The Human Situation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2047

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.

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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in 1977, they remain surprisingly adequate and up-to-date; pieces of information contained within them have become outdated, but the essays themselves remain remarkably pertinent for their readers.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. But the chief interest in this essay ought to be on what Huxley says about the relation of population to human well-being and human values in general. Population figures are for most persons difficult to understand fully; the meaning of some of Huxley’s examples may escape both our understandings and our imaginations—such examples as that in early Paleolithic times the total human population on earth was probably less than twenty million, or that in the fifteenth century there were fewer than a million Indians in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Even such a recent change as the more-than-fifty-percent increase of the population of the United States since 1940 is a difficult concept to understand, even among people old enough to have experienced and observed the change. But the real thrust of Huxley’s essay is not statistical: he asks first of all what the practical alternatives are. He suggests that one choice is to let nature solve the problem, through starvation, disease, and warfare. Another choice is to increase industrial and agricultural production, but it appears already that we must collectively work harder to stay where we are. His third alternative is to increase production while at the same time trying to reestablish the balance between birth and death rates by intelligent and humane methods. Huxley understands the difficulties, which he terms colossal, in limiting population, for controlling the birth rate is a problem involving medicine, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, sociology, psychology, theology, and education. One specific problem, he tells us, is that some worldwide, or at least regional, agreements on birth control will be necessary for success, but that political leaders do not think in biological terms. Furthermore, the rapid population increase makes educating people and raising the material standard of life almost impossible.

When Huxley moves to looking at the individual human being, he becomes most interesting, for he espouses causes which he knows have not found favor in many quarters. His positions sometimes run counter to ideas which have become institutionalized, so that his positions threaten vested interests. For example, Huxley takes to task the behavioral psychologists, including J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, pointing out that they have clearly tended to eliminate hereditary factors as influences on human behavior, without regard for what geneticists have proved to be true. Huxley also suggests that modern psychiatry has neglected the genetic influence on mankind because its practitioners and theorists have simply paid no attention to the human body. Huxley’s conclusion is that to make the most of the genetic variability which exists in humankind we must improve the environment, but that we can disregard genetics only if we are willing to imperil our values. He develops a monistic view which insists on bringing mind and body together, not separating them, as philosophers and theologians through the ages often have done.

The lectures contained in The Human Situation were given in two groups. In the group delivered in the spring of 1959, Huxley tried to look at the future of the world, suggesting that the most prominent view of the world is one of tempered optimism, but that nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bomb, have reintroduced the old idea that the world could end abruptly and cata-strophically. Following the lead of Bertrand Russell, Huxley looks at three short-term possibilities. One is nuclear war which eliminates mankind; the second, nuclear war leading to a return to barbarism because of the breakdown of the complicated industrial and communications systems; the third, the creation of a single world state. While Huxley sees the third as the only desirable alternative, he recognizes that there are many vested interests which militate against its happening by any democratic means. But for the short-term in our future Huxley says he hopes for more attention to basic scientific research, for he stoutly believes that we stand on the threshold of profound discoveries about our human nature and external nature.

In the lectures delivered later, in the autumn of 1959, Huxley turned from the world as a whole to looking at individual human potentialities. He believed it important that we recognize the profound difference between the generalizations we can make about societies and the generalizations we can make about individuals. In “The Individual Life of Man,” Huxley tries to prove that the single human being’s life lies quite largely outside the history of a given time, outside the activities which historians later see as significant. Huxley cites Vasili Rozanov’s view of private life: “picking one’s nose and looking at the sunset.” Huxley calls this a beautiful definition, given the interpretation that private life consists in enjoying one’s own physiological reactions and one’s own aesthetic and inspirational reactions. One result of our focus on private life, he insists, is that we do not experience progress subjectively, although we may observe it, either at firsthand or through our reading. A second result of the focus on private life is that we interpret the world in terms of the individual’s life, which is nonprogressive; old people going down find it at least difficult to see the world around them as going up.

In the latter lectures of the series which deal with the individual human being it is a different Huxley speaking from the one in the earlier lectures, or at least a different Huxley from the one known to readers of his novels and other earlier work. In the latter lectures he turns, in part, from science to mysticism, from observation to vision. Over and over, the reader sees him trying to unite the realm of common sense with the realm of vision. In the essay entitled “The Ego,” the author reviews conceptions of mankind from Homer to the present, and proposes that our physical constitution equals our unconscious, that we are the kinds of individuals we are because of our very organisms. For the most part, he bases this view on his understanding of William H. Sheldon’s work in describing human beings psychologically, as well as physiologically, in terms of their being combinations of three physical types: the endomorph, the mesomorph, and the ectomorph.

So, too, in “The Unconscious,” Huxley takes an uncommon view. He deplores the refusal of openminded scientific people to consider such phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. He insists that we must learn to think in terms of parapsychology, even though, as he puts it, in academic circles parapsychology is regarded as a kind of intellectual pornography. Huxley also espouses a positive view of visions in the “Natural History of Visions.” He examines the induction of visions by isolation, hunger, and drugs, and speaks with great sympathy of inducing visions by changes in body chemistry through the use of drugs. Rather than seeing such use of drugs, whether natural or synthetic, as distortions of the human organism, he praises the distortions as mind-expanding and transcendent. Further, in his final lecture he speaks glowingly about using drugs to enable persons to achieve their potentialities in the material world as well as in a world of visions. He hopes that pharmacological means can be found to increase human efficiency and endurance, to give psychic energy, and to enable us to endure sustained tension. It was this interest in consciousness-expanding techniques which gave Huxley a new career and new fame late in life, as an exponent of psychosynthesis.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Booklist. LXXIV, September 15, 1977, p. 114.

Christian Science Monitor. LXIX, November 30, 1977, p. 29.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, July 1, 1977, p. 708.

Library Journal. CII, August, 1977, p. 1648.

National Review. XXIX, September 2, 1977, p. 1000.

Publisher’s Weekly. CXII, July 25, 1977, p. 61.

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