Listen To This Story
I just made the mistake of rereading René Guénon’s The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945) and I feel the pressing need to talk about it — particularly in relationship to the artificial intelligence revolution, as well as my time with three Kogi (an Indigenous culture from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia) last week at the PAUA Conference in Paris.
I remember feeling exactly this way after I read the book before: That Guénon, with his almost mathematical approach to metaphysics, is essentially, embarrassingly, on target. I remember feeling this same sense of vaguely claustrophobic impossibility — that the most important things everyone needs to know can not even be shared or understood properly by more than the tiniest handful of people.
A bombshell of a book.
I wish everyone would take a few days off to read The Reign of Quantity. Then we might organize massive online discussion groups on it, confront the metaphysical disaster we are in, and then, with open minds and hearts, try to set things right.
The Reign of Quantity, alas, is written in a very arch, complex style (Guénon never met a semicolon he didn’t like), which helps to make it inaccessible to most people. Also, the vast majority would neither have the context nor the level of interest to understand what Guénon is raving on about. In fact, much of what Guénon says about the end of the cycle and the approaching termination of our civilization makes more sense today than it did decades or even a few years ago. And it was perfectly clear back then.
For those who have never heard of him, Guénon (1886-1951) is one of the main thinkers of the Traditionalisét movement that included Sufi philosophy, Frithjof Schuon, and the imperious magus Julius Evola (author of a book in a very similar vein, Revolt Against the Modern World, and favorite thinker of the “alt-right”). Guénon was a French intellectual who got interested in esoteric topics, joining the Martinists (an 18th Century esoteric cult), the Universal Gnostic Church, and other such groups. Eventually he was initiated into the Shadhili order, a 13th Century Sufi group, founded in Egypt, where Guénon lived for two decades until his death. I am reviewing his work for my current seminar on the Western hermetic tradition, Secret Histories and Spiritual Revolutions.
To the Kogi, who call themselves “Elder Brother,” our civilization is based on fundamental errors. For example, they believe it is a mistake to put concrete around the sacred rivers or to take minerals and metals from out of the sacred body of the Earth. After an AI researcher spoke at the PAUA.life conference, the Kogi asked him a question: “Did you ask for permission before you built this artificial thing?”
Let me try to summarize the main ideas in Guénon’s book: He believes that modern civilization represents degeneration rather than progress — but this corruption and decay is, ultimately, part of great cosmic cycles. Our age of degeneration is the culmination of the Kali Yuga, the final cycle of four “World Ages,” the last one before total dissolution and recreation, as described in Vedic thought.
Modern society has fixated on ultimately meaningless quantities and pointless technologies that draw us further and further away from qualitative dimensions of being and experience. This approach to reality has created a total “enframing” of reality (to use a concept from Heidegger) which is almost airtight and from which it is very difficult to escape. Many of our society’s ideas and beliefs are the mirror-image opposite of what was considered normal in a traditional society. The Kogi, for example, find our world to be incomprehensible and insane. They cannot understand why we don’t see nature as precious, or recognize the qualitative and sacred dimension of particular trees, rocks, caves, and animals.
Guénon notes that, at least since the 17th century, the West’s focus on materialism created “fissures” that allowed demonic and destructive astral forces to break into our world. Traditionally, the human world is protected by a barrier — a “Great Wall” — that repels most malevolent influences. The focus on materialism was part of a greater process through which the world became more solidified and dense: Human consciousness influences and transforms the world itself, Guénon argues (and I would agree). As we became increasingly materialistic and mechanistic in our beliefs, our world densified and hardened to mesh with our conception of it. When most of humanity was still aligned with tradition, their prayers and ritual practices helped to maintain this shield, which is now too weak to prevent invasion
Increasingly today, reductive materialism is recognized by many as deficient. This has been demonstrated by experiments in physics, which now recognizes the centrality of consciousness in the manifestation of reality. Unfortunately, today’s rejection of materialism mainly happens in a context with no access to spiritual wisdom, initiatory knowledge, and the primordial tradition. This leads modern people, in their confusion, to embrace ambiguous psychic and “spiritualist” ideas that are not actually spiritual. These psychic / “spiritualist” currents can provide more of an opening for the malevolent entities, further opening the fissures and hastening the end of this world.
