Book Reviews, Charles, Christian History, Islam & The Islamic World, Religion, The Orient
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Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Mark Sedgwick)

This book is an academic study of an obscure movement, Traditionalism.  The name has a specific meaning; it does not mean traditional forms of belief, that is, generically, conservatism.  Rather, “Traditionalism” is a type of Gnosticism, holding that a core of hidden knowledge, contained within all true religion, is the cure for what ails the modern world.  I certainly think that the modern world needs curing, though I don’t think that Traditionalism is what the doctor ordered.  Still, the pull of Gnosticism across time and space must mean something.  But what?  Mark Sedgwick’s book helps us begin to answer that question.

I read Against the Modern World as part of my ongoing analysis of the lesser-known branches of modern right-wing thought.  I was dimly aware of one Traditionalist thinker, the Italian self-described “superfascist” Julius Evola, about whom there was a burp of interest in 2016 when Steve Bannon mentioned his name as someone with whom he was familiar.  George Hawley’s excellent Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism spent some time on Evola and other Traditionalists, expanding my minimal knowledge; it noted an overlap between Traditionalism and the French New Right, wellspring of people like Guillaume Faye and his Archeofuturism.  No Traditionalist is a household name; I therefore read this book hoping to gain more insight.  I learned facts I did not know, but as far as insight, I was disappointed—although, to be fair, given that I expected no new wisdom, I can’t really complain.

Sedgwick’s writing isn’t great; he’s an academic, not a popularizer.  But he seems to know an awful lot about his subject.  Though British, for a long time he has worked in Denmark as a professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, so he is very familiar with the different threads of Islam, essential since the majority of Traditionalists have a close relationship to Islam (more specifically, Sufism).  In fact, his enemies say that Sedgwick long ago converted to Islam, which as far as I know he has neither denied nor confirmed.  If that’s true, it does not appear to affect his writing in any way, so for these purposes it’s irrelevant.

Most of his book revolves, in one way or another, around Rene Guénon (1866–1951), the French founder of Traditionalism.  Guénon espoused and spread what he viewed as the “Perennial Philosophy,” or “Perennialism,” the idea that there is some “primal truth” that precedes, and is contained in, many (but not all) of the world’s major religions.  The term arose with the Renaissance priest Marsilio Ficino, who tried to reconcile Plato and Christianity, and as whose heir Guénon viewed himself.  This idea of reconciling Greek philosophy and Christianity wasn’t new with Ficino, of course—although Sedgwick doesn’t mention it, Christian Neoplatonists, such as Saint Augustine, worked along the same lines, and the tradition of an underlying truth had continued up until and after Ficino, both within Christianity, and, to a greater degree, among movements like Hermeticism.  But it had died out in the early modern world, as modernism and materialism came to dominate the West.

What brought Traditionalism back was the perceived defects of the modern world; hence the title of this book.  Sedgwick doesn’t do a great job of describing what defects Traditionalists saw (and see); they seem to revolve around spiritual anomie and excessive materialism, which are viewed as inevitably leading to collapse and barbarism.  The modern age is often thought of as the Hindu kali yuga, the fourth and final stage of human degeneration before the cycle begins anew.  Such preoccupation with decline and collapse is a very twentieth-century preoccupation, and part of the larger culture beyond Traditionalism—Oswald Spengler being the most obvious example.  The Traditionalists, however, put a specifically religious gloss on both the projected collapse and its solution.

My key initial objection, or concern, is that we are never told with any precision, by Sedgwick or anyone else, what the claimed tenets of the universalist “Perennial Religion” are.  I don’t think that’s Sedgwick’s fault, but rather the Traditionalists’.  There is much talk of “ancient wisdom,” but nobody seems to think it particularly important to actually identify or specify that wisdom.  The only belief that seems evident is in a transcendent deity of some type, source of all wisdom and perfection.  The other characteristics of this deity seem opaque, and it is not because they are deliberately hidden in the Gnostic manner—Traditionalists wrote many books.  There is talk of “the sacred unity of reality,” whatever that means.  As a side dish, there is muttering about the “Absolute which is indescribable,” which may be accurate, but is not very clarifying.  What it all seems to boil down to is generic mysticism; a claimed path to approach, and to understand, the divine and ineffable without, and outside of, detailed rational thought.

Now, mysticism has a long and respectable pedigree in most of the world’s religions, tied to and found as an extension of core doctrines.  In contrast, though, most or all Traditionalist mysticism seems to be solipsistic navel-gazing, unmoored from religion.  It pays lip service to religious belief, but really thinks religious doctrine is fiction.  To Traditionalists, that is probably a feature, not a bug, but it feels a lot like more sophisticated Oprah, pushing The Secret, talking about how the “Universe” wants each of us to have a new car.

One way to understand Traditionalist mysticism, from what I can tease out, is as an accelerated, shortcut, hobbled version of Orthodox theosis, union with the divine energies of God (but not with the divine essence).  However, Orthodox doctrine, and thought outside doctrine, is extremely specific about the characteristics of the divine, what God requires, and in what manner it is necessary to approach God.  (I imagine the same is true of other religious mysticisms, such as Sufism or those found in Hinduism.)  Blathering about “ancient wisdom” and “unity,” beyond feeling like it was derived from a fortune cookie, seems calculated to impress other humans, not set one on an actual path to mystical experience.  Probably that’s why, it seems, a lot of Traditionalists end up partaking of various rituals, many newly manufactured, to unlock the key to the divine presence.  Whether to prevent being sullied by the uninitiated, or to prevent being ridiculed, these are rarely publicized (hence the “secret intellectual history” of the book’s subtitle).  That’s not new, either, though—the reason we know little about the original Christian Gnostics, other than that some of their thought was suppressed, is that, like all such movements throughout history, they were obsessively secretive about their “hidden knowledge,” a necessary element of their attraction.

