René Guénon was one of the twentieth century’s most important traditionalist thinkers, as well as one of its strangest intellectual figures. In more than two dozen books, he claimed to reveal the hidden principles on which civilizations had rested since the dawn of humanity. His disclosure was compelled by what he called “the crisis of the modern world,” a crisis caused by the West’s deviation from these principles and the decadence ensuing from it. Guénon’s response was to do what he believed had never been done: to publicize in writing a body of teaching that, since time immemorial, had been transmitted only through speech and symbol. His word for this secret doctrine was “tradition,” and only a return to tradition, he alleged, could bring order to a world of increasing chaos.
Guénon’s writings have been translated into more than twenty languages, earning him a popularity after his death that he eschewed during his reclusive life. When he died in 1951, after two decades of living in Egypt under an Arabic name, Guénon was known in his native France as a publisher and writer of traditionalist thought. His brand of traditionalism had little in common, however, with the traditions of French conservatism, whose religious and political beliefs he held in suspicion. “What they refuse to see,” he wrote, “is that the chief cause of the dangers that threaten them lies in the very character of the European civilization.” Guénon sought out other, more controversial horizons from which to survey modern life. Guénon began his life a Catholic and ended it a Muslim, all the while insisting that he had never changed his views or renounced his hope of saving European culture. His search led him from an early interest in the occult to a mature study of Eastern religions and culminated in a late return to Western scholasticism.
Today, in the centennial of Guénon’s extraordinary publishing career, we are likely to find his ideas strange, his sources dubious, and his goals archaic. But Guénon brings us into jarring contact with questions that we often avoid—about the value of history, the nature of authority, and our obligations to the generations that precede and follow our own. Guénon’s great theme was tradition, and no one else in his century thought so single-mindedly about tradition’s fate or made such fantastic claims about its nature and importance. He believed he was living through an epochal moment in which the wisdom that had preserved human order for millennia was at risk of passing out of all knowledge. Guénon sought to restore our understanding of the deep past, and to conserve a tradition whose ritual repetitions alone could protect the West against its destruction by time. If he failed, we are wiser for knowing why.
René Guénon was born in 1886 in a small town on the Loire, into a Catholic family with a history in winemaking. He excelled as a student, especially in math and philosophy, but struggled to form early friendships. His parents’ concerns about his isolation and intellectual self-absorption give us a sense of a personality that classmates found distant. He dealt with chronically poor health, which later exempted him from military service and regularly interrupted his writing. Guénon dreamed of an academic career, and in 1904 he moved to the Latin Quarter to prepare for university entrance exams. For reasons that are not clear, he failed to win admission, and he spent the following decade consumed in independent study, supporting himself by teaching high school and working at a university library.
Guénon never wrote an autobiography, and what we know of his Paris years consists of the recollections of friends and details gleaned from his books. He was active in the many Masonic and Theosophic organizations that had grown up in fin de siècle France. He was drawn to them in the hope that their rituals preserved remnants of hermetic knowledge, uncontaminated by modern life and inaccessible to modern scholarship. His first books, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (1921) and The Spiritist Fallacy (1923), chronicled his disappointments, and his reasons for judging these movements fraudulent. “The mistake of these so-called spiritualist doctrines is that they are only materialism transposed onto another plane,” Guénon explained. “They apply to the spiritual domain the methods that ordinary sciences use to study the world of matter.” To find true wisdom, he concluded, one would have to transcend modern ways of knowing entirely.
In 1927 Guénon published The Crisis of the Modern World, a book that secured his reputation as one of the most radical social critics of the interwar period. Guénon had studied modern philosophy closely, and he showed a firm grasp of its history from Descartes to Bergson (whose lectures at the Sorbonne he had attended). But modern philosophy’s appeals to reason, evidence, and freedom were misleading, Guénon claimed. They were, in fact, a mask worn by invisible social forces whose goal was civilizational subversion, not human enlightenment. Guénon’s book appeared the same year as Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, Jacques Maritain’s The Primacy of the Spiritual, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, Henri Massis’s Defense of the West, and Ernst Kantorowicz’s Frederick the Second. Like other conservatives in that remarkable publishing year, he saw modernity as an assault on traditional forms of authority. Whether in the domain of politics or in that of culture, Guénon argued, modern ideas had the perverse effect of inverting natural hierarchies:
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 presumes 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, and the individual sets the measure for all things.
