The Limits of Tradition — And Going Beyond

Though drawing from older spiritual traditions and movements, “Traditionalism” — the doctrine first articulated by French metaphysician Rene Guenon — has come to be adopted by a number of groups and individuals in modernity, and has influenced, among others, Prince Charles to Russian geopolitical theorist and neo-Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin.

I should say, up front, that I do not consider myself a Traditionalist — though some others might. I believe — though perhaps not in quite the same way as he Traditionalists — in a primordial tradition. And I also believe that there is such a thing as counter-initiation (initiations that appear ancient but that draw the “initiate” ever further into modernity, and away from authentic spiritual life), which is another belief of the Traditionalist school. Like them — though this is certainly found in initiatic schools throughout history — I also believe that knowledge has to be passed down by degrees, and through esotericism and exoteric doctrine.

However, what I want to speak about here is the limits of Traditionalism. While “Tradition” has become more popular or influential in recent years, it is, in my opinion, sometimes used for anti-Traditional (perhaps one might say “counter-initiatic”) purposes. To be clear, I am not critiquing either Prince Charles or Dugin here, nor am I attacking any specific group, but merely aim to inform readers about what is and what is not Traditionalism (and, more importantly, the pre-modern, spiritual, heroic spirit), and to illuminate ways in which we can become stuck and, indeed, unstuck.

I will talk about solutions later. But here I want especially to point certain wrong turns.

Academic Traditionalism:

Unlike most other spiritual movements, Traditionalism believes that one must practice within one of the major religions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity (if it is not too liberal and modern), Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Freemasonry could prove another possibility, according to Guenon, if it were to become re-Christianized and more overtly metaphysical.

As such, Traditionalism can tend to become very official, academic, and snobbish — designating some religions, metaphysical movements, and philosophies off limits. One accepts one of the major religions, and studies its teachings, always understanding that one is somewhat beyond them since one is interested, ultimately, in the primordial Tradition. But what else?

All expression other than the religious orthodox is too modern, and, therefore, decadent and degenerate — this is true for spirituality, art, and politics, etc.

There are a few notable exceptions to this reasoning — (1) Frithjof Schuon, who embraced the native American faith late in life, and who rose above academia by being, also, an artist, and (2) Julius Evola, a Dadaist painter in early life, a practitioner of “Magic” later on, a controversial political — and to an extent anti-political — theorist (who was close to Mussolini’s regime), a “Pagan” (a term he later rejected), and thinker who wrote about Heidegger and Nietzsche, as well as about ancient religion and so on.

Again, Prince Charles patronizes the Temenos Academy, and, though not Traditionalist per se, there is also a “Eurasian Artists Movement,” influenced by Dugin’s ideas.

In contrast to the above, “academic Traditionalists” do not wish to make art or adopt spiritual practices outside of the major religions. Nor do they wish to cultivate an art, or the arts, or to improve their physical body.

To me, such an approach is in sharp contrast to the traditions of all civilizations, where the superior type of man has always cultivated himself through the martial arts and those of painting, calligraphy, etc.

Post-Modernist Traditionalism:

This may seem oxymoronic, but there are several groups claiming to be Traditionalist who posit the most modern of ideas. These groups tend to want to a traditional or conservative society, yet they often focus on the most modern of ideas: IQ. That is, they believe that IQ is the marker of the value of a society or person and that it is the key to a more traditional (or “Traditional”) society. This I completely disagree with.

In ancient and classical societies, IQ wasn’t a factor. When Tibetan Buddhists looked for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama they asked tested the child to see if, among a number of objects, he picked out his previous incarnation’s possession. They did not give him an IQ test. Of course, they did want an intelligent guide, but they wanted one who was in touch with Buddha nature, natural law, and who would cultivate mind, body, spirit, morals, etiquette, ritual, the practice of meditation, etc.

Nihilist Traditionalism:

“Nihilist Traditionalists” (as I am calling them) see everything in black and white — mostly black: Everything is in decline. We are in the Kali Yuga (the age of materialism), and nothing can be done. To think that anything can be improved is cowardice. Nothing has meaning. Everything is in decay. We just have to sit and wait things out, though there is no light at the end of the tunnel, so we’re really just waiting for things to get worse.

To borrow a phrase that some Rightist groups have used in regard to Evola’s Traditionalism, this is an “incapacitating myth.” It is the mentality of those shaped by events and not the thinking of those intent on shaping events, shaping the world, shaping tradition, moving tradition forward (as authentic traditions demand) or molding themselves.

