The Primordial Tradition

The Primordial Tradition is an obscure and widely misunderstood term and although used repeatedly in the works of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, it still remains largely undefined. Perhaps the clearest description of the Primordial Tradition can be found in a more recent author, Huston Smith, a professor of comparative religion who was the first to utilize the Primordial Tradition as a substitute term for perennial philosophy. Smith attempts to justify his replacement of perennial philosophy with the new title of ‘The Primordial Tradition’ at the start of his major work Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition in the introduction.

 The reader will recognize the affinity of this thesis with what has been called “the perennial philosophy.” I am not unhappy with that phrase, but to bring out the fact that this particular philosophy nowhere originated, nor has it succeeded in maintaining itself operatively, save in a cultic context – a context that works to transform lives as well as minds – I prefer the less exclusively intellectual designation “the primordial tradition” (primordial: existing…from the beginning; fundamental.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Smith’s motivation in adopting this premise is all too easily comprehendible – from it’s current standpoint of existing purely as a school of philosophy, the perennial philosophy sets itself apart from mundane daily existence, instead manifesting as purely intellectual phenomenon – the adaptation of the designated phrase to the Primordial Tradition provides this school of thought with a worldly and tangible presence, no longer purely existent in a cerebral content; Tradition as espoused by Huston Smith becomes accessible to the mainstream. Though the above quotation from Smith immediately explains that the Primordial Tradition is a substitute name for perennial philosophy, if we were to ask the common man on the street if he could explain to us the meaning of perennial philosophy, we would most likely receive a garrulous ‘no’ as a response, accompanied by a blank stare. Therefore, to discover the meaning of the Primordial Tradition, we must as point of necessity, first explain the nature of perennial philosophy.

Perennial Philosophy, also known as ‘philosophia perennis’ (Latin: Eternal Philosophy) was utilized by Gottfried Leibniz to designate the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical or esoteric components – in this way it is also similar to the Hindu idea of Sanatana Dharma. As such, the philosophia perennis  is an intellectual transmission of gnosis, based on the study of the religions, not in isolation from each other, but rather in a conjunction wherein the underlying ideas converge, independent of the concept of communitas (as defined by Victor Turner as the social aspect in religion). Normally, because of the cultural boundaries exerted by the principle of communitas, religions are cut off from one another by barriers of mutual incomprehension’. Schuon elaborates on the nature of this cultural barrier further by stating that “There is no metaphysical or spiritual difference between a truth manifested by temporal facts and a truth expressed by other symbols, under a mythological form for example; the modes of manifestation correspond to the mental requirements of the different groups of humanity.” Here we see expressed the notion that the symbols found in religion have been equated as truth values – what lies at the root of mutual miscomprehension and mistranslations between cultures is not that some religions are inherently wrong or different to others, but rather that the principle of communitas, the social and communal mode of religious behaviour, actually serves to distort and hide the essence of the symbols themselves. The same ties of communal religious behaviour that serve to bind a community together as a distinct cultural group, can also hinder the process of understanding different spiritual traditions. This is quite similar to Kant’s interpretations of how religious solidarity is defined; it is not the universal meaning of the symbol (on in this case the Primordial Tradition) but rather how symbols are interpreted and applied to social behaviour within a specific community or culture.

(Extract from Primordial Traditions, ed. Gwendolyn Taunton, Numen Books, 2014)

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