Huston Smith

Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Smith, Huston. Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions, 2nd ed. 1st ed., 1965. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

According to Huston Smith, the “Primordial Tradition” constitutes nothing less than “the way things are.” It is the common, fundamental experience of humankind (though it has, of late, been challenged by the scientific vision – see below). And its core truths give rise to the religions of the world: “from the multiple heavens of Judaism to the storied structure of the Hindu temple and the angelologies of innumerable traditions, this view was reached convergently and independently, as if by innate tropism, by virtually all known societies” (18). Although Smith claims that “human unanimity” overstates the case slightly, it does not do so by much – for, according to Smith, the “Primordial Tradition” is “an invisible geometry” that shapes all human outlooks into a “single truth” (18).

The “Primordial Tradition” is perhaps best distinguished by it recognition of the many-layered nature of both reality and the self. Smith narrows these layers down to four tiers: reality is composed of the terrestrial, intermediate, celestial, and infinite tiers, while the self is composed of the body, mind, soul and spirit. Due to “a basic premise of the traditional outlook,” these tiers are related according to the “law of inverse analogy” in such a way that higher levels of reality correspond to deeper levels of the self. Thus, the terrestrial tier of reality corresponds to the body, the intermediate tier of reality to the mind, the celestial tier of reality to the soul, and the infinite tier to the spirit. The highest and deepest of these respective tiers, infinite and spirit, are, according to Smith, without limitation: while the infinite is unbounded externally, the human spirit is unbounded internally. These two (undifferentiated) levels, therefore, are in fact the same (Atman = Brahman). As one moves down the tiers of reality and out the tiers of selfhood, one encounters increasing levels of differentiation and/or materialization – on the reality side, God’s attributes and personality as well as “archetypes” on the celestial plane, the psychic reflections of the archetypes on the intermediate plane, and finally material reality on the terrestrial plane; and on the self side, the soul as the source of mind and locus of individuality, the mind as divided between the lower terrestrial realm and the upper celestial realm, and finally the corporeal body.

Smith’s discussion of “mind,” the inner-most plane of the self, bears upon the ever-popular issue of linguistic expressibility. While the left mind remains enmeshed in the lower world of language and rationality, claims Smith, the right mind transcends the fallen world. “But if mind was to save the world […] part of its nature had to remain outside these categories, for reason, being founded in distinctions, can at best only grope toward wholeness. […] The parallel with the two natures of Christ is exact: The mind assumes the conditions of the fall with its left hemisphere (distinctly human) while keeping its right hemisphere transcendent” (66-67). As the product of our fallen nature (or fall into nature), language is unable to express higher mystical or primordial truths. Smith provides two different reasons for this opinion, though they are in many ways related. First of all, language is of a severely limited nature: “If it is impossible for man to manage the whole of his terrestrial life by means of language, it goes without saying that transverbal faculties must enter even more if he is to traffic with supramundane planes, which differ in kind from the plane that language is primarily designed to cope with and mirror” (66). Indeed, language is fallen, sinful even. “Speaking in the manner of the Platonic myth, we might say that the mind, contemplating its descent into matter, foresaw that it would have to school itself in its ways. It did so by pouring its direct and luminous intellection into molds – concepts, words, language – that splintered it. […] The mind consented to ‘take on the sins of the world’” (66). The second reason why language is unable to express higher mystical truths concerns the nature of language’s referent, the infinite. For the infinite can only be expressed either negatively (e.g., in-finite, in-effable, un-conditioned) or via paradox.

At least two disturbing presuppositions seem to drive Smith’s conclusions: science is bad, and the past is good. The scientific worldview is no worldview at all insofar as it peers down a “restricted viewfinder” that only sees part of the world (moreover, scientific progress is an illusion, evolution, a myth, and the scientific “hunt for knowledge,” violent). And the past (i.e., the pre-scientific, primordial tradition) was “bathed in such truth to a degree that we are not” (moreover, “the wave of the future will be a return to the past” (145, 146). Although Smith disavows the title of “incurable romantic,” his diatribe against “science-ridden” modernity begins on the very first page of the Primordial Tradition and does not let up until the very last page.