Perennial philosophy

According to Aldous Huxley, perennial philosophy (a term coined by Leibniz) “is primarily concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and mind.” Here, “divine” is used in the broadest sense and intentionally flexibly.

One of the ironies of perennial philosophy is that compilers of anthologies like Huxley and Tolstoy (in his Calendar of Wisdom). abstract wisdom literature into a consensus that does not appear manifest in a specific culture or society.

Wisdom underlies the myriad things, is the insightfulness of human expression, yet it remains intellectual in expression, the product of thought and reflection, not practice. Culture and society are the organic structures from which ideas and practices emerge as from a micro-climate. Here, small and narrow niches evolve into larger, more complex, and more flexible entities. Within these entities emerge typical individuals — not atoms but people, socialized, interacting, and interdependent. If there are bits of wisdom in the cultures, they are either expressed within daily existence, almost unconsciously, or are consciously identified and cultivated as wise teachings of elders. But these are almost always individuals blessed with insight and the courage to practice, not social or institutional organs.

Elders have no stake in instincts: reproduction, territory, power, followers, aggrandizement of self, wealth. These re products of action and growth, not reflection and practice. Elders have historically become the reservoirs of a culture’s wisdom because of their disengagement from instincts. Today, however, there are many foolish old people, few elders.

Perennial philosophy is the summation by elders scanning the settings of their lives and times. Perennial philosophy represents an abstraction insofar as it represents not the culture or even the wisdom of the culture (with few exceptions), but rather the cumulative observation of one person at a time.

Even the term perennial suggests a biological rather than philosophical model. The perennial herb or flower seems to remember its experience, to apply it anew when it is reborn from seed. Its reappearance must have seemed to primitives a miracle, carrying both memory and vitality, the content of wisdom plus the gift of life. Naturally, perennial philosophy outlasts its own cultures, which eventually die, but carries the memory of what it learned, what made most sense, what was wise, and brings it back to life in those who discover it.

No wonder ancients dabbled in transmigration and reincarnation as a means to explain the continuity of wisdom in human beings. Otherwise, cultures and societies are doomed to repeat the same errors, to be dominated by the same base instincts, to commit the same follies. And so they do. Perennial can refer to rebirth as much as to that Jungian pool of unconscious wisdom from which only a few cup their hands to drink, a pool inaccessible to what we call culture and society at large and reserved only to the individual mind and heart.

But the poignancy of life is perhaps not the varieties of the perennial but the tragedy of the mundane, of the “annual” in contrast to the “perennial” — to continue the metaphor. The herb or flower grows in due season, subject to natural forces as it strive toward reproduction, to make of its very cells and atoms something that will continue, something that will be everlasting in its successions. It gives fruit or pod with a thousand seeds, hoping, as it were, to have these fall to the earth and carry on the memory, the identity, that it is.

We call these natural forces blind and random. Science categorizes them in terms of genetics and hormones and vital minerals. But this scrutiny without reflection misses the drama and the potency of meaning and analogy. A lesson not heard or heeded. For even as we imbibe, nurture, give life to the seeds of wisdom (reflecting on the anthologies of perennial philosophy that is culture writ large), we transmute these spiritual seeds from the biological, from that form that the world thinks is the only form of seed and perpetuation of life.

By our identification with the perennial (and identification falls short of love, that love that is the eros of all life, even of herbs and flowers, of human beings), we leave behind the blind and random drama of appearances and enter the only way to respond to the world of cultural and social vagaries.

On the one hand are the cold minds that see nothing of this life drama but their own material comfort, much like the seed that falls on the rock or dry place or on the heavily-trodden path where they are ground down by the march of humanity. On the other are the sentimentalists who uphold tradition and the classics as authorities, but dead. In contrast, the perennial is a living being only when within the mind, expressed outward into a form of living. Huxley warns against “reverential insensibility” and the “stupor of the spirit” that affects both classes of people mentioned. Their methodology amounts to “empirical theology” analogous to astronomy with the naked eye, vaguely descriptive, purporting to describe the indecipherable and the unseeable.

To pursue the perennial philosophy is to throw oneself into life and the primacy of experience, not an abstraction but a path for living. This throwing is not the hot egoism of Dionysius nor the cold ego of Apollo. It is awareness and insight, gained by work and practice. Nor is the perennial a cultural decoration or trophy, like a dusty library of acknowledged titles. The perennial demands experimentation, engagement, and discovery. Only then can wisdom be made into a transforming force.