René Jean Marie Joseph Guénon (Blois, France, 5 November 1886 – Cairo, Egypt, 7 January 1951), was a French author known for the significant influence that his works had (and have) in the understanding of metaphysical and symbolic thought and the critique of the modern world.
His family was devoutly Catholic; his father was an architect. He was in poor health from childhood, but he was always lovingly followed by his parents, especially by his aunt, Mme Duru, who taught him to read and write.
Exceptionally gifted in scientific and literary studies, in 1904, he began his high school career in mathematics and philosophy in Blois, his hometown. He later moved to Paris to prepare for the prestigious competition of the Polytechnic School and the École normale supérieure (publicly funded higher education institution in France). However, due to his persistent health problems, he temporarily dropped out of school in 1905. In this period, Guénon comes into contact with the occult circles of the time, dominated by the figure of Gérard Encausse (Papus). Much has been said about his involvement in such groups, which he will criticise in some of his writings . But it was a necessary step to refine his thinking, which also allowed him to meet Asian masters who changed his life. Not much is known about them, but they are supposed to have been exponents of the Advaita Vedanta ; in those days, France was at the head of a colonial empire, and contacts between oriental travellers and Parisian occultists were constant.
He dedicated the period from 1905 to 1908 to frequenting the occult circles of the time. Initiated into the Martinist order directed by Papus, he also received other initiations from para-Masonic lodges. Still, later, he said that none of these organisations was the custodian of actual spiritual transmission. He will make an exception for the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (HBL) , which, according to him, possessed a specific knowledge of the soul-subtle world but not of a higher order.
Following some confusing events concerning his relations with Papus – variously interpreted by some authors – in 1909, Guénon was expelled from the Martinist order. Consequently, he had the opportunity to begin his path towards metaphysical thought. He temporarily adhered to the Gnostic Church founded by Léonce Fabre des Essarts, a theoretical occultist of Gnosis and esoteric Christianity. Guénon will never take the Gnostic Church seriously, arguing that it did not possess any proper transmission. However, he will be allowed to found a magazine, La Gnose, where he began with the name of Palingenius, the publication of eminently traditional writings.
In the following years, Guénon deepens the themes expressed through the oriental traditions; his knowledge on the subject, as he declared, did not derive from book sources, but from contact with exponents of those same traditions, presumably belonging to the lineage of Adi Shankara  of Advaita Vedanta. Guénon regarded these teachings as the purest expression of metaphysical dictates. Also, in La Gnose, he publishes in the form of articles that will later become works, Le Symbolisme de la Croix (The Symbolism of the Cross) and L’Homme et son Devenir selon le Vêdânta (Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta). As regards Far Eastern metaphysics, in this case, Taoism, his knowledge of this comes from Matgioi, born Albert Puyou, count of Pouvourville. During his stays in China, Matgioi obtained initiation in a secret society and on his return, he decided to spread part of the Taoist teachings he had received.
In 1910 Guénon was initiated into Sufism by Ivan Aguéli, a Swedish painter who converted to Islam under the name of Abd al-Hadi Aqhili and who at that time collaborated with La Gnose. These are the years in which he tries to trace, through the study and joining occult circles, what remains genuinely connected to the Primordial Tradition, the perennial philosophy with its roots in the non-human or divine world. For Guénon, Hinduism, Taoism and the extra-religious aspects of Islam (Sufism), despite the differences in form, are all linked by a common thread that connects them to the metaphysical path. At the same time, he begins charging neo-spiritualistic counterfeits, devoid, in his opinion, of any link with true spirituality. His conclusions will lead to the sequel to the publication of L’Erreur spirite (The Spiritist Fallacy) and Le Théosophisme, Histoire d’une pseudo-religion (Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-religion).
In 1912 the periodical La Gnose stopped publishing. Guénon moves further and further away from occult circles. In 1914 he will be expelled from the Grand Lodge of France of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite , where he had been admitted thanks to the support of Oswald Wirth ; however, he will continue to consider Freemasonry as the only genuinely initiatory organisation in the West. In 1912 he married Berthe Loury, his aunt’s assistant, in a religious rite; the couple had no children.
From the year of his marriage until 1927, Guénon had a complex relationship with Catholicism. He believed that the Church was the foremost Western organisation to possess still the keys for a rebirth of the spiritual and initiatory tradition. Still, at the same time, he was a frequent visitor to Masonic circles and had already been initiated into Sufism. If we add to this that ecclesiastical circles, already on the defensive in the debate on Freemasonry, were still influenced by the Léo Taxil affair , we understand how the position of Guénon appeared contradictory. That did not prevent him, in 1912, from becoming a contributor of La France antimaçonnique (Anti-Masonic France) under the pseudonym of Le Sphinx. In reality, he aimed to rehabilitate authentic Freemasonry in front of the Catholic public to straighten Western spirituality’s fate.
