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Initiation and the Crafts (Rene Guenon)

Initiation and the Crafts was published in the Journal of’ The Indian Society of Oriental Art, Volume VI. 1938

We have frequently said that the “profane” conception of the sciences and the arts, such as is now current in the West, is a very modern one and implies a degeneration with respect to a previous state in which both of them had an altogether different character. The same can be said about the crafts; the distinction, moreover, between arts and crafts or between “artist” and “craftsman” is also specifically modern, as if it were born of this profane deviation and had no meaning outside it. The “artifex”, with the ancients is without differentiating, a man who practises an art or a craft. He is neither an artist nor a craftsman in the sense these words have today, but something more than the one or the other, for his activity, in its origins at least, issues from principles of a far more profound order.

In all the traditional civilisations, in fact, every activity, of man, whatever it be, is always considered as essentially derived from the principles; on account of that derivation it is as if “transformed” and, instead of being reduced to what it is simply in its exterior manifestation (this would be the profane point of view), it is integrated in the tradition and, for the one who performs it, it is a means of effectively participating in this tradition. Even from the simple exoteric point of view this is so: if one views, for example, a civilisation like that of Islam or the Christian civilisation of the Middle ages, it is easy to see the “religious” character which the most ordinary acts of existence assume in it. Religion there, is not a thing that holds a place apart and unconnected with everything else as in the case of the modern Westerners (those at least who still consent to acknowledge a religion); on the contrary, it pervades the whole existence of the human being; or, it would be better to say, all that constitutes this existence and the social life particularly, is as if included in its domain, so much so that under such conditions there cannot really be anything “profane”, but for those who for one reason or another are outside the tradition and whose case is then a mere anomaly. In other civilisations, where there is nothing to which the name religion can be properly applied, there is none the less a traditional and ” sacred” legislation which, while having different characteristics, exactly fulfils the same role; these considerations can therefore be applied without exception to all traditional civilisations. But there is something further still; if we pass from the exoteric to the esoteric (we use these words here for the sake of greater convenience, although they do not fit all the cases with equal rigour), we observe, generally, the existence of an initiation bound up with the crafts and taking them as its basis; these crafts then are still susceptible of a superior and more profound significance; we would like to indicate how they can effectively furnish a way of access to the domain of initiation.

Our understanding of it is made easier by the notion of what in Hindu doctrine is called “svadharma”, that is the performance by every being of an activity consistent with his own nature, and it is also by this notion, or rather by its absence, that the deficiency of the profane conception is most clearly marked. In the latter, a man can adopt any profession and he can even change it according to his will, as if this profession were something purely exterior to him, without any real connection with that which he really is and by virtue of which he is himself and not another. According to the traditional conception, on the contrary, every one must normally fulfil the function for which he is destined by his very nature; and he cannot fulfil any other without a grave disorder resulting from it which will have its repercussion over the whole social organisation to which he belongs; more than that: if such a disorder becomes general, it will have its effects on the cosmical realm itself, all things being linked together according to strict correspondences. Without insisting any further on this last point, which, however, could easily be applied to the conditions of the present epoch, we may remark that the opposition of the two conceptions, in a certain connection at least, can be reduced to that of a “qualitative” and a “quantitative” point of view: in the traditional conception, the essential qualities of beings determine their activities; in the profane conception, the individuals are considered as mere “units”, interchangeable, and as if in themselves they were without any quality of their own. This last conception is closely connected with the modern ideas of “equality” and “uniformity” (the latter is contrary to true unity, for it implies the pure and “inorganic” multiplicity of a kind of social “atomism”) and can lead logically to the exercise of a purely “mechanical “activity only in which nothing properly human subsists; it is just this, in fact, that we can see today. It is thus well understood that the “mechanical” crafts of the modern age, being but a product of the profane deviation, cannot by any means offer the possibilities of which we intend to speak here; they even cannot in truth be considered as crafts, if one wishes to preserve the traditional meaning of the word, the only one with which we are concerned at present.

If the craft is something of’ the man himself and is, in a way, a manifestation or expansion of his own nature, it is easy to understand, as we have already said, that it can be used as a basis for an initiation and that generally even it is the fittest thing for this end. In fact, if initiation essentially has for its aim a surpassing of the possibilities of the human individual, it is equally true that only this individual such as he is in himself, can be taken as its point of departure; this accounts for the diversity of the ways of initiation, that is to say, of the means wrought up to act as “supports”, in conformity with the difference of individual natures. a difference which subsequently intervenes less and less, as the being goes on advancing on his way. The means thus employed can be efficient only if they correspond to the very nature of the beings to whom they are applied, and as it is necessary to proceed from the more accessible to the less accessible, from the outer to the inner, it is normal to take these means from the activity by which the nature is manifested outwardly. It is evident, however, that this activity can play such a part only inasmuch as It really expresses the inner nature; here is truly a question of “qualification”, in the initiatory sense of this term; in normal conditions this “qualification” should be a necessary condition for the exercise itself of the craft. This is at the same time related to the fundamental difference which separates the initiators teaching from profane teaching: whatever is simply “learnt” from outside is here without any value; the question is to “wakeup” the latent possibilities which the being has in himself (and this ultimately is the true significance of Platonic “reminiscences”).

