Rene Guenon’s East and West

Guenon East and West

This book review originally appeared in The Treasure: Australia’s Sufi Magazine, no. 40 (2017), pp. 38 – 42.

In 1924 Rene Guenon first published East and West and as we approach the 100th anniversary of its publication it is beneficial to review this work and remind ourselves of the content and purpose of this work. In examining the content of this work, we hope to provide more than a mere book review. For this purpose, this reminder will be divided into three sections. The first section will provide a brief introduction to Rene Guenon and situate East and West within his wider literary production. The second section will examine the content of this book, attempting to highlight Guenon’s views. The third section will examine the validity of Guenon’s assertions and assess what, if any, relevance that East and West may have for the modern reader.

Rene Guenon and East and West


Rene Guenon is remembered as a great metaphysician of the 20th Century. He was born in Blois, France, on November 15, 1886, into a Roman Catholic family. Guenon’s early studies focused on mathematics and philosophy and he was considered a brilliant student despite poor health. During his time as a student in Paris, Guenon became interested in the occult and was involved with many of the pseudo-spiritualist movements of the time, including, though not limited to, masonic orders and theosophy. It was also during this time that he became familiar with many of the worlds traditions, such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Islam. Guenon published widely in a range of journals, with many of these early articles being collected throughout his life and afterwards to be compiled into books. In 1910, after encountering Abd al-Hadi Agueli, a muqaddam of the Shadhiliyya Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Kabir, Guenon accepted Islam and took the name Abd al-Wahid Yahya. Guenon and Agueli worked together and produced some of the earliest translations of the work of Shaykh al-Akbar Ibn ‘Arabi in a European language. Many of these translations appeared in La Gnose, a journal founded by Guenon.[1] In 1930 Guenon travelled to Cairo. While he informed many of those closest to him that his intent was to return after seeking out further documents on Sufism for translation, never again did Guenon set foot on his homeland soil and declined all requests by his friends to do so. Guenon was so taken with the culture and lifestyle in Egypt that it has been related that on many occasions he was mistaken for a native, with one neighbor unaware that the esteemed author Rene Guenon and the respected Shaykh Abd al-Wahid Yahya were one and the same until after his passing. It was also in Egypt that Guenon became connected with the Hamidiyya-Shadhiliyya Sufi Order. He maintained an austere life, focusing on spiritual development and continuous writing, assisting copious numbers of people through correspondence. Guenon passed away on January 7th, 1951, uttering his final word “Allah.”[2]

Within Guenon’s body of work, East and West occupies an interesting position. It is the fourth book that he published and can be seen to be a direct result of Guenon’s preceding literary output while beginning one of his central themes that is restated throughout his later works. Guenon’s first work, published in 1921, was Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines and, while couched in the terminology and framework of Hinduism, outlines the requirements of and principles underpinning an authentic tradition. Using Hinduism as his case study, Guenon highlighted the necessity of orthodoxy for its integration of exoterism and esoterism, which, combined, are crucial for an authentic tradition. His second work, also published in 1921, was Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion. This exposé of the Theosophical Society functions as a foundation for the critique of anti-traditional and pseudo-traditional movements and brings to the foreground the necessity of the metaphysical principles, common across the worlds traditions, for the retention of the salvific guarantee which anti and pseudo traditional movements lack. In 1923 Guenon published The Spiritist Fallacy. This work detailed some of the prevalent pseudo-spiritual beliefs, how they have gained currency within society, and how these beliefs displace, and even corrupt, traditional frameworks. East and West can be seen to be a culmination and extension of the themes of these three works, as applied more generally to modern Eurocentric societies.

East and West follows on from the preceding works by highlighting how modern societies have moved away from the traditional principles upon which they were initially founded. This work details how many of these traditional principles have been inverted to produce the idea of civilization, underpinned by anti-traditional principles and giving rise to pseudo-traditional movements. The strength of conviction in these anti-traditional principles has, according to Guenon, divorced the modern human from their metaphysical underpinnings and created an increased difficultly, to the point of being almost impossible, of reconnecting to an authentic tradition. East and West draws out these anti-traditional principles, showing how they are incongruent with the developmental potentialities inherent within each individual and stunting those within Eurocentric societies. East and West is also the first of Guenon’s works that detail his critique of the modern world, with later titles including The Crisis of the Modern World and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

