The perennial philosophy (philosophia perennis), also referred to as perennialism and perennial wisdom, is a perspective in philosophy and spirituality that views all of the world's religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown.
Perennialism has its roots in the Renaissance interest in neo-Platonism and its idea of the One, from which all existence emanates. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) sought to integrate Hermeticism with Greek and Jewish-Christian thought, discerning a prisca theologia which could be found in all ages. +more Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) suggested that truth could be found in many, rather than just two, traditions. He proposed a harmony between the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and saw aspects of the prisca theologia in Averroes (Ibn Rushd), the Quran, the Kabbalah and other sources. Agostino Steuco (1497-1548) coined the term philosophia perennis.
A more popular interpretation argues for universalism, the idea that all religions, underneath seeming differences, point to the same Truth. In the early 19th century the Transcendentalists propagated the idea of a metaphysical Truth and universalism, which inspired the Unitarians, who proselytized among Indian elites. +more Towards the end of the 19th century, the Theosophical Society further popularized universalism, not only in the western world, but also in western colonies. In the 20th century, universalism was further popularized through the Advaita Vedanta and Sufism inspired Traditionalist School, which argued for a metaphysical, single origin of the orthodox religions, and by Aldous Huxley and his book The Perennial Philosophy, which was inspired by neo-Vedanta.
The idea of a perennial philosophy originated with a number of Renaissance theologians who took inspiration from neo-Platonism and from the theory of Forms. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) argued that there is an underlying unity to the world, the soul or love, which has a counterpart in the realm of ideas. +more According to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), a student of Ficino, truth could be found in many, rather than just two, traditions. According to Agostino Steuco (1497-1548) there is "one principle of all things, of which there has always been one and the same knowledge among all peoples. ".
Aldous Huxley and mystical universalism
One such universalist was Aldous Huxley, who propagated a universalist interpretation of the world religions, inspired by Vivekananda's neo-Vedanta and his own use of psychedelic drugs. According to Huxley, who popularized the idea of a perennial philosophy with a larger audience, [wiki_quote=40149798]}}
In Huxley's 1944 essay in Vedanta and the West, he describes "The Minimum Working Hypothesis", the basic outline of the perennial philosophy found in all the mystic branches of the religions of the world:
The perennial philosophy originates from a blending of neo-Platonism and Christianity. Neo-Platonism itself has diverse origins in the syncretic culture of the Hellenistic period, and was an influential philosophy throughout the Middle Ages.
Hellenistic period: religious syncretism
During the Hellenistic period, Alexander the Great's campaigns brought about exchange of cultural ideas on its path throughout most of the known world of his era. The Greek Eleusinian Mysteries and Dionysian Mysteries mixed with such influences as the Cult of Isis, Mithraism and Hinduism, along with some Persian influences. +more Such cross-cultural exchange was not new to the Greeks; the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek god Dionysus had been equated as Osiris-Dionysus by the historian Herodotus as early as the 5th century BC (see Interpretatio graeca).
Roman world: Philo of Alexandria
Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE - c. +more50 CE) attempted to reconcile Greek Rationalism with the Torah, which helped pave the way for Christianity with neoplatonism, and the adoption of the Old Testament with Christianity, as opposed to Gnostic roots of Christianity. Philo translated Judaism into terms of Stoic, Platonic and neopythagorean elements, and held that God is "supra rational" and can be reached only through "ecstasy. " He also held that the oracles of God supply the material of moral and religious knowledge.
Neoplatonism arose in the 3rd century CE and persisted until shortly after the closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens in AD 529 by Justinian I. Neoplatonists were heavily influenced by Plato, but also by the Platonic tradition that thrived during the six centuries which separated the first of the neoplatonists from Plato. +more The work of neoplatonic philosophy involved describing the derivation of the whole of reality from a single principle, "the One. " It was founded by Plotinus, and has been very influential throughout history. In the Middle Ages, neoplatonic ideas were integrated into the philosophical and theological works of many of the most important medieval Islamic, Christian, and Jewish thinkers.
Ficino and Pico della Mirandola
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) believed that Hermes Trismegistos, the supposed author of the Corpus Hermeticum, was a contemporary of Moses and the teacher of Pythagoras, and the source of both Greek and Jewish-Christian thought. He argued that there is an underlying unity to the world, the soul or love, which has a counterpart in the realm of ideas. +more Platonic Philosophy and Christian theology both embody this truth. Ficino was influenced by a variety of philosophers including Aristotelian Scholasticism and various pseudonymous and mystical writings. Ficino saw his thought as part of a long development of philosophical truth, of ancient pre-Platonic philosophers (including Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus and Pythagoras) who reached their peak in Plato. The Prisca theologia, or venerable and ancient theology, which embodied the truth and could be found in all ages, was a vitally important idea for Ficino.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), a student of Ficino, went further than his teacher by suggesting that truth could be found in many, rather than just two, traditions. This proposed a harmony between the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and saw aspects of the Prisca theologia in Averroes, the Koran and the Kabbalah among other sources. +more After the deaths of Pico and Ficino this line of thought expanded, and included Symphorien Champier, and Francesco Giorgio.
