The Primordial Tradition

by Gwendolyn Toynton

“Remember that I have remembered / and pass on the tradition”

Ezra Pound, Cantos

The Primordial Tradition is an obscure and widely misunderstood term and although used repeatedly in the works of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, it still remains largely undefined. Perhaps the clearest description of the Primordial Tradition can be found in a more recent author, Houston Smith, a professor of comparative religion who was the first to utilize the Primordial Tradition as a substitute term for perennial philosophy. Smith attempts to justify his replacement of perennial philosophy with the new title of ‘The Primordial Tradition’ at the start of his major work Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition in the introduction.

‘The reader will recognize the affinity of this thesis with what has been called “the perennial philosophy.” I am not unhappy with that phrase, but to bring out the fact that this particular philosophy nowhere originated, nor has it succeeded in maintaining itself operatively, save in a cultic context – a context that works to transform lives as well as minds – I prefer the less exclusively intellectual designation “the primordial tradition” (primordial: existing…from the beginning; fundamental.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Smith’s motivation in adopting this premise is all too easily comprehendible – from it’s current standpoint of existing purely as a school of philosophy, the perennial philosophy sets itself apart from mundane daily existence, instead manifesting as purely intellectual phenomenon – the adaptation of the designated phrase to the Primordial Tradition provides this school of thought with a worldly and tangible presence, no longer purely existent in a cerebral content; Tradition as espoused by Houston Smith becomes accessible to the mainstream. Though the above quotation from Smith immediately explains that the Primordial Tradition is a substitute name for perennial philosophy, if we were to ask the common man on the street if he could explain to us the meaning of perennial philosophy, we would most likely receive a garrulous ‘no’ as a response, accompanied by a blank stare. Therefore, to discover the meaning of the Primordial Tradition, we must as point of necessity, first explain the nature of perennial philosophy.

Perennial Philosophy, also known as ‘philosophia perennis’ (Latin: Eternal Philosophy) was utilized by Gottfried Leibniz to designate the common, eternal philosophy hat underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical or esoteric components – in this way it is also similar to the Hindu idea of Sanatana Dharma. As such, the philosophia perennis is an intellectual transmission of gnosis, based on the study of the religions, not in isolation from each other, but rather in a conjunction wherein the underlying ideas converge, independent of the concept of communitas (as defined by Victor Turner as the social aspect in religion). Normally, because of the cultural boundaries exerted by the principle of communitas ‘religions are cut off from one another by barriers of mutual incomprehension’. Schuon elaborates on the nature of this cultural barrier further by stating that “There is no metaphysical or spiritual difference between a truth manifested by temporal facts and a truth expressed by other symbols, under a mythological form for example; the modes of manifestation correspond to the mental requirements of the different groups of humanity.” Here we see expressed the notion that the symbols found in religion have been equated as truth values – what lies at the root of mutual miscomprehension and mistranslations between cultures is not that some religions are inherently wrong or different to others, but rather that the principle of communitas, the social and communal mode of religious behaviour actually serves to distort and hide the essence of the symbols themselves. The same ties of communal religious behaviour that serve to bind a community together as a distinct cultural group, can also hinder the process of understanding different religious traditions.

This is quite similar to Kant’s interpretations of how religious solidarity is defined; it is not the universal meaning of the symbol (on in this case the Primordial Tradition) but rather how symbols are interpreted and applied to social behaviour within a specific community or culture.

As Kant sees it, genuine religious solidarity does not rest on the confession of a uniform symbol or creed anyway; Kant suspects such creedal formulas of contributing more to a spirit of hypocrisy within people and between them than to anything else. What unites believers in rational religion is not the content of their beliefs but the morality of their dispositions and their propensity to associate their moral vocation with the thought of God.

According to Schuon the link that connects the many different cultural strands of religious thought, is gnosis, or the philosophia perennis (which has already been explained as homologous with the Primordial Tradition). Therefore, to fully ascertain how there can be a ‘fluid’ transmission of gnosis occurring between different communities and social groups, and to fully understand what the Primordial Tradition actually is requires, as an a priori, a lucid and working definition of how gnosis is to be understood in this context. Returning again to the writings of Schuon, it is an important aspect of his philosophy that he draws a distinction between gnosis and sacred scripture, the latter of which Schuon regards as static and permanent.

