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What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

lrYoDsSIn my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up two weeks ago, I wrote this sentence: “Spiritual experiences tell us something about the cosmos,…the experience of infinite loving-consciousness is a glimpse of the very ground of being, also sometimes called God, Brahman, Allah, the Logos, the Tao, the Buddha-realm.”

This sentence seemed to surprise some people – one reader asked what it was exactly I believed, while another reader who said reading my blog helped bring him back to Christianity promptly cancelled his subscription!

So what is behind that statement? Well, it’s a classic expression of something called the Perennial Philosophy, which is the belief that at the core of all the great religions and wisdom traditions is the same mystical experience of Ultimate Reality. All the surface disagreements, different names for Ultimate Reality, different myths etc are just window-dressing.

The Perennial Philosophy has its historical roots in the syncretism of Renaissance humanists like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who suggested that Plato, Jesus, Hermes Trismegistus and the Kabbalah were all pointing to the same God (they were almost excommunicated as a result). Leibniz also championed the philosophia perennis. You can see it flourishing in the transcendentalism of Emerson, Coleridge and Thoreau.

220px-PerennialPhilsophyThe idea then reached a mass-market through Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book, The Perennial Philosophy, and then in the 1960s it became almost the foundational idea of the New Age, spread through centres like Esalen, the California spiritual community that developed the ‘religion of no religion’.

I’d suggest the Perennial Philosophy is in some ways the ruling spiritual philosophy of our time, including in its ranks everyone from Sam Harris to Abraham Maslow to Ken Wilber to Prince Charles – yes, the future defender of the Anglican faith is a devotee of Perennialism (read this fascinating speech he gave about it).

‘One mountain, many paths.’ It’s the philosophy I grew up in, as did all of my friends. We loved the Upanishads, Rumi, the I-Ching, Walt Whitman, Carlos Castaneda, Chang-Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Dhammapada (we tended to give the Bible a wide berth, like an ex at a cocktail party).

The Perennial Philosophy is a much more natural attitude to me than the exclusivism and tribalism of Christianity, which I find strange and incredible. While my adventures in Christianity of the last two years introduced me for the first time to Christian wisdom and grace, I still have a deep sense of the richness of other traditions. And when I meet evangelical Christians who believe any other faith is demonic, I think they’re mental.

What I have been developing, this year, is something called the Wisdom Approach, which teaches ideas, practices and values from various different wisdom traditions. I think the idea of healing wisdom – Sophia – connects all the great wisdom traditions, including atheist ones like Epicureanism and Buddhism. The courses I run try to explore this common ground while also exploring the different destinations they attempt to reach.

What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

This week, I read a book which made some trenchant criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy. The book’s called Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, by Jorge Ferrer, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Ferrer makes three main criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy approach:

1) All religions are not the same

The Perennial Philosophy, by being so universalist and essentialist, ends up doing violence to the traditions it tries to cohere. The Tao is not the same as the Christian God (the Tao cares nothing for individuals, as Lao Tzu says), nor are either the same as Buddhist sunyata or emptiness. The eternal now of Buddhism or Stoicism is fundamentally different to Christianity’s radical hope for the future. The mystics themselves do not agree that all religions are talking about the same ultimate reality.

2) Perennialists tend to rank religions hierarchically

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others. Perennialists tend to rank religions, and even sects within religions. Shamanism is the lowest, then monotheisms like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, then mystics within these traditions (Rumi is better than Mohammad, Meister Eckhart is better than Jesus), then Buddhism and Hinduism, and the peak of the mountain is non-dualist philosophies of emptiness like Advaita and Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen.

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others
All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others

Christianity is usually near or at the bottom – Sam Harris says it has basically nothing useful to say about the human condition, Aldous Huxley said the Bible was an obstacle to evolution – and Tibetan Buddhism is at the top. Look at the Contemplative Studies conference I’m going to in Boston this month – I’d estimate 90% of the speakers are western Buddhists, hardly any are Christians, and the key-note speaker is, obviously, the Dalai Lama.

Perennialists tend to be western and tend to have rejected their Judeo-Christian background, and therefore rank Christianity low in their wisdom rankings. And of course Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, fits uneasily within a Perennial framework, with their tribal eschatologies and their faith in their unique revelation.

3) Perennialism often tends to the tyranny of empiricism and Cartesian reductionism

Perennialists like Huxley, Maslow, Wilber or Sam Harris tend to describe the Perennial Philosophy as a ‘science of consciousness’, providing empirical certainty for some of the claims of the mystics. Your mind is the laboratory, in which you can go and check these facts for yourself. This attitude, while understandable in its attempt to validate spiritual experiences within a hostile scientific materialist environment, tends to reduce such experiences to subjective occurrences in the individual brain.

