René Guénon’s ‘The Crisis of the Modern World’

If there is one book that cannot be brought up in the Reactionary canon enough, then it is this one. I had skimmed through ‘The Crisis of the Modern World‘ before, failing to take from it the wealth of information that it contains, but after taking my time and highlighting areas of profound insight and exhibition, I can say with certainty that I will need a new highlighter.

The book is short. Unlike the tome that is ‘Revolt Against the Modern World‘, which contains an almost endless amount of theorizing, and a painful agonizing over speculative symbology, Crisis cuts right to the point. This isn’t a criticism of Evola’s eponymous work, but a distinction that merits one to affirm that for those considering a delve into the rich texts of the Sicilian baron, they should first familiarize themselves with Guénon, and there could be no better place to start than this book.

First published in 1927, it is very useful to receive a Traditionalist perspective on metapolitics that is uninformed by the events of WWII, since these can sometimes have a deleterious effect on subsequent observations not entirely warranted. Born in Blois in 1886 to a Catholic family, Guénon was an avid student of philosophy and mathematics, involving himself with various esoteric religious orders in France, only to leave these with a certain despondency. It was after this period he involved himself with the study of extra-Occidental knowledge, traveling to Algeria, India, Egypt, and beyond. He became something of a cult figure with a sizable following, notably his influence on the aforementioned Evola, and the Perennialist scholar, Frithjof Schuon, cannot be understated. After an editorial decision left him stranded in Cairo, he did not return to Europe, Under tutelage of esoteric Islamic scholars, he became a Sufi, gaining the title of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya. He obtained Egyptian citizenship, and later in 1951, passed from this world with a vast trove of study behind him.

Because of his world travels, Guénon possesses the ability to critique Western Modernity using an almost surgical Eastern sense of the transcendent, something he felt was still vibrant and rich. By contrast, the Western Tradition had died an ignominious death, in his mind beginning with the Renaissance period.

“A word that rose to honor at the time of the Renaissance, and that summarized in advance the whole program of modern civilization is ‘humanism’. Men were indeed concerned to reduce everything to purely human proportions, to eliminate every principle of a higher order, and, one might say, symbolically to turn away from the heavens under pretext of conquering the earth; the Greeks, whose example they claimed to follow, had never gone as far in this direction, even at the time of their greatest intellectual decadence, and with them utilitarian considerations had at least never claimed the first place, as they were very soon to do with the moderns.”


I won’t quote every section I have highlighted in the book, instead picking out some choice extracts that I found particularly important. What follows is Guénon’s endorsement of what amounts to Prophetic Catastrophism, and is just one of the moments where I found myself nodding along as I read each line.

“It would seem that a halt midway is no longer possible since, according to all the indications furnished by the traditional doctrines, we have in fact entered upon the last phase of the Kali-Yuga, the darkest period of this ‘dark age’, the state of dissolution from which it is impossible to emerge otherwise than by a cataclysm, since it is not a mere readjustment that is necessary at such a stage, but a complete renovation.”


crisis begets catastrophe


He also outlines with aplomb the humble wishes of the Reactionary, speaking as it were directly to we in the contemporary world who would count ourselves part of the great mission. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

“For our own part, we ask no more than to contribute, as far as our means permit, both to the reform and to the understanding, if indeed there is  still time, and if any such result can be attained before the arrival of the final catastrophe toward which modern civilization is heading. But even if it were already too late to avoid this catastrophe, the work done to this end would not be useless, for it would serve in any case to prepare, however distantly, the ‘discrimination’ of which we spoke at the beginning, and thereby to assure the preservation of those elements that must escape the shipwreck of the present world to become the germs of the future world.”


One of the better known and oft-cited chapters of the book, ‘Sacred and Profane Science‘ is incredibly useful for understanding how the Reactionary looks at the Modernist tendency of today’s sciences. Worthwhile to paraphrase, the author points out that the problem stems from science’s disconnection with higher principles, instead appealing to only the most transitory and ephemeral causes for minute areas of study. He gives a good example in the descent from alchemy to mere chemistry. He also relates this to Maistre’s critique of reason as the core for any subject.

In assuming its modern form, science has lost not only in depth but also, one might say, in stability, for its attachment to principles enabled it to share in their immutability to the extent that its subject-matter allowed, whereas being now completely confined to the world of change, it can find nothing in it that is stable, and no fixed point on which to base itself; no longer starting from any absolute certainty, it is  reduced to probabilities and approximations, or to purely hypothetical constructions that are the product of mere individual fantasy.

