On Perennialism

Anthony Mansueto
President and Senior Scholar, Seeking Wisdom


As our regular readers know, it is one of the central claims of Seeking Wisdom that humanity is entering a new epoch
in which ordinary people will increasingly demand the skills necessary to make rationally autonomous decisions
regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value and in which such decisions will be made in the context of a
debate that takes place across humanity's great wisdom traditions –and not just within their tradition of origin. In
response to this we have proposed what we call an Extended Convivencia Theology, one which engages theological
questions across as well as within traditions.

There are, of course, other ways of engaging religious pluralism. This is the first of a series of articles which will
explore these approaches and explain why we deem them to be inadequate. I am beginning, however, with the
approach which is probably closest to our own, partly because it is the only one which is authentically interfaith in
perspective, and thus the only one which could properly understand itself as an alternative to Convivencia theology,
and partly because it has been a topic of some interest among my students.

Perennialism, for those not familiar with the term, is a philosophical and religious school which teaches that, behind
their diverse exoteric forms, the world's great wisdom traditions, philosophical and religious, share a common esoteric
and mystical core. The term itself derives from the Catholic Humanist Agostino Steuco, for whom it represented  the
great tradition of human wisdom which had culminated in Catholic Scholasticism, and which was then under assault by
the Reformers. For Leibniz it was at the center of his effort to use philosophy to heal the religious divisions of Europe
and became popular as Europeans became aware of the significant common ground between their own mystical
traditions and those of the peoples they had colonized. But the idea itself is much older. It lies behind the Neoplatonic
attempts to unify Hellenistic and Semitic spiritual culture. And the Hindu concept of Sanatana Dharma or universal
wisdom is quite similar. Advocates of the position include Huston Smith, whose introduction to world religions has
promoted a moderate version of the doctrine among an enormous number of undergraduate students studying
comparative religion, the Persian Islamic Scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Fritjjof Schuon –and
the neotraditionalist leaders Rene Guenon and Julian Evola.

Substantively, the esoteric core of human wisdom is taken to center around the claim that  behind phenomenal reality
there lies a rationally and mystically knowable first principle: Being, the Good, the One, or Brahman. Humanity's end
consists in understanding our unity and/or identity with this principle. This is achieved through any of a variety of
means, usually centered on some combination of intellectual self-cultivation and spiritual discipline, though many
perennialists have shown significant interest in mystery cults and have written extensively on what they regard as the
degradation of the mystery tradition by Theosophy, modern day Rosicrucians, etc.

Politically the trend is associated with the integral traditionalist movement which emerged around Rene Guenon and
Julian Evola. This movement rejected the modern world because it lost touch with the Sophia Perennis. In the case of
Evola in particular there is a history of loose connections with fascism and an intense fascination with Aryan and
warrior traditions. More specifically, Evola seems to have advocated a restoration of a sacral kingship which joined
warrior and priestly functions. Below that ranged what he regarded as inferior castes: degenerate feminized priests,
desacralized warriors, money-makers, and laborers concerned with nothing but sustaining organic vitality.

It should not be assumed that all advocates of perennialism share this politics, but the doctrine itself must be analyzed
for its intrinsic political as well as its spiritual valence.

This is a brief summary, but it gives us ample material for comment. First, let it be said that the doctrine is by no means
globally in error. There is significant common ground between many of humanity's wisdom traditions, and especially
between their mystical doctrines. This is because they represent responses, on the basis of a common humanity to a
common ultimate reality. And, as we have argued elsewhere, humanity's telos is nothing other than deification, even if
full deification remains always and only a horizon, drawing us forward to the connaturality with God which we have in
caritative wisdom and the supernaturally just act. There is even an element of truth in the school's political doctrine.
The modern world, by glorifying a “science” which unlocks the secrets of nature, telling us how the world works, has
radically devalued wisdom, which asks why, unlocking, if only partially, the secrets of the divine. And the modern world
hates nothing more than the authentically wise and the authentically just, regarding them as a threat to freedom and
democracy.

This said, there are also serious problems with perennialism. First, its claims regarding the underlying unity of
humanity's wisdom traditions go too far. Even among the many traditions which share a common analogical
metaphysics of Being/the Good/the One/Brahman/Tian, there are significant differences in how this first principle is
understood and even greater differences regarding its relationship to the universe and to humanity. While I have
generally emphasized the common ground between the Platonic metaphysics of the Good, the Aristotelian
metaphysics of the Unmoved Mover, and the Avicennan/Thomistic metaphysics of Necessary Being or Esse, there are
real differences even between these. The latter in particular privileges creativity and thus has rather different spiritual
and political implications than its predecessors. Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics leaves humanity little to add to
the universe, and the values the contemplative life the most; Avicennan and Thomistic metaphysics make human
beings co-creators with God and place more value on the active life –and on creative work of any kind, as well as on
those who do such work. The differences between this Western metaphysical tradition and the doctrine of Brahman or
of Tien are even greater. While the  word Brahman probably has its origins in the Sanskrit term for a certain creative
swelling, most Vedanta defines Brahman by contrast with the creative play of Maya or illusion. And the Chinese Tian
(heaven) serves more as a metaphysical anchor, grounding moral claims, than as carrier of rich metaphysical content.

