Re-Discovery of the Perennial Tradition
This chapter explicates how certain embodiments of the Perennial Tradition were reintroduced into the West during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, helping to create Western Civilization and all transformative currents that remain with us to this day.
In his seminal work, The Sufis,
Idries Shah examined the re-entry of the Sufic embodiment of the Perennial Tradition into Western Europe through the Sufi teachers Saadi, Attar, Rumi, El-arabi, El-Ghazali, Khayyam, and many others.
The Influence of the Hermetic Tradition
As we saw in chapter six, Hermeticism was introduced into Western Europe in 1463 C.E. with Ficino's translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. The Asclepius, considered the other major part of the Hermetic writing, had already been translated into Arabic and Latin.
Early Christian writers, including, Lactantius and Augustine, had referred to this mysterious Hermes Trismegistus. Lactantius, writing in the third century C.E., quoted Cicero on the fifth Mercury (Hermes) as he "who gave letters and laws to the Egyptians." In his Institutes, Lactantius, says of Hermes that
"although he was a man, yet he was of great antiquity, and most fully imbued with every kind of learning, so that the knowledge of many subjects and arts acquired for him the name of Trismegistus. He wrote books and those in great number, relating to the knowledge of divine things, in which he asserts the majesty of the supreme and only God, and makes mention of Him by the same names which we use--God and Father."
Lactantius and other Church Fathers used what they called "pagan wisdom" to support the truth of Christianity. Lactantius quotes, in Greek, a passage from the Asclepius:
"Hermes, in the book which is entitled The Perfect Word, made use of these words: 'The Lord and Creator of all things, whom we have thought right to call God, since He made the second God visible and sensible. . . . Since, therefore, He made Him first, and alone, and one only, He appeared to Him beautiful, and most full of all good things; and He hallowed Him, and altogether loved Him as His own Son.'"
Lactantius was a Christian leader in the time when the Roman Empire under Constantine had adopted a thin veneer of Christianity as its official state religion. So Lactantius' purpose in praising Hermes was to persuade pagans to become Christians by showing that much of paganism was similar to Christianity.
Following the pseudo-Christianity of Constantine, the Emperor Julian instituted a return to the philosophical "religion of the world" and encouraged a revival of the mystery cults. Julian worshiped the Sun as the supreme god, the image of the intelligible Good, in his "Hymn to Helios."
Augustine, who had earlier embraced Manicheanism, criticized Hermes Trismegistus for praising the Egyptian magic of drawing spirits or demons into the statues of their gods. Even so, Augustine attested that "this Hermes says much of God according to the Truth." Augustine placed Hermes Trismegistus at a very early date.
"For as for morality, it stirred not in Egypt until Trismegistus' time, who was indeed long before the sages and philosophers of Greece, but after Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, yea and Moses also; for at the time when Moses was born, was Atlas, Prometheus' brother, a great astronomer, living, and he was grandfather by the mother's side to the elder Mercury, who begat the father of this Trismegistus."
Hermes Trismegistus is one of the major figures in the Western European re-discovery of the Perennial tradition. Ficino's attitude toward Hermes is representative of the Renaissance scholar's acceptance of a wide variety of Perennialist-influenced writings and teachers. In his introduction to his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, Ficino says that of the many works of Hermes Trismegistus, two are "divine," the Asclepius, which Ficino refers to as a work on the Divine Will, and the Corpus Hermeticum, which he described as a work on the Power and Wisdom of God.
However, Augustine's complaint about Hermes Trismegistus' trafficking with magic had somehow to be answered. Ficino's way around this is interesting. Ficino described his book, De vita coelitus comparanda, as a commentary on a book on the same subject by Plotinus. In his fourth Ennead, Plotinus says:
"I think . . . that those ancient sages, who sought to secure the presence of divine beings by the erection of shrines and statues, showed insight into the nature of the All; they perceived that, though this Soul (of the world) is everywhere tractable, its presence will be secured all the more readily when an appropriate receptacle is elaborated, a place especially capable of receiving some portion or phase of it, something reproducing it and serving like a mirror to catch an image of it.
At the end of the De vita coelitus comparanda Ficino returns to the commentary on the Plotinus passage and contends that Plotinus in that passage was merely repeating what Hermes Trismegistus had said in his Asclepius. According to Ficino, Hermes Trismegistus and Plotinus were not referring to the infusing of demons into natural objects, but merely the metaphysical Idea of the object which is its higher reality.
"It belongs to the nature of the All to make its entire content reproduce, most felicitously, the Reason-Principles in which it participates; every particular thing is the image within matter of a Reason-Principle which itself images a pre-material Reason-Principle: thus every particular entity is linked to that Divine Being in whose likeness it is made. . . ."
"The soul of the world . . . generates and moves the forms of natural things through certain seminal reasons infused with its divinity."
With Ficino and other Renaissance scholars, we see the rebirth of widespread interest in things occult, which included magic, alchemy, the cabala, and astrology.
