"...we talk about "primitive people"; now, I've spent a lot of time with these "primitive people," and I'm in awe of something they take naturally that we haven't even recognized yet. They're in touch with something else, and I've met quite a few here in Australia, aboriginal people, who lovingly, caringly laugh at us, because we call them 'primitives,' and they're in touch with things we're not even imagining yet." —Paul Lowe, from a Dharma talk
"…is the modern world really anything whatever but a direct denial of all traditional truth?" —René Guénon
René Guénon was without doubt a very intelligent person. He reminds me a bit of ven. Nyanavira, and also of another contemporary, the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. I remember reading a book by the American psychologist Charles Tart in which he declared Ouspensky to be "a towering intellectual"; and the latter's book Tertium Organum has been considered in some circles to be almost scripture. I was intrigued enough by this reputation to read that book; but upon reading it I found, in addition to many interesting ideas and even some profound insight, plenty of what appeared to be egregious nonsense also. I consider Guénon to be a similar case: brilliant, insightful, inspired, but habitually deviating from what I would consider to be logic or plausibility. I can't rule out the intriguing possibility, though, that my possibly uncharitable assessment derives from my hopeless modernity; Guénon despised and dismissed the modern way of thinking, including empiricism, and so I may simply fail to appreciate his radically non-modern point of view. Maybe I just don't "get it." It is intriguing that his whole outlook forbids me to rule out that possibility. Ouspensky may have been over my head also.
Yet it may also be that Guénon wasn't as completely divorced from the modern mentality as he would have preferred to believe: in some ways his style of reasoning appears to be very much a strange product of his time. For example, his whole approach to a developed "system" is reminiscent of mid-20th century psychological theories, in which internal self-consistency and eloquence take the place of logic supported by compelling empirical facts—but then again, he thoroughly despised empiricism.
For starters, Guénon seems to come up with some rather odd ideas, almost as though pulling them out of a hat. For example, he declares the beginning of the "modern deviation," the exact point at which western civilization began running off the tracks, to have occurred precisely at the time that the French king Philip "the Fair" abolished the powerful monastic order of the Knights Templar, in the early 14th century. He supports this claim (in the book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times) with essentially no more evidence than that ancient and early medieval coins bore esoteric religious symbolism, that ostensibly religious organizations like the Templars had great influence over economic systems in those days, and that secular kings were occasionally blamed for "debasing the currency." Based upon these notions he insists that money in olden times was much more qualitative than it is now, and that it had a deep spiritual significance that it now lacks, and which we modern humans cannot hope to understand. Ironically though, it appears that the Templars themselves, before they were persecuted and abolished by a king who owed them lots of money, contributed significantly to the soulless quantification of currency, thereby helping to bring about the modern deviation. Especially after the Holy Land was lost to the Muslims and the Crusades ended, the Templars became wealthy and powerful bankers who were largely responsible for such quantitative innovations as checks and letters of credit—thus making flimsy pieces of paper as valuable as gold and silver. The Knights Templar are also credited with being the world's first multinational corporation. But enough of the Knights Templar. Nowadays they're just badass fighters in video games.
Another peculiar notion of Guénon's, based upon I know not what, is that the destruction of Atlantis and the biblical Flood were essentially the same prehistoric event. Other peculiar notions include his vehement insistence that certain words must have certain meanings—to give just one such example, he insisted that true symbolism must be a case in which the supersensuous and superhuman manifests itself in this world. This is an interesting idea, i.e. that a symbol can be a kind of portal to a higher level of reality than the human one; but still, I don't see why a dream about a man wearing a hat and an overcoat walking down a long corridor, or the sign "=" signifying "equals," could not legitimately be called symbolic.
One strange idea that I can't resist mentioning (or anyhow choose not to resist) is that the maps drawn by ancient and medieval cartographers are at least as accurate as modern maps—implying that old maps are not inaccurate, but that islands and coastlines of continents really were differently shaped and in different locations than they are now. Ancient maps omitted the entire southern half of Africa, for instance, due to a belief that its southern coast ran parallel to the northern one; so we are to assume that sub-equatorial Africa simply did not exist until modern times, along with its fossils, archeology, and geological strata. He based this odd idea on the belief that people in premodern times were not inferior to us in intelligence, and were superior to us in the maintenance of enlightened traditions. This may be true; but it is also true that they had not yet developed accurate surveying equipment, and had no way even of measuring longitude. Even so, Guénon's theory is not absolutely impossible, so in my world at least it may actually be true! I consider there to be an infinite number of possible pasts, each of them equally valid (or invalid), and some of them may really involve continents that radically change shape and size over a matter of a few hundred years, along with fossils of animals that never lived. Strange.
an early map of Japan
(apparently not including Hokkaido,
which was not officially part of Japan at that time,
and maybe didn't even exist yet)
But sometimes the strangeness of his notions seems to veer off into sheer willful sophistry. I suspect that sometimes he force-fits the phenomenal world onto his theories for the sake of his own satisfaction. For example, in a chapter on the symbolism of spheres and cubes, and of circles and squares, he claims that a sphere is unstable (because it rolls), but that a cube resting on one of its sides is undoubtably the most stable of all forms. I had to call bullshit on that one. A tetrahedron (i.e., a three-faced pyramid) is much more stable. Just ask any disciple of Buckminster Fuller. But he needed a cube to fit his theory.
Another example of sophistry, methinks, is in his argument about how space and time cannot be purely quantitative, but must always bear some essential quality. He states that space cannot be entirely quantified because mere quantity does not take the orientation of directions into account. I think this is more a matter of involving arbitrariness than quality, however—but I'll let that slide. The real sophistry rears its head when he comes to time: Time also cannot be purely quantitative because it…also has directions, of past and future? No. Because it is cyclical. Guénon actually backs up this claim by asserting that all premodern traditions agree on the cyclical nature of time. It's true that the Indian conception of time is very cyclical in orientation; and it's also true that in Christianity there is mention of the end of the world and a new beginning; but simply having God pushing reset once, which he hasn't even done yet, hardly counts as a cyclical progression of the cosmos in Christianity. He seems to take certain selected premodern belief systems (in this case, Hinduism) as axiomatic and necessarily true, and as a foundational starting point for his philosophical system.
But regardless of Guénon's strange attempts at reason, (after all, he rejected with contempt the modern way of thinking in favor of an ancient, maybe even prehistoric, one) we really do seem to be rushing headlong into increasing quantification and alienation at the expense of a real sense of quality or essence. And Guénon certainly was not a stupid man, or blind either.
Science, physics especially, really does try to reduce the universe to sheer quantity, thereby stripping it of quality and essence, "quality" being dismissed as a kind of illusion. I'm not nearly so sure as Guénon, though, that quality, and all phenomenal human experience, cannot be reduced to numerical formulae, or at least given some numerical value. The digitization of the recent modern world demonstrates that just about any sense data, like sound and color, can be digitized, and thus quantified. Scientific theories can do the same. Consider, possibly not for the first time, the flavor of vanilla. Some quantitative system could assert that vanilla has a flavor represented, say, by the parameters 4852-1267-0821-3440, with allowable ranges of ±8.4% in the second tetrad and of ±5.9% in the third. This may describe the flavor according to some system, but of course it is of absolutely no use to anyone who wants to know what vanilla really tastes like. At this level science may be descriptive, kind of, but it ceases to be explanatory, even if it somehow comes up with a numerical system to account for everything.
Or consider the simple matter of a thrown ball. Scientists long ago came up with mathematical equations describing close approximations to the almost perfectly parabolic arc of that ball. Thus scientists may claim that they understand the flight of that ball through the air, the effects of gravity and wind resistance on it, etc. But what they have done is merely to come up with mathematical equations that pretty much correspond to what they have measured, and then conjured up a more or less explanatory story that seems to make sense. I say "pretty much" corresponds because the equations never exactly correspond to the observed phenomenon, unless the measurements are too crude to show the difference. Actually there are an infinite multitude of forces acting on the ball and affecting its path, all of which simply cannot be taken into account. But the quantitative approximation comes near enough to be very useful in a practical sense. Hence the great value of science.
