December 8, 2005

In the last issue of Phlit, I promised to complete my Bruno essay soon, but I’ve been distracted yet again, and I’ll have to ask you to wait a bit longer for Bruno. (I’m sure you’re waiting with bated breath.)

1. Perennial Philosophy

I recently read an online essay on Hermetism. It said, “Hermeticism has traditionally been thought to represent the so-called perennial philosophy (a term first used by Liebniz and adopted by Huxley).” I had heard the term “perennial philosophy” before, but I hadn’t explored the concept, nor had I associated it with Hermetism. I now realize that what I’ve been calling “Hermetism” is very close to “perennial philosophy.”

When people speak of “perennial philosophy,” they often mean “perennial religion”; or rather, they mean a worldview that is both a philosophy and a religion. Wikipedia says this about perennial philosophy:

The Perennial Philosophy (Latin philosophia perennis) is the idea that a universal set of truths common to all people and cultures exists. The term was first used by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz to designate the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religious movements, in particular the mystical streams within them. The term was later popularized by Aldous Huxley in his 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy.... These worldwide perceptions are thought to be valid or reliable because of their consistency and due to the similarities among them in spite of their often independent origins.... ‘Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy [Huxley wrote] may be found among the traditional 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’.... The concept of perennial philosophy is the fundamental tenet of the Traditionalist School, formalized in the writings of 20th century metaphysicians Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon. The Indian scholar and writer Ananda Coomaraswamy, associated with the Traditionalists, also wrote extensively about the perennial philosophy.

I’m currently reading Frances Yates’ book, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. She discusses Renaissance Hermetists like Pico della Mirandola, who tried to combine various religious traditions into one perennial philosophy. So Yates wouldn’t be surprised to hear us associate Hermetism with a perennial philosophy. “It was in 1486,” Yates writes, “that the young Pico della Mirandola went to Rome with his nine hundred theses, or points drawn from all philosophies which he offered to prove in public debate to be all reconcilable with one another.”1 Pico combined the Hermetic-Gnostic tradition, the Jewish-Cabala tradition, and the Christian tradition. Hermetists also tried to bridge the gap between Catholic and Protestant. Some later Hermetists, such as Athanasius Kircher, tried to bring distant cultures into their grand synthesis:

Kircher is aiming [Yates writes] at making a synthesis of all mystical traditions. He is a seventeenth-century Pico della Mirandola in this respect, but he includes areas unknown to Pico, such as Mexico and Japan, which had been covered by the Jesuit missions.2

Here is Huxley’s description of the four basic doctrines of the perennial philosophy:

  1. the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness — the world of things and animals and men and even gods — is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent. [Joseph Campbell spoke of a “world behind.”]
  2. human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
  3. man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
  4. man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.3

A variety of books about the perennial philosophy can be found at the website of Fons Vitae, a publishing company. One of the board members of Fons Vitae is Huston Smith, a prominent writer on religion and the author of The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. Bill Moyers made a five-part documentary on Smith, “The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.”

Another board member of Fons Vitae is Robert Thurman, a well-known expert on Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism; Thurman’s daughter is the actress Uma Thurman.

2. Aldous Huxley

My interest in perennial philosophy aroused in me an interest in its leading modern champion, Aldous Huxley. Huxley was born in 1894 into a distinguished and talented family; “on his father’s side were a number of noted men of science, while on his mother’s were people of literary accomplishment [including Matthew Arnold].”4 Huxley’s path of development reminded me of my own path:

While his earlier concerns might be called “humanist,” ultimately, he became quite interested in “spiritual” subjects like parapsychology and mystically based philosophy, which he also wrote about.... Maturing as a lean young man well over six feet in height, [Huxley’s] initial interest in literature was primarily intellectual. While he was noted for his personal kindliness, only considerably later (some say under the influence of such friends as D.H. Lawrence) did he heartily embrace feelings as matters of importance in his evolving personal philosophy and literary expression.

