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Guénon aged 38 (1925 studio photo).
15 November 1886
|Died||7 January 1951 (aged 64)|
René-Jean-Marie-Joseph Guénon (15 November 1886 - 7 January 1951), also known as Abd al-Wahid Yahya, was a French author and intellectual who remains an influential figure in the domain of metaphysics having written on topics ranging from "sacred science", to symbolism and initiation.
In his writings, he proposes either "to expose directly some aspects of Eastern metaphysical doctrines", these doctrines being defined by him as of "universal character", or "to adapt these same doctrines for Western readers while keeping strictly faithful to their spirit"; he only endorsed the act of "handing down" these Eastern doctrines, while reiterating their "non-human character". He wrote and published in French and his works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
René Guénon was born in Blois, a city in central France approximately 160 km (100 mi) from Paris. Guénon, like most Frenchmen of the time, was born into a Roman Catholic family originally from the Angevin, Poitou and Touraine provinces in France; his father was an architect and he was very close to his mother and even more to his aunt Mme Duru, a teacher who taught him to read and write, two devout Catholics. By 1904, Guénon was living as a student in Paris, where his studies focused on mathematics and philosophy. He was known as a brilliant student, notably in mathematics, in spite of his poor health. In Paris in 1905, due to his health problems he abandoned the preparation for the prestigious École Polytechnique and the École normale supérieure competitions.
Guénon observed and became involved with some students who were, at that time, under the supervision of Papus. Guénon soon discovered that the Esoteric Christian Martinist order, also supervised by Papus, was irregular: he wrote later that this occultist milieu had not received any authentic spiritual transmission. He joined the Gnostic Church founded by Léonce Fabre des Essarts (Synesius). He did not take seriously this Gnostic church either, but this allowed him, under the name "Tau Palingenius", to become the founder and main contributor of a periodical review, La Gnose ("Gnosis"), writing articles for it until 1922 and focusing on oriental spiritual traditions (Taoism, Hinduism and Sufism).
From his incursions into the French occultist and pseudo-Masonic orders, he despaired of the possibility of ever gathering these diverse and often ill-assorted doctrines into a "stable edifice". In his book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times he also pointed out what he saw as the intellectual vacuity of the French occultist movement, which, he wrote, was utterly insignificant, and more importantly, had been compromised by the infiltration of certain individuals of questionable motives and integrity. Following his desire to join a regular Masonic obedience, he became a member of the Thebah Lodge of the Grande Loge de France following the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.
Around this time (according to indications reproduced by his biographer Paul Chacornac and some of his close friends or collaborators such as Jean Reyor, André Préau and Frans Vreede), it is possible that René Guénon became acquainted with Hinduism, specifically via the initiatic lineage of Shankarâchârya, and with Taoism, due to his friendship with Georges-Albert Puyou de Pouvourville, alias Matgioi. Georges-Albert Puyou de Pouvourville, was initiated into Taoism in Tonkin (circa 1887-1891) by a village chief: the Tong-Song-Luat (the 'Master of Sentences'). Paul Chacornac hypothesized that Guénon would also have received a direct transmission of Taoism via the younger son of the Master of Sentences, Nguyen Van Cang, who came to France with Matgioi and stayed for a while in Paris. Most biographers recognize that the encounter which marked his life and his work the most is that of Hindus, one of whom, at least, played the role of instructor if not of spiritual master. This meeting took place very early during the period 1904-1909, probably upon his arrival in the occultist world if not before. He met Léon Champrenaud, alias Abdul-Haqq, and John-Gustav Ageli, alias Abdul-Hadi who had been initiated by Abder-Rhaman el Kébir to Sufism in Cairo. Although René Guénon was initiated in 1910 to Islamic esotericism, he himself insisted on recalling that the narrow and purely religious concept of "conversion" did not apply to his case. According to P. Chacornac, Guénon thought that Islam was one of the traditional forms most accessible to Westerners, while retaining authentic possibilities in the initiation domain. When he arrived in Cairo in 1930, his outward behavior had changed and he had completely immersed himself in the popular Muslim milieu of the city.,. Guénon was initiated into the Sufi Shadhili order by Ivan Aguéli, taking the name "?Abd al-Wid Ya?y?".
