I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.
The Devils of Loudon – Aldous Huxley
We remember Huxley nowadays for the dystopia Brave New World. But he wrote many other fiction and non-fiction books, one of which was this history of religious and sexual obsession in 17th century France. Huxley’s theme is that that the evils we ascribe to religious intolerance are instead a product of human nature. That political bosses in any society manipulate ideas - fear, superstition, self-interest, patriotism, etc. - and their dissemination in order to maintain their power and access to the other goodies like prestige, offices, awards, travel, prostitutes, and luxury food.
… Few people now believe in the Devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number. In order to justify their behavior, they turn their theories into dogmas, their bylaws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils. This idolatrous transformation of the relative into the Absolute and the all too human into the Divine, makes it possible for them to indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and in the certainty that they are working for the Highest Good. And when the current beliefs come, in their turn, to look silly, a new set will be invented, so that the immemorial madness may continue to wear its customary mask of legality, idealism and true religion.
So the Communists are consigned to the trashcan of history but other hobgoblins - liberals, inflationists, the Federal Reserve, Blacks, Muslims, terrorists – are invented and utilized to scare the rubes.
Huxley gets across what a weird century the 17th was, with regard to its mix of devout religion and unbridled sexuality. In 1632 an entire Ursuline convent in the village of Loudun was apparently possessed by the devil. That is, hysteria was contagious and the fame and wealth that came from all the attention was congenial. The girls and women accused a priest, Urban Grandier, of being in league with the devil. A village cabal hated Grandier. They trumped up the charges to get him tried and burned at the stake. I had to skip the dozen of so pages that detailed his torture before he was consigned to the flames for witchcraft.
While proving that his message of the danger of the powerful oppressing the vulnerable is still relevant in an election year of 2016, Huxley inserts essays about many other topics of interest, such as Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (“an absurd and charming book”); bovarism, the glamorized estimate of oneself; and the shift of the way of thinking of the medieval world to our more recognizable modern world.
When I read Huxley, I feel I am with a knowledgeable and witty but down to earth thinker. I don’t mind running to the dictionary about every other page. His ideas about Vendanta and Zen went rather over my head, as I don’t think I have the kind of mind to be an adequate mystic. For me, Huxley is rather too broad-minded about ESP and PK, too.