Against the Modern World:
Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
Paperback, 369 pages
Joe Szimhart review, 2013
In the news today, the legal debate over same sex marriage endures in the American Supreme Court. On one side are the traditionalists (conservatives) that argue marriage is a natural and divine union between a man and a woman. On the other are modernists (liberals) that say humans of same sex orientation have a natural and legitimate right to marriage with full benefits thereof. The traditional view in this marriage act case is only a symptom of what you will encounter in Against the Modern World. Mark Sedgwick writes about a form of Traditionalism with a capital T that has a remote relationship with the conservative Defense of Marriage Act position. This Traditionalism views Modernism as a secular assault on sacred, perennial values at levels not imagined by advocates of traditional marriage. You will find no argument about same sex marriage in this book.
Mark Sedgwick is Associate Professor for Arab and Islamic Studies at University of Aarhus, Denmark. He encountered Islam and Sufi groups in Cairo in 1990. By 1996 he began research on the influence of René Guénon’s ideas and Traditionalism. He published this historical survey and critique of the influence of René Guénon’s ideas in 2004. Guénon (1886-1951) converted to a form of Sufism and Islam in France after years of intellectual and religious exploration within occult and Masonic groups and ideas. He was raised Catholic and educated in a Jesuit school. His doctoral thesis on Vedic teaching was rejected as it was too theological, a twist of fate that led Guénon on his obsessive quest to define the eternal and primordial truth behind all religious impulse. Sedgwick has been identified as a Muslim convert with the Muslim name, Abd al-Azim. Our author specializes in Sufism as well as a range of related subjects, so he is well qualified to tackle this unwieldy movement. His critics claim that he has an axe to grind due to early entanglements with the Traditionalist milieu, but Sedgwick denies a hidden agenda.
The rudiments of Guénonian Traditionalism can be found in Le Théosophisme (Theosophy: History of a Pseudo Religion) published by Guénon in 1921, a book I reviewed for ICSA Today, a magazine published by the International Cultic Studies Association (Volume 3, Issue 3, 2012). I applauded Guénon’s effort as he did manage to provide a useful and enduring argument for why the Theosophists and related sects led to a “counter initiation” or to a corrupt spiritual path. Guénon asserts that the counter initiation leads to the very materialism that Theosophists claim to avoid, whereas initiation in the proper sense leads to the perennial realm of the sacred or God. Guénon utilizes the symbol of the cross to illustrate the vertical or heavenly realm of “quality” in contrast to the horizontal or earthly realm of “quantity.” In his view, the modern age has lost the connection to the vertical axis, thus descending into an inversion of true initiation or the sacred path. My limited review of Le Théosophisme did not take into account the subsequent Traditionalist milieu inspired and loosely guided by Guénon as documented in Against the Modern World. Sedgwick points to flaws in the Guénonian scheme for human freedom (moksa) from samsara or life in this modern world.
Guénon's book The Reign of Quantity and The Signs of the Times (1945) defines essential ideas that guide various Traditionalist groups, most of which are non-aligned with one another—there are no annual gatherings of major Traditionalist groups and scholars. Traditionalists tend not to broadcast their positions but operate under more practical ventures. For example, Sedgwick identifies Prince Charles of the United Kingdom as leaning toward Traditionalism behind his support of organizations like Temenos under his Prince's Foundation. The Prince is concerned that secularism has caused us to forget “all knowledge of the sacred and spiritual, and those principles of order and harmony which lie at the very heart of the universe” (Sedgwick, 215). If Guénon were here today, he would point to the proliferation of mass media and entertainment that increasingly distracts modern generations from a quality grasp of existence and meaning. In other words, more is not better.
Sedgwick strives to maintain his academic neutrality in this endeavor, but his approach nevertheless grates those that view Guénon as a saint. One has only to read the one star reviews posted on www.amazon.com. Sedgwick humanizes all the Traditionalist heroes including Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Julius Evola, (to some extent) Mircea Eliade, and many sometimes surprising others. Guénon has had an unsung (“secret” in Sedgwick's title) admiration among academics and seekers that agree with his anti-Modernist stance and his cult of ideas if not his person. Sedgwick does not accuse Guénon of intentionally creating an identifiable group that he could personally manipulate (or guide if you are a devotee) as did G. I. Gurdjieff. Rather, think of Nietzsche the lone wolf philosopher as a parallel example of having a cult following among existentialists.
Modernism in this view rejects God and any evidence of a primordial or archaic ground of being that informs human spiritual awareness. Traditionalism and Perennialism co-inhabit the idea of an underlying universal religion revealed through “prophets” including Pythagoras, Plato, Moses, Muhammed, Sankara and the Vedic rishis. Traditionalists claim that star dust as matter could not have evolved into complex life forms without the spiritual ground we call God, but no Traditionalist would hold to the Protestant form of anti-modernism that rejects speciation through natural selection and a universe billions of years old. A Traditionalist following Guénon finds evidence of the primordial tradition in ancient Hindu scriptures more than anywhere else, rejects evolution as the cause of life forms, and believes that scientific materialism offers no satisfying answer to the mystery of conscious life.
