The Human Situation
Aldous Huxley was one of the great minds and writers of the twentieth century. A Britisher educated at Eton and Oxford, he turned to literature in his twenties, becoming internationally known as a novelist. Although his work as a novelist still tends to overshadow his other writings, he was also the author of essays, biography, drama, poetry, and short stories. Prior to World War II he migrated to the United States, where he lived until his death. According to his editor, Piero Ferrucci, Huxley delivered the present series of lectures, or ones very like them, at a number of institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Menninger Foundation. The editor reports that he chose the series delivered at Santa Barbara for the University of California because that series was the most comprehensive.
This series of essays includes sixteen of the original seventeen; the editor omitted the eighth lecture, entitled “The Future Is in Our Hands,” because it was but a summary of the preceding ones. Of these lectures Huxley wrote, early in January, 1959, to Matthew Huxley, that he intended beginning with the biological foundations of the human situation, such as the state of our planet, population problems, and the relationship of heredity to environment. He said he would then proceed to treat of techniques in every field of human endeavor and how such activity affected the social and political order. Finally, as he put it, he would discuss the individual human being and his potentialities. Of the task he had undertaken Huxley commented, “It is an impossibly large project—but worth undertaking even inadequately, as an antidote to academic specialization and fragmentation.” Few persons living in the twentieth century could do what Huxley did in these essays, for he called upon a wide-ranging experience and knowledge to help his readers better understand the problems human beings share with one another. Although eighteen years elapsed from the delivery of the lectures by Aldous Huxley to their publication in 1977, they remain surprisingly adequate and up-to-date; pieces of information contained within them have become outdated, but the essays themselves remain remarkably pertinent for their readers. Huxley set out to build bridges between art and science, between objectively observed facts and immediate experience, and between morals and scientific appraisals; he styled himself, indeed, pontifex, or bridge-builder. He believed that the man of letters can perform a valuable function by bringing together a great many subjects, showing the relationships among them. Our educations, as much now as when he spoke, lead us to keep separate what we learn from our immediate experience.
Before such interests were as popular as they are today, Aldous Huxley began his series of lectures by looking at the relationships between mankind and our native planet. In “Man and His Planet,” Huxley ranges through some of the effects man has had on our environment, some of them good, but many of them destructive. He notes that we have deforested huge areas of the world in the interests of agriculture, only to have faulty agricultural practices ruin the soil over the centuries. He reminds us that the forests of Europe, which once covered most of the continent, were also devoured for such reasons as building houses, heating buildings, constructing ships, making glass, and smelting metal ores. What we do and have been doing, he rightly tells us, makes a gloomy picture. We need, he suggests, to see the use of the environment in more than a purely practical way, to look at it from a moral and aesthetic stance—as he puts it, “with a philosophical trend in our mind.” In “More Nature in Art,” the next essay in the series, he states that we have the necessary information and knowledge to prevent further ecological damage, even to repair much past damage, but that there is a gap between what can be done and the likelihood of its being done, for changes in our treatment of our world involve hundreds of millions of people. New ideas must be communicated to those people and, even more difficult, they must be persuaded to adopt ideas and methods which, if imposing temporary hardship, insure long-term benefits. Committed as we are in Western civilization to education, persuasion, and democratic methods, we nevertheless find the task of changing people’s ways more difficult than if we adopt coercion. Huxley makes the interesting and unusual point that our art could help, if artists working in all media returned to representational modes from their present use of abstract forms. Such a realistic art, combined with a good ethic and a good philosophy, would, he suggests, greatly enhance our chances of salvaging, even improving, our planet.
Of all the essays in this present collection, perhaps “The Population Explosion” will seem most relevant two decades after it was written, if for no other reason than that its topic has been one which has had considerable public attention....
(The entire section is 2047 words.)