5 Readable Philosophical Novels

There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.


5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.

 

4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.

 

3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.

 

2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.

 

1.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The prequel to Millman’s acclaimed book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” It blends Eastern and Western philosophy in the training of a warrior.

5 of my Favorite Banned / Challenged Classics

Banned Books Week runs from September 23 to 29 in 2018, offering a nice reminder about all of the books that are so awesome that some doofus doesn’t want you to read them.

Here are five of my favorites:

5.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Randle McMurphy conducts a con to convince authorities that he’s insane and belongs in an asylum rather than doing hard time in a prison. It’s a commentary on how free-spirits are viewed by society and the pressures put upon them to conform. It’s been challenged many times on the usual grounds of sex and language, as well as for the “glorification of criminal activity.”

4.) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: In a dystopian England, the head of a small band of thuggish teenagers is imprisoned and convinced to undergo operant conditioning that will make any future attempts to engage in violent behavior personally painful. The book is a critique on social engineering, though it should be pointed out that there are two different versions of the book in circulation, one with the final chapter written by the author and one without it, and the inclusion or deletion of that chapter has serious implications for the book’s message. Instances of sex and violence are the usual basis for challenges to this novel.

 

3.) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie: Two men fall from a plane and survive, one archangel and one demon. The title of the book, and much of its controversy, is owed to a plot point about the Islamic prophet Muhammad (Mahound, in the book) receiving both angelic and demonic guidance and prophecy. This is the most explicitly banned book on the list with at least a dozen countries explicitly banning it — most of them were Islamic countries offended by the portrayal of events when Islam was first coming into existence, but a few banned it out of public safety fears over extremist activity. The author is under Fatwa, religious approval of Rushie’s execution, by Iranian authorities.

2.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In this soft dystopia, people are kept in line by readily available drugs and promiscuous sex. Among the American Library Association (ALA) list of challenges to this book was one suggesting the book be banned because it: “makes [promiscuous] sex look like fun.” Which made me laugh a little.

1.) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: A family, bankrupted by the one-two punch of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, packs up and heads out to the promised land of California, only to discover that it wasn’t all that it promised. Objection to language is the most prevalent cause for challenges to this book.

BOOK REVIEW: Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and HellThe Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The two essays collected in this thin volume recount Aldous Huxley’s experience taking mescalin (a psychedelic drug / hallucinogen derived from a cactus root) in the 1950’s, and the insights derived from that experimentation. The book contains descriptions of what Huxley observed under the influence, such as the hallucinations of “sacred geometry” that are common among those consuming hallucinogens. However, much of these essays are about how what he witnessed mirrors art and the text of mystical religions. Huxley provides a steady diet of food-for-thought on these topics. It is when Huxley relates the psychedelic experience to the mystical, religious, and artistic experience that I found this volume to be the most intriguing. “The Doors of Perception” is a mix of description and discussion of these linkages. “Heaven & Hell” delves much more deeply into said linkages, and I was blown away by some of the ideas in the latter essay. There is also a bit of discussion of the commonalities between schizophrenia and psychedelic experience.

Huxley devotes some space in both essays to discussing the science of these experiences, but I don’t see those parts as the strength of the volume. While Huxley was a scientifically minded fellow, his reporting on science errors on some of the grand scale issues (e.g. memory, which is far more fallible than was thought in his day.) (Specific [small-scale issue] findings are probably accurate.) The thing is, Huxley was also a mystic and he viewed biology as a “reducing valve” that mitigated our experience of consciousness—a grand field existing wholly beyond the nervous system, such that our experience of it was hemmed in by biology—rather than being created by it. This isn’t particularly a criticism. For one thing, when one beholds the bold sensory experiences that Huxley witnessed and contrasts them to the visualization of everyday consciousness, it’s hard not to believe that one is on a plane entirely outside the bonds of biology. While I’ve never done psychedelic drugs, my limited experience with the more-real-than-real world of lucid dreaming makes me sympathetic to this long-held and widely held belief. Additionally, neuroscience was still in it’s infancy during Huxley’s time. [It may still be in its infancy, but a great deal has been learned—particularly since the technology of the 1990’s—that points to biology being the source of many of these experiences that seem amaterial.]

