Definitions

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René Guénon

René Guénon (November 15 1886January 7 1951) was a French author and intellectual who remains an influential figure in the domain of metaphysics, having written on topics ranging from metaphysics, sacred science and traditional studies to symbolism and initiation.

In his writings, he proposes either "to expose directly some aspects of Eastern metaphysical doctrines", these doctrines being defined by him as of "universal character or "to adapt these same doctrines [for western readers] while keeping strictly faithful to their spirit"; he only endorsed the function of "handing down" those Eastern doctrines, while stating their "non-individual character".

His works, written and first published in French, have been translated into more than twenty languages. He also wrote two articles in Arabic for El Maarifâ ("knowledge").

Biography

René Guénon was born in Blois, France, on November 15, 1886, into a French Catholic family. His father was an architect. In 1904 he lived in Paris, where he studied mathematics and philosophy. He was a brilliant student, notably in mathematics, in spite of his poor health.

As a young student in Paris, he observed and entered some occultist Parisian milieux (which were, at that time, under the supervision of Papus). Under the name "Tau Palingenius" he became the main contributor of a review he founded, La Gnose ("Gnosis"), henceforth writing articles for La Gnose until 1922. From his incursions into the French occultist and pseudo-masonic orders, he drew a conclusion about the impossibility of gathering these ill-assorted doctrines to shape a "stable edifice". In his book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times he also pointed out the intellectual vacuity of the French occultist movement, which, he wrote, was utterly insignificant, and most importantly, was terminally infiltrated by some individuals of a different, darker nature.

At this time, according to indications coming from André Préau reproduced by his editor and biographer P. Chacornac, it is very likely that René Guénon was initiated into Hinduism (in an initiatic lineage of Shankarâchârya) and Taoism. He was also initiated in 1911 into Islamic esoterism (Taçawuff) and his name in Islam became "Sheikh 'Abd al-Wahid Yahya". His initiation into Islamic esoterism was effected by Ivan Aguéli (Abdul Hadi) and performed in accordance with Sheikh Abder Rahman Elish El-Kebir, a quite important representative of Islam in Egypt at that time, in both its exoteric and esoteric aspects. In particular, from the exoteric point of view, Sheikh Abder Rahman Elish El-Kebir was the head of mâleki madhab at Al-Azhar University. René Guénon later dedicated his book The Symbolism of the Cross to him.

In 1917, he made a one-year stay at Setif, Algeria, teaching philosophy to college students. After World War I, he left teaching to dedicate his time to his writings, with his first book Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines being published in 1921. From 1925 René Guénon became a contributor to the review edited by P. Chacornac Le Voile d’Isis ("The Veil of Isis") which became known, after 1935 and under his influence, under the name Les Etudes Traditionnelles ("Traditional Studies").

Although the exposition of Hindu doctrines had already been tackled at that time by many orientalists, René Guénon’s Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines contemplates its subject in a completely different manner, by referring to the concepts of metaphysics and Tradition in their most general sense, which are precisely defined in the first part of the book, along with the necessary distinctions and definitions of words such as religion, tradition, exoterism, esoterism and theology. René Guénon explained that his purpose was not to describe all aspects of Hinduism, but to give the necessary intellectual foundation for a proper understanding of its spirit. The book is also a severe condemnation of the works presented by the orientalists about Hinduism and Tradition in general (according to René Guénon, they had presented neither any deep understanding of the subject, nor any of its implications), along with a precise analysis of the political intrusions of the British Empire through Madame Blavatsky’s theosophism.

During that same year, 1921, he debuted a series of articles in the French Revue de Philosophie, which, along with some supplements, led to the book Theosophism: History of a Pseudo-Religion. During the decade 1920-1930, René Guénon was remarked by numerous intellectual and artistics in the Parisian milieux, and at that time were published some of his books explaining the "intellectual divide" between the East and West, and the peculiar nature, according to him, of the modern civilization: Crisis of the Modern World, East and West. In 1927 was published the second major doctrinal book of his works: Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta, and in 1929, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, which delivers a general explanation of the fundamental differences between "sacerdotal" and "royal" powers, along with the consequences of the usurpation of the prerogatives of the latter with regard to the former. From these considerations, René Guénon traces to its source the origin of the modern deviation, which, according to him, is to be found in the destruction of the Templar order in 1314.

In 1930, he left Paris for Cairo, Egypt, with the project of gathering and translating written documents in taçawuff. The project was abruptly abandoned after a decision of his editor. Left alone in Cairo, he declined any propositions of coming back to France from his western friends; despite his declining material condition, he relentlessly kept on writing and corresponding with his counterparts from many countries in the world, sometimes at his own cost. The reasons for his refusal to come back to the West, even at the cost of his comfort and daily life, remain unknown. He met Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim whose daughter he married in 1934. From this marriage, he had four children, the last (Abdel Wahed) being born in 1951. In Egypt, René Guénon carried on an austere and simple life, entirely dedicated to his writings and spiritual life. In 1949, he obtained Egyptian nationality.

Urged by some of his collaborators, he gave his agreement to the creation in France of a Masonic lodge of traditional nature, whose name La Grande triade ("The Great Triad") comes from the title of one of his books. The first founders of the lodge, however, separated a few years after its inception. This lodge, belonging to the Grande Loge de France, is still active.

He died on January 7, 1951, after having said "Allah" as his last word.

