But then Aldous had a crisis of meaning in the 1930s. Suddenly, he felt that science and the arts did not provide enough consolation in the face of a meaningless universe. He wrote, in words that a direct rebuke of his grandfather: ‘We are living now, not in the delicious intoxication induced by the early successes of science, but in a rather grisly morning-after’. Two generations after Darwin and Huxley, ordinary people were facing the meaninglessness of the universe, and turned in despair to the new religions of communism or nationalism, or aestheticism, or the ruling religion of ‘do what you want’.
This is not enough for the educated individual or the masses. And it was not true, as Thomas had argued, that the scientific method is ‘the sole means to truth’. Science only tells us about the quantifiable. But important aspects of human existence are not measurable – such as consciousness, value and meaning. But we can explore subjective experience through meditation and spiritual training.
And so, in The Perennial Philosophy (1946), Aldous offers his own version of ‘the best that has been thought and said’, expanding it from Arnold’s focus on western culture to include eastern wisdom, and expanding the idea of simply beautiful writing to include practical spiritual methods for self-training and self-transformation. In the 1950s, his educational vision expanded to include things like psychology, dance, sex education, ecology, and even psychedelics – he thought academic education focused too much on words and concepts. We also need training in the ‘non-verbal humanities’. He remained an agnostic (a word his grand-father Thomas coined), but a mystical agnostic, interested – as I am – in how we can develop ourselves to become wiser, kinder humans.
His friend, the violinist Yehudi Menuin, said after his death: ‘He was scientist and artist in one – standing for all we most need in a fragmented world, where each of us carries a distorting splinter out of some great shattered universal mirror. He made it his mission to restore these fragments and, at least in his presence, men were whole again.’
I think this is a useful vision for culture and for liberal education. Not just ‘great books’, not just reading, but an introduction to wise ideas and wise practices from the world’s wisdom traditions – traditions like Stoicism, Islam, Taoism, Christianity, shamanism and Buddhism; spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, prayer, dance and song, pilgrimage, volunteering, and non-violent communication.
One would include the scientific evidence for how these activities can change and heal us, like CBT, mindfulness, and Positive Psychology, and evidence from life sciences like genetics and ecology. And – crucially – one can include a space for debate and discussion about the proper moral goal of these techniques. What do different moral philosophies leave out or forget? What does it mean to you to flourish? What does a flourishing society look like? How is my well-being connected to the well-being of other humans, and other species?
I tried to offer something like that in my lectures at QMUL for undergraduates, in our health and well-being course. But really, a holistic education needs to involve the whole university, all levels and all aspects of it. QMUL wants to be the most inclusive university in the world. Does its education include all aspects of us? Does it help science students to have an introduction to the humanities, and vice versa? Does its offering include physical, emotional, aesthetic, ethical and spiritual development, or is it largely focused on intellectual, and to some extent political education?
We can all ask ourselves – are we somewhat lop-sided in our cultural development? Are we over-specialized or narrow in our interests? Are we atrophied in our scientific, or literary, or emotional, or spiritual development? How can we develop our intellect and what the Buddhists call the heart-mind? How can we become more whole people, more rounded, better connected to our deeper selves and (which amounts to the same thing) to all other beings?