Chapter Two: What Is Tradition?
By adhering to the Tao of the past You will master the existence of the present.
I do not create; I only tell of the past.
The term tradition has been used profusely in the previous chapter. It is now necessary to define it as completely as possible in order to avoid misunderstanding about a concept which lies at the heart of our concern for the meaning of the sacred in its relation to knowledge. The usage of the term tradition in the sense understood in the present study came to the fore in Western civilization at the moment of the final phase of the desacralization of both knowledge and the world which surrounded modern man. The rediscovery of tradition constituted a kind of cosmic compensation, a gift from the Divine Empyrean whose mercy made possible, at the moment when all seemed to be lost, the reassertion of the Truth which constitutes the very heart and essence of tradition. The formulation of the traditional point of view was a response of the Sacred, which is both the alpha and the omega of human existence, to the elegy of doom of modern man lost in a world depleted of the sacred and therefore, of meaning.
For though all seem lost, yet All is found
In the Last who is the First. Faithful pageant,
Not amiss is thy mime, for manifest in thee
Omega is an archway where Alpha stands framed,
The First who comes Last, for likewise art thou
The season of seeds, O season of fruits
“The First who comes Last,” the reassertion at this late hour of human history of tradition which itself is both of a primordial character and possesses continuity over the ages, made possible once again access to that Truth by which human beings have lived during most—or rather nearly all—of their terrestrial history. This Truth had to be stated anew and reformulated in the name of tradition precisely because of the nearly total eclipse and loss of that reality which has constituted the matrix of life of normal humanity over the ages. The usage of the term and recourse to the concept of tradition as found in the contemporary world are themselves, in a sense, an anomaly made necessary by the anomaly which constitutes the modern world as such.2
Various languages before modern times did not use a term corresponding exactly to tradition, by which this premodern humanity itself is characterized by those who accept the traditional point of view. Premodern man was too deeply immersed in the world created by tradition to have the need of having this concept defined in an exclusive manner. He was like the baby fish who, according to a Sufi parable, went one day to their mother and asked to have explained to them the nature of water about which they had heard so much, but which they had never seen nor had had defined and described for them. The mother answered that she would be glad to reveal the nature of water for them provided they would first find something other than water. In the same way, normal humanities lived in worlds so impregnated with what we now call tradition that they had no sense of a separate concept called tradition as it has been necessary to define and formulate in the modern world. They had an awareness of revelation, of wisdom, of the sacred and also knew of periods of decadence of their civilization and culture, but they had had no experience of a totally secularized and antitraditional world which would necessitate the definition and formulation of tradition as has been the case today. In a sense the formulation of the traditional point of view and the reassertion of the total traditional perspective, which is like the recapitulation of all the truths manifested in the present cycle of human history, could not have come but at the twilight of the Dark Age which marks at once an end and the eve preceding a new morning of splendor. Only the end of a cycle of manifestation makes possible the recapitulation of the whole of the cycle and the creation of a synthesis which then serves as the seed for a new cycle.3
The concept of tradition had to be brought forth and traditional teachings expressed in their totality; and this is exactly what has taken place during this late stage of human history. But the traditional writings are far from being widely known in the modern world. In fact had the writings of those who belong to the traditional point of view become well-known, it would hardly have been necessary to redefine here and now the meaning of tradition to which so many pages, articles, and even books have been devoted.4
One of the remarkable aspects of the intellectual life of this century, however, is precisely the neglect of this point of view in circles whose official function it is to be concerned with questions of an intellectual order. Whether this neglect is deliberate or accidental is not our concern here. Whatever the cause might be, the result is that some sixty or seventy years after the appearance of works of a traditional character in the West, tradition is still misunderstood in most circles and confused with custom, habit, inherited patterns of thought, and the like. Hence, the necessity of delving once again into its meaning despite all that has been written on the subject.
As far as traditional languages are concerned, they do not possess, for reasons already mentioned, a term corresponding exactly to tradition. There are such fundamental terms as the Hindu and Buddhist dharma, the Islamic al-dīn, the Taoist Tao, and the like which are inextricably related to the meaning of the term tradition, but not identical with it, although of course the worlds or civilizations created by Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or for that matter any other authentic religion, is a traditional world. Each of these religions is also the heart or origin of the tradition which extends the priciples of the religion to different domains. Nor does tradition mean exactly traditio as this term is used in Catholicism, although it does embrace the idea of transmission of a doctrine and practices of an inspired and ultimately revealed nature implied by traditio. In fact, the word tradition is related etymologically to transmission and contains within the scope of its meaning the idea of the transmission of knowledge, practice, techniques, laws, forms, and many other elements of both an oral and written nature. Tradition is like a living presence which leaves its imprint but is not reducible to that imprint. What it transmits might appear as words written upon parchment but it may also be truths engraved upon the souls of men, and as subtle as the breath or even the glance of the eye through which certain teachings are transmitted.
Tradition as used in its technical sense in this work, as in all our other writings, means truths or principles of a divine origin revealed or unveiled to mankind and, in fact, a whole cosmic sector through various figures envisaged as messengers, prophets, avatāras, the Logos or other transmitting agencies, along with all the ramifications and applications of these principles in different realms including law and social structure, art, symbolism, the sciences, and embracing of course Supreme Knowledge along with the means for its attainment.
