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René Guénon: East & West

[1]2,918 words

Translator anonymous, edited by Greg Johnson

The new edition of René Guénon’s book The Crisis of the Modern World [2] offers the opportunity for a critical account, which may be of some interest, of the author’s leading ideas. These ideas are closely connected with the problem of the relations between East and West and of the fate that awaits our civilization as a whole. They are all the more interesting as Guénon dissents from all those who for some time now have been writing about the “decline of the West,” the “crisis of the European spirit,” and so forth—all ideas which today, after the new collapse brought about by World War II, have again come to the fore with renewed vigor.

Guénon does not deal with individual cases and confused reactions, nor does he deal with philosophy in the current sense of the word; his ideas originate from Tradition in a broad and impersonal sense. Unlike the writers alluded to above—Spengler, Ortega y Gasset, Huizinga, Massis, Keyserling, Benda—Guénon does not spiritually belong to the modern world; he bears witness to a different world, and he makes no mystery of the fact that he owes his knowledge to a great extent to the direct contact he has had with the exponents of the traditional East.

Guénon takes as his starting point—and we believe it is essential and can be accepted without discussion—that the real antithesis is not between East and West, but between traditional civilization and modern civilization; it is, therefore, neither geographical nor historical, but it has a morphological and typological character.

We may indeed describe as “traditional” a universal type of civilization that has been attained, even if in various forms and more or less completely, both in the East and in the West.

“Traditional” civilization—all traditional civilizations—have metaphysical points of reference. They are characterized by the recognition of an order superior to everything human and temporal; by the presence and the authority exercised by elites who derive from this transcendent plane the principles and value needed for attaining a higher system of knowledge as well as for bringing about a social organization based on the recognition of hierarchical principles and for giving a truly deep meaning to life. In the West, the Middle Ages still offered an example of a traditional civilization of this type.

The direct opposite of traditional civilization is modern civilization, whether Western or Eastern. It is characterized by the systematic denial of everything superior to man—whether considered as an individual or as a community—and by the organization of unsanctified forms of knowledge, or action, of life that see nothing beyond temporal and contingent realities, that lead to the rule of number and by a logical necessity bear in themselves from the start the germs of those crises and disorders of which the world now offers such striking and widespread evidence.

In Guénon’s opinion the situation in the East is different. The East still preserves living aspects of “traditional civilization” that have disappeared elsewhere. Guénon believes that the modern world can only overcome the crisis from which it is suffering by a return to a traditional type of civilization. But this cannot arise from nothing. As the West has long lost touch with its previous traditional forms, of which—apart from the religious world very narrowly understood—almost nothing remains.

Guénon considers that the contact between the elites of the West and the representatives of the traditional spirit of the East is a matter of essential importance for securing a revival, for “galvanizing,” so to speak, latent forces. It is not a question of being untrue to ourselves by trying to orientalize ourselves, but of receiving from the East something that can be used in rediscovering our own tradition and thus rise above the purely human, individualistic, and rationalistic civilization of recent times; to form, little by little, an atmosphere favorable to the revival of a traditionalistic West.

At this point, an understanding between East and West would come about naturally and would rest on foundations quite different than those conceived by all who have reflected on such problems from an exclusively political or abstractly cultural or economic or vaguely “spiritualistic” standpoint.

In the abstract, Guénon’s ideas seem to us quite acceptable, and he deserves credit for formulating them rigorously, with an uncompromising obedience to truth and truth alone. We must, however, make reservations when we pass from the general to the particular, to the world outlook and the symbols needed for effective action.

If we turn to the East, his views must be brought up to date for since the first edition of this book, many things have changed and changed rapidly. It becomes more evident every day that the East itself, understood as representing traditional civilization, is passing through a crisis. China no longer comes within the picture. In India nationalistic and modernizing trends are steadily gaining ground. The Arab countries and even Tibet are in confusion. Thus much of Guénon’s East seems becoming a thing of the past, and those parts of the East where the traditional spirit still survives thanks to uninterrupted continuity, and which might fulfill the function to which we have already referred, are to be found, if at all, in some small and rather exclusive groups of choice spirits, destined by the course of events to play an ever smaller part in the historical destinies of their peoples. It is to be hoped that at least these small groups will succeed in remaining immune to the modernizing influences to which most Orientals trying to communicate one aspect of their civilization or another in Europe or in America have unfortunately succumbed. Otherwise the problem as stated by Guénon would be deprived of its most important term. As things are, we must repeat that the ideas expressed by Guénon might well be received with skepticism should they lead us to seek something that could serve us as a model in the present-day East considered as a civilization per se. Nor is there any reason to expect that things will change in the near future.

