Excerpts from Guénon, René (2004) The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times Sophia Perennis: Hillsdale, New York
Excerpting The Reign of Quantity has by no means been easy. The sentences are often long, sometimes very long, the book constantly refers back to itself, to previous paragraphs and chapters. This, combined with the fact that it is filled with knowledge, insights and timeless wisdoms makes it difficult to exclude anything, or less than everything.
All of the above makes it a book that not only deserves to be read more than once but one that almost needs to be read multiple times. This said, and done, it is more than likely that these excerpts will be updated some time in the future.
The truth is that time is not something that unrolls itself uniformly, so that the practice of representing it geometrically by a straight line, usual among modern mathematicians, conveys an idea of time that is wholly falsified by over-simplification; we shall see later that a tendency toward a pernicious simplification is yet another characteristic of the modern spirit, and also that it inevitably accompanies a tendency to reduce everything to quantity. The correct representation of time is to be found in the traditional conception of cycles, and this conception obviously involves a ’qualified’ time; besides, whenever the question of geometrical representation arises, whether in fact it be set out graphically or only expressed through the use of an appropriate terminology, it is clear that a spatial symbolism is being made use of; all this may suggest that an indication of some kind of correlation may well be discovered between the he qualitative determinations of time and those of space.
A more or less complete exposition of the doctrine of cycles cannot be entered upon here, although that doctrine is naturally implicit in and fundamental to the whole of this study; if the limits of the available space are not to be overstepped, it must suffice for the present to formulate a few observations more directly connected with the subject of this book taken as a whole, referring wherever necessary in later chapters to relevant matters connected with the doctrine of cycles. The first of these observations is as follows: not only has each phase of a temporal cycle, of whatever kind it may be, its peculiar quality that influences the determination of events, but the speed with which events are unfolded also depends on these phases, and is therefore of a qualitative rather than of a quantitative order. Therefore, in speaking of the speed of events in time, by analogy with the speed of displacement of a body in space, a certain transposition of the notion of speed has to be effected, for speed in time cannot be reduced to quantitative expression, as can be done in mechanics when speed properly so called is in question. What this means is that, according to the different phases of the cycle, sequences of events comparable one to another do not occupy quantitatively equal durations; this is particularly evident in the case of the great cycles, applicable both to the cosmic and to the human orders, the most notable example being furnished by the decreasing lengths of the respective durations of the four Yugas that together make up a Manvantara. For that very reason, events are being unfolded nowadays with a speed unexampled in the earlier ages, and this speed goes on increasing and will continue to increase up to the end of the cycle; there is thus something like a progressive ‘contraction’ of duration, the limit of which corresponds to the ‘stopping-point’ previously alluded to […].
The conclusion that emerges clearly from all this is that uniformity, in order that it may be possible, presupposes beings deprived of all qualities and reduced to nothing more than simple numerical ‘units’; also that no such uniformity is ever in fact realizable, while the result of all the efforts made to realize it, notably in the human domain, can only be to rob beings more or less completely of their proper qualities, thus turning them into something as nearly as possible like mere machines; and machines, the typical product of the modern world, are the very things that represent, in the highest degree attained up till now, the predominance of quantity over quality. From a social viewpoint, ‘democratic’ and ‘egalitarian’ conceptions tend toward exactly the same end, for according to them all individuals are equivalent one to another. This idea carries with it the absurd supposition that everyone is equally well fitted for anything whatsoever, though nature provides no example of any such ‘equality’, for the reasons already given, since it would imply nothing but a complete similitude between individuals; but it is obvious that, in the name of this assumed ‘equality’, which is one of the topsy-turvy ‘ideals’ most dear to the modern world, individuals are in fact directed toward becoming as nearly alike one to another as nature allows—and this in the first place by the attempt to impose a uniform education on everyone. It is no less obvious that differences of aptitude cannot in spite of everything be entirely suppressed, so that a uniform education will not give exactly the same results for all; but it is all too true that, although it cannot confer on anyone qualities that he does not possess, it is on the contrary very well fitted to suppress in everyone all possibilities above the common level; thus the ‘leveling’ always works downward: indeed, it could not work in any other way, being itself only an expression of the tendency toward the lowest, that is, toward pure quantity, situated as it is at a level lower than that of all corporeal manifestation—not only below the degree occupied by the most rudimentary of living beings, but also below that occupied by what our contemporaries have a habit of calling ‘lifeless matter’, though even this last, since it is manifested to our senses, is still far from being wholly denuded of quality.
