René Guénon and the Guénonian Scholasticism

(from "René Guénon: a Teacher for Modern Times")




René Guénon should certainly be considered as a Master of our times. His contributions to the critique of the modern world and to the comprehension of the "world of Tradition", of symbols and of metaphysical teachings, are truly invaluable. I have been myself, for more than thirty years now, one of the very first writers to make Guénon known in Italy (and even in central Europe), by means of essays, translations and quotes. I remained in a cordial epistolary relationship with him almost until the time of his death. If, on the one hand, one hopes that Guénon's thought will exercise an adequate influence, on the other hand, one should beware of a danger, namely the emerging of a Guénonian "scholasticism." This kind of "scholasticism" consists in following passively just about every view ever formulated by Guénon, with a pedantic attitude, without any true investigation or discrimination, and with a real fear to make even the slightest change in the master's formulations.


While it remains true that "originality" is definitely out of place in this domain, the influence of a teacher is truly effective not when it generates slavish and stereotypical repetitions, but when it generates the impulse for further developments, and, if necessary, for revisions, thanks to an abundance of perspectives. While an acknowledgment of what is valid and unique in Guénon's work is due, this should not prevent the observation of some of his limits, due to his "personal equation" and to his forma mentis. It is precisely this critical approach that leaves room for potentially fruitful work. The personal orientation of Guénon has essentially been intellectual and "sapiential." In all of his works, anything which is "existential" and practical, his personal experience, any specific directive facilitating the inner realization beyond pure doctrine, all this is almost nonexistent. Hence the danger of a Guénonian "scholasticism" (in the negative sense of the term), which can reduce everything to something which is both inoperative and abstract, despite the claims (without a proof) advanced by many followers of Guénon, of having attained a knowledge which should be "realizing" as well.


The proof that such a danger is real, is given by the orientation taken by some Guénonian cliques of "strict observance." An example is also found in Italy, by the periodical "Review of Traditional Studies," which was started last year in Turin, and which imitates the French Guénonian periodical Études traditionnelles even in its editorial contents. The translations made in it of old articles written by Guénon, along with some texts or theoretical orientations, may be helpful. However the tone of this review is a pedantic one. One can frequently notice in it an academic inclination, namely the style of speaking ex cathedra and ex tripode in a final and pedagogical tone, and with an authority which no member of the editorial staff possesses, either because of spiritual stature or because of valid works being published. In this way, that contemptible "individualism" (one shudders only at hearing phrases such as "individual realization") finds a viable outlet; what in psychoanalysis is called Geltungstrieb has the possibility of affirming itself, under the cover of impersonality, whenever somebody puts on the air of being a spiritual "teacher."


It is rather strange that I was the victim of such a "know-it-all" attitude in an essay featured on the fourth issue of this review. Since this essay was featured in the section called "Book Reviews," it would be natural to think that a recent book of mine had just been reviewed. That was not the case, as the book reviewed was The Doctrine of the Awakening (London, 1951), which was published twenty years ago, and is now out of print.1 Considering that this review was not limited to this book of mine, but that it takes issue with various ideas upheld by me in other places, the author of the review should have considered this book in the context of my entire production. The critic mistook open doors for massive walls, and vice versa, all the while displaying a partisan and tendentious spirit.


This is not the place to set things right, since, among other things, that review does not deserve too much importance, and I would have to repeat considerations which I have already expounded several times in other places. I will therefore limit myself to say that the author of that book review is wrong in thinking that the special formulation given by Guénon to traditional teachings, on the basis of his "personal equation," is the only one possible and that it has the character of an absolute revelation, and that therefore everything which I thought I could and should have expounded in a different sense, is not as legitimate. The supremacy of contemplation ("knowledge") over action, upheld by Guénon, is disputable, since it is based on an arbitrary schematization of the two concepts, which bestows on action only negative attributes and on contemplation ("knowledge") positive ones. There is a traditional path of action as well as a path of knowledge, both being qualified to lead toward the objective of overcoming of the human condition. See for instance what Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita (Chapter 11) when he exalts the way of action by attributing to it his supreme form of manifestation.


