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  • Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
  • Colin Beech
Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. By Mark Sedgwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 370 pp. $37.50 (cloth).

Readers seeking a discussion of Traditionalist thought itself will be disappointed by Mark Sedgwick's recent publication. As a historical treatment of an intellectual movement, however, Sedgwick does a competent job of situating this largely unnoticed refutation of modernity. Traditionalism may be briefly defined as a loose movement eschewing conventional Western values in favor of Orientalist religious wisdom and tradition, typically handed down through generations by word of mouth. Sedgwick defines three distinct periods of Traditionalism, the first demonstrating its coalescence from the turn of the century through the 1930s in the writing, teaching, and correspondence of René Guénon. The second phase charts an emerging practice of Traditionalism in the form of metaphysical Sufi Islam as a religious application and European fascism as a political movement. The third phase, taking place after the 1960s, is characterized by the spread of Traditionalist thought throughout the West and into the Islamic world [End Page 237] and Russia. Sedgwick explores each of these three periods of Traditionalism.

At the center of the book is René Guénon, whom Sedgwick identifies as the man who crystallized Traditionalism. Indeed, much of Sedgwick's volume places Guénon at the center of a network of Traditionalists, describing those who made an early impression on Guénon and upon whom he later made an impression himself. Just as Sedgwick defines three distinct periods of Traditionalism, he also notes three periods in the life of Guénon. Young Guénon is encouraged by his parents to train as a mathematician, but soon drops out of the College Rollin in Paris and immerses himself in local occult group, the Martinist Order, established in 1890 by Gérard Encausse. Here, Guénon encounters Traditionalism as a form of Perennialist philosophy also influenced by Hinduism, known as Vedanta-Perennialism, one of the central elements to Traditionalism. Encausse's Martinist Order was also influenced by Freemasonry and its focus on initiation, another central element to Traditionalism. Their interpretations of the character of initiation led to conflict between Guénon and Encausse, provoking the subsequent development of Guénon's own system of initiation. Guénon attempts to establish himself as a more conventional academic in the second phase of his career, teaching philosophy and creating an intellectual network within the Institut Catholique (Catholic Institute). His formal career ends with the rejection of his dissertation, and while the Catholic Institute receives him well as an independent scholar, his views concerning comparative religion and Perennialist aims eventually lead to dissolution of the relationship. This was cemented by Guénon's best known publication, La crise du monde moderne, in 1927.

The third period of Guénon's life begins with the sudden death of his wife, Berthe. He also loses his ward and niece, who moved into the home of Berthe's sister, and his teaching position is terminated. It is at this point that Guénon leaves France for Egypt, a temporary visit that becomes a permanent residence. He joins the Hamdiyya Shadhiliyya Sufi order, led by its founder, Salama al-Radi. Guénon continues correspondence and Traditionalist writing, but illness and what Sedgwick describes as "mild paranoia" leave him more and more isolated. It is here that Sedgwick's narrative turns to Fritjhof Schuon, who eventually establishes his own Sufi order, the Maryamiyya. Influenced by Guénon's writings, Schuon felt he was destined for religious greatness early in his life, eventually abandoning his desire to experience Traditionalism within a Christian milieu and opting instead to join the [End Page 238] Alawiyya order. Schuon met with Guénon once in 1938, a meeting he wrote about with disappointment; Guénon expressed concern that Schuon separated himself from his order too soon. Nevertheless, as World War II broke out, Schuon returned to Switzerland, his birthplace, and established himself as both a shaykh and a locus for Traditionalist Sufism.

Sedgwick also focuses on a third main actor, Baron...