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  • Miguel A. Fernandez

Aiming towards another notion of time: Tradition

by Miguel A. Fernandez


Not only in today´s society, but in all societies there is a tension between the past, present and future, a conflict that in has mostly been simplified as a conflict of tradition versus modernity. When facing the challenges of life, relying on traditions provide societies a worldview that has formerly gained the prestige of having passed the test of time, of having succeeded as a framework that integrates and guides the actions, decisions and responsibilities of a given culture. Traditions are the bearers of meaning, and in societies such as today´s that are overflowed by means, the traditions of the past are also extremely challenged when aiming to prevail during the present.

The term tradition, like all concepts, has also been affected by the cultural tendencies of modernity, and such term has acquired during the last times very ambiguous significations... It is very often conceived as an individual attachment to the values of past societies and cultures; an attachment to habits, religious frameworks and custom that correlated in past societies to the specific socioeconomic requirements demanded by such societies´ conditions of existence. Also, tradition is commonly conceived as derived from the Latin term tradere, which emphasizes the transmission of a higher and transcendent form of knowledge, in order to guide human life.

But as verified during modernity, the conditions of life have abruptly modified at a planetary scale and a new set of standards of behavior have emerged which rely on more specialized forms of knowledge, such as science, technology, economics, etc. Also, language and social custom are quickly modified and both adapt to such novel conditions of life, especially in urban-industrial environments. And it is precisely in these contexts where the most diverse traditional modes of life struggle to keep up their values as a beacon that can serve to guide the human experience in relation to a transcendent view of life that can provide meaning, as the key antidote to defeat nihilism.

From a purely practical perspective it seems logical that if a society is challenged by economic or technological issues, that the solution ought to be framed in economic or technological terms, and the same logic can be apparently affirmed in regard to all specialized fields, which during the last centuries have constantly innovated and become more complex, without submitting to any traditional guideline. Yet the logic of this former argumentation is clearly applied to a reductionist perspective of all things, a reductionism that is itself the main menace to a traditional perspective, and this is so because reductionism or specialization are inexistent in all living traditions; in all living traditions no separation is ever established between human action and the actions operating in the cosmos. So this implies that, although it is undeniable that many traditions of the past are being defeated by a vast complex of innovations in knowledge and social custom, that the idea of Tradition itself is not necessarily being defeated. So here we stress Tradition with a capital “T” in order to refer to an idea that connects and makes sense of all fragmentary modes of knowledge and modes of life taking place at a given time, and the fact that we may not perceive this idea is because the “optics” of our knowledge is still burdened by extreme reductionism, specialization, the cult of subjectivism, ideological thinking, and also because we very likely have not yet gained a direct experience and inner realization of the forces that operate effectively in our time, forces that condition our actions and vital decisions. So in this sense, access to Tradition is also a doorway to freedom.

The bastard son of Tradition: traditionalism

In Operative Traditions it is aimed to restore the idea of totality that is implicit in a traditional view, which demands first of all to not surrender to any particularism and to constantly pursue an integration of both knowledge and experience in relation to the specific conditions determined by one´s time.

As Frithjof Schuon exposes in The Transcendent Unity of Religions[1] there exists a Historical diversity of particularized religious expressions that all point to the idea of totality embraced by Tradition. The language, rites, custom and knowledge that were typical in the past of specific spiritual traditions all acted as frameworks that were in no case ends in themselves, but that served to guide the human spirit towards a vision of meaning that converged with that of all other spiritual traditions. As Schuon shows, the particular elements of a given spiritual tradition hardly conciliate with those that are specific of another spiritual tradition, as if two individuals speaking different languages aimed to unsuccessfully communicate with each other. But even beyond all languages, it would still be possible for both individuals to access with their deepest perceptive faculties what Roman Catholic priest, Ivan Illich (1926–2002), refers to as the eloquence of silence[2] where a higher form of mutual communion composed mostly of gestures can eventually expose a deep alliance that demands no words. This experience can occur in the case of those individuals who have formerly developed a profound self-knowledge, and as Nietzsche would say in this regard: “are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light? Sing! speak no more!’”[3]… As long as an individual pursues a life enriched with meaning, then all forms of language are perceived as rather contingent or accessory; in these situations, conceptual language is sometimes even perceived as too impoverished and inaccurate in order to express one´s experience with the powers that operate on the world and society.

