The Deathless appeal of Scholarship

May 24, 1934

Put in four hours this morning at working up my notes. Extraordinary pleasure! How easily one could slip back into uninterrupted scholarship and idea-mongering! Into that “higher Life” which is simply death without tears. Peace, irresponsibility — all the delights of death here and now. In the past, you had to go into a monastery to find them. You paid for the pleasures of death with obedience, poverty, chastity. Now you can have them gratis and in the ordinary world. Death completely without tears. Death with smiles, death with the pleasures of bed and bottle, death in private with nobody to bully you. Scholars, philosophers, men of science — conventionally supposed to be unpractical. But what other class of men has succeeded in getting the world to accept it and (more astonishing) go on accepting it at its own valuation? Kings have lost their divine right, plutocrats look as though they were going to lose theirs. But Higher Lifers continue to be labeled as superior. It’s the fruit of persistence. Persistently paying compliments to themselves, persistently disparaging other people. Year in, year out, for the last sixty centuries. We’re High, you’re Low; we’re of the Spirit, you’re of the World. Again and again, like Pears Soap. It’s been accepted, now, as an axiom. But in fact, the Higher Life is merely the better death-substitute. A more complete escape from the responsibilities of living than alcohol or morphia or addiction to sex or property. Booze and dope destroy health. Sooner or later sex addicts get involved in responsibilities. Property addicts can never get all the stamps, Chinese vases, houses, varieties of lilies or whatever in may be, that they want. Their escape is a torment of Tantalus. Whereas the Higher Lifer escapes into a world where there’s no risk to health and the minimum of responsibilities and tortures. A world, what’s more, that tradition regards as actually superior to the world of responsible living — higher. The Higher Shirker can fairly wallow in his good conscience. For how easy to find in the life of scholarship and research equivalents of all the moral virtues! Some, of course, are not equivalent, but identical: perseverance, patience, self-forgetfulness and the like. Good means to ends that may be bad. You can work hard and whole-heartedly at anything — from atomic physics to forgery and white slaving. The rest are ethical virtues transposed into the mental key. Chastity of artistic and mathematical form. Purity of scientific research. Courageousness of thought. Bold hypotheses. Logical integrityTemperance of views. Intellectual humility before the facts. All the cardinal virtues in fancy dress. The Higher Lifers come to think of themselves as saints — saints of art and science and scholarship. A purely figurative and metaphorical sanctity taken au pied de la lettre.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The Higher Lifer even has equivalents for spiritual poverty. As a man of science, he tries to keep himself unbiassed by his interests and prejudices. But that’s not all. Ethical poverty of spirit entails taking no thought for the morrow, letting the dead bury their dead, losing one’s life to gain it. The Higher Lifer can make parodies of these renunciations. I know; for I made them and actually took credit to myself for having made them. You live continuously and responsibly only in the other, Higher world. In this, you detach yourself from your past; you refuse to commit yourself in the future; you have no convictions, but live moment by moment; you renounce your own identity, except as a Higher Lifer, and become just the succession of your states. A more than Franciscan destitution. Which can be combined, however, with more than Napoleonic exultations in imperialism. I used to think I had no will to power. Now I perceive that I vented it on thoughts, rather than people. Conquering an unknown province of knowledge. Getting the better of a problem. Forcing ideas to associate or come apart. Bullying recalcitrant words to assume a certain pattern. All the fun of being a dictator without any risks and responsibilities.

— Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza

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