The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. ~ G.K. Chesterton (Illustrated London News, 1924)
If you’ve been here a while, you know that I once had a degree of sympathy for Traditionalism. While never calling myself a Traditionalist, I read with interest many of the theologians, metaphysicians, artists, and poets who fell into or helped to guide this particular school of thought. While I can certainly say that I learned a lot from them, most of what I learned was more to do with my own mental tendencies as, quite frankly, most of what the Traditionalists have to “teach” is misleading.
For those of you who are not familiar with the writings of the Traditionalists — notable among them being Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Julius Evola — it may be worth pausing for a definition, or at least a description. As there is a lot of variation to their particular expressions, it isn’t easy to completely encapsulate what Traditionalism teaches, but it can be generalized to two points: Perennialism and perversion.
Perennialism is the notion that all of human religion, metaphysics, ethics, and spirituality sprang ultimately from a single Perennial Philosophy, the one true original universal religion which was itself a revelation of God. The idea of Perennialism has a long pedigree, arising more or less from a Western occult reinterpretation of the Indian notion of Sanatana Dharma. The major difference between Perennialism and Sanatana Dharma, however, is that Sanatana Dharma can never be fully encompassed by the intellect, as it is simply “the way things are” whether we agree or not, while the Perennial Philosophy is entirely intellectual and can be disagreed with or disregarded — albeit, to hear Traditionalists speak of it, to the detriment of all human values. This brings us to the second point.
Traditionalism posits that ever since some distant Golden Age, humanity has been descending further and further into its own ignorance, away from the purity of the Perennial Philosophy and toward absolute moral, spiritual, and intellectual degradation. This, of course, resembles H.P. Blavatsky’s misreading of the Indian cosmological and astrological idea of the Yugas, or ages of civilization during which human civilization descends from a more spiritualized Age of Truth through to an Age of Darkness.
On the surface, the doctrine of Yugas sounds identical to the Ages of Traditionalism. Traditionalism, however, dwells on the increasing perversion of the Dark Age (often even borrowing the phrase Kali Yuga in discussing it) to the exclusion of anything positive about it, taking a more or less eschatological lens to all human questions. In Hindu and Buddhist discussions of the Yugas, they are seen as a descending and ascending cycle, something like a sine wave moving along an overall helical direction, rather than as a straight line or unbreakable circle. Even where Traditionalism acknowledges the cyclical nature of the Ages, it prefers a doom-and-gloom righteousness approaching self-martyrdom. For the Hindu mind, Yugas point to broad trends which may or may not hold in particular places and times and which, in any case, come with both positive and negative developments. It is acknowledged at all times that the Age of Truth was not what a Western thinker would call Utopia — that there were bad actors and flawed people in positions of power even then, but that on balance leaders trended toward genuine justice and spiritual values in line with Dharma, the nature of what is. It is further stated even in the most legalistic of Hindu texts that the actions of humans can turn any time and place into a pocket of the Age of Truth even in the Age of Darkness, and vice versa.
Traditionalism may thus be understood by its dogmatism in approaching doctrines it borrows from elsewhere, especially when those sources are far less rigid about the same ideas. Dogmatism is perhaps inevitable in a school of religious thought which calls itself “Traditionalism”, but we do have a helpful counter-example in the form of Frithjof Schuon.
Though a one-time student of Guenon, and frequently referenced by Evola (in his later writings, as both Evola and Guenon were considerably older than Schuon), Schuon rejected the title of Traditionalist, preferring to refer to himself as a Perennialist. The distinction is subtle but significant of a major doctrinal break: Schuon was devoted to the Divine Feminine.
Where other Traditionalists were misogynists and racists — Guenon less so, but Evola overtly and, I add from personal distaste, vituperatively. Apologists to this day find clever ways around Evola’s language on race and sex, but if you simply read the man’s words, he tells the story himself in the same way that Crowley’s abusiveness and drug addiction are obvious to everyone but those who deify the man. Schuon’s interpretations of race and gender may not look especially progressive by the standards of an urban American in 2019, but Schuon was very clear on the point that none of the traits which can be ascribed to a gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, or ethnicity is exclusive to them but is rather symbolized by them. One runs the risk, here, of accidentally dehumanizing people in using them as symbols, but Schuon was a step ahead here, as well: every individual, for Schuon, is simultaneously an individual and a showing-forth of certain particular divine functions. The spiritual responsibility of the individual is therefore to fully integrate their respective divine functions and from there to reach inward for all of the others, expanding rather than contracting their sense of identity. For these purposes, Schuon passionately threw himself into not only dry intellectual practices but also into the sweet ocean of devotional worship.
Comparing Schuon to the Traditionalists is like comparing an arid desert to a lush rain forest. Both have their dangers and their beauties, but the desert of Evola is not fit for our kind of life. Evola, it has been noted by certain practicing magicians, borrowed extensively from the magical practices of Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, both of which focus intensively upon the Solar Intelligence. The Sun can certainly bring illumination, but in Jyotish we point out that the Sun’s can be a harsh and drying heat; it desiccates and mummifies, preserving a shell. When combined with the sweet expansiveness of Jupiter, the beauty of Venus, and the cooling wet of the Moon, the Sun’s light and heat enliven.
Where Schuon took some core ideas from Traditionalism and jail broke them (an effort also engaged in by Aldous Huxley and Schuon’s own student Huston Smith), the partisans of Traditionalism-proper maintain the very sort of unreflective conservatism critiqued so pointedly by Chesterton.