Traditionalism: René Guénon's legacy today - Interview with Mark Sedgwick
5 Jun 2004
A newly-published book by Cairo-based scholar Mark Sedgwick, "Against the Modern World" is the history of one of the most important anti-modernist movements of the twentieth century.
In the nineteenth century, at a time when progressive intellectuals had lost faith in Christianity's ability to deliver religious and spiritual truth, the West discovered non-Western religious writings. From these beginnings grew Traditionalism, emerging from the occultist milieu of late nineteenth-century France, and fed by the widespread loss of faith in progress that followed the First World War.
Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century is the history of one of the most important anti-modernist movements of the twentieth century. The Traditionalist movement, composed of a number of often secret and sometimes very influential religious groups in the West and in the Islamic world, affected the lives of many individuals and entered into both mainstream and radical political life in Italy and Russia. It also influenced the development of religious studies in the United States and France. At the end of the twentieth century it began to enter the debate in the Islamic world about the desirable relationship between Islam and modernity.
Mark Sedgwick is an assistant professor of modern Middle East history at the American University in Cairo, and the author of Sufism: The Essentials (Cairo: AUC Press, 2000; Le soufisme, Paris: Cerf 2001) and of Saints and Sons: The Making and Re-making of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000 (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2004). Since studying European history at Oxford University and doing his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen (Norway), he has been conducting research on modern Islamic intellectual history, mostly in the Arab and Malay worlds, but also in Europe.
Religioscope – The name of René Guénon (1886-1951) is probably better known in areas other than the English-speaking world. Surprisingly, the first full-length academic survey of the Traditionalist movements comes from the pen of a British scholar. Are you yourself a Traditionalist? If not, how did you become interested in that phenomenon?
Sedgwick – No, I’m not a Traditionalist, though I have a certain amount of sympathy for some Traditionalist views and positions. I don’t think I could have written this book otherwise. One of the ways in which Traditionalism started was through people thinking about East and West (Orient et Occident is of course one of Guénon’s important early works). Well, as a Westerner living in Egypt, I can hardly avoid being interested in issues of East and West, and as a historian of modern Islam I spend a lot of time with tradition and modernity. That Guénon himself was also a westerner who ended up living in Cairo just as I have may have something to do with it.
But in fact the real reason that I became interested in Traditionalism as a subject for research was growing astonishment at the extent and importance of the movement. I remember spending an evening, shortly after the Internet had reached Egypt, looking through the various editions and translations of Guénon’s works in European library catalogs—I couldn’t believe it. And the more I looked, the more I found, and the more convinced I became that here was a story worth the telling.
Religioscope – "Traditionalism" is a word which one could associate with different types of movements, e.g. Roman Catholic Traditionalism. Since not everybody is familiar with Guénon, could you please remind us first in a few words who was Guénon and what the basic tenets of Traditionalism are?
Sedgwick – It’s a bit difficult to describe Guénon in a few words—which is one of the reasons why he is such an interesting character. He was French—except that by the time of his death he had actually become Egyptian. But really he stayed French in so many ways, so let’s say he was French. Then he was a philosopher—but not an academic philosopher, although at one point in his life he tried to be one. But "amateur philosopher" sounds too patronizing. Once, he was an occultist; later, he was a Sufi. He was certainly a writer, a prolific one. Perhaps he was an intellectual, a commentator on modernity? Somehow, he was more than that. Anyhow, he was born in 1886 and died in 1951. There’s no doubt about that.
The basic tenets of Traditionalism are easier to describe, since in working on the movement I’ve had to boil it down to its essentials. Some Traditionalists will object that in boiling it down I’m removing much of the subtlety, but there’s really no way around that. Anyhow, Guénonian Traditionalism — since you’re quite right, and there are all sorts of other traditionalisms that have nothing to do with Guénon — Guénonian Traditionalism is a school inspired by Guénon, and taking various different forms.
What they all have in common, apart from Guénon, is a conviction that the modern world is not the result of progress out of darkness but of descent into darkness, that this — the time we live in — is a last age, a pretty low point of a last age at that. What has been lost — and what needs to be recovered, reinstated even — is "tradition". And tradition can be fairly precisely defined, as the truths that should have been handed down from time immemorial, approximately the perennial philosophy, the original Ur-religion of humanity.
Traditionalists are those who want to recover what has been lost, and who also recognize the "true" nature of modernity. And recognize that one of the most important aspects of modernity is inversion — that the world sees the valuable as worthless and the worthless as valuable, the good as bad and bad as good. Guénon never saw a punk, but it would have made a lot of sense to him. And with that comes "counter-initiation" — religious movements that are actually irreligious, that actually lead away from what religion is meant to lead to. Again, Guénon would have nodded knowingly at certain recent developments in the Catholic Church. Against counter-initiation, the only thing left is real, genuine initiation — into traditional esoterism.
