This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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1.2. Tradition and Its Basic Principles

What is meant by ‘tradition’

Catholic readers and, outside the Christian framework, readers who are familiar with the work of Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, or Ananda Coomaraswamy, will find this entire chapter tedious and can probably skip over it. For anyone else it will serve as a necessary primer on the term ‘tradition’ as used throughout this manual.

Etymologically, the term ‘tradition’ means simply ‘that which is transmitted’. For us, tradition refers to the content of a revelation in its earthly situation and historical elaboration. From this point of view, tradition is doctrine, but it is also more, since it encompasses the doctrine established at its point of origin as well as its authentic development throughout history. That is to say, when we refer to the Christian Tradition, we have in mind the doctrine bequeathed to the disciples directly by Christ (oral transmission) as well as the Scriptures established later in time (written transmission), as well as the dogmatic formulations proposed by the Magisterium from now until the end of the world (historical unfolding of the doctrine). A tradition is therefore a ‘living doctrine’ the life of which can be traced from the planting of its seed through its entire development.

From here we might ask if all religions are not traditional. The answer is, for the most part, yes. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are in fact all traditional religions. Yet the situation is more complex since, in almost all cases, there are revolutions and innovations that occur, resulting in the formation of a new ‘branch’. This new branch might remain connected to the original vine, thereby remaining ‘traditional’ and representing a valid expression of the possibilities contained in the original doctrine; or, on the other hand, the new outgrowth might (intentionally or unintentionally) separate itself completely from the established religion, at which point it might retain the name but, having reinvented or re-interpreted the doctrine, or having introduced novelties into it, it can no longer be called ‘traditional’ since it has departed from the authentic line of transmission.

Examples of both cases are readily available in Christianity. First, the disagreement that resulted in the Great Schism of the 11th century, dividing the Eastern Orthodox from the Roman Catholic, was not deep enough to render either party ‘unorthodox’, and that is why there is an acknowledged communion between the two, despite their division. The Protestant Reformation was a very different case, and represents the second possibility. Being the product of a reforming impulse that was in some sense legitimate but ultimately destructive and revolutionary, the Reformation produced a fragmented collection of new churches, each with their own doctrinal innovations, all of them unified by sentiments that were decisively anti-traditional.

This is no exaggeration and, in saying this, we are merely taking the representatives of Protestantism at their word, since Protestant writers, as a general rule, explicitly condemn ‘tradition’, a term which, for them, has a meaning very different from the Catholic usage. ‘Scripture alone’ is adopted as the single guide to truth and is then used as a foil to discredit any theology that cannot be easily proof-texted. From the traditional point of view, the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ amounts to sawing off the branch that one is sitting on. Without the living components of a traditional framework (such as the teaching authority that is the Magisterium) scripture becomes a mirror reflecting the best and worst of the well-intentioned interpreter’s imagination; the individual then finds himself adrift in a sea of words taken from a language he does not speak and from a time he does not know that speak to him of ideas he is almost certainly not equipped to untangle.

We will address the issue of oral and written transmission shortly, but here we’ll simply say that for a traditionalist, scripture is tradition, or one of its ‘modes’ of transmission, as valid as all others, but never absolutized. In Catholicism the error of ‘Bibolatry’ is naturally excluded.

To return to the main point, when we reference tradition, we are not dealing with profane theories, human inventions, personal preferences, or cultural idiosyncrasies, but with transcendent knowledge. When we refer to a ‘traditional civilization’, we mean any civilization that is animated by a revealed doctrine so thoroughly that the institutions, arts, economy, and daily life of that civilization revolve around that same transcendent center, and this center acts as the principle that guides and informs every peripheral activity, however worldly, like the hub of a great wheel, so that social life is ‘baptized’ such that every task becomes kind of ritual or prayer of religious participation.

Now it should be obvious why, in traditional civilizations, the established religion seems to sit at the top of the social hierarchy. This is logical and in fact necessary, since it is the role of the religious authority to maintain, develop, and diffuse principial knowledge throughout society.

The traditional-modern distinction, its use, and its limits

We spend a great deal of time discussing the opposition between what we will call the ‘Traditional World’ and the ‘Modern World.’

Because of this emphasis, it needs to be said here at the beginning that this is primarily a didactic and rhetorical device, adopted because helpful to illustrate certain points. We do not wish to define ourselves by this opposition, nor is it even necessary in order to say what we have to say.  Nonetheless, because our readers are ‘modern’ it helpful to describe that ‘world’ and to circumscribe its limits, meeting them where they are, and then lead them in the direction we wish to go by setting up an alternative. This requires the establishment of an opposition for the simple reason that they first must be shown that there is somewhere else that they can go, since as things stand, most modern people operate on the assumption that their way of thinking is the only possible way, and that all else is irrationality or barbarism.

