If you’ve been following symbolism for a while, you’ve probably heard of René Guénon. While problematic in several respects, Guénon was extremely insightful and he also had the merit of being extremely straightforward. He did not hold back. Perhaps his most remarkable and striking thesis, found notably in the chapter The Solidification of the World of his book The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times, is that much, if not all of modern science is only possible because the world itself has solidified. The difficulty modern people have in perceiving non-material patterns is mirrored by a corresponding materialization of the world itself:
[T]he human order and the cosmic order are not in reality separated, as they are nowadays all too readily imagined to be; they are on the contrary closely bound together, in such a way that each continuously reacts on the other, so that there is always correspondence between their respective states. 1
Now the actual occurrence of ‘solidification’ is precisely the true reason why modern science ‘succeeds’, certainly not in its theories which remain as false as before, and in any case change all the time, but in its practical applications. In other periods, when ‘solidification’ was not yet so marked, not only could man never have dreamed of industry as we know it today, but any such industry would actually have been completely impossible in its entirety, as would the ‘ordinary life’ in which industry plays so great a part. 2
Thus, the fixation of modern man on material reality solidifies the world, and conversely, the solidification of the world reinforces man’s fixation on material reality. In this article, I will try to explain why Guénon claimed this. I will also explain that personally, I’m not sure that I want to go as far as he does here. I believe that his position is coherent, but it undermines so much of our modern experience that I find it quite alienating. Moreover, this kind of argument takes us so high that things quickly become undecidable and even dangerous.
Signs of Solidification
Guénon starts the book by taking several chapters to argue that our perception of the world has solidified, and that so have our societies. He first does so in metaphysical language, and then turns to practical examples.
Following Guénon, let us therefore start with the metaphysical language he lays out in the first few chapters of the book 3. We can put it in the symbolic framework that readers of this blog will be familiar with. Modern people have lost the ability to perceive higher-level patterns. Whereas all traditional societies would frame their lives within a rich interaction of heavens/yang/forms/patterns and earth/ying/matter/potential, we moderns tend to be quite skeptical of patterns, especially anything above the physical level. We take physicists seriously, but we tend to be quite dismissive of the “soft sciences” like psychology and sociology, which investigate dubious human and social-level patterns. And don’t even bring up philosophical concepts such as beauty and goodness into the mix; very few people take these things seriously nowadays.
Further, ancient people would generally understand space and time using categories of meaning rather than the empty quantitative containers the way we do now. Space is the realm where heaven and earth meet in stable ways, whereas time is the realm where heaven and earth meet in changing ways. Another way to put it is that space and time are different kinds of manifestations of heaven on earth. Space is the realm of stable manifestations of heaven, and time is the realm of changing manifestations of heaven. Heaven/meaning thus comes before space and time themselves. In fact, heaven makes space and time as it meets the earth. Modern people see things the wrong way around, and this leads to silly problems according to Guénon:
[T]o ask ‘whether the world is infinite or whether it is limited within space’ is a question that has absolutely no meaning. Space cannot possibly extend beyond the world in order to contain it, because an empty space would then be in question, and emptiness cannot contain anything: on the contrary, it is space that is in the world, that is to say, in manifestation[.] 4
One important twist in Guénon’s metaphysical scheme at this point is the Hindu idea that time has been speeding up throughout this process of manifestation 5. As heaven manifests itself lower and lower on the ontological hierarchy, coming closer and closer to the earth, its manifestations become more and more short-lived. They keep changing, getting more and more quantitative and less and less qualitative. In this restless change, time keeps accelerating.
This is something that we can all feel, and it is reflected in the restlessness of our daily life. We have fewer and fewer sabbaths to stop and qualify time. Life is melting into a uniform quantitative whirlpool where it is becoming more and more difficult to make out higher-level qualitative patterns.
And this blindness to patterns, to the quality in the world, reflects itself in our own actions on the world. At this point, Guénon thus goes on to lay out a variety of examples to make his point forcefully.
In Chapter 8: Ancient Crafts and Modern Industry, he explains that we have reduced work to something merely quantitative. Ancient craftsmen saw themselves as involved in something of cosmic significance. Someone who made a table for example, wasn’t trying to merely satisfy an industrial purpose of assembling four legs to a tabletop by pressing levers on a machine. The traditional table maker was rather participating in the communion of the family that would eat at this table. This communion of the family would itself fit in the communion of village, which would ultimately fit in the communion of the whole world. The table maker wanted to make it beautiful with that cosmic purpose in mind. Art and craft were one.
