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The Social Chaos by Rene Guenon

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The Social Chaos by Rene Guenon

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Photo: Rene Guenon in Egypt
 
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IN THE PRESENT WORK, we do not intend to give any particular emphasis to the social point of view, for it interests us only indirectly, representing as it does a comparatively remote application of fundamental principles; it therefore cannot in any circumstances be the domain in which any reconstitution of the modern world could begin. Indeed, if a reconstitution were to be attempted at this level-that is to say, working backward and starting from consequences rather than from principles-it would be bound to lack any real foundation and would be completely illusory. Nothing stable could ever come of it, and the whole work would have to be begun anew because the prime necessity of coming to an agreement on essential truths would have been overlooked. It is for this reason that we find it impossible to consider political contingencies, even in the widest sense of this term, as being more than outward signs,. of the mentality of a period; but even though we regard them in this light, we cannot altogether overlook the manifestations of the modern confusion as they affect the social sphere.
 
As we have already pointed out, under the present state of affairs in the Western world, nobody any longer occupies the place that he should normally occupy by virtue of his own nature; this is what is meant by saying that the castes no longer exist, for caste, in its traditional meaning, is nothing other than individual nature, with the whole array of special aptitudes that this carries with it and that predisposes each man to the fulfillment of one or another particular function. Since the undertaking of a function, no matter of what sort, is no longer dictated by any legitimate rule, the inevitable result is that each person finds himself obliged to do whatever kind of work he can get, often that for which he is the least qualified. The part he plays in the community is determined, not by chance which does not in reality exist but by what might appear to be chance, that is, by a network of all sorts of incidental circumstances: what exerts the least influence is precisely the one factor that should count for most in the matter, namely the differences of nature between one man and another. It is the negation of these differences, bringing with it the negation of all social hierarchy, that is the cause of the whole disorder; this negation may not have been deliberate at first, and may have been more practical than theoretical, since the mingling of the castes preceded their complete suppression or, to put it differently, the nature of individuals was misunderstood before it began to be altogether ignored; at all events this same negation has subsequently been raised by the moderns to the rank of a pseudo-principle under the name of 'equality'. It would be quite easy to show that equality can nowhere exist, for the simple reason that there cannot be two beings who are at the same time really distinct and completely alike in every respect; and it would be no less easy to bring out all the ridiculous consequences arising out of this fantastical idea, in the name of which men claim to impose a complete uniformity on everyone, in such ways for example as by meting out identical teaching to all, as though all were equally capable of understanding the same things, and as though the same methods for making them understand these things were suitable for all indiscriminately. However, it could well be asked whether it is not a question of 'learning' rather than of 'understanding', that is to say whether memory is not put in the place of intelligence in the modern, purely verbal and 'bookish' conception of education, whose object is only the accumulation of rudimentary and heterogeneous notions, and in which quality is sacrificed entirely to quantity, as happens-for reasons that we shall explain more fully below everywhere in the modern world: here again we have dispersion in multiplicity. Much could be added here concerning the evils of 'compulsory education', but on these we cannot dwell, and, in order to keep within the scheme of the present work, we must confine ourselves to remarking incidentally on this particular consequence of the 'egalitarian theories', as being one of those elements of confusion that today are too numerous for it to be possible to enumerate every single one of them.
 
Naturally, when we encounter ideas such as 'equality' or 'progress', or any other of the 'lay dogmas' that almost all of our contemporaries blindly accept-most of which were first formulated during the eighteenth century-it is impossible for us to admit that they arose spontaneously. They are veritable 'suggestions', in the strictest sense of this word, though they could not of course have had any effect in a society that was not already prepared to receive them; such ideas in themselves have not actually created the mental outlook that is characteristic of modern times, but they have contributed largely to maintaining it and to bringing it to a stage that would doubtless not have been reached without them. If these suggestions were to disappear, the general mentality would come very near to changing direction; and this is why they are so assiduously fostered by all those who have some interest in maintaining the confusion, if not in making it worse, and also why, at a time when it is claimed that everything is open to discussion, they are the only things that may never be discussed. Moreover, it is not easy to judge the degree of sincerity of those who become the propagators of such ideas, or to know to what extent they fall prey to their own lies and deceive themselves as they deceive others; in fact, in propaganda of this sort, those who play the part of dupes are often the best instruments, as they bring to the work a conviction that others would have difficulty in simulating, and which is readily contagious. But behind all this, at least at the outset, a much more deliberate kind of action is necessary, and the direction can be set only by men fully cognizant of the real nature of the ideas they are spreading. We say 'ideas', but it is only very inexactly that this word can be made to apply in the present case, for it is clear that they are by no means 'pure ideas', having absolutely nothing in common with the intellectual order; they are rather 'false ideas', though it would be still better to call them 'pseudo-ideas', intended primarily to evoke sentimental reactions, since this is in fact the easiest and most effective way of working on the masses. Indeed, for this purpose, the word used is more important than the notion it is supposed to represent, and most of the modern 'idols' are really mere words, for a remarkable phenomenon has arisen known as 'verbalism', by which sonorous words succeed in creating the illusion of thought; the influence that orators have over the crowd is particularly characteristic in this connection, and it does not require much reflection to see that it is a process of suggestion altogether comparable to that used by hypnotists.
 
