The Crisis of the Modern World

The Crisis of the Modern World

There is little doubt today that the Western world is in crisis. Regardless of where one falls on the political or theological spectrum, one has the sense that our culture is collapsing. Philosophers argue about the intellectual and historical roots of this crisis (e.g. the emergence of nominalism, the enlightenment, capitalism, Marxism, the religious right, neoliberalism, etc.).  I recently had the opportunity to read an interesting book that locates the source of the problem much earlier than the usual candidates.

In The Crisis of the Modern World, René Guénon locates the emergence of the crisis all the way back in what others have dubbed the Axial Age. The Axial age is usually portrayed as a time of profound creativity and spiritual development. It saw the birth of Greek philosophy, the Hebrew Prophets, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism and Buddhism. But while others portray this time as an exceptionally fertile period for the human spirit, Guénon sees it as the beginning of cultural decline. According to Guénon, what we observe in this era is not the generation of new spiritual philosophies, but the fracturing of a previously unified spiritual tradition. For example, he claims that this period oversaw the severing of China’s spiritual tradition “into two clearly distinct parts: Taoism, reserved for an elite and comprising pure metaphysics and the traditional sciences of a properly speculative nature, and Confucianism, which was common to all without distinction, whose domain was that of practical and mainly social applications.” Guénon makes a similarly negative appraisal of Buddhism, portraying it as a rejection of India’s previous spiritual tradition. “The rise of Buddhism” was “a revolt against the traditional spirit, amounting to a denial of all authority and resulting in in a veritable anarchy… both in social and intellectual realms.” Ancient Greek philosophy fares no better in Guénon’s estimation. For though philosophy, as the love of wisdom, can be an important step towards the actual attainment of wisdom, when made into an end in itself philosophy becomes a perversion. “The perversion that ensued [in the classical world] consisted in taking this transitional stage for an end in itself and in seeking to substitute ‘philosophy’ for wisdom, a process which implied forgetting or ignoring the true nature of the latter. It was in this way that there arose what may be described as ‘profane’ philosophy, in other words, a pretended wisdom that was purely human and therefore entirely of the rational order, and that took place of the true, traditional, supra-rational, and ‘non-human’ wisdom.” So, according to Guénon, the Axial age should not be seen as a time of intellectual growth, but rather as an age of decline in which humanity abandoned its earlier spiritual tradition.

Guénon situates this decline within a Hindu cycle of the ages (the Manvantara) in which civilization descends through four ages. In the West they are called the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. In the Hindu system the last of these eras was called the Kali Yuga, or the dark age, and was said to begin in the sixth century b.c. In this age “the truths which were formerly within reach of all have become more and more hidden and inaccessible; those who possess them grow fewer and fewer, and although the treasure of ‘nonhuman’ (that is, supra-human) wisdom that was prior to all the ages can never be lost, it nevertheless becomes enveloped in more and more impenetrable veils, which hide it from men’s sight and make it extremely difficult to discover.” Guénon claims that the fall from one age to the next is governed by metaphysical necessity in that each age must manifest the aspects of being that were neglected in previous ages. In this manner, the fullness of being is guaranteed to be revealed through the cycle of the ages.Unfortunately for those of us living through the Kali Yuga, our age is thus devoted to the base material aspects of being that were scorned in previous eras. “These lower forms of knowledge, so worthless to anyone possessing knowledge of a different and higher order, had nevertheless to be realized, but this could not occur except at a stage where true intellectuality had disappeared.”

            But it is not as if traditional knowledge had simply disappeared at the outset of the Axial age. Tradition still remained in various forms in the East, and Guénon claims that, in the West, tradition was to some extent preserved through Christianity. As a result, Guénon sees the medieval period, stretching from Charlemagne to the beginning of the 14th century, as a period of respite from the West’s progressive decline. He maintains that “a normal order was re-established for a period of some centuries; this period was that of the middle ages, of which the moderns—unable to understand its intellectuality—have so false an idea that it certainly appears to them far more alien and distant than classical antiquity.” With the fracturing of Christendom the downward movement began again with ever increasing speed. Indeed, the after the splintering of the Christian world modernity moved at such a pace that the medieval world quickly became incomprehensible. “Already in the seventeenth century, men had lost all idea of what it had been, and its surviving monuments no longer had any meaning for them, either intellectually or even aesthetically; all this is proof enough of how far the general mentality had changed.”

