René Guénon and Politics

We will shortly be going to our little caravan near the sea on the north-east of the Cotentin, near the great lighthouse of Gatteville. Holidays are a time for relaxing and going out in the boat a little more often, exploring new bays and beaches, little fishing ports and everything from a different perspective. I will spend much less time with Facebook and news sites with all the stuff on Boris Johnson and his friends governing the UK – and more time for prayer and reading real books. My ambition now is to emphasise the Christian Mystery as lived through the symbolism of the liturgy and sacred places. I seek a light that is not usually seen in this earthly life. This has become my way to renew my Christian faith and sense of love and unity.

Many years ago, there was an extraordinary man in France who has not been forgotten since his death – René Guénon (1886 – 1951). He is not an easy character for Christians, since he converted to the mystical Sufi form of Islam shortly before the end of his life. Throughout his life, Guénon studied and wrote about the traditional and mystical elements of many of the world religions like mystical Islam and Hinduism. For him, as for me, symbolism is of the utmost importance. Christianity was never meant to be simply a religion of the written word – “What does the Bible say?” but appeals to the whole being through all the senses and the imagination. As he got older, Guénon became increasingly radical in his criticisms of phenomena like theosophy and existing mystery schools. He condemned the Martinists of Gérard Encausse (Papus) for not being “legitimate”. What was legitimacy in his eyes? His two most well-known books are The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times and La Crise du Monde Moderne. Jacques Maritain was highly critical of Guénon’s work, largely due to their openness to Gnoticism, which he regarded – like most Catholics – as heretical. Guénon’s output was phenomenal, and only a small amount has been translated from French.

Guénon is a favourite with many authors who are interested in mysticism, “integral” traditionalism and esoteric Christianity. I have found that he is good “in small doses”. I remember a man who lived in Paris called Jean Phaure. He wrote books and continued much of the thought of Guénon, though he remained a Christian. There are still a few French thinkers who follow that world view, notably the university professor Jean Hani who has written a number of books on sacred symbolism. In Hani’s book, Mythes, rites et symboles. Les Chemins de l’invisible, He has a large section dedicated to the memory of Guénon. In particular, I was impressed on reading pages 127 to 135 – René Guénon et la Politique. Certainly these thoughts will help me to move from the present mess in England to a higher view of man’s social life.

To an extent, I will resume some of the material in these pages, whilst adding a reflection or two or my own. Why would Guénon the philosopher bother with politics? Simply, we can say at this stage is that we are looking at another meaning of the word politics. For Guénon, it is not the struggle of parties of the left and right, but an upwards elevation of human life in a way of wisdom. We do well to begin with the teachings of Plato, Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, but Guénon felt the need to go further and deeper. Many of Guénon’s works are a pitiless criticism of the “modern world”, what Bernanos said was designed to impede contemplation and the true purpose of existence. Guénon became radically disillusioned with the nationalist ideas of men like Charles Maurras (Action Française) and integralist Catholicism. He was always critical of movements against legitimacy and authority, which I find as something to be carefully watched.

The traditional idea of society is the two swords of the middle ages, a metaphysical foundation that explains nature. We have the doctrine of cosmological cycles and the social idea of castes. The metaphysical principle is at the origin of any traditional society. The spiritual has primacy over the temporal. The human and the individual is secondary to the divine and the universal. The spiritual and the divine confer the authority needed to govern the temporal. This was the foundation of the authority of the Pope over temporal monarchs. There we have the two powers, exploited to the full by men like Boniface VIII who would use his spiritual power to emulate the temporal sphere, leading to tyranny. The theory was attractive, but the application was often cruel, with the Church using the secular arm to constrain and oppress.

The notion of caste, what we would today call race and class is significant. This is something Guénon found in India. The Indian caste system was, and still is to an extent, highly complex. It gave an almost perfect analogy of the ideas of St Thomas Aquinas about social order.