"The methods of sympathetic magic presuppose that continual effluvia of influences pouring down onto the earth from the stars of which the author of the Asclepius speaks. It was believed that these effluvia and influences could be canalized and used by an operator with the requisite knowledge. Every object in "the material world was full of occult sympathies poured down upon it from the star on which it depended. The operator who wished to capture, let us say, the power of the planet Venus, must know what plants belonged to Venus, what stones and metals, what animals, and use only these when addressing Venus. He must know the images of Venus and know how to inscribe these on talismans made of the right Venus materials and at the right astrological moment. Such images were held to capture the spirit or power of the star and to hold or store it for use. . . . The magician was one who knew how to enter into this system, and use it, by knowing the links of the chains of influences descending vertically from above, and establishing for himself a chain of ascending links by correct use of the occult sympathies in terrestrial things, of celestial images, of invocations and names, and the like." Frances Yates. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
The Roman Catholic church was heavily involved in magical practices during the Middle Ages. The liturgy of the time included rituals for blessing houses, tools, crops, to assure safety on journeys, to insure fertility, and to exorcise demons, among many others. The church relied on the naive belief in magic on the part of its supplicants to enhance and protect its power over them. It encouraged the belief that prayer was a tool of magic. Despite the church's outward opposition to magic and alchemy it appeared to the credulous populace as a vast reservoir of magical power which could be used as the priests decided.
Some Perennialist-influenced teachers, such as Ficino, used magic as the means of teaching their students how to achieve a higher state of consciousness. One of the most interesting applications of magic by Ficino was what he called "spiritual music." Music is a powerful magic, Ficino says, affecting our whole being:
Musical sounds work on the human spirit, which links body and soul
- Music works on the human spirit because it is of the same substance, a kind of living air (spiritus) moving in a highly organized way
- The lyrics of music work on the mind or intellect
- The universe and man, the macrocosm and microcosm, are constructed on the same harmonic principles (this concept was held by Pythagoras and Plato as well)
- Musical sounds which have the same harmonic qualities as a particular heavenly body (sun or planet) cause an alignment of the human spirit, bringing about an influx of the celestial spirit
"This kind of musical spirit actually touches and acts on the spirit, which is the mean between body and soul, and wholly disposes both in accordance with its own disposition. You will indeed allow that there is marvellous power in a lively, singing spirit, if you concede to the Pythagoreans and Platonists that the heavens are spirit, ordering everything with their movements and tones."
Ficino. De vita coelitus comparanda
Ficino was in the habit of singing "celestial music" while accompanying himself on a lira da braccio adorned with a picture showing Orpheus charming the animals and rocks with his lyre. Pico della Mirandola, a contemporary of Ficino's, claimed that
"in natural magic nothing is more efficacious than the Hymns of Orpheus, if there be applied to them the suitable music, and disposition of soul, and the other circumstances known to the wise."
To what wisdom might Pico be referring? Proclus' De Sacrificiis et Magia includes a complete description of sympathetic magic. Proclus was said to have sung Orphic hymns as part of his magic. Iamblichus' Vita Pythagorae refers to Orphic and musical magic practices. Pythagoras is reputed to have used music to cure diseases of both soul and body and to bring the soul into a state of virtuous harmony. Pythagoras' disciples were put to sleep and awakened with special songs. Pythagoras claimed to be able to hear the harmony of the spheres, making vocal and instrumental imitations of it so that his disciples would be influenced by celestial harmony. The Pythagoreans worshipped the rising sun.
More immediately, Gemistus Pletho, a Byzantine scholar had attended the Council of Florence where his speech on Platonism inspired Cosimo de' Medici to commission Ficino to translate the Hermes Trismegistus, Plato, and Plotinus manuscripts now arriving in Europe from the East. In the extant fragments of his Nomoi, Pletho refers to Orphic Hymns and gives elaborate instructions for singing them. The hymns he includes were written, like the Orphic Hymns, in dactylic hexameter, perhaps a combination of Greek music with Byzantine liturgical hymns.
Those thinkers working in the Magia tradition who were influenced by the Perennial Tradition went to great pains to distinguish their kind of magic from demonological magic. In his treatise, Di Pulchro (On Beauty), Diacceto gives this title to one of his chapters:
"The twofold soul, first and second, and its cognition likewise twofold, from which derives the appetite for beauty, and natural Magic: the nature of which he shows and which he differentiates from superstitious magic"
It's necessary to take this distinction seriously if we are to understand the true nature of magic. The magicians who attempted to summon demons--which Diacceto called "superstitious" magicians--would refer to infusing demons into statues and talismans and so on.
There would also have been genuine Perennialist teachers who used magic or the cloak of magic in their work. They might employ precisely the same concepts and symbols that the "superstitious magicians" used.
To cast our discussion in as objective terms as possible, we will refer to the two types of magic as:
No, just kidding. We'll refer to them as:
- Pagan, non-Christian, superstitious, evil magic, and
- Christian, morally upright, knowers-of-truth magic
- Sympathetic magic (defined in the quotation from Yates above): magic which appears not to have been influenced by the Perennial Tradition
- Spiritual magic: magic influenced by the Perennial Tradition in which the goal is the achievement of a "new being."
In the first category we would include Simon Magus, Eliphas Levi, and Rasputin. Magicians in the second category included Ficino, Giovanni Pico, Francesco Cattani da Diacceto, Lodovico Lazarelli, Trithemius, Gohory, Avicenna, Roger Bacon, Arnaldus of Villanova, Peter of Abano, Paracelsus, Agrippa, Giordano Bruno, Campanella, and Robert Fludd. As much as possible, we will attempt to limit our discussion of magic to the latter, the Perennialist-influenced magicians.
