18 mars 2005

Martin Lings, Translator’s Preface of East and West, by René Guénon

(Second edition 1955 Sophia Perennis, Perennial Wisdom Series ISBN 0-900588-15-2)

As the author says in the post–script specially written for this translation, the state of the world is now far worse even than it was when the book was first published; and perhaps the most alarming feature of the recent changes is that the East now shows signs of succumbing, at least outwardly, to the anti-traditional influences which had already overwhelmed the West. For the Westerner these changes make practically no difference as far as this book is concerned, since however much the East may have lost during the past fifteen years, she still remains traditional when compared with the West. Moreover, owing to a still further spread of those influences which had already undermined the very little that was left of tradition in the West, it seems even clearer than before that the eastern traditions are now the only paths leading to that kind of knowledge which could restore order to the world. However, it is to be hoped that this book will not be read solely by Westerner, especially now that it has been translated into a language which is more widely known even than French; and for the sake of those Orientals who may also read it, we will add, with the author’s approval, a few remarks about the East of today.

It is true that the eastern lower classes have for the most part escaped from the modern western outlook. Whether they be Chinese, Hindus or Moslems, their way of life is still based on their particular tradition, and they carry out more or less faithfully what it demands of them. But although in number these classes are the vast majority, their fidelity counts for very little except so far as concerns themselves. Like all lower classes they are incapable of initiative and of exerting any active influence in their respective communities. Also, being without any intellectual understanding, which is the one sure defense against anti-traditional teaching, they have little power of resistance, and unless something happens to check what is commonly known as “progress,” it seems to be only a question of time before they too succumb to the western out look, which will no doubt be imposed on them by means of compulsory education.

It was only in the upper classes that resistance might have been hoped for; but whatever resistance was made there at first, it now seems to have been very nearly broken. Judging by out ward appearances, one might say that by a sudden headlong collapse the East has reached that state of mental chaos, which was only reached in Europe after the degeneration of several centuries. Western influence shows it self in various ways: a large part of the ruling classes in the East appear to accept wholeheartedly the anti-traditional outlook and to be obsessed with the idea of making themselves as western as possible. For such people traditional belief is merely a sign of ignorance; and having rejected such belief, while still retaining the instinct for strong attachments, which they have no doubt inherited from generations of ancestors who followed faithfully the ways of their tradition, they attach themselves to modern ideas and habits with a fervor which often exceeds that of the Westerners themselves. Others, who are almost equally dazzled by what is called “civilization” , but who shrink instinctively from giving up all that their fathers prized so highly, try to make a compromise between the two. Some of them show their complete misunderstanding of tradition in their attempts to modernize it, and it is largely through such attempts that there have sprung up recently many deviated sects which really do more harm to the tradition them what is done by plain unbelief. Such people are also perhaps more liable than any others to become a prey to western falsifications of eastern doctrines. Very often they know so little of the teaching of their own tradition that they are even imposed on by a mere array of oriental words that have been borrowed as a cloak for modern western ideas, and in this way they are sometimes led into accepting some modern pseudo-tradition of western origin, such as Theosophyism or Anthroposophy, which they believe to be more or less an equivalent of what they have forsaken, their preference being based on the supposition that such inventions are more suited to the times. Some on the other hand, while remaining orthodox, proclaim loudly, with an astonishing facility for ignoring facts which would confuse them, that there is really perfect agreement between the modern outlook and that of their particular tradition. It is always some particular tradition that is mentioned, and not tradition in general, since such people are for the most part incapable of admitting any but their own, and their attachment to it has many things in common with nationalism. Such attempts to reconcile orthodox teaching with modern theories have now for many years been part of the policy of the various Christian churches; and in the East perhaps the most striking example of similar attempts are to be found in the religious propaganda of certain very exoteric Muslim organizations, though indeed the tendency is rife almost everywhere. Of course the arguments put forward only aim at justifying the tradition, by trying to show that modern theories do not contradict its dogma, since modern theories, which are held to be based on undeniable facts, are not considered to need any justification; and such apologists are perhaps even more confused and short-sighted in outlook than are the avowed modernists themselves.