Guénon, discharged from his military service because of his health problems, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne during World War I. In 1917, Guénon began a one-year stay at Sétif, Algeria, teaching philosophy to college students. After World War I, he left teaching to dedicate his energies to writing; his first book, Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, was published in 1921. From 1925 Guénon became a contributor to a review edited by P. Chacornac, Le Voile d'Isis ("The Veil of Isis"); after 1935 and under Guénon's influence, this periodical became known as Les Études Traditionnelles ("Traditional Studies").
Although the exposition of Hindu doctrines to European audiences had already been attempted in piecemeal fashion at that time by many orientalists, Guénon's Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines advanced its subject in a uniquely insightful manner, by referring to the concepts of metaphysics and Tradition in their most general sense, which Guénon precisely defined, along with the necessary distinctions and definitions of seemingly unambiguous terms such as religion, tradition, exoterism, esoterism and theology. Guénon explained that his purpose was not to describe all aspects of Hinduism, but to give the necessary intellectual foundation for a proper understanding of its spirit. The book also stands as a harsh condemnation of works presented by certain other European writers about Hinduism and Tradition in general; according to Guénon, such writers had lacked any profound understanding of their subject matter and of its implications. The book also contains a critical analysis of the political intrusions of the British Empire into the subject of Hinduism (and India itself) through Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy. The publication of this book earned him rapid recognition in Parisian circles.René Grousset in his "History of Eastern Philosophy" (1923) already referred to Guénon's work as a "classic". André Malraux would say much later that it was, "At its date, a book capital". On the other hand, Guénon was very disappointed by the reaction of his neo-Thomist friends, Noëlle Maurice-Denis and his erstwhile supporter Jacques Maritain argued that Guénon's views were "radically irreconcilable with the [Catholic] faith"; he called them a "Hinduist restoration of ancient Gnosis, mother of heresies". Jacques Maritain, when he became French Ambassador to the Vatican after World War II, asked for Guénon's work listed under the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books, a request which did not result due to the refusal of Pius XII and the support of Cardinal Eugène Tisserant.
In September 1920, Père Peillaube asked Guénon to write a book against the Theosophical Society. In 1921, Guénon debuted a series of articles in the French Revue de Philosophie, which, along with some supplements, led to the book Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion. His critique of Theosophy was received positively by conservative Catholics. However his later book Orient et Occident distanced him from his Catholic supporters. During the decade 1920-1930, Guénon began to acquire a broader public reputation, and his work was noted by various major intellectual and artistic figures both within and outside of Paris. Also at this time were published some of his books explaining the "intellectual divide" between the East and West, and the peculiar nature, according to him, of modern civilization: Crisis of the Modern World, and East and West. In 1927 was published the second major doctrinal book of his works: Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta, and in 1929, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power. The last book listed offers a general explanation of what Guénon saw as the fundamental differences between "sacerdotal" (priestly or sacred) and "royal" (governmental) powers, along with the negative consequences arising from the usurpation of the prerogatives of the latter with regard to the former. From these considerations, René Guénon traces to its source the origin of the modern deviation, which, according to him, is to be found in the destruction of the Templar order in 1314.
In 1930, Guénon left Paris for Cairo and he blended definitively into the Muslim world. During his lengthy sojourn in Egypt, René Guénon carried on an austere and simple life, entirely dedicated to his writings. First, he lived for 7 years in various places in the medieval Judeo-Islamic quarters around the Khan el-Khalili and al-Azhar University, one of the most important intellectual centers of the Sunni Muslim world. He sought in 1930 to meet Sheikh Abder-Rahman Elish El-Kebir, the master of the Sufi spiritual lineage to which he was affiliated, but he had just passed away and he could only meditate on his grave. He met Sheikh Salâma Râdi, then the "pole" ("Qutb"), the highest authority since the death of Abder-Rahman Elish El-Kebir) of the Shâdhilite branch to which Guénon belonged. They exchanged on questions spiritual experiences and several testimonies attest that Guénon became his disciple.