Religioscope – One could however wonder if Guénon and Traditionalists have not sometimes been more influenced by modern developments than they are themselves aware. For instance, Guénon wrote a whole book to expose the teachings of the Theosophical Society; on the other hand, one could suspect that Traditionalism wouldn't have been possible without some of the impulses brought by Theosophism in the contemporary intellectual history of the West...
Sedgwick – Absolutely. It’s not just the Theosophical Society, either. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the origin of the perennial philosophy that is so important for Traditionalists was in fact the Renaissance! Because for most Traditionalists it’s precisely at the Renaissance that it all goes wrong. And then when was the period in which interest in Traditionalism really took off in Europe? The 1960s! Somehow, there’s something very modern about anti-modernism. Actually, one could even make an argument for Traditionalism as a sort of precursor of postmodernism.
Religioscope – At the heart of Traditionalism, there is a complex relation between Guénon and the West. Guénon would have liked to find an authentic, still operational tradition (as he understood it) in the West, but finally there seemed to him to be no other practicable solution than Islam, despite the fact that he had written more on the Hindu tradition. Did Guénon convert on Islam's own terms? Did his practice of Islam change something in his own approach to religion and "Tradition"?
Sedgwick – No, Guénon converted to Islam on his own terms, perhaps even in his own terms. Or rather, in his own terms he refused to call it "conversion" — he said that anyone who really understood the perennial philosophy was "un-convertable" to anything, as a result of that understanding. He said that he had "moved in" to Islam.
Now, that may be all fine from Guénon’s point of view, but it’s not a view that many Muslims in the Islamic world would think much of. Still less would they think much of his idea of the fundamental unity of all religions. Sure, there have been and are dissenting voices, but the overwhelming consensus among Muslims is that other religions are just plain wrong. That’s very different from the standard Traditionalist view.
Turning to your other question — did Islam change anything for Guénon. Yes, I think it led to what was perhaps the most important change in the whole history of Traditionalism. I can’t be 100% sure, but I can’t see how else that change happened. Traditionalism at the start was more or less an intellectual movement — find the true religion of mankind, that sort of thing. And then after Guénon had been in Cairo for a while, had been living with Islam — which is a religion that really emphasizes daily practice — suddenly it was all about practice. Well, perhaps not all about — the intellectual element stayed. But practice was really emphasized, became really very important. And that was because of Islam, I’m almost certain.
Religioscope – Quite a number of readers of Guénon as well as followers of some other key Traditionalist writers, such as Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), have converted to Islam. After writing this book, do you think that Traditionalist influence on Westerners' conversions to Islam has been underestimated?
Sedgwick – Well, no, not exactly underestimated—at least, not by the very few people who noticed that it existed. They saw how important it was. But most people working on Western conversions, indeed on Islam in the West, missed it altogether, because they simply didn’t know that Traditionalism existed. Well, now they’ve got a nice book all about it!
Religioscope – And how do you explain the more recent surge of interest for Traditionalism in some countries of Islamic tradition, such as Iran or Turkey? Do people there become interested in Traditionalism to the extent that they are being increasingly exposed to Western modernity and its challenges?
Sedgwick – Yes, I think that’s exactly it. Although Traditionalism defines itself in terms of what it is for — tradition, the religio perennis and so on — in some ways it’s a lot easier for an observer like myself to define Traditionalists partly in terms of what they are against. And what they are against is modernity. And you can’t be against modernity until you have experienced it.
Now, Iran and Turkey are the two countries in the Middle East that have most experienced modernity. Morocco has a bit, too, and that’s where in the Arab world you find Traditionalism most important. There are no Traditionalists at all, so far as I know, in mountain villages in the Yemen. None of it would make any sense at all there. This is actually part of the point you made earlier about Traditionalism being, in many ways, essentially modern.
Religioscope – If we limit ourselves to the religious angle – but your book also illustrates the impact of Traditionalism in the political field – there seems to be today two trends among Traditionalists: those who feel encouraged by their reading of Guénon to look for a firm anchoring in a specific religious tradition, and those who seem to consider Tradition as explained by Guénon as a kind of "supra-religion"...
