A recent local article mentioned that one Fairfax County School (Herndon HS) will cease allowing students to use their phones in class. Anyone familiar with reality knows that listening to one’s phone in class, or texting, or scrolling through Instagram, will hinder the learning process. Of course, the rule has loopholes that some will exploit. Perhaps more embarrassing for our civilization than the actual presence of phones in class–teachers may give students a 5 minute “phone break” during instruction if necessary. Most interesting to me from a cultural perspective, however, was the stated rationale for the policy: the phones need removed, for they may distract from other students learning. I applaud the school’s principal move to ban phones. The rationale for the decision, however, will not allow any real progress in education.
When we cannot state the obvious–i.e., students with phones out distract themselves far more than others–we have discovered a sacred cow of our times. But this fits in with other aspects of our culture. So strong runs our belief even in the power of a 15 year-old to define their lives ad nauseam, that parents, teachers, our society, will not attempt to define reality for them. We will not tell them that phones hurt themselves, for we likely would have response for, “It might hurt others, but not me,” and no idea what kind of general embodiment we would ask from our children.
If this reads so far like a cranky reactionary, well, that can be me at times. But I have far to go to reach the crankiness of Rene Guenon. He appreciated essentially nothing of modern life. But we should not dismiss him. The Crisis of the Modern World shows real prescience (he wrote this in 1927). His symbolic framing of the topics he examines make his work intuitive to understand and important for our times.
First, what failed to impress me about the book:
- Guenon has some brilliant insights in his critique of the modern west, but he ascribes nothing good at all to the West and finds salvation only in the East. I understand taking a big swing for effect, but in this case, the book made me want to think of ways to defend the west. His overreach has the opposite effect on me.
- I cannot tell quite where Guenon stands religiously, which I think important in a work like this. On the one hand, he has much to praise about Hinduism. On the other, we know he converted to Islam a bit after writing this work. He also argued that the West’s only hope lay in the faint possibility of revival of true Catholicism. Perhaps he dabbled in the idea of Perennialism, which seems to run counter to his main point of commitment to a tradition. Or–perhaps Guenon at the time of this writing lacked internal clarity himself, and if so it shows a bit in this book.
Now, on to the good stuff. . .
Guenon begins by critiquing the modern west’s view of linear progress. We see time functioning as a line, and our technological and political progress demonstrating that this line moves upwards. We no longer have the same attachment to the idea of inevitable progress as 100 years ago, but we still measure progress in material terms, i.e., how the economy functions, what new technology we invent, etc. But the core of our problem lies here. How we measure time and progress put us in continuously impossible situations that we cannot comprehend, due to the angle of our vision, akin to someone who scratches their irritation and wonders why it still itches.
Ancient and traditional societies put their focus on retaining meaning within their culture, not in increasing power or wealth. Our focus on power over our environment has led us “down the mountain” towards disunity of mind and society in general. The ancient world also tended to see time as cyclical, which Guenon thinks key to his thesis about time. I disagree, but it influences his view of how our culture has moved from “higher” to “lower” things. He writes,
It will doubtless be asked why cyclic development must proceed in this manner, in a downward direction, from higher to lower, a course that will at once be perceived as a complete antithesis to progress as the moderns understand it. The reason is . . . it implies a gradual increasing of distance fro the principle from which it proceeds; starting from the highest point, it tends downward, and as with heavy bodies, the speed of its motion increases continuously until finally it reaches a point at which it is stopped. This fall could be described as “progressive materialization.”
The project of the western world for the last 500 years or so has generally involved deconstruction of the world through a focus on gaining power over our environment. Rather than a circle, I prefer the image of a mountain to explain this process, something that I will not rehash in full here (I have written about this in other posts linked above). Of course mountains have a prominent role in almost every traditional culture, including ancient Israel (Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, etc.). The top of the mountain allows one a unity of vision, though it entails a necessary blending of various particularities. Descending down the mountain comes naturally. It’s easier than going up. This downward movement also gives you increased ability to see particular things with greater distinction and contrast to other things around it. But to accomplish this, one must sacrifice a unity of perspective. The methods western society employs lead us to chaos and disunity, which will manifest itself in our souls and our societies.
For example, we can take the idea prevalent in modern parlance that trade will unify countries and draw them together. The more trade, the more unity. Guenon argues that, in fact, increased trade between peoples will likely lead to more conflict, not less. Perhaps we see the pattern. Trade in goods means focusing on materiality, and focusing on matter means dividing reality–and we divide to conquer. Guenon wrote just shortly after the horror of W.W. I. But in the years leading up to that conflict, Germany and England were primary trading partners.
Thirty years ago many argued that the U.S. should increase trade with China to cement good relations between us, which would help China improve its record on human rights. In fact, what has happened is just as Guenon would predict–China and the U.S. like each other less, and trade in material goods has only served to increase China’s power. A more immediate example–Europe’s use of Russian oil and gas has done nothing to make them like each other more. If we look back a century we see that England and Germany were prime trading partners just before World War I. Perhaps trade may make disparate cultures a bit more alike, but history shows that we tend to fight more with those who look a bit skewed to us, rather than those who are completely different. For example, lots of historians pour vitriol on the Middle Ages, which has similarities and differences to the modern world, but no one “hates” ancient Egypt, which maintains a proper, non-threatening distance from us. In any case, when we act against the pattern of reality, we suffer for it.
The political schisms the western world experiences now have their origin in our souls. Many marvel at why, despite unprecedented material opportunities and prosperity, we see such a spike in suicide, escapist drugs, depression, and other mental illnesses. Guenon sees an obvious connection. A focus on “materiality” inevitably means a focus on particularity, which means division. Two years ago many believed that the presence of COVID might at least have the silver lining effect of bringing us together and helping heal our political divisions. Of course, nearly two years of focus on the particularity of tiny molecules and the various means of treating said molecules have driven us even farther apart, which again Guenon could have predicted.*
But because Guenon has a primarily cyclical view of reality, a degree of hope exists, for this is not the first time civilization has experienced this descent into “progressive materialization.” In the history of the world, he sees in the 6th century B.C. a period when unity descended into division. He writes,
In the sixth century [B.C.] changes took place for one reason or another amongst almost all peoples . . . for example, in China, where doctrine previously established as a unified whole divided clearly into two distinct parts: Taoism, reserved for the elite and comprising pure metaphysics . . ., and Confuscianism, . . . whose domain was that of practical and social applications. In India . . . this period saw the rise of Buddhism, that is to say, a revolt against the traditional spirit . . . Moving westward we see that for the Jews this was the time of the Babylonian captivity and perhaps one of the most astonishing of all these happenings is that a short period of 70 years should have sufficed for the Jews to forget even their alphabet . . .
. . . for Rome it was the beginning of the ‘historical’ period, which followed on the ‘legendary’ period of the kings. [In Greece also], the 6th century was the start of so-called ‘classical’ civilization, which alone is entitled–according to the moderns–to be considered ‘historical.’**
This moment in Greece inaugurated the discipline of philosophy, so dear to the western intellectual tradition. What began more or less in innocence devolved into an exaltation of the rational, and hence, the analytical side of man over and above all things.
The tendencies that found expression among the Greeks had to be pushed to the extreme . . . before we could arrive at “rationalism,” a specifically modern attitude that consists in not merely ignoring, but expressly denying, everything of a supra-rational order.
Christianity arose via the collapse of western civilization in the 5th century A.D., and reasserted more traditional ways of knowing. We can see this in how history got written, with the examples of Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the time of Rome’s decline. His precise factual accuracy has high value in today’s world. But even Gibbon found him unreadably dull and shortsighted, commenting that, “The coarse and undistinguishing pencil of Ammianus has delineated his bloody figures with tedious and disgusting accuracy.” We can compare him with the author/s? of the roughly contemporaneous Alexander Romance, which had universal appeal, with eventual versions written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopian, to name a few. Many dismiss the work as “fantastical” (it has Alexander encountering mythical beasts such centaurs) but it had broad appeal for a reason. The work seeks to interpret the life of Alexander, and thus communicate meaning, not facts. Traditional cultures understand this difference in ways that elude us, making much of the “legendary” histories written in the past unintelligible to us.
With medieval culture Guenon believes that we see the turn of history’s wheel back towards the apex of the cycle. They focused on wisdom through inhabiting meaning over analysis. But the wheel keeps turning, which brings us to the Renaissance. For Guenon, moderns get it backwards. The “Middle Ages” was not merely a bridge between “civilization” (which the term “Middle Ages” implies), but a time of actual civilization in between decayed epochs. As for the Renaissance,
As we have said . . . . the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts; and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have very artificial character, as it meant a re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. . . . Henceforth there was only ‘profane’ philosophy and ‘profane’ science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely the empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion of an indefinite multitude of insignificant details . . .^
All of this ends with the ‘Individual’ as the only form of reality left that we recognize, hence the problem one encounters in a public school when you want to ban cellphones. Our individuality has generated the chaos of defining one’s own reality through social media, or through simple assertions of will, as Neo lamely articulated in the third Matrix installment. Some try and plug the holes in the ship by earnestly urging us to focus on the “facts.” Alas, like those that focus on trade, or “the science,” to bring us together fail to see that the “facts” can never accomplish that task. Focusing on meaning by examining things outside of their context separates things from other things, and so it will divide selves from other selves.^^.
The distortions of the modern have created a reality that Guenon calls “monstrous.” A “monster,” by definition, is something that exists internally and externally out of proper proportion. We may think that we have traded unity for diversity, and since both have their place, we will at least have one even if we lack the other. Guenon disagrees, “since unity is the principle out of which all multiplicity arises.” So–we will be left only with a naked assertion of will whereby we seek to subsume all things into ourselves. This brings the flood, and a restarting of the cycle.