We make the modern world our ‘opponent’ but must not allow this opponent to become our center of gravity, with the result being that we would have nothing to offer but criticism. To proceed in such a way is self-defeating since it means that we depend on the opposition in order to say anything. In other words, we have nothing positive to say, and no center of gravity within ourselves.

This is the problem one sees with Protestantism in general, and which is implied in the term ‘Protestant’ itself. Without Catholicism to set itself against, Protestantism would have no sermons to preach and no doctrines to teach, since things like ‘sola scriptura’ (scripture alone) and ‘sola fide’ (faith alone) only make sense if you are staring at the Catholic Church and trying to distinguish yourself from the pre-existing doctrines of that tradition. Anytime you allow this to happen, you become dry-docked, attached to your opposition and defined by it, and in that sense you are, ironically, dependent for your identity on that which you reject.

So again, we do not really wish to define ourselves as anti-modern, which would make us nothing more than a simple ‘reactionary’—a term we embrace somewhat, provided it is understood as a secondary label and in a certain relationship, but not as a basis for everything else. On the contrary, we stand for certain positive principles that existed before the advent of the modern world, principles that without doubt equip us to build a view of the world and an approach to life that can stand on its own two feet. But since we are situated in the modern world and live among people who think according to the modern vocabulary, it is necessary to frame the discussion as an opposition between the modern world and something else. This ‘something else’ is what we call the traditional world, or, when speaking of doctrine specifically, we call simply tradition. This positive ground is our true foundation and our center of gravity. It is the same foundation that was taken for granted by all preceding civilizations aside from the modern West, and that is why we refer to them as ‘traditional civilizations,’ speaking also of ‘traditional religions’ and ‘traditional peoples.’ In each case, we have in mind a type that is very easy to contrast with its modern version.

Tradition and convention

We have defined tradition, but some additional distinctions will be helpful.

In contemporary parlance, the term tradition has become a pejorative term. It usually refers to any procedure or method or activity that was put in place because it ‘worked,’ or because it made sense to someone at some time and has continued for no other reason than that ‘we’ve always done it this way’. In other words, tradition means for modern people the mindless repetition of something that probably doesn’t have any reason for existing aside from habit or practicality. This usage confuses tradition with something of a different order, which is more appropriately called convention.

Conventions are arbitrary in design and utilitarian in nature. They serve some decided end and are acknowledged as legitimate only insofar as they continue to serve that end. A modern programming language, for example, follows a set of conventions, and these conventions are only valid within that context and can very quickly become superseded by new conventions that are better at achieving the ends the programmers set for themselves.

Likewise, certain behaviors or social practices can be considered conventions because they also were ‘invented’ either by accident or with purposeful consideration only in order to achieve a particular goal within a particular context and are subject to change if the context changes or if a more effective convention is discovered. What we call ‘manners’ are a particular type of convention and, as we all know, are binding only to a certain degree, and can even become silly and harmful if over-emphasized.

A convention, then, is a thing that is arbitrary (anyone can invent one), expendable (can be discarded at a moments notice), and relative (might make sense here and now but may not make sense tomorrow or for someone else).

Given the fact that tradition is often used as a synonym for convention, we can understand the outright disdain shown by many people toward so-called ‘religious traditions’ because these, it is assumed, are simply man-made procedures that ought to have died out long ago. In other words, to the modern mind, traditions are conventions that stubbornly refuse to go away, and, moreover, a society or religion or cultural group that labels itself as ‘traditional’ is essential labeling itself as one characterized by backwardness and a tendency to resist growth and development, clinging to obsolete habits, doing nothing more than ‘holding people back’ or poisoning the progress of religious life or of civilization as a whole with discredited habits or ideas.

In sum, although in contemporary English it is common to refer negatively to tradition, it would be more correct, based on what is usually meant, to speak of convention, which is something of an entirely different order.

Principles and preferences

Tradition is an aggregate of principles, and if we had to summarize problem of the modern world in a single sentence, we could say that the modern world has no principles and, in the absence of principles, has established itself on the basis of preferences.

Everything else follows naturally from this, and one of the primary purposes of this manual is to acquaint the reader with actual principles, and not merely principles of the social order, but primarily of the metaphysical order, since metaphysical principles alone are supreme, and if properly grasped they are capable of giving order to everything else, and are in fact the only thing that can do this.

