The modern anti-modern critique of modernity is by no means a recent phenomenon; it begins rather with the responders to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Jacobin followers in the late Eighteenth Century. It is sufficient in this regard to mention the names of Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) and Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) and of their successors, S. T. Coleridge (1772 – 1834) and François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), to suggest the range and richness of immediately post-revolutionary conservative-reactionary discourse. In the Twentieth Century, José Ortega y Gassett (1883 – 1955), Oswald Spengler (1886 – 1936), and T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965), among others, continued in the line established by French réactionisme. In Ortega’s case and in Spengler’s this continuation entailed incorporating the iconoclastic skepticism of Friedrich Nietzsche into the discourse, with numerous qualifications. In Eliot’s case, it meant rejecting Nietzsche’s atheism and taking up from Chateaubriand and Coleridge the apology for Christian revelation and for a theological, as opposed to a secular, view of existence. René Guénon (1886 – 1951) belongs by his dates with the generation of Ortega, Spengler, and Eliot; like Eliot, Guénon is a theist, but despite his favorable treatment of Catholicism he is less identifiable as a Christian than Eliot. Guénon, who late in life converted to a Sufi-like sect of Islam, sees Catholicism as the vessel of Tradition in the West, but elsewhere Tradition has other forms that are valid in their own contexts. Spengler’s Decline of the West undoubtedly made an impression on Guénon, much as it did on Guenon’s younger contemporary Julius Evola (1898 – 1974). Guénon and Evola knew one another and mutually influenced one other. Both Guénon and Evola together exemplify a branch of modern critical anti-modernism affiliated much more than casually with the Twentieth Century occult revival.
Guénon at one time, in the 1920s, edited the chief French-language occult periodical, La Gnose or “Gnosis.” Yet Guénon, a fierce un-masker of religious mountebanks, can hardly be accused of employing mystic obscurantism to push a doctrinaire agenda. Guénon’s interest in occult topics, even more than Evola’s, strikes one as rigorous and objective. As for Guénon’s awareness of ideological deformations of reality, it ran to the acute. The driving force of deformation, in Guénon’s analysis as in Evola’s, is the stultifying massiveness of modern society, with its conformism on an unprecedented scale, and its receptivity to oratorical manipulation.
I. Guénon’s study Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (1921) offers a useful entry into the man’s view. This comprehensive account of Helena Blavatsky (1831 – 1891), and of her idiosyncratic cult, also serves well as a study of modern ersatz-religion in general, delving as it does beyond Blavatsky and Theosophy into related religio-sectarian developments, some of which exhibit a distinctly political character. Guénon never uses the term Gnosticism pejoratively in Theosophy, where it designates only a species of ancient theological speculation. Nevertheless anyone familiar with Eric Voegelin’s usage of the same term will recognize that Guénon frequently addresses the identical phenomenon of antinomian rebellion, motivated by libido dominandi and expressing itself in apocalyptic language, as addressed by Voegelin. Such self-aggrandizing rebellion, which would impose itself on the whole world, attempts to disguise its libidinousness under the banner of sweeping moral imperatives. Crusading slogans of this type make an appeal to the compensatory self-righteousness of the frustrated and resentful. According to Guénon, Blavatsky’s movement belongs generically to the revolt of distorted moral righteousness against nature; specifically it belongs to the type of destructive petulance that he denominates under the term mystic socialism, a peculiar development of Western civilization in the early Nineteenth Century. Indeed, insofar as Blavatsky’s Theosophy owes a debt to Auguste Comte’s Religion d’humanité, which was explicitly collective, socialistic, and antinomian, then contemporary leftwing phenomena in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century in continuity both with Comte’s and with Blavatsky’s cultic agendas.
The Blavatsky phenomenon thus serves for Guénon as a case study with broad implications beyond its peculiarities. In the chapter in Theosophy on “The Principle Points of Theosophical Teaching,” in a discussion of reincarnation in Blavatsky’s thought, Guénon writes that, “most revolutionaries [of the 1830s and 40s] were ‘mystics’ in the worst sense of the word, and everyone knows of the extravagances occasioned among them by the theories of Fourrier, Saint-Simon, and others of this kind.” Guénon echoes numerous others in his insight. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James, among novelists, note-worthily perceived the same overlap between radical leftwing politics and what Guénon calls “pseudo-mystical aspirations.” Hawthorne writes about political religiosity in The Blithedale Romance (1852); Conrad in Under Western Eyes (1911); and James in both The Bostonians (1885) and The Princess Casamassima (1886). In his late American Scene (1907), James makes many observations concerning the tawdriness and superficiality of life in the homeland that he had not visited in over twenty years, not least his remarks on the commercial ugliness of big-city architecture in places like New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. James wrote of his “vain quest” inn the modern cityscape for the “deeper depths, some part that should be sufficiently within another part,” but which always eluded him. To cite these instances of Anglophone, American and British, novelists building up a critique of modernity that runs surprisingly in parallel with Guénon’s reinforces the plausibility of Guénon’s diagnosis of the times. Modernity is essentially soulless, but it is also impressed by its own apocalypse, and under that impression, elevates itself in its own estimation until finally it idolizes and fetichizes itself. It becomes the object of its own cult.
