Island – Huxley

I admire Huxley for his spirit, character, and intention. He is an author who relentlessly pursued the idea that mankind could structure itself better; that there was, if not an ideal state, a better state.

Huxley is extremely well read in everything from Religion (Buddhism, Christianity, etc), Politics (communist theory, etc), Psychology, Science. Many of his ideas are based on Buddhist Philosophy, but strongly reject any sort of religiosity.

With that being said, unfortunately Huxley is no Hesse. He lacks the innate literary talent that Hesse was blessed with. Their ideas are similar, yet the Huxley’s feel forced to the point of cringing (I threw the book down many times in comic disgust).

The flaw of this book is that most of it should have been a collection of essays (Huxley’s Republic) and the rest a short story.

There are chapters in The Island (ch.14 for example) which are beautifully done, and almost bring me to tears. There are also others (possibly ch.10 or ch.12) which he would have been better to just turn into an essay on structuring a modern state, rather than attempting to cram it into fictional dialogue. The result is that:

The Island is the greatest book that I will never recommend to anybody.

With that being said here are in my opinion the big ideas from the book.

Awareness is Enlightenment

The strongest idea running through the whole book is the idea that awareness is enlightenment. The citizens of the island have many different forms of Yoga for everyday things (yoga of eating, yoga of love, yoga of work, etc). The essence is that if you apply awareness to anything, you get the “yoga” of that thing.

I think this is probably the best framing of enlightenment that I’ve come across. It’s pure and simple, yet powerful.

It’s something that has been coming up in my exploration of other ideas recently. When exploring whether pain is needed for growth, I realized that really most of the time, awareness of your pain changes it from something that you battle against, to something that you grow with.

Fully Human Beings

One of the beautiful little ideas from The Island, is that the purpose of the state is to raise “fully human beings”. I thought that phrase was beautiful as it makes you really question, what does it mean to be human? What is a “fully human” being?

“Patriotism is not enough. But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.” – Huxley

Pillars of Society

The crux of the book is Huxley ungracefully weaving his idea of what an ideal state should look like into character dialogues. I wish he had just written an essay as I would be better able to grok his ideas.

“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence–those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and money-lenders were abolished, you’d collapse.”

Fertility control

Huxley believes that before a state can effectively control itself, its people must be able to control their reproduction. Having children when you are unable to effectively raise them (for whatever reasons, economic, emotional, etc) destroys a states ability to raise fully human being.

Restricted consumerism

Huxley believes that the temptations of consumerism are stronger than our fickle little brains are capable of resisting, especially when we are not educated in awareness, self-reflection, rationality, and economics (“nothing short of everything will do”.)

“He looked again at the picture of the motorbike and then again at Murugan’s glowing face. Light dawned; The Colonels purpose revealed itself. The serpent tempted me and I did eat. The tree in the midst of the garden was called the Tree of Consumer Goods, and to the inhabitants of every underdeveloped Eden, the tiniest taste of its fruit, and even the sight of its thirteen hundred and fifty-eight leaves, had power to bring the shameful knowledge that, industry speaking, they were stark naked. The future Raja of Pala was being made to realize that he was no more than the untrousered ruler of a tribe of savages.“ – Huxley

Selective industrialization

The people of the Island don’t produce for the sake of production. They produce enough to enable a quality of life for themselves, with a little surplus for trade, and that’s it. There are no billionaires on the Island because, excess capital is useless.

“If the styles weren’t completely changed every year, there’d be no reason for buying things before the old ones are worn out. You don’t understand the first principles of modern consumerism.” – Huxley

Mindfulness/Awareness

Huxley is deeply aware and accepting of our innate human natures. He doesn’t at all try to paint a world where nobody is angry, or where evil does not exist. What he does argue is that it’s less important to focus on eradicating evil, but rather more important to educate people to be aware of themselves. This self-awareness he argues will empower people to be the best people they can be (in their own self-interest) which in turn will create the best state.

In essence he believes that the best way to build Utopia is from the ground up; a happy state is created by happy people.

“No hells on earth and no Christian pie in the sky, no Communist pie in the twenty-second century. Just men and women and their children trying to make the best of the here and now, instead of living somewhere else, as you people mostly do, in some other time, some other home-made imaginary universe.” – Huxley

Diverse education

Despite being a strong advocate about the powers of rationality, Huxley believes in a balanced education that also teaches the softer skills/experiences of life. He argues that we should know how to scientifically represent and classify a flower, but also try to understand the essence of the flower; the spirituality of all things.

“We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is to learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.” – Huxley

Learning through experience

One of the core roles of Huxleys Utopian society is played by a mushroom-like drug “Moksha-Medicine” that everybody first takes when they finish their core education.

The moksha-medicine is a way for the people of the Island to experience some of the truths they learn through rationality. It is used to deepen their own awareness about life, death, suffering, love. It is used as a way of achieving moksha (liberation) in everyday life.