The mode of manifestation of gnosis is ‘vertical’ and more or less ‘discontinuous’; it is like fire and not water, in the sense that fire arises from the invisible and can disappear into it again, whereas water has a continuous existence; but the sacred Scriptures remain the necessary and unchanging basis, the source of inspiration and criterion of all gnosis.

What is immediately apparent in this extract is that Schuon is ascribing to gnosis an intangible and erratic character, by comparing its qualities to fire. Though teaching and scripture provide fuel and sustenance for gnosis, ultimately the driving power and modus operandi of gnosis is the philosophia perennis and the Primordial Tradition which is the language of the symbol, which is contained in the interpretation of both scripture and sacred art. Symbols, images, semiotics – despite the wealth and plethora of the records of the exploration of man’s inner world through the medium of myth and legend, the science of the sub-conscious has long fallen into disregard, only being revitalized in comparatively recent times through the work of Carl Gustav Jung (Analytical Psychology), James Hillman (Archetypal Psychology) and Mircea Eliade (History of Religions). It has taken science almost 2,000 years to reclaim the knowledge and potency inherent in the discourse of myth – an almost irrefutable proof that empirical methods cannot quantify the core of any religious belief; namely wisdom. To quote René Guénon -

Truths which were formerly within reach of all have become more and more hidden and inaccessible; those who possess them grow fewer and fewer, and although the treasure of ‘nonhuman’ (that is, supra-human) wisdom that was prior to all the ages can never be lost, it nevertheless becomes enveloped in more and more impenetrable veils, which hide it from men’s sight and make it extremely difficult to discover. This is why we find everywhere, under various symbols, the same something which has been lost – at least to all appearances and as far as the outer world is concerned – and that those who aspire to true knowledge must rediscover.

Lost to consumerism, the oblivious masses, the meaning of the symbol, the interpretation of gnosis itself, isnow obfuscated – the exoteric shell remains, binding teachings together, but the inner heart, the esoteric tradition that veiled the highest mysteries in the tapestry and garlands of symbol have dissolved, crumbling from within to leave behind only the exterior corpus of teachings. To know, to understand – this is the core of gnosis, and it is the loss of this elusive element of religion that causes René Guénon to despair. The Modern World is truly one where God is Dead – yet curiously, this famous catch phrase ofNietzsche’s is not as atheistic as many would claim it to be. When Zarathustra uttered his grand proclamation, Nietzsche knew well its consequences. The phrase is itself an inversion of the value tables of the society of his day – it is the devaluation of the highest value. Nietzsche knew the void this would create in the spiritual life of man, and it is here that it becomes paramount that he must be recognized as an important thinker on religion as well as philosophy, for he postulated a number of concepts which are far from being purely atheistic in sentiment. His rejections and attitudes to religion are a reactionto the Christian doctrine of his day – to which ends it is no mere coincidence that he chose Dionysus as the adversary of the 'Crucified'. Even without considering Nietzsche’s fondness for Pagan Greece, a number of his thoughts are of deep significance to our understanding of the Primordial Tradition, such as the “Ur-Eine.”

The Ur-Eine - the primal oneness of things […] Later the Ur-Eine is another kind of phenomenal world, one which is not knowable to us.” But whatever is interpretational of different stages of Nietzsche’s development may be, the Ur-Eine represents his tortured longing to reach the deeper dimensions of being “which are not known to us”.

The concept of the Ur-Eine is also similar to the vast and great Collective Unconscious, as was theorised by Carl Jung, a past pioneer in the then emerging field of psychology. In terms of Jung’s hypothesis concerning the Unconscious and the influence of dreams and symbols upon man’s waking life, it is well known thatJung drew heavily upon mythological sources, applying cross-cultural interpretations to phenomenaoccurring within the psyche, such as the archetypes. The archetypes are a type of universal (in a similar manner to that which espoused by Plato in his own interpretation of Universals), which on the one hand can be said to contain a purely abstract truth, and yet on the other one can also infer that as an absolute occurrence of a tautological value, the archetypes in question are also possessed of a metaphysical existence. Jung himself was quite aware of the fact that his theory placed archetypes in a very liminal boundary region between the material and immaterial, and himself referred to the archetypesas ‘psychoids’.

