The End of the World? René Guénon’s ‘Reign of Quantity’

I have alluded to the rise of materialism and its repercussions in previous articles, and have found a sympathetic point of view in the work of René Guénon. Labelled as a ‘traditionalist’ by some, for citing the wisdom and spiritual insights of ancient traditions, Guénon attempted to establish a continuity with the past wholly lacking in modern thought. In fact he demonstrated that by opening up one’s mind to metaphysics, theology and spiritual symbolism, it becomes possible to detach oneself from modern ways of thinking; only then is it possible to understand man’s chaotic history – to have true wisdom, not reductive, scientistic “knowledge”. For Guénon, this involves reaching back to a ‘primordial tradition’ by any means – scholarship, philology, asceticism, ritual, and the contemplation of symbols.

Guénon attempts to derive the primordial content out of these sources of inspiration in his writing, an approach he calls ‘synthesis’, as opposed to syncretism which only cobbles together disparate ideas. The Reign of Quantity is a deeply idiosyncratic book, combining philological enquiries into ancient, sacred languages with scholastic philosophy and esoteric ideas. This is a necessary corollary of believing in the fractured primordial tradition which, in Guénon’s view, gave rise to these diverse schools of thought. He is seeking what is common to them all, that which unifies and lends a total coherence to his ‘traditional’ world-view. Thus he doesn’t shrink from circular reasoning. This is understandable, for all arguments at the level of world-view are, in the end, circular. As an Orthodox Christian I take a different stance to Guénon, but only by comparing our respective paradigms can one judge the validity of one view over another. What follows from that will always be a leap of faith.

What our viewpoints share is the recognition of the total bankruptcy of materialism – its inability to justify itself or to explain anything about reality. Instead of explaining, it attempts to reduce all things to its own level – as Guénon posits, the level of numerical measurement or quantity in a restricted sense. Anything that escapes understanding of the materialist is either dispensed with entirely (such as the domain of the spirit) or drawn down, even inverted, into something quantifiable.

We can observe this ourselves in the rise of scientism, going hand in hand with mechanised capitalism (and its twin, socialism), which is even now going beyond its preoccupation with matter itself towards a truly virtual economy and with the growth of virtual reality in the realm of technology. Politics is determined by majorities – the rise of the mob has ushered in the new populism; human relationships are increasingly regarded as quantifiable, as indeed are human beings. All made possible by the manipulation of numbers and matter, displacing the spiritual quality of these things. This is, in a sense, the quantitative view in its maturity, but in Guénon’s time it was still growing through an adolescence of a sort, in the ideas that were obsessing academics and intellectuals.

Living in an age of psycho-analysts like Freud and Jung, it is easy to see that the reduction of sacred symbolism to the operations of an ‘unconscious’ mind – what Guénon considered an actual inversion of the spiritual source of symbolism (descending from above, not rising from below) – would have exasperated the traditionalist. He rightly calls absurd the ‘idea of a quantitative psychology’, for ‘the things which the ‘psycho-physiologists’ determine quantitatively are not really in themselves mental phenomena, as is imagined, but only some of their corporeal concomitants’.1 Even those who maintain an understanding of the source of these ‘corporeal concomitants’ – the psychical realm – mistake it for the spiritual realm, and this, for Guenon, will be the source of the ultimate inversion of all spirituality that will bring about the final dissolution and the ending of the world.

While Guénon offers very lucid explanations of these issues in The Reign of Quantity and elsewhere, he is hardly above criticism, especially from a Christian perspective. What is more, there are some key points in his world-view on which more clarity would be desirable. For instance: while he clearly maintains the distinction between the spiritual and the psychical realm (a concept entirely absent from modern thought) he seldom if ever alludes to the means by which we are able to participate in the spiritual.

The Orthodox understanding overcomes the problem by preserving a parallel distinction in our anthropology, between the Psyche and the Nous. Both are frequently translated inadequately as ‘mind’ in English, but in fact they are quite separate. Put simply, the Nous is the “eye of the spirit”, as such it is a separate “faculty” if you will, to the Psyche. By leaving out this crucial aspect of anthropology, Guénon might justifiably be accused of confusing the “faculties” of the Psyche and the Nous, and even of attributing the powers of the Nous to the Psyche. For, inOrthodoxy, Even a Psyche that has been refined by ascetic struggle and contemplation cannot break the ‘barrier’ that exists between the spiritual and the psychical realms. Hence Guénon’s intense preoccupation with symbolism, which is capable of analogising the spiritual, but always remains as it were, closed; always referring back to the psychical and physical realm. Indeed, as Fr Alexander explained elsewhere, the Nous ‘bypasses symbols altogether’, enabling a direct experience of God.2

It is scholastic terminology Guénon reverts to when explaining the meaning of ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ in the wider sense. Quality he associates with essence; Quantity with substance. I cannot do justice to the nuances of these terms here, to try would be to risk oversimplifying Guénon’s argument, but suffice it to say that he fits these two concepts into an apparent tradition rooted in ancient times. This explains the hermetic, esoteric traditions of the West, in their apparent common ground with Eastern, particularly Hindu, thought. The concepts themselves were transmitted by Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (though it predated them) in their writings, and thus reached the Arab world, as well as medieval scholastics such as Aquinas.