He met one morning at dawn while he was praying, like every day, at the Seyidna el Hussein mosque in front of the mausoleum housing the head of Husayn ibn Ali, Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim with whom he became very close. Guénon married his youngest daughter in 1934 with whom he had four children. In 1937, thanks to the generosity of an English admirer, John Levy, the couple became owners of a small villa, the "Villa Fatma" named after the wife, in the modern district of Duqqi west of Cairo at the foot of the pyramids. Guénon hardly ever went out and often refused Western visitors (the address remained secret). He spent most of his time working in his office and praying in his oratory.
In 1949, he obtained Egyptian citizenship. Sedgwick wrote about Guénon's life in Egypt that even though he continued his interest in Hinduism and other religions, Guénon's own practice was purely Islamic. He is "not known ever to have recommended anyone to become a Hindu, whereas he introduced many to Islam".
Urged on by some of his friends and collaborators, Guénon agreed to establish a new Masonic Lodge in France founded upon his "Traditional" ideals, purified of what he saw as the inauthentic accretions which so bedeviled other lodges he had encountered during his early years in Paris. This lodge was called La Grande Triade ("The Great Triad"), a name inspired by the title of one of Guénon's books. The first founders of the lodge, however, separated a few years after its inception. Nevertheless, this lodge, belonging to the Grande Loge de France, remains active today.
In 1921, Guénon published his first book: an Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines. His goal, as he writes it, is an attempt at presenting to westerners eastern metaphysics and spirituality as they are understood and thought by easterners themselves, while pointing at what René Guénon describes as all the erroneous interpretations and misunderstandings of western orientalism and "neospiritualism" (for the latter, notably the proponents of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy). Right from that time, he presents a rigorous understanding, not only of Hindu doctrines, but also of eastern metaphysics in general.
As David Bisson explains, in addition to what concerns the definition of "Tradition", René Guénon's work is generally divided into "four major themes":
Guénon's writings make use of words and terms of fundamental signification, which receive a precise definition throughout his books. These terms and words, although receiving a usual meaning and being used in many branches of human sciences, have, according to René Guénon, lost substantially their original signification (e.g. words such as "metaphysics", "initiation", "mysticism", "personality", "form", "matter").[non-primary source needed] He insisted notably on the danger represented by the perversion of the signification of words seen by him as essential for the study of metaphysics.
The exposition of metaphysical doctrines, which forms the cornerstone of Guénon's work, consists of the following books:
Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, published in 1921, on topics which were later included in the lecture he gave at the Sorbonne on December 17, 1925 ("Oriental Metaphysics"), consists of four parts.
The first part ("preliminary questions") exposes the hurdles that prevented classical orientalism from a deep understanding of eastern doctrines (without forgetting that Guénon had of course in view the orientalism of his time): the "classical prejudice" which "consists essentially in a predisposition to attribute the origin of all civilization to the Greeks and Romans", the ignorance of certain types of relationships between the ancient peoples, linguistic difficulties, and the confusions arising about certain questions related to chronology, these confusions being made possible through the ignorance of the importance of oral transmission which can precede, to a considerable and indeterminate extent, the written formulation. A fundamental example of that latter mistake being found in the orientalist's attempts at providing a precise birth date to the Vedas sacred scriptures.
The "general characters of eastern thought" part focuses on the principles of unity of the eastern civilizations, and on the definition of the notions of "tradition" and "metaphysics". Guénon also proposes a rigorous definition of the term "religion", and states the proper differences between "tradition", "religion", "metaphysics" and "philosophical system". The relations between "metaphysics" and "theology" are also explored, and the fundamental terms of "esoterism" and "exoterism" are introduced. A chapter is devoted to the idea of "metaphysical realization". The first two parts state, according to Guénon, the necessary doctrinal foundations for a correct understanding of Hindu doctrines.