The Perennialist-influenced philosophers dealing in magic invariably refer to the power of the magician to create a "new being." In some instances, veiled reference to this power are described as the infusing of spiritual forces into a statue or talisman. This is most likely the means used by Perennialist magicians to make the practice of this system of knowledge seem innocuous to the uninformed and used by non-Perennialist magicians in a literal sense.
This teaching is seen most clearly in Lazarelli's dialogue, Crater Hermetis, in which the two speakers are Lazarelli and King Ferdinand of Aragon. The king is initiated into a mystery which is said to be both Christian and Hermetic. In the dialogue, Lazarelli explains to the king that the mystery, which Hermes disclosed to Asclepius, reveals "the kingdom of Israel (which poets call the Golden Age), for which Jesus Christ taught his disciples to pray." The mystery, "the new novelty of novelties, greater than all marvels" is that just as the mind of God creates by His Word, so man by his mind and speech can create a 'new immortal being.'"
Lazarelli claims that he has not only a conceptual understanding of this mystery but that he has also experienced it within himself. In the dedication passage in Crater Hermetis, Lazarelli refers to his personal regeneration by his own teacher, Joannes Mercurius de Corigio. He calls Joannes Mercurius his father and says that Mercurius has created him (Lazarelli) from Mercurius' own spiritually regenerative substance.
In his book, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, D. P. Walker interprets this teaching in Lazarelli and the other Perennialist-influenced magicians as a master providing his disciple a "good demon." If Walker had limited his interpretation to sympathetic magic, it might be correct. Perhaps some magicians, over the centuries, have actually conjured or "generated" creatures or demons through which to work their will. Even as late as the twentieth century, the intrepid investigator of occult mysteries Alexandra David-Neel claimed to have witnessed such creatures, which the Tibetans called tulpas.
However, Perennialist-influenced magicians, though they may actually experience spirits or phantoms at one stage in their spiritual development, do not focus on these psychic phenomena but move beyond to their goal: achieving a higher being. This same kind of misinterpretation of Perennialist magical teaching has occurred over many centuries.
Walker refers to P. O. Kristeller's interpretation of the teaching in Lazarelli about the creation of a "new being" as referring to "the rebirth which a religious teacher achieves in his converted disciple." As we have seen in a previous chapter there are three facets of this teaching:
- A teacher training his or her student to develop an actual "new being"
- A person learning to leave the material body and inhabit the spiritual body--as described in the Eleusinian Mysteries: to separate the soul from the body
- A person learning to awaken the cognitive organs of the spiritual body
Lazarelli went to some pains to exclude the kind of interpretation Walker makes of his magic. In Crater Hermetis Lazarelli says that he himself had experienced this "spiritual creation" and that he is inspired "not by a Socratic demon, but by the spirit of Jesus Christ which dwells in his worshippers."
As we discussed in the chapter on Jesus as a teacher within the Perennial Tradition, this power of creating a "new being" is not an insignificant allegory but an actual dynamic experience within Perennialist practice.
There have always been two conceptions of alchemy:
- As a materialistic transformation of baser metals into gold or silver
- The spiritual transformation of the human person into a higher state of being
Some alchemists claimed that alchemy was the inner teaching within Christianity; that the manufacture of the philosopher's stone (lapis) was equivalent to the Christ-experience, the new birth. Likely, some of these were actual Perennialists, using the symbolism of alchemy to explain--or cover--their teaching. The church issued several encyclicals and papal bulls against alchemy, but a number of church leaders as well as scientists and philosophers defended the art.
Sir George Riply (1415-1490 C.E.), canon of Bridlington, was an avowed alchemist and maintained that its purpose was the union of the body with the soul. By the sixteenth century, the church had drawn up a decree explaining the correspondences between the various alchemical processes and church sacraments. For example, coagulation correlated with marriage, solution with baptism, transformation with the mass, and so on. The Protestants denounced the magical and alchemical influence in Roman Catholicism, but many of the Protestant leaders were themselves deeply involved in Hermetic alchemy.
A new movement, Rosicrucianism, published anonymous manifestoes in 1614 and 1615, defending all the occult sciences. This movement had a decided impact on Protestant circles and began to acquire a political tinge, so much so that its critics denounced it as a world-wide conspiracy. In his book, Laws of the Fraternity of the Rosie Cross, the alchemist Michael Maier defended Rosicrucianism from this charge of conspiracy, but affirmed the existence of a secret brotherhood of enlightened mystics dedicated to the improvement of mankind. The English physician and alchemist Robert Fludd had published his own defense of Rosicrucianism two years earlier in his Apologia Compendaria Fraternitatem de Rosea Cruce. Fludd argued that there was an inner content to the occult sciences, that the Bible should be interpreted alchemically, and that nature should be viewed as one vast alchemical process.
The Minorite friars Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi began a concerted attack against Rosicrucianism in particular and occultism in general. They enlisted Rene Descartes in their attacks on occult arts, bringing into popular belief a materialistic, mathematical conception of the world. The political and economic powers at the time were in favor of a materialistic world view.
"In 1666, Louis XIV's minister Colbert reorganized the Academy as the French Academy of Sciences. As was the case with the Royal Society, the notion of a value-free science was part of a political and religious campaign to create a stable social and ecclesiastical order throughout Europe. What modern science came to regard as abstract truths, such as the radical separation of matter and spirit, or mind and body, were central to this campaign. The success of the mechanical world view cannot be attributed to any inherent validity it might possess, but (partly) to the powerful political and religious attack on the Hermetic tradition by the reigning European elites."