Sedgwick – Yes, quite. I call those who look for a firm anchoring in their own or some other religion those for whom Traditionalism is a "stepping stone" — it gets them somewhere, whether to Sufi Islam or Russian Orthodoxy or whatever, and then they just get on with where they are. Traditionalism may remain interesting to them, but it isn’t the main point. But then there are those for whom Traditionalism remains the main point, and for some of these it is indeed a sort of supra-religion.
Religioscope – Your book explains well that there is a "soft Traditionalism" with access to the wider culture, beside Traditionalism stricto sensu. Which would be some of the best current examples of this "soft Traditionalism"?
Sedgwick – Well, the best known examples are people like E.F. Schumacher. Schumacher wasn’t a Traditionalist pure and simple, and if you read his Small is Beautiful you’re not going to find much Traditionalism there, not unless you really know what to look for. But I can’t imagine that Schumacher would have been Schumacher without his readings of Guénon and others, and Small is Beautiful would have been a different book, or might never have been written.
Schumacher isn’t really current, I suppose. I’ll take another current example, then — not so well known, but pretty interesting. In Bosnia, there’s a man called Rusmir Mahmutcehajic. He was a minister in the Bosnian government, but then resigned, essentially over the division of Bosnia — which he didn’t want. Nowadays, he’s one of Bosnia’s most important public intellectuals, and runs an important institute. He’s like Schumacher. Actually, his Traditionalism is more visible, but it’s the same basic idea. His views would be very different without the influence of Guénon; he would hardly be him. It’s almost like the "stepping stone" phenomenon I was talking about before. Traditionalism wasn’t a stepping stone to Islam for Mahmutcehajic, since he was a Muslim anyhow, though it may have been a stepping stone to the sort of Islam he now practices. Most importantly, it was an essential stepping stone to his mature intellectual positions. He’s a perfect example, but there are others with more access to the general Western culture. But I think I’ve said enough on that. It’s in the book (though Mahmutcehajic isn’t).
Religioscope – Considering the impact of Traditionalism in a variety of contexts, one is quite surprised to see that there been no other full academic treatment of that topic before your book – despite the fact that a number of scholars are themselves Traditionalists. The tendency to secrecy might of course partly provide an explanation, although it does not seems to be sufficient...
Sedgwick – The tendency to secrecy explains it quite a lot so far as scholars are concerned. People are quite happy to say "I’m influenced by Gramsci" or "I think Weber’s really great", but almost no-one acknowledges the influence of Guénon. People like Eliade even hid the influence. Of course, that’s because Guénon somehow isn’t intellectually respectable in the way that Gramsci or Weber are. That’s clearly the case, but I’m really not sure why it is the case. After all, he was a philosopher — ah, perhaps that’s it? "Amateur philosopher"? Simply that he wasn’t a professor? No, he was a philosopher, really, and was incredibly influential. For many, many people he has provided the key to understanding life and history and everything, as well as being the key figure in showing them how to live their lives. Rather like Sartre. OK, Guénon has some slightly strange things in his past—the occultism, I mean. But then Sartre’s biography isn’t spotless either.
I really don’t know. I’d honestly compare Guénon to Sartre — though I don’t mean to suggest that Guénon was as important to the century, just that they’re the same sort of figure. Anyhow, I’m hoping that my book may help produce a more realistic appreciation of Guénon, even a recognition, so that his ideas can be discussed just as Sartre’s can. I don’t know whether I myself prefer Guénon or Sartre, though!
Religioscope – Finally, as one comes to the end of your book, there are ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, as individuals, a number of Traditionalists were or are extremely bright people, some of them top intellectuals. On the other hand, a number of Traditionalist groups appear to have been weird, or at least exhibit perplexing features. Probably you have also been surprised by such a contrast?
Sedgwick – Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Perhaps that’s partly why people often don’t acknowledge Guenon, by the way — that he’s associated with the "weird". No, in fact I think it’s normal. An author isn’t really responsible for his readers, and people do all sorts of things with what they read. There are weird readers of Tolkien enough, or Marx!
Perhaps it’s because Guenon appeals to the disenchanted — to those who are alienated from modenity. And if you’re disenchanted, you may want an alternative enchantment, and that can look "weird". But perhaps perhaps my lack of surprise at the "weird" is just personal — that I take the "weird" as seriously as the non-weird, that I think you can find truth in the weird as well as the orthodox, and that as a historian I’ve so often seen the weird become orthodox, and orthodoxies become weird. Or perhaps there’s always something weird about "top intellectuals"?
Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 368 pages. Just click on the title if you would like to know the price of this book and - if you want - order it from Amazon.
The interview with Mark Sedgwick was conducted by Jean-François Mayer. Additional information on
Sedgwick's research and his book can be found on his website, Traditionalists.org.
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