The Introduction to the study of the Hindu doctrines had, among its objectives, the purpose of giving the proper intellectual basis to promote openness to the study of eastern intellectuality. The study of Hindu doctrines is continued in his book Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta. There he described a part of the doctrine of Vêdânta according to the formulation of Adi Shankara focusing on the human being: his constitution, his states, his posthumous future, the purpose of existence being presented as identity with the Self. (Âtmâ), the transcendent principle of being, identical to Brahma. The "Self" is the essence, the transcendent "Principle" of being, the human being for example. He specifies that "Personality" comes under the order of universal principles: pure metaphysics has for its domain the "Universal", which is without common measure with the domain of the general and of what is designated by the term of categories in philosophy. In the history of Western thought, only the transcendentals of scholastic theology belong to the "Universal". The "Self" contains all the states of manifestation but also all the states of non-manifestation. If one considers the "Self" only as the principle of manifested states only, it identifies with Ishvara, the notion closest to the Creator God in Hindu doctrines, according to him. All manifested states represent "manifestation", or "Universal Existence," where everything is related. Nothing can fundamentally be isolated from the rest of the manifestation: there is oneness of "Existence". Nothing can fundamentally be isolated from the rest of the manifestation: there is oneness of "Existence". Like the principle of manifestation, the "Being" (Sat, or Ishvara if considered in a personalized form), is "One."  He then sets out the purpose of human existence: the realization of identity with the "Self" understood as the true essence of the human being. He adds that the "Self" resides in the vital center of the human being symbolized by the heart. According to Guénon, according to all spiritual traditions, the heart is "the seat of Intelligence" understood as supra-rational knowledge, the only form of knowledge allowing "Supreme Identity". This supra-rational knowledge (and especially not irrational) is Buddhi, the higher intellect, introduced by Guénon in chapter VII of his book. For its part, the brain is the instrument of the mind, in particular of rational thought, indirect knowledge. It is Buddhi, who resides in the heart of every being, who ensures the unification between all the states of existence and the oneness of "Existence".
The book contains many quotes from Shankara and some parallels with Jewish Kabbalah and Christianity. The rigor and quality of the presentation refer to the quality of the Hindu master whom Guénon had met during the period 1905-1909 and about whom he does not breathe a word in his book: some supposed that he must have studied the texts cited directly with these Hindus. The book was very well received and was the subject of many glowing reviews in the press on the right and on the left, sometimes in newspapers with very large circulation.Paul Claudel spoke about the book placing it next to those of Sylvain Lévi and René Grousset and the Islamologist Louis Massignon wanted to meet Guénon: the meeting took place that year (1925).
Paul Chacornac quotes a letter from Roger de Pasquier: "It was not until 1949, during a stay in Bénarès, that I learned of René Guénon's work. It had been recommended to me to read by Alain Danielou [who was then living in India in the entourage of Swami Karpatri, a master of Advaita Vêdânta], who had submitted Guénon's works to orthodox pundits. The verdict of these was clear: of all the Westerners who dealt with Hindu doctrines, only Guénon, they said, really understood the meaning  ". The academic Michel Hulin, a specialist in Indian philosophy, wrote in 2001 that Man and his future according to the Vedânta remains "one of the most rigorous and profound interpretations of the Shankarian doctrine".
The Symbolism of the Cross is a book "dedicated to the venerated memory of Esh-Sheikh Abder-Rahman Elish El-Kebir". Its goal, as Guénon states it, "is to explain a symbol that is common to almost all traditions, a fact that would seem to indicate its direct attachment to the great primordial tradition". To alleviate the hurdles bound to the interpretations of a symbol belonging to different traditions, Guénon distinguishes synthesis from syncretism: syncretism consists in assembling from the outside a number of more or less incongruous elements which, when so regarded, can never be truly unified. Syncretism is something outward: the elements taken from any of its quarters and put together in this way can never amount to anything more than borrowings that are effectively incapable of being integrated into a doctrine "worthy of that name". To apply these criteria to the present context of the symbolism of the cross:
syncretism can be recognized wherever one finds elements borrowed from different traditional forms and assembled together without any awareness that there is only one single doctrine of which these forms are so many different expressions or so many adaptations related to particular conditions related to given circumstances of time and place.
A notable example of syncretism can be found, according to Guénon, in the "doctrines" and symbols of the Theosophical society. Synthesis on the other hand is carried essentially from within, by which it properly consists in envisaging things in the unity of their principle. Synthesis will exist when one starts from unity itself and never loses sight of it throughout the multiplicity of its manifestations; this moreover implies the ability to see beyond forms and an awareness of the principal truth. Given such awareness, one is at liberty to make use of one or another of those forms, something that certain traditions symbolically denote as "the gift of tongues". The concordance between all traditional forms may be said to represent genuine "synonymies". In particular, René Guénon writes that the cross is a symbol that in its various forms is met with almost everywhere, and from the most remotes times. It is therefore far from belonging peculiarly to the Christian tradition, and the cross, like any other traditional symbol, can be regarded according to manifold senses.