Now we should say something about the cyclical laws that play such an important role in traditional teachings and to which Guénon himself makes frequent reference. In contrast to optimistic and progressive Western myths of the 17th and 18th centuries, those laws speak of a gradual loss of spirituality and of tradition the further we travel from the point of departure. All the negative and critical features of modern civilization are accounted for by the fact that they correspond to the last phases of a cycle, the phase known in India as the “Dark Age,” the Kali Yuga, described many centuries ago in terms that reflect in a striking way the physiognomy of the present day West.

The present-day West may well be the epicenter of the “Dark Age.” But those laws apply to the East as well, so we cannot exclude the possibility that tomorrow a very special solution for the relations between East and West may be found. As we Westerners advance further along the downward path, we are also nearer to the terminal point of the present cycle, and this means that we are also nearer the new start than are other civilizations where traditional forms still survive. We are justified in thinking that, in obedience to those laws, the East will have to travel along our Via Crucis and at an infinitely more rapid rate—just think of China!

The whole problem will thus consist in seeing whether Western forces will succeed in leading us beyond the crisis, beyond the zero point of the cycle. Should this be so, it may well be that the East will stand where the West stands today at a time when the West will already have gone beyond the “Dark Age”: The relations between the two will thus be inverted. According to this view, all that the East represents—not its elites but its real present-day civilization as a whole—would then be, in a certain sense, a residuum accounted for by the fact that it (the East) has not reached the point the West has reached in the cyclical process.

Therefore, generally speaking, the points of reference with which the East can supply us are of an ideal rather than a real order, and one should not view too optimistically the prospects of obtaining from it really valid help in resisting forces now at work all the world over, and for which it would be hard to master otherwise than by “riding the tiger.”

In considering the possibility of rebuilding the West on lines that might not only save her from a catastrophe but even place her at the ehs of the historical movement when the forces of a new cyclical period will be set in motion, a matter of principle has to be faced when the specific standpoint taken by Guénon is examined. He believes that one of the causes of the crisis of the modern world is to be found in the theoretical and practical denial of the priority that should be given to knowledge, contemplation, and pure intellectuality over action.

Guénon gives indeed a meaning to such terms that differs widely from the usual one. He ises them to express spiritual activities related to the transcendent order of those pure metaphysics principle which have always laid the permanent foundations for all sound tradition. It is also obvious that no objection can be raised to the asserted priority, if by action we mean disorderly activity, unenlightened and purposeless, dominated exclusively by contingent and material considerations, aiming only at worldly achievements, which is now the only form of action modern civilization recognizes and admires.

But if pure doctrine be meant, then the case differs. It should be remembered that contemplation—or pure knowledge—and action have always been related, the former to the priestly, the latter to the warrior or royal caste (Brahmin and Kshatriya to use the Hindu terms). Contemplation is a specifically religious-priestly symbol, while action is the symbol of the warrior and the king.

When this has been said we must go back to a teaching that Guénon himself refers to on more than one occasion, i.e., that this duality of dignities did not exist in the beginning, that the two powers merged in an apex that was both royal and sacerdotal. Ancient China, the first Aryan Hindu period, Iran, early Greece, Egypt, early Rome and then Imperial Rome, the Caliphate, and so on, all tell us this. It is as the result of regression and degeneration that the two dignities separated and not infrequently were even in strife, as the effect of reciprocal disavowal.

But if this is so, then none of the two poles can claim absolute priority over the other. Both alike arise from, and both alike have strayed far from, the original ideal and purely traditional state; and if we were to aim at the restoration, under some form, of that apex, neither of the two elements, the priestly-contemplative, or the warrior-active could be taken as the foundation stone and starting point. In such a case action should not of course be understood in the modern but in the traditional sense, in that of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Islamic jihad, or the acetic orders of chivalry of the Western Middle Ages.

The “personal equation” of Guénon has prevented him from giving adequate recognition to all this, and has led him to attribute exclusive importance to the point of view of action subordinated to contemplation. And this one-sided point of view is not without consequences for the problem of the possible reconstruction of the West.

