If you Google “the Perennial Philosophy,” you’ll find that two names dominate the search results: Aldous Huxley and Frithjof Schuon. This article, Part 1 of a two-part piece, will focus on their explications of the Perennial Philosophy. In Part 2, I will consider the explications of other exponents of the Perennial Philosophy, including Rudolph Otto, Rene Guenon, and Julius Evola.
Why have I titled this article “The Exoteric Perennial Philosophy”? Because, in my opinion, none of these Perennial Philosophy exponents has done the “Esoteric Perennial Philosophy” justice. In other words, to this point in time, not a single Perennial Philosophy expositor has tied together the common deeper, or esoteric, aspects of the Great Spiritual Traditions. Sans an Esoteric Perennial Philosophy, it is not possible to synthesize into an integral whole the various descriptions of the “higher” dimensions of the En-Light-enment project found in the Great Traditions. The key component to such a synthesis is radical (or gone-to-the root) Trinitarianism; but because none of the renowned exponents of the Perennial Philosophy “cracked the cosmic code,” none of them figured this out. Hence, none of them could explicate an esoteric Perennial Philosophy.
Below, in order, are my Amazon reviews of Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy” (four stars) and Schuon’s “The Transcendent Unity of Religions” (one star) and “The Essential Frithjof Schuon” (two stars). These reviews make clear my view of their writings and explain some of my criticisms of the Exoteric Perennial Philosophy.
A Noble Effort
In "The Perennial Philosophy," Aldous Huxley, the celebrated novelist, turns his attention to spiritual philosophy and attempts to explicate and elaborate the Perennial Philosophy, which he considers the "Highest Common Denominator" found in the "higher religions"--Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, and Islam. He argues that at the mystical core of these religions is "the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all Being." And because this book is an anthology, he provides excerpt after excerpt from the "Great Traditions" to buttress his argument.
I have the utmost respect for Huxley, a brilliant thinker, writer, and humanitarian; and I applaud him for his noble effort in this book, which, in my opinion, generally, but not completely, succeeds in explicating and elaborating the Perennial Philosophy.
Positively, Huxley continually points to the divine Ground, the Godhead--the God of Being rather than becoming--as the alpha and omega of true, or mystical, spirituality. Negatively, his thesis is "flattened" by his "Vedanta-ized" approach, which places the essence of the higher religions under a single, staid umbrella.
At the time Huxley wrote this book, 1944, he and fellow great writer Christopher Isherwood were deeply into the Hindu Vedanta teachings of Swami Prabhavananda. While I like Prabhavanda's writings--I've read books by him on the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Patanjali, and the Sermon on the Mount--there is a certain exoteric flatness to them, which makes them more suitable for beginners and intermediate students of Truth than for esoteric mystics; thus Huxley's book is brought down a notch by this conventional "Vedanta-ized effect."
This "Vedanta-ized effect" manifests itself in the topics and extracts Huxley chose for this anthology. In short, these topics and extracts emphasize the themes of moral purity (of heart) and self-emptying (poverty) as the keys to the Kingdom of God. One who reads this book will, mistakenly, think he has to become a self-nullified saint in order to become Self-realized, and few will find this demand enticing or possible.
Huxley misses the boat relative to God-realization because he didn't "crack the cosmic code." Hence the "astrolabe" he emphasizes for "locating" the Divine is essentially apophatic; and he essentially ignores the positive, or cataphatic, means to the Godhead, which is the practice of (Plugged-in) Presence, or Divine Communion. The integral spiritual astrolabe is a dialectic, with Plugged-in Presence representing the thesis, self-emptying the antithesis, and reception of Divine Power the synthesis.
Because Huxley didn't crack the cosmic code, he reveals his spiritual-philosophical limitations in several places throughout this text. For example, he doesn't understand the Buddhist Trikaya (or "Triple Body"), which is analogous to the Christian Holy Trinity; and some of his philosophizing falls flat. For example, he writes:
"Love is a mode of knowledge, and when the love is sufficiently disinterested and sufficiently intense, the knowledge becomes unitive knowledge and so takes on the quality of infallibility."
I don't concur with his analysis of love, which is a mode of feeling, and not of knowing. Without Higher Knowledge (Gnosis), love is hardly infallible.
In summary, "The Perennial Philosophy" is a classic spiritual text that I wholeheartedly recommend for novice and intermediate students of esoteric spirituality. But if you're an advanced student of mysticism, you probably won't find many, if any, nuggets in it.
Turgid, Prolix Pontification
I recently reviewed Schuon's "The Essential Frithjof Schuon" (which I gave two stars), and before I did I ordered "The Transcendendent Unity of Religions," which I will now review after suffering through it.