Far from being an absolute and complete unity in himself, the individual in reality constitutes but a relative and fragmentary unity. The multiplicity of the states of the being, "which is a fundamental metaphysical truth", implies the effective realization of the being's multiple states and is related to the conception that various traditional doctrines, including Islamic esoterism, denote by the term 'Universal Man': in Arabic al-Insân-al-kâmil is at the same time 'Primordial man' (al-Insân-al-qâdim); it is the Adam Qadmon of the Hebrew Kabbalah; it is also the 'King' (Wang) of the Far-Eastern tradition (Tao Te King chap. 25). The conception of the 'Universal Man' establishes a constitutive analogy between universal manifestation and its individual human modality, or, to use the language of Western Hermeticism, between the 'macrocosm' and the 'microcosm'.
From these considerations, the geometrical symbolism of the cross, in its most universal signification, can be contemplated: most traditional doctrines symbolize the realization of 'Universal Man' by a sign that is everywhere the same because, according to Guénon, it is one of those directly attached to the primordial tradition. That sign is the sign of the cross, which very clearly represents the manner of achievement of this realization by the perfect communion of all states of the being, harmoniously and conformably ranked, in integral expansion, in the double sense of "amplitude" and "exaltation".
This book expands on the multiple states of Being, a doctrine already tackled in The Symbolism of the Cross, leaving aside the geometrical representation exposed in that book "to bring out the full range of this altogether fundamental theory". First and foremost is asserted the necessity of the "metaphysical Infinity", envisaged in its relationship with "universal Possibility". "The Infinite, according to the etymology of the term which designates it, is that which has no limits", so it can only be applied to what has absolutely no limit, and not to what is exempted from certain limitations while being subjected to others like space, time, quantity, in other words all countless other things that fall within the indefinite, fate and nature. There is no distinction between the Infinite and universal Possibility, simply the correlation between these terms indicates that in the case of the Infinite, it is contemplated in its active aspect, while the universal Possibility refers to its passive aspect: these are the two aspects of Brahma and its Shakti in the Hindu doctrines. From this results that "the distinction between the possible and the real [...] has no metaphysical validity, for every possible is real in its way, according to the mode befitting its own nature". This leads to the metaphysical consideration of the "Being" and "Non-Being":
If we [...] define Being in the universal sense as the principle of manifestation, and at the same time as comprising in itself the totality of possibilities of all manifestation, we must say that Being is not infinite because it does not coincide with total Possibility; and all the more so because Being, as the principle of manifestation, although it does indeed comprise all the possibilities of manifestation, does so only insofar as they are actually manifested. Outside of Being, therefore, are all the rest, that is all the possibilities of non-manifestation, as well as the possibilities of manifestation themselves insofar as they are in the unmanifested state; and included among these is Being itself, which cannot belong to manifestation since it is the principle thereof, and in consequence is itself unmanifested. For want of any other term, we are obliged to designate all that is thus outside and beyond Being as "Non-Being", but for us this negative term is in no way synonym for 'nothingness'.
For instance, our present state, in its corporeal modality, is defined by five conditions: space, time, "matter" (i.e. quantity), "form", and life, and these five conditions enter into correlation with the five corporeal elements (bhutas of the Hindu doctrine, see below) to create all living forms (including us in our corporeal modalities) in our world and state of existence. But the universal Manifestation is incommensurably more vast, including all the states of existence that correspond to other conditions or possibilities, yet Being Itself is the principle of universal Manifestation.