However, without dwelling any longer on these points, let us return to the consequences involved by the negation of all true hierarchy; it must be noticed that not merely does a man, in the present state of affairs, fulfill his proper function only in exceptional cases and as though by accident-his not doing so being the exception but it also happens that the same man is called upon to fulfill successively completely different functions, as though he could change his aptitudes at will. This may seem paradoxical in an age of extreme 'specialization', and yet it is in fact the case, especially in the realm of politics.
 
If the competence of specialists is often quite illusory, and in any case limited to a very narrow field, the belief in this competence is nevertheless a fact, and it may well be asked why it is that this belief is not made to apply to the careers of politicians and why, with them, the most complete incompetence is seldom an obstacle. A little reflection, however, will show that there is nothing surprising in this, and that it is in fact a very natural outcome of the democratic conception, according to which power comes from below and is based essentially on the majority, for a necessary corollary of this conception is the exclusion of all real competence, which is always at least a relative superiority, and therefore belongs necessarily to a minority.
 
Some explanation may be useful here to bring out, on the one hand, the sophistries underlying the democratic idea and, on the other, to show the connection between this idea and the modern mental outlook as a whole. It need hardly be added, considering the point of view at which we place ourself, that these observations will remain entirely aloof from all party questions and all political quarrels, with which we will have nothing whatsoever to do. We regard these matters in an absolutely disinterested way, just as we would any other subject of study, and wish only to bring out as clearly as possible what lies behind them; to do this is indeed necessary-in fact the one thing necessary-if all the illusions that our contemporaries harbor on this subject are to be dispelled. Here too it is really a question of 'suggestion', as it was with the somewhat different but nevertheless kindred ideas of which we have just spoken; and as soon as something is recognized as a suggestion, and its way of working perceived, it can exert no further influence on people's minds; in dealing with things of this sort, a closer and purely 'objective' scrutiny is much more effective than all the sentimental declamations and party controversies that prove nothing and are no more than an expression of individual preferences.
 
The most decisive argument against democracy can be summed up in a few words: the higher cannot proceed from the lower, because the greater cannot proceed from the lesser; this is an absolute mathematical certainty that nothing can gainsay. And it should be remarked that this same argument, applied to a different order of things, can also be invoked against materialism; there is nothing fortuitous in this, for these two attitudes are much more closely linked than might at first sight appear. It is abundantly clear that the people cannot confer a power that they do not themselves possess; true power can only come from above, and this is why-be it said in passing-it can be legitimized only by the sanction of something standing above the social order, that is to say by a spiritual authority, for otherwise it is a mere counterfeit of power, unjustifiable through lack of any principle, and in which there can be nothing but disorder and confusion. This reversal of the true hierarchical order begins when the temporal power seeks to make itself independent of the spiritual authority, and then even to subordinate the latter by claiming to make it serve political ends. This is an initial usurpation that opens up the way to all the others; thus it could be shown, for example, that the French monarchy was itself working unconsciously, from the fourteenth century onward, to prepare the Revolution that was to overthrow it; it may be that we shall have the opportunity some day to expound this point of view adequately, but for the moment we can only refer briefly to it in passing.
 
If the word 'democracy' is defined as the government of the people by themselves, it expresses an absolute impossibility and cannot even have a mere de facto existence-in our time or in any other. One must guard against being misled by words: it is contradictory to say that the same persons can be at the same time rulers and ruled, because, to use Aristotelian terminology, the same being cannot be 'in act' and 'in potency' at the same time and in the same relationship. The relationship of ruler and ruled necessitates the presence of two terms: there can be no ruled if there are not also rulers, even though these be illegitimate and have no other title to power than their own pretensions; but the great ability of those who are in control in the modern world lies in making the people believe that they are governing themselves; and the people are the more inclined to believe this as they are flattered by it, and as, in any case, they are incapable of sufficient reflection to see its impossibility. It was to create this illusion that 'universal suffrage' was invented: the law is supposed to be made by the opinion of the majority, but what is overlooked is that this opinion is something that can very easily be guided and modified; it is always possible, by means of suitable suggestions, to arouse, as may be desired, currents moving in this or that direction. We cannot recall who it was who first spoke of' manufacturing opinion', but this expression is very apt, although it must be added that it is not always those who are in apparent control who really have the necessary means at their disposal. This last remark should make it clear why it is that the incompetence of most prominent politicians seems to have only a very relative importance; but since we are not undertaking here to unmask the working of what might be called the 'machine of government', we will do no more than point out that this incompetence itself serves the purpose of keeping up the illusion of which we have been speaking: indeed, it is a necessary condition if the politicians in question are to appear to issue from the majority, for it makes them in its likeness, inasmuch as the majority, on whatever question it may be called on to give its opinion, is always composed of the incompetent, whose number is vastly greater than that of the men who can give an opinion based on full knowledge.
 