There is a great contrast between what the ancient crafts used to be and what modern industry now is, and it presents in its essentials another particular case and at the same time a practical application of the contrast between the qualitative and quantitative points of view, which predominate in the one and in the other respectively. In order to see why this is so, it is useful to note first of all that the distinction between the arts and the crafts, or between ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’, is itself something specifically modern, as if it had been born of the deviation and degeneration which have led to the replacement in all fields of the traditional conception by the profane conception.
In every traditional civilization, as there has often been occasion to point out, every human activity of whatever kind is always regarded as derived essentially from principles. This is conspicuously true for the sciences, and it is no less true for the arts and the crafts, and there is in addition a close connection between them all for according to a formula postulated as a fundamental axiom by the builders of the Middle Ages, ars sine scientia nihil; the science in question is of course traditional science, and certainly not modern science, the application of which can give birth to nothing except modern industry. By this attachment to principles human activity could be said to be as it were ‘transformed’, and instead of being limited to what it is in itself, namely, a mere external manifestation (and the profane point of view consists in this and nothing else), it is integrated with the tradition, and constitutes for those who carry it out an effective means of participation in the tradition, and this is as much as to say that it takes on a truly ‘sacred’ and ‘ritual’ character. That is why it can be said that, in any such civilization, ‘every occupation is a priesthood’; but in order to avoid conferring on this last word a more or less unwarrantable extension of meaning, if not a wholly false one, it must be made clear that priesthood is not priesthood unless it possesses something that has been preserved in the sacerdotal functions alone, ever since the time when the previously non-existent distinction between the sacred and the profane arose.
There is thus no difficulty in seeing how far removed true craft is from modern industry, so much so that the two are as it were opposites, and how far it is unhappily true that in the ‘reign of quantity’ the craft is, as the partisans of ‘progress’ so readily declare, a ‘thing of the past’. The workman in industry cannot put into his work anything of himself, and a lot of trouble would even be taken to prevent him if he had the least inclination to try to do so; but he cannot even try, because all his activity consists solely in making a machine go, and because in addition he is rendered quite incapable of initiative by the professional ‘formation’—or rather deformation—he has received, which is practically the antithesis of the ancient apprenticeship, and has for its sole object to teach him to execute certain movements ‘mechanically’ and always in the same way, without having at all to understand the reason for them or to trouble himself about the result, for it is not he, but the machine, that will really fabricate the object. Servant of the machine, the man must become a machine himself, and thenceforth his work has nothing really human in it, for it no longer implies the putting to work of any of the qualities that really constitute human nature.* The end of all The end of all this is what is called in present-day jargon ‘mass-production’, the purpose of which is only to produce the greatest possible quantity of objects, and of objects as exactly alike as possible, intended for the use of men who are supposed to be no less alike; that is indeed the triumph of quantity, as was pointed out earlier, and it is by the same token the triumph of uniformity. These men who are reduced to mere numerical ‘units’ are expected to live in what can scarcely be called houses, for that would be to misuse the word, but in ‘hives’ of which the compartments will all be planned on the same model, and furnished with objects made by ‘mass-production’, in such a way as to cause to disappear from the environment in which the people live every qualitative difference; it is enough to examine the projects of some contemporary architects (who themselves describe these dwellings as ‘living-machines’) in order to see that nothing has been exaggerated.
* It may be remarked that the machine is in a sense the opposite of the tool, and is in no way a ‘perfected tool’ as many imagine, for the tool is in a sense a ‘prolongation’ of the man himself, whereas the machine reduces the man to being no more than its servant; and, if it was true to say that ‘the tool engenders the craft’, it is no less true that the machine kills it; the instinctive reactions of the artisans against the first machines thus explain themselves.
In connection with the traditional conception of the crafts, which is but one with that of the arts, there is another important question to which attention must be drawn: the works of traditional art, those of medieval art, for instance, are generally anonymous, and it is only very recently that attempts have been made, as a result of modern ‘individualism’, to attach the few names preserved in history to known masterpieces, even though such ‘attributions’ are often very hypothetical. This anonymity is just the opposite of the constant preoccupation of modern artists to affirm and to make known above all their own individualities; on the other hand, a superficial observer might think that it is comparable to the anonymity of the products of present-day industry, although the latter have no claim whatever to be called ‘works of art’; but the truth is quite otherwise, for although there is indeed anonymity in both cases, it is for exactly contrary reasons. It is the same with anonymity as with many other things which by virtue of the inversion of analogy, can be taken either in a superior or in an in inferior sense: thus, for example, in a traditional social organization, an individual can be outside the castes in two ways, either because he is above them (ativarna) or because he is beneath them (avarna), and it is evident that these cases represent two opposite extremes. In a similar way, those among the moderns who consider themselves to be outside all religion are at the extreme opposite point from those who, having penetrated to the principial unity of all the traditions, are no longer tied to any particular traditional form. In relation to the conditions of the normal humanity, or to what may be called its ‘mean’, one category is below the castes and the other beyond: it could be said that one has fallen to the ‘infra-human’ and the other has risen to the ‘supra-human’. Now, anonymity itself can be characteristic both of the ‘infra-human’ and of the ‘supra-human’: the first case is that of modern anonymity, the anonymity of the crowd or the ‘masses’ as they are called today (and this use of the highly quantitative word ‘mass’ is very significant), and the second case is that of traditional anonymity in its manifold applications, including its application to works of art.