Introduction to René Guénon’s works

René Guénon's writings contemplate quite an important number of metaphysical themes, and his works, as whole, display a unity and an almost organic coherence, making each topic integrally related to many others. For that reason, we subdivide this presentation into two parts: an overview, made of the ongoing subsection below, followed by a detailed exposition.

His writings make use of words and terms, of fundamental signification, which will receive a precise definition throughout his books. These terms and words, although receiving a usual meaning and being used in many branches of human sciences, have, according to René Guénon, lost substantially their original signification (e.g. words such as "metaphysics", "initiation", "mysticism", "personality", "form", "matter"). He insisted notably on the danger represented by the perversion of the signification of words seen by him as essential for the study of metaphysics; for that reason, we will recall, in the "detailed exposition" section, the definition given by René Guénon to some of the words used extensively in his works.

Overview

In 1921, René Guénon published an Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines. His goal, as he writes it, is an attempt at presenting to westerners eastern metaphysics and spirituality as they are understood and thought by easterners themselves, while pointing at what René Guénon describes as all the erroneous interpretations and misunderstandings of western orientalism and "neospiritualism" (for the latter, notably the proponents of Madame Blavatsky’s theosophism). Right from that time, he presents a rigorous understanding, not only of Hindu doctrines, but also of eastern metaphysics in general. He managed to expose these doctrines to a western public viewed by him as quite unprepared and unreceptive as a whole. He departed from standard scholarship (Orientalist) terminology and methods and preferred to expose the doctrines as a simple "easterner", devoid of what he called "western prejudices". For one of the most famous aspects of René Guénon's work is the irreducible difference he describes between the East and the West. René Guénon defines eastern metaphysics and intellectuality as of "universal nature", that "opens possibilities of conception which are truly beyond any limitation". His work comprises :

  1. An exposition of fundamental metaphysical principles: Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines which contains the general definition of the term "tradition" as René Guénon defines it, Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta, The Symbolism of the Cross, The Multiple States of Being, The Metaphysical Principles of the Infinitesimal Calculus, Oriental Metaphysics.
  2. Studies in symbolism (comprising many articles he wrote for the journal Le Voile d’Isis which became later known under the name Etudes Traditionnelles). These studies in symbolism were later compiled by Michel Valsan in the posthumous book Symbols of Sacred Science. The studies The Great Triad, Traditional Forms & Cosmic Cycles, Insights into Islamic Esoterism & Taoism and The King of the World are also mostly about symbolism.
  3. Fundamental studies related to Initiation, a subject completely re-exposited by Guenon from the traditional perspective: Perspectives on Initiation, Initiation and Spiritual Realization, The Esoterism of Dante.
  4. Criticism of the modern world and of "neospiritualism": East and West, The Crisis of the Modern World, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, The Spiritist Fallacy and The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times, the latter book being often considered as his masterpiece as an explanation of the modern world from the traditional perspective.
  5. Various studies in esoterism: Saint Bernard, Insights into Christian Esoterism, Studies in Freemasonry and Compagnonnage, Studies in Hinduism etc.

This partition is not strict and, as we noted earlier, René Guénon's works display a coherence and unity making each book integrally related to the others. From that perspective, and according to René Guénon's own words, his work is completely unrelated to any particular philosophical system. He identifies the main difference between profane and sacred knowledge: the former ignores the notion of realization ("moksha" or "delivrance" in the Hindu doctrines), while the latter provides effective means for realizing the Supreme Principle (through initiation, mantra or dhikr recitation, orthodox spiritual lineages).

René Guénon defines the modern world as being a degeneration of what he calls "the traditional world". According to him, the real separation between the East and West comes from this degeneration; in other words, it comes from an intellectual standpoint, and is not related to any geographical distinction, but to a doctrinal divergence. Amidst the global period of intellectual confusion and disorder that characterizes modernity according to René Guénon, the East has maintained alive, through uninterrupted spiritual lineages, an intellectual (possibly hidden) elite fully conscious of the original wisdom transmitted to humanity from time immemorial. In some of his books, he states that the present condition of humanity can be explained by the traditional doctrine of "cosmic cycles", as it is described in Hinduism.

He produced a series of articles and books aimed at explaining the modern civilization according to traditional data and, more generally, to the "traditional standpoint". He therein denounces what he calls the "pseudo-initiation", which was, according to him, spreading since the end of the XIX century. He intends to denounce, through a careful examination of the historical origin, the ideological evolution taken by what he calls their "pseudo-doctrines", some "pseudo-spiritual" organisations which, according to him, expose to the West false eastern doctrines or which are counterfeits of regular initiatic traditions (among these "pseudo-spiritual associations" he makes a particular mention of the Theosophical Society founded by Madame Blavatsky in the wake of the modern pseudo-Rosicrucian organisations of the late XIXth century).

René Guénon exposits a view of Metaphysics which can, according to him "by no means be reduced to scientific or philosophical conceptions but which is instead "the knowledge (…) of the principles of universal order" ; being "absolutely illimited", Metaphysics "cannot be defined". Metaphysics is seen, according to him, in its etymological sense, while recalling that sense in his books. Such a metaphysics, being by essence beyond any contingency, is necessarily at the source of all orthodox traditions, these latter being considered as direct derivations of the great "primordial tradition" (corresponding to the Hindu notion of Sanātana Dharma, or Manu law).

