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Perennialism and fascism

Aldous Huxley and Rene Guenon

While I was in San Francisco, I got the chance to meet Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute. It’s a cross between a spiritual retreat centre and an adult education college, perched on the cliffs of Big Sur next to some hot springs. It’s been very influential on transpersonal psychology and American spirituality.

Murphy and I discussed the cultural influence of the ‘mystical expats’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – on the vision of Esalen and on American culture in general. They helped to popularise the idea of the ‘perennial philosophy’ – the idea there is a common core of wisdom at the heart of all the great religious traditions, and one can use spiritual practices from various traditions. That idea is now at the centre of American culture – being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the fastest-growing demographic in American religion.

It was a treat to hear Mike’s fond reminiscences about them – how he and Esalen co-founder Dick Price were turned on by hearing Huxley lecture on ‘human potentialities’, how they went to meet Gerald Heard in LA and came away mesmerized and burning with the desire to found Esalen, how Huxley and his wife Laura came to meet them in Big Sur and insisted on seeing the local butterflies, how they first dropped acid with Laura, how Alan Watts was the greatest spontaneous speaker Murphy ever heard.

I was particularly interested to hear Murphy make the connection between the San Francisco Renaissance – the cultural movement ranging from the Beats to the Hippies and arguably still ongoing in Silicon Valley – to the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural flowering involving creative thinking in politics, science, the arts and religion. One of its chief ideas was the perennial philosophy.  One finds perennialism in the religious movement called ‘Brahmoism’, which was started by the great Bengali thinker and reformer Ram Mohan Roy in around 1850, and which suggests that all religions are partial formulations of the transcendent divinity within us. One also finds perennialism in the teachings of Vivekananda, dashing Bengali prophet of Vedanta, who caused a sensation when he visited the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and declared that all religions are true.

I often encountered the same cheerful perennialism while travelling in India last year – in the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Chennai (which has temples to all the major religions), in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I spent two weeks in a Zen / Jesuit retreat in Tamil Nadu, where we bowed to both Christ and the Buddha. This perennialism was a breath of fresh air after a period of desperately trying to be a Proper Christian.

Murphy pointed out to me that the ‘mystical expats’ helped to transmit the perennialist fire from Bengal to California. Heard, Huxley and Isherwood popularised Vedanta, the Hindu mysticism brought to the West by Vivekananda; while the evolutionary spirituality of Sri Aurobindo was transmitted into the Bay Area through the American Academy of Asian Studies – a small college that Alan Watts helped to found, which evolved into the California Institute of Integral Studies (Murphy was a student there). Watts also helped to transmit Zen and Daoist thinking into San Francisco, inspiring everyone from Jack Kerouac to John Cage. The perennialist spark caught fire in American culture, and now it’s widely accepted.

Perennialism and renaissances

It’s interesting that the ‘perennial philosophy’ was transmitted from one famous cultural renaissance to another. It got me thinking about perennialism and renaissances. If one looks back at the ‘American Renaissance’ – the sudden flowering of American literature led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and others – one also encounters the perennial philosophy, particularly in Emerson and Thoreau. The stern Puritan soul of America suddenly relaxes, expands, and sees its smiling reflection in other cultures – in Platonism, in Hinduism, in a blade of grass.

One also finds the hot spring of the perennial philosophy bubbling up in the Romantic era, in Coleridge and Blake (‘all religions are one’) and, earlier, in the Italian Renaissance, at the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, who translated the works of Plato and ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, and sought to find a harmony between Christianity, Greek philosophy and Kabbalah. The optimism and creativity of this movement sings in the ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ of Pico della Mirandola, and shines in the radiance of Botticelli and Raphael.

The perennialist stream bubbles up yet again in the Islamic Renaissance (more usually known as the Islamic Golden Age), which is usually connected by scholars to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars translated the works of Greek and Roman philosophers and scientists.  One can trace the connection between the perennial philosophy and cultural flowerings all the way back to the Athenian Golden Age of the fifth century BC, when again, the human soul looks up from narrow tribalism, and smiles. Socrates declares: ‘I am a citizen of the universe’, leading the Stoics to suggest that all humans have a spark of the divine logos within them.

