X Close

Charles will be our Perennialist King He will protect the realm from modernity

Charles the Philosopher. Credit: Ken Goff/Getty


September 19, 2022   5 mins

King Charles III has often been accused of heresy. As the Prince of Wales, his early support of environmental activism and his (tenuous) involvement in the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset marked him out as a dissenter who might break from the ways of previous monarchs. Even more controversial were his views on religion.

Back in 1994, Charles suggested that when king, he might become Defender of Faith, instead of Defender of The Faith, the title given to him as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. There was a storm of criticism, and some years after, he clarified what he meant: he would keep the royal title while also protecting other faiths. His openness to those faiths — especially Islam — did lead many to question his commitment to the Church. On the surface, at least, he seems to veer towards syncretism or even a covert form of secularism; an appeal to a multicultural Britain no longer willing to assert Christianity as the one true faith.

But the story is more complex. Charles — who might just be Britain’s modern-day philosopher king — has long been affiliated with Perennialism, a school of thought which holds that there is one universal truth which is present, to varying degrees, within all traditional religions. As the patron of the Temenos Academy, an educational charity dedicated to the study of Perennialism, Charles has done more to cultivate this philosophy than any other modern thinker. Unconventional as that philosophy might sound, it is one fit for a hereditary monarch: its purpose being not to subvert tradition, but to revive it.

Charles has expressed particular sympathy with the Traditionalist School, a branch of Perennialism. Led by the French philosopher René Guénon, the Swiss metaphysician Frithjof Schuon, and the Ceylonese philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Traditionalists emerged in the 19th century in reaction to the materialist ideologies of the Enlightenment. Its proponents believed that modernity had left humanity bereft of its spiritual dimension, and thought that this could be remedied by the metaphysical teachings contained within traditional religions.

For Guénon, pre-modern civilisations had oriented themselves “vertically” towards transcendence, with every aspect of life, from politics to art, corresponding to the order of the cosmos and the nature of God. But with the proliferation of “profane philosophy”, the dimensions of existence had become purely horizontal, extending only to things of this world. The result is what he famously called “The Reign of Quantity”, in which all human activity is rationalistic and utilitarian, focused on material progress rather than man’s ascension toward the divine.

Charles, who has himself invoked the concept of The Reign of Quantity, also seems to lament a world which no longer reaches for God. He has devoted himself not only to the reconsecration of nature, as is evident in his environmentalism, but also the reconsecration of art. In promoting the mastery of traditional crafts through the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts, he echoes Guénon’s view that creativity should not be a mode of mere self-expression, but a vessel of transcendence. The students at his school “can experience the beauty of the order of nature — a spiritual, sacred beauty, connecting the whole of creation”.

Protecting hedgerows, trees and ancient crafts is all very well. Where Charles’s philosophy becomes controversial is in the fact that he, like Guénon, is willing to draw inspiration from the religions of both East and West. His suggestion that Islam “can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world which Christianity itself is the poorer for having lost”, for instance, appears to reflect the Perennialist position that it is possible to illuminate one’s own tradition with the light of others, for nestled within all of them is the same universal truth.

Does this suggest that Perennialism, if allowed to flourish, would one day lead to the merging of all the world’s belief systems into one? Those sceptical of Charles’s openness towards other faiths fear precisely that: a “one world religion”. In our postmodern age, it is not hard to envision a world which has dissolved all particularities to make way for an ideological monoculture.

One hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton imagined what the beginnings of such a world might look like. His novel The Flying Inn is set in a future England where the elites, romantically inclined towards the idea of a universal religion and politically motivated to unite East and West, embrace a strange, progressive form of Islam which they see to be less superstitious than Christianity. The end result is something that resembles neither traditional Islam nor Christianity, but a ghastly syncretism which destroys the country’s identity (and its pubs).

But Chesterton’s dystopian England is not what the Perennialists had in mind. In fact, they were more critical than anyone of syncretism — with Guénon writing sharp polemics against New Age spirituality and its subversion of tradition — and would certainly have feared the coming of a “one world religion”. They emphasised the need to be firmly rooted in one faith in order to attain spiritual insight, and were highly critical of the homogenisation of cultures promoted by a globalising, secularising world. This, Guénon believed, caused the “flattening” of knowledge and ultimately sealed off higher truths.

We can rest assured that Charles has no intention of subverting Christianity. But he does believe, in the spirit of Perennialism, that glimmers of its light can be discerned elsewhere — perhaps in places less dimmed by modernity. That’s why he may draw inspiration from Islamic or Dharmic thought, and yet still remain the steadfast defender of the Christian faith.

