Having disposed of “quantity”—the fetish of modernity for numbers—Rene Guenon then disposed of the Enlightenment’s very foundation: Reason, or, more exactly, “Rationalism”. According to Guenon, in “The Postulates of Rationalism”:
“The moderns claim to exclude all ‘mystery’ from the world as they see it, in the name of a science and a philosophy characterized as ‘rational’…moreover it is well enough known that, since the time of the encyclopedists of the eighteenth century, the most fanatical deniers of all supra-sensible reality have been particularly fond of invoking ‘reason’ on all occasions, and of proclaiming themselves to be ‘rationalists’.
Guenon noted that “rationalism properly so called goes back to the time of Descartes” and that “Protestantism had prepared the way for this, by introducing into religion, together with ‘free inquiry,’ a sort of rationalism…”
But what, exactly, is wrong with rationalism?
“Rationalism in all its forms is essentially defined by a belief in the supremacy of reason, proclaimed as a veritable ‘dogma,’ and implying the denial of everything that is of a supra-individual order, notably of pure intellectual intuition, and this carries with it logically the exclusion of true metaphysical knowledge. This same denial has also as a consequence, in another field, the rejection of all supernatural authority, which is necessarily derived from a ‘supra-human’ source…
The modern privileging of reason undermined authority of all sorts—the authority of the Church and the authority of Revelation, among others—and also provoked skepticism about the sort of “intellectual intuition” upon which metaphysics (mostly) rested; metaphysics was accused of being nothing but airy logical webs spun in the void of the human mind (or what Guenon calls pure intellectual intuition) with no grounding in empirically observable reality.
Of course, the Enlightenment also provided the key to its own undoing, or at least to a counter-attack against reason; the same skepticism that it turned against authority, tradition, superstition, revelation, and metaphysics could be (and was) turned back against Reason, even by some of the Enlightenment’s own finest minds, such as David Hume. Even conceding the limits of reason, though, the modernist can still ask, what can we put in its place that’s any better? Reason is admittedly flawed, but, contra Rene Guenon, it’s the best we’ve got to go on.
Sounding much like Rod Dreher and Nicolai Berdyaev, Guenon sums up his indictment of modernity:
“The civilization of the modern West appears in a history as a veritable anomaly: among all those which are known to us more or less completely, this civilization is the only one that has developed along purely material lines, and this monstrous development, whose beginning coincides with the so-called Renaissance, has been accompanied, as indeed it was fated to be, by a corresponding intellectual regress…This regress has reached such a point that the Westerners of today no longer know what pure intellect is; in fact they do not even suspect that anything of the kind can exist, hence their disdain, not only for Eastern civilization, but also for the Middle Ages of Europe, whose spirit escapes them scarcely less completely.”
The following sentence expresses Guenon’s contempt for the “mob” (i.e. ordinary people) and for the English language:
“Certainly ‘Progress’ and ‘Civilization,’ with capital letters, may be very effective in certain sentences, as hollow as they are rhetorical, most suitable for imposing on a mob, for which words are rather a substitute for thought than a means of expressing it, thus it is that these two words play one of the most important parts in the battery of formulas which those ‘in control’ today use to accomplish their strange task of collective suggestion without which the mentality that is characteristic of modern times would indeed be short-lived.” 1
Guenon was willing to concede “material progress” (he preferred to call it “material development”), but he was skeptical that modernity had issued in any “moral progress”:
“The [modern] conceptions of ‘material progress’ and ‘moral progress’ are inseparable…our contemporaries are almost as indefatigably engrossed with the latter as they are with the former. We have in no way contested the existence of ‘material progress,’ but only its importance: we maintain that it is not worth the intellectual loss which it causes, and it is impossible to think differently without being altogether ignorant of true intellectuality. Now, what is to be thought of the reality of ‘moral progress’? That is a question which it is scarcely possible to discuss seriously, because, in this realm of sentiment, everything depends on individual appreciation and preferences; everyone gives the name ‘progress’ to what is in conformity with his own inclinations, and, in a word, it is impossible to say that one is right any more than another.”
Thus does one of the famous exponents of anti-modernism and of the Perennial Philosophy dismiss morality as mere “sentiment” and invoke moral relativism against fatuous claims of “moral progress”. Who among us can say whether the abolition of slavery and the advancement of human rights should be called "progress"?
In the end, wrote Guenon, the issue was this:
“The modern world has precisely reversed the natural relations between the different orders of things…it is depreciation of the intellectual order (and even absence of pure intellectuality), and exaggeration of the material and the sentimental orders, which all go together to make the Western civilization of today an anomaly, not to say a monstrosity…”
Monstrosity, like much else, is in the eye of the beholder. Rene Guenon was seeing through a glass, darkly; too darkly by far, I’m inclined to think, but his observations are being echoed by plenty of folks today.2 I don’t know if it’s something in the water or something in the air, but for some reason or combination of reasons, we seem right now to have ourselves a surfeit of Spenglerian doomsaying, which will no doubt be as enjoyable to read a hundred years from now (if global warming doesn’t get us first!) as Rene Guenon’s metaphysical pomposities are today.
1 In fairness: Guenon did not write in English. His work has been translated, and not always well.
2 For example, here is one Andrew Levinson on 6/25/15: “Civilization is dying. Denizens of the manosphere attribute society’s terminal illness to numerous causes, and there are as many prescriptions as there are men, but the fact of Western civilization’s rapidly approaching demise is acknowledged by all.” Mr. Levinson, cited by no less than His Holiness Rod Dreher, describes himself as “a normal man, which makes him an outcast in the progressive dystopia of California. He enjoys good liquor, fine cigars, old books, and works to bring a little order to a world gone mad.” This explains, among other things, his reference to “the manosphere”. He seems a bit full of himself, don’t you think?
Relatedly, I’ve recently stumbled across this quote from 1952 from the philosopher Eric Voegelin: “There begins in the eighteenth century a continuous stream of literature on the decline of Western civilization; and, whatever misgivings one may entertain on this or that special movement, one cannot deny that the theorists of decline on the whole have a case.” Voegelin went on to acknowledge that “one cannot deny that the progressivists have a case, too,” before concluding that “Totalitarianism…is the end form of progressive civilization.” Talk about giving away the ending!