Biography of René GuénonHarry Oldmeadow
René Guénon (1886–1951) was a French metaphysician, writer, and editor who was largely responsible for laying the metaphysical groundwork for the Traditionalist or Perennialist school of thought in the early twentieth century. Guénon remains influential today for his writings on the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the modern world, on symbolism, on spiritual esoterism and initiation, and on the universal truths that manifest themselves in various forms in the world’s religious traditions. His writings on Hinduism and Taoism are particularly illuminating in this latter regard.
René Guénon was born in Blois, France, in 1886. He grew up in a strict Catholic environment and was schooled by Jesuits. As a young man he moved to Paris to take up studies in mathematics at the College Rollin. However, his energies were soon diverted from academic studies and in 1905 he abandoned his formal higher education studies. Guénon submerged himself in certain currents of French occultism and became a leading member in several secret organizations such as theosophical, spiritualistic, masonic, and “gnostic” societies. In June, 1909 Guénon founded the occultist journal La Gnose. It lasted a little over two years and carried most of Guénon’s writings from this period.
Although Guénon was later to disown the philosophical and historical assumptions on which such occultist movements were built, and to contrast their “counterfeit spirituality” with what he came to see as genuine expressions of traditional esoterism, he always steadfastly opposed contemporary European civilization. There have been suggestions that during this period Guénon received either a Taoist or an Islamic initiation—or both. Whitall Perry has suggested that the “catalyzing element” was Guénon’s contact with representatives of the Advaita school of Vedanta. It was during this period that he embarked on a serious study of the doctrines of Taoism, Hinduism, and perhaps Islam.
Guénon emerged now from the rather secretive and obscure world of the occultists and moved freely in an intensely Catholic milieu, leading a busy social and intellectual life. He was influenced by several prominent Catholic intellectuals of the day, among them Jacques Maritain, Fathers Peillaube, and Sertillanges, and one M. Milhaud, who conducted classes at the Sorbonne on the philosophy of science. The years 1912 to 1930 are the most public of Guénon’s life. He attended lectures at the Sorbonne, wrote and published widely, gave at least one public lecture, and maintained many social and intellectual contacts. He published his first books in the 1920s and soon became well-known for his work on philosophical and metaphysical subjects.
Whatever Guénon’s personal commitments may have been during this period, his thought had clearly undergone a major shift away from occultism and toward an interest in esoteric sapiential traditions within the framework of the great religions. One central point of interest for Guénon was the possibility of a Christian esoterism within the Catholic tradition. (He always remained somewhat uninformed on the esoteric dimensions within Eastern Orthodoxy.) Guénon envisaged, in some of his work from this period, a regenerated Catholicism, enriched and invigorated by a recovery of its esoteric traditions, and “repaired” through a prise de conscience. He contributed regularly to the Catholic journal Regnabit, the Sacre-Coeur review founded and edited by P. Anizan. These articles reveal the re-orientation of Guénon’s thinking in which “tradition” now becomes the controlling theme. Some of these periodical writings found their way into his later books.
The years 1927 to 1930 mark another transition in Guénon’s life, culminating in his move to Cairo in 1930 and his open commitment to Islam. A conflict between Anizan (whom Guénon supported) and the Archbishop of Reims, and adverse Catholic criticism of his book The King of the World (1927), compounded a growing disillusionment with the Church and hardened Guénon’s suspicion that it had surrendered to the “temporal and material.” In January 1928 Guénon’s wife died rather abruptly, and, following a series of fortuitous circumstances, Guénon left on a three-month visit to Cairo. He was to remain there until his death in 1951.
In Cairo Guénon was initiated into the Sufic order of Shadhilites and invested with the name Abdel Wahed Yahya. He married again and lived a modest and retiring existence. “Such was his anonymity that an admirer of his writings was dumbfounded to discover that the venerable next-door neighbor whom she had known for years as Sheikh Abdel Wahed Yahya was in reality René Guénon.”
A good deal of Guénon’s energy in the 1930s was directed to a massive correspondence that he carried on with his readers in Europe, people often in search of some kind of initiation, or simply pressing inquiries about subjects dealt with in his books and articles. Most of Guénon’s published work after his move to Cairo appeared in Études Traditionnelles (until 1937 titled Le Voile d’Isis), a formerly theosophical journal that was transformed under Guénon’s influence into the principal European forum for traditionalist thought. It was only the war that provided Guénon enough respite from his correspondence to devote himself to the writing of some of his major works including, The Reign of Quantity (1945).
In his later years Guénon was much more preoccupied with questions concerning initiation into authentic esoteric traditions. He published at least twenty-five articles in Études Traditionnelles dealing with this subject, from many points of view. Although he had found his own resting-place within the fold of Islam, Guénon remained interested in the possibility of genuine initiatic channels surviving within Christianity. He also never entirely relinquished his interest in Freemasonry, and returned to this subject in some of his last writings. Only shortly before his death did he conclude that there was no effective hope of an esoteric regeneration within either masonry or Catholicism.
Guénon was a prolific writer. He published seventeen books during his lifetime, and at least eight posthumous collections and compilations have since appeared. The œuvre exhibits certain recurrent motifs and preoccupations and is, in a sense, all of a piece. Guénon’s understanding of tradition is the key to his work. As early as 1909 we find Guénon writing of “. . . the Primordial Tradition which, in reality, is the same everywhere, regardless of the different shapes it takes in order to be fit for every race and every historical period.” As Gai Eaton has observed, Guénon “believes that there exists a Universal Tradition, revealed to humanity at the beginning of the present cycle of time, but partially lost. . . . [His] primary concern is less with the detailed forms of Tradition and the history of its decline than with its kernel, the pure and changeless knowledge which is still accessible to man through the channels provided by traditional doctrine.”
Guénon’s work, from his earliest writings in 1909 onward, can be seen as an attempt to give a new expression and application to the timeless principles which inform all traditional doctrines. In his writings he ranges over a vast terrain—Vedanta, the Chinese tradition, Christianity, Sufism, folklore and mythology from all over the world, the secret traditions of gnosticism, alchemy, the Kabbalah, and so on, always intent on excavating their underlying principles and showing them to be formal manifestations of the one Primordial Tradition. Certain key themes run through all of his writings, and one meets again and again such notions as these: the concept of metaphysics as transcending all other doctrinal orders; the identification of metaphysics and the “formalization,” so to speak, of gnosis (or jñana if one prefers); the distinction between exoteric and esoteric domains; the hierarchic superiority and infallibility of intellective knowledge; the contrast of the modern Occident with the traditional Orient; the spiritual bankruptcy of modern European civilization; a cyclical view of time, based largely on the Hindu doctrine of cosmic cycles; and a contra-evolutionary view of history.
Guénon repeatedly turned to oriental teachings, believing that it was only in the East that various sapiential traditions remained more or less intact. It is important not to confuse this Eastward-looking stance with the kind of sentimental exotericism nowadays so much in vogue. As Coomaraswamy noted, “If Guénon wants the West to turn to Eastern metaphysics, it is not because they are Eastern but because this is metaphysics. If ‘Eastern’ metaphysics differed from a ‘Western’ metaphysics—one or the other would not be metaphysics.”
By way of expediency we may divide Guénon’s writings into five categories, each corresponding roughly with a particular period in his life: pre-1912 articles in occultist periodicals; exposés of occultism, especially spiritualism and theosophy; expositions of Oriental metaphysics; treatments both of the European tradition and of initiation in general; and lastly, critiques of modern civilization. This classification may be somewhat arbitrary, but it does help situate some of the focal points in Guénon’s work.
Although his misgivings about many of the occultist groups were mounting during the 1909–1912 period, it was not until the publication of two of his earliest books that he launched a full-scale critique: Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (1921) and The Spiritist Fallacy (1923). As Mircea Eliade has noted: “The most erudite and devastating critique of all these so-called occult groups was presented not by a rationalist outside observer, but by an author from the inner circle, duly initiated into some of their secret orders and well acquainted with their occult doctrines; furthermore, that critique was directed, not from a skeptical or positivistic perspective, but from what he called ‘traditional esoterism.’ This learned and intransigent critic was René Guénon.”
