René Guénon and the "Reign of Quantity"
The author's name is unknown.
René Guénon was a man who did not like biography, he had contempt for the cult of
personality and believed that the age-old wisdom should stand or fall by itself. That being
said, some introduction to him may prove prudent. Rene Guénon was born on the 15th November
1886. He received an excellent education, yet suffered from many health problems throughout his
youth. His mind proved astute and his quickly mastered the "classical" form of education common
during that period, he particularly excelled at mathematics. However, that was not enough for
Guénon. He located and joined a range of esoteric and gnostic organisations delving deep into
the secret traditions, he wandered through this "wastelands" of secret societies for some seven
years. In 1909 he was consecrated Bishop of Synesuis in the Gnostic Church founded by Papus
under the name of Palingensuis. Guénon's life at this time was complex and complicated. While
he was involved with many esoteric, occult and Gnostic organizations, he also undertook study
(and initiation?) into many traditional esoteric bodies related to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity
and Taoism. He spent many years between 1912 and 1928 within the bosom of the Roman Catholic
Church, while many also believe he became initiated into the Sufi school of Islam around 1912,
it seems more likely this occurred during his later sojourn in Egypt during the 1930's. In any
event, during this foundation period he digests whatever knowledge he can gain and begins to
develop a truly encyclopaedic knowledge and deep understanding of the esoteric traditions.
As time passes, Guénon seems to reach a crossroads, while acknowledging the value of
esotericism, he comes to regard many of the prevailing movements of the period as anarchistic,
idiosyncratic and distortions of the true perennial esoteric tradition. He makes a break with
them and begins his own research. His life work begins to unfold at this moment; he starts to
truly appreciate the real nature of esotericism and the importance of "living traditions".
Between 1927 and 1930 he works to expound esotericism as the living heart of religion, however,
he experiences a great disillusionment due to hostility within elements of Catholicism towards
his work (especially towards his book Lord of the World) and after the death of his wife
migrates to Egypt in 1930 and is initiated into the Sufi Order of Shadilities and takes the name
Abdel Wahed Yahya. He publishes some of his most important works during this period on esotericism,
criticism of modern society and symbolism, Rene Guénon died, living as a Sufi, in December 1950.
His work can be divided into four major categories - Esotericism, Symbolism, Social Criticism
and Religious exposition. Guénon was not one to destroy the edifices of a belief or doctrine
without also expounding the real teaching of which it is a distortion or corruption. His works
on the modern world are the most astringent, critical and biting critiques of our modern way of
life that have ever been written. Crisis of the Modern World and The Reign of Quantity
demolish the false structures that we have created in the name of progress and "supposed evolution"
and show just how far modern man has moved away from the perennial tradition. Guénon's works on both
religion and esotericism respond to modern "pseudo-intellectualism", theosophies and
spiritualisms (including what we would describe as the new age) by re-asserting the pristine
and original esotericism as found in the Vedas, Islam, Christianity and related canons. These
works are astounding presentations offering erudite academic achievement coupled with a rare
depth of insight and vision. However, to really appreciate the significance of Guénon's work we
must understand some of the key concepts found in what could be described as his "traditionalist
The book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times is pivotal to Guénon's worldview. It is an
extremely dense book that has resulted from years of planning, it is as though every word had
been carefully chosen and every page refined time and time again. It is not easy to read, but
certainly rewards those who make the effort. Its central focus is Guénon's re-instatement of
the traditional view of history. In this view history is a record of decline. Guénon's uses as
a foundation the age-old Vedic tradition of the Yugas or four ages. This tradition is based on
periods known as Gold, Silver, Copper and Iron is are also found in many other traditions
ranging from Buddhism to Greek Philosophy. These ages do not develop or evolve, but are a
series of degenerative steps. The age of silver is less evolved, has less knowledge than the
age of Gold or the "Golden Age". The Kali Yuga or Epoch of Iron, in which we are presently
stranded, is the most dark, dense and degenerative of all. This model stands against the
rationalist, scientific, model of evolution and progress, even if man's (and it is a big "if")
physical organism has been evolving (as well as his technology), his spirit, soul and culture
has been heading in the other direction.
