GUÉNON, RENÉ (1886–1951), French traditionalist, metaphysician, and scholar of religions. René Guénon was born in Blois, the son of an architect. He carried out his early studies in his place of birth and went to Paris in 1904 where he pursued the field of mathematics and then philosophy, which he was later to teach. During his youth, Guénon was attracted to various occultist circles and to Freemasonry; he entered several of these orders, including the Hermetic Ordre Martiniste and the Église Gnostique. As a member of this "gnostic church" he adopted the name of Palingenius (under which he wrote several articles in the review La gnose ) and encountered Léon Champrenaud (who had been initiated into Sufism under the name of Abdul-Haqq) and Albert de Pounourville (who had received Daoist initiation and was known as Matgioi).
Guénon left Parisian occultist circles as he became more and more aware of Eastern doctrines. In 1912 he embraced Islam, receiving through Abdul-Hadi, a Swedish initiate, initiation and the blessing of the Egyptian Ṣūfī master Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ʿIllaysh al-Kabīr. Guénon continued, however, to be deeply involved in the intellectual life of Paris, encountering such well-known figures as Jacques Maritain, René Grousset, and others; in 1921 he published his first book, Introduction générale à l'étude des doctrines hindoues, a work originally prepared as a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, a work that marked a major turning point in the study of Eastern doctrines in the West.
In 1930 after the death of his French wife, Guénon set out for Egypt. He spent the rest of his days in Cairo living as a Muslim and was known as Shaykh ʿAbd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyā. There he was to take an Egyptian wife, by whom he had two daughters and two sons. He associated closely with certain eminent Muslim authorities of Egypt, such as Shaykh ʿAbd al-Ḥalim Maḥmūd, later to become Shaykh al-Azhar. Guénon also carried out extensive correspondence with scholars and traditional authorities throughout the world, including Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Marco Pallis, Leopold Ziegler, Giulio Evola, and Titus Burckhardt. He was also visited by many Westerners in search of traditional teachings and by some of those in the West who, like him, were seeking to revive tradition. Foremost among the latter group was Frithjof Schuon, who visited Guénon twice in Cairo and who corresponded with him until the end of Guénon's life. During the night of January 7, 1951, Guénon died after a period of illness and was buried according to Islamic rites in a cemetery outside of Cairo.
While in Cairo, Guénon continued the incredibly fruitful intellectual life that he had begun in France, and numerous books, articles, and reviews continued to flow from his pen. The articles appeared mostly in the journal Le Voile d'Isis, which changed its name to Les études traditionelles. The writings of Guénon include some twenty-nine books and some five hundred articles and reviews ranging over the domains of religion, metaphysics, the traditional sciences, sacred art and symbolism, occultism and esotericism, and the criticism of the modern world.
The monumental corpus of the writings of Guénon can be classified into several categories, though because of the traditional nature of his thought there is an interrelation among his various books. The Introduction générale à l'étude des doctrines hindoues was not simply his first work to be published; it also serves as a general introduction to all the major themes of his writings including his exposition of tradition, his criticism of the modern world, and his discussion of Eastern doctrines based upon the purely metaphysical aspects of their teachings.
A number of books by Guénon are devoted more specifically to the criticism of the modern world and to the discussion of the significance of Eastern traditions in the process of rediscovery of tradition in the West. They include Orient et occident (1924), La crise du monde moderne (1927), and La regne de la quantité et les signes des temps (1945). A group of his books turn to the study of initiation and esotericism as well as the criticism of occultism and "spiritualism" as distortions and caricatures of authentic esoterism. These include Aperçus sur l'initiation (1946), Le théosophisme: Histoire d'une pseudo-religion (1921), L'erreure spirite (1923), and Initiation et réalisation spirituelle (1952). The works of Guénon dealing with metaphysics and Eastern doctrines include L'homme et son devenir selon le Vêdânta (1925), La métaphysique orientale (1939), Le symbolisme de la croix (1931), Les états multiple de l'Être (1932), and posthumous collections of articles such as Études sur l'hindouisme (1968) and Aperçus sur l'ésotérisme islamique et le taoisme (1973). Guénon also wrote a number of major works on the traditional and modern sciences from the traditional point of view, such as La grande triade (1946), Les principes du calcul infinitésimal (1946), and the posthumous collections of essays, Symboles fondamenteux de la science sacré (1962) and Formes traditionelles et cycles cosmiques (1970). Furthermore, Guénon dealt with the social and political dimensions of tradition, devoting many essays as well as his books Autorité spirituelle et pouvoir temporel (1929) and Le roi du monde (1927) to this subject. The latter work, dealing with the supreme center of tradition in this world, has remained Guénon's most enigmatic and controversial book for later traditionalist thinkers.