Admittedly, Charles’s attitude to defending that faith is somewhat unorthodox. But in the 21st century, where there is no choice but to accept religious pluralism, it might be the only way to go about it. Perennialism has the virtue of being able to welcome multiple faiths, while also maintaining a conception of absolute truth. Whereas other leaders might surrender their truth in the name of inclusivity — instead allowing each religious group to have its “own truth” in true postmodern fashion — Charles’s philosophy allows for religious difference without slipping into relativism and the eventual abandonment of the sacred.

The path from pluralism to relativism is all too easily taken. When Nietzsche remarked that “there are various eyes… and as a result there are various truths, and as a result there is no truth”, he foreshadowed the postmodern response to pluralism that ends in the denial of objectivity. Today, this takes the form of states privatising religion and reducing it to an aspect of cultural diversity rather than a source of insight that could benefit us all. Likewise, when identity politics calls to “represent” religion, it too often reduces it to a point of intersectionality on par with race and class rather than something which points to a shared eternal truth.

But Charles, our philosopher king, is a firm believer in eternal truth. He is able to respond to pluralism in such a way that results in neither syncretism nor secularism. Instead, his philosophy allows religious difference to go beyond the secular paradigm of inclusion and reintroduce a much-needed spiritual dimension to public life — for everyone.

He is, of course, in the best position to do so. The symbolic function of monarchy is to point to something higher; to be the “vertical” axis which reaches for transcendence above “horizontal” reality with all its diversity and conflict. Perhaps his reign might strive to overcome The Reign of Quantity in this way, made all the more possible by the fact that his kingship allows him to respond to modernity from a station that is not political, but spiritual.

While some seek to tear the modern world down in a way that is distinctly post-modern, Charles — in returning to the primordial foundations of existence — represents something pre-modern. Far from betraying tradition, King Charles III might just save it.


Esmé Partridge is an MPhil candidate at the University of Cambridge who works at the intersection of religion, politics and culture.


Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

23 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Thanks for this. I’d never heard of Perennialism and it’s potential relevance to modern society.
The remarkable public response to the Queen’s death, finding solace in collective experiences with its apotheosis represented by ‘The Queue’ to see the lying in state (absent mobile phones, cameras and even talking) suggests there is a desperate general need for spiritual comfort, to achieve transcendence, regardless of any specific religious beliefs.

Andrea Baird
Andrea Baird
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Love this reflection. Rings true!

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

Good article but, unfortunately, whatever Charles does or says, the majority of people will receive it via media – social or mainstream. Whatever the intended message, the received message will be utterly corrupted.

Most Briton’s view of Charles will be formed by the calculated hit job of The Crown, much more than his actions.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I’d tend to agree with that. Although i’m not at all religious (in the sense of organised religion) i gleaned something from the article which only became apparent through its full exposition. The MSM is far too fatuous to be able to convey that, certainly without distorting it.

King Charles will likely be misunderstood and misrepresented. I don’t subscribe to the concept of him being a “philosopher king” but can go along with agreeing he might’ve put a great deal of thought into his way of viewing the world and existence. Not everyone is afforded the mental space to do so, even if they felt inclined, due to the exigencies of earning a crust and bringing forth the next generation (without a household retinue). But i wish him well, and this type of article does credit to Unherd.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

The media has been utterly suppine when it comes to Charles when one considers his behaviour.

For example, his feudal actions on the Isles of Scilly are medieval and yet received limited and only muted coverage. An openly declared intention to stop development and reduce the population “to preserve its character” by dramatically raising rents and using feudal powers (held only by the Duchy and no one else in the UK) to impoverish tenants. It’s a classic story of bad landlord vs powerless tenants. Charles made these decisions, reversing 100s of years of more benign landlordship by previous Princes.

The man won’t change now he’s on the throne. No hit job is needed. He isn’t his mother and he holds very strong views about the future order of society that would make a 17th Century monarchist blush. This will ultimately come out in the wash when he sets himself up in opposition to government policies.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nell Clover
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Utter rubbish

Andrew Watson
Andrew Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

If you’re going to use a word like supine you should first know how to spell it. And then you should learn how to think beyond fictive outrage and vacuous slogans.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

Nice to read an article that educates rather than one that is written to generate hits from rabid advocates and hysterical opponents.

Last edited 1 year ago by William Shaw
Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
1 year ago

Good article. I don’t have anything more to say than that.

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 year ago

The key point, which I think the King understands, is that although every religious, cultural system points to a reality larger than themselves, whether that be Christianity (in all its manifestations), Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or whatever, they cannot be treated like fusion cookery. They work, for their individual cultural and social milieus, as integral wholes.

