Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian

September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

The following is a paper I presented for The Condemned Playground: Aldous Huxley and His Contemporaries, a conference at Balliol College, Oxford UK in September 2013.  The heavy footnotes are for brevity.  This is part of a larger project entitled Beware of Mad John: Psychedelic Aesthetics, Political Theology and Literature.


Aldous Huxley’s pacifism was – and continues to be – received as both naïve and “anti-political.”  In his introduction to a 2012 edition of Ends and Means, sociologist Howard Schneiderman’s descriptions of Huxley’s work on pacifism are particularly backhanded.[1]

In reference to Huxley calling twentieth-century politics “primitive,” Schneiderman claims, “We might well take this as the utopian atavism of an otherwise brilliant and progressive mind at work” (xviii),[2] and despite what he refers to as Huxley’s ability to “arouse interest” among current “social scientist intellectuals,” Schneiderman’s indictment of Huxley is clear: “the fact that [Huxley] extolled the virtues of pacifism, in spite of its consequences for the Jews, shows his utopian thinking as an ethic of conviction that is morally and politically distasteful” (xxii).  Perhaps because of narrow disciplinary interests, Schneiderman has nothing to say about Huxley and religion in relation to his apparent moral vacancy, nor does Schneiderman have anything to say about the much more politically exigent place that international and even supra-national politics and economic forces have in 2012.  Taking a much broader reading of Huxley’s vast amount of work my aim here is to read Huxley as a political-theologian presenting a vision of citizenship that requires an overcoming of ironist intellectualism (present in Spinoza’s work).   Based on the metaphysics of Vedanta, Huxley’s political theology arises from a deep critique of western European, Christian political theology that offers a re-enchanted model of citizenship in a “post-secular” age.  Read this way, Huxley offers a useful counter-discourse to contemporary discussions of political theology.

Let me begin with Huxley’s metaphysical view, which is informed by Vedantic thought and comes to be fully expressed during the late 1930s.  In Ends and Means he tells us, “Liberation from prevailing conventions of thought, feeling and behavior is accomplished most effectively by the practice of disinterested virtues and through direct insight into the real nature of ultimate reality” (3).  He also says, “far from being irrelevant, our metaphysical beliefs are the finally determining factor in all of our actions” (11).  That Huxley practiced such disinterestedness in his characterizations can make his later prose seem cold or overly philosophical.  This comes from Huxley’s notion of direct insight and is based on the overcoming of subject-object distinctions, amounting to a break in causal relationships.  Non-physical states, for him, can exist with no correspondence to the physical world (342-343).  Non-physical states can be accessed by meditation and, as his later work shows, such access can be accelerated by the use of psychedelics.  Direct insight reveals a connection to an impersonal ultimate reality that unites Being while sustaining differentiated subjectivities represented simultaneously by multiple characters.

Huxley’s metaphysics are informed by his concept of Goodness as action, derived from Meister Eckhart, as “the means by which men and women can overcome the illusion of being completely independent existents and can raise themselves to a level of being upon which it becomes possible, by recollection and meditation, to realize their one-ness with ultimate reality” (345).  Such action demands the transcendence of personality and a transcendence of conceptions of the divine as personal – a collapse of immanence and transcendence.  This does not mean the ego has no use; rather, the benefit of personality is in its malleability, and the action toward Goodness, as it appears in Huxley’s work, reveals a conception of citizenship that counters what critics mistakenly believe to be his anti-politics.  In his later fictional characters, this shows up through a softer approach to non-intellectuals and the presentation of high intellect as an Achilles’ heel.  Smart characters most overcome ironist intellectualism by intending toward Goodness.

Based on his metaphysics, Huxley’s conception of citizenship is beyond worldly or cosmopolitan, beyond cities of God and cities of men; it is universal.  It exceeds nationalism, and it transcends politics of nation-states, but Huxley by no means promotes a “World State” either.  His political imagination places a heavy emphasis on local economies differentiated enough to prevent a consolidation of resources to create large military powers that threaten the world.  To theorize this is not to simply wish-away existing political powers.  Rather, Huxley suggests reorganizing human potential according to his metaphysical model in the face of history.