The archetypes seemed close enough to the patterns he saw emerging in the theories and experiments of twentieth-century physics for him to conclude that archetypes are psychoids. By this he meant that they shape matter (nature) as well as the mind (psyche). They transcend the split between these two and are neutral toward it favouring neither one side nor the other.

The archetypes, functioning as what Jung terms as psychoids, are in fact operating also on the level of ‘God-Forms’ in that they themselves are symbols and/or representations of the respective deities. Elaborating on this in relation to his own system of belief, Jung expresses the following train of thought.

We know that God-images play a great role in psychology, but we cannot prove the [actual] existence of God. As a responsible scientist, I am not going to preach my personal and subjective convictions which I cannot prove…To me, personally speaking, the question whether God exists at all or not is futile. I am sufficiently convinced of the effects man has always attributed to a divine being. If I should express a belief beyond that…it would show that I am not basing my opinion on facts. When people say they believe in the existence of God, it has never impressed me in the least. Either I know a thing and then don’t need to believe it; or I believe it because I’m not sure that I know it. I am well satisfied with the fact that I know experiences which I cannot avoid calling numinous or divine.

From this passage it is amply illustrated that Jung did not base any of his theories on the archetypes or psychoids from a belief in the divine; his ideas were, at least to Jung’s line of reasoning, based on verifiable facts that he knows to exist. In this regard, the current dogmatic line of argument drawn between science and religion crumbles – for the study of religion as archetypes and symbols provides empirical evidence of recurrent ideas outside the regions of that which would be expected through the medium of normal cross-cultural contact. Therefore, the symbols of religion and myth are transformed from mere metaphor to a system of universal truths that will occur within all genuine religious traditions. The symbol then, becomes much more than a pictorial representation of an incident or ‘god-form’; rather it is lesser manifestation of the subject/object represented, and this is the core foundation to the understanding of all sacred art. In the words of Frithjof Schuon, “the understanding of some symbol it is enough to consider the nature of its form, secondly its doctrinal, and so traditional, definition, and finally the metaphysical and spiritual realities of which the symbol is the expression.” It is precisely for this reason, that religion and art will always be linked in ways which to many appear inexplicable. It is extremely common in both the philosophy of art and in the philosophy of religion, to explain both topics in terms of lacking a definable sense of purpose – hence the age old question, “What is art?” or “What is religious experience?” Science and logic will always fail to explain both art and religious belief, for both lie outside of the sphere of scientific evidence and mathematical truths. It is commonly accepted by academics studying the philosophy of religion today that a purely empirical attitude to explaining religious belief will always meet with failure.

Bernard Williams, perhaps the most distinguished analytic moral philosopher writing as the turn of the twentieth century, once speculated that there might be something about ethical understanding that makes it inherently unsuited to be explored through the methods and techniques of analytic philosophy alone. If that is true, the point may apply a fortiori to religion, in so far as religious attitudes, even more than moral ones, often seem to encompass elements that are resistant to logical analysis.

Neither the value of art nor the value of religion can be explained by recourse to logic and empirical systems of thought alone. Rather, the two subjects, sharing a common origin in the Primordial Consciousness, are more kindred than they are in opposition. The function of art and the function of the religion both operate on a level of subliminal aesthetics – a successful piece of art captures the same experience as a successful experience of the divine – it raises the mental state to what I will now refer to as a state of pathos or an appeal to emotion that strives to recapture the original state of either the artist or priest. It is this altered state of emotive pathos which is replicated in the observer though the transmission of a meme or the medium of thought that determines the success of failure of a both a piece of art and a sacred or ritual act. This is what the Tantric philosopher Abhinavagupta also sought to express in his theory of aesthetics, and correlates to his rasa theory. Notably we can also find the importance of the “flavour” expressed in the art theory of the Western philosopher David Hume. Similarly, Nietzsche also noted the similarity between aesthetic and religious experience, concluding the current path of religion (meaning that which is derived from the relatively modern Judeo-Christian current) was only one form which spirituality could have taken, for Nietzsche says that “Art and not morality is the true metaphysical activity of man.” John Cottingham elaborates further on the links between moral and aesthetic experience in his work the Spiritual Dimension.

