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Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon

Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon

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Frithjof Schuon and Ren¨¦ Gu¨¦nonby Martin LingsThe following is the text of a talk given at the Temenos Academy on July 14, 1999 to an audience by no means altogether familiar with the writings of these two men. In the title of this talk the name Schuon is put before that of Gu¨¦non because it will be mainly about Schuon, as a sequel to the talk I gave two years ago on Gu¨¦non alone. But in principle their message is one and the same. The main theme of both is esoterism, that is, the inner aspect of religion summed up by Christ in his affirmation that "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you" and also "Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you."Frithjof Schuon and Ren¨¦ Gu¨¦non by Martin LingsInevitably they wrote about exoterism also because although some rites are purely esoteric, the main obligatory rites of a religion which are exoteric as performed by the vast majority become esoteric when performed by the minority of esoterists. In other words, subjectively speaking, the aspirations of the majority stop short at salvation, whereas the aspirations of the minority stop short at nothing less than sanctification. It is true that there are many degrees of sanctification, and in consequence esoterism consists of circles within circles, for "many are called but few are chosen". But this fact does not figure largely in our present context, since Gu¨¦non and Schuon never allow their readers to forget that spiritual aspiration in the full sense will be satisfied with nothing less than the Supreme Identity, that is the actual realization that one's true self is none other than that One, Absolute, Infinite Perfection which we name God.Both writers are in agreement about essentials, but very different in their manner of expression. Gu¨¦non of course was the pioneer, and already as a young man he saw clearly that in the West human intelligence, generally speaking, had come to be left out of religion. It no longer participated in the things of the spirit, and he was acutely conscious of the need to express spiritual truths in such a way as to win back the intelligences of virtually intelligent men and women for the only object that could truly satisfy them, namely Divine Reality, the Object for which intelligence exists. To do this, in a world increasingly rife with heresy and pseudo-religion, he had to remind twentieth century man of the need for orthodoxy, which presupposes firstly a Divine Revelation and secondly a Tradition that has handed down with fidelity what Heaven has revealed. He thus restores to orthodoxy its true meaning, rectitude of opinion which compels the intelligent man not only to reject heresy but also to recognize the validity of faiths other than his own if they also are based on the same two principles, Revelation and Tradition.Gu¨¦non's function as pioneer went, no doubt providentially, with a style of writing wherein he could be likened to an archer. His teachings came forth like arrow after arrow, shot from a basis of unwavering certitude and hitting, in the vast majority of cases, the very center of the target. The undeniable attraction that lies in such spontaneity explains the immense attraction that Gu¨¦non's writings continue to have for his readers. It is true that there is a danger of simplification in such a style, and also, inevitably, one or two arrows went wide of the mark. But Schuon has shown himself to be a providential complement to Gu¨¦non.An aspect of the difference between the two writers was bought home to me in connection with one of Gu¨¦non's masterpieces, The Reign of Quantity. I had the privilege of being the first person to read this book which the author gave me chapter by chapter. When it was finished he said: "Now I will write a fair copy of it." But the fair copy proved to be almost identical with the so-called "rough copy", whereas when Schuon wrote a fair copy many changes were made in the process, nor was there any guarantee, to say the least, that the fair copy would not become itself a rough copy for a still fairer copy. Not that he had any difficulty writing, and he himself also 'shot arrows' in his own particular way. But he never
simplified, and he was exceedingly conscious of the extreme complexity of the truth on certain planes, nor was he easily satisfied that he had done justice to that complexity.It is typical of him to go as far as is legitimately possible to meet, on their own ground, the holders of an opinion against which he is arguing. In other words, his theses are worked out in detail with all possible objections foreseen, given their due, and outweighed.By way of example, in The Transcendent Unity of Religions, he broaches the question of missionaries -- in particular Christian missionaries, since the book is primarily for the modern West. He does justice to the life of sacrifice led by most missionaries and admits that in some cases it has subjectively even a mystical value. He allows that there are relatively rare cases where an individual is more suited to a religion other than that of the world where he or she was born and brought up. But he reminds us also -- I quote his words: "It is possible to pass from one religious form to another without being converted." He adds that this may happen -- again to use his actual words "for reasons of esoteric and therefore spiritual expediency". He gives no example, and then passes on. But we will stop here for a moment because the first examples that spring to mind are those of the two men who are the theme of this talk. Both Gu¨¦non and Schuon were brought up as Christians and both, at a certain stage of their lives, made the change from Christianity to Islam. At first thought the "spiritual expediency" in question might seem to be, in both cases, the presence of a great spiritual Master in the religion to which the change was made and the absence of his counterpart in the other, and this is certainly the true explanation of the subsequent changes which took place along the same lines, for although Schuon had many disciples who had been brought up as Muslims, the majority were of Christian or Jewish origin. But on second thoughts, as regards Gu¨¦non and Schuon themselves, the above explanation is not convincing. It is true that Gu¨¦non received a