Ironically, the scholastic tradition is largely responsible for paving the way for the rise of modernity and materialism, being the forerunner to the modern “scientific method”. Guénon would therefore be mistaken in employing it in support of a truly spiritual world-view. This is one potential flaw in his approach, but it has clear ramifications for his ultimate decision to abandon Christian faith and to pursue Sufism. For among the scholastics arose the erroneous, indeed blasphemous, notion that theology could be systematised by means of certain logical principles. Hence the proliferation of ‘proofs’ for God as if He were a mere mathematical equation. In doing so they placed logic itself as the ‘first cause’ and the foundational ‘principle’ of all things. Moreover, they so deified their own powers of reasoning, that Aquinas is led to suppose that we shall eventually see God ‘in His essence’, in a misinterpretation of the Holy scriptures. For to admit any other interpretation, such as the obvious truth that to perceive God in His essence is impossible save for God Himself, would have been to mar the doctrine of ‘absolute divine simplicity’ that the scholastics derived from Hellenic philosophers(!)

Guénon likewise stresses the unity of God, which we would not dispute by any means, however, as with the philosophers, for him this unity takes precedence over any revealed doctrine or dogma. Trinitarian theology has no place in this logical interpretation which is no more than an extrapolation of the place of logic in the psychical realm, into the spiritual. Since scholastic, and Thomistic thought especially, was never able to rationalise the trinity, it remained an anomaly in all their systematic approaches to theology. Why, therefore, should not Guénon dispense with it altogether? That doctrine, along with the insistence on Christ as being wholly God and wholly man, and the profound uniqueness of Christianity it entails (separating it from all religions), would have been an inconvenience to him and his ‘traditional’ world-view. And where the search for the experience of God, ceasing to be attained, degenerated into mere ‘mysticism’ in the West, in the East there was never so great a tension between rationalism and spirituality. In that sense, Guénon’s conversion to Sufism begins to make more sense, as much as it was fundamentally misguided.

Another issue arises from his cyclical views of history, derived in his case from the Vedic tradition, but familiar to Orthodox thinkers through the works of Origen. Whether this belief in time as cyclical was only derived by Origen from some older tradition, in any case the arguments against it should remain valid. Nevertheless, any argument appealing to ‘tradition’ in Guénon’s sense, as divine revelation, must necessarily be circular as I have said before. In the present case, we may look at the arguments of Saint Maximus the Confessor, and those of Augustine, recognising that they, naturally, take for granted faith in Christ as the basis of their understanding.3 Their attitude to the notion of eternal recurrence was that it could only lead to despair, for what hope could there be in redemption if man could fall from God again and again infinitely?

Thus it is not surprising to see what almost amounts to indifference on Guénon’s part towards the fate of the world that he outlines very soberly in The Reign of Quantity. In fact, it would be wrong to suppose that Guénon is entirely opposed to this development – he affirms this slip from the qualitative towards the quantitative as part of the cycle of history. It is a decline, yes, but something natural and perhaps necessary. His thought, which aligns at least in part with perennialism, perceives an apparent polarity in nature – the essence/substance duality (or quality/quantity) is the fundamental basis of existence. History reflects an eternal cycle; a movement from one pole to the other. Guénon does, nonetheless, regard the essence as the superior principle, thus ‘qualitative’ periods of history are ordered and spiritually enlightened whereas ‘quantitative’ periods are chaotic and dark. This is, however, par for the course for history, at all levels of meaning.

Therefore, while it is tempting to see in Guénon’s observations some critical truth about our times, we cannot go the whole way with accepting his reasoning. Orthodoxy affirms the unique place of Christianity in the world – the Incarnation was a profound change in history presenting a true break with the past. Cyclical views of time will never have the explanatory power they once had – they remain operant in nature, but subordinated to the higher path of redemption.

It is true that we are living in an age of quantity which could represent the end of a certain cycle of history – but as Christians we have been living in the “end times” ever since the Resurrection, awaiting the second coming which has always been imminent. This could well be the very end of the end – the final decline preceding the apocalypse, but we cannot yet be sure. We can be reassured, however, that the true ending will be readily perceivable to us when it arrives, and our doubts will then be cast aside. In the mean time, reading the signs of the times, we can tell that this way of living – this present civilisation – will not last much longer. The decay is so advanced now as to be observable by even the unspiritual. Whatever comes next, we know that the final outcome will be Christ’s triumph over death and the forces of evil, and, as a wise man once said: ‘that is an encouraging thought.’

1 The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p.39

2 A Discussion on German Romanticism, the Psyche and the Nous, with Fr Alexander Tefft

3 St Maximus Confessor in Ambiguum 7 and Augustine in De civitate Dei

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