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Book Review - Theosophy History of a Pseudo-Religion



ICSA Today, Vol. 3, No. 3, 2012, 21-23

Book Review - Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion

By René Guénon

Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart


On the back cover of this book, Huston Smith, author of the ever popular The World’s Religions, heralded René Guénon (1886–1951) as “one the greatest prophets of our time, whose voice is even more important today than when he was alive.” Nearly all of René Guénon’s works are available in English translation today; but when I first encountered him in 1980, I could find only his Reign of Quantity and a book by him on Hindu doctrine. Next I tried to read Le Théosophisme in the French with little success because my French is poor and Guénon’s writing is dense with references to esoteric ideas and philosophy. Thus, I was quite relieved to find this translation.

Guénon’s body of work, I would advise, is an acquired taste not immediately appreciated by the casual reader. However, at the time in 1981, I was reading everything and anything I could get my hands on that exposed and explained Theosophy after many years of misguided interest in it and its related cults. Very few readers may be familiar with Guénon; therefore, I also will offer background information on this author for this review.

Guénon distinguishes between what he called Theosophism or the system of modern occult movements influenced since the 19th Century by Eliphas Levi, Papus, Helena Blavatsky, and related others, and Theosophy proper, which transcends movements or cults. Thus, the title of this book in translation is Theosophy, with specific reference to the Theosophical Society founded by Blavatsky, Henry Olcott, and others in America in 1875. Although it was published 90 years ago, Guénon’s Theosophy remains, according to many scholars (including Mircea Eliade), one of the essential exposés on this movement.

Not much is known from the author about his early life because he was self-effacing to a fault throughout his life. We do know that his father was an architect and a strict Catholic. Guénon was schooled by Jesuits in France and was a brilliant student in mathematics and philosophy. He was also rather cranky, often ill since infancy, and hypersensitive to criticism by teachers. Guénon did not like to be wrong. One of his biographers (Robin Waterfield, 1987) described him as a loner at school, seemingly unimaginative and clearly not artistic.[1] He studied mathematics in Paris at College Rollin. Following a youthful penchant for metaphysics and religious experience, he dropped his advanced studies to pursue neo-occult movements, including Theosophy, Gnosticism, and Freemasonry for seven years in Paris, only to find degrees of self-delusion, ignorance, and deceit among leaders and followers. Around 1910, he met the then-famous French painter Gustav Ageli (Abd al-Hadi), who introduced him to Sufism and Islam. He quietly settled into Islam by 1912 after accepting an initiation under a respected Sufi scholar and cleric.

He finished his university education in 1916 with a thesis called Leibniz and Infinitesimal Calculus. The same year, he met Jacques Maritain, one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of the 20th century. In 1921, he prepared his doctoral dissertation under the title General Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines. Guenon’s thesis was rejected by his doctoral committee, which led to his eventual abandonment of academia in 1923.[2]

The committee found his approach too theological and not in keeping with academia’s more scientific anthropological or sociological guidelines.

Guénon’s first wife died childless in1928 in France, but he married again in Egypt at around age fifty to a much younger, Muslim woman, Fatima, who bore his four children, the last around the time of Guénon’s death. He died in 1951 at age 65, weakened by lifelong health issues. Guénon taught intermittently throughout his life, and published in journals to make a living. Many who knew him in Egypt regarded him as a recluse and prophet who sought no followers yet sustained a vast correspondence with many colleagues. One of his editors and translators, Dr. Martin Lings, who assisted Guénon personally for a time in Egypt, describes him thus:

Guénon almost never went out except when he came to visit us. I would send a car to fetch him and he would come with his family to our house about twice a year. We lived at that time just near the pyramids outside of Cairo. I went out with him only once, and we went to visit the mosque of Sayyidnâ Husayn near al-Azhar. He had a remarkable presence; it was striking to see the respect with which he was treated. As he entered the mosque you could hear people on all sides saying, “Allâhumma salli 'alâ Sayyidnâ Muhammad”; that is, “May God rain blessings on the Prophet Muhammad,” which is a way of expressing great reverence for someone.... As I have said, Guénon did not like to talk about himself and I respected his reticence, I did not ask him questions and I think he was pleased with that. To sum up what his function was, one might say that it was his function, in a world increasingly rife with heresy and pseudo religion, to remind twentieth century man of the need for orthodoxy which itself presupposes firstly a divine intervention, and secondly a tradition which hands down with fidelity from generation to generation what Heaven has revealed.[3]

One of Guénon’s more important books, Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, remains a classic introduction to Vedic religion. He explores scientific reductionism in The Reign of Quantity and Signs of the Times, in which he argues against “modernism” and how its adherence to progressive, evolutionary ideas ignores the foundational or essential integrity of the human being. Guénon and others, including Ananda Coomaraswamy, established the Traditionalist-Perennialist school of thought in the 20th century. In a sense Guénon rescued, or at least established a way to rescue religion and traditional wisdom from the onslaught of pseudo religion in New Age occultism, “Protestantism,” scientism, and social progressivism. He exposed and corrected the very notions of a Primordial Tradition recognized but badly represented by many occultists and new movements. In a sense, Guénon made a supreme effort to clean up the spiritual mess made by modern Rosicrucians and Masons, and by Eliphas Levi, Papus, Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Charles Leadbeater, Rudolf Steiner, and their ilk. He describes the social, moral, and political mess in detail in his book Theosophy: The History of a Pseudo-Religion.