Of particular difficulty for the perennialists is the Buddhist denial that anything has intrinsic existence. While I have
argued that Buddhism historically evolved towards such a doctrine, especially in its Chinese and Tibetan forms (e.g.
Tien Tai and Hua-yen in China and the Kagyu school in Tibet) the tendency is to understand the first principle in terms
of Mind rather than than Being or one of the other transcendentals. This, not surprisingly, privileges contemplation
even more than Platonic, Aristotelian, or Vedanta schools.

Finally, while I have argued extensively that the univocal metaphysics which characterizes Augustinian Christianity and
Asharite Islam is wrong, we cannot simply exclude them from the list humanity's wisdom traditions because failing to do
so would call into question a cherished and attractive claim regarding the unity of the world's religions. And here, of
course, the spiritual and political implications are very different: faith, devotion, surrender, submission …

These differences become even more apparent when we move to the question of the relationship between the first
principle and the universe. Did the universe emanate from the first principle (the most common view among
perennialists and the philosophers they favor), a cosmology which suggests a hierarchical and degenerating universe,
or does it evolve towards it, the view of many Radical Aristotelians and modern dialecticians? This latter view, while
certainly not excluding an emphasis on excellence and conscious leadership, has more democratic possibilities.
Vedanta, meanwhile, to which perennialists tend to reduce Sanatana Dharma, is constituted by the debate between
the advaita, the dvaita, and those in between, over whether the human soul (atman) is identical with Brahman, has
Brahman immanent in it, or radically separate,  a view which tends towards quasi-Protestant devotionalism.

It is, however, in its political implications that perennialism is most disturbing.  Any doctrine which inclined even some of
its adherents to miss the dangers of fascism must be subjected to the most intense scrutiny. And perennialism falls into
this category. It is also not difficult to identify just what it is about the doctrine which leads to this error. While
perennialism is by no means an irrationalism of the sort advocated by Schelling, Heidegger, Jung, or their followers, it
does so privilege suprarational, mystical, and initiatory wisdom above the ordinary acquired wisdom of philosophy and
theology that it diminishes its powers of analytic discrimination. This accounts, in fact, for both its excessive claims on
behalf of the unity of the world's religions and its failure to discern the dangers of fascism.

From the standpoint of its social basis, the doctrine would have appealed first and foremost to religious scholars
marginalized by an increasingly secular academy and by religious hierarchies anxious to defend their authority against
an intelligentsia claiming esoteric wisdom. In this sense, perennialism is a reaction formation. The academy overvalues
analytic discrimination to the point of not even aspiring to authentic wisdom; this gives rise to a movement which rejects
analytic discrimination in favor of a wisdom not fully accessible to reason. It is not surprising that the political problems
of perennialism are least apparent among those advocates who have retained some ties to the academy –Huston
Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, etc.

How, then, should we locate Convivencia theology with respect to perennialism? First, with respect to questions of
metaphysics and theology proper, we reject the claim that all of humanity's great wisdom traditions are united in
teaching, at least at the esoteric level, an analogical metaphysics of Being/the Good/the One, etc. without significant
differences between these various formulations. Rather, we believe that the nuances between these various
formulations of analogical metaphysics have real spiritual and political significance. We also take at face value the
claim of some traditions to teach doctrines which are entirely outside this consensus: Buddhism teaches a  
metaphysics of dependent origination, Augustinian Christianity and Asharite Islam a univocal metaphysics of divine
sovereignty, and positivistic modernity a univocal metaphysics which is atheistic and god-building.

Similarly, with respect to the nature and destiny of humanity, we recognize that different spiritual paths as really
different, and not all converging on realization of our identity with the One. We are open to the possibility that some
spiritual paths may be dangerous or misleading and to the possibility that they may simply lead to different places and
that that is a good thing.

At the level of sociohistorical analysis and political theology,  we share with perennialism a profound critique of
modernity and of the modern rejection of seeking wisdom in favor of unlocking the secrets of nature. Like the
perennialists we envision the future as, in part, a re-engagement with untapped possibilities of the great spiritual
civilizations of the past. Unlike the perennialists, however, we look back not to a golden age of sacred kings when a
small elite taught eternal truths and pursued spiritual self-cultivation while the the majority toiled just to sustain life, but
rather to the Axial Age project, which, among other things recognized the problematic and contested character of
meaning  --and thus the necessity of rational deliberation – and which and sought to open up to the people as  a
whole the pursuit of a wisdom which had formerly been the preserve of priestly lineages. This gives Convivencia
theology a much more radically open, future-oriented perspective. We stand for a public arena constituted by
deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value and an economy which, because it actually
cultivates human capacities, make such a public arena possible for the vast majority. Like the perennialists we
recognize the need for a restored spiritual leadership for society. But we envision this leadership as recruited from the
people themselves, by making rigorous liberal education, philosophical and theological training, and spiritual
cultivation, accessible to everyone.

Globalization requires that we engage spiritual questions across traditions, or at least offer an account of why we
refuse to do so. Perennialism represents, in many ways, an attractive way of engaging religious diversity. But the
doctrine oversimplifies the relationships between religious traditions and contains hidden errors which have dangerous
spiritual and political  implications. Discerning such errors is part of the task of effective spiritual leadership and part of
what Seeking Wisdom brings to the table. Our readers are advised to learn what they can from the perennialists, but
with caution.