An originality in oriental thought is the cycle. In our western thought, including the Judeo-Christian tradition, history is linear and involves evolution and growth. In the cyclic notion, man is not progressing but rather degenerating. However, this decadence is not linear but goes up and down until we arrive at the last age, Kali-Yuga, the dark age. Hindu teachings and traditions are extremely complex about these questions. As man devolves, we lose spirituality and intellect and pass through humanist philosophy to materialism. We find echoes of this kind of thought in Nikolai Berdyaev. The castes in India are symbols of those ages and cycles. Guénon traced many parallels in western history through the various revolutions and reformations. As western history hit rock bottom, we would find nationalism which essentially continues the tenets of the French Revolution. Beyond the revolution of the bourgeoisie against the kings, we find Bolshevism or Communism at the bottom of the historical cycle. Guénon died too long ago to have seen British and American disaster capitalism as even more snake-belly low!

Next, we find Guénon’s criticism of democracy. We take democracy for granted, but it does not represent man’s highest life. Democracy is founded on equality, and this is something we agonise about today as our sense of Christian compassion reaches out to the poor and weak. It is one thing to care for the weak, another to admit them into government and the social order. Where I really sympathise with Guénon is the notion of the fallacy of the higher being able to emanate from the lower. I have often spoken of my judgement of “groupthink” and the stupidity of collective humanity as opposed to the genius of the person’s nobility of spirit. Universal suffrage is founded on the notion that the opinion of the majority is law and always right. Majority public opinion is formed by effective manipulation by those who are amoral and without principle. Mob law is something very dangerous. Guénon blames the mass without any higher principle for modern warfare and the hecatomb.

The only way to remedy the social order would be by the restoration  of metaphysics, an intellectual elite inspired by such principles and a ruling hierarchy. Ideally, this restoration could only depend on the Catholic Church with its spiritual authority and source of temporal authority. The idea is wonderful, and I think of that illuminating piece of writing of Friedrich von Hardenburg, Die Christenheit oder Europa. Guénon seems here to be supporting the ideology of the integralists and the totalitarianism of the Inquisition! We find this same authoritarianism in the thought of Julius Evola who was very close to Mussolini’s Fascism. The Catholic Church itself has relinquished such an idea, which seems wise in the light of many of the monstrosities documented in history. Evola would have closed down the Church as no longer being fit for purpose – and the traditionalists for lacking legitimate authority. Novalis expressed not an aspiration of a restoration, but an analogy by which man can rise through the imagination and his innate desire (Sehnsucht). Similarly divine authority through the instrumentality of man can only be analogical. Literalism is fatal.

We must go beyond this thirst for mere authority, and ourselves, we need to seek nobility and what the elite of the Philosopher Kings is all about. Guénon finally realised that we cannot wait for that restoration of what will almost certainly never happen. I believe we can begin to restore that elite through education, through the use of technology and media, but also by writing books, establishing schools and sessions of formation and training. We can be part of the elite by rising to it through our work and elevation of mind. There are may things that can help towards restoring the divine Order, like beauty of sacred art, the meaning of liturgical symbolism and tradition, the study of philosophy. What can we do to prevent corruption in the clergy? Many problems remain in the way of the institutional Church’s credibility.

I am far from having all the answers, and I abhor the authoritarianism of the present Right as much as the “deconstructionism” of the Left. Perhaps when our Kali-Yuga is through, there may be something new to bring that vision we so ardently desire. Authority alone is not enough. We have also to have love and desire for beauty, goodness and truth. Finally, I should warn the reader to be discerning when exploring esoteric Christianity because the far-right agenda has exploited Evola, but also Guénon to an extent. We have to keep free and open minded, and above all critical.

I look forward to some comments on this far-from-concluded subject.

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6 Responses to René Guénon and Politics

  1. F.S. Chatton says:

    I, too, Father, has found myself going back to reading Guenon and Corbin. Guenon is without any doubt one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. The full force of his critique of modernity can only be appreciated from the supra-historical (or “metaphysical”) viewpoint he adopts and articulates in terms of a retrieval of symbolism.

    It is through symbolism that the experience of the primordial Tradition is mediated and recovered. Even though he gave up on the West, he believed that certain strands of that primordial Tradition still subsisted, however debased, in the Roman Catholic Church, in its exoteric aspect, and in Freemasonry in its esoteric aspect.

    In a way, I believe, this calls for comparison with Carl Schmitt’s arguments in “Roman Catholicism and Political Form” which, interestingly, came after “Political Theology”. Of course, Guenon and Schmitt did not share the same worldview or understanding of “metaphysical” principles, but both saw, from their respective perspectives and from the outside as it were, that something “valuable” remained in the Roman Catholic Church (weak, yet subsisting, strand of traditional life for one, and the capacity to assume and impart political form for the other).

