BRIEF HISTORY OF PERENNIALISM, PART ONE: RENE GUENON
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the solution to all problems! – His Excellency Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
Many Traditional Catholics have been exposed to practical applications of Perennialism without realizing that these “strange ideas” actually stem from a form of naturalism originating with French philosopher, Rene Guenon. Shortly after Guenon introduced his theories, his close friend, Baron Julius Evola, adapted them to his own political ideology, equating Perennial Wisdom with Aryan mysticism.
The “Evolian” form of Perennialism has penetrated Traditional Catholic circles in the United States after undergoing superficial modifications which clothe its principles in Catholic terminology. It is, nevertheless, of great benefit to understand the thinking of Rene Guenon, whose ideas give to all Perennialists their chief inspiration and, more particularly, guided Julius Evola.
Rene Guenon was born to a Catholic family in France in 1886. While studying at the university in Paris, he was introduced to the then fashionable world of the occult. His mentor introduced him to Freemasonry and he became a life-long member of a lodge. Later, when his interest in the occult dwindled, he studied Hinduism and, finally, “converted” to Sufi-Islam. He moved to Egypt and dedicated his time to writing about Perennialist themes until his death in 1951.
The Philosophy of Guenon
The starting point of Guenon’s philosophy was that there is a body of ‘human wisdom’ found in the central, hidden meaning of ancient “traditional” religions. The different “creeds” are but varying expressions of this collection of universal spiritual truths. He asserted that the exterior elements of religion such as dogmas and rituals (which he called the ‘exoteric’) were the pathways that would lead to a state of “enlightenment” in which the hidden, mysterious meaning of all religions is understood and assimilated. This was the “esoteric” or internal aspect of the ‘faiths.’
Rene Guenon borrowed from Hindu teaching the belief that human history is a succession of cycles. Each cycle starts with a new ideal; with people who live according to this new ideal. As time passes, the fervor of those living the ideal wanes and a period of degradation commences. The end of the cycle is the total disintegration of the now old system and the start of the next new cycle. It is always on the ruins of the old that the new is built.
Rene Guenon postulated that, since the age of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, mankind has entered a period of heightened crisis. This is because the material and rational spirit of the age have driven man away from the traditions of cult and culture that formerly led him to the quest of “wisdom.”
Hatred of Modernity and The Crisis Mentality
Two main dispositions result from Guenon’s basic principles. One can be called a “crisis mentality,” or the belief in and anticipation of impending total social collapse that will usher in the next cycle; a cycle characterized by the return to ancient traditions. The second consequence of Rene’s theories is a bitter rejection of all that is seen to emanate from the “Modern World” and appears to alienate men from from their “traditional, natural” way of existence.
While the “ecumenical” aspect of Guenon’s religious invention has little appeal for Traditional Catholics, his insistence on the retention of traditions, his relish for social disintegration, and his repugnance for anything flowing from modernity are rampant in the writings of Catholic authors inspired by Guenon’s theories.
A Counterfeit Tradition
This counterfeit “love of tradition” is the portal by which all Perennialism enters among Catholics. Adhering to the Supernatural Tradition revealed by Our Lord through His Church is the only true source of salvation and the unique principle of order in the temporal domain. Catholic Perennialists ascribe to purely human, natural traditions an importance they do not merit. For example, while few would dispute the potential benefits of living in a rural setting, learning wood carving, making fresh bread, or singing folk songs, Catholic Perennialists elevate such natural activities to an almost supernatural level. They speak of the ‘sacralization’ of daily life’ and insist that modern life has so removed man from his nature that he must first return to “natural, traditional” behaviors before he will be fit to receive grace. ‘Sacralization’ is not to be confused with the Catholic habit of sanctifying human activities by performing them for the glory of God in union with Our Lord. Rather, it is considering the activities as having a sacred, almost sacramental character in themselves and, therefore, capable of elevating man to God. This naturalism is poisonous for the Faith since it diminishes the total, universal importance of being united to Our Lord Jesus Christ in order that our lives have any value whatsoever. The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ alone heals the wounds of Original Sin in our souls and, consequently, paves the way to the only ordered civilization possible; one based on Christian Virtues.
Guenon’s Crisis Mentality Adopted by Some Catholics
Guenon’s belief that our era would come to an end with the destruction of the present “system” is found among some Traditional Catholics who harbor a certain morbid fascination with natural or social disasters or any news that indicates social disintegration. An old French priest once said that to hear Catholics gleefully speak of the “coming chastisement” (the Catholic version of the “necessary” meltdown of civilization) ‘one would think they expect to be standing in the middle of Armageddon under an umbrella while they comfortably observe the mass extinction of their fellow men.’
To think with the mind of the Church, one can do no better than to turn to the approved apparitions at Fatima in which Our Heavenly Mother did indeed, with great sadness, warn of coming, universal upheaval. She stated clearly, however, that these would all be the result of sin. Our Blessed Mother insisted, not that the cataclysms were natural regenerative parts of the cyclical ages of mankind, but that they were solely due to man’s offenses against Our Lord and Herself. Most importantly, Our Lady promised that if “people would turn away from their sins, and embrace the devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, there would be peace.” The Children of Fatima embarked on lives of penance and devotion to the Immaculate Heart; particularly by the continuous recitation of their Rosary. They were tireless in their efforts to avert the punishments of God from their fellow men. The children believed that devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and its logical social consequences were the unique means to bring about the tranquility of order in the Church and Civil Society.
Guenon vs the Popes
The most common manifestation of Guenon’s philosophy among Traditional Catholics is the rejection of so-called “products of the Modern Spirit.” From wholesale rejection of technology to a pseudo Islamic/Aryan view of the role of women in the family and in society, Catholics are presented with a plethora of private opinions that are contradicted by the writings of the Popes and Saints and belied by nearly two thousand years of Church practice.
It will probably come as a great shock to many Catholics that Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical in 1957 entitled Miranda Prorsus, On the Communications Field; Motion Pictres, Radio, and Television, in which he hailed radio, television, and motion pictures as “gifts of God” and applied principles set forth by St. Thomas Aquinas which should govern their use for the glory of God. While the Pope clearly understood the potential ill effects of the abuse of these “wonderful tools,” he never spoke of them as intrinsically evil or as capable of altering human nature.
One Catholic Perennialist asserted that the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary following the Consecration of Russia would ‘last only about twenty-five years because that is how long it would take mankind to reinvent the computer.’ Such Catholics who follow Guenon’s spirit in his disdain for modern technology are not thinking with the mind of the Church. They choose to ignore the simple, common-sense guidelines set forth by the Pope and the Common Doctor of the Church and publish personal opinion because it supports their vision of the next age of man.
It is important to remember that Rene Guenon’s original principles have undergone some superficial adaptations before reaching the average Traditional Catholic. Still, there is a great danger that his general principles will continue to influence Catholics by their being presented as a necessary part of the Faith and Catholic life. Perennialism diminishes the deep conviction of the absolute need for Our Lord and His Church; not just for salvation, but even for any hope of redressing the disorder resulting from abandonment of His Social Royalty. By waiting for a chastisement to end the current “social chaos,” Catholics lose their missionary spirit inspired by Supernatural fraternal charity. Finally, by the rejection of the reality of the time and material circumstances in which God has placed them, Catholics infected with Guenon’s principles deny the fundamental truth that they, in the words of Rev. Father Phillipe Pazat must “Restore All things in Christ, not destroy all things.”
Jeanette M. Pryor
January 28, 2006