Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
Oxford University Press, 2004.
A biography of Rene´ Gue´non and a history of the Traditionalist movement that he founded.
About the method: “A survey of a movement as large as Traditionalism presents certain organizational difficulties for a historian, especially once Traditionalism has split into several branches and then into subbranches, all of which proceed more or less independently of each other. The need to follow developments in several different domains makes strict chronological order impossible. My principle, therefore, has often been to adopt a partly thematic approach, following developments to their conclusions even when doing so means then going backward in time to pick up earlier developments of a different variety. This approach sometimes results in chronological jolts, but I hope that the reader will hold on.” (pages VII-VIII of the preface)
The seven most important traditionalists listed by date of birth
Coomaraswamy, Dr, Ananda Kentish (1877–1947). British, then American. Art historian.
Guénon, René (1886–1951). French, then Egyptian. Developed Traditionalism.
Evola, Baron Julius (1896/8–1974). Italian. Developed political Traditionalism.
Eliade, Dr. Mircea (1907–86). Romanian, then American. Scholar of religions.
Schuon, Frithjof (1907–98). German, later French, and then Swiss, finally resident in America. Developed Sufi Traditionalism and established the Alawiyya (later the Maryamiyya) Sufi order.
Nasr, Dr. Seyyed Hossein (1933– ). Iranian, then American. Introduced Islamic Traditionalism to Iran and other parts of the Islamic world.
Dugin, Alexander (1962– ). Russian. Developed Neo-Eurasianism.
Other important characters (by date of birth)
Ficino, Marsilio (1433–99). Italian priest and neo-Platonist.
Burrow, Reuben (fl. 1799). Amateur British historian of religions.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803–82). American Transcendentalist.
Blavatsky, Helena (1831–91). Russian Theosophist.
Wirth, Oswald (1860–1943). Masonic reformer and associate of Guénon.
Pouvourville, Albert de (1861–1940). Taoist imperialist and Guénon’s second
Encausse, Gérard (1865–1916). Founder of the Martinist Order and Guénon’s first major mentor.
Aguéli, Ivan (1869–1917). Swedish Sufi and painter.
Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis (1871–1948). Catholic antiquarian, friend and patron of Guénon, and first master of the Fraternity of the Cavaliers of the Divine Paraclete.
Sebottendorf, Rudolf von (1875–1945). German occultist and Mason who established the political party Adolf Hitler transformed into the Nazi Party.
Eberhardt, Isabelle (1877–1904). Franco-Russian Sufi and writer.
Maritain, Jacques (1882–1973). Catholic philosopher, once a patron of Guénon.
Chacornac, Paul (1884–1964). Guénon’s publisher.
Thomas, Georges-Auguste (1884–1966). Second master of the Fraternity of the Cavaliers of the Divine Paraclete.
Séligny, Paul de (1903–?). Mauritian, resident in France. Cult leader and guru.
Reyor, Jean (1905–88). Guénon’s devoted early disciple, editor of Etudes
traditionnelles until 1961.
Vâlsan, Michel (1907–74); Romanian, later resident in France. First Schuon’s muqaddam in Paris and then shaykh of an independent Alawiyya Sufi order. Editor of Etudes traditionnelles from 1961 until his death.
Burckhardt, Titus (1908–84). Swiss. Schuon’s closest and earliest associate,
and his muqaddam in Basel.
Lings, Martin (1909– ) English. First Guénon’s associate in Cairo, then Schuon’s muqaddam in London.
Pauwels, Louis (1920–97). French writer and publisher specializing in the occult.
Hartung, Henri (1921–88). French, later resident in Switzerland. Briefly a follower of Schuon, later progressive public intellectual.
Pallavicini, Felice (1926– ), Italian. Italian shaykh of a Traditionalist Sufi order in Milan, derived from the Idrisi Ahmadiyya.
Freda, Franco. Italian political traditionalist.
Jamal, Gaydar (1947– ). Russian Islamist.
Traditionalism set itself against the modern world, but it was born with modernity, in the Renaissance.
About the book: “As a historian, I am of course convinced that a carefully told story is in itself a path to understanding, and that conviction underlies the book that follows this prologue. In addition, a more theoretically based analysis will be found in chapter 14. The questions discussed there include the relationship between Traditionalism and Orientalism, historical streams and counterstreams, globalization, cultural displacement, and the tactic of entrisme. These are all questions that writing this book has helped me to understand better, but in the end that was not really the point. This book is dedicated not to abstract questions, but to the people whose hopes and aspirations, energies and—sometimes— errors make up the history of Traditionalism.”
Part I. The Development of Traditionalism
According to the Traditionalists, the modern West is in crisis as a result of this loss of transmission of tradition.
The Traditionalist movement has no formal structure, and since the late 1940s has had no central command. It is made up of a number of groups and individuals, united by their common debt to the work of René Guénon. Though the movement is sometimes called “Guénonian traditionalism,” most of those involved in it reject that title and prefer
to call themselves “traditionalists,” often with a small t.
The history of Traditionalism falls into three stages. During the first stage, up to the 1930s, Guénon developed the Traditionalist philosophy, wrote various articles and books, and gathered a small group of followers. During the second stage, attempts were made to put the Traditionalist philosophy into practice, principally in two very different contexts: Sufi Islam, as an example of Oriental metaphysics, and European fascism, as a form of revolt. During the third stage, after the 1960s, Traditionalist ideas began to merge unremarked into the general culture of the West and to pass from the West to the Islamic world and to Russia.
The essentials of the Traditionalist philosophy, however, can be found in four books published between 1921 and 1924: L’introduction générale à l’ étude des doctrines hindoues, Le Théosophisme, histoire d’une pseudo-religion, L’erreur spirite, Orient et Occident.
The term philosophia perennis (Perennial Philosophy) was coined in 1540 by a Catholic scholar to describe one of the central insights of Marsilio Ficino, an important figure in the origins of Traditionalism. For Ficino, God lay behind both Christ and Plato, and the Perennial Philosophy preceded (and so united) both. All religions shared a common origin in a single perennial (or primeval or primordial) religion that had subsequently taken a variety of forms, including the Zoroastrian, Pharaonic, Platonic, and Christian.
In Traditionalist use, “counterinitiation” is the opposite not of initiation as such but of initiation into a valid, orthodox tradition such as that represented by Vedanta. “Counterinitiation” is initiation into pseudo-traditions such as Theosophy, which are in fact the inversion of true tradition. Instead of leading to the Perennial Philosophy, counterinitiation leads away from it.
Counterinitiation is the inversion of initiation, but inversion is not restricted to questions of initiation. In its fully developed Guénonian form, inversion is seen as an all-pervasive characteristic of modernity. While all that really matters is in fact in decline, people foolishly suppose that they see progress.
La crise du monde moderne is Guénon’s masterpiece. It is one of the most frequently translated of his works, and has remained in print and generally available since publication, being today a standard part of the publisher Gallimard’s popular and prestigious Folio series (the French equivalent of Penguin Modern Classics). It is probably the best starting place for any reader interested in investigating the original texts of Traditionalism.
Guénon and the Catholics
Although the Traditionalist philosophy is not Catholic, it was Catholic sponsorship— in the form of Maritain’s recommendation of the Introduction générale and Peillaube’s commissioning of articles by Guénon for the Revue de Philosophie— that helped Traditionalism to emerge into the public sphere from its origins, which, as we shall see, lie in the occultist milieu of the Belle Epoque.
Traditionalists in the 1920s
Traditionalism in the 1920s was not yet a religious movement—there was no common practice or even belief—but rather was a philosophical movement, though a philosophy with a difference: the conviction that “if everyone understood what the modern world really is, it would immediately cease to exist.” At that time “integral participation in a particular traditional form did not seem imperative.”46 This view was to change after 1930.
Traditionalists in Paris
The journal Le Voile d’Isis/Etudes traditionnelles, published by Chacornac. It was the centerpiece of a Traditionalist research project: the study of a wide variety of initiatic traditions, in the pre-Renaissance West as well as the East, along lines indicated by Guénon’s own work. The regular contributors to Le Voile d’Isis included Reyor, two followers of Guénon from his occultist period (Patrice Thomas and George-Auguste Genty), some friends of Chacornac, and some people who had gotten in touch with Gue´non after reading and liking his work. Typical of these was a Dr. Probst-Biraben, a schoolteacher from Constantine in Algeria who often visited Paris, who was a Freemason and a Sufi. The most important contributor, after Gue´non himself, was Ananda Coomaraswamy.
Curator of the Department of Indian Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Coomaraswamy’s considerable reputation as a scholar was based on works such as his five-volume Catalogue of the Indian Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts (1923-30) and his History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927) and was founded on his almost encyclopedic knowledge of Indian art and his then radical approach to the subject, which was to understand works of art by placing them in their context—which meant in practice their religious context.
The novelist François Bonjean: “I still can see Gue´non, tall, thin, dripping with good faith, facing his opponents. The sight of this Occidental mounting an impassioned defense of the legacy of the Orient against playful Orientals, held both something of the piquant and of grandeur. With inexhaustible patience, he attempted to convince his audience of the existence in various parts of the Orient of centers capable of leading disciples along the difficult and sometimes dangerous paths of “purification.”
The Cubist Albert Gleizes.
The Surrealists André Breton and René Daumal.
The sociologist Louis Dumont.
The novelist Henri Bosco.
The life of René Guénon falls into three phases: the “occultist” phase, the “Catholic” phase and the “Islamic” phase.
René Jean-Marie Joseph Guénon was the only child of a Catholic couple living comfortably in Blois. His father, a loss assessor for a local insurance company, was 56 at the time of the birth of his first and only child; René’s mother was then 37. She was his father’s second wife (the first had died childless). Rene´’s childhood was unremarkable. Despite somewhat delicate health, he did well at school, where he specialized in mathematics. In 1904, when he was 18, his ambitious parents sent him to the Collège Rollin in Paris to pursue further studies in mathematics with a view to entering the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique.
The occultist group that Gue´non joined in 1906, and from which he derived his “Vedanta-Perennialism,” was the Martinist Order, established by Gérard Encausse (Papus).
Perennialism and the Theosophical Society
The Theosophical Society is generally known today as a “new religious movement” (what the general public calls a “sect”), but it was established in New York in 1875 for entirely serious purposes, with bylaws modeled on those of the American Geographical and Statistical Society. It was founded by a respectable lawyer and journalist then in his mid-forties, Colonel Henry Olcott. Olcott wanted the Theosophical Society to carry out research in comparative religion and also to find “ancient wisdom,” especially in the “primeval source of all religion, the books of Hermes and the Vedas”—in other words, the Perennial Philosophy.
Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin: “All the traditions of the earth must be seen as deriving from a fundamental mother-tradition that, from the beginning, was entrusted to sinful man and to his first offspring.”
Count Joseph de Maistre: “The true religion . . . was born on the day that [all] days were born . . . , The vague conceptions [of the ancients] were no more than the more or less feeble remains of the primitive tradition.”
Olcott might today be as respectable as Huxley had it not been for the activities of a new friend of his, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (born Baroness von Hahn), a Russian adventurer with a dubious past, and an important figure in the origins of Traditionalism. The daughter of a Russian army officer and a proto-feminist novelist (her German surname reflected her father’s Baltic origin), Blavatsky when young had married and then left a Russian administrator named Nikifor Blavatsky, the vice-governor of Yerevan, Russian Armenia. She arrived in New York in 1873 after various adventures, most recently the collapse—among charges of fraud—of the Spiritist Society she had run in Egypt, where she briefly settled after travels in Europe and the Near East.
The expansion of the Theosophical Society in the West, on the other hand, was due chiefly to two factors: the environment of the times, and the high quality (in their final form) of Blavatsky’s writings.
The spread of Theosophy owed much to the extraordinary success of two books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888).24 Authorship of both books was attributed to ethereal sources, but both were in fact drafted by Blavatsky and then turned into publishable form by human “ghost” writers—by Olcott in the case of Isis Unveiled, and in the case of The Secret Doctrine by two English brothers who took over after Blavatsky’s original choice of editor had refused the task in dismay on reading her disorganized first draft. Isis Unveiled was extensively plagiarized from a variety of standard works on occultism and Hermeticism (134 pages from Samuel Dunlap’s So—d, the Son of Man, 107 pages from Joseph Ennemoser’s History of Magic, and so on), while
The Secret Doctrine drew heavily on John Dowson’s Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Horace Wilson’s annotated translation of the Vishnu Purana, and other such works.
The Martinist Order
Immediately on joining the Theosophical lodge Isis in Paris, Guénon’s first master Encausse began to write in a French Theosophical journal—Le Lotus, revue des Hautes Etudes Théosophiques—not so much on Theosophy as on his other main interest, initiation, which is the third major element in the Traditionalist philosophy. According to Encausse, while Theosophy was transmitting initiations from India, where “the ancient truth still survives,” contemporary Freemasonry had allowed political and material interests to drive out spiritual ones, even though its rituals derived from ancient initiations. This, in slightly modified form, became the Traditionalist conception of initiation.
In the 1880s some French lodges were primarily political and often violently atheistic; some were devoted to philanthropy and good fellowship; and some were devoted to spiritual development. Encausse was addressing all these groups, but he appealed principally to those interested in spiritual development.
The Order of the Temple
In 1906 Guénon entered Encausse’s Free School of Hermetic Sciences (as the Independent Group for Esoteric Studies had been renamed) and joined the neo-Masonic Martinist Order and an irregular Masonic lodge called Humanidad (Humanity), located in France but licensed by a Spanish rather than a French Obedience. By this time all these organizations had become generalized occultist bodies. The Free School of Hermetic Sciences was divided into a number of sections and groups, ranging from a Section for Initiatic Studies (closest to Encausse’s heart) to a Group for the Paranormal and a Group for Action in the Centers of Feminine Intellectuality. The paranormal section was given to tricks like those practiced by Blavatsky—the “materialization” of letters, hair, and the like. In Paris the Martinist Order had four lodges: Sphinx (for general studies), Hermanubis (for the Oriental tradition), Velléda (for Masonry and symbolism), and Sphynge (artistic). Lodges abroad were left very much to their own devices, some established by people who had never even met Encausse but had merely corresponded with him.
About Guénon’s Hindu masters: “A mystery that has occupied Guénon’s various Traditionalist biographers is the source of his knowledge of Hinduism. Given Traditionalism’s later emphasis on “authentic” transmission from master to disciple, Traditionalists have searched for Guénon’s Hindu masters and failed to find anything very substantial. There is a general supposition that he must have been “initiated” by “some Hindus” in Paris. It seems likely, though it cannot be definitively established, that there were no such masters, and that Guénon’s understanding of Hinduism derived exclusively from his reading of texts and studies then available in Paris. Nowhere did Guénon claim that this was not the case, and he never visited India. Though such a conclusion may seem unacceptable to later Traditionalists, there is no particular reason why the Guénon of the time should not have considered himself entitled to write about Hinduism without firsthand experience of it. In so doing, he would only have been following the example of many eminent early Orientalists, who also worked almost exclusively from texts. Guénon did, however, occasionally rely on texts generally considered by scholars to be spurious.” (page 63)
Traditionalism has its earliest direct origins in Martinism and Theosophy, but it was to develop very differently. Whereas Martinism and Theosophy were both highly successful mass organizations whose popularity derived partly from their all-inclusiveness, Traditionalism was never all-inclusive and never aspired to a mass following, though it was to attempt to influence the masses. Another important difference between Traditionalism and its nineteenthcentury origins was its total lack of their evolutionary optimism.
Despite his name, Coomaraswamy was English. His father, Mutu, came from Ceylon’s Tamil Indian community but was a very Anglicized Tamil who often traveled to England. The first Indian to become a British barrister (he was called to the Bar of Lincoln’s Inn in the 1860s), Mutu was knighted in 1874 and was married to an Englishwoman by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1876. Ananda Coomaraswamy was born in Ceylon, but when Ananda was two, Sir Mutu decided to move to England to stand for election to the British Parliament, a plan encouraged by the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Sir Mutu, however, died before reaching England, and Ananda was brought up in Kent by his mother’s family.
Coomaraswamy’s upbringing and education were, so far as is known, entirely English. The journey from wealthy English geologist to American art historian and Traditionalist was a long one, passing through anti-colonial nationalism.
The Coomaraswamy’s conversion to Ceylonese nationalism.
Coomaraswamy, however, retained something of his earlier views even after he became a Traditionalist, and it is this fact that allowed him to make a distinctive contribution to the Traditionalist philosophy: introducing to Traditionalism an emphasis on the esthetic that derives ultimately from Blake and Morris.
3. Gnostics, Taoists and Sufis
In 1909 René Guénon joined the Universal Gnostic Church, an organization closely related to the occultist milieu. It was here that Gue´non met a central figure in the early development of Traditionalism, Count Albert-Eugène Puyou de Pouvourville, a Taoist.
Guénon’s first journal, La Gnose, was affiliated with the Universal Gnostic Church; it was in La Gnose that the first recognizably Traditionalist writings were published, by Guénon and by another follower of de Pouvourville, the Sufi Ivan Aguéli, an important figure in the history of Western Sufism.
The Universal Gnostic Church split into two, with a Martinist group forming a Catholic Gnostic Church and Fabre des Essarts taking over the original Universal Gnostic Church as Patriarch Synésius and moving away from Encausse. It was Fabre des Essarts who in 1909 consecrated René Guénon as Palingenius, bishop of Alexandria, and also consecrated Guénon’s faithful associates from the Order of the Temple, Georges-Auguste Thomas and Patrice Genty. This, then, was Guénon’s third “initiation,” coming after the Martinists and the neo-Templars.
