Aldous Leonard Huxley (July 26, 1894 – November 22, 1963) was a British-American writer and moral philosopher and is in certain circles regarded as one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century. Wrote Australian writer and acquaintance, Clive James, “Godlike in his height, aquiline features, and omnidirectional intelligence, Huxley was a living myth.” An enduring opponent of the moral decadence of modern culture, Huxley sought through both fiction and non-fiction writing to denounce conformity and the orthodox attitudes of his time (particularly of Western societies) as well as to instill a sense of conscientiousness and outward responsibility in the public.
Best known for his novels and essays, Huxley functioned as an examiner and sometimes critic of social mores, societal norms, and ideals. While his earlier concerns might be called “humanist,” ultimately, he became quite interested in “spiritual” subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism.
Huxley was born in Godalming, Surrey, England, into one of the most famous families of the English elite. He was son of the writer and professional herbalist Leonard Huxley by his first wife, Julia Arnold; and grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the most prominent naturalists of the nineteenth century. Additionally, Huxley’s mother was the daughter of Thomas Arnold, a famous educator, whose brother was Matthew Arnold, the renowned British humanist. Julia’s sister was the novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward. Huxley’s brother Julian Huxley was a noted biologist, and rose to become the first Secretary-General of UNESCO.
A longtime friend, Gerald Heard, said that Huxley’s ancestry “brought down on him a weight of intellectual authority and a momentum of moral obligations.” As a young child, Huxley was already considered amongst adults and peers as being “different,” showing an unusually profound awareness, or what his brother called “superiority.” Huxley would later say that heredity made each individual unique and this uniqueness of the individual was essential to freedom.
Huxley began his learning in his father’s well-equipped botanical laboratory, then continued in a school named Hillside, which his mother supervised for several years until she became terminally ill. From the age of nine and through his early teens, he was educated at Eton College. Huxley’s mother died in 1908, when he was 14, and it was this loss that Huxley later described as having given him his first sense of the transience of human happiness.
Another life-changing event in young Huxley’s life came just a few years later at the age of 16, when he suffered an attack of keratitis punctata, an affliction that rendered him blind for a period of about 18 months. This timely infirmity was responsible for preventing Huxley from participating in World War I, as well as keeping him out of the laboratories where he would have pursued his first love of science—a love that would sustain its influence on him despite his inevitable transitions into more artistic, humanistic, and spiritual life courses. In fact, it was his scientific approach that ultimately complimented these endeavors.
When Huxley eventually recovered his eyesight (though weak eyes would have a significant effect on him throughout the remainder of his life) he aggressively took to literature as both an avid reader and writer. During this time, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1916 with a B.A. in English. In the same year, his first collection of poetry was published. Following his education at Balliol, Huxley was financially indebted to his father and had to earn a living. For a short while in 1918, he was employed acquiring provisions at the Air Ministry.
With little interest in business or administration, Huxley’s lack of inheritance pressed him into applied literary work. Products of his early writing include two more collections of poetry, as well as biographical and architectural articles and reviews of fiction, drama, music, and art for the London literary magazine Athenaeum, for which he served as part of the editorial staff in 1919-1920. In 1920-1921, Huxley was drama critic for Westminister Gazette, an assistant at the Chelsea Book Club, and worked for Conde Nast Publications.
During World War I, Huxley spent much of his time at Garsington Manor, home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Later, in Crome Yellow (1921), he caricatured the Garsington lifestyle. He married Maria Nys, a Belgian whom he had met at Garsington, in 1919, and in 1920 they had one child, Matthew Huxley, who grew up to be an epidemiologist. The three traveled extensively in these years, spending a significant amount of time in Italy, with trips also to India, the Dutch Indies, and the United States.
Careerwise, for Huxley the 1920s was a time spent establishing himself in the literary world thanks to a number of largely successful works. In addition to Crome Yellow, there was Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and Point Counter Point (1928). Most of the subject matter that comprised these novels was satirical commentary on contemporary events. Despite his great success, however, the author was criticized during this period for his one-dimensional characters that Huxley used as mouthpieces to say “almost everything about almost anything.” This particular criticism would follow him to some degree throughout his entire career as a fiction writer, as many felt that Huxley cared more for his ideas than he did for his characters or plot. Impartially, the author often cast the same judgment upon himself. According to his second wife, Laura Archera Huxley, Huxley was not completely satisfied with the last novel of his career, Island (1962), because he believed it was “imbalanced” due to the fact that “there was more philosophy than story.” Toward the end of his career, Huxley began to consider himself more of an essayist who wrote fiction, and of all his novels, he told Laura, only Time Must Have a Stop (1944) “put story and philosophy together in a balanced way.”
