Sometimes referred to ironically as the “Descartes of Esoterism,” René Guénon can be considered as the “founder” of the Traditionalist school. Guénon initially emerged from the neo-occultist milieu of Paris. It was there that he came into contact with travelers who had visited the East, as well as with actual Easterners, and it was through these contacts that he discovered Vedānta and Sufism.
Guénon was born in Blois in 1886 into a conservative Catholic family at the time of the Third Republic, which had succeeded the Second Empire and was consolidating after a failed attempt to restore the monarchy. Between 1906 and 1912, Guénon was in touch with some initiatory (and pseudo-initiatory) groups in Paris. From 1906 to 1908, he attended classes at the Hermetic Circle, an offshoot of the occultist movement, and subsequently joined the Martinist Order. This order was controlled by Gérard Encausse (1865-1916), a.k.a. Papus, and drew freely on the more authentic teachings of Martinez de Pasqually (1724?-1774), Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), and Jean Baptiste Willermoz (1730-1824).
Intellectual disagreement, particularly about the doctrine of reincarnation which Papus professed, induced Guénon to part from him, and in 1908 the latter founded a dissident group called “l’Ordre du Temple Rénové” (the Order of the Renewed Temple, or OTR). During the following three years, Guénon was initiated into Freemasonry through the Lodge Thebah, which was directly related to la Grande Loge de France. In 1909 Guénon joined the Gnostic Church, a neo-Catharist movement, and became archbishop under the name of Palingenius. As Jean-Pierre Laurant has shown, it was during this period that the seeds of the later Guénonian doctrine were planted. In 1912, one year after the dissolution of the OTR, Guénon, on the initiative of Synesius, the patriarch of the Gnostic Church, founded the journal La gnose. Although Guénon later decried the disordered speculations of Ancient Gnosticism, his earlier articles reflect a fascination with it. Significantly, his first major article, published in 1909, was titled “Le Démiurge.”
Through his involvement with these neo-spiritualist movements, Guénon met with several intriguing individuals who had traveled to the East and (they claimed) brought back with them certain mysterious sciences and holy secrets. For example, Albert de Pouvourville (1862-1939), known as Matgioi, was a French officer in Tonkin, Indochina, who supposedly had been initiated by a Taoist master. He wrote one of the first translations of the Tao Te Ching and was, for Guénon, a source (albeit a questionable one) of information about Taoism.
More important for the future of the Traditionalist school, in 1912, Guénon was initiated into the Shādhiliyya, a Sufi brotherhood from North Africa, by the Swedish painter Ivan Agueli (Abdul Hadi, 1869-1917). Agueli held the function of spiritual representative (moqqadem) for the Egyptian Shaykh ‘Ilaysh al-Kabir (1840-1921) in Europe. The testimonies we have at our disposal, as well as the heterogeneous content of Agueli’s writings, reveal a fantasist with an unbalanced character. Anarchist and feminist at a time when leftist intellectuals were still attracted to occultism, he also championed animal rights. Then, in the middle of the colonial period, when the civilizationist ideology was triumphant, he converted to Islam – having been visited by the spirit of Ibn Arabi in a dream a few years before, in 1893. Some years later, in 1902, he became the first European student enrolled at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It was during this period that he was initiated into Sufism by Shaykh ‘Ilaysh, who apparently gave his blessing for the creation, in Paris in 1911, of a secret society for the study of Ibn Arabi. Guénon dedicated Le Symbolisme de la croix to Shaykh ‘Ilaysh. Agueli also produced a translation of Awhad ad-dīn Balyāni’s Risālat al-ahadiyya (incorrectly attributing it to Ibn Arabi). Michel Chodkiewicz has argued that this short treaty professes a unitarian metaphysics which, by its radical denial of phenomenal reality, reflects the teachings of Ibn Sabin rather than those of Ibn Arabi. It is likely that Balyāni’s doctrine contributed to reinforce the young Guénon in the belief that Sufism and Vedānta were the expression of a same universal Truth.
