I derive a particular enjoyment from having to fight through a book because I entered the text without the intellectual prerequisites to fully understand it. Rene Guenon’s The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times provided just such a challenge. As one of those books too often quoted to be ignored, I decided to jump in, knowing that the water is deep.
My first impression was the density of Guenon’s writing, and I’ve since learned that he never edited his own hand-written manuscripts. Sometimes it felt like wading through tar as Guenon carefully gathers all the elements that support a final point. But the final point is worth the effort: “insight” is a word that characterizes Guenon as much as any of the great philosophers of our time.
Several general insights made an indelible impression. Through The Reign of Quantity, I was exposed to another intellectual history – that of the Far East, especially of Hinduism. Guenon was an astute critic of culture, able to present Hindu doctrine to the Western mind in a remarkably unbiased language.
Guenon helped me reject Modernism – a given in my habits of thinking. Whether or not we know it, Modernism is the lens through which we see the world, and this lens starkly-yet-imperceptibly colors whatever is viewed through it.
I was also encouraged by Guenon’s fearless critique of nebulous “spirituality”. He is adamant that many of our modern spiritual movements are bogus. Simultaneously, his respect for and knowledge of the world’s Great Religions is unmatched. Religion is something real, necessary, revelatory and indispensable. Conversely, much of what passes for spiritualty today is materialism couched in religious language.
Particularly, The Degeneration of Coinage (Chapter 16), was one of the epiphanies of my recent reading life. Guenon here demonstrates the trajectory of Western society through the concrete example of money. He begins with the origin of the coin as a sacred object made of a valuable material and covered with transcendent symbols. He follows the transformation of the coin – its loss of religious significance, its change from metal to paper, the idea of “inflation” – and then he predicts that eventually money will disappear altogether to be replaced by lists of numbers. Guenon was writing in the 1930’s and could not have known of electronic currency.
Standing at the midpoint of the text and only five pages long, this chapter is an insignificant percent of the 279 pages of the whole book. But considering Guenon’s specific thesis about coins helped me see history, philosophy, culture and religion as one, and the façade of their fragmentation was cracked. While American education gives us unrelated categories and disjointed specializations, a mirage of little cabinets, Guenon presents knowledge as a painting or a house or a tree, as a unity rather than as units.
The most frequent objection to Guenon that I’ve heard from Christian sources is that Guenon is not sufficiently Christian. But this same argument could be made against C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and besides, we would do injustice to Guenon’s intent if we judged him as though he were writing apologetics. Guenon was not writing to promote Christianity, though he knew and deeply respected it through his native Roman Catholicism. Rather, Guenon was writing to prevent the further falling of humanity from the quality of ancient culture into the mere quantity of the modern world (hence the title).
There are many Christians today who complain that they seem to make no progress in their intimacy with God. If I recommend The Reign of Quantity to them, it is for the deliberate purpose of first helping them remove the lens of Modernism so that the Light of Christ will enter undistorted.
As a final thought, I would suggest as a primer Guenon’s short essay, The Crisis of the Modern World, which lays a foundation for the themes of The Reign of Quantity. If you pick up Reign (or any of his books) don’t be discouraged too quickly. As I mentioned, the going was difficult for me until chapter 16. But I re-read some of the more confusing parts, and began to better hear the voice of the author as I went along.
Often in the search for genuine insight, the more challenging the text, the greater the intellectual reward.