Like all Triads, the T’ien-ti hui was of Chinese origin. It arrived in Vietnam in the eighteenth century and from 1875 was joined by large numbers of Vietnamese (the origin of the Bac Lieu is unknown). Vietnamese Triads at this time were less philosophical and text-based than their Chinese prototypes, serving economic and social purposes as well as religious ones, with a resemblance to Masonry that fascinated the firstWestern scholars to study them. Their rites, including elaborate initiation rites, were drawn from Taoist, Buddhist, and to a lesser extent Confucian sources but were described merely as “Taoist” by Vietnamese and foreigners alike. De Pouvourville thus described his membership in the Triads as a “Taoist initiation.”
Pouvourville (described as “our master and collaborator”) was for Guénon the originator of the idea that “the primordial doctrine” can only be one and that “parasitic vegetation must not be confused with the very Tree of Tradition.”
De Pouvourville was also the source of another important conviction of Guénon, that the West was under threat. De Pouvourville was preoccupied by the need to the defend of the “white races” against the “yellow race,” then seen to be waking from its slumber.
De Pouvourville evidently considered opium to be among the Chinese resources that the West should make use of.
In 1911 Guénon was initiated by de Pouvourville into his Triad, possibly along with other members of this group. Guénon and another Gnostic, Leon Champrenaud, were also initiated by Aguéli into the Shadhiliyya Arabiyya Sufi Order (discussed later), taking the Muslim names Abd al-Wahid and Abd al-Haq. These events were not (as they have sometimes been portrayed) conversions in the normal sense of the word. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Guénon, for example, practiced Islam or followed the precepts of Taoism or Buddhism in 1911, or indeed until his arrival in Egypt in 1930.
Though Aguéli was a Swede, he spent most of his adult life in France and Egypt, having left his native country at the age of 21 for artistic reasons—and perhaps personal reasons as well; he had been dismissed from three different schools in Sala, the small central Swedish town of his birth, and his parents opposed his chosen career as a painter. During the “Belle Epoque,” Paris was almost the only possible destination for a serious artist, and that is where Aguéli went in 1890. He studied and painted in the atelier of Emile Bernard, a talented painter and sculptor who helped launch the careers of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne. Aguéli also involved himself in many of the other interests permeating the Parisian artistic and alternative milieu, notably anarchism, feminism, and Theosophy—to which he was introduced by Bernard in 1891 and which he never fully rejected.
The relationship between Aguéli and Marie Huot.
About the place of Sufism in Islam: “During the twentieth century the view of Sufism as something separate from Islam became widespread in the West, but it is essential to appreciate that this view is a purely Western one and that the variety of non-Islamic neo-Sufism that has come into being in Europe and America is a purely Western phenomenon. In Algeria and elsewhere in the Islamic world, Islam and Sufism were and are inseparable. Sufis are by definition Muslim, and the religious practices of a Sufi are based on the careful observance of the Sharia.” (page 65)
Von Sebottendorf, like Eberhardt and Aguéli (to judge from his paintings), had a definite romantic attachment to his country of adoption, though of a somewhat different variety. Eberhardt’s stories reveal a love of the desert and its inhabitants; von Sebottendorf portrays Ottoman Muslim civilization as one that did rather better than Germany itself in and after the First World War. For both, a rejection of Western bourgeois civilization, or at least of their own understanding of that civilization, was one motive for their embrace of an Eastern alternative. This romantic motivation is absent from Guénon. In letters home from Sétif in Algeria (where he was teaching philosophy at the lycée) in 1917, Guénon complained of the Algerian climate, of having to work too hard at the lyce´e, of ungifted pupils, and, above all, of “the absence of any intellectual milieu.” Eberhardt would not have approved. Guénon was later a Western Sufi integrated into the Arab and Islamic world, but in 1917 his reaction to Algeria was most unenthusiastic.
Aguéli appears as the most serious and most orthodox of these three Western Sufis, but even so his conversion to Islam, like Eberhardt’s and von Sebottendorf’s, was a special kind of conversion, not found before the nineteenth century. Other Westerners had from time to time become Muslim since the rise of Islam, and various Ottoman pashas were of Western European origin. These converts abandoned their Christian and European identities and names for Muslim identities, merging themselves into the Muslim populations of the areas they inhabited, as do some converts to Islam to this day. Though romantically attached to their adopted countries (Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey) and committed to nationalist or anti-colonial politics, Aguéli and the other Western Sufis remained Westerners, retaining their original connections and much of their original identities. The same was true of Blavatsky and Olcott, both of whom also “converted”—Blavatsky to Hinduism and Olcott to Buddhism, or at least to their own versions of these religions.
The First World War
In 1912 Guénon received his sixth and final initiation, into the regular Masonic lodge Thébah. He was introduced to this lodge by Oswald Wirth, a central figure in the history of Masonic Traditionalism. Guénon’s introduction to regular Masonry was the last significant event of the first phase of his adult life, the occultist phase.
In 1912 Guénon married Berthe Loury, an assistant schoolteacher who at 29 was three years older than he was, and whom he had met through his aunt during a visit to his native Blois the previous year. It was at this point that Guénon gave up using opium and hashish. As required by French law, the first marriage ceremony was a civil one; the next week, they went through a Catholic marriage ceremony in Blois (Guénon’s new wife was a devout Catholic).
The First World War, then, cleared the stage for the emergence first of the Traditionalist philosophy, and then (in the 1930s) of the Traditionalist movement. The war’s horrors also destroyed much of the general faith in modernity that had underlain the Belle Epoque. The war thus produced circumstances that were conducive to the favorable reception of Traditionalism’s antimodernism.
Part II. Traditionalism in Practice
4. Cairo, Mostaganem and Basel
In the late 1920s, just as Traditionalism was beginning to become an established philosophy, Guénon’s life in Paris was shattered by a number of blows. As a consequence, he moved from Paris to Cairo in 1930, beginning the third and final phase of his adult life. This was also the longest phase, during which Traditionalism first became a movement, made up of loosely allied groups that either followed a distinctive religious practice or engaged in political activity. In 1927 Berthe died on the operating table during an appendectomy, at only 44, and Guénon lost his job at the girls’ school. In 1928 Madame Duru (his aunt) died. The next year after some unpleasantness between Guénon and Françoise’s mother (Berthe’s sister), Françoise—then 16 or 17—was taken away from her uncle.
It was in Paul Chacornac’s bookshop that in 1929 he met Dina Shillito (born Mary Shillito), a wealthy American widow with a strong interest in the occult, and a convert to Islam. Guénon and Shillito seem to have established an immediate rapport
and may even have become lovers. They planned a series of Traditionalist books, to be edited by Guénon and financed by Shillito. After spending two months in Alsace for unknown purposes, they sailed for Egypt in 1930 to spend three months collecting texts for their series. The idea must have been Shillito’s, since Guénon had never previously shown any great interest in foreign travel or in actual contact with the traditional Orient about which he wrote. The choice of destination was also probably Shillito’s; her husband had been Egyptian and she would still have had contacts in Egypt. Guénon’s meeting with Shillito, then, was of the utmost importance for the subsequent history of Traditionalism, which became increasingly dominated by Islam. Without Shillito it is hard to see how this development could have happened.
Guénon the Egyptian
In 1934 Guénon married Fatima Muhammad Ibrahim, a devout Egyptian woman of modest social background. In 1948 Guénon took Egyptian citizenship in order to pass it on to his children (two daughters and two sons).
Four reasons can be identified for Guénon’s decision to stay in Egypt, and they do not include his marriage, which was arranged by his wife’s father and so was a consequence rather than a cause of his decision to remain in Cairo. The first likely reason was that he felt he had nothing to return to in Paris. The second was that he could live more cheaply in Cairo than in Paris. The third was his fear of “unsuspected low powers” in France. The fourth and most important reason was that in Egypt, for the first time, Guénon found Islam and living tradition.
In Cairo Guénon lived as a pious Muslim and a Sufi. All reports indicate that he scrupulously followed not only the requirements of the Sharia, but also the recommendations of the sunna, the voluntary practices of Islam; for example, he knew by heart the prayers recommended for use when bidding farewell to someone about to leave on a journey. There was, however, one departure from the Islamic practice that one would expect of a pious Sufi: Gue´non never made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Technically he was not obliged to make the Hajj because he was still supporting a young family, but the Hajj is not just a question of obligation; it is something that almost any pious Muslim yearns to do, and it is hard to conceive of any pious Muslim turning down the opportunity to make the Hajj if it was offered. In Guénon’s case the opportunity was offered in some form, since his wife, Fatima, made the Hajj in 1946, and Guénon turned down the opportunity to accompany her.
Guénon joined the Hamdiyya Shadhiliyya Sufi order.
About Sufi Shaykhs: “Sufi shaykhs can in general be divided into three categories: “the routine,” “the charismatic,” and “the specialist.” Most shaykhs are routine shaykhs, men such as Illaysh, who have inherited an order from their fathers and who maintain what is really an extension of the day-to-day religious practice of pious Muslims. A few shaykhs, like al-Radi, are charismatic, men who gather large and enthusiastic followings who regard them as saints; they are often the starting point of a new order. A charismatic shaykh is often the past follower of a specialist shaykh, that is, a man who leads a small circle of dedicated followers far along the Sufi path, often finally to the experience of mystic union with God. A specialist shaykh would normally be the choice of a Muslim who was devoting his entire life to religion.” (p. 76)
Guénon remained not only a universalist in his beliefs, but a Traditionalist rather than a Muslim in his writings. There are few references to Islam in his work before 1930, and despite a slight increase in references after 1930, Islam never became an important source for him. Nor was it an important element of his reading: his private library contained some 3,000 volumes at the time of his death, but four times as many on Hinduism as on Islam, and few or perhaps none in Arabic. When Guénon wanted to refer to the works of the great Sufi theorist Ibn al-Arabi, he wrote for references to a follower in Paris who knew Ibn al-Arabi well. In fact, it is likely that Guénon did not read Arabic. He is often described as fluent in Arabic, and he would certainly have been fluent in the Egyptian dialect (the only language his wife spoke), but fluency in an Arabic dialect does not imply any ability to read the classical form of the language in which religious books are written. It takes years of hard work for a Westerner to learn to read classical Arabic with any fluency, and by the time Guénon settled in Cairo, he probably had neither the time nor the inclination for such study. He was in his fifties; he had done his learning, and now he was teaching.
Just as Islam is little visible in his writings, Gue´non seems to have had few contacts with Islamic scholars in Cairo. One exception is Abd al-Halim Mahmud, a Sufi and from 1973 to 1978 shaykh of Al Azhar, the most senior position in the Egyptian Islamic hierarchy.
A more important consequence of Guénon’s direct experience of how pious Muslims lived and worshipped was his growing appreciation of the importance of religious practice, an appreciation that was especially Islamic in the sense that Islam stresses daily practice more than do many other religions. This appreciation was soon reflected in Guénon’s writings. In general the articles Guénon wrote in Cairo are adjustments of the Traditionalist philosophy, and his books from this period are edited compilations of earlier articles from 1910 to 1915. The one really new area on which he wrote was initiation, to which he devoted a whole series of articles from 1932 until 1939, when the Second World War cut off communications between Egypt and Europe. These articles, later collected and published as Aperçus sur l’initiation [Views on Initiation] (1946), stress the need for personal initiation into an orthodox religious tradition.
Dismayed Traditionalists who had thought they were engaged in a primarily intellectual quest joined more enthusiastic newer readers of Guénon’s works in asking much the same question: what initiation should they take? Guénon never recommended any particular initiation in print, though he excluded organizations he saw as devoid of initiatic validity—the Catholic Church, various neo-Hindu groups in the West, and of course anything counterinitiatic. He also pointed out the practical difficulties that anyone not born a Hindu would have in following any form of Hinduism. By implication, that left only two choices: Freemasonry (discussed later) or Guénon’s own personal choice, the Sufi path within Islam. Guénon did not always recommend Islam to his correspondents, however, and not always immediately.
The Fraternity of the Cavaliers of the Divine Paraclet
This group was discovered by Reyor in France after Guénon’s departure for Egypt. The Fraternite´ des Chevaliers du divin Paraclet, said Charbonneau-Lassay, had operated from the sixteenth century. Though it was disbanded in 1668, its initiation had been kept alive within the Estoile e´ternelle and had been passed to Charbonneau-Lassay by Canon Barbot. Charbonneau-Lassay was at first reluctant to revive the Fraternité, but when Reyor pointed out to him that if he did not do this then various Traditionalists would be obliged to convert to Islam, Charbonneau-Lassay consented. In 1938 the Fraternité des Chevaliers du divin Paraclet was formally reconstituted by Charbonneau-Lassay, Reyor, and Georges-Auguste Thomas—the same ex-Martinist who had been a member of Guénon’s early Order of the Temple. A few more Traditionalists joined the Fraternité in 1939.
Maybe this group was a bogus organization invented by Charbonneau-Lassay: “Charbonneau-Lassay’s sudden recollection of the practices of the Fraternité des Chevaliers du divin Paraclet is simply too convenient to be credible, as is the detail in which they were remembered. Some believed that they had been dreamed up by Thomas, but it seems more likely that they were dreamed up by Charbonneau-Lassay. Thomas had no reason for deliberately deceiving his successors in the Fraternité, but Charbonneau-Lassay did: to save souls from damnation. Despite his earlier collaboration with Guénon on Regnabit, Charbonneau-Lassay had once been a lay brother and remained a pious Catholic; he had concluded that although Guénon’s work was interesting and sometimes right, his books could be “dangerous” and often had “deplorable results”: conversion to “a superreligion reserved for an elite of initiates who may pass, without the slightest difficulty, from one form of worship to another according to the regions that they may successively inhabit,” a dismayed paraphrase of Gue´non’s own comments on his “moving in” to Islam. Charbonneau-Lassay would thus have had every reason to dream up almost anything in good conscience, if it would keep Traditionalists within the Catholic Church. In fact, Charbonneau-Lassay might well have dreamed up the Fraternité itself in the first place. The four people he named as its sixteenth-century founders all existed, but there is no evidence to link them except Charbonneau-Lassay’s undocumented account of the Fraternité Charbonneau-Lassay was an antiquarian, and it would not have been very hard for him to come up with four plausible names and other plausible details. Indeed, it seems suspicious that all four sixteenth-century names are names that could be identified in the twentieth century. It might have looked more convincing if at least one of the founders had left no other traces.” (pages 81-82)
Masonry provided initiatic possibilities which continued to interest Guénon until his death.
Traditionalist work on symbolism blew new life into the rituals of many lodges, causing a minor Masonic renaissance. The Traditionalist philosophy later came to be well
known in French Masonic circles, and to a lesser extent among Italian and Spanish Masons. Traditionalism’s contribution to Masonic reform was reflected in the existence at the end of the twentieth century of a number of Masonic lodges with Traditionalist emphases, including a Swiss lodge called “René Guénon.” Traditionalism had much less impact on American and British Masonry, which are somewhat removed from continental Masonry, though by the end of the twentieth century it was far from unknown even there.
Schuon and the Alawis
It was not the Fraternité des Chevaliers du divin Paraclet or a Masonic lodge that was to be the main Traditionalist religious organization, but a Sufi order, the Alawiyya, later known as the Maryamiyya. This, like the Fraternité des Chevaliers du divin Paraclet, was established in the early 1930s in response to Guénon’s new emphasis on initiation and religious practice. Two Swiss in their mid twenties were responsible for its creation: Titus Burckhardt and Frithjof Schuon.
Schuon was 16 when he first read Guénon’s Orient et Occident, which was given to him by Lucy von Dechend, a German childhood friend who knew of his interest in Vedanta, an interest he derived from books in his father’s library. Schuon’s immediate reaction was enthusiastic. In 1931, while doing his military service, he wrote to Guénon. His initial reaction to Guénon’s recommendation of Sufism was the same as Reyor’s had been: extreme reluctance. As he expressed it in a letter to a friend: “How can you think that I want to reach God ‘via Mecca,’ and thus betray Christ and the Vedanta?” After some agonizing, one day in Paris in 1932 Schuon prayed to God to grant him a sign. Shortly afterwards, he went out into the street and saw the unusual spectacle of a detachment of North African cavalry trotting past. Taking this as the sign he had prayed for, Schuon became Muslim and wrote to Guénon asking him to recommend a shaykh.
The meeting with Shaykh Al-Alawi, in Mostaghanem.
Burckhardt, in contrast to Schuon, seems to have become more Islamic and somewhat less Perennialist. He joined the Darqawiyya Order in Salé.
Schuon’s ijaza has attracted dispute.
In 1938 Schuon met Guénon for the first time, traveling to Cairo for this purpose. Other than saying that he visited Guénon almost every day and found his conversation somewhat disappointing, Schuon is silent about this visit, which lasted only a week. Guénon however now seems to have been convinced that Schuon had been right to separate himself from Mostaganem. In 1936 Guénon was expressing slight concern that Schuon was going too fast and had separated himself too soon, but in 1938 he agreed that changes since the death of al-Alawi were “far from satisfactory. Everything is being sacrificed to propagandist and exoteric tendencies which we can in no way approve.”
