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living islam _ Islamic tradition
by Rene Guenon
OUR chief purpose in this work has been to show how it is possible, by the application of traditional data, to find the most direct solution to the questions that are being asked nowadays, to explain the present state of mankind, and at the same time to judge all that really makes up modern civilization in accordance with truth instead of by conventional rules or sentimental preferences. We make no claim to have exhausted the subject or treated it in full detail, nor to have developed all its aspects completely without omissions.
The principles that inspire us throughout make it necessary, in any case, to put forward views which are essentially synthetic and-not analytical, as are those of "profane" learning; but just because these views are synthetic, they go much farther in the direction of a true explanation than could any analysis, which, indeed, can scarcely have more than a merely descriptive value.
At least we consider that enough has been said to enable those who are capable of understanding to deduce for themselves a part at least of the consequences contained implicitly therein; and they can rest assured that the work of doing so will be of far more value to them than reading something that leaves no matter for reflection and meditation, for which, on the contrary, we have sought to provide an appropriate starting point, that is to say a foundation from which to rise above the meaningless multitude of individual opinions.
It still remains to speak briefly of what might be called the practical bearing of such a study; this could be passed over or ignored if we had confined ourselves to purely metaphysical doctrine, in relation to which no application is more than contingent and accidental; but in the present study applications are just the thing with which we are concerned. These have, moreover, a twofold justification, quite apart from the practical point of view : they are the legitimate consequence of the principles, the normal development of a doctrine which, as it is one and universal, must embrace all orders of reality without exception and at the same time, as we explained when speaking of "sacred science," they also form, at least for some persons, a preparatory means of attaining to a higher knowledge.
Furthermore, when in the realm of applications, there is no harm in considering these for their own sake as well, provided in so doing one is never led into losing sight of their dependence on the principles. This last is a very real danger, since it is indeed the source of the degeneracy that made "profane science" possible, but it does not exist for those who know that everything derives from and is altogether dependent on pure intellectuality, and consequently that anything which does not proceed consciously from it can be no more than mere illusion.
As we have said many times already, the starting point of everything should be knowledge; and thus what appears the most remote from the practical order is nevertheless the most potent even within this order, since it is impossible, here as everywhere else, to accomplish without it anything of real value or anything that will prove more than a vain and superficial agitation. But to return more particularly to the question that concerns us here, it may be said that the modern world would cease to exist at once if men understood what it really is, since its existence, like that of ignorance and all that implies limitation, is purely negative : it exists only through negation of the traditional and superhuman truth.
Thus, through knowledge, the change could be brought about without the intervention of a catastrophe, a thing that seems scarcely possible in any other way; is it not right, then, to say that such knowledge can have truly incalculable practical consequences? At the same time, however, it is unfortunately very difficult to conceive of all men attaining to such knowledge, from which most of them are further removed than was ever the case before; but as a matter of fact, it is quite unnecessary for them to do so, and it would be enough if there were a numerically small but powerfully established elect to guide the masses, who would obey their suggestions without even suspecting their existence or having any idea of their means of action; is it still possible for this elect to be effectively established in the West ?
We do not intend to repeat here all that we have already had occasion to say elsewhere as to the part that the intellectual elect will have to play in the various circumstances that can be regarded as possible in a not too distant future. We will confine ourself to saying this : in whatever way the change, which may be described as a passage from one world to another, may come about-whether these "worlds" be larger or smaller cycles does not matter - it can never involve absolute discontinuity, since there is always a causal chain linking the cycles together, even though the change may have the appearance of an abrupt breach.
If the elect of which we spoke could be formed while there is still time, they could so prepare the change that it would take place in the most favourable conditions possible, and the disturbances that must inevitably accompany it would in this way be reduced to a minimum; but even if they cannot do this, they will still have before them another yet more important task, that of helping to preserve the elements which must survive from the present world to be used in building up the -one that is to follow.
Once one knows that a re-ascent must come, even though it may prove impossible to prevent the downward movement first ending in some cataclysm, there is clearly no reason for waiting until the descent has reached its nadir before preparing the way for the re-ascent. This means /that whatever may happen the work done will not be wasted : it cannot be useless in so far as the benefit that the elect will draw from it for themselves is concerned, but neither will it. be wasted in so far as concerns its later effects on mankind as a whole.
The question, then, should be viewed in this way the elect still exists in the Eastern civilizations, and granting that it is becoming less and less numerous owing to modernist encroachments, it will nevertheless continue to exist until the end, because this is necessary in order to safeguard the "ark" of the tradition, which cannot perish, and to ensure the transmission of all that, is to be preserved. In the West, on the other hand, the elect now no longer exists; the question may be asked, therefore, whether it will be reconstituted before the end of our epoch, that is to say whether the Western world, despite its deviation, will take part in this work of preservation and transmission.
If not, the result will be that Western civilization will have to disappear completely, since, having lost all trace of the traditional spirit, it will no longer contain any element that is of use for the future. The question, thus framed, may have only a very secondary importance in so far as the final result is concerned; it has, nevertheless, from a relative point of view, a certain interest that cannot be overlooked once we consent to take into consideration the particular conditions of the times in which we are living. In principle, it would be sufficient to remark that this Western world is a part of the whole, even though it seems to have broken away since the beginning of modern times, and that all parts must to a certain extent contribute towards the ultimate reintegration of the cycle. But this does not necessarily involve a preliminary restoration of the Western tradition, - which, indeed, may be preserved only in a state of permanent possibility at its source and not in the special form that it has taken on at any time.
We merely indicate this in passing, for, in order to make it fully understandable. it would be necessary to branch off into considerations affecting the relations between the Primordial Tradition and the subordinate traditions, for which there is no place here. Considered in itself this would be the most unfavourable solution for the Western world, but the present state of things in the West gives rise to the fear that it is the one which is actually being realised; however, there are, as we have said, certain signs which seem to show that all hope of a better solution need not yet be quite' abandoned.
There are at present more people in the West than one might suppose who are beginning to see what is wanting in their civilization; if they fall back on vague aspirations and embark on research that is too often barren, and if they sometimes even lose their way altogether, it is because they lack real knowledge, which nothing can replace, and because there is no organisation that can give them the doctrinal guidance they need. We do not refer here, of course, to those who have succeeded in finding such guidance in the Eastern traditions and who are therefore, intellectually, outside the Western world; such persons must necessarily remain exceptional cases and cannot in any way form an integral part of a Western elect; they are, in reality a prolongation of the Eastern elects and might form a link between these and that of the West once this was really established; but the latter, by very definition, can only be established through the initiative of the West, and therein lies the whole difficulty.
This initiative could come in one of two ways only: either the West would have to find in itself the means of bringing it about through a direct return to its own tradition, a return which would be a sort of spontaneous reawakening of latent possibilities; or certain Western elements would have to bring about this restoration with the help afforded by a knowledge of the Eastern doctrines, which, however, could not for them be quite direct, since they would have to remain Westerners, but which could be obtained by a sort of second-hand influence working through intermediaries such as those of whom we have just spoken.
The first of these two hypotheses is very unlikely, since it depends on the existence in the West of at least one rallying point where the traditional spirit has been preserved intact, and as we have already said, this seems to us very doubtful, notwithstanding certain affirmations to the contrary ; it is therefore the second hypothesis that needs to be examined more closely.
In this case it would be better, although not absolutely necessary, for the elect to-be able to take ' as its basis a Western organization already enjoying an effective existence. . It seems quite clear that there is now but one organization in the West that is of a traditional character and that has preserved a doctrine which could serve as an appropriate basis for the work in question, and this organization is the Catholic Church. It would be enough to restore to the doctrine of the Church, without changing anything of the religious form that it bears outwardly, the deeper meaning really contained in it, but of which its present representatives seem to be unaware, just as they are unaware of its essential unity with the other traditional forms; these two things are, as a matter of fact, inseparable from one another.
This would mean the realization of Catholicism in the true sense of the word, which etymologically expresses the idea of " universality," a fact that is too apt to be forgotten by those who seek to make of it no more than the denomination of one special and purely Western form, without any' real connection with the other traditions. Indeed it may be said that in the present state of things, Catholicism has no more than a virtual existence since we do not see in it any real consciousness of universality; but it is none the less true that the existence of an organization bearing such a name is in itself an indication that there is a possible basis for a restoration of the traditional spirit in its fullest sense, the more so because throughout the Middle Ages it has already served as a support for it in the West.
Really, therefore, all that would be necessary would be to re-establish what already existed prior to the modern deviation, though with the adaptations called for by the conditions of another period; and if such an idea astonishes or offends certain people, it is because they themselves, though unconsciously and perhaps even against their will, are so completely governed by the modern outlook as to have quite forgotten the meaning of a tradition of which they retain only the outer shell. The important question is whether the formalism of the " letter", which is also, a variety of materialism as we have defined it earlier on, has utterly smothered spirituality or only temporarily overshadowed it, leaving the possibility of a re-awakening within the existing organization; only the course of events will give an answer to this question.