Metaphysics is not introduced by René Guénon as a branch of philosophy, as it is in western studies. Traditional metaphysics, which is, according to Guénon, beyond any contingency (knowledge of universal principles), lies at the very source of all orthodox and legitimate traditions, making a connection between the heart of these traditions and a unique spiritual origin, the "Primordial Tradition. The study of traditional metaphysics and its relationship with our state of existence, i.e. our world, clears the path inwardly towards the center common and shared by each authentic religion: exoterism bounds an "outside" accessible to everyone, its purpose is to maintain the link with Supreme Principle.

However, the current state of the West, characterized by its voluntary and gradual detachment from his own tradition, Christianity, and the degeneration of major branches of one of his last initiatic organization, freemasonry, makes a restoration somewhat unlikely feasible given that this situation is the result of a long evolution through Western history, which according Guénon, follows even a predetermined plan. Incidentally, in the esoteric domain, René Guénon says that two dates mark historically the fundamental spiritual degeneration of the West: first, the destruction of the Order of the Knight Templars in 1314, which defines precisely what René Guénon called "modern deviation, and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which severed, in the historical and "outer realm", the link between West and what René Guénon defined as the "Supreme Centre.

At multiple occasions in his books, René Guénon insisted that the most important, in metaphysics, was properly inexpressible:

[...] it should be agreed, for not altering the truth by a partial, restrictive or systematized exposition, to keep always the part of the inexpressible, ie the part which cannot be emprisonned in any form, and which, metaphysically, is really what matters most, we can even say that represents the most essential part [...]

According to the doctrine exposed by René Guénon, the "spiritual realisation" leads to the effective identification with the states of being that are superior to our transitory human state, and ultimately to the "Supreme Identity" with the Supreme Principle or Absolute Reality. He firmly states the necessity of being fastened to an authentic and living tradition which has kept alive and made available the initiations that were existing in that tradition since its inception. Such living traditions (such as Hinduism, Islam, or Taoism) are characterized by an inspiration (ex. the the Vedas), or a revelation (ex. the Qur'an). He insists on the notion of "intellectual intuition" (supra-rational or spiritual), "awakened" by concentration and meditation on symbols, either in visual form (yantras) or auditive (mantras or, in Islam, dhikr).

René Guénon's works: detailed exposition

In paragraphs of this section are presented, from one part, the books devoted to the exposition of the core metaphysical doctrines in the work of René Guénon, and, secondly, an overview of the other thematics also exposed.

For reasons mentionned earlier in this article, it is useful to begin with some terms and notions used throughout his books.