Morris Berman. The Reenchantment of the World
In chapter three we saw how the materialistic world view became institutionalized in the West, a doctrine completely opposite to the Perennialist conception of knowledge as derived from experience prescribed by a Teacher.
Pico Della Mirandola and Cabalistic Magic
Cabala has become known as a Jewish mystical tradition supposedly handed down orally from Moses, a secret doctrine which Moses imparted to select initiates who had then handed it on in a historical line of transmission. The Cabalist is said to invoke angels, archangels, the ten sephiroth which are names or powers of God, and God himself, by means similar to magic, through the power of the sacred Hebrew language.
| "The mysteries of the Hermetica are mysteries of the Word, or the Logos, and in the Pimander, it was by the luminous Word, the Son of God issuing from the Nous that the creative act was made. In Genesis, 'God spoke' to form the created world, and, since He spoke in Hebrew, this is why for the Cabalist the words and letters of the Hebrew tongue are subjects for endless mystical meditations, and why, for the practical Cabalist, they contain magical power. Lactantius may have helped to cement the union between Hermetism and Christian Cabalism on this point, for, after quoting from the Psalm 'By the word of God were the heavens made', and from St. John, 'In the beginning was the Word', he adds that this is supported from the Gentiles. 'For Trismegistus, who by some means or other searched into almost all truth, often described the excellence and the majesty of the Word,' and he acknowledged 'that there is an ineffable and sacred speech, the relation of which exceeds the measure of man's ability.'" |
Frances Yates. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
The traditions of Spanish Cabalism in Pico's day were set forth in the Zohar, a mystical work outlining the Sephiroth and their meaning. The Sephiroth are said to be the ten most common names of God which form one great Name. They are the creative Names which God called into the world so that the created universe is the external embodiment of these elements within God. The Zohar is primarily a commentary on the book of Genesis, interpreting the words and letters of the Hebrew text as containing arcane meanings.
Pico learned Hebrew and began reading Hebrew Scriptures in their original language along with Cabalist commentaries. In 1486, Pico, age twenty-three, went to Rome to present his nine hundred theses drawn from all philosophies which he offered to prove in public debate to be reconcilable with one another. Pico's theses were received with alarm and the Roman theologians raised an outcry, necessitating a defense by Pico which was published in 1487. Pico introduces his theses as "confirming the Christian religion from the foundations of the Hebrew wisdom." He maintained that Hebrew Cabalism enhanced one's understanding of Christianity and provided evidence for the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.
There can be no doubt that Pico was influenced by Hermeticism. He begins his meditation entitled De hominis dignitate (On the Dignity of Man) by quoting the words of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius.
"What a great miracle is Man, O Asclepius, a being worthy of reverence and honour. For he passes into the nature of a god as though he were himself a god; he has familiarity with the race of spirits, knowing that he issued from the same origin; he despises that part of his nature which is only human, for he has put his hope in the divinity of the other part."
What is the Cabala?
To understand Pico, we must try to comprehend Cabalism. In his book The Cipher of Genesis Carlo Suares provides an insightful explanations of the Cabala. According to Suares's view of the Cabala, Genesis is composed of an untranslatable Cipher. This Cipher is already hopelessly mistranslated in Hebrew because it is not a series of words, sentences, and books.
"The twenty-two graphs which are used as letters in the Hebrew alphabet are twenty-two proper names originally used to designate different states or structures of the one cosmic energy, which is essence and semblance, of all that is."
The twenty-two names have been desecrated by being made use of in an alphabet, constituted only by their initials--e.g. A, B, C,--mere representations of vocal sounds. The text of Genesis, according to Suares, is intended to project the primordial forces into our very being, thus acting as a Revelation. This does not involve ordinary communication, the projection of an idea or meaning from one person to another.
Carlo Suares. The Cipher of Genesis
"If there is anything that can be called Revelation, it cannot be an illusory explanation of what has already happened, but it is an incursion of the life process into our actual being."
Carlo Suares. The Cipher of Genesis
The decoding of the Cipher of Genesis is not a mere matter of transposing A-B-C to Aleph-Bayt-Ghimel, etc. It is, according to Suares, "a process of penetrating an unknown world by means of a manner of thinking which has to be experienced by the very use of the language which must be learned in order to understand it."
Thus "Aleph-Lammed-Hay-Yod-Mem" can be interpreted as a word, Elohim, and interpreted as "God." Or it can be discerned as symbols leading to a transcendent experience of the reality behind the names.
To get to that reality we must modify our way of thinking by breaking up our idea "boxes" or concepts.
But we have been created by these very idea "boxes;" we have become patterns based on ideas. For example, we behave competitively because we've been conditioned by the idea that men are "naturally" competitive. To understand Ultimate Reality--by whatever name or symbol--we have to break up our conceptually formed presumptions which make us assume that we already understand reality.
If we remain with the mere products of our ordinary mind--such concepts or words as "God," "man," "life,"--then we cannot get in touch with that which transcends the mind. "You cannot send a kiss by messenger." So when we approach an illumined source of teaching we must forego all interpretation and conjecture to allow the unknown to operate directly in our minds and lives through an energy imparted to us from within the cipher of the teaching source.
"The instrument of perception being ourselves, if we do not perceive directly so as to be Revelation itself, why do we not 'check' our instrument and detect the flaws in our functioning, instead of searching for truth with inadequate means. To discover where and what is the error: that is what truth is.
