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Let me quote to a very remarkable passage from Montini where he said can I honestly enough confess with viddy trifling sex with a face of my tranquility and peace of mind. I have received almost half my life. When my country was in ruins your teen's life of course was contemporary with these are not terribly ceviche religious wars which were going on in France in the later sixteenth century and this is it. I mean wanting of course was one of the most honest and and self observant of men and this is I think a very interesting testimony that a man can by dint of of living in an intellectual work. Believe completely apart and unaffected by the catastrophic events of his time. It's most interesting to look into the history of a number of great writers and to see the extent to which great artists of different types of the extent to which they seem to be quite unmoved by
the historical events of that time I mean take a great musician of the 17th century. Where should you read his biography and spent all his time running away from the Thirty Years War. He would be in one place and then the tide of battle would roll over and he would hastily go somewhere else and he lives a hunted life trying to get away from these grids who were devastating his country all the time which is music. And really I think you found absolutely no trace of this at all the music simply follows a kind of logic or follows its own inner logic I should go into this later when I talk about art but it is very striking to find this. You would think they would be a strong historical determinant of such a life issue but not
the thing which which conditions the development of his music is it an internal logic within the music itself and within the music of his immediate predecessors. But then we take a case like that of words with the Lyrical Ballads the prelude the great were all written between between 1795 and 870 which is of course one of the most. Alarming periods of European history and a period in which this country was a war for most of the time and which are a tremendous kind of social revolution as well as the considerable fear of invasion was going on in the mind. Englishman still more extraordinary of course are other novels of Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice was written I think
17 96'97 and the other novels were written between 1811 and 1860. But one looks in vain in these delightful novels any reflection of the really events which were going on while the books were being written. I mean you have this impression that the. Life of English country gentry and their clergy was going exactly as ever they were just picking their noses and looking at the sunset in spite of the podium in spite of the why it's going on in Europe and the ministries which threaten the items all the time. Another example from the life of the man who is always interested me very much the French philosopher the greatest French philosopher the late 18th and early 19th century who left to a very very copious diary so that we know exactly what he was feeling and thinking
every day of his life for most. But now. This is an entry in the early summer of 1790 thought from a historical point of view of the summer of 1894 always important to witness the execution of the consummation of Robespierre's power and the dedication of the to the Supremes be looking to be a reflection of these things. And here is a tree which is quite interesting today May 27. I had an experience beautiful beautiful to be ever forgotten. I was walking by myself a few minutes before sunset. The sight of nature filled me with ecstasy read Mission and succeeded ravishment. If
I could perpetuate this state I should have found upon this earth the joys of heaven. And once again some years later during the hundred day. Found retreat from history which at that time was an extraordinarily uncomfortable thing for him because he happened to be a convinced royalist who had gone over to the service of the Kings. And then when they fled during the podiums return during the Hundred Days found himself in a very awkward position and to be in considerable danger. But what he says here during the hundred. Years. Is occupied with abstract speculation. All the interests of the world these speculations keep me from thinking
about the actions of my fellow men. And this is for you. But I cannot think of them except to hate and despise you. I'm quite sure even in the catastrophic events of the 20th century we could undoubtedly find innumerable examples of the same kind of retreat into private life and affected the treatment of private life was possible even in the least catastrophic conditions. The only difference I think between the present and the past is that it is becoming particularly in the or authoritarian states increasingly difficult for the individual to escape into private life. All the dictators have used. Every means at their disposal to compel
people. To give up their private life and to live a public life in continuous relation with the horrible history which their day the dictators can manufacturing all the time. And as I say they use all the resources at their disposal and their resources are incomparably greater than anything that was disposed of by tyrants in the past. You have only to compare the secret police of any state today with the secret police of Napoleon to see that. Police were absolutely childish in comparison with any modern police force. The modern dictator for that matter the modern democratic government has at its disposal all the resources for detection and coercion which can be imagined. Wiretapping radio passed everything I mean
there is nothing which they don't have and already this figure this terrifying figure which projected into 1984 big brother existence in the past what your eye can see is that whereas the spirit of tyranny was always more than willing its operational its organizational and its technological flourish were fortunately weak and I think one can see without any kind of the. Greatest guaranteed liberty in the past was never. North or paper constitutions it was the inefficiency of governments. Liberty seems to come more and more for cheap money where governments dispose of such extraordinarily powerful means.