At first glance, Traditionalism is thus just another in a long line of quasi-religions that have a strong shyster element.  The most obvious precursor is late nineteenth-century Theosophy, progeny of the earlier Spiritualism and mishmash of fraudulence and silliness, associated with the conwoman Helena Blavatsky (died 1891), which lasted some decades as an undercurrent in American intellectual circles.  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau had ties to it; later on, Henry Wallace, sometime Vice President to Franklin Roosevelt, lost his chance to become President, and impose Communism on America, by being exposed as a Theosophist.  Sedgwick spends a good deal of time parsing various other related movements, such as Martinism (tied to Freemasonry).  None of this is surprising—as Chesterton did not say, but should have, when men cease believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.  Or, as Sedgwick names it, citing Bryan Wilson, we get a “cultic milieu,” where, like the Island of Misfit Toys, fringe beliefs collect to support each other in their fringiness.  Today we get New Age beliefs and various other clownish schools of “thought,” which, to be fair, are even more degenerate in their stupidity and lack of intellectual sophistication than Theosophy and its relatives.  (Admittedly, these modern beliefs aren’t Gnostic, which makes them somewhat different in structure and approach.  Maybe that’s confirmation of Traditionalist beliefs about modern degeneration—today, we can’t even manage a decent Gnosticism.)

The core of all Gnosticism has always been to promise initiation into some hidden, esoteric knowledge.  Thus, it is no surprise that most Traditionalists end up connected to, and many formally received into, Sufism.  Christianity has always treated Gnosticism as a heresy and held that truth is available openly to all.  Sufism, on the other hand, offers both orthodoxy and a distinction between exoteric and esoteric belief.  All (or nearly all) Sufis are devout Sunni Muslims (despite occasional tension with those finding mysticism unpalatable), but they add a layer of esoteric belief.  This maintains the precise certainty for believers, something that Islam offers most of all among the major religions, while also offering the feeling of secret knowledge, and thus superiority and being on the inside track, all at the same time, a neat trick.  A few of the Traditionalists profiled in this book tried to combine Perennialism with Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but the inherent tensions in that project seem to always pull them either toward orthodox belief or its opposite, formal universalism.  A few others, Evola being the most prominent, combined Traditionalism with a total rejection of monotheistic religion, focusing on what to them were real, earlier pagan gods.  Most Traditionalists seem to find much of value in Hinduism—easy to do in Hinduism, with its many threads and voluminous, opaque writings, which they pick and choose from as their starting point, but I suspect that actual, devout Hindus would not agree with Traditionalist thinking, and anyway all the Traditionalists seem to abandon everything but a few cherry-picked elements of Hinduism, moving on to focus on other religious traditions—from which they also cherry pick, since universalism is rejected by all such traditions.

Back to the history.  Probably the reason Guénon got as much traction as he did was because in the early twentieth century mysticism was in the air, and more mainline figures, such as the prominent Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, initially sponsored his writing to some degree.  As with almost all Traditionalists, Guénon soon thought himself into being fundamentally opposed to actual Christian doctrine, as being both too exclusive in its claims and being a religion of enervation and femininity (shades of Nietzsche), so he went his own way.  A circle formed around Guénon and a new journal in which he was involved, The Veil of Isis, from the name of which you can tell which way they headed, toward secrecy and supposed Eastern wisdom.  World War I helped Guénon’s project, in that it made the idea that modernity was fundamentally broken hard to argue.  Still unsatisfied, Guénon ended up a Sufi, moving to Egypt and going native.

Sedgwick’s covers two basic periods, before and after Guénon’s death, in 1951, since his death caused divergence into several vaguely connected movements, and turned an already nebulous philosophy into a mishmash.  In fact, at least according to Sedgwick, most of the influence of Traditionalism in the past several decades has been through what he calls “soft Traditionalism,” not always easy to identify.  Basically this consists of academics in various fields (all in the humanities), who dislike modernity and hold to the universalist beliefs popularized by Guénon, such that elements of Traditionalism appear in their works, but they are by no means necessarily devotees.  Such soft Traditionalism extends to men like E. F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful, and even to Prince Charles, who to external appearances is mostly just soft in the head (though if he is pulled toward Traditionalism, this, more likely than actual devotion to Islam, explains his frequent positive comments about Islam).  In Russia, though, Traditionalism has lately had some apparent real political impact, through the “Eurasian” program of Alexander Dugin, alleged to influence Vladimir Putin and the Russian government (and having a great deal in common with Faye’s Archeofuturism).