But what the scientists do next is to declare that the mathematical equations, plus the story, is more real than the observed phenomenon, the thrown ball as it is perceived. Equations become the new Platonic Ideals, even though they also are merely perceived. The "reality" becomes almost pure quantification, which almost needless to say is also a bizarre divorce from experiential reality. And it involves practically the apotheosis of mere quantity. And this kind of thinking has permeated into the cultural conditioning and the world view of modern westernized humanity. And that's not even considering the mysterious, highly numerical abstractions of quantum theory and relativity. Or the idea that science is supposed to be strictly hypothetical, but almost never is.
Despite all this criticism of quantification, it seems to me that quality as well as quantity are ultimately illusions. The Absolute in most Buddhist philosophies, as well as in most mystical systems in general, is formless and undifferentiated; it is indeterminate, nirguna, having no discernible qualities whatsoever, much less quantities. But still, increased quantification in the modern world does seem to be running hand in hand with alienation, insensitivity, and spiritual decline, so there is probably a significant correlation, to use some numerical statistics jargon.
We evidently are living in an age of lukewarmness, of spiritual mediocrity. There are probably fewer mass murderers, and almost certainly less cannibalism, headhunting, and torture, but there are also fewer saints, and lots and lots of relatively "nice," politically correct philistines. It may be remembered that Guénon says modern equality comes from leveling DOWN, by repressing, not uplifting. But even if there is an equal amount of uplifting in modern society, which is certainly plausible, the extremes of goodness as well as badness are rounded off; and the result is standardized mediocrity.
Guénon appears to be quite right that the modern world is much preoccupied with quantity/form at the expense of quality/essence, although this is more true in the realms of science and industry than in the life of the average person. The average modern person's life may be more afflicted by superficiality due to excess of artificial stimulation, moral weakness due to consumerism and relative luxury, etc. In a recent post I claimed that barriers, alienation, and ignorance are all the same thing; and consequently people in modern society are in certain ways much more ignorant than were their premodern ancestors—they have the same level of intelligence, or maybe slightly more, but less practical, experiential knowledge of the earth, the sky, and each other, and more knowledge of artificial complexities, like how to work a cell phone. Mental energy can be compared to money: the more we spend on one thing, the less we can spend on another; and the modern person's mental energy is used so much on complicated superficialities that there is almost nothing left to spare for what is deeper down, and more essential. So much so that what is deeper down may be ignored to the point of dropping out of the picture entirely.
Which leads to the subject of the miraculous and the divine.
It could be said that "primitive" people live in a world of spirit, of "animism," while the inhabitants of our Brave New World live in a world of dead matter; we have "solidified" the world, as Guénon says. One possible explanation for this, although definitely not the orthodox one, is that the perceiving mind "tunes in" on a certain version of reality, much like a radio receiver tunes in on a single frequency or narrow bandwidth of radio waves; and most people have their radio stuck at a single narrow bandwidth, a single "station." "Primitive" people, including children, have a broader or fuzzier focus, so to speak, and thus are more able to experience what more refined, hardened materialistic modern adults have become blind to—like spirits, for instance. (Incidentally, I suspect that some very advanced spiritual beings, like enlightened ones, may be able actually to change channels at will, or perhaps even to access a broad range of frequencies simultaneously.)
Now, a narrow bandwidth may be much more appropriate for a precision instrument, like maybe a technically-oriented modern city dweller; but a relatively broad bandwidth is infinitely richer than a single frequency—although Guénon appears to suggest that we could never degenerate all the way down to one single, exact frequency of perception. But whether our mind be wide or narrow, fuzzy or precise, it truly conditions our reality, and the nature of the world we live in. And that is even if modern materialists reject the notion with amusement or impatient ridicule. As Einstein is said to have said, "It is the theory which determines what we can observe."
Along this same vein, Guénon probably would have agreed with Eckhart Tolle's and Paul Lowe's observations that world problems like new diseases, pollution, and global warming are actually an outward manifestation of our own inner friction and turbulence. Premodern people had their own problems of course, but they seem to have manifested them on a smaller scale, with the possible exception of the occasional ice age or pandemic plague (although, as with modern maps, we may be seeing the premodern world very differently than it actually was). It is an intriguing idea that, ultimately, it is spiritual bankruptcy that is endangering the world, urged on by governments and the mass media, in turn urged on by big business out to make as much quantified money as possible. But regardless of the physical and/or metaphysical causes of such phenomena as dying ecosystems, the good old Buddhist panacea of having few desires seems an obvious answer.