Guénon’s interest in Eastern metaphysical traditions had been awakened around 1909, and some of his early articles in La Gnose were devoted to Vedantic metaphysics. His first book, Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines (1921), marked Guénon as a commentator of rare authority. It also served notice of Guénon’s formidable power as a critic of contemporary civilization. Of this book Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written, “It was like a sudden burst of lightning, an abrupt intrusion into the modern world of a body of knowledge and a perspective utterly alien to the prevalent climate and world view and completely opposed to all that characterizes the modern mentality.”
However, Guénon’s axial work on Vedanta, Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, was published in 1925. Other significant works in the field of oriental traditions include Oriental Metaphysics, delivered as a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1925 but not published until 1939, The Great Triad, based on Taoist doctrine, and many articles on such subjects as Hindu mythology, Taoism and Confucianism, and doctrines concerning reincarnation. Interestingly, Guénon remained more or less incognizant of the Buddhist tradition for many years, regarding it as no more than a “heterodox development” within Hinduism, without integrity as a formal religious tradition. It was only through the influence of Marco Pallis, one of his translators, and Ananda Coomaraswamy, that Guénon decisively revised his attitude.
During the 1920s, when Guénon was moving in the coteries of French Catholicism, he turned his attention to some aspects of Europe’s spiritual heritage. As well as numerous articles on such subjects as the Druids, the Grail, Christian symbolism, and folkloric motifs, Guénon produced several major works in this field, including The Esoterism of Dante (1925), St. Bernard (1929), and The Symbolism of the Cross (1931). Another work, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power (1929), was occasioned by certain contemporary controversies.
The quintessential Guénon is to be found in two works that tied together some of his central themes: The Crisis of the Modern World (1927), and his masterpiece, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945). The themes of these two books had been rehearsed in an earlier one, East and West (1924). The books mounted an increasingly elaborate and merciless attack on the foundations of the contemporary European world-view.
While Guénon’s influence remains minimal in the Western academic community at large, he is the seminal influence in the development of traditionalism. Along with Coomaraswamy and Schuon, he forms what one commentator has called “the great triumvirate” of the traditionalist school. Like other traditionalists, Guénon did not perceive his work as an exercise in creativity or personal “originality,” repeatedly emphasizing that in the metaphysical domain there is no room for “individualist considerations” of any kind. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “I have no other merit than to have expressed to the best of my ability some traditional ideas.” When reminded of the people who had been profoundly influenced by his writings, he calmly replied “. . . such disposition becomes a homage rendered to the doctrine expressed by us in a way that is totally independent of any individualistic consideration.”
Most traditionalists regard Guénon as the “providential interpreter of this age.” It was his role to remind a forgetful world, “in a way that can be ignored but not refuted, of first principles, and to restore a lost sense of the Absolute.”
 Whitall Perry, “The Revival of Interest in Tradition,” in R. Fernando (ed) The Unanimous Tradition (Colombo: Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 1991), pp. 8–9.
 Guénon’s slightly lopsided view of Christianity has been discussed in P. L. Reynolds René Guénon: His Life and Work (unpublished) pp. 9ff. See also B. Kelly: “Notes on the Light of the Eastern Religions,” in S. H. Nasr and William Stoddart (eds.), Religion of the Heart (Washington, D.C.: Foundation for Traditional Studies, 1991), pp. 160–161.
 Whitall Perry, “Coomaraswamy: The Man, Myth, and History”, in Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1977, p. 160.
 René Guénon, “La Demiurge,” La Gnose 1909.
 Gai Eaton, The Richest Vein (Ghent, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 1995), pp. 188–189.
 A. K. Coomaraswamy, The Bugbear of Literacy (London: Perennial Books, 1979), pp. 72–73.
 Mircea Eliade, “The Occult and the Modern World,” in Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashions (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976), p. 51.
 S. H. Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 101.
 Perry, “The Man and His Witness,” in S. D. R. Singam (ed.), Ananda Coomaraswamy: Remembering and Remembering Again and Again (Kuala Lumpur: privately published, 1974), p. 7.
 Marco Bastriocchi, “The Last Pillars of Wisdom,” in S. D. R. Singam (ed.), Ananda Coomaraswamy, p. 356.