Perhaps the best illustration of his concept is found in Guénon's elucidation of Quality and
Quantity. For Guénon Quality is the epitome of the Age of Gold, when true spiritual experience
was found by excelling in one's exploration of Self as part of a vital spiritual tradition. The
opposite of this is what is found today, an emphasis on quantity, units, and the "lowest common
denominator". Instead of emphasizing how we can raise levels of education, skill and awareness,
we talk about averaging, affirmative action, political correctness and "educational adjustments"
due to minority status. Quality is embodied in skills, crafts and personal ability - in a word
achievement. Quantity is embodied in reducing humanity to numbers, units, and a cog in a wheel.
Modern employment, for example, has reduced most jobs to quantity, most people can fit into an
office or factory job, no special skills are warranted or required. Modern man has become a
faceless number or an equation; this is the reign of quantity. Guénon's anti-modernist worldview
is found clearly expressed in both The Reign of Quantity and Crisis of the Modern World,, for
those who find heavy dense metaphysical contemplation overpowering, I would suggest that Crisis
of the Modern World is the best place to start!
Coupled with Guénon's persuasive arguments against the modern world, is his understanding of
living religious traditions. For Guénon a religion is that which has a living link with the
Perennial wisdom, the truth that began in the Age of Gold and has emanated, like ripples in a
pond, throughout time. The core of that religion must be a living esoteric tradition. Every
true vital religion is hence a dynamic balance between outer forms, sacraments and rituals
(exotericism) and the inner, sometimes withdrawn, esoteric teachings. Guénon saw that within
the Kali Yuga these teachings were becoming debased and that these traditions were loosing their
link to the perennial wisdom, as such they were becoming atrophied and even, in some cases,
becoming "counter traditions". Guénon worked to re-instate the esotericism behind the forms and
traditions of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and other living religions. His perceptions and
insight into these faiths and the true meanings of their symbols still stands the test of time
today. Extending from the dynamics of exotericism and esotericism, Guénon was able to pinpoint
and denounce false traditions and those that did not function from a point within the perennial
wisdom. Guénon's works in this field are extensive and include such volumes as Man and his
becoming according to the Vedanta, Studies in Hinduism and Introduction to the study of Hindu
Doctrines. These volumes while focused the Hindu Esoteric tradition offers an insight into the
inner life that is applicable within any living tradition.
If a living tradition must exist from a qualitative point within the perennial wisdom then
Guénon reasoned that many (if not most) of the movements, cults, isms and philosophies of his
day (and indeed of today) were embodiments of the spirit of the age rather than true spiritual
traditions. Furthermore, he found by critically studying spiritualism, theosophy and other
movements which now could be seen as "new age", that these movements were manifestations of the
Zeitgeist of the Kali Yuga and hence were false traditions and operated in a counter initiatic
manner. Guénon's denouncements of these movements were venomous and without pity, he believed it
was imperative to shine the light of wisdom on paths that were leading humanity towards
destruction rather than illumination. At the same time Guénon also stressed the importance of a
vital esoteric core to the living traditions. If you remove the esotericism of a living
tradition then it atrophies and becomes a dead shell, if not a "counter traditional" movement
itself. The tendencies within the living traditions of the present age illustrate how far the
negativity of the present period is encroaching upon the very movements that are the lifeblood
of our spiritual life. If we compare both fundamentalist Christianity (and the related forms of
Protestantism) or the social-gospel of the left wing of the Church we can see how far it has
moved from the mysticism and majesty of its original vision. At the same time this
traditionalist vision is not reactionary, we are not talking about a return to "1950's"
homespun moral values as so many "so-called" traditionalists teach today. We are talking about
a revitalization of real esotericism from within the vital bodies of the world's religions, or
perhaps, from within what is left of them.
