Excerpts from Guénon, René (2001) The Crisis of the Modern World Sophia Perennis: Hillsdale, New York
René Guénon, Abd al-Wahid Yahya after his acceptance of Islam, was undoubtedly one of the, if not the, most important exponents of perennialism of the last century. As is pointed out in a very good introduction (in Swedish) to the book on Café Exposé it’s topicality has in no way decreased since it was first published in 1927.
Theosophy and 'Celtism' may no longer be the pseudo-initiatic flavour of the day. Instead we have other types of self-proclaimed "traditionalists" who, with their attempts to fuse the most revolting modern identities with since long dead traditions, make wiccans and anthroposophists look like remnants of the Golden Age.
The next set of excerpts from Guénon will be from The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. Before that there will however most likely be some new excerpts from one or two works of Evola. This even though it must be noted that the realization of Evolas inferiority to Guénon in almost every relevant instance only grows with time and increased knowledge of the two.
The Hindu doctrine teaches that a human cycle, to which it gives the name Manvantara, is divided into four periods marking so many stages during which the primordial spirituality becomes gradually more and more obscured; these are the same periods that the ancient traditions of the West called the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages. We are now in the fourth age, the Kali-Yuga or ‘dark age’, and have been so already, it is said, for more than six thousand years, that is to say since a time far earlier than any known to ‘classical’ history. Since that time, the truths which were formerly within reach of all have become more and more hidden and inaccessible; those who possess them grow fewer and fewer, and although the treasure of ‘nonhuman’ (that is, supra-human) wisdom that was prior to all the ages can never be lost, it nevertheless becomes enveloped in more and more impenetrable veils, which hide it from men’s sight and make e it extremely difficult to discover.
However, we have for the moment no intention of going back to the origin of the present cycle, or even to the beginning of the Kali-Yuga; we shall only be concerned, directly at least, with a far more limited field, namely with the last phases of the Kali-Yuga.
For us, the real Middle Ages extend from the reign of Charlemagne to the opening of the fourteenth century, at which date a new decadence set in that has continued, through various phases and with gathering impetus, up to the present time. This date is the real starting-point of the modern crisis: it is the beginning of the disruption of Christendom, with which the Western civilization of the Middle Ages was essentially identified: at the same time, it marks the origin of the formation of ’nations’ and the end of the feudal system, which was very closely linked with the existence of Christendom. The origin of the modern period must therefore be placed almost two centuries further back than is usual with historians; the Renaissance and Reformation were primarily results, made possible only by the preceding decadence; but, far from being a readjustment, they marked an even deeper falling off, consummating, as they did the definitive rupture with the traditional spirit, the former in the domain of the arts and sciences, and the latter in that of religion itself, although this was the domain in which it might have seemed the most difficult to conceive of such a rupture.
Humanism was the first form of what has subsequently become contemporary secularism; and, owing to its desire to reduce everything to the measure of man as an end in himself, modern civilization has sunk stage by stage until it has reached the level of the lowest elements in man and aims at little more than satisfying the needs inherent in the material side of his nature, an aim that is in any case quite illusory since it constantly creates more artificial needs than it can satisfy.
It would seem that a halt midway is no longer possible since, according to all the indications furnished by the traditional doctrines, we have in fact entered upon the last phase of the Kali-Yuga, the darkest period of this ‘dark age’, the state of dissolution from which it is impossible to emerge otherwise than by a cataclysm, since it is not a mere readjustment that is necessary at such a stage, but a complete renovation.
In this connection, it might be said that what according to tradition, characterizes the ultimate phase of a cycle is the realization of all that has been neglected or rejected during the preceding phases; and indeed, this is exactly the case with modern civilization, which lives as it were only by that for which previous civilizations had no use.
An inevitable ill is nonetheless an ill, and even if good is to come out of evil, this does not change the evil character of the evil itself: we use the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ here only to make ourselves clear and without any specifically ‘moral’ intention.
It is true that there have always been many and varied civilizations, […] but distinction does not mean opposition, and there can be equivalence of a sort between civilizations with very long as they are all based on the same fundamental principles—of which they only represent applications varying in accordance with varied circumstances. This is the case with all civilizations that can be called normal or traditional, which comes to the same thing; there is no essential opposition between them, and such divergences as may exist are merely outward and superficial. On the other hand, a civilization that recognizes no higher principle, but is in reality based only on a negation of principles, is by this very fact ruled out from all mutual understanding with other civilizations, for if such understanding is to be profound and effective it can only come from above, that is to say from the very factor that this abnormal and perverted civilization lacks.
[T]here was no reason for opposition between East and West as long as there were traditional civilizations in the West as well as in the East; the opposition has meaning only as far as the modern West is concerned, for it is far more an opposition between two mentalities than between two more or less clearly defined geographical entities.
When, therefore, in speaking of the world of today, we use the expression ‘Western mentality’, this means the same as the modern mentality; and since the other mentality has continued to exist only in the East, we can, also with reference to the present state of things, call it the Eastern mentality. These two terms, then, express nothing more than an actual fact; and, whereas one of the two mentalities has come into being during recent history and is in fact quite clearly Western, we do not wish to imply anything as to the source of the other, which was formerly common to East and West, for its origin must, if truth be told, merge with that of mankind itself, being the mentality that can be described as normal, if only for the reason that it has inspired more or less completely all the civilizations we know, with the exception of one only, that is to say, once again, the modern Western civilization.
[T]he explicit assertion is to be found everywhere that the primordial tradition of the present cycle comes from the hyperborean region; at a later time there were several secondary currents corresponding to different periods, and one of the most important of these, at least among those whose traces are still discernible, undoubtedly flowed from West to East. All this, however, refers to very far off times—such as are commonly called ‘prehistoric’—with which we are not concerned here; what we do say is this: in the first place, the home of the primordial tradition has for a very long time now been in the East and it is there that the doctrinal forms that have issued most directly from it are to be found; secondly, in the present state of things, the true traditional spirit, with all that it implies, no longer has any authentic representatives except in the East.
This explanation would be incomplete without a reference, however brief, to certain proposals that have seen the light in various contemporary circles for restoring a ‘Western tradition’. […] Unfortunately, such ‘traditionalism’ is not the same as the real traditional outlook, for it may be no more than a tendency, a more or less vague aspiration presupposing no real knowledge; and it is unfortunately true that, in the mental confusion of our times, this aspiration usually gives rise to fantastic and imaginary conceptions devoid of any serious foundation.
There are others who wish to attach themselves to Celtism, and, since the model they take is less remote from our time, their purpose may seem less impracticable. But where can one find ‘Celtism’ today in a pure state and with sufficient vitality to be able to serve as a basis? […] It is true that clearly recognizable and still usable elements of Celtism’ have come down to us through various intermediaries, but these elements are very far from constituting a complete tradition; moreover, strange to say, even in the countries where it formerly existed, this tradition is now more completely forgotten than those of many other civilizations that never had a home there.
It is only by establishing contact with still living traditions that what is capable of being revived can be made to live again; and this, as we have so often pointed out, is one of the greatest services that the East can render the West.
[I]f the Eastern traditions in their own special forms can certainly be assimilated by an elite—which by its very definition must be beyond all forms—they certainly cannot be so by the mass of Western people, for whom they were not made, unless some unforeseen transformation takes place.
There are those today who speak of a ‘defense’ of the West, which is odd, to say the least, considering that it is the West, as we shall see later on, that is threatening to submerge the whole of mankind in the whirlpool of its own confused activity; odd, we say, and completely unjustified if they mean, as they seem to (despite certain reservations), that this defense is to be against the East, for the true East has no thought of attacking or dominating anybody, and asks no more than to be left in independence and tranquillity—surely a not unreasonable demand.
The Eastern doctrines are unanimous, as also were the ancient doctrines of the West, in asserting that contemplation is superior to action, just as the unchanging is superior to change.
Aristotle asserted that there must be a ‘unmoved mover’ of all things. It is knowledge that serves as the ‘unmoved mover of action; it is clear that action belongs entirely to the world of change and ‘becoming’; knowledge alone gives the possibility of leaving this world and the limitations that are inherent in it, and when it attains to the unchanging —as does principial or metaphysical knowledge, that is to say knowledge in its essence—it becomes itself possessed of immutability, for all true knowledge essentially consists in identification with its object.
What is most remarkable is that movement and change are actually prized for their own sake, and not in view of any end to which they may lead; this is a direct result of the absorption of all human faculties in outward action whose necessarily fleeting character has just been demonstrated.
This leads us to repeat an essential point on which not the slightest ambiguity must be allowed to persist: intellectual intuition, by which alone metaphysical knowledge is to be obtained, has absolutely nothing in common with this other ‘intuition’ of which certain contemporary philosophers speak: the latter pertains to the sensible realm and in fact is sub-rational, whereas the former, which is pure intelligence, is on the contrary supra-rational.
As long as Westerners persist in ignoring or denying intellectual intuition, they can have no tradition in the true sense of the word, nor can they reach any understanding with the authentic representatives of the Eastern civilizations, in which everything, so to speak derives from this intuition, which is immutable and infallible in itself, and the only starting-point for any development in conformity with traditional norms.
