Aldous Huxley is famous for many things, and one of them is for being an advocate of drug use. After all, Huxley was himself a fairly-known user who experimented with many drugs, ranging from opiates to LSD, and going as far as to author his seminal work called Doors of Perception. In the book, he attempted to document his own drug trip in an attempt to learn more about the nature of psychedelic experience. There, he theorizes about the potential of drugs as tools which allow humans to transcend themselves, to transcend their own egos and be one with the world around them. He has since been branded as a champion of drug use, and has often been quoted by drug advocates of all stripes.
But was he, in fact, such a champion of drug use without qualification? He had definitely experimented with drugs at one point, but it can be inferred from his works that he was, in fact, generally opposed to at least most of them. Specifically, he was against the use of intoxicants and recreational drug use in general, for that matter, believing that these have negative repercussions on society at large. This is ironic, of course, in light of his reputation as an “intellectual drug-man,” a title since attached to his name posthumously. But his depiction of “Soma,” the fictional drug in his dystopian novel Brave New World, as a state-sanctioned intoxicant reinforces his opposition to the use of certain kinds of drugs, particularly those which give artificial happiness like modern-day marijuana. The paper below will argue that Huxley, through his depiction of Soma in Brave New World, discouraged the use of mind-altering drugs to escape reality or fix the troubles of the human psyche.
Soma in Brave New World
The reader first comes across Soma under the description that a gram of the drug equaled “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; [and] none of their defects” (Huxley “Brave New” 40). This description is curious, since it equates two very divergent dependencies of modern man, which are of course booze and religion. At this point, the reader is clued in on the nature of Soma as the psychoactive cure-all to every mental, emotional and psychological ill that the denizens of the World State could possible incur. It is also implied that Soma is now the only dependency that man needs. The emphasis on the absence of negative side effects is an important point toward the perfection of the World State. This state, after all, has finally eradicated many of the ills that has plagued humanity in generations past, including war, famine, and hunger. It has mostly done this through the leveling effects of Soma, which has veritably united the world by removing from humanity the capacity for loving too much and joining allegiances that cause divisions among them.
But more important to note is the fact that Soma had effectively “cured” not only the extreme forms of human suffering, but all forms, down to the minutest detail of being. The following quote explains much:
“Now–such is progress–the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think–or if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions, there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon; returning whence they find themselves on the other side of the crevice, safe on the solid ground of daily labour and distraction, scampering from feely to feely, from girl to pneumatic girl”.
Soma was the epitome of human pleasure and the absence of all pain, the very symbol of the World’s State’s version of civilization. It defined the ideal state of being: its users experience peace, renewed strength, and freedom from adverse thoughts. They became more productive in their work, active in their “engagements,” and tolerant of whatever faults they might have found in others. In all senses, Soma had come to define what it meant to be human in the civilized world: it had effectively cured the human condition.
There is little wonder, then, why Mond would equate the drug to the virtues of the World State. He notes that “there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and longsuffering… Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle…”. Here, Mond describes Soma as the World State’s crown achievement toward the naturalization of virtue. With Soma, people no longer needed alcohol to cheer themselves up, or Christianity to help them to live at peace with one another. With Soma, no one had to deal with the negative repercussions that come with such dependencies; it was “Christianity without the tears”. Soma led to a world where everybody was constantly in a drugged state of, in Huxley’s terms, “upward transcendence”: “Eyes shone, cheeks were flushed, the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles”. Soma was what made the world perfect, what distinguished them from the uncivilized populations of the world—it was civilization itself. It ensured that people remained people, kept humans humane in the World State. It was, in all senses, perfection itself.
Drugs in Post-WWI Britain
And yet the reader instinctively knows that this is not the case. After all, Brave New World describes a dystopian future where freedom has been discarded to attain the ultimate happiness. While the drug claimed perfection—and delivered in many respects toward that end—it also altered humanity to the point of unrecognition. In utilizing the transcendent effects of Soma on humans, the World State had made its denizens something other than humans—for better or worse. This is especially curious in light of what Huxley was famous for, that is a champion of drugs. If he really did advocate for the common use of drugs—as he is known for even in academic circles—why would he so closely associate it with the dystopian regime of the World State in Brave New World?
