Who Was Frithjof Schuon?
I had intended to write something earlier in the week marking the 100 year anniversary of Frithjof Schuon's birth, which was on June 18, 1907, but somehow forgot. Who was this guy that I quote so often in my posts? After all, I am not a formal disciple of his, nor do I agree with all aspects of his philosophy (although I tremble somewhat when I don't -- he's got a way of looking straight through you with that stern expression of his).
Furthermore, I find the published writings of most of Schuon's well-known followers to be rather tedious and mediocre, and in many ways I feel I do a much better job of communicating the essence of his philosophy to a wider audience, even though I'm afraid that if Schuon were alive, he might even try to get a restraining order to stop me from misusing his ideas. I have no doubt that he wouldn't approve of my approach -- the content, let alone the tone -- but what can one do? There is also no doubt whatsoever that Schuon used the ideas of many thinkers who preceded him in ways they would not approve of. After all, no great Christian theologian ever thought of Christianity as being only an expression of a more transcendent reality, but the most adequate expression of that reality itself. So we're even on that score.
In fact -- this will be one of many sidetracks as I simply reflect out loud -- I concluded quite some time ago, in the course of my graduate work, that one must draw a distinction between "genius" and the medium in which the genius works. Take, for example, psychoanalysis. In graduate school it struck me with great force that there was no commonality between a man of genius, such as Freud, and most of Freud's followers. As they say, the genius ruins the disciples and the disciples ruin the genius. You see this pattern again and again in most fields, in which a school forms around a founder and goes downhill from there. This is not a problem for One Cosmos readers, because the whole point about being a Raccoon is that you can only be a member if you aren't one.
So you can become a psychoanalyst, but there was only one Freud. Likewise, you can become a follower of Schuon, but there was only one Schuon. The question is, how do you become a psychologist -- or a Christian, for that matter -- without being ruined by some genius who preceded you? How to see through their eyes, not just with them?
There have been some psychoanalytic geniuses after Freud, for example, Bion. But there again, I quickly realized that Bion was a genius in a way that transcended psychoanalysis, and that psychoanalysis just happened to be the medium for the expression of his genius. So it's naturally easy to get hung up on the "content" of the genius's ideas, when the more important point is the genius itself. There is a world of difference between a genius reflecting upon the mind, as opposed to some over-educated academic hack publishing his insipid thoughts about the mind.
The same is especially true of theology or philosophy, which is why 99% of it is worthless and/or harmful. It is why a Plato or Saint Augustine will always be relevant, whereas a Chomsky or Hitchens will be little noted nor long remembered, just more junk atop the worthless pile of human verbiage with a short expiration date and no bearing on eternity.
Whatever else he was, Schuon was quite simply a religious genius. I guess I must have first come across his name over 20 years ago, in reading Ken Wilber's early books. I don't remember Wilber relying on him a great deal aside from mentioning a couple of his works in the references -- one or two out of his famously long bibliographies -- and in many respects they constitute radically opposite approaches to religion and spirituality: traditionalism vs. new age. It's hard to say whether the two approaches create different types of people or whether different types of people are drawn to one or the other, but it's probably a combination of the two. In any event, Wilber is widely read in a way that Schuon never could be, as he was not a popularizer and had no desire to be known, much less to present esoteric doctrine in such away that the average college student or politician could not only understand it but find it quite congenial. Plus, Schuon was a direct vehicle of grace -- yes, I realize that's a bold statement -- which is not an insult to Wilber, since few human beings have this capacity to directly illuminate the being of another.
I know that when I first tried to read Schuon -- again, probably over 20 years ago -- he didn't appeal to me at all. This is because I was still an intellectual at the time, and an intellectual, whether he realizes it or not, is actually driven by the vital mind rather than the higher mind. Therefore, it (the vital mind) seeks excitement, novelty, and the esteem of other intellectuals. Obviously, it wants to impress others about how much it thinks it knows -- which is not all that much, especially as it pertains to ultimate issues.
Religion, on the other hand, is not about intellectual fireworks but about humbly conforming your being to Reality (although there are obviously certain explosive consequences for the intellectually gifted man -- an Augustine, or Theophan the Recluse, or Aurobindo). But few young men are really interested in being "humble," and in many ways, they're not supposed to be.
I generally go along with the traditional idea that for most men -- at least those without a special calling -- the first half of life should be spent pursuing worldly ends -- establishing an identity, a career and a family -- while the second half should be a gradual shedding of our outer identity as we reverse our gaze from the great without to the great within. It's not really a radical dichotomy, but simply a matter of emphasis (although here again, there are exceptions; there are pure men of action who are here for a spiritual mission -- Churchill comes to mind -- just as there are pure spiritual types -- Schuon being one of them -- who prove their manhood in spiritual battle. This latter type of battle is no picnic -- it is not like avoiding the draft by becoming a light-in-the-loafers army chaplain, for it is spiritual warfare, or hand to hand combat without hands.
But generally, a man who has not first become a battle-tested Man is not going to be a good candidate to spiritually transcend his manhood. Which is one of the reasons why many wimpier types are drawn to "sprituality," as it seems to give them an excuse to skip the manhood stage. I think you will find that this is why new age spirituality is so "feminized," as it is a refuge for unmanly men -- even a way for them to feel "superior" to manly men.