Transcendentalism and Unitarian Universalism
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a pioneer of the idea of spirituality as a distinct field. He was one of the major figures in Transcendentalism, which was rooted in English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume. +more The Transcendentalists emphasised an intuitive, experiential approach of religion. Following Schleiermacher, an individual's intuition of truth was taken as the criterion for truth. The Transcendentalists were largely inspired by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), whose Critical and Miscellaneous Essays popularised German Romanticism in English and whose Sartor Resartus (1833-34) was a pioneer work of Western perennialism. They also read and were influenced by Hindu texts, the first translations of which appeared in the late 18th and early 19th century. They also endorsed universalist and Unitarian ideas, leading in the 20th Century to Unitarian Universalism. Universalism holds the idea that there must be truth in other religions as well, since a loving God would redeem all living beings, not just Christians.
By the end of the 19th century, the idea of a perennial philosophy was popularized by leaders of the Theosophical Society such as +more_Blavatsky'>H. P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant, under the name of "Wisdom-Religion" or "Ancient Wisdom". The Theosophical Society took an active interest in Asian religions, subsequently not only bringing those religions under the attention of a western audience but also influencing Hinduism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Japan.
Many perennialist thinkers (including Armstrong, Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell) are influenced by Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy and Hindu mystics Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, who themselves have taken over western notions of universalism. They regarded Hinduism to be a token of this perennial philosophy. +more This notion has influenced thinkers who have proposed versions of the perennial philosophy in the 20th century.
The unity of all religions was a central impulse among Hindu reformers in the 19th century, who in turn influenced many 20th-century perennial philosophy-type thinkers. Key figures in this reforming movement included two Bengali Brahmins. +more Ram Mohan Roy, a philosopher and the founder of the modernising Brahmo Samaj religious organisation, reasoned that the divine was beyond description and thus that no religion could claim a monopoly in their understanding of it.
The mystic Ramakrishna's spiritual ecstasies included experiencing the sameness of Christ, Mohammed and his own Hindu deity. Ramakrishna's most famous disciple, Swami Vivekananda, travelled to the United States in the 1890s where he formed the Vedanta Society.
Roy, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were all influenced by the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, which they saw as the exemplification of a Universalist Hindu religiosity.
The Traditionalist School is a group of 20th and 21st century thinkers concerned with what they consider to be the demise of traditional forms of knowledge, both aesthetic and spiritual, within Western society. The early proponents of this school are René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon. +more Other important thinkers in this tradition include Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jean-Louis Michon, Marco Pallis, Huston Smith, Jean Borella, Elémire Zolla and Julius Evola. According to the Traditionalist School, orthodox religions are based on a singular metaphysical origin. According to the Traditionalist School, the "philosophia perennis" designates a worldview that is opposed to the scientism of modern secular societies and which promotes the rediscovery of the wisdom traditions of the pre-secular developed world. This view is exemplified by Rene Guenon in his 1945 book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, one of the founding works of the Traditionalist School.
According to Frithjof Schuon: [wiki_quote=d161d5e5]
The Traditionalist School continues this metaphysical orientation. According to this school, the perennial philosophy is "absolute Truth and infinite Presence". +more Absolute Truth is "the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of humankind. " Infinite Presence is "the perennial religion (religio perennis) that lives within the heart of all intrinsically orthodox religions. " The Traditionalist School discerns a transcendent and an immanent dimension, namely the discernment of the Real or Absolute, c. q. that which is permanent; and the intentional "mystical concentration on the Real".
According to Soares de Azevedo, the perennialist philosophy states that the universal truth is the same within each of the world's orthodox religious traditions, and is the foundation of their religious knowledge and doctrine. Each world religion is an interpretation of this universal truth, adapted to cater for the psychological, intellectual, and social needs of a given culture of a given period of history. +more This perennial truth has been rediscovered in each epoch by mystics of all kinds who have revived already existing religions, when they had fallen into empty platitudes and hollow ceremonialism.
Shipley further notes that the Traditionalist School is oriented on orthodox traditions, and rejects modern syncretism and universalism, which together create new religions from older religions and compromise the standing traditions.
The term was popularized in the mid-twentieth century by Aldous Huxley, who was profoundly influenced by Vivekananda's Neo-Vedanta and Universalism. In his 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy he defined the perennial philosophy as: [wiki_quote=a5abb2b1]}}
In contrast to the Traditionalist school, Huxley emphasized mystical experience over metaphysics: [wiki_quote=78512496]}}
According to Aldous Huxley, in order to apprehend the divine reality, one must choose to fulfill certain conditions: "making themselves loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit. " Huxley argues that very few people can achieve this state. +more Those who have fulfilled these conditions, grasped the universal truth and interpreted it have generally been given the name of saint, prophet, sage or enlightened one. Huxley argues that those who have, "modified their merely human mode of being," and have thus been able to comprehend "more than merely human kind and amount of knowledge" have also achieved this enlightened state.