The characteristics of the Kali Yuga are thus becoming more and more pronounced in the West now that the restraining force of Christianity has been removed. Guénon claims that at its core the Kali Yuga is simply the rejection of the traditional world. He then goes on to specify the implications of this rejection of tradition in three specific domains. First, our age values action over knowledge. Guénon maintains that this valuation is the inverse of the traditional world which placed knowledge above action. Knowledge was taken to be ontologically superior because it grasps “unchanging being” whereas “action always involves the world of change.” Guénon observes that our age has not only reversed this traditional valuation, but it has also extended the veneration of action to its most absurd limits. In our age “men have come to the point of making action their sole preoccupation and of denying all value to contemplation, the true nature of which they ignore or fail to understand.” As a result, our adoration of action has motivated us to value “movement and change… for their own sake.” Even modern science, ostensibly committed to knowledge, is committed to the cult of action. Research is said to be valuable for its own sake and descends into chaos as a result:

Research here is for its own sake far more than for the partial and fragmentary results it achieves; here we see an even more rapid succession of unfounded theories and hypotheses, no sooner set up than crumbling to give way to others that will have an even shorter life—a veritable chaos amid which one would search in vain for anything definitive, unless it be a monstrous accumulation of facts and details incapable of proving or signifying anything.

Guénon’s words here seem prophetic in light of the recent reproducibility crisis in the sciences. He goes on to make the bold assertion that our current science should be seen not as the culmination of archaic sciences, but as their degenerate remains. For example, Guénon contrasts alchemy with modern chemistry.

True alchemy was essentially a science of the cosmological order, and it was also applicable at the same time to the human order, by virtue of the analogy between the ‘macrocosm’ and the ‘microcosm’; apart from this, it was constructed expressly so as to permit a transposition into the purely spiritual domain, and this gave a symbolical value and a higher significance to its teaching, making it one of the most typical and complete of the ‘traditional sciences’. It is not from this alchemy, with which as a matter of fact it has nothing in common, that modern chemistry has sprung; the latter is only a corruption and, in the strictest sense of the word, a deviation from that science, arising, perhaps as early as the middle ages, from the incomprehension of persons who were incapable of penetrating the true meaning of the symbols and took everything literally. Believing that no more than material operations were to question, they launched out upon a more or less confused experimentation; it is these men, ironically referred to by the alchemists as ‘puffers’ and ‘charcoal burners’, who are the real forerunners of the present-day chemists; and thus it is that modern science is constructed from the ruins of ancient sciences with the materials that had been rejected and left to the ignorant and ‘profane’.

The second way in which our age rejects the traditional world is through individualism. Guénon defines individualism as “the negation of any principle higher than individuality, and the consequent reduction of civilization, in all its branches, to purely human elements.” Individualism is thus equivalent to humanism for Guénon. Guénon believes that this commitment to individualism is the root cause of our cultural decline because it is “the mainspring for the development of lowest possibilities of mankind, namely those possibilities that do not require the intervention of any supra-human element and which, on the contrary, can only expand freely if every supra-human element is absent, since they stand at the antipodes of all genuine spirituality and intellectuality.” This commitment to individualism works itself out within several dimensions of culture. In the political sphere, it can be seen in the attempt to eradicate all social distinctions in order to establish “equality”, i.e. the eradication of all hierarchy. This aim would have been absurd in a traditional world which sought to assign people social roles in accordance with their individual natures. By contrast, in the modern world “each person finds himself obliged to do whatever kind of work he can get, often that for which he is the least qualified.” But, since society cannot function without some kind of hierarchy, a new “elite” establishes itself. This elite is founded not upon any qualitative feature of the ruling class, but exclusively upon the quantitative determination of money. This elite cannot call attention to itself since it would thereby be calling attention to the contradictory nature of modern society, and so it establishes its power through propaganda. By using words like “progress” and “equality” to hypnotize the masses, the wealthy prevent the people from comprehending their servile condition. Guénon explains that

[these terms are] “‘pseudo-ideas’, intended primarily to evoke sentimental reactions, since this is in fact the easiest and most effective way of working on the masses. Indeed, for this purpose, the word used is more important than the notion it is supposed to represent, and most of the modern ‘idols’ are really mere words, for a remarkable phenomenon has arisen known as ‘verbalism’, by which sonorous words succeed in creating the illusion of thought; the influence that orators have over the crowd is particularly characteristic in this connection, and it does not require much reflection to see that it is a process of suggestion altogether comparable to that used by hypnotists.