Modern man is in a state of decline, the Kali Yuga is reaching a crescendo and the
scientific/technological culture that he has created has stolen the mysticism from his soul and
replaced it with consumerism and materialism. The most fashionable spiritual fads represent
"lowest common denominator" movements which move the wallet rather than the mind and which
accustom people to "counter initiatic" values. The esoteric traditions themselves have become
isolated from their traditional exoteric "homes" and in isolation have become morally bankrupt
and full of false promise. Guénon argued quite prophetically that in the Kali Yuga even the
language and terminology of the Mysteries would be lost. Today this is undoubtedly so, concepts
such as Karma, Soul, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, occultism (we could continue indefinitely),
have been countermanded and used in ways contrary to their transcendent nature. For modern man
to survive the tumultuous upheavals that are occurring and will accelerate as we head into the
future, he must regain his soul and in Guénon's view, rediscover the vital esoteric traditions
that are staring him in the face. There is no need for new fads, movements, nor to travel to
foreign and exotic places, within our own heritage(s) is a life changing tradition if only we
can rediscover it.
The following piece, by Ibrahim Kalin, was found at http://www.cis-ca.org/voices/g/guenon-mn.htm,
dated July 25, 2001:
Considered to be the founder of the Traditionalist school, Guénon was born in Blois, France
on November 15, 1886. He devoted the early years of his life to the study of mathematics and
philosophy. He went to Paris in 1906, where he maintained regular contact with various
spiritualist groups. In 1909, he edited and published a review journal called La Gnose
for which he wrote a number of essays and reviews on spirituality and esoterism. In 1910, he
met the famous French painter Gustav Ageli, who had by that time embraced Islam and taken the
name Abd al-Hadi. Guénon was initiated into Sufism in 1912 and became Muslim, taking the name
Abd al-Wahid Yahya.
He finished his university education in 1916 with a thesis called "Leibniz and Infinitesimal
Calculus". The same year, he met Jacques Maritain, one of the most influential Catholic thinkers
of the 20th century. In 1921, he prepared his doctoral dissertation under the title "General
Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines". Guénon's thesis was rejected by his doctoral
committee, which led to his eventual abandonment of academia in 1923. The dissertation was later
published as a book under the same title. In 1924, he published Orient and Occident, one of his
major works on comparative philosophy and spirituality. This was followed by The Crisis of the
Modern World (1927)--perhaps his most famous and widely read book.
A year after the publication of The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon's wife died. He went
to Egypt in 1930 as part of a project for the study and publication of some Sufi texts. He
never left Egypt again. He married Fatima, the daughter of the Sufi Shaykh Muhammad Ibrahim, in
1934 and settled in a house near al-Azhar University where he had regular contact with 'Abd al-
Halim Mahmud, the famous president of al-Azhar and scholar of Sufism. Although Guénon received
occasional visits from such members of the Traditionalist School as Titus Burckhardt, Frithjof
Schuon and Martin Lings, he remained largely reclusive during his years in Egypt, working on
his major books and articles. Towards the end of his life, Guénon's poor health, which had
accompanied him throughout his life, deteriorated further, leading to his death on January 7,
Guénon's writings span a wide array of subjects from metaphysics and symbolism to the
critique of the modern world and traditional sciences. One of the constant themes of his corpus
is the sharp contrast between the traditional worldview shared by various religions of the
world and modernism, which he considered to be an anomaly in the history of mankind. His
writings devoted to the critique of modernism and the modern world contain some of the most
profound and enduring analyses of the modern world and its philosophical outlook. Orient and
Occident and The Crisis of the Modern World, both published in the first half of the
20th century, are still widely read today and have been translated into various languages. In
addition to these two books devoted exclusively to the critique of the modern world from a
traditionalist point of view, Guénon's other writings contain many references to metaphysical
and philosophical misconceptions prevalent in modern Western societies.
The second part of Guénon's corpus deals with traditional doctrines and it is in these works
that Guénon attempts to revive traditional concepts and sciences that have been either ignored
or lost with the rise of modern philosophy. Such works as The Reign of Quantity and the Signs
of the Times, Multiple States of Being and Fundamental Symbols of Sacred Science
are devoted to the revival of traditional doctrines and have been instrumental in the rise and
spread of the Traditionalist School represented by such figures as Frithjof Schuon, Ananda
Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt, Marco Pallis, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Martin Lings. In addition
to these, some of Guénon's writings deal with certain themes and specific religious traditions,
all of which have been written from the same perspective of traditional metaphysics and
esoterism. For this category of writings, we can mention The Symbolism of the Cross,
Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, Introduction to the Study of Hindu
Doctrines, and The Grand Triad.
