Saturday, 13 September 2014

Critiquing Traditionalism ...

[This note assumes a very basic understanding of traditionalism and the perennial philosophy and of the work, in particular, of Rene Guenon, on the part of the reader]

Where traditionalism is right ...

1. ... in its suspicion of democracy because the working components of a democracy [individuals] are never equal in information or power. The skills of manipulation by those with information or power will always tend to disconnect a democracy from what it is to be a human being in the world. Traditionalism rightly questions whether deliberate modernising socialisation is ever compatible with 'gnosis' (that is, self awareness and self development) even if it falls into its own trap by proposing a socialisation derived from the past.

2. ... in its suspicion of the liberal insofar as liberalism is an ideology of rights, an absurd essentialist philosophical invention which too easily becomes a tool of the private oppression of some in the cause of the liberation of specific others. However, democratic neo-traditionalists make traditionalism even more wrong where it might have been right when they adopt the language of the Enlightenment against post-modernity.

3. ... in its particular suspicion of the bourgeois constitutional State which is the exemplification of both the false friend that is democracy in our current condition and of the equally unsound language and ideology of rights (and, as its associated liberal-communitarian heresy, of duties).

Where traditionalism is wrong ...

1. ... in its suspicion of modernity and the illusion that things known can be unlearned. Worse, that it would be good if some things had never been learned or that learning new things should now stop or be considered of lesser importance than endlessly regurgitating old things. The current situation of humanity is the highest truth of the moment and it supercedes all past moments of truth just as new truths will emerge from the process of existing in the world in time - and time is not reversible.

2. ... in its suspicion of the liberal insofar as liberalism is a practice of freedom. A person cannot exist as a person of spirit without making choices and choices require full freedom to make those choices whether with full information (the ideal) or best efforts at acquiring full information.

3. ... in its claim of a primordial essence of wisdom based on faith in a wise divinity that is embedded in the founders of each new faith in turn ... for if the founders of the great faiths were sparks of this primordial wisdom, why not the scientific materialist Karl Marx. How can traditionalists not know if Marx and Engels, whose movement was essentially religious, were not capturing some of this alleged divine essence? The claims of traditionalists in respect to religion as wisdom are absurd.

However ...

... what traditionalism, a false acquaintance seductive to simple minds, might have an insight into is a truth that is neglected in our time - that there is something primordial in us and in our society with which we must contend.

It is not that there is some absurd divine primordial truth out there but that there is a real evolved animal substrate to what it is to be human that is embedded in all human ideological forms and from which we will evolve further but over immense tracts of time.

There is no perennial philosophy here but there is a permanent foundation to humanity with which those who would bend humanity to perfectability or to the dictates of the ideal contend. The cruelties of the world often arise from the inability of humanity to be what either traditionalists or progressives wish it to be.

This is also not to say that Rene Guenon was not insightful in drawing a distinction between the exoteric (what we might call the various forms of socialised 'spiritual' reality) and the esoteric but he was mistaken in his understanding of the latter.

The esoteric is an individual reality that might be very various in form and need have no history beyond the person's creation of himself or herself against their immediate experience of the world.

There can be no union between an individual and some over-arching 'principle' because any such principle is either the creation of the person themselves in a state of illusion or is the creation of the social i.e. is, by definition, a form of illusion at the individual level.

The individual represents its own union with itself and this union is simply a coming to terms of the individual with his situation in the world, a process of individuation.

To claim to be part of a tradition that belongs or answers to to the Absolute is to fail to understand that the Absolute has no knowable existence under any circumstances and that the only coming to terms with the Absolute that is possible is its creation in his own image by the individual.

It is a crafting of the Absolute for personal use-value. Each individual is thus his own God and he creates his own redeeming 'Christ' by appropriating the Absolute for his own internal salvation. An analogy might be torn from any of the world religions which are all misleading in this respect as far as true 'salvation' is to be found.

Again, there is insight in Guenon when he identifies, gnostically, the spark of the Absolute within the person yet he then misdefines it. The spark of the Absolute is not there to be discovered but is to be created out of nothing by the individual looking into themselves and relating to the world.

The Asian religions (to which Guenon looked in this respect) are the falsest friends of all because they edge so closely to the reality of the situation. They recognise the closeness of the Absolute to ourselves but then give privilege of place to that Absolute over the person, whereas this Absolute-thing is, in fact, the illusion and it is the person in the world that is real.

Traditionalism as Hysteria and Fear

Traditionalism descends into hysteria when it becomes 'millenarial' with its myth of our living in the Kali Yuga as if the past was ever more golden. We are, in fact, not descending, we are rising. It is the sense of the Kali Yuga that drags traditionalism into the arms of the Far Right by means of its appropriation by (say) Evola, a half-baked theorist seeking liberation through evasive strategies.

The pessimism of the traditionalists drives them ever downwards in their alienation from the process of being in this world and in this time. It is wiser to be always ready for the next 'this world' in the next 'this time'.

The Kali Yuga for these radical traditionalists is apparently determined ontologically by matter whereas earlier times were not. This is truly absurd - it is not that we are distanced from spirit and increasingly embedded in matter but that we are rising out of matter slowly but surely through the exercise of our increasingly developed minds into something for which the word spirit or soul might be used analogically but which is neither ... simply enhanced being.

Minds are constantly exhibiting new qualities (or discovering how to make use of untapped capabilities) on the basis of the increasing sophistication of matter in constructing minds, triggered in part by our own human determination on technology. The word 'spirit' may become redundant but perhaps 'soul' might be recovered here to describe what is being created.

As for traditionalist initiation, one can have no objection to it as a free choice for free persons but it is a choice in favour of limitation and constraint. Initiation in particular exhibits a fear and anxiety about the terrors of self-creation that will embed a person more, not less, deeply in their own psychic matter. It is an attempt to close off mental 'inputs' and become micro-socialised against the world.

The Politics of Traditionalism

The traditionalist critique of modernity in a religious or 'spiritual' sense must be differentiated sharply from the use to which such ideas are put by the far right in particular. A true traditionalist is an a-political or a conservative pessimist but is rarely a right-wing extremist because right-wing extremism, in countering some forms of the modern, becomes severely modernist in its actuality.

The a-political traditionalist is wise - all ideologies that counter democracy, bourgeois constitutionalism and rights theory to date have been attempts to shift power from the beneficiaries of liberalism to those who have not had a slice of the cake. The ideas are mere excuse.

In this, they are no better and no worse than liberals ... but a radical idealist's lack of respect for the bargaining and the negotiation that is explicit in liberal democracy means that, when they seize power, they are accordingly more cruel and less basically competent in the long run, cruel and incompetent though liberalism often is itself.

There is an experiment in this being carried out in the Middle East as we write. ISIS, a radical traditionalist operation, has managed to make the cruelties of the US, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria seem benign but only because it has offered levels of apparently causeless (though we merely refuse to recognise the cause) violence and cruelty without apparent purpose far beyond the cruelties of modernising statecraft - or so we like to believe.

Traditionalism's conservative pessimism about politics or rather about the struggles for advantage within any socialised reality is probably correct - its extension to the human condition in the very long term may not be. There is no need to be pessimistic about humanity and its condition or to pull up a drawbridge against the modern world.

Traditionalism is a dead end in our culture - an attitude held by a type of mind, the product of gloom and anxiety, a means of withdrawing from complexity - but it does raise questions about the intellectual viability of liberal Western culture that remain unanswered and which will come to haunt us in the coming decades as the enlightenment is forced to return to its mission of applying critical thought to the issue of what it is to be human.