In Chapter 9: The Twofold Significance of Anonymity, Guénon explains that as we lost the sense of our own participation in cosmic patterns, we have been trying to compensate by affirming our own individuality. Ancient artists and craftsmen (those two things were the same) were generally anonymous, because they were happy to disappear in higher-level patterns. That was a good kind of anonymity. In contrast, Guénon somewhat harshly writes that the work of modern industrial people is generally anonymous in the mediocre way of uniformity. Industrial workers can be replaced by anyone. They are anonymous because their work is totally uniform. And on the other end of the spectrum, modern artists (who are not craftsmen, as the two disciplines have split apart) scream their own individuality to compensate. If they can’t lose themselves in cosmic patterns, they’ll make sure to stress their own individual existence. We scream our human individuality because it’s the highest pattern we believe in.
In Chapter 10: The Illusion of Statistics, Guénon goes after modern science. By limiting itself to the study of repeatable and quantifiable phenomena, science blinds itself to quality and the deep nature of things. Why would something repeatable and quantifiable be more real than something unrepeatable and not quantifiable? Why do we think that if something is more “solid” it is therefore more real? Aren’t our minds more real than our bodies? Guénon argues that this is part of our modern quantitative bias and that it ultimately self-defeats. Even in our sciences that seem most solid, such as physics, we still have to bring in quality.
Indeed, when the physicist tells us that an electron follows such or such laws, he is not really explaining the deep nature of what is going on. He tells us about the behaviour of the electron, but nothing about its deep nature. We know that if we put this mass or this charge into this equation, we can predict what will happen to the electron, but we have no idea why. For that, we would need to study the nature, the quality of the electron, and science is willingly blind to this. And the problem of course compounds when you go to higher-level sciences, where qualitative influences matter more and more. Guénon is quite harsh against modern psychology for example, which is incomparably weak in comparison to the traditional psychologies you would find in traditional societies, as they took quality seriously.
In Chapter 11: Unity and Simplicity, Guénon explains that we have an inverted view of unity and simplicity. He finds this both in science and in our societies. Indeed, in the sciences, we try to reduce everything down to uniform particles rather than under a transcendent source from which everything manifests. This can be a fruitful methodology at times, but Guénon argues that it has radically blinded us to quality. Rather than seeking simplicity above, we seek uniformity below and miss out on higher-level patterns. Further, Guénon explains that this is true in our social organizations in general. Whereas people in traditional societies were qualitatively unified under higher-level patterns, like notes of a symphony, modern people are quantitatively unified in an upside-down way by the fact that they are uniform, like mere grains of sand. The differences between traditional people actually helped them cohere into meaningful higher-level patterns. The different roles in a family make a family for example, and the same goes for the different people in a parish. In contrast, modern people want to be completely equal to one another and only bound together in this fact that they are all equal. In other words, we are unified in that we’ve tried to squash down the hierarchy, not in that we participate together in higher-level hierarchies.
In Chapter 12: The Hatred of Secrecy, he makes much of the same point, only in the spiritual domain. He explains that we systematically attempt to dumb down religion so that everyone can equally participate. Whereas traditional societies would recognize some people such as monks or brahmins as higher up on the spiritual hierarchy and as having special insights, modern people want equal participation. But of course, in doing so, no one is left with a deeper understanding of what goes on and the religion progressively declines. Without a hierarchy of quality, we get a vague pool of quantity.
In Chapter 13: The Postulates of Rationalism, Guénon goes after rationalism and humanism. He argues that those ideas, so natural to modern man and yet so new, fundamentally fail because they blind themselves to any patterns that occur above human rationality. Not only does this preclude any mystical supra-intellectual insights, but it also sets up modern man for a downward spiral. Unable to look upwards like traditional man, modern man will inevitably keep looking lower and lower.
In Chapter 14: Mechanism and Materialism, he elaborates on this last point by explaining how Descartes’ rationalism and mechanism progressively gave rise to materialism. By seeking to understand worldly mechanisms, the human mind progressively came to be interested more and more solely by the outward behaviours of things. We keep looking lower and lower to find the mechanisms there. Far from only studying “animal-machines”, we came to look for the mechanisms occurring at the lower levels of reality, resulting in materialism. This causes some obvious difficulties that would have been ridiculous to ancient people, such as the mind-body problem.
In Chapter 15: The Illusion of ‘Ordinary Life’, Guénon follows this up by arguing that this materialism which started out as an intellectual error has made its way down to everyday life, creating what he calls the illusion of ‘ordinary life.’ In stark contrast to traditional societies where people always saw themselves as involved in higher-level patterns, modern people barely ever consider anything above the human level. We think that the ordinary world is one of material causality, and we dismiss anything else as “extraordinary”. This is of course the exact opposite of the traditional outlook, where the focus was on social and higher-level patterns.
