East and West, The Crisis of the Modern World,
Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrine, and Man and His
Becoming, Luzac, London, (1941-1946) are the first in a series in which the
majority of René Guénon’s works already published in French will appear in
English. Another versions of Man and His Becoming had appeared earlier.1
M. René Guénon is not an “Orientalist” but what the Hindus would call a
“master,” formerly resident in
In the meantime important articles form Guénon’s pen appeared monthly in La Voile d’Isis, later Études Traditionnelles, a journal of which the appearance was interrupted by the war, but which has been continued as form September-October, 1945. Études Traditionnelles is devoted to “La Tradition Perpétuelle et Unanime, révélée tant par les dogmes et les rites des religions orthodoxies que par la langue universelle des symboles initiatiques”. [The Perpetual and Unanimous Tradition, revealed as much by the dogmas and the rites of the orthodox religions as by the universal language of initiatory symbols.] Of articles that have appeared elsewhere attention may be called to “L’Esotérisme Islamique” in “Cahiers du Sud”.14 Excerpts from Guénon’s writings, with some comment, have appeared in ‘Triveni’ (1935) and in the Visvabharati Quarterly (1935,1938). A work by L. De Gaigneron entitled Vers la connaissance interdite15 is closely connected with Guénon’s; it is presented in the form of a discussion in which the Atman (Spiritus), Mentalité (“Reason”, in the current, not the Platonic, sense), and a Roman abb&#eacute; take part; the “forbidden knowledge is that of the gnosis which the modern Church and the rationalist alike reject, though for different reasons – the former because it cannot tolerate a point of view which considers Christianity only as one amongst other orthodox religions and the latter because, as a great Orientalist (Professor A. B. Keith) has remarked, “such knowledge as is not empirical is meaningless to us and should not be described as knowledge”  – an almost classical confession of the limitations of the “Scientific” position.
Guénon’s French is at once precise and limpid, and inevitably loses in translation; his subject matter is of absorbing interest, at least to anyone who cares for what Plato calls the really serious things.  Nevertheless is has often been found unpalatable; partly for reason already give, but also for reasons that have already been stated, paradoxically enough, by a reviewer of Blakney’s ‘Meister Eckhart’ in the ‘Harvard Divinity School Bulletin’,  who says that, “To an age which believes in personality and personalism, the impersonality of mysticism is baffling; and to an age which is trying ort quicken its insight into history the indifference of the mystics to events in time is disconcerting.” As for history, Guénon’s “he who cannot escape from the standpoint of temporal succession so as to see all things in their simultaneity is incapable of the least conception of the metaphysical order”  adequately complements Jacob Behmen’s designation of the “history that was once brought to pass” as “merely the (outward) form of Christianity.”  For the Hindu, the events of the Rgveda are nowever and dateless, and the Krishna Lila “not an historical event”; and the reliance of Christianity upon supposedly historical “facts” seems to be its greatest weakness. The value of literary history for doxography is very little, and it is for this reason that so many orthodox Hindus have thought of Western scholarship a as a “crime”: their interest is not in “what men have believed,” but in the truth. A further difficulty is presented by Guénon’s uncompromising language: “Western civilization is an anomaly, not to say a monstrosity.” Of this a reviewer  has remarked that “such sweeping remarks cannot be shared even by critics of Western achievements..” I should have thought that now that its denouement is before our eyes, the truth of such a statement might have been recognized by every unprejudiced European; at any rate Sir George Birdwood in 1915 described modern Western civilization as “Secular, joyless, inane, and self-destructive” and Professor La Piana has said that “What we call our civilization is but a murderous machine with no conscience and no ideals”  and might well have said suicidal as well as murderous. It would be very easy to cite innumerable criticisms of the same kind; Sir S. Radhakrishnan holds for example, that “civilization is not worth saving if it continues on its present foundations,”  and this it would be hard to deny; Professor A. N. Whitehead has spoke quite as forcibly – “There remains the show of civilization, without any of it realities.” 
In any case, if we are to read Guénon at all, we must have outgrown the temporally provincial view that has for so long and so complacently envisaged a continuous progress of humanity culminating in the twentieth century and be willing at least to ask ourselves whether there has not been rather a continued decline, “from the stone until now,” as one of the most learned men in the U.S.A. once put it to me. It is no by “science” that we can be saved: “the possession of the sciences as a whole, if it does not include the best, will in some few cases aid but more often harm the owner.”  “We are obliged to admit that our European culture is a culture of the mind and senses only”;  “The prostitution of science may lead to world catastrophe”;  “Our dignity and our interests require that we shall be the directors and not the victims of technical and scientific advance”;  “Few will deny that the twentieth century thus far has brought us bitter disappointment.”  “We are now faced with the prospect of complete bankruptcy in every department of life.”  Eric Gill speaks of the “monstrous inhumanity” of industrialism, and of the modern way of life, as “neither human nor normal nor Christian…. It is our way of thinking that is odd and unnatural.”  This sense of frustration is perhaps the most encouraging sign of the times. We have laid stress on these things because it is only to those who feel this frustration, and not to those who still believe in progress, that Guénon addresses himself; to those who are complacent everything that he has to say will seem to be preposterous.
The reactions of Roman Catholics to Guénon are illuminating. One has pointed out that he is a “serous metaphysician,” i.e. one convinced of the truth he expounds and eager to show the unanimity of the Eastern and scholastic traditions, and observes that “in such matters belief and understanding must go together.”  Crede ut intelligas [believe in order to understand] is a piece of advice that modern scholars would, indeed, do well to consider; it is, perhaps, just because we have not believed that we have not yet understood the East. The same author writes of ‘East and West’, “René Guénon is one of the few writers of our time whose work is really of importance … he stands for the primacy of pure metaphysics over all other forms of knowledge, and presents himself as the exponent of a major tradition of thought, predominantly Eastern, but shared in the Middle Ages by the scholastics of the West … clearly Guénon’s position is not that of Christian orthodoxy, but many, perhaps most, of his theses are, in face, better in accord with authentic Thomist doctrine than are many opinions of devout but ill-instructed Christians.”  We should do well to remember that even St. Tomas Aquinas did not disdain to make use of “intrinsic and probable proofs” derived form the “pagan” philosophers.
Gerald Vann, on the other hand, makes the mistake which the title of his
review, “René Guénon’s Orientalism”  announces; for this is not another
“ism,” nor a geographical antitheses but one of modern empiricism and
traditional theory. Vann springs to the defense of the very Christianity in
which Guénon himself sees almost the only possibility of salvation for the
West; only possibility, not because there is no other body of truth, but
because the mentality of the West is adapted to and needs a religion of just
this sort. But if Christianity should fail, it is just because its intellectual
aspects have been submerged, and it has become a code of ethics rather than a
doctrine form which all other applications can and should be derived; hardly
two consecutive sentences of some of Meister Eckhart’s sermons would be
intelligible to an average modern congregation, which does not expect doctrine,
and only expects to be told how to behave. If Guénon
wants the West to turn to Eastern metaphysics, it is not because they are
Eastern but because this is metaphysics. If “Eastern” metaphysics differed form
a “Western” metaphysics – as true philosophy differs from what is often so
called in our modern universities – one or the other would not be metaphysics. It
is from metaphysics that the West has turned away in its desperate endeavor to
live by bread alone, an endeavor of which the
The issue of “East and West” is not merely a theoretical (we must remind the modern reader that from the standpoint of the traditional philosophy, “theoretical” is anything but a term of disparagement) but also an urgent practical problem. Pearl Buck asks, “Why should prejudices be so strong at this moment? The answer it seems to me is simple. Physical conveyance and other circumstances have forced parts of the world once remote from each other into actual intimacy for which peoples are not mentally or spiritually prepared. … It is not necessary to believe that this initial stage must continue. If those prepared to act as interpreters will do their proper work, we may find that within another generation or two, or even sooner, dislike and prejudice may be gone. This is only possible if prompt and strong measures are taken by peoples to keep step mentally with the increasing closeness to which the war is compelling us.”  But is this is to happen, the West will have to abandon what Guénon calls its “proselytizing fury,” an expression that must not be taken to refer only to the activities of Christian missionaries, regrettable as those often are, but of those of all the distributors of modern “civilization” and those of practically all those “educators” who feel that they have more to give than to learn form what are often called the “backward” or “unprogressive” peoples; to whom it does not occur that one may not wish or need to “progress” if one has reached a state of equilibrium that already provides for the realization of what one regards as the greatest purposed of life. It is as an expression of good will and of the best intentions that this proselytizing fury takes on its most dangerous aspects. To many this “fury” can only suggest the fable of the fox that lost its tail, and persuaded the other foxes to cut off theirs. An industrialization of the East may be inevitable, but do not let us call it a blessing that a folk should be reduced to the level of a proletariat, or assume that materially higher standards of living necessarily make for greater happiness. The West is only just discovering, to its great astonishment, that “material inducements, that is, money or the things that money can buy” are by no means so cogent a force as has been supposed; “Beyond the subsistence level, the theory that this incentive is decisive is largely an illusion.”  As for the East, as Guénon says, “The only impression that, for example, mechanical invention make on most Orientals is one of deep repulsion; certainly it all seems to them far more harmful than beneficial, and if they find themselves obliged to accept certain things which the present epoch has made necessary, they do so in the hope of future riddance … what the people of the West call ‘rising’ would be called some ‘sinking’; that is what all true Orientals think.”  It must not be supposed that because so many Eastern peoples have imitated us in self-defense that they have therefore accepted our values; on the contrary, it is just because the conservative East still challenges all the presuppositions on which our illusion of progress rests, that is deserves our most serious consideration.
