The Perennial Philosophy

By W. T. S. Thackara
These teachings are, therefore, no novelties, no inventions of today, but long since stated, if not stressed; our doctrine here is the explanation of an earlier and can show the antiquity of these opinions on the testimony of Plato himself. — Plotinus, Enneads V. 1. 8

There is an arresting thought in one of Plato’s Dialogues, the Symposium (§202-4), that love is the midpoint between ignorance and wisdom, the mediator between humans and the gods, and that through love we attain spiritual understanding. St. Paul, too, spoke of love in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible: that even if he could speak all the languages of men and angels, and had not love, he would be as sounding brass and tinkling cymbal; and even had he the gift of prophecy, knew all mysteries and had faith to move mountains, but had not love, he would be nothing — homage to his Master’s commandment, that “ye love one another as I have loved you.” And in Buddhism the ideal human being, the bodhisattva who is “awakened” to the Reality behind life’s illusions, is spoken of as possessing the “great loving heart.” He has arrived at the “other shore” of enlightenment guided and strengthened by perfecting in himself the two most important virtues in Buddhist philosophy, karuna and prajna, “love” and “discriminating wisdom” born of altruism.

The same theme pervades the word philosophy — whose invention is credited to Pythagoras — for the word is a union of two Greek roots: philos, “love” + sophia, “wisdom.” Although usually translated “love of wisdom,” philosophy may equally denote the wisdom of love or, alternatively, “loving-wisdom.” Among the several Greek terms for love, each signifying a different aspect, philos and its cognate philia connote friendship and affection — as in philanthropy, the “love of man” which motivates charity, and philadelphia, “brotherly love.” Theon of Smyrna (2nd century CE) wrote that philosophy may be compared to initiation into the Mysteries, the last part or crowning achievement of which is “friendship and communion with divinity.”

Thus we may see that the principal aim of Greek philosophy originally, like Buddhism and Christianity, was the perfection of love and wisdom as a means to becoming one with the source of life. Moreover, each of these traditions implied that the spiritual quest actually begins with love and ends in wisdom; that the portals to the heart of Being open to those seized by passion for truth and a deep concern for the welfare of all. “To live to benefit mankind is the first step” — this is a universal, perennial message. Equally enduring has been humanity’s quest for a unifying, saving wisdom.

The idea of a perennial philosophy, of a common denominator — rather, a highest common factor — forming the basis of truth in the world’s many religious, philosophic, and scientific systems of thought, goes back thousands of years at least. The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, for example, speaking about the existence of the soul after death, mentions that not only does he have the authority of all antiquity on his side, as well as the teachings of the Greek Mysteries and of nature, but that “these things are of old date, and have, besides, the sanction of universal religion” (Tusc. Disp. I.12-14).

It was the 17th-century German philosopher Leibniz, however, who popularized the Latin phrase philosophia perennis. He used it to describe what was needed to complete his own system. This was to be an eclectic analysis of the truth and falsehood of all philosophies, ancient and modern, by which “one would draw the gold from the dross, the diamond from its mine, the light from the shadows; and this would be in effect a kind of perennial philosophy.” A similar aim, with the goal of reconciling differing religious philosophies, was pursued by Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria (3rd century ce), the inspirer of Plotinus and the Neoplatonic movement.

Leibniz, however, laid no claim to inventing the phrase. He said he found it in the writings of a 16th-century theologian, Augustine Steuch, whom he regarded as one of the best Christian writers of all time. Steuch described the perennial philosophy as the originally-revealed absolute truth made available to man before his fall, completely forgotten in that lapse, and only gradually regained in fragmentary form in the subsequent history of human thought.

Much more recently (1945) Aldous Huxley compiled an anthology of the world’s religious and mystic traditions which describes many features common to this “philosophy of philosophies.” In his preface, he defined it as follows:

Philosophia Perennis — . . . 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 with, 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 traditionary 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. — The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii

Huxley pointed out that he did not turn to the writings of “professional” philosophers in compiling his book, but to a few of those rare individuals in history who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions — in his words, by “making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor [humble] in spirit” — by which they were afforded firsthand, direct
apprehension of divine Reality. If one were not a sage or a saint, he felt, the next best thing one could do was “to study the works of those who were and who, because they had modified their merely human mode of being, were capable of a more than merely human kind and amount of knowledge.”

