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Stations of Wisdom

Stations of Wisdom

by Frithjof Schuon, Frithjof Schoun

These essays go to the roots of the religious/science impass.


These essays go to the roots of the religious/science impass.

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World Wisdom
Publication date:
The Library of Traditional Wisdom
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6.46(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.52(d)

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The Preface to Stations of Wisdom

It has often and justly been said that the ills of our times come from the scission between faith and science; paradoxically enough, the beginnings of this scission are to be found within faith itself, or at least in its extrinsic and subjective aspect, in the sense that faith has not been, or is not, adequately buttressed by commentaries of the sapiential order, or that in the minds of most people sentimental rather than metaphysical reasons have been dominant; the intellectual element, or need for causal explanations, thus left neglected outside faith was bound in the end to turn against it, though "from below" and on a purely rational, material level. But the scission in question has yet other causes, subjective as well as objective: on the one hand, the "intellectual worldliness" inaugurated by the Renaissance and by Descartes resulted in a weakening of contemplative intelligence and religious instinct, and on the other hand, new factors inventions and discoveries of every kind were to profit from this weakening and have seemed to constitute a glaring contradiction to the tenets of faith. Modern man seems to be less and less capable of intellectual resistance to the suggestiveness of facts which, though belonging to the natural order, lie outside the ordinary, normal experience of human beings. To be able to combine the religious symbolism of Heaven with the astronomical fact of the stellar galaxies in a single consciousness, an intelligence is needed which is more than just rational unless there be faith such as is not given to everyone; and this brings us to the crucial problem of intellection and, as a consequence, to that of gnosis and esoterism. All things considered, the hostility of the medieval Church towards the new astronomical theories is explained by this, and is justified a posteriori in view of the consequences.

But scepticism does not always need the help of Cartesian philosophy to implant itself, for the latter would be sterile without a soil ready to receive it; in fact, all "worldliness" is a breach through which, given favorable conditions, the spirit of doubt and of denial of the supernatural is made welcome. No people, however contemplative, can in the long run resist this psychological effect of modern science the difference, in this respect, between men bearing the mark of the Renaissance and the traditional collectivities of Asia and elsewhere is only relative and that clearly shows how "abnormal" this science is in relation to the basic facts of human nature. It is only too evident that while no knowledge is bad in itself and in principle, many forms of knowledge can be harmful in fact, just because they do not correspond to man's hereditary habits and are imposed on him without his being spiritually prepared; the soul finds it hard to accommodate facts that nature has not offered to its experience, unless it be enlightened with metaphysical knowledge or with an impregnable sanctity. That is why traditional doctrines, and above all the Revelations from which they derive, take full account of collective and normal human experience, which constitutes an indisputable basis since in fact we are men. These doctrines provide a comprehensive and qualitative knowledge of the cosmos, while at the same time conveying the idea that the cosmos is but nothing in comparison with the Absolute and that the Absolute in any case eludes the means of investigation of specifically human knowledge. The principle of "normal" and "providential" limitation of the data of experience applies moreover also to art: art has need of limits imposed by nature, at any rate insofar as it concerns a collectivity, which by definition is passive and "unconscious"; one has only to put the resources of machines and of the chemical industry at the disposal of a whole people or of their artisans and their art will be corrupted, not, of course, in all its manifestations, but insofar as it belongs to everyone.

Thus the tragic impasse reached by the modern mind results from the fact that most men are incapable of grasping a priori the compatibility between the symbolic expressions of tradition and the material discoveries established by science; these discoveries stimulate modern man to want to under stand the "why" of everything, but he wants this "why" to be as external and as easy as that of "scientific" phenomena; in other words he wants answers on the level of his own experiences; and since these are purely material, his consciousness is closed in advance to all that goes beyond them.