It is possible, moreover, that this same course of events might sooner or later force on the leaders of the Catholic Church, as an unavoidable necessity, a decision whose intellectual import they would be far from properly understanding. It would certainly be matter for regret if they should be driven to reflection by circumstances as contingent as those springing from the field of politics-so long, that is, as this is considered apart from any higher principle. But at the same time, it must be admitted that the opportunity for the development of latent possibilities must be accorded to each person through those means that fall the most immediately within the scope of his present understanding.
For this reason, we do not hesitate to assert, in view of the ever increasing state of confusion that is becoming more and more widespread, that it has become necessary to call for the union of all the spiritual forces whose action still makes itself felt in the outer world, as well in the West as in the East; and so far as the West is concerned, we can see no other such force than the Catholic Church. If the latter could thus be brought into touch with the representatives of the Eastern traditions, it would be a preliminary step we could not but rejoice at, and might serve as the starting point for what we have in mind, inasmuch as it would doubtless not be long before it became apparent that a merely outward and " diplomatic" understanding was illusory and could not yield the desired results; it would then become necessary to pass on to what should normally have come first, that is to considering a possible, agreement on principles. For this agreement the essential and only essential condition is for the representatives of the West to return to a real consciousness of these principles, which the East has never lost.
A true mutual understanding, be it said once more, can come only from above and within, which means that it must be in the domain which can equally well be called intellectual or spiritual, since the two words really bear exactly the same meaning; later, and starting from this point, the understanding would be bound to extend over all other domains, just as, once a principle is enunciated, it only remains to extract, or rather to make more explicit, all the consequences implied therein. There can only be one obstacle in the way of such an understanding : that is Western proselytism, which cannot bring itself to admit that it is sometimes necessary to have " allies " who are not subjects"; to put it more correctly, the. obstacle is the lack of understanding of which this proselytism is only one of the products; can this obstacle be overcome ?
If it were not, the elect, in establishing themselves, would be able to count only on the efforts of those who were qualified by their intellectual capacity, apart from any particular environment, and also, of course, on the support of the East ; its work would thereby be made more difficult and its influence could only make itself felt after a long interval, as it would itself have to create all the necessary instruments, instead of finding them ready to hand, as in the other case; but we are far from supposing that these difficulties, however great they may, be, are of a kind that could in any way whatsoever prevent the work that has to be done.
We therefore consider it opportune to make also the following statement : there are now already, in the Western world, signs of a movement which is still ill-defined but which may, and even, if things take their normal course, must lead to the re-establishment of an intellectual elect, unless a cataclysm comes too quickly for it to have had time to develop fully, It is scarcely necessary to say that the Church would have every interest, so far as the part to be played by it in the future is concerned, in giving its support to such a movement rather than letting it take place quite independently and being obliged later on to follow it in order to retain an influence that threatened to melt away.
Without attaining to a very lofty and difficult standpoint it can be understood that it is the Church that would benefit the most by an attitude which, in fact, far from involving the slightest compromise in the field of doctrine, would have the contrary result of freeing it from all infiltration of the modern spirit, and which, moreover, would entail no outward changes. It would be something of a paradox to see integral Catholicism realized without the collaboration of the Catholic Church, which might find itself under the strange necessity of submitting to be defended against onslaughts more terrible than any it has yet faced, by men whom its leaders, or at any rate those whom they allow to speak in their name, had at first tried to discredit by casting on them the most ill-founded suspicions.
For our own part, we should be sorry to see this happen; but if it is not to come to this, it is high time for those on whom their position places grave responsibilities to act with their eyes fully open to the matters at issue and no longer to allow attempts which might have consequences of the utmost importance to run the danger of frustration owing to the incomprehension or ill-will of certain more or less subordinate individuals, a thing which has happened before now, and which is one more sign of the extent to which confusion reigns everywhere today.
Doubtless we shall receive no gratitude for this warning, which is given quite independently and disinterestedly; but this is of no importance, and we shall continue none the less to say what has to be said whenever it becomes necessary and in the form that we consider most suited to the circumstances. The foregoing is only a summary 'of the conclusions to which we have been led by certain quite recent investigations, carried out, it is scarcely necessary to add, in a purely intellectual field. There is no need, at least for the moment, to give a detailed. description of them and as a matter of fact this could have little interest in itself; but it may be affirmed that not a single word of what has been said above has been written without ample reflection.