Some key terms and notions

Term and/or idea Definition and/or remarks
Metaphysics
It may now be stated that metaphysics [...] is essentially the knowledge of the Universal, or, if preferred, the knowledge of the principles belonging to the universal order, which moreover alone can validly lay claim to the name of principles; but in making this statement, we are not really trying to propose a definition of metaphysics, for such a thing is a sheer impossibility by reason of that very universality which we look upon as the foremost of its characteristics, the one from which all the over are derived. In reality, only something that is limited is capable of definition, whereas by definition metaphysics is on the contrary by its very nature absolutely unlimited, and this plainly does not allow our enclosing it in a more or less narrow formula [...]
Identity of the knowing and being
Metaphysics affirms the fundamental identity of knowing and being [...] and since this identity is essentially implied of the very nature of intellectual intuition, it not merely affirms it but realizes it as well.
Initiation and mysticism
Today the esoteric or initiatic domain and the mystical domain, - or, if one prefers, their respective points of view - are often confused [...]. it is currently the fashion so to speak among those with limited horizons to construe all Eastern doctrines as 'mystical', including those that lack even a semblance of the outward aspects that could justify such an attribution [...]. [...] in everything pertaining to initiation there is really nothing vague or nebulous, for on the contrary it is as precise and 'positive' as can be, so that initiation by its very nature is in fact incompatible with mysticism.
Initiation
[...] initiation is essentially the transmission of a spiritual influence, a transmission that can only take place through a regular, traditional organization, so that one cannot speak of initiation outside of an affiliation with an organization of this kind. We have explained that 'regularity' must be understood to exclude all pseudo-initiatic organizations, which, regardless of pretention and outward appearance, in no way possess any spiritual influence and thus are incapable of transmitting anything.
The Self
The 'Self' is the transcendant and permanent principle of which the manifested being, the human being, for example, is only a transient and contingent modification, a modification which, moreover, can in no way affect the principle [...] The 'Self', as such, is never individualized and cannot become so, for since it must always be considered under the aspect of the eternity and immutability which are the necessary attributes of pure Being, it is obviously not susceptible of any particularization, which would cause it to be 'other that itself'. Immutable in its own nature, it develops the indefinite possibilities which it contains within itself, by a relative passing from potency to act through an indefinite series of degrees. Its essential permanence is not thereby affected, precisely because this process is only relative, and because this development is, strictly speaking, not a development at all, except from the point of view of manifestation, outside of which there is no question of succession, but only of perfect simultaneity, so that even what is virtual under one aspect, is found nevertheless to be realized in the 'eternal present'.
Paramâtmâ, individuality, personality
[...] Previously, on the contrary [i.e. prior to the theosphists], even in the West, whenever any distinction has been made between these two terms ['individuality' or 'ego' and 'personality'] the personality has always been regarded as superior to individuality [...] The 'Self' [...] considered in relation to a being, is properly speaking the personnality; it is true that one might restrict the use of this latter word to the 'Self' as principle of the manifested states, just as the 'Divine Personality', Ishwara, is the Principle of universal Manifestation; but one can also extend it analogically to the 'Self' as principle of all states of the being, both manifested and unmanifested. The personality is an immediate determination, primordial and non-particularized, of the principle which in Sanskrit is called Atmâ or Paramâtmâ, and which, in default of a better term, we may call the 'Universal Spirit', on the clear understanding, however, that in this use of the word 'spirit', nothing is implied that might recall Western philosophical conceptions, and, in particular, that is not turned into a correlative of 'matter', as the modern mind is inclined to do, being subject in this respect, even though unconsciously, to the influence of Cartesian dualism.
Universal and individual
The 'Self', in relation to any being whatsoever, is in reality identical with Atmâ, since it is essentially beyond all distinction and all particularization; and that is why, in Sanskrit, the same word âtman, in cases other than the nominative, replaces the reflexive pronoun 'itself'. The 'Self is not therefore really distinct from Atmâ, except when one considers it [...] in relation to a certain definite state of being, such as the human state [...]. In this case, moreover, the 'Self' does not really become distinct from Atmâ in any way, since [...] it [...} cannot be affected by the point of view from which we regard it [...]. What should be noted is that to the extent that we make this distinction, we are departing from the direct consideration of the 'Self' in order to consider its reflection in human individuality [...]. The reflection in question determines what may be called the center of this individuality; but if isolated from its principle, that is, from the 'Self', it can only enjoy a purely illusory existence, for it is from that principle that it derives all its reality, and it effectually possesses this reality only through participation in the nature of the 'Self', that is, insofar as it is identified therewith by universalization.
The personality [...] belongs essentially to the order of principles in the strictest sense of the word, that is, to the universal order [...]. [The] following table [...] sets forth the essential distinctions in this connection [...]:
Manifestation and non-manifestation
[...] the Universal will [not only] consist solely of the unmanifested, but will also extend to the formless, comprising both the unmanifested and the supra-individual states of manifestation. As for the individual, it includes all degrees of formal manifestation, that is, all states in which beings are invested with forms, for what properly characterizes individuality and essentially constitutes it as such is precisely the presence of form among the limitative conditions which define and determine a given state of existence. We can now sum up these further considerations in the following table:
Note: in another text, René Guénon will identify what is called here formless manifestation, or formless states of being, with certain angelic states, as they are called in religious (exoteric) formulations.
The human state of being
The "gross state" in fact is nothing else than the corporeal existence itself, to which [...] human individuality belongs by one of its modalities only, and not in its integral development. As to the "subtle state", it includes, in the first place, the extra-corporeal modalities of the human being, or of every other being situated in the same state of existence, and also, in the second place, all other individual states [...] It may be said, therefore, that the human being, considered in its integrality, comprises a certain sum of possibilities which constitute its corporeal or gross modality, and in addition, a multitude of other possibilities, which, extending in different directions beyond the corporeal modality, constitute its subtle modalities; but all these possibilities together represent, nonetheless, one and the same degree of universal Existence. It follows from this that human individuality is at once much more and much less than Westerners generally suppose it to be: much more, because they recognize in it scarcely anything except the corporeal modality, which includes but the smallest fraction of its possibilities; much less, however, because this individuality, far from really constituting the whole being, is but one state of that being among an indefinite multitude of other states. Moreover the sum of all these states is still nothing at all in relation to the personality, which alone is the true being, because it alone represents its permanent and unconditioned state, and because there is nothing else which can be considered as absolutely real.
Samâdhi and ecstasy
[...] let us also point out the impropriety of translating samâdhi as "ecstasy", this latter being all the more irksome as it is normally used in Western languages to designate mystical states, that is to say something of an altogether different order, with which it must not be confused; its etymological signification moreover is "to go out of oneself" (which suits very well the case of mystical states), whereas what the term samâdhi designates is quite to the contrary a "return" of the being into its own Self.
Form, matter, essence and substance
Understood [...] with reference to particular beings, essence and substance are in effect the same as the "form and "matter" of the scholastic philosophers; but it is better to avoid the use of these latter terms because, doubtless owing to an imperfection of the Latin language in this connection, they only convey rather innacurately the ideas they ought to express [...]
Matter and the principle of individuation
[...] the individuals of any one species all participate in a common nature, which is that of the species itself, and is in all of them equally; how then does it come about that, in spite of this community of nature, these individuals are distinct beings, or even that thay are in any way distinguishable one from another ? [...] the question could [...] be formulated in this way: of what order is the determination which is added to specific nature so that individuals may become separate beings while remainnig within the species ?It is this determination that the scholastics relate to "matter", that is to say ultimately to quantity [...] and thus "matter" or quantity appears distinctly as a principle of "separativity".

The metaphysical core

The exposition of metaphysical doctrines, which forms the cornerstone of René Guénon's work, is consisting of the following books:

  • Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines,
  • Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta,
  • The Multiple States of the Being,
  • Symbolism of the Cross,
  • Oriental Metaphysics.

Introduction to the Study of the Hindu doctrines

The book, published in 1921, some topics of which will be included in the lecture he will give at the Sorbonne, December 17, 1925 ('The Eastern metaphysics'), consists of four parts.

