The Perennial Philosophy: Review

The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West (P.S.)Synopsis: The Perennial Philosophy, which Huxley defines as “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the philosophy 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,” is the “philosophy of the mystics.”  Huxley draws from the writings of mystical authors from various traditions, synthesizing their thought on various topics and leading the reader to further investigation.  I find his definition to be somewhat vague (fittingly, as this is a common complaint of the mystical writings which he addresses!).  In my own understanding, I would summarize the “Perennial (or mystical) Philosophy” in three propositions: In Western Terms – 1.There is a God, 2. Each human soul is made in the Image of God (i.e. it is “like” God is some respects), and 3. Man’s ultimate destiny, at least for those who choose it, is Union with GodOr, in Eastern Terms – 1. There is a Spiritual Reality/Ground, 2. The human soul is identical with that ground, and 3. Each soul’s destiny is absorption in the Ground.   Maybe that’s no less vague than Huxley’s definition, but it makes a little more sense to me:)

Overview:  Huxley’s work can essentially be broken down into 2 parts: defining the Perennial Philosophy, and synthesizing what those who hold it say about various topics (i.e. What do the mystics say about ___?). 

To define the Perennial Philosophy more fully than in his introduction, Huxley spends two chapters (That Art Thou and The Nature of The Ground) elaborating.  First, Huxley elaborates on the feature of the Philosophy that he believes to be the “most emphatically insisted upon” by its exponents – that the personal soul is identical with, or at least akin to, the Divine Ground.  In Hindu terms Atman (the individualized self/soul) is Brahman (the Absolute Principle of all existence), or, as Huxley titles his chapter, “That Art Thou.”

It seems to me that here we come to an impasse between Eastern/Impersonal/Monistic thinking and Western/Personal/Dualistic thinking.  For some Eastern thinkers, the personal ego is simply an illusion – what we think of as our personal “selves” are really God/Brahman if we could only see it.  To Western theistic thinkers, God may reside in the soul in some way, but God is not identical with the soul.  But regardless of how this is conceptualized, to find God or Spiritual Reality, one must not only look without, but more importantly, within…

Though God is everywhere present, yet He is only present to thee in the deepest and most central part of thy soul.  The natural senses cannot possess God or unite thee to Him; nay, thy inward faculties of understanding, will and memory can only reach after God, but cannot be the place of his habitation in thee.  But there is a root or depth of thee from whence all these faculties come forth, as lines from a centre, or as branches from the body of a tree.  This depth is called the centre, the fund or bottom of the soul.  This depth is the unity, the eternity – I had almost said the infinity – of thy soul; for it is so infinite that nothing can satisfy it or give it rest but the infinity of God.   –   William Law

To the exponents of the Perennial Philosophy, this root, or depth, or bottom of the soul is either God/Brahman Itself, or akin to Him/It.  We must look inwards to experience what, in William Law’s words, “will give us rest.”

After declaring that That Art Thou, or at least, That Art Like Thou, the question remains, what is Thou?  To this question Huxley believes that the mystics all give fundamentally the same answer:

The divine Ground of all existence is a spiritual Absolute, ineffable in terms of discursive thought, but (in certain circumstances) susceptible to being directly experienced and realized by the human being.

In other words, you can’t fully describe God in human language (for an interesting post from a Christian perspective around this topic, click here), He must be directly experienced to be known.  About the only thing that Huxley believes can be summarized from the collective thought of the mystics is that God or Spiritual Reality is “both immanent and transcendent, personal and more than personal”…

If they are not too stubborn in their ready-made beliefs, if they submit with docility to what happens to them in the process of worshiping, the God who is both immanent and transcendent, personal and more than personal, may reveal Himself to them in his fulness.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is easier for us to reach our goal if we are not handicapped by a set of erroneous or inadequate beliefs about the right way to get there and the nature of what we are looking for.

Since all of our definitions fail us, we ought to be concerned about seeking to be transformed in God, and not defining exactly What/Who God is.

Yes, Huxley’s first two chapters, in which he sets out to define both what the soul is and what/who God is, are vague!  That’s kind of mysticism folks!  We have to get comfortable with words like “ineffable” :)  The rest of his work deals with more tangible doctrines of the mystics; I will briefly overview three of them – “Personality, Sanctity, Divine Incarnation,” “The Miraculous,” and “Contemplation, Action and Social Utility.”

Personality, Sanctity, Divine Incarnation

In this chapter, Huxley argues that experience of, and union with, God/Spiritual Reality “can be achieved only by the annihilation of the self-regarding ego.”  The self, with all its wants and desires, must be repented of if one is to find God.  It is the barrier separating “thou” from “That”.  It is the “God-eclipsing” reality that keeps us from love, joy, and peace.  And slavery to self can only lead to the opposite of those fruits.  Huxley quotes William Law:

The separate creaturely life, as opposed to life in union with God, is only a life of various appetites, hungers, and wants, and cannot possibly be anything else.  God Himself cannot make a creature to be in itself, or in its own nature, anything but a state of emptiness.  The highest life that is natural and creaturely can go no higher than this; it can only be a bare capacity for goodness and cannot possibly be a good and happy life but by the life of God dwelling in and in union with it.  And this is the twofold life that, of all necessity, must be united in every good and perfect and happy creature.

