René Guénon’s book was first published in French in 1945, and in English in 1953. In France the book had a considerable impact because of its intellectual rigour, despite being entirely contrary to the prevailing current of opinion. On the second page of the introduction, Guénon writes: “…whereas the modern world considered in itself is an anomaly and even a sort of monstrosity… it corresponds exactly to the conditions pertaining to a certain phase of that cycle, the phase which in the Hindu Tradition specifies the final period of the Kali-Yuga….. The mentality which is its special characteristic ….implies of necessity….a complete ignorance of the laws (which govern humanity)… as well as of all other truths which, being more or less directly derived from transcendental principles, are essentially part of traditional knowledge; all characteristically modern conceptions are… a direct and unqualified denial of that knowledge”. He goes on: “….it is impossible that these things should be understood by men in general, but only by a small number of those destined to prepare in one way or another, the germs of the future cycle….. everything set out in this book…. is addressed exclusively to these few…”
According to Hindu Tradition, the life of mankind takes place in a recurring cycle of four ages: a Golden Age, a Silver Age, a Bronze Age, and an Iron Age, each being shorter, quicker, and more materialistic than the one preceding it. (There is a clear echo of this in Plato’s Republic). The rate of change accelerates, being almost imperceptible in the Golden Age (though there is no life without movement and change) until, in the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, our “civilisation”, such as it has become, is hurtling towards self-destruction. (“Change? You want change? Aren’t things bad enough already?”) From the ashes of the Kali Yuga the phoenix bringing a new Golden Age will arise, providing that whatever is most precious from the previous aeon survives as truth and understanding in some human beings.
In mediaeval Tibet, Lama Sambhava prophesied: “When horses go on wheels and iron birds fly in the sky, our people will be dispersed, and the end will be near.” How near is “near”? Though some would doubtless say 2012, we do not know. We can, though, look back, and wonder when this inevitable process of forgetting truth took such a hold on men, in order to understand our own time better. My journey back took me through the world wars, the theory of evolution, the French revolution and the rise of nationalism, the industrial revolution, the so-called “enlightenment” and the idea of progress, the voyages of exploration, the Renaissance, the Crusades, the change in religions from truth to dogma, Rome, Babylon and the tower of Babel, to the ancient Greeks. Were they the first to substitute speculation for revelation?
In Guénon’s time, “characteristically modern conceptions” would have included ideas and beliefs about education, equality, human rights, freedom (as generally understood, in a political sense), democracy, and human progress. Now one would have to add current ideas about sexuality, race, and everything subsumed under political correctness. A sample of chapter headings gives a sense of his enquiry: “Quality and quantity”, “The qualitative determinations of time”, “Uniformity against unity”, “Ancient Crafts and modern industry”, “The hatred of secrecy”….
Yet, at the very beginning, Guénon asserts that it is not enough “…to denounce errors and to show them up for what they really are; useful though that may be, it is still more interesting… to investigate how and why they have come about; for everything that has any kind of existence, even error, has necessarily its reason for existence, and disorder itself must in the end find its place among the elements of universal order”.
Guénon is not easy reading- there is definitely a tendency towards dogmatism. At the same time, one cannot help suspecting that, like someone preaching hell and damnation for sinners, he is enjoying himself. Where is the positive side? It cannot ever be that all is negative. If, in secret, the next Golden Age is being prepared, can we see any signs of it? Some say it is in the concern to “save our planet”, “save the whales”, “overcome global warming”…. are those the signs? Or is that the same illusion, that as we are, we can bring about positive changes? (“Change? You want change? Aren’t things bad enough already?”) Or are there other, much less obvious signs? What are they?
Note. There have been no enquiries as to the source of Kali Yuga (1) Did all our readers recognise it?