Issue 28 — December 2019

Lord Pentland and James Moore

A Slowly Emerging Crisis, for All of Us / James Opie

The Perennial Philosophy Revisited

The Meaning of Life


Lord Pentland and James Moore


“Was Lord Pentland an Eminent Victorian?” is the title of the lead article in the previous issue of this blog (dated November 15, 2019). It takes the form of the review that I wrote of the biography of Lord Pentland, who was Gurdjieff’s choice to lead the progress of the Work in North America. The biography was written by the English scholar James Moore and it proved to be the last of his book-length publications.


Although I am no authority on Lord Pentland or on James Moore, I found the book to be an engaging and argumentative piece of writing, a polemic, one that was at times quite nasty in tone and statement. Nevertheless the review that I wrote, originally published in Sophia Wellbeloved’s gurdjieffbooks blog, in 2011, the year following the biography’s appearance, was devoted to informing the reader about the biographee and what his biographer had to say about the Baron.


I strove to describe the portrait of the Baron painted by Moore and suggested his critical view would be shared by some of the book’s readers. Many of the points that I made, and many more besides, were then made by Joseph Azize and Andrew Rawlinson in their own comments on the biography. For the curious reader, those texts appear in Wellbeloved’s blog in the year 2011 in issues still accessible on the Web.


I was overjoyed to receive – out of the blue, so to say – the reflections on the matter written by James Opie. Readers of this blog may well recall that I reviewed Mr. Opie’s “Approaching Inner Work” (Issue 18, July 2019) and that I found it to be a quite remarkable book. Mr. Opie uses the occasion to probe the questions raised about the worth of Moore’s biography much more deeply than any other commentator to date. I am pleased to have his permission to publish it in the present issue.

16 Nov. 2019


A Slowly Emerging Crisis, for All of Us / James Opie


For those connecting with a teaching, and especially the powerful “new teaching” Mr. Gurdjieff brought, there is a great difficulty which may lead to an inner crisis. The crisis relates to a situation that may even be necessary, and one I see relating to your discussions round and about James Moore and his book about Lord Pentland.


The slowly developing crisis touches all of us who connect, in whatever measure, with the ideas and related influences Mr. Gurdjieff introduced. It involves two parts in our natures, existing at different, though at times overlapping, levels: the “personhood” and “essence.” To be truly helpful for an individual, the teaching needs to access “essence,” so that a requisite inner program of self-questioning, what Lord Pentland once called “inner interrogation,” may begin in earnest. But there’s a problem, since the teaching and its various influences come into us through the “personhood,” that is, through the conditioned persons we are or take ourselves to be, more or less on the surface, and the personhood that receives may also block.


An unspoken question appears: will the personhood take hold of, and perhaps even “master,” the teaching, in a largely external way? Or will a requisite inner turn appear, and then appear again, and again? If that turn toward inner questioning doesn’t take hold,  talented persons may, to the limits of their formative self-honesty, begin to see themselves – and appear to others to be – teachers of what is called “the Work.” Or, if lacking a close cluster of “students,” they may become seemingly impartial commentators.


The teaching needs to get through to essence, and for this to occur, more enlightenable elements in the personhood need to learn to cooperate. This clearly is learned behaviour, increasingly intentional in its action and requiring us to see and cope with inner resistance to self-questioning. We need to begin to want, and seek, inwardly challenging questions. The path is very difficult, given that in order for the teaching’s influence to effectively reach essence, parts of the personhood must review sundry attachments by beginning to distrust the very vehicle through which the teaching initially entered. Moreover, after beginning to distrust, this orientation needs to keep deepening, ultimately leading to questioning everything.


It’s a crisis, since outlooks precious to a person may (will) need to be challenged, and that which needs to be challenged may be too central in a person’s sense-of-self, sense-of-place, and purpose. A “personhood” often assumes the possession of significant measures of understanding before effective platforms of inner questioning have developed, and this sums up the “crisis.” In such situations, through which perhaps we all need to pass, little has been getting through to the part of essence wherein a taste for self-questioning appears and needs to grow. If that pattern continues, influences getting through may even add to pre-existing imbalances, such that a person truly grows, but on what foundation?