It may be objected, however, that here are many people among the eastern upper classes, far more than might be supposed, who really do not accept modern theories. The force of the tradition makes them instinctively distrust what lies outside it. But it is very seldom that they see clearly the fallacies that these theories are based on; and though they readily agree with the traditional point of view when they hear it expressed, they usually seem to be resigned to the spread of modernism. Also, such people are as a rule to be found only among the older generations; and many of them make not the least attempt to save their children from becoming westernized. Their attitude is for the most part one of helpless passivity. Moreover, even of some of the upper classes take an occasional active interest in what is traditional, they nearly always confine themselves to things of secondary importance, such as, for example, arts and crafts; but, as the author points out, the one thing primary importance is true intellectuality and if this could be restored to a community in the persons of at least a few of its members, there would be a spontaneous revival of tradition in all the different activities of that community, whereas failing the presence of an intellectual elect the tradition as a whole is bound to die sooner or later, and it is useless to try to keep it alive on one or two of its minor aspects. In fact, the very attempt to do so implies misunderstanding of tradition, and such efforts are usually the direct result of a western education.

We have tried so far to give the reader a general impression of eastern reactions to western influences, and though we do not pretend to have done so exhaustively, we have reasons to fear that our account of eastern degeneration is not exaggerated. It will be seen that almost as little resistance is to be hoped for from those of the upper classes who still follow their tradition without understanding why they do so, as from those who have accepted altogether the anti-traditional outlook; and as far as concerns the “elect” that the author writes of in this book, it might be argued that there is even less to be hoped for from one who remains traditional half-heartedly than from one who has become anti-traditional. Some of the modernized have shown more courage ,energy and resolution, and up to a certain point more powers of reasoning , than many of the others; and if they could be shown the fallacies of modern teaching, one or two of them might be able to use these good qualities for traditional ends, and the change would be easier for them in many ways than for Westerner, since the very speed with which the anti-traditional outlook has sprung up in the East means that it is far less deeply –rooted there than in the West. However, if all hopes of the East were to be based on such vague possibility, this book could never have been written; and even from among the easily accessible of the Orientals, who are all that we have been considering so far, there is one very important class of people whom we have not mentioned and who serve as a defense of tradition by reason of their very functions, though it is unfortunately true that as individuals many of them today, in their attitude towards anti-traditional influence, might well be grouped with some of those whom we have already spoken of. This class of people corresponds in a sense to the representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Europe; but as the author has shown, the eastern traditions unlike Christianity, remain still complete, which means that their out look, in its fullest sense, goes far beyond the domain of religion. Consequently there are in the East traditional functions of a far wider import than the very highest of those still exercised in the West; and the maintenance of these functions naturally makes the full doctrines of the East much more accessible than they would be otherwise. However, it must be admitted that even among those authorized representatives there seems to have been a very marked degeneration in the last few years. The important distinction is made in this between direct intellectual knowledge and the means of attaining to it. This indirect knowledge, which may be acquired by study of the traditional doctrines, cannot be dispensed with as preparation for direct knowledge; but only those who have direct knowledge may be considered as intellectual authorities in the full sense of the term, and in a normally flourishing civilization the highest functions would be exercised by such authorities, whereas today it appears from all accounts to be extremely seldom that this is the case, even in the East. In fact, it seems that the real authorities still accessible to men are very few indeed, and this is perhaps the most significant of all the signs of the times. It was said by the great Hindu sage Ramakrishna that anyone who sincerely desire the truth was bound to find sooner or later a master who would guide him; and though the inverse of this is not true, since many people have found great masters and proved unworthy of them, it is no doubt true in a general sense that if men cease to desire enlightenment, intellectual authorities will cease to be accessible. However, this does not mean that they can cease to exist, and, as the author says in his post script, “it is enough that the traditional outlook, with all that it implies, should be wholly preserved in some eastern retreats which are inaccessible to the outward agitations of our age”. Such retreats would inevitably be eastern today, even if they happened to be situated in the West since the tradition in question would be one of the eastern ones rather than the no longer complete western one; but these particulars would matter little to anyone who sincerely desired the truth, since such an individual would necessarily be above sentimental attachment to the forms of anyone tradition. If there be any such, the may well take heart at the above mentioned saying of Ramakrishna; but at the same time they should not misunderstand his saying or take it too easily, for it is clear that the truth which he spoke of is truth in its very highest sense, and that the mere desire for it implies great intellectual qualifications. The truth is equivalent to the highest knowledge, and the nature of such knowledge is one of the main subjects of this book.”

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