  • The first part (« preliminary questions ») exposes the hurdles that prevented classical orientalism from a deep understanding of eastern doctrines (without forgetting that René Guénon had of course in view the orientalism of his time): the « classical prejudice » which « consists essentially in a predisposition to attribute the origin of all civilization to the Greeks and Romans », the ignorance of certain types of relationships between the ancient peoples, linguistic difficulties, and the confusions arising about certain questions related to chonology, these confusions being made possible through the ignorance of the importance of oral transmission which can precede, to a considerable and indeterminate extent, the written formulation. A fundamental example of that latter mistake being found in the orientalist's attempts at providing a precise birth date to the Vedas sacred scriptures.
  • The « general characters of eastern thought » part focuses on the principles of unity of the eastern civilizations, on the definition of the notions of "tradition" and "metaphysics". René Guénon also proposes a rigorous definition of the term "religion", and states the proper differences between "tradition", "religion", "metaphysics" and "philosophical system". The relations between "metaphysics" and "theology" are also explored, and the fundamental terms of "esoterism" and "exoterism" are introduced. A chapter is devoted to the idea of « metaphysical realization ». The first two parts state, according to René Guénon, the necessary doctrinal foundations for a correct understanding of Hindu doctrines.
  • The third part: "the Hindu doctrines" introduces some of the most fundamental ideas in Hindu doctrines: the traditional signification of the word "hindu", the notions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy contemplated from the metaphysical perspective (in comparison with their religious or theological counterparts), an exposition of the main sacred texts in Hinduism, the notions of "darshana", Manu law, Sanâtana Dharma, the Vêdantâ, the Upanishads etc.
  • The fourth and last part exposes what René Guénon calls the erroneous western interpretations. He describes some currents born in India under the conjugated influence of the British Empire, Anglo-Saxon missionary protestantism and H. P. Blavatsky's theosophism: the Arya Samâj, the doctrines of Dayânanda Saraswatî and Vivekananda etc.

Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta

The Introduction to the study of the Hindu doctrines had, among its objectives, the purpose of giving the proper intellectual basis to promote openness to the study of eastern intellectuality. The study of Hindu doctrines is continued in his book Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta by taking the specific viewpoint of the human being's constitution according to the Vêdantâ: René Guénon states that his goal is not to present a synthetic exposition of all vedic doctrines "which would be quite an impossible task", but to consider "a particular point of that doctrine", in that case the definition of the human being, in order to contemplate afterwards other aspects of metaphysics.

The book begins in precising the nature of the Vêdantâ, its profound signification as the "end of the Vedas", and the traditional signification of Shruti and Smriti scriptures:

[...] the distinction between shruti and smriti is, fundamentally, equivalent to that between immediate intellectual intuition and reflective consciousness; if the first is described by a word bearing the primitive meaning of 'hearing', this is precisely in order to indicate its intuitive character, and because according to the Hindu cosmological doctrine, sound holds the primordial rank among sensible qualities.
The fundamental texts called Mimânsa (Pûrva-Mimânsa, Uttara-Mimânsa), the Upanishads, the Brahmâ-Sûtras, along with Hindu cosmological texts are listed, and the notion of "intellectual function" associated to their origin is proposed, as opposed to the profane notion of "author".

The general considerations of the Self, the Unmanifested and the universal Manifestation are then introduced: the universal Manifestation is all that exists and its development is constantly being in progress, towards destiny. The Unmanifested is all that is beyond universal Manifestation, so that it can only be designated by negation. The second chapter also establishes the fundamental distinctions between the Self and the ego, or "personality" and "individuality", the first being the only One that is "absolutely real". These ideas are declined in different denominations depending, for a first part, on the different degrees of reality considered, and also from the "transcendent" and "immanent" point of views that can be contemplated: Ishwara is the "Divine personality" or the Principle of universal Manifestation. It is unmanifested, for the Principle of Manifestation cannot be Itself manifested (this is in relation to the symbolism of "black heads": Ishwara has Its head in "darkness"). Atmâ, Paramâtmâ, Brahmâ: the realization that the Self, "in relation to any being whatsoever, is in reality identical to Atmâ", constitutes the heart of the Hindu doctrine of "delivrance" or "moksha", and that doctrine is absolutely identical to what islamic esoterism calls the Supreme Identity (that is to say, expressed in Hindu terms, the identity of Atmâ and Brahmâ):

[...] the 'Supreme Identity', according to an expression borrowed from Islamic esoterism, where the doctrine on this and on many other points is fundamentally the same as in the Hindu tradition, in spite of great differences in form.
If the "Supreme Identity" (or "moksha" or "delivrance"), is made possible, through realization, it is because at the very heart of the human being (not to be confused with the heart organ of the corporeal envelope) is found what is called Brahmâ 's journey, or Brahmâ-pura.

What resides at the center of the human state is Purusha, or Brahmâ considered "inside" (or "at the center" of) the human being. Purusha, in order that manifestation may be produced, must enter into correlation with another principle, although such a correlation is really non-existent in relation to the highest (uttama) aspect of Purusha, for there cannot in truth be any other principle than the Supreme Principle, except in a relative sense. The correlative of Purusha is then Prakriti, the undifferentiated primordial substance, a passive principle represented as feminine, while Purusha, also called Pumas, is the active principle, represented as masculine; and these two are the poles of all manifestation, though remaining unmanifested themselves. It is the union of these complementary principles which produces the integral development of the human individual state, and that applies relatively to each individual. From there, all different degrees of individual manifestation can be described and named, and in particular the tanmatras, the mind or manas in its role of coordinator of internal and external faculties, the five vayus, the different prânas, and the distinctions between the waking state, the dream state, and the deep sleep state.

The book ends with a description of the reabsorption of the individual faculties, either in the posthumous conditions, or in the spiritual process of realization, up to the "final delivrance" or "Supreme Identity", which is the ultimate goal of any true spiritual path.

