|René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity
& the Sign of the Times. Translated by Lord Northbourne. Sophia
Perennis, Ghent, NY, 4th edition, 2001. With some comments on Julian
Evola and the Traditionalists
By Rustin Quaide
If the meal they offer is not always satisfying, fringe movements in politics, literature, and philosophy sometimes serve us startling and unsuspecting mental food to chew on, memorable for its exotic qualities. Such is René Guénon's The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times, a critique of the modern world that is almost without parallel in its attack upon current ideologies. Guénon is not merely a malcontent grinding a personal ax; he seems to be coming from a traditionalist standpoint well steeped in Taoist, Sufi, Hindu and Greek thought. Although he was writing more for a modernist then a post-modernist audience, much of his critique still stands. Who is he?
Rene Guénon was born in France in 1886; an interest in esoteric matters lead him to l'ordre Martiniste in 1907, and later he became a bishop in l'Eglise Gnostique. In 1912 he was initiated into the Shadhilis, a Sufi order. Guénon studied religious traditions, seeking to identify the interior and exterior components that composed a true religious civilization. He believed that a tradition has three levels: the esoteric, the exoteric, and the path that leads from the first to the second. "Guénon was the first Westerner of the twentieth century to formulate this idea clearly," wrote Andrew Rawlinson. Guénon moved to Egypt in 1930, married, had four children, and eventually died there in 1951, by then an Egyptian citizen, known as Sheikh 'Ard al-Wahid Yahya. He wrote numerous books and articles about traditional movements, and was considered an expert on various eastern beliefs. Rawlinson believes his Sufism was a way to understand Tradition better; having no other biographical sketch available me, I cannot offer any other explanation of why he made the decisions he did.
The Reign of Quantity & the Sign of the Times has been called, by the philosopher Jacob Needleman, a metaphysical attack on the downward drift of Western civilization. This is as good a description as any since Guénon takes up one modern idea or conception after another and finds them all impoverished and wanting. The book begins with definitions of quality and quantity. Quality is understood in a mathematical sense harkening back to Pythagorean notions of essence, an active principle, and substance; quantity is a feature of the material world. It is worth recalling that the Austrian novelist Robert Musil's great work, The Man Without Qualities, finds its hero, Ulrich, deciding to pursue nothing for a year; although an engineer, he knows that the swirling pseudo-realities about him are not real, and he stands apart from them. Both Musil and Guénon use the term "quality" in this mathematical sense, and there is a curious breaking down of all modern ideas in Musil's work. One chapter of The Man Without Qualities is titled Psuedoreality Prevails, and in it Musil writes "But what of 'spirit' standing by itself, a naked noun, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet? One can read the poets, study the philosophers, buy paintings, hold all-night discussions-does all this bestow spirit on us?" This reductionalist approach is similar to Guénon's, except that Guénon offers fleeting glimpses, like a vision seen through rolling clouds of fog, of the original meanings from which modern ones have degenerated. He does not do this often, and it seems that Guénon had ideas he did not write down in full, but only hinted at, and at times his beguiling approach leaves the reader desiring more examples and explanation.
Guénon was not alone in his sense that western civilization was decaying; Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West) and others held similar views. Guénon's more original and influential contribution lay in his belief that there was once an esoteric western tradition. Guénon was widely quoted by the Italian Baron Julian Evola ("il magico barone"), a researcher of western and eastern esoteric traditions who flirted with aspects of fascism during the Mussolini era. Since to mention Evola makes some people squeamish, we must first go through the predictable disclaimer against anti-Semitism. While Ezra Pound, T.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot, among other western luminaries flirted with aspects of fascism (although except for Pound not anti-Semetism), more people have forgiven them than Evola. (It should not be forgotten that the poet Pound, who did radio broadcasts from Italy during World war II, apologized for his anti-Semitism to fellow poet Allen Ginsburg.) Evola's continuing ill-repute stems from his explicit interest in racism. Evola's racism was a very different thing from that of the Nazis and most fascists, however; he was interested in what he called a spiritual racism, not one based on birth. As Dr. H.T. Hansen wrote in his introduction to Evola's Men Among the Ruins, "Evola fought vehemently against a purely physical racism because of its superficiality, and he ranted several times against skull measuring and similar practices." For Evola, biological racism was uncouth, and there was for him no biological Jewish race; at most a spiritual bond might have shaped Jews, drawn from their great written records found in the Talmud, Cabala and the Old Testament.
