The Symbolism of the Cross

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The Symbolism of the Cross is a book by René Guénon. It is a book "dedicated to the venerated memory of Esh-Sheikh Abder-Rahman Elish El-Kebir". Its goal, as Guénon states it, "is to explain a symbol that is common to almost all traditions, a fact that would seem to indicate its direct attachment to the great primordial tradition". To alleviate the hurdles bound to the interpretations of a symbol belonging to different traditions, Guénon distinguishes synthesis from syncretism: syncretism consists in assembling from the outside a number of more or less incongruous elements which, when so regarded, can never be truly unified. Syncretism is something outward: the elements taken from any of its quarters and put together in this way can never amount to anything more than borrowings that are effectively incapable of being integrated into a doctrine "worthy of that name". To apply these criteria to the present context of the symbolism of the cross:

syncretism can be recognized wherever one finds elements borrowed from different traditional forms and assembled together without any awareness that there is only one single doctrine of which these forms are so many different expressions or so many adaptations related to particular conditions related to given circumstances of time and place.

A notable example of syncretism can be found, according to Guénon, in the "doctrines" and symbols of the Theosophical society. Synthesis on the other hand is carried essentially from within, by which it properly consists in envisaging things in the unity of their principle. Synthesis will exist when one starts from unity itself and never loses sight of it throughout the multiplicity of its manifestations; this moreover implies the ability to see beyond forms and an awareness of the principal truth. Given such awareness, one is at liberty to make use of one or another of those forms, something that certain traditions symbolically denote as "the gift of tongues". The concordance between all traditional forms may be said to represent genuine "synonymies". In particular, René Guénon writes that the cross is a symbol that in its various forms is met with almost everywhere, and from the most remotes times. It is therefore far from belonging peculiarly to the Christian tradition, and the cross, like any other traditional symbol, can be regarded according to manifold senses.

Far from being an absolute and complete unity in himself, the individual in reality constitutes but a relative and fragmentary unity. The multiplicity of the states of the being, "which is a fundamental metaphysical truth", implies the effective realization of the being's multiple states and is related to the conception that various traditional doctrines, including Islamic esoterism, denote by the term 'Universal Man': in Arabic al-Insân-al-kâmil is at the same time 'Primordial man' (al-Insân-al-qâdim); it is the Adam Qadmon of the Hebrew Kabbalah; it is also the 'King' (Wang) of the Far-Eastern tradition (Tao Te King chap. 25). The conception of the 'Universal Man' establishes a constitutive analogy between universal manifestation and its individual human modality, or, to use the language of Western Hermeticism, between the 'macrocosm' and the 'microcosm'.

From these considerations, the geometrical symbolism of the cross, in its most universal signification, can be contemplated: most traditional doctrines symbolize the realization of 'Universal Man' by a sign that is everywhere the same because, according to Guénon, it is one of those directly attached to the primordial tradition. That sign is the sign of the cross, which very clearly represents the manner of achievement of this realization by the perfect communion of all states of the being, harmoniously and conformably ranked, in integral expansion, in the double sense of "amplitude" and "exaltation". In fact, this double expansion of the being may be regarded as taking place horizontally on the one hand, that is, at a certain level or degree of existence, and vertically at the other, that is, in the hierarchical superimposition of all the degrees. Thus, the horizontal direction represents "amplitude", or integral extension of the individuality taken as basis for realization, and the vertical direction represents the hierarchy, likewise and a fortiori indefinite, of the multiples states. Furthermore, the symbol of the cross can also be considered in two basic ways, so-called horizontal and vertical, as it appears in the double consideration of a first cross obtained, in the ecliptic plane by joining the equinoctial and solstice points, and a second cross, orthogonal to the first, defined by the equator and the line going through the poles.