That is to say, he who comprehends the metaphysical will be capable of comprehending the political and of passing judgement on its applications, since the higher comprehends the lower.

If this all sounds strange, it can only be because the prevailing modern view maintains a confused idea of what principles are. Principles are the result of a knowledge of reality. They are given, not invented or chosen.

Preferences, on the other hand, will always be somewhat arbitrary and may or may not have anything to do with reality or objective truth.

In the modern world we think that ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ are principles, but obviously these are merely preferences of a certain order, or rather they are pseudo-principles based on a predisposition.

Principles in the true sense are more like ‘facts’ about the nature of reality—the total reality, metaphysical as well as physical, and with regard to man this includes his bodily, psychic, and spiritual dimensions: body, mind, and spirit.

To illustrate the point with a simple example, we can say that hierarchy is a principle, while equality is a preference that not only ignores the principle but outright denies it. Hierarchy is an aspect of reality that is fundamental to the structure of everything we know, regardless of which order we are discussing—physical, psychic, spiritual; terrestrial or celestial—whether the Kingdom of God or the world of man, hierarchy is the rule. Equality exists only in the mind and in the Declaration of Independence.

The centrifugal force of becoming

Anything established within the material order is immediately subject to decay and dispersion, which are the governing conditions of becoming. The order of becoming exerts a force that can be called centrifugal, and this on every level, whether psychological or physical. This is why societies detached from a transcendent, unifying center tend to become focused on the material order, pursuing ends that are ‘practical’ (the creation of wealth, for example) instead of moral or religious. As they give themselves over to this unconscious materialism they become more subject to its laws; as a result, they become expansive or ‘imperialistic’ and they begin to grope and stretch themselves across the globe, as if the way to peace were to break away and flee from themselves, slave to an urge they cannot even identify, forced to invent ridiculous justifications for this impulse. All colonialism is a manifestation of it. They then boast of great ‘discoveries’ that resulted from their materialism, and they claim responsibility for improving the human condition all over the globe via their courageous feats of ‘exploration’, but they gain nothing thereby, not in the realm of pure knowledge and certainly not in terms of scratching the itch that drive them into this frenzy. They only become more disturbed and more restless. Unable to imagine any alternative way of being, they constantly redouble their efforts. Without something to counterbalance this urge toward horizontal (worldly) dispersion, which is truly a ‘will to death,’ the civilization in question grows like a cancer until it exhausts its own vitality and resources, at which point it withers and is consumed by an external power.

The centripetal force of tradition

Civilizations established on a traditional basis are subject to the conditions of becoming, as all are, but by virtue of the spiritual center around which they revolve, they are imbued with a unifying and ‘regenerating’ force. This is why they seem to cling to their way of life so obstinately. Their stubbornness is most pronounced when it comes to technological development, which can easily displace and outpace moral and spiritual considerations, at the same time accelerating social change in ways that are always extremely difficult to foresee, much less control. They are not wrong in this, and after all the law of unintended consequences teaches us that intervention in any complex system produces a chain reaction of consequences, of which the unintended will always outnumber the intended.

Traditional societies sense this peril and only proceed with great caution. In this way a precarious equilibrium is maintained between two tendencies that are always at work. First, there is the inevitable tendency toward dispersion, which leads them to live and procreate, to perfect themselves through earthly and productive vocations, to produce art, and to grow patiently in practical knowledge. But over and above this force is the ‘magnetic’ force of tradition which, in addition to revitalizing the culture and instilling order in the face of the encroaching chaos, can render the tendency toward dispersion healthy, or if not healthy, at least relatively benign. At any rate, the forces of becoming are kept in check ‘from above’, and never allowed to predominate. This is why Eastern civilization was, until recently, characterized by a degree of cultural stability, and by a persistent order of life. It is why ‘nations’ do not appear, since nations are a sign of fractured unity and alienation. The centrality of the transcendent principles of the tradition penetrate all of life and hover above it, and this creates a focus ‘upward and inward’ rather than ‘downward and outward.’ This is the only explanation for the apparent ‘immortality’ of civilizations like India and China. It is why they appear so old that we cannot even determine their age, as compared to the West which even now, still in its ‘youth’, seems on the verge of destroying itself in some nuclear, environmental, or cultural catastrophe.

Principles are causes

Principles are the causes of the things. The principles of the created order, for example, are what predetermine its structure. That is why we say that creation is a reflection of the mind of God: God is the principle of his creation and so the nature of creation is determined by the nature of God. Thus, on the human level, knowledge of principles permits us to act in accordance with the laws of reality and guides all of our plans and programs. Without principles to guide us, our efforts will inevitably fly in the face of the truth. Knowledge of principles provides a superstructure within which we are permitted to construct, and without which all of our projects are doomed from the start. When a civilization rejects or forgets true principles, destruction or perversion or disorder must follow. This does not necessarily involve poverty and suffering within the social order. Depending on where and how the ‘absence of principle’ is most pronounced, the disease will express itself differently. For example, on the individual level, a man without principles might actually prosper and become very wealthy, while on the inside he is barely human. On the collective level, a civilization can sacrifice its own soul while prospering materially. Such is the case with the modern world at present. Principles, then, are at the heart of our discussion here, which implies the study of doctrine, since doctrine is nothing other than the knowledge of principles, knowledge of the Principle; and our study had to begin with a proper understanding of our terms, tradition in particular. As will become abundantly clear, any civilization that is not established on the basis of tradition will ‘lack principle,’ and therefore direction, and therefore order, and will do violence to itself and to others that fall under its influence, floundering as it must in its own ignorance

Written and oral transmission

In the West, tradition is sometimes used in a limited way to refer specifically to orally transmitted doctrine, as opposed to the scriptures or other written forms of transmission. As we mentioned already, to differentiate themselves from Catholics, Protestant groups will say that they accept ‘scripture but not tradition,’ meaning that they reject whatever doctrine they cannot find explicitly stated in the Bible. Ignoring all the obvious difficulties and contradictions inherent in such a position, we only wish to say for now that this notion of tradition is not valid. We already noted that, etymologically, tradition simply means ‘that which is transmitted,’ and for us, as for the Catholic Church and indeed all Eastern civilizations, the idea of tradition embraces both written and oral forms of transmission. The attempts of Protestants to prefer one form over the other would not be taken seriously by any traditional organization, because the distinction in question is artificial. Moreover, because most doctrines are orally transmitted first and placed in written form later, scripture is in a sense the ‘product’ or ‘crystallization’ of a pre-existing oral tradition without which it could not have come into being. In other words, oral transmission typically precedes written transmission. For this reason, if we were going to place them in a hierarchy, we would have to say that oral transmission has a kind of primacy, and was the only mode utilized by the founder of Christianity Himself, although again we should not insist on this point as if we wished to present one as more legitimate than the other, which inevitably pits them against each other, something we have no intention of doing. It is only an observation about the historical and logical order of things.

The attempts of Protestants to deny the legitimacy of oral transmission should be taken as an expression of the underlying egalitarian individualism of the Reformation, which, like the modern world in general, insists on reducing everything to its simplest form, rejecting all that is subtle, all that requires submission to an authority, all that is of a ‘supra-individual’ character, and only accepting what can be seen, touched, and easily grasped by the general population. Everything must be made ‘democratic’, regardless of what is destroyed in the process. This inability to appreciate the supra-individual nature of the Christian Church is also apparent in the demand that each book of the Bible be attached to a single author, even when it is clear that the scripture in question was not ‘authored’ by anyone in particular.

Traditional and Western civilization

We hesitate to separate tradition from the concept of civilization, because in the case of traditional civilizations, the two terms are synonymous. What we mean is simply that for a civilization like that of the Hindus, the entire way of life, from the structure of the family, to the sciences, to the laws themselves, are simply adaptations of transcendent knowledge contained in the tradition. Civilization is in every way an ‘expression’ or a development of the tradition, and all is attached to that point as the spokes of a wheel are attached to a hub. Everything has its ‘principle’ in the doctrine and is but a secondary application of it. However, this is only the case with traditional civilizations.

When we move to the West, particularly after the period of the Middle Ages, we see a stark contrast. In the United States, for example, there is no authoritative doctrinal center to act as the organizing principle of American civilization lending order, form, and unity to all its various parts. On the contrary, Western civilization in general has, willfully and without reservation, divorced itself from ‘the oppression of tradition’ by means of very meticulous anti-traditional processes.

The revolutionary period could be described as a far-reaching act of ‘shrugging off’ the last vestiges of tradition in Europe; and with the Declaration of Independence in America, we saw the first ‘nation’ built entirely upon anti-traditional principles. For post-revolutionary Europe and America, social institutions are, by design, unable to be influenced by any superior, unifying principle and instead are seen as ‘autonomous.’

Law itself comes to be seen merely as an expression of the ‘will of the people’; work life ceases to be a ‘vocation’ with religious undertones, and instead becomes merely a way of ‘making a living’, in other words pure toil. The sciences have likewise staked out their own independent spheres where they develop themselves chaotically without reference to any traditional metaphysic, denying their dependence on anything but their own theories, which they draw from their observations of matter, which is to say, from below, rather than from above.

Nothing in the West is required to justify itself with reference to a superior principle. Rather, everything is left to the manipulations of the scientists and the ‘freedom of individuals.’ Social development is determined by either materialism or anarchy. That is why it should be remarked that only in the West can we speak of ‘civilization’ as something separate from ‘tradition,’ since only here do they present themselves as almost entirely distinct.

It is, perhaps, no accident that it was Western civilization that brought the term civilization into being, which it would then use as a kind of ‘patent’ granted by itself to itself as a way setting itself over any culture that does not mirror its values. ‘We are civilization. They are unlike us. They are un-civilized.’ For our purposes, however, and due to the familiarity of the term, we will refer to both Eastern and Western groups as ‘civilizations,’ acknowledging that in the East, life is characterized by the presence (even if fragmentary) of tradition, while in the West, life is characterized by its conspicuous absence.

Tradition as the principle of a rightly-ordered civilization

Summarizing what has been said, then, we can identify tradition as a body of transcendent knowledge that acts as the principle of a given civilization, gives it direction, and preserves its order. All sciences, trades, and institutions are then merely secondary applications of the knowledge contained in the tradition, which is of a transcendent nature and therefore capable of lending itself to so many diverse adaptations.

Vestiges of tradition in the West

The West, although nominally disowning its traditional ties, has retained residues of the Christian civilization that gave birth to it and to which it was loyal throughout the Middle Ages. Some of these institutional ‘residues’ are not strictly religious, being natural to some extent, but it was the framework of Christianity that supported them and granted them legitimacy, and in the aftermath of the Enlightenment they have either deteriorated completely or were permitted to remain only as anachronisms that no longer have the ‘vitalizing’ support of tradition to maintain and develop them.

The institution of ‘the family’ is one such example, and is now, in the West, nothing but a kind of ‘superstition’ that is slowly dissolving in the acid philosophy of individualistic Liberalism. This is becoming more clear to Westerners at the present time as the structure of the family, including the basic definition of marriage, is intentionally dismantled or neutralized. Laws built up over millennia in support of the ‘natural family’ are called into question, construed as irrational, bigoted, or sexist in the face of modern ideals. Even those who want to save the family cannot protect it because in most cases (and unbeknownst to themselves) they too adhere to the tenets of modernism and so they undermine with one hand what they would save with the other. The only context in which the family made sense has been rooted out.

We do feel the need to append a clarifying note here in order to avoid giving the impression that we deny the validity of ‘civil marriage’ that does not attach itself to a religious structure. Our position is the Catholic one, which is that a marriage need not be ‘religious’ in order to be valid. There is such a thing as civil marriage since, in the eyes of Catholicism, marriage is a natural institution, and so marriage can be contracted without the approval or intervention of the church. We only wish to highlight the fact that the nobleness of the family is only apprehended by an authentic religious anthropology, such as that which is offered by Catholicism. Religion plays for society the role of ‘expert in humanity’ and is the only authority capable of safeguarding the more subtle truths about man. Thus, to return to what we said above, it should be clear that the traditional framework preserves truth in general, and therefore the profound nature and importance of marriage, and on the ground the family is defended from dissolution. Without this defense, marriage and the family, natural as they are, are easily destroyed in the face of any ideology not inclined to acknowledge the providential character of the natural law.

The problem with contrasting East and West

It may seem unfair or arbitrary to characterize the West as a monstrous aberration while suggesting that Eastern civilizations are more ‘normal’, constituted as they still are around an authentic tradition. The truth is that the West was not always what it is now, and for centuries it was loyal to Christianity, and the traditional principles we might see in Eastern civilizations were by and large identical (in principle, if not in application) to those which animated medieval Europe. The West was not born a perversion but became one through very distinct processes that we will discuss in detail elsewhere. We do not criticize the West for what it is in itself, but for what it has become, for its betrayal of certain truths without which man cannot become a fully developed spiritual being.

We should also admit openly that caution is necessary when it comes to idealizing the East. Indeed, it would be silly to put Eastern civilizations on a pedestal as if we wished to imitate them as they stand. The East seems to be following the trail blazed by Europe in the last few centuries. It did display some initial resistance to the disease and in some cases put up an impressive fight, but ultimately the delay seems to have only made the transition uglier once it finally succumbed. We must grant that the East, like the West, is capable of betraying its truth. Therefore, we use the East as a positive example strictly from the point of view of whatever remnants of the traditional framework are still operative, and only insofar as it has not given itself over completely to modernism.

