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Perennial Wisdom 

The Library of Living Philosophers turns its attention to S.H. Nasr, an unfashionable but highly relevant Iranian thinker

The philosophy espoused by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one scholar commenting on it in this new volume says, "is out of fashion with philosophers in the late modern European traditions, including postmodernism." Then, as if with an awkward cough, the commentator immediately corrects himself: "'Out of fashion' is a misstatement: they dismiss it with ridicule."

Of course, to today's astute hipsters, there's no more signal or prideful honor than to be dismissed with ridicule by those ultimate squares known as postmodernists, the kids still trying to throw a party at the dead-end of Eurocentric pointyheadism ("late" in the above sentence is a voodoo word used by people who don't think they believe in voodoo). Nevertheless, the coolest thing about that unflattering description is where it occurs. The 1,000-page The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr is the latest installment in the Library of Living Philosophers, which since 1939 has mounted volumes dedicated to the likes of Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, George Santayana, Martin Buber, Jean-Paul Sartre and the like. The series concept is to take advantage of the chance to question a philosopher while he's still alive; beginning with an "intellectual autobiography" penned by the subject, each volume proceeds with a series of critical essays (Nasr's contains 37) that are each followed by a response from the philosopher.

In other words, this is not only an extremely prestigious gig, it is one that exudes the air of the academic establishment. So how did it end up going to someone who is so far out of current philosophic fashion as to be virtually its antithesis? Before considering that, let me describe the breed of thought Nasr represents.

It is called the perennial philosophy, and Nasr is not its first or only exponent. The term philosophia perennis apparently was coined by Agostino Steuco in the 1500s, and Leibniz used it two centuries later. But as a collective phenomenon it got rolling in the 1920s when a contentious Frenchman named Rene Guenon, in a series of books including The Crisis of the Modern World, threw an anvil at much of post-medieval Western thought. Guenon was followed by Frithjof Schuon, whom some consider the philosophy's most profound spokesman so far, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Ananda Coomaraswamy and others. Besides Nasr, an Iranian who has lived in the United States since 1979, its leading American voice is Huston Smith, author of the bestselling The World's Religions. (While Smith's Forgotten Truth may be the best introduction to perennialism, the movement had an important popularizer in Aldous Huxley, author of 1945's The Perennial Philosophy.)

At the heart of perennialism are the radical notions that philosophy should aim for wisdom; that wisdom is primarily embodied in religion and conveyed by religious traditions and traditional ways of life; and that all of the world's religions and important pre-modern philosophies share the same core of ideas about meaning and existence. These include the belief that reality is hierarchical, descending from an ineffable One through several levels down to matter, the lowest order of all. Perennialists also believe that religion is likewise stratified, that its outward forms are essential for beginners and the mass of believers, but that full knowledge of--and return to--the One generally involves an intellectual ascent which discerns several levels of meaning in any sacred text, including nature, arguably the most crucial revelation of all.

Perennialists make a great deal of the medieval distinction between intellectus and ratio (reason). The former, they say, implies a holistic mode of understanding that embraces intuition and contemplation. The latter is more partial, reductive and narrowly cerebral, yet it has proved culturally victorious. Allied with Aristotelian logic and empiricist methodology, it produced modern science, a tool that gave man power over matter but then went haywire and distorted every other aspect of his social, cultural and individual being. The result has been the wholesale destruction of traditional ways of life, the marginalization of true religious thought, the despoilment of nature, the eruption of totalitarian ideologies, genocide, alienation, loss of meaning and the rapidly increasing chances of species suicide through advanced technology.

Needless to say, perennialists regard modern thinkers like Marx and Freud as so many rationalistic witch doctors; while avoiding "crude creationism," they likewise dismiss the philosophic claims attached to Darwinism. This may sound, then, like a conservative philosophy--perhaps the conservative philosophy--but I've never seen a perennialist thinker present it as such, no doubt because that would mean endorsing a distinction that is itself a product of the diseased modern mind. To them, the political left and right are similarly in thrall to materialism and "scientism," a worldview that accedes to science powers and understandings proper to religion.

Likewise, the perennialist philosophy sees present-day religious fundamentalism as a byproduct and mirror image of the literalistic, "horizontal" outlook demanded by science, much as scientific modernism exudes the peremptory arrogance of fundamentalism. Thus while the "transcendent unity of religions" and the notion that "all paths lead to the same summit" are chief among its tenets, perennialism doesn't embrace all religious forms equally. Eschewing the newfangled, New Agey and vaguely sentimental religiosity along with fundamentalism, it looks to the world's older, "primordial" religious traditions as having both the revelational sources and the cultural depth necessary to support the seeker's advances.

Christianity is, of course, one of those traditions, yet there's a constant hint in perennialism that Christianity's faulty intellectual foundations contributed to the West's slide toward scientific materialism. Presumably as a result of this, Guenon converted to Islam and many of perennialism's other leaders--including Schuon, Burckhardt and Lings--either did the same or placed themselves firmly within the Islamic orbit. Islam, they thus implied, was not only the final of the Abrahamic revelations, it also contained the purest, most resourceful and firmly grounded intellectual tradition.

According to his intellectual autobiography, S.H. Nasr's life initially seemed to describe exactly the opposite trajectory--from East to West, Islamic traditionalism to scientific modernity. Born into a prominent Iranian family in 1933, he came to the United States as a teenager, attended prep school and then went to MIT intending to study physics. But there a lecture by Bertrand Russell helped convince him that the physical sciences could never lead to an understanding of physical reality (which is only explained by the realms above it), and this in turn led him to a combined spiritual and intellectual crisis at the age of 18. He emerged from that via the discovery of the philosophia perennis, which he recognized as "the truth":

The question now was how to realize that truth operatively as well as to know it theoretically. My studies were to take me from the Indian, Platonic and medieval European intellectual worlds to Lao-Tze and Chuang-Tzu and from there to Islam and Sufism. The circle was therefore in a sense completed and I returned to my intellectual and spiritual homeland but only after having traversed both the modern Western world and the other major traditions outside of both the Western and Islamic worlds.

This itinerary helps explain why Nasr is perhaps best considered a "world philosopher" first, and a Muslim thinker only secondarily. It suggests, too, why within the academy his work is often seen as more appropriate to the domain of religious studies--he is currently University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University--than to philosophy per se. Nevertheless, Nasr has never lost interest in the area where his studies started. As is indicated by the titles of two of his most important books, Knowledge and the Sacred and The Need for a Sacred Science, he doesn't mean to overthrow or escape science but to bring it into a proper relationship with spiritual realities. And a big part of that project has been his activity in the realm of ecology and environmentalism, the subjects of many of his writings including the book Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man. (Of all the things the West doesn't know about Islam, that religion's profound connection to ecological ideals perhaps heads the list.)

The importance of Nasr's work in a cultural sense can hardly be overstated. One of the many bitter ironies associated with the poisonous intellectual fad called "multiculturalism" was that it pretended to encourage a respectful regard for other cultures, but only allowed them to be seen through the narrowest of Western ideological prisms, which simultaneously made them forever "other" and projected onto them a host of our own narcissistic prejudices.

Unfortunately, many academics from the lands and culture of Islam have too readily embraced that same damaged prism. Nasr, on the other hand, presents Islam's intellectual heritage from the inside, and thus makes the resounding point that there are intellectual frameworks other than ours. For Westerners who aren't afraid to peak out of their shells, it makes for a fascinating tour.

Nasr's native tradition, according to essayist Mehdi Aminrazavi, approaches wisdom through a synthesis of three components: a Peripatetic methodology that includes good old-fashioned logic, ethics and rhetoric; an "illuminationist" development of intellectual intuition (equivalent to the definition of intellectus above); and Sufism, a path of inner purification. The second of these, though barely known in the West, has been a main element in Islamic thought in the several centuries since the medieval Western and Islamic intellectual paths diverged. For its part, Sufism--the esoteric heart of Islam--has been regarded in the West as simply a current of mystical thought and art rather than as an integral part in a comprehensive intellectual program that stresses the whole individual, not just his or her powers of rationalization.

That comprehensive quality, in fact, is what makes Nasr's thought--which is to say, the thought of the Islamic tradition he represents--at once "primordial" and post-postmodern, and in turn suggests why the Library of Living Philosophers would grant him a volume.

If there is a new intellectual paradigm on the world's horizon, surely it must lay aside certain outworn tendencies toward objectification and envision a type of knowledge that, in Nasr's terms, is not only informative but transformative, linking the observer and the observed. Indeed, as I tried to suggest in my recent review of the film Waking Life, and as Wolfgang Smith fascinatingly details here, there are enough correspondences between Islamic esoterism and quantum theory to suggest an eventual convergence.

S.H. Nasr is a charismatic spokesman for perennialism as well as a great symbol of an intellectual tradition that stretches back to Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, Avicenna and beyond. He's also the rare contemporary philosopher who writes in a clear, jargon-free manner. Does that mean he's infallible? On the contrary, I can think of dozens of issues that I disagree with him about, and The Philosophy of Sayyed Hossein Nasr is full of essays that critique his thought minutely and sometimes quite harshly. Yet that's precisely why this book is indispensable for anyone who believes that philosophy exists not to provide the final answers but to ask the right questions. EndBlock

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