Aldous Huxley

The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West

Review by Mathan Bieniek, 2008

Huxley, Alduos. The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West. New York: HarperCollins, 1945. xi + 301 pages. $13.95.

Alduos Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West is an account of the supposedly unified mystical core at the heart of the great religions, written from the perspective of a man who believes implicitly in the veracity of that core. The book ranges freely through the writings of mystics and wise people, men and women, from all around the world and all through time. Huxley tends to let the different writings speak for themselves and does not offer in depth textual analysis, but interspersed between the writings is Huxley's own thought, tying the whole together and explaining the nature, validity, and, of course, the universality of the core of each writing. The Perennial Philosophy begins with a general explanation of the Ground of Being which his at the heart of the Perennial philosophy and moves on, throughout the book, to explore the effects, powers, and virtues of recognizing and adhering to the Perennial Philosophy.

In his introduction, Huxley's first task is define the Perennial Philosophy and to lay out the purpose and usefulness of his project. The “Philosophia Perennis”, a term coined by Leibniz, refers both to the “metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds” (iii), and the ethics and psychology that attend – and Huxley would claim, transcend – the individual traditions that recognize that Reality. Key to the Perennial Philosophy is precisely the assertion that the divine Ground of Being transcends individual traditions. The psychology and ethics derived from these mystical traditions can, therefore, also be essentially universalized. Also a part of the system is Huxley's claim, along with many of the mystics he cites, that human beings, through training, can have a unitive knowledge (though not a factual or cognitive knowledge) of the divine Ground. The formula he gives for attaining this unitive knowledge is that those who seek such knowledge make “themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit” (iix). Huxley reiterates and explains this formula through the twenty seven chapters of the book, devoting sections to mystically informative topics such as “Grace and Free Will,” “Spiritual Exercises,” “Self-Knowledge,” and “The Miraculous.”

While Huxley's ability to move through and explicate the thought of the great mystics is impressive, as an adherent to the Perennial Philosophy his treatment of these topics is biased. For instance, Huxley refers without citation to supposedly reliable studies of superhuman powers manifested through unitive knowledge of the Ground. Objectivity, or scientific evidence that verifies these powers feels, at least for the uninitiated, conspicuously lacking. Huxley's book reads like a communication of the Perennial Philosophy from one believer to another, or from an informed believer to a less informed one.

Because for Huxley the reality of the Ground is a foregone conclusion, some of the philosophical or ritualistic sources Huxley cites that are not overtly mystical, such as Confucius, are still seen as speaking of the Ground of Being. Huxley's task is to explicate the Perennial Philosophy as present everywhere, in all religions, not to argue the case for its universality. For that reason, Huxley ranges freely through mystical writings and sayings, citing specific texts only when an author, as in the case of the Upanishads, is not readily available, or citing only authors and not their individual works. In this chaotic and unscholarly practice we see Huxley's concern for the universality of the Perennial Philosophy as embodied in the sum of these writings, which he values over the individual texts or those wrote them.

Despite his bias, The Perennial Philosophy is a useful text in a number of ways. First, it is valuable as a brilliant example of the Perennial Philosophy understood, as it were, from the inside out. Huxley is a master of the mystics who share the classical understanding of the Ground, and he himself is an intellectually vibrant modern intellectual and writer who believed implicitly in the Ground. His own writing, interspersed with the writings of the great mystics, gives us a glimpse into the world who order themselves around the Perennial Philosophy. Additionally, the book is useful for those who wish to study someone who believes in the Perennial Philosophy. This book is useful in a secondary way as a survey of the great mystics, “East and West,” because Huxley ranges across so many traditions and through so many mystical writings. His explications are centered around specific mystical topics in service to understanding lifestyle of the Perennial Philosophy, however, so a systematic understanding of a given mystic cannot be easily had from Huxley's book, if at all. It is most useful as master work of the Perennial Philosophy, a primer for either those who wish to study the subject as a believer, or as an observer.