Evola's notion of a "Jewish soul" evokes Nietzsche's belief that the Jews introduced the slave religion par excellence-- Christianity--into the Roman world, subverting the higher values of the classical aristocrats with the resentments of the lowest orders of a conquered people. Nietzsche thought well of the Jews--indeed he felt they represented a superior stock in Europe who could only increase the intellectual output of the average European if intermarriage were to take place--but the whole story of the fascist and Nazi inversion of Nietzsche's philosophy, including the Superman, is too long to be included here. Evola's strange spiritual racism, where a full blooded German might have a "Jewish soul," or a Jewish person an "Aryan soul" seems to border on parody, but since Evola is sort of a godfather to the European far right, his name can still send some people into a frenzy, like mentioning the good deeds of the Clinton presidency to a room full of American conservatives, who begin frothing like maddened werewolves at the very mention of the former first couple from Arkansas. I could detect no anti-Semitism in Guénon, who praised the Cabala, unless it was the curious footnote which states that Freud and Einstein, of Jewish origin, and forerunners of much of the modern thought which Guénon despises, were detached from their Jewish nomadic tradition. (2)
Evola criticizes modern civilization and the American way of life as generating "a soulless greatness of a purely technological and collective nature, lacking any background of transcendence, inner light and true spirituality" (Evola's Revolt against the Modern World, p 250). Reading Evola or Guénon reminds one of nothing more than Allen Ginsberg's rant against the demonic force Moloch. In "Howl" Ginsberg declares in his best beat apocalyptic style, "Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a Cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!" Clearly, Ginsberg is railing against the soulessness of modern existence, and there was a reason that Evola declared that the beatniks were the ones he admired in America, although he added that one has to understand what it is one is saying no to when responding to more than two thousand years of western civilization. However, even as early as Dostoevsky and Nietzsche some Europeans had begun to react against the American way of life. Nietzsche wrote:
There is something of the American Indians, something of the ferocity peculiar to the Indian blood, in the American lust for gold; and the breathless haste which they work--the distinctive vice of the new world--is already beginning to infect old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirituality like a blanket.Guénon rejected the whole idea of progress and specifically states that modern civilization is falling. This, as he would be the first to admit, is not a new idea but an old idea, and he often cites the Indian Vedas and other ancient sources. Indeed, most ancient civilizations saw the world in cyclical terms. Even Aristotle, one of the fathers of rational thought, saw history as a reiteration of a cyclical theme.
Guénon sees the Middle Ages as the last "traditional" civilization in the west. The causes for the passing of this epoch were numerous, but Guénon lays some of the responsibility at the feet of the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, scorning his famous statement, "I think, therefore I am." Instead of liberating man, Descartes' philosophy has lessened him; gone is the great Chain of Being of the Middle Ages, or any idea of anything above man in a spiritual sense. Man becomes narrowed, and the sacred sciences lose their moorings. Guénon hints at many things, including the sacred role of money, mathematics, and geometry to earlier civilizations, before describing what happens when these concepts lose their sacred value: the reign of quantity over quality begins. Indeed, the Middle Ages had a different conception of the cosmos, but this has been tossed aside. Guénon believes it is impossible to reenter the medieval mind, because modern scholars only read the current age into the past.
Guénon, however, states that the notion of progress and the modern world, which began after the Middle Ages, leads from quality to quantity. The distinction can be made clearer through the example of the craftsman and the modern factory worker. The craftsman possessed secrets of initiation and was valued by himself and society for his role in creating. Contrast the modern factory worker: "Servant of the machine, the man must become a machine himself, and thenceforth his work has nothing really human in it, for it no longer implies the putting to work of any of the qualities that really constitute human nature" (p60). While the astute reader can certainly see parallels to Karl Marx's concept of the factory worker's "alienation" from his labor, Guénon is saying that this alienation is the result of the reign of quantity over quality, of the debasement of human gifts in service to a mechanical, materialistic civilization. This decline began at the advent of the Kali Yuga, the declining spiritual age we find ourselves in. The great philosophical breakthroughs of the 5th century B.C.--the advent of philosophy in the Greek city states and the beginnings of Buddhism in India and Confucian thought in China-- Guénon interprets as a sign of emerging quantity, a falling off from higher sources. Here at least Evola breaks with him, declaring that the Buddha rebelled against a caste system, especially the Brahman-class, which was growing increasingly corrupt (Julius Evola The Doctrine of Awakening). The decadence of Buddhism came, according to Evola, with the success of the Buddha's message, and as soon as it was adopted by the masses other elements entered into it. On the whole, however, the two are in wide agreement about the declining spiritual age the world finds itself in.
Modernist and traditionalist camps have generally been opposed to each other, and for the most part the existential and modern thinkers considered the traditionalists backward and anti-modern. Yet there have always been connections. Many modernists have been interested in the oldest fragments of religious writing, and desired to know if they bore a universal truth. Carl Jung searched for a way back to faith through his psychological studies of alchemy and symbols, but his attempt to create a spiritual science was derided by the Freudians he had broken with, and only gained ground (in psychological circles) slowly from the late 1950's on. Modern theological philosophy is beginning to grope back to traditionalism in the post-existential age, an dissatisfaction with the substitution of scientific, psychological and economic theories for spiritual certainty has been spreading.
