[Part 1 of this article (available at electricalspirituality.com) focused on Aldous Huxley and Frithjof Schuon’s explications of the Perennial Philosophy. Part 2 will focus on Rudolf Otto and Rene Guenon’s explications. Julius Evola is another Perennial Philosophy exponent worthy of consideration, but because I have already considered Evola’s writings (see my November 2016 Electrical Spirituality article Reviews of the writings of the Traditionalist Julius Evola), I will skip on them here.]
Why have I titled this article “The Exoteric Perennial Philosophy”? Because, in my opinion, none of these Perennial Philosophy exponents does 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.com reviews of Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy” (two stars) and Rene Guenon’s “The Essential Rene Guenon” (three stars) and “The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times” (four stars).
Difficult, Dry, and Deficient
Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), a German professor of theology, is considered by many to be one of the foremost writers on the theory of mysticism. I'm not one of the many. Although Otto putatively coined the term "numinous," and considers the "Wholly Other" and the "mysterium tremendum" in his discourse, this exegesis of mysticism, colored by a neo-Kantian and liberal Protestant bent, is difficult, dry, and deficient, which is pretty much what one would expect from an early twentieth-century German religious philosopher.
I have a disaffinity for German philosophers, particularly Kant, Heidegger, Hegel (of whom Ayn Rand famously said, "no one understands"), and Marcuse (whom I studied under), but if you enjoy turbid mystical theology, then Otto could be your "Autobahn to the Infinite."
Just as I have a disaffinity for German writer-philosophers, I have an affinity for English spiritual authors, such as W.Y. Evans-Wentz (see my four-star review of "The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation"), Alan Watts (see my four-star review of "The Way of Zen"), Aldous Huxley (see my four-star review of "The Perennial Philosophy)," and Evelyn Underhill (see my five-star review of "Mysticism"). For example, if one compares the Swiss-German Frithjof Schuon's "The Transcendent Unity of Religions" (see my one-star review) or "The Essential Frithjof Schuon" (see my two-star review) to Aldous Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy," the latter is easily superior. Likewise, if one compares Otto's "The Idea of the Holy" to Underhill's "Mysticism," there is no real comparison: Underhill is head and shoulders above Otto as an exegete of mysticism, both in style and substance.
Here's an example of the kind of writing you will be confronted with in Otto's book:
"The rational ideas of absoluteness, completion, necessity, substantiality, and no less so those of the good as an objective value, objectively binding and valid, are not to be `evolved' from any sense-perception. And the notions of `epigenesis,' `heterogony,' or whatever other expression we may choose to denote our compromise and perplexity, only serve to conceal the problem, the tendency to take refuge in a Greek terminology being here, as so often, nothing but an avowal of one's own insuffiency. Rather, seeking to account for the ideas in question, we are referred away from all sense-experience back to an original and underivable capacity of the mind implanted in the `pure reason' independently of all perception."
In addition to his unwieldy prose, Otto's definition of mysticism doesn't cut the cheese. He writes:
"As a provisional definition of mysticism I would suggest that, while sharing the nature of religion, it shows a preponderance of its non-rational elements and an over-stressing of them in respect to the `over-abounding' aspect of `numem.'"
If Otto had been truly sharp, he would have been able to provide the definitive definition of mysticism -- communion (culminating in union with) Ultimate Reality. And he would also have pointed out that the definitive definition of mysticism is same as the definitive definition of yoga.
Excuse me while I put down my copy of "The Idea of the Holy" and get myself a Schneider Aventinus from the fridge... I much prefer German beer to German philosophy.
Somewhat Better than Frithjof Schuon
A member of my Facebook group, Electrical-Hermetic Christianity [now Meditation-Consciousness-Spirituality], suggested that I read Rene Guenon, considered one of the founders, together with Frithjof
Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswarmy, of the "traditionalist" or "perennialist" school of thinking that flowered in the early to mid twentieth century.