Government does today to illustrate the point which I was saying that dictators. I mean we have the example of the Nazi dictators and of course of the Communist dictators. The point that they disliked individuals having private life made a great effort to keep them continuously in touch with the history they were making. This fact is clearly illustrated if we compare the press in the states with the press in Democratic states with a few honorable exceptions most of the press in democratic countries is devoted to the more sort of private life such as murders sex sport and so on. The press in totalitarian countries
consistently devoted to international propaganda is the minimum of private life into the totalitarian press continuously rub into the historical life of the time. It's passed on to another aspect of the relationship between individuals and history the fact that most individuals spend a great deal of time outside of history does not mean that exceptional individuals do not exercise a considerable influence upon history. There has of course the notion of the influence of individuals upon history as has fluctuated from time to time we have some conception of the hero determining history completely and we have the conception which was stressed by Herbert Spencer
said by some sociologist at the present time that individual plays no part of that only great impersonal forces are somehow pushing people about. I would think that the fact of the matter is that historical changes are probably determined by the interaction of three main causes are determined by economic pressures of one kind or another also by ideas and also by exceptional individuals. The great personal movements are certainly at work but I think it seems to me quite clear there are many cases in which outstanding individuals directly. So to say the energies within these forces into certain channels seems to me fairly obvious that if say Bismarck
and Linnean had all died in infancy it seems fairly obvious that the history of the 19th later 19th century and of the middle years of the 20th century would have been different from what it was it might have been similar but I think without any doubt it would have been different that these these outstanding men did deal. Exercise the profound and very important influence upon us. The speculations of what would have happened if what happened hadn't happened seem rather be. And yet they are rather interesting that the French philosopher a new V.A. years ago wrote a book called CRU which is the counterpart of utopia. It's not about a place which doesn't exist it's about attainment which doesn't exist it's the postulates that certain events did not occur and
tries to deduce what the course of history would have been if those events had not taken place. I would like to illustrate finally the relationship between the individual and history brief consideration of. Progress or progress. Two things I would say progress is partly a myth. To some extent I think it's an observable effect as a Myth Of course it's a new myth it's more or less at the time of the Renaissance and reached the high pitch during the 18th and 19th centuries and it took various forms we had the sort of conditional progress of the 18th century when it was believed that all you had to do was to get rid of kings and priests and that everything forward would go on getting better and better
automatically if you did this. And in the 19th century there was this idea that if you gave people universal education and taught them how to use the new industrial devices again the sort of utopian society would inevitably evolve and keep on getting better and better. And then there was a still more mystical idea that whatever you did there was it would be an inevitability of progress that was in some way predestined to progress towards a state. I think the the mists of progress have obviously Payal to the events of the 20th century I don't think anybody believes as firmly in the myths as they were believed in. So 100 years ago or 200 years ago. But on the other. I think when anyone can say that although the mists are not true there is something in evolutionary and historical change
which can be. Legitimately called progress. I mean for example in the evolutionary history of the world it seems clear that one is justified in saying that the passage from ordinary molecules to giant molecules which were the basis of life was a progress to the development of the only cellular creatures then of multicellular creatures was a progression of the development of a greater and greater complexity which permitted greater and greater independence of the input from the environment was also a progress under the development of an elaborate nervous system. The gain was a progress. The interesting point is of course that. Yes the progress is visible at the leading edge so to speak of evolution all the known progressive forms are still there. I mean we still have the molecules in the form of the vertices we still have a number of unicellular
creatures which can go on quite happily living their life. But at the leading age there is this something which does. I would say it deserves the the name of progress in history tool in human history where the evolution through natural selection has been for a large extent replaced by a kind of cultural loop of evolution on the psychosocial level. Again I think we can legitimately speak of progress in certain fields. We can speak of definite progress in one of the understanding of nature in the control of nature to some extent perhaps in the understanding of self-control of human beings so this is more. Dubious I think. And here again we have. The fact that there is a progress so to say it's a leading edge. Real people with this genuinely value list think mentality is cancer of the eye.
