Monday, December 29, 2008

Modern Superstitions


Martin Lings


If you want to understand why the Islamic world smells blood in the water when it views Christendom and watches the decline of the West then we need to understand why some western philosophers who understood Christianity left it and joined Islam. One of the major twentieth century perennialists was Martin Lings (photo left). Although he wrote several books the only one I really studied was his 1965 book Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions, Perennial Books, London; which was on our reading list.

There are a couple things about twentieth century perennialism that are important to understand when we consider the perennialism of the Southern Agrarians and their revolutionary contribution which returned the West to its rightful place in this field of ideas. One issue to bear in mind is that a few perennialists have wandered off into the syrupy world of universalism. Another is that some famous perennialist like Rene Guenon and Martin Lings converted to Islam.

Some could say I am being redundant. Islam is universalism after all. But there is some shades of difference that will be fleshed out at a later date. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider why truly great thinkers abandon Christianity for Islam.

Let us consider Mr. Lings' background a bit. Martin Lings (1909-2005); Lings was born in Lancashire, England, in 1909 and received both his BA (1932) and his MA (1937) from Oxford University in English literature was a leading member of the “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” school and an acclaimed author, editor, translator, scholar, Arabist, and poet whose work centers on the relationship between God and man through religious doctrine, scripture, symbolism, literature, and art. He was an accomplished metaphysician and essayist who often turned to a number of the world’s great spiritual traditions for examples, though he is probably best known for his writings on Islam and its esoteric tradition, Sufism. (World Wisdom biography).

In 1935 Lings discovered the writings of Rene Guenon, the French philosopher (1886-1951) and went to Cairo to study with Guenon. Lings lived in Cairo until Guenon died in 1951 and shortly thereafter Lings and his wife were kicked out of Egypt by some of his fellow adherents of Islam during a wave of Jihadism in the early 1950’s. He returned to England where he lived the life of an academic. He wrote several books while working at the British Museum. He died in 2005.

I did not read Lings for his Arabic scholarship but for his critique of modernism. However, a passage in his book Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions on pp 64-65 gives the attentive reader a good synopsis of what profoundly disturbed Lings about Christendom.

Recalling that in the period of the early twentieth century in Europe prior to the rise of Hitler Christianity was being laughed out of the marketplace of ideas by the dominant materialist ideology. Many sensitive Christian thinkers were scoffed at by scientists, Marxists, and others who were in the process of overthrowing Christian thought in the universities. Of course Hitler and his one-time friend and fellow Christian hater Stalin did their best to finish the job.


On p 43 Mr. Lings writes about the “barely luke-warm semi-agnostic religion which characterizes most of those ‘leaders of thought’ in the modern West who have any religion at all…” he continues on p 64:
It is often said that what has happened (to the West) was a reaction and that religion is to blame, but this argues a very narrow view of history. The flat ‘horizontal’ outlook which later came to be known as humanism was already rife in the pre-Christian West and is stamped on almost all north Mediterranean art of two thousand years or more. The modern civilization is not merely the death-agony of the Greco-Roman civilization which, having been cut short by Christianity was ‘reborn’ at the Renaissance. Since then the Western world has re-manifested, ‘with a vengeance’ if one likes to put it that way, its tendency to be distracted from the great truths of the Universe by what it calls ‘reality’, that is two-dimensional facts, mainly of the material order.

The circle is a vicious one, since ‘freedom’, that is, certain fully achieved degree of distraction, confers on the mind an agility which it did not possess in the past, and this agility opens up possibilities of still further distraction. The ever-increasing facility of travel in the modern world is as an outward image of the ever-increasing glibness and superficiality of the movements of the mind. Despite all the finery of words, what is called ‘enriching one’s cultural perspective’ or ‘broadening one’s outlook’ or ‘enlarging one’s intellectual horizon’ bears no relation to that magnanimity…If a plastic substance be continually pulled this way and that so as to increase its length and breadth, its third dimension will be reduced to a minimum. The ‘broad mind’ of the humanist is simply a narrow mind that has been flattened out.

But is it not possible to increase the psychic substance as a whole? The answer to this question is already implied in the image of a tree, for a tree cannot be made to grow by pulling at its branches, and so it is with the soul, whose substance can only receive increase from its root in the Spirit; and if the due performance of rites gives the root of the tree what nourishment it requires, the growth is not only still further encouraged but also made more perfect by the art of pruning, that is, by the abstentions and sacrifices which religion enjoins or recommends.



Not only is this a slap at liberal materialism but it also exposes the bleeding wound of the West that Islam seeks to exploit in its quest to conquer all of Christendom. The gash across the face of Western Civilization that Lings characterizes as humanism, is the same wound that the Agrarians call industrialism, and I call modernism. It is, unfortunately, all the same dreadful lesion.

1 comment:

  1. Sirs:

    Apropos to David Reif's excellent essay, above, I respond as follows:

    I particularly liked your quote of Lings: "The 'broad mind' of the humanist is simply a narrow mind that has been flattened out." And he is correct in his assessment that the materialist, by his enthrallment by what he sees and experiences in the external world, believes there is no other world. That appears to me to be the utmost naivete. In a sense we are but a few years, relatively speaking, out of the Dark Ages, and yet for the last few centuries, the materialists have created a world out of objects and words and the meanings behind the words relating to objects, weaving a carpet that they think has the ultimate substantive reality because it's material and can be seen and felt and heard, in short, sensed. This philosophy ignores the fact that every society and culture previous to the growth of materialism believed in the ultimate transcendence of spirit. To so arrogantly flip the world on it's head was a drastic move. So, consequently, materialism has led us down a blind alley, explains the world by a narrow definition, but teaches us little about its ultimate meanings. Words have great limitations in that they explain little about the essence of life, and in the case of the materialists, their explanation only explain the visible world and not the spiritual world that has always underpinned the material world as we know it. So back to Lings, "The 'broad mind' of the humanist is simply a narrow mind that has been flattened out." I think that's what he's alluding to, the narrow focus of materialism. Materialism is straitjacketed to reality, that is its be all and end all. Whereas the real world is still out there, two dimensional, to be discovered and experienced and will, over the future centuries and millennia, reveal itself to others who have escaped materialism's encircling trap.

    Donald L. Gilmore

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