Who is actually interested in the obscure Christian mystical practices and depressing court intrigues of 17th century France? I certainly wasn't, until I picked up this book. I've read quite a few of Huxley's books but I really thought this was the best, rather surprisingly, as "Brave New World" and others I found to be incredibly good.
'Grey Eminence' follows the life of the French Father Joseph, a Capuchin monk and mystic until circumstance (and perhaps his own vicarious lust for power) drew him into the power politics of the 30 Years' War in Europe. Working essentially as the lackey for the powerful and heartless Cardinal Richelieu (or perhaps as his puppetmaster, as this book shows), Father Joseph remained a monk to the last, eating one meal a day and basically walking all over Europe (and barefoot!) to accomplish his intrigues and lay seige to various strongholds of heathenism (as Pere Joseph perceived it, at least). If only all history could be written so well, I'd be reading a lot more of it.
However, above and beyond the history (very well done) and biography (also excellent), the themes Huxley brings up throughout the book fascinating and tie in very well with much of his life's work. A central idea is the Christian mystic practice of "active annihilation," that is, destroying one's own will utterly so that one acts merely as an instrument or conduit for God's (or ultimate reality's, as Huxley prefers to look at it) will or intention. This idea is examined magnificently - its ultimate benefits if successful (Huxley considers such an attainment the highest form of spiritual realization, and makes a good case for this assertion) and its horrible, horrible consequences if unsuccessful (with the life of Father Joseph as a case study in this kind of failure). Pere Joseph's mistake was to assume that France, too, was but an instrument of God's will - and therefore anything he could do to increase and maintain French hegemony, and by implication to ruin and destroy its competitors, was God's will. Big mistake, as Huxley so sympathetically points out. Father Joseph's and Richelieu's policies greatly exacerbated the 30 Years' War and led directly (and indirectly) to untold suffering not only of France's enemies, but its own people. Rape, pillage, destruction, cannabalism, and so on...
If I'm not mistaken this book was written during WWII (published, it says, in 1944) and it can also be seen not only as a parallel of that contemporary madness, but as Huxley's Apology for his own reluctance to engage in politics and the war. Huxley, we can assume, is Father Joseph the younger, a well-intentioned mystic seeking to align himself with the true will or purpose of this universe. Humbly admitting that he has not nearly arrived at that point, Huxley defends the idea, in this long parable, that one who believes unflinchingly that right is on their side and acts with this resolve (not to mention deafness to criticism) will only sow hatred and misery in the world --- unless (a big if), they truly have achieved active annihilation.
The prose shines here, the people come alive, and the insights and arguments (as above) are intriguing reading. It's great to see this appears to be still in print. Highly recommended. In fact this book is so good I wanted to steal it from the library of the monastery I borrowed it from and just let them keep my 'lost book deposit' - as I feel though that I haven't quite completely 'actively annihilated' my own will, it's probably best to stick to conventional morality for now and just return it!