The book is very much an academic document, though it is considered to be as close as Guénon comes to a call for action. He does not often get on a soapbox, but when he does, he speaks so fluidly and passionately that you will want him to dedicate an entire chapter to more fiery prose.


“Nothing and nobody is any longer in the right place; men no longer recognize any effective authority in the spiritual order or any legitimate power in the temporal; the ‘profane’ presume to discuss what is sacred, and to contest its character and even its existence; the inferior judges the superior, ignorance sets bounds to wisdom, error prevails over truth, the human is substituted for the Divine, earth has priority over Heaven, the individual sets the measure for all things and claims to dictate to the universe laws drawn entirely from his own relative and fallible reason.”

I find myself in agreement with Guénon in all but a relative handful of instances, he confirms my suspicions in ways I would not have suspected. For instance, I recently had made in passing the case that Liberalism can be defined as an inverted order which tends towards anarchy, rather than an anarchical principle itself, which is devoid of agency, almost a reflection of the ‘orderliness’ of Lucifer even in rebellion. Coincidentally, Guénon speaks of elite genesis as the root cause of error, that we indeed have an elite class today, but they have been selected from wrong (diabolical) principles.

“However, since equality is  in fact  impossible, and since, despite all efforts toward leveling, the differences between one man and another cannot in practice be entirely suppressed, men have been brought, by a curious illogic, to invent false elites-of several kinds moreover-that claim to take the place of the one true elite; and these false elites are based on a variety of totally relative and contingent points of superiority, always of-a purely material order.”

say hello to your new Twitter speech tsar


Another rather astounding feature of the book is the deference given Catholicism, and by extension Christianity itself, though he has stern words for Protestantism, essentially affirming a Moldbuggian theory on the Reformation. In fact, he goes so far as to say that Protestantism’s willingness to disbelieve the authority of the priests would later give rise to disbelief in the Bible itself. Far from the critical tone of Evola, or the scathing rants of Spengler however, Guénon states unequivocally that the restoration of fundamental Tradition to the West would only come in the form of a revitalized Christianity.

“The truth is that the surviving Celtic elements were for the most part assimilated by Christianity in the Middle Ages; the legend of the ‘Holy Grail’, with all that it implies, is  a particularly apt and significant example of this. Moreover, we think that if a Western tradition could be rebuilt it would be bound to take on a religious form in the strictest sense of this word, and that this form could only be Christian;”


Understandable given his background and the geopolitics of the time, there is no engagement with the Orthodox tradition, and it should be noted that the optimism he awards the Catholic Church might not be as applicable in the current era. A very interesting note towards the end:

“We therefore consider it opportune to make the following statement: there are already, in the Western world, signs of a movement that is still ill-defined but that may-and even, if things take their normal course, must -lead to the re-establishment of an intellectual elite, unless a cataclysm comes too quickly for it to have had time to develop fully. It is scarcely necessary to say that the Church would have every interest, as far as the part to be played by it in the future is concerned, in giving its support to such a movement rather than letting it take place independently and being obliged later to follow it in order to retain an influence that threatened to disappear.”

I think (and this is only speculation) this may have been in reference to the growing Action Française movement, a devoutly Catholic monarchist groundswell that almost overtook France during the same time period. While the book was released in 1927, it was likely written over the years prior, and so this passage may precede the Papal condemnation of Action Française in December 1926 which led to its decline, a shameful act which sealed France’s fate, and the fate of its religionists who still strongly resisted the state-instituted secular menace. The later repeal of this condemnation proved to many that it was driven by crude political motives, an even greater scandal.

the men who might have saved France


There is a lot more to get into. On democracy, he nails it. On materialism, he nails it. On universal education, he nails it. On the manipulative necessity between elites and subordinates, he nails it. I think I have said enough here to convince you to pick this book up as soon as possible if you don’t have it already. It really baffles me that such a well-written and intellectually formulated text is not discussed more, it is truly that good in my opinion.

