There is a great deal of confusion about what Guénon and Evola meant by Tradition, and while the terms “traditional” or “traditionalist” are frequently invoked these days, often the evocateur demonstrates in said usage that he does not in fact grasp it. I offer some quotes from Guénon for clarification.
Guénon on the difference between philosophy, in the modern sense, and Tradition (from Crisis in the Modern World):
“It is true that the word ‘philosophy’ can, in itself, be understood in quite a legitimate sense, and one which without doubt originally belonged to it, especially if it be true that Pythagoras himself was the first to use it: etymologically it denotes nothing other than ‘love of wisdom’; in the first place, therefore, it implies the initial disposition required for the attainment of wisdom, and, by a quite natural extension of this meaning, the quest that is born from this same disposition and that must lead to knowledge. It denotes therefore a preliminary and preparatory stage, a step as it were in the direction of wisdom or a degree corresponding to a lower level of wisdom; the perversion that ensued consisted in taking this transitional stage for an end in itself and in seeking to substitute ‘philosophy’ for wisdom, a process which implied forgetting or ignoring the true nature of the latter. It was in this way that there arose what may be described as ‘profane’ philosophy, in other words, a pretended wisdom that was purely human and therefore entirely of the rational order, and that took the place of the true, traditional, supra-rational, and ‘non-human’ wisdom. However, there still remained something of this true wisdom throughout the whole of antiquity, as is proven primarily by the persistence of the ‘mysteries’, whose essentially initiatic character is beyond dispute; and it is also true that the teachings of the philosophers themselves usually had both an ‘exoteric’ and an ‘esoteric’ side, the latter leaving open the possibility of connection with a higher point of view, which in fact made itself clearly–though perhaps in some respects incompletely–apparent some centuries later among the Alexandrians. For ‘profane’ philosophy to be definitively constituted as such, it was necessary for exoterism alone to remain and for all esoterism simply to be denied, and it is precisely this that the movement inaugurated by the Greeks was to lead to in the modern world. The tendencies that found expression among the Greeks had to be pushed to the extreme, the undue importance given to rational thought had to grow even greater, before men could arrive at ‘rationalism’, a specifically modern attitude that consists in not merely ignoring, but expressly denying, everything of a supra-rational order.”
This indicates that Tradition cannot be understood via the means of modern, rationalistic philosophy, and that modern philosophy must always be seen as ultimately incomplete.
As for lower-t tradition versus Tradition, one must understand that the former has absolutely nothing to do with the notion of Tradition, which is rooted in the esoteric, not the social or historical – even if there is a relationship. The social world is exoteric, and therefore the least important aspect of Tradition.
From Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines:
“We have constantly had occasion to speak of tradition, of traditional doctrines or conceptions, and even of traditional languages, and this is really unavoidable when trying to describe the essential characteristics of Eastern thought in all its modalities; but what, to be exact, is tradition? To obviate one possible misunderstanding, let it be said from the outset that we do not take the word ‘tradition’ in the restricted sense sometimes given to it by Western religious thought, when it opposes ‘tradition’ to the written word, using the former of these two terms exclusively for something that has been the object of oral transmission alone. On the contrary, for us tradition, taken in a much more general sense, may be written as well as oral, though it must usually, if not always, have been oral originally. In the present state of things, however, tradition, whether it be religious in form or otherwise, consists everywhere of two complementary branches, written and oral, and we have no hesitation in speaking of ‘traditional writings’, which would obviously be contradictory if one only gave to the word ‘tradition’ its more specialized meaning; besides, etymologically, tradition simply means ‘that which is transmitted’ in some way or other. In addition, it is necessary to include in tradition, as secondary and derived elements that are nonetheless important for the purpose of forming a complete picture, the whole series of institutions of various kinds which find their principle in the traditional doctrine itself.
“Looked at in this way, tradition may appear to be indistinguishable from civilization itself, which according to certain sociologists consists of ‘the whole body of techniques, institutions, and beliefs common to a group of men during a certain time’; but how much exactly is this definition worth? In truth, we do not think that civilization can be characterized generally by a formula of this type, which will always be either too comprehensive or too narrow in some respects, with the risk that elements common to all civilizations will be omitted or else that elements belonging to certain particular civilizations only will be included. Thus the preceding definition takes no account of the essentially intellectual element to be found in every civilization, for that is something that cannot be made to fit into the category known as ‘techniques’, which, as we are told, comprises ‘those classes of practices specially designed to modify the physical environment’; on the other hand, when these sociologists speak of ‘beliefs’, adding moreover that the word must be ‘taken in its usual sense’, they are referring to something that clearly presupposes the presence of the religious viewpoint, which is really confined to certain civilizations only and is not to be found in others. It was in order to avoid all difficulties of this kind that we were content at the start simply to describe a civilization as the product and expression of a certain mental outlook common to a more or less widespread group of men, thus making it possible to treat each particular case separately as regards the exact determination of its constituent elements.