It is not so extraordinary that the core teachings of every major spiritual philosophy are so similar, even though the traditions are separated geographically, culturally, and by vast epochs of time. For it was the same theosophia or divine wisdom that was universally given forth by every sage and teacher, the same “exhaustless, secret, eternal doctrine” that Krishna had eons ago imparted to Vivasvat (the Sun), and has been periodically transmitted from age to age (Bhagavad Gita, ch. 4).

The most comprehensive modern presentation of this “theosophia perennis,” with proofs of its diffusion throughout the world, may be found in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, in particular The Secret Doctrine, subtitled “The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy.” Herself taught by more advanced students, she wrote that

the teachings, however fragmentary and incomplete, contained in these volumes, belong neither to the Hindu, the Zoroastrian, the Chaldean, nor the Egyptian religion, neither to Buddhism, Islam, Judaism nor Christianity exclusively. The Secret Doctrine is the essence of all these. Sprung from it in their origins, the various religious schemes are now made to merge back into their original element, out of which every mystery and dogma has grown, developed, and become materialised. — 1:viii

Besides elaborating the fundamental teachings and showing their analogy in nature, Blavatsky explains how the secret “wisdom of divine things” has been “revealed” to mankind and periodically renovated throughout history. Referring to an historical event allegorized in the Garden of Eden story, in the myth of the Promethean fire, and also in the Hindu story of the descent of manasaputras (“sons of mind”), she describes how some 18 million years ago divine beings, “perfected” humans of former cycles who are native to higher, invisible spheres of cosmic life, blended a portion of their consciousness with nascent mankind, inflaming them with thinking intelligence. In this act of sacrifice and evolutionary necessity, they indelibly impressed upon the “plastic mind-substance” of humanity life’s important truths so that they would never be utterly lost. Here then, also, is the rationale of Plato’s doctrine that learning is actually a process of “reminiscence” — “remembering” or “rediscovering” primordial knowledge imbedded in the immortal portion of the soul.

Since that ancient time, restorations of the wisdom-tradition in every part of the globe have been regularly attempted, mainly for two reasons: first, because of erosive forces which in time disfigure each presentation — namely, that original teachings, usually oral, are imperfectly remembered or forgotten, texts are lost, copies and translations are edited, word meanings change, and people often misinterpret or overlook essential points.

The second and more compelling reason is that humanity is evolving, with likewise evolving needs; and when the cry from the collective human heart is sufficient, a response from the right quarters is made which will fulfill the needs of the cycle then opening. It is well known that the messiahs, avatars, buddhas, prophets, and “god-taught” of every nation have come as reformers and transmitters, not as originators of anything but the “earthly garment” of their presentation, woven out of available materials. Yet it is also to be noted that the messengers are seldom well known to their contemporaries, nor is the import of their message fully understood. All innovation attracts opposition; powerful dragons surround the grail.

Our own age, like every other, is replete with “false prophets” whose often fascinating mixture of truth and error has led many astray into unproductive, even dangerous, sidelines. How then, we may ask, are we to determine what is genuinely of the spirit and what is chaff? Though it requires persevering and discriminating study, we can apply the tests of perenniality and universality: is the teaching explicitly stated or implied by the world’s great spiritual teachers? And, what is equally important, does it bear the hallmark of spirit: is its appeal to the selfless, altruistic side of our nature?

The universe, physical and metaphysical, is all one reality; and according to simple logic there can be only one truth, however limited, varied, and seemingly divergent may be its expressions in human language. The divisive influence of dogmatic theologies, of the attempt to arrogate truth under banners of any kind, including those of science and philosophy, can affect human welfare only negatively.

Perhaps it is best to remember, then, that like love, most of us are but “halfway” between ignorance and wisdom. If we have intimations of divine realities about which we seek fuller knowledge, or if we seek only to be an active force for good in the world but need a philosophy that will help us weather the storms of life, and the doldrums, we can be confident that such a knowledge exists which satisfies both heart and intellect. Humanity is not bereft of the compassionate guardianship of the gods and never has been. Both they and their earthly representatives have ever held out the compass of loving-wisdom as the surest guide to our destination. In following the course charted by these advanced wayfarers, not only can we discover what is true in life and what is not, but we will be fitting ourselves to express the perennial qualities of spirit.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)

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