Sedgwick talks about so many people, all obscure, that they are hard to keep straight.  Thus, for the most part, I think this book is most valuable as a reference work, although to understand the overall framework you really have to read the whole book.  A few people stand out, or maybe they just stand out to me because these are the ones I’ve heard of.  Isabelle Eberhardt, Swiss woman of dubious mental stability, who converted young to Islam, moved to French Algeria (cooperating with the French colonizers but also assisting the locals, and conducting a tangled relationship with Hubert Lyautey, the French officer and Legionnaire in charge), and died before she reached thirty.  The Italian Julius Evola, pagan occultist, worshipper of what he called the Absolute Individual, kept at arms’ length by both Mussolini and the Nazis, because he thought they did not go far enough in maintaining hierarchy, and that they were too materialist by believing in racial, as opposed to spiritual, superiority. After the war he abandoned politics for his vision of “riding the tiger,” i.e., surviving modernity by ignoring it until it collapses (similar in some ways to Ernst Jünger’s concept of the Forest Rebel, or his related concept of the anarch).  Frithjof Schuon, whom I know of because he lived nearby while I was at school; what I did not know was his adoption of the usual cult leader practice of sleeping with his disciples’ wives, a practice to which he gave the elevated name of “vertical marriage.”  He only died in 1998, after a scandal involving naked carousing with underage girls; apparently even the local college police have limits.  Since then, only Dugin has any relevance today, so apparently, at least as against Traditionalism, the modern world is in the ascendant, despite more than a hundred years of effort.

What all the many people Sedgwick profiles had in common was subscribing to the Perennial Philosophy.  Again, though, I can’t figure out what that means.  I doubt if Eberhardt and Evola had much in common, other than a declared belief in some kind of transcendent unity of all things.  What that implied for life meant very, very different things for them, and for most of the Traditionalists.  It seems to me that something that has no predictive value, that ex ante cannot describe the acts or thoughts at any relatively narrow level of generality of any person, is not a useful categorization.

I’m all for attacks on the modern world.  This is a difficult argument to make today, because Steven Pinker isn’t wrong, that in a great number of important ways, we are better off than we used to be.  The ways in which we are not better off are harder to quantify, and counterintuitive—for example, excessive personal autonomy is bad, but it feels so good.  Yes, there are external indicia of the problems, most notably the failure of all modern societies to reproduce themselves.  But Traditionalism is not a cure for modernity.  It makes historical claims that are easily falsifiable.  Its theology, to the extent it has any, smacks of pandering to the self-absorbed.  What is needed is a much more grounded philosophy and political program.  I am working on it, you will be glad to hear.  In the meantime, this book is an interesting exploration of a dead end.

11 Comments

  1. Jaspreet says

    Re. Guénon: speaking as a man with a PhD in Renaissance Latin literature, and as one of the few relatively sane, balanced men alive who has devoted any time (about 3 1/2 wasted months) to reading Marsilio Ficino in Latin, I’d say that I’m grateful to him for having translated Plato into Latin in an age where maybe a few dozen men in Florence had enough Greek to make any sense of his words. He had a great (if 98% indirect) influence on the art and literature of the High Renaissance thanks to his relationship, first to Cosimo de’ Medici, then to Lorenzo the Magnificent. This is the main reason anyone reads him today — he spoke to, and was sometimes read by, any number of more important and worthwhile figures (Botticelli, for example). Also, he was fascinated with magic, which means that people who enjoy magic and the occult and suchlike are naturally drawn to the idea of him (sometimes so much that they actually try to read his work).

    In the mid-20th century art historians were obsessed with Ficino, thanks to the work of the brilliant but mad scholar-theorist Aby Warburg. Most people who have encountered Ficino’s name have done so indirectly through the work of Frances Yates, Ernst Gombrich, or one of the other once-famous intellectual historians of the Warburg Institute. In France the great art historian André Chastel also helped spread the name around. Reading Yates especially you can be seduced into thinking that there is something attractive about his work (if you’re into that sort of thing).

    But as a philosopher and theologian Ficino was rubbish, and I’m instantly suspicious of anyone who claims his work as an influence. Usually that means that you haven’t read him, or you haven’t read him closely, or you possess neither taste nor judgment.

    In fact, that’s the general case with esotericism. It’s a way of showing off in the schoolyard (“I know something you don’t know”) when you’ve got nothing to show off but want to make it seem as though you do.

    Many of my scholarly ex-colleagues are experts, not in Latin, but in “Neo-Latin”, which is to say the self-consciously classical-style Latin written after the Middle Ages. Most of these have got terrible Latin, and can tell you nothing about Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Vergil, or any of the great writers you’d really want to know about. They base their lives around the con that you’ll assume that they actually DO know about the important stuff, rather than simply the insignificant ephemera. It can be great fun to call them on this at conferences, but only if you have absolutely nothing better to do. In fact, it’s not worth the effort….

    Anyway: the esotericist mindset I describe is, mutatis mutandis, the one I tend to encounter with the few people I’ve spoken to who’ve ever been pro-Evola, with about three exceptions (all highly intelligent men who’d initially dropped the name to be shocking, then actually tried to read Evola and swiftly grew out of that taste). Evola seems to appeal in some way to clever young men who know themselves to be in some way conservative or right-wing and can see that the related political parties and movements are doomed, but haven’t yet figured out a sensible alternative. Most probably heard of him because of Bannon. As with Ficino, it’s probably the vague notion of Evola or Guénon, rather than the man himself and his actual writing, that attracts these.

    Frenchmen I know have generally heard Evola’s name through Alain de Benoist (who, again, seems to attract clever, mildly exhibitionist 19-year-olds who drop the name to be shocking before they’ve actually read any of his work). But French intellectuals are, as a rule, vastly better-read these days than their English and American counterparts and of course none has actually read a word. For educated Italians Evola is scarcely even a name so his name must have spread entirely through de Benoist.