These are important moments of collective epiphany and cultural evolution in the story of homo sapiens. What they seem to have in common is a strong sense of cultural self-confidence – ‘we are Indians!’, ‘we are Americans!’, ‘we are Athenians!’ etc – with an openness to other cultures and the best they have to teach. And there’s a sense of optimism in progress, a sense of humans rising up and realizing their inner divinity – you see this in Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration, in Emerson’s great sermon on self-reliance, in Huxley’s lectures on human potential.

The varieties of Perennialism

But then I thought, perennialism isn’t always optimistic and hopeful. While researching the perennial philosophy, you can’t help but come across a movement called Traditionalism. It was started by a French thinker called René Guénon in around 1920. Like the mystical expats, he was initially inspired by Vedanta, then he flirted with Catholicism, got into Taoism, before moving to Egypt and becoming initiated into a Sufi order. He inspired other traditionalists including Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola and Mircea Eliade.

There’s a lot of similarities between Huxley et al’s Perennial Philosophy, and Guénon et al’s Traditionalism – they share the idea that western civilization has lost its soul in mechanical materialism, and that only a return to the core of wisdom at the heart of the great religious traditions will save civilization from collapse.

And yet Traditionalism is a much more pessimistic movement. Guénon and his successors, like the followers of Gurdjieff, thought wisdom could only ever be esoteric, reserved for the initiated elite. The masses would never get it. Traditionalists were constantly joining or creating esoteric secret societies, like the Gnostic Church, the Masons, the Maryamiya, the ‘Fraternity of the Cavalier of the Divine Paraclete’, or the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’.

They typically despaired of democratic politics, and flirted with the far-right – in Julius Evola’s case, this flirtation was quite explicit, as he tried to ingratiate himself first with Italian fascism and then with the Nazis. Mircea Eliade also had connections to the Romanian far-right. Where Huxley et al became cheery prophets of human potential, the Traditionalists were doom-mongers of the Apocalypse – they insisted we’re in Kali Yuga, a Hindu dark age of conflict and spiritual mediocrity. Humans aren’t ascending, we’re on the down-elevator, so the elite should withdraw and prepare for the deluge, or possibly seize power.

Reading about the Traditionalists yesterday, it struck me how human destinies can flow in such different directions from similar plateaus. I can well imagine Huxley et al becoming authoritarian Traditionalists. Huxley, like many modernists of his generation, was an aristocratic elitist – whenever he writes about bourgeois or proletarian mass culture, he invariably uses the word ‘squalid’. He and Gerald Heard often wondered if the perennial philosophy was suitable for the many, or just the initiated few. They pondered this in the 1950s and 60s with regard to psychedelics (Huxley decided they should just be for the intelligentsia). Heard, who in his last years became a guru to wealthy libertarian CEOs, suggested that spiritual education should focus on an elite – whom he called the ‘neo-brahmins’ – who could then rise to power. Particularly during World War 2, one finds the same note of deep cultural pessimism in Huxley and Heard’s writings as one finds in Guénon and Evola.

Why, then, did the mystical expats not become gloomy quasi-fascist Traditionalists? One reason is surely California. While Guénon was fulminating in a Cairo bedsit, Huxley and his gang were picnicking with Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin in the Hollywood Hills. They were living in gorgeous pads in Santa Monica. They were having too much fun to be fascist. Maybe the LA weather made them cheerier. Or maybe they found a culture more hospitable to their ideas – they were on the radio, on TV, lecturing away on campuses and at places like Esalen. Perhaps that gave them an optimism in human potential.

