Friday, June 30, 2023


Closing Remarks

Aldous Huxley closes his 1952 masterwork The Devils of Loudun with an epilogue that has the feeling of a sermon.  It is a fairly short sermon as sermons go, but a dense one.  His theme is transcendence.  

What does "transcendence" mean?  He does not define it for us.  If we had to define it for him, it might be something like "escaping from the prison of everyday self."

But not all transcendence is in a lofty direction.  There is something called "downward transcendence," as when one falls prey to the passions of the mob -- "herd-intoxication."  And there is "horizontal transcendence," when one becomes lost in some very human cul de sac.  The cul de sac might be scientific materialism; it might be a war (even a just one!); it might be a marriage.  

And even if we are on the path of lofty, upward transcendence, the path is full of perils.  Many perish and fall by the wayside.

No, the odds are stacked against those of us who want to escape the prison of everyday self --

... great goods and ... enormous evils are the fruits of man's capacity for total and continuous self-identification with an idea, a feeling, a cause.  How can we have the good without the evil, a high civilization without saturation bombing, or the extermination of religious and political heretics?  The answer is that we cannot have it so long as our self-transcendence remains merely horizontal.  When we identify ourselves with an idea or a cause we are in fact worshiping something homemade, something partial and parochial, something that, however noble, is yet all too human.  "Patriotism," as a great patriot concluded on the eve of her execution by her country's enemies, "is not enough."  Neither is socialism, nor communism, nor capitalism; neither is art, nor science, nor public order, nor any given religion or church.  All of these are indispensable, but none of them is enough.  Civilization demands from the individual devoted self-identification with the highest of human causes.  But if this self-identification with what is human is not accompanied by a constant and consistent effort to achieve upward self-transcendence into the universal life of the Spirit, the goods achieved will always be mingled with counterbalancing evils.  "We make," wrote Pascal, "an idol of truth itself; for truth without charity is not God, but His image and idol, which we must neither love or worship."  And it is not merely wrong to worship an idol; it is also exceedingly inexpedient.  The worship of truth apart from charity -- self-identification with science unaccompanied by self-identification with the Ground of all being -- results in the kind of situation which now confronts us.  Every idol, however exalted, turns out, in the long run, to be a Moloch, hungry for human sacrifice. 

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