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The Terror of Virtue: Aldous Huxley’s "The Devils of Loudun"

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Dr. Dana Tanner-Kennedy.

Aldous Huxley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In searching for historical analogues to capture the anxieties of the post-war West, writers Aldous Huxley and Arthur Miller turned to the witch trials of the 17th Century. In Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, naming friends and neighbours as the handmaids of Satan in order to purge the society of the Devil’s corrupting presence became a potent metaphor for the terrors of McCarthyism. Writing at a time when half the world was firmly in the grips of a totalitarian political movement, and having just emerged from the successful battle against Nazism, Huxley found in Loudun a similar obsession with doctrinal purity and the willingness of followers to give over their critical faculties to a group consciousness in the name of saving the world. As Huxley wrote in his 1952 treatment of the subject, the non-fiction novel The Devils of Loudun:

Partisan loyalty is socially disastrous; but for individuals it can be richly rewarding—more rewarding, in many ways, than even concupiscence or avarice. Whoremongers and money-grubbers find it hard to feel very proud of their activities. But partisanship is a complex passion which permits those who indulge in it to make the best of both worlds. Because they do these things for the sake of a group which is, by definition, good and even sacred, they can admire themselves and loathe their neighbors, they can seek power and money, can enjoy the pleasures of aggression and cruelty, not merely without feeling guilty, but with a positive glow of conscious virtue.

Considered one of Huxley’s best pieces of writing, The Devils of Loudun closely follows the trial records but also offers long passages in which Huxley imagines the interior lives and motivations of the long-dead figures who populate this strange episode. But as the excerpt above makes clear, the events at Loudun gave Huxley a way to frame the terrifying history unfolding in his own moment, and so many decades later it offers us warnings of what may unfold in our own.

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