From a practical point of view, in order to prevent the growth of any "scholasticism," action must be granted the primacy. The traditional principle of post laborem scientia must be upheld; the specific practical and ascetical attitude of early Buddhism is the only adequate one. Today as never before, the challenge to the primacy of spiritual authority over regal authority constitutes a particular topic relative to a greater domain, and is the cause of the problem of establishing what are the most adequate traditional forms for the West, especially when the spiritual authority is abusively and unilaterally identified with that of a Brahmanic and priestly type. This is amply contradicted by all the main traditional civilizations. In China, ancient India, Japan, Egypt, Peru, Greece, and in old Nordic stocks, at the top of the hierarchy, one always finds sacred regality, and never a king subject to a priestly class; the early Ghibelline tradition, for instance, was inspired by these aspects of the primordial Tradition.


In the initiatory domain, specific reservations must be made about the semi-bureaucratic view of initiation, as it was understood by Guénon. I am talking about the view which only takes into account the aggregation (which many times is totally inoperative) to "regular" organizations. These organizations in the modern world have either ceased to exist or are almost unreachable, or continue to exist in dead and even perverted forms (such as in Masonry, which is another area of my disagreement with Guénon).


Guénon's initial evaluation of Buddhism was plagued by an astonishing lack of understanding. This evaluation was suppressed in the English edition of Orient et Occident (Paris, 1924); Guénon later modified it in part, by making some concessions to a "Brahmanic" version of Buddhism, which is truly a Buddhism evirated of the specific and valid elements it possessed at its inception. These specific elements concerned an autonomous way of realization. In this realization, the action of a qualified individual who strives to attain the Unconditioned, even by means of violent efforts is the necessary counterpart of the descent of a force from above, which does not need "initiatory bureaucracies." What Guénon had to say in an unfortunate essay concerning "The Need for a Traditional Exotericism," must also be rejected, since it offers dangerous incentives and alibis to a reactionary and petty-bourgeois conformism. The pedantic representatives of Guénonian scholasticism should rather strive to reach a deeper understanding of the true meaning of the Way of the Left Hand, which is not any less traditional than the Way of Right Hand, and which has the advantage of emphasizing the transcendent dimension proper of every truly initiatory realization and aspiration.


An abstract and intellectualizing Guénonian scholasticism, typical of "research institutes," may well ignore the real meaning of the Way of the Left Hand. In our day and age, there is a deep and irreversible scission between the forms of the external life or traditional exoteric residues and any possible transcendent orientation. This gulf is deep and irreversible. Therefore, almost all of those who do not have the possibility or the vocation to completely detach themselves from the world, will find it very difficult to realize a "traditional" orientation in other terms than the ones which I have illustrated in my last book, Cavalcare la tigre [Riding the Tiger].


I cannot refer here to other distortions which my critic's review in the Review of Traditional Studies was guilty of. As I have said, these are things which I have discussed in books and in articles which my critic either does not know or pretends to be unaware of. Let me give you one more instance of his lack of objectivity. He makes me say that when I reviewed Buddhist ethics I recommended the use of women as objects to those who are not capable to follow the precept of chastity. Never mind reading in my Metafisica del Sesso [Metaphysics of Sex / Eros and the Mysteries of Love] what I have said about sex and the possibilities which it affords; what I have written in the incriminating passage, provided it is properly understood, is that one should grant to a physical impulse toward sex the mere satisfaction which is also given to the need for food. In fact, any puritanical repression of this impulse could build inner tensions and intoxications which are notorious impediments to the spiritual life, or the cause of its pollution by means of "transpositions," as in the case of certain forms of Christian mysticism. I am told that the author of the review is a judge. I sincerely hope that in the court he will not demonstrate the same "objectivity" and lack of understanding which he displayed toward me throughout his criticisms.



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