We have just seen that in civilizations of a traditional nature, intellectual intuition lies at the root of everything; in other words, it is the pure metaphysical doctrine that constitutes the essential, everything else being linked to it, either in the form of consequences or applications to the various orders of contingent reality. Not only is this true of social institutions, but also of the sciences, that is, branches of knowledge bearing on the domain of the relative, which in such civilizations are only regarded as dependencies, prolongations, or reflections of absolute or principial knowledge.
By individualism we mean the negation of any principle higher than individuality, and the consequent reduction of civilization, in all its branches, to purely human elements; fundamentally, therefore, individualism amounts to the same thing as what, at the time of the Renaissance, was called ‘humanism’; it is also the characteristic feature of the ‘profane point of view’ as we have described it above.
That is not to say, of course, that this outlook is entirely new; it had already appeared in a more or less pronounced form in other periods, but its manifestations were always limited in scope and apart from the main trend, and they never went so far as to overrun the whole of a civilization, as has happened during recent centuries in the West. What has never been seen before is the erection of an entire civilization on something purely negative, on what indeed could be called the absence of principle; and it is this that gives the modern world its abnormal character and makes of it a sort of monstrosity, only to be understood if one thinks of it as corresponding to the end of a cyclical period, as we have already said.
[A] philosopher’s renown is increased more by inventing a new error than by repeating a truth that has already been expressed by others.
In a traditional civilization it is almost inconceivable that a man should claim an idea as his own; and in any case, were he to do so, he would thereby deprive it of all credit and authority, reducing it to the level of a meaningless fantasy: if an idea is true, it belongs equally to all who are capable of understanding it; if it is false, there is no credit in having invented it. A true idea cannot be ‘new’, for truth is not a product of the human mind; it exists independently of us, and all we have to do is to take cognisance of it; outside this knowledge there can be nothing but error: but do the moderns on the whole care much about truth, or do they even know what it is?
In the same way the Renaissance and the Reformation, which are usually considered to be the first great manifestations of the modern mentality, completed the breach with tradition rather than provoked it; for us, the beginning of this breach is to be found in the fourteenth century, and it is at this date, and not a century or two later, that the beginning of modern times should be fixed.
Individualism necessarily implies the refusal to accept any authority higher than the individual, as well as any means of knowledge higher than individual reason; these two attitudes are inseparable.
Actually, religion being essentially a form of tradition, the anti-traditional outlook cannot help being anti-religious; it begins by denaturing religion and, when it can, ends by suppressing it entirely.
Modern man, instead of attempting to raise himself to truth, seeks to drag truth down to his own level, which is doubtless the reason why there are so many who imagine, when one speaks to them of ‘traditional sciences’, or even of pure metaphysics, that one is speaking only of ‘profane science’ and of ‘philosophy’.
Sometimes individualism, in the lowest and most vulgar sense of the word, is manifested in a still more obvious way, as in the desire that is frequently shown to judge a man’s work by what is known of his private life, as though there could be any sort of connection between the two.
Nothing and nobody is any longer in the right place; men no longer recognize any effective authority in the spiritual order or any legitimate power in the temporal; the ‘profane’ presume to discuss what is sacred, and to contest its character and even its existence; the inferior judges the superior, ignorance sets bounds to wisdom, error prevails over truth, the human is substituted for the Divine, earth has priority over Heaven, the individual sets the measure for all things and claims to dictate to the universe laws drawn entirely from his own relative and fallible reason.
The most decisive argument against de democracy can be summed up in a few words: the higher cannot proceed from the lower, because the greater cannot proceed from the lesser; this is an absolute mathematical certainty that nothing can gainsay.
It is abundantly clear that the people cannot confer a power that they do not themselves possess; true power can only come from above, and this is why—be it said in passing—it can be legitimised only by the sanction of something standing above the social order, that is to say by a spiritual authority, for otherwise it is a mere counterfeit of power, unjustifiable through lack of any principle, and in which I there can be nothing but disorder and confusion.
[T]he French monarchy was itself working unconsciously, from the fourteenth century onward, to prepare the Revolution that was to overthrow it […]
Indeed, if one takes the word ‘individualism’ in its narrowest sense, one could be tempted to oppose the collectivity to the individual, and to think that facts such as the increasingly invasive role of the State and the growing complexity of social institutions indicate a tendency contrary to individualism. In reality however it is not so, because the collectivity, being nothing other than the sum of the individuals within it, , cannot be opposed to them, any more than can the State itself, conceived in the modern fashion, and viewed as a simple representation of the masses—in which no higher principle is reflected; and it will be recalled that individualism, as we have defined it, consists precisely in the negation of every supra-individual principle.
From all that has been said above, it seems sufficiently clear that Easterners are justified in reproaching modern Western civilization for being exclusively material: it has developed along purely material lines only, and from whatever point of view it is considered, one is faced with the more or less direct results of this materialization.
