“The Perennial Philosophy”


One of Frye’s primary sources for mystical texts was Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, where he found his “oft-thought good ideas well-expressed as well as [his] bad ones” (CW 13, 24).  The philosophia perennis, a phrase popularized by Leibnitz, was for Huxley the timeless and universal ground of all Being––what he calls “the divine Reality.”  Metaphysically, the divine Reality underlies everything in the world, including human minds.  Psychologically, it is the same thing as the soul.  Ethically, the ultimate end of the human enterprise is to be found in the immanent and transcendent ground of Being.  Huxley proposes that this ground of Being in all religions is one and the same and that it constitutes the essential core of each religion.  His book, which Frye read shortly after it was published in 1945 (New York: Harper), is an anthology of selections from the tradition of the philosophia perennis, sandwiched between Huxley’s commentary. What follows are Frye’s notebook entries that refer to the perennial philosophy.  For an account of Frye’s reading of Huxley, see Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, pp. 176–80.


Thus, without losing its specific historical orientation through Judaism and Christianity, the Bible is an archetypal model of a perennial philosophy or everlasting gospel.  At least, that’s what I’d call it if I were writing a book on religion.  We really do move from creation to recreation. (CW 5, 28)

I have an old note about eros and logos, creation by desire and creation by the Word.  It may be linked with another which quotes Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy as saying that the soul is female and the spirit male.  Note that the new heaven and the new earth is the real Tao, yang & yin in perfect balance. (CW 5, 10)

Wisdom in the Bible is an outgrowth of Torah, instruction, the completion of the knowledge of good and evil in its genuine form.  Biblical wisdom is not just wisdom, not the wisdom of Egypt or Sumeria, any more than its Yahweh is Ptah or Enki.  It has affinities, of course, but not to the point of blurring its identity.  That’s why Hebrew wisdom develops dialectically into prophecy, which again is Biblical prophecy, not Zoroaster or Tiresias prophecy.  All religions are one, not alike: a metaphorical unity of different things, not a bundle of similarities.  In that sense there is no “perennial philosophy”: that’s a collection, at best, of denatured techniques of concentration.  As doctrine, it’s platitude: moral maxims that have no application.  What there is, luckily, is a perennial struggle. (CW 5, 110)

In the third lecture I want to proceed from the gospel to the Everlasting Gospel, and yet without going in the theosophic direction of reconciliation or smile-of-a-fool harmony.  The synoptics make Jesus distinguish himself from the Father, as not yet more than a prophet: it’s in the “spiritual” gospel of John that he proclaims his own divinity.  (That’s approximately true, though one has to fuss and fuddle in writing it out.)  Yet John is more specifically and pointedly “Christian” than the synoptics: the direction is from one spokesman of the perennial philosophy and a unique incarnation starting a unique event.  Buddhism and the like interpenetrate with the Everlasting Gospel: they are to be reconciled with it.  I don’t quite yet know what I mean. (CW 6, 618–19)

Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy is a book I must keep in touch with: my point about the soul as female & the spirit as male (p. 174) is there in full force. (CW 13, 360)

The second stage is the mind’s withdrawal from creation into the death-consciousness of contemplation and observation.  God here becomes a first cause and (as in St. Thomas) a clearing-house of absolute terms—essence, being omni- this and that.  Here everything is focussed on the judgement that accompanies death, which in turn is the inevitable consequence of an act of creation, a making of the world.  As it proceeds, its one God becomes less personal, & the stage ends in “Thou art That” mysticism, the so-called perennial philosophy.  It starts with a personal Creator & ends in a “hid divinity,” a God beyond God. (CW 13, 100)

The third, as I now see, is an essay on the typology of the Bible leading up to the question of what comparative religion compares, or, what does religion as a whole say, when considered, not as religio or social observance, or as symbolism, which doesn’t say anything, but as doctrine, in the sense of an imaginative vision which is also existential and committed?  I don’t believe in a “perennial philosophy,” but there is something here. (CW 13, 110)

What’s new here is the use of literature to guide one to the problem of what gets compared in comparative religion.  Literature itself doesn’t say anything: if there’s a perennial religion, or rather a total religion, a telos of religious impulses, that would say something.  I suppose I’m really talking about my ground plan of the conceptual displacements book: maybe I’ve just been hypnotized by the lucidity, almost the luminousness, of my Critical Path essay.  I feel that a sequel to it that was the Huckleberry Finn to its Tom Sawyer, so to speak, would be something fairly definitive for our time. (CW 13, 113)

