You are here

Book notes: Rene Guenon

I just finished reading Rene Guenon’s The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times. It’s an interesting display, by the French Traditionalist metaphysician (and mathematician), of what can be done through systematic application of simple concepts.

In Guenon’s system, which is heavily influenced by Hindu speculations and traditional metaphysics generally, the concepts are quality, quantity, and cyclical manifestation. Quality includes whatever makes something a thing of a particular sort, while quantity relates to whatever makes something an individual thing that is here rather than there, this size rather than that, present now instead of some other time, and so on.

What gives such abstract speculations special point is the cyclical nature of manifestation. Manifestation comes about when quality and quantity combine to form a world of objects like those around us. Each cycle of manifestation creates a world that starts with quality predominant and ends with quantity predominant. That is to say, at the beginning of the cycle things are knit together in a hierarchy clearly ordered by transcendent principles, while toward the end things tend more and more to be barely distinguishable, on a single level, and digital. (Think of Shang bronzes or a Romanesque church and contrast them to MTV.) Eventually the digitized world becomes too incoherent to sustain itself, and the cycle ends in a transformation that begins a new cycle.

Those are the bare bones of the theory, and as such it has obvious correspondences with the development of modernity as we’ve discussed it at Turnabout—the tendency in thought toward the elimination of the transcendent, for example, with resulting loss of specific identity and emphasis on both “individualism” and “inclusiveness.” Guenon takes the line of thought much farther, though, analyzing a variety of the features of the modern world—the topics include traditional and modern sciences, traditional crafts and modern industries, higher and lower anonymity, and the development and then dissolution of materialism and the belief in “ordinary life” as the privileged locus of reality—by reference to his categories. He also includes a lengthy discussion, evidently based on personal experience, of various deformations and illegitimate fragmentary forms of traditionalism in the modern world.

Each can decide for himself how much of this he will take literally and how much as a mythological or poetic conceit. Guenon himself viewed the book as a straightforward presentation of integral truth. Others may (for example) accept the movement from quality to quantity as a feature of modern Western culture, and find the discussion of the process illuminating, without accepting the more cosmic features of the theory—the grand cycles of manifestation, the coordination between transformations of human understanding and transformations of the principles governing natural events, and so on. Regardless of how one takes it, the book can be useful the way foreign travel is useful, or was useful before so much of the world became just like America. By visiting other mental worlds we come to see what’s lacking in our own, and so come to a better grasp of reality.