“It is fundamentally the incubus of world trade that makes of industrial ‘civilisation’ a curse to humanity”
Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) was a metaphysical philosopher and intellectual giant of the organic radical tradition.
Influenced by William Morris and friends with René Guénon, he developed an anarchist critique of industrial capitalism and the Western civilization from which it had emerged. He has been credited with having invented, as early as 1913, the term “post-industrial”. (1)
Alan Antliff describes Coomaraswamy as having bridged the philosophical gap between an Eastern religious ethos of enlightenment (Hinduism-Buddhism) and a Western ideal of harmonious social organization (anarchism).
He writes: “The anarchism of Coomaraswamy represents a compelling instance of cross-cultural intermingling in which a European critique of industrial capitalism founded on the arts-and-crafts was turned to anti-colonial ends in a campaign against Eurocentric cultural imperialism and its material corollary, industrial capitalism”. (2)
Born in Sri Lanka, Coomaraswamy was an anti-imperialist. While in India, he was part of the literary circle around the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and participated in the Swadeshi movement for Indian independence.
This position was not based on nationalism, but on opposition to the British empire and the way Western commercial civilization destroyed the authenticity and autonomy of communities and cultures.
Coomaraswamy explicitly described himself as being involved in a battle “against industrialism and world trade”. (3)
He added: “Few will deny that at the present day Western civilisation is faced with the imminent possibility of total functional failure nor that at the same time this civilisation has long acted and still continues to act as a powerful agent of disorder and oppression throughout the rest of the world”. (4)
He very clearly placed himself on the side of an opposing tradition: “On the one hand the inspired tradition rejects ambition, competition and quantitative standards; on the other, our modern ‘civilization’ is based on the notions of social advancement, free enterprise (devil take the hindmost) and production in quantity.
“The one considers man’s needs, which are ‘but little here below’; the other considers his wants, to which no limits can be set and of which the number is artificially multiplied by advertisement.
“The manufacturer for profits must, indeed, create an ever-expanding world market for his surplus produced by those for whom Dr [Albert] Schweitzer calls ‘over-occupied men’.
“It is fundamentally the incubus of world trade that makes of industrial ‘civilisation’ a ‘curse to humanity’, and from the industrial concept of progress ‘in line with the manufacturing enterprise of civilisation’ that modern wars have arisen and will arise; it is on the same impoverished soil that empires have grown and by the same greed that innumerable civilisations have been destroyed”. (5)
Coomaraswamy was a Perennnialist, consciously following what he described as “the universal metaphysical tradition that has been the essential foundation of every past culture”. (6)
He stressed that spirituality, art and culture all flow from humankind’s belonging (and our awareness of belonging) to the organic unity of nature.
Western industrial society had become blind to this fundamental reality of human identity, said Coomaraswamy, and he joined John Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites in judging that this was very apparent in its art.
Jacques Thomas says that for Coomaraswamy the modern world had gone astray in the way it regarded art “as the ‘realisation’ of matter rather than, as it should be, the materialisation of an ‘idea'”. (7)
Coomaraswamy said that “decadent” contemporary Western art was “art which is no longer felt or energized”. (8)
He contrasted it with the Ch’an or Zen art of China and Japan, which recognised its own organic origin by taking for its theme either landscape or plant or animal life: “Ch’an-Zen art, seeking realization of the divine being in man, proceeds by way of opening his eyes to a like spiritual essence in the world of Nature external to himself; the scripture of Zen is ‘written with the characters of heaven, of man, of beasts, of demons, of hundreds of blades of grass and of thousands of trees’ (Do-gen), ‘every flower exhibits the image of Buddha’ (Du-go)”. (9)
Coomaraswamy wrote that in the Middle Ages, an artist had not been regarded so much as an individual, but as a channel through which the unanimous ideas of an organic international community could be expressed.
Again echoing Morris, he described how in industrial society the act of artistic creation had been divided between two separate concepts. An “artist” was treated as a kind of individual genius working on their own, while a craftsman was superfluous to requirements in the modern age and could safely be replaced by unskilled labour or machinery.
