Here comes a short definition of what has been called the perennial philosophy and how it relates to psychosynthesis according to Roberto Assagioli.
By Kenneth Sørensen, This text is an extract from my unpublished book Two Versions of Psychosynthesis: A Comparison of Assagioli and Firman and Gila; which will be published around Feb. 2021.
The perennial philosophy is a concept that became popular during the Renaissance. It is based on the insight that it is essentially the same esoteric core that is being described by many of the world’s religions. According to Arthur Versluis (2017: 2): “Perennial philosophy does not mean that all religions are one. Rather, it means that there is an underlying basic shared human metaphysical reality.”
The various traditions name this metaphysical reality Spirit, Ground, God, Void or Emptiness – this is the reality that underlies and unites all the esoteric religions, according to the perennial philosophy. This divine reality can be realised by the individual through a path of mystical ascent to the One source which transcends all duality, resulting in enlightenment. Platonism, Hermetism, mystical Christianity, Vedanta and Buddhism all speak about this experience of personal realisation, which leads to the transformation and illumination of the individual.
This is the basic insight of perennialism – and perennialists belonging to different traditions can generally recognise one another. However, in traditional religion, difficulties and conflicts arise when flawed interpretationsof the mystical experience become dogmas, with particular words or rituals prioritised over the internal esoteric insight, which is often ignored or not acknowledged.
When the philosopher Aldous Huxley popularised perennialism in the twentieth century, he offered the following list as a “Minimum Working Hypothesis; the basic outline of the perennial philosophy found in all the mystic branches of the religions of the world”:
- That there is a Godhead or Ground, which is the unmanifested principle of all manifestation.
- That the Ground is transcendent and immanent.
- That it is possible for human beings to love, know and, from virtually, to become actually identified with the Ground.
- That to achieve this unitive knowledge, to realise this supreme identity, is the final end and purpose of human existence.
- That there is a Law or Dharma, which must be obeyed, a Tao or Way, which must be followed, if men are to achieve their final end.
However, as we will see, there are other important features to the perennial philosophy. According to Ken Wilber (2000: 5), another fundamental aspect of the perennial philosophy is what he calls “levels of consciousness”, which has also been called the Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy: 1933).
Theosophy is a strand of perennialism – the Ageless Wisdom – so we can conclude that Assagioli would have been stepped in the perennial tradition. I am not aware that Assagioli ever referred to the perennial philosophy by name, but he is referring to this concept when he writes about “esoteric wisdom” in the following extract (Assagioli, 1933):
“What is needful… is a satisfying and inclusive spiritual philosophy of life. A philosophy which would explain life’s central meaning and purpose with such a breadth of vision as to reveal the true place and value of all the disjointed and conflicting elements already mentioned.
A sure background for such a philosophy of life is given by Esoteric Wisdom. There we find the explanation of the cosmic laws of manifestation, of the great and small cycles, of the macrocosmic and micro-cosmic analogies which show the place and purport of the present world crisis in the greater whole. It gives a deeper insight into the constitution of man, both in its extraordinary complexity and in its fundamental Unity. And above all, it indicates the path by the treading of which man can solve his problems, set himself free from the bonds and limitations which mar his life, express his higher possibilities and arrive at the realisation of his true nature, or his Divine Essence.”
Esoteric wisdom is exactly what perennialism is: it is the core insight that God is immanent and transcendent, as documented by the mystics. According to Versluis (2015: 106), in the West, perennialism is in “Plato and Plotinus through Damascius, and then from Dionysius, the Areopagite forward through via negativa Christian mysticism, up to and past Emerson into the present day”. In the East, perennialism is found via “Shankara and Padmasambhava and Chih-i and Fa-tsang and Abinavagupta and Lady Tsogyal in the East”, according to Ken Wilber (2000b: 455).
Wilber is today probably the most influential proponent of perennialism. His integral approach to philosophy integrates two important features of perennialism, namely involution and the Great Chain of Being.
Taken together, panentheism and the perennial philosophy are the foundation of Assagioli’s philosophy. It is important to understand both perspectives if we are to understand Assagioli’s version of psychosynthesis, including why Assagioli understood that the Transpersonal Self was a transcendent being living in the superconscious sphere, something Firman and Gila strongly disagreed with.
To move our argument on, we must now explore what is meant by the Great Chain of Being – which gives us the key concept of inner levels of reality – and involution. Let’s begin with the Great Chain of Being.
 Assagioli, Roberto. Practical Contributions to a Modern Yoga; The Beacon, Oct 1933, Vol 12.
 Chapter two in The Eye of Spirit, 2000b, contains a fine overview of the perennial philosophy.
Versluis, Arthur. 2015. Perennial Philosophy. New Cultures Press. Kindle Edition.
Wilber, Ken, 2000b. The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume Seven, Shambhala.