In its more universal sense tradition can be considered to include the principles which bind man to Heaven, and therefore religion, while from another point of view religion can be considered in its essential sense as those principles which are revealed by Heaven and which bind man to his Origin. In this case, tradition can be considered in a more restricted sense as the application of these principles. Tradition implies truths of a supraindividual character rooted in the nature of reality as such for as it has been said, “Tradition is not a childish and outmoded mythology but a science that is terribly real.”5
Tradition, like religion, is at once truth and presence. It concerns the subject which knows and the object which is known. It comes from the Source from which everything originates and to which everything returns. It thus embraces all things like the “Breath of the Compassionate” which, according to the Sufis, is the very root of existence itself. Tradition is inextricably related to revelation and religion, to the sacred, to the notion of orthodoxy, to authority, to the continuity and regularity of transmission of the truth, to the exoteric and the esoteric as well as to the spiritual life, science and the arts. The colors and nuances of its meaning become in fact clearer once its relation to each of these and other pertinent concepts and categories is elucidated.
During the past few decades for many attracted to the call of tradition, the meaning of tradition has become related more than anything else to that perennial wisdom which lies at the heart of every religion and which is none other than the Sophia whose possession the sapiential perspective in the West as well as the Orient has considered as the crowning achievement of human life. This eternal wisdom from which the idea of tradition cannot be divorced and which constitutes one of the main components of the concept of tradition is none other than the sophia perennis
of the Western tradition, which the Hindus call the sanatāna dharma6
and the Muslims al-ḥikmat al-khālidah
(or jāvīdān khirad
In one sense, sanatāna dharma
or sophia perennis
is related to the Primordial Tradition8
and therefore to the Origin of human existence. But this view should not in any way detract from or destroy the authenticity of the later messages from Heaven in the form of various revelations, each of which begins with an
origin which is the
Origin and which marks the beginning of a tradition that is at once the
Primordial Tradition and its adaptation to a particular humanity, the adaptation being a Divine Possibility manifested on the human plane. The attraction of Renaissance man for the quest of origins and the “Primordial Tradition” that caused Ficino to put aside the translation of Plato for the Corpus Hermeticum
, which was then considered as more ancient and primordial, an attraction which also became part of the world view and Zeitgeist
of the nineteenth century,9
has caused much confusion in the question of the meaning of “Primordial Tradition” in its relation to various religions. Each tradition and Tradition as such are related in depth to the perennial wisdom or Sophia, provided this link is not considered only temporally and not as a cause for the rejection of those other messages from Heaven which constitute the different religions and which are, of course, inwardly related to the Primordial Tradition without being simply its historical and temporal continuity. The spiritual genius and particularity of each tradition cannot be neglected in the name of the ever present wisdom which lies at the heart of each and every celestial descent.
A. K. Coomaraswamy, one of the foremost expositors of traditional doctrines in the contemporary period, translated sanatāna dharma
as philosophia perennis
to which he added the adjective universalis
. Under his influence many have identified tradition with the perennial philosophy to which it is profoundly related.10
But the term philosophia perennis
or its English translation is somewhat problematic in itself and needs to be defined before tradition can be better understood with reference to it. Contrary to Huxley's assertion, the term philosophia perennis
was not employed first by Leibniz who did quote it in a well-known letter to Remond written in 1714.11
Rather, the term was probably employed for the first time by Agostino Steuco (1497–1548), the Renaissance philosopher and theologian who was an Augustinian. Although the term has been identified with many different schools including Scholasticism, especially of the Thomistic school,12
and Platonism in general, these are more recent associations, whereas for Steuco it was identified with a perennial wisdom embracing both philosophy and theology and not related to just one school of wisdom or thought.
The work of Steuco De perenni philosophia
was influenced by Ficino, Pico, and even Nicolas of Cusa, especially the De pace fidei
which speaks of harmony between various religions. Steuco, who knew Arabic and other Semitic languages and was librarian of the Vatican Library where he had access to the “wisdom of the ages” as far as this was possible in the Occident at that time, followed the ideas of these earlier figures concerning the presence of an ancient wisdom which had existed from the dawn of history. Ficino did not speak of philosophia perennis
but he did allude often to the philosophia priscorium
or prisca theologia
, which can be translated as ancient or venerable philosophy and theology. Following Gemisthus Plethon, the Byzantine philosopher, who wrote of this ancient wisdom and emphasized the role of Zoroaster as the master of this ancient knowledge of a sacred order, Ficino emphasized the significance of the Hermetic Corpus
and the Chaldaean Oracles
which he considered to have been composed by Zoroaster as the origins of this primordial wisdom. He believed that true philosophy originated with Plato who was heir to this wisdom,13
and true theology with Christianity. This true philosophy, vera philosophia
, was for him the same as religion and true religion the same as this philosophy. For Ficino, as for so many Christian Platonists, Plato had known the Pentateuch and was a “Greek-speaking Moses,” the Plato whom Steuco called divinus Plato
in the same way that many Muslim sages had given him the title Aflāṭūn al-ilāhī
, the “Divine Plato.”14
Ficino, in a way, reformulated the views of Gemisthus Plethon concerning the perennity of true wisdom.15
Ficino's compatriot Pico della Mirandola was to add to the sources of the philosophia priscorium
, the Quran, Islamic philosophy, and the Kabbala along with the non-Christian and especially Graeco-Egyptian sources considered by Ficino, although he followed the perspective of Ficino and emphasized the idea of the continuity of a wisdom which is essentially one throughout various civilizations and periods of history.
