Preface by the Author
Throughout our works, we have dealt with the perennial religion, explicitly or implicitly, and in connection with the diverse religions which on the one hand veil it and on the other hand allow it to shine through; and we believe we have given a homogeneous and sufficient exposition of this primordial and universal Sophia, in spite of our discontinuous and sporadic manner of referring to it. But the Sophia perennis is quite evidently inexhaustible and has no natural limits, even in a systematic exposition such as the Vedânta. Moreover this systematic quality is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage; depending upon the content it can be one or the other; truth is beautiful in all its forms. In fact, there is no great doctrine that is not a system, and none that expresses itself in an exclusively systematic fashion.
As it is impossible to exhaust all that lends itself to being expressed, and as repetition in metaphysical matters cannot be a mistake — it being better to be too clear than not to be clear enough — we believed we could return to our usual theses, either to offer things we have not yet said, or to explain in a usefully new way things we have said before. If the fundamental data of a doctrine that is abstract by definition are more or less limited by the nature of things — this being the very definition of a system, since the formal elements of a regular crystal cannot be innumerable — the same does not hold true for illustrations or applications, which are without limit and whose function is to grasp better what at first glance does not seem to be sufficiently concrete.
One further remark, this time of a more or less personal order: we grew up at a time when one could still say, without blushing on account of its naivety, that two and two make four; when words still had a meaning and said what they meant to say; when one could conform to the laws of elementary logic or of common sense, without having to pass through psychology or biology, or so-called sociology, and so forth; in short, when there were still points of reference in the intellectual arsenal of men. By this we wish to point out that our way of thinking and our dialectic are deliberately out-of-date; and we know in advance, for it is only too evident, that the reader to whom we address ourselves will thank us for it.
Foreword by Bruce K. Hanson
There is a story told by the Chinese sage Mencius of a large mountain outside a city, a mountain whose original luxuriously forested state had been obscured and long since forgotten after years of logging and grazing. To look at the mountain now, people would never guess its original condition. Mencius intends this story as a metaphor for the human condition. He was telling the people that, after years of acquired conditioning, through a mindless absorption of the times, they too had forgotten their own original state.
It is precisely this recalling of each of us to our original nature that lies at the heart of religion. And it is this reminder to “become that which we are” that lies at the heart of Frithjof Schuon’s writings as well. Schuon, through more than a score of books written over more than half a century, has sought to keep alive the vision of the Sophia Perennis wherein “[O]ur soul proves God because it is proportioned to the divine Nature …. And it is in these foundations of human nature—image of the divine Nature—that the religio perennis is rooted, and with it all religion and all wisdom” (4). We humans each carry the truth and light of the Absolute within the depths of our being. And this light, Schuon points out, “reminds [each one of us] of what he is, and of what he should be since he has forgotten what he is” (82).
To speak of “becoming what we are” suggests a distinction that must be made as carefully as possible. For just as most of us confuse intensity of feeling with clarity of thought, so too do we often confuse being human and becoming human. At the level of being we are, of course, human; which is to say, every child who is born of human parents comes into the world with a human essence. But it is quite another matter to achieve our humanity in our existence; that is, to realize to the fullest degree the very promise which already is our nature. As the saying goes, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.
Now “becoming human” is necessarily a conscious task. We don’t automatically grow into our humanity. “Man is called upon to choose,” Schuon tells us, and in fact, “the very reason for being of the human condition is to choose, and to make the right choice” (75). This certainly distinguishes us from creatures non-human. An acorn does not choose to fulfill its destiny as an oak, nor does a kitten need to find the will to embody its vocation. We humans are the creatures that can fail to become what we already are by nature; and, it might be added, we regularly do so. “[O]ne wants to be oneself without wanting to be so altogether, hence without wanting to go beyond the empirical ego and its desires” (43).
So, to become human is the religious task of humankind. Biological nature develops us only up to a certain point, and then we must individually, with great deliberation and with full consciousness, seek the rest. All great scriptures of the world are written in order to provide each of us with a description of this way to become fully human. And herein lies our salvation. As Schuon puts it, “Man is saved by conforming himself perfectly to his theomorphic nature” (104). And conversely, insofar as we are not adequately so conforming ourselves (and again, that is a matter of choice), we are becoming lost.
There is another dimension to Schuon’s writing which must be brought forward. It is this: Although we must individually, deliberately and consciously seek to become fully human, Schuon is quick to point out that it is not through our own efforts, ultimately, that we become ourselves. We are not constituted in a way able to bring off our own self-becoming. There is no pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. There is no program or method by which we can climb to heaven based solely on our own initiative. That is why all great religions in their basic scriptures stress the radical dependence of the human person upon what in Christianity is called “grace” and what the Chinese call the “energy of Tao.” It is that energy which embodies the will of Heaven. If we are to individually fulfill and express our nature, we must first recognize our radical dependence upon that Power which constituted us in the first place. As Schuon tells us, “Nothing can be accomplished without the aid of Heaven” (206). In order to become human, then, one must voluntarily undertake a specific task, a vocation, and perform that task in the continuing recognition that one is dependent for his or her growth upon that Power which constitutes him or her. It is for this reason that the object of becoming human is to become, religiously speaking, divinely human.
Now we come to the raw nerve of it all. If the human person will unconditionally make himself available to the work of that Power we call grace, grace will do the rest. Amazingly, if we devote ourselves entirely and unconditionally which is to say single-mindedly to becoming human, we must on that account become as divinely human; through our devotion, we necessarily participate in the divine life. “[M]an is a point of junction between … the outward and the inward: it is precisely in virtue of the dimension of inwardness, which opens onto the Absolute and therefore the infinite, that man is quasi-divine” (41).
Schuon doesn’t mean we become God with a capital “G.” Rather, insofar as we conform ourselves to our original nature, we participate in the divine life. As we conform ourselves to our original nature, God expresses God’s self as us. “The Spirit became flesh that the flesh might become Spirit.” And that is why we have in the Church Fathers the statement, “God became man in order that man might become god.” And if you write the last “god” with a small “g,” you will have precisely what both the Church Fathers and Schuon had in mind.
Schuon ends this book with a beautiful and profound reflection on Saint Bernard’s “I love because I love.” The deeper meaning of these words, Schuon tells us, points to the fact that “our happiness stems from what we are; we are happy to the extent that we are really and fully ourselves” (220). Just as God is love, we too are love waiting to be realized.
I must add one more thing. It is refreshing that Schuon does not enter into the many elaborate academic debates about religion and the nature of religious experience. He does not argue with the projectionists who find the source of religious experience in psychological or sociological forces, nor does he argue with the constructivists who view the various religious traditions as culturally constructed responses to a noumenal reality. And rather than encouraging us to remain academically detached, Schuon invites us to take seriously that the life of spirit is the fountain from which our scriptures have come to us, and to take seriously that we too can become explorers, trace the scriptures upstream, drink from the same waters and understand their meaning firsthand through the very source that inspired these scriptures. It is with this in mind that Frithjof Schuon speaks to us in these pages.
Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism serves as a near complete expression of Schuon’s thought. This book is distinctive in presenting, in one volume, what might be called the three hallmarks of Schuon’s writings. In clear and distinct order, he writes on cosmology and metaphysical principles, on the esoteric and exoteric expression of these principles in the various religious traditions, and on the trials and ultimate transformation of human nature. And every page is a calling to us, not merely to understand, but to become the concrete expression of what we understand.