What modern man is no longer willing to admit is above all the idea of an anthropomorphic, "infinitely perfect" God, creating the world "out of goodness" while foreknowing its horrors creating man "free," while knowing he would make bad use of his freedom; a God who, despite His infinite goodness, would punish man for faults which He, the omniscient Creator, could not fail to foresee. But this is to be hypnotized, quite uselessly, by the inevitable defects of anthropomorphic symbolism, a symbolism which more over is inevitable and which has been proven to be well founded by thousands of years of efficacy. It is to contend, not without a certain pretentiousness, against modes of speech which, though no doubt imperfect, are opportune in certain circumstances; and it is to shut oneself off from truth including even the truth which gives salvation merely for reasons of dialectic.* The answer to these sophistries is that the Absolute is not an artificial postulate, explainable by psychology, but a "pre-mental" evidence as actual as the air we breathe or the beating of our hearts; that intelligence when not atrophied the pure, intuitive, contemplative intellect allows no doubt on this subject, the "proofs" being in its very substance; that the Absolute of necessity takes on, in relation to man, aspects that are more or less human, without however being intrinsically limited by these aspects; that the possibility of human goodness is metaphysical proof of the divine Goodness, which is necessarily limitless in relation to its earthly traces; that the sentimental anthropomorphism of monotheists is what it has to be, given the character of the masses to which it is addressed; that in a general way the sacred Scriptures, far from being popular tales, are on the contrary highly "scientific" works through their polyvalent symbolism which contains a science at once cosmological, metaphysical and mystical, not forgetting other equally possible applications; that man, when he trusts to his reason alone, only ends by unleashing the dark and dissolving forces of the irrational.

The Vedantic and Buddhist solution, which avoids the obstacles of anthropomorphism, is certainly unsuited to the monotheistic collectivities; however, by a tragic paradox, some answer of this nature has become indispensable to meet the need for causal explanations of these same collectivities once they have lost the religious instinct and have begun wrestling with the logical contradictions anthropomorphism inescapably entails. Such an answer or solution is of necessity to be found also in the West, but in a form in general too indirect to be capable of neutralizing, in the consciousness of the majority, what in anthropotheistic symbolism is ultimately contradictory; most "intellectuals," to speak without euphemism, are not intelligent enough to understand writers like Saint Anselm or Saint Thomas Aquinas, that is to say to understand them in depth and to find there evidence of God. The darkening of our world whether we mean the West properly so called or its ramifications in the East and elsewhere appears patently in the fact that an extreme mental dexterity goes hand in hand with a no less excessive intellectual superficiality; it has become habitual to treat concepts as if they were playthings of the mind, committing one to nothing, in other words everything is touched on and nothing is assimilated; ideas no longer bite into the intelligence, which slides over concepts without taking time to really to grasp them. The modern mind moves "on the surface," all the time playing and role; whereas the traditional mind proceeds in depth, whence come doctrines, which may seem dogmatist, but are fully sufficient and effectual for those who know what a doctrine is. Twentieth century man has lost the sense of repose and contemplation; living on husks, he no longer knows what fruit is like.

One of the great errors of our times is to speak of the "bankruptcy" of religion or the religions; this is to lay blame on truth for our own refusal to admit it; and by the same token it is to deny man both liberty and intelligence. Intelligence depends in large measure on the will, hence on free will, in the sense that free will can contribute towards actualizing intelligence or on the contrary paralyzing it. It was not without reason that medieval theologians located heresy in the will: intelligence can, in fact, fall into error, but its nature does not allow it to resist truth indefinitely; for this to happen it needs the intervention of a factor connected with the will, or, more precisely, with the passions, namely prejudice, sentimental bias, individualism in all its forms. There is, at the basis of every error, an element of irrational "mystique," a tendency not deriving from concepts, but making use of them or producing them: behind every limiting or subversive philosophy can be discerned a "taste" or a "color"; errors proceed from "hardenings," drynesses or intoxications.

Far from proving that modern man "keeps a cool head" and that men of old were dreamers, modern unbelief and "exact science" are to be explained at bottom by a wave of rationalism – which is reacting against the religious sentimentalism and bourgeois romanticism of the previous epoch; both these tendencies have existed side by side since the "age of reason." The Renaissance also knew such a wave of false lucidity: like our age, it rejected truths along with outworn sentimentalities, replacing them with new sentimentalities that were supposedly "intelligent." To properly understand these oscillations it must be remembered that Christianity as a path of love opposed pagan rationalism; that is to say, it opposed emotional elements possessing a spiritual quality to the implacable, but "worldly," logic of the Greco-Romans, while later on absorbing certain sapient elements which their civilization comprised. The essays brought together in this volume doubtless do not give systematic answers to the problems we have just outlined, but they make their contribution to the answer we have tried to give in all our previous works. At a time when forms of the spirit are threatened as much by man's thoughtlessness as by a preconceived hostility, what is essential is to place in a sapeintial setting the truths by which man has always lived and by which he should go on living; if there is an "exact science" embracing all that is, it resides above in consciousness of the realities underlying both the traditional symbols and the fundamental virtues, which are the "splendor of the true."

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