Traditionalist School

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The Traditionalist School was a group of 20th century thinkers concerned with what they considered to be the demise of traditional forms of knowledge, both aesthetic and spiritual, within Western society. The principal thinkers in this tradition are Rene Guenon and Ananda Coomaraswamy. Other important thinkers in this tradition include Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Jean-Louis Michon, Marco Pallis, Huston Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Frithjof Schuon, Jean Borella and Julius Evola.[1] A central concept of this school is that of the perennial philosophy based upon an ancient belief that all the world's great religions share the same origin (in a primordial principle of transcendent unity) and are, at root, based on the same metaphysical principles. These ideas are sometimes referred to in the Latin as philosophia perennis.


Traditionalist authors themselves have always had reservations about the use of the term "traditionalist". Frithjof Schuon discusses it in one of his books:

… "traditionalism"; like "esoterism" … has nothing pejorative about it in itself and one might even say that it is less open to argument and a far broader term, in any case, than the latter; in fact, however, … it has been associated with an idea which inevitably devalues its meaning, namely the idea of "nostalgia for the past" … If to recognize what is true and just is "nostalgia for the past," it is quite clearly a crime or a disgrace not to feel this nostalgia.[2]

A similar objection, coming from Guénon, is reported in an article by Renaud Fabbri:

It could be argued that Traditionalism and Perennialism are synonymous, "traditionalism"

being used mostly in France and Europe. However, Guénon himself dismissed the term of traditionalist because it implies in his view a kind of sentimental attachment to a tradition which, most of the time, has lost its metaphysical foundation.[3][4]

Coomaraswamy touches on these terms as he discusses Vedanta and an important Perennialist concept, that of metaphysics:

The metaphysical "philosophy" is called "perennial" because of its eternity, universality, and immutability; it is Augustine's "Wisdom uncreate, the same now as it ever was and ever will be"; the religion which, as he also says, only came to be called "Christianity" after the coming of Christ (…) and so long as the tradition is transmitted without deviation (…)[5]

Further down in the same essay he does not shun the use of "traditionalist": "…ultimate Truth is not, for the Vedantist, or for any traditionalist, a something that remains to be discovered, but a something that remains to be understood…"[6] Similarly, in his "Introduction"[7] to the Sacred Web Conference on "Tradition in the Modern World" Charles, Prince of Wales uses repeatedly the term traditionalist.[8]

Nowadays some traditional/perennialist authors appear to be more comfortable with the simpler designation of "traditional" and the use of the word "tradition", as evinced by the names of several organizations and publications related to these authors, viz. "The Foundation for Traditional Studies", Sacred Web: A Journal of Tradition & Modernity, Eye of the Heart: A Journal of Traditional Wisdom.

The word "tradition" has a special meaning for the Traditionalist school,[3] removed from the current meaning of folklore, but pointing instead to a profound understanding of the term.[9] "Integral Tradition" does not have a human origin, and consists of eternal principles of divine origin, calling man back to what Schuon called a "transcendent unity". Against the "modern error", Traditionalists propose a "Primordial Tradition", transmitted from the very origin of humanity and partially restored by each genuine founder of a new religion.

Traditionalism and religion[edit]

Although René Guenon envisaged in his first books and essays a restoration of traditional "intellectualité" in the West on the basis of Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry,[10] he gave up early on this idea of a spiritual resurrection of the West on a purely Christian basis. Having denounced the lure of Theosophy and neo-occultism in the form of Spiritism,[11] two influential movements that were flourishing in his lifetime, Guénon was initiated in 1912 in the Shadhili order and moved to Cairo in 1930 where he spent the rest of his life as a Sufi Muslim. To his many correspondents he clearly designated Sufism as a more accessible form of traditional initiation for Westerners eager to find what does not exist any more in the West: an initiatory path of knowledge (Jnana or Gnosis), comparable to Advaita.

One of the distinguishing features of Traditionalist authors is their insistence on the necessity for affiliation to one of the "normal traditions" or great ancient religions of the world.[12] Most Traditionalists, such as Guénon himself, found a way in Sufism and, accordingly, they embraced Islam,[13] but others, such as Marco Pallis, found a way in Buddhism, and some, such as James Cutsinger, belong to the Orthodox churches. The most influential representatives of this school in Northern Europe, viz. Kurt Almqvist, and Tage Lindbom, also embraced Sunni Islam. What is primarily crucial for the seeker is, as pointed out early by Guénon, the regular affiliation to an exoterism, i.e. the ordinary life of a believer: this would eventually open, for those qualified, the doors of initiation, i.e. access to the esoterism of that given religious form.[14] Naturally, through the work and influence of important traditionalist authors like, again, Guénon himself, who married and had children in Egypt, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Martin Lings, Gai Eaton and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, all closely related to native Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim believers, this perspective has been gaining ground in Asia and the Islamic world at large.[15]

It could be argued that Traditionalism has a strong, although discreet, impact in the field of comparative religion and particularly on the young Mircea Eliade, although he was not himself a member of this school. Contemporary scholars such as Huston Smith, William Chittick, Harry Oldmeadow, James Cutsinger and Seyyed Hossein Nasr have advocated Perennialism as an alternative to secularist approach to religious phenomena.


