Crisis of the Modern World
* Book: 'The Crisis of the Modern World' by Rene Guenon (1927)
From the Preface:
"The very title of the present volume calls for some initial explanation, if what it means is to be clearly understood and all misrepresentation prevented. Many no longer doubt the possibility of a world crisis, taking the latter word in its most usual acceptation, and this in itself marks a very noticeable change of outlook: by sheer force of circumstance certain illusions are beginning to vanish, and we cannot but rejoice that this is so, for it is at any rate a favorable symptom and a sign that a readjustment of the contemporary mentality is still possible-a glimmer of light as it were-in the midst of the present chaos. For example, the belief in a never-ending 'progress', which until recently was held as a sort of inviolable and indisputable dogma, is no longer so widespread; there are those who perceive, though in a vague and confused manner, that the civilization of the West may not always go on developing in the same direction, but may some day reach a point where it will stop, or even be plunged in its entirety into some cataclysm. Such persons may not see dearly where the danger lies-the fantastic or puerile fears they sometimes express being proof enough that their minds still harbor many errors-but it is already something that they realize there is a danger, even if it is felt rather than understood; and it is also something that they can conceive that this civilization, with which the moderns are so infatuated, holds no privileged position in the history of the world, and may easily encounter the same fate as has befallen many others that have already disappeared at more or less remote periods, some of them having left traces so slight as to be hardly noticeable, let alone recognizable. Consequently, when it is said that the modern world is in the throes of a crisis, this is usually taken to mean that it has reached a critical phase, or that a more or less complete transformation is imminent, and that a change of direction must soon ensue- whether voluntarily or no, whether suddenly or gradually, wheather catastrophic or otherwise, remaining to be seen. This use of the word 'crisis' is perfectly legitimate, and indeed corrosponds in part to what we think ourselves; but in part only, for our point of view is a more general one: for us it is the modern age in its entirety that is in a state of crisis, which is precisely why we entitled this book The Crisis of the Modern World. It seems however that the crisis is nearing its solution, and this has the effect of emphasizing still further the abnormality of the state of affairs that has already existed for some centuries, though the consequences were never before so apparent as they are now. This is also the reason for the increasing speed with which events are now unfolding: such a state of affairs may doubtless continue for some time longer, but not indefinitely, and, even without being able to assign a definite time-limit, one has the impression that it cannot last very much longer.
But the word 'crisis' also contains other implications making it an even more apt term for what we wish to express: indeed, its etymology- which is often lost from sight in current usage but must be kept in mind if one wishes to restore to the word its full meaning and original value- makes it to some extent synonymous with the words 'judgement' and 'discrimination'. The phase that can properly be termed 'critical' in any order of things is the one immediately preceding a resolution... .
Certain of the expressions just used will doubtless awaken in the minds of some the idea of what is called the Last Judgement, or Doomsday, and quite correctly, though wheather this be understood literally or symbolically or in both ways (since in reality the two conceptions are not mutually exclusive) is here of little consequences... . Even if this is but an analogy, one must admit that it is valid.. .
It is certainly no accident that so many people today are haunted by the idea of the 'end of the world'; it may be regrettable in some respects, since the extravagances to which this idea when ill-understood gives rise, and the messianic vagaries that spring from it in certain circles- all of them manifestaions of the mental disequilibrium of our time- only aggravate this same disequilibrium to an extent that is impossible altogether to overlook; nevertheless, this obsession with the 'end of the world' is a fact that one cannot ignore. No doubt the most convenient attitude when confronted with things of this kind is simply to dismiss them without further enquirey as errors or fantasies of no importance; we consider however that even if they are in fact errors, it is better, while denouncing them as such, to probe for the reasons that have given rise to them and to seek the modicum of truth- deformed though it may be- that they may nevertheless contain... . If the matter is viewed in this way, it becomes easy to see that the preoccupation with the 'end of the world' is closely connected with the state of general mental unrest in which we are at present living: the vague forebording of an end- which in fact is near- works uncontrollably on the imagination of some people and quite naturally gives rise to wild and for the most part grossly materialized mental images that in their turn assume external form in the extravagances to which we have alluded.