This involves the foundation of the theory of multiple states and the metaphysical notion of the "Unicity of the Existence" (wahdatul-wujûd) as it is for instance developed in Islamic esoterism by Mohyddin Ibn Arabi. The relationships of unity and multiplicity lead to a more accurate "description" of the Non-Being: in it, there can be no question of a multiplicity of states, since this domain is essentially that of the undifferentiated and even of the unconditionned: "the undifferentiated cannot exist in a distinctive mode", although we still speak analogously of the states of the non-manifestation: Non-Being is "Metaphysical Zero" and is logically anterior to unity; that is why Hindu doctrine speaks in this regard only of "non duality" (advaita). Analogous considerations drawn from the study of dream state help understand the relationships of unity and multiplicity: in dream state, which is one of the modalities of the manifestation of the human being corresponding to the subtle (that is, non-corporeal) part of its individuality, "the being produces a world that proceeds entirely from itself, and the objects therein consist exclusively of mental images (as opposed to the sensory perceptions of the waking state), that is to say of combinations of ideas clothed in subtle forms that depend substantially of the subtle form of the individual himself, moreover, of which the imaginal objects of a dream are nothing but accidental and secondary modifications". Then, René Guénon studies the possibilities of individual consciousness and the mental ("mind") as the characteristic element of the human individuality. In chapter X ("Limits of the Indefinite"), he comes back to the notion of metaphysical realization (moksha, or "Suprême identity"). A superior signification of the notion of "darkness" is then introduced, most notably in the chapter entitled "The two chaoses", which describes what is happening during the course of spiritual realization when a disciple leaves the domain of "formal possibilities". The multiples states of the Being is essentially related to the notion of "spiritual hierarchies", which is found in all traditions. Hence is described the universal process of the "realization of the Being through Knowledge".
Guénon gave a conference at La Sorbonne on December 17, 1925. This conference was organized by the "group of Philosophical and Scientific Studies for the Examination of New Ideas" founded by Doctor René Allendy. The objective of this association was to reflect on a European union based on overcoming national rivalries and to promote rapprochement between the East and the West. Guénon repeatedly explained that a union could only be based on a restoration of true "intellectuality" which, alone, could transcend the differences between cultures and this is the reason why he clarified what he called by real "intellectuality" during his speech. The Sorbonne conference was published in several parts in the journal Vers Unité in 1926 and then in book form in 1939.
During the conference, Guénon clarified what he called by true "intellectuality" and by "metaphysics". These points were essential for the constitution of a spiritual elite which aimed to reconstitute a union between the peoples. He explained that metaphysics "literally means that which is" beyond physics "", i.e. what is beyond nature. He insisted on the fact that this requires going beyond the manifested world and therefore all phenomena. Metaphysics therefore has nothing to do with phenomena even with extraordinary phenomena. Metaphysics must go beyond the domain of being and must therefore go beyond ontology. He added: "metaphysics is supra-rational, intuitive [beyond subject-object duality] and immediate knowledge" (while rational knowledge is indirect). The path to this knowledge requires "only one essential preparation, and that is theoretical knowledge [implied by traditional doctrines]". But, he clarified, all this cannot go far without the most important means which is "the concentration". Guénon then described the different stages of the spiritual path:
In his "Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines", Guénon writes that "metaphysics affirms the identity of knowing and being" and that "it does not only affirm it, it realizes it". The effective means of realization are found in what is called initiation. Articles written by René Guénon on this subject were collected later in the form of two books including Perspectives on Initiation (1946) and Initiation and Spiritual Realization (published in 1952 after his death). He therefore wrote several articles considered fundamental on initiation. These articles were collected later in the form of two books including Perspectives on Initiation (1946) and Initiation and Spiritual Realization (published in 1952 after his death).
Guénon declared that the path to this knowledge requires "only one essential preparation, and that is theoretical knowledge [implied by traditional doctrines]". But he clarified, all this cannot go far without the most important means which is "concentration". The rational study of the initiatory texts and the implementation of the rites are of no use if the spiritual transmission has not taken place: for example, the recitation of a mantra is useless without the 'spiritual influence transmitted by the master during the initiation. One cannot initiate oneself alone, or "in astral": for Guénon, any desire to revive dead traditions (of ancient Egypt, Celts, Germans, etc.) has no meaning. The spiritual laws which govern the spiritual path have nothing to do with the magic or the paranormal phenomena which concern the psychic and not the spiritual: to be attached to these phenomena is an obstacle to the spiritual development. Guénon considers imperative the need to combine esotericism with the corresponding exoterism (as he became a Muslim stake while being Sufi from 1930) and not to mix the practices of different traditions: one must practice only one spiritual path (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc.) 