“She knows too that this temple isn’t what she still likes to think it is–the house of Buddha. She knows it’s just a diagram of her own unconscious mind–a dark little cubby-hole with lizards crawling upside down on the ceiling, and cockroaches in all the crevices. But at the heart of the verminous darkness sits Enlightenment.” – Huxley

Read it

Quotes

  • “Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there.”
  • “The yogin and the stoic – two righteous egos who achieve their very considerable results by pretending, systematically, to be somebody else. But it is not by pretending to be somebody else, even somebody supremely good and wise, that we can pass from insulated Manicheehood to Good Being.
    Good Being is knowing who in fact we are; and in order to know who in fact we are, we must first know, moment nt moment, who we think we are and what this bad habit of thought compels us to feel and do. A moment of clear and complete knowledge of what we think we are, but in fact are not, puts a stop, for the moment, to the Manichean charade. If we renew until they become a continuity, these moments of the knowledge of what we are not, we may find ourselves all of a sudden, knowing who in fact we are.”
  • “Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact one is in relation to all experiences; so be aware – aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practising.”
  • “Keeping babies alive, healing the sick, preventing the sewage from getting into the water supply–one starts with doing things that are obviously and intrinsically good. And how does one end? One ends by increasing the sum of human misery and jeopardizing civilization. It’s the kind of cosmic practical joke that God seems to really enjoy.”
  • “No hells on earth and no Christian pie in the sky, no Communist pie in the twenty-second century. Just men and women and their children trying to make the best of the here and now, instead of living somewhere else, as you people mostly do, in some other time, some other home-made imaginary universe.”
  • “One has no right to inflict one’s sadness on other people. And no right, of course to pretend that one isn’t sad. One just has to accept one’s grief and one’s absurd attempts to be a stoic.”
  • “Patriotism is not enough. But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do”
  • “If the styles weren’t completely changed every year, there’d be no reason for buying things before the old ones are worn out. You don’t understand the first principles of modern consumerism.”
  • “He looked again at the picture of the motorbike and then again at Murugan’s glowing face. Light dawned; The Colonel’s purpose revealed itself. The serpent tempted me and I did eat. The tree in the midst of the garden was called the Tree of Consumer Goods, and to the inhabitants of every underdeveloped Eden, the tiniest taste of its fruit, and even the sight of its thirteen hundred and fifty-eight leaves, had power to bring the shameful knowledge that, industry speaking, they were stark naked. The future Raja of Pala was being made to realize that he was no more than the untrousered ruler of a tribe of savages.“
  • ”Yes even you will have to die one day–maybe fifty years from now, maybe tomorrow. Who knows? But it’s going to happen, and one’s a fool if one doesn’t prepare for it.”
  • “Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence–those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and money-lenders were abolished, you’d collapse.”
  • “Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”
  • “Life bringing order out of chaos and ugliness, life performing its miracles of birth and growth, but performing them, it seems for no other purposes than to destroy itself. Beauty and horror, beauty and horror. And then suddenly, as you come down from one of your expeditions in the mountains, suddenly you know that there’s a reconciliation. Not merely a reconciliation. A fusion, and identity. Beauty made one with horror in the yoga of the jungle.”
  • “We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is to learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.”
  • “It is thanks to the inflexible framework of the bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheel chair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into complete human beings is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing.”
  • “Men can’t help making symbols. That’s what the human brain is there for–to turn the chaos of given experience into a set of manageable symbols. Sometimes the symbols correspond fairly closely to some of the aspects of the external reality behind our experience; then you have science and common sense. Sometimes, on the contrary, the symbols have almost no connection with external reality; then you have paranoia and delirium. Most often it’s a mixture, part realistic and part fantastic; that’s religion.”
  • “She knows too that this temple isn’t what she still likes to think it is–the house of Buddha. She knows it’s just a diagram of her own unconscious mind–a dark little cubby-hole with lizards crawling upside down on the ceiling, and cockroaches in all the crevices. But at the heart of the verminous darkness sits Enlightenment.”
  • “Distance reminds us that there’s a lot more to the universe than just people–that there’s even a lot more to people than just people. It reminds us that there are mental spaces inside our skills as enormous as the spaces our there. The experience of distance, of inner distance and outer distance, of distance in time and distance in space–it’s the first and fundamental religious experience.”
  • “Wisdom never puts enmity anywhere. All those senseless, pointless cockfights between Man and Nature, between Nature and God, between the Flesh and the Spirit! Wisdom doesn’t make those insane separations.”
  • “Grace is the first mouthful of each course chewed and chewed until there’s nothing left of it. And all the time you’re chewing you pay attention to the flavour of the food, to its consistency and temperature, to the pressure on your teeth and the feel of the muscles in your jaws.”
  • “People may stand by while you’re suffering and dying; but they’re standing by in another world. In your world you’re absolutely alone. Alone in your suffering and your dying, just as you’re alone in love, alone even in the most completely shared pleasure.”
  • “Eating drinking, dying–three primary manifestations of the universal and impersonal life. Animals live that impersonal and universal life without knowing its nature. Ordinary people know its nature but don’t live it and, if ever they think seriously about it, refuse to accept it. An enlightened person knows it, lives it and accepts it completely. He eats, he drinks and in due course he dies–but he eats with a difference, drinks with a difference, dies with a difference.”
  • “One thinks one’s something unique and wonderful at the centre of the universe. But in fact one’s merely a slight delay in the ongoing march of entropy.
    And that precisely, is the first half of the Buddha’s message. Transience, no permanent soul, inevitable sorrow. But he didn’t stop there, the message had a second half. This temporary slowing down of entropy is also pure undiluted Muchness. This absence of a permanent soul is also the Buddha Nature.”
  • “If you can get out of your own way, you won’t be in anyone elses.”

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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