Wednesday, 23 September 2015

I see no grounds for hope in the Perennial Philosophy because it has been thoroughly tried - and has failed

I used to be, pretty much, an adherent of the Perennial Philosophy; and even since I became a Christian I am not hostile to it. But I see no hope in it.

The reason is simply that it has been around for generations, but never gets any further; also I see no evidence that it has any significant tendency to strengthen and improve its adherents - whom seem to just as susceptible to the pathologies of modernity as is anyone else (and indeed among the leadership of Perennial Philosophy, the standards of behaviour - when judged by traditional values - are, on average, perhaps lower that the population average).

I have returned to this matter through my current project of reading Jeremy Naydler, and seeing that he teaches at the Temenos Academy, which is perhaps the most prestigious of Perennial Philosophy organizations - since it is actively supported by many establishment figures including HRH The Prince of Wales (presumably our future King).

What is the Perennial Philosophy? Here is a video self-explaining:


My own pragmatic definition is that the movement was (historically) set-up by, and continues to attract, disaffected ex-Christians and intellectuals who have positive views about most religions, spirituality, and selected aspects of some actual churches; but not about what they term 'fundamentalist' Christian churches. The PP is thus, pretty much, the intellectual wing of the New Age movement.

The basic idea of the PP is that all world religions (properly understood) share a core body of beliefs, and this core is true and the most important aspect of them, and these core truths can-be and ought-to-be the basis of the highest and best kind of religion/ spirituality.

I personally agree that all real religions share core truths - but I do not agree that what is shared is necessarily the most important thing - and especially not for these times. I certainly do not agree that the shared core it is the best kind of religion/ spirituality - and in practical terms I think it has been empirically proven by experience that these shared core things are not a sufficient basis for a strong and good lived religion/ spirituality.

In sum, the Perennial Philosophy seems too weak, too feeble, too diffuse and easily dispersible to be the core of a human life. And indeed, adherents do not behave as if the PP is the core of their lives; rather, they fit it into other priorities.


So, Perennialists tend to be positive (in a semi-detached way) about Eastern religions generally (especially Buddhism, but also some aspects of Hinduism such as the Bhagavad Gita - although not the caste system! - and especially keen on Taoism; also Sufism, sometimes Kabbalism, and the mystical traditions of Christianity; such as Eastern Orthodoxy, the meditative tradition of monasticism in the Roman Catholic Church, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism.. and many types of ancient paganism, animism, totemism and... have I missed anything?

Among Christian churches PP-ers do not seem to like Protestants generally and Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists or modern conservative evangelicals or Pentecostalists in particular... in sum they show no interest in the currently growing parts of mainstream Christianity. And they are either bored-by, or hostile-to, newer and thriving churches such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists.


As so often, there is a cleavage line around the sexual revolution. Perennial Philosophy advocates are almost all advocates of, and adherents to, one or more aspect of the sexual revolution, and the expansion of sexual relationships beyond religious concepts of marriage. This is very obvious among both leaders and followers - and the PP environment is often sexualized; with multiple marriages, cohabitations, affairs and the rest of it - in line with mainstream modern secular life.

Furthermore, in their political views they are Leftist - often the ultra-idealistic Leftism of Anarchism, Deep-Green ecology, Voluntary Simplicity etc. They may or may not support mainstream Left parties (often they do - but some ultra-Leftists do not); but they never support 'Right wing' parties - even by the insipid mainstream standards of mainstream politics whereby what would have been hardline Leftism two generations ago is now supposed to be far Right!

In general, the PP adherents never, in their analyses, regard the problems of the modern world as a consequence of Leftism - despite the close temporal correlation; but almost always as a consequence of something described as Right Wing - whether capitalism, libertarianism, industrialization, patriarchy, racism, colonialism etc.

In terms of their lifestyle, Perennial Philosophy advocates have adopted most of the post-sixties markers of New Left modernity - 'alternative'/ bohemian styles of grooming and clothing, ponytails and ear-rings for men, body piercings and tattoos with increasing popularity, green consumerism, a focus on Africa and a pro-ethnic stance, alternative- and psycho-therapies, Fair Trade products and vegetarianism, an interest in 'renewable' resources, 'organic' horticulture and farming, Anthropogenic Global Warming and so on, and so forth.


My point is that the Perennial Philosophy has been around for an awfully long time now - at least three generations of significant visibility (since, say, the Beat Generation of the 1950s), yet there is no evidence that it makes any significant difference to the lives of its adherents - they do not stand-out against the currents of our time in any way which would lead to significant problems for them.

On all the litmus test issues of our time - the kind of things that could get you sacked or made a public pariah - i.e. the issues of Political Correctness - the Perennial Philosophers are all comfortably on the side of the secular mainstream.