Our religious (and moral and aesthetic) experience involves transformative ways of perceiving reality. And this points, incidentally, to something of a paradigm shift when we look, for example, at some of what have been considered traditional arguments for God’s existence. Every standard textbook in the philosophy of religion mentions the arguments ‘from religious experience’, or ‘from moral [aesthetic] experience’, as if what was involved was a kind of inference from one sort of act – roughly a fact about a certain kind of subjective occurrence – to a conclusion about a supposed objective correlate or external cause for the relevant experience.

The topic of the connection between the art of symbols and religious expression is also dealt with at length by Frithjof Schuon.

In speculations about formal elements it would be a handicap to lack this aesthetic function of intellect. A religion is revealed, not only by its doctrine, but also by its general form, and this has its own characteristic beauty, which is reflected in its every aspect from its “mythology’ to its art. Sacred art expresses Reality in relation to a particular spiritual vision. And aesthetic intelligence sees the manifestations of the Spirit even as the eye sees flowers or playthings.

This study of symbols is by no means a simple topic – to Schuon it is a precise science. Nor is it limited purely to symbolism – Schuon, like others authors before him, is connecting the mystic experience of the sacred to aesthetics, which he is defining as unique type of intelligence, distinct from the more earthly and aspects of cognition. When attempting to explain the science of symbols, Schuon’s definition is likewise complex; the interpretation of a symbol as a singular object is not deemed sufficient to understand its inherent qualities - rather what must be dwelt upon by the translators of religious semiotics is the relation of the symbol to other qualities, properties, objects and individual contexts.

The science of symbols – not simply a knowledge of traditional symbols –proceeds from the qualitative significances of substances, forms, spatial directions, numbers, natural phenomena, positions, relationships, movements, colours and other properties or states of things; we are not dealing here with subjective appreciations, for the cosmic qualities are ordered in relation to Being and according to a hierarchy which is more real than the individual; they are, then, independent of our tastes, or rather they determine them to the extent that we are ourselves conformable to Being; we assent to the qualities to the extent we ourselves are ‘qualitative.”

What defines the Primordial Tradition as a potential major current in religious belief and philosophy lies in its use of the symbol and its advocacy of the aesthetic experience – belief in the potency of any specific symbol relies upon the most basic human aspect of belief. Belief in a sentient god or creator is not even required, and by this explanation of religious belief and symbolism it is possible for even the most ardent ‘atheist’ to be a believer in the Primordial Tradition. In such regards, it is similar to the thoughts once espoused by Kant on Deism:

Essential to any deism is the view that there is such a thing as rational or natural religion, religion based on natural reason and not on supernatural revelation […] Kant is emphatic that there need not be any special duties to God in order for there to be religion; he also denies that theoretical cognition of God’s existence is required for religion – naturally enough he thinks that no such cognition is available to us. [..]this faith needs merely the idea of God…only the minimum cognition (it is possible that there is a God) has to be subjectively sufficient”

A symbol is of course, only a picture to those who cannot ascertain a deeper meaning. To those who are capable of learning this difficult code, it is reasonable to apply the following quotation: ex magna luce in intellectu sequitur magna propensio in voluntate (‘from a great light in the intellect there follows a great inclination in the will).It is not satisfactory to develop a rudimentary knowledge of the numinous – this alone is not sufficient to produce gnosis, which in its full manifestation must be grasped at both the level of the theoretical and the practical; the Primordial Tradition being composed of absolute ideals from different traditions and pathways, does not advocate a strict system of practice, but rather takes a philosophical stance in regards to practice that can be applied by any religious tradition. What is advocated in regards to the practical element is similar to that which is found in the Stoic school of thought. There were many Stoic treatises entitled ‘On Exercises’, and the central notion of askesis, found for example in Epictetus, implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern sense as a practical program of training, concerned with the ‘art of living’. The primacy of praxis, the vital importance that is placed on the individual’s embarking on a path of practical self-transformation, rather than (say) simply engaging in an intellectual debate or philosophical analysis.