Returning now to the consideration of the more specifically ‘scientific’ point of view as the modern world understands it, its chief characteristic is obviously that it seeks to bring everything down to quantity, anything that cannot be so treated being left out of account and is regarded as more or less non-existent.
The earliest product of rationalism in the so-called ’scientific’ field was Cartesian mechanism; materialism was not due to appear until later, for as explained elsewhere, the word and the thing itself are not actually met with earlier than the eighteenth century; besides, whatever may have been the intentions of Descartes himself (and it is in fact possible, by pursuing to the end the logical are mutually very contradictory), there is nonetheless a direct filiation between mechanism and materialism. In this connection it is useful to recall that, although the ancient atomistic conceptions such as and especially of Epicurus can be qualified as mechanistic, these two being the only ‘precursors’ from the ancient world whom the moderns can with any justification claim as their own in this field, their conceptions are of often wrongly looked upon as the earliest form of materialism: for materialism implies above all the modern physicist’s notion of ‘matter’, and at that time this notion was still a long way from having come to birth. The truth is that materialism merely represents one of the two halves of Cartesian dualism, the half to which its author had applied the mechanistic conception; it was sufficient thereafter to ignore or to deny the remaining half, or what comes to the same thing, to claim to bring the whole of reality into the first half, in order to arrive quite naturally at materialism.
Without seeking for the moment to determine more precisely the nature and quality of the supra-sensible, insofar as it is actually involved in this matter, it will be useful to observe how far the very people who still admit it and think that they are aware of its action are in reality permeated by materialistic influence: for even if they do not deny all extra-corporeal reality, like the majority of their contemporaries, it is only because they have formed for themselves an idea of it that enables them in some way to assimilate it to the likeness of sensible things, and to do that is certainly scarcely better than to deny it. There is no reason to be surprised at this, considering the extent to which all the occultist, Theosophist, and other schools of that sort are fond of searching assiduously for points of approach to modern scientific theories, from which indeed they draw their inspiration more directly than they are prepared to admit, and the result is what might logically be expected under such conditions. It may even be observed that, in accordance with the continuous changes in scientific theories, the resemblance between the conceptions of a particular school and a particular scientific theory may make it possible to ‘date’ the school, in default of any more precise information about its history and its origins.
Even today most magnetizers and spiritualists continue to talk of ’fluids’, and what is more, to believe seriously in them; this ‘anachronism’ is all the more strange in that these people are in general fanatical partisans of ‘progress’; such an attitude fits in badly with a conception that has for a long time been excluded from the scientific domain and so ought in their eyes to appear very ‘backward’. In the present-day mythology, ‘fluids’ have been replaced by ‘waves’ and ‘radiations’, these last in their turn of course effectively playing the part of ‘fluids’ in the theories most recently invented to try to explain the action of certain subtle influences; it should suffice to mention ‘radiaesthesia’ which is as ‘typical’ as possible in this respect.
Of course a majority of ’spiritualists’ and even of ’traditionalists’, or of people who call themselves such, are in fact quite as materialistic as other people when matters of this kind are in question, so that the situation is made even more irremediable by the fact that those who most sincerely want to combat the modern spirit are almost all unwittingly affected by it, and all their efforts are therefore condemned to remain without any appreciable result; for these are matters in which goodwill is far from being sufficient; effective knowledge being needed as well, indeed, more needed than anything else. But effective knowledge is the very thing that is made impossible by the influence of the modern spirit with all its limitations, even in the case of those who might have some intellectual capabilities of the required kind if conditions were less abnormal.
