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BOOK REVIEW:

A SPIRITUAL CONSCIENCE FOR MODERN MADNESS

THE CRISIS OF THE MODERN WORLD


Author: René Guénon
Publisher: Sophia Perennis (New York), 2004, 120 pages
ISBN: 0-900588-24-1

Reviewed by Tengku Ahmad Hazri

26 September, 2007

The scholarly world is never too short of what is in vogue as `critiques of modernity' that another
addition to this stock would have been redundant. Guénon's The Crisis of the Modern World
however, is not simply `another' of this but is distinguished by its profound wisdom,
transcending conventional approaches that either diagnosed the symptoms and not the real
disease or carried from an exclusively `philosophical' viewpoint, oblivious to the fact that
`philosophy' itself is among modernity's offspring. Guénon's theme is sophia perennis, or
primordial Wisdom, which seeks to resurrect the sacred metaphysics that lies at the root of the
world's major religions.

Guénon begins with the premise that the modern world as we know it corresponds exactly to the
period of Kali Yuga (or Dark Age) in Hindu cosmology, similar to the Iron Age in Western
traditional doctrine, a time when the forces of matter reign supreme and spirituality has been
thoroughly eclipsed. In fact, history itself is a gradual process of declining spirituality and
"progressive materialization", so that at the last phase of the human cycle (or the darkest of the
Dark Age), mankind shall witness the abundance of material prosperity as has never been
witnessed before, while simultaneously impoverished spiritually and utterly divorced from true
intellectuality and hence truth itself.

Intellectually, this decline is especially evident in science and philosophy. Philosophy - `love' of
wisdom - became wisdom unto itself; `physics' - the science of `nature' in its totality - became a
science that deals with only a portion of nature; astrology degraded into astronomy; alchemy
degenerated into chemistry; and all that was once meaningful and bound to truth transcending
the domain of matter and the world of sensible experience is reduced to bare facts bereft of truth,
meaning and purpose. It is no wonder that the modern man today feels alienated from the world,
from each other and from himself. The ancient sciences were invariably bound to metaphysical
principles found in the world's great religions, made possible by the eminently religious and
theocentric character of the earlier people. Truth for them is one, just as God is One. The different
orders and aspects of Reality are but reflections of this same, single and universal truth.
Whichever angle the truth is approached, contradictions only appear at the surface so that
`specialization' would eventually lead to the convergence of the various disciplines, which
explains why the ancients were so adept at mastering several different branches of knowledge at
the same time, insofar as mastery of certain basic laws underlying all of reality permits their
application to many different domains.
Modernity by contrast, is built upon the spirit of opposition to religion (think of the Renaissance,
Reformation and the Enlightenment) and therefore hostility to metaphysics and truth. Once the
ultimate Truth is denied, the ground is cleared for the manufacture of many different "truths",
tending naturally towards relativism and nihilism that are so prevalent in today's world. Indeed,
relativism is the logical outcome of rationalism, this in turn being the result of humanism and
individualism, which of course, is the "determining cause of the present decline of the West."
Descartes' rationalism, instead of raising man to transcend himself towards truth, seeks to drag
truth down to the "purely relative and human faculty" of rational thought. The mental outlook
that made this possible is materialism, "a conception according to which nothing else exists but
matter and its derivatives." Now this is significant even symbolically, for matter is essentially
multiplicity and division, hence the source of strife and conflict.

This decadence even manifests itself in the social order - from the separation of religion from the
state, the triumph of mediocrity over the wise (democracy), the spread of `mass
education' (which compromises the uniqueness of each individual) to the rise of the cult of
`originality' in the intellectual domain, for whom it is better to create a new error than repeat an
old truth. All this are but manifestations of the same catastrophe - neglect of spirituality, hence
the loss of unity.

Materialism is also tied to Western domination. The East has been traditionally religious, but in
the face of (material) challenge and encroachment by the modern West, is now compelled to
adopt the materialistic worldview to compete in this profane realm and in this regard, its
religious past is certainly no guide. Where else would they seek guidance and `light', if not from
the very civilization in which materialism organically springed forth? This is in fact how the
present age fits neatly into that last phase of Kali Yuga as Guénon understands it, namely that the
darkness of materialism will ultimately bring the whole world into its dominion (long before
`globalization' and `end of history' became common lingo), marking finally the end of an era, i.e.
the end of a human cycle, or Manvantara, where `the wheel stops turning.' This is when chaos,
conflict and strife will erupt as never before, a time known in Christianity as the reign of the
Antichrist and in Islam as the era of Dajjal.

There is a way out - for the establishment of a spiritual elite to lead the masses out of this
darkness. This elite necessarily has to operate covertly, like a secret puppeteer when others could
not see the strings, for the masses have become deeply entrenched in their materialism, which
continuously creates in them more artificial needs for materiality than it can satisfy. In the West,
the only institution capable of bringing about this change is the Catholic Church, which alone is
in possession of the sacred traditional doctrine of Christianity. Yet even then, Guenon remains
skeptical and calls for the Western world to summon aid from what modicum of true spirituality
is left in the East, unadulterated by the `modernized' outlook that is fast making headways
throughout the Orient.

© Tengku Ahmad Hazri, 2007.