As powerfully as Guenon writes, I push back in one particular. Guenon, influenced by his possible Perennialism, hovers perhaps a bit too far above the mountaintop. He seemingly fails to see that the reality he wants to inhabit has irregularities. The orbiting of the planets, like our own bodies, lack perfect symmetry. Parts of reality are “weird,” and we occasionally see creatures and situations that defy categories. Exceptions to rules exist. Where Guenon is right, however, is that those exceptions don’t destroy the form, but merely give it room to breathe.
*Many social conservatives like myself who want to rein in society’s affirmation of school-children wanting gender reassignment surgery put the focus on biology–“there are only two genders,” and so on. I have seen Ben Shapiro, for example, consistently go to this well. But focusing on “the science” perpetuates confusion, for the same reasons discussed above. A focus on deconstructing physical matter will never answer this question, because one can always find exceptions when looking to deconstruct. Those that push back against him are wrong in their conclusion but at least partially right in their method. “Why should I submit to matter?” they seem to be saying. “Shouldn’t the lower serve the higher?”
**Curiously, Guenon fails to note that at around exactly the same time in Greece and in Rome, we see a movement towards more democracy. I would not call the Roman Republic ‘democratic,’ but certainly it was more democratic than their previous era. I find it curious that he passes on a chance to point out another move away from unity towards diversity/particularity.
^Guenon later writes that philosophy, following this form, has grown obsessed with abstractions and “problems,” and multiplying difficulties rather than expounding “wisdom.”
^^COVID did indeed present us with an opportunity, but one that we missed. Rather than exclusively focusing on how to combat the disease, and whether or not this or that measure helped prevent it and by how much, we should have focused on how to preserve meaning and coherence amidst the disease. Instead, we were basically told to stay at home and watch Netflix.
Dave, great review on guenon’s book and it’s continued relevance to our age and geopolitical climate. Do you think there is or can be any non-religious, unifying response to today’s monstrous cult of individual self determination? Or must it imply some form of theism?
Guenon always remained mostly silent regarding the reasons for his conversion to Islam. While he employed Pereniallism as a method of better understanding the similarities of the major Traditions he never urged any type of perrenialist praxis in itself, but was of the impression that each individual culture must take action to reaffirm its own traditions from the more profane ideas of modernity.
Hello Rob–thanks so much for your kind words. I do so apologize but I never saw this comment earlier. I will think about your great question and get back to you. I am curious–what would your answer be to your own question? While I know very, very little about Guenon, what you say makes sense with what I have heard.
Again, many apologies for not seeing this earlier. I look forward to responding. Thanks so much.
Thanks again for your question. I think my basic answer is ‘no,’ with a ‘maybe,’ on the fringe.
The ‘no’ comes from the fact that I believe that all of our actions are directed towards some goal, whether consciously or no. This goal will be ultimately lie outside of ourselves. As the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton once stated, “Every man who enters a brothel is looking for God.”
Obviously I don’t know if you are a religious person. I am an Orthodox Christian. I thought about some possible ways to unite a Buddhist, a Moselm, a Christian, etc. in some ‘meaningful’ way that was not overtly theistic. I can’t see such a gathering having any real meaning, because it would have no distinct form that any of us could latch onto.
Via Jonathan Pageau I got exposed to John Vervake, and I think he comes from something of a non-theistic Buddhist perspective. I believe he is trying to do something along the lines you suggest with his idea of “mindfulness.” Vervake is a brilliant, gracious gentleman, but I can’t see this going anywhere, though possibly it could be a gateway into other religious traditions.
The ‘maybe’ comes in two forms.
The first would be a revival of national identity, patriotism, etc. With our political polarization, this likely won’t happen without some major catastrophe, and I have no interest in anything resembling a major catastrophe.
The second would involve more local things. Maybe sports can save us. As I mentioned, I can’t see a Buddhist, Moslem, Christian get together and say, “Let’s do something that is meaningful, but not overtly theistic.” But if they are all Dodger fans, they will eat, drink, and be merry watching the game, even if some are Democrats and some Republicans. Better yet, they might join a softball team and play together.
Sports is a kind of liturgical mini-combat–it unites people like war unites without all of the death and horror. However, sports is subject to the same problems as our culture at large. As politics invade different areas of life such as work, it has crept into sports. If athletes want to preserve the power of sports, they should avoid mixing their sport with politics except only in the most generic sense (I am not a fan of playing the anthem before the event, but if it is played, I am also not a fan of kneeling). I say this not to ‘muzzle’ athletes, but because I see them as one of our last touch points of cultural unity.
Well, I think I have said too much. But I would be curious for your answer. Thanks so much again, for your kind words and question.