Where Voegelin, for his part, commented on a pronounced mystic strain in the writings of Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, and others; Guénon commented on a pronounced political strain in modern mysticism, taking Theosophy as his exemplary instance. Voegelin would have agreed with Guénon’s observation that “restless and misguided religiosity,” coupled with evangelical “eagerness” to propagate doctrine, animates much of what is characteristically modern in both religion and politics, Voegelin having made similar observations in his own work, and having coined the phrase “metastatic faith” to designate what he observed. Guénon even anticipates Voegelin in his assertion that radical preaching, whether for the advancement of socialism or for the disestablishment of authority, invariably employs “a sentimental and ‘consoling’ moralism,” just as in modern liberal oratory, with its parade of alleged victims of iniquity, and its vocabulary of glutinous compassion. Such “moralism” finds fertile ground in the varieties of Protestantism, especially in its Puritan offshoots, like Unitarianism, a secular mutation of Puritanism. “The modernist mentality and the Protestant mentality,” Guénon writes, “differ only in nuance,” both being directed at an ancien régime, or religious establishment, denounced as intolerable; both being moralistic; and both being politically messianic or crusading. Puritanism, for Guénon, represents a gradual and implacable narrowing of consciousness; the purity that Puritanism seeks, it can only eventually find in the obliteration of consciousness in the fascination of the membership with the crude pseudo-symbols of its eschatological striving.
Theosophy, in Guénon’s analysis, exhibits in its organization the telltale features of an ideological cabal. Not only did Blavatsky and her collaborators conduct their activities in clandestine, conspiratorial ways, but also Theosophy in practice articulated itself on the inner party-outer party configuration noticeable in Communist organizations and emphasized by Orwell in 1984. In this way, by recruiting a large exoteric enrollment, the actual ruling minority provides itself with an instrument of willing drones and propagandists. It simultaneously protects itself against reality by surrounding itself with yes-men; it seals itself off ideologically from the larger world. Idealism finds its locus in the movement more in the large following than in the core, where a certain type of cynicism can develop. The inner circle, aware of its own manipulative character and jealous of its privileges, at any rate quite swiftly becomes cynical if it were not so from the beginning; it extracts money from the membership and it delegates to volunteers the workaday and unsavory tasks that it prefers not to undertake, directly, on its own. In a chapter on “The Oath in Theosophy,” Guénon writes, “a secret society is not necessarily a society that conceals its existence or that of its members, but is above all a society that has secrets, whatever their nature.” The secrets might be absurdities, as was the case with many Theosophical secrets; but by pledging the inner-circle to keeping the secrets, on pain of denunciation, the organization inculcates obedience – the real objective of what otherwise might appear so much pointless flummery.
The heart of Guénon’s History of a Pseudo-Religion consists of its twenty-seventh through twenty-ninth chapters – “Theosophical Moralism,” “Theosophy and Protestantism,” and “The Political Role of the Theosophical Society” – and its “Conclusion.” In these sections of the book, Guénon begins to abstract from the mass of details concerning the peccadilloes of Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott, Annie Besant, and the other noteworthy mountebanks of the cult. Under the topic of “moralism,” Guénon remarks that while a vaguely Christian “universal brotherhood” had been a stated goal of Theosophical activity, Blavatsky steadily described her many social enterprises as incompatible with “confessional differences.” Blavatsky’s enterprises were nevertheless, as Guénon writes, “in direct competition with charitable institutions having a confessional character.” Theosophy resembles in its practical activity the socialism contemporary with it, not least in seeing itself as the opposition to constituted religion, from which it wishes to recruit away the membership; and after that in its aggressive and imperious character, expressed in crusades of shaming and prohibition. In its falsely mystical obsessions, Theosophy, as Guénon portrays it, also forecasts the immanent religiosity of the Twenty-First Century’s proliferating leftist factions and movements. Theosophy is a pseudo-religion offering a pseudo-initiation into table-rapping mysteries. Guénon obviously cannot avail himself of Voegelin’s coinage of “immanentizing the eschaton,” that is, of attempting to establish paradise in this world, but he shows awareness of the state of mind. In Volume XII of his History of Political Ideas, subtitled, Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man (written but not published in the early 1950s), Voegelin identifies a “Gnostic Socialism” in Bakunin, Netchaev, Marx, and others, all of whom he lumps under the category of “activist mystic.” Voegelin’s category fits the objects of Guénon’s discussion with retroactive aptness, lending plausibility to that discussion.
