Modern civilization appears in history as a veritable anomaly: of all known civilizations, it is the only one to have developed in a purely material direction, and the only one not based on any principle of a higher order.
This is how the English translation of René Guénon’s book Symbols Of Sacred Science opens. This is why the famous Traditionalist book titles are The Crisis Of The Modern World (Guénon), Revolt Against The Modern World (Evola) and Against The Modern World (Sedgwick). Modern society develops towards an a-religious world, purely material and without Tradition.
“Traditionalism” is a current that nowadays seems to enjoy a growing attention, ‘even’ from the scholarly world. I read ‘Traditionalist’ books in the past without really understanding the background. Now Traditionalism is smacked around my ears so frequently that it was impossible to no longer pay attention. “Did any of you read the works of the Traditionalists” was asked not very long ago in a group that I am involved in. Well, I read Evola, Eliade, Guénon, but ‘unknowing’ so to say. In the “journal for the study of Western esotericism” Aries, a scholarly book about Traditionalism was reviewed. When I was doing research for an article, I found out that there is a publisher with many titles by Guénon, Coomaraswamy and other Traditionalists. And last, but not least, when I heard about the launch of the website of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (the organisation behind Aries), there was a link to the website Traditionalists.org, put up by The American University in Cairo. Somewhere halfway these events, I took up the idea to write an article about Traditionalism and to make a Traditionalist book reviews section. The first idea is a bit overtaken by the very informative website of Traditionalists.org, and looking around a bit on the internet I found out that there is more information about Traditionalism than I expected. Still I want to contribute to the information that is already on the www.
It is not really that Traditionalism is an organisation, a group or even a school, even though this last term is frequently used. Actually the term refers to a certain way of thinking, a certain view on the world. People who are called Traditionalists are often linked to eachother, but not always. The idea about Traditionalism is that all genuine religions and traditions came from one source. This source can be called Tradition with a capital “T”, or to make this idea stronger “primordial Tradition”, but often used are Latin terms such as Sophia Perennis, Philosophia Perennis or Religio Perennis (“Perennialism” is an alternative term for “Traditionalism”) or with the Hindu term Sanatana Dharma. All terms refer to the fact that this tradition goes back to the dawn of mankind.
However the Tradition is of all ages, what we call “Traditionalism” today, was ‘started’ by the Frenchman René Guénon (1886-1951). Guénon was an imminent scholar who travelled all around the world to get firsthand knowledge about the world’s religions and traditions. He was initiated in various mysteries and a writer of many texts. Guénon was in contact with people with similar ideas about the origins of religions, such as the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) and Frithjof Shuon (1907-1998). These three are regarded as the forefathers of the ‘Traditionalist School’. Guénon was also in contact with Julius Evola (1898-1974) who is sometimes regarded as a Traditionalist, but not always. A fact is that Guénon did not agree with all ideas of Evola. Looking over the internet, more names are mentioned, most of them do not ring any bells for me, but if you are curious, just check out the links below.
The idea behind the Traditionalist view is that since all religions and traditions came from the same source. Similar ideas, symbols, metaphores, etc. are used in those religions. Therefor these religions can be compared and gaps in the knowledge of one religion, can possibly be filled with knowledge of another and cross-references can explain symbols and ideas. Traditionalist books are filled with comparisons of all kinds of traditions and when writing about Sufism, Hindu terms are used and vice versa. This works very different from the Roman idea of ‘exchangable gods’. The sources going furthest back to the source, thus the oldest written texts, are the Hindu Vedas. Hindu terms and mythology is very frequent in Traditionalist texts. The Hindu worldview and mythology is relatively complete and therefor a good starting point to investigate other mythologies. You may get the idea that Traditionalism is ‘the school of Indo-Europeanism’, but this is not (really) the case. Most Traditionalists do not limit themselves to Indo-European traditions (which according to some come from one source and the other (Semitic) traditions from another). Guénon and his followers are active students of Arabic and Islamic paths, especially Sufism, Guénon even had an Arabic name: Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya.
The crisis of the modern world
As you can read in the opening lines, Traditionalists are very religious people. Not followers of one religion, but truely religious seeing the similarities in other religions and with the greatest respect of them. Traditionalists dismally perceive the dereligionisation of mankind, especially the West. They ‘preach’ a way back, but the Western man is so far astray of his religious core, that this is a difficult task.
Symbolism is the means best adapted to the teaching of truths of a superior order, both religious and metaphysical, that is, of everything that the modern spirit rejects or neglects; it is entirely contrary to what is in accord with rationalism, and all its adversaries conduct themselves, some unwittingly as true rationalists.
Symbolism is a means not a goal, but Guénon thinks that currently, the true understanding of symbolism is the best first step towards true religiosity. In the words of Evola:
Who undertakes this study without having acquired the ability to raise above the modern mind-set or who has not awakened to a new sensitivity that can place itself in contact with the general spiritual stream that gave life to the tradition in the first place, will succeed only in filling his head with words, symbols and fantastic allegories.
There is a certain edge about the Traditionalistic worldview that makes it (at the least) suspicious in the eyes of some and interesting in the eyes of others. An “authentic” religion or tradition has an unbroken link with the primordial source. To put it cautiously, how and who is to judge about this? Guénon -for example- says that there are only two genuine initiatic movements left in the West: Freemasonry and the Compagnonage (about both movements you can read elsewhere in these pages). I find this theory at least dubious. Just an example. When Freemasonry came ‘back’ in the Netherlands in the late 18th century, the Masons had to reconstruct their rites from ‘traitors writings’. Also, does every lodge have a person in it who stands in the unbroken chain? This “authenticity” is misused frequently. In the case of Guénon, I don’t think that he was really hostile towards any group, but Evola on the other hand combined his Traditionalist view with the political view of Fascism and he was extremely antisemitic. During the Fascist reigns Traditionalism was used as an excuse to suppress certain peoples or groups (for example Freemasonry!) and even to the present day, Traditionalism is often connected with ‘New Right’ politics, or maybe the other way around, certain ‘politicians’ misuse a part of the Traditionalist worldview.
This has to do with the elitaristic ideas, but also with the ‘traditional Traditionalistic’ notion of the cyclic times, often taken from the Hindu religion, but it is also present in the Nordic myths as ‘speartime’, ‘swordtime’, ‘windtime’, ‘wolftime’, which is comparable to the Hindu line of Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yuga, which in its entirety is a decline from a ‘golden time’ to an ‘iron time’. When this idea is connected to the idea of the three ‘casts’, it is easy to see oneselve descendent from an ‘older’ and ‘higher’ race than someone else. Of course a Traditionalist is by definition conservative, which is also a characteristic of the right political spectrum.
This political burden is a significant subject that is not ignored by investigators of the Tradtionalist current and definately something that you should be aware off. The religious and political ideas are not necessarily connected though!
Earlier I said that (esoteric) scholars have an interest in Traditionalism. I think the idea of the philosophia perennis is a good hypothesis for all kinds of teachings. Definately a reason for this scholarly interest is Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) who (according to some) was a ‘light Traditionalist’ who really made the world ready for a Traditionalist view. He was a professor at different universities, a great academic in the field of religions and the study of comperative religions and the writer of many standard works about religions and symbolism.
The fact remains that even though almost a century old, Traditionalism is still a popular field of investigation and maybe even still the only (or at least best) path to stop the dereligionisation of the Western man.