On René Guénons Critique of Modernity

On René Guénon’s Critique of Modernity

From ’The Kali Yuga ~’1

Edited by Omar K Neusser

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For a substantial understanding of our times with its dominant mentality we follow up on our series of texts on René Guénon’s thought: This text presents quotes (marked in ’single quotes’ ) from Thomas F. Bertonneau’s (TFB) exposition, including footnotes from the same text. Subtitles are ours.

Describing The Modernist Mentality

’“The modernist mentality and the Protestant mentality,” Guénon writes, “differ only in nuance,” both being directed at an ancien régime, or religious establishment, denounced as intolerable; both being moralistic; and both being politically messianic.’2

’Guénon ’discerned3 the “Kali Yuga,” the “Dark Age” of willful havoc, borrowing the label from Hindu scriptures. Thus: “The human cycle [Sanskrit: Manvantara] is divided into four periods marking so many stages during which the primordial spirituality becomes gradually more obscured; these are the same periods that the ancient traditions of the West called the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages. We are now in the fourth age… and have been so already… for more than six thousand years.” (“The Dark Age” is the title of the book’s first chapter.)’4

The Remote Origin of the Modern Crisis - ’Philosophy’

’Describing modernity5 Guénon refers to such phenomena as “occlusion,” “dispersion in pure multiplicity,” and “progressive materialization” as traits of the times. Guénon traces the remote origin of the specifically modern crisis to the Greek world of two centuries later than Hesiod4, particularly to the differentiation of philosophy (self-denominated and as such) from traditional wisdom. In its Pythagorean etymology, as the “love of wisdom,” philosophy connoted modestly “the initial disposition required for the attainment of wisdom,” a “preliminary and preparatory stage.”

Soon, however, “the perversion… ensued that consisted in taking this transitional stage for an end in itself and in seeking to substitute ‘philosophy’ for wisdom.” Such arrogance generated “a pretended wisdom that was purely human and therefore entirely of the rational order, and that took the place of true, traditional, supra-rational, and ‘non-human’ wisdom.” These events reflect, in small, and likewise forecast the larger crisis, which Guénon characterizes as inevitable.

“The reason [for their inevitability] is that the development of any manifestation implies a gradually increasing distance from the principle from which it proceeds.”’6

Renaissance and Reformation

’He writes: “The ancient, sacred doctrines… had degenerated through… lack of understanding into [actual] ‘superstitions’ [that is to say] things which, having lost their meaning, survived for their own sake merely as manifestations.” … Gothic Christianity represents for Guénon a temporary positive “readjustment” to tradition. The so-called Renaissance, which follows the Middle Ages “was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things,” so much so that in respect of the medieval mind modernity is “unable to understand its intellectuality.”

Together the Renaissance and the Reformation correspond with “the disruption of Christendom” and they therefore together mark “the starting-point of the modern crisis” in a “definitive rupture with the traditional spirit.”’

Modernity, ’Change’ And Individualism

’Modernity invariably caricatures the Middle Ages as socially and technically stagnant, in contrast to itself, which it conceives as meritoriously active. The modern mentality chiefly demands “change,” which, in a mood of self-congratulation, modern people call dynamism or progress. But, as Guénon writes in the chapter on “Knowledge and Action,”

“Change, in the widest sense of the word, is unintelligible and contradictory”; thus no society can actually predicate meaningful order purely on “change.” Quite the opposite, constant “change” is indistinguishable from anarchy, toward which all agitating trends like “humanism,” “individualism” and “materialism” lead or so Guénon believes.’

’In the chapter on “Individualism,” Guénon defines that sacrosanct term as, in fact, “the negation of any principle higher than individuality, and the consequent reduction of civilization, in all its branches, to purely human elements.” Individualism existed in ancient society without ever becoming the dominant ethos, but with humanism and Protestantism it broke its fetters and became the defining omniprevalent motif.’

Individuality Ceases to Exist, The Modern Mind

’But that is precisely the paradox that Guénon’s analysis of modernity reveals: In the vaunted individualism noticeable individuality swiftly ceases to exist; a welter of contending subjects replace it, who, in their egocentric contentiousness, soon resemble one another indistinguishably. Guénon has the temerity to write:

“Protestantism denied the authority of the organization qualified to interpret legitimately the religious tradition of the West and in its place claimed to set up ‘free criticism,’ that is to say any interpretations resulting from private judgment, even that of the ignorant and incompetent, and based exclusively on the exercise of human reason.”