I have struggled to see these risks – the “personhood” taking hold of the teaching – for several decades and during this time a standard, more or less, has developed, related to books that appear. With or without words, I ask, “Where is this writing touching me? What does its author want from – or for – me? Are there essential elements of nourishment here, or is this writing merely ‘about’ something, perhaps about another person or a perceived controversy? If the writing seems more about the work than from it, is there still some essential nourishment here? Is there help I need, related to my own self-questioning and a growing inner appetite for Truth and higher influences?”


My sole contact with James Moore left uneasy feelings that may reflect my own subjectivities and do not merit reporting. Related to Lord Pentland, although I was on the fringe of those whom he influenced, he became central among my influences. He threw a lifeline to me and I came to see with my own eyes his work in relation to self-questioning. Without doubt, he was still questioning, even in the final weeks of his life, sharing an inner activity I very much needed to learn. Others can address his flaws and complexities; he was a man, not an angel or even a saint. For me, however, his influence not only pointed to directions of “inner interrogation” essential for all of us, but corresponded to an appealing term of Mr. Gurdjieff’s: “simple-honorable.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                             16 Nov. 2019

The Perennial Philosophy” Revisited

John Robert Colombo Reopens His Old Copy of Aldous Huxley’s Important Study

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for a book that I bought by mail from Samuel Weiser Inc., the well-known, used-book dealer, then located in New York City. I made the purchase on 18 July 1957. I know the date of the original purchase because in a firm hand I had inscribed that date on the back end-page of the coveted volume. I read the book shortly after buying it, as its fame had preceded my purchase of this title, and since then its spine has graced many a bookshelf in the houses in which I have since lived and worked.

The edition that I have of The Perennial Philosophy is cloth-bound (printers used real cloth in those days) and its distinctive colour (russet) has yet to fade. The edition measures 5.25 inches by 8.25 inches and there are eight preliminary pages followed by the text of 360 pages. In design the pages are unpretentious and hence attractive to behold, and because they are set in largish type they are quite easy to read. The pages are sewn rather than glued and the paper is cream-coloured and hence it shows no evidence of its age; there is not a mottle in sight. The edition in question is the first edition, or close to it, published by Huxley’s regular London-based publishing house, Chatto & Windus, in 1946. I wish I had the dust jacket but it was not supplied by Samuel Weiser.

The pages may not show their years, but in a great many ways the text of the book is quite dated, almost alarmingly so. Now, Aldous Huxley is an interesting writer who is best (and worst) described as an intellectual, a highbrow, or, to use the terminology that he employs, a “cerebrotonic.” As he explains in these pages, “Cerebrotonics hate to slam doors or raise their voices, and suffer acutely from the unrestrained bellowing and trampling of the somatotonic …. The emotional gush of the viscerotonic strikes them as offensively shallow and even insincere.”

With this vocabulary he is employing the psychology of human types elaborated by the American psychologist William Sheldon, who created a classificatory scheme long out of fashion yet dear to the hearts of students of consciousness studies everywhere. Nothing dates quite as quickly as psychological terminology. Psychical and spiritual terminology like “intellectual centre,” “emotional centre, “moving centre,” etc., seems to age hardly at all!

Huxley died at the age of sixty-nine in 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There is about the life and death of the English author and intellectual the sense of the dashing of high hopes, analogous to the early death of the American President. Huxley advanced from being a nihilist in his youth to a psychedelicist in his age. Where would the next twenty or thirty years have taken him? Perhaps to the altar of the nearest Episcopal church. The question is unanswerable.

