Contemporary Review
Feb, 2001


Author/s: Ronald Hope

I WAS sixteen when Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means was published, and a year older when it came my way in the public library. By that time I had romped through Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and Brave New World. Today, the young do not seem so well served by the winners of the Booker Prize, but no doubt that is the plaint of all the generations. However, those of us who grew up in the Huxley era had much to look forward to and best of all, in my opinion, was The Perennial Philosophy, the book of Huxley's prime. And it is, perhaps, worth taking another look at it as we celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

Text and Pretexts had been an annotated anthology of verse. The Perennial Philosophy was an annotated anthology of mysticism, with chapter headings like 'Charity', 'God in the World' and 'Time and Eternity'.

This perennial philosophy -- the phrase is borrowed from Leibniz - is the highest factor common to all religions, a 'minimum working hypothesis', and Huxley's character Sebastian had already reflected upon it in Time Must Have a Stop. The primary assumption is that there is a Godhead behind the universe, behind all appearance. This unity both pervades the universe and is above and beyond it. 'Behold but the One in all things', says the mystic Kabir; 'it is the second that leads you astray'.

Most of us, claimed Huxley, have some consciousness of this unity, a consciousness implicit in our use of words. One is the embodiment of Good; two is the embodiment of Evil. Thus the Greek prefix 'dys', as in dyspepsia, and the Latin 'dis' as in dishonourable; and the German 'Zweifel', which means doubt. Bunyan, he pointed out, had his Mr Facing-both-ways and American slang its 'two-timers'. He might have added the double-crossers.

Granted the underlying unity in all things, Huxley argued that it was possible for human beings to love, know and become identified with the Godhead, to become one with God, and to achieve this identity with God is the purpose and end of human life. It is, of course, a message that has been conveyed by many other thinkers.

This end, however, cannot be realised unless a certain path is followed. We can have direct knowledge of God only by union, and this union cannot be achieved while we remain selfish and egoistic. 'The more there is of I, me, mine', wrote Sebastian, 'the less there is of the Ground'. And the only way of dying to self, of annihilating the Ego, is the way of humility and compassion, the way of disinterestedness. It is because people have been unwilling to follow this path to salvation that human history has been what it has. People don't see why they shouldn't 'express their personalities' and 'have a good time'. 'They get their good times', says Huxley; 'but also and inevitably they get wars and syphilis and revolution and alcoholism, tyranny and, in default of an adequate religious hypothesis, the choice between some lunatic idolatry, like nationalism, and a sense of complete futility and despair'. Everybody realises that this is a sad state of affairs but 'throughout recorded history most men and women have preferred the risks, the positive certainty of such disasters to the laborious whole-time job of trying to get to know the divine Ground of all being. In the long run we get exactly what we ask for'.

Huxley did not, of course, suggest that there was any proof, in the mathematical sense, of the existence of God. We cannot divide matter by nothing and call it infinity, as one of Huxley's fictional characters tried to do. But there is, according to Huxley, abundant evidence that certain people, by no means extraordinary except in this mystical respect, have directly experienced and realised the spiritual Absolute, have become united in God.

Then what of we 'ordinary, nice, unregenerate' people, what can we do about it? The answer is that our will is free and it is up to us. We can either identify ourselves exclusively with our self-ness and its own interests to the exclusion of God, in which case we shall be either passively damned or actively fiendish; or we can identify ourselves exclusively with the divine within us and without, in which case we shall be saints. As is the case with the current British Prime Minister, there is also a 'third way', the way of life for the majority of us. Those who follow the third way are neither saint nor fiend. At one moment, or in one set of circumstances, they are selfish; at another moment, or in another set of circumstances, they are humble, contrite and compassionate. These are too godly to be wholly lost, but too self-centred to achieve enlightenment and total deliverance.

Human craving, Huxley suggests, can be satisfied only by following the saintly path. To some extent our path will vary according to our temperament. Broadly speaking, we are all Pickwicks, Hotspurs or Hamlets, or some complicated combination of more than one of these. On the earthly plane, the Pickwick in us is characterised by gluttony, the love of comfort and the love of social approval. Pickwick can find God only through devotion, a deliberate disciplining of his merely animal gregariousness and merely human kindliness into devotion to the personal God, and universal goodwill and compassion towards all sentient beings.

The path of works is for Hotspur. He must rid himself of the usual and fatal accompaniments of the love of action -- love of power and the desire to hurt -- and work without regard to the fruits of his work, in a state of complete non-attachment.

'For Hamlet, there is the way of knowledge, through the modification of consciousness, until it ceases to be ego-centred and becomes centred in and united with the Divine Ground'. For all of us -- Pickwick, Hotspur and Hamlet -- it boils down to the denial of Self, and thence the achievement of a knowledge of God.

Of course, none of this is easy. Above all, we must be charitable -- charitable in the original sense of the word and not as it is used in the debased verbal currency of our day. Charity includes within itself disinterestedness, tranquillity and humility. 'Where there is distinterestedness, there is neither greed for personal advantage nor fear for personal loss or punishment; where there is tranquillity, there is neither craving nor aversion...; and where there is humility there is no censoriousness and no glorification of the ego..'.

'There isn't any secret formula or method's scribbled the dying Bruno in Time Must Have a Stop, echoing as he did so the words of St Francois de Saes. 'You learn to love by loving - by paying attention and doing what one thereby discovers has to be de done'. But to put this doctrine into effect requires constant awareness and discipline. To give but one example, the kind of talk in which most of us indulge is morally evil and spiritually dangerous, for most of what we say is inspired by greed, sensuality, self-love, malice, uncharitableness or pure imbecility. All these idle words stand between us and God.

The path to salvation today is as difficult as it has always been. On every side we are urged to be as extraverted and as uninhibitedly greedy as possible since it is only the restless and distracted who spend money on the things that advertisers want to sell. We are encouraged to 'love' and 'adore' different kinds of clothes, cars, food and drink. We must chasten these desires and passions.

That is not to say that we must deliberately seek out physical austerities, because this may have the wrong effect. This can nourish that pride in ourselves which it should be our aim to destroy. What we must endeavour to achieve is a 'holy indifference' towards the things in time, not merely towards the physical satisfactions, but also towards the mental satisfactions - the success, for example, of a cause to which we have devoted our best energies. If it succeeds, well and good; but if it suffers defeat, that also is well and good, if only in ways which to a time-bound mind are here and now entirely incomprehensible.

What, it may be asked, is the reward for all this effort? It is not, necessarily, a 'better world', though this would follow if there were better people in it. To the exponents of the perennial philosophy, the question of a 'better' world, of whether progress is inevitable or even real, is not a matter of primary importance. For them the important thing is that individual men and women should come to the unitive knowledge of God; and what interests them in the social environment is not its progressiveness or non-progressiveness, whatever these terms may mean, but the degree to which it helps or hinders individuals in their advance towards the final end.

This obviously has an important political corollary as well as a personal implication. Power always corrupts. 'All great men are bad'. The political corollary is that we should live, not in great nation states, but in units sufficiently small to be capable of shared spiritual existence and of moral and rational conduct. Such social rearrangement as decentralisation, small-scale property-owning and small-scale production would do much to prevent ambitious individuals and organisations from being led into temptation.

In seeking this deliverance out of time and into eternity we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are living in time. The life of a mystic is not a life of inaction; nor does it lead to suicide for in committing suicide we do not escape the boundaries of time. But the mystic's work, as Huxley pointed out in Grey Eminence, must always be marginal; it is always started on the smallest scale and, even when it expands, it is never organised on a large scale, for there lies the way of corruption.

Deliverance, when and if it comes, is out of the limitations imposed upon us by time and into eternity. By definition, we cannot say what eternity is like in terms of things in time. The most that writers on the subject have been able to do in describing their experiences to those without faith is to use such phrases as 'seeing the light' or, as Huxley does, 'participating in the eternal Now of the Divine Ground'. The mystic can do no other than speak in a mysterious way.

More can be said, perhaps, about hell than heaven because we already know hell pretty well. If you do not choose to be saved, if you do not choose to become immortal, you survive. That is you persist in one of the forms of time. And persisting in time is hell, because the elements of hell are the elements of self, covetousness, envy, pride and wrath. If you have fallen from grace and God, life can be nothing in itself but an extremity of want, continually desiring, and an extremity of desire, continually wanting: you have become the economic man!

In Time Must Have a Stop Huxley made some attempt to describe this state of survival in time after death when Eustace Barnack died, but the attempt did not come off. In The Perennial Philosophy he takes a leaf out of his brother Julian Huxley's great work on Evolution and suggests that the other animals, indeed all creation, have already made their choice. They have chosen, not the ultimately best, but the immediately most profitable form, and are thus debarred from realising the supreme good. As Villiers de l'Isle-Adam wrote, only man in all the universe, has not yet come to an end.

That Huxley's thought had been moving in the direction of the perennial philosophy for some time was obvious to anyone familiar with his work. Some of the reviewers when the book appeared seemed to find evidence for a sudden conversion round about 1934, but his disgust for earthly things is displayed over and over again in his early novels. In Antic Hay, Lypiatt is disgusted with 'hoggish materialism'; and Gumbril Junior remarks after his first love affair, 'Is that all?' Coleman's relish, in Antic Hay, in 'the hundreds of thousands of couples' who 'are at this moment engaged in mutually caressing one another in a manner too hideous to be thought of' seems little different from Huxley's relish in The Perennial Philosophy for a metaphor which describes personal love - a by no means ignoble thing - as 'slime'. At the age of fifty it was perhaps easier for Huxley to seek the perennial philosophy. In his youth he had been attracted to as well as disgusted by the earthly pleasures.

'The earthly paradise', he exclaims in Texts and Pretexts, 'the earthly paradise! With what longing, between the bars of my temperament, do I peer at its bright landscape, how voluptuously sniff at its perfumes of hay and raspberries, of honey-suckle and roast duck, of sun-warmed flesh and nectarines and the sea! But the bars are solid; the earthly paradise is always on the further side. Self-hindered, I cannot enter and make myself at home'.

By the time he wrote The Perennial Philosophy that brightness of the landscape had dimmed and the vision of a new paradise had eclipsed it. The conflict between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit was over; and so largely was the novel-writing. 'I have a premonition', said Gumbril on one occasion, 'that one of these days I may become a saint. An unsuccessful flickering sort of saint, like a candle beginning to go out'.

After writing The Perennial Philosophy Huxley thought of himself, perhaps, as a flickering sort of saint; but those who do not share his curious temperamental difficulties may remain unconverted. After all, he left unsolved the perennial problem of why pain and suffering are so unevenly distributed; and is it true that all people may become mystics if they want to? Perhaps, like the animal world (and as Huxley intimated), many of us are already fixed in our ways. Many of the ordinary, nice, unregenerate people may not be willing to exchange the pleasures they know for the unknown pleasure of becoming united in God. It may be useless to suggest to these that they are really unhappy for they may not know it. With Huxley's contemporary, Richard Aldington, they may cry instead:

...we who do not drug ourselves with lies

Know, with how deep a pathos, that we have

Only the warmth and beauty of this life

Before the blankness of unending gloom.

Aldington also used the image of the candle, but to him its flame represented life, and it burned most clearly and flickered least when fed by earthly love. He was unrepentantly for Twoness, the good and the bad that we have to live with.