The Perennial Philosophy

If it was not already obvious that Aldous Huxley had taken a spiritual turn, it became thumpingly so with the publication of his 'anthology' - The Perennial Philosophy in 1945. Here is an account of what Huxley saw as the spiritual core of religion - an unitive experience with the ground of Reality that was transformative, where one's selfness was dissolved and 'you' became 'at one' with all that is, and revealed the heart of compassion. The true core of any religion is it mystics or realised saints and though all are called, few choose the arduous path of self-surrender. However, their testimonies of the path are, in Huxley's view, strikingly similar - each one a point of entry into the being that was fully truthful.

It might be argued that the study of mysticism has 'moved on' - and in the academic context this is certainly true. Up popped Stephen Katz to argue that all experience is conditioned by language (and culture) and, therefore, the cross comparison of the kind Huxley attempted was 'naive'. Robert Forman wanted to refute Katz by arguing for 'pure consciousness events' that were phenomenologically stable and transcended linguistic or cultural determination. Denys Turner waded in to tell us that the whole category of 'experience' was suspect. Christian medieval mystics (Turner's specialism) would not have recognised the notion of a religious experience, as an exceptional event (after the pattern of William James) for they were describing the possibility or ground of any kind of experience, all experience properly considered was of the mystical. It was not a separate category. And so and so forth...

All of which rather serves to remind me of Huxley's continuous refrain to remind us that knowledge follows being that what you see is a reflection of who you are. The pickpocket when confronted with a saint sees only his pockets.

In truth, I realized on re-reading Huxley not only how sophisticated he was but how humble (which must be a rare combination)! He marshals his quotations, and accompanying commentary, with masterly ability and indeed anticipates a number of the subsequent academic debates. For example, he clearly distinguishes between levels of experience imagining that you can distinguish between an intuition of the ground of reality (or God) that is 'pure consciousness' and an experience that is a complex emergence of psychological and cultural factors. In fact, he argues that such a distinction (pace Katz) is intrinsic to the traditions he is exploring.

But most of all he listens carefully to what is being said by his assembled mystics and allows them to speak together for a radical vision of the possibility of what it means to be human (and what a society might look like that upholds that possibility). Equally he allows that assembled view to critique religion's own failure to build that society and to collude with those parts of ourselves that would rather cling to isolating selfness than surrender to embracing truthfulness.

There are certain aspects of the book that are dated and the tone of (as one person described it) a Victorian pamphleteer does occasionally surface but as an account of what is best in religion and as an account of the most embracing and noble perspective of what it means to be human, it would be difficult to better it.

" The knower and the 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." Eckhart

"When the Ten Thousand things are viewed in their oneness, we return to the Origin and remain where we have always been." Sen T'sen


  1. Nice review - a classic of perennialism - nice monistic quotes...


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