Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy is an anthology of world thinkers from over thousands of years who have affirmed “the metaphysics that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds.” Further than metaphysics, Huxley attempted to include psychology and ethics, including
the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, Divine Reality, [and] the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thin is immemorial and universal.
Huxley’s book emerged from the wrenching history of Western violence and chaos in the 1930s and 1940s with an implicit appeal for the restoration of peace and civilization embedded in the fine discourse of the many authors he selects. In that regards, the work is a n expression of hope, or at least of optimism. Huxley had skillfully weaned his list of sources to exclude scholars, theologians, commentators, interpreters, and ecclesiastical or institutional figures, instead giving full voice to the most original people in history: saints, sages, mystics, and spiritual figures. Not unexpectedly, however, the selection of sources is decidely Western, familiar and prominent names, not always pure in their spirituality, some devotional, some scholastic. But the effort largely succeeds
This concentration on figures who lived their perceptions versus those who commented on the letter of the ideology or religion rescues the work not only for posterity’s readers but also for Huxley’s contemporaries, who may well have come to see the institutional and scholarly apparatus as the core of the problem, the source of the culmination of the 20th-century chaos. Huxley deliberately did not include a critique to that tradition because he was interested in the positive and hopeful message that a transcendence was possible.
This view was popular in Europe in the late 1940s but encounters two obstacles. In the first place, the sages, saints, mystics, and spiritual thinkers he cites were not consciously presenting a political or social agenda for a failing contemporary civilization. Indeed, the great spiritual figures, while living their virtue and insight, offer material applicable to everyday ethics, but not for advancing the infrastructure of a moribund culture.
A pointed example of a 20th century spiritual figure, of India, is Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). Aurobindo aptly fulfills Huxley’s criteria for a sage and spiritual thinker. (He is only mentioned once by Huxley, however.)
Sri Aurobindo, educated in British universities, returned to his native India determined to participate in political and social activism promoting Indian independence. He did so, leading meetings and editing a radical pro-independence periodical. He was arrested and imprisoned for a year (in the 1920s) for his seditious activity. During that solitary year, Aurobindo rediscovered the classics of his Hindu tradition, and decided to pursue a spiritual rather than activist path, concluding that the masses he sought to influence would not understand their social situation and its needs until they had raised their spiritual consciousness. Aurobindo went on to write prolifically on spiritual and mystical themes, never returning to worldly affairs. (Aurobindo eventually founded an ashram; a French widow and patron extended his ashram to a larger community. The institutionalizing of his thought tarnishes the singularity of his writing.)
A second factor challenging Huxley’s (and others’) hopes was the reality brought to the forefront by the existential tradition that succinctly expressed the pain and suffering of that era. As already mentioned, Huxley unwittingly bolsters the established Western historical traditions in the metaphysics, psychology and ethic represented in their own cultural contexts and eras. These historial contexts could not be reproduced in the 20th century, however well intentioned the reparative effort. The challenge for Huxley and his followers was how to maintain the spiritual fruits without continuing the ossification of Western culture.
Huxley may have striven for hope, that deep value that holds a faith regardless of circumstances. But once popularized, hope easily becomes optimism, a shallow version of hope but also a more palatable one for the mass reader. And as Miguel de Unamuno notes in his classic 1912 Tragic Sense of Life:
It is not usually our ideas that make us optimists or pessimists, but it is our optimism or our pessimism, of physiological or perhaps pathological origin, as much the one as the other, that makes our ideas.
If there exists in a man faith in God joined to a life of purify and moral elevation, it is not so much the believing in God that makes him good, as the being good … that makes him believe in God. Goodness is the best source of spiritual clear-sightedness.
While these critiques are pointed, they also conjure the gentle pessimism of Kierkegaard, the tragic sense of Marcus Aurelius and Unamuno himself, the cautionary insight of the more mystical spiritual writers recruited by Huxley. This is not the cynicism of Schopenhauer or the egoism Nietzsche. The 20th-century’s civil and world wars, genocides, nuclear weapons, and global tensions confirmed the pessimist’s view. The 20th century had already outrun the optimism of Huxley in the proliferation of technology and the institutionalization of the very sources that had engendered the pessimism.
But Huxley’s service was for all that invaluable. It refocused on the source of enlightenment and action, which is the individual, focused on a rich tradition that would outlast the diverse happenings that have snaked through the river of subsequent history. Huxley’s saints, sages, spiritual beings, and mystics, constitute a refuge for the individual thrown into a world where not merely people and structures tighten their grips on the organs of power, but even overthrow collective efforts of spiritual awareness. Huxley’s book echoes an old and happy optimism, perhaps, but is a valuable sourcebook that can still invite us to enter a great spiritual path.