Another reason is Huxley and Heard had more faith in scientific progress than Guénon, who thought the urge to quantify everything was a symptom of the Kali Yuga. Huxley and Heard thought psychology could shed new light on the human psyche, that new psycho-spiritual methods could be discovered and disseminated, new drugs discovered. They may be right, although quantified spirituality has all kinds of risks – both Huxley and Heard can be over-credulous in their faith in new research.

Whatever the many causes, their lives ran in a different direction, and they took a bet on democratic mysticism – mysticism for the many, not the few.

Today, more and more of us are perennialists – a quarter of adult Americans are ‘spiritual but not religious’, and 35% of American millennials. Yet we can still see how many different directions a tide can break. We can see that Bay Area spirituality can easily become elitist – we the 1% are the spiritual supermen, the rest of society is screwed, let’s move to New Zealand, or space. We see that the perennial philosophy can still become deeply pessimistic and quasi-fascist – Steve Bannon and other alt-righters sing the praises of Julius Evola (my dark namesake) and argue that western civilization needs to re-embrace spiritual wisdom before it is over-run by immigrants.

I feel a strain of cultural pessimism in me too. Are we in an age of cultural ascent, or cultural decline? I’d probably go with Guénon and say we’re in the Kali Yuga. Thanks to people like Watts and Huxley, we have a very wide spirituality, with more and more people practicing wisdom techniques from Stoicism / Buddhism / Hinduism etc. But the width of participation seems to come at the cost of the height of attainment – where are the saints? Where are the masters? Every guru turns out to be a sex-pest. And, like Huxley, I worry about over-population and the damage we are doing to the ecosystem. It seems more likely to me that this century will be one of cultural collapse than spiritual ascent.

Clearly, I need to move to California and cheer up. Anyway, width of participation in spirituality is probably more important than height of practice. If several million people learn a bit of wisdom and suffer a bit less, that seems good to me. The ascent of humanity is very slow, but we’re getting there, together.

The best of times, the worst of times

This is the best time ever to be alive and human. Global life expectancy has doubled in the last century, from 31 to 71. A century ago, 20% of babies died in childbirth, now it’s less than 7%. You’re far, far less likely to die violently than in the Middle Ages, the 19th century, or even in the 1960s. In the last 30 years, the percentage of the world living in abject poverty has fallen from 37% to below 10%. Global literacy has risen from 40% in 1950 to 86%. In 1900, girls in Sub-Saharan Africareceived 7% of the education (in years) that boys’ received, now they receive 82% – and its close to 100% in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The world is better off in terms of health, education, wealth, gender equality, democracy, and peace, than it was 50 years ago, and far, far better off than it was 200 years ago.

Yet if you ask people in the UK, Germany, the US, France and elsewhere if they think the world is getting better, only around 4% of people think it is. 

Why has the west got the blues? Why aren’t we celebrating the incredible progress we have made? Why do we say things like ‘2016 was the worst year ever’, based on two right-wing election victories and the death of some celebrities?

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say we are spoilt. We have been spoilt by 50 years of peace and affluence. We thought the 90s were normal, when the biggest problem the US faced was Bill Clinton’s zip, rather than a decade unusual for its lack of serious crises or major wars. When we returned to the historical norm of crisis and war, we were bewildered, and we wailed.

Secondly, while the world is doing better, the West, by some measures, is doing worse. Western countries are seeing less dramatic gains in measures like literacy or life expectancy, a relative decline in our global share of GDP versus emerging markets, and actual declines in domestic measures like real income, living standards, home-owning and inequality. The 2008 financial crisis eroded our faith in democracy and capitalism. Liberal capitalist democracy is less obviously the globally triumphant system it was in 2000. It doesn’t seem to be working very well in the US and elsewhere, and the percentage of those in the West who support the idea of military dictatorships is rising, particularly among millennials.

Third, migration has rapidly reshaped the demographics of western countries, with the share of immigrants in some populations almost doubling in the last 20 years. This has changed the look and feel of many European cities – they have become far more multicultural or, sometimes, more segregated. Unfortunately, this sharp rise in immigration in the last 20 years has come at the same time as a period of war and international terrorism in the history of Islam. Every terrorist attack in the West emboldens and amplifies far-right voices saying Western civilization is heading for Islamic destruction. 