This now leads us to elucidate more precisely the error of the idea that the majority should make the law, because, even though this idea must remain theoretical-since it does not correspond to an effective reality-it is necessary to explain how it has taken root in the modern outlook, to which of its tendencies it corresponds, and which of them-at least in appearance-it satisfies. Its most obvious flaw is the one we have just mentioned: the opinion of the majority cannot be anything but an expression of incompetence, whether this be due to lack of intelligence or to ignorance pure and simple; certain observations of 'mass psychology' might be quoted here, in particular the widely known fact that the aggregate of mental reactions aroused among the component individuals of a crowd crystallizes into a sort of general psychosis whose level is not merely not that of the average, but actually that of the lowest elements present. It should also be noted, though in a slightly different connection, that some modern philosophers have even tried to introduce the democratic theory, according to which the opinion of the majority should prevail, into the intellectual realm itself, principally by claiming to find a 'criterion of truth' in what they call 'universal consent'. Even supposing there were some question upon which all men were in agreement, this agreement would prove nothing in itself; moreover, even if such a unanimity really existed-which is all the more unlikely in that, whatever be the question, there are always many people who have no opinion at all and have never even thought about it-it would in any case be impossible to prove it in practice, so that what is invoked in support of an opinion and as a sign of its truth amounts merely to the consent of the majority-the majority of a group moreover that is necessarily very limited in space and time. In this domain the bankruptcy of the theory is even more obvious since it is easier to remove from it the influence of sentiment, which almost inevitably comes into play in the field of politics. It is this influence that is one of the chief obstacles in the way of understanding certain things, even for those who in themselves possess an intellectual capacity sufficient to understand them without difficulty; emotional impulses hinder reflection, and making use of this incompatibility is one of the dishonest tricks practiced in politics.
 
But let us probe still more deeply into the question: what is this law of the greatest number which modern governments invoke and in which they claim to find their sole justification? It is simply the law of matter and brute force, the same law by which a mass, carried down by its weight, crushes everything that lies in its track. It is precisely here that we find the point of junction of the democratic conception and materialism, and here also is to be found the reason why this conception is so firmly rooted in the present-day mentality. By this means, the normal order of things is completely reversed and the supremacy of multiplicity as such is upheld, a supremacy that actually exists only in the material world; 3 in the spiritual world on the other hand-and more clearly still in the universal order-it is unity that is at the summit of the hierarchy, since unity is the principle out of which all multiplicity arises.4 Once let the principle be denied or lost from sight and nothing remains but multiplicity pure and simple, which is the same thing as matter. Furthermore, the allusion to weight that we have just made has more significance than that of a mere comparison, for in the field of physical forces-in the commonest meaning of the word-weight effectively represents the downward and compressive tendency, which involves an ever increasing limitation of the being, and at the same time makes for multiplicity, represented here by ever greater density: 5 this tendency has been shaping the development of human activity since the beginning of modern times. It should also be noted that matter, owing to its power of both dividing and limiting, is what scholastic philosophy calls 'the principle of individuation'. This establishes a connection between the questions we are dealing with now and our earlier remarks about individualism: the tendency of which we have just spoken is identical with that 'individualizing' tendency that is represented in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the 'Fall' of those who broke away from original unity. 6 Multiplicity, considered apart from its principle, and therefore as no longer capable of being reduced to unity, takes the form in the social realm of a community conceived only as the arithmetical sum of its component individuals; in fact, a community is no more than this, once it has ceased to be attached to any principle superior to these individuals. The law of such a community is literally that of the greatest number, and it is on this that the democratic idea is based.
 