In this manner, the masses come to believe they are governing themselves even though they do the bidding of the wealthy. Guénon observes that “the great ability of those who are in control in the modern world lies in making the people believe that they are governing themselves; and the people are the more inclined to believe this as they are flattered by it, and as, in any case, they are incapable of sufficient reflection to see its impossibility.” The policy of ‘universal suffrage’ was invented to foster this illusion. According to this dogma,

the law is supposed to be made by the opinion of the majority, but what is overlooked is that this opinion is something that can very easily be guided and modified; it is always possible, by means of suitable suggestions, to arouse, as may be desired, currents moving in this or that direction. We cannot recall who it was who first spoke of ‘manufacturing opinion’, but this expression is very apt.

So we see individualism work itself out in the political world as the domination of a monied “elite” who use the promises of democracy to further their agenda.

            In the intellectual sphere, individualism is most clearly seen in the dogmas of modern philosophy. For while modern philosophers claim to engage in metaphysics, they in fact have nothing to do with traditional metaphysics. Rather, modern metaphysics “consists… of nothing but rational constructs or imaginative hypotheses, and thus purely individual conceptions.” Guénon observes that these philosophers are more concerned with creating problems than in solving them and notes that this is a further example “of the irrational love of research for its own sake, that is to say, of the most futile agitation in both the mental and the corporeal domains.” These philosophers seek to build a system and “desire to be original at all costs, even if truth should have to be sacrificed to this ‘originality’.” So, in the modern age “a philosopher’s renown is increased more by inventing a new error than by repeating a truth that has already been expressed by others.” This is in opposition to traditional philosophy which held that originality was unimportant. “If an idea is true, it belongs equally to all who are capable of understanding it; if it is false, there is no credit in having invented it.”

            In the religious sphere, Guénon claims that individualism manifests itself as Protestantism. By rejecting all spiritual authority—“authority that is based on a supra-human order”—and all traditional organizations, Protestantism is forced to rely on the private judgments of individuals. As a result, it reduced religion to moralism and sentimentalism. In such a culture all that remains is religiosity without religion, “that is to say vague and sentimental aspirations unjustified by any real knowledge.” This can be seen in the fact that so many of the modern proponents of Christianity claim to be Christian while at the same time denying the divinity of Christ. One suspects that “they are much nearer to complete negation than to real Christianity, although they may not realize the fact.” Even those that hold to some of Christianity’s classical creeds emphasize apologetics and thereby assume a defensive position. “The excessive importance attached to ‘apologetics’ is therefore an undeniable proof of the decline of the religious spirit.” This defensive posture was antithetical to the stance adopted in a traditional world. From a traditional perspective,

Those who are qualified to speak in the name of a traditional doctrine do not need to discuss with the ‘profane’ or to engage in polemics; they have only to expound the doctrine as it is, for such as can understand it, and, at the same time, to denounce error wherever it arises, and expose it by casting upon it the light of true knowledge. Their function is not to compromise doctrine by taking part in strife, but to pronounce judgment which they have the right to pronounce, if they effectively possess the principles that should infallibly inspire them. The domain of strife is the domain of action.

            Finally, the third way in which the modern world rejects tradition is its commitment to materialism. Ours is an age that values quantity over quality and even goes so far as to define reality as coextensive with the sensible world. “For such people, everything that cannot be grasped by the senses is ‘unreal’, that is to say illusory or even nonexistent”. In this manner, materialism becomes codified as a common sense which “consists in not going beyond the things of this earth, as well as in ignoring all that does not make an immediate practical appeal.” Such a perspective leaves no room for intelligence and focuses solely on creating efficient machinery. In fact, we pursue this goal with such zeal that we even mechanize ourselves in the process of creating more machines. Guénon observes,

What the modern world has striven after with all its strength, even when it has claimed in its own way to pursue science, is really nothing other than the development of industry and machinery; and in thus seeking to dominate matter and bend it to their service, men have only succeeded, as we said at the beginning of this book, in becoming its slaves. Not only have they limited their intellectual ambition—if such a term can still be used in the present state of things—to inventing and constructing machines, but they have ended by becoming in fact machines themselves.