In treating various traditions Guénon concentrated most of all upon the East, dealing especially with Hinduism, Daoism, and Islam (though hardly at all with Buddhism, whose traditional character he did not confirm until later in his life). But Guénon did also concern himself with the Christian tradition although not orthodoxy, devoting such works as Aperçus sur l'ésotérisme chrétien (1954), L'ésotérisme de Dante (1925), and Saint Bernard (1929) to specifically Christian themes. Guénon, however, identified Christian esoterism mostly with the hermetic and other esoteric currents that became integrated into the Christian tradition rather than with the Christ-given initiation at the heart of Christian rites.
Guénon's influence continues to expand as the decades go by. His works are marked by emphasis upon tradition, universality, orthodoxy, and essentiality. Guénon appeared suddenly on the intellectual stage of Europe and sought to sweep aside with an unprecedented intellectual rigor and an iconoclastic zeal all the "isms" prevalent in modern thought ranging from rationalism to existentialism. To present the truth of tradition, he believed, he had to clear away completely all those conceptual schemes that have cluttered the mind of Western scholars the end of the Middle Ages and that have prevented them from understanding the perennial truths of tradition. Against the relativism of the day, Guénon understood these truths as principles of a divine and sacred nature from which have issued the great civilizations of East and West, including the Far Eastern, Hindu, Islamic, and traditional Christian civilizations. For Guénon the central concept of tradition does not refer to custom or habit but rather to truths rooted in ultimate reality and the spiritual world, and to the ramifications, applications, and historical unfolding of these truths, which are made available to human beings through the revelation that lies at the heart of all religions. Guénon distinguishes between the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of tradition and asserts the necessity of the existence of both dimensions. He also distinguishes between reason and intellect and insists upon the centrality of pure intellectuality, which for him is practically synonymous with spirituality.
Guénon, moreover, insists upon the universal nature of traditional truth, which lies at the heart of diverse religious forms. He refers repeatedly to the inner unity of truth and of traditional forms, standing united in opposition to the modern world, which is based upon the forgetting of the principles of tradition.
Guénon also emphasizes the importance of orthodoxy, which he does not limit to the exoteric realm. For him tradition and orthodoxy are inseparable. To understand tradition means to grasp the significance of orthodoxy and the necessity of remaining within its fold. Guénon's whole message is in fact based upon not only the theoretical grasp of tradition but the necessity of living within an orthodox, traditional way, without which no metaphysical truth can possess efficacy even if it is understood theoretically. There is for him no spiritual realization possible outside tradition and orthodoxy.
Guénon was also concerned with the essence of doctrines, ideas, forms, images, and symbols. His writings shed a penetrating light upon doctrines and symbols that have become opaque and meaningless in the West as a result of the loss of metaphysical knowledge. He bestowed once again upon traditional concepts and symbols their essential meaning lost for the most part in the West since the Renaissance. He also presented to the West for the first time the essential teachings of the Eastern traditions in an authentic manner, and his presentation was accepted by the living authorities of those traditions. Moreover, Guénon sought to revive tradition in the West in the light of essential, metaphysical truth and to provide the weapons necessary to combat the errors of the modern world.
Guénon must be considered as the first expositor in the West of the traditionalist school in its fullness, a school that is also identified with "perennial philosophy." He was followed in his task of reviving traditional teachings in the West by many others, chief among them Coomaraswamy and Schuon, whose writings perfected the exposition of the sophia perennis and of traditional doctrines. The influence of Guénon has, furthermore, gone beyond the traditionalist school to touch numerous scholars of religion, theologians, and philosophers who often without acknowledgment have adopted some of his doctrines and teachings.
Accart, Xavier. L'Ermite de Duqui. Milan, 2001.
Chacornac, Paul. La Vie simple de René Guénon. Paris, 1982.
James, Marie-France. Esotérisme et christianisme autour de René Guénon. 2 vols. Paris, 1981.
Laurant, Jean-Pierre. Le Sens caché selon René Guénon. Lausanne, 1975. Pages 262–276 contain an exhaustive bibliography of Guénon's articles.
Maḥmūd, ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm. Al-Faylasūf al-muslim René Guénon aw ʿAbd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyā. Cairo, 1954.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Knowledge and the Sacred. New York, 1981.
Old Meadow, Kenneth. Traditionalism-Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy. Columbo, 2000.
Science Sacrée—Numéro spécial René Guénon. Paris, 2003.
Sigaud, Pierre-Marie. René Guénon. Lausanne, 1984. Pages 305–313 contain a list of Guénon's books and of translations of Guénon's works into various languages.
Valsân, Michel. L'Islam et la fonction de René Guénon. Paris, 1984.
Waterfield, Robin. René Guénon and the Future of the West. London, 1987.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1987 and 2005)