The East and the West


East and West is divided into two sections, “Western Illusions” and “How the Differences Might be Bridged,” and these broadly cover the central themes of this work. Guenon orients the reader by bringing into focus his position from the very first page. He starts with the strongly held assumption that the East and the West are fundamentally different, as typified by the Kipling quote “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” and proceeds to challenge this notion from the position of a “spiritual order.”[3] Guenon’s view is that the perceived unbridgeable gulf arises as a result of the modern, Western idea of civilization. This relatively new idea of civilization, which Guenon traces to the Renaissance, is founded on a few key principles which supposedly give those within a civilization the self-proclaimed authority to define and judge all other peoples and then act upon them in accordance with this judgement. Three of the central principles that, according to Guenon, give rise to the idea of civilization are specific definitions of progress, science, and life. This section is not intended to cover all of Guenon’s views detailed in East and West, rather it will attempt to highlight some of his key views and their relation to his central position.

Progress, as a foundational principle of the idea of civilization, is perhaps one of the most peculiar and damaging ideas that Guenon outlines within East and West. As detailed by Guenon, and as evermore apparent within society today, progress is understood as the pursuit of unrestrained growth. Progress as unrestrained growth is peculiar in that it works against the natural order by overlooking the necessary binary inherent in all change. Change, as opposed to progress, acknowledges that growth and decay, or expansion and contraction, are two sides of the same coin for as one thing increases others decrease in equal proportion.[4] Progress, as opposed to change, is dangerous in that its monolithic pursuit of material gains, such as land, money, and possessions, dispossesses others, with self-appointed justification, of the very things that it subsumes within is pursuit of unrestrained growth and increase. We may take as an analogy the growth of a tree, for while its progress provides benefits, such as shade, it does so at the expense of the other plants around and underneath it as it blocks their access to the sun and minimizes their access to water supplies. For Guenon, Western civilization, through its myopic and unbalanced uptake of progress, saps the resources of other societies for its own unrestrained growth and believes this to be justified because these societies do not participate in these goals. Progress is considered anti-traditional in that it attempts to work against the consistency within the natural order.

Science, as practiced within Western civilization, is restrained to being a handmaiden to progress. In this setting, science, in aiding and furthering progress, has an implicit anti-traditional impact. Guenon writes that “the anti-traditional spirit showed itself at one by proclaiming of ‘free inquiry’, or in other words, the absence in the doctrinal order of any principle higher than individual opinions.”[5] Under the guise of freeing thought, in as far as it is removed from any doctrinal standpoint, science aims to increase progress without considering any costs other than those that serve the idea of civilization.[6] As individual opinions change over time, as opposed to traditional principles, the result is, in Guenon’s view, “intellectual anarchy” devoid of any consistency.[7] In our analogy, science has the ability to produce fertilizer to aid in the further growth of a tree while also producing poisons for that which is defined as weeds that are thought to hinder the tree’s progress, without consideration for the functions that the surrounding plants fill. This is not to suggest that Guenon is against science per se, he acknowledges that there are “certain branches of scientific knowledge [that] have a traditional basis”[8] which have an application greater than mere progress because they are adhere to traditional principles.

Like progress, life, from the perspective of the idea of civilization, involves the constant appearance of movement. From this perspective of the West, the East appears dead due to “their fixity and stability,” which is interpreted as “a denial of progress.”[9] From the perspective of traditional principles, which Guenon locates within Eastern societies, life, as “the need for outward activity,” comes across as “no more than fruitless agitation.”[10] Life, understood in this way, makes explicit the primarily materialistic pursuit implicit in both progress and science. As long as the tree continues to produce fruit, the health of the tree and the other plants around it are not given consideration.[11] For Guenon, the West, in its promotion of civilization and pursuit of the purely material, is blind to the traditional, metaphysical principles that govern the East. This, in turn, allows the West to feel justified to exploit the East because, according to Guenon’s view, the East fails to capitalize on those resources necessary for developing and maintaining the idea of civilization. The anti-traditional aspect of this understanding of life lies in its limiting of existence to the merely materialistic elements.

Guenon’s critique of the West hits directly at many of its self-proclaimed virtues and may appear harsh to those that uphold them. Yet, rather than falling into a sort of sentimentality of the bygone principles, Guenon does show that he holds hope for the West. He does this by suggesting “how the differences might be bridged.”In bridging the differences, Guenon can be seen to be advocating for a deep and sustainable change within the West. For this there is much change needed and cannot be merely superficial. For this Guenon states that mere intellectuality is not enough as most academics “do not wish to be anything but scholars” as they carry and promote their own pretension by deeming “themselves so intelligent that they understand these ideas much better than do the people who elaborated them.”[12] To approach a point wherein mutual understanding is possible, it becomes necessary to remove the self-proclaimed authority which the West gives itself and then stands in judgment of others. This, by itself, is no small feat, for the implied arrogance within the idea of civilization is so deeply entrenched that shifting it would already herald the beginning of a paradigm change.

