The Perennial Philosophy


Aldous Huxley as a young man.

In 1945, Aldous Huxley published his seminal book, The Perennial Philosophy. He pointed out that all religions, all over the world and throughout history, the smallest as well as the major ones of today, share three common beliefs, and that suggests there is a basic truth to them. The three beliefs are: (1) A more perfect world exists in sync with our own; that (2) part of that world exists within us all; and (3) it is our natural goal to become one with that world.

Born in 1894 in England, graduating from Oxford with a first-class honors degree in English literature, Huxley had earlier become famous from his novel, Brave New World, written in 1932. He was tall, 6’5″, and almost blind. He died in 1963 in Los Angeles. (I imagine him as someone like an English Bill Buckley, but I have no basis for thinking that, and I could be totally wrong.)

The book, The Perennial Philosophy, is essentially an anthology of short passages taken from traditional Eastern texts and the writings of Western mystics, organized by subject and topic, with short connecting commentaries. Where I once was accused of not being Christian, I now find those same beliefs expressed by certified Christians (priests, monks, and bishops), so I must still be “within the fold.” (I wonder about you, though.)

The term “Perennial Philosophy” was originally coined by the philosopher Leibniz for a religious philosophy that recognizes (1) a single divine Reality underlying the world, and (2) within the soul something similar, perhaps even identical, with this Reality. The final goal of this ethic (3) is knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all Being. (Huxley says the same, but in different words.)

The one Reality of the Perennial Philosophy cannot be apprehended directly, but only by fulfilling certain conditions, such as becoming pure in heart. Why this should be remains unanswered, but is still accepted. Those who experience this Reality first-hand are few, and they are given titles such as shaman, saint, or prophet. Most of us only know Reality second-hand from them.

Huxley quotes often from Meister Eckhart, a 13th Century German mystic theologian of the Dominican Order who said, as one example of his clear style:

The knower and known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge.

He believed in a transcendent God, rather than a personal God, common today. The difference is described in a previous posting, Two Gods. Often, the difference is misinterpreted as a Christian belief versus an Eastern belief, but any religion can have both, and often do. Early Roman Catholic clergy warned parishioners against overly personalizing God.

Some see the Old Testament as the story of God moving from a very personal God, a God who visits with Adam in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, to a transcendent God inaccessible to humans. The God of Adam is described as very different from the God of Moses. On Mt. Sinai the law was now handed down from on high, in written form, rather than directly experienced as in the pagan religions. The Trinity was a later concept meant to resolve the problem, but it, too, was transcendent.

Huxley documents the Perennial Philosophy with many quotes from early Roman Catholic clergy, an amazing feat in the days before Google.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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