Whitall Perry

Whitall Nicholson Perry (1920-2005) was a North-American Perennialist writer born of a prominent Boston Quaker family. From his youth onwards, Perry had a deep interest in Platonism and Vedanta and, in the footsteps of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, was a “Boston brahmin” in the middle of the Twentieth century. His interest in wisdom-systems was deep and wide-ranging and caused him, even before his college days, to engage in many travels. He is best known for his magnum opus A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom. According to British writer William Stoddart, "all of Perry's writings were carefully researched, and invariably delivered an immense amount of information as well as evincing much learning". According to Australian writer and educator Harry Oldmeadow, Whitall Perry was "the most authoritative traditionalist of American background."

Perry's travels included the Holy Land, India, and Indonesia. Amongst many other things, he was entranced by Bali, where he had a prolonged stay. In these years, Perry learned and assimilated much; the contacts that he made in the Near, Middle and Far East with Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures left indelible impressions. After a short term at Harvard, Perry chose to return directly to the living sources of his elected field. His travels and his unusually wide reading were the basis of the formidable learning which characterized Perry throughout his life.

A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom is a mammoth anthology of the sages, saints, and scriptures of all periods and places. It was originally inspired by a remark of another prominent Boston resident of the period, namely, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (then the curator of the Asian Art section of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), that such a compendium had for long been necessary. In his selection, in his commentary, and in the very structure of the book, Perry reflects the insight and wisdom of his mentor, Frithjof Schuon.

Perry’s commitment to traditional philosophy East and West led him, in 1946, to make the acquaintance of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who, over many years, had established his reputation as the leading authority on the arts of India and Indonesia, as well as on the religions of which these arts were the expression.

In the later part of his life, Coomaraswamy came under the beneficial influence of René Guénon, the French philosopher and orientalist who was the founder (together with Frithjof Schuon) of what came to be known as the “traditionalist” or Perennialist school of thought. Coomaraswamy became a powerful advocate of that school, and he introduced Perry to the writings of the two founding authors. Thus it was that the Perennial Philosophy, especially as expounded by Schuon, became the guiding star of Perry’s life.

Towards the end of 1946 Perry and his wife moved to Egypt where they remained until 1952. During this period, Perry enjoyed a close relationship with René Guénon, who lived in Cairo. At that time also, his life-long association with Frithjof Schuon began and, soon after Guénon’s death in 1951, the Perrys moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where Frithjof Schuon lived.

It is of interest to note that Perry was one of the very few people who was personally acquainted with all four of the leading figures of the traditionalist school: René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon (the two originators) and Ananda Coomaraswamy and Titus Burckhardt (the two illustrious continuators). Titus Burckhardt was Schuon’s closest friend and collaborator, and he too lived in Lausanne.

Apart from his early visits to Algeria and Morocco, Schuon also traveled much in his later years, and the Perrys accompanied him and his wife on these journeys. They visited the Crow and Sioux Indians in the American West in 1963 and, amongst other things, attended a Crow Sun dance; the famous House of the Virgin, at Ephesus, Turkey, in 1968; Morocco on several occasions in the 1960s and 70s, and also many European countries, including Spain, Italy, Greece, and England (the last-named almost annually). When, in 1980, Frithjof Schuon left Lausanne and retired to Bloomington, Indiana, the Perrys followed suit.

Whitall Perry had a strong and incisive manner, but underneath this lay much empathy and compassion. These personal attributes were also visible in his writings. He revealed his severity, for example, in his article on “Coriolanus”, while his humor came to the fore in his article, mocking the effects of the second Vatican Council, entitled “The Dragon that swallowed Saint George”. He devoted several of his articles to the unmasking of the shallowness of a number of contemporary pseudo-gurus, and this too was done with much humor. His most detailed work demolishing the pretensions of false masters is his book “Gurdjieff in the light of tradition”, a study containing a mass of information as well as insightful and convincing judgments.

One of Perry’s most valuable articles was “Drug-induced Mysticism”, a counterblast to Aldous Huxley’s harmful writings extolling the allegedly “spiritual” effects of psychedelic drugs. Amongst other things, this article contains, seemingly incidentally, some extremely beautiful indications as to what constitutes true mysticism and the true spiritual life. Not only false people, but also false ideas, were the targets of Perry’s merciless pen. His articles on reincarnationism and evolutionism are highly pertinent mises-au-point. All of his writings were carefully researched, and invariably delivered an immense amount of information as well as evincing much learning.

For many years, Perry acted as Frithjof Schuon’s secretary. In both Lausanne and Bloomington, Schuon received visits from an apparently unending stream of people from all parts of the world seeking spiritual counsel. As well as seeing Schuon, it often happened that such visitors would also meet Perry, and thereby be regaled with encouragement, and stimulating and informative conversation. He was a man of discernment and a man of prayer.


Gurdjieff in the Light of Tradition (1978);

A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom (1981);

The Widening Breach: Evolutionism in the Mirror of Cosmology (1995);

Challenges to a Secular Society (1996);

Perry has also written many articles for the journal Studies in Comparative Religion.

External links

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