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René Guénon and the Crisis of the Modern World

October 13, 2014

Rene-guenon-1925Whilst away in England I read René Guénons book, written in 1927, “The Crisis of the Modern World” and have continued reading his later book (1962) “Symbols of Sacred Science” whilst back in Peru

I had discovered René Guénon by accident when I stumbled across an excerpt from one of his books on an internet site called ‘Living Islam.’

The passage on this site was entitled “The Fissures in the Great Wall” and was the first time I came across something that seemed to address some of the experiences I had had with La Madre Ayahuasca where I saw that other realities were increasingly beginning to erupt into ‘normal’ consensus-based reality.

He says in this passage:

“”Fissures” (are) the paths whereby certain destructive forces are already entering, and must continue to enter ever more freely; according to traditional symbolism these “fissures” occur in the “Great Wall” which surrounds the world and protects it from the intrusion of maleficent influences coming from the inferior subtle domain.”………..

“Thus the world is exposed defenseless to all the attacks of its enemies, the more so because, the present-day mentality being what it is, the dangers which threaten it are wholly unperceived.”

This passage was enough to interest me in his work.

The Wikipedia article about him says that:

“René Guénon (November 15, 1886 – January 7, 1951), also known as Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya, was a French author and intellectual who remains an influential figure in the domain of metaphysics, having written on topics ranging from metaphysics, “sacred science” and traditional studies to symbolism and initiation.”

Along with Fritjof Schuof and Ananda Coomaraswami he is seen as one of the promoters in the twentieth century of the idea of the Perennial Tradition – that all the worlds’ religions are different routes to a single, universal, absolute truth.

His work is not easy to read. Partly his style, like that of Rudolf Steiner, seems rather archaic. Partly too, like Steiner, he demands the reader to work hard to understand him. There are no easy to grasp new-age platitudes or fast-food spirituality here. Reading him, like Steiner and other authors genuinely wrestling with deep questions of spirituality, initiates an entry into the esoteric domains he is writing about. What I could understand in his work and the tantalizing glimpses into what he was referring to was enough to encourage me to persist.

Cosmological_Mandala_with_Mount_Meru+copiaIn his book ‘The Crisis of the Modern World’, Guénon attacks the materialism he sees ushered in by the modern world.

Much of this attack regarding the shallowness and spiritual poverty of modernity is likely to be familiar to most of us and similar themes can be found in many other writers – notably Jung (for example, his work ‘Modern Man in Search of a Soul’) – but Guénon’s critique has a depth and bite to it that many others do not.

As the American philosopher and religious scholar Jacob Needleman wrote: “Many of Guénon’s books . . . are such potent and detailed metaphysical attacks on the downward drift of Western civilization as to make all other contemporary critiques seem half-hearted by comparison.”

One only has to watch Peruvian television (and most world television) to experience what this ‘downward drift’ is.

Guénon holds that the modern age – rather than being the age of progress and scientific enlightenment that is the story that Western culture tells itself and wants us to believe – is actually the dark age. For him, the Medieval Ages, looked back on by modernity as an age of barbarism and superstition, were a time of greater and more widespread spiritual connection. Guénon sees the whole development of Western Civilization as an increasing movement away from contact with what he calls ‘the primordial tradition’ that he sees as the living spirit behind all world religions. Such loss of contact has grave consequences.

For him, the much lauded practical achievements of rationalist science are only ‘lower’ applications of knowledge that did not interest traditional civilizations as they were more concerned with the pursuit of higher knowledge that he calls ‘Sacred Sciences’. He says, in relation to the pursuit of materialistic knowledge:

“The more they have sought to exploit matter, the more they have become its slaves, thus dooming themselves to ever-increasing agitation, without rule and without objective, to dispersion in pure multiplicity leading to the final dissolution”.

Serpiente_alquimicaHe cites alchemy and astrology (not in their modern degenerate forms) as examples of ‘sacred sciences’ which integrated knowledge of the external world with an inner esoteric journey.

The writings of Carlos Casteneda could be seen as a modern example of this kind of knowledge.

This kind of knowledge is also at the heart of indigenous Amazonian shamanism.