In the 1930s, the family settled for a while in Sanary, near Toulon. It was his experiences here in Italy, where Benito Mussolini had led an authoritarian government that fought against birth control in order to produce enough manpower for the next war, along with reading books critical of the Soviet Union, that caused Huxley to become even more dismayed by the abject condition of Western Civilization. In 1932, in just four months, Huxley wrote the virulently satiric Brave New World, a dystopian novel set in London in the twenty-sixth century. Here, Huxley painted a “perpetually happy” but inhumane society where warfare and poverty have been eliminated, but only through the sacrifice of family, cultural diversity, art, literature, science, religion, philosophy; and by implementing a hedonistic normality amongst citizens where cheap pleasure, over worthwhile fulfillment, is sought and gained through the corrupted devices of drugs and promiscuous sex. The novel was an international success, and thus publicly began Huxley’s fight against the idea that happiness could be achieved through class-instituted slavery.
In 1937 Huxley moved to Hollywood, California, with his wife, Maria; son, Matthew; and friend Gerald Heard. Huxley appreciated the grit, virility, and “generous extravagance” he found in American life, but was at odds with the ways that this virility was expressed “in places of public amusement, in dancing and motoring … Nowhere, perhaps, is there so little conversation…It is all movement and noise, like the water gurgling out of a bath—down the waste.” At this time too Huxley wrote Ends and Means; in this work he explores the fact that although most people in modern civilization agree that they want a world of 'liberty, peace, justice, and brotherly love', they haven't been able to agree on how to achieve it.
In 1938 Huxley was also able to tap into some Hollywood income using his writing skills, thanks to an introduction into the business by his friend Anita Loos, the prolific novelist and screenwriter. He received screen credit for Pride and Prejudice (1940) and was paid for his work on a number of other films.
It was also during this time that Heard introduced Huxley to Vedanta and meditation which led to his eventual friendship with J. Krishnamurti, whose teachings he greatly admired. He also became a Vedantist in the circle of Swami Prabhavananda, and introduced Christopher Isherwood to this circle. It was Huxley’s heightening distress at what he regarded as the spiritual bankruptcy of the modern world, along with his transition to America and the subsequent connections it provided, that opened Huxley’s interest in morality as not just a practical issue, but as a spiritual one as well.
In 1945, after continued study and practice, Huxley assembled an anthology of texts along with his own commentary on widely held spiritual values and ideas. The text, titled The Perennial Philosophy, was a new look at an old idea, exploring the common reality underlying all religions, and in particular, the mystical streams within them. He made clear that The Perennial Philosophy was not interested in the theological views of “professional men of letters,” speculative scholars who observed God safely from behind their desks. In the book’s introduction, he writes:
The Perennial Philosophy is primarily concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.
In 1946, inspired by his deeper understanding of the spiritual development of man, Huxley wrote a foreword to Brave New World in which he stated that he no longer wanted to perceive social sanity as an impossibility as he had in the novel. Ironically, despite the grimness of World War II, Huxley seemed to have become convinced that while still “rather rare,” sanity could be achieved and noted that he would like to see more of it.
After World War II Huxley applied for United States citizenship, but was denied because he would not say he would take up arms to defend the U.S. Nevertheless, he remained in the United States where throughout the 1950s his interest in the field of psychical research grew keener. His later works are strongly influenced by both mysticism and his experiences with the psychedelic drug mescaline, to which he was introduced by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1953. Huxley was a pioneer of self-directed psychedelic drug use “in a search for enlightenment,” documenting his early experiences in both the essays The Doors of Perception (the title deriving from some lines in the poem 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' by William Blake) and Heaven and Hell. The title of the former became the inspiration for the naming of the rock band The Doors, and its content is said to have contributed to the early psychedelic movement of the 1960s hippy counterculture.
It is in debate whether or not Huxley’s ideals were deepened or cheapened by his continued experimentation with and candid promotion of psychedelics (Huxley would take either LSD or mescaline a dozen times over the next ten years). Undoubtedly, as we can infer from his essays, partaking in these substances did undeniably enable for him a unique visionary experience, one in which Huxley “saw objects in a new light, disclosing their inherent, deep, timeless existences, which remains hidden from everyday sight.”
"This is how one ought to see, how things really are."