Mutuality, as opposed to superiority, requires understanding and agreement. A willingness to understand requires openness to the other and understanding requires a degree of accepting the other in its own terms. Agreement, especially with regard to the level of change advocated for by Guenon, is needed as such a fundamental level if any sort of symbiotic relationship is to occur. For this, Guenon sees it necessary to return and examine principles. Guenon’s view is that “modern civilization suffers from a lack of principles, and it suffers from it in every domain”[13] because what it takes as principles “are really just the opposite, being conclusions and the results of induction, even when they are not mere hypotheses.”[14] For Guenon principles have a specific meaning, as “the term should be reserved for metaphysical principles” being that which proceeds from “the transcendent Source and Origin of all things, the unchanging and unchangeable First Cause of everything.”[15] East and West arise out of the same source and it is the West’s perceived separation from these metaphysical principles that gives rise to the “intellectual anarchy” of science.[16] By approaching the East with the intention of understanding, the West makes possible the ability of reconnecting itself to a paradigm consistent with its origins.

Guenon’s call for the realignment of the West with traditional principles is not a mere pipe dream. Throughout East and West there are clues to the methods that Guenon states will allow for such realignment. He is aware that a paradigm shift as proposed is not something that will occur instantaneously and will require gradual change. He states,

While waiting for the West to return to its own traditions, there is perhaps no other means of preparing for this return and recovering what is essential to it than to go by analogy with the traditional forms that still exist today, and that, as such, can be studied directly.[17]

For, Guenon is indicating that an approach towards the East is necessary, an approach that has at its heart the desire for understanding and agreement. To begin this process, Guenon states that it is necessary to develop an “intellectual elite.” This elite are not habituated by the “‘profane’ teaching” or the West, but rather are those who after “often a long period of striving … develop their natural abilities” in accordance with the unchanging and unchangeable principles.[18] Guenon details some potential ways in which these intellectual elite might come together within the West and believes that if this were established that “the Easterners would not fail to help the intellectual elite in the fulfillment of its task, as, actually, they will always be well disposed towards a re-establishment of relations which ought normally to exist.”[19] This turn towards the East for the Western intellectual elite is necessary, according to Guenon, because the East has not lost its connection with the traditional principles as the West has. The establishment of an intellectual elite, for reconnecting the West with traditional principles, has a twofold benefit, as Guenon writes,

the West, through understanding the Eastern civilizations, would come nearer to being brought back into the traditional paths which it so rashly and foolishly broke away from, while, on the other hand, the return to this tradition would bring about of itself an effective re-establishment of relations with the East.[20]

East and West and the Signs of the Times


Much progress has been made in the almost 100 years since the initial publication of East and West. Nations are no longer defined by a single nationality, with most countries populated by people from across the globe, which has blurred the cultural divides. Boarders, and the definitional terms that defined them such as “East” and “West,” have much less meaning for typifying a people than they once did. What is the validity of a work such as East and West when so much change has occurred since its initial publication? While much could be written in answering this question, for the sake of brevity only three points will be touched on.

East and West, like much of Guenon’s works, examines principles. Within this work there is a distinction between societies that are based on traditional, metaphysical principles, typified as being “East,” and the idea of civilization that is based free and materialistic principles, typified as being “West.” Despite the unprecedented progress seen throughout the 20th century and the Westernization of the East, the validity of Guenon’s work is retained due to his focus on principles. Some of the examples that Guenon raises regarding the destruction of traditional principles within the West have, over the course of time, become almost caricatures of themselves, following its own principles to absurd ends. The pursuit reason for the sake of reason, to exclude both the irrational and the supra-rational, is a case in point where arguments have become irrationally rational, though to detail this would take us too far afield.[21]  The principles, as highlighted by Guenon, are still apparent because the West continues to push the same paradigm in pursuing the idea of civilization. As long as the ethos of civilization is maintained, then works such as East and West will have currency. Much change will need to occur before East and West becomes a relic of the past.