The Symbolism of the Cross

The Symbolism of the Cross is a book "dedicated to the venerated memory of Esh-Sheikh Abder-Rahman Elish El-Kebir". Its goal, as Guénon states it, "is to explain a symbol that is common to almost all traditions, a fact that would seem to indicate its direct attachment to the great primordial tradition". To alleviate the hurdles bound to the interpretations of a symbol belonging to different traditions, Guénon distinguishes synthesis from syncretism: syncretism consists in assembling from the outside a number of more or less incongruous elements which, when so regarded, can never be truly unified. Syncretism is something outward: the elements taken from any of its quarters and put together in this way can never amount to anything more than borrowings that are effectively incapable of being integrated into a doctrine "worthy of that name". To apply these criteria to the present context of the symbolism of the cross:
[...] syncretism can be recognized wherever one finds elements borrowed from different traditional forms and assembled together without any awareness that there is only one single doctrine of which these forms are so many different expressions or so many adaptations related to particular conditions related to given circumstances of time and place.

A notable example of syncretism can be found, according to Guénon, in the "doctrines" and symbols of the Theosophical society. Synthesis on the other hand is carried essentially from within, by which it properly consists in envisaging things in the unity of their principle. Synthesis will exist when one starts from unity itself and never loses sight of it throughout the multiplicity of its manifestations; this moreover implies the ability to see beyond forms and a awareness of the principal truth. Given such awareness, one is at liberty to make use of one or another of those forms, something that certain traditions symbolically denote as "the gift of tongues". The concordance between all traditional forms may be said to represent genuine "synonymies". In particular, René Guénon writes that the cross is a symbol that in its various forms is met with almost everywhere, and from the most remotes times. It is therefore far from belonging peculiarly to the Christian tradition, and the cross, like any other traditional symbol, can be regarded according to manifold senses.

Far from being an absolute and complete unity in himself, the individual in reality constitutes but a relative and fragmentary unity. The multiplicity of the states of the being, "which is a fundamental metaphysical truth", implies the effective realization of the being's multiple states and is related to the conception that various traditional doctrines, including Islamic esoterism, denote by the term 'Universal Man': in Arabic al-Insân-al-kâmil is at the same time 'Primordial man' (al-Insân-al-qâdim); it is the Adam Qadmon of the Hebrew Kabbalah; it is also the 'King' (Wang) of the Far-Eastern tradition (Tao Te King chap. 25). The conception of the 'Universal Man' establishes a constitutive analogy between universal manifestation and its individual human modality, or, to use the language of Western Hermeticism, between the 'macrocosm' and the 'microcosm'.

From these considerations, the geometrical symbolism of the cross, in its most universal signification, can be contemplated: most traditional doctrines symbolize the realization of 'Universal Man' by a sign that is everywhere the same because, according to Guénon, it is one of those directly attached to the primordial tradition. That sign is the sign of the cross, which very clearly represents the manner of achievement of this realization by the perfect communion of all states of the being, harmoniously and conformably ranked, in integral expansion, in the double sense of amplitude and exaltation. In fact, this double expansion of the being may be regarded as taking place horizontally on the one hand, that is, at a certain level or degree of existence, and vertically at the other, that is, in the hierarchical superimposition of all the degrees. Thus, the horizontal direction represents 'amplitude', or integral extension of the individuality taken as basis for realization, and the vertical direction represents the hierarchy, likewise and a fortiori indefinite, of the multiples states. Furthermore, the symbol of the cross can also be considered in two basic ways, so-called horizontal and vertical, as it appears in the double consideration of a first cross obtained, in the ecliptic plane by joining the equinoctial and solstice points, and a second cross, orthogonal to the first, defined by the equator and the line going through the poles. The tridimensional cross obtained that way is linked to the six directions of space and the centre of the cross, through a symbolism that appears notably in the hebraic kabbalah in relation to the "mystery of unity", and also in Clement of Alexandria, and the Hindu doctrines as well. Then, the symbol of the cross may develop according to different points of view: union of the complements, with the vertical line representing the active principle and the horizontal line the passive principle, hence establishing an application of the general consideration of Purusha-Prakriti; resolution of the opposites, symbolized by the central point which corresponds to what Islamic esoterism calls the 'Divine station', namely 'that which combines contrasts and antinomies' (al-mâqam lillahi huwa mâqam ijtima 'al-diddâin): this station (mâqam), or degree of the being's effective realization, is attained by al-fanâ', that is, by the 'extinction' of the ego in the return to the 'primordial state'; such 'extinction', writes René Guénon, even as regards the literal meaning of the term denoting it, is not without analogy to the Nirvâna of the Buddhist doctrine. Beyond al-fanâ', there is still fanâ al-fanâ', the 'extinction of the extinction', which similarly corresponds to Parinirvâna. In the Far-Eastern tradition, the central point is called the "Invariable Middle" (Ching-Yin) which is the place of perfect equilibrium, represented as the center of the 'cosmic wheel', and is also, at the same time, the point where the 'Activity of Heaven' is directly manifested. This center directs all things by its 'actionless activity' (wei wu-wei), which although unmanifested, or rather because it is unmanifested, is in reality the plenitude of activity, since it is the activity of the Principle whence all activities are derived; Guénon notes that this has been expressed by Lao Tzu as follows: The Principle is always actionless, yet everything is done by It. This "Invariable Middle" is also the locus of "Peace in the void", corresponding to what Islamic esoterism calls the "Great Peace".

