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The Perennial Philosophy

Don Skilling

The German philosopher Leibnitz is credited with the first use of the term 'Philosophia Perennis'. 'The philosophy that is of all time' informs us that this philosophy is not a concept or idea that is gradually evolving. It is permanent, and its purpose is to present us with a key to understand the origin and nature of the Universe and our own Self. We study it to learn the Mystery of Creation and Wisdom of the ages. Any changes that take place will be in our consciousness as we learn our true nature and purpose.

The Perennial Philosophy in the form of myth, oracular utterance, direct revelation, and a golden chain of teachers, is guiding mankind towards Wisdom, for: "Philosophy is the purification and perfection of human life." Hierocles.

The Greeks passed the Wisdom Teaching to us. They may have received it from the Egyptians for the teachings were given in the Inner Temple and are embodied in sacred ritual and in their hieroglyphs. In Greece and Turkey there were temples dedicated to the Egyptian Gods. Pythagoras taught it, and then Plato gave it a clear exposition in his Academy, where the theory and practice of the Perfect Life were taught. In the 15th Century the Florentine scholar, Marsilio Ficino, translated the Greek writings of Plato and his followers into Latin. These teachings are at the root of the Classical Renaissance that swept through Europe in the 15 th and 16th Centuries. They have had a profound influence upon western civilisation generally.

The essential element of the Perennial Philosophy is not man-made, or of one place or culture. It does not grow by accretions of human knowledge and discovery, for it is of all time and there is evidence of its influence in many traditions. The word "philosophy" is the key that opens the doorway out of this particular fallacy for philosophy is literally the love of wisdom; it originates in the Love, Wisdom and Power of the Divine Ground of the universe.

The Transcendent Reality that is also the divine Immanence is the ground of our being. As a unity it is the Transcendental - Immanence; the one unchanging Spiritual Ground of all created things. It is beyond our experience or imagination, for there are no images to help us to understand this mystery. Metaphor and analogy are aids. It is not continuous being or life, for it is the Source of all Being, all Life and all Intelligence. From it all beings come forth; all lives are born; and all order and intellectual ideas proceed.  It is the Unitive Being, Life and Intellect of God that cannot be explained because the mystery is not for rational, pragmatic and practical consideration. The Glory of the Transcendental-Immanence is the Radiance of the Creator. It is Light that cannot be corrupted.

To appreciate the whole panorama of God's Creation, we look to contact the universe at all levels, not merely the physical and most obvious. Each of us is provided with starting points, doorways that are never closed, through which we may enter to view the hidden life, and the causes and principles of the universe. We move from multiplicity towards unity, from many things to single principles and laws. They are integral aspects of an inner Light, which enlightens because it is not alien. It is at the heart of our own being. To accept its truths is not to receive something from outside our self. We are simply finding out more about the center of our own life. This we have been doing since we were born.

Divine Love and Wisdom are the substantial foundation of creative power and order in the universe and in Man. Every expression of this is an element of the Perennial Philosophy as an educational gift to mankind.  We understand this as our own potential to love Wisdom matures. The great religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam place emphasis upon different aspects of the perennial Philosophy.Religions are not different qualities in the Essence of God; they are methods by which man relates to God.

Eternity, time and the perpetual.

"The Perennial Philosophy is of all time." There is often confusion of the concepts of eternity and time. This is especially perceptible in the phrase "It will continue for all eternity". That which is eternal has no duration and is unchanging. It is real and pure in the absolute sense and cannot be corrupted. It is not born and cannot grow, decrease or die, for these take place in time. Simple definitions are:

The eternal is unchanging Reality. It has no duration.

Connecting the eternal and time is the perpetual that is unlimited continuation.

Time is the measure of duration and change. It has beginning and end.

The interdependence of time and space in terms of physical objects and events is obvious. Time allows events to happen in the same place at different times. Space allows events to happen in different places at the same time.

The teaching about THE ONE is simple: The Absolute ONE is eternal, unknowable, unchanging, undifferentiated and unconditioned. The ONE is the ultimate Source of all. There is nothing prior to the ONE.

The "Big Bang" theory of the creation of the universe can help us to understand the ideas of the Eternal unchanging ONE, and Creation.

Time and space have a clear relationship, as the expansion of the universe causes change. Time is a measure of change.

Principles may be considered the power of God's Creative Intellect perpetually directing and supporting all states of change, growth and decay. They maintain stability during the cycles of life in time and space.(Note 1)

The beginning of wisdom is: Get wisdom.
Yea , with all thy getting, get understanding. Proverbs, iv, 7

On the quest for wisdom, the first question to answer is: "Who am I?" The Perennial philosophy teaches not that we have a soul but that we are a Soul. The body is a residence or vehicle for the Soul. It affirms the Reality of Spirit as the Ground of all beings including our own Soul. So we have a threefold identity - Spirit, Soul and Body.

My body liveth by my Soul and my Soul by God; therefore I will seek Him that my Soul may live. St. Augustine of Hippo.

Body is temporal, Spirit is timeless, Soul is a bridge between the two.

The second question is: "Why am I?"  In every creative process there is an order. Stated very simply it is, 'The first in intention is the last in execution'. Divine Intellect creates the universe and then man. However that is not the end of the process for man has a purpose. Human beings appear when conditions are suitable in the world. There is nothing without purpose. God is the source and ultimate stability and Ground of all. The Cosmos proceeds from unity into multiplicity. Man returns to the Father by living and learning in the Cosmic Universe. The circle of love and life is complete. We have a contribution to make.

When the love of wisdom awakens in the heart, then mind and will are engaged in the quest for the SpiritualGround of all Wisdom. This journey, from darkness of ignorance into Light, is a path of perfection. Practical ideals for living a good and just life aid us to make life in this world in the model of the Soul's spiritual home.  It is our purpose to fill our life with Light for there is no greater Beauty.

The Soul has two levels of activity: an objective, natural life of this world, and an inner subjective life. To control the impulses, instincts and emotions of the natural life and its desires, we learn prudence in our choices; temperance to control desire; and fortitude to overcome fear and laziness. Thus order and discipline make our lower nature an efficient instrument of the Soul.

Sin is a withdrawal from the art of Divine Wisdom and the Order of Divine Love.
St.Thomas .

Evil is resistance to the living inspiring spirit of God. William Law.

The beautiful order of our environment is for our education; to learn principles; and to use them. From the moment a child is born the urge to learn is obvious. This urge is the love of life that remains constantly with us, sometimes in spite of training and schooling that dulls the mind. The greatest gain from knowledge and skill is not physical comfort or convenience; it is as a co-worker with the Divine Powers and other Souls; integrating our lives with the life of the universe, and our minds with the Divine Mind that is the Spirit within us. This is the purpose of every human Soul. God is not changed by our ignorance, but we are changed when we know that His presence within us is the essence of our true nature. Wisdom is the virtue of the Soul.

This is the teaching of the Perennial Philosophy through all its channels. 'Thy Will be done on earth.' It answers the question, "Why am I?" The Cosmos tells us that the truly spiritual Life is the most practical and efficient.

The writings and words of great teachers are often very simple. The literal meaning of the Christian Bible, the Koran, the Baghavad Gita, Kaballah, Buddhist and Taoist writings have behind them an allegorical and a moral teaching. These precede the most profound meaning that is anagogic or mystical for it conducts the aspiring soul towards union.

In the fine arts also, there are many layers of symbolism - psychological, political and mystical, that are there to educate and inspire the Soul. In architecture the great cathedrals have a literal meaning as a place of worship, a symbolic meaning of the whole universe and by analogy, an image of a human being, both body and soul. The symbolism of a building as an image of the human soul, the inner world of man, corresponds to the fourth and highest meaning, the "anagogic" or mystical.(Note 2)

A clear and important distinction is made in the Perennial Philosophy between levels of awareness, based possibly upon the idea: "As you think so you are". Simply stated they are:

Practical thinking for mundane activities and estimation.

Abstract thought implying conceptual development and using simple ideas.

Reasoning with completely abstract ideas, implying use of dialectic.

Intuition, which is above any process of thought but as "interior tuition" reveals chains of ideas in magnificent order.

Without these levels of awareness there can be no myths, allegories, parables or metaphors. For in the latter are hidden the truths about Spiritual life and power, so that only those who are ready for the teaching receive it. We are each given what we need to be ourselves throughout all stages of development to full consciousness of the divine Light.        

Perfect Wisdom came with kindergarten methods to men's kindergarten souls. E. Underhill.