I had already read Schuon (see my two-star review of "The Essential Frithjof Schuon") and Coomeraswamy, in addition to Aldous Huxley (see my four-star review of "The Perennial Philosophy"), Rudolf Otto (see my two-star review of "The Idea of the Holy"), and others, so I figured I might as well complete my study of the big name specialists in comparative religion by checking out Guenon. I procured a copy of "The Essential Rene Guenon: Metaphysics, Tradition, and the Crisis of Modernity," and began my study.
It didn't take long for me to become bored with the book, which reads like a quasi-academic history and sociology of select esoteric spiritual traditions, while essentially ignoring some important ones (such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity). Guenon's focus is on Hinduism and Islam (the religion he converted to to), though one of the chapters, Taoism and Confucianism, does consider Chinese spirituality. Guenon does have a chapter on Kabbalah, but it is short and crummy, shedding no light whatsoever on the subject.
I did find a couple of the chapters interesting and esoteric - The Vital Centre of the Human Being: Seat of Brahma, and The Heart and the Cave. But too many of the chapters made me feel like I was reading a sociology of religion textbook. And the names of these chapters - The Dark Age, Sacred and Profane Science, A Material Civilization, Civilization and Progress, What Is Meant by Tradition, Principles of Government and the Institution of Caste - give away the text's sociological emphasis.
As a long-time expert in the field of spirituality, I'm glad to be done reading all the big name perennial philosophers, none of whom impresses me. Eventually I'll write my own book on the subject, and I predict that it will revolutionize the study of the perennial philosophy.
To conclude, I found Rene Guenon somewhat better than Frithjof Schuon, which really isn't saying much.
An Indictment of Progressivism
A fan of my Amazon reviews, unhappy with my less-than-positive three-star review of Rene Guenon's "The Essential Rene Guenon," suggested that I needed to reconsider my assessment of the renowned French spiritual philosopher - and so, as he suggested, I read "The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times."
In this text, a scathing critique, Guenon blisters early-to-mid- 20th-century Western society, culture, and values and argues for the importance of true, esoteric spiritual tradition. Guenon blasts egalitarianism, moral relativism, multi-culturalism, neo-spirituality, pseudo-initiation, simplicity over depth, humanism over super-humanism, rationalism over super-rationalism, substance (or matter) over essence (or spirit); in short, quantity over quality.
According to Guenon, so-called "progress" is a euphemism for "profound decadence, continuously accelerating, which is dragging humanity toward the pit where pure quantity reigns." This tendency toward quantity results in a "downward leveling," where uniformity becomes a "caricature of unity" and everything is within the reach of Everyman.
Speaking of unity, one particular Guenon description of it stood out for me: "Unity is that wherein all quality subsists, transformed and in its fullness, and that distinction, freed from all 'separative' limitation, is indeed carried therein to its highest level."
In contradistinction to "Integral" philosopher Ken Wilber, who views 20th-century modernity/postmodernity as a progressive "Up from Eden" ascent, Guenon views it as a regressive down-from true-tradition descent, the "final phases of cyclical manifestation" in this Dark Age of Kali Yuga.
I have mixed feelings about this prescient text. On the one, hand I applaud Guenon (born November 15, 1886) for his Scorpionic scorching of decadent, de-esotericized modern socioculture, and on the other, I find his analysis severely lacking, devoid of innovative, integral solutions. Guenon had no real answer for the downward spiral. Instead of proposing something new and vital, he simply argued for genuine tradition, and in line with his argument, he left France and spent the last two decades of his life deeply involved in a Sufi order in Egypt, under the name Shaykh `Abd al Wahid Yahya. I wonder what he would say about Islam today.
Although I have mixed feelings about Guenon's discourse, I don't have mixed feelings about his dense, tortuous writing style: In short, I don't care for it. It's as if Guenon is straining to make it inaccessible to the common man, whom he has little regard for.
To summarize, I have decided to give this book four stars because I resonate with Guenon's critique of modern/postmoderm society, but I didn't really enjoy reading it.