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This World and That

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The Condensed Version

Huxley offers two definitions of The Perennial Philosophy.  The first covers the metaphysical, psychological, and ethical ramifications; the second explores the relationship between humans and the "Divine ground."

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Aldous Huxley and the Perennial Philosophy, Part 1
(Two Definitions of the Perennial Philosophy)

One of the central tenets of all religions  is that there is something other than what we see, and that the religious seeker is trying to participate in That.

Huxley's First Definition of The Perennial Philosophy

This is the first tenet of the Perennial Philosophy, an idea that was stated most eloquently by Aldous Huxley. In the Introduction to the book named after the philosophy, Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy "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 being" (vii).

Note that Huxley uses "divine Reality" in the first two statements, and "the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being" in the third; these are homologous descriptions. Taking "the divine Reality" as the standard expression, we can approach it, following Huxley, from three angles:

  • Metaphysically, the Perennial Philosophy teaches that the divine Reality is the substance (or in some systems the creator) of all that we see;

  • Psychologically, the Perennial Philosophy tells us that the divine Reality is the model and "home" of the individual soul; and

  • Ethically, the Perennial Philosophy says that the divine Reality sets a standard for human behavior through knowing--and presumably therefore accessing--that divine Reality.

So although the divine Reality is both "immanent and transcendent," both inside the world and outside of it, this Reality has real implications for the way we understand the world, the way we understand ourselves, and the way we think and behave in this very life. This is reminiscent of a note found on Charles Lindbergh's nightstand the morning after his death: "I know there is infinity beyond ourselves. I wonder if there is infinity within." The Perennial Philosophy asserts that there is, and that it is intimately connected with the "infinity beyond."

Huxley's Second Definition of The Perennial Philosophy

Huxley clarifies this relationship elsewhere, in his Introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita (Prabhavananda and Isherwood):

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.

Each of Huxley's four points postulates a mode of connection between the divine Reality and the individual Soul. First, he asserts that apart from the divine Reality nothing at all would exist--including individual Souls. Second, he claims that individual Souls can know the divine Reality directly, and be united with it. Third, he says that it is possible for each person to identify her- or himself with the eternal Self rather than the phenomenal ego, and thus be identified with the divine Reality. Fourth and finally, he says that the entire purpose of human life on earth is to achieve this union.

First: The Phenomenal World Manifests a Divine Ground

The first statement, that everything exists only in that it is the "manifestation" of the divine Reality, is clearly a reflection of the metaphysical statement above. In talking about That and This, the higher and lower orders of reality, Huxley points out that virtually all religions hold that That order is responsible for the existence of This. In the monotheistic systems, God--the personification of That--creates This. Hinduism is more in tune with Huxley's position that That manifests itself as this. Buddhism (always a special case) is less clear on this position, but if we accept Mahayana concepts of emptiness and Buddha nature as normative, then it is an easier step to understanding that This that we see is generated by That.

"The heavens declare the glory of God," the Psalmist writes at 19:1, "and the firmament sheweth his handywork." Yet he stops short of saying that the heavens (or the earth) actually are God. In the Western tradition, Huxley's assertions are most tenable when we are discussing mysticism. A Sufi Master, a Kabbalist, or St. John of the Cross, might be more comfortable with saying that what we see is a reflection of the divine nature, or of God himself. The Gnostic Christ, too, reflects this thinking: In the Gospel of Thomas he says: "I am the light that is above them all. I am the all; the all came forth from me, and the all attained to me. Cleave a (piece of) wood; I am there. Raise up a stone, and you will find me there." The myths of ancient peoples are even more explicit, being filled with stories of the dismemberment of gods and other primordial beings in order that the stuff of their bodies--which is clearly part of That--can become the basic stuff of This.

Even the more philosophical systems derive This from That. Plato's Theory of Forms postulates that everything we see in This sensible world has a perfect original in a realm of unseen Reality. Christian Neo-Platonism, too, builds on the idea of Christ as Logos, establishing an ordering principle out of which everything develops. Its near-cousin, Gnosticism, sees the material devolving out of the spiritual. And so it goes. We even see this on a biological level, at least in the human realm: virtually everything starts with an Idea. Inventions, industries, even families generally begin with a vision or a concept which is brought into physical "being." Dare we say that even instinct in animals is an unseen driving force that seeks to ensure the survival of species? And what about Life itself?

Huxley's first point, then, that what we see comes from what we don't, seems easy to grasp. True, the things in This world can be said to be simply the physical consequences of physical actions. But what lay behind those actions? All of history, all of literature, all of science--indeed, every human and, as mentioned, even animal enterprise--can ultimately be traced back to forces and motivations that cannot be accounted for. Not only "In the beginning," but at every moment, That world impinges on This, and This depends on That.

Second: Humans Can Know the Divine Ground by Direct Intuition

The second assertion, that we can know the divine Reality directly, and thus be united to it, brings us more roundly into the realm of religion.

