On Perennial Philosophy
(blogger ate the first one, and it took time to re-type)
I was recently asked to give an account of what I mean by “perennial philosophy”, and in particular to say which authors are examples of perennial philosophy. My response here has three parts: 1.) an account of what it means to call a philosophy “perennial”; 2.) what the fundamental basis of this philosophy is; and 3.) What fundamental demand this philosophy makes of a person.
1.) “Perennial” denotes being long lasting, and as such it is a synonym of “sempiternal” and “everlasting”. The etymology of the word, however, reveals several connotations that set the word apart from any of its synonyms. The word first means, in Latin, “lasting throughout the year (per+ annos)”; but it next becomes the name, in English, of a kind of flower bulb that blooms in an unusually large number of growing seasons. Though these two meanings are distinct, together they are a lovely teaching tool to explain what the perennial philosophy is. The perennial philosophy is made to last throughout many seasons, and it continually recurs even after it has vanished for a time. It does not, moreover, come back like weeds come back, but as a flower.
2.) Nothing is capable of being more sound and lasting than the foundation upon which it is built, and so the everlasting character of perennial philosophy requires an everlasting foundation. This everlasting foundation is formed by self evident propositions, and therefore the distinctive mark of perennial philosophy is a continual attention to the self evident, either by articulating it perfectly, or by meditating on it, or by firmly tethering all propositions to it.
By “self evident” I mean a proposition that is known as soon as all of its parts are known. Since we come to know things over time, and anything can be known more or less perfectly, we should not expect all self evident propositions to be known by everyone perfectly, or even by all at the same time. In some such propositions, we can expect the parts to be known by all almost immediately, like “the whole is greater than its part” or “some words have more than one meaning” or “nothing can both be and not be, (at the same time and in the same respect, etc.)”. There are other self evident propositions whose parts can be known only after dialectic, clarification, and qualification have cleared away some of the underbrush that obscures the ability of the mind to see the parts of the proposition. There is not always a bright yellow line between these propositions and the first ones, since the same amount of dialectic etc. is not necessary to manifest them. In this camp of propositions are, in general, a whole raft of definitions that are essential to perennial philosophy: “material is what things are made out of” or “Every agent acts for an end” or “man is a rational animal”*. Besides these, there is another class of self evident propositions whose parts cannot be known except to the degree that we have good moral habits; like “the force of evil desires diminishes if they are resisted” or “Each kind of habit has its particular pleasure”. Generally speaking, very little can be known abut morality except to one who is already living a moral life.
3.) Because perennial philosophy is founded on the self evident, but the self evident is not always known to us immediately, and because we come to understand philosophy most often through the teachings of someone else, this perennial philosophy requires that we follow some master with a reasonable trust. This condition of reasonable trust is called discipleship. A disciple is one who, on the basis of being shown certain truths that he knows are certain, trusts a master by always giving him the strong benefit of the doubt. By “strong benefit of the doubt” I mean that he will not disagree with his master unless he can appeal to something even more self evident than the master’s teaching.
If it is objected that we should trust no one in philosophy, but only accept certain doctrines as we come to know them, I answer that this makes philosophy impossible. The truth of certain propositions can only manifest itself over time with meditation, and unless we trust certain masters, we will not put in the time to meditate on what they say, even if we end up disagreeing with it. We are simply incapable of pursuing something unless we see it as a good, and since we cannot always immediately see the proper goodness in what some philosopher says (in the case of philosophy, the proper goodness is truth), we must either be motivated to see it by the goodness found in trust, or not at all.
But where does one find this master that is worthy of discipleship? Here we reach the point where I must give either a very long defense, or a personal testimonial. I choose the personal testimonial. St. Thomas has never let me down in an argument, and I have always found that his arguments reduce to the self evident. And yes, when I speak of St. Thomas I also see him as a disciple of Aristotle, and Aristotle of Plato; and again yes, I accept both Charles DeKoninck and Marcus Berquist as faithful expositors of what both Aristotle and St. Thomas say. I am a disciple of all the men listed above, and their doctrine is, by my lights, perennial philosophy for all the reasons I have noted above. Since all of these men have gone on record as saying that they would deny anything in their philosophy if it contradicted something more known and certain (there again, the principle of contradiction) then I, as their disciple, make the same pronouncement also. All of us defer to the truth that is found in the nature of things, a truth which proceeds from the mind of God.
*It was the genius of Socrates, and of Plato, that they saw dialectic as the essential starting point of any philosophy that would last, not because it was essential to the prove the starting point of a science (since no starting point, by definition, is capable of being proven- but rather because it was essential for us to see the starting point in the first place) . I see Plato’s method as essential, so much so that if someone doesn’t love Plato, they have next to no chance of ever being a philosopher.