The idea of a perennial philosophy is central to the New Age Movement. The New Age movement is a Western spiritual movement that developed in the second half of the 20th century. +more Its central precepts have been described as "drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational psychology, holistic health, parapsychology, consciousness research and quantum physics". The term New Age refers to the coming astrological Age of Aquarius.
The New Age aims to create "a spirituality without borders or confining dogmas" that is inclusive and pluralistic. It holds to "a holistic worldview", emphasising that the Mind, Body and Spirit are interrelated and that there is a form of monism and unity throughout the universe. +more It attempts to create "a worldview that includes both science and spirituality" and embraces a number of forms of mainstream science as well as other forms of science that are considered fringe.
The idea of a perennial philosophy, sometimes called perennialism, is a key area of debate in the academic discussion of mystical experience. Huston Smith notes that the Traditionalist School's vision of a perennial philosophy is not based on mystical experiences, but on metaphysical intuitions. +more The discussion of mystical experience has shifted the emphasis in the perennial philosophy from these metaphysical intuitions to religious experience and the notion of nonduality or altered state of consciousness.
William James popularized the use of the term "religious experience" in his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience. It has also influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge. +more Writers such as W. T. Stace, Huston Smith, and Robert Forman argue that there are core similarities to mystical experience across religions, cultures and eras. For Stace the universality of this core experience is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for one to be able to trust the cognitive content of any religious experience.
Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of "religious experience" further back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of "religious experience" was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique. +more It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.
Critics point out that the emphasis on "experience" favours the atomic individual, instead of the community. It also fails to distinguish between episodic experience, and mysticism as a process, embedded in a total religious matrix of liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals and practices. +more Richard King also points to disjunction between "mystical experience" and social justice: [wiki_quote=96dcc32b]}}.
Religious pluralism holds that various world religions are limited by their distinctive historical and cultural contexts and thus there is no single, true religion. There are only many equally valid religions. +more Each religion is a direct result of humanity's attempt to grasp and understand the incomprehensible divine reality. Therefore, each religion has an authentic but ultimately inadequate perception of divine reality, producing a partial understanding of the universal truth, which requires syncretism to achieve a complete understanding as well as a path towards salvation or spiritual enlightenment.
Although perennial philosophy also holds that there is no single true religion, it differs when discussing divine reality. Perennial philosophy states that a divine reality can be understood and that its existence is what allows the universal truth to be understood. +more Each religion provides its own interpretation of the universal truth, based on its historical and cultural context, potentially providing everything required to observe the divine reality and achieve a state in which one will be able to confirm the universal truth and achieve salvation or spiritual enlightenment.
Evidence for perennial philosophy
Cognitive archeology such as analysis of cave paintings and other pre-historic art and customs suggests that a form of perennial philosophy or Shamanic metaphysics may stretch back to the birth of behavioral modernity, all around the world. Similar beliefs are found in present-day "stone age" cultures such as Aboriginal Australians. +more Perennial philosophy postulates the existence of a spirit or concept world alongside the day-to-day world, and interactions between these worlds during dreaming and ritual, or on special days or at special places. It has been argued that perennial philosophy formed the basis for Platonism, with Plato articulating, rather than creating, much older widespread beliefs.
James S. Cutsinger, The Fullness of God: Frithjof Schuon on Christianity, Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2004
* Ranjit Fernando (ed.) (1991), The Unanimous Tradition, Essays on the essential unity of all religions. Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 1991
* * * * * John Holman (2008), The Return of the Perennial Philosophy: The Supreme Vision of Western Esotericism. Watkins Publishing,
* * Perennial Philosophy, Brenda Jackson, Ronald L McDonald, Penguin Group (USA)
* * The other perennial philosophy: a metaphysical dialectic, Author Alan M. Laibelman, University Press of America, (2000),
* * "The Mystery of the Two Natures", in Barry McDonald (ed.), Every Branch in Me: Essays on the Meaning of Man, Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2002 *
* Frithjof Schuon and the Perennial Philosophy, Authors Harry Oldmeadow and William Stoddart, Contributor William Stoddart, Publisher World Wisdom, Inc, (2010)
* * Whitall N. Perry, A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 2001
Traditionalist School * Martin Lings, The Underlying Religion: An Introduction to the Perennial Philosophy, * William W. Quinn, junior. +more The Only Tradition, in S. U. N. Y. Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. Albany, N. Y. : State University of New York Press, 1997. xix, 384 p. pbk * Samuel Bendeck Sotillos, Psychology and the Perennial Philosophy: Studies in Comparative Religion (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2013). * Zachary Markwith, "Muslim Intellectuals and the Perennial Philosophy in the Twentieth Century", Sophia Perennis Vol. 1, N° 1 (Tehran: Iranian Institute of Philosophy, 2009). Aldous Huxley.