Schuon, about the buying of a statue of the Virgin Mary: ““I was always painstaking in questions of holy rules, but on the other hand I stood above all on the ground of the Religio Perennis and did not allow myself to be imprisoned by forms that for myself could have no validity—for myself, since I would not allow another to break the same rules.”
the status of the Alawiyya at the end of the 1930s: a Traditionalist Sufi order whose members followed Islam and the Sharia, but whose shaykh privately stood on more universalist ground and included among his most prized possessions a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and a statuette of the Virgin Mary.
The development of Traditionalism in Italy and Romania, however, took place against a very different political background. Fascist regimes1 were installed in Italy in 1922 (with Mussolini’s March on Rome), in Germany in 1933 (with Hitler’s election victory), and in Romania in 1940–41 (with the entry into the Romanian government of Horia Sima). Occultist groups were involved in, though far from central to, the early stages of the development of the Fascist regimes in all three countries. In Italy and Romania Traditionalism became involved with politics in a way that it did not in
France or Switzerland.
The Origins of the Nazi Party
The origins of the German Nazi Party demonstrate the earliest connections between occultism and a Fascist regime.
Hitler himself had no sympathy for occultism of any variety. His minor interest in Wotan and Teutonic times derived purely from Wagner.
Evola, Mussolini, and the SS
Evola was introduced to Traditionalism in about 1927 by Arturo Reghini, an Italian mathematician and mason who was a correspondent of Guénon. Evola and Reghini were at that time producing a somewhat occultist journal called Ur. Evola already knew Guénon’s Introduction générale but had not been much impressed by it. It was not until about 1930, when Evola and Reghini were no longer on speaking terms, that Evola came to see the importance of the work of Guénon, whom he later described as “the unequaled master of our epoch.”
Guénon wished principally to explain the crisis he saw, Evola was interested principally in revolt.
Evola was for a short time a dadaist peinter.
As Evola later explained, two philosophers other than Guénon were of importance to the Traditionalism he developed in Rivolta contro il mondo moderno. These were Friedrich Nietzsche and Johann Jakob Bachofen. From the former Evola took the Nietzschean Übermensch (superman), and from the latter a less well-known binary typology of uranic and telluric civilizations.
Despite his loss of interest in the academic world, most of Evola’s subsequent works came closer than Gue´non’s to normal scholarly standards in style, footnoting, and quality of sources.
As a Nietzschean, Evola emphasized action, which he saw as a uranic quality, associated in Hindu terms with the kshatriya or warrior caste. Guénon, in Autorité spirituelle et pouvoir temporel (1929), maintained that in the primordial Traditional state, spiritual authority was superior to temporal authority, that is, that the brahmin was superior to the kshatriya. Evola, however, refused to subordinate action in this fashion. He instead maintained that the brahmine and kshatriya castes were originally one and that they became disassociated only in the course of the decline from primordial Tradition. This decline, according to Evola, produced the “desacralization of existence: individualism and rationalism at first, then collectivism, materialism and mechanism, finally opening to forces belonging not to that which is above man but to that which is below him.” Simultaneously, what Evola called “the law of the regression of castes” operated, with power passing from the priestly and military caste to the merchant caste (as in the bourgeois democracies) and finally to the serf caste (proletariat), as in the Soviet Union. The primordial sacral caste was uranic and pre-Christian; Catholicism, with its allegedly nontraditional conception of a personal God, was telluric and characteristic of modernity.
Evola’s analysis of modernity is recognizably a variation on the established Traditionalist philosophy. Where Evola differs most from Guénon is in his prescription. For Guénon, the transformation of the individual through initiation was the means of the transformation of the West as a whole through the influence of the elite. Evola was never explicit about his own prescription, perhaps intentionally, but called for self-realization through the reintegration of man into a state of centrality as the Absolute Individual, this to be achieved through uranic action. To judge from Evola’s own actions, however, the transformation of the individual was to be not so much the means as the consequence of the transformation of society. Although even at the end of his life Evola was uncertain about the means to individual self-realization, his views on the transformation of society seem to have been definite from the start. These views are manifest in the 1920s, in his engagement with the Fascist regime that governed Italy.
Evola wrote that in the late 1920s he had sympathized with Mussolini as he would have sympathized with anyone who opposed the post–First World War democratic regime and the political Left, though he disliked the dubious origins of the Black Shirts and also disliked the Fascists’ nationalism.
Evola’s first known activity on becoming a Traditionalist was to attempt to guide Fascist society toward Traditionalism. An older Evola later admitted that it demonstrated a lack of tactical sense, indeed of common sense.
In 1930 Evola started a new journal, La Torre [The Tower], subtitled “A Paper for the Various Expressions of the One Tradition.” In some respects, this journal resembled Etudes traditionnelles. Evola’s main collaborator was closer to Guénon than to Reghini: Guido de Giorgio, who had spent time with Sufis in Tunisia.
“To the extent that Fascism follows and defends these [Traditionalist] principles,” he declared, “in that measure we may consider ourselves Fascists. That is all.”
Evola was recommending in his book, Imperialismo pagano, that the Catholic Church be deprived of all her authority and subordinated to the Fascist state. Imperialismo pagano carried no implication of any official endorsement, and when it appeared in 1928 it was greeted with little interest. In 1929 Mussolini signed a Concordat with the Catholic Church.
The Fascist Party received Evola’s Traditionalist proposals of 1930 even less favorably than his pagan proposals of 1928. The first issue of La Torre was greeted with condemnation in the established Fascist press, threats against Evola’s life, and a suggestion from the police that it would be a good idea to suspend publication. Evola ignored this suggestion, but after the fifth issue— the one in which he called for “a more radical, more intrepid Fascism”—the police forbade Evola’s printers to produce any more copies of La Torre. Evola appealed to the Ministry of Interior, but the ministry declined to help, and La Torre ceased publication.
About Evola’s spiritual practice: “In 1967, toward the end of Evola’s life, a French Muslim Traditionalist named Henry Hartung [...], who was interested in the unanswered question of Evola’s own practice, asked Evola how he believed that selfrealization was to be achieved. Evola replied that initiation was one possibility, “but which, and under what circumstances?” Elsewhere he indicated that he believed that Guénon’s personal path “offered very little” to people who “don’t want to turn themselves into Muslims and Orientals,” something Evola evidently did not want to do. In this he cut himself off from the central strand of Traditionalist spiritual practice. In conversation with Hartung, he listed six practices as alternatives to initiation: learning, loyalty (defined as “interior neutrality, the opposite of hypocrisy”), withdrawal, “virile energy,” “symbolic visualization,” and “interior concentration.” We can safely assume that at some point in his life Evola had tried all of these.” (pages 103-104)
Though Evola had to abandon hope of traditionalizing Italy through Fascism, he for some time hoped that he might do better in Germany. In 1933, the year in which Hitler came to power, a German version of Imperialismo pagano—Heidnische Imperialismus—was published in Leipzig. Evola later admitted that part of the interest in it derived from the mistaken belief in Germany that he was the leading representative of an interesting trend in Italian Fascism—they did not realize that Evola was, in his own words, “a captain without any troops.”
SS Führer Heinrich Himmler commissioned an investigation of Evola’s ideas from SS Oberführer Karl Maria Wiligut, a personal favorite of Himmler in the SS Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt (SS race and settlements department) and one of the few senior Nazis with an occultist background. It was Wiligut who had designed the SS lightning flash—actually rune—and death’s head symbols. Wiligut’s report was not favorable. He concluded that “Evola works from a basic Aryan concept but is quite ignorant of prehistoric Germanic institutions and their meaning,” and recommended rejecting Evola’s “utopian” proposal. This rejection was approved at a meeting attended by Himmler himself, where it was also decided to prevent further access by Evola to “leading cadres [führenden Dienststellen] of the Party and State” and to put an end to his activities in Germany, though, fortunately for Evola, “without any special measures.
Evola seems then to have turned his attention to a new strategy: the infiltration not of a group but of an issue. The issue he chose was a topical one, race. Evola had already published articles and short pamphlets on this issue, as well as a historical account (commissioned by a Milan publisher) of the development of racial theory during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1941 he published a major work on the subject, Sintesi di dottrina della razza [Synthesis of Racial Doctrine]. Although superficially in accordance with the racial theory then prevalent in Germany and Italy, Sintesi di dottrina was actually a radical attack on it, arguing for a spiritual definition of race. In general Evola went along with the familiar condemnations of the Jews, but at the same time he argued that the root cause of the problem was spiritual rather than ethnic. “Aryan” or “Jew” should not be understood in biological terms, he said, but as denoting “typical attitudes which were not necessarily present in all individuals of Aryan or Jewish blood.” The real enemy was not Jews biologically defined, but “global subversion and anti-tradition.” Mussolini liked the book.
In the end, Traditionalism played no significant role in either Italian Fascism or German Nazism, despite Evola’s efforts. This was so partly because the later Mussolini was little interested in ideology, and Hitler was his own ideologist; neither they nor their regimes had any need of Evola. A more basic reason was that Evola’s elitist conceptions were hardly compatible with the mass character which the Fascist and Nazi regimes assumed in practice, if not always in theory.
Evola is often described as having been a Fascist, but this characterization is hardly accurate—at least in the original, precise sense of the word “Fascist.” He never belonged to the Fascist Party and could hardly be described as a follower of the Fascist line. Nor were he or his views approved of by the Fascists or the Nazis, except in the brief period of favor in 1942 that ended with the revocation of his passport.
Evola’s activities under Fascism fall into two periods, the first from his first articles on paganism in 1926 to his visit to von Rohan’s Viennese Kulturbund ten years later, and the second from his probable contacts with the SS in 1938 to his official visit to Berlin as an Italian racialist in 1942. We know almost nothing of his activities between 1943 and 1945, but it is possible that in those chaotic years he was concerned principally with his own survival. The first period appears relatively innocent in comparison with the second. During the second period Evola voluntarily entered the two darkest areas of twentieth century West European history. In 1938 the SS had not yet begun the murderous activities for which it would be remembered as a rare human embodiment of pure evil. There is no evidence that Evola guessed at what was to follow, and indeed it is possible that he never even visited Wewelsburg—that visit is my reconstruction. The benefit of the doubt is vanishing fast by 1942, however. Is it possible that anyone involved in official racialism in Berlin in that year, in any capacity, could have had no idea of what was implied?
Romanian Traditionalism derived not from Paris or Cairo but from Rome. The earliest identifiable Romanian Traditionalist, Mircea Eliade, was in 1927 a distant follower of Evola’a and Arturo Reghini’s Ur group and was introduced to the work of Gue´non by Reghini, as Evola himself had been. Eliade became a central figure in the history of Traditionalism. It is unclear how he got in touch with Reghini and the Ur group, but the contact was presumably a consequence of Eliade’s youthful interest in occultism: he was reading Theosophical works at the age of 16, as well as Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (the eighteenth-century Perennialist Mason after whom Encausse’s Martinism was named).
By about 1933 an informal group of Romanian Traditionalists had come into being. It was led not by Eliade but by the more committed Vasile Lovinescu, who may or may not have encountered Traditionalism through Eliade. Lovinescu is the central figure in the history of Romanian Traditionalism. There were at least a dozen Bucharest Traditionalists, making them the largest such group outside France and Switzerland. One was a student of Eliade from Bucharest University, Michel Vâlsan, also later an important figure in the history of Traditionalism.
The activities of this group were inspired by both Evola and Gue´non. The Evolian inspiration is visible in the Eliade’s and Lovinescu’s engagement with The Legion of the Archangel Michael, and the Guénonian inspiration is visible in the search for a valid initiation carried out by Lovinescu and Vâlsan, and probably others—but not, as far as is known, by Eliade, which suggests that he was then more of an Evolian than a Guénonian. Some members of the group also engaged in the Traditionalist research project based around Etudes traditionnelles.
That Eliade was addressing a general audience had several important consequences for his work.One was that Traditionalist authors were rarely cited, at least after some very early work,93 even when they should have been. Two entire chapters of Mitul reintegrării [The Myth of Reintegration] (1942), for example, are taken almost word for word, and without acknowledgment, from a 1935 article by Coomaraswamy, “Angel and Titan.”94 In 1951, after reading a new edition of Eliade’s important Traité d’histoire des religions [Treatise on the History of Religions] (1948), Evola wrote to Eliade saying that he quite understood that Eliade had to base himself on “official academic literature,” but—though he hoped Eliade would not be offended at his saying this—“one finds not one word, not just about Guénon, but also about the other authors whose thought and work it is that enables you to deal so easily with your material.” In his diary, Eliade noted: One day I received a rather bitter letter from [Evola] in which he reproached me for never citing him, no more than I did Guénon. I answered him as best I could, and I must one day give the reasons and explanations that that response called for. My argument couldn’t have been simple. The books I write are intended for today’s audience, and not for initiates [Traditionalists]. Unlike Guénon and his emulators, I believe I have nothing to write that would be intended especially for them [potential and actual initiates].
It seems that Eliade’s Traditionalism is to be found not so much in the detail (though Traditionalist influence has been found there too) but in his objectives, and thus also in his method. Eliade’s project was the construction of a general model of human religiosity, as expressed in universally valid myth and symbol, and defined as the foundation of constituted consciousness and being”—a model that might aid human self-understanding and so “provide the means for cultural renewal,” a renewal all the more necessary because of “the historical age into which we are entering and in which we will not only be surrounded but also dominated by ‘foreigners,’ the non-Occidentals.”
It is not clear whether or not Lovinescu and Eliade were members of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, but both supported it and were in contact with its leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu. The Legion (also known as the Iron Guard) had been established in 1927 by Codreanu, previously a follower of Alexandru C. Cuza, a political economist at the University of Bucharest who had established a League of National Christian Defense in 1923. Cuza’s League was violently—in the words of one later historian, “monomaniacally”—anti-Semitic, and it was over the question of anti-Semitism that Codreanu broke with Cuza. This rift occurred not because Codreanu was not himself an anti-Semite—he was, though arguably “[not] to a degree notably more extreme than, or markedly at odds with, Romanian society”—but because he felt that blaming the Jews for everything was not enough. The objective of his Legion was not just the purification of Romanian life from Jewish influence but also the “moral rejuvenation” of Romania on a Christian as well as a national basis, including the elimination of (then pervasive) corruption from public life.
Whereas Communism acted in the name of economics, Fascism in the name of the state, and Nazism in the name of race, the Legionary Movement acted in the name of Christianity.
In 1935 Lovinescu visited the celebrated Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos in search of initiation. He reported his experiences to Guénon, who concluded that either there had never been anything there or it was no longer there, and he introduced Lovinescu to Schuon. In 1936 Lovinescu traveled to Basel and, after “preparation” by Burckhardt, went to Amiens and entered Schuon’s Alawiyya.
Eliade’s ex-student Vâlsan made the same trip with the same consequences in the same year.
With Vâlsan’s help, Lovinescu established a Bucharest branch of the Alawiyya, but no further details are known of it. There is no evidence that Eliade ever belonged to it, nor that he ever embarked on the search for an initiation. Many years later he suggested that the rediscovery of a “sacred text” by a “competent reader” could substitute for initiation through an initiatic chain. This seems to have been the “initiation” Eliade chose for himself.
Romanian Traditionalism survived the People’s Republic of Romania, but with little contact with Traditionalism elsewhere. Its later history will therefore be quickly reviewed here. Lovinescu’s Alawiyya continued functioning in some form until the 1970s with seven or eight followers, and in 1958 Lovinescu established a separate Traditionalist study circle, the Brotherhood of Hyperion, consisting of about ten people who met weekly and which might have been related to an Orthodox initiatic order. Lovinescu started writing in 1964, and in 1981 he published his first book, A patrulea hagialîc [The Fourth Pilgrimage].
Even during the war years, however, Gue´non found some new followers, most important among them Martin Lings, a young Englishman who by the end of the twentieth century would become one of the most important Traditionalist Sufis. Lings, who had joined the Alawiyya in 1938 after reading Guénon while teaching English in the Baltic States, was in Egypt visiting Guénon at the start of the war. Unable to return to Lithuania, he took a job in the English Department at Cairo University, and during the war became Guénon’s closest associate, though never exactly an intimate.
“What would have become of me if I had found them at the time of my youth?” wondered Gide in his diary. By 1943 it was too late to change: “my sclerotic spirit bends . . . with difficulty.” “If Guénon is right, well, all my oeuvre falls. . . .” To which someone replied: “But then others fall with it, and not the least; that of Montaigne, for example. . . .” [gide]: “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to object to in what Guénon wrote. It’s irrefutable.” [Another silence, then]: “The chips are down, I am too old.” [Adds]: “I love life passionately—multiple life. I cannot agree to deprive mine of the pleasure it takes in the marvelous diversity of the world, and why? To sacrifice to an abstraction—to Unity, indefinable Unity! . . . Limited beings, perishable creatures, only they interest me and elicit my love, not the Being, the Eternal Being, the Unlimited Being.”
Traditionalist activity in France revived quickly after the end of the war, and soon it proceeded in new directions. The first of these was Masonic. Shortly after the end of the war a Russian Traditionalist living in Paris, Alexandre Mordiof, wrote to the French Grand Lodge. The grand master, Michel Dumesnil de Gramont, and some other senior Masons evidently appreciated the work of Guénon as they had that of Wirth, and in 1947 they authorized the founding of a new lodge on Traditionalist lines, La Grande Triade.
In southern India again in 1947, Henri Hartung spent ten days at Tiruvannamalai, the ashram (zawiya) of Ramana Maharshi, one of the most celebrated Hindu gurus or sages of the century. This visit was the decisive spiritual experience of Hartung’s life—he described Ramana Maharshi as “the living incarnation of the divine reality which is in every human being, but which he had rediscovered”—but it did not satisfy his search for initiation. Back in Paris, where he completed a Ph.D. in geography after leaving the army, Hartung met Vâlsan, and in February 1949 he entered into correspondence with Guénon. At first they discussed Ramana Maharshi and other contemporary Hindu gurus, as well as a translation of a work of Ramana Maharshi that Hartung was hoping to publish in Etudes traditionnelles. Encouraged by Vâlsan, in May Hartung wrote to Gue´non—in the excessively formal tones a young man felt appropriate for using with such a sage—that given the difficulties the practice of Hinduism presented to a Westerner, “would it not . . . be possible for me to turn towards an exoteric framework to which I aspire profoundly and which might—although so far I have known Islam much less well than India— bring me influences and a framework better adapted to the development of the spiritual life of a Westerner?” A fortnight later Guénon replied that he
“altogether approve[d] of this intention,” and in June or early July 1949 Hartung and his wife became Muslim and joined the Alawiyya.
A public dispute between Guénon and Schuon was centered on the validity of Christian initiation. Schuon had for some time maintained privately that the Christian sacraments of baptism and confirmation retained a form of validity as esoteric initiations, a view expressed in the July–August 1948 issue of Etudes traditionnelles in an article, “Mystères christiques” [Christic Mysteries]. Guénon was evidently less concerned about the views Schuon expressed in “Mystères christiques”—views with which he was already somewhat familiar, though he disagreed firmly—than he was angry that the article had been published in what he still saw very much as his own journal. The idea that Schuon was mounting a challenge to Guénon’s authority would have been encouraged by reports reaching Cairo from Reyor, who in 1948 complained to Guénon that Schuon’s followers were trying to take control of the Grande Triade and that many had canceled their subscriptions to Etudes traditionnelles and were only ordering back copies containing articles by Schuon.
Guénon’s position was clear: not only must esoteric practice take place in an orthodox exoteric framework, but the two must coincide. A Traditionalist Sufi order in Europe should not differ from a Sufi order in the Islamic world, and the exoteric Islam of its followers should not differ from orthodox Islam. Anything else would be “the mixture of traditional forms,” syncretism. Schuon’s view was more permissive: he believed that esoteric practice was what really mattered and that its exoteric framework was less important.
Schuon’s view was reflected in relaxations of the Sharia that he permitted some of his followers in Lausanne, probably starting during the late war years. There is no indication of such relaxations before the war, other than omitting the sunna prayers. The first reports of relaxations reached Guénon in 1948 from Reyor, according to whom Schuon’s followers were no longer fasting Ramadan. By 1950 this report was being repeated independently by both Vâlsan and Hartung, according to whom it was for individual followers that Schuon had relaxed the Sharia, not for all, which seems to have been the case. In Basel, von Meyenburg and others kept the Ramadan fast as they always had.
This and other departures from the Sharia by Schuon’s followers were justified by Schuon, according to Vâlsan, as departures from “exoteric formalities,” needed to “adapt . . . to the conditions of life in the West,” a justification that Vâlsan himself clearly rejected.
One other departure from the Sharia reported by Vâlsan requires comment. This was permitting Alawis to drink beer during family or business dinners, evidently in order to allay suspicions that they were Muslim. Some parallel exist to Schuon’s other relaxations of the Sharia elsewhere, but there is no known parallel to this one.44 The Sharia does permit Muslims to deny their faith in order to avoid death (though it is better to die a martyr if you can), and recent converts are sometimes advised not to tell everybody of their conversion until they feel ready to cope with the reactions. No other shaykh, however, is known ever to have authorized forbidden acts in order to reinforce a fiction. Besides, some Alawis soon came to drink beer privately as well as in public.
During 1950, relations with Schuon deteriorated further, and Guénon and Reyor (acting on Guénon’s instructions) started to refer seekers after initiation not to Schuon, but directly to Vâlsan in Paris, or to Maridort. Schuon, attempting to avert a breach, sent Jacques-Albert Cuttat (by profession a diplomat) to Reyor to suggest that Schuon might go to Cairo to see Gue´non in person. Guénon, however, announced that if Schuon came to Cairo he would refuse to meet him. He had by then decided that Schuon’s followers were spying on him and that Lings was reading his correspondence on Schuon’s behalf, a charge that Lings always denied. It was Lings’s task to receive Guénon’s mail and deliver it to Guénon’s house, and letters were showing signs of having been tampered with. If Guénon’s mail had indeed been opened, however, it was almost certainly opened not by Lings but by the Egyptian censorship, intrigued by the Masonic symbols in many of Guénon’s letters. Guénon and Schuon never met again.
By mid-1950 Schuon was suffering his first defections. Among them were Cuttat, his earlier emissary to Reyor, and Cuttat’s friend Hartung, who had joined the Alawiyya only a year before. By July 1950 both men were objecting to Schuon’s “de-Islamization” of the order (according to Hartung’s notes), to his abandonment of parts of the Sharia, and to his introduction of elements of practice “which are in reality no more than [the fruits of Schuon’s] imagination without any traditional value whatsoever.”
In September 1950, Guénon encouraged Vâlsan to write a short letter to Schuon, separating the Paris Alawiyya that Vâlsan had been leading since 1940 from Schuon’s original Alawiyya. Guénon gave his reasons in a letter written in October: “At Lausanne, ritual practices have been reduced to the strict minimum, and most no longer even fast during Ramadan.” Guénon believed the Alawiyya was turning from a Sufi order into “a vague ‘universalist’ organization.” The same points were made by Vâlsan at much greater length in November, in a highly critical, 25-page open letter to Schuon the tone of which was extremely harsh, at times even sarcastic. Vâlsan charged Schuon with moving from Islam toward “a superficial and facile universalism,” assigning to himself a “universal role outside Islam,” ignoring the need for “genuine Muhammadan faith,” and replacing the Islamic character of the Alawiyya with a “universalist” one.
“Traditionalism was Guénon’s achievement, in the sense that without him and his writings the movement would never have existed—none of his early associates produced anything that would have attracted people like Coomaraswamy, Evola, Eliade, and Schuon. His achievement was based not only on his work but also on the deep seriousness with which he dedicated himself to his task, especially to his correspondence. Such seriousness and dedication remained characteristic of the Traditionalist movement. Traditionalism, however, also inherited two problematic characteristics from Gue´non: his secrecy and his isolation. Guénon wrote on Hinduism without having any known contact with Hinduism as it was lived and practiced in India, and similarly wrote on Islam without any significant contact with living Islamic scholarship. His work, and Traditionalism as a whole, suffered as a consequence.” (p. 131)
At Guénon’s death, there were three independent Traditionalist Sufi orders: Schuon’s Alawiyya, Vâlsan’s Alawiyya, and Maridort’s Darqawiyya. A fourth, established by Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, came into being in the late 1970s, a branch of the Ahmadiyya order in Milan. Schuon’s (which will be discussed in the next two chapters) was by far the most important and became increasingly universalist. Vâlsan’s order became increasingly Islamic, and Maridort’s Darqawiyya increasingly Guénonian. Pallavicini’s order became the most publicly visible Traditionalist order in the West.
About Michel Vâlsan: “The Paris Alawiyya of Vâlsan, in contrast, moved ever closer to mainstream Sufi Islam. Vâlsan is, tellingly, the only Traditionalist shaykh who, from later descriptions, emerges as does a Sufi shaykh in the Islamic world—as a sort of saint. All that is missing are the miracle stories that commonly collect around the memory of a great shaykh in the Arab world. He is also the first Traditionalist shaykh to be openly Muslim and integrated into a general Islamic milieu. From the start of his years in Paris he regularly attended the Paris Mosque, establishing good relations with the imam, a Tunisian, whose daughter he married. He became a regular visitor to a saintly Tunisian Sufi in Tunis, and various Arab Sufis visited his dhikr, though none actually joined his order. Vâlsan was, in Islamic terms, both orthodox and pious. In addition to praying the Friday Prayer at the mosque and carefully observing the ritual prayers and fasts, he spent hours every day in supplementary prayer, and twice he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj in 1965 and an umra pilgrimage in 1974). He followed the strictest possible interpretation of the Sharia, ensuring that his children prayed from the age of 7; his son Muhammad fasted Ramadan for the first time at the age of 5. His children were not even allowed to draw—a somewhat astonishing prohibition, since even in the Islamic world the Sharia’s condemnation of making images is generally interpreted fairly loosely, even by the most pious. In addition to his piety, Vâlsan was both modest and ascetic. He refused to act the shaykh, dressing in normal Western clothing rather than “fancy dress” (a sarcastic reference to Schuon’s “staging”), never making public speeches despite various invitations, and living extremely simply. As a Romanian diplomat during the Second World War he had lived in comfort; after abandoning the diplomatic service, he was reduced to “the greatest poverty,” to which he seems not to have objected, living first in cheap hotels and finally in a public housing project. His first wife found it difficult to adapt to this new lifestyle and left him; for some years Vâlsan brought up his first child, Ahmad, alone and in poverty. He then remarried, again rather as a shaykh in the Islamic world might: his second wife was Khadija, the young daughter of his closest follower, René Roty, and with her Vaˆlsan had twelve more children. In later years his main source of income was allocations familiales (family allowances), payments made in proportion to family size by the French social security administration. These were supplemented by a small income from Etudes traditionnelles and occasional small gifts from some of his followers. Vâlsan also followed the standard Islamic pattern in being an accomplished scholar. He had worked hard on his Arabic, which has been reliably described as excellent, and immersed himself in the study of the texts of Ibn al-Arabi. He accumulated a considerable collection of Ibn al-Arabi manuscripts, on whose writings he based most of his teachings. He also edited and published various texts of Ibn al-Arabi in French translation. Vâlsan’s order followed his example—pious and orthodox, with some emphasis on scholarship for those who were capable of it. No departures from the Sharia were permitted, and most of his followers attended a dhikr once or even twice a week. In 1951, when he split from Schuon, Vâlsan had only a dozen or so followers, but by his death in 1974 he had perhaps 100 followers, a respectable number, only rarely exceeded by shaykhs in the Islamic world.” (pages 133-134)
About Schodkiewicz: “The son of a magistrate, Chodkiewicz read Guénon’s Crise du monde moderne at 18 while doing his military service at Tours airbase, and then the rest of Guénon’s work, and became Muslim in 1950 after being introduced to Vâlsan by the nephew of the penniless marquis. Chodkiewicz was the first French Traditionalist to begin what may be called the revenge of Traditionalism against the Sorbonne. His initial project of a Ph.D. thesis on Ibn al-Arabi had to be abandoned in the face of resistance from Louis Massignon, who dominated French Islamic studies in the 1950s and who had no sympathy for Ibn al-Arabi, and also in the face of the need to support a young family. Chodkiewicz followed his shaykh in many things, but not in his spartan lifestyle. He got a job with the major French publisher Editions du Seuil and remained there until his retirement in 1989, by then du Seuil’s president. Despite this career, he continued work on Ibn al-Arabi, publishing various high-quality translations of and studies on his work, and also on his later follower, the Amir Abd al-Qadir (in whose Damascus circle Aguéli’s shaykh Illaysh had once been). Chodkiewicz’s work received the academic recognition it deserved, and beginning in 1982 he taught as an adjunct professor at the Sorbonne while also running du Seuil. After his retirement from du Seuil he was appointed to a full professorship, from which he retired in 1994, generally accepted as one of the leading figures in the French study of Islam.”
Though Traditionalist, the Ahmadiyya was also Muslim. Pallavicini avoided Schuon’s universalism or anything suggesting syncretism, though less scrupulously than Vâlsan, and he and his followers carefully observed the Sharia. Except in their Perennialism, the Ahmadiyya is not known to have departed in any way from the Islam that is found in the Islamic world. Pallavicini, like Vâlsan but unlike Schuon or even Guénon himself, has performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, no less than three times.
The Grande Triade, was still operating at the end of the twentieth century under a Traditionalist venerable master (a nuclear physicist) and with Traditionalist members, but it had long ceased to be at the forefront of attempts to restore tradition to the West.
Tourniac was involved in an ambitious Traditionalist project to restore good relations between Masonry and the Catholic Church.
The most lasting impact of this group of Traditionalist Masons was perhaps to achieve rapprochement between Traditionalist Masonry and French academia.
Traditionalist Masonry continues to flourish. A further Traditionalist lodge under the French Grand Lodge was established in the 1990s, the Règle d’Abraham (Rule of Abraham), dedicated not only to ends similar to those of Tourniac, Baylot, and Riquet, but to understanding among the three Abrahamic religions (not just Judaism and Christianity but also Islam), based especially on the work of Ibn al-Arabi. The Masonic expression of Traditionalism is notably different from all other expressions of Traditionalism in operating with the full blessing of the relevant authorities. This is true perhaps because Masonry is closer than any other expression of Traditionalism to the milieu in which Traditionalism had its origins.
Part III. Traditionalism at Large
7. The Maryamiyya
After Guénon’s death in 1951, Schuon’s Alawiyya (which changed its name during the 1960s to “Maryamiyya”) developed independently of the rest of the Traditionalist movement. Schuon himself soon began to minimize his own debt to Gue´non, crediting him with little more than his understanding of Vedanta and of metaphysics. Gue´non, he said, was “a mathematician, a Freemason and an occultist,” which was not enough.
The Virgin Mary
After his marriage with Catherine Feer, Schuon began to paint seriously, abandoning for some years the writing of poetry. One of his first paintings was of two Native Americans, one of whom was naked, symbolizing the exoteric (clothed) and the esoteric (naked).
Schuon’s interest in Native American spirituality continued to grow, and in 1959 the Schuons visited America for the first time, at the invitation of Thomas Yellowtail, a Native American whom they had first met in Paris in 1953 and who would become prominent. They went first to the Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, once the home of Black Elk, and then to Sheridan, Montana, where Yellowtail lived—taking with them a Schuon painting of the White Buffalo Woman, a prominent figure from Lakota myth. One of Frithjof Schuon’s purposes in making this visit was to help save the Native
American tradition from modernity. As it happened, however, Native American religion had more impact on Frithjof Schuon than the other way round.
In addition to meeting many Native Americans, the Schuons participated in a number of Native American dances, initially as spectators but becoming increasingly engaged. The highlight of their trip was witnessing the Sun Dance at Fort Hall, Idaho. The Sun Dance is the crowning rite of the Oglala Sioux and the Shoshone-Crow, a complex three- or four-day-long ceremony performed around a “sacred tree” erected for the purpose, during which the participants aim to offer expiation through sacrifice and in a sense unite themselves with the Greater Sacred (sometimes controversially glossed as “God”). Not only do the participants fast for one or more days, but they also offer other forms of ordeal, such as staring at the sun during sunrise or cutting a strip of flesh from the upper arm. For Schuon, the opening ceremonies of the Sun Dance were extraordinarily moving, “unification with the One.” On the second day he and his wife fasted with the participants, though they otherwise remained spectators.
The vision with Virgin Mary.
These experiences brought together the two themes of 1942–43: the “cosmic love of the beloved . . . as in mother-love” that Schuon had experienced on seeing Madeleine’s baby, and the attraction to the Virgin that he had felt on seeing a statuette of her in a Lausanne shop window. Schuon had in fact been occasionally aware of the Virgin’s presence between 1942 and 1965, first during the break with Guénon in about 1949, when he “felt her blessing,” and once while doing dhikr at home on his own in about 1953. On that second occasion he had sensed a “powerful presence” that he immediately identified with the Virgin.
Schuon was not sure at first how to interpret his experiences of 1965. The first question was whether they amounted to a true or a false vision. A true vision, Schuon decided, could be distinguished from a false one by the beneficial effect it had on its recipient, and this vision had the beneficial effect of freeing him from the love of books, newspapers, and the theater, in which he found he could no longer lose himself. Schuon did not consider, in this context, another effect of his vision: the “almost irresistible need to be naked like her baby.” For some time thereafter, Schuon took off his clothes whenever he was at home alone. Once Schuon decided that his experiences were a true vision, the next question was how to interpret them. His final conclusion was that the vision marked the coming of “a special relationship with Heaven.” The exact nature of this special relationship is not made clear, but since the Virgin Mary is “the incarnation of Divine mercy and at the same time of the Religio Perennis,” it seems clear that Schuon took it as a change in his role from being shaykh of the Alawiyya (the position given him in his earlier vision of 1937) to a more universal role, above and beyond Islam.
By the late 1960s, then, Schuon was a Traditionalist with two esoteric initiations. He was a Muslim with a Sufi initiation from the Alawiyya, appointed shaykh of a Sufi order in a vision, but he was also a universalist with a primordial initiation from the Sioux, appointed to a universal mission by the Virgin Mary in another vision. That primordial mission would from then on gradually replace Schuon’s original role as a Sufi
For many years Schuon continued to present an essentially Islamic face to the world. All that happened in the 1960s was that the name of his order was changed, as was some of its daily practice. A short prayer to the Virgin was added to the daily litany, and Schuon’s paintings were added to the Six Themes as a very informal focus for the meditation of his followers. The date of this second change is not certain, but the late 1960s seems the likely period.