Carlo Suares. The Cipher of Genesis
"What is first of all demanded of us is--rather than a search for absolute truth--a rooting-out of past errors, a relinquishing of long-cherished illusions."
Giordano Bruno's "Divine Magic"
As a Renaissance magus, Giordano Bruno followed in the traditions of Magia and Cabala influenced by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and standardized in Cornelius Agrippa's textbook of "occult philosophy."
In 1576, Bruno was charged with heresy, so he abandoned his Dominican habit and travelled throughout Europe, visiting Calvin's Geneva but quickly leaving because he did not like the rigid intellectual atmosphere. He arrived in Paris in 1581 where he attracted the attention of King Henri III. In Paris he published two books on the art of memory, one of which, De umbris idearum (On the Shadows of Ideas), was dedicated to the king.
In 1582 he travelled to England and the following year participated in the disputes organized at Oxford for the enjoyment of the Polish prince Albert Alasco. In his Cena de le ceneri Bruno castigates the Oxford scholars for being ignorant and rude.
"Go to Oxford and get them to tell you what happened to the Nolan [Bruno's name for himself] when he disputed publicly with the doctors of theology in the presence of the Polish prince Alasco, and others of the English nobility. Learn how ably he replied to the arguments; how the wretched doctor who was put forward as the leader of the Academy on that grave occasion came to a halt fifteen times over fifteen syllogisms, like a chicken amongst stubble. Learn how roughly and rudely that pig behaved and with what patience and humanity the Nolan replied, showing himself to be indeed a Neopolitan, born and bred beneath a kindlier sky. Hear how they made him leave off his public lectures on the immortality of the soul and on the quintuple sphere."
In his lectures at Oxford and in his Italian dialogues, published in England from 1582 to 1585, he quoted at length from Hermetic sources, making it evident that he belonged to a magical strain of the Hermetic tradition. The visit of Bruno brought a strong new infusion of Perennialist thought to England which influenced such students of the tradition as Shakespeare. In a later chapter on Shakespeare we will see how The Tempest was clearly an Perennialist Mystery play and how many of his other later plays referred to the Hermetic tradition.
In Bruno's Spaccio della bestia triomfante we see a clear explanation of the operative principles of "spiritual magic."
"One is the divinity which is in all things, which, as it diffuses and communicates itself in innumerable ways, so it has innumerable names, and by innumerable ways, with reasons proper and appropriate to each one, it is to be sought, whilst with innumerable rites it is honored and cultivated, by which we seek to obtain innumerable kinds of favors from it. For this is needed that wisdom and judgement, that art and industry and use of the intellectual light, which is revealed to the world from the intelligible sun, sometimes more strongly, sometimes less strongly. Which habit is called Magia: and this, when it is directed to supernatural principles is divine; when towards the contemplation of nature and scrutiny of her secrets, it is called natural; and it is called middle or mathematical as it consists in reasons and acts of the soul, which is on the horizon between corporeal and spiritual, spiritual and intellectual. . . .
It is indeed unfortunate that Frances A. Yates, who delved so deeply into the study of Bruno, would have misunderstood almost entirely what Bruno was about. She interprets the passage quoted above in this manner.
"For, as she [the divinity] gives fish to the sea and rivers, deserts to wild animals, metals to the mines, fruits to the trees, so she gives certain lots, virtues, fortunes and impressions to certain parts of certain animals, beasts, and plants. Hence the divinity in the sea was called Neptune, in the sun, Apollo, in the earth, Ceres, in the deserts, Diana, and diversely in all other species which, like diverse ideas, were diverse divinities in nature, all of which referred to one deity of deities and fountain of the ideas above nature."
"What is Giordano Bruno doing here? It is quite simple. He is taking Renaissance magic back to its pagan source, abandoning the feeble efforts of Ficino to do a little harmless magic, whilst disguising its main source in the Asclepius, utterly flouting the religious Hermetists who tried to have a Christian Hermetism without the Asclepius, proclaiming himself a full Egyptian who, like Celsus in his anti-Christian arguments quoted by Origen, deplores the destruction by the Christians of the worship of the natural gods of Greece, and of the religion of the Egyptians, through which they approached the divine ideas, the intelligible sun, the One of Neoplatonism."
As this passage shows, Yates deplores Bruno's degrading the "harmless magic" of Ficino by taking it "back" to its "pagan source" and "proclaiming himself a full Egyptian" who denounces sacred Christianity. Yates's lack of objectivity is obvious throughout her book on Bruno, erupting into full flower in passages such as these:
Frances Yates. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
"If the reader feels somewhat aghast at the state of mind of a noted philosopher of the Renaissance [Bruno] as revealed in this chapter, and is inclined to agree rather strongly with the [English] ambassador [that Bruno's religion cannot be commended"], I cannot blame him." p. 204
"People like Giordano Bruno are immunised from a sense of danger by their sense of mission, or their megalomania, or the state of euphoria bordering on insanity, in which they constantly live." p. 204
The difficulty with scholastics such as Yates is that they have no understanding of the nature of the Perennial Tradition, as we saw in chapter one. So when Perennialist-influenced thinkers, such as Bruno or Ficino, criticize Yates's religion, Christianity, they move for her beyond the pale.