The jury is still out about which genre is the best for Huxley. Was he finer as a literary artist (remember Point Counterpoint and Brave New World, the novels that ensured his reputation) or was he finer as a literary essayist (required reading in the 1950s was The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, short memoirs that did so much to mark the coming of age of the psychedelic revolution of the late Fifties and early Sixties)? It matters little, but accompanying his migration from England to California was his move from the ironic to the mythic levels of discourse, almost as a matter of course.

Everyone interested in consciousness studies has heard of his study called The Perennial Philosophy. It bears such a prescient and memorable title. His use of the title has pre-empted its use by any other author, neuropsychologist, Traditionalist, or enthusiast for the New Age. The book so nobly named did much to romanticize the notion of “perennialism” and to cast into the shade such long-established timid Christian notions of “ecumenicism” (Protestants dialoguing with Catholics, etc.) or “inter-faith” meetings (Christians encountering non-Christians, etc.). Who would cared about the beliefs of Baptists when one could care about the practices of Tibetans?

Huxley did his best to popularize serious speculation about the nature of man and the constitution of the universe, largely prompted by such speculations found in Vedanta. He was marked by his mid-life study of texts basic to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christian mysticism. He knew about shamanism and perhaps about sorcery, alchemy, witchcraft, or wicca, but these aspects of his inquiries went unnoticed in his text. The New Age had yet to dawn.

What precisely is what he calls “the perennial philosophy”? Huxley answers this broad question in an even broader way on the first page of the Introduction to his book. His answer is surprisingly wordy, though his exposition is characteristically well organized. Here goes: “Philosophia Perennis – the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing – the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being – the thing is immemorial and universal.

“Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.”

I like the idea of “this Highest Common Factor” because it begs a corresponding discussion on “the Lowest Common Multiple.” Huxley avoids this but then states, neatly, “Knowledge is a function of being.” I could quote more (and will, later), but the sentences that bring his Introduction to a conclusion are worth quoting here and now: “If one is not oneself a sage or saint, the best thing one can do, in the field of metaphysics, is to study the works of those who were, and who, because they had modified their merely human mode of being, were capable of a more than merely human kind and amount of knowledge.”

I first read these words some forty years ago when I was wowed and won by them. Rereading them now I have second thoughts. The book’s chapters are organized by theme, advancing from Chapter 1, “That Art Thou,” to Chapter 27, “Contemplation, Action and Social Utility.” I was not really surprised to find that the book’s contents are quite dated, but I was really surprised to find its arguments and rhetoric quite limited in appeal. The book is hortatory in style and substance, less of a psychological probing and more a hectoring that I had remembered it to be.

The book’s six-page, double-column index is extensive but unscholarly, and there was no need for him to index the word “consciousness” or its cognate terms “unconscious” and “subconscious” because these subjects are given no special treatment. There is no reference to Sigmund Freud; the single reference to Carl Jung draws attention to the psychologist’s use (his coinage, really) of the terms “introvert” and “extravert.” The contribution of Mircea Eliade, the multilingual scholar of shamanism, goes unmentioned. G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky (whose lectures Huxley attended at Colet Gardens in London) go unremarked.

As well, there is no reference to R.M. Bucke’s monumental, turn-of-the-century tome titled Cosmic Consciousness, and details about consciousness-raising or altering drugs and psychedelia in general are all in Huxley’s future. Yet the psychologist William James had much to say about chemically inducted altered states, and also about the field of psychical research in general, to which James donated twenty years of his professional life, speculating on the characteristics of the various levels of consciousness. All these go unappreciated except for one passing reference to James, as if to acknowledge his absence.

