Knowledge As

Norman D. Livergood



    Related Essays    



     Human civilization is the evolutionary assimilation of Perennialist wisdom in all dimensions of human life. The expansion of human consciousness moves in an ebb and flow progression. Eras experiencing a retrogressive phase in the visible terrestrial dimension--such as our present age--sometimes wonder when the next period of advancement in that realm will occur. What must transpire before visible progression can continue is that a dynamic grouping must form around a teaching divulging an adaptation of the Perennial Tradition for that age. Discerning persons realize that progression in the invisible terrestrial and spiritual dimensions continues in all eras.

Blake's vision of Plato inspiriting a student      During the earlier Dark Ages in Europe and our own present Dark Age, the waning of understanding of the Perennialist heritage is one of the major factors leading to the degradation and coarsening of human life. In such times of decline, one of the major elements of the Perennial Tradition which is submerged is the understanding and practice of its arcane form of knowledge.

     In the author's recently published books and essays, the first four aspects of the arcane form of Perennialist knowledge are explicated as:

  1. The transmission of the knowledge of the Perennial Tradition through progressive adaptation of the teaching to the time, the place, and the persons involved

  2. Knowledge through prescription of specific experience by a Perennialist teacher

  3. Experiential participation in higher consciousness

  4. Disclosure of high knowledge through Perennialist art

      In this essay, we'll explore the fifth aspect, knowledge as self-evolvement. We'll begin by examining how the West arrived at its present Cartesian-Baconian-Newtonian concept of knowledge as imposed authority.

"There are two modes of knowledge, through argument and experience (experientia). Argument brings conclusions and compels us to concede them, but it does not cause certainty nor remove doubts in order that the mind may remain at rest in truth, unless this is provided by experience."
Roger Bacon, Opus Maius (1268)

The Scholastic Concept of Knowledge As Imposed Authority

     Throughout the Middle Ages, Western thought stagnated largely because of its conception of knowledge as derived from argument from authority--whether the authority of the Church or the State. Europe languished in intellectual and cultural retrogression during the Dark Ages, while the light of Perennialist wisdom was preserved and advanced by the enlightened strata of those labeled "the infidel Saracen."

     Beginning immediately after Jesus' death, the perversion and distortion of his teachings began. Within three centuries, Christianity had become a sacerdotal malformation serving the goals of the Roman state as well as a bloated ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

      If you watch a TV history of Christianity or read a Protestant or Roman Catholic account of the early church, Christianity's becoming the official religion of the Roman state during Constantine's reign is considered a great victory. The only measure of success for these moderns is whether or not a tradition triumphed over all its competitors. Never mind what distorting of the original message had taken place, if a particular religion came out on top, it's to be considered the best.

     On the contrary, the formal religion that became known as the Holy Roman Church was and is nothing but a vast repository of false teachings and practices. At the present time, what is called Christianity, in all its Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant guises, is a horrible deformity of Jesus's original teachings.

The Augustinian Darkness

     Augustine was the person who would fix the deadly thought-structure for the Middle Ages.

"The history of religion and dogma in the West, from the beginning of the fifth century to the Reformation, is so pervasively dominated by Augustine that one must treat it as a single period. . . The whole of the Middle Ages in the history of dogmatics is but an era of transition; it is the time of the adjustment of the Church to Augustine and to all of the numerous impulses deriving from him."

Adolf Harnack, Outlines of the History of Dogma

      With Augustine, we experience the tragedy of a brilliant mind that gained an insight into the true essence of the mystical tradition, but which degenerated into self-deceiving zealotry in total service to the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church.

      Here was a person who experienced mystical insight in his early life but wound up a homicidal monster insisting that anyone dissenting from the "true Roman Catholic faith" be tortured and killed. This hideous aspect of the murderous zealot faces us within all organized religions.

"Augustine found his real freedom only after renunciation. . . Thereafter he is convinced that this is the only way by which man can attain to peace of God; and that the meaning of religious redemption consists neither in thinking nor in doing, but in suffering. Augustine saw the Pauline doctrine of election by grace in the light of his own personal experience; and only in this light was he able to interpret this doctrine. And presently he turns it about and applies it to the objective field. The absolute sovereignty of the divine will, limited by no human norms or standards, becomes the point of departure for his doctrine of the unconditional authority of the church. The human understanding and the human will retain no independent rights either before God Himself or before the church, God's image; for such rights could only mean the return of that stubbornness which must be conquered and destroyed by means of religious faith."

Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, 1953

     Plato's philosophy had made it clear that humans possess a divine light within their souls which enables them to re-ascend to their original blessed status. Plato explained that the search for wisdom was a formidable challenge and that only some persons would be capable of achieving the illustrious status of philosopher (lover of wisdom). The pernicious effect of Augustine's warped dogmas was to make unthinking people believe that human reason was an affront to God. Augustine asserted that reason cannot help man in his fallen state, that only revelation can provide salvation for his corrupted soul. The revelation which humans must accept, of course, was that deemed authentic by Augustine and the Church. And since reason had no right to appraise revelation, humans must accept the decrees of the Church without question or dissent. The Augustinian darkness had fallen over human existence and it was to retain its evil influence for the next thousand years.

Aristotelian Scholasticism

     One of the other pernicious influences on the West during the Dark Ages was the thought system of Aristotle. Quick to use anything available to prop up the malformation called Christianity, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) ensconced Aristotle as the Great Authority on all questions, both natural and supernatural (as long as his ideas didn't clash with the "received revelation" of the holy Mother Church).

     Around 300 BCE, Aristotle's library had been relocated to Alexandria. The Platonic Academy in Athens and the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria operated in parallel for eight centuries.

      After the fall of Rome and after Justinian closed Plato's Academy and Aristotle' Lyceum in 529 CE, the majority of the major texts of Greek philosophy became unavailable to the West. Following the disruption of the Alexandrian school by the conquering Persians in 616 CE, and the burning of the Alexandrian library ordered by Caliph Omar I in 642 CE, only Byzantium remained as a stronghold of Greek learning.

      Islamic scholars in the Near East saved many of the ancient manuscripts they found in Byzantine libraries and, from the richest library in the ancient world, the library at Alexandria. Islamic scholars like Avicenna (980-1037 CE) and Averroës (1126-1198 CE) as well as the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), studied these manuscripts and wrote commentaries on them. By the twelfth century, these manuscripts as well as the commentaries on them, made their way back into Europe by way of Spain, Sicily and North Africa. By the middle of the thirteenth century, French and Italian universities were awash with these ancient texts, especially the philosophical works of Aristotle.

     As the absolute sovereignty of the divine will, limited by no human norms or standards, became the point of departure for Augustine's doctrine of the unconditional authority of the Church, now Aristotle's system was added as another bulwark against apostasy and dissent. The primary force of this Scholastic system--as it was termed--was that authority (that of the Church or that of Aristotle) was "limited by no [ordinary] human norms or standards." The imposition of dogma was absolute--and death by torture was the prescribed punishment for disagreement.

"Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg 'during the length of time wherein you say a Miserere.' It governed birth, marriage, and death, sex, and eating, made the rules for law and medicine, gave philosophy and scholarship their subject matter. Membership in the Church was not a matter of choice; it was compulsory and without alternative, which gave it a hold not easy to dislodge."

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

     It is not too difficult to understand the mind-set of the Dark Ages--both in its dogmatic Christian and Aristotelian-Scholastic aspects--since many people in the twenty-first century have returned to the same mindless submission to a Roman Catholic Church which allows its priests to sexually abuse children--without penalty--and a demonic cabal which denies scientific research (such as global warming) to excuse its plundering of the environment.

     It's a challenge for us to comprehend how Aristotle's ideas--which now seem absurd to us--totally dominated human thinking during the Dark Ages. Aristotle's cosmological work On The Heavens was the most influential treatise of its kind in the West, accepted as authoritative for more that eighteen centuries from its inception (around 350 BCE) until the works of Copernicus in the early 1500s CE. In this work Aristotle discussed the general nature of the cosmos and certain properties of individual bodies.

     Aristotle believed that all bodies are made up of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. These elements naturally move up or down, fire being the lightest and earth the heaviest. Most composite objects have the features of the element which dominates. But since the elements in, for example, a worm, are not where they belong (the fiery part is too low, being bound by the earth part, which is a bit too high), then the worm is imperfect. All things on earth are thus imperfect. The idea that all bodies, by their very nature, have a natural way of moving is central to Aristotelian cosmology.

     Each of the four elements has its own "sphere," which is how Aristotle explained what we now call gravity. Like attracts like: thus earth falls through fire, air and water; air, on the other hand, rises through water, and water rises from earth in springs. A sphere for fire (though invisible) was needed to explain the fact that fire appears to rise through air. Everything under the sphere of the moon was subject to decay and change; everything above was immutable. This hypothesis, like most of Aristotle's, led to ideas that later proved incorrect--that comets were closer to the earth than the moon, for example, since they could clearly not be in the unchanging sphere that contained the "fixed" stars

     Aristotle constructed his view of the Universe on the basis of his intuitive feelings of holistic harmony. Central to this philosophy was the concept of teleology or final causation. He supposed that individual objects (e.g. a falling rock) and systems (e.g. the motion of the planets) subordinate their behavior to an overall plan or destiny. This was especially apparent in living systems where the component parts function in a cooperative way to achieve a final purpose or end product.

     In trying to explain an object in motion, for example an arrow in flight, Aristotle said the archer's arm provides an original impetus forward, but after the arrow leaves the thrower's hand (since the arm can't continue to push it forward), the arrow should fall to earth immediately since there's nothing obvious pushing it. Aristotle's "answer" was that as the arrow flies through the air, it leaves a vacuum behind it. Air rushing in pushes the arrow forward until its natural motion (falling) eventually brings it to earth.

     To us it seems incomprehensible that people wouldn't have investigated for themselves how things worked, how objects behaved. For example, Aristotle stated that the motion of a cannon ball must be straight forward, and then straight down (as in the image to the left below). Anyone could have taken the trouble to observe that the actual motion of the cannon ball was in an arc as depicted in the lower right image.