Towards a participatory spirituality

So what is Ferrer’s alternative? He suggests that Perennialism often succumbs to an outdated ‘mental representation’ model of cognition: Divine Reality exists out there, and we experience it in our minds, like a camera taking a photo. Instead, he suggests a more participatory form of knowing. Our consciousness and imagination helps to create the reality we experience.

solaris-movie-poster-1020293406This is a somewhat trippy idea, but I’ve come across it in the last year through the writings of two interesting religious scholars – Tanya Luhrmann and Jeffrey Kripal. Both suggest that our relationship with Being is reciprocal, it responds to how we relate to it, manifesting in the attitudes or stories we project, playing with them, making them real. This reminds me a bit of Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea of Solaris or The Zone – the magical force that projects our dreams back to us.

Kripal calls the intermediary between us and Being  ‘the Imaginal’ – an idea with its roots in Plato, in Sufism, in the creative transcendentalism of Coleridge and the Inklings (CS Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield), and more explicitly in the psychology of Frederick Myers. Being responds to the stories we project onto it – this is why Kripal believes the humanities are fundamental to the study of consciousness (here’s a video of him talking about the Imaginal at Queen Mary, University of London earlier this year).

Ferrer’s ‘participatory knowing’ can be both individual or collective – we bring forth a special manifestation of Being collectively. We open a portal together, as the apostles did at the Pentecost. It’s not an individual experience so much as an event in which we participate.

Rather than the ‘one mountain many paths’ metaphor, Ferrer suggests ‘one ocean many shores’. The ocean is the starting point, which most great wisdom traditions share – the belief that we can liberate ourselves from our ego and connect to a more expanded consciousness and reality. However, from that ocean, we can reach many different shores. These will involve different spiritual experiences, and even (Ferrer suggests) different metaphysical realities.

Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact
Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact

That metaphor doesn’t quite work for me, because we tend to think of the ocean as the end-point, not the starting-point. Let me suggest this – one rocket launch-pad, many different destinations. The rocket launch-pad of spiritual traditions tend to be similar ethical practices to go beyond the ego. However, spiritual astronauts then reach different planets, different space stations, different universes, where perhaps they encounter different beings (or manifestations of Being).

This seems to be more or less the position that William James reached – he coined the term ‘multiverse’ and suggested a ‘pluralist mysticism’ in an essay on the 19th-century psychonaut Benjamin Blood, who wrote: “Variety, not uniformity, is more likely to be the key to progress. The genius of being is whimsical rather than consistent.” Through spiritual practice we reach ‘new worlds’, new manifestations of Being – and they may be places that humans have not yet reached. The Spirit is dynamic, ever-changing, playful.

portalI wonder if this idea of the multiverse is there in the multiple worlds of science fiction writers like CS Lewis or Philip Pullman, both of whom describe portals through which one can reach other worlds or universes, in which the Spirit will take different forms.

I wonder even if this is what the Bishop of London meant, when I asked him if one could get to God through other faiths. He replied:

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

There are other portals which may take you to different places…

But here are my questions for Ferrer’s spiritual pluralism, which perhaps Professor Ferrer can respond to, if he has the time.

If he believes there are different metaphysical realities, does that mean there are different destinies after death? That a Buddhist experiences reincarnation, while the Christian gets physical resurrection? Does he believe there are multiple eschatologies – in some realities Christ comes back, in others Valhalla burns, and so on? Are there multiple Gods, or is it rather that Spirit / Being is One but responds differently according to our different approaches? Is there one sort of ethical law or Logos for all the metaphysical realities, or might they have radically different ethical laws??

While Ferrer hopes spiritual pluralism will allow a more fruitful and respectful dialogue between faiths (and he may well be right), I wonder if Tanya Luhrmann has a point, when she suggests the real conclusion of this view is rather melancholy – we’re not just living in different belief-systems, we’re actually living in different universes.

But – more optimistically – these realities, these universes, aren’t discrete. They’re not hermetically sealed off from each other. They interconnect. They overlap. Perhaps in some way they connect together into a grand symphony. This is one reason not everyone in the west should become a Buddhist – it would be like everyone singing the same part in the symphony. We need some singing bass, some singing alto, and Richard Dawkins on kazoo.

