My Response to Traditionalism
Yes; what was wanted was a new Order in the Church; the old ones were rule-bound through no fault of their own. An Order was wanted without habit or tonsure, without traditions or customs, an Order with nothing but entire and whole-hearted devotion, without pride even in their most sacred privileges, without a past history in which they might take complacent refuge. —Msgr Robert Hugh Benson, in his dystopian novel Lord of the World
…is the modern world really anything whatever but a direct denial of all traditional truth? —René Guénon
In one of my early Q&A videos I was asked for my opinions on Traditionalism, and Traditionalists like Julius Evola in particular. I didn’t understand the question, and couldn’t answer the question very well. Later someone explained to me that the Traditionalist School is an international conservative religious movement beginning in the twentieth century, with René Guénon as one of its founding fathers. So I suppose before I give a late answer to the original question I should explain briefly what Traditionalism is about, just in case you are as clueless as I was.
The Traditionalist School, also called Perennial Traditionalism, Perennial Philosophy, or sophia perennis, the Perennial Wisdom, if I understand it correctly, is based on a few rather simple principles. Traditionalists believe that there are “primordial and universal religious truths” that are revealed to prophets and serve as the basis of all major premodern world religions. (Some believe that there was a prehistoric enlightened religious tradition that was the ultimate source of all the rest.) They believe that the modern “Enlightenment” mentality, rationalistic, extraverted, and materialistic as it is, is incompatible with knowledge of these universal truths. And they believe that by largely rejecting a modern mindset and looking to the premodern east for wisdom, they can get the spirit of man back on track, moving upwards towards divinity, as is proper. Furthermore I have read that these universal religious truths are known not by mystical experiences (whatever they consider that to mean), but by “metaphysical intuitions” and a kind of “divine intellect” which differs radically from intellectualism.
I have read René Guénon’s The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times, which is considered by Those Who Know to be his masterwork, the culmination of his Traditionalist thought in book form. The link to part 1 of my two-part critique of that work is here. Most of what else I know about the Traditionalist movement has been gleaned from some of Julius Evola’s religious musings and also from a few articles on the Internet. Plus the good fellow who explained to me that Traditionalism was an official thing, with a capital T.
I disagree with Guénon, the purported founder of the movement, on many issues, one of them being the absolute necessity of an “initiatory” tradition with an unbroken lineage extending back into premodern times. Every tradition had to be new at one time of course, so newness in and of itself should not be a disqualifier for any spiritual inspiration or revelation. Also I am very skeptical of the absolute necessity of having an unbroken initiatory lineage going all the way back to some supposed primordial religion established by divine powers from above. So the main problem is not so much broken lineages, much less new ones, as it is the problem of a modernist culture that is too extraverted, superficial, and morally degenerate to sustain a valid and genuine wisdom tradition. For that matter a spiritually degenerate modernist culture would presumably be incapable of supporting a valid initiatory tradition no matter how old it was. Witness what has become of Buddhism and even Christianity in ultraliberal 21st-century America.
A further consideration is that chaining spirituality to a premodern or even ancient system can definitely have its drawbacks. Theravada Buddhist monasticism, for example (and Buddhism was originally a renunciant monastic order before it became a mass religion or a western hobby), even if strictly practiced in accordance with the ancient texts, is still radically different now from the original, due to being surrounded and supported by a radically different culture, both in Asia and the west. Ultimately the purpose of spirituality is consciously to approach ultimate reality, possibly even to realize it fully; and an ancient tradition from far away, from a culture in which the common people harbored very different assumptions about the world, is not necessarily the best possible approach to take when transplanted into a foreign society and tradition, regardless of the genuineness of the inspiration of the founder, and of its monks and priests, and regardless of the “modern deviation” lamented by Guénon, with its materialism and science.
A better approach is simply following an enlightened or at least a very wise teacher, even if he or she does not adhere to any established system. Guénon may have considered such a being utterly impossible, but I see no reason why he would be right, and I think he is too attached to worldly systems and phenomena as vehicles to the Absolute. Everyone has access to ultimate reality because we are all soaking in it; and there will always be spiritual geniuses, in just about any culture, who penetrate or transcend the illusion, who escape from Plato’s cave, sometimes without the obvious benefit of any ancient religious tradition. Some people are simply slammed into higher consciousness by some crisis: Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle, and John Wren-Lewis are a few relatively well known modern examples.
Guénon had the idea that ANY new spiritual systems are literally satanic and evil, an insidious lie containing just enough truth to lead people astray. Nevertheless, I consider the writings of someone like Krishnamurti to be possibly a better choice as a modern spiritual guide than the New Testament or the Quran, for some people at least. I consider Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (just to mention one of many possible examples) to be more profound, and much more worthy of being venerated as scripture, than, say, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Old Testament, or the Book of Mormon.
Then again, any spiritual or religious system the ultraliberal left has got its hands on recently has degenerated into religion-flavored cultural Marxism. (This is due in large part to the Marxist contempt for true spirituality and wisdom and a desire to replace Divinity with the State, and religion with political dialectic.) But this should never rule out the possibility of a person today having a legitimate realization and starting a new system better adapted to a more or less modern way of thinking...even though the realization ultimately has little if anything to do with thinking. Again, the main problem that confronts us is not broken traditions but a superficial and degenerate modern and modernist society incapable of sustaining a true wisdom culture, regardless of when or how it was founded. I do think esoteric and “initiatory” spiritual systems are a good idea though, since in order to make real progress it is important to detach oneself from worldly ways and worldly thinking.
With regard to my own chosen initiatory tradition, Buddhism originally arose out of a social and cultural crisis, as northern India was in a state of more or less chaotic transition—from rural to more urban, from a barter economy based on agricultural goods (especially cattle) to a money-based mercantile one, from small republics to large autocratic kingdoms (with plenty of wars bringing about the change), and with non-Vedic elements creeping more and more into the Indo-Aryan religious mainstream. The old traditional ways no longer fit the worldly reality as well as they did in earlier centuries, even though Buddhism arose in the Iron Age. It is true that ancient northern India was MUCH more spiritually oriented than is the modern west; although the modern west seems not to have hit full crisis mode…yet. The crucible is still heating up.
I suspect that locking spiritual systems into the distant past is a mistake, so long as truly inspired charismatic sages continue to arise and exist in this world, and I doubt that even a global, materialistic Brave New World could totally stop that. The truly inspired are less a product of their culture, less conditioned, than the average guy, and are thus less dependent upon traditions anyhow. Besides, it will probably take a huge-scale civilizational crisis to turn people away from worldliness and, possibly through sheer despair, back towards Divinity or the Highest Truth. Then, it may be, the stark desperate need for a new spiritual guide will produce one, and we will have a new tradition just as good, or even better, than most or all of the ones that Traditionalists insist upon. In fact I consider that to be inevitable, although the proverbial shit may really have to hit the fan, and western civilization reach a state of liminal social chaos and confusion, and thereby a Renaissance-like creative ferment, before it is likely to happen. But we are definitely headed in that direction, which is not all bad.
|a French Catholic turned occultist turned traditional Sufi Muslim vs. an Indian Hindu turned Theosophist turned vehement anti-traditionalist|