By Atayab Naeem
This article focuses on the various fundamental problems with the Modern Outlook by summarizing the views presented in the Book “Crisis of the Modern World”. The book attempts to explain these various problems to warn its readers of an impending crisis. It criticizes the destructive path Humankind is on by referring to the fallacies in various ideologies prevalent in the current time including Materialism, Individualism, Rationalism, Secularism. It also discusses the over emphasis on secular sciences and industry, the misguided priorities of society, and the reasons behind the social chaos and oppression after which a remedy is offered.
Crisis of the Modern World (1927) is one of Rene Geunon’s literary masterpieces. It is considered to be a part of a pair, the second book of which is “Reign of Quantity” (1945) written many years after it. The French author himself was a renowned metaphysician and writer who among many things spoke of the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the modern world. In this book he tries to warn his audience about an impending crisis and continues to detail the tendencies and events which are causing it. The main culprit according to him is the Modern outlook upon which the Western Civilization is based on that negates all tradition and higher principles. He calls for a return to “tradition” (religion) and its esoteric meanings as a remedy to the crisis. As the translator rightfully comments, the manner in which this is done in hindsight seems almost “prophetic” given how the course of events have developed since the book was written. Born in 1886, he was raised in a Catholic environment, and eventually got involved in occultism and secret societies. After abandoning them, he studied the Eastern religions, this culminated with him accepting Islam at the age of 44 in 1930, 3 years after this book was written. He was later also known as Abd-al-Wahid Yahya.
Note: The version of the book used for this summary was translated by Margo Pallis and Richard Nicholson.
The writer explicitly expresses his intentions behind writing such a book as simply his interest in the impartial and disinterested truth and to help others realize the impending crisis. The Traditional doctrines speak of a “dark age” near the end of times to which the modern disorder can be attributed to. The word “Crisis” chosen by the author also implies that a change needs to take place in the world with or without a catastrophe triggering it, although a catastrophe is likely in his opinion. It is fast approaching the Modern World, especially the Western Civilization where the Modern Outlook is dominant, as a consequence of its abnormal and unnatural state of affairs which has persisted for the past few centuries. People are now slowly realizing that the idea of an indefinite continuous “progress” which was readily accepted almost as a dogma is flawed and unstable. The current disorder has also led to mental disturbances among the general populace which makes them think the end of the world is upon them. An expression of this is the emergence of numerous pseudo-spiritual cults that capitalize on this tendency. Even if this is not the end of the world the author comments, it would definitely be the end of the Modern Outlook which is the chief contributor to the crisis.
Chapter 1: The Dark Age
The Hindu doctrine speaks of the human cycle having four periods over which the primordial spirituality becomes more and more obscured. The last of which is the Kali Yuga or “Dark Age” which we are currently in for the past 6000 years. These four periods also correspond with the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron ages mentioned in the ancient Western traditions. This gradual decline is why divine wisdom seems to have become obscure and lost today and sacred knowledge degenerated into paganism and superstitions; only superficial knowledge remains from them today.
According to the author the Renaissance took over only the most superficial aspects of Graeco-Roman civilization i.e. philosophy and secular science. Even though modern research methods have allowed mankind to develop a detailed chronology of events for roughly the past 3000 years, it is only able to roughly approximate events before that. This is because of the disdain of tradition in the modern world which dismisses records dating back before these periods as “Legends” or myths. In the case of Greek Philosophy which although initially recognized both the rational and supra-rational order of things, it eventually developed into the modern secular outlook of rationalism and skepticism which tries to actively dismiss traditional wisdom. This is also why according to the author, the Medieval period’s intellectuality is misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented by modern people as gloom, ignorance and barbarism.
“Henceforth there was to be left only philosophy and “profane” science, the negation, that is to say, of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, an empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details and a piling up of baseless hypotheses, continually undermining one another and of fragmentary views incapable of leading to anything except practical applications of the kind which constitute the sole superiority of modern civilization-hardly an enviable superiority, moreover, which by its development to the point of stifling every other preoccupation has only succeeded in endowing this civilization with the purely material character that makes of it a sheer monstrosity.”
Renaissance also gave birth to idea of “humanism”, utilitarianism eventually leading to materialism which dismissed everything of a higher order and reduced everything to human proportions. The more material mankind exploited, the more enslaved they became to it. This ended up creating more artificial needs than it could ever hope to satisfy. Such aimless dispersion in multiplicity of material represents distance from original true spirituality. Therefore, Eastern traditionalists look at the Western world’s material progress in a different light.
Chapter 2: The opposition between East and West
The Modern world has a rift between the East and the West. Traditional civilizations although were different to each other based on various factors; they did have the same underlying principles which offered them common ground to understand each other. On the other hand, the Modern West and East are in direct opposition to each other as the West is based on negation of principles while the East has remained faithful to the traditional standpoint. Since the modern mentality originated in the West, it is attributed to it, whereas before both east and west possessed traditional foundations whose origin was with mankind itself. In the Medieval period, Western civilization could be compared to the Eastern civilizations in the same way different Eastern civilizations can be compared to each other today.
There is interest in some circles in the West to revive the traditional outlook; However, those attempts fall short since the ancient Western traditions only exist in an impure form today and are lost beyond recovery. Also, their reliance on pseudo-tradition and neo-spiritual movements further shows the confusion in the modern world and hindrance in the fulfillment of this goal. The East can help the West in this task since it retains the deeper understanding of higher principles.