Huxley’s view was that if taken with care and the proper intentions, the use of psychedelic drugs could aid an individual’s pursuit to attain spiritual insight indefinitely. Counter to this philosophy is the idea that the use of such drugs cheapens the divine experience, opening up channels into a deeper existence artificially, and that these channels, while real in themselves, are meant to be opened by a more authentic means, such as through the fulfillment of certain internal conditions. In other words, some opponents of using psychedelics as aids to experiencing connection to the divine looked down upon them as something of a “synthetic shortcut” or a counterfeit “chemical connection” to the spiritual world, which regardless of whether it was a proper means, was certainly not ‘‘the way’’.
In 1955 Huxley's wife Maria died of breast cancer. In 1956 he married to Laura Archera, who was herself an author and who wrote a biography of Huxley.
In 1960 Huxley was diagnosed with cancer and in the years that followed, with his health deteriorating, he wrote the utopian novel Island, and gave lectures on "Human Potentialities" at the Esalen Institute that were foundational to the forming of the Human Potential Movement. He was also invited to speak at several prestigious American universities and at a speech given in 1961 at the California Medical School in San Francisco, Huxley warned:
There will be in the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them but will rather enjoy it.
On his deathbed, unable to speak, Huxley made a written request to his wife for “LSD, 100 µg, i.m..” She obliged, and he died peacefully the following morning, November 22, 1963. Media coverage of his death was overshadowed by news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred on the same day, as did the death of the Irish author C. S. Lewis.
Amongst humanists, Huxley was considered an intellectual’s intellectual. His books were frequently on the required reading lists of English and modern philosophy courses in American universities and he was one of the individuals honored in the Scribner’s Publishing’s “Leaders of Modern Thought” series (a volume of biography and literary criticism by Philip Thody, Aldous Huxley)
In Huxley’s 47 books and throughout his hundreds of essays, perhaps this writer’s essential message all along was the tragedy that frequently follows from egocentrism, self-centeredness, and selfishness. Unfortunately, in the public eye Huxley today is nothing of the respected figure he had been throughout his lifetime. Writes again Clive James:
While he was alive, Aldous Huxley was one of the most famous people in the world. After his death, his enormous reputation rapidly shrank, until, finally, he was known mainly for having written a single dystopian novel…and for having been some kind of pioneer hippie who took mescaline to find out what would happen.
Huxley had read about drugs while writing Brave New World, but it was 22 years before he experimented with them himself. In an article from 1931, Huxley admitted that drug-taking "constitutes one of the most curious and also, it seems to me, one of the most significant chapters in the natural history of human beings." To be clear, Huxley did not advocate the use of drugs, as in he did not designate mescaline or LSD to be "drugs,” due to the derogatory connotation that the word held in the English language. Huxley looked down upon the “bad drugs” which he felt produced an artificial happiness rendering people content with their lack of freedom. An example of such a bad drug is the make-believe soma (the drink of the ancient Vedic deities), the half-tranquilizer, half-intoxicant the utopians gorged upon in Brave New World. He did approve, however, of the purified form of LSD that the people of Island used in a religious way. In his fictional utopia, the drug could only be used in critical periods of life, such as in initiation rites, during life crises, in the context of a psychotherapeutic dialogue with a spiritual friend, or to help the dying to relinquish the mortal shell in their transfer to the next existence.
Huxley held the value of hallucinogenic drugs in that they give individuals lacking the gift of visionary perception the potential to experience this special state of consciousness, and to attain insight into the spiritual world otherwise only grasped by the inherently gifted mystics, saints, and artists. He also believed that hallucinogens deepened the reality of one’s faith, for these drugs were capable of opening, or cleansing, the “doors of perception” which otherwise blind our spiritual eyes. Huxley’s idea was that these substances are not only beneficial but hold an important place in the modern phase of human evolution. Furthermore, Huxley ascertained that the responsible partaking of psychedelics is physically and socially harmless.
The unintended damage caused by Huxley’s positive depiction of psychedelic drug use can be seen most egregiously in what had occurred throughout the 1960s amongst the various free spirit movements. Hippies, inspired by the contents of The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, distorted the purpose of these drugs as outlined by Huxley, indulging in them recklessly and more as a means to escape reality rather than to more substantially connect to it. It can be clear that Huxley’s intentions were more scientific and hardly, if at all, hedonistic.