Guénon's view of science is an integral part of his endeavor of reviving the traditional
worldview and cannot be properly understood in isolation from the general purview that he
adopts throughout his works. The gist of Guénon's metaphysical views also lies at the heart of
the Traditionalist School: the primordial and perennial Truth, which manifests itself in a
variety of religious traditions and metaphysical systems, has been lost in the modern world.
The modernists seek to reduce all higher principles and levels of reality to their manifestation
in the world of multiplicity and relative existence. Modern philosophy carries this out by
reducing everything to the individualistic horizon of the subject and by relegating objective
reality to the discursive constructions of the knowing subject. In the field of natural
sciences, positivism and its scientistic allies similarly reject any reality that is beyond the
reach and scrutiny of the quantitative measurement of physical sciences. In the social realm,
the moral and aesthetic principles are left to the arbitrary decisions and consensuses of the
majority, thus jeopardizing the objective reality of the truth. For Guénon, the malaise of the
modern world is its relentless denial of the metaphysical realm, the metaphysical world being
comprised of both philosophy and spirituality. Guénon sees everything in the world of creation
as an application and manifestation of metaphysical principles that are contained in the
perennial teachings of religions, and applies them to every single subject that he addresses in
his works. Both the value of traditional sciences of nature and the misguided claims of modern
secular science are judged in proportion to their proximity or distance from these principles.
In this sense, Guénon is a metaphysician par excellence who has devoted his life to the
diagnosis and correction of the metaphysical mistakes of the modern world.
As far as Guénon's writings on science are concerned, we can apply the aforementioned
two-fold distinction and analyze his views in two broad categories. While the first category of
writings pertains to the critical analysis of modern science and its philosophical viewpoint,
the second group of writings deals with traditional sciences of nature, such as cosmology,
alchemy, philosophy of numbers, and the science of the soul, which Guénon elucidates as
numerous applications of metaphysical principles to the domain of the relative and the physical.
To emphasize the deep contrast between the traditional and modern sciences, Guénon calls the
former 'sacred science' and the latter 'profane science' (The Crisis of the Modern World,
p. 37, 47). Sacred science, which, in this particular context, is synonymous with traditional
science, is based on "intellectual intuition" on the one hand, and the acceptance of the
hierarchy of being, on the other. For Guénon, intellectual intuition, which lies at the
foundation of traditional societies, precedes discursive knowledge for it is directly related
to the knowledge of the Absolute. The relative, which is the domain of physical sciences and
their applications in the form of various quantitative methods and technology, is not to be
denied but placed in its proper position in the great chain of being. Sciences of nature deal
with the relative in the total economy of things, and in this sense they pertain to the world
of multiplicity. This explains, according to Guénon, the existence of various traditional
sciences that display significant differences in form and language from one traditional
civilization to another but remain the same in essence and principle. When construed as
multifarious adaptations and "illustrations" (Ibid., p. 48) of metaphysical principles to the
realm of corporeal existence, the traditional cosmological and scientific systems that use
different methodologies and languages within and across civilizations become justified.
In understanding Guénon's notion of science, therefore, one can hardly overemphasize the
significance of the relation between the Principle and its adaptations. For Guénon, metaphysics
studies the Principle and provides principial knowledge whereas the sciences of nature
investigate its earthly, relative, and multi-layered manifestation in the cosmos. Scientific
theories, even when enunciated as empirically established and universal truths, cannot function
as substitutes for higher principles but only as further corroborations of the principles of
which they are but applications. In this regard, metaphysics, as Aristotle has said, is the
science of all sciences, namely it is a knowledge that provides a total framework for all other
forms of knowledge, whether based on theoria or praxis. Consequently, metaphysics
branches and forms of knowledge, supplying a frame of reference within which the physical
sciences function. To carry this point a step further, Guénon reverses the relation between
theory and experiment and gives priority to "preconceived ideas" - a point of view remarkably
close to Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigm. For Guénon, it is a "peculiar delusion, typical of
modern 'experimentalism', to suppose that a theory can be proved by facts whereas really the
same facts can always be equally well explained by a variety of different theories" (Ibid., p.
