Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

Traditionalist Esoterism

  • Victor BrunoEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_200215-1


Traditionalist esoterism, though containing similarities to popular esoterism, distinguishes itself from the latter in many ways. Traditionalist esoterism claims that esoteric knowledge can only be obtained through recognized and proper chains of transmission, regularly found in revealed religions and organizations, through the administration and management of authorities and true sources, by means of an initiation. This contrasts to popular esoterism, with its syncretic mix of many traditions from different sources and lack regular affiliation.

In this entry, we will overview Traditionalism and its esoterism. Firstly, we will sketch its historical context and epistemology before proceeding to the study of the esoteric working and its relations, mainly critical, with modern psychology.

Traditionalism in Perspective

Traditionalism was formed in early twentieth century against a very peculiar background. As it has been noted by researchers of this movement, the European intellectual and spiritual landscape of that time was divided in two distinct – but by no means separated – factions. The first one was that of modern philosophy and scientificism, guided by Nominalist epistemology. Nominalism has been the touchstone of European intellectuality since its victory over Realism (see Gillespie 2008). According to Traditionalism, Nominalism, due to its (if unforeseen) immanentist character, cut European intellectuality out of the sophia perennis, the “perennial wisdom” that binds together and underlies all true philosophies of the world (Coomaraswamy 1949; Schuon 2005a). Scientificism, consequence to the nominalist revolution, has positivism, rationalism, and materialism as some of its results. Traditionalist author Tage Lindbom (1909–2001) labels Nominalism as “a true heresy” (Lindbom 2005, p. 289).

The second and last one, less known, was the emergence of certain communities concerned with spirituality and metaphysical issues in Europe during the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. These communities – that appeared as organizations, secret societies, sects, and cults – mixed aspects of Eastern religions with philosophic and at times psychologic theories. Examples of these communities (and some last to this day) are Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, Alan Kardec’s Spiritism, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and a series of Gnostic “churches” and esoteric sages, such as Georges Gurdjieff (who never was a part of the Traditionalistic movement (see Perry 2005)). Previously an underresearched area, in the last decades, several studies have been dedicated on the subject of these cults and societies and its – often surprising – influences and effects on the modern world and intellectuality (Butler 2014; Godwin et al. 1995; Goodrick-Clarke 2008; Surette 1993).

It was in this historical context that Traditionalism was born. It is important to mention it because in great part, Traditionalism and Perennialism emerge both as a critique of its time, as well as way out of it. The three patriarchs of the movement – Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), René Guénon (1886–1951), and Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998) – took care to criticize the environment they lived in and to figure paths to escape from the what they generally called as “the modern world,” even when their use of the label modern does not overlap the general understanding of the word in common use: to Traditionalism, anything post-Mediaeval is modern (Guénon 2001b, p. 15; Schuon 2005b, pp. 69–71).

The Practice of Traditionalist Esoterism

The pathway to escape from the downward spiral that the modern Western world was threading would be to return to the essential and divine roots of the religious and intellectual traditions of old. In many ways, it meant that the Western world would have to return to a kind of living that resembled that of a spiritual or religious civilization. In Guénon’s view, this is the only kind of civilization worth living in, because secularization is note one of its features.

But if the modern world was in a crisis and all the spiritual and intellectual sources were tainted with the taste of secularization, what were man’s chances to escape from it? To Traditionalism, it is to enter in a truly esoteric organization, sect, or religion, where the individual might receive true metaphysical knowledge from authorized sources. To Traditionalist writers, all true religions have two spheres: the exoteric sphere – the sphere of dogma, of normative ways of conduct, etc. – and the esoteric sphere, which is truly a supra- or meta-religious realm, where the individual is in touch with the Center of being. This is a realm reserved for a very restrict group of individuals, the true elite of spiritual masters and sages.