For Guénon, there are traditions where the esoteric/exoteric separation does not exist (Hinduism, Tibetan Lamaism) so much esotericism permeates everything. In China, the two are totally separate (Confucianism for exotericism and Taoism for esotericism). The two overlap in Islam (with Sufism) and Judaism (with Kabbalah). In the West, Guénon claims that Christianity had a strong esoteric character at its origin but that to save the Roman world, it exteriorized itself in a providential way: the Christian sacraments then went from esoteric to exoteric status. In the Middle Ages, Christian initiation groups existed, the most important was the order of the Temple. After the destruction of this order, Christian esotericism became more and more closed and separated from the official Church. Freemasonry and Compagnonnage inherited the last Western initiation rites. For Guénon, the Catholic Church has retained its authentic religious dimension but has lost its esoteric dimension no longer making access to final deliverance possible. Mysticism since the Renaissance is a passive path inferior to the initiatory path: it allows to reach the divine but in an indirect and often uncontrollable way. Freemasonry has kept initiatory transmissions but, in addition to the fact that it is about low initiations (initiations of trades mixed with remains of chivalrous initiations), its passage from operative masonry to speculative masonry in the 18th century prevents the transition from virtual initiation to effective initiation, the latter had to be done by exercising the profession in question. More seriously still, Masonry turned in part from its initiatory role in the 19th century to devote itself to politics in a more anti-traditional (anti-Catholic) direction. Guénon has long kept the hope of an alliance between some members of the Catholic Church and Masonry to reconstitute a complete elite (combining the Catholic religion and Christian Masonry). He envisioned that Eastern masters could spiritually revive these traditions from time to time.
The application of the distinction between esotericism and exoterism to Christianity, Guénon's position on mysticism and the assertion that the Catholic sacraments have lost their initiatory character have been the subject of strong criticism. It is this point which led to the rupture between Guénon and Frithjof Schuon. Guénon's ideas on esotericism had a significant impact on Freemasonry especially in Latin speaking countries. According to David Bisson, the redefinition of esotericism by René Guénon is considered "as an essential chapter in the history of Western esotericism - as it is conceived and developed by Antoine Faivre": the latter emphasized the importance of Guénon and the currents that claim to be based on his notion of Tradition in the esoteric Western currents.
On the subject of initiation, Guénon clarifies the signification given by the ancient Greeks to the classical names of lesser and greater mysteries: "they are not different "types" of initiations, but stages or degrees of a same initiation".
Lesser mysteries lead to the "perfection of the human state", in other words to "something traditionally designated by the restoration of the "primordial state", a state that Dante, in the Divine comedy, relates symbolically to the "terrestrial paradise". On another hand, "greater mysteries" refer properly to "the realization of supra-human states"; they correspond to the Hindu doctrine of "deliverance" (Moksha) and to what Islamic esoterism calls the "realization of the Universal Man": in that latter tradition, "lesser" and "greater" mysteries correspond exactly to the signification of the terms "el-insân el-qadîm" (the Primordial Man) and "el-insan el-kâmil" (the Universal Man). These two phases are related to an interpretation of the symbolism of the cross with the notions of "horizontal" and "vertical" realization. They also correspond respectively to what is traditionally designated in western hermeticism by the terms royal initiation and sacerdotal initiation.
While it is acknowledged that symbolism refers to something very different from a mere 'code', an artificial or arbitrary meaning, and that "it holds an essential and spontaneous echoing power", for René Guénon, this 'echoing power' goes immensely farther than the psychological realm: symbolism is "the metaphysical language at its highest", capable of relating all degrees of universal Manifestation, and all the components of the Being as well: symbolism is the means by which man is capable of "assenting" orders of reality that escape, by their very nature, any description by ordinary language. This understanding of the profound nature of symbolism, writes René Guénon, has never been lost by an intellectual (i.e. spiritual) elite in the East. It is inherent in the transmission of initiation which, he says, gives the real key to man to penetrate the deeper meaning of the symbols; in this perspective, meditation on symbols (visual or heard, dhikr, repetition of the Divine Names) is an integral part both of initiation and of spiritual realization.
