Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century / Edition 1

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Overview

Against the Modern World is the first history of Traditionalism, an important yet surprisingly little-known twentieth-century anti-modern movement. Comprising a number of often secret but sometimes very influential religious groups in the West and in the Islamic world, it affected mainstream and radical politics in Europe and the development of the field of religious studies in the United States, touching the lives of many individuals.

In the nineteenth century, at a time when progressive intellectuals had lost faith in Christianity's ability to deliver religious and spiritual truth, the West discovered non-Western religious writings. From these beginnings grew Traditionalism, emerging from the occultist milieu of late nineteenth-century France, and fed by the widespread loss of faith in progress that followed the First World War. Working first in Paris and then in Cairo, the French writer Rene Guenon rejected modernity as a dark age, and sought to reconstruct the Perennial Philosophy -- the central religious truths behind all the major world religions -- largely on the basis of his reading of Hindu religious texts. Guenon's works stressed the urgent need for the West's remaining spiritual and intellectual elite to find both personal and collective salvation in the surviving vestiges of ancient religious tradition.

A number of disenchanted intellectuals responded to Guenon's call with attempts to put theory into practice. First in Europe, then in America and the Islamic world, Traditionalists founded institutes, Sufi brotherhoods, and Masonic lodges. Some published very successful books. Some attempted without success to guide Fascism and Nazism along Traditionalist lines; others later participated in political terror in Italy. Traditionalism finally provided the ideological cement for the alliance of antidemocratic forces in post-Soviet Russia, and at the end of the twentieth century began to enter the debate in the Islamic world about the desirable relationship between Islam and modernity. Although its appeal in the West was ultimately limited, Traditionalism has wielded enormous influence in the field of religious studies, through the work of such eminent Traditionalists as Ananda Coomaraswamy, Huston Smith, Mircea Eliade, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Against the Modern World tells the previously untold story of how this far-flung intellectual movement helped shape twentieth-century religious life, politics, and scholarship, all the while remaining invisible to outside observers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An exceptionally well-informed book.... It is a marvellous inquiry on the mutual porosity of a wide range of sometimes mutually contradictory anti-modernist ideological trends, from anarchism to fascism, and mutually opposed ilieus, from dissidents to officers of secret services."—Stéphane A. Dudoignon, Central Eurasian Reader

"Well-researched, well-written...an impressive scholarly achievement."—H-Net Reviews

"Against the Modern World is a genuinely startling book. In this massively researched and clearly written study, Mark Sedgwick seeks nothing less than to provide an alternative intellectual history of the twentieth century. Time and again, he offers unexpected connections, stresses the importance of forgotten or underestimated thinkers, and throws new light on the history of esoteric thought and religion. A wonderful contribution." —Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity

"An erudite, graceful, and nuanced study of a movement that has enjoyed far more influence than attention in the modern world that it so despises."—Parabola

"Mark Sedgwick shows how Traditionalism is a major influence on religion, politics, even international relations. Famous scholars, theosophists and masons, Gnostic ascetics and Sufi sheikhs, jostle with neo-fascists, terrorists and Islamists in their defection from a secular, materialist West. As a study of esotericism and Western images of the East, Against the Modern World compares in importance with Edward Said's monumental Orientalism. Likewise, it deserves the widest readership."—Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, author of Black Sun and The Occult Roots of Nazism

This is an invaluable contribution to an ongoing and increasingly sophisticated discussion about modernity, the professional study of religion, and the religions themselves. What sets Sedgwick's narrative apart from most all previous accounts is his remarkable historical sweep (from the Italian Renaissance to today), his impressive grasp of the Muslim world, and, perhaps most of all, the humane grace with which he treats his historical subjects. Here they emerge with both their hearts and their warts intact, neither as intellectual fathers to slay nor as cultural gods to put on the proverbial pedestal, but as human beings struggling with some of the deepest religious problems and promises of our modern world. The result is a reading experience through which one comes to realize, with something of a start, that their story happens also to be ours.—Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism

"An exceptionally well-informed book.... It is a marvellous inquiry on the mutual porosity of a wide range of sometimes mutually contradictory anti-modernist ideological trends, from anarchism to fascism, and mutually opposed ilieus, from dissidents to officers of secret services."—Stéphane A. Dudoignon, Central Eurasian Reader

"Well-researched, well-written...an impressive scholarly achievement."—H-Net Reviews

"An erudite, graceful, and nuanced study of a movement that has enjoyed far more influence than attention in the modern world that it so despises."—Parabola

"Against the Modern World is a genuinely startling book. In this massively researched and clearly written study, Mark Sedgwick seeks nothing less than to provide an alternative intellectual history of the twentieth century. Time and again, he offers unexpected connections, stresses the importance of forgotten or underestimated thinkers, and throws new light on the history of esoteric thought and religion. A wonderful contribution." —Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity

"Mark Sedgwick shows how Traditionalism is a major influence on religion, politics, even international relations. Famous scholars, theosophists and masons, Gnostic ascetics and Sufi sheikhs, jostle with neo-fascists, terrorists and Islamists in their defection from a secular, materialist West. As a study of esotericism and Western images of the East, Against the Modern World compares in importance with Edward Said's monumental Orientalism. Likewise, it deserves the widest readership.—Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, author of Black Sun and The Occult Roots of Nazism

This is an invaluable contribution to an ongoing and increasingly sophisticated discussion about modernity, the professional study of religion, and the religions themselves. What sets Sedgwick's narrative apart from most all previous accounts is his remarkable historical sweep (from the Italian Renaissance to today), his impressive grasp of the Muslim world, and, perhaps most of all, the humane grace with which he treats his historical subjects. Here they emerge with both their hearts and their warts intact, neither as intellectual fathers to slay nor as cultural gods to put on the proverbial pedestal, but as human beings struggling with some of the deepest religious problems and promises of our modern world. The result is a reading experience through which one comes to realize, with something of a start, that their story happens also to be ours.—Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism

"I have rarely read an academic book with such ease and pleasure and, at the same time, learned so much novel and relevant information unavailable in previous western research. ...one of the most fascinating books in the history of ideas published in recent years."
—Patterns of Prejudice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195152975
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/3/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Sedgwick is Assistant Professor of History at the American University in Cairo, and is the author of Sufism: The Essentials (2000).

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Table of Contents

List of Main Characters xiii
Prologue 3
Part I The Development of Traditionalism
1. Traditionalism 21
2. Perennialism 39
3. Gnostics, Taoists, and Sufis 55
Part II Traditionalism in Practice
4. Cairo, Mostaganem, and Basel 73
5. Fascism 95
6. Fragmentation 119
Part III Traditionalism at Large
7. The Maryamiyya 147
8. America 161
9. Terror in Italy 179
10. Education 189
Part IV Traditionalism and the Future
11. Europe after 1968 207
12. Neo-Eurasianism in Russia 221
13. The Islamic World 241
14. Against the Stream 263
Notes 273
Glossary 343
Interviewees 347
Bibliography 351
Index 361
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