The Traditionalist or Perennialist School is a group of 20th- and 21st-century thinkers who believe in the existence of a perennial wisdom or perennial philosophy, primordial and universal truths which form the source for, and are shared by, all the major world religions.
The early proponents of this school of thought are René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Frithjof Schuon. Other notable members include Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, William Stoddart, Jean-Louis Michon, Marco Pallis, and Huston Smith.
According to the members of the Traditionalist School, also known as the Perennialist School, all major world religions are founded upon common primordial and universal metaphysical truths. The perspective of its authors is often referred to as philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy), which is both "absolute Truth and infinite Presence". Absolute Truth is "the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of humankind". Infinite Presence is "the perennial religion (religio perennis) that lives within the heart of all intrinsically orthodox religions." According to Frithjof Schuon,
The term philosophia perennis, which has been current since the time of the Renaissance and of which neo-scholasticism made much use, signifies the totality of the primordial and universal truths — and therefore of the metaphysical axioms — whose formulation does not belong to any particular system. One could speak in the same sense of a religio perennis, designating by this term the essence of every religion; this means the essence of every form of worship, every form of prayer, and every system of morality, just as the sophia perennis is the essence of all dogmas and all expressions of wisdom. We prefer the term sophia to that of philosophia, for the simple reason that the second term is less direct and because it evokes in addition associations of ideas with a completely profane and all too often aberrant system of thought.
The Traditionalist vision of a perennial wisdom is not based on mystical experiences, but on metaphysical intuitions. It is "intuited directly through divine intellect." This divine intellect is different from reason, and makes it possible to discern "the sacred unity of reality that is attested in all authentic esoteric expressions of tradition"; it is "the presence of divinity within each human waiting to be uncovered." According to Schuon,
The key to the eternal sophia is pure intellection or in other words metaphysical discernment. To "discern" is to "separate": to separate the Real and the illusory, the Absolute and the contingent, the Necessary and the possible, Atma and Maya. Accompanying discernment, by way of complement and operatively, is concentration, which unites: this means becoming fully aware — from the starting point of earthly and human Maya — of Atma, which is both absolute and infinite.
For the Traditionalists, perennial philosophy has a transcendent dimension – Truth or Wisdom – and an immanent dimension – infinite Presence or Union. Thus, on the one hand, "discernment between the Real and the unreal, or the Absolute and the relative", and on the other hand, "mystical concentration on the Real".
According to the Traditionalists, this truth has been lost in the modern world through the rise of novel secular philosophies stemming from the Enlightenment, and modernism itself is considered an abnormality. Traditionalists see their approach as a justifiable longing for the past; in Schuon's words: "If to recognize what is true and just is "nostalgia for the past," it is quite clearly a crime or a disgrace not to feel this nostalgia".[note 1]
The ideas of the Traditionalist School are considered to begin with René Guénon. Other members of that school of thought include Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Hossein Nasr, William Stoddart, Jean-Louis Michon, Marco Pallis, Huston Smith, Harry Oldmeadow, Reza Shah-Kazemi, Mateus Soares de Azevedo, and Patrick Laude. Some academics include Julius Evola in this School, although Evola presents many differences in relation to those mentioned. Another author eventually linked to perennialism is Mircea Eliade, although Eliade's link is nuanced and often contested.
A major theme in the works of René Guénon (1886–1951) is the contrast between traditional world views and modernism, "which he considered to be an anomaly in the history of mankind." For Guénon, the world is a manifestation of metaphysical principles, which are preserved in the perennial teachings of the world religions, but were lost to the modern world. For Guénon, "the malaise of the modern world lies in its relentless denial of the metaphysical realm."[note 3]
Early on, Guénon was attracted to Sufism, and in 1912 he was initiated in the Shadhili order. He started writing after his doctoral dissertation was rejected, and he left academia in 1923. His works center on the return to these traditional world views, trying to reconstruct the Perennial Philosophy.[web 2]
In his first books and essays, he envisaged a restoration of traditional "intellectualité" in the West on the basis of Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry.[note 4] He gave up early on a purely Christian basis for a traditionalist restoration of the West, searching for other traditions. He denounced the lure of Theosophy and neo-occultism in the form of Spiritism,[note 5] two influential movements that were flourishing in his lifetime. In 1930, he moved to Egypt, where he lived until his death in 1951.
Through its close affiliation with Sufism, the traditionalist perspective has been gaining ground in Asia and the Islamic world at large.[note 6]
In Iran, it was introduced by Hossein Nasr as well as, earlier, by Ali Shariati, the intellectual considered the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution who recommended Guénon to his students. While it never acquired a mass following, its influence on the elite can be measured by the fact that when Ayatollah Khomeini organized the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, out of the seven members designed to serve it, three were acquainted with Traditionalist ideas, namely Abdolkarim Soroush, Reza Davari Ardakani, and Nasrullah PourJavadi.
Hasan Askari, an important writer and literary critic, was directly influenced by Guénon, and, through him, Muhammad Shafi Deobandi and his son Muhammad Taqi Usmani, some of the country's most influential Islamic scholars, integrated Guénon's works in the curriculum of the Darul Uloom Karachi, one of the most important madrassa or religious seminary in the country.
Julius Evola was an Italian Traditionalist influenced by Guénon but from whom he departed on many points, which did not allow him to be assimilated to the Guénonian Traditionalist School.[note 7] The ideas of Evola have been associated with some far-right movements, such as the European Nouvelle Droite ("New Right"), and Italian Fascists during the Years of Lead.[note 8]
Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World, published in 2004, gives an analysis of political traditionalism:
A number of disenchanted intellectuals responded to Guénon's call [to form an intellectual elite] with attempts to put theory into practice. 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 anti-democratic 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.[web 2]
Various influential figures in twenty-first century far-right populist movements have affiliated with Traditionalism, often with Evola in particular. According to the book War for Eternity by Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon and Brazilian writer Olavo de Carvalho, all have associated with Traditionalism and have interacted with each other based on those interests.
Alain de Benoist, the founder of the Nouvelle Droite, declared in 2013 that the influence of Guénon on his political school was very weak and that he does not consider him a major author for his work.[note 9]