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Remembering René Guénon

René Guénon, 1886–1951

1,202 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

Editor’s Note:

This essay and the one that follows are presented in commemoration of René Guénon’s birth on November 15, 1886.

On January 7th, 1951, the Frenchman René Guénon, one of the principal representatives of Traditional thought in the 20thcentury, died in Cairo.

From Occultism to Esotericism

Guénon was born in Blois, on November 15, 1886, to a strongly Catholic family. In 1904, after a pilgrimage to Lourdes, he went to Paris to continue his education. A dawdler, he only obtained his licence when he was 29, then at 32 he failed his agrégation in philosophy when his doctoral thesis, devoted to “A General Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines,” was rejected.

Parallel to his studies, Guénon frequented, from his arrival in the capital, the occultist milieu, launching himself headlong into a series of affiliations and initiations. He entered the Hermetic School, was received into the Martinist Order, attended various occultist Masonic organizations, was initiated in the Tebah Lodge of the Grand Lodge of France. In 1908, he was secretary of Second Spiritualistic and Masonic Congress and became Sovereign Grand Commander of the Order of the Renovated Temple. At the age of 23, he was consecrated “bishop of Alexandria” of the Gnostic Church of France, under the name of Palingénius and became editor of La Gnose, “the monthly review devoted to the study of esoteric sciences.”

After several disappointing experiences in the occultist milieu, he turned to the East to find the right path, that of “initiatory Knowledge.” After being interested in Taoism, he was initiated in 1912 into Sufism, an Islamic initiatory current, without embracing the Islamic religion, as he would later explain to a correspondent. Having learned Chinese and Arabic, reading the original texts, he tried to work with initiates in each tradition.

While giving his own lessons and courses of philosophy, René Guénon wrote many articles for Catholic publications like the Revue universelle du Sacré-Cœur Regnabit and Traditionalist publications like the Le Voile d’Isis (Veil of Isis), which became Etudes traditionnelles. He also authored books.

The Tradition Against the Modern World

In his Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines (1921), and the Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta (1925), he defined the criteria of universal traditional metaphysics. For Guénon, Tradition means the whole of “metaphysical” knowledge of order: it admits a variety of forms, while remaining one in its essence.

He insists on the idea, already formulated before him by Joseph de Maistre and Fabre d’Olivet, of a primordial Tradition, which goes back to a supreme Center, the repository of all spiritual knowledge, which diffuses it by the means of “initiatory chains” present in the various religious paths. In Perspectives on Initiation (1946), he defended the need to attach oneself to  a “chain,” to a “regular organization,” but hardly offers an alternative to those who refuse to defer, like him, to Muslim or Oriental ones. But in all fairness, he recognizes that in spite of its degeneration Freemasonry remains in theory a conduit of genuine initiation.

The most interesting aspect of Guénon’s work lies in his radical criticism of the modern world, to which he opposes the world of Tradition as a positive foil. According to him, traditional civilization,which was realized in the Orient as well as the West—India, Medieval Catholicism, Imperial China, the Islamic Caliphate—rests on metaphysical foundations. It is characterized by the recognition of an order higher than anything human and the authority of elites which draw from this transcendent plane the principles necessary to found an articulated social organization.

This rests on the division of society into four castes or functional classes: at the top representatives of spiritual authority, then a warlike aristocracy, a middle-class of the merchants and craftsmen, and finally the toiling masses. This concept of caste refers obviously to the Hindu, Indo-Aryan system, divided between the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. In the same way, ancient Iran, Greece, and Rome also had somewhat analogous social organizations, which one finds, moreover, in the political doctrines of Plato. The ultimate revival of this system in the West was the feudal Middle Ages, the clergy corresponding to the Brahmins, the nobility to the Kshatriyas, the third estate with the Vaishyas, and the serfs with the Shudras.

The polar opposition of the world of the Tradition is held to be modern civilization, which is characterized by desacralization, ignorance of all that is higher than man, materialism, frenzied activity.

Two major books, The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of  the Times (1946) contain the essence of this critique, to which one can add East and West (1924), which holds that the only remaining Traditional civilizations are in the East. This led Guénon to move to Cairo in 1930, where he took the identity of Sheik Abdel Wahid Yahia.