History is a particular problem for Huxley because it articulates causal relations that form habits over time, and those habits are eventually mistakenly interpreted, especially in cases such as National Socialism, as fate.  This does not mean Huxley disregarded history.  In The Grey Eminence, Huxley traces the emerging Second World War in Europe to religious conflict during the 30 Years’ War.  He characterizes Father Joseph’s belligerent political actions in terms of his mysticism acquired through Father Benet’s break with the traditional Christian mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.  In Huxley’s reading, Father Benet’s intentional use of the image of Christ’s Passion at the highest level of meditative prayer introduced a kind of worldliness to Christian mysticism that had political consequences during the emerging Enlightenment (78).  This aestheticized “Copernican Revolution,” as he terms it, relativizes true mystical experience in Europe from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries (83).  In Huxley’s view, the absence of “true” mysticism during this period exacerbates political violence and accompanies the modern conception of the nation-state based on territorial and military violence.  Whether it is Christian-centered or Rousseau’s “civic religion,” modernity’s alienation as the ground for the emergence of liberal subjectivity is suspect for Huxley.  He is not anti-political; he is against a European-derived conception of politics that arises during the Counter Reformation and secularization.

Huxley sees both large-scale religion and the state as ultimately producers of violence, but this does not mean he believes either religion or politics to be unnecessary, atavistic or without use.[3] Oppressed, mystical strains of Christianity for Huxley emerge as the conscientious-objector movement in the Great War and eventually become the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s, but addiction to a citizenship based on nationalistic self-preservation and armament leads Huxley to his frequent condemnations of the State as Nationalistic Religion.

In An Encyclopedia of Non-Violence, Huxley defines “nation” as “a community organized for war” (61), negating definitions based on race, language, and geography.  Huxley cites the League of Nations’ recognition of nations based on having an army, which leads him to be less hopeful of post-war attempts to define universal human rights.  Huxley characterizes entities such as “the Nation, the Race, the Class, and party” as part of a general move in Europe away from monotheism toward “tribal idolatry,” usurping the place of God (62).  “The strength of the nation-state,” Huxley says, “lies in its power to assuage the sense of personal inferiority” through identity categories such as citizenship: “The nation-god is glorious and even his feeblest and most unimportant worshippers mystically participate in that glory” (63).  While Huxley seems to think that a “truer” religion and nation-states are simply incompatible, his broader conception of citizenship hints at another option, one that would keep the mystical participation while dumping the necessity for standing armies and instrumental rationality with respect to technology.  Religion in this respect is at the heart of the political and anything but atavistic.[4]

If we read Huxley not just as a writer, philosopher, or mystic but as a political theologian, we could put him into awkward dialogue with a contemporary of his: the German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, author of the 1922 book, Political Theology, which famously opens by defining the sovereign as “the one who makes the decision in a state of exception” (5). Schmitt claimed,   

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. (36) 

Much has been made of the idea of the state of exception within certain academic circles working on the discourse of political theology in recent years (see Giorgio Agamben’s work, for instance).  Huxley, however, has yet to be taken seriously in this discourse.[5]  Surprisingly, Huxley’s concept of the perennial converges with Schmitt’s idea of the state of exception as analogous to the miracle.  The thinkers part ways, however, on access to such a state, and that parting is crucial for understanding Huxley’s pacifism as more than political quietism.