I is what I used to call the Druid analogy; II is my version of the perennial philosophy; III is Biblical. (CW 13, 136)

And most of the mystics leave out the scherzo (what I used to call the schalk) stage.  Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy is an impressive example, because the only good things he did as an artist were done in a spirit of demonic savagery.  Antic Hay is fine; Brave New World is superb; but the more he laid his ears back & tried to be a great novelist the worse he got.  I especially dislike such froth as Point Counterpoint [Point Counter Point] & Eyeless in Gaza because so many of his ideas run along the same lines as mine, I should make the same errors in taste he makes as a novelist, & I’m afraid to write novels because his are there to suggest how bad my own might be.  I do like this book about mystics [The Perennial Philosophy]: I find here my oft-thought good ideas well-expressed as well as my bad ones.  But I have again that feeling of the Bhakti ducking out the back door.  He’s not in there slugging.  And that rather unhealthy (as I think) mildness in him makes him miss the point of the great scherzo people—Blake most obviously, the Zen Buddhists, perhaps Rabelais.  There’s a curious example of this.  He quotes a Chinese Zen as saying “He (the guru) has done all he could for you; he is exhausted—only able to turn round & present you with this iron bar without a hole.”  “What precisely is the significance of that iron bar without a hole?” asks Huxley.  “I do not pretend to know.  Zen has always specialized in nonsense . .  .”   Well, I know.  The road to this kind of spiritual energy lies through paradox, & Huxley has no feeling for paradox. (CW 13, 23–4)

The second part is the Paradiso, the heavenly projection, & what it does is test the mythos hypothesis: that everything in words has a narrative shape.  If so, a study of literary plots & of metaphysical & theological arguments can proceed pari passu as mythos & dianoia of one thing.  Of what thing? perhaps my version of the “perennial philosophy.” It starts at 34 with a modulation from Dante to St. Thomas, & probably involves the cycle again.  The Mikado or Adonis complex, imperial sovereignty with a continuously martyred son, takes place in Aristotle’s teleology in the NW.  Thence we go down into Heidegger & the existentialists, re-emerge with the revolutionaries & then go up Eros with Plato & the Hermetic people, ending at Logos again in the Avatamsaka or universally decentralized vision.  Still spatial & temporal, but when & where rather than then & there. (CW 9, 241)  [For a diagram of the “perennial philosophy,” reconstructed from this notebook entry and from p. 174 of CW 9, see Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, p. 179.

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2 thoughts on ““The Perennial Philosophy”

  1. Michael Verde

    I am wondering in what sense, if any, Frye’s langage is his perennial philosophy, an Ur-language to which all empirical languages relate in a way akin to the way, say, Christians are in the body of Christ and Christ is in the body of the Christian. Langage might inform particular languages in different ways; the dialectic between langage and French, for instance, may be different than that between langage and English. I mention this because Frye seems disintersted in a perrenial philosophy bereft of a perrenial struggle. The struggle would be, I am guessing, those that emerge in the Word/Spirit sequence of recreations. One interesting question, I think, is how non-Christian religions dialectically evolve, assuming they do. Do they evince analogs to Frye’s Word/Spirit phases? Is the rising kundalini rising by recreating the preceding chakra into a new level of awareness? I wonder how applicable Frye’s Creation/Law/wisdom/prophecy/gospel etc. sequence would play in Hinduism? Buddhism? Islam?

  2. Ron Krumpos

    Stephen Prothero, Chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University, on April 25 published a controversial book called “God is Not One” to mixed reviews (mostly negative). The intriguing title caused wide coverage. He attacks the idea of Perennialism. Here are some reviews and comments, including five major newspapers (**):

    Prothero…God is Not One
    http://www.boston.com/ae/books/artic…all#readerComm **(Boston Globe)
    http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/…e-or-not-.html **(Chicago Tribune)
    http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/fea…1/#comment-462 **(Orlando Sentinel)
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn…_Comments.html **(Washington Post)
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000…abs%3Dcomments **(Wall Street Journal)


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