 Frithjof Schuon, “René Guénon: Definitions,” quoted by M. Bastriocchi, “The Last Pillars of Wisdom,” p. 359.
 Perry, “Coomaraswamy: The Man, Myth, and History,” p. 163.
Adapted from Harry Oldmeadow, Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions (Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2005), pp. 184–194. Online source: http://www.worldwisdom.com/public/authors/Rene-Guenon.aspx
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René Guénon’s first wife died, but, after he moved to Cairo, he remarried. I would like to see a picture of his second wife, as the two children from that marriage (seen in the picture above) definitely do not look White.
Regarding René Guénon – The White Race needs a REAL White homeland, and Whites need to be doing REAL things to get it. It is as simple as that.
Evola, a man of Tradition like Guenon, said that in the dark age the race of the soul doesn’t always incarnate in line with the physical form. Meaning, just because one looks Indo-European does not mean one is Indo-European in soul, and just because one does not look Indo-European doesn’t mean their soul is not Indo-European.
Guenon’s writings are valuable for they explain the principles that a society should be based on if it wants to be a healthy one. It isn’t enough for Indo-Europeans to have a monoethnic society and all will be good. The society must also be anchored in transcendent, metaphysical principles. A society that lacks that will end up in the same situation that the west has degenerated into.
Vedas can prove exactly the same what you have quoted from Evola.
That is why I am totally bored with ”White” , ”Black” and Jewish questions for example. I agree that there are certain issues which are certainly correct albeit there are much, much more serious problems than those ahead of us.
I agree especially with this: ”Guenon’s writings are valuable for they explain the principles that a society should be based on if it wants to be a healthy one. It isn’t enough for Indo-Europeans to have a monoethnic society and all will be good. The society must also be anchored in transcendent, metaphysical principles. A society that lacks that will end up in the same situation that the west has degenerated into.”
That is exactly why Guenon’s writings are valuable for study. Although my opinion is that Evola went many steps further than any of Traditionalists. At the present time I could say that in some way for Alain de Benoist and Guillame Faye even though they appear very opposite to each other.
Thank you for your post LightofApollo.
There can be no doubt that Rene Guenon was an authority and like us today person who was trying to dive into past as much as possible to find the fundamental answers of our life.
What I find as an obstacle is to actually take as ”Primordial Tradition” anything connected or related to any of the Abrahamic religions . Yes, Sufis may be interesting, yes Orthodox may as well very mystical, albeit none of those will give the real answers in the long run. They may rather lead to path which is going in circles. In that way there isn’t any end to it except confusion as it is at the moment. Hence the name ”Kali Yuga” – the age of Iron. What many don’t understand is that Satya, Dvapara and Treta Yuga and knowledge from those Yugas aren’t available anymore. If there was anything left it did burn already many centuries ago and as a result we have lots of speculators speculating about ”hidden knowledge” whose existence is no more simply because in this Kali Yuga such knowledge is almost impossible to find and in the first place it is not supposed to be found on the large scale (as in previous Yugas was the case). Again, take a look at the state of today’s post modern world and I don’t have to go any further.
Furthermore I don’t agree with Guenon in his statement : ” the Primordial Tradition which, in reality, is the same everywhere, regardless of the different shapes it takes in order to be fit for every race and every historical period.”
It is not the same everywhere at all (nothing to do with race theories by the way). If that was the truth people would live in peace like in Satya or Dvapara Yuga. Furthermore Abrahamic Religions are given to confuse and bring further confusion to this time and age. They are here to divide not to unite anything or anyone. Take a look at the last 2000 years. The only unifying thing is that all three of them have nothing to do with what we call Indo-European culture and tradition whose roots have connections with the original ”Primordial Tradition” to some extent.
No Golden Dawn, no Thelema no Currents, magickal & occult teachings, elitist orders will revive it. Sure, they may give a quick fix of power, knowledge, confidence and superiority over others albeit in the long run they can’t change nothing on a larger scale.