An individual who unconditionally pursues self-knowledge is, for this same reason, a potential human vortex that can creatively generate meaning in the most diverse fields, as an external expression of an inner quest. But when this spontaneous inner quest is absent, that is to say, when the esoteric dimension is lost, then all religious frameworks, rituals, conceptual structures and custom are rendered ends in themselves, and only acquire an exoteric dimension. An attachment is then fortified with a particularized interpretation of the world which clashes then inevitably with those collectives who embrace another particularized interpretation. When this occurs, the diversity of traditions no longer serve as pointers towards Tradition –as an idea that makes sense of all things in a given time- and all acquire a fundamentalist character that no longer serves to guide individual´s experience towards a meaning and totality.

A common approach to the idea of Tradition is that of traditionalism. The –ism suffix clearly suggests that the term has assimilated an ideological character, or as is often said in the U.S. that “there is a political agenda behind”. In Operative Traditions II – Nigredo we shall address the nature of ideology in depth, but by now let´s affirm that an ideology implies always the existence of individual conformism with the beliefs embraced by a mass of individuals. Traditionalism has therefore vastly spread during modernity in those sectors where the collective is assumed to have a crucial political signification, such as occurs in nationalist collectives. In these sectors the promotion of a national ideological identity -or identitarianism- is believed to be accomplished in the future by restoring in people the lifestyle of the nation´s past, as an action that is assumed to have political significance. Because hope of this accomplishment is expected to be affirmed in the future, also the ideology of progress is subtly yet powerfully implanted in traditionalist thinking.

It must be noted that, as another expression of the modern spirit, traditionalism is also burdened by a reductionist worldview, a reductionism that provides absolute value to the traditions of each nation or ethnic group, in the sort of a divide and conquer fashion that characterizes any reductionism. Hence, as occurs in any reductionist worldview, in traditionalism rigid boundaries are therefore defined between nations, as a mode of supposedly preserving their respective traditions, and anything that defies these boundaries is consequently a defiance of the traditionalist worldview and those who ideologically embrace it. Due to the latter, it is no coincidence that traditionalism is prone to only address the conflicts caused by immigration, globalization, cultural marxism, liberalism or “melting pot” societies, conceived all as the most visible forms of the transgression of the boundaries defined by such ideological posture. Traditionalism is also characterized by a common modern prejudice which assumes that the restoration of national politics and national culture is enough for mastering the conflicts induced by techno-industrial territorial development, and therefore traditionalism not only often disregards as secondary the conflicts induced by many other forms of national boundary transgression (capital flows, industry, transportation, communication and technological networks, etc.) but is also rather reluctant to address and provide alternatives to the specific challenges of the present, such as in the fields of economy, science, industry, pollution, global warming, etc. All these phenomena overcome the territorial jurisdiction defined by traditionalism and therefore the reductionism that characterizes such ideology is logically incapable of integrating or providing any signification or value to these novel technical processes.