In the first place, yet one more confusion and error of interpretation arising from the modern mentality must be dissipated, and that is the idea that there exist things that are purely ’material’. This conception belongs exclusively to the modern mentality, and when it is disencumbered from all the secondary complications added to it by the special theories of the physicists, it amounts to no more than the idea that there exist beings and things that are solely corporeal, and that their existence and their constitution involve no element that is not corporeal. This idea is directly linked to the profane point of view as expressed, perhaps in its most complete form, in the sciences of today, for these sciences are characterized by the absence of any attachment to principles of a superior order, and thus the things taken as the objects of their study must themselves be thought of as being without any such attachment (whereby the ‘residual’ character of the said sciences is once again made evident); this kind of outlook can be regarded as indispensable in order to enable science to deal with its object, for if a contrary admission were made, science would at once be compelled to recognize that the real nature of its object eludes it. It may perhaps be superfluous to seek elsewhere the reason for the enthusiasm displayed by scientists in discrediting any other conception, by presenting it as a ‘superstition’ arising in the imagination of ‘primitive’ peoples, who, it is suggested, can have been nothing but savages or men of an infantile mentality, as the ‘evolutionist’ theories make them out to have been; but whether the reason be mere incomprehension on their part or a conscious partisanship, the scientists do succeed in producing a caricature of the situation convincing enough to induce a complete acceptance of their interpretation in everyone who believes implicitly in whatever they say, namely, in a large majority of our contemporaries.
‘Shamanism’ will also be found to include rites comparable to some that belong to traditions of the highest order: some of them, for example, recall in a striking way the Vedic rites, and particularly those that are most clearly derived from the primordial tradition, such as those in which the symbols of the tree and of the swan predominate.
The people just referred to are such as can properly be described as ‘traditionalists’, meaning people who only have a sort of tendency or aspiration toward tradition without really knowing anything at all about it; this is the measure of the distance dividing the ‘traditionalist’ spirit from the truly traditional spirit, for the latter implies a real knowledge, being indeed in a sense the same as that knowledge. In short, the ‘traditionalist’ is and can be no more than a mere ‘seeker’, and that is why he is always in danger of going astray, not being in possession of the principles that alone could provide him with infallible guidance; and his danger is all the greater because he will find in his path, like so many ambushes, all the false ideas set on foot by the power of illusion, which has a keen interest in preventing him from reaching the true goal of his search. It is indeed evident that this power can only maintain itself and continue to exercise its action on condition that all restoration of the traditional idea is made impossible, and more than ever so when it is preparing to take a further step in the direction of subversion, subversion being, as explained, the second phase of its action.
All misuses of the word ‘tradition’ can serve this same purpose in one way or another, beginning with the most popular of all, whereby it is made synonymous with ‘custom’ or ‘usage’, thus bringing about a confusion of tradition with things that are on the lower human level and are completely lacking in profound significance.
Granted that nothing that is of a purely human order can for that very reason legitimately be called ‘traditional’, there cannot possibly be, for instance, a ‘philosophical tradition’ or a ‘scientific tradition’ in the modern and profane sense of the words, any more, of course, than there can be a ‘political tradition’, at least where all traditional social organization is lacking, as is the case in the modern Western world.
Indeed it sometimes happens that people go so far as to apply the word ‘tradition’ to things that by their very nature are as directly anti-traditional as possible: thus they talk about a ‘humanist tradition’, and a ‘national tradition’, despite the fact that humanism is nothing if not an explicit denial of the supra-human, and the formation of ’nationalities’ was the means employed for the destruction of the traditional civilization of the Middle Ages.
It should be noted that the expression ‘counter-initiation’ has been used here, and not ‘pseudo-initiation’, for the two are quite different, and it is important moreover not to confuse the counterfeiter with the counterfeit. ‘Pseudo-initiation’ as it exists today in numerous organizations, many of them an attached to some form of ‘neo-spiritualism’, is but one of many examples of counterfeit […]. It is really only one of the products of the state of disorder and confusion brought about in the modern period by the ‘satanic’ activity that has its conscious starting-point in the ‘counter-initiation’ […]
As for the ‘counter-initiation’, it is certainly not a mere illusory counterfeit, but on the contrary something very real in its own order, as the effectiveness of its action shows only too well; at least, it is not a counterfeit except in the sense that it necessarily imitates initiation like an inverted shadow, although its real intention is not to imitate but to oppose.
One of the simplest means at the disposal of ‘pseudo-initiatic’ organizations for the fabrication of a false tradition for the use of their adherents is undoubtedly ‘syncretism’, which consists in assembling m an a more or less convincing manner elements borrowed from almost anywhere, and in putting them together as it were ‘from the outside’, without any genuine understanding of what they really represent in the various traditions to which they properly belong.
