Traditionalism and Academia

“It is not the function of this book to defend Traditionalism, but it seems clear that those who condemn Traditionalism as not serious are missing the point”, Mark Sedgwick writes in the final paragraph of the concluding chapter of his Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (2004); “Traditionalism makes a claim to represent the ultimate truth, just as religion or some types of philosophy do.” [Op.cit. 271.]

Those who condemn traditionalism as “not serious” are of course the non-traditionalist scholars, from Sylvain Lévi, who rejected Guénon’s Sorbonne doctoral thesis in 1921, to the pioneer of the renewed study of Western esotericism at the Sorbonne, Antoine Faivre, who is quoted by Sedgwick as saying that traditionalism “de-historicizes and de-spatializes its ontological predicates…Its propensity to search everywhere for similarities in the hope of finally finding a hypothetical Unity is evidently prejudicial to historico-critical research, that is to say empirical research, which is more interested in revealing the genesis, the course, the changes, and the migrations of the phenomena it studies.” [Ibid.]

At the same time, Sedgwick notes that “the entire field of contemporary religious studies bears the imprint of Eliade’s soft Traditionalism, and many leading Traditionalists have been scholars.” [Ibid.]

In important respects, Guénon’s thesis is certainly flawed, and it is perfectly understandable that it was rejected by an academic institution devoted to “historico-critical research”, “empirical research”, an institution that was “more interested in revealing the genesis, the course, the changes, and the migration of the phenomena it studies.” There are simply empirical errors of the kind historico-critical research cannot accept. “Guénon did submit his work to Lévi as a thesis, and so Lévi was right to recommend its refusal.” [Ibid.]

But Sedgwick is nonetheless right that critics like Lévi and Faivre miss the point, inasmuch as “the claim to represent the ultimate truth, just like religion or some types of philosophy do”, is not dependent on the positions or minor claims shown by critical scrutiny to be erroneous. “To judge Traditionalism as one would a university thesis”, Sedgwick says, “makes no more sense than to dismiss Christianity for having insufficient evidence of Christ’s divinity, or to dismiss Islam for ignoring crucial elements of the doctrine of the Trinity.” [Ibid.] But it also makes no more sense than condemning any claim to represent the ultimate truth in philosophy. In other academic institutions, or other departments of the same institutions, it would have been, and still is, perfectly legitimate to claim to represent the ultimate truth, although the modality of such claims is not precisely that of Guénon. Philosophy does it all the time, including philosophy which rejects the ultimate truth, i.e. claims to represent the ultimate truth that there is no ultimate truth.

For me, it is obvious that both pursuits are legitimate and that there should be no contradiction between them. Guénon should have avoided the historical errors, and perhaps avoided presenting his kind of study in a department devoted to historico-critical research. But it is quite as illegitimate, and in principle impossible, for historico-critical research to reject all studies that set forth non-historical and non-spatialized ontological predicates, which searches for similarities, which postulates a unity, as “evidently prejudicial” to itself. It is perfectly legitimate and indeed necessary to be “interested in” – even “more interested in” – other things than revealing the genesis, the course, the changes, and the migrations of phenomena. And it is so not only in religious institutions, but also in academia. The formulation about de-historicizing and de-spatializing ontological predicates is actually absurd, a clear illustration of the kind of historicist misunderstanding and distortion Guénon so sharply criticized.

Sedgwick thinks traditionalism has failed in its most ambitious project, as defined by Guénon: “Western civilization at the start of the twenty-first century is not observably any more based in spiritual tradition than it was in the 1920s. If there are more non-Western spiritualities in the West now than in the 1920s, their presence cannot be traced only to the efforts of a Traditionalist elite.” Yet at the same time, “Traditionalists have been among the most effective of those writers, lecturers, and educators who have introduced Western audiences to…a more sympathetic approach to non-Western religion generally, both within academia and beyond” (and also, one should add here, to a traditionalist interpretation of the Western religions). What Sedgwick rightly calls “soft Traditionalism” – “books that are informed by a Traditionalist analysis but do not stress it” – “has touched the lives of many who did not know it”. And, most importantly, the traditionalists “have succeeded to their own satisfaction in the earliest objective, that of reassembling the debris of the primordial tradition. Traditionalism is complete and internally coherent.” [Ibid. 268-9.]