Die to self and find happiness and contentment; find God.  Whether Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, the message of the mystics rarely strays from this path.

It is by kenosis, the emptying of the self from all of its wishes, that one can be united with, and truly be used by God.  As Huxley puts it:

It is in virtue of his absorption in God and just because he has not identified his being with the inborn and acquired elements of his private personality, that the saint is able to exercise his entirely non-coercive and therefore entirely beneficent influence on individuals and even on whole societies.  Or, to be more accurate, it is because he has purged himself of selfness that divine Reality is able to use him as a channel of grace and power.

The purgation of personal desire, of cares about “what happens to me,” is St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” that leads to complete freedom at the other end of the tunnel.

The Miraculous

The abnormal bodily states, by which the immediate awareness of the divine Ground is often accompanied, are not, of course, essential parts of that experience.  Many mystics, indeed, deplored such things as being signs, not of divine grace, but of the body’s weakness.

This is a fascinating topic for me (as I assume it would be for most).  I have had some personal experiences that I would classify as “the miraculous” or, at least “abnormal spiritual occurrences” (see my “Listen to the Silence“) and I am convinced that others have had experiences of the supernatural that result in miraculous events/states taking place (see the end of my “The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus – Review“).  But the mystics seem incredibly unconcerned about these events.  They are frivolous at best, and possibly a distraction from the goal of self-emptying/God-filling to which these writers are dedicated.  Three quotes from the start of this chapter sum up their point of view:

Revelations are the aberration of faith; they are an amusement that spoils simplicity in relation to God, that embarrasses the soul and makes it swerve from its directness in relation to God.  They distract the soul and occupy it with other things than God.  Special illuminations, auditions, prophecies and the rest are marks of weakness in a soul that cannot support the assaults of temptation or of anxiety about the future and God’s judgment upon it.  Prophecies are also marks of creaturely curiosity in a soul to whom God is indulgent and to whom, as a father to his importunate child, he gives a few trifling sweetmeats to satisfy its appetite.   –   J.J. Olier

The slightest degree of sanctifying grace is superior to a miracle, which is supernatural only by reason of its cause, by its mode of production, not by its intimate reality; the life restored to a corpse is only the natural life, low indeed in comparison with that of grace.   –   R. Garrigou-Lagrange

Can you walk on water?  You have done no better than a straw.  Can you fly in the air?  You have done no better than a bluebottle.  Conquer your heart; then you may become somebody.   –   Ansari of Herat

Contemplation, Action and Social Utility

The mystic, says Huxley, takes it as axiomatic that the end of human life is contemplation, or the direct and intuitive awareness of God.  Action is a means to that end, and societies are good to the extent that they lead towards the contemplative state.  In modern society, it goes without saying that the end of human life is action; contemplation is a means to that end, and a society is good to the extent that it makes for progress in technology and organization.

And yet, even many mystics are called to some form of “active life” outside of solitude and prayer.  But, in their eyes, right action can only spring from the contemplative life:

Action, says Aquinas, should be something added to the life of prayer, not something taken away from it.  One of the reasons for this recommendation is strictly utilitarian; action that is ‘taken away from the life of prayer’ is action unenlightened by contact with Reality, uninspired and unguided; consequently it is apt to be ineffective and even harmful.

Income must balance expenditure.  This is necessary not merely on the economic level, but also on the physiological, the intellectual, the ethical and the spiritual.  We cannot put forth energy unless we stoke our body with fuel in the form of food.  We cannot hope to utter anything worth saying, unless we read and inwardly digest the utterances of our betters.  We cannot act rightly and effectively unless we are in the habit of laying ourselves open to leadings of the Divine Nature or Things.  We must draw in the goods of eternity in order to be able to give out the goods of time.  But the goods of eternity cannot be had except by giving up at least a little of our time to silently waiting for them.

And not only does contemplation aide the mystic, but, through the mystic, the rest of society as well:

It is they who, dying to themselves, become capable of perpetual inspiration and so are made the instruments through which divine grace is mediated to those whose unregenerate nature is impervious to the delicate touches of the Spirit.

Personal Takeaways: One of the most interesting of Huxley’s recurring thoughts is that “knowledge is a function of being.”  To be able to know and experience God/Spiritual Reality, one must, in Huxley’s words, “fulfill certain conditions, making (one’s self) loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.”  Thus it is only the one who is willing to die to themselves that will find God.  Hmmm.

After reading this book several times and reflecting on it, I have become convinced that there truly is a “mystic theology”; that those who have given themselves to contemplation from all different cultures, times, and creeds say very similar things about their experience and how we should act based on that experience.  Could it be that they are finding the same ontological Reality?  It is certainly possible.  Through Huxley’s work, I was inspired to read a ton of mystical writings, especially in the Christian realm…Eckhart, St John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, The Cloud of Unknowing, etc.  The Perennial Philosophy will not get dusty on my shelf.

Final Thoughts:  My head is about to explode with the knowledge that Aldous drops.  Seriously, fantastic introduction to the thought of mystics from a host of traditions.  Get it.  Read it.  Digest it.  Live it.  Check out for more on Aldous and here for their review of this work.