So we have to respect each tradition, as a whole, as one human response to their particular history and environment, but at the same time recognising or pointing to a larger truth. So no Christian or Buddhist or Islamic exceptionalism (as in, “Ours is the only way to truth and freedom”), and therefore no denial that each of these spokes of the wheel have something valid to say about how to reach the centre. And something to learn from other responses.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

An interesting article – but any philosophy or religion that promotes Absolute Truth is open to failure if Absolute Truth is believed to be an illusion.
Now believers of a particular religion or particular philosophy may believe in their Absolute Truths but the variations don’t appear to be converging on the one Absolute Truth as you might expect. Indeed you might argue that the Reign of Quantity (for all its undesirable qualities) is the outcome of Relative Truths (plural) – and appears to be getting stronger.

Simon Adams
Simon Adams
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

If there is no absolute truth, then there is nothing. Just each of our own personal fairy tales we invent. But that’s an absurd position, despite being the default one now. None of us live like that, we interact as if there is something more substantial than a set of lies we have all agreed upon, some things that have transcendent grounding. However, given the underlying relativism of our culture, it’s no surprise that these are becoming less, and depression, a lack of social cohesion etc are increasing.

Of course we also continue to use maths and symmetry etc to prove new things about distant parts of the universe, or about scales so small we can never visit. We can even discover new types of maths like imaginary numbers, that we then find necessary to describe nature. As if it’s all just a happy coincidence this works without any solid relativist metaphysical framework under which it should.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Adams

Absolute truth? The “Inflation Reduction Act” and the “Affordable Care Act” are two recent examples.
Add to that the naming of a man as a woman, or calling abortion, “healthcare”. And some call all of this relative truth, “progress”.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Adams

Speaking of truth, I used to work at the intersection of Park Avenue and 28th Street. Where is the intersection of faith, politics and civil society?

ron kean
ron kean
1 year ago

It sounds like Deism with it’s one God the watchmaker and lesser Gods that we all believe in. Good luck trying to get Islam under the umbrella. I think it’s been tried. Maybe the King can do it. We just hope he can bring peace.

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
1 year ago

If you feel that King Charles and Esmé Partridge lack scholarly heft, read Religion in the Modern World: celebrating pluralism and diversity by Keith Ward. Ward is an Anglican priest and a former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. For example: ‘My conclusion is that religious diversity is not a problem. It is natural and good, and an incentive to the continuing search for a truth not yet fully understood.’

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Henry Haslam

In the hearts of the common man, yes.

LCarey Rowland
LR
LCarey Rowland
1 year ago

God help the King!

Dr Anne Kelley
Dr Anne Kelley
1 year ago

My problem with the prioritisation of the ‘vertical axis’ to transcendence is that it brings with it the danger of ignoring the material needs of people who do not have the leisure or intellect to engage in philosophical thought.

In short, it sounds rather elitist.

Andrew Watson
Andrew Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Dr Anne Kelley

There are always two axes – prioritising the vertical axis does not remove the need to attend properly to the demands of the horizontal one. But the course of western civilization is increasingly towards abandoning the vertical axis altogether, leaving human beings depleted, disorientated and ultimately in despair. Man does not live by bread alone, and the sacrament of monarchy we witnessed today has nourished us all – if we understand it rightly.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Dr Anne Kelley

“ … people who do not have the leisure or intellect to engage in philosophical thought.”
That too sounds a little elitist. Pity the common man who is nothing but an ape.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 year ago

An interesting philosophical ramble, but one which starts from a premise which there is absolutely no evidence for, and plenty against; that there is some sort of ‘eternal truth’ which is of any relevance to us. Homo Sapiens is not, however much we yearn to be, special. Had our species been limited to a small area, or limited in numbers, as our progenitor hominins and hominids were, we would have been out-evolved a number of times by more advanced species. Were any of them ‘special’? Did they have ‘souls’? Our desperation to be exceptional has provided the inventors and exploiters of organised religions with the means to build enormous powerbases, each claiming to own ‘the truth’, and jealously guarding it. That stark fact is camouflaged by terms like ‘faith’, ‘spirituality’, and ‘transcendence’. The vague notion of ‘something higher’ is simply a way of avoiding facing up to the idea that all these religious ‘truths’ are mutually contradictory; if one, then none of the others. Which means that the other religions and their gods are false. All monotheistic religions used to openly declare that, but it threatened the others’ powerbases, hence the religious wars of old. Only one or 2 do now. Hence the current religious wars between competing powerbases. Homo Sapiens is an accidental lifeform on a tiny planet. Our numbers, and not least our desperation to feel ‘special’ and all that flows from it, have turned us into a parasitic lifeform which is endangering our host.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Surely our perception of a higher power, whether a construct or not, came before organised religion.
”Eternal truth”; where did such an idea originate?
”Our desperation to be exceptional”; Is this a choice? Are we here because we chose to be exceptional? Does evolution work that way?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H