Or does it? When a grouse hen feigns a broken wing to distract a predator away from her nest of young, she is following "mere instinct." And yet, at that very moment, she is truer to her species--and her role as a parent--than most human beings will ever be. By obeying her "hard-wiring," is she not in a way more in tune with the "divine Reality" than a Hamlet who can do nothing but deliberate between courses of action, never landing on one or the other? Perhaps that is why those who engage in "extreme" sports, like helicopter skiing, say that when they are in the midst of such activities, making split-second decisions, they have "never felt more alive."

In any case, those of us whose cowardice--or common sense--keeps us from jumping out of helicopters onto mountains find that there are other ways to "feel alive." One tried-and-true technique is as simple as...breathing. In the Eastern philosophies especially, the practice of mindful breathing or breath control is a doorway to knowing That better. But the importance of the breath in meditative technique is not limited to the East. The ancient "Jesus Prayer" of the Eastern Christian Church used the formula "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Each of the four parts of the prayer was to be recited on an in- or out-breath. Thus the Prayer was tied to breathing techniques, which Metropolitan Anthony Bloom connects to Sufi practice. What's more, as early as the sixth century, Diadochos "taught that repetition of the prayer leads to inner stillness" (Rossi). 

Later, in the Western church, Ignatius of Loyola wrote in his Spiritual Exercises

The Third Method of Prayer is that with each breath in or out, one has to pray mentally, saying one word of the Our Father, or of another prayer which is being recited: so that only one word be said between one breath and another, and while the time from one breath to another lasts, let attention be given chiefly to the meaning of such word, or to the person to whom he recites it, or to his own baseness, or to the difference from such great height to his own so great lowness.

This point need not belabored. It will suffice to note the similarity between such words as "spirit" and "respire," or that God breathed into Adam at the creation, to see that the connection between life and breathing pointed from This to That in even the earliest Western traditions.

As far as ways of knowing are concerned, Huxley again favors the mystic's route of "direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning." This is a consistent theme in religious literature, this transcending of discrimination and apprehension of unity. Yet the ways of doing this vary from meditation to marathons, from samadhi to sweat lodges. Sitting in stillness works for some, but for others so do sacraments. In India, for example, the puja of the bhakti practitioner is every bit as productive as the exercises of the yogin. Why not, then, the Holy Eucharist or personal prayer? Further, the path of jnana is an accepted way of overcoming ignorance, which the East considers to be one of the (if not the) major impediments to spiritual achievement. Huxley's prejudice against attainment through knowing and his embracing of the "mystic" way is probably more a reaction against his Western upbringing than a reasoned criticism of a religious path.

Third: One can Identify with the Divine Ground

This idea brings us to Huxley's third proposition, that one simply need adjust one's point of view from "phenomenal ego" to "eternal Self" to "identify [one]self with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground." This again emphasizes the mystic's path, and is especially consonant with Hinduism. (Let us not forget that this statement of the Perennial Philosophy is in the introduction to a translation of the Bhagavad-Gita.) Just as Western orthodoxy cannot accept the identity of knower with Known proposed in the second statement, so it sees humankind's spiritual problem as more than a matter of point of view. Humans are not just ignorant in the Christian tradition, they are sinful. This is a question not of understanding, but of morality.

But underlying Huxley's words is the concept of separation, of humans from the divine Reality, of humans from the world we see, and of the world we see from the divine Reality. On this all religions agree. Whether through wrong actions or wrong perceptions, humans live in a (perceived or real) state of isolation. Hence the generally accepted etymology of "re-ligion" as being to "re-connect" to that which is important. In Judaism, this is accomplished through membership in the community; in Christianity, through faith and/or good works; in Islam, through submission to the will of Allah. In the words of Bob Dylan, "You gotta serve somebody," and the Western traditions generally believe that salvation depends on a commitment to serving God rather than one's own self.

Here, of course, the traditions of East and West glide close. One chooses the Large over the Small--That over This. That it is an act of will, and a relationship with a Person, are details. Strip these away, and Western theism becomes more compatible with the Eastern (and Western mystical) ideals of participation in the divine Reality.

Fourth: The Purpose of Life is to Come to
Unitive Knowledge of the Divine Ground

Finally, then, Huxley's fourth point is that the "unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground" is our sole purpose for being here. Given Dylan's Dictum, this may mean that every quest of humankind is a quest for the divine Reality--even if that quest is misdirected, it serves somebody. Implied in Huxley's statement is the idea that, to the extent one approaches the divine Reality, one is fulfilled; to the extent that one misses the mark, one is frustrated and unhappy. Whether it is "knowing God" or "being one with the universe," the attainment of re-ligion described above leads to personal happiness.


Contents (C) 2006 James Baquet

Read More

Online:

Bloom, Metropolitan Anthony. "The Jesus Prayer."

Dylan, Bob. "You Gotta Serve Somebody." Slow Train Coming. Sony, 1979.

Gospel of Thomas, Saying 77 (B. Blatz, trans.).

Ignatius of Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises.

Rossi, Albert S. "Saying the Jesus Prayer." (for access in China)

Offline:

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York : Harper & Row, 1970.

Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood (tr.) The Song of God: Bhagavad-gita. New York: New American Library, 1951.

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