A little later the same word [materialism] took on a narrower meaning, the one in fact that it still retains: it came to denote a conception according to which nothing else exists but matter and its derivatives.
But we intend at present to speak of materialism mainly in another, much wider, and yet very definite sense: in this sense, materialism stands for a complete state of mind, of which the conception that we have just described is only one manifestation among many others, and which, in itself, is independent of any philosophical theory. This state of mind is one that consists in more or less consciously putting material things, and the preoccupations arising out of them, in the first place, whether these preoccupations claim to be speculative or purely practical; and it cannot be seriously disputed that this is the mentality of the immense majority of our contemporaries.
It seems that nothing exists for modern men beyond what can be seen and touched; or at least, even if they admit theoretically that something more may exist, they immediately declare it not merely unknown but unknowable, which absolves them from having to think about it.
Let it be added that these generalized wars have only been made possible by another specifically modern phenomenon, that is, by the formation of ‘nations’—a consequence on the one hand of the destruction of the feudal system, and on the other of the disruption of the higher unity of medieval Christendom […].
For that is what is taking place: the modern West cannot tolerate that men should prefer to work less and be content to live on little; as it is only quantity that counts, and as everything that escapes the senses is held to be nonexistent, it is taken for granted that anyone who is not in a state of agitation and who does not produce much in a material way must be ‘lazy’. In evidence of this and without speaking of the opinions commonly expressed about Eastern peoples, it is enough to note how the contemplative orders are viewed, even in circles that consider themselves religious. In such a world, there is no longer any place for intelligence, or anything else that is purely inward, for these are things that can neither be seen nor touched, that can neither be counted nor weighed; there is a place only for outward action in all its forms, even those that are the most completely meaningless.
However, let us consider things for a moment from the standpoint of those whose ideal is material ‘welfare’, and who therefore rejoice at all the improvements to life furnished by modern ‘progress’; are they quite sure they are not being duped? Is it true that, because they dispose of swifter means of communication and other things of the kind, and because of their more agitated and complicated manner of life, men are happier today than they were formerly? The very opposite seems to us to be true: disequilibrium ca cannot be a condition of real happiness. Moreover, the more needs a man has, the greater the likelihood that he will lack something, and thereby be unhappy; modern civilization aims at creating more and more artificial needs, and as we have already said, it will always create more needs than it can satisfy, for once one has started on this path, it is very hard to stop, and, indeed, there is no reason for stopping at any particular point.
The modern West is said to be Christian, but this is untrue: the modern outlook is anti-Christian, because it is essentially anti-religious; and it is anti-religious because, still more generally, it is anti-traditional; this is its distinguishing characteristic and this is what makes it what it is. […] More than this: we even assert that everything of value that there may be in the modern world has come to it from Christianity, or at any rate through Christianity, for Christianity has brought with it the whole heritage of former traditions, has kept this heritage alive so far as the state of things in the West made it possible, and still contains its latent possibilities.
The modern confusion had its origin in the West, as we have already said, and until the last few years remained in the West. But now a process is taking place, the gravity of which should not be overlooked: the confusion is spreading everywhere, and even the East seems to be succumbing to it.
Let it be stated quite clearly: the modern outlook is purely Western, and those who are affected by it should be classed as Westerners mentally, even though they may be Easterners by birth; all Eastern ideas are completely alien to them, and their ignorance of the traditional doctrines is the only excuse for their hostility toward them. What may seem remarkable, and even contradictory, is that these same individuals who become the auxiliaries of ‘Westernism’ from an intellectual point of view—or, more exactly, in opposition to all real intellectuality—sometimes come to the fore as the opponents of the West in the field of politics. But there is nothing surprising in this, for it is they who strive to introduce the idea of ‘nation’ in the East, and all nationalism is essentially opposed to the traditional outlook; they may wish to resist foreign domination, but in order to do so they make use of Western methods, such as are used by the various Western peoples when fighting among themselves; and it may be that in this fact lies the justification for their existence.
The traditional spirit cannot die, being in its essence above death and change; but it can withdraw completely from the outward world, and then there would really be the ‘end of a world’.
It is true that, when certain passions come into play, the same things can be appreciated in a very different, and even quite contrary, sense according to the circumstances: so, for instance, when a Western people resists a foreign invasion, this is called ‘patriotism’ and merits the highest praise, but when an Eastern people does so it is called ‘fanaticism’ or ‘xenophobia’, and merits hatred and contempt. Moreover, is it not in the name of ‘Right’, and ‘Liberty’, of ’justice’ and ‘Civilization’, that the Europeans claim to impose their dominion over all others, and to forbid anyone to live and think otherwise than they do themselves?