Fourth, we’re growing up with the prospect of species-threatening climate change in the next few decades, and we don’t know what to do about it. Some scientists, including James Lovelock, tell us there’s nothing we can do – the world will, in the next 30-50 years, become largely uninhabitable, much of humanity will become refugees, and the human population will be literally decimated. It’s such a dark prospect, and we’re so obviously failing to deal with it, that we don’t really talk about it. But I think it profoundly shapes our emotional and psychic reality.

Finally, there may be an emotional crisis in the West – a rise in loneliness, and in emotional problems like depression and anxiety. I’m not entirely sure on this – I think the rise in those seeking treatment is probably because of greater awareness and access to treatment. Nonetheless, George Monbiot may be right, in his new book Out of the Wreckage, when he argues we’re facing a crisis in meaning brought about by a lack of an over-arching narrative or myth.

Instead, we look to social media for meaning and narrative. We out-source our thinking to pundits like Owen Jones or Glenn Beck, or to a handful of trusted Twitter heroes like Gary Lineker and JK Rowling, who never disturb us with new or contrary ideas, but instead comfort us by articulating what we already feel, and shape the incredibly complex world of global politics into simple narratives of good versus bad, heroes versus villains. This is a perfect recipe for emotional disturbance, social division and political disfunction. Twitter is making us stupid, and sick.

Such is the complexity of the ‘wicked problems’ we face, a part of me feels the allure of unplugging and dropping out. The public space has become too noisy, too bitter. We feel we must have an opinion on everything, yet much of what is happening is beyond our individual or collective control. Perhaps now is the time for a tactical Daoist retreat – the wise man ascends the mountain, and lets nature take its course. 

But I think a better response than Daoist retreat is Stoic engagement: you accept that much of the situation is beyond your control, you accept that some fairly dreadful things are going to happen this century, but you engage politically anyway, with firm resolve, and a hope and faith in the long arc of the cosmos towards wisdom and justice.

We must keep hope, and remind ourselves of humans’ natural bias to negativity. We must remember how often, over the last 2000 years, humans thought the end of the world was nigh, and were proved wrong.We must remind ourselves loudly of the victories we have achieved and are achieving, even if these victories happen thousands of miles away. We must remind ourselves how sudden technological innovations have utterly transformed human existence in the past, and are likely to do so in the future. We must consider the ‘long now’, and plan not just for five years in the future, or 50, but 500.

I think my country – the United Kingdom – needs a ‘Doomsday Trust’, like the Rand Corporation, to go away into a farmhouse in the countryside for five years and think deeply about the challenges our country faces from climate change – to face difficult questions about arable land, dependency on food exports, mass migration, relations with the EU, the possibility of social breakdown – and find a way to help our nation survive this century. That thinking can’t be done on Twitter.

We must re-learn to engage not just through social media, but through face-to-face neighbourliness – speaking personally, I must shake myself out of a period of withdrawal from community organizing and start to organize again, for the common good and my own good.

Finally, what about the crisis of meaning in western culture, and the need for a new narrative? I can only repeat my brother, Alex Evans, whose book The Myth Gap earlier this year called for a new myth to change our relationship to nature and each other.

I also think the new narrative will be a shift from the Cartesian / Hobbesian narrative of the individual rational ego competing with other humans and exploiting a world of inanimate matter and soulless animals, towards a narrative where our consciousness is extended and deeply connected to each other, to other species, and to all of nature and all matter. 

When I develop my consciousness into wisdom and love, you benefit, even if we never meet. When you suffer, I suffer, even if we never meet. When the corals bleach in Australia, I am poorer. When literacy rises in Nigeria, I am richer. We are literally one organism, one consciousness, one interlocking eco-system, one vast I AM. That, I think, is the astonishing and in some ways terrifying truth that humans have been groping towards for millennia.

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