Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

Perennial Philosophy

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
December 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Arthur Versluis
Total Pages: 
New Cultures Press

Arthur Versluis holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has published numerous books and articles. Among his books are Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism. I thought it would be interesting to compare this brief book with Aldous Huxley’s classic The Perennial Philosophy (Book 667), first published in 1945.

I bought the paperback edition but give here Amazon’s Kindle edition website:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has words of praise from three writers (click on ‘Read more’) instead of a summary. Using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option you can scroll down from the front cover to see more words of praise. The Kindle’s Contents page gives only the chapter’s numbers. To get the eight chapter’s titles, you’ll need to look at Amazon’s paperback edition. But the Kindle edition contains all 9-pp of the Introduction as well as the first three pages of Chapter One – Leaving the Cave.

Now I return to the Introduction to focus on why Arthur Versluis wrote this book. Pages 2-3 of the Introduction includes the following about the idea of perennial philosophy [Any comments by me are on square brackets.]: “What is perennial in perennial philosophy is truth. The heart of perennial philosophy is what is suggested also by neuroscientific research – that there are human responses characteristic of particular training and experiences, and that those can be charted cartographically. If one discovers what is true, then if it is true not only for oneself, but also for others. Perennial philosophy does not claim that all religions or spiritual traditions are the same, but rather that the human search for and realization of truth is perennial, that is, it can be experienced by different people in diverse circumstances. Again, what is perennial in perennial philosophy is truth, or to put it another way, what is perennial is experience of the ground of being, which, if it is true, is true and verifiable by others.

“Perennial philosophy points to individual spiritual experience; and Platonism, Hermetism, Vedanta, and Buddhism are all based on direct individual realizations, on the experiential transformation and illumination of the individual. That is what Aldous Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy, centered on, and that was how he defined perennial philosophy. The word ‘perennial’ in this context means that human beings can go through transformative and illuminative processes that are intrinsically open to us as human beings; that people have gone through, or are going through, or may go through such a process in the past, present, or future (hence it perennially recurs). The word ‘philosophy’ does not have the meaning of ‘an abstract theoretical system constructed by discursive reason,’ but rather that of ‘a virtuous life leading to the realization of love (philo) and wisdom (sophia).’

“Now you might ask why we need another book on perennial philosophy. Huxley’s book, first published in 1945, presents a series of thematically linked quotations from a wide variety of sources both Asian and European, with a focus on mystics and mystical transformation and awakening. The Perennial Philosophy had a long and influential subsequent history, and is visible behind much of the California counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as behind New Age and related movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Of course, there is another modern intellectual current known as ‘Traditionalism,’ which is often regarded as a form of perennialism too. But what we are describing here is at once both ancient and new, and in some respects distinct from these recent variants.

“In truth, the concept of perennial philosophy absolutely needs clarification in the wake of so many developments, new interpretations, and changes in cultural-social contexts. The terms ‘perennialism’ and ‘perennial philosophy’ have lost any crispness of meaning. …

“As we describe it here, perennial philosophy at heart is Platonism. Platonism, in this context, is philosophy not as a product of combative discursive meaning, but as a way of life. It is existential, in the sense that it is centered in encouraging one to live a virtuous life, but also because it proposes a metaphysics centered on the individual’s potential realization of self-other transcendence. Hence what is ‘perennial’ about perennial philosophy is its call to the individual to live a better life and, potentially at least, to ‘return to the One, that is, to contemplatively realize inner unity.”

In short, this book focuses on a few of the ancient Greeks (mainly Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, and Damascius), and on Christian Platonism (Dionysius the Areopagite), Islamic Platonism (as found in Sufism) and Jewish Platonism (as found in the Kabbalah). By extending his focus further back in time, the author arrives nearly at the esoteric awakening and spirituality that Aldous Huxley had deduced. One of the great differences is that Huxley very often gave quotes from a few to several mainly mystical voices from Asia or from Christian mystics from the past centuries.

Arthur Versluis has added other voices, but not their words, to support his older (thus earlier) version of a perennial philosophy. But, alas, he doesn’t give (as did Huxley) direct quotes (often a page or almost two) followed by Huxley’s often brilliant merging of these voices into one, in a way that often made me reread with joy and amazement how well Huxley was able to merge quotes from different cultures so well. Had Arthur Versluis provided the quotes and then shown how they merge, I might have experienced the joy and amazement I got from rereading Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.

Sometimes a book that has fewer quotes to back up the author’s aim leaves the reader with less insight than the reader had hoped to find. For this reason I rate this little book at only three stars.