A further relaxation of the Sharia also occurred at this time. When in 1965 Schuon took a second wife (allowed by the Sharia, if not by Swiss law), the marriage was arranged on Traditionalist rather than Islamic lines. The new wife, a follower of Schuon, was already married to another of his followers. While the Sharia would require her to divorce her first husband and then wait some months before remarrying, Schuon allowed her to remain married to and live with her original husband and to marry him [Schuon] “vertically.” The distinction between the vertical (that which links people to God) and the horizontal (that which is purely of this world) derives not from the Sharia but from Western metaphysics and was used in Guénon’s Symbolisme de la croix. Schuon’s “vertical marriage”—referred to by some later followers as a “spiritual marriage”—was, in the words of Catherine Schuon, an “arrangement [that] satisfied Western Law and social necessity . . . [and was] prefaced by unmistakable celestial signs allowing and blessing” it. It was also endorsed—reluctantly— by Burckhardt and Lings.
The Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy
Nasr, the most important follower of Schuon who was Muslim by birth, was born into the Iranian elite: he was a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet, and his father (Dr. Wali Allah Nasr) was a national political and intellectual figure, a former dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tehran University, and also at one point the Iranian minister of education.
Nasr, though closer to the religion to which he was to devote his career than Coomaraswamy had been to his, approached it—again like Coomaraswamy— from an essentially Western and Traditionalist perspective. Unlike Coomaraswamy, he also devoted himself to the practice of that religion. His search for initiation ended when he joined the Maryamiyya, probably on a visit to Morocco in 1957.
Nasr completed a Ph.D. on the philosophy of science at Harvard47 and studied in Iran under the two leading teachers of Islamic philosophy there, Muhammad Husayn Tabataba_i and Abu’l-Hasan Raf_i Qazwini, He then embarked on a career devoted to Islamic science and Islamic philosophy, understood in an essentially but not explicitly Traditionalist framework.
Nasr’s career falls into two halves, the first at Tehran University until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and the second in America after the Revolution. During both halves he was influential through his writings, though his most important books were written in Iran (in English). Some of these books are addressed to a general audience—most notably Ideals and Realities of Islam, The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, and Sufi Essays—and may be described as Islamic Traditionalism; others are addressed to more specialized audiences and deal with the work of Islamic philosophers and with the relationship between Islam and science. Nearly all have been translated into various languages, both Western and Islamic—especially Persian, Turkish, and Malay.
Corbin, one of the most eminent French Orientalists of the century, who for some years spent every summer in Iran as the guest of the academy, was likewise not a Traditionalist. In the same year that Nasr established his academy in Tehran, Corbin established in Paris an International Center for Comparative Spiritual Research, also known as the University of Saint John of Jerusalem; its objectives were (in the words of Eliade, who was a participant) “the restoration of traditional sciences and studies in the West.” Corbin’s Center was to provide “a forum for those advanced sciences, the abandonment and forgetting of which is both the cause and the symptom of the crisis of our [Western] civilization,” and to “assure the vocation of spiritual chivalry.” By “spiritual chivalry” (chevalerie spirituelle) Corbin meant, according to Eliade, “Western medieval myths, symbols, initiatory patterns, and secret organizations.” Eliade thus sees the late Corbin as part of the “resurgence of a certain esoteric tradition among a number of European scholars and thinkers,” a group in which he includes Coomaraswamy.
In the view of a French scholar who had discussed these matters with him, Corbin was interested in the common aspects of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, including esoteric aspects. He had no interest, however, in primordial religion, transcendent unity, or anything to do with Hinduism or any nonmonotheistic religion. In Nasr’s words, Corbin “had an aversion to the teachings of the main representatives of the traditionalist school, especially Guénon.”
Similarly, although all the carefully selected graduate students who studied at the academy were exposed to Traditionalism, not all became Traditionalists. Most came to occupy important positions, however. Among them were Gholam-Reza A_avani, brought by Nasr from the American University in Beirut, and an American, William Chittick. A_avani became director of the academy after the Revolution, and Chittick went on to a distinguished career in American academia as the country’s leading authority on Ibn al-Arabi. A friend of Nasr’s who would never enter the academy’s buildings, given its imperial title, Ayatollah Mortada Motahhari nevertheless sent to the Academy Haddad _Adil, who later became professor of philosophy at Tehran University and was an influential figure in the Islamic Republic. Corbin brought Pierre Lory, who was later to succeed him at the Sorbonne in Paris. Lory has read Traditionalist writers and retains an interest in their work and activities but is in no sense influenced by them in his own work or life.
Nasr’s (and so Traditionalism’s) contribution to the revolution was definitely in the second rank, far behind the contributions of Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Motahhari (the principal ideologue of Islamic sovereignty), and Ali Shariati, a sociologist whose highly original blend of Islam and socialism did more than anything else to turn Iran’s students toward Islam in the years before the Revolution (and, incidentally, an appreciative occasional reader of Guénon, though in no way a Traditionalist).
Nasr’s contribution to the revolution was not only accidental, but furthermore one that he himself had no desire to make. Throughout his career in Iran he was a staunch supporter of the shah’s regime. There were personal reasons for this position: he was connected with the court as his father had been before him, and his imperial connections certainly did not hinder his distinguished academic career. This included spells as dean of the Faculty of Letters at Tehran University and as vice-chancellor (in American terms, president) of Aryamehr University, a technical university in Tehran. More important, however, were reasons of principle: Nasr seems to have regarded monarchy as a traditional form of government, preferable, despite its many manifest failings, to what was likely to succeed it. He especially disliked Shariati’s blend of Islam and socialism, which he saw as distinctly anti-traditional.
Maryami Traditionalism flourished during the 1960s and 1970s not only in Iran but also in Europe and America. By 1979, Maryami zawiyas existed in several European countries (three in Switzerland, at least two in France, and at least one in England), in at least one Latin American country (Argentina), and also in America. There were also zawiyas in a number of places in the Islamic world. In addition to these, there was a wider community around Schuon, including a number of non-Muslim Traditionalists. One of these, Jean Borella, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nancy in France, led a subsidiary group of perhaps fifty Catholic Traditionalists. Rama Coomaraswamy, the son of Ananda Coomaraswamy, led another Catholic group in America. According to one source, Rama Coomaraswamy’s group (and so probably Borella’s as well) integrated Schuonian Traditionalism into their religious practice by means of repetitive prayer similar to the Sufi dhikr, but using Christian terms and concepts. None of these Christians were actually members of the Maryamiyya, but they followed Schuon personally as a Maryami would.
Huston Smith divided Traditionalism into two constituent parts, Perennialism and what he called “Traditionalism.” Perennialism solved the problem of what to do about “the relation between religions,” “the problem of the one and the many.” The solution was easy enough: “Don’t search for a single essence that pervades the world’s religions. Recognize them as multiple expressions of the Absolute which is indescribable.” What Smith called “Traditionalism”—what I have been calling the Traditionalist understanding of modernity—complemented the views that Smith had already been developing, especially at MIT, where he seems to have seen his real job as being the strong, if small, voice of philosophy and religion against what he called “scientism.” Postmodernists, he wrote, were right to “see through scientism”—but wrong because “the question of our time is no longer how to take things apart, but how to work responsibly at reassembling them.”
The Feathered Sun
Beginning in the late 1970s Schuon and a segment of his following began to move further away from Islam toward a form of universalism that placed increasing emphasis on Schuon himself.
By the time of Schuon’s death in 1998, one group of Schuon’s followers had left Islam behind and taken on the characteristics not of a Sufi order but of what scholars of religion term a “new religious movement.”
Schuon began to distance himself publicly from Islam in 1978—perhaps in reaction to events in Iran—with a number of reflections in an article on “Paradoxical Aspects of Sufism” which were almost anti-Islamic in tone. In 1981 he wrote to a follower that “our point of departure is the quest after esotericism and not after a particular religion,” and in 1989 he explained to another followert: “Our point of departure is the Advaita Vedanta and not a moralist, individualist and voluntarist anthropology with which ordinary Sufism is undeniably identified—however much this may displease those who would like our orthodoxy to consist of feigning or falling in love with an Arab-Semitic mentality.” Some contemporary Schuonians contend that these statements simply reflect what had always been Schuon’s position from the beginning. To some extent that is clearly the case, but the force with which the point is made is not found before the late 1970s.
In addition to distancing himself from Islam, Schuon also distanced himself further from Gue´non: in 1984 he published in Paris an article accusing Guénon of overestimating the Orient and underestimating the Occident—the traditional rather than the modern Occident, of course. This particular criticism was not new either, and it might have passed without comment, but Schuon’s general tone regarding Gue´non in this article could not. Schuon wrote, for example, “One of the most astonishing things is the astonishment of Gue´non on points that any child should be able to understand.” This article caused a furor among non-Schuonian Traditionalists, who demanded that Schuonians be excluded from the pages of Etudes traditionnelles; French Schuonians responded by starting a journal of their own, Connaissance des religions [Knowledge of Religions], a well-edited and excellently designed publication that quickly achieved a greater circulation than the by then distinctly old-fashioned Etudes traditionnelles.
By the late 1980s Schuon was seen by many at Inverness Farms as the “Master of the Religio Perennis,” above Islam as he was above—because he was at the center of—all individual traditions.
The Inverness Farm comunity of Schuon in US was less and less islamic: “Most of the Inverness Farms community was at least nominally Muslim and Maryami, and the rites of Islam and Sufism continued to be practiced, though interest in Islam as a religion was little encouraged—it was too exoteric. One English Maryami who expressed an interest in learning Arabic was advised to learn French instead so that he could read Schuon’s works in the original. Fasting Ramadan was voluntary—a Maryami who was busy at work was allowed “to make alternative sacrifices,” so long as he or she fasted at least three days of that month and concentrated even more than usual on dhikr.
The old authorization to drink beer to disguise one’s Islam remained in force. Non-Islamic terminology began to replace Islamic terminology, with Schuon being frequently described not as a qutb (the highest rank that Islamic Sufis normally give their beloved shaykh) but as pneumatikos. Views as to the proper interpretation of this Greek term differ. For some Traditionalists, it merely indicates a person with an especially spiritual temperament, a gnostic who has reached the end of the spiritual path in God, while for others it indicates a person in whom the divine spirit—rather than a merely human soul—predominates. It is likely that both interpretations were present. Some Schuonians came to see Schuon as an avatar, a Hindu term for a divine incarnation. Stories began to circulate of Schuon’s spiritual rank being recognized by lions and elephants, and of his future rank being acknowledged by the archbishop of Strasbourg when Schuon was a child in Mulhouse. There were even stories of people who treated Schuon disrespectfully in the street being frozen to the spot as a result.
Schuon attempted to divert the growing attention paid to him, but in somewhat equivocal terms. In 1981 he wrote: “I do not wish my person to be made the object of symbolist and mystical speculations which—apart from their possibly problematical character—create supplementary preoccupations and divert the mind from that which alone matters: to follow my teachings without adding anything thereto.” Such statements do not seem to have had much effect.
Various “primordial” practices were introduced. The weekly dhikr was followed not only by a brief lesson (written by Schuon and read aloud) and sometimes Arabic poetry, as is normal in Sufi circles, but also by a “a sort of Red Indian chant or song, performed by [the muqaddam] while beating a drum.” “Indian Days” (also known as “pow-wows”) were also instituted, taking place about once a month during the summer and featuring dances and ceremonies sometimes led by Yellowtail, with the muqaddam leading the drumming and chanting. For these Indian Days, a form of Native American dress was adopted, which in the case of women sometimes amounted to ornamented bikinis. Schuon would appear on these occasions dressed as a Native American chief, bearing a feathered staff.” (pages 172-173)
9. Terror in Italy
Julius Evola and Frithjof Schuon were the longest surviving Traditionalists of the first generation. Before Evola died, in 1974, he was to play an important role in Italian postwar history, becoming the Traditionalist whose name was best known to the public—a name that came to be generally reviled.
In 1968 sales of Evola’s Cavalcare la Tigre, previously in the hundreds, took off into the thousands. In Cavalcare la Tigre, Evola argues that the late twentieth century is an age of dissolution. There are no states that can claim “inalienable authority”— all are no more than a collection of “ ‘representative’ and administrative systems”—but neither are there any “partisan” (anti-state) movements to which one can belong, given the absence of any of the preconditions for successful “rectifying” action, that is, the installation of a legitimate state authority. This analysis represents a reversal of Evola’s prewar position; his own activities from the 1920s to the 1940s showed clearly that he then believed in at least the possibility of installing a system that he would have regarded as legitimate.
Despite the impossibility of successful “rectifying” action, Evola observed, some individuals are still “disposed to fight even on lost positions.” To them Evola recommended apoliteia (separation from the polity), which he defined as “irrevocable interior distance from this society and its ‘values”; and the refusal to be tied to it by any moral or spiritual links whatsoever.” Evola stressed that he was describing an interior state which need not necessarily have any consequences in the realm of action, but also stressed that it did not require abstention, as from a “conscientious objector.”
Evola, then, seems to have approved of what was being done in his name—on condition that it was done with proper spiritual preparation. This does not, however, mean that Evola can be held solely responsible for Italian extreme right terrorism. He was not the only writer whom the terrorists read: Franco Freda established a publishing house, AR, that printed the works not only of Evola but also of Oswald Spengler and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as Corneliu Codreanu and Muammar Qaddafi. In addition, there were a variety of other important factors—social, economic, and political. Terrorism in the 1960s to 1980s was an Italian, not just a rightist, phenomenon. In the view of Roger Griffin, “1968 created a climate in which if Evola had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him.”
Though Evola remained important to the European extreme right and even parts of the American extreme right at the end of the twentieth century, his work was no longer dominant. For one of the leading writers and publishers of the European New Right, Alain de Benoist, Evola and Gue´non were of interest— especially historical interest—but no longer of great importance. De Benoist had read most of their works, and had even written on them, but his own ideas and the ideas explored in the various journals and magazines he controlled were often constructed on bases incompatible with any variety of Traditionalism.
During the 1950s and 1960s Mircea Eliade’s soft Traditionalism assisted a transformation in the academic study of religion in America. In France, Louis Dumont’s Indology, informed by soft Traditionalism, became increasingly influential, while Henri Hartung and his Institut des sciences et techniques humaines (Institute for humane sciences and techniques) began a transformation in the continuing education of adults, and especially of executives. Hartung aimed at the subtle transformation of the general culture, but after some years he concluded in 1968 that his efforts were in vain, and he abandoned the softest of soft Traditionalism for a “hard” Traditionalist broadside—which was indeed in vain. Also in France a leading Jewish educator, Rabbi Léon Askénazi, drew on Traditionalism, but within strict limits that show why Jewish Traditionalism is so rare.
Religious Studies in America
Eliade’s fame grew, and in 1958 he was appointed to the Chair of History of Religion at the University of Chicago, a post he occupied until his death in 1986. During these years he kept a low profile except as a scholar. Although one graduate student remembers him as an evident Traditionalist, Eliade generally avoided discussion of politics and of his personal religious convictions. This decision to cast a veil over his past was a wise one.
Eliade’s approach was radically different and was the prototype of what has been called the “autonomous” study of religion, the approach that is generally accepted today. Eliade dismissed the evolutionary hypothesis on the grounds that the modern way of seeing things was fundamentally different from the archaic and, being atypical, should be disregarded. In so doing, he privileged archaic religion (or tradition) over modernity and superseded both the Christian and the materialist approaches to the study of religion. The Christian approach was superseded for obvious reasons: archaic religion was more important than contemporary Christianity. The materialist approach was superseded because it tended to be evolutionary, and also because Eliade’s project required that religions be studied “on their own plane of reference,” in the terms in which they made sense to those who believed in them, which were of course not materialist terms.
The hostility of most non-Traditionalist scholars to the study of religion from a Traditionalist viewpoint is clear. Wouter Hanegraaff, the first occupant of a chair of esotericism at the University of Amsterdam, advanced as one of the major problems facing the serious study of esotericism that “scholars of Western esoteric currents frequently find themselves scheduled in seminar programs or publication series together with perennialists.” Similarly, the German Islamologist Bernd Radtke identified one of the two major problems facing the study of Sufism as being “mystification,” the “negative role” played by Traditionalist scholars such as Nasr (the other problem being that too few English-speaking scholars read German).
Sociology and Judaism in France
The career of Louis Dumont in France in some ways parallels that of Eliade in America. Dumont discovered Guénon while a rebellious dropout in artistic circles in Paris in the early 1930s. He then completed his education and also learned Sanskrit while a prisoner of war in Germany between 1939 and 1945. After the war he earned a Ph.D., taught social anthropology for four years at Oxford, and from 1955 until the late 1970s occupied the chair of Indian sociology at the Sorbonne. In this capacity he trained many of France’s future sociologists and Indologists. His Homo hierarchicus of 1966 was, by general agreement, his most important book. In it Dumont developed an altogether Traditionalist conception of Indian society as representing a traditional norm of religiously based hierarchy, a conception that he later contrasted unfavorably with modern individualism in his Essais sur l’individualisme [Studies on Individualism]. This contrast was further developed by Dumont and a small number of followers who formed a research “team” within France’s Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifiques. This team attempted to found a “French school of sociology” but achieved only limited recognition; it might be regarded as a rare example of an officially recognized soft traditionalist group in academia.
Dumont and his criticism of modern individualism became popular in the 1970s and 1980s among French writers and intellectuals opposed to the currents that they saw emerging from 1968, notably structuralism and quasi-Marxist currents in sociology. Those in France calling for a return to “traditional values” and attacking “modern individualism” frequently drew on Dumont, often—according to one commentator—without having actually read him.