All of this, Guénon believes, is part of a deliberate “counter-initiation¹” or an “anti-tradition” that was devised by beings from the lower worlds, allied with humans. This plan has unfolded over many centuries, if not millennia. (As I explored in Quetzalcoatl Returns, I see the phenomenon of Grey Alien abductions as a literal / allegorical expression of this dangerous situation, with the Greys a form of infra-dimensional goblin, rather than enlightened ETs).
That’s the basic gist. I thought I would now examine some quotes from Guénon and try to unpack them a bit, providing some context from our contemporary world and experience, and hopefully imparting something of the flavor of his work.
Guénon does a good job refuting the Cartesian idea that space is homologous, with every quantity of space equivalent to every other. He also notes that time has a qualitative aspect to it (something that physics has established). Writing about the great Yuga cycles, which get progressively shorter in duration, Guénon notes:
…according to the different phases of the cycle, sequences of events comparable one to another do not occupy quantitatively equal durations; this is particularly evident in the case of the great cycles, applicable both to the cosmic and to the human orders, the most notable example being furnished by the decreasing lengths of the respective durations of the four Yugas that together make up a Manvantara. For that very reason, events are being unfolded nowadays with a speed unexampled in the earlier ages, and this speed goes on increasing and will continue to increase up to the end of the cycle; there is thus something like a progressive ‘contraction’ of duration, the limit of which corresponds to the ‘stopping-point’ previously alluded to… [the catastrophic conclusion, in other words, that leads to a new beginning.]
I would say that this corresponds very well with our current felt sense that time keeps accelerating. Technological breakthroughs and environmental catastrophes follow one after the other at ever-shorter intervals. Our world becomes increasingly unstable and perilous as a result. For Guénon this felt sense of acceleration is not a peculiar accident or something subjective. We feel this acceleration because the qualitative nature of time is changing as we approach the end of the cycle.
Guénon contrasts the traditionalist ideal of unity with the modern quest for uniformity — monotonous and repetitive sameness — which many of us (even our thinkers and charismatic pundits) often seem to mistake for a unity that could be positive and harmonious. Guénon writes:
A mere glance at things as they are is enough to make it clear that the aim is everywhere to reduce everything to uniformity, whether it be human beings themselves or the things among which they live, and it is obvious that such a result can only be obtained by suppressing as far as possible every qualitative distinction; but it is particularly to be noted that some people, through a strange delusion, are all too willing to mistake this ‘uniformization’ for a ‘unification’, whereas it is really exactly the opposite, as must appear evident in the light of the ever more marked accentuation of ‘separativity’ implied. It must be insisted that quantity can only separate and cannot unite; everything that proceeds from ‘matter’ produces nothing but antagonism, in many diverse forms, between fragmentary ‘units’ that are at a point directly opposite to true unity, or at least are pressing toward that point with all the weight of a quantity no longer balanced by quality…
We find the most extreme example of this modern quest for uniformity in contemporary China: An efficiently functional totalitarian state able to eliminate any form of individual uniqueness that might threaten the technocratic control apparatus. Today, in China, 700 million cameras and digitization entomb daily life in a prison of uniformity. If someone speeds through a red light, for instance, their infraction will be registered instantly. Through a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), they may find their account immediately debited for the cost of the ticket.
Guénon notes that this mindset of quantitative progress originated in the West and is, ultimately, a Western phenomenon, even if Eastern societies, like China, develop the technocratic and commercial system to another level. The West, symbolically, is where the sun sets. The impulse toward pure quantification and uniformity unleashed by the West is, in every sense, a setting sun vision.