    You might wonder how I heard of any of this at all. Evola I first heard of through various (mainly American) undergraduates (none my own pupils) who buttonholed me to sound me out on political topics, thinking I’d be sympathetic to their interests (as the only academic they knew of who wasn’t obviously left-wing). The only men I’ve ever met (all three of them) whom I know to have properly read his stuff saw the silliness of it and ended up as Traditionalist Catholics instead of crypto-Hindu “Traditionalists”. Of all the French and Italian trad-Catholics I know, only one has even heard the heard the name — he’s an Italian priest who is the most spectacularly erudite man I’ve ever met. Yet even to him all this is obscure….

    My old tutor Alastair Hamilton, who is half-Italian, taught me Reformation History at the Warburg Institute AND wrote a pioneering study of Fascism in 1971 (which I highly recommend by the way — “The Appeal of Fascism”), is shocked to hear that anybody would have even heard of these “Traditionalists” today; he ignored them in his book because even fifty years ago they were loons on the fringe, and had no obvious influence on anything (surprise surprise).

    I suspect that hocus-pocus like this appeals to isolated men who have read Spengler and then mistakenly assume that this entitles them to claim a broad overarching knowledge of civilisation. You know, the sort of ‘encyclopaedic’ knowledge that you get from spending a few hours reading an encyclopaedia. In any case the psychological profile is likely not a favourable one.

    By the bye: I’ll write privately on the weekend, but thought I’d take this opportunity enthusiastically to recommend, not the whole Loeb Classical Library (for Latin and Greek), but also the I Tatti Renaissance Library (for Renaissance Latin — edited by the splendid James Hankins) AND the Dumbarton Oaks Mediaeval Library (for Byzantine Greek as well as Mediaeval Latin — so you get Maximus the Confessor as well as St Thomas Aquinas, and St Jerome’s Vulgate). Harvard University Press puts out a lot of junk these days, but these three series between them do a first-class job of providing amateurs with access to the entire Western tradition. Sometimes the translations are a bit iffy, though for most people’s purposes they’ll more than do. Real knowledge will be found there — and often in texts that are rewarding to read….

  2. Anonymized Commenter says

    Thanks for bringing this to the attention of the world, or at least your readers.

    I would describe myself as a Traditionalist, if that means someone who subscribes to what you otherwise call the Perennial Philosophy. I was very surprised, therefore, to discover that this appeals to certain right-wing thinkers, since the essence of all religious teaching is compassion, love, tolerance. I do therefore see a return to spiritual ideas (the best term to use if one is disenchanted with organised religions) as a solution to the world’s problems. (Just look at the state of the planet in the current climate of atheism, secularism etc.) Traditionalism, being a synthesis of all spiritual systems, is therefore a good candidate.

    I would say that Aldous Huxley, author of The Perennial Philosophy, is close to being a household name. He is possibly not strictly speaking a Traditionalist.

    “we are never told with any precision, by Sedgwick or anyone else, what the claimed tenets of the universalist ‘Perennial Religion’ are”. I think Kenneth Oldmeadow’s book Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy does a pretty good job. He is somewhat pompous, however, and therefore irritating to me.

    I’m surprised that you say that Theosophy “lasted some decades as an undercurrent in American intellectual circles”, as if it has now disappeared. The Theosophical Society is still alive and reasonably well, and is a worldwide organisation. The writings of Helena Blavatsky are another good insight into the ideas of Traditionalism, although you choose to dismiss them as a “mishmash of fraudulence and silliness”. You give a strong impression of being someone predisposed (prejudiced?) against religious/spiritual ideas, even though you know a lot about them, or have I got that wrong? If Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau had strong ties to Theosophy, this is an indication that there was something very profound in it, Emerson being a giant figure in American spirituality.

    • Charles says

      You are very welcome! I hope readers and/or the world get some benefit.

      For full disclosure, I’m Eastern Orthodox (relatively recently; raised Roman Catholic), and not at all prejudiced against religious ideas. In fact, like you, I think the atheism and materialism of the modern world is a huge problem. I just think that, from what I know of it (which is mostly from this book, admittedly), Traditionalism is too vague, too Oprah-ish, to be any real solution. I’d certainly take a Traditionalist over an atheist, though, seven days a week.

      A few thoughts:

      1) You make a good point, which I didn’t really address, about the overlap between Traditionalists and right-wing thinkers. I suspect it has something to do with the protean nature of Traditionalist “dogma”; if you are looking for a religious belief, it can be trimmed to fit whatever doctrine you want, or that’s what Traditionalist leaders do in practice — even Guénon, who was externally a devout Sufi, but with heterodox underlying ideas. Or maybe it’s the idea that it’s tied to the past, a better past, which is of course something that resonates with a lot of right-wing people.

      2) It’s not at all clear that the opposite of “right-wing” is “compassion, love, tolerance.” Certainly, the vast majority of killing over the past century has been done by the Left. But that’s a side topic.

      3) However, I’ll have to point out, at the risk of being rude, that your characterization of the Perennial Philosophy as “compassion, love, tolerance” proves my points. First, that those words nowhere appear in this book suggest, again, no core — there is no there there. Second, it is completely false that “the essence of all religious teaching is compassion, love, tolerance.” Compassion and love are the essence of Christianity, true. But not tolerance; no actual religion extols that as important in the least. Moreover, most religions don’t focus on compassion and love either. For example, Islam only commands compassion and love for other members of the ummah. All others, not so much.

