November 22, 1963 is forever remembered for the shocking events on Dealey Plaza in Dallas: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
But on that same day 50 years ago, two other 20th century titans quietly passed in their respective homes: Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis in Oxford, England, and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, in California.
They are three of the towering figures of the 20th century, each with a very different worldview. Views that in many ways still dominate our culture today.
Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft wrote about the three men in his book, Between Heaven And Hell. In the book, he imagines them meeting in purgatory, and engaging in a philosophical dialogue.
"Lewis is a traditional Orthodox Christian; Huxley was a kind of mystical Universalist Buddhist, and I interpret Kennedy as a kind of pragmatic secular humanist," Kreeft said.
Kennedy was a new kind of leader for a new era. The youngest man ever elected to the presidency, he’s been called the first TV president. He set man on a course for the moon. He was Time's "Man of the Year" for 1961.
It was his clear-eyed pragmatism that helped make Kennedy so impactful in his own time, Kreeft said.
"Kennedy’s truth was a kind of political, practical truth, which he was doing when he was assassinated," he said.
Lewis, by contrast, was a torchbearer for the values of an earlier time.
"He was on old-world man, he was a pre-modern man," said Stan Bohall, an episcopal minister in Oxford, Mass., who uses Lewis’ works extensively in his sermons and seminars. "And so he believed in the supernatural. He believed in that which the medieval person typically believed in, so he brought that other world into our world."
Melding of the natural and supernatural is best seen in Lewis’ most enduring work, his seven-book fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, Bohall said.
"He wanted people just to read them as good stories and then that truth would get inside a person and make a difference," he said.
That “truth” is the Christian truth. Something Lewis embraced in his early 30s, after years of staunch atheism. Kennedy, as the first Catholic President, famously established a strict firewall between his religious beliefs and his politics in a speech during his 1960 presidential campaign.
By contrast, Lewis’ beliefs would dominate his work for the better part of four decades. His Christianity is central to his legacy, which Bohall points out is stronger today than it has ever been.
"People buying his works has grown," he said. "It’s far more than it was. It’s growing all the time. So people have some fascination, of course the movies have helped with that, and there are many who say that his ability to tell story and use imagination really speak well to the postmodern mind."
The postmodern mind is something we more closely associate today with Aldous Huxley. If Lewis was a man of the past, and Kennedy a man of the present, Huxley was a man peering far into the future.
His futuristic novel, Brave New World, is viewed even today as prescient — a cautionary tale about where mankind may be heading.
"Everybody reads Brave New World in high school — or at least they used to, and so they figure they need to know all they need to know about Aldous Huxley," said R.S. Deese, a lecturer at Boston University whose book about Huxley comes out next year.
Huxley would also become something of a poster child for the counterculture that emerged in the turbulent years set off by Kennedy’s assassination, Deese pointed out. Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which detailed his experiences on the hallucinogen Mescaline, is where Jim Morrison got the name for his band, the Doors.
"There’s a great deal of controversy about the drug culture that emerged in the 1960s, and some people lay the blame on the excesses on the encouragement that Aldous Huxley seemed to offer for experimentation with psychedelic drugs," he said.
In the last years of his life, Huxley also experimented with LSD – even receiving two intravenous injections of the drug that day, on his death bed. But Deese is quick to point out that Huxley espoused neither tuning in, turning on, or dropping out.
He felt that these drugs should be used very carefully, and by people who were very educated. He was irritated by the thinking of Timothy Leary and his desire to popularize these drugs. He compared Leary to a prankster school kid.
Deese said that the enduring popularity of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception has led to something of a misinterpretation of Huxley and his work.
"This saddens me because his body of work is so much larger than that," he said.
It includes a deep and lasting interest in ecology. Kennedy had noted following the Cuban missile crisis that, “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.” That’s a sentiment Huxley had been espousing for decades.
"It’s something that he wrote about even in novels in the 1920s, in which he argued that endless economic growth would lead to overpopulation and depletion of soil and depletion of fossil fuels, so he was really quite forward looking in that area, and yet ecology is not something that we tend to think of when we think of Aldous Huxley," Deese said.
While their lives and views were different, Kreeft’s book aims to show that it was one important similarity that makes all three men’s lives and work so resonant today: They were all fierce seekers of truth.
"At first, the differences show up very clearly, between Lewis and Kennedy, and then between Lewis and Huxley, but what they find in common is the absoluteness of truth, and the demands of the search for truth, and the difficulty of doing that," Kreeft said. "And in the end, the sun rises, and they all find it rather difficult seeing the light."
November 22, a day to remember the life and legacy of not just John F Kennedy, but also writers C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley.
Find recommended reads for Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis below:
Recommended Huxley reading from RS Deese, lecturer at Boston University and author of the upcoming book, "We Are Amphibians": Julian & Aldous Huxley in the 20th Century
Recommended C.S. Lewis reading from Rev. Stan Bohall, minister at Grace Church in Oxford, MA