Some on the fringes of the spiritual movement created their own traditions, such as theosophy, that had little grounding in a living tradition passed on from generation to generation. Guénon rejected this approach. Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufi studies fascinated him in part because there was a transmission from teacher to student through the long centuries. The traditionalists attacked the moderns as being materialists, reducing all human and divine knowledge to a quantity lacking in deeper meaning and insight. Not all traditionalists were studying the religious question, if one broadens the term, it is easy to place such figures as T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien into an anti-modernist camp. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset is harder to place, he certainly criticizes the slow downward drift of the modern age in The Revolt of the Masses, but prefers, like Nietzsche, to observe these things stoically, without the support of religion (which can become, as these two philosophers well knew, vulgarized).
There are areas where traditionalist thought could open up real possibilities as counter-parts to our current civilization. Traditional cultures, where oral knowledge was passed on from generation to generation, recently dominated most of the world. The African, Native American, and Pacific Islander cultures, to name a few, take on a new light when the current age is measured by the relentless critique of Guénon. Yet how far he himself was interested in what these traditions had to offer depended on the tradition; he felt that the Siberian shaman culture had possessed true "revealed" knowledge but had degenerated down the scale from its original form. While Guénon does not explicitly state it until he mentions the lack of higher spiritual influences in the modern world, he does believe that the revealed knowledge he seeks was given to humanity by a higher spiritual source.
Usually in a review like this, the reviewer ends with some sort of awkward defense of the modern, or rather post-modern age, against the despoiling vision of the traditionalist decrying the modern age like an Old Testament Prophet taking on the corruption and decadence of Old Testament Israel. Since this is too cheap a tactic to take, I prefer to let Guénon have the last word. He deserves better then some half baked defense of the current culture, which might read something like the following: "What Guénon refuses to see is that Postmodernism has reintroduced many issues of spiritualism by incorporating elements of past ages and other cultures"--the truth is that Guénon did, in the final chapters of the book, foresee something very like post-modernism, which he called "inverted spirituality." Guénon's book covers many topics but its central concern is spiritual issues. His real interests become apparent in the closing chapters, when he relates the Kali Yuga, or declining mythical age in Hinduism, with the advent of the Anti-Christ in western tradition, as the final summation of the Reign of Quantity. Materialism replaces traditional spiritualism, and is in return replaced by a counter-tradition, as the age steadily darkens. Yet Guénon believes this is all preordained, and that a "Golden Age" will follow. Thinkers since Spengler have sensed a growing urgency with our current age, and the wine in this old skin of Guénon's can still give the attack new force.
(1) Andrew Rawlinson, The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, p. 279. Much of the information in this paragraph comes from this source. There exists The Simple Life of Rene Guenon by Paul Chacornac, but I have not read it.
(2) Of course, in medieval Spain, the Jews held an interesting place in society between the warring Christians and Moslem kingdoms. The irony of medieval Spain, when compared to the relations between Islam and Judaism today, is that Jews lived better off under tolerant Islamic rulers in many cases then Christian ones-with the Reconquista of the Spanish peninsula the Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism, although some left for other locations, such as Holland. The great philosopher Spinoza was from one such family. It should be noted that the Jewish philosopher Moshe ben Maimon or Maimonides (1135-1204) synthesized Aristotle with the torah.
(3) The other unforgivable-to taste, anyway- approach would be to
defend the superiority of our culture by declaring that it has declared
victory over certain diseases, such as polio, and to use this as a defense
against the traditionalist thought of Guénon -again, it is too cheap
a tactic to take, and reminds one of nothing more than homo suburban, drinking
a beer and thinking all is right with the world because he can now mulch
his lawn while mowing it-people of this sort no doubt find Francis Fukuyama's
The End of History and the Last Man "profound" if they read any philosophy
at all beyond Atlas Shrugged or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I guess that
the only alarm was a bell that went off when Guénon began discussing
(4) Again, attacking Guénon would be like meeting an eminent lama or monk who spent years in contemplative solitude at Mount Athos in Greece, and point at him like a leper crashing a Hollywood party and yell accusingly, a la Thomas Dolby, "Science!" It would be in poor taste, and reveal more about the fears and ignorance of the accuser deeper than about the accused. Is Science then just another belief system? Guénon might claim so, and he is not alone, although Guénon claims it is a sad remnant of the sacred sciences of the ancient world, and popularizing the materialist outlook of sciences has done more harm then good. For while scientists themselves make new discoveries and move on, their outdated notions are still believed by the masses. Interesting, recently, are the talks between the Dali Lama and other Buddhists with various scientists, exploring common ground, as well as the Vatican's endorsement of the Big Bang theory.
August 2, 2002
The self shines in space through knowing.
The knowledge I have sought cannot be found in books.