What is the Perennial Philosophy?
The fifth-century saint and scholar Vincent of Lerins defined the term
"catholic" as "that which has been believed everywhere, always, by
all." The word "catholic" has long been co-opted by the formal institution known as the Roman Catholic
Church--that is, Catholic with a large "C." Vincent actually intended this narrower meaning of the word, saying that the teachings of the [in his day]
"universal" church were "truly and properly
But what about the word with a small
"c"? We tend to forget that the word
"catholic" is in fact a common adjective in addition to a proper one:
"He enjoyed all varieties of wine; he was truly catholic in his
If we take this expanded meaning of the
word--the one that is not subject to the monopoly of Rome--then "catholic
religion" takes on a new dimension. The "catholic religion" would be one that would include that which has been believed by
truly all people, truly always, and truly everywhere--from the Neolithic cave painters to the New Agers; from the Inuit of the frozen north to the Polynesians; from the fundamentalist to the mystic. And, as we shall see, I would add
"from the True Believer to the atheist."
This idea of a truly catholic religion is the basic idea of Perennialism. It
involves the universal ideas that underlie the various faith traditions of the world. Joseph Campbell often quoted the words of German anthropologist Adolf Bastian, who noted the distinction between the ethnic or folk ideas (Volkergedanke) that are held by the
world's peoples, and the elementary ideas (Elementargedanke) that underlie these various beliefs and practices. According to Campbell,
Bastian's concept of elementary ideas influenced Jung in his work on the archetypes of the collective unconscious, the common psychological heritage of humankind.
However, Campbell writes:
Nowhere, [Bastian noted,] are the "elementary
ideas" to be found in a pure state, abstracted from the locally conditioned
"ethnic ideas" through which they are substantialized; but rather, like the image of man himself, they are to be known only by way of the rich variety of their extremely interesting, frequently startling, yet always finally recognizable inflections in the panorama of human life.
(The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Chapter 1 Part I)
Of all the world's religions, perhaps those of India come closest to grasping the grandeur of this dichotomy of universal and specific.
"Truth is one," say the Vedas, "though sages call it by many
names"" The great Bengali saint Ramakrishna told story after story about this idea; you can find many of them
here. One of my favorites is this one:
The Parable of the Chameleon
Once a man went into a wood and saw a beautiful creature on a tree. Later he told a friend about it and said,
"Brother, on a certain tree in the wood I saw a red-coloured
creature." The friend answered: "I have seen it too. Why do you call it red? It is
green" A third man said: "Oh, no, no! Why do you call it green? It is
yellow." Then other persons begin to describe the animal variously as violet, blue, or black. Soon they were quarrelling about the colour. At last they went to the tree and found a man sitting under it. In answer to their questions he said:
"I live under this tree and know the creature very well. What each of you has said about it is true. Sometimes it is red, sometimes green, sometimes yellow, sometimes blue, and so forth and so on. Again, sometimes I see that it has no colour
Only he who constantly thinks of God can know His real nature. He alone knows that God reveals Himself in different forms and different ways, that he has attributes and, again, has none. Only the man who lives under the tree knows that the chameleon can assume various colours and that sometimes it remains colourless. Others, not knowing the whole truth, quarrel among themselves and suffer.
(The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 859; told October 22, 1885)
This is not the place for a detailed exploration of Western
religion's insistence on their exclusive right to determine what is
"True"; the monotheist cannot tolerate "other
gods." In another essay, the ironically titled "A View of
God," I examine the idea more thoroughly; but for now I simply want to note the difficulty that many Western religionists (ugly word) have with the idea that God is much more elastic than their traditions will allow.
Perennialism, of course, takes a much broader view.
I have been reading, writing, and thinking about the Perennial Philosophy for years, and I have reduced its ideas to a simple four-step formulation. These are:
- There is something bigger than us
- We either are (West) or seem to be (East) separated from it
- Through various means we can become reunited with it (or realize that we already are)
- Once the separation is overcome, we will lead larger, richer, fuller lives
In Christian terms, the four steps are:
- Faith (or works)
In Buddhist terms:
- Nirvana (the state of the Absolute)
- Illusion or Ignorance
- Practice (devotion or meditation)
These are, of course, roughly put, but for now they must suffice. Later, we will see that the application of these four steps is much, much broader than religious terminology can contain.
These four steps are admittedly a vast simplification of an immense idea. Scholars for centuries have examined this idea, and sages have lived it. I will not attempt to discuss the history of the term
"Perennial Philosophy"; you can explore it by entering the term in Google, or start with the links below.
But I do want to take a quick look at some of the ideas expressed by three modern proponents of the Perennial Philosophy: Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith, and Ken Wilber. (Joseph Campbell also referenced the idea often, but since so much of this site revolves around
"Uncle Joe," I won't discuss his ideas specifically here.)
The modern popularity of the term can probably be attributed to the work of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), who used the three words
"The Perennial Philosophy" as the title of his erudite anthology of religious ideas. (See the Table of Contents
here.) In defining the Perennial Philosophy in this book, Huxley
doesn't lay out the same four steps I described above; rather, he (fittingly) gives a more
the metaphysic that recognizes 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; [and] the ethic that places
man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all
(I discuss this definition, and the following one,
more thoroughly in my article "This World and
That", in the section subtitled "Two Definitions of the Perennial Philosophy.")
