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.

10 thoughts on “Book notes: Rene Guenon”

  1. Glorious Disillusionment
    Only a few members of our bloated dysgenic contemporary pseudo-civilization possess the psychological toughness to accept the truth Guenon so resolutely imparts. When the conditions are right, Guenon’s teaching is going to play an essential role in the spiritual reorientation of the potential leaders of a rearisen West. Jim Kalb is doing an exceedingly fine job of introducing to much-befuddled ‘conservatives’ representatives of a world forgotten but ever-true.

    It is recommended that other key expositors of Spiritual and Political Order, such as Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortés, Fustel de Coulanges, Hermann Keyserling, Mircea Eliade, Ananda Coomaraswamy, G.K. Chesterton, Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, and J.R.R. Tolkien, receive like and proper attention.

    • caveat to readers of this comment
      Well said, but I offer a word of advice for those who can understand me: all these authors are not necessary reading, and in fact some are harmful. For example, Keyserling has very little value beyond his travelogues, and these are laden with so much pseudo-philosophic “new century” dross that you have to be basically on the wrong track to get through them. The dawn of the 20th century saw many hack writers – like Keyserling, Evola, Devi, Spengler – trailing on the coattails of Nietzsche & popular mysticism, and it is not necessary for the individual to wade through their ruminations; they offer nothing new, only the same in individual keys. Following their thoughts is like chasing your own tail, and most people consent to this because it’s at least something to do; chewing cud is better than grinding your teeth. But there’s no sense in weighing down your shelf with ponderous, expensive old tomes by these men, God bless them. I want to say Maistre is essential, as I carried his name around with me for years thinking he is “my man”, but when it came time to read the St. Petersburg Dialogues, I lost interest. Call me weak. I am. But these books just aren’t so valuable as we, in our desperation, like to think. All I’m saying is: beware of any trend – even the outré ones, with their coteries of standards that may be of no more worth to you than the baubles of the modern world afflicting us.
      I won’t go on about this mythic “rearisen West”. Even if this is in the cards, morphologically speaking – though “esoteric”, or “cyclical thinking” is certainly not any proof – it is not our concern. You might as well be chanting “om” to yourself wherever you go. Don’t let yourself be soothed! Suck it up, suffer, and die like a man.

      • Your advice would be better given to the Left, MrOutis
        “I won’t go on about this mythic ‘rearisen West.’ […] You might as well be chanting ‘om’ to yourself wherever you go. Don’t let yourself be soothed! Suck it up, suffer, and die like a man.” (—MrOutis)

        No one’s slated to die except the Marxist left. I love how our “hopeless” battle for the West is “really and truly hopeless” this time, unlike those “hopeless” battles for the West our fathers fought at Thermopylæ; at Iona and Kells when the lights went out all over the relatively little that was Europe as Germanic tribes ravaged the remnants of Classical Civilization; in the First Crusade; at Tours; before the Gates of Vienna; in the Battle of Britain and the U.S.-British alliance that followed which drove back first the Jap and the Nazi barbarian then at the Berlin wall in 1989 the Muscovite Bolshevik one. The torch has been passed. Worthy of the deeds of our fathers, we shall drive back today’s barbarians, today’s enemies of civilization, from the Gates of the West in turn.

        “The darkest hour comes just before dawn.” “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

        What follows is part of an e-mail I sent to someone several months ago:

        I agree of course that it’s bad all right—and no one is even sure of the true nature of these tempests that still after thirty years continue to threaten the tearing-apart of our world, these “torrents of tendency,” a term Emerson uses in his essay, “Fate”:

        “The force with which we resist these torrents of tendency looks so ridiculously inadequate, that it amounts to little more than a criticism or a protest made by a minority of one, under compulsion of millions. I seemed, in the height of a tempest, to see men overboard struggling in the waves, and driven about here and there. They glanced intelligently at each other, but ’twas little they could do for one another; ’twas much if each could keep afloat alone.”

        In a sense, though we wish this struggle had not come upon us—that our generation had been spared this burden; had not had to shoulder it—our generation has actually been given something, in being called upon to shoulder such a burden—given a gift both great and sacred: the opportunity to fight for our traditions, and in some ways for our civilization. That’s a solemn, rare honor which has been bestowed upon us, in a sense.

