Jan 24th, 2010 by Bill
Books that have changed my thinking
(3): The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley
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I first came across The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley in 1997. I was familiar with Huxley’s fiction, particularly with his most famous novel Brave New World, which I had read at school and which had made me realise that Huxley was a social critic of no mean insight and influence. The ironically titled Brave New World, published in 1932, presents a critique of modern technological society, and of the cult of ‘progress’, which, since the 19th century at least seems to have been defined in largely mechanistic and scientific terms. ‘Technology will solve our problems and make us happy’ is still a dominant unwritten creed in the prosperous, materialistic Western world, despite the warnings of people like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, whose fiction has alerted us to the dangerous and dehumanising effects of much that we consider to be progress.
But The Perennial Philosophy is not a work of fiction. It is an anthology of extracts from various spiritual traditions, linked by very perceptive and quite lengthy comments from Aldous Huxley, which aims to show that genuine human welfare will not be found in modern mechanistic advances but in a rediscovery of an ancient teaching about the nature, origin and destiny of the human being. This ancient teaching is what Huxley, using a term originally coined by the 17th century German philosopher Leibnitz, calls ‘the perennial philosophy’. The word ‘perennial’, from the Latin, originally meant ‘lasting throughout the year’, a term applied to plants, but, by extension it has come to mean ‘lasting for all time, persisting throughout the ages’. It has also taken on the connotation of ‘ubiquitous’, something that is found everywhere.
According to Huxley, the perennial philosophy has three main tenets:
- There is a divine reality, call it God, call it Brahman, call it Allah, call it the Unnameable, which is the source of all things, all lives, all minds;
2. That in the human soul there is something similar to, if not identical with,that divine reality;
3. The ultimate aim of all human existence and, therefore, the secret of all human happiness and human fellowship lie in the recognition of this
identity between the human soul and God.
Of all the major world faiths, the one which most clearly and consistently teaches this doctrine is Hinduism – the Hindu greeting ‘namaste’ means ‘the god in me salutes the god in you’ – but the idea has its counterpart in Buddhism, and it is found, too, in the monotheistic religions of the west, although usually as a heresy. It is present in certain kinds of Jewish mysticism, and in the Sufi tradition within Islam. In Christianity it was espoused by the Gnostics of the early Christian centuries and by the mystics of the later ones. Meister Eckhart, a Dominican priest in 13th century Germany, was one of its most able exponents, and Mother Julian of Norwich and St. Theresa of Avila demonstrate that the doctrine is no male preserve. The Cathars of medieval France were persecuted for preaching a version of it, and the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that ‘there is that of God in every man’ gave it a more contemporary and, to some extent, a more acceptable dress.
First of all I might mention the shock I felt on discovering that such a profound book on spirituality had been written by a man whom I had previously considered to be non-religious. Huxley had indeed been a sceptic in his early life. He came from a family of rationalists and his grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, the zoologist, who had coined the term ‘agnostic’ in 1860, and who was called ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ because of his passionate and spirited defence of the theory of evolution. In 1926 Aldous had dismissed meditation as ‘the first cousin of the doze’, but in the late 1930s, while trying unsuccessfully to make a living in Hollywood as a writer of screenplays (he wrote a synopsis of Alice in Wonderland, which was rejected by Walt Disney because Disney said that he could only understand every third word), was introduced to Hindu philosophy, and from then on his work became more specifically spiritual. He wrote The Perennial Philosophy in 1945, and he died in 1963, on 22nd November, the same day as President Kennedy and C.S. Lewis. On his deathbed he asked his wife to inject him with LSD. He had been a user of mind-altering drugs since the mid 1950s, and in another famous non-fiction work, The Doors of Perception, published in 1954, he was concerned to show how psychedelics could transform our understanding of reality, and make us aware of our connections with God and with each other. The title of the book comes from William Blake who wrote, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is, infinite.’ Spirituality, according to Blake and to Huxley, is about ‘cleansing the doors of perception’, seeing everything anew.
One of the most important things I learned from The Perennial Philosophy was that it was possible to hold the view that all religions have a common core, without falling into the trap of saying that ‘all religions are the same’ or ‘one religion is as good as another’. All religions are manifestly not the same, nor are religions of equal value. The differences even among religions which share a history and which have scriptures in common – like Judaism, Christianity and Islam for example – are numerous and significant, and the differences between these monotheistic religions and the polytheistic creeds of Hinduism, or atheistic Buddhism cannot be overlooked as simple cultural or historical accidents, and at some level are virtually irreconcilable. What’s more, some religious systems are positively harmful. For example, there are aspects of ‘born again Christianity’ in its numerous manifestations which leave me cold, and the militant wing of Islam is proving itself to be a very real threat to our western liberal values. But secular belief systems which do not take account of the perennial philosophy, which treat people as cosmic accidents and not as manifestations of the divine, are equally dangerous, as the 20th century’s litany of failed Utopias graphically and tragically demonstrates.
