Now known as the founder of the traditionalist school, René Guénon would probably have objected to this title, insofar as any “ism” implies a historically contingent, ideological movement. A certain resistance to the particulars of history is characteristic of his thought, given its firm basis in a metaphysics that infinitely transcends all contingency. That said, it is fair to talk of such a school, and Guénon would have recognised the modest but definite role he played in reviving a traditional world view in the West, at least among his intellectual milieu.
One of the most valuable aspects of Guénon’s work has been his civilizational critique, insofar as he has argued cogently against the perils of materialism as an ideological force in the modern world. His masterpiece in this regard is The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, in which he lays out a metaphysical perspective on history as a decline from Quality towards Quantity. His writings (in the domain of cultural criticism especially) have proved influential on a number of figures, notably including the Orthodox writer Philip Sherrard, and the Hieromonk Fr Seraphim Rose, a candidate for canonisation in the Orthodox Church.
Fellow traditionalist Frithjof Schuon sums up his contribution in glowing terms:
Guénon has rendered us an inestimable service in presenting and expounding the crucial ideas of metaphysical science and pure intellectuality, of integral tradition and traditional orthodoxy, of symbolism and esoterism: and then in defining and condemning, with implacable realism, the modern aberration in all its forms.1
Guénon’s role consists essentially in a function of transmission and commentary and not of inspired readaptation: ‘I have no other merit,’ he wrote to us in a letter, ‘than to have expressed some traditional ideas to the best of my ability.’ If this definition is indeed too modest in that it makes no mention of the speculative element in Guénon’s work nor of the fundamental nature of the ideas he expounded, it nonetheless shows its intention and its nature.2
We should, naturally, be somewhat sceptical of these claims to mere transmission without readaptation. While his analysis of symbols certainly approaches the kind of synthetic ideal enshrined by the traditionalist school, his more directly metaphysical works betray certain biases of interpretation. Guénon tends to smooth over the unevenness of his work by affecting a kind of omniscience vis a vis the matter under discussion. In spite of this, his writings more often invite contemplation and deeper consideration of the concepts he expounds than they do attempt to compel belief. For this reason, I suppose, he excels most in the critical dismantling of certain modern prejudices, which tend to be much more coercive (and limiting) than the expansive world views of traditional religions.
Foremost among Guénon’s biases is his perennialism – the belief in a unified primordial tradition whence all later religions and philosophies originate. This belief results in the tendency to downplay the distinctions between religious traditions, and especially the uniqueness of Christianity. Inevitably, one particular metaphysical viewpoint must prevail over the others, and for Guénon this was the Hindu Vedanta. He saw the Vedanta as the most authentic accessible expression of the traditional world view, and as capable of reconciling all traditional religions under its umbrella. This is his presupposition, though it is important both to recognise the points of agreement between certain principles (in various traditions) as well as to recognise where Guénon’s own philosophical views intrude on their exposition.
Materialism and the Self
In the modern world we tend to think of everything in terms of becoming – and thus it makes sense from that viewpoint to talk about generalisation as if these principles are “only” the sum total of particularities. Yet this is tantamount to suggesting that the principles have no being in a metaphysical sense, in which case it is entirely arbitrary to talk of them at all.
We may then ask the question: what of the individual? It appears in this materialist paradigm that the individual (that which cannot be divided) is an arbitrary construct, simply by asking: how many mental processes make up our thinking?3 How many biological? Until relatively recently in modern philosophy the reality of a certain selfhood or transcendent principle was assumed. Immanuel Kant, for instance, appeals to Reason as the faculty of intellect which unites the multiplicity of the human person into a unity. It is the person in the driver’s seat, so to speak, of the human organism.