    I wonder what Guenon would have thought of the trajectory of the RCC immediately before and after the Council. We know that Schmitt was stringently critical of it. But Guenon was also very critical of the political attempts at “immanentising the katechon” to borrow from Voegelin. The movements in both Church and State have tended towards the exotericisation that characterises the Kali Yuga, where the “Way” to the Spiritual Centre is lost or forgotten, and the confusion, not only between the castes, but also between the spiritual and temporal orders, obtains.

    One can fetishise esoteric initiation to extremes and I think Guenon did just that. His disregard of the contemplative and mystical traditions in Catholicism – his preference, if not exaltation of jnana over bhakti is itself not traditional either in Hinduism, Christianity or, even, Islam. Thus he had nothing to say of the Rhenish Mysticism, the Spanish School, and still less about the French school. The latter is particularly noteworthy in its attempt to combine religious life and mystical initiation – we can think of the two schemes of the Chorus Mariae and Chorus Jesu used by Berulle, and the sacerdotal initiation that was at the origin of the Saint-Sulpice movement. While these traditions have not even survived in the orders in which they emerged, we nonetheless have records about them, and even they can inspire us today.

    Regarding his views on masonry, I think he had to fall back on something – regular masonry – after he realised that all the ventures of Papus and his ilk were based on nothing but fancy, and not regular transmission and initiation. The Rite Ecossais Rectifié, perhaps, still maintained the link from Martines de Pasqually or at least Willermoz – in the Grand Prieuré d’Helvétie – but how can be sure of its authenticity? Also, it is not because Freemasonry is a “secret society” that it is necessarily and always esoteric in the spiritual sense – nowadays all profanes have access to the rituals and can even visit lodges.

    • Frithjof Schuon was quite critical of Guénon’s work. The little I have read brings up questions in my own mind, preventing me from following Guénon uncritically.

      Like Guénon, I am tempted to think of Christianity as essentially esoteric and initiatic before it became exoteric and “civil”, bound with politics. I question the value of purely exoteric and “literal” Christianity, otherwise it becomes a purely moral and political teaching.

      Guénon turned to the Orient and neglected traditions found in Europe and the west. Why become a (Sufi) Muslim when there are possibilities for a Christian contemplative life, even for lay people?

      Guénon’s writing is hard to read (for the uninitiated?) and complex. Maritain wrote « l’hyperintellectualisation ésotérique [de la Connaissance] n’est qu’un spécieux mirage [qui] mène la raison à l’absurde, l’âme à la seconde mort » (the esoteric hyperintellectualization [of Knowledge] is only a specious mirage [which] leads reason to the absurd, the soul to the second death). Maritain was a classical French Thomist Catholic, though with his interest in “integral humanism”. Do we not all chase mirages? Unless we become materialists or nihilists? We can’t close our minds.

      • F.S. Chatton says:

        Yes, I can’t but agree that Christianity is esoteric, even though it has undergone waves of exotericisation – and will continue to do so, no doubt. Hence, the importance of restoring a properly Christian symbolism through scholarship, arts and crafts, and alternative forms of association.

      • I agree with that last sentence. There need to be “mystery schools” bringing people together discreetly, but without the paraphernalia you get with Freemasonry, just for teaching symbolism, mystagogy and standard theology. There needs to be something inspired by the Benedict Option idea adapted to the culture of people involved. There need to be arts and crafts corporations inspired by Christian philosophy. There are schools, but they tend to be supported by all the same sort of people like Stephen Bannon, “Tradition, Family, and Property” and others of the far-right. All about authority and the crushing of the person – where the money comes from. But your idea is perfect…

  2. F.S. Chatton says:

    That is why I am cautious in imagining communities or even thinking of founding any – the danger of totalitarianism, sectarianism, and all sorts of dérives, as the French would say. A community of autonomous families and individuals gathered around a common practices and purposes belongs perhaps to a Utopian dream?

    • I agree with you. If such a community was viable and free from the “usual” (sectarian & totalitarian) trouble, it would exist and we would know about it. What I have in mind is more like the “summer university” where each person worships, prays and receives the Sacraments in his or her own church or whatever. I am more interested in education than “pastoral” work.

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