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Foreword to “Frithjof Schuon and the Perennial Philosophy”

Frithjof Schuon is one of the greatest exponents ever of perennial wisdom; his unique feature is that, amongst all the great sages, he is the only one who is equally at home—and in a masterly fashion—in all of its many and varied historic forms: Vedanta, Taoism, Platonism, Palamitism, Scholasticism, and Sufism. And yet, to a world that treats with respect the legion of post-Medieval philosophers—from the humanistic Descartes and Kant down to the absurd and narcissistic philosophers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—, he remains largely unknown. The wisdom in question is that of intellectus purus, universal metaphysics, intrinsic orthodoxy. This wisdom, as expounded in the writings of Schuon, has been variously called philosophia perennis, sophia perennis, and religio perennis.

Schuon himself clarifies:

The term philosophia perennis, which has been current since the time of the Renaissance and of which neo-scholasticism made much use, signifies the totality of primordial and universal truths—and therefore of the metaphysical axioms—whose formulation does not belong to any particular system. One could speak in the same sense of a religio perennis, designating by this term the essence of every religion; this means the essence of every form of worship, every form of prayer and every system of morality, just as the sophia perennis is the essence of all dogmas and all expressions of wisdom. We prefer the term sophia to that of philosophia, for the simple reason that the second term is less direct and because in addition it evokes associations of ideas with a completely profane and all too often aberrant system of thought.

Schuon’s predecessors were not the great devotional mystics, such as Saint John of the Cross; they were sages, or sapiential teachers, such as Shankara, Plato, Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, and Angelus Silesius. Schuon extolled both wisdom and sanctity—he saw these as being inextricably wed—but he nevertheless stressed that the element “wisdom” was even more lacking today than the element “sanctity”. At the same time, Schuon loved all goodness: all that was simple and pure. For example, of Saint Theresa of Lisieux (“the Little Flower”), he said: “Her littleness was her greatness.” Schuon’s guiding star was (in his own adaptation of the juridical formula): “the Good, the whole Good, and nothing but the Good.”

In the noble words of Schuon’s poetic prose one tastes the awesomeness of the Absolute and the bliss of Paradise; but, in addition to his prose, there is the remarkable cycle of more than three thousand didactic poems which Schuon wrote in his native German during the last three years of his life. These have been compared to Rumi’s Mathnawi, and many of them are redolent of the Psalms of David: they are an expression of man’s nostalgia and longing for ultimate satisfaction in the Lord. Their main theme is trustful prayer to an ever-merciful God, and benevolence towards men of goodwill; but first and foremost, the poems are instruments of instruction. As such, they are a powerful propulsion towards the inward. The essential contents of Schuon’s long sequence of poems are truth, beauty, and images of noble and sacred love reminiscent of the Song of Solomon—each of these factors being a potential vehicle of salvation.

At the beginning of a religion, the urgent command is to preach to all nations. On the contrary, in the “latter days” in which Schuon lived, his mission was to teach the truth—the whole and uncolored truth—only to those who seek it, urgently need it, and are satisfied by nothing else. It was with this in mind that Schuon often said: “I am not interested in numbers.” Nevertheless, Schuon also had a message for the whole world, and he himself summed this up in one word: prayer. Prayer, on the basis of sincerity and humility, is man’s sole—and infinitely precious—link with God.

It is good that all of Schuon’s books are now available in English, and it is only natural that his followers should seek to introduce him to the public; only thus can those who need him find him. Nevertheless, the authors of books about Schuon are in nowise under the illusion that his profound metaphysical and spiritual insights will be understood by the majority. For many, in fact, they could be disturbing and unsettling—though this too might not be without its benefits, for we find a parallel in the words of Christ: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Christ said further: “Many are called but few are chosen.” This touches on the respective roles of “exoterism” (the common religion) and “esoterism” (the deeper and wider purview of those, and only those, who have a vocation for it, and who need it). In reality, “esoterism”, in the sense intended, is a danger for no one; indeed, it is a hidden blessing; all this is discussed in detail in Schuon’s writings. Schuon demonstrates how esoterism is the intellectual principle capable of explaining the formal contradictions between the various religions which, in the “scientific age”, have been triumphantly paraded as a proof of their falseness; and also how it constitutes a spiritual way whereby we may reach truth or reality despite the confusion and blindness which a technological age has engendered—often imperceptibly—in our minds and imaginations. Schuon writes: “Just as rationalism can remove faith, so esoterism can restore it.” In this sense, “esoterism” is a synonym for religio perennis.

Schuon’s writings are nothing if not exacting; but the truth is implacable. It is also liberating: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Oldmeadow’s book deftly presents to the wider public an author who is relatively unknown, and whose work newcomers are likely to find difficult. For those already familiar with Schuon and his writings, much will already be known; but Oldmeadow’s presentation is satisfyingly fresh and full of insight. He explicates Schuon’s principal theses with precision and clarity in a way that will help the new reader to understand the more difficult and unfamiliar points. As in Oldmeadow’s other works, one is struck both by the comprehensiveness of his exposition and the awesome breadth of his reading. He covers virtually everything! This is surely a case where one may justifiably have recourse to the cliché: “He leaves no stone unturned and no avenue unexplored!” Nevertheless, the many facets of Frithjof Schuon will never be covered by one sole author. In this respect, Oldmeadow’s painstaking presentation of Schuon’s works is an important complement to the biographies of Schuon by Jean-Baptiste Aymard and Michael Fitzgerald.

As just mentioned, many people, in making their first approach to Schuon, find his writings difficult. There appear to be three reasons for this. Firstly, Schuon often uses unfamiliar vocabulary, not only as regards European words, but also in his frequent use of foreign terms, especially Sanskrit and Arabic. I must immediately say that, on a careful second reading of a given article or chapter, the reader will discover that all the terms used are in fact fully explained. Secondly, he introduces many unfamiliar concepts. Once again, on a close second reading, it will be found that these concepts are fully explained. The chief difficulty here seems to lie in the fact that not many people have a clear idea as to what is meant by the “higher levels of reality”; I am referring to what tradition calls “the Five Divine Presences”. This doctrine is crucial, but I will not expand on it here, as Oldmeadow presents it in full in this book. Thirdly, even in the modern world, there are authors who occasionally examine things in depth, but who, very quickly, return again to the surface. In the case of Schuon, he starts at a considerable depth, and he remains at that depth! Readers are unaccustomed to such a thing.

It is my experience that these three difficulties can be overcome. When this occurs, the reading of Frithjof Schuon becomes, not exactly easy, but a great joy. In fact, it will be discovered that his style is both simple and poetic.

Apart from a hunger for the Absolute, what Schuon demands from his readers is total objectivity, total detachment, and total lack of pretension. For Schuon, virtue, or humility, is an indispensable component of true knowledge.

One point remains: In my opening paragraph, I sharply contrasted Ancient and Medieval philosophy with post-Renaissance philosophy. Schuon explains this great divide in the history of philosophy by pointing out that, whereas Greek and Medieval philosophies were based on certainty, Cartesian and all subsequent philosophies were based on doubt. Traditional philosophy was effectively marginalized by the Renaissance and, even more brutally, by the Enlightenment.

Dr. Oldmeadow has performed an important service in providing us with such a sensitive and detailed presentation of the Schuonian oeuvre.

William Stoddart

Windsor, February 2009