Guénon attributes this mistake to what he calls the "superstition of facts", a creation of
modern profane science, which supposes that science investigates "bare facts" devoid of any
subjective, theoretical or supra-sensual ingredients. By contrast, Guénon makes a radical
intellectual claim and grounds all human understanding, theoretical, experimental or aesthetic,
in intellectual intuition, which is also the main gateway to metaphysical knowledge. All
knowledge is a form of understanding in one way or another - a conclusion voiced and
articulated by many philosophers of modern hermeneutics. To use the terminology of the
philosophy of science, we can assuredly say that Guénon would agree with the basic postulate
that all observation is theory laden, i.e., it is preceded by a set of preconceived ideas and
suppositions that cannot be accounted for within the exclusive purview of physical sciences. As
we have pointed out before, sciences of nature are applications and adaptations of metaphysical
principles to particular fields of study and as such derive their philosophical justification
not from their subject matter, as the positivists would argue, but from those principles that
inform and determine their purview. In this sense, scientific knowledge, insofar as it derives
its justification from principles, is neither false nor useless. Thus Guénon emphatically states
that "there is no question of maintaining that any kind of knowledge, however inferior, is
illegitimate in itself; what is not legitimate is simply the abuse which occurs when subjects
of this kind absorb the whole of human activity, as is the case today." (Ibid., p. 43).
It is from this point of view that Guénon takes up the question of the rise of the
experimental method in modern sciences. He puts the question in the following way: "Why have the
experimental sciences received a development in the modern civilization such as they have never
received at the hands of any other civilization before?" (Ibid., p. 42). Guénon answers this
crucial question by underscoring a powerful tendency of the modern world, and it is the
exclusive concern of the modern mind with what is given to us in our immediate sense experience.
Natural sciences by definition confine themselves to the corporeal realm and provide a
systematic access to what can be tested only in the sensible world. The sciences thus deal with
the most minimal aspect of reality, which is what is immediately available to us in terms of
sensation, feelings, experiences, and so on. Once the quantitative dimension of things is
construed to be the ultimate foundation of what can be known and studied, philosophy, following
Kant and his students, becomes a handmaid of physics, viz., a mere interpreter of the data
supplied by physical sciences.
For Guénon, this represents the peak of modern reductionism, which turns all intellectual
endeavors into bad philosophy. This is what Guénon calls "the reign of quantity" as the title of
his most important work on traditional sciences of nature states (See his The Reign of Quantity
and the Signs of the Times, Introduction). As Guénon puts it, the reason why the
experimental method has gained an unprecedented prominence in the modern world is that the
physical sciences "confine their attention to things of the senses and to the world of matter,
and also that they lend themselves readily to the most immediate practical applications; their
development, going hand in hand with what may well be termed the "superstition of facts", is
thus quite in accordance with the specifically modern tendencies, whereas preceding ages would,
on the contrary, have been unable to find sufficient inducements for becoming absorbed in this
direction to the extent of neglecting the higher orders of knowledge." (The Crisis of the
Modern World, pp. 42-3).
Thus Guénon considers the rise of modern science not as a natural outcome of advances in
experimental methods but rather as a result of a fundamental change in modern man's
Weltanschauung, which Guénon takes to be a "process of degeneration" from the point of
view of intuitive-metaphysical knowledge. By the same token, the infinitely detailed data
gathered by the sciences about the quantitative dimension of reality signifies, for Guénon, not
a deepening of knowledge but "dispersion in detail...which can be pursued indefinitely without
advancing a single step further in the direction of true knowledge." (Ibid., p. 41). As Guénon
has explained in the Reign of Quantity and his other writings, this is a result of the severing
of scientific knowledge from higher principles outlined by traditional metaphysics. Another
important outcome of this process is that the natural sciences are now concerned primarily with
practical applications, and in many cases this is combined with a will to power. This is the
common confusion between science and technology. As Guénon puts it: "...it is not for its own
sake that Westerners in general cultivate science as they understand it; their primary aim is
not knowledge, even of an inferior order, but practical applications, as may be inferred from
the ease with which the majority of our contemporaries confuse science and industry, so that by
many the engineer is looked upon as a typical man of science" (Ibid., p. 41).