The truth is that there has never existed anything that could rightly be called either an ‘Oriental tradition’ or a ‘Western tradition’, any such denomination being obviously much too vague to be applied to a defined traditional form, since, unless one goes back to the primordial tradition, which is here not in question for very easily understandable reasons, and which is anyhow neither Eastern nor Western, there are and there always have been diverse and multiple traditional forms both in the East and in the West. Others have thought to do better and to inspire confidence more easily by appropriating to themselves the name of some tradition that really existed at some more or less distant date, and using it as a label for a structure that is no less incongruous than the others, for although they naturally make some use of what they can manage to find out about the tradition on which they have staked their claim, they are forced to reinforce their few facts, always very fragmentary and often even partly hypothetical, by recourse to other elements either borrowed from a different source or wholly imaginary.
Others do not hesitate to claim to be attached to some tradition that has entirely disappeared and has been extinct for centuries, even for thousands of years. However, unless they are bold enough to assert that their chosen tradition has been perpetuated for that length of time in a manner so secret and so well concealed that nobody but themselves has been able to discover the smallest trace of it, they are admittedly deprived of the appreciable advantage of being able to claim a direct and continuous filiation, for in their case the claim cannot even present an appearance of plausibility such as it can still present when of a fairly recent form such as that of the Rosicrucian tradition is chosen; but this defect does not seem to have much importance in their eyes, for they are so ignorant of the true conditions of initiation that they readily imagine that a mere ‘ideal’ attachment, without any regular transmission, can take the place of an effective attachment.
Here this already long discussion must be brought to a close; it has amply sufficed to indicate in a general way the nature of the many ‘pseudo-initiatic’ counterfeits of the traditional idea that are so characteristic of our times: a mixture, more or less coherent but rather less than more so, of elements partly borrowed and partly invented, the whole dominated by anti-traditional conceptions such as are peculiar to the modern spirit, and for this reason serving no purpose other than the further spread of these same conceptions by making them pass with some people as traditional, not to mention the manifest deceit that consists in giving, in place of ‘initiation’, not only something purely profane in itself, but also something that makes for ‘profanation’. Should anyone now put forward the suggestion, as a sort of extenuating circumstance, that there are always in these affairs, despite all their faults, some elements derived from genuinely traditional sources, the answer would be this: in order to get itself accepted, every imitation must take on at least some of the features of the thing imitated, but that is just what makes it so dangerous; is not the cleverest lie, as well as the most deadly, precisely the lie that mixes most inextricably the true and the false, thus contriving to press the true into service in order to promote the triumph of the false?
The previous chapter was concerned with matters that, like everything else belonging essentially to the modern world, are radically anti-traditional; but in a sense they go even further than ‘anti-tradition’, understood as being pure negation and nothing more, appropriately be called a ‘counter-tradition’. The distinction between the two is similar to that made earlier between deviation and subversion, and it corresponds to the same two phases of anti-traditional action considered as a whole. ‘Anti-tradition’ found its most complete expression in the kind of materialism that could be called ‘integral’, such as that which prevailed toward the end of the last century; as for the ‘counter-tradition’, we can still only see the preliminary signs of it, in the form of all the things that are striving to become counterfeits in one way or another of the traditional idea itself.
In Islamic esoterism it is said that one who presents himself at a certain ‘gate’, without having reached it by a normal and legitimate way, sees it shut in his face and is obliged to turn back, but not as a mere profane person, for he can never be such again, but as a sāher (a sorcerer or a magician working in the domain of subtle possibilities of an inferior (order).
The various matters dealt with in the course of this study together constitute what may, in a general way, be called the ‘signs of the times’ in the Gospel sense, in other words, the precursory signs of the ‘end of a world’ or of a cycle. This end only appears to b« be the ‘end of the world’, without any reservation or specification of any kind, to those who see nothing beyond the limits of this particular cycle; a very excusable error of perspective it is true, but one that has nonetheless some regrettable consequences in the excessive and unjustified terrors to which it gives rise in those who are not sufficiently detached from terrestrial existence; and naturally they are the very people who form this erroneous conception most easily, just because of the narrowness of their point of view. In truth there can be many ‘ends of the world’, because there are cycles of very varied duration, contained as it were one within another, and also because this same notion can always be applied analogically at all degrees and at all levels; but it is obvious that these ‘ends’ are of very unequal importance, as are the cycles themselves to which they belong; and in this connection it must be acknowledged that the end now under consideration is undeniably of considerably greater importance than many others, for it is the end of a whole Manvantara, and so of the temporal existence of what may rightly be called a humanity, but this, it must be said once more, in no way implies that it is the end of the terrestrial world itself, because, through the ‘rectification’ that takes place at the final Instant, this end will itself immediately become the beginning of another Manvantara.