For René Guénon art is above all knowledge and understanding, rather than merely a matter of sensitivity. Similarly, the symbolism has a conceptual vastness "not exclusive to a mathematical rigor": symbolism is before all a science, and it is based, in its most general signification, on "connections that exist between different levels of reality". And, in particular, the analogy itself, understood following a formula used in Hermeticism as the "relation of what is down with what is above" is likely to be symbolized: there are symbols of the analogy (but every symbol is not necessarily the expression of an analogy, because there are correspondences that are not analogical). The analogical relation essentially involves the consideration of an "inverse direction of its two terms", and symbols of the analogy, which are generally built on the consideration of the primitive six-spoke wheel, also called the chrism in the Christian iconography, indicate clearly the consideration of these "inverse directions"; in the symbol of the Solomon's seal, the two triangles in opposition represent two opposing ternaries, "one of which is like a reflection or mirror image of the other" and "this is where this symbol is an exact representation of analogy". This consideration of a "reverse meaning" allows René Guénon to propose an explanation of some artistic depictions, such as that reported by Ananda Coomaraswamy in his study "The inverted tree": some images of the "World Tree", a symbol of universal Manifestation, represent the tree with its roots up and its branches down: the corresponding positions correspond to two complementary points of view that can be contemplated: point of view of the manifestation and of the Principle. This consideration of "reverse meaning" is one of the elements of a "science of symbolism" in which Guénon refers to, and used by him in many occasions.
Guénon was critical of modern interpretations regarding symbolism which often rested on naturalistic interpretations of the symbol in question which Guénon regarded as a case of the symbol of the thing being mistaken for the thing itself. He was also critical of the psychological interpretations found in the psychiatrist Carl Jung.
Guénon denounced the Theosophical Society, many pseudo-Masonic orders in the French and English occult scenes and the Spiritist movement. They formed the topic of two of his major books written in the 1920s, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion and The Spiritist Fallacy. He denounced the syncretic tendencies of many of these groups, along with the common Eurocentric misconceptions that accompanied their attempts to interpret Eastern doctrines. René Guénon especially develops some aspects of what he refers to as the manifestation of "antitraditional" currents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His first book on that subject is devoted to a detailed historical examination of Madame Blavatsky's theosophy: Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion. Guénon examines the role and intervention that played in that movement organizations that are described in more detail in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, as under what he called the "pseudo-initiation"; in particular what he calls "pseudo-Rosicrucian" organizations holding no affiliation with the real authentic Rosicrucians, like the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia founded in 1867 by Robert Wentworth Little, the "Order of the esoteric Rose-Cross" of Dr. Franz Hartmann etc. He denounces the syncretic nature of theosophy and its connection with the theory of evolution in "The Secret Doctrine" (Madame Blavastky's main work); he also examines the role and relationship that the Theosophical Society had with multitude of "pseudo-initiatic" organizations, among others the O.T.O. founded in 1895 by Carl Kellner and propagated in 1905 by Theodor Reuss, and the Golden Dawn, to which belongs a large number of key figures of the Anglo-Saxon "neo-spiritualism" of the early twentieth century etc. Some authors have argued that Guénon's analysis of Theosophy is flawed and that it is debatable whether Theosophy is really hostile to Islam and Christianity.
These are precisely some members of the "inner circle" of the H.B. of L., to which belonged Emma Hardinge Britten, who would have produced the phenomena giving rise to spiritist movement that is to say, another "antitraditional" current born in 1848. To support this assertion, he relies on statements from Emma Hardinge Britten herself, which will be confirmed much later, in 1985, by the publication from French publishing house Editions Archè of the documents of the H.B. of L. This organization would have received in part the legacy of other secret societies, including the "Eulis Brotherhood", to which belonged Paschal Beverly Randolph, a character designated by René Guénon as "very enigmatic" who died in 1875. He denounces "the confusion of the psychic and the spiritual" and especially the psychoanalytic interpretation of symbols, including the Jungian branch of it, which he condemned with the greatest firmness, seeing in it the beginnings of a reversed - or at least distorted - interpretation of symbols. This aspect is reflected in some studies, especially in a book published in 1999 by Richard Noll who incidentally speaks of the role played by the Theosophical Society in Jung.
A commentator of René Guénon, Charles-André Gilis, has published a book in 2009 which proposes some insights and developments of the idea of 'counter-tradition' introduced by Guénon, based on Mohyddin Ibn Arabi's writings ("The profanation of Israël in the light of Sacred Law").
New English translation, 23 volumes, Sophia Perennis (publisher)