        And there’s this: bad though the situation is, who’s to say we’re not still living through Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” in the sense that yes, there’s work to be done just as in 1776, and rolling up our sleeves and going out and tackling the job at hand is not the same as dismally contemplating a coffin with us and what we hold dear lying inside it but is the diametrical opposite. Morning never dawned in America or elsewhere, but its eve saw two sides locked in dire struggle and why should our struggle not be Morning’s birth pangs too? We cannot escape life’s seriousness, or hope for “lasting ease” when life permits only “respites” between storms. So, President Reagan, we are still learning—I still am, at any rate—from your good, simple, generous wisdom.

        A bit of wisdom from another American:

        “I hearing get, who had but ears,
        And sight, who had but eyes before;
        I moments live, who lived but years,
        And truth discern, who knew but learning’s lore.
        Now chiefly is my natal hour,
        And only now my prime of life;
        I will not doubt the love untold,
        Which not my worth or want hath bought,
        Which wooed me young, and wooes me old,
        And to this evening hath me brought.”

        These lines from a poem by Thoreau were quoted in Emerson’s eulogy of him. They seem, I feel, to speak to us on this present subject, echoing Reagan’s profoundly anti-pessimistic Morning in America outlook: “Now chiefly is my natal hour, And only now my prime of life” evokes in a way the choice to view today’s events as harbingers of the dawn rather than as some hopeless, final midnight; “I will not doubt the love untold, Which […] to this evening hath me brought”—I will not let the wrongs of today’s world weaken my certainty that God’s love reigns over us all.


        “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

        • what left? where? how many? what color?
          That’s all very inspiring, and I will admit that I used to be inspired by these things; unfortunately we are not on the same page, for when you say “Marxist left”, I read “international Jewry”, and for “Nazi barbarian” – after I roll my eyes – I read something like: “the last hope of the entire race, if not the species.”
          As for Thermopylæ, you will have to excuse me if I refrain from joining in the comparison of this fine battle between brothers with the highly decentralized and anyway only half-acknowledged enemies confronting us today. At Thermopylæ, every Greek was in the battle. Today we have no such comity. Most of our own are against us, and fellows like you, in return, are against such as me. God, what I would give for a Thermopylæ – every limb, every drop of blackest blood in the most brutal combat! What Aryan doesn’t, at bottom, itch to experience the old way of war? I’ll tell you: most of them today. We are not fighting a Thermopylæ or an Iona, and we’re sure as Hell not fighting a Crusade. In fact we’re not fighting at all, but prating on, consoling ourselves on tatters, preening ourselves on a past of no correspondence to our present. Trot out as many authors and battles as you like – it is all in the past; I’ve read them all, or perhaps I’ve never read one of them; but the writing is on the wall, just the same, and hope must find no place with us if we are to muster even a quarter of the courage necessary to wage a war (of an entirely different kind) against those who inflict us, the identity of whom, again, we are apparently not agreed upon, and who anyway have seduced so many of our own that we have not the manpower, nor among us the willpower, to oppose our enemies in the only way one can effectively oppose any enemy: force of arms. “You can’t bomb ideas”, said a Nazi barbarian.
          I also venture to assert that today we are not even dealing at root with barbarians. (I should remind you, quite aside from the Germans of both “world wars”, that the Greeks were not opposing real barbarians at Thermopylæ, or only literally. Nor indeed were the Crusaders – who by many accounts were far more crude in manner than their Moslem foe.) Again, sadly, I am forced to note that we perhaps do not share in identification of our root enemy as Jews, which is insane because both Marx and the majority of Bolsheviks were Jews, so this point is perhaps moot to you, but there it is. What slipped past us this time was a few tight-knit groups of clever, dogged, yet twisted souls who theorized our hegemony right out of our hands, before we could even think of taking up arms. (One nation did, and see how it is spoken of in return.) They rode in on money and came out blasting us with theoretical buckshot; they’ve released every check on the soul, every spiritual poison has been made sweet to the masses by these wizards, they’ve enshrined every lie & absurdity – and still we cannot be agreed on even naming these hounds of every vice and method of our destruction! Well, this is no Thermopylæ. You can’t fight this kind of poison from the body politic, and you can’t turn back the clock on any count.
          I don’t want to be mean or hostile, though. Not my intention. But by their nature my words call out opposition. My only wish is to impart to readers the idea, requiring some finesse and much fortitude, or let’s say the way of thinking, which sees no correspondence between radically different epochs and modes of life: we have passed a threshold. We can no longer afford the luxury of “cyclical thinking”, and to do so now is to bury one’s head in the sand. If only God were so merciful as to grant us a Thermopylæ, we might at least prove a point – which, however, would be lost on everyone, just as the radical Muslim’s point is lost on us, thanks to systematic disinformation, i.e. lying, on every level from childhood. We not only have no chance of a Thermopylæ, owing to the nature of what opposes us, which is not a concentrated enemy but a degeneration of language and morality affecting all peoples produced by Jews, we don’t even live in a world, owing to this degeneration, which could frankly understand a Thermopylæ. Our own people of today, Americans above all, racial bastards that we are, would just shake their heads and give a few democratic platitudes. And, anyway, who are you to hold Thermopylæ up to me? what has Thermopylæ to do with our plight? Tell me now, don’t simply name a battle and expect me to agree. Those Greeks were frankly killed. They were not systematically undermined, starved of their strength, and left to whine & pray for their salvation on the internet. That is our lot. If you think inspiring platitudes, at this point of no more use than on a Thomas Kincaid print, will be our salvation, or somehow *prove* a coming salvation—you should reconsider your standpoint, which is, obviously, too much influenced by being American and having immersed yourself in classics. I daresay the classics are dead, because no one fights or lives like they do anymore, and moreover cannot.
          Finally, I suggest that “the West” itself might be seen as a business venture which has finally failed, owing to greed. If the West weren’t “dead”, we wouldn’t be talking about this. Of course I prefer this bogus “enlightment” pushed by the likes of Imperator, or whatever his name was, which is at least desperate, and thus more appropriate to the situation than this vain, twinkling Americanism which can’t see the forest for the jews. Much rather have people reading mystical charlatans than New England wind-bags like Emerson & Thoreau, God bless him – not because the latter were worse as thinkers and writers, heavens no, but because the *good health* emanating from their works has no place in the society we inhabit. Find me a country where these men would still like to take an evening walk, and I’ll pick them up again: until then I’m on strike.

