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A defence of the intellect

The International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation, UNESCO's forerunner, held a meeting on "The future of the European mind" in Paris, from 16-18 October 1933 at which Aldous Huxley inveighed against the degradation of contemporary thought. The famous British novelist, author of Brave New World (1932), passionately yet humorously defended the intellectual values threatened by the extension of mass culture. He spoke in French, the language in which, as he said, "the mind and rational goodwill of the age of Voltaire found expression and travelled from one end of Europe to the other."

By Aldous Huxley

We are here to discuss the current state of the European mind and how to preserve what has been achieved by it. A look at contemporary intellectual life (I am speaking ofthe life ofthe masses, not ofthe elites) brings out two extremely important facts: firstly, that intelligence and its instrument, logic, are generally denigrated; and secondly, that what I may call the contemporary lifestyle is remarkably vulgar and crude. Improving the lifestyle is desirable in itself. We appreciate intuitively that beauty is superior to ugliness. The reaffirmation of intellectual values is desirable in itself, but also and especially because it is only in the name of intellectual values ‒  such as truth and justice ‒ that the countries of Europe can reach agreement. People only make sacrifices ‒ and as Mr. Benda so rightly said yesterday, sacrifices must be made ‒ for things they believe in and to which they attribute supreme value.

Anti-intellectualism is already an old movement, and it shows itself in various forms Bergsonism, Freudianism and Watson's behaviourism. There is no point in summarizing these doctrines, since everyone here is quite familiar with them. What interests us is to find out why anti-intellectualismhas enjoyed andstillenjoys such great popularity, and secondly how it can be combated. The reasons for its popularity are, unfortunately, all too obvious. It flatters men's passions, particularly laziness: it is so difficult to reason, so easy to trust to instinct and intuition. If it were a matter of laziness the harm would not be very serious. But anti-intellectualism also flatters more dangerous passions. It is admirably well adapted to justifying the complex ofhatreds and vanities that is the very essence of nationalism. NationalSocialistphilosophy, forexample, continually speaks of "particulartruths" as opposed to the mundane objective truths of intellectuals. Then there are Nordic instincts, the infallible intuitions of blond men.

How can we combat anti-intellectualism? How can we reinforce that faith in reason without which the political unity of Europe cannot be achieved? Firstofall there is logic. All anti-intellectual doctrines are self-destructive. For example, you maysay with Freud that all intellectual constructions are merely rationalizations of conscious or unconscious desires. Very well. But your own anti-intellectualist doctrine is one ofthese intellectual constructions. You find yourself on the horns of a dilemma: either your doctrine is true, in which case it represents no more than the expression of a repressed, probably sexual, desire, and has no objective meaning, or it has an objective meaning, in which case it is false.

Unfortunately logic has very little influence with the masses. The masses need to be spoken to in terms of absolute authority, as Jehovah spoke to the Israelites, or in parables, that is in terms of art. Children and the feeble-minded and unfortunately there are many of those are the only people who can be spoken to with authority, and that authority must first be possessed. The various national educational systems are not under our control, and we are not demagogues or rabble-rousers. So the only way we can influence people's minds is by persuasion that is, by art. Logic destroys anti-intellectualism. But the masses onlyaccept this logic when it is embodied in awork of art. Unfortunately works of art cannot be produced to order, as Napoleon and the Bolsheviks painfully discovered. All we can do is hope. An intellectual artist may appear ‒ and then again he may not. It is not within our power to create him. We can organize everything, except art.


I now come to the second observation we have made in examining the modern world. Our times are anti-intellectualist; they are also vulgar. The contemporary lifestyle is frankly disgusting. We live on a diet ofPonson du Terrail and Paul de Kock. The quite specific vulgarity of our era shows itself in the quite specific vulgarity of our popular art, which is also the cause of it. As nearly always happens, the movement is circular andvicious. What are the causes of this vulgarity? They are partly economic and demographic, partly intellectual and aesthetic. Industrial development and the development ofvirginterritoryin the New World have led to a sudden expansion of Europe's population, which has more than doubled in one century. Next comes primary education for all. An enormous potential readership hasbeen created, for whom entrepreneur shave set up an new industry the reading matter industry. Now this readingmatter could only be and will only be ofverypoor quality. Why? It is a matter of arithmetic. The number of writers with artistic talent is always very limited. So it follows that at any time the bulk of contemporary literature has always been bad. Now the amount of literature produced annually has grown faster than the population.There are twice as many of us today as there were at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But the number ofprinted words we consume each year is at least fifty if not a hundred times greater than the number consumed by our great-grandparents. Hence it follows that the percentage of bad literature in the total must be higher than ever. Europeans have got into the habit of reading all the time. It is avice,like smoking cigarettes or rather, perhaps, like smoking opium or taking to cocaine; for this literature, which is almost all bad, is a mental substitute for narcotic and hallucinatory drugs. Europe is being fed stuffed, one might say with tenth-rate literature. 

