Aldous Huxley - the thinker
Dana Sawyer's "Aldous Huxley: A Biography' is fine accounting of Huxley seen through the lens of his developing thought (rather than either the everyday, unfolding of his life or his undoubted literary achievement). It is brisk and lucid and helpfully anchors Huxley in his dual inheritance of gifted ancestors - the scientific, probing scepticism of T.H. Huxley and the high minded belief in the morally transformative nature of serious culture of Matthew Arnold. Huxley combined both but added a third dimension - the anchoring of all reality in a unity that could be encountered experientially by the individual, transforming them into a loving, compassionate being, alert to their unfolding place in the world, able to relate to everything as a unique particular within the whole.
And that "...this sense that in spite of everything which of course is, I suppose, the ultimate mystical conviction, in spite of pain, in spite of death, in spite of horror, the universe in some mysterious sense is all right, capital A capital R..." (Aldous Huxley).
But this 'mystical sense' did not absolve one from seeking to build a world that reduces the amount of pain, deepens the possibility of flourishing for all. However, it did assume that you needed to begin with the individual as the 'unit' of transformation. Accessing reality was only possible one person at a time, all you could do collectively was to set out, make available, some of the tools of that transformation. Huxley diligently worked on all levels - figuring out the details of personal transcendence and working on what kind of society would promote that most deeply and embody it as it blossomed.
He was never an optimist - the Huxley judgmental gene was too deeply entrenched - but he did hope and Sawyer quotes Vaclav Havel to good effect in explaining Huxley's position.
"Hope is an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed. It is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out."
This, rather beautifully, I thought captures my own - a realistic idealism.
What was striking too, and I have picked this up in all Huxley's biographies, was that it appeared to work in him and through him. He did appear to be slowly transformed, becoming ever more compassionate, radiant, whilst never losing his acute intelligence or his humour. There is hope for me yet!
P.S. Sadly, Sawyer's biography does, however, illustrate one decline; namely in the quality of editing - both typographic and of fact. Father Joseph did indeed serve Cardinal Richelieu but both would have been surprised to find themselves in the eighteenth century (rather than the seventeenth) serving Louis XIV (rather than XIII) and fighting the Thirty Years War (that ended in 1648).