Although he was not politically active and avoided partisan debates, Guénon’s political orientation was no secret. He was known to sympathize with Action Française, and his arguments borrowed heavily from Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald, who had likewise blamed French philosophes for sowing anarchy. Guénon echoed their complaint that liberalism had dissolved the foundations of European society by rejecting traditional social roles and customs. But if Guénon shared de Maistre and de Bonald’s horror of democracy and revolution, he shared few of their philosophical assumptions, and none of their Christian faith. For Guénon, the deepest error of modernity was neither theological nor moral, and therefore could not be solved by a return to piety or virtue.
No European thinker had grasped the nature of modernity, Guénon claimed, let alone found a way to resist its advance. All had fallen victim to its defining mistake—its denial of access to traditional forms of wisdom. Guénon’s accusation was that modern thought, in all its various modes, had rendered knowledge “profane.” By that he meant in part that it limited knowledge to objects of sense experience, which could be measured and controlled: Guénon’s writings feature lengthy polemics against scientific materialism and its “ignorant knowledge” of physical phenomena. But his point was not that modern philosophers had seduced Europeans into becoming reductive materialists. It was that modernity’s dominant “mentality,” as he called it, had rendered Europeans spiritually buffered—closed to a higher dimension of reality, unaware of the metaphysical prison they inhabited, and ignorant of what their ancestors once knew. Worse, it had encouraged the illusion that they could give meaning to their lives through free choice and open debate.
And with that idea, Guénon made an astonishing claim: Modernity is vastly older than we commonly assume. As he examined the record of human history, Guénon argued that modernity’s birth predated the democratic revolutions of the nineteenth century, the scientific revolutions of the eighteenth century, and the religious revolutions of the sixteenth century. Modernity had begun two and a half millennia ago, in the sixth century b.c. Guénon argued that the so-called Axial Age witnessed the birth of modern habits of thought. When ancient thinkers first dared to question ancestral customs and myths, Western history was set on a new trajectory: The mythological age was drawing to its end, and the dawn of philosophy and science had begun. Scholars today identify this watershed as the rise of critical consciousness and celebrate its attempts at radical social critique. But to Guénon, it was a social and spiritual catastrophe. It had set in motion an intellectual revolution that threatened to sever the West from traditional wisdom. To avoid calamity, Guénon realized, criticizing modernity would be insufficient. It was necessary to understand the lost civilizations that preceded it.
After World War I, intellectuals and artists across Europe agonized over the future of Western civilization. Why had the world’s most advanced culture been convulsed by barbarism? And how could it be rescued from a loss of direction and purpose? Though Guénon followed these debates closely, he concluded that Western thinkers provided few compelling answers. He turned to Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism for guidance. Guénon was not the only young intellectual in Paris drawn to the study of Eastern traditions—a visiting T. S. Eliot was exploring the Vedanta at the same time—but few left the experience so transformed. What Guénon claimed to have found in the Eastern traditions was not a religion or a philosophy at all. It was a set of teachings, concealed from Western ways of thought, about the proper ordering of civilization.
Guénon recorded his discoveries in Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines (1921), East and West (1924), and Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta (1925). He made no pretense of being a historian, philosopher, or an Orientalist, and he warned readers not to expect an academic treatment of Eastern thought. Guénon dismissed scholarly norms as mere “prejudice.” He announced that texts like the Upanishads and the Qur’an (he would later add the Bible) transmitted two kinds of teaching, whose differences had been lost on the West. Their “exoteric” teaching conveyed a conventional religious doctrine through a written text. This was their “public” dimension, and the one grasped by both simple piety and advanced scholarship. Their “esoteric” teaching differed from the exoteric in important ways. It communicated a higher knowledge, accessible only to spiritual adepts, which transcended the historical contingencies of a particular language or culture. Yet this teaching could not be found in the written text itself, nor could it be discovered through academic inquiry.