Closer to my formulation, but still not identical with it, is the definition he gives in his Introduction to the
Bhagavad-Gita (as translated by Prabhavananda and
At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines.
- First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized
consciousness--the world of things and animals and men and even
gods--is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.
- Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
- Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
- Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.
My four points are implicit in his, but I spell them out differently.
As described here, they
are quite similar, but Huxley's 2 and 3 are reversed in
comparison to mine.
Huxley died (on the same day as JFK) in 1963. While he was still alive, another, younger, scholar was already making his mark on the
"world religions" scene. Huston Smith, now in his late 80s (born 1919), has been both expounding and living the Perennial Philosophy for all of his adult life. (I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Smith speak in 1997, before I went to Japan; someday
I'll post my notes from that afternoon.)
Dr. Smith uses the term "The Primordial
Tradition" to discuss what I have been calling the Perennial Philosophy. He believes that, since
"perennial" means "at all times," it neglects the "everywhere" aspect of this philosophy. You can read more about this in
interview. In a nutshell, Dr. Smith says that the Primordial Tradition is both timeless and spaceless as well,
"because it was not only always, but everywhere"--echoing Vincent of
Lerins. The universe, he says,
"fits into the primordial tradition but does not exhaust it. There are reaches beyond the
physical." He says that science is doing a fine job of learning about
"the physical reaches of reality," but that we are in danger of losing sight of the
"other regions of reality which continue to exist whether we attend to them or
not"--in other words, the "something bigger."
He also noted that in writing his book The
Religions of Man (now published as The World's Religions), which focuses on what is
different in the individual religions, he "became more and more struck by recurrent themes which seemed to surface just time and again like
echoes." Later, in another book entitled Forgotten Truth, he explored these
"common denominators that ran through them all."
Forgotten Truth examines our place in the various levels of the world around us. The modern view, Dr. Smith says, reflects the primordial, in that humans are in the center between a
"world above" and a "world below." Look at this chart, from page 4:
Dr. Smith's footnote points out these parallels:
In the Modern/Scientific/Secular view, humans occupy the
"Meso-world," between the larger (in simple terms, "galactic") world above and the smaller
("microscopic") world below. The Modern hierarchy is based on both size and the strength of the binding forces; these are measures of Quantity.
Both of the Primordial models, on the other hand, look to measures of Quality: in the popular notion, happiness or
"Euphoria" is highest at the Heavenly level, and lowest in Hell; we on Earth are in between. The more sophisticated,
"Reflective" Primordial view sees Being as the source of this hierarchy: the Higher Planes participate in Being in greater amounts; the Lower, in lesser. Again, Euphoria and Being are measures of the Quality, not Quantity, of things, and this emphasis on quality unites the Popular and Reflective worldviews.
This kind of connective thinking, seeing that worldviews have changed but that they are still based on hierarchies of Things Above and Below, will be returned to in the discussion of Neo-Perennialism below. But I offer them here as evidence of Dr.
Smith's deep thinking about how the Elementary idea (in Campbell/Bastian's term) of Hierarchy has manifested itself various times, and even in different forms to the popular and reflective minds of the same era.
Reluctantly leaving Dr. Smith for now, we turn to an even more contemporary thinker, Ken Wilber (born 1949). Best known for his Buddhist and psychological writings, Wilber is also a proponent of Perennial themes. In the heart-rending story of his wife
Treya's battle with cancer, Grace and Grit, Wilber presents a long interview on his
"Seven Points of Timeless Wisdom," conducted by Treya before her death. You can read the full interview
here; I will present only the Seven Points themselves:
- Spirit exists
- Spirit is found within
- Most of us don't realize this Spirit within
- There is a way out
- The way leads to direct experience of Spirit
- This experience marks the end of sin and suffering
- Social action and compassion result
Looking again at my Four Points, we see these parallels:
|1. There is something bigger than us
2. Spirit is found within
|2. We either are (West) or seem to be (East) separated from it
||3. Most of us don't realize this Spirit within
|3. Through various means we can become reunited with it (or realize that we already are)
||4. There is a way
5. The way leads to direct experience of Spirit
|4. Once the separation is overcome, we will lead larger, richer, fuller lives
||6. This experience marks the end of sin and
7. Social action and compassion result
|*Wilber's use of the word “spirit” leaps ahead and assigns a value to the “something bigger” in a way that my Point 1 does not. Needless to say, that this quality “is found within” is a further elaboration of something I am not yet willing to concede. This will become clearer in my discussion of Neo-Perennialism below.
Again, a reading of the full interview will give you a better idea of
So this Perennial Philosophy (despite its immense implications) is a fairly simply idea to grasp. It reflects
humankind's universal impulse toward union with something bigger, which has been exercised in myriad ways throughout human existence. With that, I conclude my comments on the Perennial Philosophy itself.
"Neo" about "Neo-Perennialism"?