The Regression of the Castes

René Guénon was never politically active, although he moved in the Parisian circles of Action française, because he believed that “at present, there is no movement deserving one’s adherence.”

For him, we are at the end of a cycle, in the Kali Yuga or “Dark Age” of the ancient Hindu texts or Hesiod’s “Iron Age.” His interpretation of the course of History as decline, resolutely anti-Marxist and reactionary, rests on the idea of the “regression of the castes.” In quasi-mythical times, society is ruled by sacred Kings ruling by divine right selected from the first caste. This is followed by the reign of the warlike caste, secular monarchs, military chiefs, or lords of temporal justice, which comes about in Europe with the decline of great monarchies. Then comes rule by the third estate, the middle-class, aristocracy giving way to plutocracy. Finally comes rule by the last caste, the working class, which finds its logical conclusion in Communism and Sovietism.

The idea of the regression of the castes was taken up by Julius Evola in his masterpiece, Revolt Against the Modern World, published in 1934. Guénon, moreover, allowed the publication of his writings in the cultural page edited by Evola from 1934 to 1943 in the daily newspaper Il Regime Fascista.

Knowledge and Action

Although Evola is indebted to Guénon in many ways, they differ on one point: the relationship of spiritual authority and temporal power, i.e., priesthood and royalty. In its book Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power published in 1929, Guénon affirms the primacy of the priesthood over royalty. For him, the Brahmin is higher than the Kshatriya because knowledge is higher than action and the “metaphysical” domain higher than the “physical.” Even if the members of the sacerdotal caste no longer appear worthy of their function, the validity in principle of their superiority cannot be denied lest one risk the disintegration of the socio-political system. Evola, however, who thought that Western culture is rooted in a “tradition of warriors,” defends the opposite thesis, claiming that Guénon’s reasoning is marked by “brahmanico-sacerdotal point of view of an Oriental.”

Faithful to his nature as a Brahmin, as a sage, René Guénon was more a witness of the Tradition than an actor in his time, contrary to the Kshatriya, the warrior Julius Evola, the 20th century’s only true rebel against the modern world.

Source: “Un témoin de la Tradition: René Guénon,” http://www.voxnr.com/cc/ds_tradition/EpZpkZVVlAJuBArRHD.shtml

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9 Comments

  1. Albert
    Posted April 28, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Hola les envìo un excelente art en spanish, quizàs puedan traducirlo la direcciòn del texto es:
    https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxudWV2b2FsbWFjZW5kZWxhdHJhZGljaW9ufGd4OjFlNThlNTJhZjQ3NjUzYTk

    y la direcciòn de la pàgina es:
    https://sites.google.com/site/tradicionrc/home/autores/rene-guenon

    Saludos cordiales

  2. LightofApollo
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    White Upright,

    Telling the truth helps a person (even if it is not immediately apparent). Guénon’s blunt exposition of the truth of the west’s decline and inevitable fall and why this has happened is quite helpful. Was Guénon right in everything he said and wrote? No (I think he is wrong in his view that the west’s acceptance of Islam can lead to its survival and rebirth, for example). But are his writings valuable to the reads of this blog? Of course.

    As for the path that Guénon decided to take, I don’t see how there is anything wrong with it. There are two paths to Truth, contemplation and action. Guénon chose the former, and Evola chose the latter. Both saw nothing wrong in the paths that the other took, and neither should racially conscious Indo-Europeans.

    • Fantasia
      Posted November 15, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      Via positivia and via negativia.

      The Christians mystics were divided along action and contemplation. Never trust an evangelical Christian who practices negativia. They dissolve themselves like a Buddhist as they become one with Universal Love and the Totality of Human Brotherhood and Need, and then come back to life with some insight from God that all their friends should donate money to their next mission trip to help the oppressed Africans in that cesspool called Haiti.

      • LightofApollo
        Posted November 15, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

        “They dissolve themselves like a Buddhist as they become one with Universal Love and the Totality of Human Brotherhood and Need”

        Yes, what passes for Buddhism today (especially in the west) is just sad. But Siddhartha knew this would eventually happen to the Dharma when it falls into the wrong hands.

