Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power - Guénon and Action Française
From Paul Chacornac’s Simple Life of René Guénon

There seems no doubt that some degree of sympathy existed at the time between Guénon and certain leaders of Action Française. We say ‘some degree’ because it is clear that Daudet, of all the leaders of Action Française, was the most capable of understanding Guénon, and of accepting, at least partially, his point of view. It is no less evident that there must have been far less sympathy between Guénon and Charles Maurras, for certain circumstances, upon which we cannot enlarge here, were soon to reveal just how far apart Maurras’ and Guénon’s ideas were on traditional society.

In his consistorial address of December 20, 1926, entitled Misericordia Domini, Pope Pius XI condemned the political movement Action Française as ‘a danger to the integrity of faith and morals as well as to the Catholic education of youth.’ On December 26 Action Française took the side of resistance against the authority of the Church, publishing its famous Non possumus. A decree of the Holy Office on December 29 then proscribed the journal and placed it on the Index. This condemnation, and the insubordination of Action Française, were to disturb Catholic circles for some years both in and out of France to such a point that a member of the Sacred College, Cardinal Billot, relinquished his red hat. Guénon was not in the least occupied with politics but could not avoid hearing of this affair, which seemed to him a characteristic illustration of his contemporaries’ lack of understanding, however ‘traditionalist’ they proclaimed themselves to be, of the normal relationship between religion and politics. This served as the occasion for him to define the traditional position on this point and to set it in a wider context by broadening its scope, which he did in his Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, published in 1929 by Vrin. Asserting that here as elsewhere it is principles he constantly has in view, the author nevertheless acknowledges in his preface that the considerations to be developed in this study have an added interest at the present time due to recent discussions about the relationship between religion and politics—a question that is only one particular form, under certain determinate conditions, of the relationship between the spiritual and the temporal. But it would be a mistake to believe that these considerations have been inspired by the incidents we have alluded to, or that we intend to deal with them directly, for this would amount to according an exaggerated importance to purely episodic matters that could never influence conceptions that are in reality of a completely diVerent order in their nature and origin.

From the traditional point of view, the relationship between the spiritual and the temporal refers principally to that between knowledge and action, action being—in a normal civilization—hierarchically subordinate to knowledge. This is expressed concretely in the predominance of the priestly over the royal caste in civilizations such as those of India or of medieval Christianity, for the crowning of emperors and kings by the spiritual authority is, at least in principle, a submission of the temporal power to the authority of the priesthood. This situation is reversed when royalty aspires to supremacy, or even lays claim to independence. The author mentions examples from India and Christianity, citing particularly quarrels over investiture and disputes of certain kings of France, notably Philip the Fair, with the papacy. In a certain way one must say that Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power forms the indispensable complement to East and West and The Crisis of the Modern World, since a return by the West to its tradition implies an awareness of the normal relationship between the spiritual and the temporal, for as long as a regularly constituted spiritual authority continues to subsist, even though it be unacknowledged by almost all (including its own representatives) and reduced to no more than a shadow of itself, this authority will always prove the better part, and this can never be taken away from it because it contains something higher than the possibilities that are purely human; even weakened or dormant, this part still incarnates ‘the one thing needful’, the only thing that does not pass away.

“Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power“ deals with the normal relationship between the spiritual and the temporal powers implied in a healthy traditional civilization; that is, the supremacy of knowledge over action, of the sacerdotal over the royal caste. Touching first on India and the medieval West, Guénon then illustrates his point by citing quarrels over investiture and disputes of certain French kingswith the papacy as evidence of a deviation in Christianity.

This century has been witness to both widespread global destruction of traditional institutions of temporal power and the questioning of the very anti-traditional ideas and ideologies which have brought about that destruction. At such a moment when so many seek to understand what the foundations of political power and the principles for the structuring of society should be, the classical work of René Guénon remains an invaluable source of guidance. Based on traditional principles expounded with the lucidity and clarity that characterizes Guénon’s other writings, this work makes clear the significance of temporal authority, the source of its legitimacy, and its role in a society structured on the basis of principls which the contemporary world neglects at its own peril. Dealing with doctrines which transcend time, Guénon’s work is as timely today as when it was written. Its first translation into English presented here cannot but be welcomed by all interested in traditional doctrines, and more particularly in the application of these doctrines to the social order.

—Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

In a sense the present work complements Guénon’s East and West, The Crisis of the Modern World, and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, for whereas the latter detail the West’s gradual movement away from its tradition, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power focuses by contrast on what Guénon believed to be the normal relationship between the spiritual and the temporal implied in a healthy traditional civilization, that is, the supremacy of knowledge over action, of the sacerdotal over the royal caste. Touching first on India and the medieval West, Guénon then illustrates his point by citing quarrels over investiture and disputes of certain French kings with the papacy as evidence of a deviation in Christianity. In his preface Guénon refers to recent ‘incidents’ that had drawn attention to this general question, and although he says that his deliberations are not meant to deal directly with them, it may be of interest to note that the events concerned centered on a confrontation in 1926 between the political organization Action Française and Pope Pius XI.

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