Guénon also appealed to another French educator of a very different type, Rabbi Léon Askénazi, director of the Gilbert Bloch School at Orsay (just outside Paris) and a master of the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition. It is not known how Askénazi encountered the work of Gue´non, but it probably happened after his first arrival in France, in 1944, as a 22-year-old chaplain in the Free French Army. Askénazi was born and brought up in Algeria, where his father was later the chief rabbi, in both traditional and modern circles. His parents were from old scholarly families. They spoke informally in Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-Spanish, formally in classical Hebrew, and publicly in French. Askénazi himself was educated in Oran’s French lycée, and then after his war service at the Sorbonne in Paris and finally at the Musée de l’homme, where he studied ethnology and anthropology under Claude Lévy-Strauss.
What Askénazi took from Guénon was his analysis of tradition and modernity, some of his vocabulary, and his understanding of tradition as intimately related with the esoteric. Askénazi’s original interest in Kabbala as the esoteric aspect of the Jewish tradition, however, derived not from Guénon but from his maternal grandfather, a well-known master of the Kabbala. The Kabbala remained widespread and respected in the North African Jewish circles of Askénazi’s origin, even though European Jews mostly rejected it as obscurantist.
Although Askénazi was influential in spreading a view of Kabbala as a respectable and proper element of the Jewish tradition and of Western modernity as inherently defective, he did not spread Traditionalism proper. He died in 1996. His later followers know Guénon only as one writer among many in whom Aske´nazi was interested, and they do not attach any particular importance to him. The next generation was educated mostly in orthodox Yeshivot
Askénazi followed the Traditionalists in their diagnosis of modernity, seeing it as a final stage in the cycle that led inexorably to the apocalypse, but he differed in his prescription. Although he could sympathize with Islam more easily than with Christianity—which seemed to him irredeemably polytheistic, even pagan—what astonished him, according to a close follower, was how the other Traditionalists failed to see what was in front of their noses: that the primordial tradition did not need to be recovered but was there, intact and easily available, in Judaism. He supposed that the Traditionalists’ lack of interest in Judaism resulted from some form of anti-Semitism, and he even wondered whether Guénon himself might have been of Jewish origin, since “Guénoun” is a common Sephardic surname. Judaism’s firm rejection of other religious traditions acts, it would seem, as a bar to the development of full-blown Jewish Traditionalism.
Hartung’s Institut des Sciences et Techniques Humaines
After Henri Hartung left Schuon and divorced his first wife (who remained with Schuon), he began a new career as an educator, establishing an up-market night school in Paris, the Ecole supérieure d’orientation [Institute for Education—the French title does not really translate], initially to prepare students for entry to various prestigious institutions of higher education. This was a similar project to the Colle`ge Rollin that Guénon had entered in 1904. The Ecole supérieure d’orientation’s philosophy was based on Hartung’s observation that many students left high school with plenty of information but little idea of what to do with it. Hartung accordingly taught not just the subjects required for the various entrance examinations, but also formation générale (general education) in the “humane sciences”—logic, self-expression, and the like. Though such an approach is widespread today, it was extremely innovative in 1950s France.
In 1924, in Orient et Occident, Guénon argued for the revitalization of Western spirituality by an elite formed for that purpose, so as to avert the cataclysmic collapse of Western civilization. In 1966, Hartung argued for spiritual revitalization as a component of cultural growth, and for cultural growth as an element of the continuing education of business executives, and for continuing education on grounds of France’s economic competitiveness and also on more humane grounds. On the face of it, Hartung’s strategy was a sound one: the danger of lack of economic competitiveness worried far more people in 1966 than did the danger of the cataclysmic collapse of Western civilization. In addition to recasting one of Guénon’s central arguments in “soft” terms, Hartung also blended his own form of spiritual revitalization into courses at the ISTH. By 1968 these had been attended by 12,000 French executives and 6,000 other pupils (senior public administrators and the like).
To what extent these 18,000 alumni of the ISTH had absorbed “a cultural base which they seemed very clearly to lack,” let alone a spiritual base, is impossible to say. Hartung himself concluded that he had failed. This conclusion was one consequence of the “events” of May 1968, when a popular revolution at one point seemed about to destroy the French republic. On the evening of May 24, 1968, Henri Hartung went out to walk through the streets of Paris. After watching clashes between student revolutionaries and CRS riot police at the Pont Neuf, he went home and spent the rest of the night pacing
the floor of his apartment. That evening was as important a turning point in his life as had been reading Guénon’s Introduction générale in 1939 or his meeting with Ramana Maharshi in 1947. He realized that he had ended up on the wrong side of the barricades and that “a man can only accept a lie in renouncing his own dignity.”
De Séligny’s Institut Scientifique d’Instruction et d’Education
If “deviation” dominated the end of the Maryamiyya in Bloomington, “deviation” was present from the start in one of the strangest independent applications of Traditionalism, that made by Paul de Se´ligny, a Mauritian of French descent who became a minor 1960s guru—and for some a notorious one. De Se´ligny had become a Traditionalist in France in the late 1920s or early 1930s, probably in 1927 or 1928 like so many others, and may have visited Guénon in Cairo. He entered the Alawiyya Order in Morocco in 1939 or 1940, though it is not clear exactly how;76 there was then a small Schuonian group in Morocco, including Jean-Victor Hocquard, with which he was connected. Hocquard, a musicologist who had joined Schuon’s Alawiyya in 1938 or 1939, abandoned the Alawiyya and Islam for his original Catholicism in about 1945 and lost contact with de Séligny. Both Hocquard and de Séligny remained in Morocco, however; the former taught at the Lycée in Tangier while the latter became a seed merchant, also in Tangier.
A new Traditionalist branch of the Alawiyya then came into being, led by de Séligny, consisting of Hocquard, his children and other family members, and a few others. It was, however, an unusual branch. De Séligny went even further than the later Schuon did, immediately exempting his followers from the need to follow any aspect of the Sharia and teaching a Perennialism more Hindu than Islamic. His way, he explained, was “an intellectual way, not a mystic way.” Its central practice was “the Work” (le travaille), a simplified form of dhikr involving the repetition of the Islamic Confession of Faith.
The devotion of de Séligny’s followers had tragic consequences—broken marriages and abandoned children. They are explicable in terms of de Se´ligny’s possibly unintentional development of standard spiritual techniques. He started as a Sufi shaykh, and the followers of any Sufi shaykh are expected to place the utmost trust in their guide. The community surrounding the shaykh insulates the Sufi from the distractions of the outside world, and ascesis— including fasting—strengthens the will against temptation. In de Séligny’s case, his followers came to fear abandonment by “the boss” (patron, as he styled himself ) above all else, and the slightest sign of disloyalty or hesitation led either to terrifying indications of de Se´ligny’s displeasure or to the threat of ostracism by his other followers. The community surrounding de Séligny was so tight that it cut individuals off entirely from normal life, and so from the realization that their behavior was increasingly bizarre. The community would also rally round to help any doubting individual through any episode of “weakness.” The need to confront constant hunger further narrowed the vision, excluding anything that might distract the follower from de Séligny himself. And finally, de Séligny’s modified dhikr seemed to work, even to those who were losing confidence in him personally. Something similar seems to have happened, in less extreme fashion, among Schuon’s followers at Inverness Farms.
Part IV. Traditionalism and the Future
II. Europe after 1968
The 1960s were clearly the major cultural and intellectual turning point of the Western twentieth century, perhaps even more than 1914–18. Post-1960s Traditionalism, like the post-1960s West, was different from what came before it. Just as the Renaissance, which Traditionalists abhor as the death of the Western esoteric tradition, saw the birth of the Perennialism that lies at the heart of Traditionalism itself, and just as 1914–18 ushered in Traditionalism at the same time that the old Europe disappeared, so the cultural revolution of the 1960s gave new energy to Traditionalism and was the start of the contemporary Traditionalist movement.
The late twentieth century saw a phenomenal growth in the public appetite for religious and spiritual alternatives. This appetite was fed at first by such quintessentially 1960s figures as Alan Watts in America, and, most importantly, Louis Pauwels in much of Europe. Less important but still influential in France was Raymond Abellio, who in the 1970s became a popular broadcaster first on radio and then on television.
Pauwels was not himself a Traditionalist—if anything he was a follower of Gurdjieff—but his interest in Traditionalism is visible in Le matin des magiciens as well as in his choice of Guénon as the subject of the second issue of Planète-plus. Like Hartung and Abellio, Pauwels was a Resistance veteran and a skilled communicator: before launching Planète, he had edited the Resistance journal Combat and then the major women’s glossy magazine Marie-France, and after the Planète empire collapsed in the early 1970s (fashion had moved on) he went on to the leading national daily Le Figaro, from which in 1978 he launched the Figaro Magazine. Though not primarily a Traditionalist, Pauwels was responsible for spreading simplified Traditionalism throughout Latin Europe. The period of Planète’s success coincided with a significant increase in sales of Guénon’s works.
AlanWatts, an English ex-priest and later the guru of American Zen, knew of Traditionalism, but Traditionalism was not especially important to him. His responsibility for introducing a young American, Eugene Rose (later Seraphim Rose), to Traditionalism was entirely accidental. Rose had met Watts in 1953 while an undergraduate student at Pomona College in Southern California, where Watts was then teaching. He followed Watts to the American Academy of Asian Studies, where he found some of Guénon’s books in the library. After a period of immersion in the early San Francisco “counterculture,” Rose found that he preferred Guénon to Watts. In the words of Rose’s biographer, “While Guénon had attempted to study Eastern religions within their own context, Watts seemed [to Rose] to be trying to make them digestible to Westerners. The ‘Buddhism’ he espoused as a remedy for the spiritual malaise of the West was thus an unauthentic, synthesized expression of that tradition, streamlined to cater to the modern mentality of self-worship.” In other words, Guénon convinced Rose that Watts’s informal group, to which he belonged, was “counterinitiatic.”
As an Orthodox Christian, and after 1965 as an ordained reader, Rose concluded that “each tradition possesses truth, beyond doubt, but in varying measures . . . the ‘equality’ and ‘transcendent unity’ of religions is a notion from the modernist ‘simplistic’ mentality.” Traditionalism was not the full answer: “For all the ‘wisdom’ of Coomaraswamy, Guénon, and the lesser wise men of today, we seem near to an even greater collapse. . . . Christ requires us not to ‘understand,’ but to suffer, die, and arise to Life in Him.” Rose did not, however, reject Traditionalism entirely. It remained part of his personal philosophy in the 1970s, when he replied to a Traditionalist who had written to him: “I only pray that you will take what is good from him [Guénon] and not let his limitations chain you.”
It is clear from his Foucault’s Pendulum, for example, that Umberto Eco is very familiar with Traditionalism, but it seems to have had no effect on his writings or his life.
Later Traditionalist Groups
The list of late twentieth-century groups incorporating Traditionalism in one way or another could go on and on. Most are located in France and Italy, the two countries where Traditionalism first became established, and in Spain, where Traditionalism became increasingly popular as that country enthusiastically caught up with the rest of the West after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975. In all these areas and in parts of Latin America Traditionalism spawned study centers, journals, and Masonic orders. Amateur philosophers began to meet to discuss Traditionalism in Guénon’s native Blois. An Argentine in Barcelona started a successful “university by mail,” with Traditionalism occupying an important place on the syllabus. Small, eccentric groups of
Frenchman applied Traditionalism to Royalism and even to homosexuality.
Hartung’s Centre de Rencontres Spirituelles et de Méditation
Typical of later Traditionalism is Henri Hartung’s post-1968 project, a Centre de rencontres spirituelles et de méditation (Spiritual meeting and meditation center), established in Fleurier, Switzerland, in 1977. Though modest by the standards of Hartung’s earlier projects, the center had its own premises and by the 1980s counted 60 official members, all of whom participated in its administration (Hartung remained a leftist). It ran retreats and lectures, usually attended by several hundred nonmembers, Swiss and French—Fleurier is near the French border, easily accessible by train from Paris. The center’s newsletter, Diagonale, at one point had a circulation of 500.
Like Rose, Hartung cannot be described as a Traditionalist in the way that Schuon and Vâlsan can. Traditionalism was only one element in his public teaching, and for his followers was a stepping-stone of which they probably not even aware.
Small is Beautiful
Another instance of Traditionalism’s partial passage into the general culture of the West was one of the most successful books of the 1970s, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), by E. F. Schumacher. Small Is Beautiful sold several million copies—partly as a result of its inspired title, the suggestion of Schumacher’s publisher. In his Règne de la quantite´ [The Reign of Quantity] 1945), Guénon argued that one of the central characteristics of the kali yuga was the replacement of quality by quantity.
Schumacher, like Hartung, identifies the wretchedness produced by inversion: “If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, . . . if whole societies become infected by these vices, . . . actual people . . . find themselves oppressed by increasing frustration, alienation, insecurity and so forth.” The proper basis for economics was, Schumacher implied, spiritual— what he called “Buddhist economics,” recognizing that “the teachings of Christianity, Islam or Judaism could have been used just as well as those of any other of the great Eastern traditions.” “Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in the multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.”
Schumacher was an appreciative reader of Traditionalist works but was not himself a Traditionalist; he was a disciple less of Gue´non than of Gurdjieff (like Pauwels), following a spiritual path within Buddhism and finally converting to Catholicism.
The Poet and the Prince
One of the most successful European attempts to introduce Traditionalism to the general public was sponsored by the English poet and literary critic Kathleen Raine. While Raine was an undergraduate student at Cambridge in the late 1920s, an interest in William Blake led her to Blake’s sources, which she found included the original Perennialists of the Renaissance, including Marcilio Ficino. She also identified similar sources behind Coomaraswamy’s friend William Butler Yeats, whom she held to be “not a great poet ‘in spite of ’ his studies in esoteric fields, but because of his great knowledge and learning in these fields of excluded knowledge.” These conclusions were received unenthusiastically by British academics, and Raine might have been dismissed as a crank were it not for the stature given her by her own poetry, the first collection of which—Stone and Flower—was published in 1943, with illustrations by Barbara Hepworth. Eighteen more volumes were published over the rest of the century, and in 1993 she was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
In 1980 Raine and three apparently Schuonian Traditionalists (Keith Critchlow, Phillip Sherrard, and Brian Keeble) together established Temenos: A Review of the Arts of the Imagination. “We did not use the word ‘sacred,’ since had we done so no-one would have taken us seriously,” explained Raine later, but the clue was there in the title: temenos in Classical Greek denoted the sacred center, usually of a place of worship. Temenos was from the first a somewhat Traditionalist journal, but never exclusively so.
Aristasia is the post-1980s name of a group which, in slightly different form, was earlier known as The Romantics and The Olympians. It was started in the English university city of Oxford in the late 1960s by a female academic who used the name of “Hester StClare.” StClare was born in the 1920s; other details of her career are unknown. A Traditionalist, in the late 1960s she began to gather a group of younger women, mostly Oxford students, who were dismayed by the “cultural collapse” of that decade. They took Gue´non one stage further: worse even than modernity was the “inverted society,” the postmodern, contemporary era produced by the cultural collapse of the 1960s, an event often referred to by Aristasians as “the Eclipse.” Inverted society—often referred to as “the Pit”—stands in much the same relation to modernity as modernity stood to tradition, argued “Alice Trent,” StClare’s most important follower. Not all that was produced before the Eclipse was worthless—Beethoven andWordsworth are clearly not “malignant aberrations,” for example. Each phase in the cycle of decline may produce developments that, while “of a lower order than was possible to previous phases, . . . nonetheless are good and beautiful in their own right.” Nothing produced after the Eclipse is of any worth at all, however (though theoretically something might be). In practice, all in the Pit is inversion—“the deliberate aim [is] an inverted parody of all that should be.” The higher classes imitate the lowest, “family life and personal loyalty” are replaced by “a cult of ‘personal independence,’ ” and even the earlier achievements of modernity are lost, as crime and illiteracy increase. Chaos is preferred to harmony in art and dress, and masculinity replaces femininity.
Aristasian Traditionalism is presented more seriously in Trent’s book The Feminine Universe. This book, aimed at the general reader, deals, for example, with Nietzsche before Gue´non, and uses historical arguments with some skill. Aristasianism has also received some coverage in the British press and on television.
12. Neo-eurasianism in Russia
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought a version of Western modernity to Russia and also brought to Russian politics an unusual variety of Traditionalism: Neo-Eurasianism. This ideology was developed by the centrally important Traditionalist Alexander Dugin and at first appealed principally to those sections of Russian society that rejected President Boris Yeltsin’s policies and the idea of transforming Russia into some variety of liberal, democratic state on reasonable terms with the West. As the Russian political environment changed under President Vladimir Putin, Neo-Eurasianism moved from the margins into the political mainstream.
Early Traditionalism in URSS and Russia
Although Traditionalism was of necessity limited to dissident circles until the era of Perestroika, there were already Russian Traditionalists in the 1960s. Traditionalism first entered the Soviet Union through the Lenin Library in Moscow, which, for unknown reasons, was unusually well stocked with Traditionalist writers. The attention of Yevgeny Golovin, a Russian poet known only to the circle of dissident or “independent” intellectuals he led, was drawn to these Traditionalist writers in 1962 or 1963 by references in Louis Pauwels’s Le matin des magiciens—a distant echo of Pauwels’s popularization of Traditionalism in Western Europe.
Golovin’s interest in Traditionalism passed to his circle, one of many such small circles of intellectuals then to be found throughout the Soviet Union. Disenchanted with the increasingly stale orthodoxies of late Soviet Marxism-Leninism, these dissident or “independent” intellectuals inhabited the margins of Soviet life, boycotting institutions such as the Communist Party and Komsomols, membership of which was a requirement for access to jobs in areas such as academia and journalism where intellectuals normally work. Instead they worked as statisticians, librarians, or even street cleaners. Following an established Russian practice, they would meet in each others’ flats or kitchens to talk and drink, but also to read and discuss philosophical, literary, and poetic works, sometimes circulated in samizdat (self-publishing, homemade copies) and sometimes of their own composition. Alternative music also flourished in this environment; Western genres such as rock and punk, frowned upon by the Soviet establishment, thus later acquired an intellectual respectability unknown in their countries of origin. Many of these intellectuals taught themselves foreign languages (often from parallel texts). Their self-education in the humanities frequently reached levels far beyond those commonly achieved by the self-taught in the West.
Golovin’s Soviet-era circle included Gaydar Jamal and Alexander Dugin, who became Russia’s two most important Traditionalists. Jamal, who joined the circle in 1967, was a Muscovite of Azerbaijani origins whose education and upbringing were secular and Soviet rather than Islamic. As a young man, he had immersed himself in the library of philosophical works left by his maternal grandfather, an Ottoman Turk who migrated to Russia and participated in the October Revolution on the Bolshevik side and and who then taught at the prestigious State Institute for Theatrical Arts. Dugin, who joined the circle in about 1980, was the son of a colonel in the Soviet army.
Golovin’s circle seems to have attracted little official attention, although Jamal reportedly was committed to a mental institution more than once (then a standard way of controlling dissidents). The KGB evidently came to tolerate such informal circles, within certain limits—limits which Dugin evidently exceeded. In 1983 the authorities learned of a party in a painter’s studio where Dugin had played the guitar and sung what he called “mystical anti-Communist songs,” and Dugin was briefly detained. The KGB found forbidden literature in his room, principally books by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Mamleyev (the novelist mentioned earlier, who had been in Golovin’s circle but emigrated to America before Dugin joined).10 Dugin was expelled from the Institute of Aviation, where he was then studying. He found employment as a street sweeper and continued reading in the Lenin Library with a forged reader’s card.
Traditionalism under Perestroika
The period of Perestroika12 (1986–91) was in many ways a golden era for the “independent” intellectual. Quite unexpectedly, the previously unthinkable became possible and even popular. Restrictions were lifted; new areas became open to those without Communist Party membership; new ideas could be expressed. In 1988 the Bulletin of the Estonian Oriental Society even published a translation (by Udam) of Gue´non’s “Cycles cosmiques.”
It was during Perestroika that Russian Traditionalists first took active steps. In 1987 Dugin and Jamal together joined Pamyat' (Memory), later described by Dugin as “the most reactionary organization available.” They hoped to influence it toward Traditionalism, rather as Eliade had hoped to use the Legion of the Archangel Michael in Romania, and Evola had hoped to use the Fascists, the Herrenclub, and the SS.
Dugin’s and Jamal’s attempts at infiltration of Pamyat' were no more successful than had been Eliade’s or Evola’s similar efforts earlier. Seminars they gave attracted respectable audiences (up to 100 people), and Dugin was appointed to Pamyat'’s Central Council in late 1988,18 but in 1989 they gave up and left Pamyat'; Dugin later described its members as “hysterics, KGB collaborators, and schizophrenics.”
For Dugin, who was once arrested by the KGB as a dissident, to become an associate of Zyuganov, leader of the CPRF, was a surprising transformation. As we will see, there was later a second transformation of similar magnitude, when Dugin began to move from the sphere of the CPRF toward the political mainstream under President Putin. These transformations did not indicate inconsistency on Dugin’s part. Like Evola, Dugin’s primary loyalty was to his own ideology, not to other people’s political movements.
By his own account, Dugin was so disgusted by the crowds in Moscow calling for
democracy, freedom, and the market that he finally found himself to be pro-Soviet, at the very point when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Dugin’s first modification was to “correct” Guénon’s understanding of Orthodox Christianity, drawing a parallel with Coomaraswamy’s earlier “correction” of Guénon’s views on Buddhism. This correction is most clearly articulated in his Metafisiki blagoivesti: pravoslavnyi esoterizm [Metaphysics of the Gospel: Orthodox Esotericism] (1996). Here Dugin argues that the Christianity that Guénon rejected was Western Catholicism. Guénon was right in rejecting Catholicism but wrong in rejecting Eastern Orthodoxy, of which he knew little. According to Dugin, Orthodoxy, unlike Catholicism, had never lost its initiatic validity and so remained a valid tradition to which a Traditionalist might turn. Dugin then proceeded to translate much of the Traditionalist philosophy into Orthodox terms. Thus reoriented, Dugin’s Traditionalism led not to Sufism as the esoteric practice of Islam, but to Russian Orthodoxy as both an esoteric and an exoteric practice. Dugin’s second modification of Traditionalism was to combine it with a doctrine known as Geopolitics or Eurasianism. This doctrine has something in common with the views expressed in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. It sees conflict between blocs as inevitably produced by “objective” factors, not cultural ones as in Huntington’s thesis but rather geographical ones. Geopolitical theory pits an Atlantic bloc, comprising maritime nations predisposed toward free trade and democratic liberalism, against a central and eastern continental Eurasian bloc, more inclined toward centralism and spirituality.
Dugin’s Political Activities
In 1991 Dugin began to write in Prokhanov’s newspaper Den' [Today]. He found Prokhanov “a statist patriot” but one unusually open to fresh ideas. The ideas that Prokhanov allowed Dugin to publicize in Den' were those of Evola and Guénon, and also of the Western European New Right: “anti-capitalists” (Dugin’s phrase) such as Claudio Mutti, an Italian Muslim Evolian, and Alain de Benoist, the preeminent intellectual leader of the French New Right.
Dugin and the Red-to-Browns
Neo-Eurasianism is a more inclusive form of nationalism better suited to Russian conditions. The Eurasian bloc, led by Russia, would include not only the whole of the Russian Federation but, in most interpretations, areas such as Ukraine and Belarus. In some views it would also include not just the territories of the former USSR, but also most of the Islamic world.
Relations between Russia and the Islamic world were a central paradox in Opposition and Neo-Eurasian thought. On the one hand, events in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Chechnya and Moscow itself in the 1990s might have been expected to produce considerable hostility toward Islam and Islamism in the Russian army and general public, and anti-Islamic feeling was both encouraged and utilized by both President Yeltsin and President Putin. A certain amount of racist feeling against “black arses” from the Caucasus was general, and sometimes it resulted in racist attacks. Similar racist feeling has been routinely exploited by important sections of the extreme right in the West. On the other hand, the Soviet Union had long cultivated friendly relations with
the Arab world, tending to see Middle Eastern states as actual or potential allies against America.
The role within the Opposition of Neo-Eurasianism, and so of Dugin himself, was central. This was the view of many Western observers, especially after Dugin’s best-selling book, Osnovi geopolitiki: geopoliticheskoye budushchee Rossii [Geopolitical Foundations: The Geopolitical Future of Russia] (1997). Osnovi geopolitiki was Dugin’s most important and successful work. In 1997 it “was a topic of hot discussion among military and civilian analysts at a wide range of institutes . . . [though one observer’s] impression was that there was more discussion than actual reading.” The interest of the Russian military in Dugin’s book meant that much attention was also paid to it in specialized circles abroad. Dugin had already published “Geopolitics as Destiny” in the April 25, 1997, issue of Krasnaya Zvezda [Red Star], the army newspaper, and Osnovi geopolitiki also received the endorsement of the army, or at least of Lieutenant-General Nikolai Pavlovich Klotov, an instructor at the General Staff ’s Military Academy, a forum where Dugin had previously spoken at the invitation of Colonel-General Igor Nikolaevich Rodionov, later a minister of defense under President Yeltsin. Osnovi geopolitiki argued for an alliance with Islam. It also argued for the creation of a Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo axis to combat the American Atlantic threat, and for the return to Germany of Russia’s Kalingrad enclave (the erstwhile Königsberg) and the return to Japan of the Kuril Islands, both taken by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Second World War. “The correlation between Dugin’s ideas and those of the Russian establishment,” wrote Charles Clover in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, “is too stark to be ignored.” Clover cited as evidence the Russian suggestion in 1998 that the Kuril Islands might be returned to Japan, and Russia’s rapprochement with Iran and Iraq. Both can be explained quite satisfactorily, of course, without reference to Dugin or Traditionalism, but it is clear that Dugin’s ideas seemed less eccentric to their Russian than to their Western audience.
Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism is not specifically or overtly Traditionalist. Although Traditionalist influences can easily be identified by the informed reader, the word “tradition” does not appear in the glossary of his Osnovi geopolitiki, for example, and no Traditionalist or other philosophical authors are in the extracts from classic texts included in the book, which lead with Halford Mackinder. The successful Osnovi geopolitiki, then, is another example of soft Traditionalism.
The National Bolshevik Party
There are undoubtedly elements of humor, reminiscent of Limonov’s fiction, about the National Bolshevik Party. Its political program, for example, included the right of the party member not to listen while his girlfriend was talking to him, and the party’s instructions on appropriate behavior in a cinema (visiting Western movies in groups of fifteen and vandalizing the auditorium) were surely not intended to be taken entirely seriously. What is one to make of the promise that “We shall crush the criminal world. Its best representatives will enter the service of nation and state. The rest will be annihilated by military means”? The party salute—the right arm raised for fascism with the fist clenched for Bolshevism, accompanied by a cry of “Da, smert' ” (Death: yes!)—also had a hint of farce about it. These elements of the absurd clearly added to the National Bolshevik’s countercultural appeal. Though it never admitted it, the National Bolshevik Party was more the embodiment of an attitude than it was a serious political organization. While the National Bolsheviks do take some action (individual National Bolsheviks have on occasion been arrested for minor acts of vandalism and breaches of the peace or, in Latvia, for drug offenses), the party’s claim to aim at absolute power perhaps needs to be taken with a grain of salt. If the National Bolsheviks did by some unexpected means come to power, it is inconceivable that they could exercise that power in anything remotely approaching their current form. The real importance of the National Bolshevik Party for Dugin was that for some years it was the base for his public appearances and his writing and publishing.
After Dugin left the National Bolshevik Party, the base for his activities became his own publishing house, Arktogeya (named after a Nordic version of Atlantis). Arktogeya published some translations of Western Traditionalists, nine of Dugin’s books (he usually wrote two books a year between 1993 and 1997), and some novels of Gustav Meyrink, the “fantastic” early twentieth-century German writer from Prague, who was much interested in magic and the occult.
The Eurasia Movement and Party
By 2000 as the firmer hand of President Vladimir Putin gave Russian political life a measure of certainty that contrasted favorably with the drift and very visible corruption of the late Yeltsin years, it was clear that the Opposition was becoming increasingly marginal. The National Bolshevik Party received a terminal blow when Limonov was imprisoned for illegal possession of firearms and other similar groups began to break up. Even the CPRF seemed doomed, too dependent on elderly voters and too mired in its Soviet past. Dugin concluded that the Opposition in general and the CPRF in particular were getting nowhere and would get nowhere. The CPRF seemed to him to have been absorbed into the system it was meant to be opposing, and despite its flirtation with Neo-Eurasianism, its nationalism remained too much based on Russian ethnicity. Although Dugin continued to publish his “Yevraziyskoye Vtorzheniye” supplement in Prokhanov’s Zavtra, his main focus shifted to what he called “radical centrism.” This new position, publicly adopted in 2001 with the foundation of a Eurasia Movement, was centrist in that it endorsed President Putin as a patriot who appeared committed to the restoration of Russian power and receptive to the idea of Russia as a Eurasian power. It was radical in that Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism was central to the Eurasia Movement, and in that the liberal elements in Putin’s political program were tolerated rather than endorsed.
Dugin established his Eurasia Movement with three varieties of support, two of which made it a far more serious organization than the National Bolshevik Party. First were a number of fellow Traditionalists, including two members of the original Soviet-era dissident circle of Yevgeny Golovin: Golovin himself and Yuri Mamleyev, the novelist whose books had gotten Dugin into trouble with the KGB when he was a student at the Institute of Aviation. The second variety of support came from respected individuals such as Dr Alexander Panarin, a prominent political scientist who held the chair of political science at Moscow State University. The third came from figures close to the Kremlin and from intelligence officers. There were many rumors that Putin’s close aide Gleb Pavlovsky sponsored the Eurasia Movement in one way or another, but Pavlovsky was not officially a member of the movement. Formal members did, however, include the well-known television personality Mikhail Leontyev, said to be “the president’s favorite journalist,” and Mufti Talgat Taj al-Din, the shaykh al-Islam of Russia.
Dugin’s movement followed Neo-Eurasian theory in being multiconfessional. In addition to Mufti Taj al-Din there were representatives of Russia’s three other established religions—Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Buddhism. Given the close relations between the Orthodox hierarchy and the Kremlin, Orthodox participation reflected the centrist more than the radical element in Dugin’s approach. Radicalism rather than centrism was visible in the movement’s representative of Judaism, Rabbi Avraam Shmulevich, but the religions that really mattered were Orthodoxy and Islam.
The significance of Traditionalism and of Neo-Eurasianism for Russian politics still remains to be seen. Since 1991, Neo-Eurasianism has been growing in importance in the evolving discourse on Russia’s future, a discourse in which alternatives to Western-style liberal democracy have significant support. Dugin may be going too far in seeing Gue´non as an unrealized Marx (a parallel that might cast Dugin as a new Lenin, though Dugin himself does not draw this second parallel). He has, however, clearly demonstrated that “soft” Traditionalism can exercise significant influence in Russian political life.
The MAOF Analytic Group of Vladimir Bukarsky which is loosely aligned with a number of other ultranationalist groups to the right of the Likud Party, was established in 1997 to promote nationalism among Russian immigrants by means of pamphlets, seminars, and guided tours of Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza (the Occupied Territories). It has a large website, entirely in Russian, and one of the 24 categories there is devoted to Neo-Eurasianism, with articles by Dugin and other writers on familiar Neo-Eurasian themes. Neo-Eurasian views are also to be found in the more recent writings of Bukarsky elsewhere. This group appears to be interested only in propagating its views, not in any direct action.
The more important group is Be’ad Artzeinu, which in 2002 claimed several hundred members, all of Russian origin. Two of its leaders were in Moscow for the founding congress of the Eurasia Movement, Rabbi Avraam Shmulevich and Avigdor Eskin, both Israeli citizens of Russian origin. At present, Be’ad Artzeinu has launched only one action—a protest outside the Latvian embassy in Tel Aviv in April 2001—but the previous activities of Eskin suggest that other actions may be expected.
Shmulevich and Eskin are Neo-Eurasianists rather than Traditionalists, and there is no evidence that either of them has ever read Gue´non. Even their Neo-Eurasianism is a consequence rather than a cause of their other activities—Eskin’s stance preceded the development of Neo-Eurasianism, and his first known political activity was in 1979, when, at age 19, he and three other young settlers were arrested for breaking into Palestinian houses in Hebron, where they “overturned furniture and assaulted inhabitants.” Three years later, in 1981, Eskin was again arrested, this time during a protest in front of the Soviet Airline Aeroflot’s offices in New York, and charged with “rioting, unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct and attempted criminal mischief.” The Israeli Neo-Eurasianists represent a development of Dugin’s activities that can not even be described as “soft” Traditionalism. To the extent that they make use of an ideology partly derived from Traditionalism, however, they too are descended—albeit indirectly—from Gue´non’s work.
13. The Islamic World
The first country in the Islamic World to encounter Traditionalism was Iran. Though the Islamic Revolution ended Nasr’s activities there, Traditionalism survived the revolution and by the end of the twentieth century had come to play a role in the public debate on the future direction of the Islamic Republic. Traditionalism had by that time also appeared in the general discourse of other Islamic countries, notably Turkey and Malaysia, and in the Russian Federation, which has a significant and long-established Muslim population. In the Arab world, however, Traditionalism remained in general absent from public discourse. In Algeria it was dismissed as irrelevant, and in Morocco it played a role closer to that in the West, providing answers to the individual spiritual searches of some Westernized Moroccans but having no discernible impact on the wider
Guénon in North Africa
Rachid ben Eissa, launched a series of workshops for university students that aimed to wean young Algerians away from socialist materialism and thereby to start an Islamic renaissance within Algeria. Their main speaker was Algeria’s leading Islamist intellectual, Malek Bennabi, and a guest speaker was Roger Garaudy, then a member of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party and later France’s most famous convert to Islam—and, incidentally, an enthusiast of Guénon. Traditionalist analyses were the center of Ben Eissa’s attack on modernity. Given the FLN’s hold over Algeria’s cultural and intellectual life, it would have been hard if not impossible to hold such workshops independently, so Ben Eissa created an Office for Islamic Sociological Studies in the Ministry of Education which allowed him to arrange the workshops in the ministry’s name (they were usually held in public schools during school vacations). These workshops operated every summer from 1969, lasting for three or four days and attracting some 120 to 140 students each. Most of the students had a technical or natural
sciences background—humanities students were abandoned as a lost cause.