According to Guénon, “Humanitarianism, pacifism, anti-alcoholism, and vegetarianism [are] ideas that are at root sentimental.” In appropriating these themes Theosophy shows itself to be thoroughly informed by “the essentially ‘moralistic’ mentality of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism,” just as Fabian socialism was, and despite any pretense of “eastern” or “mystic” inspiration. The modern moralization of politics undoubtedly runs in train with the modern politicization of religion; these mutually cross-contaminating trends constitute a characteristic symptom of the modern socio-political deformation. Theosophy again, in Guénon’s analysis, reveals much about the generics of modern agitation and complaint: Modern sentiment-driven prohibition-crusades, Guénon writes, organize themselves for “puerile ends.” Yet the crusaders also expect, when they have succeeded in imposing their prohibitions universally, that the event will transform the world into a permanent utopia. One recalls Fourier’s belief that on the accomplishment of the global Phalanstery the seas would turn to lemonade. Such “pietism” reacts to principled resistance by amplifying its wont as an authoritarian stance. Because Christianity is an ethos of freedom, as Guénon argues, it follows that all “moralist” – that is to say, “Immanentist” – programs “must logically become anti-Christian,” hence also despotic. There is a syllogistic connection, Guénon asserts, between a movement “which does not even admit the divinity of Christ,” and the “messianic and millenarist” themes, which predominate among “contemporary pragmatists and intuitionists.” The first is the premise and the others are variants of the conclusion.
II. In the term pragmatist, Guénon implicates the psychologist William James and in the term intuitionist, the philosopher Henri Bergson. That Guénon yokes James and Bergson with Blavatsky and Besant will outrage many a sensibility. Bergson had, in fact, already yoked himself to James, whom he first met in London in 1908 and whom he had quoted approvingly as early as 1889 in Time and Free Will; James repaid that compliment twenty years later in A Pluralistic Universe. James’ best-known book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), might seem somewhat anti-modern, validating as it does visionary events and a type of non-empirical knowledge against the skeptical dismissal of the same typical of modernity. In Guénon’s view, however, as he expresses it in his keynote Crisis of the Modern World (1927), Jamesian pragmatism merely exemplifies the modern tendency to emphasize action over contemplation and instrumentality over knowledge. Thus what James’ title calls Religious Experience obtains its validity not through being true but through being effective in banishing melancholy or neurosis and stimulating renewed effective activity. Guenon remarks how under the Protestant dispensation religion descends towards two privative states, “moralism” and “sentimentality,” until it dwindles down to jejune “religiosity.” Guénon writes: “To this final stage [of dispirited religion] correspond theories such as that of the ‘religious experience’ of William James, which goes to the point of finding in the ‘subconscious’ [mind] man’s means of entering into communication with the divine”; thus “a limited God [of subjective rather than transcendental experience] is stipulated as being more ‘advantageous’ than an infinite God.” As for Bergson, he too according to Guénon is “anti-metaphysical,” his “reality” corresponding blandly “to a vaguely defined sensory order… conceived as something essentially changing and unstable.” But if everything were “change” no possibility of knowledge would exist; nor could intuition have an object, not even itself. For such a thing as knowledge to exist, the knowing subject must have stable references at some level. For Guénon, the stable references reside on the metaphysical level, precisely the level that the modern mentality rejects as a non-existent superstition.
Guénon wrote The Crisis of the Modern World to summarize his encyclopedic assessment, canvassing every aspect of life, and shared by such illustrious contemporaries as Ortega and Spengler, that Western civilization had entered a phase of terminal deliquescence. Guénon saw in the modern era not merely the of the assertive vulgate class flouting itself en masse, as did Ortega, or of Culture fossilizing into Civilization, as did Spengler: He discerned the “Kali Yuga,” the “Dark Age” of willful havoc, borrowing the label from Hindu scriptures. Thus: “The human cycle [Sanskrit: Manvantara] is divided into four periods marking so many stages during which the primordial spirituality becomes gradually more obscured; these are the same periods that the ancient traditions of the West called the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages. We are now in the fourth age… and have been so already… for more than six thousand years.” (“The Dark Age” is the title of the book’s first chapter.) The sequence of metallic ages comes from Hesiod’s Works and Days (Eighth Century BC). Hesiod laments having been born into the Iron Age, saying, “Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards”; Hesiod’s catalog of prevailing evils encompasses the triumph of “envy” and the dissolution of justice in selfish claims. Similar constructions occur in other, large mythic conceptions, not least that of Hinduism, on which Guénon so frequently calls for a vocabulary adequate to the impending catastrophe of the West.
Describing modernity in terms similar to those in Hesiod’s complaint, Guénon refers to such phenomena as “occlusion,” “dispersion in pure multiplicity,” and “progressive materialization” as traits of the times. Guénon traces the remote origin of the specifically modern crisis to the Greek world of two centuries later than Hesiod, particularly to the differentiation of philosophy (self-denominated and as such) from traditional wisdom, as in post-Platonic or Hellenistic rationalism. In its Pythagorean etymology, as the “love of wisdom,” philosophy connoted modestly “the initial disposition required for the attainment of wisdom,” and a “preliminary and preparatory stage.” Soon, however, “the perversion… ensued that consisted in taking this transitional stage for an end in itself and in seeking to substitute ‘philosophy’ for wisdom.” Such arrogance generated “a pretended wisdom that was purely human and therefore entirely of the rational order, and that took the place of true, traditional, supra-rational, and ‘non-human’ wisdom.” These events reflect, in small, and likewise forecast the larger crisis, which Guénon characterizes as inevitable. “The reason [for the inevitability of the crisis] is that the development of any manifestation implies a gradually increasing distance from the principle from which it proceeds.” By “manifestation,” Guénon means revelation – of metaphysical truth, vouchsafed by the equivalent of deity, to truth’s original human codifiers. These observations of Guénon come into sympathetic resonance with similar ones made by Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History. Guénon’s Crisis, which should be read alongside Spengler and Toynbee, has the advantage over the Decline and the Study of being much more succinct than they.
Tendencies like sophism (egocentric) and skepticism (that is, epistemological nihilism) gradually undermined the foundations of Greco-Roman civilization, Guénon opines. Modern consensus-scholarship takes the dominance of Stoicism and Epicureanism over the views of the imperial upper classes as signifying progress in the direction of rationality. Guénon assesses the same transformation contrarily as showing “to what point intellectuality had declined.” He writes: “The ancient, sacred doctrines… had degenerated through… lack of understanding into [actual] ‘superstitions’ [that is to say] things which, having lost their meaning, survived for their own sake merely as manifestations.” When the Gothic tribes belatedly appropriated the moribund provinces of the western Imperium in the Sixth Century, they did little more in Guénon’s view than to put the period to a sentence long completed. The ensuing Gothic Christianity represents for Guénon a temporary positive “readjustment” to tradition. The so-called Renaissance, which follows the Middle Ages “was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things,” so much so that in respect of the medieval mind modernity is “unable to understand its intellectuality.” Together the Renaissance and the Reformation correspond with “the disruption of Christendom” and they therefore together mark “the starting-point of the modern crisis” in a “definitive rupture with the traditional spirit.”
Modernity invariably caricatures the Middle Ages as socially and technically stagnant, in contrast to itself, which it conceives as meritoriously active. The modern mentality chiefly demands “change,” which, in a mood of self-congratulation, modern people call dynamism or progress. But, as Guénon writes in the chapter on “Knowledge and Action,” “change, in the widest sense of the word, is unintelligible and contradictory”; thus no society can actually predicate meaningful order purely on “change.” Quite the opposite, constant “change” is indistinguishable from anarchy, toward which all agitating trends, like “humanism,” “individualism” and “materialism,” lead – or so Guénon believes. In the chapter on “Individualism,” for example, Guénon defines that sacrosanct term as, in fact, “the negation of any principle higher than individuality, and the consequent reduction of civilization, in all its branches, to purely human elements.” Individualism existed in ancient society without ever becoming the dominant ethos, but with humanism and Protestantism it broke its fetters and became the defining omniprevalent motif. For Guénon, Florentine humanism corresponds to Luther’s schismatic rebellion but with a Latinate accent – an insight, one might add, that a calm re-reading of Pico’s famous Oration will support. Both movements position themselves resentfully as anti-Catholic and anti-traditional. Florentine neo-Platonism is of the very late, magical variety of Platonism, rooted less in The Symposium than in The Hermetica. As for Protestantism as such, The Crisis classifies it under the formula of “individualism as applied to religion.” Guénon puts it this way: “Protestantism, like the modern world, is built upon mere negation, the same negation of principles that is the essence of individualism.” It will be useful here to remark that Nicolas Berdyaev, Guénon’s Russian-born contemporary, who in exile made a new home in France, evaluated the Renaissance in almost the same terms; Spengler too thought that the Renaissance represented an “imbroglio,” as he put it.
