Aldous Huxley: The Political Thought of a Man of Letters. Alessandro Maurini. Lexington Books, 2017.
Few books bridge the divide between serious literature and popular entertainment as successfully as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s dystopian vision of the dangers of materialism, social engineering, and omnipresent government regulation brings to life some of the most powerful, enduring ideas in modern political thought, and challenges readers to guard the most precious aspects of humanity. The world of the novel contains echoes of Tocqueville’s warning against a soft despotism springing from the administrative state, and Nietzsche’s prophesy of the last man, devoid of meaning and existing solely for physical comfort. Huxley’s novel remains essential reading for all students of political philosophy. Alessandro Maurini’s new book, Aldous Huxley: The Political Thought of a Man of Letters (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017) successfully draws out Huxley’s own views, and places him in the context of early twentieth-century political philosophy. Maurini’s book will be of interest both to fans of Huxley’s work, and scholars engaged with questions of technology and totalitarianism.
Maurini begins with a depiction of the intellectual culture into which Huxley was born and raised. Huxley’s childhood was marked by a surge in technological development, and the corresponding acceptance by many that technology would solve all of society’s political ills. Maurini argues that Huxley absorbed the “moral duty of the intellectual” as “the great Victorian heritage that was to influence the whole of Huxley’s development.” This moral duty is defined as a mandate to use one’s intellectual prowess to benefit society, rather than simply benefitting one’s self. Huxley does not embrace unmitigated faith in technology; however, as Maurini argues, neither does he entirely reject the progressive idea of a society ruled by an intellectual elite, by “experts” in the fields of politics and policy.
Maurini explores Huxley’s opposition to “the ideal of happiness as identified with comfort.” Readers of Brave New World will find this opposition familiar. Maurini’s most important contribution is not identifying the things to which Huxley is opposed; Huxley’s writings speak for themselves on that point. Rather, Maurini’s contribution to our understanding of Huxley comes in drawing out Huxley’s proposed solution to the problems of materialism and rising totalitarianism. Maurini traces Huxley’s journey toward communitarianism, explaining that “this represented in his mind the future of democracy.”
Maurini chronicles Huxley’s struggle to contend with forces of modernity that seem inevitable. Surprisingly, at least to this reader, Huxley is shown not to be unqualifiedly opposed to using the tools of modern advertising to condition the public towards beneficial goals. Rather than advocating simply for individualized civic education, Huxley is intrigued by the promise of “mass psychology”, believing that it, like any new advancement, can be used for good or ill. The key to avoiding the dystopia of Brave New World is not the eradication of mass culture, but rather securing control of mass culture in the hands of the right type of elites.
Huxley, Maurini argues, believed himself to be fighting against a second heroic age of the economy. Modern democracy succeeded in destroying the old European aristocracy, but it did not offer a suitable replacement. As a result, materialism, and the pursuit of material goods, became the only morality accepted by the public. Maurini rightly focuses on Huxley’s concern with the rising totalitarian regimes in Europe. However, Maurini misses an opportunity to compare Huxley’s approach to opposing the moral vacuum recreated by the loss of the old ways to that of Nietzsche. Of course, a detailed comparison of the two thinkers would be beyond the scope of Maurini’s project; however, it is curious that Huxley would readily embrace using the very tools (propaganda, mass culture, etc.) that made modern totalitarian governments possible, given his gift for imagining to the horrific future to which they may lead. Nietzsche’s response to the dangers of modernity, i.e. placing his faith in art and the artist, would logically appeal to a literary artist of Huxley’s caliber. Yet, according to Maurini, that is not the path that Huxley pursues. The absence is notable.
Despite Huxley’s belief that a rule by elites may be necessary, he roundly opposes the use of violence to achieve his goal, arguing that the ends will follow from the means. Maurini notes that Huxley condemns violence from both “the pseudo-democratic governments and the totalitarian regimes in the Europe of the thirties.” For Huxley, virtuous ends require virtuous means. This reinforces Maurini’s depiction of Huxley’s views on mass psychology, and the technologies of mass psychology, as not inherently harmful. Propaganda and advertising can be used to educate and influence the public towards a better society.
