Kierkegaard and Traditionalism
As I write this scholars of religion are milling about the book exhibit at the annual meeting at the American Academy of Religion in Chicago. The AAR meeting is one of my favorite academic conferences. There’s something for everyone there. From Wiccans to the Eastern Orthodox. I decided not to attend this year’s meeting, however, because I’m not on the program and that means I’d have to foot the bill myself. There are always a multitude of interesting papers, more than I would ever be able to get to even if none of them ran concurrently. I think what I miss most of all though is the book exhibit.
The book exhibit is wonderful. Every major academic and scholarly publisher is represented, including many foreign and esoteric presses. I’ve taken, in recent years, to carrying my Kindle with me through the rows of exhibitors. If I see a book I like, I quickly check to see if it is available on Kindle. Not only are Kindle versions often cheaper than the regular or hardcover editions (even with the substantial conference discount), but they do not add to the bulk of the luggage I have to tote back home.
Some books though, are simply not the same on a Kindle, or other electronic reading device because they’re not just text, but aesthetic objects. Such a book is The Christian Spirit from World Wisdom publishers. It’s sort of a modern version of an illuminated manuscript. No one has more (both in quantity and in quality) beautiful books than World Wisdom publishers. And no press has a more congenial staff. The year I bought The Christian Spirit I struck up a conversation with the people who were staffing the World Wisdom booth and the longer I stood there and talked, the more books they gave me. Yes, they gave me books. I can’t remember how many books I bought, somewhere around a half a dozen, I think, but they gave me at least that many for free. The conversation would turn in the direction of a subject covered in a book I had not bought, and no sooner than I would shake my head in disappointment that I really could not afford to buy yet another book, would I find it thrust into my hands for free if I would simply promise to read it.
I love the people at World Wisdom. When I arrived home and began to peruse some of my new treasures, I kept coming upon the terms “traditionalism,” and “perennialism.” The two terms are used more or less interchangeably to refer to the same movement. The movement was founded by René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. It’s a religious, or spiritual, movement that is at once pluralistic and conservative. Traditionalists believe that all religions have their origin in the same transcendent source–God, but that each must be respected for its own inherent integrity. It has unfortunately been associated with rightwing movements in Europe, which is probably part of the reason it is not better known in the U.S. It’s far from clear, however, that the core beliefs and values of traditionalism cohere with such movements.
What is clear, however, is that traditionalism is in at least some vague sense politically conservative. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the leading proponents of contemporary traditionalism quotes Schuon as asserting that the worst king is better than the best president. That remark gave me pause, not simply because one doesn’t expect to hear such an assertion from a contemporary Western scholar, but because it sounded so remarkably like Kierkegaard.
“A mediocre ruler,” asserts Kierkegaard, “is a much better constitution than the abstraction of 100,000 growling non-human beings” (“En maadelig Regent er en | meget bedre Forfatning end dette Abstractum, 100,000 brummende U-Msker.” [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]). “Every movement that really wants to be progressive,” he asserts, “must have its origin in one thing–it must be clear that God is involved, that the whole thing really issues from him” (Enhver Bevægelse, der virkelig skal være et Fremskridt, maa udgaae fra Een – at det kan være tydeligt, at Gud er med i Spillet, saa det Hele egl. udgaaer fra ham [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]).
“Nasr had cited Kierkegaard, at the beginning of a talk he gave at a conference entitled “Tradition in the Modern World, as one of the bad guys, one of the modernist thinkers (which means “bad guy” to traditionalists).
It’s not surprising Nasr would put Kierkegaard in the class of modernist thinkers. Most people who don’t know much about Kierkegaard probably think about him that way. Even Alasdair MacIntyre presents Kierkegaard that way in his otherwise excellent book After Virtue. Most serious Kierkegaard scholars know, however, that such a view of Kierkegaard is mistaken (cf., e.g., Kierkegaard After MacIntyre). Kierkegaard’s political conservatism is, in fact, the source of a great deal of embarrassment among Kierkegaard scholars who think of themselves as politically progressive.
It’s time such scholars (and I place myself among them) acknowledged, however, that despite what we like to see as the potential of Kierkegaard’s thought to contribute to a progressive political ideology, it is unlikely that Kierkegaard would have approved of such a project himself. No “progress” is possible for Kierkegaard without God and fitting God into any organized movement, political or otherwise, is a project that Kierkegaard all too often speaks as if he believes is doomed to failure.
A monarch is a better regent, for Kierkegaard, than a mob because a monarch can, as an individual, have a personal relation to God, while a mob cannot. It’s not clear, however, whether all collectives can be fairly characterized, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, as “mobs.” Despite his bitter disappointment with “Christendom,” he seems to hold out some hope that there could be such a thing as a community of believers.
What would such a community look like? Is it something the traditionalists would recognize? Is that what they also are trying to effect in the modern world? The traditionalists’ rejection of modern secularism and their call to return to an explicit acknowledgment of what they view as man’s spiritual essence certainly coheres with the substance of Kierkegaard’s thought. It ought to be attractive as well to progressives in its pluralism. There is, I would argue, the potential for a great deal of fruitful scholarship on the relation between Kierkegaard’s political views and the contemporary traditionalist movement.