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A term based on the principles of an immemorial and immutable “primordial Tradition” and designating an informal school or association of people whose writings and discourse, beginning in the early 20th century, made reference to “Tradition” in this sense. “Tradition” is a root term of traditionalism and of the “traditionalists” who referred to and expressed it as such in their extensive corpus of writings and lectures. The term “Tradition” notably encompasses, unlike certain of its principal synonyms – such as philosophia perennis, sophia perennis, theosophia, sanātana dharma, or esotericism – an inseparable element of culture or social structure that was hierarchical in nature and contains first a sacerdotal caste or priesthood rooted in the philosophia perennis, second a ruling/warrior caste which, to be true, must adhere to the sacred precepts and direction of the priesthood, and third a merchant-working caste which is also subject to the same rule as regards the priesthood. Each of these castes or classes, which are traceable in somewhat different forms throughout all Indo-European cultures, and elsewhere, had its own initiatory rites, and when all were operating properly a truly “Traditional” culture was evident, in marked distinction from modernity, which the traditionalists view as the antithesis to Tradition due to the upheavals of the end of the kali-yuga.

Two men were the progenitors of traditionalism, at least chronologically, in the second and third decades of the 20th century: René Guénon and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. They were followed not long after by Frithjof Schuon, who was equally as prolific and capable a writer and presenter of traditionalism. All three men were conversant with the modern Theosophical movement and its doctrines, and were to some degree influenced by it – Coomaraswamy was for a brief period a member of the Theosophical Society. However, Guénon in particular was highly critical of the Theosophical Society and especially of H.P. Blavatsky, and produced an entire book whose purpose was to debunk the Theosophical Society and certain teachings of its principals.

An enormous corpus of literature was generated by these three men on esotericism, metaphysics, symbology, initiation, spiritual development, hieratic fraternities, scriptural exegesis, and the attainment of final release from corporeal existence, among other similar topics. Carrying on and expanding the works of these three were other of their colleagues and students, among whom were Martin Lings, Titus Burkhardt, Marco Pallis, Whitall Perry, Gai Eaton, Philip Sherrard, and more recently Huston Smith and S. H. Nasr. While it is true that there is a strong bias against the Theosophical Society and Blavatsky that generally runs through much of this discourse, it is also true that traditionalism contains some of the most profound and lucid expression of the first principles of the philosophia perennis, or esotericism, produced in the 20th century.

William W. Quinn