For the conservative Schmitt, state power is stabilized by a sovereign capable of making an ultimate decision in exception to a norm; indeed, for Schmitt, the power to stand outside the norm is what establishes it in the first place.  The sovereign decides for the sake of the nation based on a concept of the political where the relationship between states is characterized as the state of nature necessitating a friend-enemy distinction (Concept of the Political).  Huxley would certainly be in opposition to this, but the two thinkers meet in the idea of the exception itself: it is not just a space of the miraculous; it is a space that exceeds both temporality and normativity.  It is the space of an intentional return to the pre-political, a return to the state of nature.  The perennial is the space of mystical convergence.[6] For Huxley, the space of the perennial collapses time and subject-object distinction, creating the possibility to orient toward ultimate reality, to become Good.  For Huxley, the space of the perennial is a means toward an achievable political end.  The decision to become “good” is in itself a political action that for Huxley transcends the authority of nation-states.  For Schmitt, the sovereign decision occurs in this space and implicitly, the sovereign is only one who communes with the supernatural in order to establish the very order of the natural.  For Schmitt the decider gets to be “more holy” while for Huxley the obligation to orient toward ultimate reality is open to everyone at various levels of intelligence and spirituality.  Pacifism becomes a means to ensure this end, and that is why Huxley constitutes war itself as “incompatible with liberty” (An Encyclopedia 53).

It is not saying much to claim that Huxley and a Nazi would disagree, but in terms of political theology, Huxley is indeed offering a vision where politics and religion can inform one another rather harmoniously without relying on a bulky conception of hard religion that is intimately tied to European political theory since the Reformation.  We might push the analogy between Huxley and Schmitt a bit more absurdly – but not out of line with Huxley’s own literary aesthetics – and cast Schmitt as the sovereign Murugan and Huxley as Will Asquith Farnaby from Huxley’s last novel, Island.  In the book, the political space of the island, Pala, collapses into a state of exception where Murugan, slave to the crassest and most materialistic features of modern technology, consumption and warfare is about to come into power.  Will, who has had his own part to play with the island’s demise takes moksha or liberation medicine and has the following experience:

This dark little inspissated clot that one called “I” was capable of suffering to infinity and, in spite of death, the suffering would go on forever.  The pains of living and the pains of dying, the routine of successive agonies in the bargain basement and the final crucifixion in a blaze of tin and plastic vulgarity – reverberating, continuously amplified, they would always be there.  And the pains were incommunicable, the isolation complete.  The awareness that one existed was an awareness that one was always alone. (Island 341) 

Yet despite this complete isolation, Will’s trip is a participatory ritual that convinces him that the ideals of Pala are right just as Pala is being invaded by an army that will bring western industrialization and commerce to the island.  Will’s time on Pala may culminate in his moksha experience, but he is set up by hypnosis, dialogue with the islanders, and the reading of the treatise, Notes on What’s What.[7]  While moksha-medicine democratizes mystical experience, it does not end there.  The expectation is that the liberation the medicine provides helps the society as a whole.  The individual subject, “Will,” is always part of a larger whole, and the moksha experience is a limit-experience, which, like the state of exception defines the norm – the distinction with Carl Schmitt being that for Schmitt, this is the sovereign decision whereas in Island, the beautiful young warlord-sovereign Murugan is the very person who refuses and is disgusted by the moksha-experience.

Huxley’s narrative thus ideologically deposes the sovereign by reoccupying the decision in the enlightened subject, characterized by his participation in a ritual that democratizes the mystical through a sacrifice of the nation-state.  Rather than Schmitt’s concept of the sovereign who makes a decision in the state of exception, the psychedelically informed citizen communicates with the divine for moral guidance.  Huxley’s work is more than a utopia; it is an allegory for disparate character-incarnations that are present throughout much of Huxley’s works.  It does not project a future imagined space but more of an alternate possible reality.

Huxley presents a post-secular citizenship through practical mysticism in a perennial that may be aesthetically expressed as a performance overcoming subject-object distinction.  But Huxley’s perennial is not necessarily ahistorical or personalist.  While I risk sounding naïvely embracing of a kind of 1960s idealism here, it also does not work with regard to Huxley to say the personal is political.  Huxley’s metaphysical grounding exceeds personalism and Goodness is marked by the personal intending toward the impersonal.  This is to happen, not by means of either hard law or hard religion but through soft law and an international conception of good will and an avowed commitment that humanity is ready for peace.

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  An Encyclopedia of Pacifism. In The Handbook of Non-Violence. Ed. Robert Seeley. Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1986. Print.

—. Grey Eminence. London: Vintage, 2005. Print.

—. Ends and Means. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2012. Print.