A time may come very soon when we will have no positive point of comparison at all, and we will perhaps be forced to speak not of ‘East vs. West’ but of the world as it stands vs. a properly constituted civilization of which no example remains to be found.

A vitalizing knowledge

We have carefully distinguished between tradition and convention, but another clarification might be helpful.

Some writers appreciate the traditional doctrine but then go on to insist that, although it contains profound truth, this truth is obscured today so that no one understands it. Tradition is respected, but only as something forgotten, even by those who practice and maintain it. It comes to be seen as knowledge poured out long ago and now doomed to become an incomprehensible collection of odd statements that even believers must accept ‘on faith’ or as ‘articles of belief’, and not as something actually comprehended by anyone.

This view, promoted by Rene Guenon with respect to Christianity, must be discarded as untenable in the face of the evidence, and although we hate to use weak comparisons, we could say that for a living tradition it is as if the ‘inspiration’ that led to the writing of the scriptures never subsided and is maintained perpetually through a real apprehension of the ‘living doctrine’ thanks to the religious authority whose role is to preserve this knowledge.

Such would be the view of a Hindu or Buddhist, although in the Western world it is perhaps only the Catholics who can grasp this, since they have retained the notion of a living, supra-individual, perpetually unfolding doctrine, preserved by a priestly class for the benefit of all. Moreover, the horror displayed by Protestants at the idea of ‘developments’ in doctrine is evidence of their incomprehension of a tradition that is alive but invisible, preferring instead their English-language scriptures, which are visible but long-since deceased. In a way, we could also say that for Protestants, the Bible itself is a ‘superstition,’ since without the living tradition to authorize it and preserve its meaning, it becomes merely words on paper, a grimoire for the untrained to interpret and invoke at random.

Traditional principles

Fidelity to certain immutable principles is what gives a transcendent unity to the traditional religions of the world, in spite of their material contrasts. They are so many variations on the same theme.

We should not be surprised at their diversity because the possible social applications contained in these principles are virtually endless, which does not mean that all are valid, but only that we should be careful to distinguish between cultural expression, which varies widely because it is a product of the human type that produces it, and the underlying principles that guide this expression. The principles are everywhere the same, and they provide the context and limits in which human expression can flourish. Thus, we never condemn this or that cultural idiosyncrasy: we condemn only the wonton betrayal of a transcendent principle. And what are these principles? The list could be formulated in a number of ways, but to name a few, we could say: transcendence, truth, order, hierarchy, and unity.

We will comment on each of these and hopefully it will become clear why traditional civilizations displayed a fidelity to each, even in the face of human variation, while the modern world has taken great pains to abandon them. We will also add that, in spite of all the contemporary rhetoric about equality, personality, and human dignity, it is the modern world that seems unable to accept the stark differences in human types, and attempts to force all the world into one mold, whether that mold is economic, political, education, etc.


Civilizations of a traditional character are ordered to the realm of transcendence. Their gaze is inward, toward the center, and upward, toward the heavens. Every institution within them has a higher justification for existing or else it is not allowed to exist. This is because man’s desired end is seen as existing above or beyond the purely physical plane. Usually this element can be seen most easily through the presence of a colorful and complex mythology, which we find in Buddhism and Hinduism, although this is not always the case. We can add that the presence of the transcendent principle does not necessarily imply a “religious” institution within the society. For example, ancient China (Taoism) and India (Hinduism) are both excellent examples of traditional civilizations, but their structure was not “religious” in the sense that we usually understand the word. There was no “church” or “theology,” only a body of doctrine taken as spiritual knowledge, and this knowledge was superior to all else. Anything that subverted, ignored, or impeded man’s pursuit of the transcendent principle was considered harmful and was eliminated from society as much as possible.

To frame the question using philosophical terminology from the Greek and Roman Catholic tradition, we can say that society must be ordered to man’s ‘final end’ and not simply his earthly happiness. Any political or social philosophy that does not first and foremost acknowledge the afterlife cannot properly account for man’s earthly well-being. The same goes for any area of knowledge, and not just politics.

The modern mentality looks not inward/upward but downward/outward. It is said, for example, that economics should concern itself with material wealth and not let any ‘ideals’ or ‘religious beliefs’ interfere with economic policy. This is a profoundly anti-traditional attitude, since it severs man’s ‘daily life’ from his spiritual life and converts what was once his ‘vocation’ into a series of mostly interchangeable career opportunities. What might have helped him become fully human now becomes a hindrance, since in the modern context his spiritual development must be sought during his ‘personal time’, which might not amount to any time at all. Likewise, the idea that the physical sciences have hierarchical dependence on philosophy, not to mention theology, and that scientists should be free to work out their own laws and theories based purely on observation of matter–all of this betrays a reversal of the traditional view and results in a perverse anthropology. Truth is here derived ‘from below’, always from the lower orders of things, instead of being sought via the ‘lights’ of transcendent knowledge.


A traditional civilization does not question the existence of an objective truth. Nonetheless, this concept of truth warrants further explanation because it cannot be stressed enough that the traditional doctrine is supra-rational and supra-individual. This truth is not something postulated, discovered, or rationally formulated by man. It is ‘given’ via Revelation, and to know the truth is to know something about the divine. Obviously these truths, always taken for granted, are very much unlike the rational ‘truths’ offered by a modern education, with the ‘truth’ of the latter envisioned as something always and everywhere tentative, subject to change, and verifiable by experimentation. In other words, the truth that is the comfort of traditional man has almost nothing in common with the ‘positive’ truths of experimental science. Traditional truth is a matter of doctrine about man, creation, and Creator, apprehended by direct intellection, a mode of ‘knowing’ which can be imagined as something akin to “intuition,” even though that term itself falls somewhat short.


“In the beginning…” So says the book of Genesis. And indeed, always in Traditional myth the world begins when the Divine Will brings order out of chaos. Paradise was the moment of supreme ordering against disorder, and so it is clear that order and perfection are closely linked. The Garden of Eden was a reflection of this, and all that followed was a descent into disorder, and it is precisely this gradual ‘descent’ back into primordial disorder that will result in the Apocalypse. Given their awareness of this cosmic trajectory, it should be obvious why traditional peoples tend to guard against all forms of anarchy. We will return to this point below, but in anticipation we can say that this love of order is one of the primary reasons why traditional peoples do not show the same enthusiasm for ‘freedom’ that we might expect. Freedom, if not very carefully qualified and placed within strict limits, is merely chaos; and a political order that takes freedom as its guiding principle is implicitly inviting disorder, even ‘helping it along’. Even if there are merits in a healthy appreciation for personal freedom, it should not be too difficult to see why a society that envisions history as a descent from Edenic order to an inevitable cataclysmic disorder might be suspicious of any philosophy that places a disproportionate (we might even say excess) emphasis on freedom.


Once we admit that there is such a thing as an order of reality that transcends our own, we have admitted the necessity of a vertical ordering to things, and to say vertical ordering is to say hierarchy. Therefore, anyone who believes in heaven already believes in hierarchy. Every domain in our reality exhibits this hierarchical principle, including life itself. This includes human life whether we have in mind its beginning, when the infant is hierarchically dependent and therefore subordinate to the parents, or its end, when a parent descends into senility and frailty and the subordination is reversed so that the child cares for the parent. To deny this is to deny nature. All of the institutions, laws, and customs we see in traditional civilizations involve respect for the principle of hierarchy, and social life especially, which is why every traditional civilization developed for itself some form of the caste system. On the other hand, a materialistic civilization that has no interest in transcendence and instead sees religious belief as a kind of backward slavery to imaginary beings would find it easy to imagine a more egalitarian order. Such a world would ignore the concepts of ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ and would fixate on quantitative distinctions rather than qualitative. All of this will be discussed at length in a more appropriate place.


If God is the single source of all things, then all things find their ultimate source in a unity. The higher we rise toward God, the more unified and harmonized all things will come to be for us. This is not purely theoretical but is the actual experience of all sages throughout history: East or West, the general ‘insight’ of the sage is that my neighbor is not altogether separate from myself, that ‘we are all one body’ and that, on the basis of this underlying unity, I ought to love my neighbor as myself, and God above all, since He is the highest form of that unity. This is also the promise of all Gospels. In the end, that which was fractured will be made whole, so to speak, not in the sense that everything must collapse into God and cease to exist, but rather in the sense that any separation, disharmony, and alienation will cease to exist and everything begins to fall into its rightful place. This is why the traditional understanding of knowledge was symbolized by the “Great Wheel” with God at the center. The center point of any wheel has nothing within it, and is therefore an excellent representation of the invisible transcendent principle at the center of all knowledge. The spokes stretching outward toward the circumference then pass through varies “layers” of knowledge away from their source and seem further and further apart as they touch the actual edge of the wheel. Lacking an awareness of the center which unifies, it is understandable that the sciences of the modern world would be able to imagine themselves as separate compartments that may or may not intersect. Yet again, as one moves toward the center of the wheel, all knowledge is drawn closer together and ‘merged’ so that we eventually cannot help becoming aware that even those subjects which seem unrelated are in fact separate elements of a great unity. Thus, the traditional view of knowledge holds the subtle spiritual truths as central and higher than all else, and knowledge that is inferior and purely rational has its place further from the center. Here we should note that unity and hierarchy are two sides of the same coin. Unity based on equality is a fiction. No family, no business, no church, no cathedral could be built of all of the constituent parts were kept strictly speaking ‘equal’.