Following these last considerations, one can also understand that the initiation, taking the craft as its “support”, will have at the same time, and inversely in some way, a repercussion in the practice of this craft. The being, in fact, having fully realised the possibilities of which his professional activity is but an external expression, and having thus an effective knowledge of the principle itself of this activity, will henceforth fulfil consciously what hitherto had been but an instinctive consequence of his nature; if thus the initiatory knowledge, for him, is born of the craft, the latter, in its turn, will be the field of application of this knowledge from which it can never be separated any more. There will be then a perfect correspondence of the interior and the exterior, and the work produced will be an expression, not only to some degree and more or less superficially, but a really adequate expression of the man who conceived and executed it; it will be a master-work in the true sense of this word.

This, one sees, is very far from the so-called “inspiration-, unconscious or subconscious in which modern people want to see the criterion of the real artist, who is nevertheless considered superior to the artisan or craftsman, according to -the more than contestable-distinction which they are in the habit of making. The artist or artisan, if he acts under such an “inspiration”, is in any case but a profane person, he shows, no doubt, by his -inspiration- that he carries within himself certain possibilities; as long however as he has not effectively become conscious of them, be it even that he attains to being what is generally called a “genius”, this does not make any difference; unable as he is to control his possibilities, his success will be but accidental and this is granted as one commonly says that the “inspiration” is sometimes lacking. All one may concede so as to bring the present case nearer to the other where true knowledge intervenes, is, that the work which consciously or unconsciously flows from the nature of the person who performs it, will never give the impression of a more or less painful effort; the effort always carries with it some imperfection, being anomalous, whereas such a work derives its perfection from its conformity with the nature; this conformity implies directly and necessarily that it is exactly suited to the end for which it is destined.

If now we intend to define more rigorously the domain of what may be called the initiations through the crafts, we have to say that they belong to the “lesser mysteries”. referring as they do to the development of the possibilities which belong to the human state proper; this is riot the last aim of initiation, but constitutes at least its first obligatory phase. It is necessary, in fact, that this development is accomplished in its integrity in order then to allow a surpassing of the human state; beyond this, however, it is evident that individual differences, in which these initiations through the crafts have their support, disappear completely and play no part any more. As we have explained elsewhere, the “lesser mysteries” lead to the restitution of the “primordial state”, as it is called in traditional doctrines; yet, once the being has arrived at this state, which still belongs to the domain of human individuality (and which is the point of communication between it and the superior states), the differentiations which give birth to the diverse “specialised” functions have disappeared, “although” it is there that they all have equally their source, or rather “on account” of this very fact; to this common source one has to remount so as to possess in its plentitude all that is implied by the exercise of any function whatever.

If we view the history of humanity as taught by traditional doctrines, in conformity with cyclical laws, we must say that in the beginning man had the full possession of his state of existence and with it he naturally had the possibilities corresponding to all the functions prior to any distinction of these. The division of these functions came about in a subsequent phase, representing a state already inferior to the -primordial state”, in which however every human being, while having as yet only some definite possibilities, still spontaneously had the effective consciousness of them. It is only in a period of greater obscuration that this consciousness became lost; hence initiation became necessary so as to enable man to find once more along with consciousness, also the former state in which it inheres; this is, in fact, the first of its aims, and the one at which it aims immediately. In order to be possible, this implies a transmission going back by an uninterrupted “chain” to the state to be restored and thus step by step to the “primordial state” itself; still, the initiation does not stop there and the “lesser mysteries” being but the preparation for the “great mysteries”, that is for the taking possession of the superior states of the being, one has to go back even beyond the origins of humanity. In fact, there is no true initiation, even , in the most inferior and elementary degree, without the intervention of a “non-human” element, which is the “spiritual influence” regularly communicated by the initiatory rite. If this is so, there is obviously no room for searching “historically” for the origin of initiation-a search which now appears bereft of sense-nor the origin of the crafts, arts and sciences, viewed according to their traditional and “legitimate” conception, for all these, through multiple, but secondary, differentiations and adaptations, derive similarly from the “primordial state” which contains them all in principle, and from there they link up with other orders of existence, even beyond humanity itself; this is necessary so that all and each, according to its rank and measure, can concur effectively in the realisation of the plan of the Great Architect of the Universe.

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