Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley, one of the great modern thinkers, philosophers, and social commentators of the 20th century, is often hailed as an inspirational figure of the Human Potential Movement and the subsequent development of transpersonal psychology. His contributions to modern thought spanned many genres: novels, including the groundbreaking works Brave New World (1932) and Island (1962); essays, including the volumes The Art of Seeing (1942) and The Doors of Perception (1954); and philosophy, including The Perennial Philosophy (1945), a work often credited as one of the early pillars of transpersonal theory.

Huxley’s Early Years

Born into a prominent family in England in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was raised among intellectuals, including several great scientists, among them Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas Huxley, who supported and promoted the work of Charles Darwin. Huxley’s mother died when he was fourteen years-old and her death and the death of a sister in the same month were major sources of sorrow within the family. To cope with his grief, Huxley applied himself diligently to his studies.

The boy Huxley was known for his intellect from an early age and focused much of his attention and passion on literature and the written word. At seventeen, the budding scholar was stricken with keratitis punctata, a disease of the eye that left young Huxley nearly blind. Nonetheless, he enrolled at university at Balliol College, Oxford, having taught himself Braille to continue to read until his eyesight returned. Over the course of the next several years, Huxley regained enough of his eyesight to complete his studies and graduated in 1916 from Balliol with a degree in English literature. In his final year at Balliol, Huxley also published his first books of poems, The Burning Wheel (1916), which garnered the attention of literary circles and critics alike. Through these connections, Huxley established a relationship with Lady Ottoline Morrell. Her manor house, Garsington, was the site of many literary gatherings and the location where Huxley met many of his early influential friends including Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence, who would re-enter Huxley’s life in a profound way within a decade of the young writer’s entrance into this salon.

While pursuing the life of the mind, Huxley recognized that he would also have to tend to the realities of bodily needs. In order to pay off the debt incurred during his education, Huxley initially took a job as an administrator at the Air Ministry after graduation, but his heart was in the world of words and ideas rather than business and commerce.

Through his contacts at Garsington, Huxley finally joined the editorial staff at the Atheneum in London in 1919. There he wrote essays, travel journals, and critiques, which eventually propelled him into his career as a full-time novelist, travel-writer, and essayist-and later in life he also wrote plays and screenplays during his years in California. Through each literary style, Huxley developed his strong philosophical tendencies. His early work, including Chrome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923), were brilliant satiric social commentary, chronicling the excesses and intentional blindness of the upper social classes of contemporary London. His strong modernist voice established Huxley’s reputation as an important social thinker in post-World War I Europe.

Philosophical Awakenings

During this period, from 1926 until D.H. Lawrence’s death in 1930, the two men were very close and shared much in common in the way of artistic motivation and philosophy. This early relationship clearly and profoundly influenced the later trajectories of Huxey’s work.

For a few years Lawrence’s influence drew him to a kind of vitalist limbo where, still declaring his faith in reason, he sketched out. . .a philosophy of balanced living that went as far in constructing a moral system as possible without religious foundation. It did not go far enough for Huxley, who reasoned himself eventually into two drastic conclusions. First, he abandoned a cherished tradition of the Huxley clan by recognizing that the process of abstraction implicit in the scientific method actually diverted men from perceiving the realities of existence. This he derived largely from Lawrence. He also reached, as independently as a man of omnivorous reading ever reaches a mental goal, the conclusion that man’s miseries were due to the lack of a spiritual dimension to his existence. (Woodcock, 1972, p. 16).

As noted above, in response to the overwhelming positivism of the Enlightenment era, Huxley, under the tutelage of Lawrence, embraced an “irrationalism,” or a stance grounded in personal experience and corporeal knowledge (Sawyer, 2002, pp. 57-58). This bold stance contradicted the lineage of respect for and pursuit of scientific truth established by his family. However, it took many years and much more searching and experience before Huxley was able to synthesize and articulate his beliefs in The Perennial Philosophy (1945).

Brave New World, one of the titles most closely associated with Huxley’s career was published in 1932. This dystopian, futuristic novel explored the ramifications of a world shaped by technology and homogenization. The grim vision of the future underscored Huxley’s move away from his earlier satirical tone toward an increasing commitment to pacifism, right livelihood, and conscious living that had developed during his relationship with Lawrence (Sawyer, 2002). Within two years of the publication of this novel, Huxley and another close friend Gerald Heard were becoming so committed to the pacifist movement in Europe as to give public speeches. During the dark days of the rise of Hitler, Huxley’s social commentary seemed almost prophetic in its nature.

Spiritual Awakenings

The relationship between Huxley and Heard brought profound change into each man’s life. Deeply intellectual, thoughtful, and committed to being of service in the world, the pair often exchanged ideas and served as rigorous sounding boards for the other’s work. Heard also introduced Huxley to meditation and yoga, initially as practices to improve Huxley’s chronic ill heath and insomnia. Through this inner work, Huxley’s spirituality began to blossom and much of his philosophical framework began to shift from commenting on the actions, foibles, and mistakes of institutions and the State, to explorations on the individual. “Both Huxley and Heard had increasingly come to believe that the most overlooked cure for social problems is actually the improvement of the individual citizen, and that cultures are only expressions of the collective consciousness of their people” (Sawyer, 2002, p. 95). This shift in Huxley’s philosophy further influenced the direction of both his spiritual path and his writing.

