“The great social and political evil of the West is mechanization”
Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) was a metaphysician who developed a universal and nature-orientated esoteric philosophy.
Schuon warned in his 1954 book Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts: “In a certain, external sense it may be said that the great social and political evil of the West is mechanization, for it is the machine which most directly engenders the great evils from which this world today is suffering.
“To talk about a wise use of machines, of their serving the human spirit, is utterly chimerical. It is in the very nature of mechanization to reduce men to slavery and to devour them entirely, leaving them nothing human, nothing above the animal level, nothing above the collective level… Man, who created the machine, ends by becoming its creature”. (1)
And in his 1959 work Gnosis: Divine Wisdom, Schuon condemned the phoney modern brand of liberal “humanitarianism” which failed to challenge the crushing tyranny of industrialism.
He wrote: “How self-defeating are the aims of humanitarianism is to be observed in the fact that it accepts what is most inhuman, mechanization, which suppresses artisanship, hence one of the conditions of human happiness; there was much merit in Gandhi’s campaign against the machine, and consequently on behalf of human dignity”. (2)
Connection to nature was important for Schuon and he described the spiritual path of a type of person termed a jnânin who was able to source inner beauty by contemplating authentic harmony in the world outside them, without the need for organised religion.
He wrote: “It is not without reason that the beauty in question should be the beauty of virgin nature rather than of temples: for nature reflects something spontaneous and unlimited, something also timeless which fully corresponds to the altogether primordial freedom of the pure Intellect; the spirit of the jnânin is indeed ‘anterior’ to all crystallization, being everywhere and nowhere”. (3)
Added Schuon: “It is sometimes said that the ancient hermits, notably the Desert Fathers, used to seek out the most ‘desolate’ places in nature, and this is thought to provide an argument against an ‘aestheticism’ that is by no means in question; it is forgotten that these ‘desolate’ places are neither factory walls nor office furnishings and that it is actually impossible for them to be outside the framework of beauty, for the simple reason that in virgin nature beauty is everywhere, in harshness as in gentleness”. (4)
Like Carl Jung, Schuon believed in a “world soul”, although he extended the idea of a collective unconscious still further, writing of “a collectivity or plurality of collectivities, which are superimposed on or interpenetrate one another; this ‘collective subject’ embraces all humanity and, on a vaster scale, all terrestial creatures”. (5)
His love of nature and opposition to Western capitalist modernity fuelled Schuon’s long-term interest in Indigenous American cultures.
In 1946, he wrote to various followers and admirers from his home in Switzerland asking to be put in touch with a tribal elder.
In response, Joseph Epes Brown, an anthropologist at the Indiana University, sent Schuon a copy of John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932), a best-selling first-person account of the life of the Oglala Sioux leader and wichasha wakan (holy man) who had taken part in the battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee.
After reading this book, Schuon began to discuss Native American spirituality in his correspondence with Guénon, and he also recommended that Brown contact Black Elk; Brown did so, spending a year with him around 1947-48.
The results of that year’s research were published in 1953, simultaneously in English and French, as The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, and Les rites secrets des Indiens sioux, which became a basic source text for the study of North American religion.
Schuon’s interest in Native American spirituality continued to grow, and Mark Sedgwick relates that in 1959 he and his wife visited America for the first time, partly “to help save the Native American tradition from modernity” and were adopted into the Sioux, receiving the names of Wicahpi Wiyakpa (Bright Star) and Wowan Winyan (Artist Woman)”. (6)
His understanding of the “direct and supra-mental intellection” behind our knowledge (gnosis) of a deeper truth is comparable to the “intellectual intuition” explained by Friedrich Schelling. Schuon wrote that “the Intellect coincides in its innermost nature with the very Being of things”. (7)
The symbols, sacred art and rites of traditional religions were just “a means of expressing all the truths known directly by the eye of the Intellect, the spiritual organ which is called in Moslem esoterism the ‘eye of the heart'”. (8)
Like myths, they were a means of passing on “not only spiritual states of the mind, but psychological attitudes which are accessible to all men”. (9)
From Schuon’s perennialist perspective, no one religion, no one particular form through which these truths were expressed, could have any unique value to the exclusion of other forms – “for a form, by definition, cannot be unique and exclusive, that is to say it cannot be the only possible expression of what it expresses”. (10)
1. Frithjof Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, cit. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man (Chicago: ABC International Group Inc, 1997) , p. 40.
2. Frithjof Schuon, Gnosis: Divine Wisdom (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2006), p. 42.
3. Schuon, Gnosis, p. 35.
5. Schuon, Gnosis, p. 54
6. Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 149.
7. Schuon, Gnosis, p. 16.
8. Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (London, Faber & Faber, 1953), p. 11.
9. Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, p. 93.
10. Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, p. 34.