Perennialism

Perennialism [puh-ren-ee-uhl-iz-uhm] is a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.

The idea of a perennial philosophy has great antiquity. It can be found in many of the world’s religions and philosophies. The term ‘philosophia perennis’ was first used during the Renaissance by Italian humanist Agostino Steuco, drawing on an already existing philosophical tradition, the most direct predecessors of which were Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

By the end of the 19th century this idea was popularized by leaders of the Theosophical Society such as H. P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant, under the name of ‘Wisdom-Religion’ or ‘Ancient Wisdom.’In the 20th century it was popularized in the English speaking world through Aldous Huxley’s book ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ as well as the writings of a group of thinkers now referred to as the Traditionalist School. In contemporary discourse it 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.

According to perennialism, each world religion, including but not limited to, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Sikhism and Buddhism, 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. The universal truth which lies at heart of each religion has been rediscovered in each epoch by saints, sages, prophets, and philosophers. These include not only the ‘founders’ of the world’s great religions but also gifted and inspired mystics, theologians and preachers who have revived already existing religions when they had fallen into empty platitudes and hollow ceremonialism.

Although the sacred scriptures of the world religions are undeniably diverse and often superficially oppose each other, there is discernible running through each, a common doctrine regarding the ultimate purpose of human life. This doctrine is mystical in so far as it views the summum bonum ‘the highest good’ of human life as an experiential union with the supreme being that can only be achieved through physical and mental purification.

Ficino, an important figure in early modern philosophy, was influenced by a variety of philosophers including Aristotelian Scholasticism and various pseudonymous and mystical writings. The key theme of Ficino’s philosophy held that there is an underlying unity to the world, the soul or love, which has a counterpart in the realm of ideas. Platonic Philosophy and Christian theology both embody this truth. 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.

Pico, a student of Ficino, embodies a more ambitious attempt to use the philosophies and theologies of the past, especially the priscia theologica. Pico 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, the Cabala among other sources. After the deaths of Pico and Ficino this line of thought expanded, and included Symphorien Champier, and Francesco Giorgio.

Agostino Steuco was the strongest defender of the tradition of the prisci theologica, and ‘De perenni philosophia’ was the most sustained attempt at philosophical synthesis and harmony. Steuco represents the liberal wing of 16th century Biblical scholarship and theology, although he rejected Luther and Calvin. ‘De perenni philosophia,’ is a complex work which only contains the term ‘philosophia perennis’ twice. It states that there is ‘one principle of all things, of which there has always been one and the same knowledge among all peoples.’ This single knowledge (or ‘sapientia’) is the key element in his philosophy.

In that he emphasizes continuity over progress, Steuco’s idea of philosophy is not one conventionally associated with the Renaissance. Indeed, he tends to believe that the truth is lost over time and is only preserved in the prisci theologica. Steuco preferred Plato to Aristotle and saw greater congruence between the former and Christianity than the latter philosopher. He held that philosophy works in harmony with religion and should lead to knowledge of God, and that truth flows from a single source, more ancient than the Greeks. Steuco was strongly influenced by Iamblichus’s statement that knowledge of God is innate in all, and also gave great importance to Hermes Trismegistus.

Steuco’s perennial philosophy was highly regarded by some scholars for the two centuries after its publication, then largely forgotten until it was rediscovered by German catholic philosopher Otto Willmann in the late part of the 19th century. Overall, ‘De perenni philosophia’ wasn’t particularly influential. The work was not put on the Index of works banned by the Roman Catholic Church, although his ‘Cosmopoeia’ which expressed similar ideas was. Religious criticisms tended to the conservative view that held Christian teachings should be understood as unique, rather than seeing them as perfect expressions of truths that are found everywhere. Further, placing so much confidence in the prisca theologia, turned out to be a shortcoming as many of the texts used in this school of thought later turned out to be bogus. In the following two centuries the most favorable responses were largely Protestant and often in England.