Guénon would point out that the notion of the intellect is traditional and overcomes the shortcomings of this arbitrary materialism, not least in that reality is assumed to be constituted fractally. There are correspondences between levels of being, such that there are analogies to be drawn everywhere. For example, we can speak in quasi-scientific terms of the bodily organs “sending signals” to the brain in a hierarchical chain of command – and in the psyche, too, we can talk of a hierarchy of processes (or drives) which “oversee” certain bodily functions, but which themselves require an overseer (i.e. the intellect). No doubt a scientist, consistent with his materialism, would assure us that what is “really happening” in these processes is something quite below the level of language, and most readily translatable in quantitative or mechanistic terms. To which the traditionalist responds: on the contrary, our symbolic representations are the more fundamental truth, for nothing “really happens” in the phenomenal world that is inaccessible to consciousness.
Our language demonstrates that these correspondences extend well beyond the level of the individual – in any organisation, for example, there is a “head” and those who perform the “legwork”. It may seem banal to point out such commonplace examples, but it is precisely their ubiquity (and their being unavoidable at the level of language and cognition) that enables them to reveal in human terms the fractal structure of being. As Schuon puts it:
As for symbolism, the third great subject of the Guénonian work, this is necessary because the natural and universal expression of metaphysics is the symbol. This expression is natural, because it resides in the nature of things. in other words, in real analogies) and it is universal in that it is capable of unlimited applications in the order of the Real. Symbolism has two advantages over ratiocination: first, far from artificially opposing what it expresses, it is in fact an aspect or an ‘incarnation’ of it; second, instead of suggesting merely one aspect of a given reality, it manifests several of them at the same time and presents truths in their various metaphysical and spiritual connections, thus opening up incommensurable ‘dimensions’ to contemplation.4
This analogical way of thinking is so fundamental to the traditional world view that it is quite remarkable how much we have lost sight of it in modernity, or written it off in favour of a flattened cosmology. Guénon’s cosmology, if we can label it as such, is by contrast extremely deep and rich – to the point where initially it can bewilder one with its apparent complexity. He claims ultimately to derive this cosmology from the teachings of the Vedanta – a collection of Hindu scriptures which delve deeply into questions of metaphysics.
The first thing to point out about this cosmology is that it does not constitute a “system”, although it possesses unity, coherence and structure. The second thing to point out is that it differs from Platonism and most Western philosophy which, as Guénon suggests, focusses solely on being, and thus on ontology in its metaphysics.5 By contrast, the Vedanta posits the supreme principle – Brahman – as beyond being and non-being. It is the infinite, unconditioned and entirely undetermined. Guénon stresses this meaning of the infinite in contradistinction to scientistic notions of “numerical infinity” or of “infinite space” – for him, there is only one meaningful sense to the word infinite, which properly applies only to Brahman.6 He is radically apophatic in this, echoing a saying from the Vedanta that one cannot even say that Brahman ‘is’, nor that Brahman ‘is not’. To do so would imply limitation or determination.
This kind of language should call to our minds the negative theology of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, but it would be a mistake to make a simple identification between Brahman and the Christian God. There is no equivalent term for the personal God of Christianity in the Vedanta; Guénon suggests that the closest concept is ‘Ishvara’ which he defines thus:
Ishvara, or the ‘Divine Personality’, is merely a determination [of the Supreme Principle] in relation to, universal Manifestation. The consideration of Ishvara therefore already implies a relative point of view; it is the highest of the relativities, the first of all determinations, but it is nonetheless true that it is ‘qualified’ (saguna) and ‘conceived distinctively’ (savishesha), whereas Brahma is ‘unqualified’ (nirguna),’beyond all distinctions’ (nirvishesha), absolutely unconditioned, universal manifestation in its entirety being strictly nil beside Its Infinity.7
Below Brahman, the first conditions of manifestation as it were are the complementary principles of Purusha and Prakriti.8 Broadly speaking, these two terms correspond to what “act” and “potency” signify in Aristotelian thought.9 All that is manifests according to these two principles. Guénon, as always, is keen to stress that manifestation is by no means limited to form and matter – and thus to the ‘corporeal state’ – although that level of manifestation is certainly linked by analogy to Purusha and Prakriti just as, in scholastic thought, all things are linked ultimately to God in the great chain of being. In keeping with much Hindu thought, he is apt to stress in symbolic terms the “distance” of the individual, human state from the unlimited Brahman. Nevertheless, he also points out that in relation to Brahman the difference between all limited states is entirely negligible, and thus we cannot disparage the human by comparison to any other relative state:
In reality, this human state is no more than one state of manifestation among an indefinitude of others; in the hierarchy of the degrees of Existence it is situated in the place assigned to it by its own nature, that is, by the limiting character of the conditions which define it, and this place confers upon it neither absolute superiority nor absolute inferiority. If we must sometimes consider this human state in particular, it is solely because this is the state in which we find ourselves, and it thereby acquires for us, but for us alone, an especial importance; but this is only an altogether relative and contingent point of view belonging to the individuals that we are in our present mode of manifestation.10
Ontologically speaking, the basis of the individual is ultimately the singular Self (Atman).11 Typical of Guénon’s thought, this singular Self surpasses all individuality and particularity.12 Whereas Orthodox theology understands through the doctrine of the Trinity that there is multiplicity all the way up to the very Godhead, in the Vedanta multiplicity is ultimately subordinated to ‘unicity’ (Guénon uses the term to disambiguate from mere numerical unity). While the Vedanta is non-dualist, assuming no necessary tension or opposition between simplicity and complexity at the highest level, it is nevertheless clear that in manifestation (in the human state, for example) oppositions will work themselves out by necessity.
Guénon frequently appears to disparage the ‘human state’ as he calls it, and it is easy to baulk at this tendency in his work. There is, however, a valuable perspective to be found in this as a counter to the excessive (because ultimately arbitrary) focus on the “individual” in modern Western thought. Again, it is necessary to distinguish the “individual” from the “person” of Orthodox Christian thought. There is an absoluteness to the human person in Orthodox thought that is unique to Christianity and which finds its justification, as I have suggested, in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Schuon has written cogently and critically about this tendency in Guenon, and it is not my intention merely to repeat those criticisms, however, it is worth citing the following:
No doubt he had the right to be ‘one-sided’, but this constitution did not go well with the wide scope of his mission; he was neither a psychologist nor an esthete – in the best sense of these terms – in other words, he underestimated esthetic and moral values, especially in relation to their spiritual functions. He had an inborn aversion to anything that is human and ‘individual’, and this even affected his metaphysics in certain places, for example, when he thinks that he has to deny that the ‘human state’ enjoys a ‘privileged’ position, or that the ‘mental element’ – the essence of which is reason – constitutes a privilege for man; whereas in reality the presence of the rational faculty proves precisely the ‘central’ and ‘total’ character of the human state which would not exist without this character, which is its whole raison d’etre. Be that as it may, in mentioning these shortcomings, one must never forget two things: the irreplaceable value of what constitutes the essence of Guénon’s work, and the gnostic or pneumatic substance of the author.13
Guénon’s interest in transcending the human state is naturally built into his metaphysics, such that it cannot help but ‘affect’ it in the negative sense Schuon alludes to. The question of opposition, and therefore of suffering in the human state, is understood to be the result of a limited perspective. These questions are understood to resolve themselves when one has attained the right level of detachment and transcendence of limitations.14 In symbolic terms, it is like rising to the top of a mountain to behold a scene which had appeared chaotic and meaningless at the ground-level. As such, there is no existential struggle against the state of evil and suffering in the world – Guénon is well in accord with the Hindu tradition which regards such things as relative at best, and illusory at worst.15
Taking the good with the bad, there is a great insight in the idea that reality as we experience it is necessarily conditioned by our state of being – and that taken not in an emotive or psychological sense. It does away with the illusory categories of “absolute”, “objective,” and “subjective” reality except with reference to the metaphysical principles and the unified source of all manifestation. Thus there can be no recognition of the claims of empiricism and scientism to “objective” knowledge in the traditionalist view. It would be an abuse of language to ascribe to the phenomenal world any absolute quality except insofar as it manifests or participates in universal being.
The human state is much broader in Guénon’s thought than the materialist would take it to be. For him, the corporeal state – i.e. physical, phenomenal existence – is only one degree of the human state, which is itself only a degree of universal being. It is properly speaking conditioned, and therefore limited by those conditions which define space and time, for instance.