Traditionalism and its claim to represent the ultimate truth must be judged in terms of philosophy, theology, and spiritual experience, and there is no theoretical contradiction in pursuing this judgement as a scholarly activity alongside historico-critical and empirical study of the respective traditions from which the debris is reassembled. From the scholarly point of view, in the regard that is here relevant, there is no formal difference between what the traditionalists and any philosopher or theologian is doing. And already from Sedgwick’s assessment, it is clear that their achievement is considerable – so considerable, in fact, that it is an open question whether or not it will in the future succeed also in its most ambitious project, that of reestablishing Western civilization on the basis of spiritual tradition, or at least in making a decisive contribution to this.

This is not to say that I agree with all of the positions of Guénon and his many followers; my readers, or at least those who have studied more closely my texts relevant to these issues published here or elsewhere, will know this is not so. It is rather the basic concepts and the general framework of traditionalist thought that I agree with and affirm. Which, in turn, means that the modifications and supplementations I would like to introduce are such as can be introduced within this same framework, that they are congruent with traditionalism, or a kind of creative traditionalism.

Can we know something of the ultimate truth? Is such knowledge important to us? Is there spiritual insight, wisdom, knowledge, realization? Are there timeless truths about human life that are related to these things? Is such insight etc. in fact decisive, does its achievement define the ultimate meaning of existence? Does that knowledge need to be transmitted, even perhaps to some extent institutionalized? Is it necessary to reestablish and acknowledge an authority that represents such truth?

Those are the obvious questions, or challenges, that arise in the minds of the students of the traditionalists in the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern world. Or rather, they arise in the minds of those who come in contact with truth in any major religious tradition, or even in any serious spiritual teacher or writer more loosely connected with those traditions. But the traditionalists provide a more “complete and internally coherent” perspective than most others, a pespective in the light of which the questions can be more easily understood and in which the answers will more clearly emerge. And they are questions which can be not only explored, but to which answers can be set forth, both within and without academia.

For those who, like me, insist that the answer to the questions is yes, the traditionalist school should, I think, always be of central importance. It is obvious that there is truth, even ultimate truth, to be found in all major traditions and elsewhere too, and it is of course a basic and natural operation of intellect to compare and coordinate truth found in one place with truth found in another, quite regardless of time and space; and the interpretations made and the conclusion drawn by the traditionalists in terms of tradition and transcendent unity may simply be understood as elaboration on the basis of the necessary philosophical premise that “things are the way they are”.

One of the merits of Sedgwick’s book – despite its being generally critical of the school – is that it shows that traditionalism was not as entirely new as it has long appeared to many readers, especially of Guénon. This impression was of course produced by Guénon’s and his followers’ – primarily of course the “hard” traditionalists – sharp criticism of  modern Western thought; it obscured the fact that much of the origins of his own position are nonetheless found precisely there, and precisely in the currents he devoted his most extensive, separate studies to refuting: the  renewed forms of idealism and esotericism which first, and most eagerly, absorbed the newly discovered or rediscovered teachings of the East from the late 18th and through the 19th centuries. These currents in turn built on the legacy of Western Platonism and of the Western esotericism, not least since the Renaissance, that has been so richly explored in recent decades by scholars like Faivre.

Sedgwick does play down unduly the originality of Guénon’s criticism, but he is right that traditionalism is in many respects a historically comprehensible intrinsic development of Western thought. But it is the kind of Western thought that also seeks to assimilate and incorporate the truth of certain other traditions. As such, traditionalism too, in itself, as such, should be studied with the same historico-critical methods as are applied to its interpretations of the traditions it appropriates. And there is no contradition in holding that it should also, as I suggest, be selectively affirmed as a Western school that to a considerable extent succeeds, at least on a general level, in its aims.

For both of these purposes, I have always tried consistently to discuss it in terms of or at least in relation not only to the Western Platonic tradition in a broad sense, but also to modern, 19th century Western idealism. But I also find it desirable to transcend the obvious limitations and curiosities of Western esotericism, and to go, as far as possible, directly to the “Vedic” tradition in the broad sense sometimes accepted today, i.e. to the major darshanas  and sampradayas as in various ways transposed and represented in the West today – and in this I am following Guénon’s main intention precisely in his thesis, which was subsequently published as his first book.

On the basis of its reassembling the elements, or at least some elements, of what it conceives to be and coherently presents as a primordial tradition, traditionalism thus credibly makes the claim to represent at least some aspects of the ultimate truth. The “many leading Traditionalists” who not only have been but still are scholars should be perfectly able to present that claim in academia in a way that does not conflict with the established canons and results of historico-critical research.

Perennialistiskt minimum

Mark Sedgwick on Sylvain Lévi’s Criticism of Guénon’s Thesis

(See the Contents and References pages for more traditionalism-related posts.)

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All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi