Saturday, October 18, 2014

Quality to Quantity—with All Due Respects to René Guénon (part 1)

 "Never ask, 'Oh, why were things so much better in the old days?' It's not an intelligent question." —Ecclesiastes 7:10
     Last Christmas my good buddy Conor gave me a book entitled The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times, by René Guénon (translated from the French by Lord Northbourne, Sophia Perennis, fourth revised edition, 2004). To this day I am unsure whether Conor considered the book to be great and thought it would be right up my alley, considering that some of its themes/tirades are similar to recurrent themes/tirades on this blog, or whether he found it more or less unreadable and offloaded it onto me with the idea that maybe I could salvage some sense out of it. I can be a cynical bastard sometimes. The correct answer is probably somewhere in between.
     Although to the best of my memory I had never heard of Guénon before (sometimes he also went by the alias of Sheikh 'Abd al-Wahid Yahya, and if I had heard that, I'm pretty sure I would have remembered it), he apparently is taken very seriously by many people of the early 21st century, with attitudes both pro and con. It may be, as with his contemporary ven. Nyanavira, that his peculiar interpretation of Reality has more followers (and antagonists) now than he had when he was alive.
     Guénon was a Frenchman who eventually moved to Egypt, became an Egyptian citizen, and married the daughter of one of his Sufi teachers there. He died in 1951; and it is said that his final utterance was "Allah." He also studied Hinduism, and was familiar with several esoteric traditions (although he seems not to have been very familiar with Buddhism). The back of the book jacket claims that he was "one of the great luminaries of the twentieth century, whose critique of the modern world has stood fast against the shifting sands of intellectual fashion"—evidently written by one of his more devout followers. Guénon was a philosopher of a very unusual sort, and reading the book has been a truly surreal experience.
     Reading his writing is not easy, not so much because of the density of what he was trying to say, but mainly because he composed very long paragraphs and very long sentences. His sentences are often actually three or four sentences strung together with semicolons; so that if one gets lost in the convolutions of a statement and wants to start again at the beginning, one may have to search halfway up the page to find the beginning of the sentence. Here is a rather succulent example:
Indeed, the positive results of cyclical manifestation are 'crystalized' in order that they may be 'transmuted' into the germs of the possibilities of the future cycle, and this constitutes the end-point of 'solidification' under its 'benefic' aspect (implying essentially the 'sublimation' that coincides with the final 'reversal'), whereas whatever cannot be used in this way, that is to say, broadly speaking, whatever constitutes the purely negative results of the particular manifestation, is 'precipitated' in the form of a caput mortuum in the alchemist's sense of the word, into the most inferior 'prolongations' of our state of existence, or into that part of the subtle domain that can properly be qualified as 'infra-corporeal'; but in either case a passage has taken place into extra-corporeal modalities, respectively superior and inferior, in such a way that it can be said that corporeal manifestation itself, so far as the particular cycle is concerned, has really disappeared completely or has been 'volatilized.'   
This demonstrates not only his passion for long, complicated sentences, but also his passion for "quotation marks." (Why he didn't put the word "modalities" in quotes, I don't fully understand.) But with regard to his mode of literary composition, a major saving grace is that he wrote short chapters. I much appreciated those short chapters.
     The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times is truly an apocalyptic book, well worthy of a place on the shelf between the Book of Enoch and Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth. Guénon ingeniously devised a kind of elaborate conspiracy theory, on a cosmic scale. Huston Smith called him "one of the greatest prophets of our time," although Guénon himself would have denied it, insisting that true prophesy is found only in revealed scriptures. He was only predicting, based on the Signs of the Times, and giving fair warning. 
     Among other things, the book is the most vehement, prolonged diatribe against Scientism—or even plain science, or for that matter against modern civilization in general—the most passionately eloquent condemnation of it, that I have ever encountered. Some critics of Scientism, like Rupert Sheldrake or B. Alan Wallace, point out its limitations from within the context of science itself; and some, like Arthur Schopenhauer or Carl Jung, criticize it from a more uninvolved, philosophical point of view; but Guénon rejected the modern point of view outright, with contempt, and attacked Scientism, and science, and modern society, much as an classical pagan philosopher or medieval Schoolman might.

René Guénon

     The main thrust of his interpretation of the modern age is based on the idea, which in turn is based on I know not what, that our phenomenal universe is situated between two poles: an upper pole of Quality, or "essence," and a lower pole of Quantity, which Guénon (or his translator) sometimes calls "substance," but which seems to me to be mere form; and since our universe, in order to be manifested, must partake of both aspects of the duality, it can never completely merge with either extreme. Furthermore, time, he maintains, is cyclical, and we are presently in the final stages of one such cycle of time—what the Hindus call the Kāli-Yūga, or spiritual Dark Age, and approaching what the Christians call, or used to call anyway, the time of Antichrist. Our Dark Age is nothing new; we've been in it since around the time our ancestors developed agriculture thousands of years ago. The Golden Age of this cycle, or of this manvantara, was prehistoric. But by now we are reaching the end of it, and are well into what Guénon calls "the modern deviation." The "deviation," by the way, is the deviation from a normal, healthy mode of existence.
     The way a cycle of time works is that it begins pure, or as pure as is possible for an age of humanity to be, and then degenerates; and like a falling object, the degeneration and consequent instability and chaos increase at a steadily accelerating rate. The degeneration falls from the upper pole of Quality to the lower pole of Quantity, and, as Guénon points out again and again, the modern world is becoming more and more quantitative, more and more quickly. 
     The history of the "modern deviation," according to Guénon, begins in earnest with humanism, which pretty much denies the importance, or even the existence, of anything above the human level. Shortly after this came rationalism, which denies "every principle superior to reason." This set the stage for "mechanism," a forerunner of materialism, which states that the physical half of the Cartesian duality of matter/mind is determined by mechanical determinism. Following this of course is materialism proper, or "solidification," in which the mental half of the Cartesian dualism is dismissed as a kind of more or less negligible by-product of the physical half.
     What Guénon calls "the complete and unrivaled domination of the materialist mentality" in Western society actually reached its peak over a hundred years ago, at least among scientists and philosophers; and it is not the final stage of our decadence. Pure physical matter still contains considerable vestiges of quality, and so the next phase, which we are well into by now, results in physical matter itself dissolving into almost pure quantification—with the spearhead of this trend being represented by modern physics and big business—and since materiality has given our system a kind of inert, skeleton-like stability, as we, and our interpretation of the world and of Reality, becomes more number-oriented, our world becomes more unstable, and accelerates toward total dissolution. Abstract formulas are even more quantitative than mindless matter…and also much less sturdy. Physical matter devoid of spirit becomes so excessively dry and rigid that it shatters, or crumbles into dust, so to speak.
     Naturally, Guénon sees modern science as a key factor in the decline and fall of Western civilization, and of our Age. He has several criticisms of science and Scientism, for example that it is merely descriptive and doesn't actually explain anything (for example, it hypothesizes, or even asserts, that the speed of light is 300,000km per second, but it can never hope to explain why this is so), but one of his most intriguing arguments is that the entire attitude of science is that absolutely everything can be accounted for at a human or subhuman level—and the farther down the level, the better. Traditional societies considered Truth to come from above, from a superhuman, supersensuous source; but modern humanity prefers to interpret everything as arising from below, and thereby we have willfully blinded ourselves to anything above the human level, and to anything spiritual or divine. In his own words, "to claim to derive the 'greater' from the 'lesser' is indeed one of the most typical of modern aberrations." This is an interesting idea—that one of the prime differences between modern humanity and everyone who came before us is that when we try to understand Reality, we look downwards instead of upwards. 
     Over time this materialistic, profane (since nothing is considered really sacred) point of view has become second nature, almost like an innate instinct in the modern persons of the West. Guénon goes on to explain that this attitude becomes a kind of calcified "shell" for us, blinding us to anything not materialistic and shielding us from more subtle influences, thereby incidentally emasculating all spiritual traditions; and since our attitudes directly affect the world we live in, it causes our world to be relatively devoid of any such subtle influences, from above especially. Thus he gives a rather eloquent explanation of something that I tried to explain more awkwardly in a recent post: why "miracles" and divine influences seem so much rarer now than they once were considered to be. Scientism insists, based upon the axiomatic assumption that everything can be explained in terms of extremely subhuman parameters and vectors, that superhuman influences are simply impossible, or so improbable as to be negligible; but Guénon retorts that materialists, and scientists especially, "with all their boasted 'good sense' and all the 'progress' of which they proudly consider themselves to be the most finished products and the most 'advanced' representatives, are really only beings in whom certain faculties have become atrophied to the extent of being completely abolished." 
     A similar argument he uses against science (which term he preferred to put in quotation marks, or with some other qualifier, because he considered it to be a misnomer) is that, because "science" endeavors more and more to describe the world in terms of mathematical equations, it deviates farther and farther from anything resembling actual quality, even to the extent of considering quality, which is synonymous with essence, to be quite nonexistent, merely a kind of subjective bias; and this deprives scientific "knowledge" from having any real value at all in understanding Reality, since quality is of infinitely greater importance and richness than mere quantity. He declares, with regard to the modern scientific viewpoint, 
…its chief characteristic is obviously that it seeks to bring everything down to quantity, anything that cannot be so treated being left out of account and is regarded as more or less non-existent….this outlook involves losing touch with everything that is truly essential, in the strictest interpretation of the word; also that the 'residue' that alone comes within the grasp of such a science is in reality quite incapable of explaining anything whatever…
Pretty extreme words, those last ones.
     Guénon worked out a metaphysical theory supporting the idea that metal is the most starkly "material" form of matter; so as the "solidification" phase of the modern deviation progressed, metal would be used more and more, and that the dissolution phase would, in a sense, start from that. He wrote his book shortly before the first A-bombs were dropped and the nuclear age began, and some have seen it as prophetic that such dissolution of matter, and such danger to the human race, has derived from artificially produced heavy metals like plutonium.
     Another symptom of the dissolution phase in particular, and the trend toward quantification in general, is the debasement of money, to which he dedicates a chapter of the book. This also has been seen as rather prophetic, as money has degenerated from gold and silver, which had some quality to it, or at least paper representing gold and silver, to paper not representing much of anything, silver in thin sheets encasing base metals (even American pennies aren't pure copper anymore), and eventually to little more than digitized information stored in computer networks—about as close to pure quantity as money can get. And this setting aside the idea that the making of money has itself become a finely calibrated quantitative science, in which business decisions are based on whatever is statistically determined to result in maximum profit.
     One interesting symptom of Western quantification, as described by René Guénon, is the universally lauded principles of democracy and egalitarianism. Guénon was obviously a reactionary ultraconservative by just about anyone's standards, as he considered democracy to be nothing less than satanic. For one thing, democracy is based on quantification, on the idea that "more is better" to the extent that the majority is always, or at least usually, right. Egalitarianism tries artificially to put everyone at the same level; and since it is easier to depress the high than to uplift the low, what generally happens in modern society is that there is a leveling downwards, with the most gifted people almost forced to reduce their giftedness to a level that can be accepted by the egalitarian masses. The uniform, mass-produced semi-literacy of modern Western educational systems is, according to him, a symptom of this pernicious phenomenon. According to him, it results in little more than making our most significant differences from each other a mere quantitative separateness, reducing us to interchangeable automatons that can be accounted for by mere counting.
     The vaunted universal equality of the members of the human race has a particularly destructive effect on spirituality. Guénon considered an esoteric, "initiatic" spiritual tradition to be the only valid sort of spiritual tradition. Only by having an elite who is gifted enough to reach higher than others, and a system designed to train, guide, and support the reach of that elite, can true spirituality survive, and thus be disseminated among the less gifted majority. As he says with regard to the Upanishads, "It has never been possible to place the Vedānta 'within the reach of the common man,' for whom incidentally it was never intended, and it is all the more certainly not possible today, for it is obvious enough that the 'common man' has never been more totally uncomprehending." And popularization, keeping everything public and ensuring it to be within the public's reach, has further resulted in the effective decapitation of practically all of the spiritual traditions of the world. In a previous post on this blog I attributed much of this sort of secularization and loss of esotericism to be an influence of Protestant Christianity; although Guénon points out that Protestantism itself is the only world religion that is a product of the "modern deviation."  
     Getting back to the historical timeline of the Kāli-Yūga, as the phase of "solidification" comes to an end, and as extreme quantification leads to dissolution of all stability, which is what Guénon says is happening nowadays, "cracks" will begin appearing in our aforementioned protective shell of materialistic insensitivity, especially toward the bottom of it, thereby allowing malevolent, or "malefic," psychic influences to seep into the world. He considered 19th- and 20th-century occultism, with spirit séances, parapsychology, etc., to be aspects of this seepage—and presumably would also attribute the same status to UFOs and Bigfoot. Guénon believed, and believed vehemently, that "neo-spirituality" was simply another symptom of the downfall of civilization, which was subtly influenced by those malevolent forces just mentioned, generally without the knowledge of well-intentioned practitioners of these systems. He seems to have accepted as axiomatic (or if he did attempt to prove it he did so in a different book) that only esoteric spiritual traditions rooted in the prehistoric "primordial tradition," and anyhow quite pre-modern in origin, could possibly be anything remotely resembling authentic and beneficial. Thus such modern phenomena as New Age and the Western Vipassana movement Guénon would not hesitate to declare as literally demonic. If Guénon denounced anything more vehemently than modern science and industry, it was "neo-spirituality."
