Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894 – 1963) was a prolific English writer and philosopher, widely acknowledged as one of the most important and visionary intellectuals of his time. His grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, a famous agnostic and zoologist known as (Charles) “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his defense of evolution. His brother was Julian Huxley, a decorated evolutionist, co-founder of the the World Wildlife Fund, and first director of UNESCO. Aldous was the author of nearly fifty books, including well-known novels like the dystopic Brave New World (1932); wide-ranging essays and comparative studies like The Perennial Philosophy (1944), an attempt to present the ‘Highest Common Factor’ of all theologies; and other nonfiction works like The Doors of Perception (1954), an interpretation of Huxley’s psychedelic experience with mescaline (and the reason Jim Morrison named his band ‘The Doors’).
Huxley was just 14 when his mother died. Shortly thereafter he began to suffer from an infection of the eye called Keratitis, which made him almost entirely blind for over a year. Although he continued to battle this condition for the rest of his life, Huxley was able to complete his schooling, receiving a B.A. in English literature from Balliol College, Oxford in 1916.
Five years later he published his debut novel Crome Yellow, a social satire of English intelligentsia which brought Huxley his first taste of success. While traveling throughout Europe, he followed this with several more equally successful, satirical novels before purchasing a villa in the South of France. It was here that he wrote and published ‘Brave New World’, a bleak vision of the future widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
Following the success of Brave New World, Huxley moved to Hollywood in 1937. There he was introduced to Vedanta Hinduism, and became a friend of the renowned speaker and author Swami Jiddu Krishnamurti. Together with Gerald Heard, Christopher Isherwood and other followers, Huxley became heavily involved with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, learning the meditation and spiritual practices of Vivekananda with the Swami. Huxley’s work during this time showed the influence of his Vedic teachings: his fiction becoming more mystical and concerned with issues of physical and mental perception. It was during these spiritually formative years that Huxley penned the novel-length comparative study of mysticism called The Perennial Philosophy.
The Perennial Philosophy is defined by its author as “The metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds.” The book was organized into chapter topics that Huxley saw as connecting all religions, and included quotations from sages and saints on specific subjects with short connecting commentaries. By examining the spiritual beliefs of various religious traditions in this form, Huxley intended to explain the “divine reality” common to all faiths in terms that could be personally meaningful. The New York Times raved that, “Perhaps Mr. Huxley, in The Perennial Philosophy has, at this time, written the most needed book in the world.”
Over the next eight years, Huxley continued his exploration of mysticism, growing increasingly interested in the use of psychedelics as a means of probing perception. In the spring of 1953, he had his first experience with the drug mescaline. The Doors of Perception, published the following year, is a direct account of his experiences while on the drug. While looking at carnations, for example, Huxley wrote:
“I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence … ”
Delving further into hallucinogenics, Huxley later had an experience on LSD that he considered more profound than those of mescalin detailed in The Doors of Perception. Interviewed by The Paris Review in 1960, Huxley said:
“(LSD) shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside. It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is.”
Although Huxley experienced many instances which could be interpreted as universalist (a view furthered by his experiences with Vivekananda’s neo-Vedanta philosophy), he claimed to be agnostic. In a moment of extreme candor, Huxley revealed what may have been his motivation for this agnosticism:
“I had motive 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. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he 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. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.” ~ Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means
Huxley reinforced his agnostic view by addressing all variants of theism:
“There is probably no argument by which the case for theism, or for, deism, or for pantheism in either its pancosmic or acosmic form, can be convincingly proved.”
Still, many of his writings are sympathetic to a pantheistic disposition:
“My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing.”
“The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
“All that happens means something; nothing you do is ever insignificant.”
While Huxley maintained his spiritual skepticism until his death, he is remembered as a passionate humanist and innately curious explorer of the mind. Writing prolifically until dying from laryngeal cancer in Los Angeles, California, in 1963, Huxley was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times, and in 1962, was elected Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature. He approached his death with much the same sense of exploration that he approached life: Following a written request to his wife, Huxley was injected with 2 consecutive doses of LSD, allowing him to pass in a state he had written about so passionately.
One footnote: Sadly, Aldous Huxley passed on a day that afforded him no special remembrance. In fact, he and British author C.S. Lewis (“Chronicles of Narnia”) both died on November 22, 1963, but both were eclipsed by an even more tragic death. That day was the day U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository.