In an issue of the print magazine The Week, for which my wife Tamara has a subscription, I noticed this in the ‘Memorable Quotes’ section:
“The surest way to work up a crusade in favour of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behaviour righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” Aldous Huxley, quoted in The Spectator
Quite a quote.
A statement about man that we mostly want to pretend isn’t true.
But dig under the ideology of this man or that and we find that the ideology serves the man and not the other way around.
We might hear a person in his innermost being say “Give me an ideology that fits my needs and desires — for me, not for the benefit of anyone else.”
Yes, quite a quotation, and naturally it interested me to know exactly where Huxley said it, in what book or article or pamphlet or interview.
So I googled for the origin of the quote.
Most search results that came up — and there are a lot of them — do not give an origin for the quote but merely repeat it.
Some reported where the quote was quoted, but still not where the quote originated.
Some, however, say it is in Huxley’s book Crome Yellow.
I bought the Kindle version of the book for pennies and searched.
And the quote is not there.
I found an online HTML version of Crome Yellow from Project Gutenberg and searched it as well, just in case. And the quote is not there.
I searched for bits of the quote, picking out salient words such as ‘maltreatment’ and ‘righteous indignation’ and ‘moral treats’.
I thought maybe it was in Huxley’s novel ‘Island’ — so I bought a Kindle copy and searched.
So I asked Bard — Google’s AI tool — and this is what it says:
The quote “To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” is attributed to Aldous Huxley, but the exact source of this quote has been debated.
Some sources suggest that it comes from Huxley’s 1932 novel “Brave New World,” while others claim it is from his 1962 essay collection “The Doors of Perception.” However, neither of these works contains the exact phrase in question.
The earliest known appearance of the quote is in a 1966 book called “God Running” by John S. Hall. Hall attributes the quote to Huxley, but he does not provide a specific source.
It is possible that Huxley did utter the phrase at some point in his life, but there is no definitive evidence to prove it. The quote has certainly been widely circulated since the 1960s, and it is often used to criticize hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
So did Huxley ever say it at all?
Is it not indicative of the modern world and the casual brushes with the truth that The Week copied the quote from The Spectator and used it and neither publication checked whether the quote was in fact a quote.
The Spectator describes itself in its ‘About’ as follows:
The Spectator was established in 1828, and is the best-written and most influential weekly in the English language. Our writers have no party line; their only allegiance is to clarity of thought, elegance of expression and independence of opinion. Our writers’ opinions range from left to right, their circumstances from high life to low life. None make any pretence at being impartial: our motto is “firm, but unfair”.
We are a member of IPSO, the independent press regulator, and abide by the Editor’s Code. We also uphold strict standards of accuracy.
But Wait, There’s More
If this was all I have to say, then I would think I had made a poor effort.
But here is something that Neil Postman wrote about Huxley and George Orwell, that is worth reflecting on in these times. And I leave you with this:
On Orwell and Huxley’s vision of our future/present:
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
“In 1984”, Huxley added, “people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”
In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. ~Neil Postman
By the way — did Neil Postman actually write this? Yes he did — in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death.