Veering in a contrary direction now…it seems to me that Guénon extravagantly glorifies, romanticizes, and idealizes traditional cultures. I've lived on the edge of a mostly premodern traditional culture for many years, and I can readily appreciate the notion that in some ways their participants are obviously superior to us modern Westerners. But traditional cultures vary, and some are wiser than others, and I seriously doubt that, overall, medieval Europeans, for example, were better off than, say, the Europeans of today, or of 200 years ago. During just a few decades in the 14th century the population of Europe was reduced by half due to pestilence, famine, and violence. I have read that a common children's game in the Middle Ages was to nail a live cat to a fence, with the children taking turns trying to butt it to death with their head. Children were treated almost like livestock, without much emotional attachment or care, since most of them were doomed to die before reaching adolescence anyhow. A leading cause of death during the more peaceful times was tooth decay; and I imagine dying of rotten, infected teeth could be a particularly icky way to go. Torture, even for relatively trivial excuses, was not uncommon in previous ages of our species. One wonders if Guénon would have approved of human sacrifice, considering that it was a common feature of early religious traditions—not only among stone age shamanistic societies and Aztecs but even among the early Hebrews, Indians, and Europeans. I'd guess that he would actually have approved. Still, though, premodern people were rather less alienated that we are, due largely to a less developed appreciation of quantity; and among the ignorant, dirt-begrimed villagers of some societies there thrived a relatively saintly spiritual elite, who disseminated that spirit and kept it in circulation in this world.
So I can appreciate much of what Guénon says about the ills of modernity; but I doubt that there has ever been a Golden Age, or a Utopian society without exasperating problems of its own. As Dharma teaches us, to exist is to suffer, and every individual, with the possible exception of a tiny minority of enlightened beings, is thoroughly messed up. And claiming that medieval Scholasticism is more correct than anything devised in modern times, or that astrology and alchemy are truer sciences than astronomy and chemistry, is really pushing it.
But the man definitely had some intriguing ideas. One of them is that formal religious tradition, with some kind of esoteric initiation and a spiritual elite, is Absolutely Necessary for the survival of Spirit (or Dharma) in our world. This one may be rejected out of hand by many Westerners who feel that they are sufficiently spiritual without adherence to any established religion, but Guénon's arguments do seem to have some logic to them. It is true that the Buddha himself didn't have much use for ritual, especially in the Sangha of renunciants, unless there were some obvious practical reason for it, and that initially the "initiation" into the Bhikkhu Sangha consisted of little more than him saying "Ehi bhikkhu," and the initiate being issued a bowl and a change of clothes; yet he nevertheless maintained a clear distinction between the esoteric "adepts" who were dedicating their lives to enlightenment and the lay supporters who supported them while dedicating their lives mainly to other matters. It may be that most laypeople, or, more generally, people who are not in a position to make "intensive Dharma practice" and "everyday life" synonymous, require some formal religious system to keep spirituality in an exalted place of honor in their lives. Without having some consecrated container for keeping what Dharma they are able to receive, Dharma is dragged down to a worldly level. For the average Joe to abandon and disdain religious tradition with the idea "I'm spiritual, but not religious" may be a form of spiritual suicide, especially if Joe is mainly preoccupied with worldly life, with a predominantly worldly point of view. The idea seems to be that ritual uplifts worldly people, and although adepts transcend that ritual, even they do not entirely abandon it.
With regard to all this, it seems to me that although total lack of structure may lead to dissolution and chaos, ritual itself can easily become a kind of dogmatic rut, a mental prison. What seems to be really the essential point is esotericism—without a higher level of Dharma restricted to a relative few one winds up with popular superficiality being called "Dharma," regardless of advanced texts being easily available, since most people can't deeply understand or appreciate them anyway. The idea of initiation, which Guénon stresses again and again, would appear only to be an incidental attribute of the higher level, a common yet not entirely essential aspect of it. And living, vibrant inspiration seems much more important than the preservation of something ancient.