But this is not the whole question at issue: a purely psychological explanation of this idea of the 'end of the world' and of its current manifestations, accurate though it may be in its own order, could never be fully adequate; to accept it as such would be to yield to one of those modern illusions which we take every opportunity of condemning. As we have said, there are those who have a vague feeling that something is approaching its end, without being able to define exactly the nature or extent of the change they foresee; it is impossible to deny that this feeling is based on reality, even though it be vague and subject to false interpretations or imaginative deformations, for, whatever may be the nature of the end that is approaching, the crisis that must necessarily lead up to it is apparent enough, and there is no lack of unequivocal and easily perceptible signs all pointing with one accord to the same conclusion. This end is doubtless not the 'end of the world' in the complete sense in which some persons seek to interpret it, but it is at least the end of a world: and if it is Western civilization in its present form that is to end, it is understandable that those who are accustomed to see nothing beyond it, and for whom this is 'civilization' unqualified, should incline to the belief that everything will end with it and that its disappearance will in fact be 'the end of the world'.
It may then be said, in order to reduce the question to its true proportions, that we really do seem to be approaching the end of a world, in other words, the end of an epoch or a historical cycle, which may also correspond to the end of a cosmic cycle, in accordance with the teaching of all traditional doctrines on the subject. There have already been many occurrences of this sort in the past, and there will doubtless be others in the future... . It is to be expected that, in the present state of the world, the impending change will be widespread and that, whatever form it may assume-- a point we shall not attempt to determine-- it will affect more or less the whole world."
Rene Guenon (from chapter 2):
"One of the most noticeable features of the modern world is the unmistakable gulf between East and West... . [...] In the present state of the world then we have on the one hand all the civilizations that have remained faithful to the traditional standpoint-namely the civilizations of the East-and on the other a veritably anti-traditional civilization, namely that of the modern West.
This is an important point: no grounds for a radical opposition between East and West existed so long as there were traditional civilizations in the West as well as in the East; the opposition only takes on significance with the appearance of the specifically modern West... .
...in the present state of the world, the true traditional spirit, with all that it implies, no longer has any authentic representatives except in the East.
...certain proposals for the restoration of a "Western tradition"... have been put forward in various contemporary circles; in themselves these proposals are of small interest, but they serve to show that there are people who have ceased to be satisfied with the modern spirit of negation; feeling the need for something that our own period cannot offer, they have begun to look upon the possibility of a return to tradition, in some form or other, as the only available means of escaping from the present crisis. Unfortunately, such 'traditionalism' is not the same thing as the real traditional outlook; as is often the case, it may amount to no more than a tendency, a more or less ill-defined aspiration not necessarily implying the possession of any genuine knowledge; and it is unfortunately true that, in the mental confusion of our times, this aspiration usually gives rise to fantastic and imaginary conceptions devoid of any serious foundation. Finding no authentic tradition on which to ground themselves, those affected by this aspiration go so far as to imagine pseudo-traditions that have never existed and that are as lacking in principles as what they are intended to replace; the whole modern confusion is reflected in these attempts, and whatever may be the intentions of their authors, their only result is to add still more to the general disequilibrium. From among conceptions of this kind, we will allude only to the so-called 'Western tradition' fabricated by certain occultists out of the most incongruous elements and conceived primarily as a sort of rival of a no less imaginary 'Eastern tradition', namely Theosophism... .
...after the disappearance of that continent [Atlantis] in the last of the great cataclysms that have occurred in the past, there seems little doubt that the remnants of its tradition were carried into various regions, where they mingled with other already existing traditions, for the most part branches of the great Hyperborean tradition; and it is very possible that the doctrines of the Celts in particular were among the products of this fusion. We are far from disputing this; but let it not be forgotten that the real 'Atlantean' form disappeared thousands of years ago, together with the civilization to which it belonged... .
It is true that clearly recognizable and still usable elements of 'Celtism' have come down to us through various intermediaries, but these elements are very far from constituting a complete tradition... .
It is only by establishing contact with still living traditions that what is capable of being revived can be made to live again; and this, as we have so often pointed out, is one of the greatest services that the East can render the West. We do not deny that a certain Celtic spirit has survived and can still manifest itself under various forms, as it has done at different times in the past; but when anyone tells us that there still exist spiritual centers where the Druid tradition is preserved in its entirety, we require them to show proof, and until they do so we consider it very doubtful, if not altogether incredible.
The truth is that the surviving Celtic elements were for the most part assimilated by Christianity in the Middle Ages; the legend of the 'Holy Grail', with all that it implies, is a particularly apt and significant example of this. Moreover, we think that if a Western tradition could be rebuilt it would be bound to take on a religious form in the strictest sense of this word, and that this form could only be Christian; for on the one hand the other possible forms have been too long foreign to the Western mentality, and on the other it is only in Christianity-and we can say still more definitely in Catholicism-that such remnants of a traditional spirit as still exist in the West are to be found. Every 'traditionalist' venture that ignores this fact is without foundation and therefore inevitably doomed to failure; it is self-evident that one can build only upon something that has a real existence, and that where there is lack of continuity, any reconstruction must be artificial and cannot endure. If it be objected that Christianity itself, in our time, is no longer understood in its profound meaning, we should reply that it has at least kept in its very form all that is needed to provide the foundation of which we have been speaking. The least fantastic venture, in fact the only one that does not come up against immediate impossibilities, would therefore be an attempt to restore something comparable to what existed in the Middle Ages... .