There is nothing in economic intimacies that is likely to reduce prejudice or promote mutual understanding automatically. Even when Europeans live amongst Orientals, “economic contact between the Eastern and Western groups is practically the only contact there is. There is very little social or religious give and take between the two. Each lives in a world almost entirely closed to the other – and by ‘closed’ we man not only ‘unknown’ but more: incomprehensible and unattainable.” That is an inhuman relationship, by which both parties are degraded.
Neither must it be assumed that the Orient thinks it important that the
masses should learn to read and write. Literacy is a practical necessity in an
industrial society, where the keeping of account is all important. But in
It is not, however, primarily with a protection of the East against the subversive inroads of Western “culture” that Guénon is concerned, but rather with the question, What possibility of regeneration, if any, can be envisaged for the West? The possibility exists only in the event of a return to first principles and to the normal ways of living that proceed from the application of first principles to contingent circumstances; and as it is only in the East that these things are still alive, it is to the East that the West must turn. “It is the West that must take the initiative, but she must be prepared really to go towards the East, not merely seeking to draw the East towards herself, as she has tried to do so far. There is no reason why the East should take this initiative, and there would still be none, even if the Western world were not in such a state as to make any effort in this direction useless. … It now remains for us to show how the West might attempt to approach the East.” 
He proceeds to show that the work is to be done in the two fields of metaphysics and religion, and that it can only be carried out on the highest intellectual levels, where agreement on first principles can be reached an apart from any propaganda on behalf of or even apology for “Western civilization.”
The work must be undertaken, therefore, by an “elite.” And as it is here more than anywhere that Guénon’s meaning is likely to be willfully misinterpreted, we must understand clearly what he manes by such an elite. The divergence of the West and East being only “accidental,” “the bringing of these two portions of mankind together and the return of the West to a normal civilization are really just one and the same thing.” An elite will necessarily work in the first place “for itself, since its members will naturally reap from their own development an immediate and altogether unfailing benefit.” An indirect result – “indirect,” because on this intellectual level one does not think of “doing good” to others, or in terms of “service,” but seeks truth because one needs it oneself – would, or might under favorable conditions, bring about “a return of the West to a traditional civilization,” i.e. one in which “everything is seen as the application and extension of a doctrine whose essence is purely intellectual and metaphysical.”
It is emphasized again and again that such an elite does not mean a body of specialists or scholars who would absorb and put over on the West the forms of an alien culture, nor even persuade the West to return to such a traditional civilization as existed in the Middle Ages. Traditional cultures develop by the application of principles to conditions; the principles, indeed, are unchangeable and universal, but just as nothing can be known except in the mode of the knower, so nothing valid can be accomplished socially without taking into account the character of those concerned and the particular circumstances of the period in which they live. There is no “fusion” of cultures to be hoped for; it would be noting like an “eclecticism” or “syncretism” that an elite would have in view. Neither would such an elite be organized in any way so as to exercise such a direct influence as that which, for example, the Technocrats would like to exercise for the good of mankind. If such an elite ever came into being, the vast majority of Western men would never know of it; it would operate only as a sort of leave, and certainly on behalf of rather than against whatever survives of traditional essence in, for example the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic domains. It is, indeed, a curious fact that some of the most powerful defenders of Christian dogma are to be found amongst Orientals who are not themselves Christians, or ever likely to become Christians, but recognize in the Christian tradition an embodiment of the universal truth to which God has never nor anywhere left himself without a witness.
In the meantime, M. Guénon asks, “Is this really ‘the beginning of an end’ for the modern civilization? … At least there are many signs which should give food for reflection to those who are still capable of it; will the West be able to regain control of herself in time?” Few would deny that we are faced with the possibility of a total disintegration of culture. We are at war with ourselves, and therefore at war with one another. Western man is unbalanced, and the question, Can he recover himself? is a very real one. No one to whom the question presents itself can afford to ignore the writing of the leading living exponent of a traditional wisdom that is no more essentially Oriental than it is Occidental, though it may be only in the uttermost parts of the earth that it is still remembered and must be sought.