This sort of mechanization has permeated all so called professions. Ubiquitous specialization

makes intelligent work quite impossible. Very different from the craftsmen of former times, they [i.e. modern workers] have become mere slaves of machines with which they may be said to form part of a single body. In a purely mechanical way they have constantly to repeat certain specific movements, which are always the same and always performed in the same way, so as to avoid the slightest loss of time; such at least is required by the most modern methods which are supposed to represent he most advanced stage of ‘progress’. Indeed, the object is merely to produce as much as possible.

This obsession with quantity ensures that economy and finance become the chief objects of concern in our materialistic world. Likewise, even our diversions, such as sport, have sunk to their lowest material forms. Guénon laments that

it should not be a matter for surprise that the Anglo-Saxon mania for sport gains ground day by day: the ideal of the modern world is the ‘human animal’ who has developed his muscular strength to the highest pitch; its heroes are athletes, even though they are mere brutes; it is they who awaken popular enthusiasm, and it is their exploits that command the passionate interest of the crowd. A world in which such things are seen has indeed sunk low and seems near its end.

            Guénon’s analysis of the crisis of the modern world is not wholly negative though. He does think that there is a possible strategy by which tradition might be reborn in the West. Guénon believes that the values of the modern world are so incoherent that simply understanding them is sufficient to break modernity’s spell. The modern world will disintegrate as soon as people understand it.

The modern world would immediately cease to exist if men understood what it really is, since its existence, like that of ignorance and everything that implies limitation, is purely negative: it exists only through negation of the traditional and supra-human 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.

Guénon suggests that the best strategy for convincing society of the absurdity of its values would be the formation of an intellectual elite, since “a true understanding can come only from above and not from below”. He takes this principle to operate in two ways. First, it must begin with intellectual first principles and only then descend to particular applications. And, second, “it must also of necessity be the work of an elite in the truest and most complete meaning of this word: by this we mean exclusively an intellectual elite, and in reality, there can be no other.”

            Guénon believes that such an elite can be formed by exposing Catholicism which still carries the tradition of the West in potentiality to the living tradition of the East. He asserts that Western tradition has always had a religious character and that this religious character took the form of Catholic Christianity.

If a Western tradition could be rebuilt it would be bound to take on a religious form in the strictest sense of this word, and that this form could only be Christian; for on the one hand the other possible forms have been too foreign to the Western mentality, and on the other it is only in Christianity—and we can say still more definitely in Catholicism—that such remnants of a traditional spirit as still exist in the West are to be found.

No attempt to restore a traditional outlook to the West without acknowledging this fact could succeed, since “it is self-evident that one can build only upon something that has a real existence, and that where there is lack of continuity, any reconstruction must be artificial and cannot endure.”

            But one would still need something to bring the Western tradition preserved within Catholicism from mere to potentiality to actuality. Guénon notes that this can only be done by something that is itself actual, i.e. by a living tradition, and he believes that such a tradition can be found in the East. “The elite still exists in the Eastern civilizations, and, granting that it is becoming ever smaller due to modernist encroachment, it will nevertheless continue to exist until the end, because this is necessary for the safe-guarding of the ‘ark’ of tradition—which cannot perish—and for the transmission of everything that is to be preserved.” If the Catholic church could interact more substantially with the East, it would be possible for “certain Western elements… to bring about this restoration with the help afforded by a knowledge of the Eastern doctrines.” This hope allows Guénon to conclude his book on an optimistic note:

Those who succeed in overcoming all these obstacles, and triumphing over the hostility of an environment opposed to all spirituality, will doubtless be few in number; but let it be said once more that it is not numbers that count, for we are here in a domain whose laws are quite different form 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 realize that nothing accomplished in this order can ever be lost, that confusion, error, and darkness can win the day only in appearance and in a purely ephemeral way, that all partial and transitory disequilibrium must perforce contribute toward the greater equilibrium of the whole, and that nothing can ultimately prevail against the power of truth; their motto should be the one formerly used by certain initiatic organizations of the West: Vincit omnia Veritas.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

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