Whence modernity for Guénon?

Modernity is a becoming, a transient state that arises, and we side with Spengler and differ from both Evola and Guénon in considering it a state which is unavoidable. The attitude towards material conditions which existed before modernity was one of essential ignorance and disinterest, except when specific areas of knowledge had to be mastered to achieve higher ends. It is not shocking to see human beings move from ignorance to knowledge in any field. Rather, it should be expected and appreciated, even when we understand the metaphysical shortcomings of a given age.

In Spengler we have no problem identifying the origin of modernity and materialism. After Nietzsche, Spengler places modernity squarely on the shoulders of Christianity’s “Jewish hatred” of the priestly caste and promise of initiation for the many, a process which gave all of Europe over to spiritual ecstasy for some centuries, but eventually led to Faustian populism. This “Jewish hatred” or “slave morality” is better worded as a disrespect by the captive Jews for foreign priests, converted by Jesus into a disrespect for Jewish priests, converted by Paul into a disrespect for pagan priests, which centuries later, through the difficult work of many smart men, became a disrespect for all priests who claim divine right and duty to the above, rather than popular right and duty to the below. All this is dependently arisen and its origin may be interpreted metaphysically as either historical Becoming or superhistorical Being, depending on how much you like Judaism.

Evola differs from Spengler in seeing modernity as a dark force that can arise at any time, just as Tradition can be restored at any time. In Revolt, which may be regarded as definitive, Evola states that “the fact that civilizations of the traditional type are found in the past becomes merely accidental: the modern world and the traditional world may be regarded as two universal types and two a priori categories of civilization.” In Imperialismo pagano, however, we find that “Christianity is at the root of the evil that has corrupted the West.” This is odd for a work that is almost completely based on Guénon, who viewed Catholic Christianity as a Tradition among peers. Later Evola joins up with Nietzsche and creates a sort of spiritual anti-Semitism, objecting both to “Jewish hatred” and to contemporary attempts to dilute European tradition by involving Jews and other minorities, although he was careful to declaim that many of the people he was objecting to were of Christian European origin. Note that Nietzsche’s slave morality does not force the Jews themselves to be modern, only the Christians who modified their metaphysics. In any case Christianity is here part of the development of what would later be modernity, and in his writings Evola consistently regards any return to Christianity as trying to roll a ball back up a slope, rather than finding metaphysical certainty in a Tradition that was not part of the development of modernity.

In placing the origin of modernity Guénon, the lover of Christianity, has a harder time than Evola. His strongest attempt, I think, is found in Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power. First he asserts the absolute nature of anti-traditional, devolving thought, using the example of the revolts of the Kshatriyas to show how breaks with tradition can appear at any time. Of course, our modernity originated in Europe and not India. Actually, using the Indian example gives Guénon some trouble, because what did Europe have that India lacked, other than Christianity? As a result we are taken of a tour of Philip the Fair, who curtailed the Knights Templar and wrought an increased focus on temporal order, which eventually led to Protestantism, which was soon placed in the hands of Anglo-Saxon rationalism, which, united with French anti-monarchism, at long last gives us secular materialism. Guénon explains the origin of modernity as far as: “There is a kind of political (and therefore entirely external) unity that implies a disregard, if not the denial, of the spiritual principles that alone can establish the true and profound unity of a civilization.” But he fails to explain to us what gave this anti-spiritual concept the necessary power in Europe where it failed in India.

In fact, Guénon’s narrative can be reconciled entirely with Nietzsche (per Spengler), who seems uninterested in the years 300-1300. Guénon provides us with the additional data of European royalty as a kind of Kshatriya caste, slowly developing out of the ruins of the Roman Empire in accordance with the new Christian tradition. Without Nietzsche’s slave morality, though, we cannot see how so many elements could have brought us to materialism; it looks like a staggering number of coincidences at work, all involving elements which seem to lack the necessary uniqueness. Are we to regard the Chinese or Japanese, for example, as insufficiently rational to bring about modernity? Did Southeast Asia lack the requisite number of kingdoms? Were India’s princes insufficiently concerned with material matters? Guénon feigns disinterest towards the entire question in East and West when he says, “We should add that when we speak of the West, we also include Judaism, which … may have even helped somewhat toward forming the modern mentality in general.” But perhaps he worried that too much interest in the Jewish element of Christianity would lead to anti-Semitic feeling, as with Nietzsche; and Guénon was attempting to boost any Tradition opposed to material modernity, so this would not have helped his thesis. It seems entirely possible that Evola did intertwine these two strands to form his own thought, although he does not usually list his influences so openly.

Modernity was born out of spiritual conditions, but it will die owing to material conditions. Christianity will not die with it; it may emerge stronger. The pagan position of Evola is one of superhistorical force and extreme radicalism, which gives power to one’s rejection of modernity, while Guenon’s embrace of Catholicism may feel metaphysically weaker, for Catholicism is now almost completely given over to modernity, but at least it accepts European heritage, the essential race-feeling of Tradition. A third option, of Western Europeans turning to Orthodox Christianity, has proven popular among Traditionalists as an alternative to either of these uncomfortable options, but it is of course a compromise. What we have described here is not an attempt to blame Christianity, nor Judaism, but rather to acquaint differentiated men with these arguments, which will hopefully aid them in finding a comfortable tradition whose language they understand and believe.

