Tradition and Philosophy in Modern Times

Tradition and Philosophy in Modern Times

Response to Questions posed by N. Speranskaya for the Russian traditionalist magazin "Tradition"

by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

1. Western civilization is going through a general crisis and by all appearances is moving towards a catastrophic end. René Guénon called it the inversion of traditional civilization. He also affirmed that Western people today have lost their knowledge of what pure intellectual activity is, and reproached them with the Eurocentric approach, which by the way made impossible the dialogue of civilizations (dialogue of traditions). According to your opinion, is there any possibility for Western civilization to avoid complete decay and return to its lost tradition?

Almost a century has passed since Guénon began to write his criticism of modernism and modern Western civilization. Since then the epidemic of modernism has spread much more globally and affected much more deeply than then the great non-Western civilizations such as the Islamic, Hindu and Far Eastern. Your question, therefore, can be asked about all civilizations and not only the West. Nevertheless, tradition has been better preserved in those civilizations than in the West where modernism was born and grew before it spread elsewhere. This is especially true of the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of these non-Western traditions with the help of which Guénon hoped a new traditional intellectual elite could be created in the West, something which in fact has taken place to some extent. As to whether Western civilization can avoid decay and destruction by returning to its traditional roots, such an event seems ever more unlikely on a civilizational scale, but return to tradition remains an accessible path for individuals in the West and many have chosen to pursue this path.

Guénon also spoke of the possibility of a “redressement” and who is to say that such an event is no longer possible no matter how unlikely it seems. As the Bible states, “With God all things are possible.” My own understanding is that a golden kernel is now forming while the petals of the “flower of civilization” are falling apart and that this kernel will serve as the seed for the next historical and cosmic cycle.

2. How would you describe the situation in the Western educational institutions? Do the students have an opportunity not only to get familiar with the modern and postmodern philosophy, but also to touch upon the ancient teachings the basis of which is scientia sacra? How do you appraise the Western intellectual environment in general? From your point of view, are there any prerequisites for the emergence of the intellectual elite that Guénon wrote about?

Western educational institutions and their expansion to the rest of the globe are in general dominated by the ideas and ideologies of modernism and more recently what has come to be known as post-modernism, which should not under any condition be confused with tradition. And yet, since the 1960’s a space has opened up within the modern educational system for the traditional study of religion as well as traditional metaphysics, philosophy, cosmology, the arts, etc. This is especially true of America more than of Europe. There are now at least some places in the West where traditional teachings are offered to students even if this is not a reality everywhere.

I myself have been teaching in America for over thirty years. Not only are my courses on Islam and Islamic thought taught from the traditional point of view, but I also teach general traditional ideas and principles in courses dealing with the perennial philosophy, comparative religion, man and the environment, etc. and speak often to my students of scientia sacra. And I am not alone in this endeavor. In the 1980’s the famous American philosopher of religion Huston Smith, who is a traditionalist, and I introduced a section in the program of the American Academy of Religion on the perennial philosophy and since then the traditional view of religion has at least found a place in academia. When Guénon was writing his works, no one in French universities even dared mention his name, while my Gifford Lectures of 1981 which appeared as Knowledge and the Sacred, a book that summarizes traditional doctrines, remains a text book in many American colleges and universities three decades after its publication. Yes, the Western intellectual and milieu is in general opposed to the tenets of tradition, but at the same time spaces have opened up in the Western mental landscape for the presentation of authentic traditional teachings.

As for pre-requisites for the formation of an intellectual elite in the Guénonian sense, it must be remembered that for Guénon intellectual did not mean simply rational or theoretical but included existential participation in the truth discovered by the intellect and also through revelation. There is no path to the full attainment of the verities of tradition without attachment with one’s whole being to an authentic living religion. From the traditional point of view it is not enough to give assent to traditional truths theoretically. One must also “become” what one knows. The case of Guénon himself is witness to this truth. After writing for decades about tradition in France, he migrated to Cairo where he spent the last decades of his life, where he died and where he is buried. In search of an authentic esoteric path, he embraced Sufism and lived fully the life of a Sufi faqīr during his Cairo years. This truth can also be seen in the life of that other major traditionalist master and metaphysician, Frithjof Schuon, who embraced Islam in his youth, soon became a faqīr and later the master or Shaykh of a branch of the Shādhiliyyah Order.