They are again just fragments of the fragments. If they did work many magicians of present time will already rule this world, wage wars and compete on a much, much larger scale. Have you seen any Vimana lately ? I haven’t . Flying people or people walking on the water ? Any weapons such as the ones found in Bhagavad Gita ? Nope. Ultimately those teachings are closed for general public in any Kali Yuga. Golden Age ? Perhaps in the far future but not now since there is much time left to this Kali Yuga.
Hitler as a Kalki ? Don’t make me laugh.
In times when Guenon wrote that statement there was already myriad of speculators. Speculators such as different quasi nobles and ”mystical personalities” as were R.von Sebottendorf, Lanz von Liebenfels, Guido von List, Mathilde Ludendorff and of course ones Guenon describes in his books (mentioned above) : Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (1921) and The Spiritist Fallacy (1923). What is the most interesting is that in the end he fell to almost the same trap as the ones he wrote against by his choice in choosing Sufism which is just again ”scratching the surface” of the actual timeless and eternal tradition. Jakob W. Hauer did the same thing with Anthroposophy which he despised initially.
Primordial Tradition is just the advanced New Age teaching for the ones who don’t want to be just simple leftist New Agers. Ultimately hodgepodge isn’t the way but as some say – ”better some tradition or fragments of something than nothing at all.”
My answer would be : ”look inside and don’t waste so much time looking around for groups, lots of teachings and information and organizations”. Too much Jnana or knowledge is sometimes more obstacle than help. Answers may be on your doorstep. Grass sometimes isn’t greener ”over there” where we think it may well be.
Yes, there is that trap one can fall in by thinking that all non-modernist cultures are Traditional to varying extents. With that quoted statement, Guenon may have fallen into that trap, though I think that overall his writings don’t really suggest it.
As for Sufism, I disagree. I’d say it is in complete accord (or nearly in complete accordance) with Tradition and pure metaphysics (that also applies to the Ismaili current). Islam, on the other hand, is mostly not Traditional, same goes for the other Abrahamic faiths (I agree with you here)….and every other Semitic religion/doctrine. There are some elements of Tradition/Truth inherent in these Abrahamic faiths, but they are outweighed by the anti-Traditional elements, and all attempts to bring them in accordance have come from the outside and the religions have in turn fought against this attempt to varying degrees……ranging from general distrust of Sufism within Islam to outright persecution against the Templars, Hermeticists etc. among the higher ups in the Christian churches.
Finally, the idea that what Guenon, Evola, Coomaramswamy etc. had in view of Tradition is the same as the New Age is wrong. Pure and simple. The only similarity between these two camps is that the Truth can manifest itself in more than one contingent doctrine. Thats where it ends. There is none of the typical New Age trappings in the writings of the above mentioned figures……no pantheism/immanentism (viewing the universe/world process as the Absolute), no reincarnation, no spiritism, no idea that each successive age is better than the last, etc.
I will not be using ”Heliand” anymore in my posts hence Physis is the more appropriate name.
Yes, you are quite correct in writing that Sufism is in accordance with what is called Perennial Tradition but not with what I call Timeless Tradition hence that premise in its whole isn’t correct. Sufism is certainly influenced in some way (fragments only or traces) with/by the most essential and secret of the ancient teachings of ”original timeless tradition” whose remnants are to be found only in the cults such as it is Bhakti Marg albeit Sufism doesn’t have personal relationship with the ”Divine”. Sophia Perennis roots and basis are of an impersonal and not of a personal character/origin of relationship to what we may/could call The Divine, Runa, Saragrahi or Holy, or you can substitute it with the word/name of your liking. That is the greatest mistake which has root in all 3 Abrahamic religions. Result is: Divide et Impera. This is its sole purpose in Kali Yuga. To take people from the correct path. Even perennialists , no matter how learned they were, made the same mistake.
I agree upon Truth notion in Abrahamic faiths but again in the whole it doesn’t make any progress so an individual person or groups end up chasing their tail or run in the circle without an end in sight. Take a look at the last 2000 years. I am not saying that all was bad but most of the artists, poets and authors through the centuries were deep inside ”seekers of mystery or truth”. Outwardly they may have been Catholic or whatever they were albeit inside they have remained true to their explorations and beliefs. They had to do that otherwise they would be persecuted as Cathars once were.