Despite the Vedic grounding of Traditionalism, we learn from Sedgwick that the vast majority of Guénon's followers tend to adopt a Western hybrid form of Shia Islam. No doubt, imitation of their hero Guénon has a lot to do with this. Guénon lived out his life after 1930 in Cairo as a devout, married Muslim dressing in simple Arab attire, yet his following among Arabs and cradle Muslims remains negligible save for a few scholars like Seyyed Hossein Nasr. If a Muslim or Sufi under a legitimate shaykh finds Guénon inspiring or reaffirming, it is more as a side interest than as a guiding guru. As Sedgwick indicates in his chapter “The Islamic World,” Muslims steeped in their tradition have no need of reaffirming it through Guénon who in fact joined them, so why should they join him? Others were able to adapt Guénon's ideas to other traditions: Coomaraswamy to neo-Platonism, Marco Pallis to Buddhism, and in a very private way, Eliade to Orthodox Christianity. The typical Traditionalist will not broadcast his orientation, apparently, which again is why Sedgwick calls it “a secret intellectual history.”
Guénon practiced a sleuth form of Traditionalism within Islam. He lived as a Muslim with a Muslim wife in Cairo but remained entrenched in his idiosyncratic Vedic metaphysics. Sedgwick reminds the reader that Traditionalists believe that the modern world is hurtling to self-destruction—it is after all, the Kali Yuga or last age of Vedic cosmology. The remedy is to live a Traditional life—as there is no Traditionalist religion per se established, any religion with a true initiation or revelation of the perennial mystery will do. Guénon insisted that true initiation remains a few religions: Islam, Hinduism, an esoteric form of Freemasonry, and a version of the Templar movement in Christianity among them. He finally relented late in life after followers convinced him that indeed Buddhism also had a Traditional revelation.
Expanding on Guénon, Frithhof Shuon (died 1998) found a traditional initiation within a form of Native American religion as well as in Marian devotion in Christianity and as a result promoted himself above his early Sufi Muslim identity. Shuon established a sect within Traditionalism called Maryamiyya at Inverness Farms in Indiana as a “primordial” community. Shuon to the Maryamis (his cult following) was the Avatar of this age. He was also the pneumatikos, a kind of gnostic that has achieved the very pinnacle of divine awareness. Shuon had multiple wives based on a “vertical” relationship which is anything but the traditional marriage that same-sex marriage protestors promote. Whether or not Shuon was purely platonic with his vertical wives is not confirmed by Sedgwick.
Another extreme adaptation of Guénon’s ideas occurs in the Aristasia movement composed mainly of women on the Internet, a kind of virtual cult that emphasizes feminine (not feminist) lifestyles from the 1950s and before. Earlier versions of the Aristasians were known as The Romantics and The Olympians. The movement began at Oxford in England in the late 1960s, founded by an academic called “Hester StClare” (sic). She saw a cultural collapse occurring among hippies and other modernist revolutionaries. Aristanians call that 60s tumult period “the Eclipse.” The “inverted” society that resulted they call “the Pit.” Inversion is a core concept derived from Guénon who meant something akin to the anti-Christ or “an all-pervasive characteristic of modernity…that people foolishly see as progress” (Sedgwick, 24-25).
Guénon's glaring error,in my view was his failure to recognize the “attractive” aspect of Brahman in the cyclical Vedic cosmology. Eliade with a secret nod toward Guénon hints at this idea in the “Myth of the Eternal Return” wherein primal cultures sought to escape the “terror” of history or linear time by creating and participating in sacred rituals that drew them back into the eternal archetypes from which they came.
Nietzsche's idea of eternal return differs though it borrows from cyclic notions in Oriental religion. In his view, everything that is will inevitably repeat itself without some kind of heroic effort to transcend the inevitable—Nietzsche's will to power and Übermenschism appeals to seekers looking for a way to transcend common human limitations. My take using Vedic cosmology is opposite that of Eliade's “soft” traditionalism as well as Nietzsche’s revolt: There is no will to power, no initiation, no “effort” as a Traditionalist that will ever carry a man or woman back to Brahman. That cosmic Being breathes the cosmos back into Itself much as the yogi strives to still the breath into the self to appear as if dead (and now, take a breath after that convoluted sentence). In that cosmic scheme, we are totally helpless if not insignificant. No amount of Traditional living or exertion to rise above the herd advances or retards the inevitable in Hindu tradition.
After reading Sedgwick, I think Guénon’s zealous devotees take him far too seriously, no doubt affected by their master’s imperious writing style. He is after all only one of the signs of the times. Underscoring this position on page 113, Sedgwick reminds us that even Mircea Eliade (a soft Traditionalist) “before 1978 said that what it was about Guénon’s work that “irritated me [was] his excessively polemical side, and his brutal rejection of the whole of modern Western culture, as if it were enough to teach at the Sorbonne to lose the possibility of understanding anything.””
My take away from Sedgwick’s survey is that Guenon’s “excessively polemical style” smacks of Totalism as defined by Robert J Lifton (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, 1989): “Where totalism exists, a religion, a political movement, or even a scientific organization becomes little more than an exclusive cult” (Lifton, 419). Cults in this sense create a transcendent experience that “stops time” for the follower who feels the aura of a final answer to life’s questions. Thereby, “the original exploratory impulse” that got them there freezes, according to Lifton. Nevertheless, there remains something attractive if not compelling in the idea of an enduring sacred Being that human seers can tap time and again to revive what Rudolf Otto in 1917 called the Holy or the numinous among us. And perhaps the two forces of quantity and quality are not as mutually exclusive as hard Traditionalists seem to feel.