Philosophia Perennis or the Perennial Philosophy

Learn what Leibniz, Agostino Steuco and eastern schools of thought had to say about the theory of the eternal philosophy.

Since people see life through the eyes of their cultures, religion and epoch, then whatever a person considers to be true is subjected to the criteria of the social group he or she lives in, right? For some, this is exactly why the concepts of right and wrong, moral and immoral, good or bad, are relative and only exist within a cultural context.

However, many thinkers throughout history have pointed out the need to separate temporal philosophy from atemporal philosophy in order to search for an ethics and a moral that underlies all cultural diversities and remains valid independently of the society. This universal philosophy that precedes the diversity is called “philosophia perennis,” or “perennial philosophy.”

Eastern Philosophy – Eternal Philosophy According to Buddhism and Hinduism

The roots of the idea that there’s one reality that is atemporal and that all different models of morality are subjected to this universal pattern trace back to the eastern schools of thought of the ancient times. According to the Vedic texts, this principle is an instance of the universal consciousness – Atman – which rules the archetypes of morals and ethics and is present in every person’s unconscious mind as a model of perfection. So people would naturally tend to project these patterns into the physical world.

From this perspective, all the cultural differences regarding moral rules can be understood as attempts to mirror Atman into politics, arts and sciences, under the cover of the cultural elements of each nation, without knowing that, in fact, every nation is based on the same foundations – the principles of Atman.

Does this theory sound familiar? Plato, in the west, said the same thing using different words and Marsilio Ficino, a great philosopher that lived during the renaissance spread the theory of the perennial philosophy based on the Corpus Hermeticum – the works of Hermes Trimegistus.

Scholasticism and Steuco – Reconciling Catholic Faith With Classical Philosophy

In the sixteenth century, Italian Old Testament scholar Agostino Steuco, who was very engaged to the fight against the Protestant revolt, wrote the polemic work De perenni philosophia, in which he tried to defend that the Catholic faith embodied the atemporal truth and therefore, the philosophies of classical antiquity, which defended the existence of an universal model of perfection, were in accordance with Catholicism.

According to Steuco, this atemporal and universal truth sang by the artists and exalted by the poets of antiquity, was, in fact, the Catholic truth. Since the theological positions he used to defend his point of view were the same positions that had been criticized by the reformers, such as the papal authority, Steuco’s writings created a lot of controversy.

While it is possible to find similarities between the Church hierarchy and the ancient concept of universal hierarchy as described by the Hindu and Egyptian texts, attesting that all religions may have a common source (as ancient philosophers advocated), the argument that the Catholicism was a perfect reflection of the divine to the detriment of other creeds could be viewed as the denial of the principles that gave birth to the eternal philosophy itself.

Gottfried Leibniz – The Monad

In his work entitled Monadologie, Gottfried Leibniz theorized that there’s a part of every living being which is eternal, indecomposable, individual and that reflects the harmony of the universe. This part is called monad, that is, the monad is a microcosm of the universe and therefore, it is the force that contains the principles of the atemporal and universal laws to which all actions are subjected.

So, Leibniz’s theory leads to the conclusion that there’s an instance of the human consciousness that transcends culture, religion and epoch since every person obeys to a principle that is common to every living creature.

Later, in 1945, Aldous Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy defending the theory of an ethics that is abovecultural differences and popularized the term, which has been used since then to describe the theory of the eternal philosophy.

Is Truth Relative?

Is truth relative? The answer is “yes” and “no.” If one understands that people interpret in different ways a certain pattern that exists inside each one, and that the projections of this model take different shapes and forms when reflected in society, then yes, the appearance of moral and ethical standards are relative. But, when one is able to unveil the philosophy that originates the practices and customs of each culture, it is possible that truth will be understood as the eternal source of all temporal diversities.

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