“However that may be, it remains nonetheless true, as far as the East is concerned, that the identification of tradition with the entire civilization is fundamentally justifiable. Every Eastern civilization, taken as a whole, may be seen to be essentially traditional…. As for Western civilization, we have shown that it is on the contrary devoid of any traditional character, with the exception of the religious element, which alone has retained it. Social institutions, to be considered traditional, must be effectively attached in their principle to a doctrine that is itself traditional, whether it be metaphysical or religious or of any other conceivable kind. In other words, those institutions are traditional that find their ultimate justification in their more or less direct, but always intentional and conscious, dependence upon a doctrine which, as regards its fundamental nature, is in every case of an intellectual order; but this intellectuality may be found either in a pure state, in cases where one is dealing with an entirely metaphysical doctrine, or else it may be found mingled with other heterogeneous elements, as in the case of the religious or other special modes which a traditional doctrine is capable of assuming. [...]
“In Islam tradition exists under two distinct aspects, one of which is religious—it is upon this aspect that the general body of social institutions is dependent—while the other aspect, which is purely Eastern, is wholly metaphysical. In a certain measure something of the same sort existed in medieval Europe in the case of the Scholastic doctrine, in which Arab influences moreover made themselves felt to an appreciable extent; but in order not to push the analogy too far it should be added that metaphysics was never sufficiently clearly distinguished from theology, that is to say from its special application to the religious mode of thought; moreover, the genuinely metaphysical portion to be found in it is incomplete and remains subject to certain limitations that seem inherent in the whole of Western intellectuality; doubtless these two imperfections should be looked upon as resulting from the double heritage of the Jewish and the Greek mentalities.
“In India we are in the presence of a tradition that is purely metaphysical in its essence; to it are attached, as so many dependent extensions, the diverse applications to which it gives rise, whether in certain secondary branches of the doctrine itself, such as that relating to cosmology, or in the social order, which is moreover strictly governed by the analogical correspondence linking together cosmic existence and human existence. A fact that stands out much more clearly here than in the Islamic tradition, chiefly owing to the absence of the religious point of view and of certain extra-intellectual elements that religion necessarily implies, is the complete subordination of the various particular orders relative to metaphysics, that is to say relative to the realm of universal principles.
“In China, [there is ] the sharp division . . . [between] a metaphysical tradition on the one hand and a social tradition on the other, and these may at first sight appear not only distinct, as in fact they are, but even relatively independent of one another, all the more so since the metaphysical tradition always remained well-nigh exclusively the appanage of an intellectual elite, whereas the social tradition, by reason of its very nature, imposed itself upon all without distinction and claimed their effective participation in an equal degree. It is, however, important to remember that the metaphysical tradition, as constituted under the form of ‘Taoism’, is a development from the principles of a more primordial tradition, formulated in the I Ching, and it is from this primordial tradition that the whole of the social institutions commonly known under the name of ‘Confucianism’ are entirely derived, though less directly and then only as an application to a contingent sphere. Thus the essential continuity between the two principal aspects of the Far-Eastern civilization is re-established, and their true relationship made clear; but this continuity would almost inevitably be missed if it were not possible to trace them back to their common source, that is to say to the primordial tradition of which the ideographical expression, as fixed from the time of Fu Hsi onward, has been preserved intact for almost fifty centuries.”
Therefore, there can be a relationship between small-t tradition and Tradition, but the latter is not dependent on the former – rather, it is the other way around. The reason Guénon did not see the modern West as a genuine civilization is because, according to the traditionalists, there is no longer a connection between tradition and Tradition. This should highlight the problem inherent in those who use the term “traditionalist,” invoking Evola and/or Guénon but who clearly have no grasp of this, and use it however they fancy, and also why tradition isn’t exactly irrelevant to an understanding of Tradition, but is certainly woefully incomplete on its own.
