"Against The Modern World"

and Aristotle's Four Causes


A correspondent has drawn my attention to what might be a fundamental problem with my book, Against the Modern World , and perhaps with the contemporary field of intellectual history as a whole. In fact, I will argue, it is only a problem if Against the Modern World (or any work of intellectual history) is thought to claim more than it does.  

Genealogy and truth
My correspondent objected that by identifying the sources of Traditionalism in Ficino, Encausse, de Pouvourville and so on, I am missing the main point. Ultimately, Traditionalism derives not from these figures, but from the ancient texts such as the Vedanta that Guénon and other Traditionalists used. Certainly, Guénon might have first encountered a particular idea in, say, Encausse-but what mattered most, the first youthful encounter with an idea, or the mature expression of a form of that idea as grounded in the Vedanta? Clearly, Vedanta matters more than Encausse.  

My correspondent indubitable has a point. We commonly say, for example, that "Schelling's polemic [against Hegel] . . . inspired . . . Kierkegaard" ( Britannica ). Certainly Kierkegaard may have been "inspired" by Schelling, but the real point is that Kierkegaard believed that a certain argument against Hegel was right. For Kierkegaard, and perhaps for us, the truth (or falsity) of the argument itself was more important than Schelling's earlier expression of a part of it.  

This points to a major limitation of intellectual history: that it focuses on genealogy rather than truth. This is, incidentally, less of a limitation with the history of science. There is no real problem with saying: "Using the improved measurements of planetary movements made by . . . Tycho Brahe . . . Kepler described the planetary orbits with simple geometric and arithmetic relations" ( Britannica ). Kepler used Tycho Brahe's data; that is that.  

Against the Modern World certainly suffers from this limitation. It does not examine why the mature Guénon was convinced that Traditionalism was "true," and indeed does not ask whether or not (or to what extent) Traditionalism is actually true.  


One way of casting further light in the issue is to consider it in terms of Aristotle's "four causes," an approach suggested by my correspondent, who asserted that in these terms "the Theosophical Society may form a portion of Traditionalism's material cause, but no part at all of its formal, efficient or final causes."  

I am not an authority on Aristotle, and so borrow below from an explanation of Aristotle's four causes provided by S. Marc Cohen. If the four causes are defined as follows

  1. The material cause is "that out of which a thing comes to be, and which persists."
  2. The formal cause is "the statement of essence."
  3. The efficient cause is "the primary source of change."
  4. The final cause is "the end ( telos ), that for the sake of which a thing is done."

then a historian might say that the causes of the First World War were:

  1. armies and militarism (material cause)
  2. static trench warfare (formal cause)
  3. Sarajevo and the alliance system (efficient cause)
  4. victory (final cause).

In this sense, one might say that history concerns itself primarily with efficient causes, and then with material causes. History also commonly identifies a telos , but focuses more on what actually resulted than on what was intended to result.  

In these terms, I would agree with my correspondent that the Theosophical Society was part of Traditionalism's material cause, but disagree about the efficient cause.  

Causes of Traditionalism
My starting point is that

  1. The material cause of Traditionalism was ancient texts such as the Vedanta, and perhaps more modern texts.
  2. The formal cause of Traditionalism was Tradition, or perhaps God. Or perhaps not.
  3. The efficient cause of Traditionalism was Guénon.
  4. The final cause of Traditionalism was the rediscovery and revivification of Tradition.

Guénon and today's Traditionalists would stress ancient texts over modern ones as material causes, but I would advise caution even here. There is necessarily a chronological relationship between the reading of different texts. One always reads a text in the light of one's prior readings of texts, so when one is dealing with texts, the efficient cause comes into the material cause. Put differently, it was not exactly Vedanta that was a major part of the material cause of Traditionalism, but rather the Vedanta as read by Guénon .  

To say that no text has meaning of itself and that meaning only emerges in the context of reading is a statement which may be taken too far-a great work of literature is not just an semi-literate's misreading of it. However, historians of religion are so used to different people in different places and periods reading different sacred texts in different ways that they have almost given up looking at the sacred text itself, and instead look at the many ways in which it is understood. To do otherwise would be an attempt to assert an inappropriate authority, to privilege one reading over another. While those involved in religious practice may and indeed must do this, the scholar need not need to and usually should not. Unless, that is, the scholar is also a practitioner; but even then, a Jesuit historian would generally be expected to take a different approach in class on a weekday and in a pulpit on a Sunday.  

Turning to the formal cause, as a historian I can have no view. Since the nineteenth century, history has professed to take no interest in formal causes (though some might object that Marxist historians offended against this). Attempting to examine the formal cause would also have involved a discussion of to what extent the Tradition of Traditionalism was actually Tradition, and to what extent it was invention.  

While the efficient cause of Traditionalism was Guénon, historians look not so much at single efficient causes but at chains of efficient causes. This is why I would disagree with my correspondent and suggest that the Theosophical Society plays a part here too, as a link in a chain that leads to Martinism and hence to Guénon himself.  

Causes of the Traditionalist Movement
Despite its subtitle, Against the Modern World is actually more of a history of the Traditionalist movement than of Traditionalism. The causes of the Traditionalist movement would be as follows:

  1. The material cause of the Traditionalist movement was the Traditionalists.
  2. The formal cause of the Traditionalist movement was Traditionalism.
  3. The efficient cause of the Traditionalist movement was the Traditionalists.
  4. The final cause of the Traditionalist movement was the rediscovery and revivification of Tradition (same as for Traditionalism).

People, then, are both material and efficient cause--and one person, Guénon himself, is part of the cause of the formal cause. And whatever else may be said about Against the Modern World, it certainly examines people, in all their glory and humanity and, sometimes, weakness.  

In short, Against the Modern World would be the wrong place to go for a final cause, or for the formal cause of Traditionalism (though not so much the wrong place to go for the formal cause of the Traditionalist movement). Against the Modern World focuses, like all history, on efficient causes, and then on material causes-especially to the extent that efficient causes are part of material causes. History is, of course, only one route to understanding. Some other routes are practiced in the university (psychology and sociology, for example). Some, such as intuition, are not practiced in the university; but that does not mean that they are not routes to understanding.



Traditionalists.org was established June 19, 2000.
This page was last revised July 21, 2006 .
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