Perennial Philosophy

When Huxley wrote his Perennial Philosophy (in 1945), he wanted us to recognise that there is a core transformative experience at the heart of each and every authentic religious tradition and that pursuing this was at the heart of being human: It was a pursuit which the 'exoteric', faith based patterns of any religious life might well obscure as illuminate; and, to which the contemporary discoveries of science might conceivably contribute if they could see past a reductionist materialism.

When the Traditionalist school (Rene Guenon et al) refer to it, they saw it as the esoteric core of any authentic religious tradition but, unlike Huxley, saw the exoteric dimension of any authentic religion as a necessary entry point; and, indeed the corrosion of modernity of those exoteric dimensions was an impediment to seeing into and living out the esoteric core. Thus, unlike Huxley, they remained hostile to virtually all contemporary developments especially those of modern science and psychology.

Reading Arthur Versluis' beautifully crafted essay - 'Perennial Philosophy' today (that was, together with a long bicycle ride, a great way to start the year), I am pleased to discover that my friend is closer to the former than the latter party. This is not to say that a Traditionalist position does not carry a deep and abiding merit - an intellectual structure (and stricture) that helps us sift through much potential error but somehow always remaining too remote from the dynamics of actual spiritual life as if they had already bottled up the spirit and knew its directions! I remember a conversation with the poet, Kathleen Raine, and the painter, Thetis Blacker, where we tried to put our finger on our Traditionalist 'dis-ease' and recognised that akin to exoteric religion, it had an aversion to 'experience' - to any experience of the Spirit that does not conform to their set patterns of the permissible.

Arthur's essay is an accomplished account at helping us see the 'perennial philosophy' or alternatively 'contemplative science', as both embedded in a tradition - in this case Platonism - and a continuously present invitation to discover our deepest meaning, rooted in certain core features of the human (and cosmological) condition.

At core this is recognising that we are made for self-transcendence, a stepping out of our fragmented, confined reality and discovering a renewed self, transparent to the divine, able to navigate life with a renewing compassion. It is recognising that the world seen aright is one where everything that is 'below' speaks, as a symbol, of what is 'above', that the world we inhabit is as open to illumination as our own selves, we live in a sacred cosmos, and we recognise this every time something speaks to us in a way that ennobles and expands us - a walk in nature, a beautiful piece of architecture, a poem that speaks of more. And this is rooted in a tradition that invites us to practice, to come and see, which is a 'science' not an invitation to belief; and, one whose repeated experience of setting people free stretches back over millennia.

The great virtue of the book is not only to set out this way of seeing with great economy and clarity but also to show forth its implications for how we might live into a future of promise. The perennial philosophy does not only carry implications for a self transformation but, as Plato, knew suggests possibilities for the organisation of a state, a way of life and an appreciation of culture. Like Boehme's Key, Versluis' book is an invitation to explore a vast world that begins with the invitation to change yourself.


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