Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions

Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions

by Huston Smith

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This classic companion to The World's Religions articulates the remarkable unity that underlies the world's religious traditions


This classic companion to The World's Religions articulates the remarkable unity that underlies the world's religious traditions

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HarperCollins Publishers
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1st HarperCollins paperback ed
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.43(d)

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Chapter One

That which is lacking in the present world is a profound knowledge of the nature of things.

Frithjof Schuon

The Way Things Are

In envisioning the way things are, there is no better place to begin than with modern science. Equally, there is no worse place to end, but that is for later; for now it is the beginning that concerns us. Science is the fitting starting point, partly because of its achievements, which according to Herbert Butterfield outshine everything since the rise of Christianity -- others have claimed since the invention of language. Even more pertinent, however, is the fact that science dominates the modern mind. Through and through, from premises to conclusions, the contemporary mind is science-ridden. Its sway is the stronger because we are unaware of its extent.

There may be no better way to summarize the scientific view of things than to say that reality is a stupendous spatial hierarchy, a hierarchy of size. In its middle register, the meso-world in which our daily lives are lived, we encounter objects carrying the proportions of inches, feet, and miles. In the microworld that undergirds this meso-world, cells measure on the order of thousandths of an inch, atoms hundreds of millionths of an inch, and their nuclei thousandths of billionths of an inch. As we continue downward, or rather inward, from nuclei to nucleons and their ingredient particles, the orders of inverse magnitude continue to unfold exponentially.

Reversing our direction we enter the macro-world. Our sun revolves around our galaxy at a speedof 160 miles per second, about 23 times the speed a rocket must attain to escape from the earth's surface. At this speed it takes the sun approximately 240 million years to complete a single rotation. If the orbit seems large, it is in fact parochial, for it is confined to our own galaxy, which is but one among estimated billions. Andromeda, our closest sizable neighbor, is 2,200,000 light-years away, and beyond it space falls away abysmally, nebula after nebula, island universe after island universe, until we reach the limits of our known universe, some 26 billion light-years "across," whatever that means in a four-dimensional pseudosphere.

Now it happens that the view of reality that preceded that of modern science was likewise hierarchical. Centering in the human plane, it too opened onto higher realms above and nether ones below, the heavens and hells of the traditional cosmologies.

The two views are at one in sharing a hierarchical layout, but the units of measure are different. The scientific gauge is quantity; space, size, and strength of forces can all be reckoned numerically. The comparable "yardstick" in the traditional hierarchy was quality. It had, over the millennia, two distinct readings that overlapped. To the popular mind it meant essentially euphoria: better meant happier, worse less happy. Reflective minds, on the other hand, considered happiness to be only an aspect of quality, not its defining feature. The word "significance" points us in the direction of the feature they considered fundamental, but significance too was derivative. It was taken for granted that the higher worlds abounded in meaning, significance, and importance, but this was because they were saturated with being and were therefore more real. Sat, Chit, Ananda: Being, Awareness, and Bliss. All three pertained, but Being, being basic, came first. In the last analysis, the scale in the traditional hierarchy was ontological.

What it means for one thing to be more real than another will, we trust, become clear as this book proceeds. For the present we note that the view of reality as consisting of graded levels of being dominated man's outlook until the rise of modern science. As we intend to make something of this point, it will be well to fix it into place by documenting it.

With the possible exception of Claude Lévi-Strauss, no one today is more qualified to pronounce on the mentality of precivilized man than is Mircea Eliade. Reducing the ontological hierarchy to its minimum to cover all cases of such men, Eliade finds this minimum to consist in a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. "The man of the archaic societies tends to live as much as possible in the sacred..." he writes, "because for primitives...the sacred is equivalent to a power, and, in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being."

That which prevailed for tribes carried over into civilizations: they refined the hierarchical perspective but kept its basic structure. "It has, in one form or another, been the dominant official philosophy of the larger part of civilized mankind through most of its history," writes Arthur Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being (which along with René Guénon's Les États Multiples de l'Être is one of the two studies devoted ex clusively to this concept); taught "in their several fashions and with differing degrees of rigor and thoroughness [by] the greater number of subtler speculative minds and of the great religious teachers."

Having noted the universality of the hierarchical perspective in both tribes and civilizations generally, we narrow in on the civilization that is our own. Here, for philosophy, Plato forged, the paradigm. Atop being's hierarchy is the Form of the Good, the most real of the various grades of reality, the "Good Itself." Radically different from our everyday world, it can be described only through poetic images. Nevertheless, being "pure perfection," it is the universal object of desire. It is also, of all subordinate things, their cause. Such ancillary and partially privative entities are logically required, Plato's successors (such as Proclus) argued, by virtue of what Lovejoy called "the principle of plenitude"; they are possible, and if any possibility were unactualized it would constitute, as it were, a hole in Being's fullness and negate its infinity....

Forgotten Truth. Copyright © by Huston Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Huston Smith is internationally known and revered as the premier teacher of world religions. He is the focus of a five-part PBS television series with Bill Moyers and has taught at Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California at Berkeley. The recipient of twelve honorary degrees, Smith's fifteen books include his bestselling The World's Religions, Why Religion Matters, and his autobiography, Tales of Wonder.

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