There can be no doubt that the Western world and Western man are characterized by the priority given to action; Guénon himself admits this. Now if tradition in its universal sense is one in its metaphysical non-human essence, it admits nevertheless various forms corresponding to the diverse aptitudes and prevalent qualifications of the peoples and societies it is to serve. Now, in the first place, Guénon fails to explain his assertion that the only form of tradition that was acceptable to the West was religious in character, that is to say, in the best case, directed toward contemplation as its ideal. On this point the facts may be ascertained, but one cannot speak of the traditional form best suited to the specific character of Westerners, who are more inclined to action, and who in the absence of a tradition that transfigured and integrated the ideals of action, have degraded action to the materialistic and savage expressions known to us all. Moreover, prior to Christianity  the West had tradition sof a different type, and the civilization of the Middle Ages was not one dominated only by the ideas of knowledge and contemplation. We need only call to mind the important Ghibilene expressions of that civilization, even now so little understood in their authentic grandeur and in their deepest significance.

But even if we consider the future—i.e., the possibility of a reconstruction of the West on traditional lines—the same question arises. If the West is inclined to action, then action should be the starting point, and one should beware of stigmatizing as heretical and anti-traditional all that is not based on the premise of the priority of contemplation and knowledge unilaterally interpreted, over action. One should instead study forms ot civilization which, though traditional—thoush giving importance to all that has a metaphysical and not exclusively human character—yet have at their base symbols drawn from the world of action. Only a tradition of this kind could have a real grip on the nations of the West and could provide them with something organic, congenial, and efficient.

It is strange that in his many references to Eastern civilizations, Guenon practically ignores Japan. This is again the result of his “personal equation,” of his lack of sympathy and comprehension of civilizations in which the Brahmanical-sacerdotal interpretation of tradition does not predominate. But it is Japan that until yesterday offered us a most interesting example of a civilization which in externals had been modernized as a means to an end—for purposes of defense and offense—but which in its inner essence was faithful to a millennial tradition that belonged to the kingly and warrior and not to the contemplative type. The Samurai caste was its backbone, a caste in which the symbols of action did not exclude but rather postulated elements of a sacred and sometime even initiatic character. With all the many differences that divide them, that scheme of civilization had visible relations to that of the Holy roman Empire and there can be no doubt that if the Western man were to revive for himself a higher, traditional vocation, ideals of that kind, duly adjusted and purified, would appeal to him much more than those of the contemplative and pure knowledge type.

Guénon uses the expression élite intellectuelle in referring to those in the West who should organize—either independently or in collaboration with exponents of the still traditional East—and gradually bring about a change in the mental outlook, to halt the process of dissolution before it completes its fatal and irrevocable progress throughout the whole modern world.

As we have said, Guénon does not use the expression “intellectuality” in its generally accepted meaning; those to whom he refers are not “intellectuals,” but men of superior character whose formation has been on traditional lines and who possess a knowledge of metaphysics. Moreover he mentions an “indirect action” invisible and imponderable that such elites can exercise (here we might call to mind some of the secret societies of the Chinese, perhaps even the action of Freemasonry in the 17th and 18th centuries).

But for all this, the notion of an élite intellectuelle gives one the impression of something abstract. If we accept the earlier account of an active and more Western expression of the traditional spirit, then the idea of an Order—analogous to the Templars, Ismaelites, and Teutonic Knights of old—seems better suited to the purpose than an élite intellectuelle. An Order represents a superior form of life within the framework of a life of action, which may have a metaphysical and traditional “dimension” while at the same time remaining in more directly involved with the real world of historical facts.

But all this implies a change of mental outlook, a new vision of the world, which should exercise its influence in all fields of modern culture, including the so-called exact sciences. Now in the case of this more general task, the reservations we have made no longer hold good; all that Guénon says is of undoubted value; he points to the essential principles that must be respected both in recognizing the real bearing of the crisis of the modern world, and for laying down the foundations for a return to an “integral traditionalism.” His suggestions differ widely in their bearing from the scanty proposals now brought forward by those Westerners who here and there are making an instinctive reaction against the prevailing state of things for which they foresee, more or less clearly, that the only possible outcome is disaster.

Now the fact that a Westerner, like René Guénon has not reached these conclusions by relying solely on his own forces and potentialities, but through close contact with the authentic exponents of a still Traditional East, is a fact which has particular significance for us and one that deserves to be emphasized in these pages.

Source: East and West, vol 4, no. 4 (1954): 255–58.