     But during this time, the scholars were only interested in what authority they could find to answer a question, not what they could discover for themselves. And common people were content to accept the arguments of the authorities. This is where Roger Bacon's dichotomy reappears: "There are two modes of knowledge, through argument and experience." The Medieval scholastic was only interested in argument from authority: whether Church dogmatists such as Augustine or Aquinas or a secular authority like Aristotle. But within a short time, experience would be felt as a force.

     Whatever totally unfounded idea Aristotle had come up with seemed perfectly acceptable to the Medieval thinker. Concerning the causes which start things moving, such as the archer moving the arrow, Aristotle realized he didn't want to end up with an infinite chain of causes. So he stated that there must be an "unmoved mover," something which can initiate motion without itself being set in motion. This view, without support of any kind, was preserved by the medieval Church during the Dark Ages and became the ruling dogma.

     Slowly, Medieval man awoke from his dogmatic slumbers and began to examine the world for himself, referring to his own experience. Over the centuries of the Dark Ages, various strains of the Perennial Tradition were introduced and fostered by a number of creative scholars such as Boethius, Pope Sylvester II, Bernard of Clairvaux, Roger Bacon, Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, Nicholas of Cusa, Marselio Ficino, Leonardo da Vinci, Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus, John Colet, Nicolaus Copernicus, Thomas More, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Johann Kepler, Benjamin Whichcote, and Henry More. Each of these thinkers dared to work against the degrading impulses of the Church and Scholasticism, encouraging and participating in the investigation of human experience. Such dissent from a totalitarian church and an entrenched Scholasticism resulted in imprisonment or death for some of these intrepid adventurers.

     The re-emphasis of the Perennial Tradition--including its Hermetic and Platonic embodiments--through the confluence of European and Muslim thought, beginning around 1000 CE, now made the Perennialist concept and practice of knowledge more accessible in the West.

"Our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by that which preceded it. We frequently know more, not because we have moved ahead by our own natural ability, but because we are supported by the menial strength of others, and possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers. Bernard of Clairvaux used to compare us to punt dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature."

John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon, 1159-60

     The Perennialist form of knowledge, which has always been active in the West (as well as the East), now entered a new embodiment which would ultimately lead to what was called "the scientific method." However, thinkers developing the new concept of science apprehended and adapted only part of the Perennialist form of knowledge and mixed these with negative elements leading to the defective concept of science as imposed authority.

"Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead."

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century

The Dogmatisms of Puritanism and Empiricism

      While the positive Perennialist forces were helping to bring about a Renaissance in Europe, hard at work were baleful influences leading to suppression of human freedom and creativity: empiricism and Puritanism.

"Just as puritanism sets up the ideal of an active faith, so empiricism sets up the ideal of an active philosophy. They both reject mere contemplation and speculation; both demand, for the truth they advocate, a new concrete and practical verification."

Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, 1953

John Calvin      The imposition of arbitrary religious, philosophical, and political decrees was the dominant idea developed by Marin Luther, John Calvin, Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Isaac Newton, and others in the mechanist-materialist-empiricist or Puritan thought-molds. Puritanism and empiricism thought they had gone beyond Scholasticism, but they had merely rejected some of its aspects but retained most of it negative features.

     For all of the major figures in the mechanist-empiricist school the primary motif was to seek knowledge for the sake of power. The final justification of the realization of knowledge resided alone in the imposition of arbitrary will. Nature reveals it secrets, Francis Bacon maintained, if we put her "on the rack," coercing her to give up her secrets--just as a heretic is put on the rack and gives up his apostasy. According to Hobbes, knowledge should serve the ends of political power. Both these men and their followers maintained that we must force reality to reveal itself to us, as we already know it to be. Therefore, truth requires no evaluation by Reason. The absolute sovereignty of the divine will (read Church) and the will of the ruler ordained of God allowed no appraisal by ordinary human norms or standards.

      Most of the empiricists were materialists, maintaining that in perception there is only sensation, with "thought," "self," and "imagination" relegated to the realm of shadowy unrealities. Rene Descartes' concept of a mechanical universe included the idea that organisms are machines. He reasoned that even though humans possess an immaterial soul, it still resides in a mechanical body.

     The methodology of fiat--imposed authority and arbitrary decree--was seen as the foundation of both science and human social structure. Descartes wrote Mersenne in 1630: "God sets up mathematical laws in nature, as a king sets up laws in his kingdom."

"My God us keep

From Single vision & Newton's sleep."

William Blake

     While much is made of Francis Bacon's contribution to the theory of science, a closer look convinces us that he did not contribute to the formation of the scientific method, but to a deformed conception of imposition of authority on human will.