The individual, even when considered in the full extension of which he is capable, is not a total being, but only a particular state of manifestation of a being, a state subject to certain special and determined conditions of existence, and occupying a certain place in the indefinite series of the states of the total being.16
As Christians we can easily see the dangers of the Vedanta, ultimately promoting worship of the ‘Self’ through identification with the very Principle of our being. No doubt Guénon would object to the abuse of the Vedanta among modern pseudo-spiritual tourists (whose interests lie simply in furthering their own egotism), but he stresses rather too stridently – and unconvincingly – the apparent distinction between the purity of authentic Vedic spirituality and the debased forms it has acquired in modernity. He stresses, for instance, the distinction between Self and Ego; but at a certain point (at least in the modern world) the distinction becomes immaterial. If our very being is one with Brahman; if the divine personality is equally a manifestation just as we as individuals are manifestations of the one unified Principle; then we can accomplish nothing but self-worship in all senses of the term.
Guénon’s response would probably be to point out that this is mistaking Vedanta for a ‘religion’ in the Western, Protestant sense of the term. He would not accept the Protestant notion of worship being applied directly in this context. The egotism and profanation of Vedanta in the modern West he would ascribe to the corrupting influence of modernity and the Reign of Quantity, not to the Principles themselves. Even as Christians, we should hesitate to apply our categories of heresy to metaphysical ideas which have arisen not in opposition to Orthodoxy, but in parallel. Of course, the Vedanta cannot lead us to salvation – it is fundamentally lacking and misleading – but we should resist the modern tendency to categorise and reduce ideas from the broad sweep of human history as it were to tables of doctrinal axioms. I think this is possible whilst also wholeheartedly affirming the dogmas of the Orthodox Church. It is one thing to seek for the truth in ignorance; quite another to reject its revelation. As an ex-Hindu contributor to Fr Seraphim Rose’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future put it, the modern, pluralist presentation of Vedanta appeals above all to Pride – the gravest sin in Christianity. In this respect it is the actual opposite and antithesis to Christian morality.
The ugliness and dangers of modern “Eastern spirituality” as presented in the West Guénon would condemn vociferously, albeit without (to my mind) offering a genuine alternative. Perhaps it is not surprising that the evils of this kind of spirituality are really quite subtle distortions of true doctrine. And by saying this I mean that the correctives offered by Christianity can redeem those features of this metaphysics which are genuinely insightful. The radical teaching of Christianity is that God creates and esteems the “otherness” of human persons made in His image and likeness; and that He permits their participation in Divinity without losing their personhood. In other words, the human person is an absolute reality that God willingly creates and sustains – not a mere emanation from the impersonal Brahman.
In conclusion, Guénon’s work inevitably means more than he intended it to. Where he transmits certain symbolism and ideas free from the corrupting effects of Vedic spirituality, they are capable of revealing the Logos at work in the very fabric of the world. Even his metaphysics, while it is deeply flawed, reveals the poverty of modern materialism such that it invites us to rediscover the riches of a traditional world view. For this reason it has helped to bring many people (back) to their Christian faith, to a certain extent in spite of itself. The danger of his work is that it offers no certain protection against the kinds of spiritual delusion that Fr Seraphim Rose so severely censured in his writings. Perhaps it was partly his own history and his engagement with Guénon’s work that motivated Fr Seraphim to take such pains; certainly, as an example of Orthodox piety and the ascetic life, his message is well worth our attention.
1 Frithjof Schuon, René Guénon: Some Observations (Sophia Perennis, 2004), p.11
2 Schuon, p.5
3 The Multiple States of the Being, p.44
4 Schuon, p.3
5 The Multiple States of the Being, p.34
6 The Multiple States, pp.7-8
7 Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, p.19
8 Man and His Becoming, pp.39-41
9 The Reign of Quantity, pp.12-3
10 The Multiple States, p.1
11 Man and His Becoming, pp.24-5
12 The Multiple States, pp.27, 29
13 Ibid, p.8
14 Symbolism of the Cross, pp.35-8
15 Ibid, p.42
16 Symbolism of the Cross, p.2