This is viable because knowledge of principles is knowledge in essence (metaphysical knowledge) and is universal. They take specific forms when applied suited to different mental conditions and circumstances which leads to apparent differences. It is fundamentally the same truth under underlying multiplicity, that can only be recognized by pure intellectuality. If the West returns to tradition, opposition of east and west will cease to exist as that is simply an opposition of traditional vs anti-traditional outlook. Once these principles are recognized, reconciliation becomes easy. On the other hand, as is often seen today, agreement on a single field without agreement on underlying principles is more of a diplomatic action and devoid of stable relations in the long run. A top to bottom approach is needed and the West needs to understand oriental civilization to become complete and normal again.
Chapter 3: Knowledge and Action
“It might be said that the antithesis between East and West, in the present state of things, consists in the East maintaining the superiority of contemplation over action, whereas the modern West on the other hand asserts the superiority of action over contemplation”.
Some people may see action and contemplation to be somewhat opposite of each other; However, since every human has to a certain degree both, it cannot be said that these are opposites. It is rather a matter of which one takes priority over the other in their complimentary relationship which to an extent depends on the nature of each human being. Nonetheless, it is evident generally the Eastern minds have more aptitude for contemplation while the Western minds have for action. This is another factor which leads to differences in mentality. Despite this, it can be said the aptitude of action in the West has overdeveloped today which contributes to the modern crisis. This is evident from the development of theories like pragmatism which denies anything worthwhile that does not have practical application. This view contributes to the West’s obsession with matter and here is something the East can help the West with in giving some power back to contemplation.
Though there are pros and cons of prioritizing contemplation or action over the other, if one has to inevitably subordinate the other, then it naturally follows one is superior to another overall. It is important to note the ancient West and East, as well as Modern East recognize contemplation to be superior, and that should be sufficient to at least suggest the Modern West’s outlook is abnormal. The eastern doctrines still hold the superiority of contemplation while giving action its due importance. However, if action is not based on an unchanging principle, then it is just illusory and meaningless.
The West has now decided to reduce knowledge only to the lower order of action and practicality alienating themselves to true knowledge. This is why the West, in its pursuit of progress, is in constant agitation of materialism without any higher goal. Research is being done for research’s sake alone and theories and hypothesis keep rolling out continuously replacing one another creating only confusion in regard to nature of reality. In terms of applied science, the industrial results it has achieved mean it will continue to grow. This instability is an exteriorized image of their own mentality. True knowledge is unchanging, universal principles and the unchanging is always superior to the changing. Obsession with pragmatism tends to ignore this and leads to meaningless pursuits. A naturalistic conception which only recognizes this implies a formal denial of that which is beyond nature, the metaphysical, which can only be acquired by intellectual intuition which the modern rationalists reject.
“Spiritual power does not depend in any sense upon number, whose law is the law of matter”.
Chapter 4: Sacred and Profane (secular) sciences
Science is defined not just by its object but also the standpoint from which it is viewed. Here is a stark difference between the traditional conception of science vs the modern conception. The author describes traditional or sacred sciences as those which prioritized metaphysical doctrines and intellectual intuition putting social and hard sciences in a subordinate position to it. This established a hierarchy of knowledge where a top-down approach was taken and everything stemmed from higher principles giving each science its due attention but not more than it deserved. Rather than becoming specialized, they had a more holistic approach to things. Intellectual intuition is the most direct and highest form of knowledge and is independent of faculties belonging to sensible or rational order, and goes beyond human individuality as it is transcendent.
Modern Science on the other hand, takes a positivist outlook which naturally dismisses metaphysical sciences. Although the temporal and spiritual spheres are distinct, they cannot be fully separated, and this is where modern science deviates. Not being based on higher principles means it is reduced to probabilities and approximations attempting to take a bottom-up approach to finding the truth. It is obsessed with material, probabilities, and empiricism. It is a delusion of modern experimentalism that facts can lead to conclusion whereas the same facts can be explained by a variety of different theories each based on different preconceived ideas of the individual. As is observed today, this leads to numerous individual “fantasies” and acquiring of details rather than knowledge grounded in truth.
“In seeking completely to sever the connection between the science and any higher principles, on the pretext of safeguarding their independence, the modern conception robs them of all deeper meaning and even of any real interest from the point of view of knowledge.”
Modern social and hard sciences divide into subdivisions called specializations. There are such huge amounts of data available today which makes this step inevitable. But this also leads to a narrowness in outlook, and attempting to make a holistic model of the world becomes very difficult. The primary aim here is industry and practical applications and hence, science is confused with industry. It isn’t completely wrong to pursue practical applications but only when it is not given undue priority. This makes this knowledge lack significance in itself and this bottom-up approach futile. A top-down approach based on higher principles such as those of its traditional counterpart is the only way to gain any real speculative value. According to the author, to correct the error of modern science a top-down approach based on principles is needed to validly construct science with proper hierarchy once again. Once this is done based on universal principles, efforts can be shifted to teaching science from the bottom up raising people’s understanding from lower orders of knowledge to higher orders since not everyone can directly grasp the higher order of things. This deviation was caused by individualism which is covered in the next chapter.
Read part 2 here: Crisis of the Modern World – LUMS RELIGIOUS SOCIETY