The Occult World of Rene Guenon
Oct 24, 2004
Author: William H. Kennedy
The overriding concern of this study is to examine the occult influences of French scholar René Guénon. Guénon is best known as a religious studies expositor who focused on metaphysical similarities between seemingly mutually exclusive spiritual belief systems. Several problems arise when considering this undertaking. The first lies with Guénon himself who refused to offer any autobiographical information in any of his treatises and who shunned all biographers. Guénon feared that a “personality cult” would develop if he were to offer extensive biographical information concerning his past.
The other major problem lies with the amorphous word “occult.” There is a form of nonfiction literature which falls into what may be called the “occult”, “esoteric”, or “metaphysical” genre. This type of 'occult literature' is really a blanket term which covers a wide variety of topics. Occult literature is produced by practitioners of occultism. Occultism is derived from the Latin verb “occulere”, which is translated as “to hide”, or “to keep secret.” This term has come to mean any esoteric knowledge or system which is controlled and imparted by initiated adepts. The term is now generally used to include the study of ritual magic, divination, Theosophy and spiritualism. It may also be used to denote various secret societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. (1)
In a sense the time is right for a cogent review of our subject in that several recent biographies of Guénon have been published which reconstruct his life and occult influences. In this regard it is possible to limit our definition of occultism to those teachers and groups who Guénon directly interacted with during his youthful occult sojourn.
Guénon’s Early Life and Occult Sojourn
René-Jean-Joseph-Guénon was born during November 1886 in Blois, France. Guénon's father could trace his ancestry back to medieval times. Both his parents were devout and somewhat overly strict Roman Catholics and Guénon was raised in this traditional milieu. Guénon suffered from ill health as a boy and would endure a variety of ailments for the rest of his life. His parents afforded him an education at Jesuit-run institutions. He was enrolled at Norte Dame des Aydes and Guénon excelled academically winning several scholarly prizes including those for excellence in physics and Latin. Guénon, however, began to exhibit what can only be described as a temperamental disposition. He sincerely believed that he was being harassed and even persecuted by his teachers. Despite the fact that he received high grades and various honorifics, Guénon’s father transferred his son to the College Augustan-Thiery as a means to avoid the perceived maltreatment of young René.
After completing his secondary education Guénon entered the University of Paris and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and mathematics. He eventually enrolled in the doctrinal program in Sanskrit – the ancient language of Hinduism. Guénon studied with the famous Vedist Stanislav Levi and mastered this dead language. However, Levi requested that Guénon properly document the sources for his thesis which he submitted to the university for his doctorate. Levi greatly enjoyed the thesis itself but was obliged by university dictate to have proper references adjoined to the body of the text. When Levi informed Guénon of this policy Guénon’s temperamental disposition once again set in and he abandoned the whole project and was never to receive his doctorate nor was he ever to return to the University of Paris. Ironically, his thesis was eventually published and is still used as a standard textbook in religious studies classes. After leaving the academic world Guénon supported himself by tutoring students in philosophy and by writing. (2)
Around 1906 Guénon began to explore the very large and somewhat superficial occult underground of Paris. Guénon’s most direct contact with the French occult milieu came with his association with a well-known figure who wrote under the moniker of “Papus.” Gerard Encausse (1865-1916) a.k.a. Papus was a Spanish born medical doctor who published a variety of occult works while living in Paris. He introduced the Theosophical Society to France and at one point served as its official representative in Paris. A great deal of Papus’ time was spent exploring, studying and writing on hermetic, cabalistic and alchemical texts.