Traditionalism is often expressed in the attachment to anachronistic lifestyles and aesthetics, being very typical in this sector a cult of the past, especially in terms of cultural creations and traditions. The disdain that these sectors feel in regard to “mundane” fields of activity such as commerce, scientific knowledge, corporate dynamics, physical activity, sport, industrial production, etc. favor at an intellectual level the adoption of dilettante standpoints which often finds its comfortable niche in speculative studies on the mystical aspects of alchemy and hermeticism. Traditionalism mostly attracts the attention of those sectors that feel threatened by the processes of globalization, who often claim to enact an attitude of being supposedly “against the modern world”, aiming to find refuge and consolation in the reveries of an extremely idealized past. We stress here the term “supposedly”, because any ideological way of thinking is typically a modern phenomenon. Ultimately traditionalism betrays Tradition because it reinforces a reductionism that is never present in a strict Traditional worldview. As a basic instance of the latter, the Catholic ideal still aspires to a non-reductionist view of the cosmos (the term Catholic derives from the Ancient Greek katholikós, κᾰθόλου, “on the whole, in general”). This doesn´t mean that a person who today follows Catholicism embraces such ideal because as all traditions, also the Catholic tradition has been defeated by time. And yet this doesn´t impede us to perceive that at least in the memory of the Catholic ideal is still present the goal that Tradition must aim for.

During the last century it can´t however be denied that such pursuit of wholeness was clearly attempted by remarkable intellectual figures. In these cases, the idea of Tradition was approached through a metahistorical conceptualization, and refers to the thread of higher forms of knowledge that are supposed to be cherished and transmitted by initiates who belong to a regular spiritual organization, initiates who keep up a traditional doctrine that serves as the beacon for human institutions. This concept was mostly the view on Tradition promoted by René Guénon[4] during the last century, a concept that implicitly assumes that Tradition is only existent to the extent are also present regular esoteric organizations that maintain a set of rituals, practices and ethical standards that allow their members to gain access to higher, sacred and transcendent knowledge by means of initiation. This concept on Tradition was challenged by Italian philosopher, Julius Evola, who in spite of having assimilated at a very young age the thought of Guénon and having maintained an epistolary relation with him for many years, soon adopted a different view on Tradition than Guenon´s, a view that is no longer dependent on the existence of regular initiatory organizations. Evola´s view on Tradition can be conceived as the most transcendent conception on Tradition, since it first accepts the specific conditions of our age (conceived in many ancient cosmologies as the Iron Age or Kali-Yuga) which implies the absolute inadequacy of former ritual practices when aiming to produce a mutation of being in an individual to make possible the access to a higher form of knowledge. In one of Evola´s latest works, Ride the Tiger[5], the Italian philosopher conceived that Tradition is no longer embraced by regular organizations (such as modern Freemasonry, Martinism, “Rosecrucians”, "alchemists", "occult masters", etc.) but rather is embraced by a very specific type of human being; what Evola referred to as the differentiated man and woman who are forced to live in this world yet with an inner memory of a completely different world, as if living in the conditions of “below” yet with their sight always “above”. These differentiated individuals do not have a romanticist or nostalgic perception of the past, and feel impelled to become the bearers of the memory they cherish, yet applied in the specific economic, political, technical and cultural conditions that characterize our age. These differentiated individuals aim to project transcendence in the immanent domain, or in other words, to project Tradition in the present times. Such is also Ernst Jünger´s core advice for those who aim for true freedom, when writing: “If a person of strength and good will who draws his nourishment from the past isn't able to find firm ground under his feet in the present, he is doomed to impotence.”[6].

The immanent domain, which has been quite successfully addressed in our times by techno-science, is “immiscible” with the traditions of the past, in essence because both domains are characterized by very different presuppositions on the relation of the human spirit to the cosmos. The old rituals, magical techniques and ceremonies that were formerly capable of connecting symbiotically a community to the forces of nature have been rendered powerless when aiming to conjure up, for instance, the influence of telecommunication networks and industrial growth. As Jacques Ellul wrote: “In today’s technical society, magical and mystical tendencies which traditionally were in opposition are all mutually satisfied by technique and hence made one. Technique fully satisfies the mystic will to possess and dominate. It is unnecessary to evoke spiritual powers when machines give much better results”[7]. The main difference between a Traditional and a modern conception on the relation of the human spirit to the cosmos is that whereas in a Traditional context the knowledge of the world is dependent on the individual´s self-knowledge, in a modern context the knowledge of the world is conceived as independent of one´s self-knowledge. This is not only very obvious in modern science, but is also easily perceivable in the assumptions that are implicit in most modern educational systems, a domain where the student has very little chances to discover a true inner calling, this is, very little chances of discovering a path of life where knowledge of the outer world is organized towards a meaning that is enlightened through self-knowledge. When this inner light is lacking, then the scientific knowledge of the external world appears as fragmentary and chaotic, no longer characterized by the synthetic unity that defines other type of sciences (sacred sciences) that express the path of knowledge gained by an individual who has aimed towards a vision of totality, or in other words, a Traditional vision.

