Perennial Philosophy - Origin of The Term

Origin of The Term

The term was first used by Agostino Steuco (1497–1548) who used it to title a treatise, De perenni philosophia libri X, published in 1540.

However, Steuco drew on an already existing philosophical tradition, the most direct predecessors of which were Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94). Ficino, an important figure in early modern philosophy, was influenced by a variety of philosophers including Aristotelian Scholasticism and various pseudonymous and mystical writings. The key theme of Ficino’s philosophy held that there is an underlying unity to the world, the soul or love, which has a counterpart in the realm of ideas. Platonic Philosophy and Christian theology both embody this truth. Ficino saw his thought as part of a long development of philosophical truth, of ancient pre-Platonic philosophers (including Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus and Pythagoras) who reached their peak in Plato. The Prisca theologia, or venerable and ancient theology, which embodied the truth and could be found in all ages, was a vitally important idea for Ficino.

Pico, a student of Ficino, embodies a more ambitious attempt to use the philosophies and theologies of the past, especially the priscia theologica. Pico went further than his teacher by suggesting that truth could be found in many, rather than just two, traditions. This proposed a harmony between the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and saw aspects of the Prisca theologia in Averroes, the Koran, the Cabala among other sources. After the deaths of Pico and Ficino this line of thought expanded, and included Symphorien Champier, and Francesco Giorgio.

Agostino Steuco was the strongest defender of the tradition of the prisci theologica, and De perenni philosophia was the most sustained attempt at philosophical synthesis and harmony. Steuco represents the liberal wing of 16 Century Biblical scholarship and theology, although he rejected Luther and Calvin. De perenni philosophia, is a complex work which only contains the term philosophia perennis twice. It states that there is “one principle of all things, of which there has always been one and the same knowledge among all peoples.” This single knowledge (or sapientia) is the key element in his philosophy. In that he emphasises continuity over progress, Steuco’s idea of philosophy is not one conventionally associated with the Renaissance. Indeed, he tends to believe that the truth is lost over time and is only preserved in the prisci theologica. Steuco preferred Plato to Aristotle and saw greater congruence between the former and Christianity than the latter philosopher. He held that philosophy works in harmony with religion and should lead to knowledge of God, and that truth flows from a single source, more ancient than the Greeks. Steuco was strongly influenced by Iamblichus’s statement that knowledge of God is innate in all, and also gave great importance to Hermes Trismegistus.

Steuco’s perennial philosophy was highly regarded by some scholars for the two centuries after its publication, then largely forgotten until it was rediscovered by Otto Willmann in the late part of the 19 century. Overall, De perenni philosophia wasn’t particularly influential, and largely confined to those with a similar orientation to himself. The work was not put on the Index of works banned by the Roman Catholic Church, although his Cosmopoeia which expressed similar ideas was. Religious criticisms tended to the conservative view that held Christian teachings should be understood as unique, rather than seeing them as perfect expressions of truths that are found everywhere. More generally, this philosophical syncretism was set out at the expense of some of the doctrines included within it, and it is possible that Steuco’s critical faculties were not up to the task he had set himself. Further, placing so much confidence in the prisca theologia, turned out to be a shortcoming as many of the texts used in this school of thought later turned out to be bogus. In the following two centuries the most favourable responses were largely Protestant and often in England.

Gottfried Leibniz later picked up on Steuco's term. The German philosopher stands in the tradition of this concordistic philosophy; his philosophy of harmony especially had affinity with Steuco’s ideas. Leibniz knew about Steuco’s work by 1687, but thought that De la Verite de la Religion Chretienne by Huguenot philosopher Phillippe du Plessis-Mornay expressed the same truth better. Steuco’s influence can be found throughout Leibniz’s works, but the German was the first philosopher to refer to the perennial philosophy without mentioning the Italian.

Max Müller, one of the founding figures in the academic discipline of comparative religion, was fond of saying to his students "He who knows one knows none" by which he meant that people who are only familiar with the teaching and doctrine of one religious tradition fail to see the deeper meaning of their own religion. Only by breaking out of the bigoted attachment to one's own religious belief system and making the effort to study the doctrines of other religions can a human being penetrate to the universal underlying meaning lying behind each unique cultural and historical expression of religion.

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