What is the Perennial Philosophy anyway?
Perennial Philosophy is not just the name of Huxley’s book, it is generally used as a category for all the spiritual mystic stuff from which Philosophy steals, never cites, and pretends is not-so-scholarly. It is less concerned with some random academic boundary that blindly follows and builds upon canonical texts and discards non-canonical texts, and more interested in the evolution of consciousness as it is manifested in different religions. It is theological in its nature, but does not maintain an allegiance to the disturbing institutionalism that can keep theological insights from making their way to those who believe they can have a direct experience of God.
I thought about reading Aldous Huxley’s, The Perennial Philosophy ever since I read Be Here Now by Ram Dass (and was still not quite sure what perennial philosophy meant). In the last section of Dass’ book he provides a book list of helpful guides to the spiritual realm — at least that is how I remember it. The Perennial Philosophy by Huxley was there, and to me it sounded intriguing. Furthermore, Ram Dass said it was a must to read, and since I am open to suggestions when it comes to book recommendations — especially if they come from someone I just read, and/or if there is a promise to take me deeper into the spiritual woods — I hurried to the library and took Huxley’s book off the shelf. Excited to begin, I picked it up, but put it down again. I could not get into it. Perhaps it was too dense for a beginner, or maybe the typeface was not pleasing and gave the book a sense of density it might not have had. I read a page or two and then let it sit until I had to bring it back to the library. Years went by and I never thought about Aldous Huxley. Then one day as I was going through the stacks of the public library I frequent, I ran my fingers across The Perennial Philosophy.
I checked out the table of contents. Interesting. And I can take it out right this moment, I thought.
Huxley writes in the introduction:
“Knowledge is a function of being. When there is a change in the being of a knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing (vii).”
Apparently, I have changed in my being because this time I was able to read it through to the end. I wanted to know what Huxley had to say about prayer, silence, faith, truth… etc….
Within the book there are massive quotes from mystics such as: Eckhart (from whom Tolle took his name), Rumi, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa, and Sri Aurobindo. He also extracts from the Bhagavad Gita, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Cloud of Unknowing, and the Diamond Sutra, and St. Paul.
So the inside of the book looks like this:
Lots of lengthy, weighty quotes and some basic analysis by Huxley in between all the density. It is a rather bumpy ride. The quotes take time to think about (as they should), and Huxley’s commentary is a little too short.
Essentially, Huxley’s goal is to give a comparative study of various spiritual topics, or a topic that has relevance in practicing spirituality. He draws from Eastern and Western theological/philosophical tradition to present to the reader what is said, and then as a good teacher he summarizes, and draws conclusions telling us why, for instance, charity needs to be practiced.
In the introduction, Huxley himself describes his book as:
“an anthology of the Perennial Philosophy (viii).”
This book is not really an anthology. Although, it probably comes close given the length of some of the quotes. But, the full texts are not presented here; only the passages that Huxley has chosen to make the proper comparisons.
In the introduction he sums it all up telling us what the Perennial Philosophy is and the path you need to take to get there:
“The Perennial Philosophy is primarily concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit (viii).”
Then he spends the rest of the book reinforcing the path, the “conditions” of reaching the one Reality.
After I read this book I thought, well, Huxley did indeed create a sort of anthology of the Perennial Philosophy — a quick reference for those who need an overview of Eastern and Western religious thought. It is definitely helpful. But, I also found myself wanting the book to have something more in it. I got a little tired of the structure. It was as if Huxley himself had not fully ingested all the quotes he had gathered, or if he really did not believe in any of this anyway, or worse, had an academic interest in it, but was not really going to try it. It seemed to me Huxley was writing through his social literary persona, and unfortunately holding back a sincere interest in the spiritual world.
I did find some theologians, mystics, and philosophers with whom I had not been familiar. I do not believe, however it is the best starting point for a beginner since the very first time I picked it up I could not get to the third page. For a better introduction into the world of the perennial philosophy — comparative religion that demonstrates a unifying core, I would recommend Lex Hixon’s, Coming Home. Hixon writes with more of his whole being, his prose is more direct, and he is more invested in the spiritual world.