Finally, in Chapter 16: The Degeneration of Coinage, Guénon uses the surprising example of coinage. This can be especially surprising to modern readers who, myself included, tend to simply assume that money is and always has been a merely quantitative affair, straightforwardly administered by the government for financial exchanges. Guénon argues to the contrary. For one thing, you can find more symbols on coins the further back you go in time. He specifically brings up Celtic coinage whose symbolism can only make sense within a druidic context. Coinage, symbolic of potential/earth/ying/matter, was something of cosmic significance. Guénon also notes that accordingly, coinage was often under the control of spiritual rather than earthly authorities, and that when earthly authorities would attempt to mess with it, they would be seen as overstepping their domain of authority. The point is that in traditional societies, even coinage was steeped in quality.
The Solidification of the World
After having laid out all these ways in which our perception and our societies have solidified, Guénon goes on to make a bold claim: the same is true of the medium itself 6. The world has become more and more quantitative and less and less qualitative. He holds that while modern science and industry really do succeed in their endeavours, they only do because the world has solidified and is now largely ruled by simple patterns at the level of material causality. Neither modern science nor modern industry would have been possible in previous ages, when the world was more qualitative and higher-level patterns were more dominant.
Let me bring in an analogy that Guénon himself didn’t use to illustrate this. Think of the brain. If a physicist was to try to study particle physics by studying the particles of a brain, he would get nowhere. There are too many top-down interactions going on. You can’t predict what goes on in a brain by only looking at the level of its particles. Even modern naturalists have to bring up “emergent” conscious properties 7. To study particle physics in a brain, you would have to wait for the brain to die, to become regular, disentangled from higher-level conscious patterns and mainly governed by simple material causality. Well, Guénon thinks that this what has been happening at the cosmic scale. The world is getting closer and closer to quantitative materiality and further and further away from qualitative meaning. He sees this as part of a normal cosmic process of manifestation of heaven down to earth. As patterns emanate down closer and closer to the earth, they become simpler and simpler, making materialism more and more true.
Anticipating an objection, Guénon explains in a subsequent chapter called The Limits of History and Geography, that fossils and such other geological (or cosmological) evidence for the age and rigidity of the universe as merely part of the solidification:
It may perhaps be argued that, if things were so, the vestiges of bygone periods which are all the time being discovered ought to provide evidence of the fact, whereas, leaving ‘geological’ epochs out of consideration and keeping to matters that affect human history, archaeologists and even ‘prehistorians’ never find anything of the kind, however far their researches may be carried into the past. The answer is really very simple: first of all, these vestiges, in the state in which they are found today and inasmuch as they are consequently part of the existing environment, have inevitably participated, like everything else, in the ‘solidification’ of the world; if they had not done so their existence would no longer be compatible with the prevailing conditions and they would have completely disappeared, and this no doubt is what has happened to many things which have not left the smallest trace. Next, the archaeologists examine these vestiges with modern eyes, which only perceive the coarsest modality of manifestation, so that even if, in spite of all, something more subtle has remained attached to the vestiges, the archaeologists are certainly quite incapable of becoming aware of it; in short, they treat these things as the mechanical physicists treat the things they have to deal with, because their mentality is the same and their faculties are equally limited. It is said that when a treasure is sought for by a person for whom, for one reason or another, it is not destined, the gold and precious stones are changed for him into coal and common pebbles; modern lovers of excavations might well turn this particular ‘legend’ to their profit! 8
Thus, Guénon’s claim that the world has been solidifying and that time has been speeding up should not be taken to hold only at the level of our perception or at the level of our society. As higher-level patterns become more and more dim and the world becomes more and more dominated by fast-paced material causality, worldly time speeds up as a whole. Man and the world are interlocked in a downward spiral towards materiality.
In chapters 20 and 21, From Sphere to Cube and Cain and Abel, Guénon skillfully frames this solidification using the biblical narrative. As a sedentary agriculturalist, Cain represents stability and space. As a nomadic herdsman, Abel represents change and time. The murder of Abel by Cain is a symbol of the larger pattern of space killing time. This is of course true of the historical relationship between sedentary and nomadic peoples. Modern nations have established themselves as firmly regulated spaces impermeable to nomadic peoples. The sedentary has killed the nomad.
More importantly, Cain and his descendants would go on to found cities and to create technology that would accelerate this killing of time by space. You can see here a direct line to the changes we discussed in the previous section. Mechanism, rationalism, materialism, science, industry, uniformity, etc.; all of those modern phenomena are part of the expansion of space and solidity to the detriment of time and change. It’s part of Cain’s drive towards quantitative stability and uniformity and away from Abel’s qualitative change and hierarchy.
But space cannot really drive time out completely; Cain cannot simply erase Abel. Pushed to the edges, time accelerates. Abel haunts Cain. Indeed, low-level patterns are more short-lived than higher-level ones. And because we live in a world of low-level patterns, our world accelerates. We can all feel it. Because we don’t live in a great cosmic narrative qualified by great ups and downs, by feasts and fasts, we live in a mere rush of humanistic and material patterns. Our attention becomes shorter and shorted, fixated on low-level material technology and away from spiritual cosmic narratives.