      So, you often hear that all religions have at their core the Golden Rule. This is demonstrably untrue. Only Christianity does. No other religion rates that as very important, much less the most important thing, and many affirmatively reject it.

      In other words, this Traditionalist “synthesis” is meaningless, as far as I can tell. It has no content, and its claims to universality are simply wrong.

      4) Sedgwick mentions Huxley, in passing, mostly as an influence on Thomas Merton. But again — I can’t find anywhere where what Huxley says has any content. Wikipedia quotes its dust jacket as “The Perennial Philosophy is an attempt to present this Highest Common Factor of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine.” When I hear “Highest Common Factor,” what I hear is “so high a level of generality as to be useless to communicate anything.”

      5) I have, however, ordered a copy of Oldmeadow’s book. Maybe it will prove me wrong!

      6) I don’t think Theosophy still exists as an undercurrent in relevant circles, which it once was. Most movements never really die; there are still a few people claiming to worship Mithras (well, probably not in a continuous line backwards, but still). But Blavatsky was a known and proven total fraud. And I have the some complaints about Thoreau and Emerson as I do about Traditionalism generally, but again, I can’t claim to know too much about them.

      7) I suppose, circling back, that my real objection is two-step. First, we agree the modern world is defective. Second, I think the response has to be specific in order to be effective; Traditionalism is too vague to fight adequately against the modern world. Thus, I have sympathy with Traditionalists, but do not find them to be effective.

  3. Petrus says

    One comment about Sufism: it actually tends to have adherents among the Shia, not the Sunni as you claim – or, if it is the claim of the author, he is definitely wrong. Sufism, which is simply the esoteric adjunct to its exoteric religion (Islam), somewhat as Kabbalah is to Judaism, has some its highest cultural expressions in the Persian poets and mystics, such as Rumi and Hafiz, and is definitely considered “haram” by Sunnis in general, who adopt an unwavering insistence on sharia. But since this is an Oxford University Press book, the scholarship its imprints make available are predictably dubious in their cultural and socio-political adherences.

    • Charles says

      Well, it is the claim of the author, and my general understanding too. Wikipedia (for what that’s worth) says, with a citation, “Although the overwhelming majority of Sufis, both pre-modern and modern, were and are adherents of Sunni Islam, there also developed certain strands of Sufi practice within the ambit of Shia Islam during the late medieval period.” Rumi was a Sunni; he grew up in Balkh, and lived in Anatolia, not Persia (the Sultanate of Rum was, as they say, “Persianate,” but not Persian). Both places are Sunni-dominated. Hafiz was actually Persian, but in the fourteenth century; Persia only became predominantly Shia under the Safavids, in the fifteenth century (although a quick glance around suggests nobody really knows about Hafiz specifically).

      I looked in both Lapidus and Hodgson; they say the same, at greater and more scattered length. So I think this is actually incorrect. I think many Sunnis do think Sufism haram, with the usual distaste of mainstream adherents of a religion for mystics and their tendencies toward heresy.

  4. Mike says

    I have been reading the Traditionalists for the better of a decade and I think I can say with authority that Sedgwick’s book is not the best place to start, not at all. Just to see that eclectic pseudo-traditionalists like Dugin and Evola (themselves very different) are mentioned alongside Schuon and Guenon is not a good sign.

    Traditionalism or the Perennial Philosophy is not a religion. The major traditionalist writers, Guenon, Schuon, Lings, Burckhardt, and Coomaraswamy were metaphysicians. They sought to reveal metaphysical truths lost to modernity, not to found a religion. Schuon’s first book ‘The Transcendent Unity of Religions’ (endorsed by no less than T.S. Eliot as the best book he ever read on comparative religion) asserts that there is a divide within all religions between the exoteric and esoteric. Exoterism includes the forms and rites of religion, is more or less dogmatic and stops short of the full truth, as this truth is not capable of being grasped by the vast majority. Esoterism, though it starts from a particular religion (there is Muslim esoterism, Christian esoterism, Jewish esoterism, etc.) is capable of transcending that religion, because truth transcends forms, and religions are forms. In short the One is not limited by the forms, or religions, with which He reveals Himself to various sectors of humanity. Exoteric religion is like a veil that both conceals and reveals.

    The traditionalists are not a bunch of quacks. Coomaraswamy was known for introducing the Hindu interpretation of their art to the Western world through his work at the metropolitan museum of art in NYC at a time when Westerners were still judging all art foreign by Renaissance/ classical standards. Lings was a keeper of oriental manuscripts at the British Museum and is widely said to have written the best English language sacred biography of the Prophet Muhammed. Schuon’s book on Islam, ‘Understanding Islam’ has been very well-received in the Muslim world and the scholar of religions, Huston Smith, was told by a great Muslim cleric that Schuon’s work is the best English-language book on the subject. Furthermore, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, probably the greatest American Muslim thinker, has long promoted Schuon as did the recently divorced Greek Orthodox theologian James Cutsinger.

    Sedgwick’s book uses the term traditionalism too widely, and is a polemic. These men are not New Age, Schuon explicitly states the necessity of exoteric religion for not only the masses but as a necessary starting point for the esoterist, which is why he became an orthodox Sufi, Sufism being bound up with Islam.