In today’s jargon, we might classify Guénon as an ex-cult member who made a brilliant career out of self-correction and recovery—somewhat like St. Augustine, who rebounded from Manichaeism. Nearly all his (around seventeen) books and a myriad of papers address aspects of traditional religion and how modernism distorts our perceptions of the same. His foundation in mathematics influenced his insights into symbols and symbolism; it also gave him an orderly if complex perspective in metaphysics. I twice read his short but complex Symbolism of the Cross, in which the author presents what he calls a “synthesis” of the universal meaning of a cross, as opposed to the “syncretism” in Theosophy’s approach to symbols and spirituality. Some of his critics noted that Guénon’s “tradition” was rooted in Vedanta far more than in Islam or any other faith. Guénon would argue that the ancient Hindu tradition most captured the philosophia perennis, or Primordial Tradition.

Unlike St Augustine in his Confessions, we find no personal stories or musings by Guénon. Theosophy is not a confession or a memoir. Nowhere in thirty chapters does Guénon offer a personal account of his embarrassing sojourn into Parisian occult circles. Throughout the book you will find no “I,” but only the standard academic “we” popular with scholars for his time:

In this Theosophical use of “karma” we find an excellent example of the abuse of poorly understood Sanskrit terms, as we have previously noted, for the word “karma” quite simply means “action” and nothing else. It has never had the sense of causality (“cause” in Sanskrit is “kārana”), and even less has it ever designated that special causation whose nature we have just indicated.[4]

Guénon was an insider, so to speak, within the very “history” he presents. He begins with some antecedents to Theosophy, covering Blavatsky’s forays into Spiritualism before he describes the origin of the Theosophical Society, originally called the Miracle Club in 1874. We learn how important to Theosophists these “miracles,” or “phenomena” indicating paranormal activity and power, were. Olcott and others close to Blavatsky often experienced these phenomena, which included the tinkling of bells and “precipitated” notes and letters from the Masters Morya, Koot Hoomi, and other mysterious “adepts.” Indeed, one of Blavatsky’s more credulous devotees, A. P. Sinnett, eventually published these miraculous missives in The Mahatma Letters that came to him between 1880 and 1884. Guénon reports that these phenomena were faked by Blavatsky and her confederates. Several eyewitnesses had testified about how she tricked her disciples. In a chapter titled “The Source of MME Blavatsky’s Works,” we learn that “HPB” plagiarized from a trunk of books she had with her at the time she wrote Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, which her devotees yet believe were “inspired” by the Mahatmas. To this day, despite a string of published exposés that add to but may not improve upon Guénon’s Theosophy, Theosophists continue to believe in the fanciful legacy, as this blavatsky.net Website testifies: “The Mahatmas were the direct, in-person, instructors of Madame Blavatsky. They ‘wrote’ letters to A. P. Sinnett by ‘precipitating’ those letters apparently out of the air, and the letters are currently in the British Museum.”[5]

In the final several chapters, we get a taste of Guénon’s traditional view that eschews “moralism” and “Protestantism” as a pseudo tradition represented by Theosophy. Guénon stated that Blavatsky’s Theosophy had devolved into merely another Protestant sect very much in line with the “modernist” impulse to remain “scientific” and in tune with outward human progress. To Guénon, there is no room in traditional metaphysics, or in the Primordial Tradition that Theosophy claimed to represent, for evolutionary spirituality and progressive revelation, much less for political posturing, all of which add to the quantification and splintering of human experience. The purpose of his book can be summed up in his words from a final chapter before his conclusion, “The Political Role of the Theosophical Society”:

It goes without saying that if for us the duplicity of the heads of the Theosophical movement is not without doubt, the good faith of most of those who follow them, especially those who are not English nationals, is not in question; in all circles of this kind one must distinguish between the charlatans and their dupes, and though one has only contempt for the former, one must pity the latter (who form the great mass) and try to enlighten them if there is still time and if their blindness is not irremediable. (284)

For a fine presentation of the Primordial Tradition as envisioned by Guénon and his peers, read Journey’s East by Harry Oldmeadow (2004), an Australian professor and philosopher.[6]

[1] Robin Waterfield. René Guénon and the Future of the West: The Life and Writings of a 20th Century Metaphysician (Great Britain: Crucible/The Aquarian Press, 1987), 25.

[2] http://www.cis-ca.org/voices/g/guenon-mn.htm

[3] http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/lings02.htm (Dr. Martin Lings taught for many years at the University of Cairo before becoming Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the British Library).

[4] René Guénon. Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, 107–08.

[5] http://www.blavatsky.net/theosophy/mahatmas/mahatma-links.htm

[6] Harry Oldmeadow. Journeys East: Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Oldmeadow for more on Oldmeadow.)