Wrenched from the sacred

Morgan Jones

A picture of a cave painting featuring a notably well-endowed stone age woman recently circulated on the internet. Regarding the thiccc image daubed 30,000 years ago on the wall of a cave in what is now France, twitter user @itsborb wrote: “(humbled before a thin tendril of profound human connection reaching across millennia) women are so hot”. We’ve all felt something like this tendril, been able through art or myth or ritual or transcendental nature to brush up against some eternal fragment of human experience, like sunrise on a cold morning or a nervous eye on the edge of the light long before dawn. There is a philosophy that focuses on this feeling, on belief in longer connection and the numinous across timespans, and it is called Traditionalism. It is also, academic Mark Sedgwick contends, “today’s least known major philosophy”. He should know; he’s just written a book on it, titled Traditionalism: The Radical Project for Restoring Sacred Order.

The reason why most people who read this review, with a view to possibly reading Sedgwick’s book, might take an interest in Traditionalism is the philosophy’s association with the contemporary far right, notably in Hungary and Greece, but also elsewhere, including in the States. Its influence on Trump advisor turned right-wing media figure Steve Bannon is well documented (most comprehensively in Benjamin Teitelbaum’s 2020 book The War for Eternity), but Sedgwick takes a ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ approach to Traditionalism, showcasing connections to the radical right alongside much else as well. His book is a wide reaching and informative introductory tour through the philosophy’s ideological precepts, from the role of the related Perennialist school of philosophy to its views on historical narrative, self-realisation, gender, and art, among other things. While Sedgwick is careful to state that Traditionalism has had a wide variety of impacts and has influenced a wide variety of people, and you will find little editorialising in his guide, his approach to the topic and reasons for writing the book are clear. As he states on the first page, “it would be good… if those who oppose fascism, racism and terrorism could more easily recognise Traditionalism when they see it”.

Traditionalism’s founder and key thinker is Rene Guenon, a Frenchman born in 1886 who wrote extensively about Eastern religion- most notably Hinduism, his first full work being 1921’s Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines. Guenon believed that religions contained within them connection to Tradition, with a capital T; to transcendental knowledge and metaphysical experience which passes from link to link over periods far longer than the human lifespan. Although Guenon himself would convert to Islam and spend the latter part of his life in Egypt (he died in Cairo in 1951), and Sedgwick came to his interest in Traditionalism through his work as a scholar of Sufism, there is no single religious path to Tradition (indeed, the paths are not all explicitly religious: Guenon thought the induction rituals of the Freemasons could be a means to accessing it). The religion Traditionalism is most critical of was Christianity, which was often viewed as a vehicle for or agent of modernity (although it is not viewed as a dead end for the sacred; as Traditionalist-influenced American writer Huston Smith puts it, “I’ve never met a religion I didn’t like”).

How we understand time is also a prominent feature of Traditionalist thought. When are we, and when are we going? There are innumerable answers to this question, posited by a vast range of people. Do you think we’re only experiencing real time in dreams, a la JW Dunne, or do you think it’s just one long slew of events resisting linearity and narrative, a la Charles Fort, or do you think we’re at the fag end of empire, an age of dwindling fires, per Ross Douthat’s Decadent Society, or are we Tyler Durden’s “middle children of history”, caught in an inbetween? Traditionalism’s discussion of when, in the grand scheme, we are is for the most part framed in terms of the “Kali Yuga”, or the destructive age of Kali, in which, it contends, we currently reside. It offers an explicit rejection of the Whig view of history, the idea that things are by inclinations getting better, that the moral arc of history is long, but bends towards justice. Things are, in the Traditionalist view, getting worse, as modernity wrenches us ever further from the sacred. This was something Romanian Traditonalist Mircea Eliade wrote at length about, parsing the the difference between the denizens of archaic versus modern society with an unhappy eye (“the former feels himself insolubly connected with the Cosmos and Cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only to History”).

One of the arguments that Sedgwick’s book makes, in its meticulous, unshowy way, is that there is nothing particularly eternal about the philosophy itself; indeed, its origins and reasoning are deeply historically contingent, coming out of the early 20th century and bearing the marks of the contemporary ideas which influenced the tendency’s de facto founder Guenon. The belief that truth and meaning are available through myth- myth as something speaking to some core component of us all that we can access- was, Sedgwick argues, influenced by the psychoanalysts Freud and Jung. Themes lifted from theosophy and spiritualism also factor into Traditonalism’s thinking, and the influence of James Frazer’s 1890 work The Golden Bough, along with Marxist ideas of modernity and history, are also on show in Guenon’s work.