Guénon was also no stranger to the phenomenon of “traditionalism” itself, and had the following to say about it, as well as what he saw as the prospects for reviving a Western tradition (from Crisis of the Modern World):
“Some people, who have doubtless not taken the trouble to read our books, have felt it incumbent on them to reproach us for having said that all traditional doctrines had their origin in the East, and that Western antiquity itself has, at all periods, always received its traditions from the East; we have never said any such thing, or even anything else that might suggest such an opinion, for the simple reason that we know quite well that it is untrue. Indeed, the traditional data themselves distinctly contradict such a statement: the explicit assertion is to be found everywhere that the primordial tradition of the present cycle comes from the hyperborean region; at a later time there were several secondary currents corresponding to different periods, and one of the most important of these, at least among those whose traces are still discernible, undoubtedly flowed from West to East. All this, however, refers to very far off times such as are commonly called ‘prehistoric’ with which we are not concerned here; what we do say is this: in the first place, the home of the primordial tradition has for a very long time now been in the East and it is there that the doctrinal forms that have issued most directly from it are to be found; secondly, in the present state of things, the true traditional spirit, with all that it implies, no longer has any authentic representatives except in the East.
“This explanation would be incomplete without a reference, however brief, to certain proposals that have seen the light in various contemporary circles for restoring a ‘Western tradition’. The only real interest afforded by these ideas is to show that there are people whose minds have ceased to be content with modern negation, and who, feeling the need for something that our own period cannot offer, see the possibility of an escape from the present crisis only in one way: through a return to tradition in one form or another. Unfortunately, such ‘traditionalism’ is not the same as the real traditional outlook, for it may be no more than a tendency, a more or less vague aspiration presupposing no real knowledge; and it is unfortunately true that, in the mental confusion of our times, this aspiration usually gives rise to fantastic and imaginary conceptions devoid of any serious foundation. Finding no authentic tradition on which to ground themselves, those affected by this aspiration go so far as to imagine pseudo-traditions that have never existed and that are as lacking in principles as that for which they are to be substituted; the whole modern confusion is reflected in these attempts, and whatever may be the intentions of their authors, their only result is to add still more to the general disequilibrium. From among conceptions of this kind, we will allude only to the so-called ‘Western tradition’ fabricated by certain occultists out of the most incongruous elements and intended primarily to compete with a no less imaginary ‘Eastern tradition’ – that of the Theosophists; we have spoken of these matters at sufficient length elsewhere, and prefer to pass on without further delay to the examination of other theories more worthy of attention, which reveal at least a desire to refer to traditions that have had a real existence. [...]
“There are others who wish to attach themselves to Celtism, and, since the model they take is less remote from our time, their purpose may seem less impracticable. But where can one find ‘Celtism’ today in a pure state and with sufficient vitality to be able to serve as a basis? We are not speaking of archaeological or merely ‘literary’ reconstructions, several of which have appeared; we have in mind something very different. It is true that clearly recognizable and still usable elements of ‘Celtism’ have come down to us through various intermediaries, but these elements are very far from constituting a complete tradition; moreover, strange to say, even in the countries where it formerly existed, this tradition is now more completely forgotten than those of many other civilizations that never had a home there. Is there not here matter for reflection, at any rate for such as are not completely under the sway of a preconceived idea? We will go further: in all cases of this kind, when it is a question of vestiges left by vanished civilizations, it is impossible really to understand these vestiges except by comparison with similar elements in still extant traditional civilizations; and the same applies even to the Middle Ages, in which there are so many things that have lost their meaning for the modern West. It is only by establishing contact with still living traditions that what is capable of being revived can be made to live again; and this, as we have so often pointed out, is one of the greatest services that the East can render the West. We do not deny that a certain Celtic spirit has survived and can still manifest itself under various forms, as it has done at different times in the past; but when anyone tells us that there still exist spiritual centres where the Druid tradition is preserved in its entirety, we require them to show proof, and until they do so we consider it very doubtful, if not altogether incredible.