So the first requirement in order to attain Tradition in the present time -as a way of defeating nihilism and acquiring a life that is magnificently full of meaning- is to propose individuals a path of knowledge that makes use of a very specific scientific framework that can guide such knowledge. This type of science ought to provide a margin of experience that allows the individual gain an identification of his/her inner being with the symbolic language defined by the meaning which is present in external phenomena. Therefore, it is a type of science that already presupposes such meaning, in spite of the fact that such meaning can´t be intellectually demonstrated a priori. Hence this type of science demands initially of the student a core faith in the existence of such meaning, and the spontaneous presence of this faith verifies the individual´s inner calling in regard to this path. Contrarily to modern science, we are referring here to another type of science that is more concerned about the qualitative aspects that are first-hand experienced by the student rather than the quantitative measurements that are mediated through technological equipment or experiments.

Since the end of the Middle-Ages scientific knowledge progressively became experimental, which in essence implies that natural phenomena are observed and measured once they are successfully enclosed in specific experimental conditions. It is very often dismissed by the selfsame scientists who work in a laboratory that in the design of a specific experiment is already implicit a worldview… This shall be addressed in more detail in Operative Traditions III – Albedo, but by now let´s point out that during the tipping point that separated the Middle-Ages from modernity it was precisely Galileo Galilei´s (1564-1642) experimental approach to nature which paradigmatically typifies the fact that modern science began to assume a priori premises about natural phenomena (that is to say: inductive reasoning became the common practice). In the case of Galileo such premise was that natural phenomena obey laws that have a specific mathematical language[8], so the experiments he developed aimed to verify such assumption. For instance in the simple and classical case of Galileo´s discovery of the law of uniform acceleration it was first induced such law in mathematical language and secondly the inclined plane experiments[9] were designed to verify such law. Later, the success of Galileo´s experimental verifications in the fields of astronomy, physics and engineering revolutionized the relation of humans to nature, and not only was fortified in modernity the premise that nature obeys laws, but also that these laws are mathematical. Galileo´s support of Copernican´s heliocentric system caused him to be attacked as a heretic mind by the Church and Roman Inquisition, a mind that subverted crucial Biblical statements on the universe[10].

The main assumption that the dynamics of the natural world follow mathematical laws became deeply entrenched in the roots of modern science, and during several centuries very few dared to heretically contradict such premise. But former to Galileo Galilei´s scientific revolution in the 17th century existed another idea of nature that was embraced by the main architects of Gothic culture, the Operative Freemasons. According to this view, the language of nature is in effect mathematical, but the key nuance here is that it is denied by the works of the Operative Freemasons that the dynamics of nature follow any laws. Galileo´s premise on nature is extremely accurate in the case of inert bodies that are isolated from external perturbation, yet has never succeeded –even until today- when predicting the development of phenomena that involve living forms and their evolving potentials. Before Galileo´s revolution, and more precisely during the cultural splendor of the Gothic period, knowledge of nature was far from being experimental or inductive, and was rather operative. Based on this operative approach to the natural world, knowledge of nature is not to be induced but to be produced, and the artistic outlook of such production is in effect characterized by perfect mathematical topologies and symbolic configurations, as excellently shown in the forms and figures that characterize Gothic architecture. Yet from an engineering perspective, the development in time of such architectures can hardly be framed in mathematical laws. Therefore, an operative practice allows human senses to open the door of the mysteries of nature, and the final artistic production is essentially knowledge of totality (strictly speaking, a cosmology) effectively applied in the specific technical and working conditions that characterize a given time. So by considering that the most important aspect of Tradition is that it is a totality expressed in all levels of human activity, an operative tradition is the doorway to recover Tradition in practice and not in theory, as a discipline that does not search for such totality in the past, but builds it in the present. Such is the antidote to defeat nihilism and provide life a full meaning.