In This Timeless Moment, Laura Archera Huxley wrote about that generation’s drug obsession and reminded that in Island, LSD, when given to adolescents, was only provided in a controlled environment. Huxley himself even warned of the dangers of psychedelic experimentation in an appendix he wrote to The Devils of Loudun (1952), a psychological study of an episode in French history. Even in The Doors of Perception, Huxley expresses caution as well as the negative aspects of hallucinogens. Furthermore, in that same book, he clearly describes how mescaline may be a tool in which to “open the door” with, however it only provides “a look inside,” not a means in which to cross the threshold or to experience the benefits of what lies “on the other side”:
It gives access to contemplation—but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action, the very thought of action. In the intervals between his revelations the mescaline taker is apt to feel that, though in one way everything is supremely as it should be, in another there is something wrong. His problem is essentially the same as that which confronts the quietist, the arhat and, on another level, the landscape painter and the painter of human still lives. Mescaline can never solve that problem; it can only pose it, apocalyptically, for those to whom it had never before presented itself. The full and final solution can be found only by those who are prepared to implement the right kind of Weltanschauung by means of the right kind of behavior and the right kind of constant and unstrained alertness.
The greatest revelation experienced by Huxley while under the influence of hallucinogens occurred shortly after the death of his first wife, Maria. At this point, the author was already growing closer to Laura Archera Huxley and often invited her to be his “companion” while he took LSD. On one occasion in particular, Huxley found it to be a “most extraordinary experience:” “for what came through the open door…” he later wrote, “was the realization of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.” This became Huxley’s answer to the fundamental question of what is one to do with their visionary experience. He later wrote:
Meister Eckhart wrote that "what is taken in by contemplation must be given out in love." Essentially this is what must be developed—the art of giving out in love and intelligence what is taken in from vision and the experience of self-transcendence and solidarity with the Universe....
Huxley did not have a black and white perspective of sex, being well aware of both its degradation and divinity in the lives of men and women. Two famous quotes that reflect both sides of Huxley’s spirit toward the subject are: “Chastity…the most unnatural of all the sexual perversions,” which mirrors his attitude that “divine sex” is purely natural and that complete abstinence from it is not only unnatural but a distortion strong enough to be classified as a sickness of character. The second quote, “An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex” reflects Huxley’s observation of “degraded sex” as being a shallow pastime indulged in by the ignorant.
The casualness of sex is also satirically criticized in Brave New World, illustrated through the utopians’ indulgence in it as a surface-level means to satisfy a primal urge, to derive momentary satisfaction freely and from whomever. Huxley shows through the story how this perspective exists at the expense of true love, the genuine connection between two human beings of the opposite sex, and thus also at the expense of the functional family. Huxley has also written that the responsibility of the modern man should is to “civilize the sexual impulse.”
Critics of Huxley have pointed out that despite his objections to the cheapness, degradation, and excessiveness of sex in modern culture, the author himself is culpable of his own immoral doings in this realm. It is no longer a secret (as exposed by various discovered letters) that Huxley engaged in a number of affairs, albeit with his wife’s connivance, during his first marriage to Maria after the couple had arrived in California. Maria believed that these relationships would help Huxley to take his mind off work. These affairs, however, occurred only before the “revolution of heart” that Huxley experienced while under the influence of LSD and after Maria’s death. After this epiphany, Huxley even took it upon himself to practice abstinence so as to test himself on the grounds of his new ideal. On one occasion, an old lover came to visit him later in his life was taken aback when Huxley spent the entire engagement discussing Catherine of Siena.
Many are surprised to find that Huxley, conscientious in most arenas, even wrote an early essay on ecology that helped inspire today’s environmental movement.
Also, during the later summer of 1963, Huxley was invited to speak at the World Academy of Arts and Sciences (WAAS) in Stockholm, Sweden, where the main issue of the meeting concerned the population explosion and the raw material reserves and food resources of the earth. Huxley spoke about how a human race with more highly developed spiritual capacities would also have a greater understanding of and better consideration for the biological and material foundations of life on this earth.
Huxley wrote many screenplays, and many of his novels were later adapted for film or television. Notable works include the original screenplay for Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland, two productions of Brave New World, one of Point Counter Point, one of Eyeless in Gaza, and one of Ape and Essence. He was one of the screenwriters for the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice and co-wrote the screenplay for the 1944 version of Jane Eyre with John Houseman. Director Ken Russell's 1971 film The Devils, starring Vanessa Redgrave, is adapted from Huxley's The Devils of Loudun, and a 1990 made-for-television film adaptation of Brave New World was directed by Burt Brinckeroffer.
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