     It could be argued that to the extent that genuine traditional elements are still found in such systems, they are still beneficial; but Guénon argued "Nope," that practically the opposite is true: The most diabolical of lies are the ones that cleverly utilize just enough actual truth to cause the lie itself to be deemed legitimate. The real test is the central principle or principles motivating the practice; and if they are not directed to full enlightenment, transcendence of the subjective, personal "self," or some similar approach to Absolute Perfection (for example, if they are directed toward physical health, stress reduction, or vague, feel-good sentimentality), then the whole system is a sham, and worse than mere materialistic philistinism. The implication is that genuine tradition comes from above, and that if it is lost or broken, it cannot be remade from the bottom up, not even if an exact replica of it could somehow be produced.
     Guénon even considered archeological excavations to be hastening our downfall, as scientists blunderingly desecrate sacred ground protected by powerful traditional rites, like temples and burial grounds. I can't say to what extent he's likely to be right about this, but it has occasionally struck me that grave robbers were once considered to be one of the lowest forms of life; but now grave robbing has been legitimized by becoming a field of scientific study—now desecrating ancient graves is a respectable, jolly good thing to do. (Incidentally, this fits in with his interesting theory as to how psychic power may remain residually after the "spirit" has gone, which does much to explain power objects, power spots and "sacred geography," and even haunted houses. But more about that some other time, maybe.) 
     To make matters worse, demonic forces begin infiltrating our world at an accelerating rate due to the aforementioned cracks low in the materialistic shell, or armor, or whatever, resulting at last in a full-blown "counter-initiation," a complete counterfeit and parody of true spirituality which will bring the world to total spiritual bankruptcy (or almost total, since absolute absence of Quality is not possible at the phenomenal level). The increasing instability and scariness of the world will presumably drive the great majority of people, largely out of desperation and fear-inspired faith or gullibility, plus some egalitarian herd instinct, to adopt this new system, which will be led by none other than the (physically deformed) Antichrist himself. And just as the whole system appears to be reaching absolute rock bottom…the cycle ends, a "rectification" occurs, and the beginning of a true New Age, in its golden, pristine purity, arises. His explanation of the process smacks of Hegel's dialectic to me, with thesis succumbing to antithesis, and then, like a phoenix arising from the ashes, the new synthesis…thereby begetting a new cycle of decay and dissolution. But I digress. Anyway, the end is near!
     It may be that Guénon was not really intending to complain, and not trying to change our ways and avert disaster either; he was ostensibly trying to describe "The Reign of Quantity" as the inevitable end of a cyclic, cosmic age. Yet even so, he seems to adopt a vehemently condemnatory tone toward what he admits to be not only inevitable, but even necessary for a new Golden Age to occur. He freely uses words like "disturbing," "annoying," and "repulsive," for example, and also seems to indulge occasionally in some rather vitriolic sneering, so that I suspect he had some sort of emotional issues involved—an emotional axe to grind. If I've ever read a philosopher with more bile to vent than Schopenhauer, it is Guénon. Judging from this one book, he seems to have been a bitter, frustrated man.
     But why condemn or complain against the inevitable? Why even complain more vehemently because nobody heeds one's warnings, if that must be inevitable too? If future events are inevitable, and even part of a scheme of things which is ultimately Divine, then lamentation would seem to be pointless at best—but maybe the lamentation is also inevitable. The past also presumably cannot be changed, so disapproving of that also is a counterproductive waste of time. And for that matter, the present moment is inevitable in the sense that it can't be changed or avoided, because it's already here. So if time is cyclical, and future events are sure to happen regardless of our wishes or efforts, then we may as well accept with equanimous forbearance the past, the present, and the future; and all condemnation, let alone bitching and moaning, is useless. And if one particular future isn't really foreordained, then that still leaves us the past and present not to bitch about.
     But now I'm disagreeing with venerable Monsieur Guénon, and agreeing and disagreeing with him is the purpose of part 2, so I may as well stop here. 

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