This must be either a terribly lucky coincidence! - or else demonstrates that the PP has no real backbone, no capacity to en-courage and strengthen its leaders or followers in face of adversity; but is merely a weathervane for mainstream secular Leftism.


On the one hand I still read and enjoy, and am not much worried about the Perennial Philosophy; on the other hand I don't expect anything substantive from it. Despite its hostility, it is no real threat to real Christianity. No doubt, as a half-way house it is sometimes a distraction from potentially better things; yet it may also be a stepping stone to better things (as it was for me).

So while I am not hostile, and I often find much to interest me in the work of Perennial Philosophy advocates - for instance, there are often good diagnoses of the deep problems of modernity even when the prescription and treatment-plan is usually worthless or just more of the same-old - I cannot be optimistic or enthusiastic about the future of the movement.

I see not the slightest evidence that the PP can be a real religion; and on the contrary I do see a recurrent pattern of hopes leading nowhere.

In sum; the Perennial Philosophy is at best an intellectual activity - part of the History of Ideas, more typically a feel-good Lefty lifestyle; but it is not a thing capable of deeply-motivating, nor of powerfully-inspiring, its adherents.

Mostly Harmless.



10 comments:

Nathaniel said...

Thanks, this is very personal to me. I did adhere to almost everything you described in the PP, except the sexual revolution and the addition of acknowledging inequality among individuals and groups - so ended up as sort of a leftist nationalist. I didn't realize how much the biases and assumptions were still influencing my ideas though until you spelled it out here.

I never got much out of trying to find the esoteric root behind the various religions, and I'm very glad to move on and live by a simpler, clearer, and more practical exoteric Christianity (without denying, of course, there are many things hidden/beyond my understanding).

Cui Pertinebit said...

Yes, the Sophia Perennis serves a good purpose insofar as it points individuals to the practice of a real, spiritual discipline. It did this for such men as Fr. Seraphim Rose. But, it has the weakness of tempting those who follow it into a religion such as Christianity as being "in it," but not really believing it (which, the Catholic Faith points out, invalidates one's actual membership in the Church). Christianity is an historic faith that makes absolute claims about the real intervention of the transcendent and absolute in space-time. Either one believes that Christ was Incarnate, suffered, died, arose, founded the Catholic Church, or one doesn't. To practice as a Catholic but believe that Catholicism is just a particular manifestation of some other, higher truth, is not to be a Catholic. And I certainly saw this with many of the converts to the Orthodox Church from the Sophia Perennis - they practiced as Orthodox Christians, but didn't believe the Orthodox doctrines per se, but simply as one of many variants of an higher truth (and sometimes would incorporate Hindu or Buddhist practices, as well). It was, as you say, a kind of disaffected, pseudo-Christian intellectualism.

For that reason, I think practitioners of the SP are often rather disingenuous, and this breeds vices directly opposed to the virtues of piety and religion, making the practice of this "faith" to be something of a farce upon Faith. But the Catholic Faith does teach the validity and goodness, insofar as it goes, of "natural religion." Often those in the Sophia Perennis movement have done some very deep thought on the profundity of the symbolism across different faiths, and how this illuminates universal spiritual truths. I myself have often been moved, or have received insights, from reading such writings or making such inferences myself. Insofar as one benefits from this, and especially if it leads one to the truth of the Catholic Faith, it serves a good purpose.

Wurmbrand said...

Are there any -young- Perennialists? My impression is that the surviving ones are elderly or middle-aged. However, that's also my impression of the dedicated C. S. Lewis readers.

ted said...

The new Perennialists are the Integral (a la Ken Wilber) folks who take broad strokes to the esotericists and traditional exotericists, and believe are taking their ideas to a new level by integrating all worldviews. In my opinion, it is still made up of mostly post-religious leftist intellectuals.

John Fitzgerald said...

A friend and I have had some recent encounters with Temenos which have left us profoundly disappointed. We saw them - rather naively as it turned out - as 'lantern bearers', men and women imbued with the life of the Spirit, animated by a fierce passion to bring that light and life to our darkening world. What we found instead was a smug, remote, overly-academic milieu, spinning in a self congratulatory orbit around London, Oxford and Cambridge. The phrase 'zeal for my house will consume thee', is not one you'd associate with Temenos. 'Don't frighten the horses' would be the more appropriate motto.

It wasn't always this way though. Their publication is entitled the Temenos Academy Review, which says it all, but back in the 80s, when it was called simply the Temenos Review, there were some superb artists and writers showcased - Kathleen Raine, of course, Brian Keeble, Cecil Collins, and, most notably from my point of view, Philip Sherrard, who wrote from an Orthodox Christian standpoint and became a profound influence on John Tavener. There was also the poet Jeremy Reed, who's still very much around and really does have some fire in his belly.