The mystics of all religions teach that the soul, the divine part of the human being, longs for God, longs to be reunited with the ground and source of its being. In the words of Psalm 42:
As the deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
This mystical vision, presented by the Psalmist in Jewish categories of thought, is expressed differently by the different faith systems. ‘What God is, you are’, say the Hindus, and until you realise this, and until you take steps to reconnect yourself with the God whose nature you share, you will be constantly aware of a profound lack in your life, which no amount of money, worldly success, worldly power or sensual gratification can possibly satisfy. As St. Augustine puts it, ‘You have made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.’
This is what Jesus was referring to when he said, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be added unto you’. The kingdom of God is not some earthly Utopia built up on our behalf by enlightened churchmen or liberal politicians. Nor is it, as many would hold, a system of government set up by some divine saviour or other. It is not an external thing at all. ‘The kingdom of God is within you,’ we read in the Gospel of Luke, and until we acknowledge this and accept that within each human being, even the most wretched, God resides then we are doomed to personal unhappiness and collective mayhem.
This, of course, is just the opposite of what we are told by our political leaders. We have been schooled to believe that our welfare is entirely dependent upon having and owning and that the world’s problems will only be solved when all can have and own alike. ‘A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage’ was reputedly the campaign slogan of J. Edgar Hoover in 1928, and expresses the optimistic vision of an end to poverty. But what happens when we have two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage and we are still unhappy, craving even more?
Reading Huxley I realised that religion has to go beyond politics. Politics are important and we need to get involved, but politics are not enough. This was a crucial insight for me in 1997 because I had come into Unitarianism principally because of its liberal political agenda and its seeming lack of emphasis on specifically ‘religious’ matters, but I was becoming increasingly disillusioned by it. I was asking myself a number of questions about the role of the minister. Was it my job just to comment on the political situation? Was I supposed to lead the congregation in campaigns to ameliorate the living conditions of people who were living reasonably well anyway, but who were still dissatisfied? Why, regardless of what we seem to be doing, are the world’s problems getting worse? Why, in a world of plenty, are millions starving? Why are successful millionaires in rehab? Why, as I walk along the busy, relatively prosperous streets of Dublin or of my home town of Pontefract, do I (in the words of William Blake) ‘mark in every face I meet/ marks of weakness, marks of woe?’ Is the solution to be found in changing the political system? Would socialism change things? Maybe, but if the experiences of Eastern Europe were anything to go by, not sufficiently to make a real difference.
Huxley helped me to realise that the primary raison d’être of a religious organisation – and therefore the primary role of the religious minister – is to help us reconnect with the source of our existence, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28), as St. Paul puts it. This does not need any metaphysical theories, except perhaps the belief that everything originates in consciousness, which is a central tenet of the perennial philosophy, and which is just as likely to be true as the contemporary belief that consciousness developed from matter. But it does require us to find acceptable methods of prayer and meditation, which will enable us to make the necessary connections; and it does require us to find ways to extend our compassion to those who with us are sharers in the divine nature.
It requires us, too, almost as a precondition of anything else, to undertake to tame the ego, that part of the self which rejoices in its separateness, which seeks its own glory and its own advantage. ‘My kingdom go’ is a necessary corollary of ‘thy kingdom come’ says Huxley. In fact, unless we turn from the self, even our turning to God will be disastrous. This piece from chapter 20 shows Huxley at his most prescient:
‘Turning to God without turning from self’ – the formula is absurdly simple; and yet, simple as it is, it explains all the follies and iniquities committed in the name of religion. Those who turn to God without turning from themselves are tempted to evil in several characteristic and easily recognisable ways…..They are tempted to use the name of God to justify what they do in pursuit of place, power and wealth. And because they believe themselves to have divine justification for their actions, they proceed, with a good conscience, to perpetrate abominations … … Throughout recorded history an incredible sum of mischief has been done by ambitious idealists, self-deluded by their own verbiage and a lust for power into a conviction that they were acting for the highest good of their fellow-men. In the past, the justification for such wickedness was ‘God’ or ‘the Church’, or ‘the True Faith’; today idealists kill and torture and exploit in the name of ‘the Revolution’, ‘the New Order’, ‘the world of the Common Man,’ or simply, ‘the Future’.
Religion, I learned from Huxley, should not be primarily concerned with politics and economics; its primary concern should be with the self, with acknowledging the ‘divine spark’ within myself and within everybody else, and with overcoming – ‘crucifying’ – the false self of the ego which is keeping me separate and which is contributing to the mayhem in which the world seems to be perpetually embroiled. Only by espousing some version of the perennial philosophy, a conviction of our common origin and our common nature, will we ever make changes to the world which are any more than cosmetic. Only then will we be able to say – without irony – those words of Miranda in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, from which Huxley took the title of his most famous book:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world!
That has such people in’t! (Act V Scene 1)
24th January 2010