Papus subscribed to the basic Theosophical Society designated doctrine that esoteric knowledge was transmitted by a secret line of Ascended Masters to specific occultists and counted himself among their number. Not since the days of Eliphas Levi did any one person dominate the occult scene of France as did Papus. Papus acquired the reputation of being a cogent medium, tarot diviner and necromancer. Just before Guénon came to study with him, Papus secured his reputation by being called to the Russian Imperial Palace by the Romanoffs to summon the spirit of Czar Alexander III. Such royal patronage carried a great deal of weight in those days. The young and impressionable Guénon must have considered Papus to be an authentic adept with his royal associations and with his best selling books which included Traite Methodique de Science Occulte (1891) and La Magie et L'hypnose (1897). (3)
Guénon joined Papus’s organization called the “Faculte des Science Hermetique.” In this regard Guénon published his first works on spiritual matters in the journal Gnose published and edited by Papus. It must be kept in mind that Papus belonged to a variety of occult groups and secret societies and he encouraged Guénon to join a great many of them. Some of these organizations afforded Guénon contact with various Eastern groups who possessed authentic spiritual traditions while others were outright ridiculous. Several groups offered bogus aristocratic titles which meant nothing in the real world. One positive consequence was Guénon’s initiation into a Hindu Advaita Vedanta group of an unknown origin that was in Paris during this period. Upon their return to India Guénon abandoned their practice but remained philosophically connected to this version of Hinduism. Guénon also joined the Freemasonic Lodge and this group too remained an influence throughout his life. (4)
For all of his studies Guénon soon became disenchanted with the various occult groups he joined. After Papus died in 1916, Guénon began to explore more traditional forms of spirituality. In this regard Guénon began to write for the Christian journal Regnabit and, it seems, was reconciling with Roman Catholicism for a time. However, Guénon encountered a group of Sufis in Paris and was initiated into this Muslim sect. Sufism is the mystical tradition within Islam and the term itself means ‘wool’ which denoted the humble clothes worn by the earliest practitioners of this esoteric system. Of all the metaphysical purviews Guénon encountered Sufism was to have the most lasting and penetrating influence on his life and work. (In 1930 Guénon moved to Cairo, Egypt and lived as a Muslim for the rest of his life) Guénon’s initiation into Sufism marked his departure from occultism. (5)
Guénon’s Rejection of Occultism
By 1921, Guénon had rejected the greater corpus of occultism as it found expression in Europe during that era. This was not merely a personal choice – Guénon wrote two scathing exposés of occultism entitled Théosophisme, histoire d’une pseudo-religion (1921) and L’Erreur Spirite (1923). The first of these books deals directly with the Theosophical Society and why Guénon believed it to be a false and even evil form of religion. The second deals with paranormal phenomenon and spiritualism as popularized by the American Fox sisters. It was Guénon’s strong conviction that spiritual seekers should be warned against these clearly false spiritual systems.
In his reflections Guénon came to believe that the Theosophical Society misrepresented authentic spiritual Tradition. Guénon chose to attack the teachings of the Theosophical Society as he saw it as a lynchpin organization which influenced the incalculable occult groups which flourished during that time. To assault the beliefs of this group was to attack the underlying principles which guided these other spiritually debased organizations. Guénon contended that the Theosophical Society deterred seekers from authentic spiritual paths in that it encouraged them to focus on the work of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), the founder of the Theosophical Society. Guénon believed her to be an outright fraud. In his analysis of the Theosophical Society Guénon noted that despite its claim of not being a religion this group comprised an organized religion. In his reckoning the Theosophical Society constituted a synchronistic religion which was not a genuine vehicle for divine revelation. (6)
Guénon also attacked the practices of the entire modern spiritualism movement. Spiritualism may be defined as the belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living via a medium. Of course this belief goes back to Biblical times - hence Guénon focuses on the modern movement which began in 1848 in Hydesville, New York. During March of that year two sisters Kate and Margaretta Fox began to hear mysterious noises in their house. Kate noticed that she could actually communicate with these noises after developing a “rapping code”, and the sisters concluded that they were, in reality, communicating with discarnate spirits. As word spread people came to hear the ‘table rapping’ communications with the dead and, eventually, the sisters toured the country as a sort of side show act. The Fox sisters spearheaded the rise of spiritualism and psychic mediums who exploded unto the Western world in the mid 19th century, and who are still going strong today. (7)
Spiritualism was, in Guénon’s thinking, a false religion which sought to replace legitimate revealed religion. Furthermore, Guénon contended that a mysterious secret German magical order known as the Hermetic Order of Luxor was behind the Fox sisters and the entire explosion of spiritualists and mediums in America. Their motivation was purely one of power and economic gain according to Guénon. Again he saw spiritualism as detracting from uncorrupted religion, which could not be found in the hodge-podge of psychics and mediums. (8)
As with other Traditionalist thinkers like Ananda Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon, Guénon asserted that there could be no new divine revelations after that of the Prophet Muhammad. That is not to say that he believed that salvation could not be attained through other traditional faiths like Hinduism, Judaism or Native American belief systems, but that there could be no novel religions with an authentic revelation after Islam. Any metaphysical systems that claimed a novel revelation like the Theosophical Society or spiritualism were forms of counter or diabolic initiation in his reckoning. Guénon even wrote a tract against Mormonism – then making inroads into Europe – because it claimed to be a new revelation from God.