    • White Upright
      Posted November 15, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      So he helps us through his critique. Ok, got it. But can we have some sample quotations that serve the White Ritual as liturgical scripture?

      The Southern Agrarians were critics, and even though their idea of national salvation through small farms failed, so did the nation, and all their prophecies have come true.

      Their second generation leading lights, such as Richard Weaver and Mel Bradford, are vital to the White Right, as are Sam Francis, Pat Buchanan, Clyde Wilson, Thomas Fleming, Tom Landess, etc. And Michael Oakeshott and Eric Voegelin.

      As highly educated as Greg Johnson is, I’m surprised to not find him bringing these paleo-conservatives into his written realm. They are vital, because at bottom of their critique is Jefferson and Madison, from whom we get Interposition and Nullification. Deeper still is Saxon Liberty. Addison’s Cato is for us. Colborn’s Lamp of Experience describes how Saxon Liberty created us, although he calls its origins a myth.

      Demosthenes’ Philippics should be employed, as they were a call to urgency during an impending emergency.

      John C. Calhoun said read Jefferson, Madison, and Gibbon. Everything is about resisting tyranny. We suffer under afrotyranny today, and our appealing to the instincts of our people through the language of liberty is a necessary and proven tactic.

      The path to our White Ethnostate will include Interposition and Nullification. There are steps to the break-up, and those two shall occur before the real revolution upon which our hopes are depending.

      Start with I’ll Take My Stand, and then immediately to Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay, and Ideas Have Consequences.

      I come to C-C because I learn something new. The European Right is important, but we have a tradition here at home which can be joined with it to better make our case to White Youth.

      • LightofApollo
        Posted November 15, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        “the White Ritual as liturgical scripture”

        Could you expand on what you mean by this?

        “As highly educated as Greg Johnson is, I’m surprised to not find him bringing these paleo-conservatives into his written realm.”

        I can’t speak for Dr. Johnson, but my guess is that he, along with Mr. O’Meara want to base the politics of this site on metaphysics (hence the term metapolitics brought up by them). And paleo-conservatives don’t base their political philosophy on sound metaphysics, probably due in part to their fear of “grand philosophical schemes.” And that’s why the paleo-cons have never been an intellectual force. Much of their intentions are good, but if you don’t have the metaphysics to back up your political views, you aren’t going to get that far. Weaver was a rare exception among them in that regard, but nonetheless an exception.

        And thats the most striking thing that distinguishes the paleocons from the european new right (from which this site is aligned with) and the thinkers they look to . . . Junger, Evola, Guénon (whose book The Crisis of the Modern World, which I suggest you read if you haven’t, this site uses for its guiding principles), Pound etc.

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted November 15, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

        I would love to find a writer who can bring the European New Right into dialogue with the Southern Agrarians, America’s only native anti-liberal intellectual movement. I definitely consider the Agrarians to have much to offer in the formulation of a North American New Right. Richard Weaver is a superb writer, whose books I have relished.

        Calhoun, of course, is America’s greatest political thinker.

        Gibbon is quite worthwhile. I have wanted to write an essay on him for years.

        As for Oakeshott, he is a relativist and a sophist and windbag (albeit an elegant one). His great truth about liberal education, that man is free to adopt any view of himself he chooses, of course makes education unnecessary. And his whole political philosophy boils down to an attempt to ban raising the question of the aims of political order, which of course means that other more adventurous souls will decide for us. Someday I plan to write an essay debunking his seductive but ultimately destructive nonsense.

        I have read a lot of Voegelin, but the game was up when I read his lectures on Hitler and the Germans and his early writings on race. I feel he is a waste of time, of interest primarily to religious conservatives who want to insert their dogmas of choice into the pole of transcendence.

  3. White Upright
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    It’s nice to remember him, but what did he ever write that can help us? Is there a representative quotation that we can invest in promoting? Helper and Burke can be used to awaken our fellow Humanity to think, talk, and act in their own interest, and ours. What of that can we glean from Guénon? Evola gave a good one re the Legionnaire keeps fighting even when he knows the war is materially lost. Anything as inspiring from Guénon?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted November 15, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

      Guénon is profound, but he is seldom pithy. But we are dealing with meta-analysis here, not slogans and talking points.

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