Often there exists, in the realms of ideology and worldview, a source of knowledge that can be recommended to even the layman, an introductory text which immerses one into the rabbit hole without necessitating a headfirst plunge that will leave most in a state of confusion. ‘The Crisis of the Modern World‘, thus far for me, is that text. It is by no means perfect, nor is every paragraph entirely relevant for the unique problems we face today, but Guénon has an academic flair laced with occasional doses of sharp wit that is not to be missed. Martin Lings, a noted scholar and disciple of Guénon described how the French esotericist refused to be called a philosopher due to the word’s association with a shallow debating society which had no interest in truth, only novelty. Lings asserts that a more appropriate title for Guénon would be sage. I agree.

Rest in Peace

(I recommend giving a listen to the lecture on Guénon and Schuon here. Not explicitly political, but very useful in understanding the man. I also want to link Gornahoor’s vast wealth of bonus material from and about him, including private communiques)
Advertisements

13 thoughts on “René Guénon’s ‘The Crisis of the Modern World’

  1. Excellent piece, Mark. I repeat the point to so many people interested in Evola that they must read Guenon prior, but when you picked upon the lack of conversation surrounding the later and his works compared to the former, it should not come as a surprise.

    Evola's domain, as is well-known, was action; hence his politics. On the contrary, Guenon's domain was contemplation; the intellect. The contemporary circumstance — especially given the internet, mass-communication, et cetera — breeds opinions a'plenty. And given the disposition of the majority, is it any wonder they are more interested in a man who was involved with Fascism and so forth than a scholar — or “sage,” more appropriately — of esoteric knowledge?

    Nevertheless, I am sure there will be mention of Guenon in our upcoming project once we are finished with the current one. It will provide an opportunity, sorely needed, to further expose his work to those who require it.

    Like

  2. Thank you.

    Indeed, it makes sense that Evola would be more well known given his engagements during the Interwar Period, and I think he gets the credit he is most certainly due for his work. I suppose after reading Guénon with a more focused eye, I am determined to absorb more from him, and continue to promote him.

    Especially when he talks about the Reactionary project, and what the goals should be, it is uncanny how much I have echoed him without realizing it, almost down to the sentence: The essential need for an intellectual elite, the negligent importance of the masses. Just perfect.

    Like

  3. You all should do bit on Mircea Eliade at some point, too; in Sedgwick's analysis he's a “soft Traditionalist” but is perhaps one more of interest to reactionary thought than the “main line” of post-war capital-T Traditionalism that went through Schuon. The enormous (uncredited) influence of Evola on Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return, for example, is obvious to those who've read the Baron.

    Like

  4. Thanks for the effort here Mark … but I have to take the other side. I totally prefer Evola. I bought Guenon and couldn't get far. Your excerpts remind me why. The writing is … what's the word … platitudinous. Wordy. High word/content ratio. Evola is a lot harder hitting and a much easier read, I think. Just my two cents. Seems to me they are making fairly similar points, or at least parallel.

    Like

  5. It's amazing to me how people can read so differently. I have never read anything more wordy than Evola, and that includes the famously verbose Moldbug! Different strokes I guess. Both are great, and have influenced my own thinking.

    Like

  6. Great article. I haven't read neither Evola nor Guénon yet, but being an avid fan of the Lord of the Rings, I could see some similarities between Guénon and Tolkien's writings. The former talked about how the Western men, in his hubris, thought himself and his civilisation to be the pinnacle of the world, which ironically became the cause of the decline. Similarly, Tolkien made a story about how the Mannish kingdom of Númenor started to go downhill when its human citizens, at the height of their own civilisation, thought themselves to be the greatest race on Earth, more so than the elves.

    I would go as far as to say that Tolkien is a bit of a prophet here, since I see a parallel between the decline of Númenor and other human kingdoms in the Lord of the Rings, and the decline of the West in the real world. Tolkien even wrote about how Gondor was invaded by hordes of barbarians from the South and the East, which are named 'Southrons' and 'Easterlings'. In our real world, Western countries these days are flooded with Southrons and Easterlings who threaten to bring our civilisation down. It all seems to me more than just mere coincidences …

    Like

  7. Good article, Mark Citadel! 'The Crisis of the Modern World' is the only book from Guénon that I don't own and haven't read yet, because I have always presumed that it is only a companion wolume to his master work 'The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times'. I think I'll have to read this one too. Both Evola and Guénon belong to my top priority list of authors and they have both influenced me alot, yet I tend more towards Guénon these days.

