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Conditions for Initiation (Rene Guenon)

We can now return to the question of the conditions necessary for initiation. Although it seems self-evident, we should begin by saying that the first of these conditions is a certain natural aptitude or disposition without which all effort would be in vain, for the individual obviously can only develop those possibilities he possesses at the outset; this aptitude, forming what some call ‘initiability’, properly constitutes the requisite ‘qualification’ demanded by all initiatic traditions. [1] This condition is moreover the only one that is in a certain sense common to both initiation and mysticism, for it is clear that the mystic must likewise have a particular natural disposition, though one entirely different from, and even in certain ways opposed to, that of the ‘initiable’ person. But in addition to being necessary for the mystic, this condition is also sufficient; no other need be added, as circumstances will take care of the rest and facilitate the passage from ‘potency’ to ‘act’ of those possibilities contained in the disposition in question. This is the direct result of that ‘passivity’ we mentioned earlier: in such a case it could never be a question of any effort or personal exertion of whatever sort; the mystic will have nothing to effect, indeed he will even have to guard himself carefully against this, as something that might hinder his ‘path’, [2] whereas in the case of initiation, and its ‘active’ character, this exertion constitutes a further condition no less necessary than the first, without which the passage from potency to act, or ‘realization’, could never be accomplished. [3]

More remains to be said, however, for we have developed this distinction between initiatic ‘activity’ and mystical ‘passivity’ in the first instance in order to make the point that initiation requires a condition that could never obtain in mysticism; but there is another condition no less necessary that we have not yet mentioned and that in a way falls between those alluded to above. This condition is in fact the most characteristic of all, that is to say that which allows us to define initiation in such a way as to preclude any possible misunderstanding and to avoid confusing it with anything else whatsoever, a point we must insist upon all the more as Westerners are often rather prone to ignore it or to minimize its importance. As a result, initiation is more clearly delimited than mysticism could ever be, and for which no such condition exists. Indeed it is often very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to distinguish false mysticism from true, for the mystic is by very definition isolated and ‘irregular’, and sometimes does not himself know just what he is. The fact that any genuine knowledge he possesses is not in its pure state but is always conditioned by a mixture of sentiment and imagination is far from simplifying the matter; in any case, there is something in mysticism that escapes all control, which we can express by saying that for the mystic there are no ‘means of recognition’. [4] One could also say that the mystic has no ‘genealogy’, that he is a mystic only by a kind of ‘spontaneous generation’, expressions easily enough understood and requiring no further explanation. How then can anyone venture to claim unequivocally that one person is authentically a mystic and another is not, when to all appearances they are the same? On the contrary, imitations of initiation can be detected without fail by the absence of that condition we have just alluded to, and which is nothing other than attachment to a regular, traditional organization.

There are ignorant persons who imagine that one ‘initiates’ oneself, which is a contradiction in terms; forgetting, if they ever knew it, that the word initium means ‘entrance’ or ‘beginning’, they confuse initiation understood in its strict etymological sense with the work that must be accomplished subsequently in order that this initiation, at first virtual, may become more or less fully effective. Understood in this way, initiation is what all traditions designate as the ‘second birth’; and how could a being act by itself before being born? [5] We are well acquainted with the objection: if the human being is truly ‘qualified’, he already carries in himself the possibilities to be developed, and if this is the case, why could he not realize these through his own efforts, without any outside intervention? Now such a thing can indeed be entertained in theory provided that one see it as the case of a man ‘twice-born’ from the first moment of his individual existence; however, if that is not impossible in principle, it is nonetheless impossible in fact, in the sense that it contradicts the established order of our world, at least in its present conditions. We are not in that primordial epoch when all men naturally and spontaneously possessed a state that today is only attached to a high degree of initiation; [6] and even so, in such an epoch the very word ‘initiation’ could not have any meaning. We are instead in the Kali-Yuga, that is, in a time when spiritual knowledge has become hidden and only a few are able to attain it, provided they place themselves within the conditions required for obtaining it.

Now one of these conditions is precisely that which we are discussing, just as another is that effort of which men of the first ages had no need at all, since spiritual development was effected in them just as naturally as bodily development.

What is involved, therefore, is a necessary condition imposed in conformity with the laws governing our present world, something perhaps better understood by recourse to an analogy: all beings that will develop in the course of a cycle are from the very beginning contained as subtle embryos in the ‘World Egg’; this being so, one might well ask why they are not born into the corporeal state by themselves rather than through parents; nor is this an absolute impossibility, and we can conceive of a world where things would happen in this way, although such a world is in fact not ours. We reserve, of course, the question of anomalies, for it may be that there are exceptional cases of ‘spontaneous generation’; and in the spiritual order, we ourselves have just applied this expression to the case of the mystic. But we added that the mystic is ‘irregular’, whereas initiation is essentially ‘regular’, having nothing to do with anomalies. Besides, we would have to understand just how far such cases can extend, as they, too, must ultimately be under the rule of some law, for nothing can exist except as an element of the total and universal order. This alone, upon reflection, would be a sufficient cause for us to think that the states realized by the mystic are not precisely the same as those realized by the initiate, and that if their realization is not subject to the same laws as his, it is because something different is indeed involved; but since we have established enough for our present purposes, we can now leave aside the case of mysticism altogether and turn exclusively to that of initiation.