3. Is the contact with live Tradition (East) still possible nowadays so that we could speak with confidence about the restoration of lost tradition (West)? To which extent, in your opinion, has this contact already taken place?

This contact is still very much a possibility and in fact takes place to an ever greater extent, quantitatively speaking. Moreover, some in the West including in Catholicism have sought and seek to revive the contemplative and inward aspects of Christianity with the help of teachings drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. In this context one can point to Thomas Merton in America, a figure whom many consider to be the most influential and significant person in Catholic spirituality that America has ever produced. He turned to non-Western traditions to revive Christian contemplative live. One can therefore say that this type of contact has already taken place in a significant fashion and continues to take place with various degrees of depth. I would also add that interest by many Western Christians in the Orthodox Churches, both Greek and Russian, which have in general preserved their inner dimension better than the Western Churches, belongs to the same reality of which you speak in your question.

4. Do you believe it is possible to come to Tradition through philosophy? For example, through Martin Heidegger’s Philosophy of other Beginning? It’s well-known that Henry Corbin, the French translator of Heidegger’s works, had presumably made his way from Heidegger to Suhrawardī. In his answer to the question about how we can reconcile a typically German philosophy with the Iranian one during the famous interview with Philip Nemo, Corbin denies the apparent discrepancy: “If those who asked this question had only a little idea of what the philosopher is, and of the philosophical Quest, if they would imagine for a moment that for a philosopher linguistic incidents are no more than signs along the way, and that they announce little more than topographical variants of secondary importance, then perhaps they would be less astonished.” Who was a philosopher for Corbin? A thinker who makes research in several directions at the same time? So Corbin goes on, “The philosopher’s sphere of investigations should encompass a wide enough field that the visionary philosophies of a Jacob Boehme, of an Ibn ‘Arabī, of a Swedenborg etc. can be set there together; in short that scriptural and visionary (imaginal) works may be accommodated as so many sources offered up to philosophical contemplation. Otherwise philosophia no longer has anything to do with Sophia. My education is originally philosophical, which is why, to all intents and purposes, I am neither a Germanist nor an Orientalist, but a Philosopher pursuing his Quest wherever the Spirit guides him.”

Let me first turn to the question you ask at the beginning and then to Corbin. In answer to your question as to whether it is possible to come to tradition through philosophy or not, I would respond that it depends on what you mean by philosophy. In English we have philosophy and philosophy, if I may be permitted to express it in this elliptic manner. One meaning of philosophy is in its time honored sense, the term going back to Pythagoras. This is what we call traditional philosophy and it is in this sense that we can speak of Hindu, Chinese, Islamic or medieval Christian philosophy not to speak of the metaphysical Greek schools such as Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. Then there is the second meaning of philosophy that became dominant in the late Greek antiquity and again in the post-medieval West and which consists of an individual mind trying to create a rational system to incorporate the whole of reality. Philosophy in this sense rejects both revelation and intellection (in its original sense not to be confused with ratiocination) and any authority above the human. This individualistic and rationalistic (and since the last century more and more anti-rationalistic) activity of the human mind is also called philosophy these days and it exists nearly completely as a Western phenomenon with some spread of it into other civilizations in modern times. The first meaning of philosophy is universal and the second parochial confined to the West. Even Eastern Christianity, whose main language was Greek, did not show interest in philosophy in the Western sense until recent times. The great Byzantine civilization, to which both the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions were heirs, produced outstanding art and architecture and some of the greatest Christian theologians like St. Gregory of Palamas, but how many even educated people today can name even one Byzantine philosopher? Of course, there were a few such as Gemistus Plethon, but such figures were rare and this great civilization whose language was that of Plato and Aristotle could do without philosophy as this subject is developed in Western Christianity.

