René Guénon and the Crisis of the Modern World
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.
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”.
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.”
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:
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).