He argued that this was effectively a “spiritual caste system”, explaining: “Those who have lost most by this are the artists, professionally speaking, on the one hand, and laymen generally on the other. The artist (meaning such as would still be so called) loses by his isolation and corresponding pride, and by the emasculation of his art, no longer conceived as intellectual, but only as emotional in motivation and significance; the workman (to whom the name of artist is now denied) loses in that he is not called, but forced to labor unintelligently, goods being valued above men”. (10)
Coomaraswamy’s intellectual interests were both deep and broad. In addition to his studies in ancient Eastern art, culture and religion, his enthusiasm for Morris’s work inspired him to follow in his footsteps and learn Icelandic. He was also an admirer of William Blake’s idiosyncratic brand of Romantic nature-worship and spirituality.
His closest affinity, however, was with Guénon. Coomaraswamy judged that “no living writer in modern Europe is more significant than René Guénon”. (11) He translated Guénon’s work and dedicated to him a chapter of his 1947 book The Bugbear of Literacy.
Coomaraswamy shared Guénon’s belief in a timeless and universal human metaphysics, the Philosophia Perennis.
For instance, he commented on the striking similarities between the thinking of the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and traditional Indian metaphysics: “Eckhart presents an astonishingly close parallel to Indian modes of thought; some whole passages and many single sentences read like a direct translation from Sanskrit”. (12)
He also agreed with Guénon that each seeker of the truth had to take the path of a particular spiritual discipline in order to progress.
He wrote: “There are many paths that lead to the summit of one and the same mountain; their differences will be the more apparent the lower down we are, but they vanish at the peak; each will naturally take the one that starts from the point at which he finds himself; he who goes round about the mountain looking for another is not climbing”. (13)
Coomaraswamy, like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, saw mythology and folklore as presenting us with glimpses of the universal archetypes within the human mind. He wrote: “The ‘catchwords’ of Folklore are, in fact, the signs and symbols of the Philosophia Perennis“. (14)
As well as arising from his Hindu background, Coomaraswamy’s metaphysics was inspired by Neoplatonism and its founder Plotinus.
Coomaraswamy emphasised the importance of form and its inseparability from beauty and truth. All natural objects were beautiful, he said, because of their essential form, whereas the beauty of artificial objects depended on the input of the people who made them.
A post-Western, post-industrial future therefore had to be based on the essential beauty and form that comes to us from nature.
“To reform what has been deformed means that we must take account of an original ‘form’”, (15) he wrote. This original form, such as an organic, anarchic, just, non-industrial, natural community, was a kind of possibility-in-waiting, which always had the potential of becoming real.
“The work to be done is primarily one of purgation, to drive out the money changers, all who desire power and office, and all representatives of special interests; and secondly, when the city has been thus ‘cleaned up’, one of considered imitation of the natural forms of justice, beauty, wisdom and other civic virtues; amongst which we have considered justice, or as the word dikaoisyne is commonly translated in Christian contexts, righteousness”. (16)
It was important not to waste time and effort doubting whether the battle could ever successful, he said: “Our concern is with the task and not with its reward; our business is to be sure that in any conflict we are on the side of Justice”. (17)
He added: “The impossible never happens; what happens is always the realisation of a possibility”. (18)
Video link: What defines genuine art & beauty – Dr. A.K. Coomaraswamy (10 mins)
1. Armand Mattelart, The Information Society: An Introduction (London: Sage, 2003), p. 44.
2. Alan Antliff, ‘Revolutionary Seer for Post-Industrial Age: Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Nietzsche’, I Am Not A Man, I Am Dynamite: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Anarchist Tradition, ed. by John Moore with Spencer Sunshine, (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 46.
3. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation and Other Essays (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1989), p. 8.
4. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation, p. 19.
5. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation, p. 7.
6. Ananda Coomaraswamy, cit. Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 34.
7. Jacques Thomas, Introduction, Ananda Coomaraswamy, La Théorie Médiévale de la Beauté (Paris: Archè, Nef de Salomon, 1995), p.12.
8. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 25.
9. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, pp. 40-41.
10. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, p. 65.
11. Coomaraswamy, cit. Sedgwick, p. 34.
12. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, p. 201.
13. Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘Paths that Lead to the Same Summit’, The Underlying Religion: An Introduction to the Perennial Philosophy, ed. by Martin Lings and Clinton Minnaar (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2007), p. 229.
14. Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘Symplegades’, The Underlying Religion, p. 197.
15. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation and Other Essays (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1989), p. 8.
16. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation and Other Essays, p. 12.
17. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation and Other Essays, p. 8.
18. Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation and Other Essays, p. 70.