This is completely new. In the past, peoplewere onlyfamiliardirectlyor indirectly with a few books, but they were of very high quality. English people, for instance, until quite recently grew up with the Bible and Bunyan's Pilgrim'sProgress, both of unmatched purity and nobility of style. Nowadays, they grow up with the Daily Express, magazines and detective stories. Universal education has had the lamentable result that instead of occasionally reading master pieces people continually read rubbish. 

There is another very alarming phenomenon: language itself is being corrupted by advertisers. The disease is not as far advanced in France as in America and England, where advertising has already tainted a great manyofthe noblest words. For example, the word "service" crops up again and again in English-language advertising. People talk about the manufacture of pills and canned foods as they once used to talk about the work of Saint Francis of Assisi. A man sells you a can of beans with a 20 per cent net profit. Fine. But it is unacceptable that he should talk to youwith clerical unction about the "service" in the Christian sense ofthe word he has done you. The same thinghas happened to many other words. Beauty, Grace, Adventure, Virile, Romantic a whole vocabulary of splendid words has been used in advertising and thus made suspect. It is reaching the point where people cannot hear these words without immediately reacting with cynicism. It is very difficult to separate words from the things they signify; and when words are tainted as they are every day, the values are tainted also. Every language is a vehicle for the best traditions ofthe race: if you ruin this vehicle, as advertisers are doing, you destroy these traditions.


What has happened in the realm of literature has happened also in that of popular music. But here the invention of talking machines rather than primary education has created abig audience of listeners. (It is, by the way, the invention of the rotary press that has led to the current growth ofthe literature industry.) Listeningmatter is needed for this huge audience: it is manufactured, and inevitably it is of very poor quality. But in the case of popular music things are complicated by aesthetic matters. For the last 130 years musicians have greatly developed the technical means used to express their feelings. Beethoven created a whole repertoire of technical means to express the passions means unknown to even his most brilliant predecessors. The enrichment of musical technique progressed throughout the nineteenth century. Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, the Russians, Debussy all contributed new means of expression to the common stock. Naturally the feelings these composers aimed to express did not always have the purity and nobility that characterize Beethoven's. Wagner, especially, gave music the power to express  and with greatpower of artistic persuasion things that are fundamentally despicable. Popular composers have learned their craft from the great artists. Thanks to Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Rimski-Korsakov and Debussy, they are now in a position to express with gripping power the basest emotions  the most abject sentimentality, the most animal sexuality and the most frenetic collectivejoy. . . . 

The disease is not completely curable, but I believe it can be mitigated, firstly through education.We pay too little attention to the development oftaste and a critical faculty; orifwe tryto develop them, we always choose remote, outdated examples. If I had to teach young people the art of telling beauty from ugliness, the real from the imitation, I would try to choose my examples from the contemporary world. I would focus their critical faculties on politicians' speeches and on advertising. I would get them to hear the differences in qualitybetween a piece of jazz and one of Beethoven's late quartets. I would get them to read some detective story, and then Crime and Punishmentor The Possessed. 

So muchforwhat canbe organized. But there are also forces that cannot be organized, and this brings us back again to art. Iffine artremains pure, all is notlost.There will always be an elite to respond to the appeal ofthis art, to let itselfbe shaped by it, to experience its style. Artists have an enormous responsibility. It is for them, especiallynowthatorganizedreligions have lost their power, to undertake the task of restating, revivifying and preserving spiritual values. If they compromise with the world, in the Christian sense of the word, they lose not only their artistic souls but alsothesouls of a whole potential elite.


Read also Aldous Huxley's articles

The Double Crisis, April 1949
Defeating the enemies of freedom, October-December 2018


Aldous Huxley

The British novelist and critic Aldous Huxley is best known for his dystopian Brave New World (1932) which vividly expressed his distrust of politics and technology in the twentieth century through satire.