The tridimensional cross obtained that way is linked to the six directions of space and the centre of the cross, through a symbolism that appears notably in the Hebraic kabbalah in relation to the "mystery of unity", and also in Clement of Alexandria, and the Hindu doctrines as well. Then, the symbol of the cross may develop according to different points of view: "union of the complements", with the vertical line representing the active principle and the horizontal line the passive principle, hence establishing an application of the general consideration of Purusha-Prakriti; "resolution of the opposites", symbolized by the central point which corresponds to what Islamic esoterism calls the "Divine station", namely "that which combines contrasts and antinomies" (al-mâqam lillahi huwa mâqam ijtima 'al-diddâin): this station (mâqam), or degree of the being's effective realization, is attained by al-fanâ', that is, by the "extinction" of the ego in the return to the "primordial state"; such "extinction", writes René Guénon, even as regards the literal meaning of the term denoting it, is not without analogy to the Nirvâna of the Buddhist doctrine. Beyond al-fanâ', there is still fanâ al-fanâ', the "extinction of the extinction", which similarly corresponds to "Parinirvâna". In the Far-Eastern tradition, the central point is called the "Invariable Middle" (Ching-Yin) which is the place of perfect equilibrium, represented as the center of the 'cosmic wheel', and is also, at the same time, the point where the 'Activity of Heaven' is directly manifested. This center directs all things by its "actionless activity" (wei wu wei), which although unmanifested, or rather because it is unmanifested, is in reality the plenitude of activity, since it is the activity of the Principle whence all activities are derived; Guénon notes that this has been expressed by Lao Tzu as follows: "The Principle is always actionless, yet everything is done by It". This "Invariable Middle" is also the locus of "Peace in the void", corresponding to what Islamic esoterism calls the "Great Peace".

That 'peace' that dwells at the central point, brings to another symbolism, namely that of war, and a well-known example of that symbolism, writes René Guénon, is found in the Bhagavad-Gitâ. The same conception, writes René Guénon, is not specific to the Hindu doctrine, but is also found in the Islamic, for this is the real meaning of the 'holy war' (jihâd): "war represents a cosmic process whereby what is manifested is reintegrated into the principal unity; that is why, from the viewpoint of manifestation itself, this reintegration appears as a destruction, and this emerges very clearly from certain aspects of the symbolism of Shiva in the Hindu doctrine".[1] Another aspect of the symbolism of the cross identifies it with what various traditions identifies as "The tree in the Midst", one of the numerous symbols of the "World Axis". This tree stands at the center of the world, or rather of a world, that is a domain in which a state of existence, such as the human state, is developed. In the biblical symbolim, for example, the 'Tree of life', planted in the midst of the terrestrial paradise, represents the center of our world, and René Guénon studies its relationships with another biblical tree, the 'Tree of Knowledge of good and evil'. Besides, the horizontal cross is directly in relation with the "polar symbolism" of the swastika, "a truly universal symbol" which represents, particularly in India, the action of the Principle on the manifestation, and which is in no way related to "the artificial and even anti-traditional use of the swastika by the German 'racialists' who have given it the fantastic and somewhat ridiculous title of hakenkreuz or 'hanked cross' and quite arbitrarily made it a symbol of antisemitism".[2] Then René Guénon goes "as deeply as possible into the geometrical symbolism which applies equally both to the degrees of universal Existence and to the states of each being, that is, both from the 'macrocosmic' and the 'microcosmic'standpoint".

These considerations lead to an interpretation of the symbolism of the weaving: in sanskrit sûtra means "thread" and it is "a least curious to note that the Arabic word sûrat, which denotes the chapters of the Koran, is composed of exactly the same elements as the Sanskrit sûtra; this word has in addition the kindred sense of 'row' or 'line' and its derivation is unknown".[3] René Guénon then contemplates many aspects related to the geometrical representation of the states of the Being: the representation of the continuity of the modalities of one and the same state of the being, the relationship between point and space (a question related to the infinitesimals), the ontology of the burning bush in the old testament, the universal spherical vortex, the Far-Eastern symbol of the Yin-Yang, the tree and the serpent etc.


  1. ^ The Symbolism of the Cross, chapter 8, 'War and peace', p. 50.
  2. ^ The symbolism of the Cross, chapter 10, note 2. Note that these lines were written in 1931.
  3. ^ The symbolism of the Cross, chapter 14, note 1.