For Huxley, that better society will be decentralized, and communitarian. Huxley envisions a “society of craftsmanship”, organized into “autonomous, self-governing communities.” A society organized in this manner, Huxley believes, will render capitalism impossible. For Huxley, the success of capitalism depends on the ability of the great industrialists and financiers to build and hold monopolies. A decentralized society will thwart monopolies, forcing economic life to become “communistic”. In order to bring about this decentralization, a “humanist oligarchy” must come to power. The humanist oligarchy will be comprised of men “expert in proper study: philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, physiologists, theologians, anthropologists, historians, men of letters.” This elite class of humanists will be tasked with reorganizing the society, and persuading/teaching the public how to live in the new order. According to Maurini, Huxley believed there to be no contradiction between this type of elitism and democracy. Apparently, and unlike almost all elites in human history, the humanist oligarchy will simply cede power once the reorganization of political and economic society is complete. Maurini does not detail why Huxley possessed such faith in the selflessness of the humanist elite; nor does he adequately interrogate this apparent flaw in Huxley’s thinking.
Maurini argues that Huxley’s writings offer one sole possibility of salvation: love. This aspect of Huxley’s thought marks him as the first truly “anti-utopian” thinker of the twentieth-century. Individual connection and individual freedom offer the only possible defense against the danger Huxley anticipates: institutionalized psychological violence undermining the public’s accepted perception of reality. This is a common theme amongst the twentieth-century’s top anti-utopian writers. Maurini convincingly argues, however, that Huxley’s Brave New World surpasses other dystopian classics, such as H.G. Wells’ The First Man in the Moon and George Orwell’s 1984, in accurately perceiving that the use of applied science to effect control of the public is the defining characteristic of modern totalitarianism.
Maurini’s final chapter situates Huxley’s thought within the larger scope of contemporary political theory. He particularly focuses on Huxley’s influence on Isaiah Berlin and Francis Fukuyama. Maurini’s exploration of the connection between Huxley and Fukuyama is particularly interesting. Huxley’s influence is clear in Fukuyama’s idea of the “end of history” and his concern with the rising danger of neuropharmacology.. Of course, as Maurini notes, history is “bunk” in Brave New World, but it is not associated with the victory of liberal democracy over other types of regimes; and modern neuropharmacology may be marked by overzealous prescription of drugs such as Ritalin, but soma is not yet government-issued. That said, both Huxley and Fukuyama are intensely concerned with the possibility of not just the end of history, but also the end of humanity itself. In order to prevent the type of posthuman future outlined in Huxley’s vision of genetic engineering and neuropharmacology run amuck, Fukuyama advocates redefining human nature in terms of thymos, or spiritedness. Though Maurini does not make the connection explicit, this kind of thymos is also venerated in Brave New World, as the novels most virtuous characters (John the Savage and Helmholtz Watson) deliberately seek out struggle and sacrifice in order to experience the full range of human emotion and achieve greatness. At this point, the chapter would have benefitted from a more extensive, direct analysis of Huxley’s novel.
Maurini’s Aldous Huxley: The Political Thought of a Man of Letters is an engaging and illuminating portrait of one of the twentieth-century’s most important literary thinkers. Maurini carefully outlines those who influence Huxley, and those whom Huxley influences, demonstrating that Huxley’s literary offerings come with a philosophical purpose behind them. While there are a few areas in which the reader would wish for a more complete picture of Huxley’s place in modern political philosophy, and more direct engagement with Huxley’s own works, Maurini’s book does an admirable job showing the complexity of Huxley’s navigation of the worlds of political philosophy and literature. It will be of value to any scholar seeking greater understanding of the continuing legacy of twentieth-century anti-utopian political thought.
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An excerpt of the book is available here.