German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz later picked up on Steuco’s term. The German philosopher stands in the tradition of this concordistic philosophy; his philosophy of harmony especially had affinity with Steuco’s ideas. Leibniz knew about Steuco’s work by 1687, but thought that ‘De la Verite de la Religion Chretienne’ by Huguenot philosopher Phillippe du Plessis-Mornay expressed the same truth better. Steuco’s influence can be found throughout Leibniz’s works, but the German was the first philosopher to refer to the perennial philosophy without mentioning the Italian.

Max Müller, one of the founding figures in the academic discipline of comparative religion, was fond of saying to his students ‘He who knows one knows none’ by which he meant that people who are only familiar with the teaching and doctrine of one religious tradition fail to see the deeper meaning of their own religion. Only by breaking out of the bigoted attachment to one’s own religious belief system and making the effort to study the doctrines of other religions can a human being penetrate to the universal underlying meaning lying behind each unique cultural and historical expression of religion.

Outside the European tradition of the philosophia perennis, one of the best known traditions to propose a similar idea of a common truth residing within all religions is ‘Sanatana Dharma’ of Hinduism. Indeed this term can be seen as the original name of Hinduism, the latter being a term invented by ancient Persians. This notion has influenced thinkers who have proposed versions of the perennial philosophy in the 20th century. ‘Dharma’ is commonly taken to mean divine law or right way of living, while ‘sanatana’ corresponds to eternal or immutable, so ‘Sanatana Dharma’ is eternal law. This refers broadly to human identity, our relationship to God and paths to salvation. It also contains a sense of a universal religion that eclipses sectarian divisions, known as the ‘Manava Dharma’ or religion of man.

Adherents of the Sanatana Dharma see it as referring to the common truths in all religions, rather than simply their own faith. It includes a wide variety of beliefs, encompassing both the existence of a personal deity and an impersonal Absolute, and can has roots in the belief, found in the Rig Veda, in one god combined with the belief in the existence of several gods, known as Henotheism. Sanatana Dharma has also influenced the Indian conception of secularism, where the notion of ‘sarva dharma sambhava’ (all religions or truths are equal or harmonious to each other) prefers to tolerate all faiths equally rather than rejecting religion per se.

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. 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, traveled to the United States in the 1890s where he formed the Vedanta Society devoted to self-realization. Roy, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were all influenced by the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, which, arguably, emphasizes unity over diversity.

From the beginning, Islam has considered itself to be the final flourishing of perennial wisdom before the ‘end of times.’ The Qur’an is replete with references to earlier religious figures from the Jewish and Christian traditions, considering that Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mary and other holy figures were always muslim (i.e. they believed in one god only). The idea of a single religious truth is more apparent among the Sufi or mystical traditions of Islam, with parallelisms in the Judaeo-Christian and Hindu tradition, than it is among orthodox scholars, who recognize the Jewish and Christian truths, but by necessity reject all beliefs that seem contrary to Islam (such as the Trinity, the sonship of Christ, or the reality of the crucifixion). Some very vocal versions of Islam on the other hand (e.g. Salafism), reject in their entirety all other religious traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Ninth-Century philosopher Al-Farabi advocated the idea of philosophy and religion being two avenues to the same truth. His own personal philosophy strongly emphasized a classification of knowledge and science on the basis of methodology. Thus, he described his notion of an esoteric philosophy which referenced the eternal truth or wisdom which lies at the heart of all traditions as a ‘science of reality’ based on the method of ‘certain demonstration’ (‘al-burhan al-yaqini’). This method is a combination of intellectual intuition and logical conclusions of certainty (‘istinbat’). He reasoned that it was therefore a superior kind of knowledge to the esoteric domain of religions (‘millah’) since that relied on a method of persuasion (‘al-iqna’), not demonstration. Al-Farabi developed a theory to explain the diversity of religions. He posited that religions differed from one another because the same spiritual and intellectual truths can have different ‘imaginative representations.’ He further stated that there was a unity of all revealed traditions at the philosophical level, since all nations and peoples must have a philosophical account of reality that is one and the same.

