A Perennial Philosophy

water lily buds

I saw a reference this past week to the “perennial philosophy” and though I studied some philosophy in college and sometimes still read in that section of the library shelves I have to admit I couldn’t define what that meant.

This version of philosophical thought has been around since the Renaissance and had a resurgence in the 20th century.  The perennial philosophy is one way to view the practice of many religious faiths.

Aldous Huxley wrote back in 1945 that a perennial philosophy “recognises a divine reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being”.

What first appealed to me when I did study this philosophy was the idea of identifying common mystical experiences across cultures and traditions.

From Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita:
“More than twenty-five centuries have passed since that which has been called the Perennial Philosophy was first committed to writing; and in the course of those centuries, it has found expression, now partial, now complete, now in this form, now in that, again and again. In Vedanta and Hebrew prophecy, in the Tao Teh King and the Platonic dialogues, in the Gospel according to St. John and Mahayana theology, in Plotinus and the Areopagite, among the Persian Sufis and the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — the Perennial Philosophy has spoken almost all the languages of Asia and Europe and has made use of the terminology and traditions of every one of the higher religions.”

I also had read some William James who wrote that an essential mark of the mystical experience is that it is ineffable or indescribable. Of course, that hasn’t stopped “mystics” from talking about, publishing and capitalizing on their experiences. It hasn’t stopped non-mystics from wanting to read about mystical experiences in the hope of having their own at some point.

In the Perennial Philosophy, all of the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions share one universal truth. It’s Einstein’s dream of a unified field theory but or religion. If you accept this, you would agree that all of these traditions are trying to make sense of the same thing.

What is that thing? Huxley thought it was “divine reality.” He thought that although all the traditions vary in their teaching, they all are a search for meaning in life. That’s not THE meaning of life. It is finding meaning in our life.

Clearly, the ethics, beliefs, principles and teachings of the world religions are very different. It’s easy to say they share one divine ultimate goal but it is more difficult to see everything that leads to that divine reality.

Would the Perennial Philosophy mean the creation of yet another religion? It’s not a religion. It’s a philosophy.

Can an atheist follow the philosophy? Yes. How does someone follow it? What is the path?

Maybe Huxley’s own book, The Perennial Philosophy, is a place to begin. He doesn’t abandon religion. In fact, he uses Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Islam and explains how they are united.

There’s no building to go to for meetings. There’s no leader. There really isn’t a book to follow. The Perennial Philosophy might seem lonely or you might like following a path on your own. What is definitely perennial is our desire to find the meaning.


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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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