As we have seen in previous chapters, certain expressions of the Perennialist teaching have been perverted by
bureaucratized, totalitarian institutions such as organized religions, but the core ideas and practices have persisted in every age, with teachers reinterpreting the esoteric discipline according to the contemporary needs of apprentices. So instead of seeing Bruno's criticism as the horror of apostasy, as Yates does, we understand him to be describing the degrading of the "secret teaching" by a politicized, bureaucratized pseudo-Christianity.
In his Spaccio della bestia triomfante Bruno states that Christianity has tried to destroy the original Perennialist message, passing edicts to outlaw its teaching, substituting the worship of icons and relics for the search for personal illumination, encouraging bad morals, and starting or championing constant wars. Anyone who studies the history of Christianity objectively would have little to disagree with in Bruno's description. We could also add that Christianity tortured and murdered people it judged to be heretical, such as Servetus, Bruno, Campanella, Bacon, and a myriad more.
Throughout her book on Bruno, Yates vacillates in her view of such Medieval philosophers as Ficino and Bruno. Sometimes she sees them as "demon magicians," persons who believed in and practiced the art of conjuring demons and infusing them in talismans and icons. At other times, when she actually looks at their own words, she has to admit that they were referring to "demons" or "gods" as, in Bruno's words in his Spaccio della bestia triomfante: "the virtues and powers of the soul."
Giordano Bruno and the Imagination
One of the major facets of Bruno's Perennialist-influenced philosophy involves the development of a vigorous imagination in drawing into one's personality spiritual forces which unlock inner powers. In chapter ten, we saw the central place imagination plays in achieving the experience of Illumination. According to Bruno, this central mystery of the Perennial Tradition involves:
- A spiritually stimulated imagination joined with refined mental powers
- Envisioning numinous images retained in memory
- Allowing the individual to draw spiritual forces into himself which unlock his inner source of psychic energy
"There exists in you, indefinitely developable, an engine of power, dynamically creative, capable of impressing and molding your material world according as you give out from your inner being in creative force. This force is not primarily the mentally creative force, which you understand perfectly. It is the higher sense of that mentally creative force, the vital principle of life; and comes, not from that mere agent of the soul, the intellect, but from the very plexus of life itself. The mental force can make a mold or plan, but for completion this plan must have its vital principle supplied. It is the neatly made electric globe into which the current is not turned. The true creative force, on the other hand, carries its own vital principle with it. It is a matter of the heart as well as the clearly seen concept of the mind."|
Betty and Stewart Edward White. Across the Unknown
We have traced lines of Perennialist influence in the teachings of Ficino, Pico, Bruno, and others. The ideas
examined indicate that they worked within the sphere of Hermeticism. The only Western philosophers we can definitely point to as working directly within the Perennial Tradition, distinguished from those who were merely influenced by the Perennial Tradition, are Albertus Magnus (1206-1280 CE), Roger Bacon (1214-1294 CE), Raymond Lully (1235-1315 CE), and Paracelsus (1493-1541 CE).
Albertus Magnus was a deep student of the Perennial Tradition and went so far as to dress as an Arab when he lectured in Paris on Perennialist teachers. Having studied in Arab schools, Magnus was both a philosopher and a magician, and deeply influenced the thought of Thomas Aquinas.
Roger Bacon wrote on the Perennial Tradition and quoted from Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi's The Wisdom of Illumination. In his famous work The Mirror of Alchimy, Bacon referred to Hermes as the "Master Initiate" whose words may be taken as final authority upon every subject. Man is a God, Bacon asserted, capable of perceiving and understanding all things through "divine illumination" or union with the Higher Self. The Roman Catholic church declared Bacon a heretic and imprisoned him for the last fourteen years of his life. This is indeed a tragedy because Bacon was an adept not only in the Perennial Tradition but in natural science as well. Dr. Andrew D.
White refers to Bacon in his History of the Warfare of Science with
"He held the key to treasures which would have freed
mankind from ages of error and misery. Thousands of
precious lives shall be lost, tens of thousands shall suffer
discomfort, sickness, poverty, for lack of discoveries and
methods which, but for this mistaken dealing with Roger
Bacon and his compeers, would now be blessing the earth."
Raymond Lully used material from the Perennialist Ibn 'Arabi and emphasized the importance of Perennialist exercises in spiritual development.
Paracelsus attempted to reform Western medicine and presented Perennialist ideas in his teachings.
Part of the dynamic of the Perennial Tradition is its capability of working through a variety of channels at the same time. The Hermetic tradition, one expression of the Perennial Tradition, influenced European thought both directly through such concepts as the development of a "new being" and indirectly through the audacity of Perennialist-influenced thinkers to challenge the world view of their time. Meanwhile, the Perennialist teachers, working to assist their students develop inner faculties, might have disguised themselves as magicians, alchemists, Cabalists, or Christians.
The Perennial Tradition was spreading from the East to Western Europe, but it was not always safe to acknowledge one's interest in or adherence to Perennialist truths.
The Perennial Tradition and the Enlightenment
For over two hundred years, Western nations have been living on the legacy of
the eighteenth century Enlightenment, a social and political movement which
attacked unjust laws and repressive institutions and played a major role in the creation of the United States.
"Enlightened" refers, in the first instance, to the process used by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment activists, of casting light on social challenges and metaphysical themes and developing social infrastructures which allow for greater freedom and creativity.
Enlightened thinking, in one aspect, is the development of an autonomous self which is able to think and act on its own initiative. The eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophes made this component a prominent feature of their personal and social efforts.