In effect, Guénon believed that the entire corpus of occultism and occult practice led seekers away from the spiritually grounded and bona fide revelations which ended with the emergence of Islam. For Guénon the only road to salvation and enlightenment came with participation in the most orthodox and conservative forms of traditional religion and not with the debased practices and diabolic initiations of occultism. (9)
Guénon’s Retention of Certain Occult Themes
René Guénon certainly was not perfect and he admitted the spiritual mistakes he had made as a young occult student in Paris. Upon his expatriation to Egypt he lived as a devout and highly conservative Muslim. He mastered Arabic to the point where local Muslims mistook him for a native. In order to practice authentic religion Guénon immersed and saturated himself in the Islamic tradition. This, Guénon realized, was the only available means to receive authentic spiritual transmission. Other faiths certainly offered authentic spirituality but Islam was, in Guénon reckoning, the most potent religion during that era. The “Cafeteria Religion” of the occultists where one could pick and choose from various metaphysical purviews and leave what one did not like had no place in Guénon’s spiritual practice.
Yet Guénon retained certain elements and themes of occultism which emerged in his writings and in his personal life. Prof. Joscelyn Godwin of Colgate University has stated “One can scarcely choose two more different characters than the volatile Russian aristocrat, whose life is a web of intrigue and mystery, yet whose work is a mine of esoteric wisdom; and the coolly intellectual Frenchman (Guénon), who held in disdain Madame Blavatsky, all her followers, and all she stood for while teaching in many instances the same thing.” (10) Scholar William Quinn makes similar claims in his large study of Traditionalism and Theosophy entitled The Only Tradition (1997).
In this regard Godwin and Quinn fail to understand Guénon on several levels. Guénon derived his beliefs from authentic practitioners of religion or from reliable textual sources. This is true of even his most “occult” undertaking after his rejection of occultism – The Lord of the World (1927). It must be pointed out that this work is first and foremost a review of two other books on this subject and in this sense it is a critique of other people’s ideas. (11) In interpretations of Lord of the World Guénon is wrongly portrayed as offering a watered-down version of the Theosophical Society’s “Masters of the Great White Lodge”, who are portrayed as being a hierarchy of spirit beings who govern the inner or esoteric government of the world. In reality the figures of Melki-Tesedeq and Metatron to which Guénon devotes study are derived from the authentic tradition of Judaism. They are not the same as the oral teachings of Blavatsky’s unidentified and weird spirit “Masters” named El-Morya and Tuitit Bey, who have no basis in any spiritual Tradition and who ordered her to form the Theosophical Society. Nor are they akin to the bizarre Mahatma Koot Hoomi who first spoke to Blavatsky’s associate A.P. Sinnet and later appeared to Theosophist Alice Baily (1880-1931) in her various peculiar dreams and demented visions. (12)
Guénon’s examination of such occult topics as Hyperborea and Atlantis makes him seem to be on the far side of the lunatic fringe. He even lent support to the Polaires – a group who sought to explore the Polar Regions in search of hidden utopias. (13) As strange as this may seem it must be kept in mind that the North and South Pole were not yet explored and mapped at the publication of Lord of the World in 1927. Admiral Byrd would not make his famous flight across Antarctica until 1929. Also during the early 1920’s there were ongoing newspaper reports drawn from various European colonial offices that spoke of newly discovered races and tribes who were often portrayed as being magical and utopian. In this regard Guénon did in fact get caught up the media hype surrounding the possible discovery of a lost earthly paradise. This portrays Guénon’s romantic side which gave into the hope that humanity would discover some secluded utopia during the 1920’s and 30’s which found expression in such fictions as H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931) and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1937).