Progressive revelation is a core teaching in the Bahá’í Faith that suggests that religious truth is revealed by God progressively and cyclically over time through a series of divine Messengers, and that the teachings are tailored to suit the needs of the time and place of their appearance. Thus, the Bahá’í teachings recognize the divine origin of several world religions as different stages in the history of one religion, while believing that the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh (founder of the faith) is the most recent (though not the last—that there will never be a last), and therefore the most relevant to modern society.

The general theme of the successive and continuous religions founded by messengers of God is that there is an evolutionary tendency, and that each messengers brings a larger measure of revelation (or religion) to humankind than the previous one. The differences in the revelation brought by the messengers is stated to be attributed to the various worldly, societal and human factors; these differences are in accordance with the conditions and requirements of the time that the messenger came. Bahá’u’lláh explained that the appearance of successive messengers was like the annual coming of Spring, which brings new life to the world which has come to neglect the teachings of the previous messenger.

In the Christian faith, St Augustine said, ‘The very thing that is now called the Christian religion was not wanting among the ancients from the beginning of the human race, until Christ came in the flesh, after which the true religion, which had already existed, began to be called ‘Christian.” However, some see this statement as expressing the Roman Catholic notion of ‘semina verbi’ (‘seeds of the word’), whereby there is some truth (seeds of truth) in pre-Christian Greek thought, but these required purification by the light of the Gospels. This idea was current among many other early Christians including Clement of Alexandria and Augustine.

By the end of the 19th century the idea of a Perennial Philosophy was popularized by leaders of the Theosophical Society as ‘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.

The term ‘perennial philosophy’ was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley, who was profoundly influenced by Vivekanda’s Neo-Vedanta and Universalism, in his 1945 book ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ he defined the perennial philosophy as: ‘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 to, 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 traditional 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

He also pointed out the method of the Buddha: ‘The Buddha declined to make any statement in regard to the ultimate divine Reality. All he would talk about was Nirvana, which is the name of the experience that comes to the totally selfless and one-pointed. […] Maintaining, in this matter, the attitude of a strict operationalist, the Buddha would speak only of the spiritual experience, not of the metaphysical entity presumed by the theologians of other religions, as also of later Buddhism, to be the object and (since in contemplation the knower, the known and the knowledge are all one) at the same time the subject and substance of that experience.’

The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, ‘tat tvam asi’ (‘That thou art’); the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is.

According to German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers: ‘Despite the wide variety of philosophical thought, despite all the contradictions and mutually exclusive claims to truth, there is in all philosophy a One, which no man possesses but about which all serious efforts have at all times gravitated: the one eternal philosophy, the philosophia perennis.’ 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. 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.

According to Swiss metaphysicist Frithjof Schuon: ‘It has been said more than once that total Truth is inscribed in an eternal script in the very substance of our spirit; what the different Revelations do is to ‘crystallize’ and ‘actualize,’ in different degrees according to the case, a nucleus of certitudes which not only abides forever in the divine Omniscience, but also sleeps by refraction in the ‘naturally supernatural’ kernel of the individual, as well as in that of each ethnic or historical collectivity or of the human species as a whole.’

Religious pluralism is the philosophical concept that states that various world religions are formed by their distinctive historical and cultural contexts and thus there is no single, true religion. There are only many equally valid religions. Each religion is a direct result of humanity’s attempt to grasp and understand the incomprehensible divine reality. Therefore, each religion can hold an authentic but ultimately inadequate concept 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 shares the idea that there is no single true religion, it differs when discussing divine reality. Perennial philosophy states that the divine reality is what allows the universal truth to be understood. Each religion provides its own interpretation of the universal truth, based on its historical and cultural context. Therefore, each religion provides 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.

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