His book is remarkably contemporary and prescient in relation to the crises that are now emerging in our world. He says (and remember this was written in 1927):

“The inventions whose number is at present growing at an ever increasing rate are all the more dangerous in that they bring into play forces whose real nature is quite unknown to the men who use them……….the danger inherent in these  inventions, even in those that are not expressly created with a purpose destructive to mankind, but which the none the less cause just as many catastrophes, without mentioning the unsuspected disturbances that they create in the physical environment, this danger we say, will undoubtedly continue to grow, and that to an extent difficult to foretell, so that, as we have already shown, it is by no means improbable that it will be through these inventions that the modern world will bring about its own destruction, unless it can check its course in this direction whilst there is still time.”

This was written before the Cold War and well before climate change.

In a previous blog I quoted Martín Prechtel as saying:

“We live in a kind of dark age, craftily lit with synthetic light, so that no one can tell how dark it has really gotten”

Guénon refers to traditional Hindu teachings in which the human cycle is divided into four great periods, each of which is 6000 years old. We are now towards the end of the last of these periods known as the Kali Yuga or Dark Age. Since the beginning of this time, he says:

“The truths which were formerly within reach of all men have become more and more hidden and inaccessible; those that possess them grow gradually less and less numerous, and although the treasure of “non-human” wisdom that was before the ages can never be lost, it becomes enveloped in ever more impenetrable veils, which hide it from men’s sight and make it extremely difficult to discover. This is why we meet everywhere, under various symbols, with the same thing of something which has been lost, at least to all appearances and so far as the outer world is concerned, and which those who aspire to true knowledge must find again.”

spiralI believe that many of us who are drinking ayahuasca are looking for this “true knowledge”.

The problem we face, according to Guénon, is that the deep, inner, spiritual traditions which supported this quest in the past, are so weakened and/or institutionalized as to hardly exist in the modern world.

From where I sit in the Peruvian Amazon, this process of the loss of vital traditions can be clearly observed with the Shipibos as long, family-based shamanic lineages get broken up as young people prefer the temptations of the West.

Besides, the traditional culture in which the shamanic practices existed – in such a way that the cosmovision, customs and shamanism were mutually reinforcing and co-creative aspects of the same whole – is also being lost.

For Guénon working within an established spiritual tradition is important and the only route to genuine initiation. We need to follow in the path of those who have gone before us. He would be appalled at the kind of anything goes spiritual eclecticism emerging in some of the ayahausca sub-cultures.

But it is a real problem. Where do we find the cultural and ritual containers to hold the energies and insights of La Madre Ayahuasca when traditional religion is discredited or irrelevant. Can we create our own? How do we avoid it being a potpourri of anything goes or becoming rigidified? From where do we draw the sustenance of an authentic living tradition?

(If you are interested further in the work of René Guénon, here are three good resources:

1. An excellent site dedicated to his work.

2. An interesting discussion about his work on a thread in Daniel Pinchbeck’s forum “Breaking Open the Head”).

3. A video on YouTube illustrating his ideas with quotes).

  1. Thanks so much for the info on Rene Guenon! He’s been on my list for quite awhile. I can see by your post that I need to bump him up.

    I love the Martin Prechtel quote:
    “We live in a kind of dark age, craftily lit with synthetic light, so that no one can tell how dark it has really gotten”


    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      Thanks for your comments Debra. I love that quote by Martín Prechtel too. Yes, definitely worth bumping up Réne Guénon. Its interesting to read him alongside James Hillman who I know, like me, you are a great fan of as Guénon is definitely, in Hillman’s terms, moving in the upward direction towards spirit rather than downwards towards soul.

  2. Sylvia Pearson permalink

    Such thoughtful writing, thank you, so much writing is a slushy mishmash. It does occur to me though,that perhaps each time, civilisations reach a certain developmental point, they both see their era as a special evolutionary moment, and bemoan their decadence. I am also puzzled by the Hindu ref. to four cycles of 6,000 years, that’s only 24,000 years. Is that when Hinduism started? Because modern man is a lot older than that in his cultural and spiritual awareness.

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      Thanks for your appreciative comment Sylvia.

      There seem to be different views about the length of these cycles.

      Guénon says in the Crisis of the Modern World that the Kali Yuga, itself four thousand years long, is less than a tenth of the Hindu human cycle called the Manvantara.