While Guenon’s position at the heart of Traditionalist thought is not in doubt, he is not the most famous or influential Traditionalist thinker. This prize goes to the Italian Julius Evola, born in 1898, who built on Guenon’s writing, but while, as Sedgwick puts it, “Guenon’s objective was metaphysical, Evola’s objective…was fundamentally political”. His more active, political writings are probably Traditonalism’s biggest stamp on the modern world, and, also, its most obvious point of connection to the far right; Jobbik’s Gabor Vona praised him as “one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century”. The book also turns up one more lurid point of comparison with the contemporary far right, namely Evola’s interest in rituals built around withholding ejaculation. The extremity of Evola’s views- he believed in caste systems and his ideal political system probably involved a God King in the mode of Egyptian pharaohs- meant that he rubbed up against Fascist authorities in the 1930s and 40s, a fact that is often used by his admirers as defense against accusations of complicity with Fascism and Nazism. Sedgwick’s book takes a firm line on such attempts at defence: “If moral judgment were to be passed on Evola, however, he would certainly not be excused on the grounds of his criticism of Fascism for over-centralisation and of Nazism for over-emphasis on the leader and failing to accompany its antisemitism with anti-Christianism”. 

Along with Guenon and Evola, Sedgwick’s book also covers the lives and work of a variety of more minor figures in Traditionalist thought. These include Frithjof Schuon, who drew to him a not insignificant group of followers, practicing a form of Sufism heavily influenced by Guenon’s work, the expert in Indian art Ananda Coomaraswamy, and the Romanian Mircea Eliade, who was, Sedgwick argues, a significant influence on Jordan Peterson. Sedgwick considers Peterson, with his bleakly hierarchical view of the world (“we are not equal in ability or outcome and never will be”), dislike of modernity and views on the heroic nature of self-realisation to be a Traditionalist fellow-traveller. The book also discusses Alexandr Dugin- famous for his (often overstated) influence on politics in Putin’s Russia, and more recently for the assassination of his daughter Darya Dugin- and what Sedgwick terms his “post-Guenonianism”, which uses “Traditionalism as language”, viewing tradition and modernity as a dialectic, not unlike Marx’s labour and capital, through which one might understand the world.

Other, perhaps slightly more legitimate, figures discussed include the Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who did, Sedgwick writes, much to repair the rift between Traditionalism and the academy, and the British composer John Tavener, who, along with many popular works of classical music, in 2003 premiered a Traditionalist opera, and dedicated himself to the creation of what he termed musica perennis. Both Tavener and Nasr have had a clear influence on the UK’s reigning monarch King Charles; Tavener as a favourite composer and friend of the King, and Nasr primarily for his writings on the environment (In 1996, he gave a series of lectures entitled Religion and the Order of Nature, telling the audience: “The Earth is bleeding from wounds inflicted upon it by a humanity no longer in harmony with heaven and therefore in constant strife with the terrestrial environment”). 

That Charles is demonstrably familiar with Guenon’s work and with Traditonalism more broadly provides a neat illustration of Sedgwick’s thesis: once you understand the ways that Traditionalism manifests, the areas that it touches, you can see its influence on a great many important figures. Sedgwick could easily have made a boogeyman of his subject, but his careful handling of the philosophy’s influences and impacts means that readers will come away with a healthy and historically grounded suspicion of anyone identifying as such, but without the black and white dogmatism that would see them all labelled fascists. The “Traditionalist” bracket undoubtedly contains them, but also includes, among other things, Islamic theologians, the idiosyncratic environmentalism of King Charles, and the profoundly strange all-female online community Aristasia. 

If not exactly a beach read, Sedgwick’s book is accessible, thoroughly (perhaps, in some cases, too thoroughly) introducing the philosophies which have fed into Traditionalism and tracing its real world impacts, from art criticism to opera to the terror campaigns of the Italian far right in the 1970s. It’s both a perfect primer and an invaluable reference book for the subject.

Morgan Jones is a London-based writer and a contributor editor of Renewal.

Mark Sedgwick’s Traditionalism: The Radical Project for Restoring Sacred Order is published by Oxford University Press and available now.