"Enlightenment is the coming out of Man from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the lack of will to serve one's own understanding without direction from another. This is a self-imposed immaturity; if Reason languishes, it is not for lack of understanding, but only of resolve and courage to serve oneself without direction from another. Sapere aude! Dare to think! Think boldly! Wake up! Take courage, to serve your own understanding. This is the motto of the Enlightenment."
Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century Enlightenment thinker
In its emphasis on the development of independence and autonomy, enlightened thinking includes the fields of critical thinking and scientific investigation. But enlightened thinking goes beyond this merely personal emphasis to a genuine concern for human welfare in general.
The Enlightenment as an Embodiment of The Perennial Tradition
The eighteenth century Enlightenment movement embodied certain facets of the Perennial Tradition, including the teaching that human life is malleable, that we can actively participate in the betterment of humankind's condition.
We can agree with Muller and other scholars, that the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement was a watershed in human history.
"There can be no real question that the Enlightenment promoted the
cause of freedom, more widely, directly, positively than any age
before it. It not only asserted but demonstrated the power of knowledge
and reason in self-determination, the choice and realization of human purpose. |
"For the first time in history it carried out a concerted attack on the vested interests that opposed the diffusion of knowledge and the free exercise of reason.
"As thinkers the men of the Enlightenment were conscious revolutionaries, very much aware of a 'new method of philosophizing' that amounted to a new living faith, the basis for a new social order."
Herbert J. Muller, Freedom in the Western World, 1964
A major teaching of the Perennial Tradition is that humankind can awaken organs of perception with which to discern timeless principles and designs to be used in ordering human life. The American Enlightenment leaders-- Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, and others--spoke of these higher principles in terms of inalienable rights to life, liberty, equality under the law, and the pursuit of happiness.
In his book The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann explains that "for over two thousand years, European thought has been acted upon by the idea that the rational faculties of men can produce a common conception of law and order which possesses a universal validity." (Lippmann, The Public Philosophy, 1955)
"The rational faculty of man was conceived as producing a common conception of law and order which possessed a universal validity. . . This common conception included, as its three great notes, the three values of Liberty, Equality and the brotherhood or Fraternity of all mankind. This common conception, and its three great notes, have formed a European set of ideas for over two thousand years. It was a set of ideas which lived and moved in the Middle Ages; and St. Thomas Aquinas cherished the idea of a sovereign law of nature imprinted in the heart and nature of man, to which kings and legislators must everywhere bow. It was a set of ideas which lived and acted with an even greater animation from the days of the Reformation to those of the French Revolution . . . spoken through the mouth of Locke, [they had justified] the English Revolution of 1688, and had recently served to inspire the American Revolution of 1776 . . . They were ideas of the proper conduct of states and governments in the area of internal affairs. They were ideas of the natural rights of man--of liberty, political and civic, with sovereignty residing essentially in the nation, and with free communication of thoughts and opinions; of equality before the law, and the equal repartition of public expenses among all the members of the public; of a general fraternity which tended in practice to be sadly restricted within the nation, but which could, on occasion, be extended by decree to protect all nations struggling for freedom."|
Ernest Baker, Traditions of Civility, 1948
Henry Steele Commager, in his book The Empire of Reason, points to "a common harvest of ideas, attitudes, and even of programs" within the Enlightenment: "recognition of a cosmic system governed by the laws of Nature and Nature's God; faith in Reason as competent to penetrate to the meaning of those laws and to induce conformity to them among society in many ways irrational; commitment to what Jefferson called 'the illimitable freedom of the human mind,' to the doctrine of progress, and--with some reservations--to the concept of the perfectibility of Man; an ardent humanitarianism that attacked torture, slavery, war, poverty, and disease; and confidence that Providence and Nature had decreed happiness for mankind."
American Enlightenment leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine read extensively in European Enlightenment writings. Perennialist ideas entered America through their reading of Enlightenment thinkers, but also by direct contact with leaders of the European Enlightenment such as Joseph Priestly, Voltaire, and others.
Because of the embodiment of Perennialist principles in such documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, America and other industrialized nations still enjoy important freedoms. But even with those advances, we must be realistic, as was Rousseau, in recognizing that people still "are everywhere in chains": chains of ignorance and delusion.
Especially in the present era when the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity are everywhere under attack, it is vitally important that we rediscover and practice the teachings of the Perennial Tradition. Political, economic, religious, and educational systems once imbued with Perennialist ideals and archetypes, have degenerated into partisan schemes, inert creeds, and scholastic dogmas. The Perennial Tradition is the only wellspring from which we can reacquire the fundamentals on which to build a new conception of human life.