          • Jewish People
            Jewish people are a tiny minority that could accomplish nothing outside of Israel if it were not for far greater numbers of non-Jewish people. This should be self-evident, but it is understandable why many don’t realize this.

            How can someone think Jewish people control America or Europe or both or even the World? First, a high proportion of Jewish people have an uncommon talent; second, the idea keeps getting repeated; and third, people have the instinct to develop deep-seated prejudices, and it is difficult to change the prejudices.

            For example, take George Bush. He has a talent (a God-given charisma) that enables traditionalists and so-called moderates to not hate him. One might say, as it seems liberals and many critics of Jewish people seem to believe, he has many under a magical spell. His mere presence was so horrible to many hysterical liberals in 2004 that they were swearing to desert their country if he was going to be present for four more years.

            The dominant media in the World kept repeating the idea George Bush was stupid, a warmonger, and a conservative because he was a Republican, all of which was untrue. He has an IQ that is at least as high as his former liberal opponent’s, but this has not stopped many people from believing he is stupid.

            Similarly, the resentment against Jewish people for having, on average, IQ’s higher than the average non-Jewish person is undiminished by the fact that non-Jewish people with IQ’s as high or higher than Jewish people massively outnumber the number of Jewish people regardless of IQ. I’ll bet the Greek to Persian proportion at Thermopylae was much higher than the proportion of Jewish people to non-Jewish people today; so perhaps this observation will be helpful to those that admire Greeks but dislike Jewish people.

            Bush delayed attacking Iraq for many months while asking for input from other countries. He gave the so-called arms inspectors plenty of time to do their job. It seems that it is unusual for warmongers to behave in such a restrained way. But we still hear Bush deceived America into war as we hear Jewish people are deceivers.

            We hear Jewish people are liberal. There is significant evidence this is true for the majority of Jewish people at the moment. But it seems rash to desert or to disparage the many conservative Jewish people because of the political outlook of a portion whose politics can change instantly. We saw an instant change in the outlook of conservative Republicans when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They went from isolationist to pro-war in one day. All Jewish people are not liberal, and the remainder, like non-Jewish people, will change their minds instantly given a good reason.