Having validated the subjective, the Protestant or modern mind has no criterion by which it might reject any opinion; so it embraces the opposite and declares a regime of mandatory relativism in ideas and moeurs. From this turn-around arises the social, cultural, and epistemological chaos of the modern age.’

Equality, Democracy

’Guénon denounces “the pseudo-principle of… ‘equality,’” which as he says, “almost all of our contemporaries blindly accept.”7 Along with pseudo-principles there are “pseudo-ideas” such as “progress” and “democracy,” which have “nothing in common with the intellectual order.” These “false ideas” are, properly speaking, “suggestions,” rooted in sentiment, whose “contagious” character endows them with propagandistic effectiveness; these “verbalisms” are the “idols” of the contemporary masses.

As for democracy20, “The higher cannot proceed from the lower, because the greater cannot proceed from the lesser.” Guénon’s analysis of mob-behavior (“a sort of general psychosis”) owes something to Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1895).’8

The Origin of Modern Perversity

’Guénon returns to his patient diagnosis of modern intellectual and cultural degradation, always keen to reveal the origin of modern perversity. Vital – which is to say, traditional – civilizations acknowledge quality as superior to quantity; such civilizations eschew quantity for its own sake and thus often appear to modern people to have lived in material poverty.9 The modern idea of the Middle Ages corresponds to this prejudice, which in its turn indicates the impoverishment of modern thinking.’10

The Modern Outlook

’In The Crisis, Guénon goes on to say that, once it had undergone the Protestant transformation, “The modern outlook was bound to reject all spiritual authority in the true sense of the word, namely authority that is based on the supra-human order, as well as any traditional organization.”’

Democracy, Quantity Over Quality, Equality

’For Guénon the idea of “democracy” belongs ineradicably to the mentality that values quantity over quality, so much so that it despises the latter – in the social, moral, and esthetic senses – for being incompatible with the so-called equality. It is this, equality, which supplies that mentality’s overriding desideratum. Guénon steadfastly refuses to allow any dignity to the word “democracy,” which he takes as synonymous with modernity’s mad insistence on equalizing all human achievement at the lowest level, the only level at which such a project could come near to completing itself.’11

’The modern mentality again despises “any kind of superiority” of intellect or mastery because the fact that these things require preparation, capacity, and attunement “is just what ‘egalitarianism’ so obstinately denies.”’

The Illusion of ‘Ordinary Life’, Atrophied

’In the chapter in The Reign on “The Illusion of ‘Ordinary Life,’” Guénon writes, “Materialists, with all their boasted ‘good sense’ and all the ‘progress’ of which they proudly consider themselves to be the most finished products… are really only [people] in whom certain faculties have become atrophied to the extent of being completely abolished.”’12

’A world organized purely on material lines – as Wells and those of his convictions first prescribed and then realized – exists “as it were in an eminently unstable state of equilibrium.”’13

Consequences of “Materialization” and “Solidification” in the Social Order

’In The Reign, in the chapter on “Cain and Abel,” Guénon lists, as figuring among the consequences that “materialization” and “solidification” have devolved on the social order, that regime “in which everything is counted, recorded and regulated,” as he writes. This “mania for census-taking,” which Guenon associates with the centrality of statistics in modern thinking, belongs to “the endless multiplication of administrative interventions in all the circumstances of life.”’14

’In describing bureaucratic number-fixation Guénon writes clairvoyantly that: “These interventions [in tradition] must naturally have the effect of insuring the most complete possible uniformity between individuals, all the more so because it is… a ‘principle’ of all administration to treat individuals as mere numerical units all exactly alike… thus constraining all men to adjust themselves… to the same ‘average’ level.”’