Posted: June 4th, 2012 | Tradition 8 Comments »

8 Comments on “Whence modernity for Guénon?”

  1. 1 Avery said at 7:37 am on June 5th, 2012:

    Some more reading on Philip IV of France (1268-1314)



  2. 2 Gabe Ruth said at 7:47 pm on June 5th, 2012:

    Your thoughts on Evola and Guenon are much appreciated. Usually, sympathetic writers treat them with such reverence that their ideas hard to evaluate. I haven’t taken the leap to primary sources yet, but I’m thinking about it.

    As to the element necessary for modernity that was missing in India but present in the West, I have thought for some time that technology is a substantial part of the answer, along with the perception of power it grants to those that wield it and the pace of development outstripping the ability of a society to adjust to it (military economics also points towards this explanation, I think). Maybe the singularity already happened and it wasn’t a good thing.

    When you say modernity is an unavoidable phase, what exactly do you mean? The expansion of scientific knowledge, the political dominance of populism, the metaphysical dominance of utilitarian individualism, materialism, all of the above? I’ve often wondered what feudalism would be like with antibiotics, and I have trouble accepting that the destruction of traditional order is part of their price. I also am not as sanguine about the phase aspect of modernity. This article really brought the fundamental antagonism between modern technology and humanity home to me:


    As usual, Chesterton saw this well before most.

    On the subject of radical anti-modernists, have your internet meanderings ever taken you here?


    I can’t fully endorse it, but it is almost never boring.

  3. 3 Avery said at 2:27 am on June 6th, 2012:

    Hi Gabe, I would recommend you check out these primary sources to see why antibiotics, and medicine generally, are incompatible with ancient forms of rule. When I say modernity, I mean a co-dependent arising of all of the elements you mentioned, and more. These three anti-modern writers develop systems to explain what existed before and how it changed.

    Guénon, I realize, is too radical for me. Imagine the world as a Cartesian plane. People are born onto a given vertical and horizontal point. Radical leftism aims to get rid of the entire vertical axis, hierarchy. This rids the world of much or even all of its beauty. Radical rightism, on the other hand, attempts to destroy the horizontal axis, diversity of belief and rule. Guénon is the most systematic of these rightists, by trying to unite the world’s diversity of “faiths” and belief-structures into a single Tradition. (Note how you can demonstrate from this exactly how moderate Chesterton is: he sincerely loves the beauty of both axes!)

    Evola, at least, acknowledges that there is more than one “cycle” of tradition, but he still considers tradition a single state in opposed to a single modernity. Spengler believes that there are multiple traditions and multiple modernities. I feel a little split between the complex and powerful systems of these latter two writers, but I lean towards Spengler.

  4. 4 YonLittleSwine said at 5:32 pm on July 13th, 2012:

    Yes, antibiotic medicine does indeed play a big role in the destruction of traditional order. And 99% of people who “have trouble accepting” this are laboring under the delusion that infections and all disease in general, big and small, are somehow the result of unknowable Evil Forces that for no reason whatsoever fall onto a person’s head and causes him to suffer.

    Antibiotics and virtually all heavily interventionist medicine (mood-altering prescription drugs for only one example) keep physically weak inferior people alive, at least long enough to reproduce themselves and their now-embedded bad lifestyle. If Mozart, Schumann and Schubert (dead at 35, 46 and 31 respectively) had access to these medicines, western society would have come to be inundated, much earlier, with the swill we are now coping with.

  5. 5 Ted Swanson said at 5:05 pm on July 15th, 2012:

    Also recall Plato’s explanation of the proper use of medicine in The Republic

  6. 6 Avery said at 2:56 pm on December 4th, 2013:

    I’m not qualified to speak because I’ve never contracted an illness more painful than stomach flu. But I think the saints handled their slow and painful deaths rather well. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Schaffer

    As long as there are antibiotics to go around and ease our sufferings with science, all this talk about Tradition will probably be speculation. That apparently gives us about 10 or 20 years: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/aug/12/the-end-of-antibiotics-health-infections For my parents’ sake, I hope it’s longer than that.

  7. 7 rust said at 8:09 am on December 6th, 2013:

    Can’t say that I have, either, which is why it frightens me. That’s interesting, I suppose it depends on a person’s mindset. Once I delve more into Guénon perhaps my perspective will change.

    Jeez, I guess that “naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret” is right!

  8. 8 Avery said at 4:29 am on December 7th, 2013:

    Honestly I have to agree that there are a lot of things about the traditional world that are frightening… but there are a lot of things about the future of the modern world that are more frightening when you think about them hard enough.