Steuco's philosophia perennis
was none other than this philosophia priscorium
but under a new appellation.16
Steuco asserted that wisdom was originally of divine origin, a sacred knowledge handed by God to Adam which, for most human beings, was gradually forgotten and turned into a dream surviving only and most fully in the prisca theologia
. This true religion or philosophy, whose goal is theosis
and attainment of sacred knowledge, has existed from the beginning of human history and is attainable through either the historical expressions of this truth in various traditions or by intellectual intuition and “philosophical” contemplation.
Although severely attacked from many quarters for expressing such ideas so opposed to both the prevalent humanism of the Renaissance and the rather exoteric and sectarian interpretations of Christianity prevalent at that time, the term used by Steuco continued to survive and became celebrated through its use by Leibniz who did have a certain degree of sympathy with traditional ideas. But interestingly enough, it is only in the twentieth century that the term has gained wide popularity. If perennial or ancient wisdom is in fact understood as Plethon, Ficino, and Steuco understood it, then it is related to the idea of tradition and can even be employed as a translation for sanatāna dharma
, provided the term philosophia
is not understood only in a theoretical manner but embraces realization as well.17
Tradition contains the sense of a truth which is both of divine origin and perpetuated throughout a major cycle of human history through both transmission and renewal of the message by means of revelation. It also implies an inner truth which lies at the heart of different sacred forms and which is unique since Truth is one. In both senses, tradition is closely related to the philosophia perennis
if this term is understood as the Sophia which has always been and will always be and which is perpetuated by means of both transmission horizontally and renewal vertically through contact with that reality that was “at the beginning” and is here and now.18
Before leaving the subject of philosophia perennis
, it seems appropriate to turn for a moment to the destiny of this idea in the Islamic tradition where its relation to sacred knowledge and its meaning as a perennial truth revived within each revelation is quite evident and more emphasized than in the Christian tradition. Islam sees the doctrine of unity (al-tawḥīd
) not only as the essence of its own message but as the heart of every religion. Revelation for Islam means the assertion of al-tawḥīd
and all religions are seen as so many repetitions in different climes and languages of the doctrine of unity. Moreover, wherever the doctrine of unity is to be found, it is considered to be of divine origin. Therefore, Muslims did not distinguish between religion and paganism but between those who accepted unity and those who denied or ignored it. For them the sages of antiquity such as Pythagoras and Plato were “unitarians” (muwaḥḥidūn
) who expressed the truth which lies at the heart of all religions.19
They, therefore, belonged to the Islamic universe and were not considered as alien to it.
The Islamic intellectual tradition in both its gnostic (ma‘rifah
) and philosophical and theosophical (falsafah-ḥikmah
aspects saw the source of this unique truth which is the “Religion of the Truth” (dīn al-ḥaqq
) in the teachings of the ancient prophets going back to Adam and considered the prophet Idrīs, whom it identified with Hermes, as the “father of philosophers” (Abu‘l-ḥukamā‘
Many Sufis called not only Plato “divine” but also associated Pythagoras, Empedocles, with whom an important corpus which influenced certain schools of Sufism is associated, and others with the primordial wisdom associated with prophecy. Even early Peripatetic (mashshā‘ī
) philosophers such as al-Fārābī saw a relation between philosophy and prophecy and revelation. Later figures such as Suhrawardī expanded this perspective to include the tradition of pre-Islamic Persia.22
Suhrawardī spoke often of al-ḥikmat al-laduniyyah
or Divine Wisdom (literally the wisdom which is near God) in terms almost identical with what Sophia and also philosophia perennis
mean traditionally, including its aspect of realization.23
A later Islamic figure, the eighth/fourteenth (Islamic/Christian) century gnostic and theologian Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī, made no reservations in pointing to the correspondence existing between the “Muḥammadan” pleroma of seventy-two stars of the Islamic universe and the seventy-two stars of the pleroma comprised of those sages who had preserved their primordial nature but belong to a world outside of the specifically Islamic one.
Ṣadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī identified true knowledge with a perennial wisdom which has existed since the beginning of human history.25
The Islamic conception of the universality of revelation went hand in hand with the idea of a primordial truth which has always existed and will always exist, a truth without history. The Arabic al-dīn
, which is perhaps the most suitable word to translate the term tradition, is inseparable from the idea of permanent and perpetual wisdom, the sophia perennis
which can also be identified with the philosophia perennis
as understood by such a figure as Coomaraswamy.
To understand better the meaning of tradition, it is also necessary to discuss somewhat more fully its relation to religion. If tradition is related etymologically and conceptually to transmission, religion in turn implies in its root meaning, “binding” (from the Latin religare
As already mentioned, it is what binds man to God and at the same time men to each other as members of a sacred community or people, or what Islam calls an ummah
. Understood in this sense, religion can be considered as the origin of tradition, as the heavenly beginning which through revelation manifests certain principles and truths whose applications then comprise tradition. But, as indicated before, the plenary meaning of tradition includes this origin as well as its ramifications and deployment. In this sense, tradition is a more general concept embracing religion, as the Arabic term al-dīn
means at once tradition and religion in its most universal sense, while religion as used in its widest sense is understood by some to include the application of its revealed principles and its later historical unfolding, so that it would in turn embrace what we mean by tradition although the traditional point of view is not identical with the religious as a result of the intrusion of modernism and antitraditional forces into the realm of religion itself.