          • oy vey
            Here we have a Christian Zionist – deterred by nothing, riding hillbilly over every objection, slingin’ cliches like cowpies. Yeehaw! Only a jackass like this, who seems to have never spoken with a Jew in his life, could give us this golden nugget of down-home Amurrican optimism: “and the remainder…will change their minds instantly given a good reason.”

            Here’s a tip – hold your breath. It’ll be a long time a-comin’, cowboy, and I’d like to see you drop dead of your ass-kissing.

          • Jewish People
            I am not judging the proponent of views adverse to Jewish people. I was hoping to open a dialog about the subject with this clearly intelligent, well-read fellow Blogger. He presented his arguments, and I presented mine. I am sorely disappointed that I managed to provoke anger. It is helpful in my occupation to write forcefully, and although I try to tone it down in blogging, it still might come through as too forceful on the Net on extremely sensitive issues. Probably this happens because of my limited time and readers’ limited attention spans.

            Let me start over. My critic of Jewish people could benefit from a frank discussion of his views. There is little reason to take arguments, or even attacks by other Bloggers such as myself, personally. Bloggers don’t know one another. In a way, the Net is a psychiatric couch, where people can deal with things that upset them confidentially. Clearly some people barge into a discussion, spit venom, and move on to do the same elsewhere when ignored. This does not mean one cannot pounce on boorish behavior; that is an individual choice. Some issues though are so serious that it is best to endure, for a limited time, boorish behavior. The prejudice against Jewish people is a very serious issue. The first way to deal with intense feelings (which can include prejudice) is to admit we have them; we all have them, and we are not proud of all of them.

          • Jewish People
            As a draftee “Ass Kisser” of Jewish people, let me suggest the Website consider the deletion of fanatical comments about Jewish people such as we have witnessed above. Certainly it is extremely difficult to delete such comments immediately; but better late than never. Perhaps the Website could substitute a brief comment that a Jew hater attacked the site and was deleted and invite respectful questions from people suspicious of Jewish people. Most people know the answers to the questions will refute the propositions implied by the questions, and this is desirable. The Net is a source of truth, and we know truth is desirable.

          • Debra Winger
            Well as an AK of Jewish people, let me praise my betters: Debra Winger, if you get my drift. Now she is perfect—gorgeous, smart, brimming with personality, and, I’ll bet, tough. She has a made for TV movie coming out within about a month that I will not miss. I must admit to averting briefly to the idea of meeting her at an airport and becoming friends. Why not? I ran into Kiefer Sutherland at Charlotte Airport, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival in a New Orleans bookstore, and Jerry Stiller at Baltimore Airport. Of course I respected their privacy and did not bother them. But as hard as it might be, I would approach Ms. Winger, unless she is married.

  2. I ran across this post by acc
    I ran across this post by accident, and in reading it I was reminded of two things.

    Guenon’s ontology, as you describe it (quality and quantity) reminds me of Aristotle. Aristotle even employs the categories “quality” and “quantity.” But primarily, I’m struck by the similarity between Aristotle’s notions of primary substance and accidents, and Geunon’s notion of quality and quantity. Bringing these notions to the modern world, we live in a world of accidents, and ignore the primary substance (and thereafter are surprised when the accidents begin to behave as if they have a primary substance).

    Of course, in the prevailing metaphysic of modernity, there is no such thing as primary substance or Gueron’s “quality,” because, if there were, distinctions could be made and hierarchies would become possible; in a world of inclusion and non-discrimination such things are metaphysically impossible. This all began with Kant’s idea that we can’t know a thing in itself and can only know our mental construction of it (An argument the Australian philosopher David Stove calls “the worst argument in the world”).

    Second, Geunon’s cyclical description of history, and its inevitability, reminds me of Hegel, though Hegel of course interpreted history as an ascending series of stepping stones through conflict and synthesis, and not as an eternal recurrence or repetition. I take it Guenon sees history, not as conflict and synthesis (“evolution”), but rather as descent into a melting pot of non-distinctions and confusions, which ends (at least temporarily) in the tower of babel phenomenon.


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