Aldous Leonard Huxley (July 26, 1894- November 22, 1963) was a British writer who emigrated to the United States.
He was a member of the famous Huxley family who produced a number of brilliant scientific minds. Best known for his novels and wide-ranging output of essays, he also published short stories, poetry, travel writing, and film stories and scripts. Through his novels and essays Huxley functioned as an examiner and sometimes critic of social mores, societal norms and ideals, and possible misapplications of science in human life. While his earlier concerns might be called "humanist," ultimately, he became quite interested in "spiritual" subjects like parapsychology and mystically based philosophy, which he also wrote about. By the end of his life, Huxley was considered, in certain circles, a 'leader of modern thought'.
Huxley was born in Godalming, Surrey, England. He was the son of the writer Leonard Huxley by his first wife, Julia Arnold; and grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the most important naturalists of the 19th Century, a man known as "Darwin's Bulldog." His brother Julian Huxley was a biologist also noted for his evolutionary theories. Huxley understandably excelled in the areas he took up professionally, for on his father's side were a number of noted men of science, while on his mother's were people of literary accomplishment.
Huxley was a lanky, delicately framed child who was gifted intellectually. His father was a professional herbalist as well as an author, so Aldous 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, Aldous was then educated in the British boarding school system. He took readily to the handling of ideas.
His mother Julia died in 1908, when Aldous was only fourteen, and his sister Roberta died of an unrelated incident in the same month. Three years later Aldous suffered an illness (keratitis punctata) which seriously damaged his eyesight. His older brother Trev committed suicide in 1914. Aldous's near-blindness disqualified him from service in World War I. Once his eyesight recovered, he was able to read English literature at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was a member of the Cambridge Apostles.
Maturing as a lean young man well over six feet in height, the cerebrotonic Huxley's initial interest in literature was primarily intellectual. While he was noted for his personal kindliness, only considerably later (some say under the influence of such friends as D.H. Lawrence) did he heartily embrace feelings as matters of importance in his evolving personal philosophy and literary expression.
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. But never desiring a career in administration (or in business), Huxley's lack of inherited means propelled him into applied literary work.
Huxley had completed his first (unpublished) novel at the age of seventeen and began writing seriously in his early twenties. He wrote great novels on dehumanising aspects of scientific progress, most famously Eyeless in Gaza). Huxley was strongly influenced by F. Matthias Alexander and included him as a character in Eyeless In Gaza.
Already a noted satirist and social thinker, 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, whom he had met at Garsington. They had one child, Matthew, who grew up to be an epidemiologist.
Huxley moved to Hollywood, California in 1937 with his wife and friend Gerald Heard. Heard introduced Huxley to Vedanta and meditating. In Huxley's 1937 book Ends and Means, most people in modern civilization agree that they want a world of 'liberty, peace, justice, and brotherly love', though they haven't been able to agree on how to achieve it. His book goes on to explore why the confusion or disagreement is there and what might be done about it.
In 1938 Huxley befriended J. Krishnamurti, whose teachings he greatly admired. He also became a Vedantist in the circle of Swami Prabhavananda, and he also introduced Christopher Isherwood to this circle. Not long after, Huxley wrote his book on widely held spiritual values and ideas, The Perennial Philosophy, which discussed teachings of the world's great mystics.
For most of his life since the illness in his teens which left Huxley nearly blind, his eyesight was poor (despite the partial recovery which had enabled him to study at Oxford). Around 1939 he heard of the Pride and Prejudice.
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 America. He became a vegetarian. Thereafter, his works were strongly influenced by mysticism and his experiences with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, to which he was introduced by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1953. His years on psychoactive drugs were described as a paradise, washed down with bourbon, generally. He was a pioneer of self-directed psychedelic drug use in a search for enlightenment, famously taking 100 micrograms of LSD as he lay dying. Huxley's psychedelic drug experiences are described in the essays Heaven and Hell. The title of the former became the inspiration for the naming of the rock band, The Doors. Some of his writings on psychedelics became frequent reading among early hippies.
Huxley's main interest was not in just anything vague, mysterious, or subjective, but in what is sometimes termed "higher mysticism"; he liked the term "perennial philosophy" that he used as the title of his noted book on the topic. During the 1950s, Huxley's interest in the related field of psychical research grew keener.
Huxley's wife, Maria, died of breast cancer in 1955, and in 1956 he remarried, to Laura Archera, who was herself an author and who wrote a biography of Aldous. In 1960, Huxley was diagnosed with throat cancer. 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. In 1959 Huxley, who remained a British Citizen, turned down an offer of a Knight Bachelor by the Macmillan government.
His ideas were foundational to the forming of the Human Potential Movement. He was also invited to speak at several prestigious American universities. 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," an idea not dissimilar to his contemporary writer J. B. Priestley's idea in The Magicians.
Huxley's views on the proper roles of science and technology (as he portrayed these, say, in Island) are akin to some other noted English and American thinkers of the twentieth century, such as Lewis Mumford and Huxley's friend Gerald Heard (and, in some ways, Buckminster Fuller and E.F. Schumacher). Clearly, these men found descendants in some significant movers of a younger generation, e.g., Stewart Brand.
Via Gerald Heard, Huxley was introduced to the young Huston Smith, who went on to become a prolific and famous scholar on the religions of man. The two friends acquianted Smith with Vedanta and meditative practice. Later, while Huxley was a guest professor at M.I.T., he made introductions between Smith and Timothy Leary that lead to epiphanies Smith covers in his later book, Cleansing of The Doors Of Perception.
Amongst humanists, Huxley was considered an intellectual's intellectual. Although his financial circumstances had forced him to churn out articles and books, his thinking and best writing earned him an exalted esteem. His books were frequently on the required reading lists of English and modern philosophy courses in American colleges and universities. He was one of the twentieth-century thinkers honoured in the Scribners Publishing's "Leaders of Modern Thought" series (a volume of biography and literary criticism by Philip Thody, Aldous Huxley).
Death and afterwards
On his deathbed, unable to speak, he made a written request to his wife for "LSD, 100 g, 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.
In all of Huxley's mature writings, one finds an awareness that seems to bridge the gap between "The Two Cultures"- the sciences and the humanities. This gulf posed a potentially enormous problem, one that was recognized by other thinkers during Huxley's lifetime, such as C.P. Snow. The interest among professors of humanities and liberal arts in Huxley's work, both during the writer's lifetime and afterwards, rests on this consciousness on the part of the author, and of course on the artful and often humorous way in which he expressed himself.
Huxley's satirical, dystopian, and utopian novels seldom fail to stimulate thought. The same may be said for his essays and essay collections. Perhaps his main message is the tragedy that frequently follows from egocentrism, self-centredness, and selfishness.