How to be whole

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I was on a panel this week at my university, discussing whether universities should teach well-being. The number of students reporting mental health problems is soaring, student suicides are on the front-pages, and ministers are demanding universities make well-being a priority.

But can universities actually teach well-being? There is scientific research on how to be happy, and some universities offer courses in that. But I don’t think well-being means just feeling happy, do you? I think well-being means being a whole person, developing your full potential, and as a Buddhist I think that is goal is very much connected to other beings.

The idea that the goal of education is to become a whole, well-balanced individual capable of serving their community was a standard belief of 19th and 20th century liberal education, all the way up to Aldous Huxley, who outlined his vision for ‘integrated education’ in his 1959 lecture series at the University of California in Santa Barbara.  

Huxley said that university education did not create whole people. It was lop-sided in its focus on the intellect, and it over-specialized people into particular disciplines. His course in integrated education offered students a crash-course in psychology, semantics, poetry, politics, ecology and mysticism. He wanted to try and create Renaissance men and women, who could see life at many different levels and integrate them together. And he tried to be that sort of integrated person himself, literate in the humanities, science and spiritual training. When he died in 1963, his friend Gerald Heard called him the last Renaissance man.  

What’s interesting is how his educational vision emerged from a famous debate between his grandfather, Thomas Huxley, and his grand-uncle, Matthew Arnold, over the importance of literature and science in schools and universities.

In the second half of the 19th century, Christianity and the old Anglican-Tory order was in trouble. Its theology was being challenged and undermined by scientists like Darwin and Huxley, while its political power was challenged by demands for universal suffrage. At their clubs and country houses, Victorian gentlemen worried what would happen if Christianity lost its influence. What would shape public morality and stop the workers from turning to bloody anarchy?

Within this age of doubt, Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold both set themselves up as prophets of new religions: Science and Culture.

Matthew Arnold (left) and Thomas Huxley

Matthew Arnold (left) and Thomas Huxley

Thomas Huxley was probably the most famous and most visible scientist of his day. He was a very gifted writer and speaker (better than Aldous I’d say). He was good-looking, charismatic, and he thrived on conflict and controversy. His books were best-sellers and his public lectures attracted thousands from all levels of Victorian society. He unfurled a glorious vision of the Darwinian universe and the slow evolution of intelligent life over millions of years. And he reassured his audience that this was still a moral vision – we should have the courage and humility to ‘sit before fact like little children’. Blind faith is ‘the one unpardonable sin’. He thundered: ‘we are on the Eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live thirty years, it is that I may see the foot of Science on the necks of her Enemies.’ Scientists would be the new priests, while the press dubbed him ‘Pope Huxley’.

On the other side, Matthew Arnold was the most famous Victorian champion of the humanities. A poet and literary critic, he set forth an impassioned defence of the importance of culture, particularly in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy. He defined culture as ‘the best that has been thought and said’. That included the Bible, of course, but also classical culture – Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Homer – and modern literature and poetry. There was a risk that Victorian culture would fragment into different classes and specialist interests, leaving people ‘incomplete and mutilated men’ in the grip of ‘mechanical ideas’. Culture would help lead people to a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity’, and also connecting us to other humans to make a whole of humanity.

Eleven years after the publication of Culture and Anarchy¸ Thomas Huxley took a pot-shot at Arnold, when he gave a speech at the opening of the Mason Science College in Birmingham. What about science, he complained. Where is science in Arnold’s vision of the best that is thought and said? Why, Huxley asked, did Victorians still think a classical education was the best preparation for its leaders? Such a narrow education, which excluded and denigrated the sciences, would be disastrous both for them and for their country. ‘I find myself wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their common outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science.’

Two years later, in 1882, Arnold replied. He readily agreed with Huxley that culture included science, and the perfect gentlemen should have a grounding in both the classics and the new sciences. But he thought literature had a special power of integrating facts and relating them to virtue, beauty and meaning – and it is that which humans really need. Huxley, rejoining in another speech, agreed that we need both science to develop our thought, and the arts to develop our feelings (this distinction rather confines the role of the humanities, but there you go).

Compared to some of Huxley’s bust-ups, this was a polite dispute from an era before Twitter. Arnold and Huxley were from different classes– Thomas was a lower middle-class dissenter, Matthew from the upper-middle-class Anglican establishment. But the British establishment was flexible, and they ended up friends. They were both members of the Athenaeum and the Metaphysical Club. They were joined by the marriage of Thomas’s son Leonard and Matthew’s niece Julia.

This marriage produced Aldous and Julian Huxley, one the highbrow author, the other a priest of science. Both thought that science and literature could give people a sense of meaning in a godless universe. And they were interested in how to knit the sciences and humanities together – both wrote science fiction novels, which is one way to bridge the two.

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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?