The general aim of such programmes was not merely intellectual enlightenment, or the imparting of abstract theory, but a transformation of the whole person, including our patterns of emotional response. Metanoia, a fundamental conversion or change of heart, is the Greek term; in the Roman Stoic Seneca it appears as a ‘shift in one’s mentality’ (translatio animi) or a ‘changing’ (mutatio) of the self. ‘I feel, my dear Lucilius,’ says Seneca, ‘that I am being not only reformed but transformed (non tantum emendari sed transfigurari).

The relevance here is of course part of the problem Houston Smith grasped earlier in his work The Forgotten Truth – perennial philosophy, in the forms which it had existed previously, was in danger of becoming over intellectualized, to the point where it was in peril of divulging from the point of being a system of religion to existing as a philosophy alone. Thus his purpose by recommending that perennial philosophy be renamed as The Primordial Tradition, was an attempt to revitalize what he saw as a failing system of ideology – the time of the great Traditionalists such as Julius Evola and René Guénon was over, and Houston Smith realized that a new tactic needed to be deployed in order for the philosophy to extend beyond the reach of an intellectual elite into the main stream culture. In a sense, he elected to effect a change within the nature and the delivery of Tradition itself. Here, we must also bear heed to Guénon’s warnings that Traditions can disappear:

It is evident that all traditional forms do not proceed directly from the primordial tradition and that other forms must have sometimes played the role of intermediaries; but the latter are most often traditions that have entirely disappeared, and those transmissions in general go back to epochs far too distant for ordinary history – whose field of investigation is really very limited – to be capable of the slightest knowledge of them, not counting the fact that the means by which they were effected are not among those accessible to its methods of research.

This passage also exemplifies the interpretation of the Primordial Tradition even further – it is not a single specific Tradition, but rather an underlying layer of universal truth which acts as a foundation for Traditions to evolve from, and at times dissolve back into. It is the substratum of human conscious itself and defines the nature of epochs and direction of history, whether man professes to believe in its existence or not. Thus far, interest in religion is on swift decline – it stands at the apex of a descent and interior degeneration that has been unparalleled in history; aided by the concurrent deterioration in the academic quality of the arts and the humanities, the material sciences have ascended to point of total domination. Under such an aegis, religion, the science of the spirit needs to be rethought, reshaped, and reconstructed from the very foundations of thought itself to survive in this era. As such, the Primordial Tradition delivers what should rightly be termed a sui generis argument for religion and spirituality from which there is no defense short of an outright denial of the fundamental concepts of the social sciences as we know them today – it applies the study of the translation of symbols as a logical argument, and manifests itself as a rational system of human belief, as opposed to the more traditional arguments from a religious perspective, such as the teleological model or the more commonly resorted to argument from religious experience which occur frequently in philosophical discourse on religion. From this perspective, it should be apparent that the concept of the Primordial Tradition has far more in common with the comparative mythology of Georges Dumézil or the study of the History of Religions as espoused by the author Mircea Eliade than it has with the currently accepted philosophical models for religious debate. In general, however the study of religion at an academic level is rapid decline, which is echoed throughout the modern world – religion, the science of the soul, is facing oblivion. As it stands religion and spirituality must either take a stand or face total extinction as modernity further encroaches into man’s private world of the spirit; the only methodology by which to promote any religious or spiritual thought in this age, is to restructure it, to change people’s most basic and rudimentary understanding of what religion is. To quote Houston Smith there is but one way left to achieve this in the current sociological and political climate, “Short of a historical breakdown which would render routine ineffectual and force us to attend again to things which matter most, we wait for art: for metaphysicians, who imbued with that species of truth that is beauty in its mental mode, are (like Plato) concomitantly poets”.

Gwendolyn Toynton is the editor and one of the writers at Primordial Traditions Journal . She has also been published in the New Zealand Poetry and Prose Collection 2002 as well as having a number of articles published. Gwendolyn Toynton is also a Masters Student in the Religious Studies program at the University of Canterbury, specializing in Hinduism and Tantra.