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James Cutsinger - Review of the Essential Frithjof Schuon

James Cutsinger - Review of the Essential Frithjof Schuon

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Book Reviews


be as much an expert on die use of inclusive language as he is on physical theory. Kevin J. Sharpe Union Graduate School The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon. Edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Amity House, 1986. 543 pages. $34.95. It is a matter of no little amazement to those familiar with the work of Frithjof Schuon diat in spite of the appearance during the last fifty years of more dian twenty books bearing his name, books exhibiting a comparativist range and dieological depth virtually unrivaled in our time, so little attention has been devoted to them in academic discussion and inquiry. This is beginning to change, however. Not only is one more likely to find at least the obligatory reference in die occasional index. An increasing number of serious scholars are discovering, how central and indispensable Schuon's insights can be to dieir work as a whole, as the recent creation of an American Academy of Religion program group on esotericism and perennialism serves to attest The present andiology should go far toward encouraging an even wider interest. The general neglect of the Schuon corpus is not really surprising, however, for three closely related reasons. The reader is struck first by the uncompromising and implacable character of the author's approach. Some have found his work shrill, and a frequent complaint, despite his unexceptionable observation that "a thought is 'dogmatist,' or else it is nothing" (488), is that die viewpoint is too dogmatic, as if diis were a matter admitting degrees. In short, diere are none of the hesitations, qualifications, apologies, and indirections that characterize die usual scholarly prose. This rigor, apparent from the very first glance, is die stylistic expression and complement of a second, somewhat deeper, one might call it more mediodological, feature, which can be seen in die audior's complete disregard for such diings as cultural context and historical influence in die exposition of ideas. As Nasr observes in his excellent Introduction to the volume, Schuon is simply not "satisfied widi die study of religion in terms of any other category of diought or discipline" and is "strongly opposed to historicism" (3). For those taught to suppose diat religious ideas can be studied only at die level of dieir phenomenal and contingent expression, Schuon's mediod of operation, unhampered by die familiar collations of texts and empirical facts or the induction of tentative dieories, but deriving instead from a source of authority completely transcending, he claims, the historical order, cannot but appear to be arrogant and irresponsible, and diey will be tempted to point to his lack of "professional" university training as the only explanation for such audacity. Who does he diink he is? This question, sarcastically asked and usually put in a way to dismiss or reduce the teachings at issue, leads to a diird reason for Schuon's neglect and, in a sense, to the very heart of his concerns. For though he almost never refers


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

to himself, and certainly never to boast, the matter of who he is, and with what authority he speaks, is clearly essential to the content and legitimacy of his work. Nasr points out that "Schuon always writes from the point of view of realized knowledge and presents a teaching which itself has the operative power of transforming the reader" (41). What he writes about, perhaps more than anything else, is the distinctive capacity of human beings for just this "realization" or "transformation." "Man is a divine manifestation" (387) and possesses as such, above and beyond the discursive, strictly regulative reason, whose operations require die data of sense, and which is in this way subject to the relativities of time and space, a dimension of "Intellect," inaratus et incrcabile (in the language of Eckhart diat Schuon often employs), "a vision which is completely independent of opinions, conclusions, and creeds" (538). This is without doubt the sine qua non and ports asinorum of every page he has penned. And it is dius, whether explicitly so or not, that virtually all those pages are devoted to describing, defending, and evoking a mode of knowledge or level of insight diat is not die effect or result, but the cause by manifestation and condensation, of die empirical, social, physical, and cultural world, the visible world, simply taken as given in nearly all our research. The Essential Writings are well chosen and have been organized so as to provide a clear illustration of bodi the range and unity of Schuon's work. Nasr has divided the volume into nine major parts, on Religion and Revelation, die Study of Religions, the Nature of Reality, Art and die Spiritual Significance of Beauty, Man, die Spiritual Life, Eschatology and die Afterlife, Criticism of die Modem World, and Spiritual Impressions, die last of which includes color plates of several of Schuon's paintings and selections from his poetry. The second, and longest, part contains not only some of die most crucial passages concerning Schuon's comparative mediodology, but substantial examples of his insights into each of die great religions, as well as archaic traditions, American Indian religions, and Shintoism. The editor's detailed and insightful Introduction has already been mentioned. This includes a brief synopsis of each volume in die Schuon corpus and is supplemented by a helpful Appendix on die principal editions and translations of the author's mostly French originals. It is clearly impossible to do diis work justice in a short review. Two recurrent themes call for mention, however. The first is Schuon's critique of modernism. A telling combination of dissection and demolition, his criticisms of post-medieval western culture and diought are closely connected to the "realized knowledge" already discussed, for he is convinced diat the skepticism, scientism, relativism, and reductionism of modem diinlting and living can be directly traced to an absence of "vision," which only intellection, or die revelations diat are its crystallizations, can supply. Modernity is nothing if not proof of "die helplessness of die human mind when left to its own resources" (134). "When man has no 'visionary' knowledge of Being, and merely 'thinks' widi his 'brain' instead of 'seeing' widi his 'heart,' all his logic is useless to him, because it starts out from an initial fallacy" (484). Hence die audior's disdain for all our usual schools of thought:

Book Reviews


Contemporary philosophy . . . really amounts to a decapitated logic: what is intellectually evident it calls "prejudice;" wishing to free itself from servitude to the mental, it sinks into infralogic; shutting itself off from the intellectual light above, it exposes itself to the obscurity of the lowest "subconscious" beneath. Philosophical skepticism takes itself for a healthy attitude and for an absence of "prejudices," whereas it is in fact something completely artificial; it proceeds, not from real knowledge, but from sheer ignorance, and for this reason it is as alien to intelligence as it is to reality (484). In art, the same decapitation has meant the substitution of instinct or taste for criteria deriving from truly objective standards; the modem artist has forgotten, according to Schuon, that "the foundations of art lie in the spirit, in metaphysical, theological, and mystical knowledge" (516). Meanwhile, "modem science, as it plunges dizzily downwards . . . is another example of that loss of . . . equilibrium characteristic of contemplative and still stable civilizations" (498). Again it is the disproportionate emphasis placed upon purely empirical, and therefore quite subordinate, facts by the contemporary mentality that Schuon hopes to expose and challenge, not to mention the presumption involved in the endeavor of science to reach "conclusions in fields accessible only to a supra-sensible and truly intellective wisdom, the existence of which it refuses on principle to admit" (498). These observations naturally lead to a second theme, which can be described by means of the title of one of the author's earliest books: the transcendent unity of religions. According to Schuon, the leading effect of modem deviations from human normality has been to give religion a "mortal wound." Religion has been "disarmed" and compelled to "falsify" and "disavow" itself. Modem science and philosophy "prove nothing to contradict the traditional positions of religion, of course, but there is no one at hand to point this out" (501). What needs pointing out above all, the author believes, is the unanimity and solidity of the great religions. "As depicted and described by Schuon," Nasr observes, "other religious worlds become a divine compensation for the loss suffered by religion in the modem world" (15). It is Sermon's claim that the western traditions in particular, especially Christianity, have been so severely damages by both the attacks of outsiders and the compromises of their own adherents that assistance from their eastern allies is essential. For only by looking East to the more readily apparent and integral metaphysical truths and contemplative methods of Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist teaching can the westem believer begin to discover the spiritual resources that have been more deeply hidden at the center of his own religion. Of course, no one will look for such assistance until it is clear that the different religions are truly allied. Thus the need for establishing the principles of what Schuon has called esoteric ecumenism. Although he is "as far as can be from approving a gratuitous and sentimentalist 'ecumenism' which does not distinguish between truth and error and


