Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Perennial Philosophy?

The term is used by Catholics to refer to the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, but in 1945 Aldous Huxley published an influential book of this title, where it functioned as a translation of the Hindu term Sanatana Dharma (eternal religion); that is, an “immemorial and universal” metaphysical and ethical teaching, found in all the great religions and particularly in their mystical traditions. It is in this sense that the term has been adopted by a group influential scholars and writers known as “Perennialists”. Hindu scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy, who worked as Research Fellow at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 1930s and 40s, was one of the three founders, along with the Frenchman René Guénon and the Swiss-born Frithjof Schuon (both converts to Islamic Sufism, the one from a Catholic the other a Lutheran background).

Perennialism crosses religious boundaries but (or so it claims) without undermining them. It insists that truth can only be attained through the sincere practice of one or other living religious tradition. Such mediating forms can be transcended only from within: each revealed religion remains unique and precious in all its details, and must be accepted and practiced as the condition for any authentic spiritual realization. This teaching has played an important part in persuading many people (including myself) to take seriously the need for conversion, and to search for an authentic spiritual home. They have also awakened an interest in metaphysics and symbolism. Future posts will discuss these positive aspects, and also voice some criticisms. Sophia Perennis is one of the main publishers of this literature.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Caldecott, Schuon also came from a brief encounter with Catholicism - his family became Catholic when he was 18, and while he only practiced it for a year or two, it left strong enough of an impression on his brother that while Frithjof was converting to Islam his brother had entered a Carthusian monastery.

    Regardless of the length of time that Frithjof spent as a Catholic, the influence of Catholicism was undeniably presence. I remember reading in one of his later writings (cannot recall which one) the author pondering his own state of grace, as if a bit guilty, and stating that the only reason his defection from Christianity did not involve him leaving the "state of grace" was because of the esoteric nature of the order he joined. And, of course, he was as critical as Guenon was of Protestantism (though he was willing to grant it a "limited archetypal perspective" - but, then again, even a rabid anti-Protestant convert like myself can go that far).