Perennial philosophy is a strand of philosophical thought prevalent in culture since the Renaissance. It became popularised in the 20th century where these ideas became widespread across academia and society.
Perennial philosophy is a viewpoint that provides an interesting outlook on the practice of many religious faiths. It is a source of valuable insight for some, whether this is understanding or grappling with the varying religious teachings that inhabit our communities.
However, before we explore how this philosophy can influence our attitude towards these matters, we must first be clear on what exactly Perennial Philosophy is. Once we have done this, we will be able to examine what the criticisms of this theory may look like. Only then can we see how it may broaden our perspective on Religion and belief systems in society for the better.
What is Perennial Philosophy?
You might think that the phrase Perennial Philosophy is complex. However, it is relatively simple to understand. Perennial Philosophy is an idea that recognises all of the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions as sharing one singular universal truth and ideal.
All of these traditions are, in the end, premised upon this same foundational truth. They are all trying to make sense of the same thing.
These ideas started to emerge in the Renaissance. However, they became widespread in the 20th century by the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Renaissance thinkers began the groundwork for these ideas after drawing upon Plato’s theory of forms. These minds used this Platonic theory to develop certain ideas:
- There is an inherent, latent unity in the world.
- This unity is found in many established practices.
- It is not limited, nor is it unique to just one such tradition.
These Renaissance beliefs fully came to the fore in the 20th century through Aldous Huxley. Here the ideas became more developed, advanced and widespread within society. Huxley popularised the theory. In fact, he explains it in his book The Perennial Philosophy (1945):
“…the metaphysic that recognises a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal” Aldous Huxley
But what do Huxley’s words mean? Huxley goes into more depth about the subject in his book. He posits that all religious traditions centre towards one same ‘divine reality‘. It is how we understand it and our place within it that is important.
It is true that religions and spiritual traditions can contrast greatly in their teachings and form. Yet, they are all attempting to decipher the purpose of human life. They are providing guidance for the same thing – the search for meaning in life.
Criticisms of Perennial Philosophy
It is now worth taking a look at the criticisms of these ideas. Then we can examine how these ideas can open our minds and influence our perspective on these matters.
Religions are in conflict with each other
There are some criticisms of Perennial Philosophy that claim that it is an unrealistic and unworkable theory. A primary concern is an argument that many world religions are in conflict and have been throughout history. How can religions share a universal truth if they are so at odds with each other?
Religious beliefs vary so much
Furthermore, many religions differ so greatly in their ethics, beliefs, principles and teachings. As a result, it may become increasingly difficult to see how they can all share one ‘divine’, universal and shared ideal. Therefore, Perennial Philosophy runs the risk of not receiving merit. Particularly if they are not consistent with each other in these teachings.
But do these differences and dissimilarities matter? It is surely inevitable that such practices will have glaring differences and distinctions. Consider the very varied cultures that they were born from? The historical factors that they play into their belief system? Not to mention the different spiritual teachings that they espouse to their followers.
These criticisms and the issues they expose indeed hold the potential to threaten the dismantling of this theory. However, it does not mean that we should write it off altogether.
Perhaps the universal truth shared by all religions still prevails even in the face of these conflicts and contrasting philosophies. It’s certainly possible that each belief system is premised on this singular reality. It could be that they just express it in varying ways or point towards it in a different manner.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether you are fully convinced by it or not, Perennial Philosophy does have some useful ideas. These ideas can not only broaden our perspective but can also be hugely beneficial to us in these perspectives.
How Perennial Philosophy can open our minds
This is the singular idea that all religions are based on the same universal truth. Moreover, they have all grown from this same truth. This is something that we can all use positively.
Religion is an entity that provides moral and spiritual guidance to its followers to help them live their lives. They are essentially providing purpose to people’s lives or at least trying to navigate us towards some sort of purpose.
Perennial Philosophy helps to push past conflicting beliefs and the disharmony of separate religious doctrines. Consequently, it exposes a fundamental yearning that we all innately share – the search for meaning and purpose.
We Are All the Same
This allows us to perceive the world’s religions beyond warring factions pitted against each other as separate institutions. It edifies our minds to push past the boundaries that can separate us.
In effect, it provides some sort of reassurance that we are all fundamentally the same. We are all beings trying to answer the questions of our existence. Even though we may be taking different paths to find these answers.
You can push the theory of Perennial Philosophy beyond Religion. Some of us may not choose to follow Religion. It may not be the source we look to for fulfilment. You may be an atheist and turn to other means of guidance.
There perhaps are multitudes of sources and doctrines that one may draw from. All in an attempt to garner the purpose that we all seek. A universal truth of being, purpose and meaning is surely something that can bind us all together.
It can be comforting to know, whatever we follow, we are all, perhaps unknowingly, all searching for the same thing. We all experience times of loneliness, unhappiness and confusion in our lives. This philosophy is an antidote for such states. The idea that essentially, we are all beings struggling to find the answers to the same questions.
Perennial Philosophy can open our minds to our shared existence and the commonalities that we have within it. It helps us to form a more optimistic vision of the world. And this may prove critical and liberating during hard times.
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