Perhaps the answer lies in the context of the text itself. The novel was published in 1930, when a proper understanding of drug use has yet to be fully established. A few decades before this, addiction was not yet even perceived as a social problem, and drug use ranged from medical to recreational without repercussion. However, things began to change after Britain’s involvement with an emergent global effort to stem drug manufacture and operations. Britain officially got involved when widespread fear “a cocaine epidemic among British soldiers patronizing prostitutes in the West End of London” through the passage of more stringent drug regulations. By the 1920s, drugs were already largely demonized in Britain and in the US, and drug use was officially delimited to the medical use of opiates.
No doubt, Huxley was well aware of the perceived dangers of drug use during his time. He was not unaware of the government’s prohibitions, and perhaps even agreed with them to some extent. As Atwood points out, “he could not have dreamed his upside-down morality unless he himself also found it threatening”. In spite of his popularity as a “pioneer hippie,” it seems that Huxley was not in favor of consumerism-driven drug consumption, or else he would not have vilified its use in the Brave New World. While he acknowledges the natural urge of humans to seek out intoxicants, he also acknowledges that urge’s tendency to devolve humans into beast-like states. He instead cautions against drugs, characterizing them as “a parasite on the body politic, but a parasite which its host… has strength and sense enough to keep under control” (Huxley “The Devils”).
The last quote from Huxley reveals his general stance toward drug use. He sees them as substances that need stringent regulation, but also things that people could not do without completely. He maintains that some drugs like purified LSD—which he did not see as drugs or lump together with those which he considered as mood-altering “bad drugs”—have some benefit toward the generation of potential experiences and insight, as well as generally toward the “modern phase of human evolution”. If he championed drugs at all, it would be under the banner of exploring alternative states of being that allowed for the recognition of reality without the bias of ego, or any other natural impetus.
Huxley was definitely a unique thinker for his time, perhaps as one of the earliest advocates of transpersonal philosophy. Against the mode of scientific naturalism of his day, he held to the brand of irrationalism inspired by D.H. Lawrence and pursued a philosophy of mystic and spiritual practices. He deliberated on the existence of a Divine Reality that precedes and predicates the ground of all being, and this heavily influenced his works. Access to this divine reality, he believed, was achieved through the individual consumption of hallucinogenic substances and spiritual practice. Huxley firmly believed in the value of spiritual truth and subjectivity, things abandoned by the burgeoning materialism of the industrialized world. The fact that psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs take center stage in two of Huxley’s most important contributions to literature—i.e. Island and Brave New World—is proof toward his own preoccupation over the potential use of drugs as tools toward enriching the life of the mind .
Notably, Brave New World was written a few decades before he wrote Doors of Perception and Island, so it is safe to assume that Huxley had not yet done any sort of formal experimentation on drugs when he wrote it. But even then, it can be surmised that Huxley did not buy into the prevalent denigration of drugs during the 1930s, even if he denounced mood-altering drugs in general. This bias was rooted in his belief that drugs ought not to be consumed for their sheer pleasure value, but toward some profitable end (Huxley “The Devils”). In Brave New World, drugs were present both in the Reservation and in the World State, but it is fairly clear that Soma was the only drug presented as unnatural.
The Unnaturalness of Soma
The use of Soma by the characters in the novel reflected Huxley’s bias against mood-altering substances. Throughout, the characters in the novel take Soma whenever they faced difficulty, whenever they were in pain—simply put, whenever they were faced with human limitations and weaknesses. Soma was the go-to drug for the inconveniences of being human, eliminating the need for struggle, pain, and unhappiness. It is this nature of mood-drugs that Huxley criticizes, which he thinks leads to hedonism by virtue of being consumed regularly for their own sake. Unlike LSD and mescaline—both of which he did not consider drugs officially—mood-drugs like Soma did not enrich the life of the mind, but muted it by overloading it with bliss.
