Classic Essays

The Inquiring Mind of Aldous Huxley

The Human Situation CoverThe Human Situation: Lectures at Santa Barbara, 1959, by Aldous Huxley, edited by Piero Ferrucci (Flamingo, paperback).

reviewed by Nick Camerota

BLOOD WILL TELL, says the old folk wisdom. Back in 1902, even the socialist H.G. Wells believed it. (In Anticipations, he held that the less advanced races, those “swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people,” who believe the world to be a charity institution, “will have to go.”)

But this idea seems to have been washed away by the rising tide of color and by the present, unreasoning insistence that all men are somehow “equal.” However, a brief look at the Huxley family shows us there is more truth than poetry in the old saying.

Aldous Huxley’s great uncle was Matthew Arnold. Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas H., was a friend and champion of Charles Darwin. Huxley’s father, Leonard, was a noted writer and editor. And Aldous’ brother, Julian, the distinguished biologist, is also far from retarded.

Wells, a student of T.H. Huxley, saw a strong physical resemblance between Aldous and his grandfather. The similarities seem to extend to qualities of intellect and character, since neither of them was afraid to express unpopular ideas.

Aldous Huxley began his lecture series at Santa Barbara nearly two decades ago with a reference to his grandfather’s preoccupation “with the problem of excessive specialization” and the widening gulf between the natural sciences and the humanities. In The Human Situation, published posthumously late last year, Aldous sets out to build bridges which connect art and science.

Moreover, he attempts to address a variety of fundamental human problems. He asks: “Who are we? What is the nature of human nature? How should we be related to the planet on which we live? How are we to live together satisfactorily? How do we develop our individual potentialities? What is the relationship between nature and nurture?” Huxley endeavors to answer these questions by drawing on insights provided by various disciplines.

Unfortunately, The Human Situation hasn’t gotten much attention from reviewers, and those who have written it up have not been terribly enthusiastic. I can only assume that some of Huxley’s ideas make them uncomfortable.

Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley

Huxley is an extraordinarily gifted essayist, and one can turn to almost any page in this book and find some interesting thought. His writing possesses this magnetic quality simply because Huxley is not afraid of ideas. It is noteworthy that in more recent years a number of his most vocal critics have been liberals.

Huxley, who defies standard political classification, was no stranger to controversy. Although he described his politics as “Fabian and mildly Labourite,” Huxley was strongly attracted to the elitist philosophical speculations of Vilfredo Pareto. Huxley felt that “political convictions are generally the fruit of chance.” In Jesting Pilate he wrote: “If I had been brought up a little differently, I might, I suppose, have been a Fascist and an apostle of the most full-blooded imperialism.”

Although he opposed totalitarianism, Huxley, like E.M. Forster, could summon only one or two half-hearted cheers for democracy. In the days of Shelley, Huxley wrote, democracy was a “young and attractive” utopianism and “not the bedraggled and rather whorish old slut she is now. . . .” In an essay entitled “Political Democracy,” which appeared in his Proper Studies (1927), Huxley ridiculed democracy, calling it a fraud, and suggested that the masses regularly elect fools or charlatans.

While Huxley gives vent to very little of his anti-democratic thought in The Human Situation, he does push his lifelong pacifism and internationalism. In his sixth lecture, “War and Nationalism,” Huxley claims that war is a “culturally conditioned state of affairs based upon the natural condition of conflict.” He cites German ethologist Konrad Lorenz in an attempt to show that “fight to the finish” seldom occurs in nature. War, according to Huxley, is unnatural, because it extends conflict “to the limit of destruction and is not instinctive.”

Furthermore, war is conditioned by the symbols of modern nationalism. We may part company with Huxley here, but he is correct in pointing to the arbitrary nature of most modern nationalisms, which are defined in terms of language, geography, or other non-racial criteria.

Perhaps two of the best reasons for reading The Human Situation (now that I’ve just given you one of the worst reasons) are his fifth and tenth lectures, respectively titled “How Original Is Original Sin?” and “The Ego,” in which Huxley discusses the nature-nurture debate and William Sheldon’s somatotype theory.

Huxley takes Lamarck, Lysenko, and other assorted behaviorists to task for neglecting nature’s role, in the formation of the individual. Huxley’s position is that neither nature nor nurture exist independently. Although he does tilt noticeably in the direction of nature as the dominant factor, he adds (in a later lecture) that a healthy environment is needed to realize the best of our “inborn capacities.” To Huxley the good practitioner of eugenics is also a social reformer.

Things haven’t changed all that much since Huxley assessed the state of this controversy, and his remark on the prejudice attending it still holds: “The tendency at the present time to underplay the importance of genetic factors generally is related to certain political and philosophical doctrines. Orthodox Marxism, for example, is based upon the idea of environmental determinism and does not like the idea of congenital differences. In this country, possibly because of a wrongly interpreted view of democracy, it is felt that too much stress upon the congenital and unchangeable differences between people is somehow undemocratic — and also very depressing.”