The two essays are each short. “The Doors of Perception” is about 50 pages, and “Heaven & Hell” is about 40. Even with the front matter and appendices, the book comes in at only a little over 120 pages.

There are no graphics in this volume, nor is it annotated—except for in-text references and a few footnotes. With respect to front matter, there is a Forward by J.G. Ballard and an Introduction / bio-sketch of Huxley by David Bradshaw. There are also a series of appendices that report on various topics related to mystical / psychedelic experiences such as the effects of CO2, strobe lights, and starvation, as well as the relationship to lighting, works of art, and mental illness.

If one is interested in alternate states of consciousness, I’d highly recommend this book. Huxley’s ability to capture his experience vividly and his thought-provoking suggestions about the experience make these essays worth the read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

The Devils of LoudunThe Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

In 1634, a parish priest named Urbain Grandier was tortured to exact a confession that he’d engaged in sorcery and made a pact with the devil. There was plenty of reason to believe that Grandier was a less than virtuous fellow (e.g. that he knocked up the teenage daughter of his best friend in Loudun), but no evidence of the crimes that he was actually accused of–and that the Church insisted he cop to despite his steadfast denials. However, there was some potent circumstantial evidence in the form of a case of mass hysteria by members of a convent of Ursuline nuns that was attributed to demonic possession at the time.

Huxley tells this fascinating story in great detail. At some points, perhaps too much detail. The writing style can come across as pretentious, needlessly complicated, and slow-moving at times. (For example, there are frequent quotes and snippets of poetry in French–and a few in Latin—and many of these were not translated to English in the edition that I read. Apparently, the assumption was that the reader would have a basic competency in these languages.) However, when it comes to the climax of the story, the book is as gripping as they come. Having been presented with great insight into Father Grandier, we know him to be a deeply flawed man. He’s like the priests and bishops of a Marquis de Sade novel, lecherous and libertine. Yet, he manages to become a sympathetic character as he shows virtue of sticking to his guns in denial of being in league with Satan long after the truth of his vices has been admitted. In essence, when juxtaposed to his inquisitors, he becomes the lesser of two evils.

I also don’t fault that Huxley delves into analysis, because there is a fascinating question at the heart of the event—one that deserves to be batted around. What made this group of nuns behave in such an un-nun-like fashion? There was writhing, foul language, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. Today, it’s impossible for a rational skeptic to write these events off as demonic possession. However, while the Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, clearly had an axe to grind against Grandier (for issues regarding organizational leadership and not so much for womanizing the townies), that also seems unsatisfactory as a cause for these sisters to behave as they did. There have been a number of cases of pretended possession, but generally these were individuals—e.g. Martha Broissier. There seems to be some fascinating psychology at work in this case.

The book is arranged in 11 longish chapters, largely following a chronological progression of events. The edition that I have has some interesting appendices as well as a bibliography. There isn’t much in the way of graphics, but as the book reads like a novel one doesn’t expect there to be.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in history or psychology. It’s fascinating in both domains. While I thought the book could have been a little clearer and more concise, it’s still quite readable and the heart of the story is highly engaging. I was also reading the book as a general interest reader. A scholarly reader might appreciate Huxley’s thoroughness more.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Huxley’s utopianish dystopia, an individual’s fate is determined through a combination of genetic engineering, operant conditioning, and hypnopedia (sleep-teaching.) It’s a different dystopian vision than that of Orwell or Atwood; individuals are drugged and encouraged in unlimited promiscuity in order to pacify them and keep them believing that they are happy (without allowing exposure to alternatives by which they might contrast their lives.) Gone are the arts and religion as we know it, and science exists only as a shadow of its former self.

The book follows the story of a “Savage”, named John, brought from an Indian reservation on which this “Brave new world” is unknown. He cannot understand the “civilized” world, and to its occupants he is an interesting anomaly to be gawked at at cocktail parties.

The book ends on an upbeat note as the reader learns of a third world, a world beyond the Brave New World or the brutally impoverished aboriginal lands.

Everyone should read this book to learn that one can be killed with “kindness” as well as with sternness.

View all my reviews