To be resolutely 'anti-modern' is not to be in any way 'anti-Western'; on the contrary, it only means making an effort to save the West from its own confusion. [...] There are those today who speak of a 'defense' of the West, which is odd, to say the least, considering that it is the West, as we shall see later on, that is threatening to submerge the whole of mankind in the whirlpool of its own confused activity... . [...] Actually, the truth is that the West really is in great need of defense, but only against itself and its own tendencies, which, if they are pushed to their conclusion, will lead inevitably to its ruin and destruction; it is therefore 'reform' of the West that is called for, and if this reform were what it should be-that is to say, a restoration of tradition-it would entail as a natural consequence an understanding with the East.
CHAPTER VIII. WESTERN ENCROACHMENT
The modern confusion had its origin in the West, as we have already said, and until the last few years remained in the West. But now a process is taking place, the gravity of which should not be overlooked: the confusion is spreading everywhere, and even the East seems to be succumbing to it.
The only question to arise is this: will the East, as a result of modern influence, have to undergo a merely transitory and superficial crisis, or will the West involve the whole of mankind in its own downfall? ...the spiritual power inherent in tradition, of which its adversaries know nothing, may triumph over the material power when this has played its part, and disperse it as light disperses the shadows; we may even say that it must triumph sooner or later, but it is possible that there will be a period of complete darkness before this happens. The traditional spirit cannot die, being in its essence above death and change... .
...the West is undeniably encroaching everywhere; its influence first made itself felt in the material domain, since this comes most directly within its reach, working through conquest by violence or through commerce, and by securing control over the resources of other countries; but now things are going still further. Westerners, always animated by that need for proselytism which is so exclusively theirs, have succeeded to a certain extent in introducing their own anti-traditional and materialistic outlook among other peoples; and whereas the first form of invasion only affected men's bodies, this newer form poisons their minds and kills all spirituality. In point of fact, it was the first kind of invasion that made the second one possible, so that it is ultimately only by brute force that the West has succeeded in imposing itself upon the rest of the world, as, indeed, must necessarily be the case, since in this sphere alone lies the superiority of its civilization, so inferior from every other point of view. The Western encroachment is the encroachment of materialism under all its guises... ; none of the more or less hypocritical veils, none of the moralistic pretexts, none of the humanitarian declamations, none of the wiles of a propaganda that knows how to be insinuating the better to achieve its destructive ends, none of these things can gainsay that Western encroachment is the encroachment of materialism; this could be disputed only by the gullible, or by those who have an interest in aiding a process that is truly infernal, in the strictest sense of the word. It is extraordinary that the very moment that Western encroachment is penetrating everywhere is the moment chosen by some people to raise a cry against the peril, dreadful for them, of a supposed infiltration of Eastern ideas into the West; what new aberration can this be? Despite the wish to confine ourselves to considerations of a general order, we cannot avoid saying here a few words about a recently-published book by Henri Massis entitled Defense de l'Occident, which is one of the most characteristic manifestations of this frame of mind.
...his mind is haunted by the presentiment of a more or less immediate disaster threatening Western civilization: but in that case it is regrettable that he has been unable to see clearly where the causes that might bring about this disaster really reside... . [...] ...even if one admits that Easterners, who have hitherto given evidence of incredible patience, show at last a desire to be masters in their own home, who can bring himself honestly to blame them? [...] ...when a Western people resists a foreign invasion, this is called 'patriotism' and merits the highest praise, but when an Eastern people does so it is called 'fanaticism' or 'xenophobia', and merits hatred and contempt. Moreover, is it not in the name of 'Right', and 'Liberty', of 'Justice' and 'Civilization', that the Europeans claim to impose their dominion over all others, and to prevent others from living and thinking differently from themselves? ...Westerners can practically be reduced to two classes of people: the credulous, who take these high sounding arguments at their face value and believe in a "civilizing mission", unaware as they are of the barbarous materialism into which they themselves have sunk, and the astute persons who exploit this state of mind in order to gratify their own instincts of violence and cupidity. ... it is curious, to say the least of it, to see aggressors adopting the pose of victims."