The Perennial Philosophy is essentially an anthology of short passages taken from traditional Eastern texts and the writings of Western mystics, organized by subject and topic, with short connecting commentaries. No specific sources are given. Paging through the index gives the reader (or non-reader) an idea of who and what Huxley has taken seriously. Here are the entries in the index that warrant two lines of page references or more:

Aquinas, Augustine, St. Bernard, Bhagavad-Gita, Buddha, Jean Pierre Camus, St. Catherine, Christ, Chuang Tzu, Cloud of Unknowing, Contemplation, Deliverance, Desire, Eckhart (five lines, the most quoted person), Eternity, Fénelon, François de Sales, Godhead, Humility, Idolatry, St. John of the Cross, Knowledge, Lankavatara Sutra, William Law (another four lines), Logos, Love, Mahayana, Mind, Mortification, Nirvana, Perennial Philosophy (six lines, a total of forty entries in all), Prayer, Rumi, Ruysbroeck, Self, Shankara, Soul, Spirit, Theologia Germanica, Truth, Upanishads (six different ones are quoted), Will, and Words.

Painfully absent from these pages are Huxley’s mordant wit and insights into human nature. It is as if his quick-silverish intelligence has been put on hold or has found itself in a deep freeze of his own making.  When it comes to selecting short and sometimes long quotations, he is no compiler like John Bartlett of quotation fame, but he does find time to make a few deft personal observations.

Here is a suggestion from Chapter 3, “Personality, Sanctity, Divine Incarnation”: “But surely people would think twice about making or accepting this affirmation if, instead of ‘personality,’ the word employed had been its Teutonic synonym, ‘selfness.’ For ‘selfness,’ though it means precisely the same, carries none of the high-class overtones that go with ‘personality.’ On the contrary, its primary meaning comes to us embedded, as it were, in discords, like the note of a cracked bell.”

Chapter 7, “Truth,” offers the following gem: “Beauty in art or nature is a matter of relationships between things not in themselves intrinsically beautiful. There is nothing beautiful, for example, about the vocables ‘time,’ or ‘syllable.’ But when they are used in such a phrase as ‘to the last syllable of recorded time,’ the relationship between the sound of the component words, between our ideas of the things for which they stand, and between the overtones of association with which each word and the phrase as a whole are charged, is apprehended, by a direct and immediate intuition, as being beautiful.”

Chapter 12, “Time and Eternity,” gives the following caveat about the relative absence of Eastern literature in Western translation: “This display of what, in the twentieth century, is an entirely voluntary and deliberate ignorance is not only absurd and discreditable; it is also socially dangerous. Like any other form of imperialism, theological imperialism is a menace to permanent world peace. The reign of violence will never come to an end until, first, most human beings accept the same, true philosophy of life; until, second, this Perennial Philosophy is recognized as the highest factor common to all the world religions; until, third, the adherents of every religion renounce the idolatrous time-philosophies, with which, in their own particular faith, the Perennial Philosophy of eternity has been overlaid; until, fourth, there is a world-wide rejection of all the political pseudo-religions, which place man’s supreme good in future time and therefore justify and commend the commission of every sort of present iniquity as a means to that end. If these conditions are not fulfilled, no amount of political planning, no economic blue-prints however ingeniously drawn, can prevent the recrudescence of war and revolution.”

That passage was written during the Battle of Britain, so it is perhaps understandable that the essayist has become the preacher, the novelist the moralist. The text of his sermonizing seems to be that knowing about the perennial philosophy will, ipso facto, without further ado, without any other effort on anyone’s behalf, transform man’s bellicose nature into something finer and better!

As a reader of The Perennial Philosophy, and now its re-reader, I must admit to experiencing a sense of exhilaration the first time round – and to experiencing a sense of anticlimax and even dismay the second time round. Today the book seems too arch and so idiosyncratic! As well, I could not help but note the author’s lack of generosity and his unwillingness to express any sense of indebtedness to his predecessors. He fails to note two earlier, landmark publications in his chosen field: William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (1911).

Yet these influential works were written decades before the appearance of Huxley’s book; indeed, they have aged far less obviously that has Huxley’s. As well, Underhill refers to James in her book, if only to argue with his thesis, but Huxley’s ignores both of them and their arguments to develop his own semi-thesis. In point of fact, the bibliography has an entry for “Mysticism” (with a reprint year of 1924, instead of 1911, the original year of publication).