It seems that after 1912 and his discovery of traditional Sufism, Guénon broke with neo-spiritualism, though he remained influenced by the occultist atmosphere of his early years for the rest of his life. Around the same period, Guénon also claimed to have met some unidentified Hindus belonging to a Śaṅkarian lineage. We have unfortunately little information about this episode at our disposal. Whereas we possess precise information about the Muslim associates of Guénon, his Hindu contacts remain shrouded in mystery, despite much speculation and even historical research on the topic. The probability that Guénon would have met Indian disciples of Śaṅkara in Paris during the “Belle Époque” appears, at first glance, to be low. Was not the whole story simply the product of Guénon’s imagination? Guénon could not have come into physical contact with regular sannyāsins, given the traditional ban on travel outside of India. Still, we must remember that not all modern-day disciples of Śaṅkara are ascetics and that Guénon may have met disciples of an important ācārya of his time.
Adi Śaṅkarācārya (“the first Śaṅkara”) founded four monasteries (maṭha) in Jyotiṣpīṭha (Badrinath, Uttarakhand), Śṛṅgeri (Karnataka), Puri (Orissa), Dvārakā Śaradāpīṭha (Gujarat). Kāñcipuram (Tamil Nadu) is sometimes added to this list. The heads of these four maṭhas call themselves Śaṅkarācārya (“Master Śaṅkara”) or Jagadguru (“World Teacher”) and they attract a large crowd of devotees, most of whom are simple house-holders. Śaṅkarācāryas have therefore to adapt their teaching to the needs and level of their audience. At a relatively exoteric level, they simply present themselves as the defenders of Hindu orthodoxy. In their public teachings, non-dualism and the quest for mokṣa are often foreshowed by religious preoccupations relative to the dharma and ritual observances. At a more esoteric level, they serve as gurus for a smaller group of disciples (śiṣyas), who in most cases follow a bhakti-mārga, that is, a path of surrendering to their guru. It is through the guru’s Grace that these men (and women) can progress on the spiritual path. Only a tiny elite relates to the Jagadgurus as masters of gnosis. If Guénon did meet a traditional Hindu affiliated with a Śaṅkarian lineage, he must have been one of these disciples who, without following the rigorous path of saṁnyāsa, were situated in the orbit of a maṭha.
From 1912 to 1930, Guénon lived mostly in Paris on the Ile-Saint-Louis, working as a high-school teacher. In 1915, he received a university degree from the Sorbonne for his work on the principles of the Infinitesimal Calculus of Leibniz. It was published as a book in 1946. In 1921, his doctoral dissertation, Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines Hindoues, was rejected by the orientalist Sylvain Levi. This work later became his first book. The period 1921-1929 saw the publication of some of Guénon’s major works, including L’homme et son devenir selon le Vedānta and Le roi du monde. He criticized the modern world in La crise du monde moderne, and neo-spiritualism in L’erreur spirite and Le théosophisme, histoire d’une pseudo-religion. His works attracted for some time the attention of catholic intellectuals such as Jacques Maritain. During this period, Guénon was seen as an atypical public intellectual in the margins of the conservative Right.
When Guénon began to write, many Western intellectuals had already diagnosed a “crisis of modernity,” opening the way for a radical questioning of the once-triumphant principles of Western civilization. This crepuscular feeling was maybe less intense in France than in German, which had begun its process of modernization relatively late compared to other European countries.
For Nietzsche, our age was the age of “the death of God.” Nietzsche prophesized that nihilism would spread across Europe. Only the coming of a “superman” (Übermensch) may save Western civilization. Writing from a more sociological standpoint, Max Weber saw modernity as a process of “disenchantment,” leading to a split between the individual aspiration to salvation and an increasingly rationalized vision of the world. As the First World War neared its end, Oswald Spengler published the first volume of The decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) in which he described the cyclical rise and fall of the great civilizations of the world. The aftermath of the First World War and the Interwar Period witnessed the growth of a sense of disillusion with modernity, expressed in the works of authors such as Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger or Martin Heidegger.
All these thinkers aspired to some sort of “re-enchantment,” a return to the lost unity between man and Being. In this context, the originality of Guénonian Traditionalism is to link a spiritual regeneration of the West with a rediscovery of pre-modern contemplative traditions and a restoration of the metaphysical perspective through the meditative discipline of Asian non-dualism. With Guénon, the “metapolitical” critique of modernity goes hand in hand with a quest for individual transformation and an experience of cultural exile.