So anyway, Schuon was born in one of those contested parts of Europe on June 18, 1907. He spent the better part of his childhood in Basel, so he seems to have been a combination of German, French and Swiss. I would just call him "European." He described Basel as a sort of fairy-tale city which made a deep and lasting impression upon his character. Perhaps it even accounts -- at least partly -- for his utter rejection of modernity. I've never been to Europe, but I have been to Disneyland on a number of occasions, so I certainly understand what it would be like to inhabit a sort of real-life fairy tale come to life. Schuon felt that the medieval world was "normative" for human beings, and that even the Renaissance represented the beginning of a dark descent into postmodernity. It reminds me of how for the Orthodox, Catholics are Protestants.
Interestingly, my own father was European -- he was born in England -- but had no European or British identity at all. It was very much as if he were an American who had only accidentally been born in England. He even successfully eliminated his accent. I was thinking about this just the other day. The "British invasion" of the mid-1960s formed a central part of my own childhood, and one would think that I would have felt a special sort of connection to it because of my father's lineage. Although it was a completely unexpected and unanticipated phenomenon -- by that point, the flow of cultural influence was entirely a one-way street, U.S. to Europe -- my father took only a passing, bemused interest. I guess he thought it was a little funny that Americans would express interest in some old British music hall number like "I'm Henry the 8th I Am."
The idea that my father was actually from The Land of the Beatles was rather mind-blowing, but he almost never spoke of it. He absolutely loved America, and certainly didn't romanticize his cultural roots. Whenever the subject of the Royals would come up, he would mutter the word "parasites," but I never really understood why. But he knew that if he had remained in England, he would have likely been a bricklayer or performed some other kind of backbreaking labor for the rest of his life, so he wanted out just as soon as possible. Which occurred after he was discharged from the British Army in 1948.
I'm heading down another unanticipated byway, so I'll probably have to finish up this post tomorrow, but another interesting point comes to mind. Both Schuon and my father idealized America, but in rather opposite ways. My father spoke of American cowboy movies -- Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Will Rogers -- as having made a huge impression on him as a child. Perhaps you may have noticed that whenever a Brit shows up in a cowboy movie, it's always as a thematic and slightly silly or effete contrast to the manly American character -- they're either butlers, or bankers, or card players, or clueless aristocrats. Now that I think about it -- and I'm actually realizing this for the first time -- my father was really into cowboy culture. He read Western novels, liked country music, and hung out with a guy that made handmade saddles as a hobby. Plus he took us hunting, fishing, and camping all the time, back when it really was a wilderness adventure -- an encounter with the elements, relatively unmediated by civilization.
Schuon, on the other hand, idealized native American culture, and even moved to the midwest in the 1970's so that he could live close to "real" Indians. I would suggest that cowboys and Indians represent two archetypally different and somewhat incompatible ways of being "primitive." In reality, we are hopelessly modern, and can never go back to being real cowboys and Indians. People who still call themselves Indians today -- or I suppose you have to say "native Americans" -- are in my opinion a pretty pathetic lot. Unlike Schuon, I see nothing to admire about their culture. Or at least whatever good there was has to be placed in the context of an awful lot of barbarism. For me, the more I learn about native American culture, the less there is to admire.
But since Schuon grew up in Disneyland, perhaps his Disneyland was the culture of the "Red Indian," as he always referred to them (he actually became enchanted with them as a boy). And for my father, who, if he had stayed there, would have ended up being the guy who sweeps up the cigaret butts in Disneyland, America itself was Disneyland. He would have had no interest whatsoever in native American culture, since he grew up under pretty primitive conditions in rural England -- no indoor plumbing, no central heat, no electricity, and just an outhouse in back for a family of nine -- and had no desire to repeat, let alone romanticize, the experience.
In fact, my father was an odd combination of intense ambition and a kind of serene satisfaction with his lot. Yes, he did everything possible to escape the bonds of old Europe and move to a place where his spirit wouldn't be stifled and he would be able to rise to the level of his own ambitions and abilities. But once he reached a certain level, that was it. I don't think he ever got over the fact that he actually owned a house with an indoor toilet. When in 1964 we moved into a house that had two bathrooms -- coincidentally, the house in which I still live -- that was pretty much over the top, even perhaps a bit decadent. Not only did he not take basic amenities for granted, but I think he was in awe of them. From my point of view he was a man who really enjoyed simple pleasures, but from his point of view it must have felt like indulgence.
I don't know if it's temperamental or learned, but I'm pretty much the same way. I had a certain level of ambition, but I long ago achieved it and now effectively have *none*, at least for any worldly or material thing. And even then, my ambition was always an inner directed one, in that my external ambition was only for the purpose of establishing a life in which I could indulge my internal ambitions. I was thinking about this the other day in the context of Will's interview of Mrs. G. If you have a daughter, normally you would do well to counsel them against getting involved with a man who wants no responsibilty, since such a man is likely to be an irresponsible man. Rare is the man who wants no responsibilities because he genuinely needs to focus all his attention on invisible responsibilities, on a calling and a destiny that is not of this world.
Schuon was such a man, which is why the first half of his life was so painful. He had to pursue his work under impossibly precarious financial circumstances until at least the mid-1950s -- when he himself was in his fifties -- at which point he gained a degree of financial independence, not from book sales, but from disciples, for publicly he was a writer of universalist religious metaphysics, while privately he was the head of an esoteric Sufi order. His first major work, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, was not published until 1948, 1953 in English. That was the true beginning of his written work, to which we will turn tomorrow. I guess.