Another point which has evaded Godwin and Quinn concerns the actual practices and beliefs of the Theosophical Society from 1908 to 1929. When examining these beliefs it is impossible to conclude that Guénon was offering similar ideas to that of the Theosophical Society.
Unlike Guénon who dreamed of humanity discovering some pie-in-the-sky Lord of the World in some far off and undiscovered region, the Theosophical Society was promoting their own flesh and blood Lord of the World in the figure of a handsome Brahmin man named Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). Krishnamurti was discovered by Theosophist Rev. Charles Leadbeater while walking on a beach in India. Leadbeater claimed that he was drawn to Krishnamurti because the boy radiated a strong aura. It seems that Leadbeater was attracted to more than Krishnamurti’s aura as he was a notorious pederast who soon sexually abused the young boy. (14)
In any case Leadbeater introduced Krishnamurti to Theosophical Society President Annie Besant and the two hatched a plan to promote the boy as the “World Teacher”, “Living Mahatma”, and “Messiah”. (Actually in 1889 Blavatsky claimed that the whole purpose of her founding the Theosophical Society was to prepare society for the coming of the “World Teacher.”) After gaining legal custody of Krishnamurti they formed the “Order of the Star in the East” to operate as a public organization for the promotion of their new “World Teacher.” In this regard they insinuated that Krishnamurti was the awaited Messiah of Jews and Christians, the future Buddha (Maitreya), and the anticipated Mahdi (Judging Prophet) of Islam who, according to the Koran, is to emerge in the End Times. They also made inroads to the League of Nations and secured a castle – complete with throne room – in Holland to act as the International Headquarters for their new Lord of the World. (15)
In an even more bizarre and disturbing scheme, Theosophist G.S. Arundale – future president of the Theosophical Society – announced a list of “Chosen Apostles” for the new “Messiah” in Holland in 1925. Aurndale proclaimed that these “Apostles” were chosen by divine revelation and did so at a public gathering not far from the castle. (If this does not constitute an organized religion than what does?) To his great credit Krishnamurti recognized the clearly sinister aspects of this entire cabal, renounced his role as World Teacher and dissolved the Order of the Star in the East in 1929. (16)
Although Guénon was for a short time interested in the prospect of a lost spiritual utopia he in no way advocated anything as nefarious as the Krishnamurti affair. As a matter of fact Guénon disassociated himself from the Polaires not long after Krishnamurti’s break from the Theosophists. In retrospect it must be kept in mind that any utopia that Guénon might have hoped existed would have been founded far back in history, long before the founding of Islam and, by Traditionalist standards, would have been an authentic divine expression. Any Lord of the World discovered therein would have been akin to the emergence of the Dalai Lama after the opening of Tibet. (The Dalai Lama actually holds this title although he does not claim sovereignty.) Moreover, Guénon seems to have abandoned the whole subject after moving to Cairo where he fully embraced Islam.
Guénon’s relationship with Freemasonry is perhaps the greatest element of occultism which he retained. Guénon believed that this secret society did possess authentic spiritual transmission somewhere at its core. He also believed that it became corrupt over time. However, Guénon never fully resigned from this fellowship and wrote on Masonic themes for the rest of his life. Despite his seeming rejection of the occult, Guénon had a Masonic clock – with occult symbols – in his living room during the over 20 year stay in Egypt. Perhaps this situation can be explained. Freemasonry did in fact emerge from Medieval stone masons guilds and may even be a carry over from the Roman Empire’s Collegia of Architects. There was no denying the antiquity of Freemasonry and Guénon was impressed by this fact, believing that some authentic tradition could be found buried deep within it. Thus he considered this secret society to be authentic and orthodox at one time in its history. In must be kept in mind that any Tradition which predated the revelation of Muhammad had validity in Guénon’s thinking.