"One belies the specific form of Bacon's thought if one considers him as primarily a scientist and measures his achievement by that of the founders of modern science. Measured by this standard his performance is threatened with annihilation. If one sets Bacon's Novum Organum beside Kepler's Astronomia nova, or beside Galileo's Discorsi, the vast difference in mode of thought, in approach and in method is at once apparent. For the whole theoretical foundation and edifice of modern science is in part misunderstood and in part expressly denied by Bacon. The 'hypothesis' of Kepler, the 'mente concipio' of Galileo, Bacon must, on the basis of his central view, count among the 'false anticipations' which afflict the human spirit and hinder it from pursuing the one sure and fruitful path of experience. Instead of such anticipations, such theoretical presuppositions and basic assumptions, he would substitute the interpretation of nature which can be derived only from a comparison of the given. This comparison, as such, is by no means conceived by him simply as a sense process; but, as he clearly recognises, it involves an operation of the understanding. Sense, as such, is weak and subject to delusions and errors; the true interpretation of nature must, therefore, begin with the proper experiments in which sense-perception decides concerning the experiment, but the experiment decides concerning nature and the thing itself. If one considers more closely the way in which, according to Bacon, the understanding arrives at this decision, at a legitimate interpretation of nature, if one observes carefully his method of induction; one soon discovers that it has scarcely more than the name in common with that process of scientific induction which was employed by Kepler and Galileo, and in England by Gilbert and Harvey. Bacon's induction is not a scientific, but a juridical process. Its peculiar intellectual structure is fully comprehensible only when one bears in mind that, in all it says of the extracting, gathering, and sorting of single instances, there is less of the pure spirit of scientific research than of the mentality of the judge. The very style of Bacon's writing evinces everywhere this spirit. Bacon sits as a judge over reality, questioning it as one examines the accused. Not infrequently he says that one must resort to force to obtain the answer desired, that nature must be 'put to the rack'. This procedure is not simply observational but strictly inquisitorial. The witnesses are heard and brought face to face; the negative instances confront the alternative ones, just as the witnesses for the defence confront those for the prosecution. After all the available bits of evidence have been gathered together, and evaluated, then it is a matter of obtaining the confession which finally decides the issue. But such a confession is not obtainable without resorting to coercive measures. 'For like as a man's disposition is never well known or proved till he be crossed . . . so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art than when left to herself'. This is obviously not the language of the contemplative thinker who is confident of the harmony between the human mind and reality and entrusts himself lovingly to the pure revelations of nature. It is the language of the examining judge, surveying the means by which he can ascertain and, if necessary, extort from nature her carefully guarded secret. Such is the fundamental character of Baconian induction: 'For I consider induction to be that form of demonstration which upholds the sense, and closes with nature. . .'"

Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, 1953

     As we now see that Francis Bacon's pseudo-science was essentially a system of imposing the will of religious or political tyrants on the people, the same holds true for Thomas Hobbes.

"It is one of the principal assumptions of empiricism that identical laws govern and determine both natural and social existence. Hobbes supplements the work of Bacon on this point; Bacon's view of nature is Hobbes's view of society and the state. The motif scientia propter potentiam (knowledge for the sake of power) becomes Hobbes's criterion of speculation. Political science should serve the ends of political power; it should lead finally to the foundation of a regnum hominis in this most characteristic province of man, hitherto least subject to rational control and given over to despotism and anarchy. This subjugation must follow basically the same lines as the conquest of nature. Just as Bacon demands that science, rather than 'resolve nature into abstractions', should 'dissect her into parts', just as Bacon calls for the most exact analysis and most painstaking anatomy of nature; so Hobbes advocates the anatomy of the state in the same way. For him the state is also 'body', consisting of individual parts and knowable only through the assembling of these parts. To understand the state, one must first resolve it into its basic elements and then reconstruct it from them. The result is a strictly atomistic theory of the state and of society. The will of the state, to be grounded in reality, must be deduced from individual wills and represented as the summation of these wills. A contract between individuals forms the foundation of the state. But if this foundation is to be firmly laid, if the state is not, when scarcely formed, immediately to break up into its parts again, then some provision must be made so that this contract, once entered into, becomes inviolable. In its origin arbitrary and submitted to the free decision of individuals, the contract once in effect must therefore in its continuance be permanent and unalterable. Through human choice something is created which henceforth ends all choice, which leaves no free scope for individual likes and dislikes, but subjects these to inescapable coercion and absolute authority. It is thus the rigorous will to govern which leaves its impress on all of Hobbes' theoretical investigations and deductions; and it is the juridical right of coercion to which all political and social existence is to be traced back, and on which alone it is to be based."

Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, 1953

     While the empiricists pretended to be free from the prejudices of irrational religion and Scholasticism, they were essentially dogmatists still steeped in Medieval fantasies. Western scholars had assumed that a totemic figure such as Isaac Newton was above offensive occult influence--a man of purely materialistic science. It thus came as a shock when in 1936 Newton's manuscripts were auctioned off by his descendants at Sotheby's. John Maynard Keynes summarized what came to light about Newton:

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians . . . He looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements (and this is what gives the false suggestion of his being an experimental natural philosopher), but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty." 1

     Newton believed he was among the few who were privileged to receive esoteric knowledge. He dealt in alchemy as a method of discovering truth. As Gregory Bateson has correctly stated, "Newton did not discover gravity; he invented it." What Newton did was to delve deeply into the alchemical concepts for his answers, while clothing them in the idiom of his mechanical system. The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the alchemical principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. When the new hypotheses of Einstein took hold in the twentieth century, it became clear that Newton's concept of gravitation was merely a contrived theory.