In his lifetime, Guénon was largely known as a relentless critic of a modern world in dissolution, and this is probably the dimension of his work that was the most acclaimed. In his first book, Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, and later with Orient et Occident and La crise du monde moderne, he systematically destroyed the myths on which modernity was built, throwing onto them the implacable light of traditional metaphysics and particularly Eastern doctrines such as Advaita Vedānta. The crisis of Western civilization would find its most immediate origin in the Renaissance and in the humanistic tendency to reduce reality to the anti-metaphysical standpoint of the individual. The Western world had shut itself to what Guénon called “true intellectuality” and to the awareness of the universal and sacred Principles underlying all traditional societies. Beginning with Descartes and his purely secular and rationalist philosophy, European civilization had emptied its Weltanschauung of any transcendent meaning and lost access to the metaphysical Truths which are inscribed in the “naturally supernatural Intellect,” to use the later Schuonian terminology. Dismissing the myth of progress and the Enlightenment paradigm, Guénon described modern civilization as an abnormal episode in the history of humanity, expressing the lowest possibilities of the Kali-yuga, the fourth (dark) age of Hindu cosmology. Moving against the mainstream of positivism, rationalism and evolutionism, Guénon claimed that modern man had not emerged victoriously at the summit of a centuries-old evolution. On the contrary, he had plunged deeply into an age of spiritual darkness and social chaos, coinciding with the end of a cosmological cycle of the first amplitude, prophesized by the sacred scriptures and traditional mythology, not only of Hinduism but also of Ancient Greece (the Iron Age of Hesiod) and Celticism (the Age of the Wolf).
According to Guénon, the Western world could be redeemed and saved from imminent collapse either by a return to its own religious traditions, which implied the restoration of a Western intellectual and spiritual “elite” with the aid of initiatory centers still active in the East, or by the absorption of the West into East. Short of these two options, the West could only drag down the rest of the world as it crumbles.
After the death of his first wife, Guénon moved to Cairo, at first to look for Sufi texts. Daniélou had claimed that he initially planned to travel to India; in any case, he ended up staying in Egypt. In 1931 and 1932, he published Le symbolisme de la croix and then Les états multiples de l’être In 1936, Le voile d’Isis became Les études traditionnelles. It is with his publications in Les études traditionnelles that Guénon, now living outside of Europe, started to systematize his concept of initiation, making it more and more clear that theoretical knowledge was only a preparation for the spiritual path. In 1945, he wrote his prophetic masterpiece Le règne de la quantité et les signes des temps.
Only after he settled in Cairo did Guénon start to practice exoteric Islam openly; he did so under the name “Shaykh Abdel-Wāhid Yahya,” immerging himself more and more into the Arab and Muslim culture. He officially acquired Egyptian citizenship in 1949, only two years before his death. Fifteen years earlier, in 1934, he had married Fatma Hanem, the daughter of Shaykh Mohammad Ibrahim of the Shādhiliyya-Hamidiyya order. In Cairo, Guénon also had the opportunity to meet Shaykh Salama al-Radi (1866-1939). He was a famous ascetic who, after a life of intense mortification and spiritual practices, had organized his own brotherhood and was fighting against the un-Islamic magical practices in the decadent taṣawwuf of his time. Guénon frequently participated in the gathering of his tarīqa. Guénon also allegedly became somewhat disenchanted with “popular Sufism.” He died in 1951, surrounded by his family and friends and invoking the Divine Name. He was buried in Cairo, where his grave still exists.
After Guénon’s death, the message of the “Tradition” did not die out. Among French Guénonians, the figure of Guénon sometimes raised to a prophetic status. In the English-speaking world, he is rather seen as “a pioneer,” his name being frequently associated with later exponents of the “perennial philosophy” in the 20th century. More paradoxically, with the decline of the great secular ideologies, the teaching of Guénon is becoming part of a sort of “counter-culture,” opposed to global capitalism and the westernization of the world.
 For decades, the story has been circulating among the Guénonians that Guénon’s contact with India ceased when he published Le roi du monde, allegedly because he would have revealed certain esoteric secrets without the consent of his Hindu informants. If there is truth to this and the contacts were indeed interrupted, it seems more likely that the latter were somehow disappointed by a book which mixed traditional symbolism with the most dubious occultist mythology. About Guénon’s Hindu informants, see Jean-Pierre Laurant, René Guénon, les enjeux d’une lecture, p.98-101.
Renaud Fabbri (excerpt from an unpublished manuscript)