That 'peace' that dwells at the central point, brings to another symbolism, namely that of war, and a well-known example of that symbolism, writes René Guénon, is found in the Bhagavad-Gitâ. The same conception, writes René Guénon, is not specific to the Hindu doctrine, but is also found in the Islamic, for this is the real meaning of the 'holy war' (jihâd): "[...] war represents a cosmic process whereby what is manifested is reintegrated into the principal unity; that is why, from the viewpoint of manifestation itself, this reintegration appears as a destruction, and this emerges very clearly from certain aspects of the symbolism of Shiva in the Hindu doctrine. Another aspect of the symbolism of the cross identifies it with what various traditions identifies as "The tree in the Midst", one of the numerous symbols of the "World Axis". This tree stands at the center of the world, or rather of a world, that is a domain in which a state of exsitence, such as the human state, is developed. In the biblical symbolim, for example, the 'Tree of life', planted in the midst of the terrestrial paradise, represents the center of our world, and René Guénon studies its relationships with another biblical tree, the 'Tree of Knowledge of good and evil'. Besides, the horizontal cross is directly in relation with the polar symbolism of the swastika, "a truly universal symbol" which represents, particularly in India, the action of the Principle on the manifestation (see figure), and which is in no way related to the artificial and even anti-traditional use of the swastika by the German `racialists` who have given it the fantastic and somewhat ridiculous title of hakenkreuz or `hanked cross` and quite arbitrarily made it a symbol of antisemitism. Then René Guénon goes "as deeply as possible into the geometrical symbolism which applies equally both to the degrees of universal Existence and to the states of each being, that is, both from the `macrocosmic` and the `microcosmic`standpoint" .

These considerations lead to an interpretation of the symbolism of the weaving: in sanskrit sûtra means "thread" and it is "a least curious to note that the Arabic word `sûrat`, which denotes the chapters of the Koran, is composed of exactly the same elements as the Sanskrit `sûtra`; this word has in addition the kindred sense of `row` or `line` and its derivation is unknown" . René Guénon then contemplates many aspects related to the geometrical representation of the states of the Being: the representation of the continuity of the modalities of one and the same state of the being, the relationship between point and space (a question related to the infinitesimals), the ontology of the burning bush in the old testament, the universal spherical vortex, the Far-Eastern symbol of the Yin-Yang, the tree and the serpent etc.

The Multiple States of the Being

This book expands on the multiple states of the Being, a doctrine already tackled in The Symbolism of the Cross, leaving aside the geometrical representation exposed in that book "to bring out the full range of this altogether fundamental theory" .

First and foremost is asserted the necessity of the metaphysical Infinity, envisaged in its relationship with universal Possibility. "The Infinite, according to the etymology of the term which designates it, is that which has no limits" , so it can only be applied to what has absolutely no limit, and not to what is exempted from certain limitations while being subjected to others like space, time, quantity, in other words all countless other things that fall within the indefinite, fate and nature. There is no distinction between the Infinite and universal Possibility, simply the correlation between these terms indicates that in the case of the Infinite, it is contemplated in its active aspect, while the universal Possibility refers to its passive aspect: these are the two aspects of Brahma and its Shakti in the Hindu doctrines. From this results that "the distinction between the possible and the real [...] has no metaphysical validity, for every possible is real in its way, according to the mode befitting its own nature" . This leads to the metaphysical consideration of the Being and Non-Being:

If we [...] define Being in the universal sense as the principle of manifestation, and at the same time as comprising in itself the totality of possibilities of all manifestation, we must say that Being is not infinite because it does not coincide with total Possibility; and all the more so because Being, as the principle of manifestation, although it does indeed comprise all the possibilities of manifestation, does so only insofar as they are actually manifested. Outside of Being, therefore, are all the rest, that is all the possibilities of non-manifestation, as well as the possibilities of manifestation themselves insofar as they are in the unmanifested state; and included among these is Being itself, which cannot belong to manifestation since it is the principle thereof, and in consequence is itself unmanifested. For want of any other term, we are obliged to designate all that is thus outside and beyond Being as `Non-Being`, but for us this negative term is in no way synonym for `nothingness` [...]

For instance, our present state, in its corporeal modality, is defined by five conditions: space, time, `matter` (i.e. quantity), `form`, and life, and these five conditions enter into correlation with the five corporeal elements (bhutas of the Hindu doctrine, see below) to create all living forms (including us in our corporeal modalities) in our world and state of existence. But the universal Manifestation is incommensurably more vast, including all the states of existence that correspond to other conditions or possibilities, yet Being Itself is the principle of universal Manifestation.

This involves the foundation of the theory of multiple states and the metaphysical notion of the unicity of the Existence (wahdatul-wujûd) as it is for instance developed in Islamic esoterism by Mohyddin Ibn Arabi. The relationships of unity and multiplicity lead to a more accurate "description" of the Non-Being : in it, there can be no question of a multiplicity of states, since this domain is essentially that of the undifferentiated and even of the unconditionned : "the undifferentiated cannot exist in a distinctive mode", although we still speak analogously of the states of the non-manifestation : Non-Being is Metaphysical Zero and is logically anterior to unity; that is why Hindu doctrine speaks in this regard only of 'non duality' (advaita). Analogous considerations drawn from the study of dream state help understand the relationships of unity and multiplicity : in dream state, which is one of the modalities of the manifestation of the human being corresponding to the subtle (that is, non-corporeal) part of its individuality,"the being produces a world that proceeds entirely from itself, and the objects therein consist exclusively of mental images (as opposed to the sensory perceptions of the waking state), that is to say of combinations of ideas clothed in subtle forms that depend substantially of the subtle form of the individual himself, moreover, of which the imaginal objects of a dream are nothing but accidental and secondary modifications". Then, René Guénon studies the possibilities of individual conciousness and the mental (mind) as the characteristic element of the human individuality. In chapter X (Limits of the Indefinite), he comes back to the notion of metaphysical realization ('moksha' or 'Suprême identity'). A superior signification of the notion of darkness is then introduced, most notably in the chapter entitled The two chaoses, which describes what is happening during the course of spiritual realization when a disciple leaves the domain of formal possibilities. The multiples states of the Being is essentially related to the notion of "spiritual hierarchies", which is found in all traditions. Hence is described the universal process of the realization of the Being through Knowledge.

