The Perennial Philosophy

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First UK edition
Publisher's cover blurb for 1st UK edition

The Perennial Philosophy (1945) is a comparative study of mysticism by British novelist Aldous Huxley. Its title derives from the theological tradition of the philosophia perennis.

Social and political context[edit]

The Perennial Philosophy was first published in 1945 by Harper & Brothers in the United States (1946 by Chatto & Windus in the UK) immediately after the Second World War and the defeat of National Socialism. The cover text of the British first edition (see illustration) explains:[1]

"The Perennial Philosophy is an attempt to present this Highest Common Factor of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine..."[1]

The book offered readers, assumed to be familiar with the Christian religion and the Bible, a fresh approach, such as Eastern and Western mysticism:

"Mr. Huxley quotes from the Chinese Taoist philosophers, from followers of Buddha and Mohammed, from the Brahmin scriptures and from Christian mystics ranging from St John of the Cross to William Law, giving preference to those whose writings, often illuminated by genius, are unfamiliar to the modern reader."[1]

The final paragraph of the cover text is revealing:

"In this profoundly important work, Mr. Huxley ... provides us with an absolute standard of faith by which we can judge both our moral depravity as individuals and the insane and often criminal behaviour of the national societies we have created."[1]

Scope of the 'Perennial Philosophy'[edit]

In the words of poet and anthologist John Robert Colombo:

"“The Perennial Philosophy" is essentially an anthology of short passages taken from traditional Eastern texts and the writings of Western mystics, organised by subject and topic, with short connecting commentaries. No specific sources are given. Paging through the index gives the reader (or non-reader) an idea of who and what Huxley has taken seriously. Here are the entries in the index that warrant two lines of page references or more:"[2]
"Aquinas, Augustine, St. Bernard, Bhagavad-Gita, Buddha, Jean Pierre Camus, St. Catherine, Christ, Chuang Tzu, "Cloud of Unknowing,” Contemplation, Deliverance, Desire, Eckhart (five lines, the most quoted person), Eternity, Fénelon, François de Sales, Godhead, Humility, Idolatry, St. John of the Cross, Knowledge, Lankavatara Sutra, William Law (another four lines), Logos, Love, Mahayana, Mind, Mortification, Nirvana, Perennial Philosophy (six lines, a total of 40 entries in all), Prayer, Rumi, Ruysbroeck, Self, Shankara, Soul, Spirit, "Theologia Germanica,” Truth, Upanishads (six different ones are quoted), Will, Words."[2]

Huxley's view of the 'Perennial Philosophy'[edit]

Huxley's Introduction to The Perennial Philosophy begins:

"the metaphysic that 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—the thing is immemorial and universal."
"Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe."[3]

In the next paragraph, Huxley summarises the problem more succinctly: "Knowledge is a function of being."[3] In other words, if you are not suited to knowing something, you do not know it: which makes knowing the Ground of all being difficult, in Huxley's view. Therefore he concludes his Introduction with:

"If one is not oneself a sage or saint, the best thing one can do, in the field of metaphysics, is to study the works of those who were, and who, because they had modified their merely human mode of being, were capable of a more than merely human kind and amount of knowledge."[4]

Structure of the book[edit]

The book's structure is simply:

  • A brief Introduction (by Huxley), of just over 5 pages.
  • Twenty-seven chapters, each of about 10 pages, of quotations from 'sages and saints' on the named topic, with "short connecting commentaries".[2] The chapters are not grouped in any way, though there is a kind of order from the nature of the Ground at the start, down to practical exercises at the end. The Acknowledgements list 27 books from which quotations are taken, from 18 publishers.
  • A detailed Bibliography of just over 6 pages.
  • A detailed Index (two columns, small print, 5½ pages).

The chapter titles are:

  • That Art Thou
  • The Nature of the Ground
  • Personality, Sanctity, Divine Incarnation
  • God in the World
  • Charity
  • Mortification, Non-Attachment, Right Livelihood
  • Truth
  • Religion and Temperament
  • Self-Knowledge
  • Grace and Free Will
  • Good and Evil
  • Time and Eternity
  • Salvation, Deliverance, Enlightenment
  • Immortality and Survival
  • Silence
  • Prayer
  • Suffering
  • Faith
  • God is not mocked
  • Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum ('The practice of religion leads people to practice evil.')[5]
  • Idolatry
  • Emotionalism
  • The Miraculous
  • Ritual, Symbol, Sacrament
  • Spiritual Exercises
  • Perseverance and Regularity
  • Contemplation, Action, and Social Utility

Style of the book[edit]

Huxley deliberately chose less well-known quotations, because "familiarity with traditionally hallowed writings tends to breed, not indeed contempt, but ... a kind of reverential insensibility, ... an inward deafness to the meaning of the sacred words."[6] So, for example, Chapter 5 on 'Charity' takes just one quotation from the Bible, combining it with less familiar sources:

"He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. 1 John iv"
"By love may He be gotten and holden, but by thought never.The Cloud of Unknowing"
"The astrolabe of the mysteries of God is love.Jalal-uddin Rumi"[7]

Huxley then explains: "We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge..."[7]

Huxley is quite vague with his references: "No specific sources are given."[2]

Critical reception[edit]

In the USA[edit]

The Perennial Philosophy was widely reviewed when first published in 1945, with articles appearing in Book Week, Booklist, The Christian Century, Bull VA Kirkus' Bookshop Serv., The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Saturday Review of Literature, Springfield Republican, New York Herald Tribune, and the Wilson Bulletin.[8]

The New York Times wrote that "Perhaps Mr. Huxley, in 'The Perennial Philosophy' has, at this time, written the most needed book in the world."[9]:117 The Times described the book as

an "anthology [that] is above all a masterpiece of discrimination.... Leibniz gave the name of 'The Perennial Philosophy' to this theme. Mr. Huxley has systematised, and dealt with, its many-branching problems, perils and beatitudes.[9]:117