Moreover, the limited meaning that the term religion has gained in European languages has caused certain of the traditional authors such as Guénon to limit this term only to the Western religions especially in their exoteric expressions distinguishing them from Hinduism, Taoism, and the like which they call tradition rather than religion. But there is no limitation in principle in the term religion and no reason to exclude Hinduism from the category of religion if this latter term is understood as that which binds man to the Origin through a message, revelation, or manifestation which comes from the Ultimate Reality.
The limitation of religion to its most outward aspects in the recent history of the West has also caused such terms as religious art or religious literature to become so depleted of the sense of the sacred and removed from tradition considered as the application of principles of a transcendent order, that what is currently called religious art, literature, etc., in many cases is nontraditional or even antitraditional in character. It has, therefore, become necessary to distinguish traditional from religious in such contexts. But once the term religion is resuscitated to mean that which descends from the Source in those objective manifestations of the Logos called revelation in the Abrahamic religions or avatāric descent in Hinduism, then it can be seen as the heart of that total and all-embracing order which is tradition. Of course, this understanding of religion in all its amplitude and universality is possible only when the traditional point of view is revived and reality is viewed from the perspective of the traditional and the sacred, and not the profane.
To discuss the relation of tradition to religion requires of necessity delving into the problem of the plurality of religions. The multiplicity of religious forms implies the multiplicity of traditions, while one also speaks of the Primordial Tradition or Tradition as such in the same way that there is one sophia perennis
but many religions in which it is to be found in different forms. One is thus confronted of necessity with the basic question of Tradition and traditions, a question about which much has been written and which has been the cause of so much misunderstanding. From a certain point of view there is but one Tradition, the Primordial Tradition, which always is
. It is the single truth which is at once the heart and origin of all truths. All traditions are earthly manifestations of celestial archetypes related ultimately to the immutable archetype of the Primordial Tradition in the same way that all revelations are related to the Logos or the Word which was at the beginning and which is at once an aspect of the Universal Logos and the Universal Logos as such.27
Yet, each tradition is based on a direct message from Heaven and is not just the result of the historical continuity of the Primordial Tradition. A prophet or avatār
owes nothing to anyone save what he receives from the Origin. In the modern world certain occultist and pseudo—“esoteric” circles claiming to be traditional have spoken of an actual depository of the Primordial Tradition on the earth, often identifying the locus with some region of Middle Asia and even claiming contact with representatives of the center.28
Streams of aspirants have wandered into the mountains of the Hindu Kush or the Himalayas in quest of such a center and a whole science fiction has been created around a sacred geography which has been interpreted in a literal rather than a symbolic fashion. >From the traditional point of view the reality of the Primordial Tradition and the “Supreme Center” is strongly confirmed, but this affirmation does not in any way decrease or destroy the authenticity or complete originality of each religion and tradition which conforms to a particular archetype and represents a direct manifestation from the Origin, marking a rupture of the horizontal and temporal dimension by the vertical and the transcendent. There is both Tradition and the traditions without one contradicting the other. To speak of Tradition does not mean to reject the celestial origin of any of the authentic religions and traditions but to confirm the sacred in each “original” message from Heaven,29
while remaining aware of that Primordial Tradition which is confirmed by each tradition in not only its doctrines and symbols but also through the preservation of a “presence” which is inseparable from the sacred.
The traditional perspective is in fact so closely wed to the sense of the sacred that it is necessary to say something about the sacred itself and to try to “define” its meaning. In a sense, the sacred, like truth, reality, or being, is too principial and elemental to delimit in the logical manner of defining a universal by means of genus and specific difference. The sacred resides in the nature of reality itself, and normal humanity has a sense for the sacred just as it has for reality which one distinguishes naturally from the unreal.30
But the condition of modern man is such that even this natural sense has become nearly forgotten, causing the need to provide a “definition” of the sacred. It is of much interest to note that attempts such as those of R. Otto to relate the sacred to the irrational have attracted the greatest deal of interest during this century. This fact implies that the relation of intellectual truth or knowledge to the sacred has been ignored precisely because of the depleting of knowledge of its sacred content. Moreover, in a secularized world the sacred has come to be viewed from the perspective of the profane world for which the sacred is then the totally other.31
This point of view is perfectly understandable for most men do live in a world of forgetfulness in which the remembrance of God is wholly “other”; they live in a world of indifference and pettiness in which the grandeur of the sacred represents a radical “otherness.” But what is exceptional in the modern world is that the sapiential perspective, which lives in the sacred and sees the profane in terms of the sacred and which had always been a living presence within normal civilizations, has become so forgotten that the view of the sacred as completely alien to what appears as “normal” human life has become the only view, if the sacred is accepted as a possibility at all. To the extent that the reality of the sacred is accepted at least in religious circles, it is connected with the power of God rather than His wisdom.
