passed even by men belonging to dissimilar cultures, tend to approximate. The ethical doctrines taught in the Tao Te Ching, by Buddha and his followers, in the Sermon on the Mount, and by the best of the Christian saints, are not dissimilar.” [p. 327]

What did Aldous Huxley Say About “Philosophies of Meaningless?” & What Did He Believe?

In his book, Ends and Means, written in 1937 (chapter 14, the chapter on “Beliefs”), he wrote about the rise of “philosophies of meaninglessness” and materialism among the masses after the First World War, the generation of the 1920s-30s. Speaking of that generation, John Derbyshire wrote:

“The second and third decades of the twentieth century were notoriously an age of failed gods and shattered conventions, to which many thoughtful people responded in obvious ways, retreating into nihilism, hedonism, and experimentalism. Literature became subjective, art became abstract, poetry abandoned its traditional forms. In the ‘low, dishonest decade’ that then followed, much of this negativism curdled into power-worship and escapism of various kinds. Aldous Huxley stood aside from these large general trends. Though no Victorian in habits or beliefs, he never entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of modernism. The evidence is all over the early volumes of these essays. James Joyceʼs ground breaking novel, Ulysses, he declares in 1925, is ‘one of the dullest books ever written,and one of the least significant.’ Jazz, he remarks two years later, is ‘drearily barbaric.’ Writing of Sir Christopher Wren in 1923, he quotes with approval Carlyleʼs remark that Chelsea Hospital, one of Wrenʼs creations, was ‘obviously the work of a gentleman.’ Wren, Huxley goes on to say, was indeed a great gentleman, ‘one who valued dignity and restraint and who, respecting himself, respected also humanity.’ In his thirties, in fact, Huxley comes across as something of a Young Fogey.”
[John Derbyshire, “What Happened to Aldous Huxley,” The New Criterion Vol. 21, No. 6 (February 2003)]

In chapter 15 of Ends and Means on “Ethics,” Aldous, the “Young Fogey,” abhorred “sexual addictions,” or using sex as a means to achieving base ends. And Aldousʼ chapters on “Religious Practices,” “Beliefs,” and “Ethics” argued in favor of a meaningful cosmos and a universal spirituality that Aldous said was reflected in the works of certain Eastern mystics as well as some famous Christian mystics. Below is a series of quotations demonstrating what I have said above, all taken from Aldous Huxleyʼs Ends and Means: An Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for Their Realization (Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York and London, 1937, fifth edition).

Aldous Huxley Rebuts “Philosophies of Meaninglessness”

“From the world we actually live in, the world that is given by our senses, our intuitions of beauty and goodness, our emotions and impulses, our moods and sentiments, the man of science abstracts a simplified private universe of things possessing only… elements which can be weighed, measured, numbered, or which lend themselves in any other way to mathematical treatment. By using this technique of simplification and abstraction, the scientist has succeeded to an astonishing degree in understanding and dominating the physical environment. The success was intoxicating and, with an illogicality which, in the circumstances, was doubtless pardonable, many scientists and philosophers came to imagine that this useful abstraction from reality was reality itself. Reality as actually experienced contains intuitions of value and significance, contain love, beauty, mystical ecstasy, intimations of godhead. Science did not and still does not possess intellectual instruments with which to deal with these aspects of reality. Consequently it ignored them and concentrated its attention upon such aspects of the world as it could deal with by mean of arithmetic, geometry and the various branches of higher mathematics. Our conviction that the world is meaningless lend itself very effectively to furthering the ends of erotic or political passion; in part to a genuine intellectual error — the error of identifying the world of science, a world from which all meaning and value has been deliberately excluded, with ultimate reality.

“[The philosopher, Humeʼs, erroneous attitude was typical] Hume wrote, ‘If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstracts reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or evidence? No. Commit it then to the flame; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’ Hume mentions only divinity and school metaphysics; but his argument would apply just as cogently to poetry, music, painting, sculpture and all ethical and religious teaching. Hamlet contains no abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number and no experimental reason concerning evidence; nor does the Hamerklavier Sonata, nor Donatelloʼs David, nor the Tao Te Ching [book of Chinese philosophy and wisdom], nor the Following of Christ. Commit them therefore to the flames: for they can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