The Tyranny of Quantity and Equality

’The tyranny of quantity, it will be seen, overlaps … almost entirely with the tyranny of equality; any manifestation of quality, as such, then looms as the enemy of both. Because an egalitarian dispensation can only be achieved at the price of quality in itself, all modern intellectual activity will be constrained by mandatory simplification toward numerical dumbness.’15

Hierarchy And Initiation

’Traditional society, Guenon argues, being hierarchical is also initiatory. Entrance into the guilds and brotherhoods of traditional society occurs by rigorous selection and arduous training, thus assuring that those who fill the established offices are those best suited to discharge the work that their appointed stations entail. Guénon writes:

“Initiation, in whatever form it may appear, is that which really incarnates the ‘spirit’ of ‘supra-human’ states.” For the rebellious mentality that spurns hierarchy, “initiation is the thing that must be opposed.” Modern society, in Guénon’s vocabulary, realizes its program through “counter-initiation,” which strives to effect “a change in the general mentality” and the concomitant “destruction of all traditional institutions.”’


’Protestantism (once again), rationalism, and humanism re-enter the discussion. Guénon sees them all as agitating, corrosive forms of “counter-initiation,” most obviously in the cases of Calvin and Luther, but no less perniciously in other later non-religious and anti-religious discourse.’

Incomprehension of the Middle Ages

’According to Guénon, “the most astonishing thing is the speed with which it has been possible to induce Westerners to forget everything connected with the existence of a traditional civilization in their countries.” The modern self-congratulatory enlightenment of the European and North American nations therefore corresponds, as Guenon observes, with “total incomprehension of the Middle Ages and everything connected with them.”’16

Monopolizing Attention, Consumer Pattern, Counterfeits

’The “Reign of Quantity” requires that its constituency live unconnected with any past in a kind of perpetual present, on the multiplying distractions of which the untutored mind remains stupidly fixed. Guénon remarks how industry fills life with things, objects and devices, which monopolize attention, and which assimilate individuals to the pattern of the consumer.’17

’The trend toward “materialization” thus converges with the trend toward mental stultification18 and, in the stultifying vocabulary of modern politics, “democracy.” Having abolished the normal and the traditional, modernity offers counterfeits in the form of “pseudo-religion,” “pseudo-nature,” and even “pseudo-comfort.”’

A Crackup of the World at Hand

’Many literate people nowadays have the gnawing sense that a crackup of the world is at hand. This sense too belongs to The Reign, in whose pages Guénon predicts repeatedly that the “descent” into the nullity of pure quantity is about to hit its lowest depth, its stopping point, at which moment the Kali Yuga will have completed its cycle and a new, opposite motion will begin.’

’Reading Guénon, many literate people will very likely experience some nervousness about the mystic-mythic vocabulary with which he articulates his philosophy of tradition. It is significant, however, that someone as temperamentally opposite to Guénon as was Wells had, at the end of his life, a vision of modern fraudulence as stark as Guénon’s. Given then the total jejuneness19 of everything modern, including the scrubbed-clean, anti-transcendent vocabulary of positivism; given the vapidity and imposture of Foucault-speak and Derrida-speak, both designed to destroy thinking; given, I say, the rampant perniciousness of the socialistic-egalitarian experiment in all its guises – Guénon’s insistence on the archaic, the traditional language of symbol and myth begins to appear in a new light as both useful and urgent.’


Related texts:

- An introduction to Shaykh Abd Al Wahid Yahya - René Guénon
- Texts On Tradition And Traditionalism -- an excerpt (The Reign of Quantity)
- What Is Tradition And What Is Traditional About Islam?

2017-08-26 vs.1.1; from 2017-08-26
[livingislam][Main New Texts ][Ibn `Arabi - Texts Overview] [Understanding God] [Metaphysics] [our facebook-icon] [next page]

Disclaimer: First of all it is Islam that reigns (see Sura 5:3).
Traditional Islam does not accept the notion that the world-religions (and even less so any man-made belief system) would be equally valid paths to God, these are perennialistic interpretations. Even so, they (their laws) still reflect some sacred truth, so they did not turn into falsehood by being abrogated. These are 2 (two) different points to be kept in mind.

