Introducing René Guénon & The Traditionalist School

René Guénon 1886–1951 in Cairo

René Guénon 1886–1951 in Cairo

“Guénon has rendered us an inestimable service in presenting and expounding the crucial ideas of metaphysical science and pure intellectuality, of integral tradition and traditional orthodoxy, of symbolism and esoterism; and then in defining and condemning, with implacable realism, the modern aberration in all its forms.”
Frithjof Schuon, author of The Transcendent Unity of Religions


René Guénon (15 November, 1886 – 7 January, 1951) is  largely responsible for laying the metaphysical groundwork for the Traditionalist or Perennialist school of thought in the early twentieth century.

Philosopher of religion Frithjof Schuon observed that “the work of Guénon is ‘traditional’ because the fundamental facts that it conveys are strictly in conformity with the teaching of the great traditions”.  For Guénon, since the time of the Greeks, a variety of confusions led Western civilization to a complete disconnection of humanity with its own origins, that is to say, their tradition.

In ‘The Crisis of the Modern World’ (1927 – written and published during the interwar period), he introduces the Hindu concept of the ‘Cycle of Yugas’ – where civilisations are viewed as a cyclic psycho-spiritual process rather than a strictly linear technological progress, whereby cultures or humanity as a whole proceeds from the initial ‘Golden Age’ or primordial state toward one of decline, destruction, and then rebirth. His description of the Yugas operating as cycles within cycles shows that he intuited this process as what we now would call ‘fractal’.

In ‘The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times’ (1945), Guenon describes the increasing fragmentation of our experience of time, energy and the individual – from unbroken wholeness toward units of measurement, e.g ‘time is money’. Guenon emphatically reminds the reader of how very new our post-war society is – how quantitative rationality (ratio – ‘to measure’) has enshelled humanity in a solidified materialist mindset – from which deprived of the vertical metaphysical truth we become more vulnerable to the effect of forces playing through ‘fissures’ in the ‘Great Wall’ between civilised humanity and inferior and chaotic influences.

Guenon portrays a world-view in which the decadence and degeneration and lack of fulfilment in modern life is a consequence of ‘counter-initiation’. Counter-initiation is to be initiated as a human into a world-view that mocks and derides traditional ways of life and sources of meaning as antiquated or oppressive, stuffy, restrictive and so on – meanwhile valorises the individual empowerment – financial and sexual liberalism – above all other sources of meaning. It results in the conditions that the Yuga’s describe – fragmentation of communities, families, pair-bonding, commodification of sexuality, loss of initiatic traditions for both men and women, and general existential malaise.

In a society where such ‘counter-initiation’ is the general state of play, the means of ‘escape’ to something healthy is a perplexing question. The romanticisation and valorisation of indigenous people by people living in civic democracies and in ‘spiritual subcultures’  show that the recognition that our lives are out of balance. But the question must be asked if the dim apprehension that things are wrong and that indigenous people retain something that contemporary culture has lost, is in itself powerful enough to effect a change in our lives away from the fragmentation described, or whether it could even contribute to further confusion if not navigated with a high level of discernment.

From the Guenonian perspective, a first benefical step would be a realisation of the social tendencies that hold sway, and beginning to form a nuanced appraisal of the psycho-spiritual factors in the situation, as a pre-condition for any kind of improvement. From here, learning about perennial philosophy, and understanding the importance of traditional teaching, initiation, and the power of symbols is beneficial. Herein appears to be the reasoning that motivated his efforts in the sphere of authorship.  “I have no other merit than to have expressed to the best of my ability some traditional ideas.” (6)

On the subject of the Arts, his teachings bear upon the profound power of symbology. “Symbols are essentially a means of teaching, and not only of outward teaching but of something more insofar as they serve above all as ‘supports’ for meditation, which is at the very least the beginning of inner work” (3). Schuon adds “…symbolism is necessary because the natural and universal expression of metaphysics is the symbol”. (4)


Mahakala – the ultimate form of Lord Shiva, the destroyer of all elements and principle that will devour the Maya of the Kali Yuga before the birth of a new cycle. The name is associated with Shiva in his destructive aspect as Mahakala and is extended to his consort, the goddess Kali, or Mahakali. This thanka represents Kakamukha (Raven-faced manifestation).

“…. symbols serve as a support for concentration, in order to connect the individual with the ‘chain’ (or ‘family of traditional wisdom’). Therefore, both, rites and symbols are “none other than the ‘correspondence’, that binds together all the degrees of universal Existence in such a way that by means of it our human state can enter into communication with the higher states of being” (4)

According to author John Herlihy, “what Guénon has accomplished is nothing less than the restatement of the traditional doctrines, rites of worship, and universal symbols and planted them as the seeds they were meant to be within the ground of the human soul… in the Guénonian worldview, the thinking man or woman is by nature a metaphysician and only later a scientist, teacher, or craftsman” (5).

Surya wheel  at Konark, Orissa, India. 13th century

Surya wheel at Konark, Orissa, India. 13th century




  1. The Crisis of the Modern World (1927)
  2. The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945)
  3. Guénon, René Perspectives on Initiation (Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2004)
  4. Schuon, Frithjof. René Guénon: Some Observations (Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2004)
  5. Herlihy, John. The Essential René Guenón: Metaphysics, Tradition, and the Crisis of Modernity (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2009)
  6. Perry, “The Man and His Witness”, in S.D.R. Singam (ed.), Ananda Coomaraswamy: Remembering and Remembering Again and Again (Kuala Lumpur: privately published, 1974), p. 7.

Daniel Mirante is a painter, historian, scholar, teacher and writer.

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