My idea that Primordial Tradition is just advanced New Age teachings again can be proven in one thing – impersonalism. When I write impersonalism I mean ”no direct connection with the truth”. Again, there may be a fragment perhaps trace albeit fragment is just a fragment not the whole. In each of Yugas there is worship of that what you and others may call ”The Truth” , – people live happy, there is no wars, no diseases, no quarells up to the Treta Yuga when Bhagavad Gita appears. Everything starts to erode up to Kali Yuga which is the climax. This is just a start, it will get worse as it already is showing. Now, there is one good thing in this particular Kali Yuga. There is a direct arcanam and samskara seva, in other words worship and rituals which are attained through direct initiation. The main issue is ”the direct initiation” or ”connecting to a powerhouse” which is done in an unbroken line of Acharyas or teachers. Even Coomaraswamy didn’t touch upon that so much and when it did it was related to Yakshas.
I am currently writing book and it will probably take some time to properly write everything although I hope that end result will be interesting and thought provoking.
Thank you again for your comments. I learn from every comment and exchange in communication and not only from standard empirical and theoretical knowledge available through study and research.
Just a small point regarding your last paragraph. “Too much Jnana or knowledge is sometimes more obstacle than help.” I agree with the sentiment here, which if I understand you correctly is that too much information can be an obstacle if it is not properly processed and understood. However, some terms should be clarified. Jnana (cognate with gnosis, from the same Proto Indo-European root) is unconditioned direct knowing / perceiving. The Buddhist tradition describes it as the inherent wisdom of enlightened mind. A similar term is prajna, although unlike jnana, prajna is conditioned wisdom; the sort of thing we accumulate through study and experience. Our English word ‘knowledge,’ though derived from the same root as jnana, and gnosis, seems to me to have lost any reference to metaphysical truth, and has come to mean simply ‘information.’ Our word ‘wisdom’ conveys something of the meaning of prajna. As for ‘jnana,’ I don’t know of a suitable equivalent word. But there can’t be “too much” of it, because it isn’t quantitative.
Thank you for your comment. You did indeed properly understood what I wrote.
However I am not writing from the point of the Buddhist tradition. Teachings of Buddhism were given as an answer and cover on the ”timeless tradition” which was slowly disappearing because it became corrupted and started to rot.
Buddhism was needed at that time as an alternative then and at that point in time.
The word Jnana has a very wide lexical area. E.g. in Shiva Sutra 1.2, it means ignorance!! It can mean just consciousness, knowledge or wisdom depending on the context. For jnana-marga as practice it is knowledge, as sadhya it is wisdom, i.e., direct consciousness of one’s spiritual nature.
Prajna and/or buddhi is associated with brahman, which is the Upanisadic or Vedantic perspective hence it is self-realized atman.
”Sunyata and Karuna, transformed as Prajna and Upaya, were held very important in Tantric Buddhism, and a tendency was manifest to interpret this Prajna and Upaya as static and dynamic, or negative and positive, as female and male, and so on. Gradually the three jewels Buddha, Dharma and Sangha came to be interpreted in terms of Prajna, Upaya and the world produced by them ; Upaya as the male principle was identified with Buddha, and necessarily Dharma became Prajna or the female principle and Sangha came to be interpreted as phenomenal world which is produced through the union of Prajna and Upaya. Some scholars maintain that these transformed forms of the three jewels are still now preserved in the Jagannatha temple of Puri. ”
(Shashibhusan Dasguta, Obscure Religious Cults)
One interesting thing is that people of white origin are not allowed to enter the temple of Lord Jagannatha in Puri because they are considered mlecchas and unpure so I personally wasn’t allowed to come in.
Thanks for your reply, and for the clarification. You are right to point out that in clarifying terms, we have to know what tradition we are speaking from. I did not know that jnana had such a wide range of meaning, but I’m not too surprised, since other terms in other traditions have a similar range. In some Tibetan Buddhist schools, rigpa is the word used to describe the enlightened state, whereas in others it does not have so lofty a meaning. I guess what is most important is the apprehension of what the words and concepts are pointing at.
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