While Guénon rejects the modern trajectory toward standardization and uniformity, he is also scathing toward Democracy as a system of government, which, he argues, promotes the same kind of idea: That everyone is, in some ultimate sense, equal and interchangeable, like machine parts. In fact, other Traditionalist authors, including Julius Evola, also despised liberal democracies. They believed there was a primordial — organic — hierarchy in traditional societies, where people understood their social roles and accepted differentiation. I probably should note that by writing this, I am not agreeing with Guénon’s political philosophy, but I find it worth considering. He writes:
The conclusion that emerges clearly from all this is that uniformity, in order that it may be possible, presupposes beings deprived of all qualities and reduced to nothing more than simple numerical ‘units’; also that no such uniformity is ever in fact realizable, while the result of all the efforts made to realize it, notably in the human domain, can only be to rob beings more or less completely of their proper qualities, thus turning them into something as nearly as possible like mere machines; and machines, the typical product of the modern world, are the very things that represent, in the highest degree attained up till now, the predominance of quantity over quality. From a social viewpoint, ‘democratic’ and ‘egalitarian’ conceptions tend toward exactly the same end, for according to them all individuals are equivalent one to another. This idea carries with it the absurd supposition that everyone is equally well fitted for anything whatsoever, though nature provides no example of any such ‘equality’, for the reasons already given, since it would imply nothing but a complete similitude between individuals; but it is obvious that, in the name of this assumed ‘equality’, which is one of the topsy-turvy ‘ideals’ most dear to the modern world, individuals are in fact directed toward becoming as nearly alike one to another as nature allows – and this in the first place by the attempt to impose a uniform education on everyone.
Here, obliquely, I also note Guénon’s comments can be applied to artificial intelligence, which applies advanced algorithmic quantification to all types of human exchanges including cultural, art, and media. The latest advances are even bringing areas that seemed distinctly human, not available to calculation, into the “reign of quantity,” destabilizing our concepts of individualism, creativity, and free will in the process.
Guénon also critiques modern industrial production and modern art from his traditionalist vantage point. The reality is, in traditional civilizations like, for instance, the Kogi, art and craft are not separate things. All artisanship is integrated into a sacred vision of the world, into a set of metaphysical principles that make coherent sense. The notion that art is meant to express the “individuality” of the artist simply doesn’t exist, as we can see, for instance, with Tibetan thangka paintings and mandalas. When Kogi women weave their bags, they are engaged in an act that replicates creative processes in the universe as a whole. They use the act of weaving as a way to bring their thoughts into coherence, like meditation. Guénon writes:
… the distinction between the arts and the crafts, or between ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’, is itself something specifically modern, as if it had been born of the deviation and degeneration which have led to the replacement in all fields of the traditional conception by the profane conception. To the ancients the artifex was indifferently the man who practiced an art or a craft; but he was, to tell the truth, something that neither the artist nor the artisan is today, if those words are used in the modern sense (moreover the word ‘artisan’ tends more and more to disappear from contemporary language); he was something more than either the one or the other because, at least originally, his activity was bound up with principles of a much more profound order. If the crafts used to comprehend in one way or another the arts properly so called, since the two were not then separated by any essential characteristic, it is because the nature of the crafts was truly qualitative, for nobody can refuse to admit that such is the nature of art, more or less by definition. Nevertheless the moderns, for that very reason, narrowly restrict their conception of art, and relegate it to a sort of closed domain having no connection with the rest of human activity… and they go so far as freely to attribute to art, thus robbed of all practical significance, the character of a ‘luxury’, a term thoroughly characteristic of what could without any exaggeration be called the ‘silliness’ of our period.
To be honest, I suspect that the Burning Man festival may represent the “counter-initiation” Guénon warned about. At least, it is one expression of it. I will have to write about this more, at some point.
A version of this piece was originally published in “Daniel Pinchbeck’s newsletter.”