—. Island. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

—.Political Theology. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2006. Print.

[1] Huxley seems to define pacifism either in terms of what it is not, or in terms of what it stands against.

Thus, pacifism is not politics, indeed it is anti-politics; it is not nationalism; it is obviously not militarism; it is not imperialism; and it is not about competing for international prestige, wealth and power.  On the contrary, Huxley’s pacifism is about brotherly love, reform, peace, cooperation, social justice, and more than less it is about socialism and a leavening of wealth and power.  In a word, it is anti-political. (Ends and Means xvii)

Schneiderman points George Orwell’s claim against Huxley during the Second World War that “Pacifism is objectively fascist” (xxi).

[2] This claim compares Huxley to Max Weber, whom “was undoubtedly the more clear-minded and realistic thinker about politics,” because “Since the state determines the nature of politics, and for Weber, the state is defined by its aims, which differ from state to state, but always by the means specific to it, namely physical force” (xviii).

[3] It is misguided to think of Huxley as a secularist, and it is inadequate to explain away his views on spirituality with reference to the word his grandfather coined: “agnostic.”  Huxley’s justifies his view of pacifism as political action out of what appears to him as “true” Christian mysticism.  In An Encyclopedia of Pacifism Huxley characterizes Christianity before Constantine as essentially pacifistic.  While strains of this pacifism existed throughout the ages, both Luther and Calvin, according to Huxley gave up early emphases on non-violence, embracing a stance of defense against Catholics and violent persecution of Anabaptists, Quakers, and Mennonites (19).  However, the Christian pacifism of the persecuted groups emerges as the conscientious-objection-movement during the Great War and extends to the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s (20).  Similar to his account of Luther and Calvin, Huxley’s concern is that concentrated social entities based on large-scale accumulation of wealth through capitalistic agonism leads to a building up of arms on the premise of maintaining a strong defense.  Communism and Fascism proceed the same way, and “violence begets violence” (23).

[4] During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Huxley returns to Christian history, characterizing Christ a political figure as messiah and king of the Jews.  It is in Huxley’s characterization of Christ’s political agenda that we can glean his notion of a “higher” citizenship and how the politics of pacifism are to positively work.  Huxley believes that Christ’s political plan was that the Jews “were to be the pioneers of a new kind of religio-political action” (50).  He cites the Sermon on the Mount as being politically directed between the Jews and Rome and the injunction to love one’s enemy as applying to Rome and Gentiles. Interestingly, however, Huxley betrays a striking textual fidelity to Christ’s foresight when he interprets the fall of the Temple as the result of Jews who returned to violence instead of love: “Because these things were hid, because the eyes of the Jews were closed, Jerusalem suffered destruction” (51).  This falls under the heading of “International Politics in Light of Christ’s Teaching” in An Encyclopedia of Non-Violence.  Huxley implies that love begetting love transcends nations altogether and that it cannot be accompanied by the use of force.  This is his problem with the League of Nations as it existed, especially with the Treaty of Versailles appended to it.  International Politics must not be enforced for Huxley by means of either international police forces or policies of economic retribution.  While seemingly overly idealist at the time, retrospectively Huxley is alluding to what is referred to today as soft law in international human rights legislation.  As concepts such as soft law more and more tend to affect political deliberations, it is worth re-examining Huxley on religion.

[5] It is undoubtedly in some ways an uncomfortable dialogue, and had I more time I would focus on particular interpretations of Hamlet made by Huxley in Eyeless in Gaza and Schmitt in Hamlet or Hecuba, which is in dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s Origins of German Tragic Drama.

[6] To be clear here, Huxley had his publisher make a note on the cover of his Perennial Philosophy that with it, he was not trying to start a religion.

[7] The book summarizes Spinoza:

The more a man knows about individual objects, the more he knows about God.  Translating Spinoza’s language into ours, we can say: the more a man knows about himself in relation to every kind of experience, the greater his chance of suddenly, one fine morning, realizing who in fact he is. (Island 43)

This passage analogously situates the subject’s experience with God while nodding to the history of Political Theology.



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