In 1937, Huxley moved to California. He met sages from India, took up meditation, and became a vegetarian. He worked in the film industry, writing screenplays for Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. He experimented with the drug mescaline, and discussed these experiments in a book called The Doors of Perception (this book inspired a rock band to call themselves “The Doors”).

Huxley’s wife, Maria, died of breast cancer in 1955, and in 1956 he remarried, to Laura Archera, who was herself an author and who wrote a biography of Aldous.... On his deathbed, unable to speak, he made a written request to his wife for LSD. She obliged, and he died peacefully the following morning, November 22, 1963. Media coverage of his death was overshadowed by news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Huxley spent some time at the Esalen Institute, which Wikipedia describes as

a center for humanistic education, a nonprofit organization devoted to multidisciplinary studies ordinarily neglected by traditional academia. Now in its fifth decade, Esalen offers more than 500 public workshops a year in addition to invitational conferences, residential work-study programs, research initiatives, and internships.... Esalen is situated on 27 acres of spectacular Big Sur coastline with the Santa Lucia Mountains rising sharply behind.

The Esalen Institute sponsored the conference that gave birth to the The Dancing Wu Li Masters, a book on modern physics that I discussed in an earlier issue.

If you want to read a biography of Huxley, consider the 1973 biography by Sybille Bedford, who knew Huxley in the south of France and in California; Bedford was an accomplished writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

3. Kristol Class

In recent weeks, I’ve made two trips to Harvard to sit in on Bill Kristol’s class on American foreign policy. Kristol is co-teaching the class with Stephen Rosen; next semester, he’s co-teaching a philosophy seminar with Harvey Mansfield. I enjoy the long walk from the Boston train station west to Harvard. Both professors are interesting and full of ideas.

The first class I visited dealt with morality in foreign policy, and whether the U.S. should intervene in countries like Rwanda, where a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding. One of the readings for the class was “Bystanders to Genocide,” an essay about how decision-makers in various countries found excuses to do nothing to prevent genocide in Rwanda.5 But the professors pointed out that intervention isn’t an easy decision, since it often entails remaining involved for an extended period, nation-building, etc. Intervention also entails spending sufficient money on defense to make it possible to intervene.

Kristol asked the students to ponder these issues not just as academic exercises but as real problems, real choices. Kristol himself takes these issues seriously, and that made the lecture interesting. But his style of lecturing isn’t heavy or ponderous; rather, his style is casual and witty.

Generally, I agree with Samuel Johnson that lectures are pointless; instead, one should read “the books from which the lectures are taken.”6 In this case, however, I hadn’t read the relevant books, and didn’t plan to, so the lecture served as a summary of the books, and taught me things that I wouldn’t otherwise learn.

The second class that I visited dealt with differences between Europe and the U.S. It discussed a book by Robert Kagan called Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. This little book created a sensation, especially in Europe, when it was published in 2002. It argues that the U.S. and Europe are growing apart: “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” Europeans now believe in solving problems through international organizations, treaties, negotiations, etc., while the U.S. believes that some problems must be solved by force. Accordingly, Europeans have allowed their armed forces to decline, while the U.S. has maintained a fairly high level of defense spending. One can view military power as an effect or as a cause: power can be an effect of a belief that force is useful, or power can cause one to believe that force is useful.

The European worldview has worked well within Europe. Since World War II, there have been few wars between European countries; problems have largely been solved by multinational organizations, negotiation, etc. Europeans have come to believe that a paradise of peace is attainable, and that their approach can be exported around the world. An American might argue, however, that when the Balkan wars were raging in the early 90s, Europeans were unable to stop the bloodshed until the U.S. joined them. And even if the European approach works within Europe, what about other parts of the world — Africa, the Middle East, etc.?

Certain non-European countries seem to take the European approach. In Latin America, for example, the European approach seems popular, and anti-American feeling runs high. One charge that’s leveled against the U.S. is that we didn’t join the Kyoto treaty on pollution control. While the Latin American countries take the European approach, other countries seem to take the American approach — China, for example, seems to believe that force is still necessary and useful, and accordingly China is building up its military power.