Perhaps the most direct way of approaching the meaning of the sacred is to relate it to the Immutable, to that Reality which is both the Unmoved Mover and the Eternal. That Reality which is immutable and eternal is the Sacred as such, and the manifestation of this Reality in the stream of becoming and the matrix of time is that which possesses the quality of sacredness. A sacred object or sacred sound is an object or a sound which bears the imprint of the Eternal and the Immutable in that physical reality which comprises outwardly the object or the sound. Man's sense of the sacred is none other than his sense for the Immutable and the Eternal, his nostalgia for what he really is, for he carries the sacred within the substance of his own being and most of all within his intelligence which was created to know the Immutable and contemplate the Eternal.
The Sacred as such is the source of Tradition and what is traditional is inseparable from the sacred. He who has no sense of the sacred cannot perceive the traditional perspective, and traditional man is never separated from the sense of the sacred. Nevertheless, the sacred is more like the blood which flows in the arteries and veins of tradition, an aroma which pervades the whole of a traditional civilization.32
Tradition extends the presence of the sacred into a whole world, creating a civilization in which the sense of the sacred is ubiquitous. The function of a traditional civilization may be said to be nothing other than creating a world dominated by the sacred in which man is saved from the terror of the nihilism and skepticism which accompanies the loss of the sacred dimension of existence and the destruction of the sacred character of knowledge.
The all-embracing nature of tradition is made possible by the presence within each integral tradition, and going back to the religion which lies at the origin of the tradition, of not one but several dimensions, levels of meaning or types of teaching corresponding to the different types of spiritual and intellectual capabilities and needs of the humanity chosen as the earthly vehicle of the tradition in question. Although these dimensions or levels are multiple in number and many traditions speak of seven or forty or some other symbolic number of levels, they can be reduced at the first stage to the two basic dimensions of the exoteric and the esoteric: the first, concerning that aspect of the message from Heaven which governs the whole of the life of a traditional humanity; the other, the spiritual and intellectual needs of those who seek God or the Ultimate Reality here and now. In Judaism and Islam the two dimensions of the tradition as the Talmudic and Kabbalistic or the Sharī'ah
and the Ṭarīqah
are clearly delineated, although even in those cases there are intermediary regions and a spectrum which is far from being abruptly separated.33
As for Christianity, although it is essentially an eso-exoterism with a less well-defined esoteric dimension than the other two Abrahamic traditions, it too did possess at the beginning a distinctly esoteric message which has manifested itself in various ways during the later history of Christianity.34
Although the Indian and Far Eastern worlds have different traditional structures from the Abrahamic ones, there are nevertheless such realities as the Law of Manu complementing Advaita Vedanta, Confucianism complementing Taoism, and the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism which correspond in their own context to the exoteric-esoteric dimensions of tradition. Although our concern in this study is with sacred knowledge and therefore more with the esoteric dimension which is related more directly to sacred knowledge, it is important to emphasize the significance of the exoteric dimension and its necessity for an integral, living tradition. This point is particularly important to mention in the light of the pretensions of so many pseudoesoteric groups today which claim themselves to be beyond the need of the exoteric in contrast to the greatest sages of days gone by who amidst the most exalted utterances concerning spiritual realization remained faithful to the forms and exoteric teachings of their religions, the rare exceptions being only those which prove the rule.35
Esoterism is that inward dimension of tradition which addresses the inner man, ho esō anthrōpos
of Saint Paul. It is hidden because of its very nature and accessible to only the few because in this stage of human history only the few remain aware of the inner dimensions of their nature; the rest live on the periphery of the circle of their own existence, oblivious to the Center which is connected by the esoteric dimension of tradition to the circumference or periphery.36
The esoteric is the radius which provides the means of going from the circumference to the Center, but it is not available to all because not everyone is willing or qualified to undertake the journey to the Center in this life. To follow the exoteric dimension of religion, however, is to remain on the circumference and hence in a world which has a center, and to remain qualified to carry out the journey to the Center in the afterlife, the beatific vision being only a posthumous possibility from the exoteric point of view.