Sufi initiation from one of the representatives of an eminent Egyptian Sufi Shaykh whom he never met, but to whom, later in life, he dedicated his book The Symbolism of the Cross; and it is also true that Schuon became the disciple of the great Algerian Sufi Shaykh Ahmed al-`Alaw? whose successor he undoubtedly was. But in his article 'A Note on Ren¨¦ Gu¨¦non'2 Schuon makes it clear that in his opinion Gu¨¦non was altogether exceptional, a man who did not need a path and who did not need guidance, but who had a message for mankind which was of universal import, and he needed a setting for himself which was in harmonious correspondence with that message. Moreover when we read this article we are conscious that in certain respects Schuon is also writing about himself; and for his part he had not only a message similar to that of Gu¨¦non, but he was also a born spiritual master, and to exercise that function he would need to become a link in the chain of spiritual succession of some truly esoteric order. More precisely, the way on which he was so eminently qualified to give guidance was a way of knowledge rather than a way of love. In other words, it was just such a way as the way towards which Gu¨¦non's message pointed, a way which, to say the least, is most untypical of the Christian mysticism of our times. To sum up, we have here two men, conscious from their earliest years of being strangers here below and in urgent need of the least uncongenial setting possible which the alien territory of this world could offer them. I am not presuming to trace out here, in this last sentence and what precedes it, an exact train of thought for either man, but anything that they themselves did not foresee would have been foreseen by Providence; and as for the ordained setting, let us allow ourselves to be wise after the event and to see, as regards the three world religions which are more open to receiving adherents from outside themselves than Hinduism and Judaism are, that Heaven appears to have given, generally speaking, the East to Buddhism and the West to Christianity, whereas the Quran reminds Muslims that they are "a middle people". It is in fact c
lear that Islam is something of a bridge between the East and the West, and this favors the universality of the message in question. Moreover Sufism, the inner aspect of Islam, is predominantly a way of knowledge; and the Quran itself is implacably universalist, with a vastness which goes far beyond the capacity of the average Muslim. These two changes of religious form and those of Schuon's disciples cannot possibly be called "conversions" in the ordinary sense of the word, because the former religion is still loved and revered at the same level as the newly adopted religion. Such possibilities far transcend the domain of the missionaries which was our starting point, and to which we now return. Our ready acceptance of the truth expressed in the title of Schuon's book The Transcendent Unity of Religions leads us to hope for some arguments that spring directly from that truth, nor does Schuon disappoint us. In connection with attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity he writes:Brahmins are invited to abandon completely a religion that has lasted for several thousands of years, one that has provided the spiritual support of innumerable generations and has produced flowers of wisdom and holiness down to our times. The arguments brought forward to justify this extraordinary demand are in no wise logically conclusive nor do they bear any proportion to the magnitude of the demand: the reasons that the Brahmins have for remaining faithful to their spiritual patrimony are therefore infinitely stronger than the reasons by which it is sought to persuade them to cease being what they are. The disproportion, from the Hindu point of view, between the immense reality of the Brahmanic tradition and the insufficiency of the Christian counter-arguments is such as to prove quite sufficiently that had God wished to submit the world to one religion only, the arguments put forward on behalf of this religion would not be so feeble, nor those of certain so-called 'infidels' so powerful. 3Equally unanswerable is Schuon's refutation of the claim that Islam is a pseudo-religion:That God should have allowed a religion that was merely the invention of a man to conquer a part of humanity and to maintain itself for more than a thousand years in a quarter of the inhabited world, thus betraying the love, faith and hope of a multitude of sincere and fervent souls -- this again is contrary to the laws of the Divine Mercy, or, in other words, to those of Universal Possibility. 4The book from which the last two quotations come, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, published in French just over two years before Gu¨¦non's death, was the only book of Schuon's that Gu¨¦non read, and he had the highest praise for it, especially for a chapter entitled 'The Universality and Particular Nature of the Christian Religion' which might be said to fill in some gaps left by Gu¨¦non himself.The title of another of Schuon's books, Esoterism as Principle and as Way, may be said to sum up his writings as a whole. But to sum up Gu¨¦non's writings it would have to be changed to 'Esoterism as Principle with a view to the Way'. Gu¨¦non never lost sight of the Way, and indeed it might be said that one ofhis chief themes was 'the way to the Way', but he did not write about the spiritual path directly whereas Schuon did, being himself a spiritual master with many souls under his care, and in consequence his writings are rich in psychological observations of the utmost importance. Jung once remarked, not without sagacity: "The soul is the object of modern psychology. Unfortunately it is also the subject." But it may be doubted whether Jung realized how fully this amounts to a condemnation of the modern science in question. In traditional civilizations it was taken for granted that the soul can only be examined from a level higher than itself, that is, from a spiritual level. The priests were the recognized authorities. And when Schuon speaks about the soul we spontaneously accept what he says in the certitude that he is speaking from a level which transcends the psychic domain. Let me say in passing that Schuon was remarkably aquiline in appearance, so much so that the Sioux Indians who adopted him into their tribe would refer to his followers

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