The Perennial Tradition and American Transcendentalism
Along with the influence of Perennialist ideas on European and American Enlightenment thinkers, the Perennial Tradition gained entry into American life and thought through the Transcendentalists. This group included:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Henry David Thoreau
- Amos Bronson Alcott
- William Henry Channing
- Margaret Fuller
- Theodore Parker
- Moncure David Conway
- William Ellery Channing
- James Freeman Clarke
- Christopher Pearse Cranch
- Frederic Henry Hedge
- Ellen Sturgis Hooper
- William Rounseville Alger
- Caroline Sturgis Tappan
- Jones Very
- Lydia Maria Child
- John Weiss
- Samuel Johnson
- O. B. Frothingham
- Orestes Augustus Brownson
This peculiarly American movement, which took its name from Emerson's essay "The Transcendentalists," was a product of Unitarianism, Puritanism, the Enlightenment, and both Western and Eastern Perennialist teachings.
| "Neoplatonic and Hermetic thought no doubt acted as preparation for both the Romantic and the Transcendentalist fascination with 'Oriental religions.'"|
Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions
A genuine interest in Perennialist ideas is only possible with a person who has passed beyond a rigid adherence to a dogmatic religion--Christianity or any other. A select number of liberal thinkers from the Unitarian and Universalist assemblies, two radical offshoots from Protestant Christianity, created the even more iconoclastic Transcendentalist movement. These Transcendentalist writers came into contact with the Perennial Tradition through:
- Eastern Perennialist sources in Sufism, Hinduism, and Buddhism
- Western Perennialist-influenced thinkers such as Michael Servetus, Faustus Socinus, John Biddle, and Joseph Priestley 1
"Indeed, the Transcendentalist interest in Asian religions derived substantially from the Unitarian affirmation of what from the orthodox Calvinist perspective were Socinian, Arian, Pelagian, and Arminian heresies. The Socinian and Arian heresies--which held that Christ was not fully divine, with Socianism being the more extreme of these--opened the way for Transcendentalists to affirm that Christ was not the only way to salvation, that Hinduism, Buddhism, and other world religions also were divine revelation. The Arminian and Pelagian heresies--which denied predestination and held that people could improve themselves and work toward salvation--allowed the Transcendentalists to become interested in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other world religions that also affirm that we must work out our salvation for ourselves."
Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions
A large number of eighteenth century European scholars took a keen interest in Eastern and Western writings related to the Perennial Tradition:
- Engelbert Kaempfer: The History of Japan (1727)
- Sir William Jones:
- Jones learned Arabic and Persian in England and when appointed a judge in India in 1783, he finally contacted a Hindu physician who taught him elementary Sanskrit
- "Jones's Herculean efforts (he said once in a letter that he had only an hour for sleep and eating a day) without exaggeration profoundly and almost single-handedly transformed the European view of Asia from the earlier presupposition of the East as barbarous, to a vision of an exotic and highly civilized world in its own right."
- Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism
and Asian Religions, p. 18
Goethe wrote of him: "The achievements of this man are so world-famous and have been so fully celebrated in more than one place, that nothing remains for me but to acknowledge in general terms that I have for a long time attempted to draw the maximum benefit from his labours." West-Ostlicher Divan
- J. G. Herder, Stimmens der Volker in Liedern, (1778)
Ideer Zur Geschichte der Menshheit, (1784)
- Friedrich Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life and Language (1847)
- Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg): his philosophical and poetic writings bore a striking resemblance to the doctrines of the Upanishads and the Vedantic teachings of Shankara
This similarity of Novalis's writings to Oriental classics does not have to be explained exclusively by his study of Vedantic teachings. As René Gérard comments:
"One can explain the correspondences between Novalis and the Upanishads by way of an indirect influence via Neoplatonism, mysticism, and illuminism, including the works of Hermetists and Rosicrucians, as well as those of theosophers like Franz von Baader."
Gérard, L'Orient et la pensée romantique allemand
In a similar vein, when Transcendentalist writers use concepts which appear to have reference to Oriental religious ideas, such as Emerson's concept of the Oversoul, we do not have to look to direct influence from the East. As Versluis explains:
"Certainly there are parallels between the Christian mystical and Asian religious traditions. But the connections are those of both East and West to the philosophia perennis, rather than the permeation of Eastern thought westward."
American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions
To get a clear idea of how the Perennial Tradition was brought into the American experience through Transcendentalism, we can examine select illustrations of how its major figures--Emerson and Thoreau--embodied the themes of the Perennial Tradition in their lives and writings.
- Emerson had a mystical experience in which he was transported into a Plotinian transparent eye
- Emerson saw human existence as identical to the One:
"Who shall define to me an Individual? I behold with awe & delight many illustrations of the One Universal Mind. I see my being imbedded in it. I am only a form of him. He is the soul of Me. I can even with a mountanous aspiring say, I am God."
Journal, May 26, 1837
- Emerson saw clearly--as had Marcion, Valentinus, and Origen--that original Christianity had been deformed into a sacerdotal autocracy
"Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion." ("Divinity School Address")
- As with Plato, Emerson saw humans living in a delusory world
"in their sleepwalking, their illusion is to them highest"
- Emerson recognized that "the individual soul always mingles with the universal soul" and he defined the Spirit as separate from the body
"The Spirit which is one, pure, luminous by itself, independent of the qualities of which it is the asylum, which penetrates everywhere, which is absolute, which is the internal witness, & within which is no other soul, that Spirit is distinct from body."
- He had a mystical experience on the edge of Walden pond in which he felt his whole body to be as one sense
- Thoreau saw that the Perennial Tradition expresses itself through different persons in various ages
"I know, for instance, that Saadi entertained once identically the same thought that I do, and therefore I can find no essential difference between Saadi and myself. He is not Persian, he is not ancient, he is not strange to me. By the identity of his thoughts with mine, he remains alive."
- He saw through the veil of illusion that is human existence
"In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta . . . in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial. . . . I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."
"Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."
1 Joseph Priestley, A Comparison of the Institutes of Moses with those of the Hindoo and other ancient nations