The authentically esoteric is always contained within a total and integral tradition. It is only in the modern West, and possibly during the decadence of the late antiquity, that esoteric teachings have become divorced from the tradition within whose matrix the esoteric is veritably the esoteric. As a result of this phenomenon, which as far as the modern world is concerned goes back to the eighteenth century, the esoteric has been made to appear, for the most part, as being opposed to the Christian tradition, while what has survived of the Christian tradition has in most instances disdained the very idea of the esoteric in the same way that gnosis or sacred knowledge has been left out of consideration in the exposition of the message of most Christian churches in recent times. Because of its detachment from a living tradition, this so-called esoterism has usually degenerated into an inoperative or even harmful occultism and the shell of sacred knowledge has remained but become depleted of the sacred. What has paraded for the most part as esoterism in the modern world has become divorced from the sense of the sacred in complete contrast to genuine esoterism as understood traditionally, which is by nature concerned with the sacred and is the means par excellence of gaining access to the sacred in that here and now which is the reflection of the Immutable and the Eternal.37
Whether considered in its exoteric or esoteric aspect, tradition implies orthodoxy and is inseparable from it. If there is such a thing as truth, then there is also error and norms which allow man to distinguish between them. Orthodoxy in its most universal sense is none other than the truth in itself and as related to the formal homogeneity of a particular traditional universe. The loss of the multidimensional character of religion and its reduction to a single level have also caused the narrowing of the sense of orthodoxy in such a manner that the esoteric and the mystical have often been castigated as unorthodox. Orthodoxy has become identified with simple conformity and has gained an almost pejorative sense among those concerned with intellectuality, and many who unknowingly thirst for orthodoxy in its most universal sense have claimed themselves as heterodox vis-a-vis a narrowly formulated and conceived orthodoxy which has left no living space for the liberating flight of the sanctified intellect. The narrowing of the meaning of the term orthodoxy is, in fact, not unconnected with the loss of the original meaning of intellectuality and its reduction to rationalism. Otherwise intellectuality in its authentic sense cannot but be related to orthodoxy.38
If orthodoxy is understood in its universal sense as the quality of the truth in the context of a particular spiritual and religious universe as well as the truth as such, then it must be interpreted on different levels like tradition itself. There are certain doctrines which are extrinsically heterodox vis-a-vis a particular traditional universe but intrinsically orthodox. An example would be Christianity as viewed from Judaism and Buddhism from the point of view of Hinduism. Even within a single tradition, a particular esoteric school may appear as unorthodox from the point of view of the exoteric dimension or even from the perspective of another esoteric school of that same tradition, as seen in certain schools of Japanese Buddhism. In all these cases the concept of orthodoxy is of capital importance in judging the character of the teachings involved from the traditional point of view and is almost synonymous with the traditional as far as conformity to the truth is concerned. There is no possibility of tradition without orthodoxy nor of orthodoxy outside of tradition. Moreover, both are exclusive of all those imitations, aberrations, and deviations of a purely human or sometimes subhuman origin, which either claim openly to stand outside of the traditions or imply such departures from the traditional universe as to make impossible the gaining of access to the doctrines, practices, and spiritual presence which alone enable man to go beyond his limited self and to reach the entelechy which is his raison d'être. In any case, a tree is judged by the fruit it bears and this principle is nowhere more applicable than in the judgment of what is orthodox and what departs or deviates from orthodoxy at all levels of man's religious life, including not only law and morality but also and especially the domain of knowledge and intellectuality. The full attainment of sacred knowledge, including its realized aspect, is as much related to the key concept of tradition as to orthodoxy; and it is not possible to understand the significance of tradition without an appreciation of its relation to orthodoxy understood in its most universal sense.39
To speak of the truth and of orthodoxy in the traditional context is also to speak of authority and the transmission of truth. Who or what determines religious truth and guarantees the purity, regularity, and perpetuity of a tradition? This is a key question to which all traditions have addressed themselves in different ways. Moreover, they have provided answers which guarantee the authenticity of the tradition without their having recourse to simply one solution. There are traditions which have a magisterium
and others a sacred community which itself guarantees the purity and continuity of the message.40
Some have emphasized the continuity of a sacerdotal function and others of a chain of transmission through teachers whose qualifications have been determined and defined by the tradition in question. Sometimes even within a single tradition several means have been used, but in all cases traditional authority remains inseparable from the meaning of tradition itself. There are those who are authorities in traditional matters and there are those who are not; there are those who know and those who do not. Individualism in any case does not and cannot play a role in the transmission and interpretation of that which is by definition suprahuman, even if an extensive field is left for human elaboration and interpretation. Intellectual and spiritual authority is inseparable from that reality which is tradition and authentic traditional writings always possess an innate quality of authority.
Likewise, tradition implies the regularity of transmission of all of its aspects ranging from legal and ethical rulings and precepts to esoteric knowledge. Different means of transmission including oral transmission, initiation, transfer of power, techniques, and knowledge from master to disciple, and the perpetuation of a particular spiritual perfume and sacred presence are all related to and inseparable from that reality which is tradition. To live in the traditional world is to breathe in a universe in which man is related to a reality beyond himself from which he receives those principles, truths, forms, attitudes, and other elements which determine the very texture of human existence. And this reception is made possible through that transmission which brings the reality of tradition to the lives of the members of each generation according to their capacities and destiny and guarantees the perpetuation of this reality without the corruption which characterizes all that is affected by the withering influence of time and becoming.
The all-embracing nature of tradition is also a trait which needs to be emphasized. In a civilization characterized as traditional, nothing lies outside the realm of tradition. There is no domain of reality which has a right to existence outside the traditional principles and their applications. Tradition therefore concerns not only knowledge but also love and works. It is the source of the law which governs society even in cases where the law is not derived directly from the revelation.41
It is the foundation of ethics. In fact, ethics has no meaning outside the cadre established by the tradition. It also sets the principles and norms for the political aspect of the life of society, and political authority is related to that of the spiritual although the relation between the two is far from being uniform in different traditions.42
Likewise, tradition determines the structure of society applying immutable principles to the social order, resulting in structures outwardly as different as the Hindu caste system and the Islamic “democracy of married monks,” as some have characterized theocratic Islamic society, in which there is nevertheless an equality before God and the Divine Law, but of course not in the quantitative modern sense.43
Tradition also governs the domains of art and science, with which we shall deal in later chapters, and is especially concerned with principial knowledge or that supreme science which is metaphysics and which has been often confounded in the West with philosophy. Our concern being knowledge in its relation to the sacred rather than all aspects of tradition, it is necessary to pause here to distinguish between the kinds of knowledge which exist in a traditional civilization. Besides the various cosmological sciences, there are, as already noted, three modes of knowing dealing with principles which one can distinguish in a traditional world, especially those governed by one of the Abrahamic religions: these three being philosophy, theology, and gnosis, or in a certain context theosophy. The modern world distinguishes only two modes or disciplines: philosophy and theology rather than the three existing in the traditional world of not only Christianity but also Islam and Judaism.
