It is a popular saying now that all the great religions "really teach the same thing." What, then, is this same thing they are all teaching? Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz (1646-1716), philosopher and mathematician, inventor of calculus, called this common factor the "Perennial Philosophy," following the humanist scholar Agostino Steuco(1497 – 1548). Aldous Huxley wrote an entire book on the subject, and also gave a capsule summary of it in his introduction to the Isherwood translation of the Bhagavad-Gita:
First: 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 nonexistent.
Second: 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.
Third: 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.
Fourth: 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.
I have four observations on the Perennial Philosophy:
Nor does the Perennial Philosophy have anything to say about an afterlife – whether it is eternal, returns to this life by reincarnation, or whether there is an afterlife at all. Still less does it say whether or not the "unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground" can be attained only in this life, only in the next, or in either.
Some questions about the Perennial Philosophy:
I'm not all that certain that every religion qualifies as a variety of the Perennial Philosophy. If a religion has no particular formalized theology, and is mostly concerned with staying on good diplomatic relations with the gods so as to encourage crops and victories, I don't see a lot of connection to the Perennial Philosophy. There may be (in fact, probably are) Perennial Philosophers in the Shinto population, for instance – just as there are non-Perennial Philosophers (annual philosophers?) in a population of Buddhists or Christians – but the general religion doesn't seem to have any interest in "unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground."
Many members of those religions would not say so, including saints and theologians. Geocentric and heliocentric astronomy both agree that the Earth is round and on many other things; big-bang and steady-state astronomy both agree on lots of things about stars and galaxies and the expansion of the universe; but the differences between them are important. Similarly, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam agree on the Perennial Philosophy and on many more theological features – God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly righteous, uncreated creator and ruler of the universe, along with a coming day of resurrection and judgment, featuring a messiah – but their differences may still be important.
I do not mean that the number of believers is enough to recommend a belief. But the number of observers for an alleged phenomenon does give more weight to the reported observation. And disciples of the Perennial Philosophy often describe their experiences as a form of observation.
Of course, one can deny that mystical experiences actually have the status of observations. Personally, I am not at all sure that they should have that status. But what is the basis for saying these people are deluding themselves? (Other than their findings violating your metaphysics.)
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011