In 1937, at the dawn of World War II, Huxley, his wife, Maria, and Heard embarked on a trip to the United States which had profound impact upon the trajectory of the latter half of Huxley’s life. The two men toured the country in support of pacifism and the tour was primarily a success. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Huxley took work as a screenwriter which gave him entree into the inner circles of Hollywood society and income to support his other pursuits.

From his inquiry into meditative practices, Huxley had developed a keen interest in mysticism and yearned to understand the concepts of enlightenment and unity with the divine. Huxley aligned himself with the Vedanta Society of Southern California and began a meditation practice under the guidance of the guru Swami Prabhavananda. Even though Huxley maintained ambivalence with regard to the adoption of a guru, he nonetheless strove to master his practice (Sawyer, 2002, p. 114).

By 1942, Huxley was loosely associated with the Vedanta Society, but had become closely aligned with Jiddu Krishnamurti, a contemporary mystic who shared Huxley’s resistance to formalized, institutional religion, but embraced the concept of an individual spiritual path for each person. The relationship between the two men further influenced Huxley’s burgeoning philosophical stance, which ultimately led to the publication of The Perennial Philosophy (1945). This treatise captured Huxley’s perspectives on mysticism: that there are experiences and aspects of practice common among mystics from all of the world’s religions and spiritual practices which reinforce the validity and importance of spiritual practice. Huxley describes his philosophy as:

The metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions (Huxley, 1945, p. vii).

Opening the Doors

In his own lifetime, Huxley held firm to his beliefs regarding the common path of the mystic and devoted the rest of his life to pursuing his own spiritual growth. In 1952, Huxley became aware of the pioneers in the scientific and experiential study of the use of psychedelic substances as catalysts for psychological transformation and healing. Among this group was Dr. Humphry Osmond, a researcher using mescaline in his studies. Huxley befriended the scientist and eventually became one of Osmond’s research subjects. Most of the early psychedelic research had been conducted on people with severe mental disturbances, so Huxley’s participation gave insight into the effects that psychoactive substances would have on those people engaged in spiritual practice and interested in mysticism. The results of this initial experiment were reported in Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception (1954), which later became popular among the youth culture of the 1960. However Huxley’s research was by no means taken up in a blithe manner. The seriousness and devotion to keenly observe his own processes as he ingested psychoactive substances marked Huxley’s belief that, as Sawyer (2002) quotes a letter of Huxley’s, “the experience is so transcendentally important that it is in no circumstances a thing to be entered upon light-heartedly or for enjoyment” (p. 172).

As experimentation with psychedelics increased over the next decade, Huxley became peripherally involved with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner for several years, but ultimately distanced himself from Leary due to philosophical differences over the value and ultimate purpose of psychedelic use. Huxley explained his perspective and beliefs in his final novel entitled Island (1962). Within the novel, the inhabitants of the eponymous island seek personal spiritual growth which subsequently leads to a Utopian society. The novel, while at times criticized for diminished literary merit in light of his earlier work (May, 1972), is often viewed as a summation of the latter half of Huxley’s life, detailing a commitment to personal growth as the path to greater serving and improving the society.

A Final Experiment

Huxley died on November 22, 1963 (the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy) just as he had lived: in an experiment of expanding consciousness. He battled throat cancer for several years, so on his deathbed he was unable to speak. By writing a note, he asked his second wife, Laura, to administer LSD to him. She honored his wishes and also engaged in a ceremonial farewell to her husband which she described later in her biography of him:

Light and free you let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward and up; you are going toward the light. . . .You are doing it so beautifully, so easily. Light and free. Forward and up. . . .You are going toward a greater love than you have ever known. You are going toward the best, the greatest love, and it is easy, it is so easy, and you are doing it so beautifully. (L. Huxley, 1968, p. 286)

As noted above, Huxley’s life and work has had a profound impact on modern thought, social criticism, and contemporary movements in psychology and philosophy. As the transpersonal field has grown and developed over the past thirty years, scholars have engaged with Huxley’s material; some embrace his perspectives and have built upon his work, including the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber (1977, 1980, 2000). Recently, transpersonal scholars have initiated a debate regarding the wholesale acceptance of Huxley’s perennial philosophy, noting, instead, the importance of “participatory spiritual pluralism” (Ferrer, 2002, p. 189). Nonetheless, the rich, complex work and ground-breaking contributions to modern thought continue to influence and inspire the study of Huxley’s life, works, and metaphysics.


Ferrer, J. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Huxley, A. (1962). Island. New York: Harper.

———. (1954). The doors of perception. New York: Harper.

———. (1945). The perennial philosophy. New York: Harper.

———. (1942). The art of seeing. New York: Harper.

———. (1932). Brave new world. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.

———. (1923). Antic hay. London: Chatto & Windus.

———. (1921). Chrome yellow. London: Chatto & Windus.

———. (1916). The burning wheel. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Huxley, L. (1975). Between heaven and earth: Recipes for living and loving. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

May, K.M. (1972). Aldous Huxley. London: Paul Elek Books Ltd.

Sawyer, D. (2002). Aldous Huxley: A biography. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

———. (1980). The atman project. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.

———. (1977). The spectrum of consciousness. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.

Woodcock, G. (1972). Dawn and the darkest hour: A study of Aldous Huxley. New York: The Viking Press.