Crowley’s Children

turnoff_yourmindA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post analysing the video for Blondie’s Rapture, and pointing out the voodoo, occult and mystic symbolism in it. I wondered if Blondie were into that sort of thing, or perhaps I was seeing things. It turned out they were, and one of them – the bassist Gary Lachman – had even become a historian of the occult. He was kind enough to give me his time for an interview.

I met up with Gary in the British Library, to ask him about the influence of occult ideas on rock and roll – and particularly the ideas of Aleister Crowley. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in ecstatic states and how we reach them in modernity. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and magic are part of that story.  It’s not always a very nice story, as Gary’s book ably chronicles.

He first encountered the occult in 1975, when he was playing bass in Blondie, and sharing an apartment with fellow band-members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. ‘They had a fun, kitschy aesthetic appreciation of the occult, little voodoo dolls, pentagrams, a model of a nun with an upside-down cross painted onto her forehead.’

He was introduced to the writings of Aleister Crowley through Tommy Ramone, who leant him a couple of books. After he’d left the band, Gary became more and more interested in Crowley’s ideas and rituals. One day in LA, he signed up to join the Ordo Templi Orientis, a secret cult dedicated to following Crowley’s religion of ‘Thelema’. For a while he got very into Crowleian magic – he got himself a robe, did every ritual in Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, tried out sex magick with his girlfriend, even consumed a wafer containing menstrual blood as part of a ‘gnostic mass’.

Gary made the transition from punk-rocker to secret magus and writer on all things occult. But eventually his love-affair with Crowley waned as he decided his ‘religion’ was one long ego-trip. His new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, explores Crowley’s flawed personality and its influence on pop culture.

His influence is huge. It turns out all those nutty Christian evangelists who warned that rock and roll is demonic were right. The wafer of pop music is soaked in the occult, particularly in Aleister Crowley’s highly egotistical version of it.

So, a quick magickal mystery tour:

Crowley appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. John Lennon once said ‘The whole Beatles thing was do what you want, you know?’


A statue of him also appears on the cover of the Doors’ album, Doors 13. The Doors admired Crowley as someone who’d ‘broken through to the other side’, and who was a master of anarchic showmanship. Jim Morrison once said, in very Crowley-ite words: ‘I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning.’


Jimmy Page was a huge Crowley fan, and bought his house next to Loch Ness. Crowley’s famous motto, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, was embossed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin III.

The Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull were into Crowleian magic through the film-maker Kenneth Anger – hence their album His Satanic Majesties and their song Sympathy for the Devil. Jagger also made the soundtrack to Anger’s film, Invocation to my Demon Brother, while Marianne Faithful appeared in Anger’s Lucifer Rising, which starred a future member of the Manson Family.

David Bowie was also a big fan of Crowley – he mentions him in the song ‘Quicksand’, and was very influenced by Crowley’s magic techniques, symbolism, and superman philosophy. Bowie was deep into the occult in the 1970s, particularly during the making of ‘Station to Station’ when he feared he’d invoked an evil demon, and that witches were trying to steal his semen to make a Satanic love-child (no, really).

Both Crowley (left) and Bowie liked the fancy dress of magic

In the 1980s, of course, various metal bands were explicitly into Crowley, from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden. More recently, and perhaps more surprisingly, Crowley’s ideas are apparently an influence on rap stars like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and that ardent practitioner of sex magick, Ciara.

Jay-Z wearing a Crowley top. Like Bowie, he seems to buy into the idea of being among a tiny superhuman elite who…er…’run this town’.
Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of 'Power'. He used to be such a nice boy....
Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of ‘Power’, including wearing an occult Horus necklace. And he used to be such a nice boy….
Crowley has got Ciara's back
Crowley has got Ciara’s back

More broadly, as we’ll examine, pop culture helped to make Crowley’s philosophy of unfettered egotism – do what thou wilt – the ruling philosophy of western society. We are all Crowley’s children.

Who was Crowley?

Crowley’s parents were Plymouth Brethren – a rigidly puritanical Christian sect. They were also quite well-off, and Crowley inherited a decent fortune. This combination of a sense of entitlement with a need to rebel against the puritanism of his parents seems to have been fatal for Crowley. He never grew out of the need to shock, to rebel, to provoke, and to get others to notice him.

As a teenager, he got into ‘Satanizing’, which initially meant being deliberately bad in the decadent style of Baudelaire or Huysmans. By his 20s, he was dabbling in the Occult, and fascinated by the idea of a ‘Hidden Church’ made up of magicians with secret powers.