What had Guénon found hiding behind these texts? He called it simply tradition, always using the singular. His thesis was that man’s inner unity with the divine—what he termed the “Supreme Identity” of the self and the sacred—formed the common core of the world’s great spiritual traditions. This doctrine is eternal and unchanging, he maintained, but also admits of diverse symbolic expressions. Many of Guénon’s books offered to decode the esoteric meaning of religious and philosophical texts in the light of this principle. His interpretations ranged from the reasonable (the laws of Advaita Hinduism) to the strained (the numerology of the Bible) to the fantastic (the “sacred geography” of Buddhism). But it was not an interest in symbolism that set Guénon’s views apart, nor was it his belief in the ultimate unity of world religions. It was his ideas about how tradition was transmitted. Tradition could not be known by reason or by sense experience; like an animal fleeing a hostile predator, it hid from those seeking it “from a profane point of view.” But to one properly initiated into tradition, a new vision of human life came into view.
Guénon refused to reveal the circumstances of his own initiation. “We do not have to inform the public of our true sources,” he stated, hinting that he had learned from an oral source. But of what he claimed to know on this mysterious basis, he wrote at length. Tradition was neither knowledge of a supernatural order nor knowledge of God. Although he described it as a kind of spiritual insight, Guénon was adamant that tradition was not a form of religious belief. Fundamentally, it provided knowledge of the deep human past, and thus of the laws governing all historical change. Human writing dates to no earlier than the third millennium b.c., but to Guénon this posed no barrier to historical knowledge. As an initiate into the world of tradition, he believed that he was connected, through an unbroken line of spiritual succession, to the otherwise unfathomable depths of prehistory. He could therefore see what no scholar or scientist ever could.
Guénon described no places, events, or peoples, and his writing remained abstract. But because he understood the principles for which the first men lived and died, he presumed to know their very souls. The “man of tradition” lived very differently than the man of the modern West. He was not an individual with an identity apart from his role in a family and society. He did not seek self-understanding by questioning custom and authority. And he experienced no conflict between private and public life, or between his inner and outer self. As Guénon imagined him, the man of tradition lived in a world so saturated with meaning, so secure in its order, and so certain of its continuity through time, that he experienced no confusion or doubt about his place in it. Guénon drew attention to a special feature, on which the entire traditional order depended. The mark of a traditional society is that it transformed every social role and activity, every art and craft, into a ritual. The man of tradition did nothing in a profane way. For him, every activity was sacred and every occupation a priesthood.
Tradition, then, turned routines into rituals. Eating, working, hunting, planting, playing, fighting, socializing—Guénon’s great imaginative insight was that a traditional society left nothing untouched by the sacred. It regarded all activities, even the most mundane, as potential pathways into contemplation of the highest knowledge. Guénon studied modern rituals closely, hoping to find vestigial clues to the earliest rites in human prehistory. But for the most part he acknowledged that rituals could take on an almost infinite number of forms. What was important was not their content, but what they accomplished for those enacting them.
Tradition elevated an individual into an awareness of “supreme identity” with the sacred. Guénon relied on an anthropology with roots in ancient Greek philosophy and Eastern religions. It held that the highest faculty of the soul participates in something “supra-personal,” which it shares with other human beings. Guénon ignored the objections of medieval philosophers to this idea, insisting it could be understood only through direct spiritual intuition. But this idea allowed him to describe traditional practices as a form of radical human self-enhancement. Through tradition, one learned to identify with that part of the soul that transcends one’s individual existence. Tradition thus not only connected a person backward and forward in history; it raised repetitive actions into an image of timelessness. Guénon called this image the “sacred,” declining to describe its nature, other than to say that it was not a personal deity. But it endowed human actions, he argued, with a reflection of eternity.