4. Froude

Bill Kristol’s mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, is a scholar who specializes in the Victorian era, especially the intellectual history of the Victorian era. She recently published a book review in The Weekly Standard, a review of a biography of the Victorian writer J. A. Froude.

Froude was a friend of Carlyle, and also a friend of Newman. While Newman is famous for embracing the Catholic faith, Froude broke with Christianity. Froude wrote an autobiographical novel, The Nemesis of Faith, which one reviewer described as, “a manual of infidelity.”7

It related the crisis of faith experienced by the hero as he gradually came to question the credibility of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, and Christianity itself as the vehicle either to salvation or to morality ....The book cost him both his fellowship at Oxford and his inheritance (his father cut him out of his will). It also made him, at the age of 31, something of a celebrity, an outcast among the orthodox (the senior tutor at his own college burnt the book in hall before the assembled students), but a hero to those like George Eliot, who were liberating themselves, as they thought it, from the nemesis of faith.

Froude’s magnum opus is his 12-volume work on English history, covering the period from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. This work has been called “the most brilliant historical work produced in England in the middle of the century, with the single exception of Macaulay” (Macaulay focused on a later period of English history). A. L. Rowse called Froude a “historian of genius.” The public was captivated by Froude’s literary talent, as they had been by the talent of Gibbon and Macaulay.8

Himmelfarb says that in Froude’s historical work (as in other Victorian historical works) “‘past politics’ was a barely disguised form of ‘present politics.’” Froude praised England’s break with Catholicism as “the grandest achievement in English history” because it “liberated England from foreign potentates” and asserted the “nation’s greatness.” This argument was favorable to Disraeli and the Conservatives. “Certainly the idea of a ‘great’ England, an imperial England, was anathema to the ‘little Englandism’ of Gladstone and his party.” I object to the nationalism of Froude’s argument; I respect the cosmopolitanism of Catholicism. Nationalism splits Europe, and leads to intra-European war, while cosmopolitanism holds Europe together.

Froude later wrote a 3-volume work on the English in Ireland. Here again, Froude championed a ‘great England,’ an imperial England. At a time when liberals were advocating Home Rule for Ireland, Froude argued that England should be more forceful in asserting its power over Ireland:

On the whole, and as a rule, superior strength is the equivalent of superior merit; and when a weaker people are induced or forced to part with their separate existence, and are not treated as subjects, but are admitted freely to share the privileges of the nation in which they are absorbed, they forfeit nothing which they need care to lose, and rather gain than suffer by the exchange.

Froude’s support for imperialism is consistent with Carlyle’s right-wing views; in fact, Froude’s work on Ireland was “undertaken on the urging of Carlyle.”

© L. James Hammond 2005
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1. ch. 5, p. 86. Yates says that Pico makes his synthesis “on a mystical level, the many Names which he collects from all philosophies and religions being at bottom all one.”(ch. 6, p. 126) back
2. ch. 21, footnote 4, p. 422 back
3. This Huxley quote can be found at back
4. Wikipedia back
5. Samantha Powers, “Bystanders to Genocide,” Atlantic Monthly, September 2001, pp. 84-108. For a schedule of lectures, and a reading list, click here. back
6. Life of Johnson, Aetat. 57 back
7. Victorian Worthy: The historian as controversialist, by Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Weekly Standard, 12/12/2005, Volume 011, Issue 13 back
8. The complete title of Froude’s work is History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada. “As an historian,” says Wikipedia, “[Froude] is chiefly remarkable for his literary style. Like his mentor Carlyle, he condemned a scientific treatment of history, believing that its purpose was simply to record human actions and that it should be written as a drama. Accordingly his work gives prominence to the personal element in history.... Froude was a master of English prose. The most notable characteristic of his style is its graceful simplicity; it is never affected or laboured; his sentences are short and easy, and follow one another naturally. He is always lucid.” back