Critics of Traditionalism cite its popularity among the European Nouvelle Droite.[16] During the 1980s, scholars writing in English focused mostly on Julius Evola because of the use of his theories made by Italian far-right groups during 1970s turmoils. It was not until the 1990s that scholars writing in English began to publish on the wider phenomenon of Traditionalism. Controversy followed publication of Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World in 2004. Certain critics with traditionalist sympathies have published reviews which questioned the content and methodology of the book and the motives of its author, charging him with various personal motives, including being "a Euro-Atlantic spy" and having himself "not been allowed to enter an initiatory order with 'Traditionalist' connections".[17][18]

In his book Guénon ou le renversement des clartés, the French scholar Xavier Accart seriously calls into question the connection sometimes made between the Traditionalist school and the far right movements. He shows, for instance, that René Guenon was highly critical of Evola's political involvements and was worried about the possible confusion between his own ideas and Evola's. Guénon also clearly denounced the ideology of the fascist regimes in Europe before and during the Second World War. Xavier Accart finally claims that the assimilation of René Guénon with Julius Evola – and the confusion between Traditionalism and the New Right – can be traced back to Louis Pauwels and Bergier's Le matin des magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians) (1960).

Alain de Benoist, the founder of the Nouvelle Droite declared in 2013 that the influence of Guénon on his political school was very weak and that he does not consider him as a major author.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Renaud Fabbri argues that Evola should not be considered a member of the Perennialist School. See the section Julius Evola and the Perennialist School in Fabbri's Introduction to the Perennialist School
  2. ^ From the Divine to the Human, Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 1982, p.8. French original edition: Du Divin à l'humain, Paris: Le Courrier du Livre, 1981.
  3. ^ a b An Introduction to the Perennialist School.
  4. ^ Cf. The Problem with "isms" by the community of Saint Aidan Orthodox Church, Canada.
  5. ^ Coomaraswamy Selected Papers 2: Metaphysics, Roger Lipsey ed., Princeton University Press, 1977, vol. 2, p. 7.
  6. ^ Ibid., p. 22.
  7. ^ 23–24 September 2006, Edmonton, Alberta.
  8. ^ Sacred Web Conference–An Introduction.
  9. ^ Cf. Coomaraswamy, "The Nature of 'Folklore' and 'Popular' Art'", in Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, New York: Dover, 1956, p. 130. This chapter includes (p. 138-9) a lengthy quote by Guénon.
  10. ^ Cf. among others his Aperçus sur l'ésotérisme chrétien (Éditions Traditionnelles, Paris, 1954) and Études sur la Franc-maçonnerie et le Compagnonnage (2 vols, Éditions Traditionnelles, Paris, 1964-65) which include many of his articles for the Catholic journal Regnabit.
  11. ^ Cf. his Le Théosophisme, histoire d'une pseudo-religion, Paris, Nouvelle Librairie Nationale, 1921, and L'Erreur spirite, Paris, Marcel Rivière, 1923. Both books exist in English translation.
  12. ^ See Titus Burckhardt, "A Letter on Spiritual Method" in Mirror of the Intellect, Cambridge (UK), Quinta Essentia, 1987 (ISBN 0-946621-08-X), where a rather strict list is given.
  13. ^ See a candid personal account by Martin Lings: "How Did I Come to Put First Things First?", in A Return to the Spirit, Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2005 (ISBN 1-887752-74-9).
  14. ^ See René Guénon, Perspectives on Initiation (1946), New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001, 48.
  15. ^ Witness the works by Mahmoud Bina at the Isfahan University of Technology, the Malay scholar Osman Bakar, and the Ceylonese Ranjit Fernando. This is probably also related to the expansion of the Maryamiyya branch of the Shadhili Sufi order, as studied by Sedgwick, op. cit., always within the pale of Sunni Islam. Cf. also a review by Carl W. Ernst: "Traditionalism, the Perennial Philosophy, and Islamic Studies," Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, vol. 28, no. 2 (December 1994), pp. 176-81.
  16. ^ Davies, Peter; Derek Lynch (2004). The Routledge Companion to Fascism and the Far Right. Routledge. p. 322. ISBN 0-415-21494-7. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ A review of Sedgwick's book, by Michael Fitzgerald.
  19. ^ On radio courtoisie (20 May 2013), during the programme "le Libre Journal de la resistance française" presented by Emmanuel Ratier and Pascal Lassalle


Further reading[edit]

  • The Unanimous Tradition, Essays on the essential unity of all religions, by Joseph Epes Brown, Titus Burckhardt, Rama P. Coomaraswamy, Gai Eaton, Isaline B. Horner, Toshihiko Izutsu, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Lord Northbourne, Marco Pallis, Whitall N. Perry, Leo Schaya, Frithjof Schuon, Philip Sherrard, William Stoddart, Elémire Zolla, edited by Ranjit Fernando, Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 1991 ISBN 955-9028-01-4

External links[edit]