• In the words of Muhyiddín Ibn `Arabi: ”The religious laws are all lights, and the law of Muhammad ﷺ among these lights is as the sun's light among the light of the stars…”

”So all paths return to look to the Prophet's path ﷺ : if the prophetic messengers had been alive in his time, they would have followed him just as their religious laws have followed his law.…” [further reading]

  1. The Kali Yuga: René Guénon’s Critique of Modernity, Thomas F. Bertonneau, counter-currents.com - 2010

  2. ’The modern moralization of politics undoubtedly runs in train with the modern politicization of religion. Theosophy reveals much about the generics of modern agitation and complaint: Modern sentiment-driven prohibition-crusades, Guénon writes, organize themselves for “puerile ends.” Yet the crusaders also expect, when they have succeeded in imposing their prohibitions universally, that the event will transform the world.’ TFB

  3. For example in The Crisis of the Modern World

  4. ’The sequence of metallic ages comes from Hesiod’s Works and Days (Eighth Century BC). Hesiod laments having been born into the Iron Age, saying, “Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards”; Hesiod’s catalogue of prevailing evils encompasses the triumph of “envy” and the dissolution of justice in selfish claims.’ TFB

  5. ’in terms similar to those in Hesiod’s complaint’ TFB

  6. ’By “manifestation,” Guénon means revelation … for Guénon the source of revelation is living, an entity, and the basis of existence. It is quite real.’ TFB

  7. ’Readers of The Crisis, especially of the chapter on “Social Chaos,” must remind themselves every few paragraphs that the writing dates from over eighty years ago, so aptly does it depict existing circumstances in 2010. … Guénon would return to the basic plan of The Crisis in 1945, enlarging the scale of the presentation, with The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, reading whose pages is, if possible, an even more powerful experience than reading those of The Crisis.’ TFB

  8. ’The great “signs of the times” in 1945 offered themselves in the wrecked cities of Europe and Japan, the “liberated” concentration camps and POW camps, the presence of the Red Army in Eastern Europe all the way to Vienna, and the new omen of the mushroom cloud.’ TFB

  9. Today of course, material poverty is not something to strive for, as it risques faith (islam & iman).

  10. ’For Guénon, the Middle Ages represented the last normal phase of Western Civilization.’ TFB

  11. ’Thus in the chapter on “The Hatred of Secrecy,” Guénon addresses the pedagogical folly that tries to bring the totality of knowledge and every associated practice “within the reach of all.” Nowadays conservative commentary refers to such programs under the names of “dumbing down” and “affirmative action,” which it would locate as recent developments. Guénon sees the process as co-incipient with Protestant and Revolutionary spitefulness against constituted authority in any domain. Guénon writes: “The modern mentality… cannot bear any secret or even any reserve,” but “such things appear [to it] only as ‘privileges.’”’ TFB

  12. ’What materialists like Wells call “normal” is, from a traditional perspective, quite paltry and abnormal.’ TFB

  13. ’Several French contemporaries of Guénon saw socialism as a Christian heresy, not least Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931) and Henri de Lubac (1896–1991). Much more recently the American Paul Gottfried (born 1941) has argued that political correctness is a continuation of Protestant Nineteenth-Century social crusades. The distance between Gottfried’s view as expressed in Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt (2002) and Guénon’s view either in The Crisis or The Reign is hardly great; both men remark the intolerant, dogmatic character of “liberal” crusades and the appeal of those crusades to base emotions rather than to intellect.’ TFB

  14. ’The sixty-five years since The Reign’s appearance have only strengthened the legitimacy of Guénon’s lexical choice of the term mania.” Thus whatever else they might be (articulating that would entail a long list of invidious motives), both “diversity,” on the one hand, and “climate change policy,” on the other, to name but two Twenty-First Century political programs, are maniacally quantitative and anti-traditional. TFB

  15. ’This engrossment of thinking – indeed of the perception and experience from which thinking derives its material – is also a topic in The Reign.’

  16. ’This forgetfulness is not a spontaneous or natural development, but the result rather of deliberate hostility against the traditional past – of the propaganda, in the exercise of which modern movements, whether political, cultural, sectarian, or scientific excel.’

  17. ’In our own time the variety and fascination – and the idiocy – of these things have only increased.’

  18. stultifying: cause to lose enthusiasm and initiative, especially as a result of a tedious or restrictive routine: the stultifying conformity of provincial life. Mid 18th cent.: from late Latin stultificare, from Latin stultus ‘foolish’. Apple Dictionary

  19. jejune: naive, simplistic, and superficial; (of ideas or writings) dry and uninteresting. Apple Dictionary

  20. democracy: As for today's situation in many (materially) ’developed countries’ it is better to improve upon democracy for greater participation and a better system of ’checks and balances’ and for less corruption than to disband with democracy altogether and enter the age of autocracy and tyranny. This despite the correct analysis of René Guénon., also: