Against Perennialism

In my last post on René Guénon and the Vedanta, I touched upon his problematic approach to human nature and his attitude towards all conditions and limitations upon being. While I stressed that one of the greatest strengths of Guénon’s oeuvre is its critique of materialism, I also gave some guarded praise for his exposition of certain metaphysical principles. Without dismissing the good arguments and perspectives that are present in his work, I mean now to revisit his metaphysics to challenge some of his central presuppositions which I consider erroneous and which are incompatible with Christianity.

I will keep it very simple and deal with one central flaw which Guénon’s perennialism shares with all commonly received pagan philosophies, especially the various Hellenic philosophies, which were condemned and anathematized at the fifth Ecumenical Council.

To cut to the chase, I should like to address the question: In Guénon’s perennialism, what is the moral imperative behind escaping limits? By limits I refer to his whole conception of conditioned, and thus derivative beings. The “endgame” of Guénon’s perennialism, which he describes as the ‘realization’ of the being, involves a deliverance from all conditions and limits, and a total identification with Brahman, the unlimited and infinite.

First off, we should recognise that the idea of ‘limit’ in this sense is a wholly negative determination. Guénon acknowledges this countless times in his work. Insofar as it is such, however, it has no moral content – indeed, it is void of any quality whatsoever.

What is morally wrong, in logical terms, must be defined as that which is contrary to the good, not contrary to being-as-such. In other words, we have at least logically to distinguish between being-as-such and goodness-as-such. Only if the two are absolutely identical – in a doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, for instance – do they become indistinguishable. Hence, if they are absolutely identical, the contrary of being – non-being – must, on the face of it, necessarily be the contrary of the good, and hence it must be evil. And, not only is evil a category of non-being in this view, but fully identified with it.

This issue, known as “modal collapse” has also plagued Neoplatonism, certain anti-Trinitarian heresies (which deny the distinctions between Persons of the Trinity), and even Thomism with its doctrine of Absolute Divine Simplicity. The alternative, which Orthodoxy expressly adheres to, is to distinguish between God’s Essence and His Energies, a doctrine which entails that the Divine Names or Attributes such as Goodness and Being are not absolutely identical to one another (as they are in ADS), but really distinct.

Yet to look a little closer, the absurdity of this idea – that evil simply is non-being, and vice versa – becomes clear. For ‘non-being’ is not a positive category to which we can apply qualities. As we have said, it is by definition void of any quality whatsoever. We have to talk of ‘non-being’ as a non-affirming negation.

To give an example of what a non-affirming negation means practically: if I were to say that a particular cat and the concept of the number 7 are both ‘non-human’, this by no means presupposes a positive category which the particular cat and the concept of the number 7 have in common. It is simply a feature of language that we can link things together in purely logical, unreal categories. Of course, these two things might have certain things in common – I do not deny that – but it is true to say that there is no universal essence or category of the ‘non-human’ to which both terms can be said positively to belong.

All of this is to say that limitation, being a negative concept, can have no moral quality simply by virtue of its non-existence. That would be to ascribe to non-being a positive existence and identity which is manifestly absurd.

In the Christian paradigm, since the creation is necessarily limited (because formal) in Guénon’s terms, and willed by God, there is no necessary reason why limit should be anything but a neutral concept. The alternative, that limits on the creation are de facto evil (even if creatures exist on a continuum of relative goodness), implies either that God wills evil, or that God is not omnipotent. This is obviously blasphemous, and entirely inconsistent with the Christian view.

Perhaps in recognition of this logical dilemma, the perennialist has no alternative but to deny a personal, volitional nature to the Godhead. This logical response of the perennialist denies the categories of created and uncreated – the foundation stones of Orthodox theology – in favour of an emanationist view.

Yet this view relies on the presupposition that a limit is necessarily a defect, and since limit is only defined negatively, we must understand that the negatory is necessarily and in every case identified with evil. This is a basic non sequitur. Here we begin to understand more clearly Guénon’s resistance to moral categories. This is not wilfully dishonest, but it is obfuscatory and can lead to some dishonest double standards in the perennialist framework. For the perennial world-view adheres to a clear moral foundation. There is a definite telos which the human being is oriented towards, and which it behoves the human being to follow. Without this ethical dimension (to which we can attach no other term than ‘moral’, understood in its normal sense) there can be no motive or force whatsoever behind the ‘realization’ of the human being, which forms the backbone of Guénon’s traditionalism.

(The alternative to recognising that this is, properly speaking, a moral foundation of perennialism can only be a kind of relativism, into which no traditionalist doctrine can be made to fit by any means.)

The problem we have, however, is how to ground this morality of the perennialist? We have already alluded to the attempt to ground this moral ontologically, but that results in a non-sequitur (that evil is not, and that non-being is therefore evil), and only begs the question. How can non-being possess any qualities, good or bad?

We cannot appeal to natural contraries, which are a feature of the created order, because they all presuppose existence of some kind. Hot and cold, for instance, are natural contraries, and cold it is true can be said to be a negation of heat, but as such it is still determined by a great many conditions which preclude it being reduced to negation-as-such or absolute non-being. Non-being is, obviously, utterly unlike any of these natural forces (heat, light, wetness, et cetera) to which natural contraries correspond. These natural contraries, indeed, even as negations, depend on Being-as-such for the very conditions of their existence.

Changing tack slightly, let us give a simple example which will show the absurdity of this view that evil and non-being are to be identified. Imagine I am being attacked by a hostile person with a weapon, intent on murdering me. Is the evil of this attack lessened if my assailant, or even just his weapon, were not to exist? We would say that, from one perspective at least, the opposite is true. Thus it is obvious that evil cannot be coterminous with non-being.

Nevertheless, we do affirm the privationist conception of evil – lest anyone accuse us of some worse position than the perennialist, such as manicheanism. While our view, however, requires that evil has no existence, it does not require that non-being is necessarily evil. That would assume, as we have been saying, that non-being was a positive category, which is absurd.

The only way coherently to define and ground a moral of any kind is with reference to God. And, I would stress, it must necessarily be a personal, volitional God – and therefore not the God of the perennialists.

Since in our view it is God who defines the creation and sets limits upon it, these limits cannot be evil. And, since the creation can possess or participate in nothing which is not already “in” the creator, it logically follows that limit-as-such has no real being. This can be demonstrated by the impossibility of the contrary – for otherwise God would lack something which is possessed by the creation.

As I have repeatedly stressed, all we can say of non-being is that it is neutral and void of quality. The “lack” which defines a creature as such is therefore not an evil. Indeed, the only rational definition of evil defines it as that which is contrary to the good, and since whatever God wills is good, in accordance with His nature, He does not will evil.

Once we grant this, the moral imperative of the perennialist falls apart. The escape from all conditioning, up to and including the condition of being distinct from the Divine essence, is a motive with no ethical force. Indeed, from the perspective of a Christian who has received the revelation of the Church, this motive is exposed as a great blasphemy, for it presupposes that the act of creation was some kind of abortion which mingled the goodness of being with the alleged evil of non-being.

Yet the truth of the doctrine of Theosis is able to shine through and dispel the shadows of this delusion, by revealing that man’s destiny is truly to be united with God without losing his distinct personhood. And, as the Scriptures expressly reveal, it is being made in the Image and Likeness of God which bestows upon man this supreme dignity. The loss of this gift of creation would constitute no diminishment of God, of course, for it flows out of the gratuity of His love for mankind, as a free act, but it would represent a rejection on our part, as His creatures, which reveals the impoverishment of the perennialist mentality.

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