We must pause here to clear up a possible misunderstanding: in speaking of modern individualism we have considered almost exclusively its manifestations in the intellectual order, and it might be supposed that, in the case of the social order, matters might be quite different. Indeed, if one takes the word 'individualism' in its narrowest sense, one could be tempted to oppose the collectivity to the individual, and to think that facts such as the increasingly invasive role of the State and the growing complexity of social institutions indicate a tendency contrary to individualism. In reality however it is not so, because the collectivity, being nothing other than the sum of the individuals within it, cannot be opposed to them, any more than can the State itself, conceived in the modern fashion, and viewed as a simple representation of the masses-in which no higher principle is reflected; and it will be recalled that individualism, as we have defined it, consists precisely in the negation of every supra-individual principle. Therefore, if conflicts arise in the social sphere between tendencies, all of which equally find their place within the modern outlook, they are not conflicts between individualism and something else, but simply between the various forms that individualism itself is capable of assuming; it is easy to see that such conflicts must be more numerous and more serious in our time than they have ever been before, owing to the absence of any principle capable of unifying the multiplicity, and because individualism necessarily implies division. This division, with the chaotic state of things resulting from it, is the fatal outcome of an utterly material civilization, for it is matter itself that is really the source of division and multiplicity.
 
Finally, there remains one direct consequence of the democratic idea to consider, and this is the negation of the idea of an elite; it is not for nothing that 'democracy' is opposed to 'aristocracy', for this latter word, at least when taken in its etymological sense, means precisely the power of the elite. The elite can by definition only be the few, and their power, or rather their authority, deriving as it does from their intellectual superiority, has nothing in common with the numerical strength on which democracy is based, a strength whose inherent tendency is to sacrifice the minority to the majority, and therefore quality to quantity, and the elite to the masses. Thus the guiding function exercised by a true elite, and its very existence since of necessity it plays this role if it exists at all-is utterly incompatible with democracy, which is closely bound up with the egalitarian conception, and therefore with the negation of all hierarchy; the very foundation of the democratic idea is the supposition that one individual is as good as another, simply because they are equal numerically and in spite of the fact that they can never be equal in any other way. A true elite, as we have already said, can only be an intellectual one; and that is why democracy can arise only where pure intellectuality no longer exists, as is the case in the modern world. However, since equality is in fact impossible, and since, despite all efforts toward leveling, the differences between one man and another cannot in practice be entirely suppressed, men have been brought, by a curious illogic, to invent false elites-of several kinds moreover-that claim to take the place of the one true elite; and these false elites are based on a variety of totally relative and contingent points of superiority, always of-a purely material order. This is obvious from the fact that the social distinction that counts most in the present state of things is that based on wealth, that is to say on a purely outward superiority of an exclusively quantitative order, the only superiority in fact that is consistent with democracy, based as it is on the same point of view. It may also be added that even those who set themselves up as opponents of this state of affairs are incapable of producing any real remedy for the disorder, and may even aggravate it by going ever further in the same direction, because they also make no appeal to any principle of a higher order. The struggle is merely between different varieties of democracy, with more or less emphasis on the egalitarian tendency, just as it is, as we have said above, a struggle between the varieties of individualism, which amounts to exactly the same thing.
 
These few reflections seem sufficient to give an idea of the social conditions of the contemporary world and, at the same time, to show that there can be only one way out of the chaos, in the social domain as in all others: the restoration of intellectuality, which would result in the formation once more of an elite. This elite must be regarded as presently non -existent in the West, since the name cannot be applied to the few isolated and disconnected elements that do no more than represent, so to speak, non-developed possibilities. Indeed, these elements usually show little more than tendencies or aspirations, which lead them, it is true, to react against the modern outlook, but without their being able to influence it in any effective way. What they lack is true knowledge and traditional data, which cannot be improvised and which an intelligence left to its own resources-especially in circumstances so unfavorable in every respect-can only supply imperfectly and to a very slight extent. Consequently, there are nothing but disjointed efforts, which often go astray owing to lack of principle and doctrinal guidance; it might be said that the modern world protects itself by its very dispersion, from which even its adversaries do not succeed in escaping. This will continue to be the case as long as the latter keep to the 'profane' ground on which the modern mentality enjoys an obvious advantage, as this is its proper and exclusive province; and, as a matter of fact, their remaining on this ground shows that, despite all appearances, this mentality still has a very strong hold over them. It is for this reason that so many people, although moved by undeniably good intentions, are unable to understand that a beginning can be made only from principles, and persist in frittering away their energies in some relative sphere, social or otherwise, in which, under such conditions, nothing real or durable can ever be accomplished. The true elite, on the other hand, would not have to intervene directly in these spheres, or take any part in outward action; it would direct everything by an influence of which the people were unaware, and which, the less visible it was, the more powerful it would be. It is enough to consider the already mentioned power of suggestion, which does not demand any true intellectuality, in order to get an idea of how much greater would be the power of an influence that was based on pure intellectuality, and worked even more invisibly because of its very nature. Instead of this power being lessened by the division inherent in multiplicity, and by the weakness involved by all lies and illusions, it would on the contrary be intensified by concentration on principial unity, and would be one with the strength of truth itself.
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