However, from all accounts, Guénon never belonged to a Masonic Lodge after he settled in Egypt nor did he pay dues or attend any rituals of this fraternal organization. None of the letters to his followers suggest they join the Masons. The few references to this secret society in his writings seem to point more toward nature of Masonic symbols and not to advocate membership as an authentic form of spiritual practice. Consequently, Guénon’s lifelong association with Freemasonry seems to be more a matter of intellectual interest than a matter of devotion and promotion.
A somewhat strange episode in Guénon’s life in Egypt concerns his odd belief in hexes and curses. Guénon firmly believed that he was being metaphysically attacked by various occult magical orders in Europe. This even led to his being bedridden for a time. In fact, Guénon remained highly reclusive and did not like his whereabouts to be made known to his former occult associates in Paris because he feared that they would hex him and adversely affect his health and well being. Perhaps this can be explained as another manifestation of Guénon’s temperamental disposition once again rearing its ugly head. He did in fact make many enemies with his two books denouncing occultism but his belief that these people were hexing him is an extreme reaction on his part. Again this does not enter into Guénon’s published writing and was more in the nature of a personal quirk that in no way detracts from his profound metaphysical insights. (17)
One final occult theme that Guénon retained concerned ghosts. Guénon did believe that when a person died some “traces” of his soul might remain on Earth. This “left over” energy accounted for ghosts in his reckoning. Guénon did not believe that the actual spirit of a person remained on Earth – souls went to the abode of God as far as he was concerned. The remaining energy or trace of the deceased personality was of little import. However, when Guénon was on his deathbed in 1951 he suggested to his family that they leave his office untouched. In that way Guénon felt that some trace of him would remain behind to look after his wife and young children. (18)
Guénon was at his intellectual best when he focused on metaphysical correlations between spiritual belief systems and his entire occult corpus is of a secondary nature. His response to the occult world of his day is interesting, but pales in comparison to his profound insights concerning world religions.
(1) Drury, Nevill, Dictionary of Mysticism and the Esoteric Traditions, Prism Press (UK) 1992: 228.
(2) Waterfield, Robin, René Guénon and the Future of the West, Oxford (UK), 1987: Chapter 2.
(3) Drury: 237.
(4) Waterfield: Chapter 2.
(5) Drury: 286-287.
(6) Guénon, R., Theosophisme: histoire d’psuedo religion, Editions Traditionnelles (Paris) 1975: Chapter 11.
(7) Drury: 104.
(8) Guénon 1975: 23.
(9) Guénon, Rene, L’Erreur Spirite, Editions Traditionnelles (Paris), 1952: 20.
(10) Godwin, Joscelyn, Arktos: The Polar Myth, Phanes (USA), 1993: 21.
(11) Ossendowski, Ferndinand, Beasts, Men and Gods, Dutton (USA), 1922, and; Saint Yves d’Alveydre, Mission de l’Inde en Europe, Belisane (France), 1910.
(12) Drury: 28, 170, 211.
(13) Godwin: 87.
(14) Drury: 171, 174.
(15) Quinn, William, The Only Tradition, SUNY (USA) 1997: 106.
(16) Godwin, Joscelyn, The Theosophical Enlightenment, SUNY (USA), 1994: 367.
(17) Waterfield: Chapter 2.
(18) Waterfield: Chapter 2.
Lutyens, Mary, Krishnamurti: The Years of Awakening, Shambala Press (Boston), 1997.
Holroyd, Stuart, Krishnamurti: The Man, The Mystery & The Message, Element Books (London), 1991.
Links of Interest:
Koot Hoomi: http://blavatskyarchives.com/images/HPB/koothoomi2.jpg