Traditionalism did not take root in Algeria. After expressing some initial interest, Bennabi concluded that Guénon and other Traditionalists spoke to the problems of the West, not to the problems of Algeria, which in his view were political and economic more than spiritual. Interest in an Islamic solution to these problems—that is, in Islamism, or radical political Islam—grew, and interest in Traditionalism declined. Ben Eissa’s workshops were discontinued, and Ben Eissa left Algeria for a career abroad, finally ending up at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Ben Eissa’s cousin Hamza ben Eissa had written, in French, two books on modernity which were Traditionalist in every respect— Hamza ben Eissa even attempted, with some success, to reproduce Guénon’s own style. These books failed to find a publisher. Support for Algeria’s main Islamist group, the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front, FIS) produced an FIS victory in independent Algeria’s first free elections in 1991, and civil war the following year.
In Morocco, where political conditions were more relaxed and economic conditions less severe than in Algeria, Traditionalism was more successful. It played an important part in a Sufi renaissance among the elite that started in the 1970s, led by a Sufi order, the Budshishiyya. Even so, Guénon has never been translated into Arabic there, for much the same reasons that Ben Eissa abandoned the idea of a translation in Algeria. The Budshishiyya is not a Traditionalist order—its shaykh, Hamza ibn Abi‘l-Abbas, has never read Guénon, though he has certainly heard of him. However, in the view of Ahmad Qustas, a one-time muqaddam of the Budshishiyya for the important Fez region, the works of Gue´non played some part in bringing to the order almost all those of its members who come from what Qustas calls the “Francophone milieu”—that is, Moroccans educated in French, the elite who may speak the Moroccan dialect of Arabic at home but are more at ease reading in French than in Arabic.
In addition to being the most important Moroccan Traditionalist, Sqali is also a good example of how Traditionalism can bring modern Moroccans back to their origins, which according to Qustas is one of the major tasks of the Budshishiyya. Both Sqali’s grandfathers had been ulama (religious scholars) at the Qarawayyin in Fez (the leading institution of learning in the Islamic West), and Sufis as well, followers of a Moroccan branch of the Khalwatiyya Order. Sqali’s father, on the other hand, was a senior hospital administrator, bilingual in French and Arabic, a busy man who had no interest in Sufism (though he prayed the ritual prayers). Sqali’s schooling was entirely in French, at the Mission culturelle française in Fez, and his university education (from 1973) was at the University of Paris, where he studied sociology and from where he obtained a doctorat d’Etat (Ph.D.) in anthropology.
Both Sqali and Qustas, then, are Budshishi muqaddams familiar with Traditionalism. Qustas, though, cannot be considered a Traditionalist. He heard of Guénon from some English converts to Islam only after entering the Budshishiyya in 1975.14 He is not himself from the Francophone milieu but rather is the son of a Darqawi Sufi Imam, and for some time he taught in the Islamic Studies program at the Qarawayyin, now a university. He appreciates Guénon’s work and makes use of it in his current role as muqaddam for North America (his function, though the title does not exist), but it has no consequences for his own spiritual or intellectual life. On the contrary, he is extremely critical of those Traditionalists who become “stuck” in Perennialism and is dismissive of the utilitarian approach to the Sharia of many Traditionalists, stressing that the Sharia is the vessel that must hold the haqiqa (truth, God). A number of former Maryamis are among those Americans who have come to him and the Budshishiyya, and Qustas is therefore exceptionally well informed about the more scandalous aspects of the Maryamiyya’s later years; at one point he tried to convince some leading Maryamis that they should warn other Maryamis away from Schuon. In one sense, then, Traditionalism as a practice has no harsher critic than Qustas.
In contrast, there is still much of the Traditionalist about Sqali. On the one hand, he stresses that Traditionalism is one expression of spiritual truth but is not in any way a spiritual path. In his view it is confused with a spiritual path only by those who have insufficient spiritual experience, who have not properly encountered a real spiritual path. Sqali argues that it is not only the works of Guénon that present the risk of being taken for the definitive spiritual doctrine, that even Ibn al-Arabi can (but should not) be taken in this way. In his view, to take any single corpus as a definitive doctrine is incompatible with Sunni Islam; the definitive guide is the shaykh, in his own case shaykh Hamza.
On the other hand, Traditionalism was something more than a steppingstone for Sqali. He continued to read Gue´non and found that as he progressed in the Budshishiyya and as his own spiritual understanding deepened, so the works of Guénon meant more and more on each rereading. His Budshishi activities in France keep him in touch with the French Traditionalist milieu. He also has a private project for what might be called the retraditionalization of society—though he himself calls this project “Sufism’s contribution to society . . . from a traditional point of view.” This project is expressed in his participation in a number of associations with semi-Traditionalist objectives; he is also the founder and director of the annual Fez Festival of the Sacred Musics of the World. This festival has since 1994 grown in importance and size, in 2000 attracting not only Nasr but also Jacques Attali, a prominent French public figure with an interest in Islam; in 2001 it expanded to include a parallel conference, the first being on the theme of “A soul for globalization,” to which a wide range of international intellectual figures were invited. Sqali emphasizes the connection between the objectives of this festival and the past of the city of Fez, not only the spiritual and scholarly capital of the western Islamic world, but also a city where the three Abrahamic religions have flourished side by side. There is something of the Perennialist in this view.
Sqali became the Budshishi muqaddam for France while still a student. After joining the Budshishiyya and with the permission of his new shaykh, he returned to France to continue his education. He was given an ijaza by Shaykh Hamza almost immediately afterwards, and by 2000 the Budshishiyya had zawiyas in Paris, Strasbourg, Nantes, Montpelier, Aix-en-Provence, Nice, and Marseilles, some large and some small. The Marseilles zawiya included Le Derviche, an “oriental cafe´” open to the general public, incorporating a bookshop, library, and sales of oriental handicrafts. The Budshishiyya is one of France’s more important Sufi orders and is also beginning to expand into Spain, England, and the United States.
The Islamic Republic of Iran
Traditionalism played no public part in the early years of the Islamic Republic, as the turmoil of the war with Iraq and of the consolidation of the revolution shifted the focus from intellectual to practical matters. Nasr’s academy survived, without its imperial title—students went through the academy’s library whiting out the hated word “imperial” from the rubber stamps on the library books, and even from the title pages of past issues of the academy’s journal. It has been of little importance since, however, except in the academic study of philosophy, and today it is poorly funded in comparison with its glorious beginnings. It no longer has a journal or any publications, and the blue tiles are chipped in places. Some former members of the academy moved away from Tehran and politics. Ayatollah Ashtiyani, for example, went to the holy city of Mashhad, where he continued to teach Mulla Sadra; he had been an admirer of Khomeini as a philosopher, describing him as “the seal of the philosophers and gnostics of our time,” but had no interest in the revolution. The Imperial Academy’s former deputy director, Hadi Sharifi, moved to London, where he established and for many years ran the Furqan Foundation, a body that continued the academy’s interest in original texts by undertaking the monumental task of locating, preserving, and cataloging manuscripts of Islamic scholarship worldwide.
The Religious Pluralism Debate
In 1998 Traditionalism became more generally prominent as a side effect of a public debate on religious pluralism. This debate arose not because of any practical question concerning the status of religious minorities in the Islamic Republic, but because of the status of the man who started it, Soroush, and because of its implications for Iran’s reception of reformist ideas, ideas often associated with non-Muslim America. The religious pluralism debate was important as an intellectual reflection of the political struggle going on between the conservative forces represented by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, and the reformists, represented by President Khatemi.
The religious pluralism debate was started by Soroush in 1998 with an article which he later developed into a book. The article was provocatively entitled “Siratha-ye mustaqim” [Straight Paths (plural)], a reference to the Fatiha, in which believers ask God to guide them on the Straight Path (singular). In his article and book Soroush argued that truth is one. As he explained to an interviewer, “Truths everywhere are compatible; no truth clashes with any other truth. . . . One truth in one corner of the world has to be compatible with all truths elsewhere, or else it is not a truth.” This view, disarmingly simple though it may sound, has an implication made explicit in Soroush’s title: that more than one Path may be Straight, that Islam does not have a monopoly on truth.
Soroush’s article and book caused a stir. They also revived an interest in the Traditionalist theory of Transcendent Unity, which was aired during 1998–99 in a number of periodicals issued in Qom, starting in 1998 with Ma_rifat [Gnosis], the journal of the Imam Khomeini Research Institute. Also in 1998 Naqd ve Nazar [Commentary and Views], issued by the Office of Islamic Propaganda of the Qom Hawze, devoted a special issue to Transcendent Unity and to the Traditionalists. When the newly established Qom Center for Studies on Religion started a journal—Haft Aman [Seven Heavens]—in 1999, the first article in its first issue dealt with Traditionalist views on Transcendent Unity. All these articles were broadly supportive of Soroush’s overall conclusions about religious pluralism, though on their own, different bases.
The Future of Traditionalism in Iran
There have been only two known exceptions to the general toleration of Traditionalism in the Islamic Republic. One was the reaction of Husayn Ghaffari, a philosopher at Tehran University who at one point announced an intention to write against the Traditionalist conception of the Transcendent Unity of religions—but is not known actually to have written anything on this subject. The other was an article published in Ma_rifat in reply to the earlier article on Transcendent Unity in that journal. It attacked Traditionalism on two grounds: the origins of its ideas (which were traced back to Encausse and nineteenth-century French occultism, though not to Ficino) and the contradiction of the theory of Transcendent Unity by strict and classical interpretations of the Koran and hadith. Perhaps significantly, the author of this article was not a product of the Qom system but rather an American philosopher, Dr. Muhammad Legenhausen, who had taken a job at the Imam Khomeini Research Institute after teaching at Rice University.
Traditionalism in Turkey has not yet produced any of the features we have seen elsewhere. There is no equivalent of the Budshishiyya or of the Iranian Academy of Philosophy. Instead there is a definite and growing interest in Traditionalist works, fed by numerous translations, among intellectuals—the Turkish equivalent of the Moroccan Francophone milieu, though in Turkey this elite is not associated with proficiency in any foreign language. Its main marker is instead what in French is called laïcisme, the variety of secularism developed in France which implies not state neutrality to religion, but rather the active exclusion of religion from the public sphere.
Although occasional references indicate that a few Turkish intellectuals and writers had read some of Gue´non’s books in French by the 1940s, and there were occasional mentions of Gue´non during the 1970s (usually as a commentator on modernity), it was not until 1979 that the first Traditionalist writing appeared in Turkey. This was a translation of Guénon’s, “Le tawhid,” which appeared in Kubbealti Akademi Mecmuasi, a small-circulation journal covering mostly literary and historical topics, read primarily by academics and intellectuals. The translator was Mustafa Tahrali, who, like Sqali, had encountered Gue´non while studying in Paris (though earlier, during the 1960s) and had been in touch with Traditionalists there, notably Ahmad Vâlsan, the eldest son of Michel Vâlsan. On returning to Turkey after completing a Ph.D. thesis on the Rifa_iyya Sufi order at the Sorbonne in 1973, Tahrali taught in the theology department of Marmora University, finally becoming a professor and head of the section for the study of Sufism. Tahrali’s 1979 translation was the first of many. By the end of the twentieth century, Turks could read most of Guénon’s books as well as many of Evola’s and Eliade’s. Surprisingly, Evola was generally seen as a writer on spiritual rather than political topics, and his connections with the right were little known. Traditionalism has not had any political impact in Turkey.
Islamism in Russia
Islamic Traditionalism in Russia, like Dugin’s Eurasianism, derives from Golovin’s 1960s circle of dissidents. Like Dugin’s Eurasianism, Russian Islamic raditionalism is primarily political—in fact, Islamist rather than Islamic.
Gaydar Jamal became one of the founding members of the Party of the Islamic Renaissance (PIR), established in 1990 by Ahmad Qadi Aktaev in Astrakhan (a city on the Volga estuary in the Russian Federation). While far from being the largest or most important political organization of Muslims in the whole of the ex-USSR, the PIR is the only significant party to cover the whole of the Russian Federation; all other groups are regionally based. The PIR is thus of key importance in Russia proper, that is, outside the Muslim republics.
Radical Islamism and Traditionalism are in general incompatible; they take fundamentally different views of tradition, of the future of humanity, and of course of religions other than Islam. Possibly for this reason, Jamal has modified his own position to the extent that he can hardly be described any longer as purely Traditionalist—Dugin in fact described him privately as “post-Traditionalist.” He is critical of the apparent contradiction between Guénon’s practice of Islam and the concentration in his writing on Hinduism, and at least by implication he has criticized Evola for confusing the political with the spiritual. To some extent, then, Jamal should be regarded as one for whom Traditionalism became a stepping-stone rather than a destination.
The role played by Traditionalism in the IslamicWorld and Russia and the role commonly played by Traditionalism in the West differ fundamentally. In the West most Traditionalist groups are small and isolated, and Traditionalism remains marginal, even though many individual Traditionalists have addressed Western audiences effectively. With rare exceptions, the most successful books of Western Traditionalists have been “soft” and have not dealt with Traditionalism per se. Pure Traditionalism has only ever interested a tiny minority of the Western public, and the concerns of Western Traditionalists are generally marginal to the general discourse of the West. In Iran and Turkey and Russia, however, Traditionalists are much more integrated into their societies and take part in the mainstream discourse—or, in Russia, in the less prominent of two mainstream political discourses. This is less true in Morocco, where the pattern is closer to that in the West—because the element in Moroccan society that is interested in Traditionalism is itself close to the West.
It seems paradoxical that a philosophy that derives from the Italian Renaissance and was developed in early twentieth-century France and Switzerland should be more at home in contemporary Iran, Turkey, and Russia than in the West. A Traditionalist might argue that this apparent paradox reflects the difference between Western modernity and Islamic tradition. This explanation is not entirely satisfactory, however. Much of Iran was very modern at the time of the revolution, and Turkey is the Islamic world’s most selfconsciously modern country. Russia, though differing from the West in many important ways, is also a modern rather than a “traditional” country. The most traditional countries of the Islamic world have shown the least interest in Traditionalism.
Guénon is unknown in Egypt today, and Arabic is one of the few major languages in which almost no Traditionalist works are available. And neither Algerian nor Moroccan Traditionalists, in the end, considered that there was any point in making them available in that language. Iran and Turkey, in contrast to Egypt and non-Francophone Morocco, have an equivalent of Guénon’s Western audience—small but important. Russia has a larger one. It is not the presence of tradition in Iran and Turkey that allows Traditionalism into the intellectual mainstream, but the presence of modernity. Similarly, it is not the presence of modernity that excludes Traditionalism from mainstream Western discourse, but rather the absence of any real Western interest in some of the central questions that interested Guénon.
One such question is the one now beginning to be asked in Turkey for the first time since the nineteenth century and is of pressing concern in Russia: East or West? Another is a central question for Iran today—modernization, or isolation for the sake of traditional religion? These are the very questions that Guénon’s original writings addressed.
14. Against the Stream
In the years before the 1927 publication of his Crise du monde moderne, René Guénon constructed an anti-modernist philosophy, Traditionalism, which flowered chiefly after the 1960s. Before the Second World War, Traditionalism was a small intellectual movement (Guénon in Cairo and his various correspondents) with one single active organization, the Sufi order led by Frithjof Schuon in Basel. By the start of the 1960s the intellectual movement had lost its center and was becoming increasingly diverse. There were soon a handful of active organizations, mostly Sufi but some Masonic. Then over the next four decades Schuon’s order flourished before in part failing, Eliade transformed the academic study of religion, terrorists inspired by Baron Julius Evola caused havoc in Italy, and Traditionalism entered the general culture of the West. Finally it appeared in Iran, Turkey, and Russia. At the end of the twentieth century there were so many Traditionalist or partly Traditionalist organizations that it was no longer possible to count them.
One of France’s most eminent scholars of religion, Antoine Faivre, a professor at the same Sorbonne that refused Guénon a Ph.D., recently confessed himself at a loss to explain the success of what he called “one of the most curious cultural phenomena of our age.” I would suggest that the success of Traditionalism derives not only from the symbiotic relationship between modernity and anti-modernism, but also from the particular synthesis made by Guénon.
Guénon’s philosophy was not especially original. It was composed of a number of elements, most of which had been part of Western thought for centuries. His achievement was to form an entirely new synthesis out of these ideas, and then to promote his synthesis to the point where it could be taken further by others—by Schuon into religious organizations, by Evola into politics, by Eliade into scholarship, and finally by Nasr and Dugin into the non-Western world.
“The general Traditionalist view of the Orient is in many ways an inverse form of Orientalism. Both Traditionalism and Orientalism are dualistic systems, both derive from the nineteenth century, and both share the important methodological failing of overreliance on texts and underreliance on observation. Like Orientalism, Traditionalism tends to portray the world outside the West as the mirror of the West. The difference is that the comparison is complimentary toward the non-West. Instead of contrasting a Middle East peopled by childlike irrational beings incapable of organization and self-discipline to a mature, disciplined, scientific and rational West, Traditionalism contrasts a
West characterized by modernity, materialism, and mere technical skill to a Middle East of tradition, spirituality, and wisdom. This understanding of the Middle East is arguably no more accurate than that of the classic Orientalist.” (p. 266)
It is not the function of this book to defend Traditionalism, but it seems clear that those who condemn Traditionalism as not serious are missing the point. Traditionalism makes a claim to represent the ultimate truth, just as religion or some types of philosophy do. As Douglas Allen said, “rational scientific discourse is only one of the ways that human beings construct their ‘stories’ about reality.” To judge Traditionalism as one would a university thesis makes no more sense than to dismiss Christianity for having insufficient evidence of Christ’s divinity, or to dismiss Islam for ignoring crucial elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. On the other hand, Guénon did submit his work to Lévi as a thesis, and so Lévi was right to recommend its refusal.
20 août 2009
Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century