Among the major traditional writers, the term philosophy is used sometimes more and sometimes less in one or both senses. Guénon used it only in the second sense, distinguished clearly between metaphysics and philosophy and criticized the latter severely. Coomaraswamy distinguished between perennial philosophy and profane philosophy. Schuon employed perhaps the most nuanced usage of this term. As for myself, I use the term in both senses but make clear what sense I have in mind. In the chapter entitled “Philosophy and the Misdeeds of Philosophy” in my Religion and the Order of Nature as well as in my Knowledge and the Sacred I have dealt in detail with this issue, in a manner that cannot be repeated here.

In any case if by philosophy we mean various traditional philosophies, which are in reality so many languages that express the single, fundamental truth of perennial philosophy, then such a study can bring one to understand the traditional worldview. If we have the second meaning of philosophy in mind, however, then its study even if it be of Heidegger does not usually bring one back to tradition, there being certain exceptions that in a sense confirm the general rule.

I should, however, add a point that I believe to be significant. There are some who have an innate aptitude and the intellectual intuition necessary to understand and embrace tradition. But living in the modern and now post-modern world, what is most easily available to them is modern Western philosophy and not traditional teachings. So they study this philosophy but do not find in it what they are seeking. This negative experience then leads them to search farther afield until they discover traditional doctrines. I have known personally many people who have followed this intellectual trajectory. So, yes in this sense it can be said that philosophy can lead to tradition not through what it offers but as a result of what it does not offer to those who, thanks to their intellectual intuition, are not fooled by intellectual counterfeits and can discern between the real truth and its imitations.

As for Corbin, let me first say that I know and worked closely with him for some twenty years. We attended sessions with traditional Islamic scholars such as ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī together, taught jointly doctoral seminars in philosophy at Tehran University, wrote books together and met also often in France and not only in Iran. Whenever I went to Paris, I would visit him and I even lectured in his classes at the Sorbonne. I therefore knew him very well intellectually, personally and spiritually. I know well what he said to Nemo which makes it appear that Suhrawardī was the same to him as Heidegger. Such, however, is not true and should not be misconstrued. How often did Corbin refer to Suhrawardī as notre maître (our master) and how often did he refer to Heidegger as our master? What we see in the case of Corbin is a profound intellectual intuition of the structure of reality as being comprised of both an outward aspect and an inward aspect. To unveil the inner aspect was considered by him as the goal of real phenomenology which in his mind he equated with the “unveiling of the veiled” (kashf al-maḥjūb) of the Sufis. He saw Husserl, Scheler and Heidegger in this light and once he discovered the continent of later Islamic philosophy, it became evident to him that his intuition was right. That is why he considered the intellectual space of Persia as his real home.

I have written on this matter elsewhere and do not have time to repeat these matters here. But let me just add that certainly Corbin was not an ordinary Germanist nor an ordinary orientalist., but a true philosopher who saw his philosophical vision in many places, especially as far as the West was concerned in German phenomenology and Existenz Philosophie, whereas others did not see the matter in the same way. How many people have connected Heidegger to Suhrawardī besides Corbin and his students? In fact when I was living in Iran, I was witness to the fact that almost all the avid Persian followers of Heidegger were both against Corbin’s interpretation of Islamic philosophy and against tradition itself. They also opposed Corbin’s interpretation of Heidegger.

Corbin represents a special case and I do not believe that the synthesis he experienced in his vision of Western phenomenology and Islamic philosophy actually exists except in certain domains but not in the whole vision of the two. That is why despite the great service that Corbin has rendered the cause of the study of Islamic philosophy, both historically and as living philosophy, he has not been able to provide a general path for people to be led from this form of modern European philosophy either to traditional Islamic philosophy or to tradition itself. Only his close students such as Christian Jambet and Pierre Lory have been able to tread such a path. Let me say finally that to find one’s way from Heidegger to Suhrawardī one has to be a Corbin. But God’s grace is such that there are other ways that avoid the pitfalls and errors of modern philosophy and more and more the metaphysical riches of traditional Islamic philosophy are being made known to the West, much of it due to the pioneering work of Corbin himself.