TRADITIONALISM, as Mark Sedgwick carefully explores it in this book, is the perennial philosophy with a twist. So, what is the perennial philosophy, and what is the twist?
The perennial philosophy is the discernment of a common core within, underneath, and beyond all major religious systems. That core is often described as falling into three parts. First, reality springs from a transcendent source that is both more than and inherent within the cosmos. Second, the human soul has an affinity and longing for this ever-present origin. Third, the goal of human existence is participation in the life of the divine wellspring.
Perennialism is, therefore, a theory about religions, and perennialists, who advocate it, usually affirm adhering to a particular religion as a comprehensive revelation from the divine, though with a sense that there are many manifestations of God, who exceeds any particular path.
The idea of a perennial philosophy was popularised in a book by Aldous Huxley of the same title. But its origins reach back much further than the mid-20th century. The phrase itself, philosophia perennis, was coined during the Renaissance by Agostino Steuco. This Augustinian monk was the keeper of Islamic texts in the Vatican, and, as Sedgwick affirms, scholars today suspect that he derived the idea from the Islamic tradition, which he was studying.
Islam is a natural home for the perennial philosophy because of its uncompromising emphasis on the unity of being, which tends to the conviction that, in one way or another, all manifestations of life must be one, too. This helps to explain why some of the most powerful advocates of perennialism in recent decades have been scholars of Islam.
The twist that turns perennialism into traditionalism is the deep distrust of the modern world which arose in the early decades of the 20th century. To varying degrees, traditionalists contrast the sacred order that underpins reality with the liberalism and, sometimes, the democracy that shape the Western world. Traditionalism is, therefore, often political as well as metaphysical. It is the ramifications of the political ideology that prompts Sedgwick’s systematic exploration.
He is clear that there are benign forms of traditionalism. The music of John Tavener, the art criticism of Ananda Coomaraswamy, and the environmentalism of Seyyed Hossein Nasr are cases in point discussed in the book. But there is a shadow on traditionalism. It has been deployed to support the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the policies of Vladimir Putin in Russia. “It would be good”, Sedgwick explains, “if those who oppose fascism, racism, and terrorism could more easily recognize Traditionalism when they see it.”
Sedgwick brings a steady eye and cool analysis to his task, navigating terrain that many would fear or fail fairly to judge. In a plural world, facing social breakdown and existential concerns, the sense that underneath all differences lies an aboriginal unity could be a force for good, whether named the perennial philosophy or not.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps (Iff Books) (Books, 26 May).
Traditionalism: The radical project for restoring sacred order
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