In creating islands of permanence in a sea of historical change, tradition protected humanity from its chief enemy: time. In a revealing passage, Guénon called time “the destroying element.” This is without question his driving insight and his most deeply felt problem. For Guénon, the basic human dilemma was not a choice between good and evil, wisdom and ignorance, or belief and unbelief. It was the choice between eternity and time. More than suffering, violence, or injustice, he believed, time itself posed the greatest danger to humanity. The flow of time weakens, erodes, and eventually annihilates all human things. To live in history is to be subject to its terrible dominion. Guénon observed the human condition and asked: How can human beings survive their exposure to this power? How can they sustain meaning amid its flux? Time cannot be redeemed, Guénon believed. It was the illusion of modern people to hope that the errors of the past could be redeemed by the progress of the present. Time can, however, be refused.
Tradition is the ritual abolition of time—this, in a sentence, was Guénon’s discovery and his revelation to the West. To a culture formed by Greek philosophy and biblical religion, he argued that no lasting society could be built on the contemplation of nature or the hope for a life beyond it. Time could be resisted only through tradition—only through the unceasing repetition of acts whose archetypes were thought to be as old as humanity itself. By imitating his ancestors, Guénon argued, the man of tradition was made contemporary with them and so transcended time. He lived in timeless solidarity with the generations that had preceded and would follow him. Neither nature nor history, therefore, could defeat him—for he had nothing of his own, did nothing by himself, and stood for nothing unique. He was merely a member of a sacred series. As Guénon’s greatest interpreter, Mircea Eliade, observed, the life of a traditional man had meaning only under one condition: that he was not an individual at all. What he did had always been done. What he believed had always been believed. His life was one of holy repetition.
In 1930, Guénon travelled to Cairo, intending to spend a few weeks searching for texts to publish in the small journals he edited. He never returned home. By that time, Guénon had grown less hopeful that the West would return to tradition and more fearful that its influence would spread to the East. When the war broke out, publishing in France became impossible, and Guénon was able to reach friends and colleagues only through letters smuggled into diplomatic courier bags. Few in France, therefore, knew the changes overcoming Guénon, who now identified as a Muslim, adopted Arab dress, and went by the name Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya. Guénon had always described Islam as the meeting-point of East and West, but he refused to give any explanation for his personal transformation. He retreated into intellectual isolation and turned away most European visitors.
His last major book, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945), brought together two decades of private study. Though he was fluent in Arabic (one of the twelve languages he knew), Guénon continued to write in French for Western audiences. He made no acknowledgement of the war, whose true destruction, he suggested, was entirely spiritual. As Guénon saw it, the postwar West was littered with mere fragments of knowledge. Modernity had succeeded in severing each branch of knowledge and every practical skill from the “sacred sciences” that once ordered them to wisdom. Guénon lamented that social roles, now dominated by technology, transmitted no spirituality and offered no portals to contemplation. Modern life instead imposed its own empty rituals, which were nothing but a “parody” of the sacred rhythms of traditional life—exacerbating our exposure to historical change, rather than protecting us from it. Guénon concluded that the West was indeed an exceptional civilization: It was exceptionally abnormal in seeking “the destruction of all traditional institutions.”
At the time of his death in 1951, Guénon had largely given up hope that the dissolution of traditional societies could be stopped. He encouraged his followers to hold inwardly to the eternal doctrines that he, in a conspicuous break with tradition, had committed to writing. Guénon never occupied an academic position, and he delivered only one public lecture in his life. But his books have remained in print for a century, cultivating a legacy that spans the mainstream to the dissident. He is an important figure in the field of comparative religion, where he is celebrated for advancing the study of Eastern religions and for correcting European caricatures of non-Western spiritualities. A school of Guénoniste spirituality continues to revere his writings for their contribution to interreligious understanding. Yet Guénon has exercised a controversial influence over radical forms of conservatism. Guénon himself avoided entering political debate. But he also identified liberalism and democracy as political doctrines that promote decadence and suppress the human quest for wisdom. In a letter, he expressed the hope that his work would inspire an elite group of men with an “innate constitution” strong enough to revolt against modern life. Though Guénon disavowed political activism, his interest in esotericism invited other interpretations of his true intentions. His call for a spiritual elite, who see through the duplicity of popular moral conventions, resonates with radical thinkers in Europe and Russia to this day.