“The truth is that the surviving Celtic elements were for the most part assimilated by Christianity in the Middle Ages; the legend of the ‘Holy Grail’, with all that it implies, is a particularly apt and significant example of this. Moreover, we think that if a Western tradition could be rebuilt it would be bound to take on a religious form in the strictest sense of this word, and that this form could only be Christian; for on the one hand the other possible forms have been too long foreign to the Western mentality, and on the other it is only in Christianity–and we can say still more definitely in Catholicism–that such remnants of a traditional spirit as still exist in the West are to be found. Every ‘traditionalist’ venture that ignores this fact is without foundation and therefore inevitably doomed to failure; it is self-evident that one can build only upon something that has a real existence, and that where there is lack of continuity, any reconstruction must be artificial and cannot endure. If it be objected that Christianity itself, in our time, is no longer understood in its profound meaning, we should reply that it has at least kept in its very form all that is needed to provide the foundation of which we have been speaking. The least fantastic venture, in fact the only one that does not come up against immediate impossibilities, would therefore be an attempt to restore something comparable to what existed in the Middle Ages, with the differences demanded by modifications in the circumstances; and for all that has been completely lost in the West, it would be necessary to draw upon the traditions that have been preserved in their entirety, as we stated above, and, having done so, to undertake the task of adaptation, which could be the work only of a powerfully established intellectual elite. All this we have said before, but it is useful to insist on it again because too many inconsistent fantasies are given free rein at present, and also because it is important to have it understood that, if the Eastern traditions in their own special forms can certainly be assimilated by an elite–which by its very definition must be beyond all forms–they certainly cannot be so by the mass of Western people, for whom they were not made, unless some unforeseen transformation takes place. If a Western elite comes to be formed, real knowledge of the Eastern doctrines will, for the reason that we have just given, be essential to it in the fulfilment of its functions; but the remainder, the majority of people, whose lot it will be to reap the benefits of its work, can quite well remain unaware of this, receiving the influence from it unwittingly and in any case by means that will be beyond their perception, though nonetheless real and effective. We have never said anything different, but we thought it well to repeat it here as clearly as possible, because, if we must not expect always to be understood by all, we at least endeavour to avoid having intentions ascribed to us that are in no way our own.
“But it is the present state of things that concerns us most, so let us leave forecasts aside and dwell a moment longer on the suggestions that are at present to be met with for restoring a ‘Western tradition’. There is one observation that would in itself suffice to show that these ideas are not in order: this is that they are almost always conceived from an attitude of more or less open hostility toward the East. It must be added that even those who wish to base themselves on Christianity are sometimes governed by this feeling: they seem set above all on finding points of opposition, which are really quite imaginary; and it is for this reason that we have encountered the absurd opinion that if the same things are found, expressed in almost identical form, in both Christianity and the Eastern doctrines, they nevertheless do not have the same meaning in the two cases, and have even contrary meanings! Those who make such assertions prove thereby that whatever may be their pretensions, they have not gotten very far in their understanding of the traditional doctrines, and have not perceived the fundamental identity underlying all the differences in outward form; and, even in cases where this identity is quite clear, they obstinately persist in not recognizing it. Also, the view they hold of Christianity itself is quite superficial, and could not correspond to the notion of a real traditional doctrine offering a complete synthesis that would embrace every domain; it is the basic principle that they lack, and in this they are affected far more than they may suppose by the modern outlook against which they wish to react; and when they have occasion to use the word ‘tradition’ they certainly do not give it the same meaning we do.
“In the mental confusion that marks our times, the word ‘tradition’ itself has come to be applied indifferently to all sorts of things, often quite insignificant–for example, to mere customs with no wider bearing and sometimes of quite recent origin; we have remarked elsewhere on an abuse of the same kind in the use of the word ‘religion’. These perversions of language must be distrusted, as they reflect a sort of degeneracy of the corresponding ideas; and the fact that somebody calls himself a ‘traditionalist’ does not prove that he knows, even vaguely, what tradition is in the true sense of the word. For our part, we refuse absolutely to give this name to anything that is of a purely human order; it is not superfluous to state this outright at a time when expressions such as ‘traditional philosophy’, to take an example, crop up at every turn. A philosophy, even though it be all that it should be, has no right to this designation, since it is entirely of the rational order even when it does not deny all that goes beyond this order. It is no more than a structure raised by human individuals without revelation or inspiration of any sort, which means, to cut a long story short, that it is essentially ‘profane’. Moreover, despite all the illusions that some seem to cherish, the mentality of a race and an epoch is certainly not going to be put right by any merely ‘bookish’ science, but only by something very different from philosophical speculation, which, even at the best of times, is condemned by its very nature to remain outward and much more verbal than real. The lost tradition can be restored and brought to life again only by contact with the living traditional spirit, and, as we have already said, it is only in the East that this spirit is still fully alive. It is nonetheless true that the first necessity is the existence in the West of an aspiration toward a return to the traditional outlook, but this could hardly be more than a mere aspiration. The various movements of ‘anti-modern’ reaction that have already arisen–all very incomplete in our opinion–can only strengthen us in this conviction for, while doubtless excellent on their negative and critical side, they are nevertheless far from constituting a restoration of true intellectuality, and flourish only within the limits of a rather narrow mental horizon. They are at least something, however, in that they point to a frame of mind of which it would have been hard to find a trace even a few years ago; if all Westerners are no longer unanimous in contenting themselves with the exclusively material development of modern civilization, this may be a sign that for them not all hope of salvation has yet vanished.”
I offer this note as an attempt to clarify the usage of this term.
Many of the works René Guénon are available from Arktos Publishing.