While retaining its essential validity, East and West does show some signs of becoming dated. The view that “East is East, and West is West” has lost much in terms of both geographical and worldview differences. The advent of the global village has meant that countries are much more interconnected than they once were and this has resulted in a greater level of “outward activity” [22] and a significant shift away from the adherence to traditional principles. Guenon’s West has maintained the trajectory that he documented, going further in the direction detailed in East and West, and Guenon’s East has looked to mimic the progress of its counterpart, weakening its traditional structures. Yet, despite the dissolution of the East and the West as defining cultural categories, there has been an interesting shift. The globally homogenizating concept of civilization has resulted in a greater personal individuation such that, while cultural groupings such as “East” and “West” lose their value, there is an increased currency for describing individuals as “Eastern” or “Western” in their outlooks irrespective of geographical location. Guenon’s categories of “East” and “West” can retain their value if there is a shift in use away from describing societies towards individuals, such that we may talk of Westernized Easterners and Easternized Westerners. In the past 100 years, as Guenon’s “East” modernizes, there has been an increase in elements of Guenon’s “West” that have been increasingly searching for traditional principles.

In East and West Guenon suggests that the solution for the West is something more akin to Hinduism than to any other Eastern doctrine. It is understandable given the prevalence of the class system amongst the people of Europe and its correspondence with that of the caste system of Hinduism. Guenon suggests that an Islamic civilization, despite being the “nearest to being like what a traditional Western civilization would be like,”[23] would not be suitable because of the fear and hatred that it arouses. While such feelings would undermine the purposes of pursuing such an endeavor, Guenon’s acknowledgement that “this state of mind is only due to a lack of understanding”[24] both provides the key to the solution and explains the rapid expansion of Islam in the West. With Islam foregrounded within much of the current media coverage, those Easternized Westerners are questioning their understanding of this traditional doctrine and, as a result of their knowledge seeking, are embracing this teaching. This has lessened the need for a European Hinduism and has allowed for traditional Eastern principles to become established in the West through those arriving at an understanding of Islam. While those attempting to inherit Guenon’s message write about reestablishing the traditional initiatic principles of Christianity or the establishment of a Masonic lodge that establishes traditional principles within the West, it is worth noting that Guenon chose Islam as the religious form that allowed him to enliven the traditional principles within himself, those very principles that he was attempting to enliven within the West.

East and West remains an important book. For those wanting to understand the works of Rene Guenon, it is indispensible in that it ties together many of the dominant themes within his works while also provides a foundation for his further works of critique on the modern world. For those wanting to understand the current cultural paradigm, it is valuable in that the work clearly documents the elements that have combined to produce an epistemic shift. For those wanting to realign the current cultural paradigm, it details the causes the modern age and outlines the cure for returning to a sustainable society in line with traditional principles. With the significant changes that have occurred since its initial publication, it is understandable that some of the ideas and terminology presented within East and West will need to be reassessed in light of these changes. Nevertheless, the central theme of this work remains current as Guenon comes to his readers from the perspective of immutable principles.

[1] A facsimile of all issues of La Gnose has been published in one volume by Editions De L’Homme Libre.

[2] For more on the life of Guenon see Robin Waterfield, Rene Guenon and the Future of the West (Great Britain: Crucible, 1987) and Paul Chacornac, The Simple Life of Rene Guenon, trans. Cecil Bethell (Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2001).

[3] Rene Guenon, East and West, trans. Martin Lings (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2004), 1.

[4] As an aside, it is interesting to note that one of the reasons that Nietzsche championed the pre-Platonic Greeks was for what he saw as their understanding of the mutually inclusive nature and harmony between growth and decay.

[5] Guenon, East and West, 28.

[6] This too can be found in most modern economic theories in that natural resources are considered free and, according to a cost/benefit analysis, the only cost considered is that of extracting them through production.

[7] Guenon, East and West, 28.

[8] Ibid., 34.

[9] Ibid., 51.

[10] Ibid., 52 – 53.

[11] An example of this can be seen in modern fertilisers which contain the bare minimum for the production of food, despite lacking many essential nutrients required for the holistic benefit of the plant. The result of this can be seen in increased crop yields that are a lower quality food for consumption.

[12] Guenon, East and West, 97.

[13] Ibid., 106.

[14] Ibid., 105.

[15] Graham Rooth, Prophet for a Dark Age: A Companion to the Works of Rene Guenon (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2008), 249.

[16] Guenon, East and West, 28.

[17] Ibid., 82.

[18] Ibid., 122 – 23.

[19] Ibid., 129.

[20] Ibid., 82.

[21] A case in point is the methodology outlined in Richard Dawkins The God Delusion has been shown to prove that Dawkins himself does not exist.

[22] Guenon, East and West, 52.

[23] Ibid., 149.

[24] Ibid.