In the Islamic tradition after several centuries during which the various perspectives were formed, a situation developed which demonstrates fully the role and function of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics or gnosis in a traditional context. There were schools such as that of the Peripatetics (mashshā‘ī
) which could be called philosophical in the traditional sense. There were schools of theology (kalām
) such as that of the Mu‘tazilites, the Ash‘arites, the Maturidites, the Ismāīlīs, and the Twelve-Imam Shī‘tes. Then there was gnosis or metaphysics associated with various schools of Sufism. As far as the eastern Islamic world was concerned, there also gradually developed a school associated with Suhrawardī and his school of illumination (al-ishrāq
) which was both philosophical and gnostic and which should be called, properly speaking, theosophical,44
while in the western lands of Islam, contemporary with this development, philosophy ceased to exist as a distinct discipline becoming wed to theology on the one hand and gnosis on the other. Likewise, medieval Judaism could distinguish between the same three kinds of intellectual perspectives represented by such figures as Judas Halévy, Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, and Luria. Needless to say, in medieval Christianity one could also distinguish between the theology of a Saint Bernard, the philosophy of an Alberrus Magnus, and the gnosis of a Meister Eckhart, not to speak of a Roger Bacon or Raymond Lull, who correspond more to the school of ishrāq
of Suhrawardī than anything else if a comparison is to be made with the Islamic tradition.45
All three disciplines have a role and function to play in the intellectual life of a traditional world. There is an aspect of “philosophy” which is necessary for the exposition of certain theological and gnostic ideas as there are elements of theology and gnosis which are present in every authentic expression of philosophy worthy of the name. One can, in fact, say that every great philosopher is also to some extent theologian and metaphysician, in the sense of gnostic, as every great theologian is to some extent philosopher and gnostic and every gnostic to some degree philosopher and theologian as found in the case of an Ibn ‘Arabī or Meister Eckhart.46
Although, due to the complete depletion of what passes, in the modern world, as philosophy of traditional truth and the sacred, traditional authors such as A. K. Coomaraswamy and F. Schuon and especially R. Guénon have attacked philosophy severely in order to clear the ground for the presentation of metaphysics and to prevent any distortions or deviations which might be caused by the confusion between profane philosophy and sacred knowledge,47
there is no doubt that there is such a thing as traditional philosophy or philosophy in the traditional context.48
Despite all the depreciation that the term philosophy has suffered in the modern world, still something of the Pythagorean and Platonic conception of philosophy resonates through it. It is possible to resuscitate the meaning of this discipline and its function provided the sacred character of knowledge is established once again. In any case, the traditional intellectual world implies the presence of different dimensions and perspectives, including what in the Western tradition would be called not only theology and philosophy but also gnosis and theosophy.49
The disappearance of gnosis from the mainstream of modern Western thought could not but result in the trivialization of the meaning of philosophy, the diluting of the substance of theology and finally the appearance of that type of inversion of traditional knowledge which has paraded as “theosophy” during the past century.
Although the essence of tradition is present eternally in divinis, its historical manifestation can either disappear completely from the earthly plane or become partly inaccessible or “lost.” Not every tradition is a living one. The Egyptian tradition, for example, which is one of the most remarkable known to man, cannot be practiced or lived although its art forms, symbols, and even a certain presence of a psychological rather than spiritual kind belonging to it survive. That spiritual life, which invigorated and animated the earthly body of the tradition, left for the abode of the origin of all religions and the tradition cannot be said to be alive as can, let us say, Hinduism or Islam. There are also certain traditions which are only partially accessible or “alive” in the sense that only certain of their dimensions or teachings are available. In this case there is always the possibility of a rejuvenation and regeneration of what has been lost or forgotten, provided the roots and channels of transmission of the tradition remain intact. Likewise the civilizations created by various traditions can become weakened, decay, or die without the religion and certain aspects of the tradition which gave birth to the civilization in question decaying or dying. Such is in fact the case of the traditional civilizations of Asia today which have decayed in different degrees while the traditions which gave birth to them remain alive.