But at some point, a mysterious flip occurs. At some point, patterns cannot get any simpler and time cannot get any shorter. Like millions of unstable air molecules cancel out into a stable gas, an infinity of infinitely short time cycles cancels out into something stable. At this point, time thus vanishes and paradoxically becomes stable again, i.e., it becomes space. This is the mysterious end of this age and the beginning of the new one. In biblical symbolism, this is the Heavenly Jerusalem coming down on the current age to start the one to come. Importantly, the Heavenly Jerusalem is square, a symbol of stability and space, and surrounds the tree of the Garden of Eden, which was itself round and a symbol of mutability and time 9. Mysteriously, this is Abel’s final revenge over Cain.
But Is it True?
Now that Guénon’s thesis is hopefully clear and intelligible, let me conclude by turning to the question of its truth. On the one hand, after having gone through all the previous chapters of the book, Guénon’s thesis makes intuitive sense and has the advantage of being deeply respectful of our ancestors. Ancient people weren’t just deluded and living under useful illusions by seeing spiritual significance to the whole of their lives or by disdaining the material knowledge that modern people long for. Guénon’s narrative also has some existential attractiveness, in that it radically re-enchants the world. Modern materialism and nihilism, largely brought about by scientism, are really put in their place as modern illusions intermeshed with the solidification of the world. Guénon shatters the meaning crisis.
But on the other hand, there is also something seriously alienating and scary to Guénon’s worldview. So much of our ‘ordinary life’, embedded in a technological world, becomes unreliable and insubstantial. Our empirical contact with the world, be it through our senses or through science, becomes unstable and fraught with illusions. Furthermore, dialogue with modern people becomes very difficult. Indeed, it’s difficult to talk to a modern naturalist and take him seriously when you think that his entire worldview is merely part of the solidification of the world. Thus, Guénon alienates us from our modern world and from modern people.
Rather, for Guénon, our only means of attaining real knowledge of the world is intellectual and religious. It is only by deep intellectual reflection and by getting involved in religious practices that we can hope to rise above the default material and solidified modern thinking. Through these religious practices, we would become able perceive the overarching higher-level patterns discussed in this article. At times, we could even witness miracles where these higher level patterns transfigure our material world and validate Guénon’s ideas. Arguably, this is the kind of magical and deeply meaningful world that monastics genuinely inhabit. Thus, by embedding ourselves into that world, we would come to correctly see ourselves as embedded in the decadent phase of a great cosmic process of materialization. We would see ourselves as pilgrims in a dying age. It’s in this deep spiritual worldview that we would mend our alienation and keep our sanity.
But even if that were true, most of us live outside of monasteries and aren’t readily able to really live in those overarching spiritual patterns. If we follow Guénon in rejecting the truth of our modern empirical contact with the world, we will need time to cultivate a viable spiritual alternative. The interlude will be highly dangerous, especially since basically everything around us is technological and part of the solidified world according to Guénon. In other words, while Guénon’s strategy readily alienates us from our daily experience, it does not provide a ready replacement. He does point to a path forward, namely involvement in an established tradition, but this takes a while and gives us plenty of room to go insane in the meantime.
In fact, Guénon himself became increasingly paranoid and deranged throughout his life. For example, he came to see himself as the victim of repeated magical anti-traditionalist attacks and accordingly chose to avoid contacts with Westerners 10. You can even find a lot of anecdotal evidence of people becoming insane after diving too deep into his work. One way to see it is that Guénon indeed tries to fly too high. He relentlessly demolishes our modern, ordinary epistemology, but he doesn’t manage to replace it with something viable before going crazy. He spends his time analyzing perennial religious patterns in different traditions, studying the signs of our times, but he can’t really connect it down to his own life. He disconnects his head from his own body. And even his very devout involvement in Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, did not suffice to keep him grounded.
All that is to say that I find it very difficult to make up my mind about the truth or falsity of Guénon’s claims. They are intelligible and even plausible, but by alienating us from our usual ways of knowing the world, they also throw too much of my intellect into question, and I would need this very intellect to make up my mind! I am neither smart enough nor holy enough to think too deeply about this. And that is why, as interesting and tempting as Guénon’s thesis is, I will merely keep it in mind as an interesting ceiling I should not fly too close to.
- Guénon, René. The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times at 113. Translated by Lord Northbourne. Sophia Perrenis, Hillsdale, 2004 .
- Guénon at 115
- Guénon, chapters 1 to 7
- Guénon at 36
- Guénon, Chapter 5: The Qualitative Determinations of Time
- Guénon, Chapter 17
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Rediscovering Forms. The Symbolic World Blog, April 2020
- Guénon at 130-131
- Guénon, Chapter 20: From Sphere to Cube
- Sedgwick, Mark. Against the Modern World, at 77. Oxford University Press, 2004