The Times also stated that "it is important to say that even an agnostic, even a behaviorist-materialist... can read this book with joy. It is the masterpiece of all anthologies."[9]:117

Similarly, forty years later, Huston Smith, a religious scholar, wrote that in The Perennial Philosophy:

"Huxley provides us with the most systematic statement of his mature outlook. Its running commentary deals with many of the social implications of Huxley's metaphysics."[10]

Not all the reception was so positive. Chad Walsh, writing in the Journal of Bible and Religion[11] in 1948, spoke of Huxley's distinguished family background, only to continue:

"The only startling fact, and the one that could not have been predicted by the most discerning sociologist or psychologist, is that in his mid-forties he was destined to turn also to mysticism, and that since his conversion he was to be one of a small group in California busily writing books to win as many people as possible over to the "perennial philosophy" as a way of life."[11]

In the UK[edit]

In the UK reviewers admired the comprehensiveness of Huxley's survey, but questioned his other-worldliness and were hostile to his belief in the paranormal.

C. E. M. Joad wrote in New Statesman and Society that although the book was a mine of learning and the commentary was profound, readers would be surprised to find that Huxley had adopted a series of peculiar beliefs such as the curative power of relics and spiritual presences incarnated in sacramental objects. Joad pointed out that if the argument of the book is correct, only those who have undergone the religious experiences upon which it is based is properly able to assess its worth. Further he found the book dogmatic and intolerant – "in which pretty well everything we want to do is wrong." Finally, Joad asserted that Huxley's mistake is in his "intellectual whole-hoggery", that he is led by ideas untempered by ordinary human experience.[12]

In Philosophy journal, the Anglican priest Rev. W. R. Inge remarked on the book's well chosen quotations and called it "probably the most important treatise we have had on mysticism for many years." He saw it as evidence that Huxley was now a mystical philosopher, which he regarded as an encouraging sign. Inge pointed out conflicts between and within religions, but agreed that rapprochement must be through mystical religion. However, he wondered if the book, with its transcendence of the personality and detachment from the worldly concerns, might not be more Buddhist than Christian. He concluded his review by calling into question Huxley's belief in psychical phenomena.[13]

Elsewhere[edit]

Canadian author John Robert Colombo wrote that, like many others in the 1950s, he was swept away with enthusiasm for "the coveted volume" as a young man:

"Everyone interested in consciousness studies has heard of his study called The Perennial Philosophy. It bears such a prescient and memorable title. His use of the title has preempted its use by any other author, neuropsychologist, Traditionalist, or enthusiast for the New Age. The book so nobly named did much to romanticise the notion of “perennialism” and to cast into the shade such long-established timid Christian notions of “ecumenicism” (Protestants dialoguing with Catholics, etc.) or “inter-faith” meetings (Christians encountering non-Christians, etc.). Who would care about the beliefs of Baptists when one could care about the practices of Tibetans?"[2]

Colombo also stated that

"Painfully absent from these pages are Huxley's mordant wit and insights into human nature. It is as if his quicksilverish intelligence has been put on hold or has found itself in a deep freeze of his own making. When it comes to selecting short and sometimes long quotations, he is no compiler like John Bartlett of quotation fame, but he does find time to make a few deft personal observations."[2]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Huxley, Aldous (1946). The Perennial Philosophy (1st. ed.). London: Chatto and Windus. p. Dust Jacket. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Colombo, John Robert (16 June 2010). "books, news, reviews". ‘THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY’ revisited. Gurdjieff Books Wordpress. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  3. ^ a b (The Perennial Philosophy, Introduction, page 1)
  4. ^ (The Perennial Philosophy, Introduction, pages 5–6.)
  5. ^ Wiktionary Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book 1, 101.
  6. ^ The Perennial Philosophy, page 4.
  7. ^ a b The Perennial Philosophy, page 95.
  8. ^ Contemporary reviews include:
    • Book Week (21 October 1945).
    • Booklist v. 42 (15 November 1945).
    • The Christian Century v. 62 (12 December 1945).
    • Bull VA Kirkus' Bookshop Serv v. 13 (1 August 1945).
    • The Nation v. 161 (27 October 1945).
    • The New Republic v. 113 (5 November 1945).
    • The New Yorker v. 21 (29 September 1945).
    • Saturday Review of Literature v. 28 (3 November 1945).
    • Springfield Republican (14 October 1945).
    • New York Herald Tribune (7 October 1945).
    • Wilson Bulletin (White Plains, N.Y.) v. 41 (Dec. 1945).
  9. ^ a b c Signe Toksvig (30 September 1945). "Aldous Huxley's prescriptions for spiritual myopia". New York Times. p. 117. 
  10. ^ Huxley, Aldous (1993) Huxley on God, Introduction – Walter Houston Smith p. 9, HarperSanFrancisco ISBN 0-06-250536-X
  11. ^ a b Walsh, Chad (January 1948). "Journal of Bible and Religion". Pilgrimage to the Perennial Philosophy: The Case of Aldous Huxley. Journal of Bible and Religion. Vol 16, No 1. pp 3–12. pp. 3–12. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  12. ^ Joad, C.E.M. (5 October 1946) Huxley Gone Sour, The New Statesman and Society, 32, P. 249-50 in Watt, Donald ed. (1997) Aldous Huxley The Critical Heritage, pps 363–365, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-15915-6
  13. ^ Inge, W.R. (April 1947) Perennial Philosophy – Review, Philosophy, XXII, pps 66–70 in Watt, Donald ed. (1997) Aldous Huxley The Critical Heritage, pps 366–368, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-15915-6

Publication data[edit]