Since the Enlightenment, the modern mind has been accustomed to believe that the immanent domain can be exclusively grasped through science and mathematics. And yet this approach is relatively new in historical terms, because as formerly pointed out, in Medieval times and especially during the Gothic period, knowledge of nature demanded first an artistic approach and only secondarily a scientific one.

The main aim of the four volumes of Operative Traditions is to recover and present to the readers a perspective on Tradition that in no case is new, but that has been however mysteriously veiled during the last centuries as other aspects on Tradition have been much more emphasized. We are here referring therefore to the recovery of the operative[11] aspect of Tradition.


Click here to read the Introduction to the Operative Traditions Series

[1] As Schuon insightfully writes: “Just as, when the eye changes its position, the different views of an object are connected by a perfect continuity, which represents, so to speak, the determining reality of the object, so the different aspects of a truth, however contradictory they may appear and notwithstanding their indefinite multiplicity, describe the integral Truth that surpasses and determines them” Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Quest Books. Theosophical Publishing House, 1993 [2] Illich writes in this regard: “The man who tries to buy language as if it were a shirt, the man who tries to conquer language through grammar in order to be able to speak "better than the natives around here", the man who forgets the analogy between the silence of God and the silence of others and who does not try to make it grow through prayer, he is a man who basically trying to violate the culture to which he has been sent, and must therefore wait for the corresponding reactions. If he has a hint of humanity he will realize that he is in a spiritual prison, but he will not admit that he created it himself; he will accuse the others of being his jailers. The wall that separates him from those to whom it has been sent will become increasingly impenetrable”, The Eloquence of Silence, translated from Spanish, Illich, Ivan. Obras Reunidas, Vol I. Fondo de Cultura Económica [3] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Penguin Books. Copyright © R. J. Hollingdale, 1969, The Seven Seals [4] As Guénon writes in “What is Meant by Tradition?”: “Social institutions, to be considered traditional, must be effectively attached in their principle to a doctrine that is itself traditional, whether it be metaphysical or religious or of any other conceivable kind. In other words, those institutions are traditional that find their ultimate justification in their more or less direct, but always intentional and conscious, dependence upon a doctrine which, as regards its fundamental nature, is in every case of an intellectual order”Guénon, René. The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of Times. Sophia Perennis. New York, 2004, 94 [5] Evola, Julius. Ride the Tiger. Inner Traditions, 2003 [6] Ernst Jünger. The Glass Bees. Straus and Giroux. New York, 72 [7] Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Knopf/Vintage, 1967, 385 [8] "Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend that language and to read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures;...." Drake, S. (1957). Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. New York: Doubleday & Company, 237–238 [9] Galileo's Inclined Plane Experiment. Online Help : Math Apps : Natural Sciences : Physics : Math-Apps/GalileosInclinedPlaneExperiment. Maplesoft. Retrieved 30 June 2018 [10] For instance, in Psalm 93:1, 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 "The world also is established. It can not be moved." Psalm 104:5 says, "He (the Lord) laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be moved forever.", Ecclesiastes 1:5 states, "The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to its place where it rises" [11] “Operative” is related to the aim of inner transformation or metanoia by means of opus. Opus, which is a term that is recovered from medieval accounts, corresponds to the idea of exerting towards perfection any form of activity, as a discipline that was good in itself, that had a magical character (opus magnum, opus magicum) and that is equivalent to the Hindu ideal of the karmayoga. In this context opus aims for achieving metanoia which entails a change of inner perception of physis. Peter Senge. La quinta disciplina. Barcelona: Granica. 1995

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