    Personally Schuon’s converted me from atheism… but not to some New Age nonsense. No, I now attend an SSPX Catholic Church.

    But don’t take my word for it, but start by reading Schuon’s ‘Transcendent Unity of Religions’.

    • Charles says

      OK; I appreciate the thoughts. But you don’t answer my main question/criticism, which is–what is the “truth that transcends forms”? What is its content? And, more personally, if you are SSPX (of which I certainly approve), does that truth consist of some truth outside, in whole or in part, outside of SSPX?

      I will check out Schuon’s book . . . .

  5. What transcends forms? God. I have often thought the internet might make an analogy here. I can make an infinite number of avatars on the web. But behind each avatar is the same one human person. Maybe I register on a music forum and talk about my musical interests in one place, in another place I talk philosophy, in another religion, another politics, etc. I can also call myself any number of different names on any number of different websites.

    So God, when He so to speak ‘enters’ into the world of forms to communicate with us He must use forms, but God is no more limited by those forms then I am limited in my choice of internet avatars (of course no analogy is perfect, I am limited by time, for instance, whereas God exists eternally). Or when we say Christ is the Word of God, the Bible notes that the Word was in the Beginning. The Word precedes its human incarnation in Christ. It is true what Christ said, “no one comes to the Father but by me” but that me is the eternal Word, which can manifest in this world in different forms in different times and places. For the Christian world, the Word came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, but to the Muslim world the Word came as the Koran, and the Word has taken form in all the other religions too.

    So no one is asserting there is more than one God. Muslims and Christians, we worship the same God, though we do so through different forms. The traditionalists are not trying to synthesize anything. The unity Schuon posits transcends forms, it cannot be found within the forms themselves. Schuon was no syncretist attempting to meld religions together, as he said “syncretism is an error”.

    Though Schuon wrote openly he never meant to write for a mass audience, as he plainly asserts that esoteric or metaphysical truth is not for the masses. When a society is religiously healthy esoterism remains more or less hidden, the esoterists have no desire to disturb the masses. But when the exoteric religion begins to breakdown, as it has in our times, the dangers of openly talking about esoteric truths are lessened, and the fact that to speak of them openly may save some souls outweighs the downside of any confusion their utterance may add to an already totally confused environment. Thus it is no coincidence than in the 20th century West, amid the precipitous decline of exoteric religion, a school of metaphysicians of the absolutely highest caliber should emerge. It is a divinely ordained compensation for the poverty of our exoteric religion that a small but brightly shining group of esoterists should then emerge among us. Of course, with the breakdown of exoteric religion we are also opened to infra-human, Satanic influences, such as those of the New Age. The exoteric form, being at least partially “cracked open” in our time, fissures have emerged through which both higher esoteric or properly metaphysical influences and lower Satanic influences enter into the civilization.

    Thus one must rigorously discern between the esoteric light and the Satanic darkness. As to who are/were the real traditionalist metaphysicians, and who are new age quacks and/or right-wing pseudo-traditionalists, I already mentioned the 5 great names of Schuon, Guenon, Lings, Coomaraswamy and Burckhardt as well as S.H. Nasr and James Cutsinger. If you look into those men you will be safe and they will lead you to others that are safe and you will gradually come to see who are metaphysicians and who are mere poseurs.

    But if metaphysics does not speak to you it should be mentioned that it is not necessary for salvation. As Schuon says, “metaphysics exists because there are metaphysicians”, that is, there are men to whom exoteric religion alone does not “speak”. Though I am no Schuon, I am a metaphysician in the sense that exoteric religion alone never spoke to me, I needed metaphysics, and only through metaphysics could I then go back and understand exoteric religion. But if metaphysics doesn’t speak to you, then drop it.

  6. I decided to reply to your OP paragraph by paragraph. I read more than I write, so my writing may not be the most articulate, but perhaps you will bear with me. I will also mention that I look forward to reading your thoughts on the Transcendent Unity of Religions when you get to it.

    Paragraph 1:

    The Traditionalists do not think that a few metaphysicians alone will cure the world. .

    Rather, the traditionalists hope to save a few souls with their metaphysics and perhaps to give some energy back to exoteric religion. Schuon states that the truths of metaphysics lie at the heart of every religion, like the marrow in a bone, they enliven exoteric religion. In the West the destruction of orders like the Knights Templar and the Corruption of the Freemasons (both orders being akin to Christian versions of Sufism) and the later drying up of voluntaristic mysticism after the 17th century meant that exoteric religion in the West was gradually deprived of its life-giving sap. As Schuon states, deprived of an esoteric center the exoteric religion takes on an increasingly “massive” and “opaque” character and eventually fissures form in it as it partially collapses under its own weight.*

    *It should be noted here that Eastern Christianity has done somewhat better than its Western counterpart as Hesychasm has survived to the present. Thank God for the monks on Mount Athos, their prayers literally sustain the Orthodox world. It should also be noted, as another example of the same principle that it is estimated that it took the better part of a millennium of Muslim rule in Egypt before even half of the Egyptian population was converted to Islam. This is likely attributable to the strong presence of monasticism in Egypt, which provided a buttress for the exoteric Coptic Church. By contrast the Maghreb, which had been rocked by the Donatist heresy since the time of Augustine, was converted to Islam practically overnight.

    Paragraphs 2 & 3

    I have read Schuon more than any of the other traditionalists, and I can say I never encountered the name Evola in what I have read to date. Schuon never or rarely delves into modern politics, at least in the works of his I have read, and the same goes for the other traditionalists of the Schuon-Guenon school, again, as far as I have read them. By contrast, Evola was very concerned with trying to implement his ideas in contemporary gov’t, which led him, among other things, to be associated with the Nazi’s and the Italian fascists. Schuon would have instantly recognized fascism for just another modern deviation*, and that Evola did not shows right off the bat the great difference between these men. In addition, Evola had a distaste for Christianity, if not an outright hatred, whereas Schuon accepts Christianity as a revealed religion and in fact as superior to the decadent paganism which preceded it. Evola was highly influenced by Nietzsche, which may partially explain his seeming obsession with warfare and its spiritual possibilities, whereas Schuon I believe referred to Nietzsche as having some insights but also being dangerously deranged. At any rate, Evola, though aware of some traditional doctrines, was not a traditionalist metaphysician as were Schuon and Guenon.

    *In fact, Schuon, having moved to Alsace at the death of this father when a young man, was a French citizen and fought against the 3rd Reich, was captured, and then managed to escape to Switzerland, where he lived most of the rest of his life. Furthermore, Schuon had just arrived in India when the call to arms came, and he immediately went home to France to do his duty, which says something of his character.

    Paragraph 4

    I should note, as you may know, that a cyclical view of time is not unique to India and in fact existed in the pre-Christian West. As a Tolkien fan I might mention that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is clearly prefaced on such a view of time, with each Age being worse than the preceding. In the Beginning the Elves literally “walked with the gods” (the Valar and Maiar) but by the time Sauron is defeated and the 4th age begins, not only have the elves faded from Middle earth but even the High Men of Gondor, the Dunedain are gradually becoming just ordinary mortal men. Tolkien said he once “explored” Gondor after the end of Aragorn’s rule but found that’s it was declining in every aspect, with some men even turning to black magic and the rulers of Gondor descending to the level of Denethor or worse.

    Anyways, the above digression aside, I am with the perennialists in believing we are living at the end of the Kali Yuga, or ‘Iron Age’.

    Paragraphs 5 & 6

    ISchuon was a student of the orthodox Sufi Saint, Ahmed al Alawi and later headed his own Sufi order, the Maryamiyya. Whatever Sedgwick might say, Schuon and his close followers were orthodox Sufi’s. Schuon does note there are some men who become fully realized by the grace of God without having to join any type of initiatory organization, but these men are in a vanishingly small minority, and for anyone else who wants to become fully realized they must join an initiatory organization, such as Hesychasm in the Eastern Church.

    As to primordial man and his relationship with God, primordial man, before the fall, was fully realized from the moment he entered terrestrial life. Primordial man was a born metaphysician having an intuitive intellectual knowledge of God, as Schuon says he was a “quasi-Angelic” being. As the Bible says of Adam, primordial man “walked with God”.

    After the fall we no longer have this intuitive knowledge of God. Why? Because our intellectual faculties have been impaired by the fall. Here it is important to note that when speaking of the “Intellect” the traditionalists do not mean the rational mind. Rather, the intellect, or “intellectus” in Latin, is a supra-rational faculty, the “eye of the heart” that has the capacity for direct, unmediated contact with God. The rational mind, by contrast, works discursively and laboriously and cannot see God directly.

    All men have the intellect, it is “the Kingdom of Heaven within you” . But with the fall it has been as if covered by ice, and to melt the ice surrounding it takes more or less ardent spiritual exercises and ascesis. Though some men have an intellectual intuition the workings of which are more or less midway between those of the rational mind and a fully functioning intellect. This intellectual intuition, unaided by adherence to the rites and practices of an initiatory organization, cannot go past the grinding rocks to the Golden Fleece, but it can see over them and look in the direction of the Fleece, unlike the unaided rational mind. It is a starting point.*

    I am not sure how Sedgwick presented the perennialists that you say they speak vaguely of God, but Schuon speaks in detail about God, the “Great Chain of Being” and how God works at the various levels of reality, and through what intermediary powers. Its not vague at all.

    Paragraph 7

    Guenon wrote extensively criticizing Blavatsky and, once again, traditionalism or perennialism, is not a religion.

    Paragraph 8

    Both Christianity and Islam say the truth is open to all. Afterall, all men can be saved. But not all men access truth at the same level for “there are many mansions in my Father’s house”. We have ordinary believers, we have theologians, we have monks, and Saints, and the great Church Fathers. No one would say that your average believer is on the level of a St. Francis or a Gregory Palamas and let us not forget that Medieval Western Christianity also had initiatic orders, like the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, one long ago destroyed, the other long-since corrupted, and Orthodoxy has Hesychasm.

    As to Sufism, your characterization of Sufi’s as basically just people trying to act as if they know something everyone else doesn’t is false. What would you say if someone characterized Hesychasm in that way, which, for instance, a Protestant might easily do? As mentioned above, there are different levels of spirituality, no one can deny this (unless we are going to act like some of these Protestant sects today in which any old fellow can just stand up in the pews and declare himself a ‘prophet’…I used to live only a block away from a protestant church where the pastor called himself an “end-times prophet”). Schuon has some excellent things to say about Islam and the relation between exoteric Islam and Sufism, probably no one has dealt with the subject better.

    A Sufi, like a voluntaristic mystic in Christianity, or a Hesychast, is operating at a higher level of spirituality than his neighbors.

    As to devout Hindu’s, Schuon actually had a personal “ambassador” with the head of the lineage of Adi Shankara, the great 10th century Hindu metaphysician who founded the non-dualist school of Advaita Vedanta. Thus you would be wrong to suspect that devout Hindu’s rejected Schuon.

    Paragraph 9

    Guenon was not opposed to Christianity and specifically stated that the height of Western civilization was the Catholic middle ages. He has been misunderstood because he did say that, from the perspective of pure primordial truth, all the revealed religions are heresies, or at least heterodox. But in relation to contemporary fallen man these are our gateways to God, and are in fact full of truth, beauty, goodness, splendor and all virtues. Really, Guenon should have been more careful with his language in that case, as the statement could be so easily misinterpreted.

    Guenon was an eminent metaphysician, yet Schuon rose higher. Guenon seemed to be somewhat negatively impacted by being born into an environment as hostile to religion, let alone metaphysics, as that of fin de siècle France, and this may account for a sometimes bitter tone in his writing and for some of his statements that lend themselves to a false interpretation, such as his statement above about the relation between the primordial religion and our current religions.

    Schuon, by contrast, fully transcended any negative environmental influences and his works are flawlessly crystalline, and he provided correctives to many of Guenon’s errors. One error of several which Schuon corrected was Guenon’s view of Protestantism as a Christian heresy, whereas Schuon wrote an excellent essay “On the Question of Evangelicalism” vindicating Protestantism, (or at least Lutheranism and to a lesser extent Calvinism) as essentially orthodox, if somewhat limited, expressions of the Christian religion.

    Paragraph 10

    Dugin is not a traditionalist metaphysician, he doesn’t even rise to the level of Evola.

    Paragraph 11

    I’ve been reading the traditionalists for years, never even heard of this Isabelle Ebehardt. As to the Schuon scandal, I heard about it but I believe nothing came of it.

    At any rate, that a pervert could write Schuon’s books is about as conceivable as Plato having written the communist manifesto, not to mention Schuon’s most intimate associates are/were men who led impeccable lives. As one instance, I think it is no exaggeration to say S.H. Nasr is perhaps the most respected thinker in the Muslim world, certainly among Muslims who have relocated to the U.S., and the farthest thing imaginable from some type of quack or weirdo, whatever Sedgwick might say about the traditionalists. Much the same could be said of other of Schuon’s associates.

    But it is easy to cast aspersions and mar reputations. We know the American media has the power to destroy the reputation of anyone, and the same is true of writers like Sedgwick. Or look what the Athenians did to Socrates, or on a higher level the Pharisees did to John the Baptist and Christ. If you can defame the Son of God and get away with it what this really shows is how evil men’s hearts are. I judge Schuon by the fruit of his works and his associates, and the fruit is good.

    I think it is worth mentioning that esoterists have throughout history been attacked as heretics, or men of evil habits. Plato basically says in the Allegory of the Cave that if you preach the unadulterated truth too openly to those living in ignorance they will kill you for it, as they killed Socrates. It is also legitimate to view the Passion of Christ from this angle (not discounting by any means the standard view). As Schuon notes, in relation to Judaism, Christianity has something esoteric about it. Think of all the talk about the spirit vs. the letter of the Law, for instance. Why could the Pharisees not understand Christ, or why did he so infuriate them? Partly it was an hardened exoteric lack of comprehension for esoteric teachings that surpassed the particular exoteric mentality in question. On a lower level, there is the example of the Sufi, Al Hallaj, who said “I am the truth”, which from a metaphysical standpoint is a completely defensible statement, but from the standpoint of exoteric Islam is heretical. Al Hallaj was put to death, and after iniquitous proceedings at that.

    When seemingly threatened by truths that might call into question their worldview the exoteric can act with not only fury but with great iniquity. Schuon certainly must threaten some, his first name ‘Frithjof’ means “disturber of the peace”. But he only disturbs a false peace. Schuon’s middle name is “Albert” which means “noble peace”. After disturbing ones false peace, or at least lesser peace, he will lead those capable of being led to a higher peace.

    But to close this section, I should note that Schuon never denies the exoteric their rights, one of which, as he said, is to not have to hear anything of esoterism. From a certain viewpoint it would actually be justifiable for exoteric authorities to condemn to death esoterics who threatened the spiritual and psychological peace of the masses, but what can never be excused is when these proceedings are carried out iniquitously, as they so often have been from Socrates day to ours.

    Paragraph 12

    Traditional metaphysics can in fact account for literally everything. The only limit to metaphysics is the ability of humans to express it, limited as we are in multiple ways. Metaphysical truth is akin to the Platonic ideas. It exists eternally and can perfectly account for anything that exists, whether or not men access this truth.

    Paragraph 13

    Traditional metaphysics is not a political program. I think the problem here is Sedgwick mixing up very different figures, from Blavatsky and Evola to Guenon and Schuon.

    Ah well, those who are meant for metaphysics and possessed of the proper discernment will have little problem here. No one who has properly understood Schuon or Guenon would then turn and become a theosophist or follower of someone like Evola. Clearly Sedgwick lacks discernment in this area or he would not have mixed up such varying characters.

    • Charles says

      Thank you for the very detailed thoughts. I will spend some time reading the original with this, so I can fully grasp your comments.

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