In passing, it is interesting to note that the same bibliography draws attention to the publication of three books that were written by René Guénon, though no editorial use is made of even one of these – or of the writings of the leading Traditionalists: A.K. Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt. To this cabal should be added Whitall Perry, whose tome A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom (1971, 1986, 2000) is rightfully regarded as the principal anthology in this field.

To the extent that he was a follower of any mainstream religion, Huxley was a student of the Hindu system of thought known as Vedanta, which was making its American beachhead in Los Angeles, California, close to Huxley’s residence in Malibu. The text offers four references to Vedanta, the last one being the following observation: “The shortest mantram is OM – a spoken symbol that concentrates within itself the whole Vedanta philosophy. To this and other mantrams Hindus attribute a kind of magical power. The repetition of them is a sacramental act, conferring grace ex opere operato.”

In summary, Huxley’s book made an immediate impact upon publication and reverberates to this day, but upon examination the concept of the book is more convincing than is the accomplishment; at the same time, the parts are more intriguing than the whole. If it is a landmark study of anything at all, it takes its place in the eclectic division of the syncretistic field variously known as “religious knowledge,” “religious studies,” “comparative religion,” “Near Eastern studies,” “history of religion” – euphemisms abound! – in drawing the attention of English-speaking readers to the rich mother-lode of philosophical, psychological, and metaphysical thought that is to be found in translations of traditional Eastern texts and in the writings of Christian mystics of the past.

One of the meanings of the word “perennial” is “enduring,” and enduring is what this book is. The Perennial Philosophy endures in memory. A week or so ago, I took it down from the place it had graced on my bookshelf and dusted it off; later today I will return it to its rightful place. After all, it occupies a special space in my memory … as well as in the memories of its great many readers over the last six decades.

16 June 2010

P.S. As the reader may have guessed, I am still partial to Huxley’s essayistic volume, with its grand title, and the  sinecure on the words “the perennial philosophy.” It is a work that is more often respected than read. These days Huxley’s reputation rests on his often-caustic fiction and argumentative literary essays, though other writers of his period (like E.M. Forster) seem to enjoy a greater readership these days.

9 Oct. 2019


The Meaning of Life 

Yesterday I received a letter (not an email) from a correspondent unknown to me. It came from Dustin Cassell, 8409 Lee Hwy, #81, Merrifield, VA 22116, USA. It consisted of a business card advertising a website and a sheet of typing paper and a self-addressed return envelope, completely filled out, entirely correctly, with a Canadian $1.20 stamp that shows a polar bear. The sheet of paper read as follows:

Dear Mr. Colombo,

We’re asking people from all around the world, “What is the meaning of life?” As such, we wanted to know if you could complete the survey below. Given your extensive accomplishments, we feel that your input would be of great value. To date, we have received answers from nearly 40 countries, from Nobel prize winners, directors, athletes, and more.

What is your religious affiliation?

What is the meaning of life?

Thanks a lot for your contribution!

There is no signature. (Who is the “we”?) It has been carefully done, though there are some stylistic irregularities. (For instance, the answers did not come from countries but from people in countries.) But I am nitpicking.

The business card quotes the mathematician Paul Dirac: “Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.” That recalls the observation about a whisper in Santiago producing a cyclone in Siam, or wherever. The business card draws attention to the website “endev42” which I checked and found to be devoted to the collection of comments from people around the world.

I let the request sit for a day, thought about it, and earlier this morning I filled out the sheet of paper and placed it in its envelope. I plan to mail it to Mr. Cassell once it stops snowing!

I listed my “religious affiliation” as “None. Humanist.”

After some thought, I answered the question, “What is the meaning of life?”  Here is what I wrote:

“The meaning of life is the significance that we give to it.”

Then I signed it and dated it and mailed it off.

I hope that is what Dustin Cassell and his colleagues have in mind.

10 Feb. 2018