III. Much of the refreshment in Guénon’s work comes from its author’s forthright judgment, his judgment of Protestantism furnishing an exemplum. A crisis, Guénon remarks, is etymologically a judgment or decision; and it is any situation that makes a judgment or decision necessary. In The Crisis, Guénon goes on to say that, once it had undergone the Protestant transformation, “the modern outlook was bound to reject all spiritual authority in the true sense of the word, namely authority that is based on the supra-human order, as well as any traditional organization.” One can easily imagine the faculty of a contemporary philosophy department squirming in response to Guénon’s words or bursting into a demonstration of outrage. The ire would be unanimous. But that is precisely the paradox that Guénon’s analysis of modernity reveals: In the universalization of the vaunted “individualism,” any noticeable individuality swiftly ceases to exist; a welter of contending subjects replaces it, the constituent persons of which, in their egocentric contentiousness, soon resemble one another indistinguishably and interchangeably. Guénon has the temerity to write: “Protestantism denied the authority of the organization qualified to interpret legitimately the religious tradition of the West and in its place claimed to set up ‘free criticism,’ that is to say any interpretations resulting from private judgment, even that of the ignorant and incompetent, and based exclusively on the exercise of human reason.” Having validated the subjective, the Protestant or modern mind has no criterion by which it might reject any opinion; so it embraces the opposite and declares a regime of mandatory relativism in ideas and moeurs. From this turn-around arises the social, cultural, and epistemological chaos of the modern age.
Readers of The Crisis, especially of the chapter on “Social Chaos,” must remind themselves every few paragraphs that the writing dates from ninety years ago, so aptly does it depict existing circumstances in 2018. Guénon denounces that “pseudo-principle” – “equality.” Nevertheless, as he says, “almost all of our contemporaries blindly accept [it].” Along with pseudo-principles there are “pseudo-ideas” such as “progress” and “democracy,” which have “nothing in common with the intellectual order.” These “false ideas” are, properly speaking, “suggestions,” rooted in sentiment, whose “contagious” character endows them with propagandistic effectiveness; these “verbalisms” are the “idols” of the contemporary masses. As for democracy, “The higher cannot proceed from the lower, because the greater cannot proceed from the lesser.” Guénon’s analysis of mob-behavior (“a sort of general psychosis”) owes something to Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1895). Guénon would return to the basic plan of The Crisis in 1945, enlarging the scale of the presentation, with his Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, reading whose pages is, if possible, an even more powerful experience than reading those of The Crisis. In these pages, Guénon advances his thesis that the present phase of modernity is one in which the increasingly narrow mentality reduces everything to pure abstract quantity – regarding all qualities as dispensable accidents, without meaning. As Guénon writes: “If the domain of manifestation that constitutes our world is considered as a whole, it can be said that existences contained therein, as they gradually move away from principial unity, become progressively less qualitative and more quantitative.” Guénon, in parallel with Evola, remarks the increasing atomization of the human being, who migrates in status from the personhood implicit in what he calls principial unity to the atomization implicit in consumerism and the network of abstract rights and claims.
The date of publication of The Reign of Quantity is important. The great “signs of the times” in 1945 offered themselves in the wrecked cities of Europe and Japan, the “liberated” concentration camps and POW camps, the presence of the Red Army in Eastern Europe all the way to Vienna, and the new omen of the mushroom cloud. The world’s victorious governments and their eager servants, the agencies of the free press, hastened to call the concatenation of these things “peace” – a “verbalism” which when seen starkly against its background becomes suggestive of actual dementia. Guénon had written The Reign of Quantity during the conflict yet tellingly and deliberately the book barely mentions the war. Eschewing the topical, Guénon returns to his patient diagnosis of modern intellectual and cultural degradation; he is always keen to reveal the origin of modern perversity. Vital – which is to say, traditional – civilizations acknowledge quality as superior to quantity; such civilizations eschew quantity for its own sake and thus often appear to modern people to have lived in material poverty. The modern idea of the Middle-Ages corresponds to this prejudice, which in its turn indicates the impoverishment of modern thinking. For Guénon, the Middle-Ages were the last sane phase of Western Civilization. Modernity cannot understand the medieval dispensation because modernity is mentally distorted: It reduces the range of possible experience to a narrow range of impoverished categories – as typified nowadays in the academic obsession with race, class, and (so-called) gender.