You know we're directed by 20th century science this is certainly a factor but nevertheless I don't think it necessarily invalidates the idea of progress. Now what we have to ask is to what extent. Do we believe with progress and do we experience it. I think it's clear that it can be observed objectively. But can it be experienced subjectively. And this is I think a very interesting point in regard to the evolutionary progress. No quite obviously it cannot be observed to start with us for the first. Two times in nine years of evolution there was no mind to observe the thing a tour and even when some kind of man came into existence. The time span involved in any kind of progressive change
was so enormous that each new individual could experience it subjectively it taught in the lower paths any kind of progressive change required at least a hundred thousand years in the quote about ten thousand in nearly six times it required about. A thousand. And then we get into historical times where we get to be important to progressive changes taking place in multiples of centuries until we finally get to the present day where the changes take place in multiple us all even fractions of decades. Now. When we have the progress going at this rapid speed as we have now it should be possible
not merely to observe it objectively but also to experience it. Subject. But now again is this effect do we experience progress subjectively. I think we experience it much less than one would think that we do. Then one would think we do take after an individual human life. This is not a progressive thing. This is not a curve which is good. So I'm going up and up. It is a cocked hat which rises to a certain point remains more or less on the level and then declines. You cannot expect. Person sinking into decrepitude to be conscious of the world going up and up. I mean all he is conscious of is himself going down and down and. To think is a
profoundly important effect. As individuals we are not progressive whereas in a certain sense history may be regarded as progressive. We as individuals being non-progressive find it really difficult to have a direct experience of. Progression. But then there is the fact of course that the human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. We look up at a seeding sort of luminous golden ceiling and long to get that. When we get there we find ourselves walking on a piece of disregarded linoleum and this is just the floor that we are working on and we take it so completely for granted that we. We are not conscious of the of the fact the ditties of progress from where we were down below. And of course every individual is born into the world as it
is on the day his birthday I mean the modern child. Regards TV and jet planes as part of the nature of things and he has no basis by which to know. Nothing to compare them with. I mean this is just. These things exist and he is not conscious therefore. That great progress has been made in this field. Then again. Private Life remains to very considerable extent unaffected by progress. Certain aspects of it of course are affected but a great many of the of the factors which make common life important to private life important to us simply aren't affected by the general march of progress that will move. We remain in a curious way independent of this thing which
objectively when we look at it from the outside is so obviously important. Dr. Johnson had a couple of lines which are relevant in this context he says how small of all the human the parts which kings or Lords can cause or cure. We must add in advancing technology and scientific breakthroughs and so on. These children although they are in some sense much more important than kings and laws they still remain to a considerable extent outside our immediate experience. And Johnson had other very nice remarks he said. PUBLIC AFFAIRS picks no man and the news of a lost battle never caused any man to eat his dinner the words. And conversely the news of a major scientific breakthrough was the news of a new cosmological theory never caused any man to eat
his dinner the bit that you do remain in a strange way very isolated from this immensely important sector of public life so that we see that here yet again I used the phrase the man is a multiple amphibian and we hear again we see. Our amphibious existence this existence torn between the world of objective progress and the world of subjective no particular progress the world of private life and the world of history. We remain in this kind of balance between these these two worlds and actual in the. Dark and memorable lines of. The full reveal where he says you know we are the sum condition of humanity.
Born under one law to another. The need be got. And yet forbidden vanity created commanded to be silent. What mean you sneak by these diverse laws. Walking deed and then we letters end with a question because we simply don't know the answer. Thank you for trying. They've heard the third recorded like your in a series delivered by all of us Huxley at present the auditorium while he was Carnegie visiting professor of humanities at MIT. Next week the fourth lecture entitled symbols and immediate experience. The program was produced by WGBH FM Boston for the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is the N A B Radio
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What a piece of work is a man
Individual in relation to history, part 2
Producing Organization
WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program presents the conclusion of a lecture by Aldous Huxley entitled "The Individual in Relation to History."
Series Description
Aldous Huxley presents a lecture series in which he asks, "how did our ancestors think of human nature and in what terms ought we to think about it?"
Broadcast Date
Media type
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
Speaker: Huxley, Aldous, 1894-1963
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 61-56-3 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:26:09
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Chicago: “What a piece of work is a man; Individual in relation to history, part 2,” 1961-10-10, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 25, 2024,
MLA: “What a piece of work is a man; Individual in relation to history, part 2.” 1961-10-10. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 25, 2024. <>.
APA: What a piece of work is a man; Individual in relation to history, part 2. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from