Knowledge As Self-Evolvement

     Around the year 1050 CE, a Perennialist teacher named al-Hujwiri wrote in his Kashf-al-Mahjub (Revelation of the Veiled Mysteries):

"There are three forms of culture: worldly culture, the mere acquisition of information; religious culture, following rules; elite culture, self-development."

     Western culture assimilated parts of the Perennialist concept and practice of knowledge--experience as experiment and the use of Forms (mathematical, logical, conceptual) to comprehend reality--and thereby developed the scientific method. However, as we've seen, these ideas were admixed with other negative elements such as mechanism, materialism, empiricism, and repression to produce a devil's brew called "empirical science," resulting in such "scientifically" designed monstrosities as propagandism (sold as education), barbarity (shilled as entertainment), fascism (passed off as state capitalism), and plutocracy (pretending to be democracy).

     To the discerning thinker, it's clear that the system called "empirical science" has proven to be defective in its basic structure. For example, one of its offspring, the disarray called state capitalism, has devolved, in the twenty-first century, into militaristic imperialism, police-state fascism, and criminal plutocracy.

"The human being . . . instead of reaching within himself in a certain manner in order to find and attain his development, searches outside, and follows illusions (metaphysical systems wrongly developed) which in fact cripple him." 2

     Without assimilating all aspects of Perennialist knowledge into a conception of science, such malformations inevitably result. To those persons capable of seeing the deformities which "empirical science" has spawned, it's clear that we must now regain an understanding of those disregarded elements of the Perennial Tradition which make genuine human knowledge possible.

     Because of our reliance on a critically flawed conception of human knowledge--"empirical science"--we've created a world in which the wealthy continue to increase their riches and the workers suffer escalating poverty and unemployment. For the sake of our very lives, we must work to gain an understanding of what genuine knowledge is and how it can assist us in creating a benevolent way of life which serves the interests of all humankind and our planet.

"It might be said that the scientific approach has most often been: 'I shall make this phenomenon yield its secrets', while the Sufic attitude is: 'Let the real truth, whatever it may be, be revealed to me'.

"The former is the 'heroic' mode: attempting something with insufficient knowledge, the latter the 'self-evolution' mode: fitting oneself to perceive that which is to be perceived. It eliminates heroism."

Idries Shah. The Commanding Self

     The Perennialist conception and practice of knowledge involves concentrating on self-evolvement, to attain the capability of discovering and comprehending progressively more of reality. Even some scientists recognize that what is needed in any era of thought is the development of new ways of thinking about elemental issues.

"In both celestial and terrestrial physics--which hold the strategic place in the whole movement--change is brought about, not by new observations or additional evidence in the first instance, but by transpositions that were taking place inside the minds of the scientists themselves. In this connection it is not irrelevant to note that, of all forms of mental activity, the most difficult to induce even in the minds of the young, who may be presumed not to have lost their flexibility, is the art of handling the same bundle of data as before, but placing them in a new system of relations with one another by giving them a different framework, all which virtually means putting on a different kind of thinking-cap for the moment." 3

     Genuine scientists have developed the ability to re-think the most basic postulates of both Newtonian and Einsteinian science, including the concepts of matter 4, mathematics 5, and the basic "stuff" of reality. 6


     The Perennial Tradition involves the use of special methodologies of investigation to examine our ordinary states of consciousness, to discover supersensible aspects of human knowledge. Thus we're able to recognize that our ordinary experience involves more than naive realism assumes.

"There is experience not only of the sensible and the corporeal, but also of the spiritual and intellectual; not only of the physical, but also of the intelligible. For every true method of knowledge must undergo distinctions and differentiations within itself according to the fields of objects to which it relates. . . According to the being towards which it is directed, and according to the end in view, experience itself must undergo transformations and pass through a certain intellectual scale." 7

     By using special techniques of analyzing ordinary sense perception, we recognize that in our various modes of apperception, 8  we do not experience "pure" sensory input without any mixture of thought involved.

"Knowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them; in that only, and not in the mere impression, truth and being can be attained."

Plato, Theaetus

      Perception is always permeated by Thought; there is never immediate apprehension of an unmediated reality. As we seek to understand Reality, we impose certain ordering principles on our sense data: causality, objectivity (seeing things as objects), space, time, etc. Contrary to naive realism, Reality is not easily knowable.

      In attempting to gain a true awareness of Reality, we must work through distorting elements, both internal and external, and have the courage of our informed convictions once we gain a grasp of truth (for example, acknowledging what our opinion is regarding what's happening in the world).

     Instead of focusing all our attention on the "object" of knowledge, the Perennial Tradition places primary attention on the "subject." If we are to apprehend Reality accurately and comprehensively, our internal elements must be in correct order. Much before we arrive at knowledge, we must examine all our predispositions, preconceptions, ways of thinking, and habits of reflection.

     We have to begin by searching within ourselves to discover what we think we know about Reality but don't really know (ignorance of ignorance). When we discover that our impressions of Reality are inaccurate, we must correct them through thoughtful examination of evidence as to what really is the truth. We find that the media in today's world create delusions as to what's happening and that special interest groups disseminate propaganda (false information) to try to create in our minds a counterfeit picture of Reality.

