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The Philosophy of Meaninglessness

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Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) was the grandson of Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” and the author of the futuristic dystopian novel with the utopian veneer, Brave New World (1932). His book The Doors of Perception (1954) was the inspiration for Jim Morrison and “The Doors,” and he appears on the album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Huxley had the fateful distinction of dying the same day as John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis, their passing lost in the rush of news surrounding the assassination of the president.

Huxley went through several worldview changes in his productive literary life. In his 40s, he began to question the absoluteness of the sciences. He wrote the following in his earliest work of philosophy Ends and Means published in 1937:

[I]n recent years, many men of science have come to realize that the scientific picture of the world is a partial one—the product of their special competence in mathematics and their special incompetence to deal systematically with aesthetic and moral values, religious experiences and intuitions of significance.[1]

This is remarkable foresight given the rise of the absoluteness of the field of science as it is presented today. We’re being told that there is nothing beyond the scientific enterprise. Huxley knew better. Keep in mind that he was not speaking as a Christian fundamentalist. His grandfather was Charles Darwin’s staunchest defender. His brother Julian (1887–1975) was an eminent evolutionary biologist.

Aldous Huxley never rejected his humanist worldview, but he did question some of its implications. He has a well thought out critique of what he calls the “philosophy of meaninglessness.” There were those who carried their materialism into dark corners. He admits that he was one of them. What was at first considered to be liberation became a license for moral degradation:

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our secular freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.[2]

A similar thing is happening today. Christianity is denounced so all moral restrictions can be removed. Of course, few are truly consistent with their modernized worldview of meaninglessness. If they were, the implications for them and society would be horrific. At the same time, these moral anarchists want the luxury of moral freedom so they can engage fully in their “erotic revolt,” and for good reason they want to deny it for others. In a November 27, 1802 letter to the editor of The Temple of Reason, a “Rich Deist” wrote, “Very few rich men; or, at least men in the higher grades of society, and who receive a liberal education, care anything about the Christian religion. They cast off the yoke of superstition themselves; yet, for the sake of finding obedient servants, they would continue to impose it on the poor.”[3]

But these moral anarchists cannot control their “erotic revolt.” In time, others will imbibe the full measure of their philosophy. Once an “erotic revolt” starts, there’s no way to stop it. Once the leavening of the gospel is denied, society takes on the image of the new revolution and carries it forward with startling consistency. The Marquis De Sade’s “philosophy was the philosophy of meaninglessness carried to its logical conclusion,” Huxley wrote. “Life was without significance. Values were illusionary and ideals merely the inventions of cunning priests and kings. Sensations and animal pleasures alone possessed reality and were alone worth living for. There was no reason why anyone should have the slightest consideration for anyone else. For those who found rape and murder, rape and murder were fully legitimate activities. And so on. . . . De Sade is the one completely consistent and thoroughgoing revolutionary in history.”[4]

Footnotes:
[1]
Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realization (London: Chatto & Windus, [1937] 1951), 268–269.
[2] Huxley, Ends and Means, 273.
[3]
Quoted in Henry M. Morais, Deism in Eighteenth-Century America (New York: Russell & Russell, 1960), 14–15.
[4]
Huxley, Ends and Means, 270.

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