Reading the late Joseph Campbell or especially watching his lectures is always a pleasure because of his infectious enthusiasm and basic optimism. He was not a dry scholar of narrow interests but a knowledgeable popularizer. And what he popularized was nothing less than what Aldous Huxley called “perennial philosophy” (though Huxley did not originate the term).
Perennial philosophy points to the universal recurrence of themes, insights, and intimations shared in every culture and tradition in every age. We dare not call it truth because that gives it a name and that which would be so is nameless. So, like an asymptote in mathematics, we approach ever closer but never seem to resolve all of the elements of the perennial into a simple package.
Campbell illustrated the perennial through his observation of myth, symbols, dreams, and rituals, presenting them with illustrations in the classroom and lengthy conversations in his video interviews. (The producers of the film Sukhavati interspersed his best talks with archival footage and video to succinctly capture Campbell’s point of view.)
But do all of the anthropological examples and synchronicity of thought and expression equate to the sum of the parts? It is not that golden rules and analogous patterns of social behavior and thinking exist cross-culturally. In fact, we should be astonished that humans act so combatively towards one another just because they belong to this tribe or to that geographical place. Our cultural behavior as a species is predictable in terms of anatomy and physiology but it has become inevitably ugly and morose in terms of culture and society. As culture and society, humans function as a structural projection of the values of power and destruction.
Are we, then, just spectators at the achievements of great souls? Have we become flotsam driven about by the rush of modern culture and technology, which aims at replacing the perennial with globalization of minds and hearts? This is the heart of the blind forces that propel society, and only the individual (not the group nor the individual as a group member) can step back and wonder.
The critique of perennialism, especially of that perennialism presented in more elaborate form by Jung and others, is that the parts do not equal the sum, that similarities of ritual and belief do not equate to any one given truth or prove anything. Perennialism, argue the critics, represents the universal aspiration of the best part of human thought, but no amount of wishes equals the desired reality behind the dreams, rituals, and intimations.
One is reminded of the arguments for the proof of God, though none is perfectly analogous with the argument for perennialism. We may as well argue about the concept of truth and whether truth can be demonstrated to everyone, even to the deliberate naysayer or nihilist. The sum of the parts may well never equal the whole argument. The attempt itself is temporal, within time and space, and carries the same negative forces that slow objects hurtled in the air.
We are left to make futile raids on the absolute, glimpsing light but working in darkness, sensing conviction but conscious of our inarticulate attempts to pin down our feelings, like sketching the setting of a dream that too quickly recedes and then is gone before we have completed our sketch.
The desire for certainty is the first element in our lives that we must renounce in order to even approximate certainty. The perennial is that which cultures have taken millennia to achieve and which we now discard in a few short years.
Campbell’s celebrated comparison of the Theravada and Mahayana experiences, for example, makes a breath-taking lecture because of Campbell’s sense of conviction and insight. But it is the experience he enjoyed that we really covet, not necessarily the certainty of his argument. For we know the circuitousness of arguments. We want to be at the point where we need no words, not even words describing the wordless, but just to see the flower held by Gautama before Mahakashyapa, to feel that it is just for us, just for us to understand, to experience, to feel, even as we stumble in our ability to explain it all with words.
The inability to explain with words is the solitude of all beings. We are born, as Plato thought, with an amnesia that frustrates our articulation. We become convinced that because we cannot articulate we cannot know, and if we cannot know we cannot understand. By reading and reflecting on the perennial and savoring the nexus drawn for us by Campbell and others, we feed our parched minds with nourishment for one more day, for one more day’s strength to overcome the chasm of dualism that separates us from ourselves, and ourselves from everything else.