It should be clearly understood that it would be utterly useless to put forward here by way of objection any more or less specious philosophical arguments; we are speaking seriously ,of serious matters, and have no time to spend over verbal disputes that would be of no interest and could serve no useful purpose. Moreover it is our intention to remain entirely aloof from all controversies and quarrels of school or party, just as we refuse absolutely to accept any Western label " or definition, since there is none applicable whether this prove pleasing or displeasing, it is a fact, and nothing will make us change our attitude in -this regard.
A warning must also be addressed to those who, through their capacity for a higher understanding if not through the degree of, knowledge to which they have actually attained, seem destined to become elements of a possible elect. There is no doubt that the force of modernism, which is truly " diabolic " in every sense of the word, strives by every means within its power to prevent these elements, to-day isolated and scattered; from achieving the cohesion that is necessary if they are to exert any real influence on the general mentality.
It is therefore for those who have already more or less completely become aware of the end towards which their efforts should be directed to stand firm against the difficulties, whatever they may be, that arise in their path and threaten to turn them aside. Those. who have not yet reached the point beyond which an infallible guidance makes it impossible henceforth to stray from the true path, remain always in danger of the most serious deviations; they need to display the utmost prudence; we may even go further and say, that it should be carried to the point of distrust, for the " adversary," who up to this point has not yet been definitely overcome, can take on the most varied lot and, at times, the most unexpected forms.
It happens, that those who think they have escaped from modern materialism fall a prey to things which, while seemingly opposed to it, are really of the same order; and in view of the turn of mind of modern Westerners, a special warning needs to be uttered against the attraction that more or less extraordinary phenomena may hold out for them; it is this attraction that is to a large extent responsible for all the errors of " neo-spiritualism " and it is to be foreseen that the dangers it represents will grow still worse, for the forces of darkness that keep alive the present confusion find in it one of their most potent instruments.
It is even probable that we are not very far from the time referred to by the prophecy of the Gospel to which we have already alluded to elsewhere . For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect." The " elect " here referred to is the elect in the fullness of its real meaning, according to the sense in which we have invariably used the word, those who, in virtue of the inner " realization " they have achieved, can no longer be seduced; but this is not the case with those who, as yet, possess in themselves only, the possibilities of knowledge, and who are therefore, properly speaking, only the " called "; and this is why the Gospels say that "many are called but few are chosen."
We are entering upon a period when it will be extremely difficult to " separate the chaff from the grain and carry out effectively what theologians call the " testing of the spirits " owing to disordered manifestations that will only grow stronger and more frequent, and also owing to the want of true knowledge on the part of those whose normal function should be to guide the rest, but who to-day are too often nothing but " blind guides."
We shall see then whether the subtleties of dialectic avail anything in such circumstances, and whether any philosophy, even were it the best possible, can have the strength to prevent the " infernal powers " from being let loose; this also is an illusion against which some people need to guard, for it is too often supposed, in ignorance of what pure intellectuality really is, that a merely philosophical knowledge, which even in the best of cases is a bare shadow of true knowledge, can put everything to rights and lead back the contemporary mentality from its deviation; in the same way, there are those who think they can find in modern science itself a means of raising themselves to the higher truths, whereas this science is in fact founded on the negation of these truths.
All these illusions are so many influences leading people astray, and by means of them many of those who sincerely desire to react against the modern outlook are reduced to impotence, since, having failed to find the essential principles without which all action is absolutely vain, they have been swept aside into blind alleys from which there is no hope of escape.
Doubtless, the number will be small of those who will succeed in overcoming all these obstacles and triumphing over the hostility of an environment opposed to all spirituality; but let it be said once more, it is not numbers that matter, for we are here in a domain whose laws are quite different from those of matter. There is therefore no cause for despair, and, even were there no hope of achieving any visible result before the modern world collapses under some catastrophe, this would still be no valid reason for not undertaking a work whose scope extends far beyond the present time.
Those who might be tempted to give way to despair should realise that nothing accomplished in this order can ever be lost, that confusion, error and darkness can win the day only apparently and in a purely ephemeral way, that all partial and transitory disequilibriums must perforce' contribute towards the great equilibrium of the whole, and that nothing can ultimately prevail against the power of truth their device should be that used formerly by certain initiatory organizations of the West : Vinvit omnia Veritas.