Another intriguing idea is that science, and modern Westerners in general, cannot hope to understand Reality within a context of human laws and subhuman "laws of nature." We cannot understand Reality by looking down instead of up, and endeavoring "to derive the greater from the lesser." (And limiting the entire Universe to human and subhuman levels with regard to spirituality not only decapitates it, but cuts off everything above the knees—no superhuman states, no Nirvana.) The scientific world view assumes a priori that since everything arises "from below," it can be comprehended by the human intellect. The following example may illustrate the unlikelihood of this. Assuming that this Universe is really infinite, then it is very likely that out there somewhere are beings as much more mentally advanced than us as we are above, say, frogs. And just as we might consider it debatable whether a frog has any capacity really to understand its surroundings, even so these beings might have similar doubts about us. "Can a frog/human [take your pick] really be considered conscious?" The very idea that a human can figure out the totality of his or her surroundings by means of his or her intelligence might seem just as laughably pathetic to them as the idea that a frog can figure out its surroundings likewise would be to us. Personally, I think Guénon was right thus far, that is, with regard to looking down; but I don't think we can really understand the world by looking up, either. What is required is to look through. That is, we can never understand Reality via perceptual symbolism, i.e., feelings or intellectual thought, no matter how exalted, but we can know it through mysticism. That is, we can know Reality by experiencing it directly, without the intermediary symbolism of perceptions, intellectual or otherwise, obscuring the clarity. And the people most likely to accomplish this feat of "seeing God/Reality/Truth face to face" are the spiritual elite previously mentioned.
Another intriguing idea of Guénon's, previously mentioned, is similar to one of the early Christians, and to some degree even of the early Buddhists: and that is that none other than spiritual bankruptcy will eventually destroy the human race—or rather, that it will bring us to the verge of destruction, whereupon the survivors will enjoy some sort of salvation. However, my opinion of the situation in general, and also of "neo-spiritualism" as it exists today in the West, is not nearly so bleak as Guénon's was. I have more faith in the observations, and the wisdom, of people like Paul Lowe and Eckhart Tolle than I have in Guénon's. They agree that this world is plunging into a crisis, the likes of which it may never have seen before; but they hold out some possibility that we won't necessarily descend all the way into Armageddon. They see it more as an opportunity than an inevitable calamity. The crash, if it occurs, will be particularly harrowing to those who are worldly, materialistic, and unwilling to change radically; yet it may be rapturous for those who are ready for it.
Still, I can't help but feel that if there is to be any kind of spiritual renaissance in the West, it won't occur through the extant systems of decayed religions or through the lukewarm efforts of materialistic "Dharma hobbyists." The New Agers at least integrate their faith into the metaphysical substance of their everyday lives, and it permeates their lifestyle, but most of their practices and beliefs seem rather superficial—much too much so for what may be required. So I still suppose that a radical new system may have to emerge. It has occurred to me that it could be something like "Environmental Neo-Cynicism"—a movement in which genuine Dharma supports environmentalism, and vice versa. This already has been occurring to some degree. Fewness of desires is fundamental to Dharma, and living in harmony with the ecological balance of the earth is fundamental to Environmentalism, and the two naturally go hand in hand, and could easily support and enrich each other, especially if enough people were really inspired to go along with it at a deep level. Living in peace and harmony. Saving the world and becoming enlightened at the same time. Something like Taoist Ecology could become the next world religion; and maybe low-impact hippie communes will come back into style.
Anyway, another intriguing idea, which has already been mentioned, is that modern people have a radically different kind of mentation than premodern people of traditional cultures, and that we simply cannot comprehend ancient civilizations or ancient texts using our impoverished modern mind. What seems silly to us may actually be quite profound. For many years I have acknowledged the fact that I can't communicate well with rural Burmese villagers, who in some ways are wiser than I am, because I simply do not and cannot think like them; so to some degree I can relate to this. Also, of course, so long as René Guénon adopted the premodern point of view, then ex hypothesi we moderns cannot hope to prove him wrong. Nobody, except maybe a stone age shaman, can lay a finger on him. So maybe he's right, even with regard to Atlantis and the accuracy of medieval maps. Even so, I don't plan on reading anything else by him.
Oh for the good old days of chain mail, witch burnings, and grimy peasants