On this Valentine’s Day, we may do well to remember an unexpected prophet of love: the English writer Aldous Huxley. In his prescient 1932 novel Brave New World, perhaps best remembered as a warning against “soft” totalitarianism, Huxley actually had a lot to say about love—and its counterfeits. Some of his scenarios feel eerily prophetic today.
Aldous Huxley and the Flattening of Human Affections
In the future society of Huxley’s novel, the citizens are puppets of a totalitarian regime—largely due to strategic sexualization. Sexual pleasure is completely disengaged from fertility and family life and instrumentalized to brainwash and pacify. Children born from test tubes are sexualized at a very early age and are then initiated into a pleasure cult where “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Solid, trusting relationships are non-existent, and every physical body becomes a commodity to be consumed. Meanwhile, the rich variety of natural human relationships—friendship, mentorship, fraternity, parental nurturing—are eroticized and flattened into sameness. This results in a paradox of extreme, ubiquitous sexual intimacy paired with total developmental immaturity. Ignorant of what it means to be a fully-formed man or woman, Huxley’s citizens are emotional children enslaved by their (state-controlled) libidos.
Many characters experience tragedy in Huxley’s novel—especially the elderly, who are drugged and euthanized when they are no longer sexually pleasing. But the most tragic character is John, a young man who has come to “civilization” from an indigenous tribe. John is the novel’s “everyman”—sensible, likable, and relatable—but he commits suicide at the end of the book. His life in Huxley’s dystopian future is without hope. John can’t find anyone with whom to converse about the meaning of life and the nature of reality—he can’t find a friend. Nor can he find people to guide him and “have his back”—he can’t find a family. Finally, John can’t find a woman who will love him faithfully, appreciate his uniqueness, and accept his chivalrous service—he can’t find true romance. Confused and horrified by the meaninglessness of the world, he gives in to despair.
C.S. Lewis and the “Four Loves”
The literary scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis famously died on the same day as Aldous Huxley—which was also the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Throughout his life, Lewis was aware of Huxley and admired aspects of his fellow Briton’s thought—even as he worked to promote Christian ideas that Huxley challenged. And while Lewis and Huxley were often ideologically opposed, both criticized the flattening-out of human affections that seemed to be growing apace in the modern age. While Huxley exposed and satirized this tendency in Brave New World, Lewis provided a rich corrective in his 1960 book, The Four Loves.
For Lewis, human needs and attachments should not be recklessly eroticized, even in the new age of sexual permissiveness. Instead, they should be carefully understood according to their true natures. In his short book, derived from a series of radio broadcasts, Lewis identified four main types of love: storge, or affection, which is based in recognition, familiarity, and often a family bond; philia, or friendship, which is based in shared tastes and enthusiasms; eros, or romantic love, which is based in a kind of exclusive belonging and well-fitting complementarity; and agape, or unconditional love, which is based in a disposition of goodwill toward all of God’s children. Lewis’s taxonomy was a time-tested one, drawing on ancient understandings, and it introduced modern readers to a measure of subtlety often ignored or neglected in a flattening, homogenizing consumer society. Today, it is considered a classic for Christian young adults.
Modern Heartbreak and Abuse
And Lewis deeply understood the need for such clarity. He, himself, had experienced a troubled childhood and may have been an abuse survivor. By his own admission, he was afraid of intimacy and struggled for decades to form deep relationships, finding “true love” only late in life. He felt in his bones, through decades of hard experience, how the flattening and confusing of affections could wound and disappoint. In short, he knew deeply whereof he spoke.
Today, sadly, more and more of us grow up in broken or abusive homes, lacking the supports or models to develop to healthy maturity—and we pass our brokenness on to our children. At the same time, we are precociously sexualized: both physically objectified and stripped of the disciplines needed to maintain self-control and self-protection. Deprived of healthy family affection, we may seek erotic affection from mere strangers. Deprived of stable role models, we may look in strange places for a sense of identity and dignity. And stripped of spiritual and moral inspiration, we may slide into the trap of instant physical gratification. For many of us, these dangers encroach from the moment we are born. We have little chance to understand them—let alone avoid them! Indeed, many of us have no moral framework to navigate the maelstrom into which we’ve been cast. The only “rule” we know to follow is the fickle drive of our restless hearts.
However, works like Huxley’s (as a warning) and Lewis’s (as a roadmap) can help us open our eyes again to the true complexity of love in its mature forms. Going deeper, we can find even greater wisdom in the Bible and the writings of great Christian saints and teachers.
The Lesson and Sacrifice of St. Valentine
And we can also contemplate the example of St. Valentine, a third century Roman bishop who, by some accounts, gave his life to unite couples in Christian marriage. At a time when Christians were dangerously persecuted, and Christian unions were forbidden, St. Valentine aimed to create stable Christian families joined unto death in the eyes of God. Thanks in part to St. Valentine, Roman culture gradually learned about the importance of marital fidelity, the dangers of commodifying women, and the preciousness and innocence of childhood. It is even said that St. Valentine miraculously restored a Roman girl’s sight, converting her whole aristocratic household to a new way of thinking. This girl would not be “sold” to the wealthiest husband or pressured to sexually favor the powerful. She would have the chance to become a whole and healthy daughter of God.
Therefore, on a day often given over to egotism and indulgence (the commercial “Valentine’s Day”), may we remember where it all began—with a brave saint defying an empire in the name of love.