Archive for October, 2009

Radical Traditionalist

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

What is my “political stance”? Students often ask me this question, especially around election time.

It’s clear to them, of course—as I’m sure it is to you—that I’m no liberal, or not at least in the way that describes the overwhelming majority of my fellow academics, whose opinions on such subjects as “diversity”, to pick only one especially egregious example, often strike me as complacently fatuous if not demented and diabolical. But the students are also reasonably sure that I’m not a conservative, or not at least in the sense in which this word is typically bandied about in the media—though, if pressed, I happily embrace the label with the meaning given it in Titus Burckhardt’s important essay “What is Conservatism?” (see The Essential Titus Burkhardt: Reflections on Sacred Art, Faiths, and Civilizations [World Wisdom, 2003], pp. 181ff). And in the same vein I’m often heard to commend Gai Eaton’s superb little book King of the Castle: Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World (Fons Vitae, 1990).

In any case I generally respond—much to the chagrin of my earnest and often “socially conscious” young charges—by saying that I’m strictly apolitical and deliberately uninformed as to most current events, so that I have no opinion as to the relative virtues of who may be running for office. Sometimes I add a few words about Plato’s eventual disappointment with Dionysius (Epistle VII, 332d), in whom he had had such high hopes, a disappointment by no means unrelated to Socrates’s admission, near the end of the Republic (591e), that while “there is a pattern [of justice] set up in the heavens”, there can be no such thing as a just commonwealth on earth. A few more remarks as to the deplorable pressures of marketing and polls on contemporary “debates” between political candidates usually bring the brief discussion to a close.

A recent discovery, however, has finally given me an answer of the sort my students are likely asking for: something short if not sweet! I find that I’m a “radical traditionalist”, and I base this claim on the delight with which I’ve been reading a collection of pieces by the British essayist John Michell, Confessions of a Radical Traditionalist (Dominion Press, 2005). In order to deflect the criticisms that might otherwise come my way from the readership of Anamn?sis, let me add at once that I don’t necessarily agree with this author’s take on everything. (I’ll leave it to you and others, if you wish to undertake an investigation of this book, to figure out for yourselves where I probably part company with him). But much of what he says is excellent. Here’s just a taste:

“However many programmes you were to ban, you would not get to the root of television’s evil, which is the overall, insidiously degrading tone of the thing. This derives from the lugubrious, one-sided world-view which now prevails, fostered by the education system and faithfully upheld by the broadcasting authorities. Its influence is most apparent in the ‘serious’ TV items, from the crassly politicised, trivialised news to the dollops of Darwinian propaganda doled out with the nature programmes. The violence and vulgarity are merely by-products of that established world-view, which denies the existence of true standards or principles of life, thus confining communication to the level of opinion and empiricism” (pp. 157-58).

“I can’t stop wondering why the dealers and curators who comprise the art establishment believe in a world of ugliness and chaos, and encourage only those painters who see it that way. The answer, I think, is that these people are creeps. They are anxious to keep in step with the academic establishment, with Hawking of black hole fame, with Dawkins the zealous God-basher, with the disappointed Marxists, pandering politicians, pettifoggers, grievance-mongers, and atheistic bishops who set the tone in modern society. Instead of opposing these vulgar types by exhibitions of artistic beauty, the art professionals run along with them. I suppose they have to in order to get funding” (179).

“Talking the other day with a friend of west African descent who works for the Race Relations Board, I remarked that her activities seemed largely to consist of seeking out grievances and giving them a good airing. Could she not, I wondered, find a more idealistic basis for racial harmony? Sensing my drift, she told me about an old-fashioned book she had found in a library, the authoress of which compared the different races of mankind to the variety of flowers in God’s herbaceous border. My friend said that she found this distasteful and patronising and had recommended that the book be ‘de-shelved’.

“I looked up the lady’s book and enjoyed it, particularly her emphasis on the beauty of hybrids. Her perception was similar to Plato’s likening of the world to a dodecahedron made up of twelve differently coloured, pentagonal pieces of material. By that image he represented the traditional, orthodox belief that the twelve tribes of humanity, each placed under a different sign and with the corresponding tone, style, colour, temperament, and so on, form an ideal unity…. I could go on about this forever, but the point I want to hammer home is that every race, tribe, family, and human being has a particular aptitude and mode of praise, and this should not give rise to apologies but to joyful thanks for whatever gifts we have been allowed to bring towards the full expression of our common humanity” (243-44).

“People with a reputation for intelligence are often so misled or incapacitated by the false and elaborate doctrines they have been able to master that they might as well be stupid. Look at Bertrand Russell, for example. His clever reasoning led him to conclude that despair is the only justifiable attitude to life. H. G. Wells was clever enough to reach the same dead end and moaned about it in his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether. Wells was a victim of Darwinism, that virus of the intellect that afflicts so many good minds and displays its symptoms in the modern mind generally. I have broached this subject before, and readers do not always like it, but I write this column for the sake of truth rather than popularity….