Hermetism and cosmological sciences

To be updated soon

Lesser Mysteries and Greater Mysteries

To be updated soon

Eleusinian Mysteries, Hermetism and cosmological sciences

To be updated soon

The Hindu doctrine of cosmic cycles

To be updated soon

The doctrine of the five elements

To be updated soon

Atomism and the question of "continuum composition"

To be updated soon

Symbolism

To be updated soon

The attempts at subverting tradition in the modern world

To be updated soon

Open questions

To be updated soon

Situation of the author and his work, relativization of the importance of biography

To be updated soon

Sources and influences

To be updated soon

The Order of the Renovated Temple

To be updated soon

The Gnostic church

To be updated soon

The years of the Gnosis journal

To be updated soon

The King of the World

To be updated soon

Bibliography

Books by René Guénon

(ordered by first publication date):

  • Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines (Introduction générale à l'étude des doctrines hindoues, 1921)
  • Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (Le Théosophisme - Histoire d'une pseudo-religion, 1921)
  • The Spiritist Fallacy (L'erreur spirite, 1923)
  • East and West (Orient et Occident, 1924)
  • Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta (L'homme et son devenir selon le Vêdânta, 1925)
  • The Esoterism of Dante (L'ésotérisme de Dante, 1925)
  • The King of the World (Le Roi du Monde, 1927)
  • The Crisis of the Modern World (La crise du monde moderne, 1927)
  • Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power (Authorité Spirituelle et Pouvoir Temporel, 1929)
  • St. Bernard (Saint-Bernard, 1929)
  • Symbolism of the Cross (Le symbolisme de la croix, 1931)
  • The Multiple States of the Being (Les états multiples de l'Être, 1932)
  • Oriental Metaphysics (La metaphysique orientale, 1939)
  • The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times (Le règne de la quantité et les signes des temps, 1945)
  • Perspectives on Initiation (Aperçus sur l'initiation, 1946)
  • The Metaphysical Principles of the Infinitesimal Calculus (Les principes du calcul infinitésimal, 1946)
  • The Great Triad (La Grande Triade, 1946)

Posthumous collections

  • Initiation and Spiritual Realization (Initiation et réalisation spirituelle, 1952)
  • Insights into Christian Esoterism (Aperçus sur l'ésotérisme chrétien, 1954)
  • Symbols of Sacred Science (Symboles de la Science Sacrée, 1962)
  • Studies in Freemasonry and Compagnonnage (Études sur la Franc-Maçonnerie et le Compagnonnage, 1964)
  • Studies in Hinduism (Études sur l'Hindouisme, 1966)
  • Traditional Forms & Cosmic Cycles (Formes traditionelles et cycles cosmiques, 1970)
  • Insights into Islamic Esoterism & Taoism (Aperçus sur l'ésotérisme islamique et le Taoïsme, 1973)
  • Reviews (Comptes rendus, 1973)
  • Miscellanea (Mélanges, 1976)

The Collected Works of René Guénon

New English translation, 23 volumes, Sophia Perennis (publisher)

  • East and West (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • The Crisis of the Modern World (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • The Esoterism of Dante (paper, 2003; cloth, 2005)
  • The Great Triad (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • Initiation and Spiritual Realization (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • Insights into Christian Esoterism (paper, 2001; cloth, 2005)
  • Insights into Islamic Esoterism and Taoism (paper, 2003; cloth, 2004)
  • Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • The King of the World (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • Metaphysical Principles of the Infinitesimal Calculus (paper, 2003; cloth, 2004)
  • Miscellanea (paper, 2003; cloth, 2004)
  • The Multiple States of the Being tr. Henry Fohr (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • Perspectives on Initiation (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • The Spiritist Fallacy (paper, 2003; cloth, 2004)
  • Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • Studies in Freemasonry and the Compagnonnage (paper, 2005; cloth, 2005)
  • Studies in Hinduism (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • The Symbolism of the Cross (paper, 2001; cloth, 2004)
  • Symbols of Sacred Science (paper, 2004; cloth, 2004)
  • Theosophy, the History of a Pseudo-Religion (paper, 2003; cloth, 2004)
  • Traditional Forms and Cosmic Cycles (paper, 2003; cloth, 2004)

Books about René Guénon

(Sophia Perennis)

  • Frithjof Schuon, René Guénon: Some Observations (paper, 2004)
  • Paul Chacornac, The Simple Life of René Guénon (paper, 2005; cloth, 2005)
  • Robin Waterfield, René Guénon and the Future of the West (paper, 2002; cloth, 2005)
  • Jean Borella, Guénonian Esoterism and Christian Mystery (cloth, 2005)
  • Xavier Accart, René Guénon ou Le Renversement des clartés Paris, Milanos: Edidit Arche (2005)

Internet

See also

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Notes and references

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