Alas, they lost their edge after Kathleen Raine died in 2003. The seeker, in my view, would find more intensity in a single page of Colin Wilson (for instance) than in the whole publication history of the Temenos Academy Review.

That said, Jeremy Naydler is always a joy to read or listen to, and I should also mention the poet Grevel Lindop, a Temenos lynchpin, whose biography of Charles Williams is out next month. I haven't met him, but he's from Liverpool and lives in Manchester, so he breaks the mould geographically, and is also, by all accounts, a thouroughly decent chap.

The only Perrenialist author who's really stuck with me is Rene Guenon, though I think he'd prefer the term "Traditionalist'. His 'Crisis of the Modern World' (1929) and 'The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times' (1945) are astonishing in their perspicacity and metaphysical 'calling out' of the post-modern world. The American, Charles Upton, about 10 years ago, wrote what he called an updated version of the latter book called 'System of the Antichrist' - a superb exploration of eschatological motifs in the world's religions.

Apart from that, I'm with you - Perrenialism won't be challenging the PC 'thought prison' you write of anytime soon. It's too comfortably ensconced in it.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Aldous Huxley's book The Perennial Philosophy is a big part of what got me re-interested in Christianity after years of atheism. Specifically, Huxley introduced me to Thomas Traherne and William Law, writers who had not been on my radar before.

T Maker said...

Dear Doctor,
I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms your insinuation that the Perennial Philosophy has failed because it has not produced a church.

To quote a review of Huxley's book of that title:


Mr. Huxley has made no attempt to 'found a new religion'; but in analyzing the Natural Theology of the Saints, as he has described it, he provides us with an absolute standard of faith by which we can judge both our moral depravity as individuals and the insane and often criminal behaviour of the national societies we have created.


The Perennial Philosophy is an intellectual approach to metaphysical realities. It is not disproven if various idiots aspire to it and fail to lead good lives, or if organized mobs of idiots use it as a banner behind which to rally their hordes.

One might as well survey a mountain of retracted academic papers and say that arithmetic has failed. Arithmetic is merely a lamp to guide your way; it is the traveller's responsibility to walk without stumbling. Likewise the Perennial Philosophy merely tells the truth. If humans cannot bear the truth, that is not the fault of the philosophy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JohnF - Great comments - thanks!

I regard Jeremy Naydler as a real find - there are profound insights in his work - for example he is able to 'transport' me to the thought-world and perspective of ancient Egypt in a way that has transformed my appreciation of that civilization. His explanation of the evolution of consciousness seems better than either Steiner or Barfield. The little book about Goethe's science is inspiring and persuasive.

I will be reading Grevel Lindop's biography of Charles Williams as soon as it is published (the next few weeks) - after that, I will be able to give an evaluation of him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TM - I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms that you are criticizing me for something I did not say. You seem to have read-into my article what you expected to find.

What I did say is that the PP does not seem to enable its adherents to stand against the harsh winds of modern life, since they simply go-along-with the prevailing trends of mainstream secular Leftism in all those respects which - if resisted - might lead to significant persecution.

David said...

@Wurmbrand - No there are young perenialists! I can certainly attest to that or at least I was or am one to some extent. When I was about 20 at University I read Brave New World by Huxley and this led me to his "Perenial Philosophy" volume, which opened my interest and excitement about spirituality in a way that I had never felt before. I could sense that there was something profound, transcend and and an enlargement of 'truth' highlighted by this work and similar authors such as Joseph Campbell. I became a kind of new age western Buddhist for a time borrowing ideas from various religious and spiritual traditions freely but attempting all the time to resolve the contradictory elements. This led me via numerous steps including C.S. Lewis and the great works of a certain Bruce Charlton ;-) before I realised I was actually a Christian after all and I've been trying to make the best of it since; although I still do retain very significant perennial leanings towards recognizing truth and wisdom wherever it can be found in all the world's great traditions; I just see it as important not to let contradictions become acceptable e.g. Buddhism and Christianity have fundamentally different metaphysical assumptions that are incompatible and so I reason I am not a Buddhist on the grounds of ultimate aims for spiritual practice being very different to Christianity.

I might add however that most young people I grew up with or have known since saw the books I read by Huxley or Lewis or otherwise as odd, bad, mad or irrelevant. Their default stance was a knee-jerk nihilism that seems to have been internalised unquestionably from the immediate culture. Perhaps a pitfall of the endogenous vs exogenous personality differences between human beings? I guess I was, and am, just a bit different to most people.