If modern psychology refuses to concede anything to nature, it is because it fails to conduct a proper study of the body. Huxley sees man as a composite of three elements: body, ego, and psyche. “For practical purposes,” he suggests, “we have to think in terms of something like a neutral monism, with mind and body being aspects of the same substance.” It is not surprising that he should be very much taken with the theories of William Sheldon.

Huxley devotes a considerable amount of space to Sheldon. It is significant that the only major criticism directed against Huxley’s lectures while he was at Santa Barbara concerned the importance he attached to Sheldon. In the final moments of his last presentation, Huxley again said of Sheldon, “I happen to think he is right.”

Huxley observed a similarity between the three main divisions of men set forth in the Aryan classic, the Bhagavad-Gita (he wrote the introduction to the Mentor edition), and Sheldon’s typology. If Sheldon’s blubbery endomorphs had been ancient Aryans, they would have given themselves over to an emotional devotion to the gods, while the muscular mesomorphs would have followed the path of duty and action, and the spare and introverted ectomorphs would have led lives of solitary contemplation.

Many of Huxley’s novels reveal Sheldon’s influence: most of Huxley’s characters are fashioned in accordance with Sheldon’s typology. For instance, Everard Webley, the leader of a fascist-style movement in Point Counter Point, has a driving personality very much in keeping with his mesomorphic body type. (Webley is based upon Sir Oswald Mosley, and it is of some interest that he should be treated in a fairly sympathetic fashion, even though the author eventually kills him off.) Another, and one of the most believable of Huxley’s early characters, Mark Rampion (who is said to be based upon D.H. Lawrence), provides a further clue to Huxley’s view of man’s nature when he asserts, “To be a perfect animal and a perfect human — that was the ideal.”

Like somatotypes, the population problem and ecological concerns were high on Huxley’s list of pet topics. He covers these and related matters in his first few lectures. Huxley was a persistent questioner of democracy’s ability to cope effectively with the problem of overpopulation. He believed that unchecked population growth leads to a strain on available natural resources which, in turn, causes a greater centralization of government.

Another side effect is an increased temptation to use exploitative and, ultimately, destructive economic and agricultural methods to provide more goods and services. Balance in nature, as well as human social equilibrium, is upset by unregulated capitalism. “The Germans,” he notes, “have a good term for this kind of exploitative economy; they call it Raubwirtschaft (robber economy).”

Huxley also realized that the population problem was, in great measure, a problem of human quality. He was well aware of dysgenic breeding trends, but his consideration of this matter is far more detailed in his earlier Brave New World Revisited than in The Human Situation. Huxley quotes Sheldon’s bleak prognosis (“our best stock tends to be outbred by stock that is inferior to it in every respect”) but, unlike Wells, he does not say the inferior elements “will have to go.”

He sees in eugenics some hope for the world’s future, but, once again, he mistakenly assaults nationalism. While disagreeing with Huxley’s internationalist stance, nationalists should be able to see the advantages of a vigorously applied eugenics program. Consider the following:

“Sooner or later eugenics will be practiced, although it is certainly going to take a tremendous revolution in our present ethical ideas on this subject. It may also be added that the first nation that does practice such eugenic methods as Professor [Hermann J.] Muller advocates will in a few decades be enormously superior to all its rivals . . .”

Near the end of The Human Situation, Huxley decries racial “prejudice.” It should be noted that many who recognize some form of racial feeling in others can’t always see it in themselves. Like G.B. Shaw, Huxley is a good case in point. His seldom-anthologized essays, such as Jesting Pilate, Along the Road, and Do What You Will, contain a number of comments which reveal his feelings toward Jews.

For example, in Do What You Will he wrote of the Jews: “Their mission, in a word, was to infect the rest of humanity with a belief [in materialism] which . . . prevented them from having any art, any political life, any breadth of vision, any progress. We may be pardoned for wishing that the Jews had remained not forty, but four thousand years in their repulsive wilderness.”

In 1943 he told his brother Julian that the Jews are a “monied, influential, and pushing minority” who are themselves responsible for ill-feeling and anti-Semitism (The Letters of Aldous Huxley). In Antic Hay one of Huxley’s characters complains of “hideous red cities pullulating with Jews, sir. Pullulating with prosperous Jews. Am I right in being indignant, sir?” Huxley apparently thought so. But by the end of the Second World War he kept whatever anti-Jewish sentiments he harbored to himself.

For all this, Huxley still remains a fascinating and much misunderstood individual. One part scientist, who urged better living through chemistry, one part mystic, he stepped on a good many toes and raised important issues. What he once wrote of his friendly enemy, D.H. Lawrence, can be applied to Huxley himself. He was not a man content to “live in a little puddle of light thrown by the gig-lamps of habit,” and his knowledge of the universe did not diminish his sense of wonder.

 * * *

From Attack! No. 61, 1978, transcribed by Anthony Collins and edited by Vanessa Neubauer, from the book The Best of Attack! and National Vanguard, edited by Kevin Alfred Strom

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