Truth is not the invention of the formulator

When philosophers espouse through their systems ideas that are true, they are not inventing anything, but merely giving unique expression to what has always been the case, and which was probably already known, even if it had been forgotten or was otherwise formulated in previous instances. Each scientific discovery is a process of our becoming aware of that which has always been there. We receive truth but we do not create it. That is to say, it is only error which is the property of individuals, and when some idea appears to be entirely novel it is almost certain that he who expresses it is largely, if not entirely, mistaken. “There is nothing new under the sun.” All of creation is a book that we are invited to read, and our role is to remain loyal to its contents as we come to understand them. Originality is usually just shoddy plagiarism, receiving attention only because it presents itself as an imitation of the truth, in proportion to the truth that it retains. This is the nature of heresy, for heresy is said to survive only due to the truth it retains, and often a small fragment of truth is capable of giving astoundingly long life to the most egregious of philosophical mistakes.

What is necessary in order to understand doctrine

The first thing to be said about the study of any traditional doctrine is that, in order to understand it, it is necessary to undergo a kind of mental reformation in order to adapt oneself to the traditional context in which that doctrine is found. This is what Guenon understood with regard to the Hindu doctrines, and it is the whole purpose of his Introduction to that tradition, which many have observed is not so much about the Hindu doctrines as it is about the conceptual rearrangement necessary in order to begin to make sense of them. What is unfortunate is that Guenon did not see the necessity for the same kind of mental demolition and reconstruction in order to approach each and every religion so that it might speak to us on its own terms and in its own language. Had he seen this he might not have been led to dismiss Christianity out of hand.

Credo ut intelligam

The second requirement is belief in the message. This is epitomized by Augustine when he says, ‘I believe so that I may understand.” This maxim is of great consequence for the study of any Revelation, be it the Gospel of Christ or the Koran: faith unlocks the mysteries and one cannot proceed beyond a certain point without faith. The obvious implication here is that if one does not believe one will never understand. If one does not approach Hinduism or any other faith on the assumption that what it says about itself is true, then one will fail to comprehend what it says. In our own experience we have found this to be true, and that it is impossible to derive useful information from a writer who does not believe in the religion about which he writes. The best spokesman for a religion is that religion itself, and it is a hard truth that the reason for this is that it can only be comprehended from the inside, which is to say, by becoming in some sense a believer.

We can add here that to believe in the truth of a spiritual teaching, one need not actually practice it, although this is necessary to advance upon its path. What we mean, rather, is that one can accept the truth that is present in an alien tradition and only by doing this can one understand it properly, and to insist instead that it has no value and that all who belong to it are ignorant or evil, is to resign oneself to ignorance.

Practice of the method

The third requirement is that one actually make use of the path provided by the Revelation. Spiritual realization outside the context of a traditional form is chimerical.

Literalists and figurative speech

Unbeknownst to most of us, we tend to take figuratively statements in Scripture, the meaning of which can only be grasped in its full meaning if it is understood literally.

What is ironic is that the same people who insist on a literal reading of Scripture are those who insist on a figurative meaning when the literal one seems a bit extreme, alien to their understanding, mysterious, or even distasteful. Thus, literalists refuse to understand Christ’s claim at the last supper regarding his body and blood in any sense other than figurative (they might say, ‘symbolic’, but this is an improper use of that term, since a true symbol has an identity with the truth it represents).

However, it is not only strict literalists who do this, but seems to be natural to our understanding that us to tend toward the easy and the comfortable—for it is much easier to take figuratively St. Paul’s teachings about all believers forming one body than it is to try and plumb the depths of this teaching as if it pertained to a real unity.

This is perhaps one of the unique aspects of the Christian revelation, referred to already: that it lays bare the esoteric even at the most obvious level, so that in order to maintain an exoteric perspective (the preference of the literalists), even the literalist approach must be abandoned and replaced by the figurative. This will be explored in more detail when we discuss Christianity specifically.