René Guénon, Founder of the ‘Traditional School’September 7, 2012
The BPH recently managed to acquire some fifteen works by René Guénon to add to its collection of works by this French occultist. Among these works, which were written in the years 1909-1947, is an almost complete run of a periodical edited by Guénon, La Gnose (1909-1912). Guénon also published his first work in La Gnose. The Western Esotericism collecting area now holds some 50 titles by Guénon.
René Guénon (* Blois 1886 – † Cairo 1951) started out as a follower of Gérard Encausse (better known under his pseudonym Papus), the foremost figure of the French occultist movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Guénon attended lectures at Papus’ ‘Ecole hermétique’ (Hermetic School), and also joined a variety of occult organisations in which Papus was actively involved, such as the ‘Ordre Martiniste’ (a gnostic movement inspiring its members to achieve an inner transformation). In 1908 he turned away from Papus and attached himself to the ‘Église gnostique’ (Gnostic Church) which had been founded in 1890 by Jules-Benoît Doinel after a spiritist séance in the home of Lady Caithness, herself the founder of the Société Théosophique d’Orient et d’Occident, a theosophical society independent of though inspired by Madame Blavatsky. During the séance, the spirit of Guilhabert de Castres, the thirteenth-century Cathar bishop of Toulouse, manifested itself, calling for the new foundation of a gnostic church. Doinel was convinced that he was elected to become the successor of this Cathar-Gnostic line of church leaders and appointed himself as the head of the ‘Nouvelle Église Gnostique Universelle’ (the New Universal Gnostic Church). In effect, the movement constituted a rather elitist form of freemasonry under a gnostic banner. Meanwhile ties with the Martinists continued to exist. La Gnose, which appeared from November 1909 to February 1912, was the official organ of the church. The periodical was founded by Léonce Fabre des Essarts and directed by Guénon working under the name of Palingenius. The first issue presented the views and statutes of the Gnostic Church (for these documents go to http://www.parareligion.ch/bishops.htm). Guénon himself was clearly not devoted to spiritism and the reincarnation theories that had spawned the movement and made no secret of it. The Gnostic Church continued to exist until 1960 when its last leader, Robert Ambelain, incorporated the movement into his own ‘Église gnostique apostolique’ (Gnostic Apostolic Church).
In 1912 Guénon became an ardent enthusiast of Islam and found a master willing to instruct him to be initiated into a Sufi sect. At first he remained in France, only leaving for Egypt in 1930 where he easily found his own way and became a practising Sufi. In 1923 he had already abandoned the practice of occultism and modern spiritualism (see L’erreur spirite, one of the works recently acquired), devoting himself from then on to the field in which he obtained lasting fame: the ‘Tradition primordiale’ (metaphysics). From 1925 he became the chief contributor to the periodical Le voile d’Isis (complete in the BPH), writing articles on this specific field. In spite of the numerous articles he published in a number of periodicals, Guénon is best known for the books he published on a wide range of subjects falling under the headings of ‘world religions, esotericism and metaphysics’. His first book, published in 1921, Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues (General Introduction to the Study of Hindu Teachings), and one of the new acquisitions, was intended to be presented as a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne , though it was rejected by the Faculty. His two most important works are La crise du monde moderne (The Crisis of the Modern World) and Le règne de la quantité et les signes des temps (The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times); both deal with the vicissitudes of Modernity in the West and the inversions of metaphysical truths that according to Guénon form the structure of modern culture. The two works are on the shelves of the BPH. Most of Guénon’s work, incidentally, were only published in French; only a few were translated into English.
After having emigrated to Egypt, Guénon came in touch with Ananda Coomaraswami, the learned curator of the Indian and Asian collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Coomaraswami had published on the philosophia perennis, a term more or less interchangeable with Guénon’s Tradition primordial. A new movement grew out of their cooperation, the ‘Traditional School’ of esotericism and metaphysics in the 20th century, which also included amongst its members someone like Frithjof Schuon. The great significance of René Guénon lies in the development of this Traditionalist forum.
The following issues of La Gnose are available for consultation in the BPH: year 1 (1909-10) issues 2, 4, 6-10; year 2 (1911) issues 1-8; year 3 (1911) issues 1 and 2 (= all published that year). For a concise discussion – in English – on the life and work of Guénon see William Quinn in Dictionary of Gnosis and Esotericism, ed. W. Hanegraaff et al., Leiden 2005.