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5.0 out of 5 stars The perennial Huxley, 27 Nov 2011
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This review is from: The Perennial Philosophy (P.S.) (Paperback)
Aldous Huxley must have been a busy man: novel writer, non-fiction writer, psychedelic trailblazer and self-proclaimed mystic, this man seems to have lived the life to the full. Weirdly, considering his religious-spiritual views, he actually is related to Thomas and Julian Huxley.

"The Perennial Philosophy" feels like an early-seventies classic, but was actually published already in 1945. The book is often, wrongly, described as an anthology of edifying excerpts from the writings of the great mystics East and West. Actually, it's an exposition by Huxley himself, although liberally sprinkled with quotations from said mystics. William Law and Meister Eckhart seem to have been two of Huxley's top favourites.

Although Huxley claims to believe in an actual filosofia perennis, he devotes almost no space to defending the notion. Rather, he deals with the issues themselves: the nature and character of God, miracles, grace, faith, good and evil, rituals, and so on. Indeed, "The Perennial Philosophy" could be described as a kind of Bible of spirituality-in-general. In that sense, it deserves to be considered a classic.

But, of course, there's nothing particularly "perennial" about the perennial philosophy. Right or wrong, what Huxley preaches from his rooftop is really a version of Advaita Vedanta, couched in a Westernized-Christianized terminology. Are we to believe Wikipedia, Huxley had some kind of contacts with the Ramakrishna Mission, the main conduit of Advaita in 20th century America. Even in India, there's a plethora of very different spiritual traditions, many of whom would reject Advaita out of hand, for instance the theistic-panentheistic "Qualified Non-Dualism" of Ramanuja. And then, of course, there's Christianity, which in its traditional form simply isn't amenable to the perennial philosophy. Indeed, traditional Christianity seems to be the only religion explicitly attacked in Huxley's book.

While it's true that many mystics have (or seem to be having) remarkably similar experiences, which could be termed "pantheist", not all of them interpret the experiences in the same manner. Maximus the Confessor describes his mystical union with God in a way that would make Eckhart, Vivekananda or Huxley become very interested indeed, but he never left the orthodox Christian fold. In fact, he was one of the foremost defenders of orthodoxy against the "heresies" of his day. Another example would be Gregory Palamas. Further, there are mystics who don't even describe their visions in "pantheist" terms, including many Christian mystics, but also Jewish "throne mystics". Huxley could respond that these mystics were on a lower level than the impersonal mystics, but how on earth can such a statement ever be confirmed or disconfirmed?

This edition also contain a concluding essay by Huxley called "Beliefs", in which he very explicitly defends the notion of an impersonal divine reality. Not only is it impersonal, it's also non-ethical. Yet, the only way for man to approach this impersonal, non-ethical Ground is to behave ethically towards his fellow men (i.e. other persons). A rather strange co-incidence, this, that while the world is ultimately beyond good and evil, only the good can reach the beyond. As any antinomian would point out to Huxley (an antinomian high on mescaline, perhaps), this simply cannot be true, since the Ground can arguably be reached by quite different methods as well. Indeed, India has spawned antinomian traditions by the double and triple! I don't claim to know whether God exists or not, but if he does, it's reasonable to suppose that God is both personal and non-personal. How else could God be the metaphysical ground of dynamic, creative intelligence if he is impersonal? Dynamic, creative intelligence implies a person.

Another problem with "The Perennial Philosophy" is the lack of a truly evolutionary perspective. Yet, non-perennial, modern science strongly suggests (to put it mildly) that we live in an evolutionary universe. In Huxley's vision, the Godhead is static and utterly indifferent to our comings and goings, which occasionally leads the author to sound like an anti-modernist enemy of progress. (Huston Smith has the same problem - he wants to be politically "liberal" but nevertheless doesn't believe in progress and evolution.) The Theosophists, Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilber have attempted, each in his own way, to amend this shortcoming. So has Theilhard, although in his case, it was Catholicism who was in for a house-cleaning.

Be that as it may, I nevertheless aword Aldous Huxley's book five stars. It's well worth reading and pondering, being the most erudite and appealing exposition of impersonal mysticism I've come across.
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