Guénon assigns two interrelated functions to the sciences of nature when they are conceived
in their traditional setting. The first pertains to the fact that sciences as "applications of
the doctrine...allow of linking up all the different orders of reality one to another and of
integrating them in the unity of the total synthesis." (Ibid., p. 47). Said differently,
natural sciences analyze the hierarchy of being and show the underlying unity that exists in
various domains of the cosmos. The second function of the traditional sciences of nature is
rather pedagogical in that they prepare us for higher forms of knowledge: "they [i.e., natural
sciences] constitute, for some people at least, and in accordance with their own particular
aptitudes, a preparation for a higher type of knowledge and a kind of pathway leading towards
it, while from their hierarchical arrangement, according to the levels of existence to which
they relate, they form as it were so many rungs of a ladder with the aid of which it is possible
to raise oneself to the heights of pure intellectuality."
Guénon has further developed the above themes in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of
the Times with more emphasis on the analysis of various scientific concepts from the
traditional point of view. With great mastery and lucidity, Guénon deals with such concepts as
quantity and quality, prime matter, "spatial quantity and qualified space", time, individuation,
unity and simplicity, "solidification of the world", geometrical symbols, numbers, change and
becoming, and a host of other concepts, all analyzed with a view towards underscoring the deep
intellectual transformation that took place with the rise of modern secular science. In this
particular book whose title summarizes a great deal of its message, Guénon focuses on the
quantification of reality in the name of scientific measurement, prediction, exactitude.
As the most prominent defender of traditional metaphysics and philosophy of science in the
20th century, Guénon has played a key role in the development of a highly critical
position towards what Wolfgang Smith has called modern 'scientism'. Even though Guénon has
remained somewhat unknown in Western academic circles owing to his scathing criticism of the
modern worldview and uncompromising defense of tradition, his writings have made a deep impact
on many intellectuals and writers in the West and the East.
René Guénon's major works include the following:
The Crisis of the Modern World, tr. by A. Osborne, M. Pallis, R. Nicholson (London: Luzac, 1962).
The Multiple States of Being, tr. by Jocelyn Godwin (New York: Larson, 1984).
The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, tr. by Lord Northbourne (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972).
Symbolism of the Cross, tr. by Angus Macnab (London: Luzac, 1958).
East and West, tr. by William Massey (London: Luzac, 1941). See also the new translation by Martin Lings (New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001).
The Esotericism of Dante, tr. by Henry D. Fohr (New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001).
The Great Triad, tr. by Peter Kingsley (Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1991).
Insights into Islamic Esoterism and Taoism, tr. by Henry D. Fohr (New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001).
Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines, tr. by M. Pallis (London: Luzac, 1945).
Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, tr. By R. Nicholson (London: Luzac, 1946).
The Metaphysical Principles of the Infinitesimal Calculus, tr. by Henry D. Fohr (New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001).
Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, tr. by Henry D. Fohr (New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001).
Fundamental Symbols: The Universal Language of Sacred Science, tr. by Alvin Moore, revised and edited by martin Lings (Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1995).
One may also refer to the following sources for Guenon's life and writings:
Rene Alleau and M. Scriabine, René Guénon et l'Actualite de la Pensee Traditionnelle: Actes
du Colloque International de Cerisy-La-Salle; 13-20 Julliet 1973 (Paris: Dervy Livres, 1981).
Robin Waterfield, René Guénon and the Future of the West: the Life and Writings of a
20th-century Metaphysician (Wellingborough: Crucible, 1987)
Jean Robin, René Guénon: Temoin de la Tradition (Paris: G. Tredaniel, 1986).
Further Guénon links:
transcript of Martin Lings' 1994 lecture on Guénon
Muhammad Haneef Shahid, "How René Guénon Discovered Islam"
W. Kennedy, "The occult world of Rene Guénon"
Jung/number theory page
inexplicable secrets of creation