From the Philosophia Perennis to American Perennialism


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The search for an eternal wisdom of divine origin, transmitted from the very dawn of humanity, but fragmented and partially lost, is a recurring theme in the history of Western esotericism. This theme was most notably expressed at the beginning of the 20th century by a form of thought called Traditionalism, above all from the moment that the French author René Guénon became its spokesman with his anti-modernist writings. The term Perennialism, however, refers more specifically to the form this thought has taken in the United States, as represented primarily by Frithjof Schuon and his followers, namely, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Huston Smith, and a second generation of writers such as James Cutsinger.
Frithjof Schuon is regarded as the thinker who gave perennialist philosophy its definitive synthesis, and as the first perennialist to assume an initiatory function. Founder and spiritual master of a Sufi order in the United States, Schuon based his perspective on the intellect and on the nature of things, and he oriented his own teaching toward an esoterism per se, personified by the Virgin Mary. The idea of religio perennis or sophia perennis, a set of metaphysical principles revealed by heaven and partially restored by each genuine founder of a new religion, became, in Schuon’s metaphysics, the “transcendent unity” present in the essential core of every religion. This metaphysical view and the spiritual method introduced by Schuon were adapted by two of his followers, the Iranian professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an authority in Islamic Studies, and the American scholar Huston Smith, who specialized more in transpersonal experiences. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy is an independent figure among American perennialists, but shares their perspective. This new meaning of “esoterism,” in contrast to “esotericism,” applies to certain currents in Western culture that are historically related and show certain similarities, and that point toward a religionist approach to the study of religions—an approach that is often criticized in academic circles.


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