“We are living now, not in the delicious intoxication induced by the early successes of science, but in a rather grisly morning-after… The contents of literature, art, music — even in some measure of divinity and school metaphysics — are not sophistry and illusion, but simply those elements of experience which scientists chose to leave out of account, for the good reason that they had no intellectual methods for dealing with them. In the arts, in philosophy, in religion, men are trying — to describe and explain the non-measurable, purely qualitative aspects of reality…[Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, p. 308-310]

“In recent years, many men of science have come to realize that the scientific picture of the world is a partial one — the product of their special competence in mathematics and their special incompetence to deal systematically with aesthetic and moral values, religious experiences and intuitions of significance. Unhappily, novel ideas become acceptable to the less intelligent members of society only with a very considerable time-lag. Sixty or seventy years ago the majority of scientists believed — and the belief caused them considerable distress — that the product of their special incompetence was identical with reality as a whole. Today this belief has begun to give way, in scientific circles, to a different and obviously truer conception of the relation between science and total experience. The masses on the contrary, have just reached the point where the ancestors of todayʼs scientists were standing two generations back. They are convinced that the scientific picture of an arbitrary abstraction from reality is a picture of reality as a whole and that therefore the world is without meaning or value. But nobody likes living in such a world. To satisfy their hunger for meaning and value, they turn to such doctrines as nationalism, fascism and revolutionary communism. Philosophically and scientifically, these doctrines are absurd; but for the masses in every community, they have this great merit: they attribute the meaning and value that have been taken away from the world as a whole to the particular part of the world in which the believers happen to be living.

“These last considerations raise an important question, which must now be considered in some detail. Does the world as a whole possess the value and meaning that we constantly attribute to certain parts of it (such as human beings and their works); and, if so, what is the nature of that value and meaning? This is a question which, a few years ago, I should not even have posed. For, like so many of my contemporaries, I took it for granted that there was no meaning. This was partly due to the fact that I shared the common belief that the scientific picture of an abstraction from reality was a true picture of reality as a whole; partly also to other, non-intellectual reasons. I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.

“Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We donʼt know because we donʼt want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.” [p. 311-312]

Aldous Huxley Rebuts “Philosophies of Meaning” Proposed by Established Religions Like Christianity

“No philosophy is completely disinterested. The pure love of truth is always mingle to some extent with the need, consciously or unconsciously felt by even the noblest and the most intelligent philosophers, to justify a given form of personal or social behavior, to rationalize the traditional prejudices of a given class or community. The philosopher who finds meaning in the world is concerned, not only to elucidate that meaning, but also to prove that is it most clearly expressed in some established religion, some accepted code of morals. The philosopher who find no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is not valid reason why her personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. The voluntary, as opposed to the intellectual, reasons for holding the doctrines of materialism, for examples, may be predominantly erotic, as they were in the case of Lamettrie (see his lyrical account of the pleasures of the bed in La Volupte and at the end of L’Homme Machine [‘The Human Machine,’ a work of materialist philosophy]), or predominantly political, as they were in the case of Karl Marx. The desire to justify a particular form of political organization and, in some cases, of a personal will to power has played an equally large part in the formulation of philosophies postulating the existence of meaning in the world. Christian philosophers have found no difficulty in justifying imperialism, war, the capitalistic system, the use of torture, the censorship of the press, and ecclesiastical tyrannies of every sort from the tyranny of Rome to the tyrannies of [Calvinʼs] Geneva and [Puritan] New England. In all cases they have shown that the meaning of the world was such as to be compatible with, or actually most completely expressed by, the iniquities I have mentioned above — iniquities which happened, of course, to serve the personal or sectarian interests of the philosophizers concerned. In due course, these arose philosophers who denied not only the right of Christian special pleaders to justify iniquity by an appeal to the meaning of the world, but even their right to find any such meaning whatsoever. In the circumstances, the fact was not surprising. One unscrupulous distortion of the truth tends to beget other and opposite distortions. Passions may be satisfied in the process; but the disinterested love of knowledge suffers eclipse. [p. 314-316]

“For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was an admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever… The men of the new Enlightenment, which occurred in the middle years of the nineteenth century, once again used meaninglessness as a weapon against the [conservative] reactionaries. The Victorian passion for respectability was, however, so great that, during the period when they were formulated, neither Positivism nor Darwinism was used as a justification for sexual indulgence. [p. 316-317]

Aldous Huxleyʼs Warning Against Sexual Addiction

“It is only when it takes the form of physical addiction that sex is evil. It is also evil when it manifests itself as a way of satisfying the lust for power or the climber's craving for position and social distinction.” [Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, p. 358]

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