    Like

  8. I find the Guenonian-Perennialist position difficult to sustain. For example, I recently revealed my appreciation of Guenon to a fellow Catholic and it elicited a firestorm of criticism- mystic mongering, Gnosticism, heresy, relativism, monism, Hindu-Sufi mind mush etc. And this reaction has been a pretty typical one for me. The fact is that it is rare for an orthodox adherent of any religion to be very friendly to the universalism espoused by Guenon- especially Catholics who see in Guenon a mystic that defected to Islam.

    Like

  9. First of all I am surprised you encountered someone familiar with Guenon! Unless they were French or perhaps Indian, Guenon is certainly not a well-known figure.

    I generally think you have to take writers based upon arguments they make, not all of which you have to agree with. At no point does Guenon advocate the West embrace Islam, in fact he seems to advise against it. He recognized himself as a special case with regard to his religious inclinations.

    I have said in the past that Christians cannot affirm Schuonian Perennialism, but can in fact endorse the 'Mild Christian Hermeticism' of St. Augustine, recognizing divine inspiration in non-Christian sources, while affirming the exclusive salvific power of Jesus Christ. This may sound odd, but I think the reaction that you might get from everyday Catholics is actually a sign of health. These kinds of more esoteric understandings of religion and metapolitics are not really made for the masses, and indeed Guenon is not writing for the mass market, I think he was writing for us. He wants Reactionaries to understand his observations about the age we live in, and as I said, for the most part I think he is dead on.

    Like

  10. Hi Mark,

    As always, a thoughtful and measured response. I, too, was rather surprised by my Thomist interlocutor that he was familiar with Guenon- but only in a superficial way. One of the central planks of the Perennialist School is its criticism of the “modern apostasy”- which was spawned in Western Christendom and is now “infecting” the whole world. Hence, the Traditionalism of Guenon and Coomaraswamy is appreciated by reactionaries of many stripes.

    But, here's the rub. When traditionalists criticize “modernism”, it always sounds as if they are being critical of Western civilization. It even sounds like they could be leftists. I grew up on Tolkien, who was certainly no leftist, rather a traditional Catholic. And I always found it interesting and strange that the hippie counter-culture were/are big fans of the world of Middle-Earth. Upon some reflection, though, it's not surprising. Traditional values- custodianship of the environment, simplicity of lifestyle, anti-acquisitiveness, anti-industrialism, unity of cultures (the Fellowship of the Ring) spirituality, education/comptemplation and more. It's like no one has ever heard of Christian humanism before- even among “conservatives”!

    I think this post is turning into a rambling babble. I'll stop here.

    Vincit Omnia Veritas

    Like

  11. Well, Modernity does have its origin in the West, and 95% of what remains of Western Civilization is essentially Liberal, and so obviously Reactionary arguments will tend to be anti-Western. Let me give you a good example of exactly how this attitude comes about.

    USG funds NGOs around the world to promote gay marriage and abortion, women's 'rights', etc. They also wreak havoc in volatile areas such as Syria and Ukraine. It is in no small way down to the exports of the West that Reactionaries tend to view it with such disgust. Prior to the Enlightenment, I would say Western Civilization was as rich and wonderful as the East was, but today it is a hive of the Luciferan occult motivator.

    Our aims of course, first and foremost, are to disintegrate this power that has taken hold, and in fact then we can be seen as the saviors of true Western Civilization, as the spirit of the age which permeates in this part of the world today may be Western in fact but not in its true origin, which finds its root nowhere other than the demonic revolt in heaven.

    Like

  12. Hello Mark, long time reader of your blog which is the one daily reactionary source I read other than Gornahoor and Zippy Catholic and maybe a few others.
    Rene Guenon's Crisis to the Modern World is a great introduction to reaction, although it can be difficult for many to read.
    I think that the best introduction to reactionary/true right book for starters would be Nihilism:The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age by Seraphim Rose, who was an orthodox priest. He lived in San Francisco, one of the epicenters of Western decadence and I could not find a better takedown on modernity and all of it's manifestations in such as short and easy to digest book. His categorization of the different levels of nihilism is similar to guenon's and evola's degeneration of the castes, and shows how one stage of nihilism leads to the next, progressively making a society less and less christian.
    Anyhow, I was going to post this a while back when you posted this piece but got lazy, and wanted to contribute to your website somehow.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s