Aldous Huxley is remembered today as an important novelist of the twentieth century, author of the now-classic Brave New World. But of his nearly fifty books, most were in fact works of nonfiction, and in these he addressed many of the ills of modern society: rampant population growth, environmental degradation, and socioeconomic inequalities, among other concerns. In his search for answers, Huxley drew deeply from Buddhist sources—and, like his close friend Alan Watts, became an early advocate of Buddhism in the West. But what about Buddhism appealed to Huxley? And how does his assessment of the tradition compare with that of Western Buddhists today?
While Huxley certainly endorsed many aspects of Buddhism, his work nonetheless issues an interesting challenge (and potential threat) to what might be called “traditional Buddhism,” the formal schools of Asian Buddhism. Central to Huxley’s challenge is his assertion that no religious tradition exercises a monopoly on truth; indeed, that ultimate truth can be found only through a search free of dogma and the rigid demands of orthodoxy. One can be a Buddhist, in other words, but equally and at the same time a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian. What is perhaps most interesting about Huxley’s challenge is that its echo can be heard today in the dharma halls of Western Buddhist centers.
Aldous Huxley was born in 1894, in Surrey, England, to a family of famous intellectuals. This was shortly after the construction of the Eiffel Tower (then the tallest structure in the world), in a period that literary scholar and critic Joseph Wood Krutch once called the “Age of Confidence,” a reference to the popular assumption that science and technology would soon create a secular paradise on earth. By the time Huxley graduated from Oxford in 1919, however, much of that confidence had waned. The First World War had already shown that technology could be used as easily for destruction as for creation. But even more devastating was the corrosive effect of science on the traditional Judeo-Christian foundations of meaning and values. This, of course, was liberating in many ways—and Huxley himself was happy to be free of values he believed were built upon superstition and feudal entitlement. But the disciplines of science showed no prospects for creating a new foundation for meaning and values, and this worried Huxley deeply.
Positivism, the philosophical position founded by Auguste Comte and based on scientific materialism, suggested that there is no meaning in life because an absolute meaning can neither be found nor proven. Comte suggested that all values are culturally conditioned and therefore relative, rendering the universe itself a moral vacuum. While many intellectuals accepted this viewpoint, Huxley wondered if the scientific community’s inability to quantify truth—or at least a “meaningful” truth—might not rather indicate a limitation of the scientific method. What if truth—like love and beauty—does exist but cannot be quantified? What if it passes through the grasp of the scientific method as the sea passes through the nets of a fisherman? Positivists, from Comte to the present, have assumed that the problems they cannot solve necessarily have no answers, but Huxley believed they were just looking in the wrong places and using the wrong approach. In Ends and Means (1937), he wrote, “Promoting their epistemological ineptitude to the rank of a criterion of truth, dogmatic scientists have often branded everything beyond the pale of their limited competence as unreal and even impossible.”
Huxley argued that if we limit our grounds for meaning and values only to what science can quantify, we create a reductionism that herds us directly toward materialism—since material things can be quantified. This reduces the foundation of meaning to physical comfort and pleasure alone. And Huxley found this proposition “vulgar,” to use his term, because it negates the possibility of a deeper truth and purpose. “Comfort is a means, not an end. The modern world seems to regard it as an end in itself, an absolute good. One day, perhaps, the earth will have been turned into one vast feather-bed, with man’s body dozing on top of it and his mind underneath, like Desdemona, smothered.” In Brave New World (1932), Huxley presented a cautionary tale of what life could become if culture were reduced to such materialistic foundations: In his vision of the future, sexual promiscuity is raised to a virtue, close emotional relationships are forbidden, and “soma,” a drug of pleasure and escape, replaces both intimacy and spirituality.
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