He eagerly joined the Golden Dawn in London, a magical order whose members included the poet WB Yeats. However, he quickly fell out with them all, despising Yeats when he failed to appreciate Crowley’s attempts at poetry, and annoying the Golden Dawn elders with his desire to ascend rapidly up the ‘magical scale’ to become a top-level magus, even using black magic to do so.

Aleister_Crowley,_MagusHe claimed to have achieved top-level magus status by 1904, when he says he made contact with a demi-god called Aiwass in Egypt (in the Great Pyramid of Giza, to be precise), who dictated a book to him called the Book of the Law. Aiwass was an emissary of the Egyptian bird-god Horus, and he came to Crowley to declare a new age, the aeon of the ‘Crowned and Conquering Child’.

This new aeon would be, writes Lachman, ‘a time of unconstrained personal freedom’, in which a handful of supermen (led by Crowley) would perfect their wills and become gods. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ for the supermen. They will delight in ‘wines and strange drugs’ which ‘shall not harm ye at all’, as well as every kind of sexual excess. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity, ‘the slaves’, shall be made to serve the supermen. ‘Compassion is the vice of kings’, Aiwass told Crowley. ‘Stamp down the wretched and the weak.’

Crowley was excited, though perhaps not surprised, to discover he was the Messiah of the New Age. He tried to usher in the New Age with magic rituals, both private ones (long orgies of sex, drugs and magic) and public ones – most famously, a ‘Rite of Eleusis’ which he organized in London in 1910, where participants took peyote, danced to bongoes and listened to Crowley declaiming his magickal poetry. This was, I think, the first hallucinogenic rave of the modern age.

Other people were disposable ingredients for his operational magic. A succession of mentally unstable women were cast in his magickal S&M orgies as ‘the Scarlet Woman’. The women usually ended badly, in alcoholism, drug addiction, madness or suicide. The debris included his first wife, Rose, who he abandoned along with his daughter, the unfortunately named ‘Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith’ , who died of typhus in Rangoon. He didn’t much care. ‘‘Morally and mentally, women were for me beneath contempt’, he wrote. ‘Intellectually of course, they did not exist.’

He was equally cruel to any man foolish enough to follow him. This included an acolyte called Neuberg, who signed up to be his student. Crowley subjected him to years of sadistic humiliation at his hut in Scotland, including making him cut his arms and sleep naked on a gorse bush for ten days. Crowley also tortured cats, crucified a frog, and was an enthusiastic big-game hunter.

A keen mountaineer, he fell out with a team he was leading in the Himalayas, after they complained about his fondness for beating the sherpas to assert his racial superiority. He flounced off, and then failed to come to the team’s aid when it was hit by an avalanche, despite their cries for help. Several of them died.

His desire for ‘blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything good or bad, but strong’ led him to consider the idea of human ritual sacrifices as the ultimate magickal taboo. Lachman tells me he ‘would tease his readers with remarks about human sacrifice in his book, Magick in Theory and Practice’. There’s no evidence he actually did kill anyone, though he gleefully claimed his spells had driven one lady to suicide, and his ideas about human sacrifices inspired later psychopaths like Charles Manson.

Was Crowley a black magician? He certainly wanted to be, recklessly invoking evil demons, and trying to harm his many enemies with spells. But if he did sell his soul to a devil, he didn’t get much in return. His poetry and writing are rubbish, he never made much money, he never had much power, although he did apparently have a great deal of sex. He died poor, friendless, unread, addicted to heroin, the same gargantuan egotist he’d been as a teenager. His last words were ‘I am perplexed.’ He used many pseudonyms –  Master Therion, Baphomet, the Great Beast, Nemo, Perdurabo – but the most accurate word for him is probably a ****

The age of the crowned and conquering child

So how did this idiot become such a huge influence on 1960s culture? Partly, because his ideas were embraced as part of the 60s counter-cultural philosophy of what Robert Bellah called ‘expressive individualism’, or what Gary Lachman calls ‘liberationism’.

Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley
Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley

Lachman says: ‘It’s the idea of breaking the rules, getting rid of repression and going beyond all convention. Liberationism goes back through George Bataille, Nietzsche and his idea of the Dionysiac, all the way to the Marquis de Sade. And Crowley was a poster-boy for liberationist philosophy. It makes perfect sense that he would be picked up by rock and roll and later forms of pop music, because in many ways it’s tailor-made to the adolescent sensibility. Think of Jim Morrison’s ‘we want the world and we want it now’, or Iggy Pop: ‘I need more than I’ve ever done before.’ When you’re young you want to throw away all constraints on you. Crowley did that his whole life. His whole thing was excess in all directions.’