Yet Guénon’s deepest challenge was not to modern liberalism or to scientific materialism. It was to Western conservatism, whose postwar emergence he anticipated but did not live to see. Early in his career, Guénon broke with rightist groups, believing them fundamentally mistaken about the civilization they sought to preserve. To be sure, he agreed with them on many matters. It was for good reason that a young Guénon collaborated with monarchist and Catholic intellectuals, who shared his conviction that no amount of individual freedom and prosperity could guarantee a healthy social order. But as he matured, Guénon grew convinced that they were blind to the defects in their own patrimony. Guénon objected to more than their hubristic belief in the superiority of European civilization. He asked, with obvious anguish, whether the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem had combined to form a culture that was anti-traditional in its very essence. For did not the Greek philosophers hold up their myths to ridicule? And does not the God of the Bible ask believers to renounce the gods of their ancestors?
Guénon’s solution to his anxieties was to imagine a body of knowledge common to men of all times and places that predated the rise of modernity. Yet no tradition that began in time, or developed through human interpretation, could soothe his fear of novelty and change. Only an eternal tradition—one that was never new, because it had no human beginning—could furnish humanity with the unchanging standards it needed to withstand the onslaught of time. Guénon wrote before the rise of what is now called “big history” and the advances in archeology and genetics on which its narratives are being built. In this respect, if not in others, he was strangely ahead of his time. Guénon sought to understand contemporary life through the social patterns revealed only through the longest possible historical timeframes. He wished to recapture a sense of what human life was like before our emergence into history and our fall into critical consciousness. The lessons of that history, he believed, would not resign us to the present, but disclose possibilities we have never considered and struggle even to imagine.
We need not agree with Guénon in order to recognize that he was right about the dismantling of tradition in liberal societies. He understood the civilizational calamity, to say nothing of the human cruelty, of making each generation a stranger to those that precede and follow it. Who we will be, what we will believe, where we will live, how and when we will die—we are now burdened with building our lives from scratch, precisely at the moment when we most need the wisdom of tradition. Guénon was rightly horrified by the nihilism of a culture whose past is stolen through enforced forgetting. And though he was not a believer in any traditional sense, he sought the same consolation many religious people do: refuge in a realm of imperishable truth.
But in imagining a primordial tradition, existing beyond the flow of time, Guénon, paradoxically, drained human life of its meaning. Guénon ignored the personal and embodied dimensions of human experience. No individuals mattered when seen from the horizon of deep time, and no great men or women could shape our common destiny. Guénon’s vision of eternity prevented him from seeing any real human beings, whose unfolding lives form the drama of history. His “tradition,” hidden in secret symbols and encoded rituals, was disembodied from the ways in which any inheritance is transmitted. Guénon showed almost no interest in Western art, literature, or folkways, and his failure was no accident. For he could not acknowledge the animating core of our culture, with its basis in the Bible, whose message he could not bear to confront. Scripture sees time as fraught with meaning. It imagines that eternity is glimpsed in the small dramas of ordinary lives whose every moment is charged with meaning.
Guénon’s return to tradition was no return at all. It was an escape—from the finitude of creaturely life into the imagined citadel of tradition. His error was fundamental and prevented him from being the steward of any tradition that might be renewed. He did not understand that our involvement in history, including our vulnerability to it, is what allows us to seek what is truly human and what is infinitely beyond history. With his vision turned to the mystery of human prehistory, Guénon failed to appreciate the mystery before him. It is the mystery that the deepest human potentialities become full, rich, and perfected only through the adventure of history, where they are tested, illumined, and enhanced. Human beings must live in time, and it is only within a world of change that we can give shape to our souls. Our responsibility to do so gives our lives a perpetual restlessness and discontent. Guénon experienced as a crisis and a loss what is, in truth, a task and calling. And when we see time not as the place of our dispossession, but as our journey toward home, then a more exalted vision of human life opens before us.
Matthew Rose is director of the Barry Center at the Morningside Institute.