Don Giovanni and the Universe: Aldous Huxley on How the Moon Illuminates the Complementarity of Spirituality and Science
“The universe throws down a challenge to the human spirit… We have a right to our moods of sober exultation.”
By Maria Popova
“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote shortly before his death. Two decades earlier, he had found a lyrical intersection of science and spirituality in Diane Ackerman’s scientifically accurate poems about the Solar System, which Sagan sent to his pal Timothy Leary in prison.
Leary had been jailed for his experiments probing precisely this meeting point of science and spirituality through his experiments with psychedelics, the most famous of which he conducted at Harvard in the early 1960s together with his friend Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963).
Long before his collaboration with Leary, thirty-something Huxley began exploring the complementarity of the scientific and the spiritual realms of existence not through psychedelics but through immensely poetic prose, nowhere more beautifully than in his 1931 essay collection Music at Night (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us Huxley’s moving meditation on the transcendent power of music.
In an essay titled “Meditation in Arundel Street,” Huxley beings by wresting from the geographic cohabitation of two disparate journals — a religious magazine and a periodical on the science of poultry raising — a metaphor for two radically different ways of looking at the same thing: the universe and our place in it. He writes:
A walk down Arundel Street in London remains, after all, the best introduction to philosophy. Keep your eyes to the left as you descend toward the river from the Strand. You will observe that the Christian World is published at number seven, and a few yards further down, at number nine, the Feathered World. By the time you have reached the Embarkment you will find yourself involved in the most abstruse metaphysical speculations.
The Christian World, the Feathered World — between them a great gulf is fixed… The values and even the truths current in the world of number seven Arundel Street cease to hold good in that of number nine.
Just a few years before the great biologist and writer Rachel Carson extended her pioneering invitation to imagine Earth from the perspective of other creatures, Huxley uses the contrast between these two worlds as the leaping point for illuminating what a tiny sliver of physical reality we perceive through the limited lens of the human mind and spirit. That lacuna between the physical world of science and the metaphysical world of art, he suggests, is where the human consciousness takes shape and takes flight:
The world of Christians and the world of the feathered are but two out of a swarm of humanly conceivable and humanly explorable worlds. They constellate the thinking mind like stars, and between them stretches the mental equivalent of interstellar space — unspanned. Between, for example, a human body and the whizzing electrons of which it is composed, and the thoughts, the feelings which direct its movements, there are, as yet at any rate, no visible connections. The gulf that separates the lover’s, say, or the musician’s world from the world of the chemist is deeper, more uncompromisingly unbridgeable than that which divides Anglo-Catholics from macaws or geese from Primitive Methodists. We cannot walk from one of these worlds into another; we can only jump. The last act of Don Giovanni is not deducible from electrons, or molecules, or even from cells and entire organs. In relation to these physical, chemical, and biological worlds it is simply a non sequitur. The whole of our universe is composed in a series of such non sequiturs. The only reason for supposing that there is in fact any connection between the logically and scientifically unrelated fragments of our experience is simply the fact that the experience is ours, that we have the fragments in our consciousness. These constellated worlds are all situated in the heaven of the human mind. Some day, conceivably, the scientific and logical engineers may build us convenient bridges from one world to another. Meanwhile we must be content to hop. Solvitur saltando. The only walking you can do in Arundel Street is along the pavements.
Huxley picks up the question of reconciling the scientific and the spiritual dimensions of reality in another essay titled “Meditation on the Moon.” With a skeptical eye to the exclusionary either-or mindset which marked his intellectual epoch and which has scarred our own, he writes:
Materialism and mentalism — the philosophies of “nothing but.” How wearily familiar we have become with that “nothing but space, time, matter and motion,” that “nothing but sex,” that “nothing but economics”! And the no less intolerant “nothing but spirit,” “nothing but consciousness,” “nothing but psychology” — how boring and and tiresome they also are! “Nothing but” … lacks generosity. Enough of “nothing but.” It is time to say again, with primitive common sense (but for better reasons), “not only, but also.”
It is with this inclusive, reconciliatory disposition that he turns to one of humanity’s oldest companions, the Moon — at once an ancient source of myth and legend, and the fulcrum by which science ejected humanity from the center of the universe once astronomers pointed their telescopes at our nightly companion and began observing its motions. Huxley writes:
Outside my window the night is struggling to wake; in the moonlight, the blinded garden dreams so vividly of its lost colours that the black roses are almost crimson, the trees stand expectantly on the verge of living greenness. The white-washed parapet of the terrace is brilliant against the dark blue sky… The white walls of the house coldly reverberate the lunar radiance… The moon is full. And not only full, but also beautiful. And not only beautiful, but also…
Socrates was accused by his enemies of having affirmed, heretically, that the moon was a stone. He denied the accusation. All men, said he, know that the moon is a god, and he agreed with all men. As an answer to the materialistic philosophy of “nothing but” his retort was sensible and even scientific. More sensible and scientific, for instance, than the retort invented by D.H. Lawrence [in Fantasia of the Unconscious]. “The moon,” writes Lawrence, “certainly isn’t a snowy cold world, like a world of our own gone cold. Nonsense. It is a globe of dynamic substance, like radium or phosphorus, coagulated upon a vivid pole of energy.” The defect of this statement is that it happens to be demonstrably untrue. The moon is quite certainly not made of radium or phosphorus. The moon is, materially, “a stone.” Lawrence was angry (and he did well to be angry) with the nothing-but philosophers who insist that the moon is only a stone. He knew that it was something more; he had the empirical certainty of its deep significance and importance. But he tried to explain this empirically established fact of its significance in the wrong terms — in terms of matter and not of spirit. To say that the moon is made of radium is nonsense. But to say, with Socrates, that it is made of god-stuff is strictly accurate. For there is nothing, of course, to prevent the moon from being both a stone and a god.
Huxley considers the source and nature of the Moon’s perceived divinity, which has haunted humanity for as long as we have had eyes to turn toward the night sky:
Numinous feelings are the original god-stuff, from which the theory-making mind extracts the individualized gods of the pantheons, the various attributes of the One.
The moon is a stone; but it is a highly numinous stone. Or, to be more precise, it is a stone about which and because of which men and women have numinous feelings. Thus, there is a soft moonlight that can give us the peace that passes understanding. There is a moonlight that inspires a kind of awe. There is a cold and austere moonlight that tells the soul of its loneliness and desperate isolation, its insignificance or its uncleanness. There is an amorous moonlight prompting to love — to love not only for an individual but sometimes even for the whole universe.
With this, Huxley returns to his central defense of the dual existence of the scientific and the spiritual as a counterpoint to that neo-Cartesian “nothing but” exclusionism:
There the stone is — stony. You cannot think about it for long without finding yourself invaded by one or other of several essential numinous sentiments. These sentiments belong to one or other of two contrasted and complementary groups. The name of the first family is Sentiments of Human Insignificance, of the second, Sentiments of Human Greatness.
The universe throws down a challenge to the human spirit; in spite of his insignificance and abjection, man has taken it up. The stone glares down at us out of the black boundlessness, a memento mori. But the fact that we know it for a memento mori justifies us in feeling a certain human pride. We have a right to our moods of sober exultation.
Music at Night is an exultant read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Primo Levi on the spiritual value of science, Arthur Schopenhauer on the essential difference between how art and science reveal the world, and Hannah Arendt on how each illuminates the human condition, then revisit Huxley on the two types of truth artists must reconcile, how we become who we are, and his little-known children’s book.
Published May 16, 2017