Before I begin reaming this text, I feel obliged to point out its positive side--it is only 155 pages long (compared to the 500 + pages of "The Essential Frithof Schuon"), and since two of the text's nine chapers were extracted from "The Essential Frithof Schuon," I only had to read 123 pages, and I am most grateful for that.
If you appreciate 3-page paragraphs and 100-word sentences that will have you scratching your head, asking yourself "What did he say?" then Schuon could be a spiritual philosopher right up your alley. But because I'm allergic to turgid, prolix pontification, Schuon is hardly my spiritual cup of tea.
Professors of religious studies love Schuon, raving about his unique insights. For example, the renowned Huston Smith, who wrote the introduction to this book, writes: "Superlative... the most powerful statement of the grand, or better, primordial tradition. It is original in incorporating what our age for the first time demands: that religion be treated in global terms." I couldn't disagree more. The "primordial tradition" is pure mysticism, direct, unmediated contact with the Divine, and has nothing to do with the comparative religious studies that professors of religious studies, such as Smith, revel in. Moreover, even though Schuon wasn't an academic, his quasi-academese prose resonates with Ivory Tower professors, most of whom can't think or write clearly.
Schuon is billed as an "esotericist," but I think of him as an exoteric esotericist because the bulk of his discourse focuses on comparative religion rather than on comparative mysticism. I took a couple of sociology of religion classes in college, and Schuon's text would fit right in with the other dry social science texts on religion that one encounters at universities.
The real joke of this book is its name and cover. The book focuses almost entirely on Christianity and Islam and virtually ignores Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The yoga Om symbol and the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol adorn the cover of the book, but there is nothing about yoga or Taoism in this book. Yoga is the tap-root of all true religion, but Schuon, egregiously, never mentions this fact, which, to my mind, should serve as the very basis of any book on the Perennial Philosophy.
Is Schuon the profound thinker that many scholars consider him to be? Not in my opinion. I could deconstruct him until the cows come home, and if someone offers me a large grant, I will gladly do so. I'll provide a couple examples of his "wisdom," and then deconstruct them:
"As we have just seen, the exoteric claim to the exclusive possession of the truth comes up against the axiomatic objection that there is no such thing in existence as a unique fact, for the simple reason that it is simply impossible that such a fact should exist, unicity alone being unique and no fact being unicity."
It is absurd to say there are no unique facts simply because facts aren't unicity. Unicity is itself a mere concept. Only existence exists, and any idea about the existents of existence comprising a unified whole is within the realm of human ideas. Moreover, if there are no unique facts, then Schuon shouldn't have written any books, because that means not a single idea of his could possibly uncover new, or "unique," ground.
Schuon writes, "The ideas that are affirmed in one religious form (as, for example, the idea of the Word or of the Divine Unity) cannot fail to be affirmed, in one way or another, in all other religious forms." This is patently false. It's easy to find major, irreconcilable differences on important ideas amongst the major religions. But because Schuon pushes unicity, he doesn't want to delve into these differences.
A major problem I have with Schuon is his metaphysics. He writes:
"Being Itself which is none other than the Personal God, is in turn surpassed by the Impersonal or Supra-Personal Divinity. Non-Being, of which the Personal God or Being is simply the first determination from which flow all the secondary determinations that make up cosmic Existence. Exotericism cannot, however, admit either this unreality of the world or the exclusive reality of the Divine Principle, or above all, the transcendence of Non-Being relative to Being or God."
Schuon's vision of the Divine is a farce. There is no such thing or "Thing" as Non-Being that is transcendent relative to Being. Schuon should have read Ayn Rand, then he might have realized that he was guilty of the Reification of Zero, attributing ontological status to a Non-Existent. Moreover, Schuon doesn't even know what the word Divine means. It means the Godhead, which consists of two Vines--Consciousness and Spirit-Energy. In other words, the Di-Vine, Consciousness (Siva or Cit)-Energy (Shakti or Ananda) = Being (or Sat). Unbeknownst to Schuon, something cannot come out of Nothing; it is impossible.
Schuon writes: "... the Divine Principle that alone is real." In other words, according to Schuon, the only reality is that Non-Being is senior to Being which derives from"It." This is ridiculous. Again, Being (or Sat) IS the Divine--Siva-Shakti, or Cit-Ananda, and Non-Being is a Non-Existent Nothingness, a Blank or Zero.
Schuon, in contradistinction to mystics such as J. Krishnamurti, argues that, as Huston Smith writes in his Introduction, "even esoterics must, almost without exception, submit to exoteric rites... The esoteric finds the the Absolute within the traditions as poets find poetry in poems." Even though Schuon argues that exoteric religious tradition is a necessary foundation for esoteric spirituality, he also points out that the human mind cannot set aside the cultural and mental conditioning resulting from conventional religion. He writes:
"...it should be observed that the Western mentality, in its positive qualities, is almost entirely of Christian essence. It does not lie within the power of men to rid themselves of of so deep-seated a heredity by their own means, that is to say, by mere ideological expedients; their minds move in age-old grooves even when they invent errors. One cannot set aside this intellectual and mental formation, however weakened it may be."