For Traditionalism, the Occidental world had, during its history, a few representants of true esoterism, such as the Freemasonry, Catholicism, and a few other true esoteric sects (see Guénon 1996, 2004). Their influences, however, were diluted or extinct with the arrival of modernity – or even before that. To Guénon, for instance, Catholicism ceased to have any initiatic quality around the time of the Council of Nicene (Guénon 2001a, pp. 9–10) and Freemasonry is hostage of counter-initiatic individuals and practices, having degenerated in what he called “speculative” Masonry (opposed to real “operative” Masonry). However, the Western world still has a chance to redeem itself if it turned toward Eastern traditions – especially to Islam, with its clear division between exoterism (sharīʿah) and esoterism (ḥaqīqa), – the former best embodied by Sufism, – and its well-defined esoteric organizations, the ṭuruq (sing. ṭarīqah). (Guénon also believed that Hinduism would prove helpful to the degenerated Europe; however, due to modernity’s profound and long detachment from sophia perennis, Hindu philosophy would not be easily understood by Westerners, despite attempts from other Traditionalists to integrate Advaita Vedānta with Scholasticism (see A Monk of the West 2004)). For Traditionalists, the East still maintains its traditions and perennial wisdom intact from the charges of modernity and Westernization.

Traditionalist Esoterism and Psychology

According to Traditionalistic tenants, initiatic and intellectual processes instill a heightened sense of understanding and a deeper grip in the structure of reality. Man is thrown upwards to the divine ground of existence, where he can understand and achieve knowledge so deep about the cosmos that it will no longer be necessary to thrive among the illusions (māyā) of the world. The world will be understood as it is, through man’s major intellectual and pneumatic organ – the heart. In short, intellectual knowledge will initiate spiritual realizations. To Traditionalism, in fact, intellect and spirit is one and the same thing, since “intelligence ought to reside, not in the mind alone, but also in the heart, and it should also be spread throughout the body” (Schuon 2013, p. 4).

In this perspective, it is evident that the goal of the Traditionalist practice is to break free from the limitations of the human flesh and transcend to a realm of pure nous, of pure intellect. Considering this, we observe that nonsomatic human ailments and maladies are not worth of caring, and this includes psychological ailments. In Traditionalism, modern psychology is a sign of the modern world’s failure to take heed of the necessities of the spirit. It lowers the world of the nous into a purely immanent track of existence, without fathoming to its supra-natural or spiritual components. Traditionalism also understands that, being psychology a product of modern times, it emphasizes the human aspect of existence and, while doing it, equalizing soul and flash as one and the same thing – and this when it does not exclude the soul from existence altogether. As Guénon (1938, pp. 6–7) says,

Surely, we can say that what we call “psychologism” … is nothing more than a particular case of “humanism,” if we understand that word in its proper sense: the reduction of everything to purely human elements… . [M]aterialism has played its role, … it effectively has served to prevent man to access [spiritual] possibilities of superior order.

Likewise, Schuon (2013, p. 4) says,

The spiritual and social crime of psychoanalysis therefore is its usurpation of the place of religion or of the wisdom that is the wisdom of God, and the eliminating from its procedures all considerations regarding our ultimate destiny… . Like every solution that avoids the supernatural, psychoanalysis replaces in its own way what it abolishes: the void psychoanalysis produces by its intentional or unintentional destructions inflates it, and condemns it to postulate a false infinite or to function as a pseudo-religion.

And Titus Burckhardt (1908–1984),

[In modern psychology], moral is not a matter of psychology. In most contexts, ethics are reduced to social norms of conduct, more or less forged by customs. What is more, it is considered as a kind of psychological barrage, useful on occasion, but more often a hindrance or even harmful for the “normal” development of the individual psyche. This conception is propagated, overall, by Freudian psychanalysis, that we now can say that, virtually play the role of the sacrament of the confession. (Burckhardt 1986, pp. 95–96)

Despite the harshness of the Traditionalist critique against the modern world and modern psychology, this movement has proven to be an important tool in the recovery of the “magic” of the world and has raised a valuable alarm against the propositional and immanentist tendencies of contemporary science, forcing their weltanschauungen even in areas that are not properly in their range of influence, such as religious studies (for instance, it has illustrated the perils of analyzing pneumatikos, such as Christ and prophets, with a naturalizing method). However, the Traditionalist movement has a clear propension to overestimate or even to isolate what Eric Voegelin called as “pneumatic differentiation,” that is, the purely mystical and seemingly divinely infused intellectual inspiration, which can be dangerous in the scientific work.

See Also


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departamento de Comunicação SocialUniversidade Federal do PiauíTeresinaBrazil