It remains now to clarify the role of attachment to a traditional organization, which could of course never exempt one from the necessary inner work that each must accomplish by himself; it is, rather, a preliminary condition for such work effectively to bear fruit. It must henceforth be understood that those who have been made depositaries of initiatic knowledge cannot communicate this knowledge in the same way that a secular teacher communicates to his pupils bookish formulas that they need only store in their memories, for what is involved here is something that is in its very essence ‘incommunicable’ since it concerns states that are realized inwardly. What can be taught are only the preparatory methods for obtaining these states; what can be furnished from the outside in this respect is only an aid, a support, that greatly facilitates the work to be accomplished, and also a control that dispels those obstacles and dangers that may present themselves. All this is far from negligible, and he who is deprived of it runs a high risk of failure, but this alone would still not entirely justify what we said about a necessary condition, for this was not really what we had in view, at least immediately. This is a secondary consideration (somewhat under the heading of consequences) coming after initiation understood in the strict sense we have explained, and involving an effective development of the virtuality that initiation establishes; but then again it is necessary before all else that this virtuality pre-exist. So we must understand the initiatic transmission proper in another way, and we could not characterize it better than by saying that it is essentially the transmission of a spiritual influence. We will return to this later for fuller treatment, limiting ourselves for the moment to determining more precisely the role played by that influence in mediating between the natural aptitude of the individual at the outset and the work of realization that he will accomplish later.

Elsewhere we have explained that the phases of initiation, as also those of the Hermetic ‘Great Work’ – which is one of its symbolic expressions – reproduce those of the cosmogonic process; [7] more than any other consideration, this analogy, based directly on the correspondence of ‘microcosm’ with ‘macrocosm’, allows us to clarify the questions that concern us here. We can say that the aptitudes or possibilities included in the individual nature are, in themselves, first of all only a material prima, that is, a pure potentiality, where nothing is developed or differentiated. [8] Here is that dark, chaotic state that initiatic symbolism equates with the profane world and in which the being that has not yet attained the ‘second birth’ finds itself. For this chaos to begin taking form and organizing itself, an initial vibration must be communicated to it by the spiritual powers, which the Hebrew Genesis designates as Elohim, this vibration is the Fiat Lux that illuminates the chaos and is the necessary starting-point for all later developments. From the initiatic point of view this illumination consists precisely in the transmission of the spiritual influence we have just mentioned. [9] Thereafter, and by virtue of this influence, the spiritual possibilities of the being are no longer the simple potentiality they were before but have become a virtuality ready to be made actual within the various stages of initiatic realization.

We can summarize all our preceding remarks by saying that initiation implies three conditions that present themselves successively and correspond respectively to the terms ‘potentiality’, ‘virtuality’, and ‘actuality’: (i) ‘qualification’, consisting in certain possibilities inherent in the nature of the individual, which is the material prima upon which the initiatic work is to be effected; (ii) transmission, by means of filiation with a traditional organization, of a spiritual influence giving to the individual the ‘illumination’ that will allow him to order and develop those possibilities that he carries within himself; and (iii) interior work by which, with the help of ‘adjuvants’ or exterior ‘supports’ (as needed, and especially in the first stages), this development will be gradually realized as the individual passes stage by stage through the different degrees of the initiatic hierarchy and is led to the final goal of ‘Deliverance’ or the ‘Supreme Identity.’


1.. From the special examination we will undertake later about other aspects of initiatic qualifications it will he seen that this question is really much more complex than one might at first gather from the very general notion we give of it here.    2.. Thus theologians not without reason readily see a ‘false mystic’ in anyone who seeks by any means to obtain visions or other extraordinary states, even where this effort is limited to a mere desire.    3.. One result of this among others is that while doctrinal knowledge is indispensable for the initiate – since a theoretical understanding of it is for him a preliminary condition to any ‘realization’ – it can be wholly lacking in the mystic; from this often comes a strange incapacity in the latter to express himself intelligibly, not to mention many possibilities for error and confusion. The knowledge in question has of course absolutely nothing to do with any outward instruction or profane ‘knowledge’, which is here of no value whatsoever – as we will later explain – and is even, given modern education, rather an obstacle than an aid in many cases. A man might very well not know how to read or write yet nonetheless reach the highest degrees of initiation, and such cases are not so rare in the East, whereas there are those who in the eyes of the profane are ‘scholars’ and even ‘geniuses’ who are not ‘initiable’ in any degree whatsoever.    4.. By this we do not mean words or outward and conventional signs, but that of which such means are really only the symbolic representation.    5.. Let us recall the elementary scholastic adage, ‘To act one first must be.’    6.. This is what is indicated in the Hindu tradition by the word Hamsa, the name given to the sole caste that existed in the beginning and strictly speaking designating a state that is ativarna, that is to say above the distinction of present-day castes.    7.. See The Esoterism of Dante, chap. 8.    8.. It goes without saying that strictly speaking this is a materia prima only in a relative sense, not in the absolute sense, but this distinction is not important from our present point of view. Moreover, it is the same with the materia prima of a world such as our own, which, being already determined in a certain way is, with respect to universal substance, really only a material secunda (cf. Reign of Quantity, chap. 2), so that even in this respect the analogy with the development of our world from initial chaos is quite exact.    9.. Whence expressions like ‘shedding light’ and ‘receiving light’, used with respect to the initiator and the initiated, respectively, to designate initiation in the restricted sense, that is the transmission here in question. It will also be noted that the septenary number attributed to the Elohim relates to the form of initiatic organizations, which must be an image of the cosmic order.

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