Jules Evans in Aeon:
When I was a teenager, I came across Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (1945). I was so inspired by its array of mystical jewels that, like a magpie, I stole it from my school’s library. I still have that copy, sitting beside me. Next, I devoured his book The Doors of Perception (1954), and secretly converted to psychedelic mysticism. It was thanks to Huxley that I refused to get confirmed, thanks to him that my friends and I spent our adolescence trying to storm heaven on LSD, with mixed results. Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy has stayed with me through my life. He’s been my spirit-grandad. And yet, in the past few years, as I’ve researched his life, I find myself increasingly arguing with Grandad. What if his philosophy isn’t true?
The phrase ‘perennial philosophy’ was first coined by the Renaissance humanist Agostino Steuco in 1540. It referred to the idea that there is a core of shared wisdom in all religions, and to the attempt by Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonist school to synthesise that wisdom into one transcultural philosophy. This philosophy, writes Huxley, ‘is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.’ As Huxley argues, there is a lot of agreement between proponents of classical theism in Platonic, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish philosophy over three main points: God is unconditioned eternal Being, our consciousness is a reflection or spark of that, and we can find our flourishing or bliss in the realisation of this. But what about Buddhism’s theory of anatta, or ‘no self’? Huxley suggests that the Buddha meant the ordinary ego doesn’t exist, but there is still an ‘unconditioned essence’ (which is arguably true of some forms of Buddhism but not others). I suspect scholars of Taoism would object to equating the Tao with the God of classical theism. As for ‘the traditional lore of primitive peoples’, I’m sure Huxley didn’t know enough to say.
Still, one can see striking similarities in the mystical ideas and practices of the main religious traditions. The common goal is to overcome the ego and awaken to reality. Ordinary egocentric reality is considered to be a trancelike succession of automatic impulses and attachments. The path to awakening involves daily training in contemplation, recollection, non-attachment, charity and love. When one has achieved ‘total selflessness’, one realises the true nature of reality. There are different paths up the mystic mountain, but Huxley suggests that the peak experience is the same in all traditions: a wordless, imageless encounter with the Pure Light of the divine.