Philosophia Perennis by Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann

Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann. Philosophia Perennis: Historical Outlines of Western Spirituality in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2004. Hardcover, xix +496 pp.

This volume is a re-worked translation from the German, which was first published in 1998. The editor is a professor of the history of philosophy at the Freie Universitat Berlin (Free University of Berlin) and the author of a number of monographies, including works on Spinoza and Pascal.

This comprehensive study is uniquely organized according to the Renaissance understanding of philosophia perennis and its philosophical-theological main topics (largely following Nicholas of Cusa): divine names, divine logos, the primordial ideal world, the realization of the world in space, the concepts of time and world history, and the idea of an Adamite wisdom tradition.

As Schmidt-Biggemann explains, the tradition of philosophia perennis was essentially syncretistic and merged Jewish, Christian, and Platonic modes of thought, which the author views as a model for intercultural pluralism and tolerance.

The materials are arranged into ten chapters as follows:

1. Fantasy and the Historiography of Imagination
2. Outlines of Perennial Philosophy
3. Divine Names
4. Kosmos Anthropos
5. Archetypes
6. Spiritual Spaces
7. Theology of Time
8. Epochs and Eras
9. Translatio Sapientiae
10. Schelling’s “World-Ages”

The first two chapters are introductory and examine the nature of philosophia perennis particularly in connection with the concept of “fantasy” or “imagination” and Renaissance philosophical reflection.

The core of the volume starts with the third chapter (70 pages), which proffers an extensive analysis of the key notion of “divine names, starting with Proclus and extending to what the author calls the “Christian Cabala” leading directly to Jakob Bohme. The fourth chapter (79 pages) is a penetrating discussion of the evolution of the idea of “Cosmic Man” and his relationship to creation at large, which takes us from Christian Platonism to Jakob Bohme, Abraham Herrera, and finally to the seventeenth-century pastor and hymn writer Gottfried Arnold. The fifth chapter (64 pages) examines the role of archetypes in the process of creation, as envisaged down the ages—from Philo, the Church Fathers, to the alphabetic mysticism of the Cabala, Plotinus, to Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno.

The sixth chapter (52 pages) focuses on “spiritual spaces”—a somewhat elastic notion that Schmidt-Biggemann employs to cover both the originary or “eternal” beginning and the temporal beginning of creation. Right at the outset of the chapter, he formulates a central question of the philosophia perennis, namely: How are the eternal beginning (“in the beginning”) and the temporal beginning related? In keeping with his historical orientation, he reviews the philosophy of Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite before turning to the twelfth-century Oxfordian Robert Grosseteste, al-Khindi, Albert the Great, Nicholas of Cusa, and finally Giordano Bruno.

With the seventh chapter (41 pages), the author turns his attention to the notion of time, more particularly apocalyptic time, and he does so through a careful examination of the Christian Platonic philosophy of Origen. He believed that all beings were initially good but, because of their exercise of free will, can, if reason is neglected, become evil. “Origen’s decisive achievement,” argues Schmidt-Biggemann, “consists in transforming the Neoplatonic and Stoic theory of the soul into a personal psychology.” Origen exercised a great influence on the Middle Ages and on Renaissance thinkers like Giovanni Pico, Guillaume Postel, and, in the seventeenth/eighteenth century, Johann Wilhelm Petersen.

The eighth chapter (40 pages) deals with epochs and eras in world history, which were fundamental to Renaissance thought. Naturally, the author highlights apocalypticist trends, especially the Joachimite movement, and goes into considerable detail on Melanchthon’s notion of a theology of history.

The ninth chapter (33 pages), entitled Translatio Sapientiae, examines the notion of divinely given (or revealed) wisdom, which is fundamental to the perennial philosophy of the Renaissance. From the Christian perspective, Adam was first in the line of transmission of wisdom, but his wisdom became corrupted with the passage of time. In the sixteenth century, philosophers like Agostino Steucho busied themselves with restoring the age-old wisdom and demonstrating its compatibility with the emerging sciences. Affirming an essential identity between the Adamic revelation and Neoplatonism, Steucho sought to recover the doctrines of the divine Trinity, creation, and the immortality of the soul for his contemporaries.

The concluding chapter (23 pages) takes the reader to the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century and the German philosopher Schelling, who attempted to revive the philosophia perennis with his philosophical idealism. Schmidt-Biggemann sees in Schelling “the last philosopher to identify the scattered limbs of Adam Kadmon, of the cosmic man, of the divine Sophia, who had once constituted the life of creation.”

While Philosophia Perennis does not purport to offer an exhaustive treatment of its multifaceted subject, this volume represents a seminal contribution that brings commendable clarity to a tangled field. Unlike most monographs, the present work is well written and highly readable, and the author has managed to make often complex concepts and developments intelligible even to the nonspecialist.

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