The idea of progress, that ideas and material culture accumulate in a manner that improves the lives of people across time, is one that is taken for granted. Even those students who have not taken philosophy in college have at least heard the name Hegel, and some of them might even know the crude formulation of his idea that history moves towards some final realization. Very few of those students would recognize the name Frithjof Schuon, or the ideas associated with him.
Schuon, by the way, is a member of the Traditionalist school I am sharing with you today. What usually marks someone as a member of this school of thought is the shared belief that all the world’s major religions may have superficially distinct traditions, iconography, and metaphysics, but at the heart of each of them is a common capital-T truth. This truth is called Sophia Perennis, or the Perennial Philosophy. Just like a perennial plant which comes back every year, the capital-T truth has manifested itself again and again throughout history in the blooming of new religions, cultures, and philosophies.
Another mark of the Traditionalist school is the rejection of the progress narrative and the whole Enlightenment project which took root in the 18th century. Perennialist authors describe modern civilization as decadent, and this decadence is usually the marker of a society which has reached its peak bloom and will begin to senesce. Drawing on a strong background in Hinduism, Islam, and Sufism, the Traditionalists describe modern Western society as having entered what is called the Kali Yuga; or, the final stage in a series of transitions in which esoteric religion has been replaced by a scholarly religion, the scholarly religion fell to a practical and commercial culture, and finally the degeneration collapses into hedonism.
To the Perennialist authors (René Guénon (1886-1951), Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) and Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998)), modernity has cut off access to the Sophia Perennis by a cynical critique of the silly and superstitious elements of the world religions and traditional societies. What is truly great and true and beneficial to society is derived by the intellect, according to the modern formulation. Tradition is derided. The lineages of ideas and wisdom that are transmitted via tradition get pruned back.
It is the traditions that transmit the Sophia Perennis in each culture and historical period, according to the Perennialist writers. The Islamic civilization, for example, is the material manifestation and the institutions that spring up around the transmission of the Quran from generation to generation. Within the Quran is a set of propositions and concepts that are said to have arrived to someone via “revelation”. Modern life mostly does not allow for revelation to be a valid form of knowledge or epistemology. This makes practical sense in most areas of life, like the court of law in which you do not want to be convicted of a crime in which the evidence of your wrongdoing came via a divine inspiration of your accuser.
What this way of thinking gets wrong is that all those silly superstitions and scientific inaccuracies of traditional religions are distractions. I always said that the blind adherent to a faith and the intellectual critic are making the same error – they can’t see the message through the words. The words themselves, the mere symbols, are taken too seriously, too literally, so the blind adherent is led to believe silly things while the intellectual critic who pats himself on the back for not being a moron fails to penetrate deep enough into the text to find the wisdom that those ancient authors were transmitting. Modern man is so scholarly and intellectual that he never does much more than mere symbol manipulation when reading and writing. And therefore it is much too difficult for him to encounter any genuine wisdom in his life.
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