 It is common to consider the principle of 'life' as feminine and 'intellect' as masculine. This is helpful when discussing the Greek Gods. A Gospel allegory, explained by Eckhart, concerns a widow whose only son was dead. By 'widow' we understand a soul whose 'man' was dead. Therefore the 'son' also was dead. By 'son' we comprehend the intellect that is 'man' in the soul. The widow was not alive in the intellect, therefore the man is dead and she is a widow.

Ambiguity of vocabulary leads to confusion of thought.  Metaphorical language is not ambiguous; it participates in the remarkable power of words, of poetry, and the two-edged sword of rhetoric, to inspire and to awaken aspiration for ultimate Truth and Beauty.

Know that the Soul is Master of the Chariot, who sits within; and the body the chariot is. Regard thou the intellect as the charioteer and reason as the reins. Katha-Upanishad.

Personal growth

Self-consciousness is first a process of separation, physically from the mother, and psychologically from our creative source. "You are my children." Thus we have, "the nobleman who journeys to a far country."  This can be interpreted as the human soul, with dawning consciousness, awakening in the natural environment of the world after leaving its spiritual home. Consider the myth of Persephone carried off into the underworld.          

 Psychology is the science of the human soul. The first step on the journey to freedom is to know we are a human Soul. The psychological teaching of the Perennial Philosophy stresses the problem of 'ego-centricity'. Personality is the lowest part of our nature. It becomes the prison of dawning consciousness. If we are driven by energies within the lower nature - instincts, emotions, desires and glamour - then we must know this. The Soul has to be in control, not to suppress all these movements of life but to recognise them for what they are. Where it is appropriate we act with the energy they generate. So we are not drawn hither and thither by every whim, fancy or passing emotion but act from the center of consciousness and do not 'wobble'.

The Cosmos and the Macrocosm

A good painting by a great artist is appreciated in many ways. Some viewers appreciate the colours, others the subject matter or look for symbolism, or an object of interest. They may look, and read the name of the artist and pass quickly on. It depends upon interest, training, education and experience.

The universe is the greatest work of art. It is born in the Mind of the Master Artist and Great Architect and fashioned by His Power. His is the guiding intelligence by which all natural and human forms emerge and multiply. He provides the energy, space and material. Its physical beauty has been the source of inspiration for artists of every kind - writers, painters, poets, and musicians. However, to recognise its beauty and ever-changing loveliness is only the beginning. We are impelled to look deeper within this order and we find another order of mathematical beauty and intellectual wonder. We learn how to read its symbols. Scientists have already learned some of the laws but most are really only scratching the surface.

 The 'Cosmos' is the created universe. The 'Macrocosm' or Great Order includes God and the Spiritual Order.

The Cosmos

The Greek word 'Kosmos' means order. In the Perennial Philosophy it means the universe considered as a system, perfect in order and arrangement. Divine creative ideas and energies produce and order the Cosmos. As a unity it is an expression and symbol of the unity of its spiritual causes. Nothing comes from nothing. Cause and effect cannot be separated.

The universal form creator is Soul. It creates the forms that "inform" all material things. Our own bodies are formed and have their characteristics from the genetic code that is the formative power in action.

An accomplished dancer flows through one movement to another, each figure springing naturally from all that preceded it. Any disruption or disturbance is accommodated as though effortlessly by the artist, with music, rhythm, timing, movement and construction creating a complete and perfectly harmonious unity. Examine individual parts and you know, 'This is here because that was there, it follows naturally'. The truth is that the dancer knows the human body and it's capabilities. Unite this knowledge with an understanding of the elements of dancing - steps and positions, poise, balance, posture and shapes created when still and moving. Construct the dance- the movements, rhythm, time and tempo; where and how to begin; how to introduce variety and maintain unity. All these ingredients make it possible to create a beautiful dance.

The dance of Cosmic Life cannot be reduced to the elements of this analogy. Divine Mind has no limitation, for it is the origin of the Principles and Laws of Nature. There is no gap between the origin of all things and the tiniest portion of dust in the universe. So-called 'empty' space has been found to have an energy system within it. There is no where that is completely empty. Thus the creation of the whole universe is such that when we look at any part of it we know that there are sufficient reasons for its existence and that it has a place and function in the natural order of things and lives. Nature is purposeful, satisfying and beautiful.

For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give. 
Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.

The Perennial Philosophy teaches that we repeat this cosmic order in terms of our own nature and body. We have many of the natural elements in our body or physically this would be alien environment and we could not have physical nourishment. We live by the same scientific laws.  Individually we are a little order repeating the greater, a microcosm of the macrocosm.

 Awakened to our individual human nature, education is our purpose. We need intellectual nourishment so we educe, draw out the innate ideas and creative principles within the Soul to be fully conscious of our Self. Remember that love is the motive power of the mind. The macrocosm is a perfect example of principles and laws in action; our own nature is the Soul's workshop. So we explore our nature and learn to use our own powers. Now we need double vision - of what is, and what shall be - the actual and the potential.

When Mind and each believing mind are not divided,
And undivided are each believing mind and Mind,
This is where words fail,
For it is not of the past, present or future. 
The Third patriarch of Zen.

The perennial philosophy does not offer an easy ride through life. Released from the prison of materialism the Soul is centered in its own consciousness. To gain further enlightenment and knowledge attention now moves in two directions:

Inward to the intellectual and spiritual center. The universal source of all life.

Outward and downward into particular areas of our human nature and the world.

Focus attention upon our spiritual center and we become aware that there must be a single Cause of all causes. Concentrate attention upon the manifested universe, and ignore its laws and principles, then the emergence of higher and more complex forms appears to be the result of chance, like dice rolling for untold millennia. This is a degeneration of consciousness. A maturing mind, with a vision of unity, can recognise purpose unfolding in action. Both directions need attention or we lose our balance. Without unity there is no purity or security.

The purpose of the Perennial Philosophy is to help man to his final end.
 St. Thomas Aquinas

On the wings of reason and love we rise beyond the cleverness that is so valued today. By these we learn the unity of all things, and the bond of the Law of Love. For we can love only what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love.

 He who cultivates the soil may have his share of good things, but
the man who cultivates the mind will enjoy a perpetual feast. Confucius.

The final purpose of reason is to control our thoughts, and guide the heart and will. When Spirit reigns our personality is transformed. This transfiguration marks the end of our journey to God. Then begins the journey in God.

 Reason is like an officer when the King appears.
The officer then loses his power and hides himself.
Reason is the shadow cast by God; God is the Sun.
Jalal-uddin Rumi

Absorbed in quiet reflection when all else is forgotten, time and events pass without notice. Our consciousness is released from its prison house. Perhaps we see a flower in all its radiant beauty and are filled with wonder. Or view the beauty and harmony of the world and indeed the whole universe, and know that we are an integral part of a great creation. Our true identity is in part revealed, and we are transformed. This moment out of time is an experience of Metanoia- a transformation of consciousness and character.

Man is a mighty wonder, for he passes into God's nature as though he were himself divine. How happy is the blend of human nature. Joined to God by his resemblance to Divinity, he looks down upon the part by which he is common with the earth. Man has his place in the blessed station of the midst, so that he loves those below himself, and is in turn, loved by those above. Heaven seems not too high for him: for it is measured by the wisdom of the mind (nous) as though it were quite near.
'The Perfect Sermon of Hermes Trismegistus.'

The Spirit within is not altered as our consciousness changes, for the Immanent and Transcendent Spirit is One. Divine Reality is not divided. God Transcendent is The Word, the Creator Lord, supra personal and unapproachable. God Immanent is personal because He is the Father of all. He is close but always showing a different facet of his Nature - ever unchanged, presenting a never-ending variety of the same truths. When both the Immanent and the Transcendent are present consciousness is transformed. We cannot command Spiritual perception. Heart and mind are silenced by deliberate choice and in that receptive, contemplative stillness, where even the longing for illumination or participation in the life of the spirit is calmed, then the Light shines into the consciousness.

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment;
Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is intuition.
Jalal-uddin Rumi

All things speak of One origin. The Deep calls to the Deep, urging us towards maturity.

Stages of personal development are recognised in the tradition of most societies. They mark the path of initiation from child to mature adult. Intellectual awakening and growth are similar in pattern to physical development. There is a movement upward; from simple concepts to principles and laws; moving always toward the highest Ideas that substand all things and lives. This expansion of consciousness is a gradual progress from darkness into light. Ideally the stages of initiation are marked by the acquisition of the virtues for "Virtue is the perfection of the Soul":

 * Physical virtues are harmony and control of the body.

 * Ethical virtues are the ability to live harmoniously with others, and observance of custom and right opinion. They are virtues of children when well educated.

 * Political virtues are rational and scientific, concerning reason directing the lower, irrational, nature as an instrument; exercising prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice. Plato discusses these in "The Republic".  With the ethical virtues they enable people to work together for a common purpose.

 * Cathartic virtues liberate the Soul from passions, irrational desires and illusion, to act rationally from its center and according with higher spiritual influences.

 * Theoretic and intellectual virtue gained as the Soul unites itself with the intellect above itself and is freed to use intellect fully.

 * Paradigmatic virtues "It is the business of philosophy to make us intellect; but of theurgy to unite us to intelligibles." Thomas Taylor, the Platonist.

The virtue of the mind is Prudence (or Wisdom).
The virtue of the will is Fortitude.
The virtue of the heart is Temperance.
The virtue of all three combined in Soul is Justice.

Socrates: Not even by riches therefore is a man delivered out of a miserable condition; nor by any other thing than wisdom and virtue.
 Plato. First Alcibiades.

We rejoice in the beauty and order of the natural world. Then we look beyond the physical forms, and seek the perfection and beauty of permanent causes. If the images on the path are worshipped then we stop short, for this is idolatry, a veil across the face of Truth.

The Perennial Philosophy is for our education. It teaches that many things and actions in the universe result from a few principles. From a variety of related experiences we abstract a common principle and then use it. Principles are real and permanent. We do not invent them when we formulate them. For a purposeful life we require objective and subjective activity. Education literally means educing ideas from the all-knowing ground of Self. We learn about ideas and principles, then if we are wise, we apply them to enhance our lives.

A student of the Perennial Philosophy engages in the true education of the soul. The starting point is human psychology, the science of the soul, for we are each a soul. Metaphysical truths are presented as practical ideals to live by. Their effectiveness for moral and rational living individually and collectively is confirmed by experience.  Our aim is to examine our subjective life objectively and our objective life subjectively. Then we shall recognise each prison that we considered to be enlightenment when we entered it.

Practical knowledge and scientific facts do not tell us the purpose and meaning of life. It is certainly not to gratify the desires aroused by extreme materialism - The badge of the wealthy nations. We know more and we can do more than ever before. How are we using our knowledge and skills? The perennial philosophy teaches that we are one body of mankind. If a part is sick then the whole body will suffer, each part in its own way.

A mind in the grip of materialism is like a sword in a stone. But it is ready for us to withdraw when we know that reason is rightfully our God-given weapon. It is for each of us to use in the fight against our own ignorance. It clears a pathway to intuition, that direct perception of truth that is the gift of God to the pure in heart and mind.

To become fully conscious of the Macrocosm we have to open all our 'eyes' to the many levels that produce and maintain the physical realm. This is possible because we are each a microcosm, and have a point of contact at every level of the Macrocosm. We apprehend the Macrocosm with our total being. Then we see things as they really are and not merely as they appear to be. With this gift, every shred of fantasy and illusion is stripped from consciousness, and fear, anger and glamour are seen in their true identity as products of the emotions. Commonplace things and events have a new significance and a personal relevance that transforms consciousness.  With mind and heart purified the Soul is free to know and to express its true nature and purpose.

The instruments of learning originate in the powers of the Soul, not as activities but as the center of the Soul's being, from its spiritual ground. "The Deep calls to the Deep." The Divine Immanence in every human being reaches out to bring into our consciousness the Immanence in every portion of the universe. There is no where that God is not, except in our undeveloped consciousness.

The Perennial Philosophy is Divine Love Wisdom and Power planted in every human soul as a seed. Germinated, it grows into the love of Wisdom that qualifies each of us to grow to full stature - to love the good in all things, and to act providentially. It empowers each human Soul to live with the principles and laws that order the universe. It is above all, a school of Love and Affinity with the Creator and His Creation.

That art thou.



 1  The Chaldean Oracles are helpful when considering the Creation in Time and Space.

2 This is discussed by Martin Lings in "The Sacred Art of Shakespeare", Ch. 3 Page15. Pub. Inner Traditions.


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