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Perennialist school

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Perennialist school

The term Traditionalist School (whose perspective is generally referred to as Traditionalism or Perennialism) is used by many authors to denote a school of thought based upon a 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 and are expounded in the writings and teachings of French metaphysician René Guénon, German-Swiss philosopher Frithjof Schuon and the Ceylonese-British scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy. The school includes such figures as Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Jean-Louis Michon, Marco Pallis, Huston Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jean Borella and, with some controversy, Julius Evola.[1]


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.

Philosophia Perennis

Followers of the Traditional school claim that a variety of authentic spiritual traditions present in the world today, share the same origin and are based on the same metaphysical principles, sometimes called philosophia perennis. The term philosophia perennis first appears in the Renaissance. It is widely associated with Leibniz who in turn owes it to the 16th century theologian Augustinus Steuchius. They twisted the philosophia perennis of the Renaissance for their own agenda.

The exoteric is the outward dimension of religion, which consists of religious rites, moral and dogmatic theology. The exoteric point of view is characterized by its "sentimental", rather than purely intellectual, nature, and it remains fairly limited. Based on the doctrine of creation and the subsequent duality between God and creation, exoterism does not offer means to transcend the limitations of the human state.

In the Traditionalist view esoterism is more than the "complement" of exoterism (the spirit as opposed to the letter, the kernel as opposed to the shell). Esoterism has, at least de jure, a total autonomy with respect to religion, for its innermost substance is the "Primordial Tradition" itself. Based on pure metaphysics its goal is the realization of the superior states of being and finally the union between the individual self and the "Principle".

Traditionalism and Religion

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, like Guénon himself, found a way in Sufism, and accordingly they embraced Islam,[13] but others, like Marco Pallis, found a way in Buddhism, and still others, like James Cutsinger belong to the Greek Orthodox Church. 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] and claim it to be an anti-democratic, anti-modern, anti-liberal ideology critical of modernity and the bourgeois constitutional state. 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).

See also



  • Xavier Accart, René Guénon ou Le renversement des clartés Paris, Milano: Arché, 2005 (ISBN 978-2-912770-03-5).
  • "Traditionalism, the Perennial Philosophy and Islamic Studies” in the MESA Bulletin (1994).
  • Julius Evola, Men Among the Ruins: Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist (1953, revised 1967, with a new appendix, 1972).
  • Antoine Faivre, ed, Dossier on “Perennialisme” in Aries 11 (1990).
  • Franco Ferraresi, "Julius Evola: Tradition, Reaction and the Radical Right" in Archives Européennes de Sociologie (1987).
  • Roger Griffin, "Revolts Against the Modern World: The Blend of Literary and Historical Fantasy in the Italian New Right" in Literature and History (1985).
  • Marie-France James, Esoterisme et Christianisme: autour de René Guénon (1981).
  • Jean-Pierre Laurant, "Le problème de René Guénon", Revue de l'histoire des religions (1971).
  • Jean-Pierre Laurant, René Guénon: Les enjeux d'une lecture (2006) ISBN 2-84454-423-1
  • Jean-Pierre Laurant and Paul Barbanegra, eds, René Guénon [Cahier de l'Herne] (1985).
  • Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred (1989) ISBN 0-7914-0177-4
  • Harry Oldmeadow, Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy (2000) ISBN 955-9028-04-9
  • William W. Quinn, Jr., The Only Tradition (1996) ISBN 0-7914-3213-0
  • Andrew Rawlinson, The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions ISBN 0-8126-9310-8
  • Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century ISBN 0-19-515297-2
  • Mariella Shearer, "Alchemy and Tradition in the Writings of W. B. Yeats" in Le Salon: Journal de Cercle de la Rose Noire, Volume 1, Black Front Press, 2012.
  • Pierre-Marie Sigaud, ed., Rene Guenon [Dossiers H] (1984).
  • Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions (1976), reprint ed. 1992, Harper SanFrancisco, ISBN 0-06-250787-7
  • Troy Southgate, ed., Evola: Thoughts & Perspectives, Volume One, Black Front Press, 2011.
  • Troy Southgate, "Anti-Tradition in the Age of Iron" in Le Salon: Journal de Cercle de la Rose Noire, Volume 1, Black Front Press, 2012.

Further reading

  • 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

  • Sacred Web – A Traditional Journal
  • A Web Site on the Perennialist/Traditionalist School
  • Interview of Huston Smith on the primordial tradition
  • Integral Tradition
  • Review of "Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century"
  • World Wisdom Books
  • Fons Vitae Books
  • Revista de Estudios Tradicionales
  • Slideshow on the Perennial Philosophy
  • La Tradición – Textos Tradicionales (Spanish)
  • A website for the Study of (Traditionalism and the Traditionalists)
  • The Matheson Trust for the study of comparative religion
  • An article on Muslim Perennialism
  • A review of some Traditionalist books 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
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