I am fully aware of the irony in the term I have chosen to describe my philosophy. If something is
"perennial," existing "always and everywhere," how can it be new?
In fact, I am not asserting that there is anything
"new" in the "Perennial." Rather, I am proposing a new way of seeing the Perennial.
The term "Perennial Philosophy" has long had a strong element of the mystical; that is, it has been pointing to what Huxley calls
"the Divine Ground," or what Dr. Smith calls "the other regions of
reality," or what Wilber calls "Spirit." And I am willing to accept all of this.
My twist is to recognize two closely-related points:
1. The "something bigger" may also include perfectly this-worldly things like
one's family, one's culture, or one's people; and
2. These "perfectly this-worldly things" can in fact be gateways to the ultimate Something Bigger that Huxley, Smith, and Wilber discuss
Let me elaborate.
One of the most prevalent of modern problems is known to all, but called by many names: anomie, or alienation, or isolation, for example. In more common words, loneliness. Or it is sometimes described as
"being lost." I think you know what I mean.
People with strong, positive family relationships seldom experience it. Those who live in vibrant community are nearly immune.
The solution can be as simple as finding a friend. It is a rare individual who, with a strong social network, still has the vague sensation that
These relationships, then, fulfill the role of
I could say much more, about gang membership, or about finding your
"one and only." But I think you get the picture: People who "belong" seldom feel
That's a key element of the first innovation of Neo-Perennialism, that
any belonging can lead to fulfillment.
Another part of this first point involves other non-religious paradigms. Look at this:
- Truth is bigger than us
- We know only partial truth
- Through the Scientific Method, we can attain greater insights
into the Truth
- When we do, we live larger, richer, fuller lives
So science falls within the model. Or this:
- Mental health is bigger than us
- We sometimes lack such wholeness
- Through therapy, we can attain it
- When we do, we live larger, richer, fuller lives
So the Perennial Philosophy becomes a kind of meta-theory for attaining a better life. There is nothing specifically
"religious" in this, which is why I said above that what "has been believed everywhere, always, by
all" would include everyone "from the True Believer to the
Even atheists love their kids.
Famed anti-tradition flag waver Richard Dawkins loves his daughter Juliet, enough to write her
explaining his views on how to "connect" through evidence rather than tradition.
He knows that such connection is important, and while he may
attribute this to the "selfishness of his genes" in
protecting his progeny, his behavior betrays such a cold,
All Connection is
The second point is more slippery than the first. It asserts that many of these supposedly
"non-religious" or "non-spiritual" approaches are in fact very spiritual indeed.
Let's start with another story from Sri Ramakrishna, as told by Joseph Campbell:
A troubled woman came to the Indian saint Ramakrishna, saying,
"Oh, Master, I do not find that I love God." He asked, "Is there nothing, then, that you love?"
To this she answered, "My little nephew." He replied, "There is your love and service to God, in your love and service to that
This homely intimate relationship is a conduit for a heavenly ultimate relationship. By loving the one
she's with, this woman is loving the One. Or, as Thomas
Blake's (corny) poem "The Searcher" has it: "I looked for my soul but my soul I could not see, I looked for my God but my God eluded me. I looked for a friend and then I found all
By extension, then, the scientist is doing
God's work, as is the psychologist. I wonder what Dawkins would say if I were to tell him that, through his fervent insistence on
"science only," he is as much a participant in my "spiritual
theory" as any swami or monk?
I sometimes think the Church has always known all about this spiritual side of secular experiences. Why else the scorched-earth campaign against sex? Could it be that the Fathers knew that at the moments of greatest intimacy we could find fulfillment outside of the
Church's domain? Why the denigration of nature? Did they know that there is a sublime quality in a sunset that is seldom seen in a sermon?
I like to think that in making these "secular" connections, we are moving closer and closer still to the Ultimate Connection.
A basic tenet of Neo-Perennialism, then, is this:
any impulse, attitude, or action that leads us into greater connectedness is good; any such thing that leads to separation is bad.
Of course there are massive exceptions. Unifying with a Neo-Nazi group or an urban gang
isn't so good; but isn't it clear that these groups are all about separation? Unity with illness is bad, and separation from it is good. But since illness is itself a separation, we are again faced with the
problem of "unifying with that which separates." Nationalism,
too, while seeming to unify one with one's country, also separates one from others.
So Neo-Perennialism is an idea that speaks more of humans than of
"God." It is an examination of a basic human impulse, the impulse toward union. One could argue that the
"highest" expression of this impulse is the desire for union with
"the Holy"; but Neo-Perennialism insists that there is holiness in the love of a parent for a child, or of a woman for a man, or of a man for his people or country.
Let me end with an illustration from literature, the well-known distinction between comedy and tragedy.
While today "comedy" has come to be associated with humor, the earlier use of the word signaled the presence of a
"happy ending," a positive resolution to the conflict of the plot. This is union. The typical comedy would end in a wedding.
Tragedy, on the other hand, ends unhappily. The typical tragedy ends in death and a funeral.
This sums up perfectly the central point of Neo-Perennialism:
Separation is a tragedy; Union is a comedy (in the sense of a happy outcome).
(C) 2006 James Baquet