Journal of the American Academy of Rehgim

which results in religious indifference and the cult of man" (74), Schuon repeatedly teaches that at their heart—not on the level of rite or dogma, but from the standpoint of the gnosis or wisdom which the great sages and saints of the traditions have attained and embodied—the major religions are intimately united, certain "dogmatically coagulative and piously unilateral" (128) expressions notwidistanding, each a different dialect of a single language. "What determines the difference among forms of Truth," he writes, "is the difference among human receptacles. . . . The existence of spiritual receptacles so different and so original demands differentiated refractions of die one Trudi" (14950). This Truth is itself die metaphysical explanation of the presence of difference at the level of manifestation, for "diversity in the world is a function of its remoteness from the divine Principle, which amounts to saying that the Creator cannot will both that the world should be, and that it should not be die world" (150). As for the nature of that Truth, which is the sum and substance of the phibsophia, or rrligio, pcrennis, it is simplicity itself, though a simplicity susceptible in Schuon's work to myriad applications, compressions, and irradiations. It is that God became man diat man might become God; or, in one of the paraphrases of Irenaeus that Schuon suggests, "the Real entered into the illusory so that the illusory might be able to return unto die Real" (68). No summary can succeed in even suggesting the interpretive power which diis formula has come to possess in Schuon's hands, and certainly an esoteric apologetics, even if such a thing were possible, could not be ventured here. A single example of this comparativist's insight must suffice: If Buddhism sees the world only as a chaos of irreducible substances {dharmas) of which the numberless combinations produce subjective and objective appearances, this is for die same reason which results in Christianity having, stricdy speaking, no cosmology: it is because bodi these two great perspectives regard the world, not in view of its reality or unreality, but solely in connection with the way of coming out of it. For the Buddhist even more man for die Christian, to seek to know the nature of the world is a distraction; for the Hindu on the contrary knowledge of die cosmos is an aspect of knowledge of the Absolute, it being nodiing other than Atma as Maya, or die "Universal Soul" as "Creative Illusion." This perspective, which starts from the Absolute, is truly meta-physical, whereas the Buddhist and Christian perspectives, which start from man, are initiatic, diat is, centered first of all on spiritual realization, diough, since they are intrinsically true, they contain the Hindu metaphysical perspective just as it in turn contains the initiatic (165). These comments ought not to conclude widiout a word about die audior's writing style. Nasr has said that Schuon's prose possesses "a rhythm . . . of oscillation between analysis and synthesis" and that it has "a spherical quality"—containing, that is, "die maximum amount of meaning for a given expression" (54), even as a sphere embraces die greatest volume for a given area.

Book Reviews


Analytic and synthetic both, the style could also be called centripetal and concentric, to refer to a symbolism Schuon often employs, one that is displayed on the cover of this and many of his other books. These geometrical analogies are very appropriate, for there is in this work the kind of economy, clarity, and elegance characteristic of mathematical expression. But there is the music of poetry, too, a music which seems to echo die mercy and condescension of God, even as the crystal-like structure reflects the divine rigor and justice. All this is quite deliberate, and in keeping with the author's conviction diat "truth must be enunciated, not only in conformity with certain proportions, but also according to a certain rhythm. One cannot speak of sacred things 'just anyhow'. . . . Every manifestation has laws, and diese intelligence must observe in manifesting itself, or otherwise truth will suffer" (114). And yet it goes without saying, of course, though few will deny the beauty of his words, and even fewer their lucidity, diat die writings of Fridijof Schuon are not for that reason pleasing, and will certainly never be popular. They are extraordinarily demanding, and where diey do not repel, they still will not always attract. It is obvious that Schuon will continue to put people off, and he is obviously aware of die fact. "Perhaps some people will reproach us with lack of reticence, but we would like to ask where is die reticence of die philosophers who shamelessly slash at the wisdom of coundess centuries" (496). The density of the style, the authoritative tone, die flouting of academic conventions, die dioroughly unhistorical method, the often caustic dismissal of all that many hold most dear—these unmistakeable features will not go away. It is no use supposing they will, nor attempting to make die author more palatable by playing them down. This reviewer has chosen instead not to ignore or to mask, but to stress, and perchance to explain, these characteristics. For he believes that diose who are duly prepared to meet diem will be the less troubled, because not so surprised, and hence die less likely to put die work down without the slow and deliberate examination which it deserves, and which cannot but repay the sensitive reader. James S. Cutsinger University of South Carolina Narrative and Morality: A Theological Inquiry. By Paul Nelson. sylvania State University Press, 1987. 180 pages. $21.50. Penn-

In the mid-1970s, Stanley Hauerwas made dieological waves when he chided Christian ediicists for reaching for universalizable principles. The standard account of morality diey were trying to imitate—found in philosophers such as R.M. Hare and G.E. Moore—was, according to Hauerwas, a pipedream. In attempting to overcome the particularities of history in favor of ahistorical, transcultural norms, this account would not only be unsuccessful. It would also ultimately deceive its practitioners who, thinking they were identifying foundational principles binding on all rational agents, were actually only

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