In 1914 Guénon resumed his studies interrupted years earlier due to health problems; he completes the philosophy course at the Sorbonne and obtains a diploma of higher studies in Sciences Philosophy. In 1916 he began his teaching career. After the armistice of 1918, considering the moment favourable to the diffusion of traditional values, he wrote his first work, Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues (Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines), which saw the light in 1921. The book received criticism from the neo-Thomist circles close to the Church, who did not like the subordinate role that Christianity assumed towards the primordial Tradition. In 1921 it was the turn of Le Théosophisme, histoire d’une pseudo-religion (Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion), then in 1923 of L’erreur spirite (The Spiritist Fallacy), a denunciation of spiritism. With Orient et Occident (East and West), his fourth work, he presents Western civilisation as devoted to materialism devoid of any spiritual vision; the book had a notable echo in the environment of the time. L’homme et son devenir selon le Vêdânta (Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta), from 1925, is an exposition of Adi Shankara’s metaphysical way, considered yesterday as today as one of the most accurate interpretations of this doctrine.
Still, in 1925, he publishes L’Ésotérisme de Dante (The Esoterism of Dante) on the history of Christian esotericism starting from the Middle Ages. His collaboration with the Catholic magazine Regnabit dates back to 1927, marking Guénon’s renewed interest in Christian symbolism, interpreted as a further means of spreading the meaning of any genuinely traditional teaching. In the same year, he issues Le Roi du Monde (The King of the World), a book on the one truth that underlies humanity’s spiritual traditions. In 1928, with La Crise du Monde Moderne (The Crisis of the Modern World), a critique of the Western world, his relations with the magazine Regnabit changed, and in 1929 his collaboration ceased.
The year 1928 was a turning point for Guénon. His wife dies of an illness, and his relations with his family entourage go into crisis; he has health problems, and antagonisms grow within the Church and occult circles. In 1930 Guénon left for Cairo with a rich widow, Mary Shillito, who becomes his patron for some time. In the following years, he integrates totally into the Muslim world: he learns Arabic, founding a magazine where he writes articles (in Arabic); he meets the shaikh, the highest authority of the Sufi school to which he belongs. Besides, he starts practising Muslim rites.
Having now detached himself from the environment of the great Western crises, in a series of private correspondences, he invites his collaborators and acquaintances not to embrace the reactionary opinions that were affirming themselves in Europe, recognising in them a sort of counter-initiatory inspiration. In particular, he saw in Aleister Crowley the origin of Hitler’s career and in deviant Freemasonry that of Mussolini. He tried to recommend to his readers the continuation of an initiatory path free from the propaganda extremisms of the regimes of the time.
In 1931 and 1932, he published two of his most important books: Le Symbolisme de la Croix (The Symbolism of the Cross) and Les États multiples de l’être (The Multiple States of the Being). The first is centred on symbolic language as a means of expression of the suprarational. In contrast, the second explains the conception of the total Being, of which the human being is only one of the particular manifestations. Naturally, he was aware of the need to find a practical way to realise the integral being, so he begins the publication in La Voile d’Isis (The Veil of Isis) of a series of articles illustrating how to undertake the “initiatory journey”. In 1946 the pieces were collected in two books, Aperçus sur l’Initiation (Perspectives on Initiation) and Initiation and Réalisation spirituelle (Initiation and Spiritual Realisation).
In 1934 Guénon married the daughter of Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim; from the union, four children were born. In 1937, thanks to the generosity of an English admirer, the couple became the owner of a villa where they went to live. There, Guénon led a very secluded life for years, made up of prayers and very few visits continuing to write.
In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Guénon published Le Règne de la Quantité et les Signes des Temps (The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times), considered the masterpiece on the development of the modern world seen from a cosmic perspective; the work was quickly successful. Indeed, Guénon’s influence on initiatory thought had a wide echo during and after the conflict. Within the Freemasonry, some lodges inspired by his belief arose, and he also supported the transmission of spiritual practices of Sufism. With the publication, in 1946, of La Grande Triade (The Great Triad), Guénon clarifies the central role of the human being in the harmonisation of celestial and terrestrial principles.
After the war, his health deteriorated. To avoid the problems deriving from the worsening of tensions due to the Western presence in Egypt, and with his children in mind, he requested and obtained Egyptian citizenship from King Farouk in 1949 . On 7 January 1951, he was seized by a spasm and, after having repeatedly invoking Allah’s name, he expired. His death aroused comprehensive media coverage, both in the Francophone community of Cairo and abroad. His faithful continue to systematise his works (including posthumous ones), which to this day continue to be published in all European languages.