“There is a secret behind this, but it is only a secret because modern science cannot live with it and the modern mind cannot bear to hear it: The universe has no particular form or character independent of human imagination. As Charles Fort put it, nothing will ever be explained because actually there is nothing to explain. There are an infinite number of ways in which you can see the world and an infinite range of data to support, or discredit, any of them. You can believe in black holes if you like, or you can believe in angels. I am not a believer, but if I had to choose I would take the latter because, unlike the holes, their influence has generally been for the good.

“The universe is like a reflector, so your experience of life depends largely on how you choose to see it. You can prove that for yourself by a dose of paranoia, when your fears and suspicions seem to be confirmed by everything that happens. The same can be observed, more usefully, through practical idealism. Use your cleverness to the advantage of yourself and others. Turn off the television; ignore the world-view of spite and confusion broadcast by the media; forget the grisly theorists; summon up the data which indicate that here and now is our natural paradise; establish that model in your mind by reason and then go out and test-drive it in the street. You may not achieve the vision of the Holy Grail in one day, but at least you will begin to see that there is such a thing, that happiness is the normal human condition, and that heaven on earth is not merely a religious delusion but signifies the natural order of the mind and of the world around it” (318-20).

Sentimental Attachment

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

You say you’ve felt a “fundamental resistance” to the Christian form, you’re “lukewarm” toward its theology, and you sense the teachings of Islam may conform more closely to your sense of the Divine Presence within the natural environment. But it’s unclear to me why you feel this way, and I would prefer to be able to address specific questions, such as they are.

For now, however, the most important thing I can do is remind you—or tell you if it wasn’t clear before—that an esoterist will by definition feel less than fully “comfortable” (your word) with any religion and will not “like” everything about it; all up?yas, even those of the relatively more metaphysical East, are colored in some way, and compared to the white light of the Truth they’re therefore inevitably limited and constraining. The following from a letter of Schuon’s is clearly pertinent:

A true metaphysician cannot unreservedly identify himself with a religious up?ya and take pleasure in it with a kind of nationalism, but obviously he must identify with what is essential, hence both universal and primordial.

I want to give two examples of religious limitation. For Christianity man is a “sinner”; this is the definition of man, and it entails the idea that the entire world is bad and the only alternative is between the “flesh” and the “spirit”; it goes without saying that this perspective has a certain relative justification, but its disadvantage lies in the fact that it presents itself as absolute. For Islam, on the other hand, man is not totally corrupted by the fall—a total corruption would be contrary to the very definition of man—but he is totally a “servant” or “slave”, which is in fact an aspect of his nature but which could never sum up human nature as such; to believe the contrary is to deny the specifically human intelligence and dignity, and it is thus to deny what constitutes the very reason for the existence of homo sapiens.

In both cases theology tends to push the respective dogmatic image to the point of absurdity, and most mystics identify de facto with these pious excesses, something a consistent metaphysician—hence one who is aware of the nature of things—would never do. A true metaphysician could not possibly identify himself with such positions, and therefore he could not commit himself to what I call “religious nationalism”. With good reason Guénon defined the “religious point of view”—the word “religious” having for him the meaning of “exoteric”—as a “sentimental attachment to an idea”. And one should not forget all the secondary excesses, sometimes very troublesome, to which confessional sentimentalism gives rise.

When you say you are a “Muslim” or a “Christian”, you exclude an immense part of humanity; you separate yourself from it and reproach it for not being what you are; you proclaim before the entire world that only you have the truth, unless you speak with tacit Guénonian understandings that no one can presuppose a priori. Nothing of this kind is to be found with the American Indians: “The Great Spirit has given you your way of praying, and He has given us our way of praying”; and that is all.

Each of the two traditions in question—Christianity and Islam—is necessarily limited from a metaphysical standpoint or, if you will, from the standpoint of “the Great Spirit” and primordial Truth; the esoterist will acknowledge this fact from the start—without “sentiment”, and without expecting a religious form to be something other than what it is—and will seek to compensate for these limits by drawing greater spiritual nourishment not from the theology of another Semitic up?ya but from esoterism as such or pure metaphysics.

Of course, I don’t know for sure—do you?—that you are in fact an esoterist, hence that you should, or even can, “feel” this way. Might it be that you’re instead an intelligent and inquisitive bhakta, whose temperament is such that she needs to “fall in love” with a religion before entering into it with total seriousness? I’m not presuming to issue a judgment on this matter; I’ve never met you and have only your one letter to go on. But this is a very important question and one that you need to be prayerfully asking yourself.