      Dogmatists--those who dictate what reality is, according to their own interests without examining or presenting evidence--are the actual and abiding enemies of truth. Dogmatists come in all stripes: fundamentalist followers of a religion, naive empiricists, scientific materialists, doctrinaire capitalists, diehard rationalists, doctrinaire socialists, and so on.

      Throughout the Dark Ages, ecclesiastical and secular rulers had decreed what was the truth--and audacious indeed were the few brave souls, such as Galileo and Bruno, who dared to dissent. The Platonic tradition had been represented in each century by courageous thinkers (such as Boethius and Bernard of Clairvaux) who understood how important it was to help humankind understand that truth is determined by Reason. 9  This tradition emphasizes that we must cleanse our minds from the myths of "the cave"--the commonplace misreadings of sense experience.

     This idea of self-analysis and self-purification was expressed in eloquent terms by Plotinus:

"Withdraw within yourself, and examine yourself. If you do not yet therein discover beauty, do as the artist, who cuts off, polishes, purifies until he has adorned his statue with all the marks of beauty. Remove from your soul, therefore, all that is superfluous, straighten out all that is crooked, purify and illuminate what is obscure, and do not cease from perfecting your statue until the divine resplendence of virtue shines forth upon your sight. . . . But if you try to fix on it an eye soiled by vice, an eye that is impure, or weak, so as not to be able to support the splendour of so brilliant an object, that eye will see nothing, but even if it were shown a sight easy to grasp."

Ennead I, "Of Beauty," Book VI, Chs. 8-9

Henry More       The Cambridge Platonists 10 were insistent that spiritual truth cannot be gained merely through dogma or doctrine, that it must be judged by human experience. Henry More expressed this idea in his Enchiridion ethicum, the principal ethical work of the Cambridge School:
"Every vital good is perceived and judged by life and sense. . . If you have ever been this, you have seen this."
You can only understand a reality if you have experienced it, if a part of your very being has participated in it.

      It may now be more apparent why we are focusing on self-evolvement in this essay--because such experiential engagement is essential for true understanding. And it also should be clear why we are using the term "Reason" in its capitalized form: because naive reasoning cannot go beyond the ordinary dimensions of commonplace thought to the world of Higher Consciousness--the Self.

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite."

William Blake

     When we cleanse our "doors of perception" to attain a grasp of truth; when we work through credulous "realism" to an understanding of Reality, we come into contact with supersensible forces within us--we arrive at Reason. The Cambridge Platonists changed the focus from the object to the subject, from sacrament and dogma to experiential participation and personal evolvement.

     The reason for this shift is that we can only discern the reality we're capable of discerning; our mental and moral states determine how well we can understand Higher Reality. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464 C.E.) had asserted that God is for every man what he perceives God to be, and that the form and quality of this perception depends on that of the individual.

     One of the Cambridge Platonists, John Smith, maintained: "Such as Men themselves are, such will God himself seem to be." He was somewhat echoing Goethe's: "Wie einer is, so is sein Gott." As a man is, so is his God.

Analyzing Experience to Discover Higher Consciousness

     The Cambridge thinkers were true followers of the Platonic tradition in using the analysis of experience to discover eternal elements. Plato maintained that we could "recognize" objects only because we possessed the ability to use higher Forms to discern their instantiation in shoes and ships and sealing wax--even cabbages and kings.

"In all the writings of the Cambridge thinkers, it is not so much a matter of extending the religious horizon as of penetrating into another dimension of religious experience. Differences of doctrinal opinion are not only tolerated, but welcomed; for such freedom is the condition under which the pure essential core of religion can become manifest." 11
      During the seventeenth century, the Cambridge Platonists had to contend against two major types of dogmatists: the Puritan reactionaries and the philosophical empiricists. Both these latter groups maintained that truth was easily determinable: by the dictates of those in power. Truth comes to us already formed, the empiricists maintained; we do not need to mix reason or thought into perceptual understanding. The Church dictates what is truth, said the ecclesiastical tyrants, and the believer does not need to worry his mind with such irrelevancies as evidence or proof.

     The ecclesiastical and political dogmatists, said the Cambridge Platonists, simply did not understand human experience.

"The chief weakness of the empirical doctrine of knowledge is, according to Cudworth, that it starts from an analysis of sense-perception instead of from an analysis of judgment. Hobbes believes he is giving an account of sense-perception when he explains it as the mere reaction of the human body to an external stimulus. But even if simple perception admitted of such an explanation, nothing whatever would be gained towards the derivation of knowledge. For the beginning of all knowledge lies, not in perception as such, but in the judgment concerning it" 12

     As we've seen, Plato--and his Cambridge disciples--maintained that no sense-object--for example, a triangle--can be recognized and defined, unless human reason is able to grasp the supersensible Form of triangle. For judgment to be possible, and with it the beginning and seed of all knowledge, a sensible subject must always be connected with a supersensible concept, the particular with the general, and the perceived or imagined with the Real.

     The Cambridge thinkers advocated a concept of experience which included both physical perception and spiritual discernment. If, as did the empiricists, one recognises experience only in the form of sense-perception and considers it as valid only in this form, this excludes the spiritual as well as the intellectual elements which are clearly evident from any discerning analysis of human experience.

Analyzing Experience to Discover Higher Self-Consciousness

     The English Platonists maintained that humans are capable of a form of "pure perception" which gives us access not only to the transcendent dimension, to the being and nature of the Deity, but also to our deepest immanent being. Through Reason we know not only the Divine but also our real Self.

"If perception were given only in the form of sensation, of an external impression affecting the senses, then all possibility of self-consciousness would cease to be. For what sense grasps and conceives is only the qualities of external things, not the character, states, and activities of one's own ego. We see and hear colours and sounds; we do not see seeing and hear hearing themselves. Even when, with respect to content, we remain within the limits of the sense world, knowledge of sensible things is never a cognitive act of the senses alone. An original and independent form of awareness (Gewahrwerden) operates here which has nothing in common, and is not to be confused, with that form of perception (Wahrnehmung) by which we stand in relationship to the corporeal world. Even the mere sense-impression, accordingly, in so far as it is not simply the corporeal impression, but the consciousness of this impression, contains a genuine and indispensable purely noetic element." 13

"How could our thinking insight sit in judgment on the declarations of the senses, unless there were something living within it which transcends sense-perception? Therefore the truth or falsity in things is decided by something within us which opposes the physical body and consequently not subject to its laws."

Rudolph Steiner, Christianity as Mystical Fact

     The act of perception, the Cambridge thinkers maintained, reveals primarily not the properties of the external object being perceived, but discloses the potencies and nature of the perceiving subject. Our ability to apprehend Reality is in direct ratio to our essence: our powers of fair appraisal, our capability of allowing an object to disclose itself to us without our dictating to it what it must be. Every act of objective knowing is also an act of self-knowing; the result reveals who we are as much as what the object is. In this comprehensive understanding of human experience, the Cambridge Platonists were head and shoulders above seventeenth century English empiricism, which had made a vain effort to resolve the knowing subject, the ego, into a mere "bundle of perceptions."

"The awe-inspired person does not want to get hold of or to possess what he reveres, with the aid of his intellectual concepts. He seeks only to get himself into the frame of mind appropriate to the revered object--one which renders him open to its summons and makes his vision clear for its beckonings. He knows: if he manages to comply with the phenomenon that is worthy of his awe so perfectly that he catches sight of its entire truth, he has succeeded also in releasing himself from the chaos of all delusions."

Medard Boss, A Psychiatrist Discovers India

     As we develop ourselves--our awareness of ourselves and our world--we gain the ability to know more. It is not just a matter of getting in touch with more reality. We must improve ourselves--our mental and moral qualities--if we are to gain increased understanding of what we already are in touch with and new aspects of reality we discover with our enhanced capabilities.

     Thought, as a higher organ, remains unnoticed in the ordinary conscious life; indeed there are many persons who deny its existence. But their denial is due to an incapacity to carry out genuine self-observation. There is something at work in Thought which is more than physical or terrestrial.

     As we examine our experience, we learn to separate the element of sensation from the element of thought. Thought has no connection to bodily sensation; in thought we are entirely separate from our body. In thought the human soul rises out of the bodily organism into a higher realm. As soon as a person becomes distinctly, separately conscious of the thought element in the act of perception, she knows by direct experience that she is acting as a living soul, quite independent of her bodily nature.

"Neoplatonism asserts consistently that the world as seen by the spiritual man is a very different world from that which is seen by the carnal man. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned; and the whole world, to him who can see it as it is, is irradiated by Spirit. A sober trust in religious experience, when that experience has been earned, is an essential factor in Platonic faith. Our vision is clarified by the conquest of fleshly lusts, by steady concentration of the thoughts, will, and affections on things that are good and true and lovely; by disinterestedness, which thinks of no reward, and by that progressive unification of our nature which in the Gospels is called the single eye."

William Ralph Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus, 1917-1919

     Thought becomes deliberate as we develop the capabilities of critical thinking and critical consciousness. We not only sense and think, but we reflect and evaluate our experience, making judgments based on reason and morality.

     As Plato taught, a person can definitely experience herself as a supersensible soul-being, as she develops an advanced capacity for self-observation. Plato outlined a kind of meditative practice, an intensified activity of Thought, activating in itself the force that is otherwise used in sense perception. Our Thinking in itself grows so strong that it works with the same vivid quality which is otherwise only there in sense-experience. We begin to discern the Forms, such as Goodness, Beauty, Justice, and Truth.

"The soul then reasons in the most beautiful manner, when it is disturbed by nothing belonging to the body, neither by hearing, nor sight, nor pain, nor any pleasure, but subsists in the most eminent degree, itself by itself, bidding farewell to the body, and, as much as possible neither communicating nor being in contact with it, extends itself towards real being."

Plato, Phaedo

     This apperception of Forms is unrelated to memories from the past, sensory experiences in the immediate present, or contemplation of the future. The Platonic apperceptive experience in itself provides a content of its own, such as we otherwise only derive from sense-perception. As we develop this apperceptive meditative ability of the soul, we experience an inherent certainty that we're receiving no purely visionary content originating in our unconscious organic regions. We learn to experience realities which are called forth in higher consciousness without external perceptions, just as we are conscious of ideas in ordinary life when engaged in reflective thought, ideas independent of the physical world.

     Plato taught that as we develop our evolving consciousness, a supersensible, purely spiritual content enters the feeling and perception of the Self. The apperceptive meditative life gives rise to a form of supersensible self-awareness. This self-consciousness can then be directed to the activity of the Will in realizing new capabilities--even to the point of moving beyond the realm of Forms to the One, as in Plotinus' experience.

     In every-day life the activity of the will is consciously directed to external actions. There is, however, a spiritual expression of Will to which we pay little conscious attention: the activity of Higher Will which carries us from one stage of development to another in the course of our life. For not only are we engaged with different conceptual content within our soul, day after day, but our soul-life itself, on each succeeding day, evolves out of our soul-life of the day before. The driving force in this evolving process is the Higher Will, which in this field of its activity remains for the most part unconscious.

     Advanced self-awareness can, however, raise this element of Higher Will, with all its unusual powers, into our conscious life. When we accomplish this, we gain a perception of a life of Will which has absolutely nothing to do with any elements of a sense-perceptible external world, but is directed solely to the inner evolution of the soul--independent of the physical world. We learn by degrees to enter into the living essence of our Higher Will, just as in the former kind of meditative life we entered into the Higher Consciousness.

      Our conscious, deliberate experience of this element of Higher Will expands into the experience of an independent supersensible external world of its own substance. Having gained the aspect of Will, our supersensible self-consciousness finds itself in a supersensible realm filled with spiritual Beings and events.


     Modern "empirical science" has been created through a syncretism of positive and negative forces, resulting in a world of technological development, but personal devastation. It's necessary to regain an awareness of the essential forces of the Perennialist conception and practice of knowledge to create a world which supports genuine human development.

     The arcane form of knowledge practiced by philosophers within the Perennial Tradition 14 involves self-evolvement, making possible a supersensible form of awareness. Using this procedure of higher consciousness, the Perennialist realizes a transcendental domain.


1 #1 Quoted in B.J.T. Dobbs. (1975), The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy, Cambridge University Press

2 Idries Shah, The Sufis

3 Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science

4 Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (first published in 1958) as follows:

... In the philosophy of Democritus the atoms are eternal and indestructible units of matter, they can never be transformed into each other. With regard to this question modern physics takes a definite stand against the materialism of Democritus and for Plato and the Pythagoreans. The elementary particles are certainly not eternal and indestructible units of matter, they can actually be transformed into each other. As a matter of fact, if two such particles, moving through space with a very high kinetic energy, collide, then many new elementary particles may be created from the available energy and the old particles may have disappeared in the collision. Such events have been frequently observed and offer the best proof that all particles are made of the same substance: energy. But the resemblance of the modern views to those of Plato and the Pythagoreans can be carried somewhat further. The elementary particles in Plato's Timaeus are finally not substance but mathematical forms. 'All things are numbers' is a sentence attributed to Pythagoras. The only mathematical forms available at that time were such geometric forms as the regular solids or the triangles which form their surface. In modern quantum theory there can be no doubt that the elementary particles will finally also be mathematical forms but of a much more complicated nature."

5 Mathematical physicist, Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford University, made the following comments during an interview with Science and Spirit magazine (March - April 2003 issue):

"I view the mathematical world as having an existence of its own, independent of us. It is timeless. I think, to be a working mathematician, it's difficult to hold any other view.

"It's not so much that the Platonic world has its own existence, but that the physical world accords with such precision, subtlety, and sophistication with aspects of the Platonic mathematical world. And this, of course, does go back to Plato, who was clear in distinguishing between notions of precise mathematics and the usually inexact ways in which one applies this mathematics to the physical world. It is the shadow of the pure mathematical world that you see in the physical world. This idea is central to the way we do science. Science is always exploring the way the world works in relation to certain proposed models, and these models are mathematical constructions."

6 Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (an outstanding physicist): "To put the conclusion crudely--the stuff of the world is mind-stuff . . . and the substratum of everything is of mental character. . . Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature. This I take to be the world-stuff."

7 Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, 1953

8 Apperception is not mere sensation; it is the ordering, arranging, and categorizing of sensations to achieve knowledge. Reality, to be known, requires unifying intelligence to constitute the relations of its phenomena, to make it a connected world of experience.

Apperception is thus a general term for all mental processes in which reality comes into connection with an already existent system of mental elements (concepts, feelings, desires, etc.), and is thereby ordered, classified, explained or, in a word, understood.

9 I'm capitalizing the word "Reason" to distinguish it from naive rationalism or commonplace reasoning, which accept assertions without examining whether or not they are supported by evidence.

10 Those persons who were either a part of the Cambridge Platonist movement or were supportive of it included: Benjamin Whichcote, Ralph Cudworth, John Colet, John Smith, Henry More, Thomas More, Erasmus, Bayle, Shaftesbury, Hugo Grotius, and Leibnitz

11 Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, 1953

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 The author's recently published book The Perennial Tradition explicates this secret legacy, the single stream of initiatory teaching flowing through all the great schools of philosophy and mysticism.

Concluding Exercises:

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