Putting Schuon's two arguments together--that man needs traditional religion as a foundation for esoteric spirituality, and that traditional religion conditions man's mind in a way he can't set aside--one can only conclude that man must be brainwashed, his mind irreversibly programmed by exoteric religion, before he can be ready for esoteric spirituality.
When I began this review, I planned to give this book two stars, but now, after further contemplating Schuon's ideas, I've changed my mind. One star, and one star too many, for the most overrated perennial philosopher in history.
A Two-Star Tome
I first attempted to read this 500-plus page tome in 2007 but gave up because I found the content unimpressive and the writing dense and disagreeable. But when I received my copy from storage several months ago, I decided to give Schuon, an iconic scholar, another shot.
Schuon (1907-1998), the foremost expositor of the Traditionalist School of the Perennial Philosophy, which includes Rene Guenon (1877-1947), Ananda Coomeraswamy (1877-1947), and Titus Burkhardt (1908-1984), was praised by numerous spiritual figures and intellectuals (including Huston Smith, T.S. Eliot, Jacob Needleman, Thomas Merton, L. Schaya, Jean Danielou, D.T. Suzuki, Swami Ramdas, and T.H.P. Mahadevan); but after my first read I did not share the sentiments of these prominent Schuon enthusiasts.
I began my second attempt by punctiliously reading the book's 63-page Introduction, by Seyyed Hussein Nasr, a renowned professor of Islamic Studies and the preeminent Schuon scholar--and I was so impressed with it, I ordered a copy of Schuon's "The Transcendent Unity of Religions." But, alas, once I started reading Schuon himself, I again found myself unhappy with his circumscribed thinking and ponderous prose.
Schuon is a defender of orthodoxy who believes that mysticism should be tied to a religious tradition. Although he doesn't identify them by name, it is clear that he has nothing but disdain for the revolutionary spiritual philosophers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo. For example, Schuon writes:
"This neo-yogism, like other similar movements, pretends that it can add add an essential value to the wisdom of our ancestors; it belies that religions are partial truths which it is called upon to stick together, after hundreds or thousands of years of waiting, and to crown with its own naïve little system... It is far better to believe that the earth is a disk supported by a tortoise and flanked by four elephants than to believe, in the name of `evolution,' in the coming of some `superhuman' monster."
Unlike Schuon, I have little regard for mainstream religious traditions and believe that true mysticism, the essential Perennial Philosophy, can best flourish outside the confines of stifling orthodox religion. Unlike Schuon, I embrace rather than denigrate radical (or gone-to-the root) spiritual antinomianism.
The real problem with Schuon is that he can't write simply and clearly or think widely and deeply. Here's a typical example of his prose:
"Trinitarian theology gives rise to a comparable hiatus between a very subtle and complex transcendent reality, described as "inexhaustible" by Saint Augustine himself, and logic that is dogmatically coagulative and piously unilateral, that is to say, determined by the necessity of adapting the mystery to a mentality more volatatile than contemplative."
I'm an expert in Trinitarian philosophy, and I say that Schuon does not grok the Trinity and expresses his ignorance in a cumbersome and unappealing "style." As a spiritual writer, he's the antipode of the ultra-clear, super-fluid Alan Watts.
This text contains chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the respective lengths of the chapters clues one in on which religion Schuon favors. Hinduism is 14 pages, Buddhism 16, Judaism, 7, Christianity, 29, and Islam 44. Not surprisingly, Schuon was an initiate of Sheikh al-Alawi, a Sufi (Islam) master, who, in alignment with Schuon, did not understand or appreciate the Christian Trinity. Here's what Wikipedia says about al-Alawi: "Although Sheikh al-Alawi showed unusual respect for Christians, and was in some ways an early practitioner of inter-religious dialogue, a piece of his message to Christians was that if only they would abandon the doctrines of the Trinity and of Incarnation nothing would then separate us."
Schuon's chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism are just as bad as his one on Christianity. He focuses on the superficial, exoteric aspects of these religions rather than on the deep, esoteric ones. For example, the chapter on Hinduism centers on Vedanta and the caste system and doesn't mention Tantrism; the chapter on Buddhism avoids Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra; and the chapter on Judaism ignores Kabbalah.
A major problem with this text is that it lacks an index. A scholarly tome without an index is like a man without gonads: severely compromised. In my opinion, this problem on top of the book's other problems makes this text a two-star tome.