Guenonian Complicity in Christian Confusion

I’m happy to hear you’ve worked out a modus vivendi for yourself. I hoped you would not have to break with this community since it was evident from your earlier messages how valuable the friendship of the monks has become to you. In any case, you seem to have learned a crucial lesson about the importance of circumspection when dealing with the exoteric mentality. In conversations with serious, traditional Christians, it’s often best not to mention the “transcendent unity of religions” until and unless your interlocutor takes the initiative!

I’m struck, however, by what you say concerning the source of the abbot’s ambivalent attitude toward the perennialist school—an attitude that can be traced, you say, to Father Seraphim Rose and thence to the works of René Guénon. I think you would be interested in a letter of Father Seraphim’s to “a young seeker”, a copy of which was given me a number of years ago by Father Damascene Christensen. I don’t recall whether he included this letter in Not of This World, his biography of Father Seraphim, but the following passage is obviously pertinent in light of your comment:

“I look back fondly now on René Guénon as my first real instructor in Truth, and I only pray that you will take what is good from him and not let his limitations chain you.”

Unfortunately, it appears from your description that the abbot, like Father Seraphim before him, has in fact become “chained” and has ended up, ironically, sharing something of Guénon’s shrillness, though directed in this case against the perennialists themselves as “symptoms” of the modern world—quod absit! Reading more Schuon would have certainly brought these men into touch with a much subtler mind, one with which they might have discovered a greater affinity and one which in turn might have resulted in their having a more comprehensive Orthodox outlook.

Schuon himself speaks to this issue:

“Guénon was like the personification, not of spirituality as such, but solely of metaphysical certainty; or of metaphysical self-evidence in mathematical mode, which explains the abstract and mathematical nature of his doctrine, and also—indirectly and having in mind the absence of compensatory factors—certain traits of character. No doubt he had the right to be ‘one-sided’, but this constitution did not go well with the wide scope of his mission; he was neither a psychologist nor an aesthetician—in the best sense of these terms; in other words he underestimated aesthetic and moral values, especially in relation to their spiritual functions” (René Guénon: Some Observations [Sophia Perennis, 2004], pp. 7-8).

It would of course be a mistake to suppose that Orthodox readers of Guénon are alone in having been misled by his “limitations”. No less a figure than C. S. Lewis was in precisely this category, though Lewis himself was anything but “one-sided” and never displayed anything like Father Seraphim’s later hostility to perennialism Nonetheless he was certainly put off by Guénon’s sometimes overly schematic simplifications, as evidenced by the following remarks Martin Lings was once kind enough to share with me. Describing his friendship with Lewis, who had been his teacher at Oxford, Lings recalls:

“I knew [Lewis] well … between 1930 and 1936. It was in the middle thirties that I began to read Guénon, who, as it were, came between me and Lewis. I had already acquired from Lewis a respect for the Middle Ages, and in particular he had impressed on me the traditional distinction between intellectus and ratio, which, since Boethius, had dominated the pre-Renaissance European outlook. But Guénon’s writings on Hinduism and, by extension, on Sufism, Taoism, and Christian mysticism were like a revelation to me. Quite overwhelmed but relatively young and ingenuous, I expected others to be overwhelmed…. But Lewis was not. He appreciated some things here and there; but whereas I had extracted the essential and was prepared to overlook the short-comings, insofar as I noticed them, Lewis came into head-on collision with these. For example, Guénon’s failure to do justice to the Greeks was a great stumbling-block for C.S.L.”

Lings concluded his letter to me by underscoring my comment above: “As to Schuon’s books, they would certainly have appealed to Lewis more than Guénon’s.”

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