For Guénon, as previously mentioned, the idea of “democracy” belongs ineradicably to the mentality that values quantity over quality, so much so that it despises the latter – in the social, moral, and aesthetic senses – for being incompatible with so-called equality. It is this, equality, which supplies that mentality’s overriding desideratum. Guénon steadfastly refuses to allow any dignity to the word “democracy,” which he takes as synonymous with modernity’s mad insistence on equalizing all human achievement at the lowest level, the only level at which such a project could come near to completing itself. Thus in the chapter on “The Hatred of Secrecy,” Guénon addresses the pedagogical folly that tries to bring the totality of knowledge and every associated practice “within the reach of all.” Nowadays conservative commentary refers to such programs under the names of “dumbing down” and “affirmative action,” which it would locate as recent developments. Guénon sees the process as co-incipient with Protestant and Revolutionary spitefulness against constituted authority in any domain. Guénon writes: “The modern mentality… cannot bear any secret or even any reserve,” but “such things appear [to it] only as ‘privileges.’” The modern mentality again despises “any kind of superiority” of intellect or mastery because the fact that these things require preparation, capacity, and attunement “is just what ‘egalitarianism’ so obstinately denies.” This attitude appears even in vulgar slogans, like the perpetually intoned dogma of all modern democracies that, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, whereas only the educated and the wise are entitled to their opinions and despite the obvious fact that – concerning any particular topic – the number of opinions is invariably quite small. What the modern person means when he utters this platitude is that my opinion is important, whether plausible or rational, because it is mine and therefore as good as anyone else’s.
Guénon’s Reign makes a telling comparison with another apocalyptic book, H. G. Wells’ Mind at the End of its Tether, like The Reign written during the war and published in 1945. Wells (1866 – 1946), the great prophet of material civilization and of “progress,” suddenly knows what Guénon has long known: “The writer [quoth Wells] finds very considerable reason for believing that, within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by eons, there has been a fundamental change in the conditions under which life, not simply human life but all self-conscious existence, has been going on since its beginning.” Wells writes of “the abrupt revelation of a hitherto unsuspected upward limit to quantitative material adjustability.” But Wells, militantly secular in his lifelong orientation, cannot grasp that his own sudden disorientation stems from the very attitude that his career successfully promoted. What dawns belatedly on Wells as a mysterious and abrupt alteration presents itself to Guénon only as the inevitable outcome of a long trend. An earlier book by Wells, The Work Health and Happiness of Mankind (1931), is an extravagant instance of what Guénon means by “The Reign of Quantity.” Like a Soviet minister of the interior, Wells calculates in chapter after chapter how many tons of coal, how many tons of steel, how many millions of gallons of milk, and how many billions of tons of wheat the Western world produces each year; and again how much of this output each person on average consumes either directly or indirectly. Wells regrets the inefficiencies of industry and proposes to streamline all the processes. A kind of apotheosis of this global stock-taking appears in the ultra-clean underground city (“Everytown”) in the Wells-Korda film Things to Come, which, like the Jamesian Boston or New York, possesses no internal content, but is everywhere the ostentation of materialism. In The Reign, Guénon mocks the modern obsession with statistics, which he refers to as “neo-astrology.”
In the chapter in The Reign on “The Illusion of ‘Ordinary Life,’” Guénon writes, “Materialists, with all their boasted ‘good sense’ and all the ‘progress’ of which they proudly consider themselves to be the most finished products… are really only [people] in whom certain faculties have become atrophied to the extent of being completely abolished.” What materialists like Wells call “normal” is, from a traditional perspective, like Guénon’s, quite paltry and abnormal. A world organized purely on material lines – as Wells and those of his convictions first prescribed and then realized – exists “as it were in an eminently unstable state of equilibrium.” Hence those mushroom clouds that still haunt the dreams of those who, skeptical of modernity, nevertheless find themselves stuck in it. Unsurprisingly then “the world has even now reached a point where the security of ‘ordinary life,’ on which the whole outward organization of the modern world has rested up till now, runs serious risks of being troubled by unanticipated ‘interferences.’” Those last phrases resemble the opening sentence from The Mind at the End of its Tether previously quoted; but it should be remarked that the shock of an unexpected discovery is entirely absent from Guénon’s prose. “But of course,” is the attitude of Guénon’s rhetorical approach. In this manner, Guénon proves himself a tougher thinker than Wells, who thought of himself as a tough thinker, a hard-as-facts mentality. The belated revelation of the modern crisis made Wells panicky and dizzy whereas Guénon, recognizing it early, could discuss it more or less dispassionately.
Guénon’s invocation of an illusion has epistemological implications. As Guénon writes, “The materialistic attitude… necessarily imposes on the whole ‘psycho-physiological’ constitution of the human being a real and very important modification.” Homo modernus in fact succeeds in remaking himself – as the exponents of the Superman had urged – under a new image; this image corresponds, however, to no increase of perception or intellection, but only to the diminution of perception and intellection. Assuming the materialistic attitude, modern man reinforces his already profane and alienated point of view, rendering him to an even greater degree than previously “impermeable to any influences other than such as impinge on his senses.” The materialist attitude, which is the same as the utilitarian inclination, which is again the same as pragmatism, “was first born of a defect of comprehension, and thus of a limitation.” The defect consisted in spiritual obtuseness, a lack of intuition, and the autistic worship of facts only, material facts, as the elements of existence. “Thus arises,” as Guénon writes, “the idea of what is commonly called ‘ordinary life’ or ‘everyday life,” phrases that are “understood to mean above a life in which nothing that is not purely human can intervene in any way.” Such an attitude banishes the concept of the “supra-human,” as Guénon calls it; such an attitude denies – or rather blinds itself to – anything spiritual, sacred, theophanic, and even to beauty conceived as anything more than mere ornament.
Guénon remarks the irony in materialism and its vocabulary. Archaic and historical societies through the medieval period in the West understood that the earthly and worldly existence acquires its reality through its participation in a vertical dimension, the dimension of transcendence. Spirit belongs to transcendence and spirit is more real than matter, which lies at the lowest level of manifestation. To call the dispensation that has blinded itself to transcendence, real life, opposing itself to an unreal life lived supposedly in the shadow of superstition, involves not just an inversion, but an obliteration of values. “The thing so named,” Guénon argues, “is on the contrary nothing but the worst of illusions.” The victim of the self-imposed illusion increasingly conceives his own, human domain as having been healthily pared down to pure corporeality. Guénon writes: “It is enough to notice how our contemporaries constantly make use of the word ‘real’ as a synonym of ‘sensible’ without even thinking about it, in order at once to become aware that they have indeed fully reached the final stage, and that this way of looking at things has become so completely incorporated into their very nature as to have become so to speak almost instinctive to them.” It is a case then not of evolution, of which Homo modernus considers himself the culmination, but rather of a type of devolution that is too stupid, having systematically stupefied itself, to recognize its own deficiency, its own impoverishment, and its own vulgarity. Every institution of modern Western civilization promulgates this illusion, which has become universal.
IV. Wells, about whom much in a positive way could be said, nevertheless serves as an example of the modern, anti-traditional mentality and thus also as a useful counter-figure to Guénon; indeed, at the end of his life, Wells might be said to have encountered himself uncannily, with The Mind at the End of its Tether and the less pessimistic but equally quirky Happy Turning testifying to the event. Knowledge of Wells helps in understanding Guénon’s diagnosis of modernity in another way, for, having been raised by a Methodist mother, a good deal of righteous evangelism remained in Wells’ makeup even after he rejected any notion of God and adopted as one of his hobbies the making of nasty attacks on organized religion. Guénon argues that modernity is a deviation from but also a deviation of religion or at any rate from and of the “sacred” – the realm of the “profane” being the same as the realm of matter and of quantity. Several French contemporaries of Guénon saw socialism as a Christian heresy, not least Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931) and Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991). Much more recently the American Paul Gottfried (born 1941) has argued that political correctness is a continuation of Protestant Nineteenth-Century social crusades. The distance between Gottfried’s view as expressed in Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt (2002) and Guénon’s view either in The Crisis or The Reign is hardly great; both men remark the intolerant, dogmatic character of “liberal” crusades and the appeal of those crusades to base emotions rather than to intellect. The liberal professoriate, from which Gottfried is maximally distant, creates theories aplenty that have a superficially intellectual appearance and that deploy arcane terminology; but in the very thickness of the verbalism one can discern Guénon’s themes of “materialization” or “solidification” as keynote characteristics of the prevailing situation. Even in the cosmic number of words devoted to pseudo-topics in contemporary academic journalism, one encounters the implacable quantity-obsession of the modern, quality-free mind.
Now Wells’ bulking Work Health and Happiness again offers itself as emblematic: It is a two-volume bludgeon of statistics of its day with audacious quantitative prescriptions for realizing global technocratic socialism. In The Reign, in the chapter on “Cain and Abel,” Guénon lists, as figuring among the consequences that “materialization” and “solidification” have devolved on the social order, that regime “in which everything is counted, recorded and regulated,” as he writes. This “mania for census-taking,” which Guenon associates with the centrality of statistics in modern thinking, belongs to “the endless multiplication of administrative interventions in all the circumstances of life.” The sixty-five years since The Reign’s appearance have only strengthened the legitimacy of Guénon’s lexical choice of the term “mania.” Thus whatever else they might be (articulating that would entail a long list of invidious motives), both “diversity,” on the one hand, and “climate change policy,” on the other, to name but two Twenty-First Century political programs, are maniacally quantitative and anti-traditional. In describing bureaucratic number-fixation Guénon writes with clairvoyance that: “These interventions [in tradition] must naturally have the effect of insuring the most complete possible uniformity between individuals, all the more so because it is… a ‘principle’ of all administration to treat individuals as mere numerical units all exactly alike… thus constraining all men to adjust themselves… to the same ‘average’ level.” One could cite the pervasive impression among modern people that, as the phrase puts it, “everyone is unique,” as an ironic manifestation of the prevailing sameness and conformity. We are all alike unique, as it might be summed up in a fatuous and self-annihilating formula.
The tyranny of quantity, it will be seen, overlaps in the Venn diagram of Guénon’s commentary almost entirely with the tyranny of equality; any manifestation of quality, as such, then looms as the enemy of both. Because an egalitarian dispensation can only be achieved at the price of quality in itself, all modern intellectual activity will be constrained by mandatory simplification toward numerical dumbness. This engrossment of thinking – indeed of the perception and experience from which thinking derives its material – is also a topic in The Reign. “From a social viewpoint,” as Guénon writes, “‘democratic’ and ‘egalitarian’ conceptions tend toward exactly the same end,” namely, that “all individuals are equivalent to one another” and therefore interchangeable. “This idea carries with it,” Guénon continues, “the absurd supposition that everyone is equally well fitted for anything whatsoever, though nature provides no example of any such ‘equality.’” In socialist thinking, the elimination of differences will supposedly result in the obviating of resentment, but as social phenomena demonstrate, resentment under an egalitarian scheme actually increases, as people begin to place significance in ever smaller degrees of the remaining difference. Then also there is the difference between the mass and the managers, which, far from dissolving class envy, merely reinvents it in another guise. How apt it is when Guénon seems presciently to offer a critique of affirmative action: “Individuals are… directed toward becoming as nearly alike to one 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.”
Protestantism, rationalism, and humanism re-enter the discussion. Guénon sees them all as agitating, corrosive forms of “counter-initiation,” most obviously in the cases of Calvin and Luther, but no less perniciously in other later non-religious and anti-religious discourses. According to Guénon, “the most astonishing thing is the speed with which it has been possible to induce Westerners to forget everything connected with the existence of a traditional civilization in their countries.” The modern self-congratulatory enlightenment of the European and North American nations therefore corresponds, as Guenon observes, with “total incomprehension of the Middle Ages and everything connected with them.” This forgetfulness is not a spontaneous or natural development, but the result rather of deliberate hostility against the traditional past – of the propaganda, in the exercise of which modern movements, whether political, cultural, sectarian, or scientific excel. Instead of initiation, which was implicit still in the ceremonies of the late medieval period, modernity inculcates itself through what Guénon designates as “counter-initiation” and “pseudo-initiation.” Reading the sins of the Dead White Males to pupils, or any kind of deconstruction, would exemplify counter-initiation, which acknowledges the past, but only temporarily so as to annihilate it. All the “Studies” programs of the universities, for example, belong to counter-initiation, but in the context of those programs, pseudo-initiation takes its place. All “consciousness-raising” events, “encounters,” and accesses of pride exemplify pseudo-initiation.
The “Reign of Quantity” requires that its constituency live unconnected with any past in a kind of perpetual present, on the multiplying distractions of which the untutored mind remains stupidly fixed. Guénon remarks how industry fills life with things, objects and devices, which monopolize attention, and which assimilate individuals to the pattern of the consumer. In our own time the variety and fascination – and the idiocy – of these things have only increased. The trend toward “materialization” thus converges with the trend toward mental stultification and, in the stultifying vocabulary of modern politics, “democracy.” Having abolished the normal and the traditional, modernity offers counterfeits in the form of “pseudo-religion,” “pseudo-nature,” and even “pseudo-comfort.” Thus the modern regimes organize “civic or lay ‘pseudo-rites’ that… provide the ‘masses’ with a purely human substitute for real religious rites.” Such counterfeits include the reintroduction of “nature,” or what is supposed to be nature, as an object of worship. Guénon’s analysis of the counterfeit anticipates Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the Simulacrum although as far as I know no one has ever called attention to Guénon’s priority in this respect.
Many literate people nowadays have the gnawing sense that a crackup of the world is at hand. This sense too belongs to The Reign, in whose pages Guénon predicts repeatedly that the “descent” into the nullity of pure quantity is about to hit its lowest depth, its stopping point, at which moment the Kali Yuga will have completed its cycle and a new, opposite motion will begin. In reading Guénon, many literate people will very likely experience some nervousness about the mystico-mythic vocabulary with which he articulates his philosophy of tradition. It is significant, however, that someone as temperamentally opposite to Guénon as was Wells had, at the end of his life, a vision of modern fraudulence as stark as Guénon’s. Given then the total jejuneness of everything modern, including the scrubbed-clean, anti-transcendent vocabulary of positivism; given the vapidity and imposture of Foucault-speak and Derrida-speak, both designed to destroy thinking; given, I say, the rampant perniciousness of the socialistic-egalitarian experiment in all its guises – Guénon’s insistence on the archaic, the traditional language of symbol and myth begins to appear in a new light as both useful and urgent. Guénon displays a kinship in this regard with another explorer of tradition, whose partial inheritor he perhaps is, namely Richard Wagner.