The Perennial Philosophy
I started this blog last November with the purpose of introducing some books that have been important to me to readers who might have missed them. I’ve written about Middlemarch and the works of P.G. Wodehouse and the diaries of James Lees-Milne. I don’t believe that I’ll run out of topics because a stroll over to my bookshelves always brings up a new idea. Yesterday, I came across The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, that I first read when I was in my twenties. I pick up the book again every few years and still value it very much.
We think of Aldous Huxley as a successful 20th century novelist, best known for his dystopian Brave New World. The story is an interesting counterpoint to Orwell’s 1984, because in Huxley’s story, humanity is destroyed not by a totalitarian police state but by the seduction of a drug induced and soulless false paradise. You can read both and decide which is the more dreadful fate.
Huxley was a profound thinker, who made a life-long study of philosophy and metaphysics, and had a particular interest in the mystical insights of both the East and the West. In the 1950s, he wrote two influential books, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, about the spiritual implications of hallucinogenic drugs. He was not a religious man; he was a searching man.
The age of Covid seems like an appropriate time to delve into Huxley’s remarkable anthology of mystical thought. The title needs some explanation – what is the perennial philosophy? In the introduction, it is defined as “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar or even identical with the divine Reality.” Huxley, depressed by the horrors of World War II, was searching for the fundamental truths in all spiritual traditions. In the book, each chapter concerns a fundamental issue or question that all thoughtful people must consider at some point. You read about such topics as God in the World, Truth, Self-Knowledge, Grace and Free Will, Silence, Prayer, etc. The chapters are short and the quotations are pretty much evenly divided between the wisdom of East and West. Huxley wrote much of the text, interspersing his own thoughts among the quotations.
In the chapter, Personality, Sanctity, Divine Incarnation, he writes:
“The saint is one who knows that every moment of our human life is a moment of crisis; for at every moment we are called upon to make an all-important decision – to choose the way that leads to death and spiritual darkness and the way that leads towards light and life; between interests exclusively temporal and the eternal order; between our personal will or the will of some projection of our personality, and the will of God.”
(The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley, Harper, 1945, 2009)
The book was highly influential on the “New Age” movement, and the searching minds of many a questing college student. It’s not as well known in these days, but Huxley had a brilliant and inquisitive mind and is still worth reading.
Hubble Space Telescope (NASA) - Spiral Galaxy Messier 99