This does not mean that we are not in the Kali Yuga, or in an age of decline. We may well be. Massive pollution, the dissolution of the family, atomization in society, materialism, massive prison populations (and “for-profit” fines and imprisonment), and political rallies that resemble evangelical religious events, all indicate a massive departure from ways of life that have sustained humanity for tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years.

Solutions:

The idea of Tradition (and, more broadly, traditions in the best sense of the word) is that it provides us with tenets, beliefs, and ideas that can be contemplated, and works that can be studied, through which we can mold ourselves, and, ultimately, that can be reinterpreted for each era. This is not a modern idea. Shi’a Islam, for example, asserts that in each era (after the Prophet Muhammad) there must be an Imam to interpret the Qur’an for the people and the issues of his time.

Traditions are living, breathing things, that must be lived. And like all living things, they demand energy and express energy in their own pculiar ways.

In regard to art, martial art, music, theology, etc., it is possible for us to push the tradition forward, not into abstraction, not toward dead ends, not toward profanity and dreariness, but to where the tradition is pointing us — toward new, or renewed, Beauty, new heroicism, new expressions of the spiritual. It is essential to express the essence and meaning of the tradition in more refined and, yet, more dynamic forms.

Here, then, are some suggestions for tackling the above-mentioned problems:

Too Academic:

Academia has its place. But it can also become an excuse for snobbery. Elevating the past, the academic can tend to look down on the present. If he fetishizes medieval minaitures, for example, he probably dismisses the possibility of art today.

This is different to culture creators, who are inspired, by the past, to make something as valuable for the present and for the future.

Likewise with spirituality. We should neither accept a tradition wholesale, unquestioningly, nor dismiss one totally if there is something of value in it. We should be discerning enough to be able to take the five or the ninety-five percent that is good and leave what is not.

For those whose life revolves around study and meditation, or academic-like expressions of the spiritual, my advice is simple: Make art. Embrace a certain rebellious, radical energy to push yourself to new expressions of the archaic. Instead of speaking in the usual gloomy academic tone, speak with passion, fire, and even a bit of humor — life is for living, not for theorizing about in relation to ideology. Become a person of action as well as one of thought.

Focussing on IQ:

The mind develops at different stages in different people’s lives. I have seen brilliant people give up and become utterly mediocre, and I have seen ordinary people excel later on. The mind responds to stimulus. If someone grows up in poverty or goes through a poor education system, then they will struggle more than someone who comes from a healthy environment or that received a good education. But that can change, very dramatically.

IQ emphasizes the intellect. It tells us nothing about physical ability or strength, or morality, or the spirituality of the individual. It is the most modern, and anti-Traditional way of looking at people. In a certain sense, IQ is a modern trap, making us focus on the rational intellect.

Instead, cultivate the mind, body, and spirit. Develop yourself morally and ethically, and in regard to social interactions, by studying religious thinkers. Meditate and read ancient texts. Eat healthily and take up a physical discipline, such as a martial art. Create a community of comrades, Brothers and Sisters, and treat parents with respect.

Nihilism:

For me, traditions are about spirit and vigor. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about “Tradition,” the classical Ways of cultivation, or a specific tradition of fine art, martial arts, theology, etc. If we inherit a tradition that is five-hundred- or a thousand- or ten thousand-years-old we have an obligation to it — not to be slavish to it, but to give it life, as it gives us energy and orientation.

A part of this is hope. Society may be in a slow collapse. The world may be in decline. We may be living in the Kali Yuga. But we still have power over our own thoughts and actions.

Throughout history, when things have seemed impossible, individual men and women — often the most unlikely of people — have appeared to do the impossible. One need only think of Joan of Arc, a teenage girl with no military experience whose swift victories in battle turned the tide in the Hundred Years War, leading to the victory of the French over the English.

The seeds of new movements and ways of living and thinking are accepted by societies decades later. The Sixties Hippie movement, for example, has its roots in late 19th century Germany.

We should neither wallow in self-pity nor wait for a savior but should work toward becoming one of those whose name and deeds will outlive them, and who will inspire others now and in the future. What we think, say, and do today may become the norm tomorrow.

Hope is not a soft, flaky, fluffy, modern idea. Always hope, or “Ever hope,” is one of the tenets of Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan Kung Fu. And it is one of the theological virtues of the Catholic Church. According to St. Thomas it is one of the three virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) that lead us toward God. But, hope is also what will lead us to renew older traditions or to create, organically, new traditions and, eventually, new, more spiritually-oriented, more Nature-oriented groups, societies, and ways of being.

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