As for traditional symbols, since they have their root in the archetypal world of the Spirit, it is possible to have them resuscitated provided there is a living tradition which can absorb symbols, images, and even doctrines of another traditional world, this absorption implying much more than mere historical borrowing.50
In any case, symbols and ideas of nonliving or alien traditions cannot be legitimately adopted or absorbed into another world which is not itself traditional, as so many attempt to do in the modern world. He who attempts to carry out such a process independent of tradition is doing nothing less than usurping the function of a prophet or the figure whom the Muslims call the Mahdī and the Hindus the Chakravartin. The adoption of any element from another tradition must follow the laws and principles which determine the mode of existence of the tradition which is adopting the elements in question. Otherwise, the adoption of elements of an even originally traditional character can result in the diffusion of forces of dissolution which can cause great harm or even destruction to an already living tradition not to speak of organizations of purely human origin playing with forces far beyond their ken of understanding or power of control.51
This and numerous other dangers, obstacles, and precipices which face modern man who has decided to live by bread alone have forced those who have sought to resuscitate the traditional point of view in the modern world to express their categorical opposition to modernism, which they do not at all identify with the contemporary world as such but with that revolt against Heaven which began in the Renaissance in the West and which has now invaded nearly the whole globe. At other times, it would have been possible to speak of what constitutes tradition without discussing forces of secularism but such a possibility does not exist in a world already influenced and, from the traditional point of view, contaminated by modernism. To speak of tradition is to be concerned with the truth and therefore error, and to be faced with the necessity of evaluating the modern world in the light of those truths which comprise the very principles of tradition. The unrelenting opposition of traditional authors to modernism issues first and foremost from their dedication to traditional truth and then from compassion and charity toward a humanity entangled in a world woven of the threads of half-truths and errors.
Today the criticism against the modern world and modernism has become commonplace, ranging from works of poets to analyses of even sociologists.52
But the opposition of tradition to modernism, which is total and complete as far as principles are concerned, does not derive from the observation of facts and phenomena or the diagnosis of the symptoms of the malady. It is based upon a study of the causes which have brought about the illness. Tradition is opposed to modernism because it considers the premises upon which modernism is based to be wrong and false in principle.53
It does not neglect the fact that some element of a particular modern philosophical system may be true or some modern institution may possess a positive feature or be good. In fact, complete falsehood or evil could not exist since every mode of existence implies some element of that truth and goodness which in their purity belong to the Source of all existence.
What tradition criticizes in the modern world is the total world view, the premises, the foundations which, from its point of view, are false so that any good which appears in this world is accidental rather than essential. One could say that the traditional worlds were essentially good and accidentally evil, and the modern world essentially evil and accidentally good. Tradition is therefore opposed in principle to modernism. It wishes to slay the modern world54
in order to create a normal one. Its goal is not to destroy what is positive but to remove that veil of ignorance which allows the illusory to appear as real, the negative as positive and the false as true. Tradition is not opposed to all that exists in the world today and, in fact, refuses to equate all that exists today with modernism. After all, although this age is given such epithets as the space age or the atomic age because man has traveled to the moon or split the atom, through the same logic it could just as well have been called the age of monks, because monks do still exist along with astronauts. The fact that this age is not called the age of monasticism but of space is itself the fruit of the modernistic point of view which equates modernism with the contemporary world, whereas tradition distinguishes sharply between the two, seeking to destroy modernism not in order to destroy contemporary man but to save him from continuing upon a path whose end could not but be perdition and destruction. From this point of view the history of Western man during the past five centuries is an anomaly in the long history of the human race in both East and West. In opposing modernism in principle and in a categorical manner, those who follow the traditional point of view wish only to enable Western man to join the rest of the human race.55
The emphasis upon the East or the Orient by contemporary traditional authors is in fact due to the historic situation in which modernism and rebellion against tradition arose in the West. Otherwise tradition embraces both East and West for it is derived from none other than that “Blessed Olive Tree” or central axis of cosmic existence to which the Quran refers stating that it is neither of the East nor of the West.56
It is true that during this century those who have spoken of tradition have emphasized the three major spiritual universes of the East comprising the Far East, India, and the Islamic world with their own distinct features as well as their points of interpenetration. It is also true that some have even thought that traditional civilization simply means Oriental civilization. But even during this century since a work such as East and West
of R. Guénon was written, a great deal has changed in Asia itself giving further reason for not identifying tradition with a geographic Orient alone, although more of what is traditional still survives in the geographic East than in the West and these terms have not lost their geographic sense completely.57
As the tragic history of these decades unfolds, however, it becomes more and more necessary to identify tradition with that East or Orient which belongs to sacred geography and which is symbolic rather than literal. The Orient is the source of light, the point where dawn breaks and where the sun rises casting its light upon the horizons, removing darkness and bringing forth the warmth which vivifies. The Orient is the Origin as well as the point toward which we turn in our journey in life, the point without which there would be no orientation, without which life would become disarray and chaos and our journey a meandering in the labyrinth of what the Buddhists call samsāric existence. Tradition is identified with this Orient. It, too, issues from the Origin and provides orientation for human life. It provides a knowledge which is at once Oriental and illuminating, a knowledge which is combined with love as the light of the sun is combined with heat, a knowledge which issues from the Precinct of the Sacred and which leads to the Sacred.
To the extent that the shadows of the land of the setting sun cover the living space of the human species and the geographical Orient becomes ravaged by various forms of modernism, to that extent the Orient becomes a pole carried within the heart and soul of human beings wherever they might be. To the extent that the physical Orient ceases to be, at least outwardly, the land of tradition as it has been over the millennia,58
to that extent tradition spreads once again into the Occident and even into the “Far West” preparing the ground symbolically for that day when “the Sun shall rise in the West.” To identify tradition with the Orient today is to identify it with that Orient which is the place of the rising Sun of our own being, the point which is at once the center and origin of man, the center which both illuminates and sanctifies and without which human existence on both the individual and collective levels becomes like a circle without center, a world deprived of the enlightening and vivifying luminosity of the rising Sun.