Liberationists want to liberate themselves from any social hang-ups, which means liberating themselves from traditional morality and even from reason itself. ‘Turn off your mind and float downstream’, as Timothy Leary said and John Lennon later quoted. Leary and other key figures in the 60s saw in Crowley a genius explorer of altered states of consciousness accessed through drugs, music, poetry and sex – just as they were trying to do. His Rite of Eleusis was a blueprint for the acid tests of the 1960s, and the raves of today – which also aim to bypass rational thought and get the audience into trances.

60s adolescents had also fallen rapidly in love with the occult, via books like Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, and through superhero comics like The X-Men, which popularized the idea of the evolution of a new mutation of superhumans with paranormal powers. Baby-boomer flower children liked to imagine they were this new mutation, evolving through the magic potion of LSD.

Crowley particularly appealed to musicians like Jimmy Page or David Bowie because he promised them power. Musicians are like magicians – insecure, impoverished, desperately searching for the magic formula which will bring them sex, money and power.  Many pop-stars shared Crowley’s taste for alter-egos as a way of exploring different aspects of their psyche, and also for using costume, light, sound, symbols and transgressive actions to ‘get the people going’.

Lachman says: ‘Magic and the music industry make use of much of the same materials – imagery, special effects (light shows), illusion, trance – and both reach down below the conscious mind to the deeper, older, more visceral levels of ourselves. Both also cater to that adolescent appetite to be someone ‘special’, to stand out, to be noticed, to belong to the elite and to have an effect on the people around you.’

Above all, Crowley appealed to the pop-star’s desire to become a star, a god, an Illuminatus, one of the superhuman elite – while weak humanity bows down and worships them. You see this Crowley-ite idea in Bowie (see the lyrics for Oh You Pretty Things for example), and also in Jay-Z and Kanye West. Check out the slavish humans worshipping the god:

Lachman says: ‘The idea they’re selling is ‘we’re the special ones, and we’re going to be in charge of this new world order. And when you join the elite, you’re beyond good and evil, you get a lot of power, a lot of sex and fun.’  That’s the philosophy Kanye West and Jay-Z are selling – it’s Berlusconi with a drum beat.

Alas, Crowley’s ‘Do What You Wilt’ philosophy has become one of the ruling philosophies of our time – our culture is now one of ‘occult consumerism’, as Lachman puts it, in which adverts use symbols and incantations to urge us to ‘Just Do It’ – to follow every impulse, to feed every alter-ego, to yield to every temptation, and above all, to spend. Lachman writes: ‘Crowley was a kind of pre-echo of our own moral and spiritual vacuum. For better or worse, we do find ourselves in an antinomian world, beyond good and evil, in which practically anything goes.’

Be afraid of that trapdoor!

I have a very simple model of the human mind, similar to the one described by Coleridge in Kubla Khan. I’ve spared no expense with the graphics here:

Model of the mind.001At the top you have conscious processes, like a weak and flickering flame. Then you have less conscious or unconscious processes, like a mine of coal beneath that flame. Connecting the two is the Imagination, which runs like a mineshaft between the conscious and unconscious levels. Within the mine of the unconscious are treasures – insight, healing, wisdom, knowledge and power. However there are some monsters down there too.

You remember the cartoon show The Trap Door, from the 1980s? Well, the unconscious is a bit like that. As William James suggested, it may be a door not just to our archaic impulses, but also to the spirit world, to both good and bad spirits. So you need to be careful what you let through the trapdoor.

The arts, sex, drugs, magic and religion are all ways of ‘turning off the mind’, going beyond rational consciousness, opening the trapdoor and following the Imagination down into the dark, to try and find the treasure. But I think, in that perilous descent, it’s absolutely crucial what motive you have, and your moral ability to handle what you encounter without losing your shit.

Many artists and magicians make that descent for selfish motives – for money, sex and power. That’s very risky – it’s like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to use the Ark for selfish reasons. You end up with a melted face.

mt-doom-2-frodo-2525951-400-300I’d say Tolkien had the best idea about how to mine the Imagination without awakening too many Balrogs. You need to go in with a small ego, like a hobbit, with a fellowship of people around you to guide you when you feel lost. And you need to be prepared to give away whatever treasure you find, rather than trying to hang on to it for your own power.

That’s the way to create great art, and it’s the way to live a meaningful life. Crowley’s ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ doesn’t end in happiness or power. It ends in emptiness, addiction, madness and self-destruction. It’s a lie – perhaps the oldest lie of all.