Pearce notes how as a drug, Soma makes its users experience a “shallow, unemphatic and intellectually uninteresting well-being,” capable only of giving “mindless, inauthentic imbecile happiness.” It neither led to the practice of a sublime life, nor led to life-defining moments that lead individuals to pursue greater achievements. Instead, it leads the citizens of the World State to become content with their own predetermined lots in life. It also makes them even easier to control by heightening their suggestibility, and therefore their vulnerability to State manipulations. Besides being a tool for delimiting individual freedom, Soma acted as an agent that robs humanity of its passions. In concert with the genetic and social engineering of the World State citizens, Soma keeps people from feeling, either their pain or the suffering of others, and therefore alienating them from each other without abolishing community entirely. Interestingly, Community was one of the three pillars of the World State, the preservation of which was paramount to its continued existence.
To uphold community and stability, individual numbing is absolutely necessary. Better yet, the destruction of the individual as we know it is required by such a society. Soma exists for this very purpose, and has in fact succeeded in the elimination of free-thinking individuals through its dehumanization of humans. And once humans have ceased to be humans, their importance as ends in themselves follows suit. In the novel, the World State denizens’ rights and welfares are only secondary to their utility to the State as consumers, whose chief virtues are best illustrated through their conformity and consumption.
Huxley’s Objection to Drugs
As mentioned earlier, Soma symbolizes what Huxley conceived of as “bad drugs” that lead only to base self-gratification. He opposed transcendence in those terms, denouncing them as tools of enslavement. He notes in The Devils of Loudon that such a conception and pursuit of drugs are primitive at best, and led to a state of crowd-delirium. Here, he lumps together self-indulgent drug use, alcoholism, and uninhibited pursuit of sex as acts of mere debauchery that have the potential to de-civilize humans towards the loss of “common humanity” (Huxley “The Devils”). As acts of downward transcendence, they nullify the basic humanity of their participants, and this, Huxley notes, is “more immediately dangerous to social order, more dramatically a menace to that thin crust of decency, reasonableness and mutual tolerance which constitutes a civilization” (Huxley “The Devils”).
He believed that debauchery led to the same effects of organized religions in that its practice led to crowd intoxication and delirium, rendering its participants vulnerable to State abuses by making them indifferent to their environment and to everything but their own pleasure. Hedonistic drugs like the fictional Soma rendered its dependents as powerless beings that have lost their individuality, and therefore their capacity to think or be free. For Huxley, drug use for the sake of pleasure insulates the self “and carries [it] down into a less than personal realm, where there are no responsibilities, no right or wrong, no need for thought or judgement or discrimination - only a strong vague sense of togetherness, only a shared excitement, a collective alienation” (Huxley “The Devils”).
But Huxley did not treat psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs in that category. For him, these had the potential to change individuals’ perspectives and encourages the practice of critical thought. As he notes in his book Doors of Perception,
“It gives access to contemplation—but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action, the very thought of action. In the intervals between his revelations the mescaline taker is apt to feel that, though in one way everything is supremely as it should be, in another there is something wrong. His problem is essentially the same as that which confronts the quietist, the arhat and, on another level, the landscape painter and the painter of human still lives. Mescaline can never solve that problem; it can only pose it, apocalyptically, for those to whom it had never before presented itself. The full and final solution can be found only by those who are prepared to implement the right kind of Weltanschauung by means of the right kind of behavior and the right kind of constant and unstrained alertness”.
Unlike drugs like Soma which dull the senses, drugs like mescaline and LSD heightens them; it shows the user problems and solutions that are not conceivable in our mundane, ego-infused states of being. As such, psychedelic drugs, for him, had the potential to enrich human philosophy and human society by making people more able to empathize with the world and able to see new perspectives through their engagement of unconventional thought patterns.
Contrary to his reputation, Huxley repudiated mass-consumption of drugs, especially the use of mood-altering drugs toward hedonistic ends. In fact, he held exactly the opposite view: that drugs were not only detrimental to human health, but also endangered human freedom. He illustrates this best in his portrayal of Soma in Brave New World, where the said drug was used to effectively subject humans to all sorts of abuses and indignities without repercussion of revolt, or any sort of public backlash for that matter. Soma was used by the World State to keep all of its citizens in a state of perennial crowd-delirium, using them entirely as means towards its ends and ambitions. However, Huxley also maintained that there are drugs that allow the enhancement of human though and freedom in the form of psychedelics. According to him, these did not remove humans from their context of pain and suffering, but helped humans understand their role in their context better. He advocated their use to enrich the inner life of the mind, a position which has eventually and unfortunately led to his present misrepresentation.