      Looking at the Wikipedia article on this, it says: “The actual duration of a Manavantara, according to the Vishnu Purana is seventy one times the number of years contained in the four Yugas, with some additional years, adding up to 852,000 divine years, or 306,720,000 human years. The Manvantara is one of the 14 intervals in Hinduism that constitute a Kalpa.

      In another article on Wikipedia about the Kali Yuga it says: “Kali Yuga began approximately five thousand years ago, and it has a duration of 432,000 years, leaving us with 427,000 till the end of the present age. Within this 432,000 year period, there is a period of 10,000 years that will be a golden age”.

      I think the key point is that the Hindus have a very different sense of time organized in cosmic cycles, each with cycles within cycles, like fractals I imagine.

      There are some nice predictions about the Kali Yuga.

      A discourse by Markandeya in the Mahabharata identifies some of the attributes of Kali Yuga. In relation to rulers, it lists:

      Rulers will become unreasonable: they will levy taxes unfairly.
      Rulers will no longer see it as their duty to promote spirituality, or to protect their subjects: they will become a danger to the world.
      People will start migrating, seeking countries where wheat and barley form the staple food source.

      With regard to human relationships, Markandeya’s discourse says:

      Avarice and wrath will be common. Humans will openly display animosity towards each other. Ignorance of dharma will occur.
      People will have thoughts of murder with no justification and will see nothing wrong in that.
      Lust will be viewed as socially acceptable and sexual intercourse will be seen as the central requirement of life.
      Sin will increase exponentially, whilst virtue will fade and cease to flourish.
      People will take vows and break them soon after.
      People will become addicted to intoxicating drinks and drugs.
      Gurus will no longer be respected and their students will attempt to injure them. Their teachings will be insulted, and followers of Kama will wrest control of the mind from all human beings.
      Brahmans will not be learned or honored, Kshatriyas will not be brave, Vaishyas will not be just in their dealings.

  3. CosmicDrBii permalink

    In response to this blog, a friend sent me this quote I like from a book by Cynthia Bourgeault called, I think, ´The Wisdom Way of Knowing’:

    “‘We are knee-deep in a river, searching for water’, writes Kabir Helminski, a contemporary Wisdom teacher in the Sufi lineage, using a vivid image to capture the irony of our contemporary plight. The sacred road maps of wholeness still exist in the cosmos. There is a vision large enough to contain not only our minds but also our hearts and souls; an understanding of our place in the divine cosmology large enough to order and unify our lives and our planet. These truths are not esoteric or occult in the usual sense of the terms; they are not hidden from sight. In the Christian West they are strewn liberally throughout the entire sacred tradition: in the Bible, the liturgy, the hymnody and chants, the iconography. But to read the clues, it is first necessary to bring the heart and mind and body into balance, to awaken. Then the One can be known – not in a flash of mystical vision – but in the clarity of unitive seeing. …Mindful work, sacred chanting, meditation, prayer, and above all an intentional rhythm and balance to the day (ie. Presence): these are not just activities; they are gateways of perception–floodgates of perception, in fact.”

  4. Thanks again for a deep look at the interconnections of it all!

  5. Kev Borman permalink

    Important thoughts Paul, all the more resonant for the fact that we are just back (yesterday) from three very nourishing ceremonies in the Gredos Mts.

  6. Kai permalink

    Wow, Paul. Thank you.

  7. again, having studied and explored world of sufism long before first experience with A, I find this interesting subject, and connections are multiple ( i know one ayahuasquero from Argentina who is initiated in sufi tariqa and works in Pucalpa ). I do not agree however with ” those that possess them grow gradually less and less numerous”, although both this and contrary may be hard to prove, I feel that numbers never been so high and what was occult and hard to find, never so accessible..

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      Thanks Swiatowski for your comment. In one way I agree, this knowledge is more accessible. A few clicks and you can gain access to almost the whole occult knowledge of humanity. But I wonder if its easier availability, especially on the internet, somehow also cheapens it. Part of what I think Guenon is arguing, and it is an elitist position that I’m uncomfortable with, is that the real occult knowledge, almost by definition, is necessarily hidden and not available to the masses. That ensures that only the true seekers find it.

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