View Full Version : Frithjof Schuon’s Life and Work

Ahnenerbe e.V.
Monday, May 17th, 2004, 03:46 PM
Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) is best known as the foremost spokesman of the “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” school and as a philosopher in the metaphysical current of Shankara and Plato. He has written more than two dozen books on metaphysical, spiritual, artistic, and ethnic themes and was a regular contributor to journals on comparative religion in both Europe and America. Schuon’s writings have been consistently featured and reviewed in a wide range of scholarly and philosophical publications around the world, respected by both scholars and spiritual authorities.

Frithjof Schuon was born in Basle, Switzerland, on June 18, 1907. His father, a great concert violinist and teacher at the Basle Conservatory of Music, was a native of southern Germany, while his mother came from an Alsatian family. Until the age of thirteen Schuon lived in Basle and attended school there, but the untimely death of his father obliged his mother, for economic reasons, to return with her two young sons to her family in Mulhouse, France; and thus it was that Schuon received a French‑language education in addition to his German one.

At sixteen, Schuon left school to become self‑supporting as a textile designer—a type of work which made only the most modest demands upon the remarkable artistic talent that he had as yet been given little opportunity to develop. As a child he had already taken much pleasure in drawing and painting, but he never received any formal training in the arts.

Also, from early on, he developed those reading interests that were to make of him a man of formidable learning and a self-taught scholar, readings that for the growing young man spanned metaphysical and mystical material from sacred scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Psalms, but also the writings of authors such as Goethe, Schiller, and Emerson, and later and most importantly that of the French metaphysician, René Guénon who was a forerunner for Schuon’s resurrection of the religio perennis.

The universe of the Upanishads and of the Vedas determined the young man’s innermost vocation as a Vedantist, namely someone who saw Reality in terms of pure divine metaphysics—first the distinction between Reality and illusion, then total conformity of the soul to the Real—while the Psalms provided the human complement as it were to the transpersonal vistas of the Vedanta in that they nurtured his innate sense of prayer and trust in the Lord in which, already as a child walking along the Rhine to school he would converse directly with God, sharing everything with Him as spontaneously and naturally as a child with his father; this became a lifelong habit of personal intimacy with God at all hours.

It is also this aspect of personal prayer that provided the antidote, so to speak, to the risk of metaphysical knowledge remaining just mental knowledge instead of realizational knowledge or the salvific impetus it should be in the consciousness of the sincere believer. Schuon had ample opportunity to comment on the schism in the Western mentality that allowed the mind to operate with virtuoso intelligence but without integral moral commitment to the conclusions truth entails, conclusions that owing to the divine nature of truth have to be ethical and not merely intellectual.

The absurdity of this disparity in the Western mentality is something that he found particularly dismaying, for truth and sanctity were, from Schuon’s earliest youth, the twin poles of his nature and later the essential message of his writings and art. From the beginning, Schuon’s knowledge was that of someone who knew and saw from “the inside”; he drew his knowledge from his own ontological well. And one of his life’s purposes was to restore in man that capacity which is innate to men of the Golden Age.

Another key dimension of Schuon’s upbringing was the singular fascination for American Indians. As a boy, Schuon had heard much about the Indians from his paternal grandmother, who as a young girl had spent some time in Washington D.C. There she had become personally acquainted with a Sioux member of a delegation of chiefs to the nation’s capital, and although she was not allowed to accept his offer of marriage, she never forgot her Indian friend or his people and later transmitted her love and admiration for the Indians to her children and grandchildren.

For the young Schuon, who yearned intuitively for a Golden Age in which man was born the predestined vessel of the Divine Image and was hence both prophet and prince, as befits the idea of the imago Dei, the encounter with the model embodied by American Indians awakened as an echo the recognition of the archetypal model of man, that is to say of man as pontifex or as the holy bridge between Heaven and earth with primordial nature as his sacred setting.

Late as the American Plains Indians world was, it nonetheless transmitted the spectacular nobility of a long bygone age in which each man could be a warrior-priest in direct communion with the Divine—the “warrior” counterpart serving as a uniquely virile and inspiring model for the manner in which one is to overcome both one’s own soul and the world, in its theofugal tendency that is. A host of drawings by the growing boy of American Indians and portraits of their faces, modeled essentially on his own acute inward notion of integral man rather than on individual human models, attest to the extraordinary veracity of his recognition, which was no less than a Platonic anamnesis in which one is allowed to say that “like meets like”.

As Schuon himself later said, visual assimilation, in his case, came before conceptual assimilation. This ability to see the sacred, to recognize the manifold variety of its manifestations, led him to his discovery of the great religious civilizations of the world, encounters that began partly in museums where he would spend hours assimilating the messages of various traditional worlds. Schuon’s exceptional inductive faculty allied to a powerful imagination[1] enabled him to reconstitute, according to the logic of ontology, what a whole cultural universe was on the basis of just a few telling samples of that culture.

At the precocious age of twelve, he discovered the statues of Buddhas whose depiction of impassive bliss and radiant silence both informed and finally mirrored his own spiritual becoming—sacred harbingers of his own immortal essence. The profundity of those sacred “meetings” were a homecoming for the young Schuon—spiritually orphaned as he was in a secular civilization that was bulldozing millennial centuries of tradition into rubble—who found a mystical confraternity with celestial beings; and yet, these meetings served also as a poignant reminder of the loneliness of his future destiny as a guide of souls (psychopompos), for who is it among men who can understand the nature of a pneumatic, someone who is heaven born? Let alone a man whose whole nature was medieval? In a sense, Schuon was born ancient.

His journey from craft designer, first in Mulhouse then in Paris, to full-fledged spiritual authority took him through many a tribulation, including obligatory enlistment in the French army where he learned to admire the erect discipline of soldiering that mirrored his own invincible self-domination, and then to Marseille; there, a chance meeting with Yemeni dervishes opened the door for a journey to North Africa where, in the Algerian port town of Mostaghanem he met the revered saint, the Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi, a providential encounter that proved to be the turning point in Schuon’s life because there he received the venerable Shaykh’s blessing, his barakah, both for a spiritual method to undertake the “great journey” as well as the formal—and supraformal—means to guide disciples in his own right.

The discovery of North African Islam and of the Maghrebi culture in particular, where poverty in the world is wealth in God, reflected in all the arts and crafts as well as in architecture and dress, determined a lifelong bond with a religion that allows each man to be a priest before God.

Having returned to Europe, he went very briefly to India, an experience that was cut short by the outbreak of World War II and the obligation he had of rejoining the army under the French flag. Captured by the Germans, then freed by the same Germans who considered Alsatians to be compatriots, he fled to Switzerland, the country that would, once again, become his home, and for several decades henceforth.

There he began the voluminous series of writings on metaphysics, tradition, sacred art, and spiritual alchemy: The Transcendent Unity of Religions, Form and Substance in the Religions, Esoterism as Principle and as Way are but a few of the titles of his books expounding the doctrine of the religio perennis alluded to in the opening, namely the original religion of all time underlying the great divine revelations. These books are a testament to Schuon’s towering intellect, one signal quality of which was his providential capacity to situate the cosmic plight of modern man in the immemorial context of sacred tradition.

In parallel to his writings, and to attending to the growing tide of visitors and disciples that sought his counsel, Schuon started painting scenes of Plains Indian life. After several years of doing so, he finally met and made friends with a number of the members of the Crow tribe in Paris, in the winter of 1953. They had come to Europe to give performances under the auspices of Reginald Laubin and his wife, the well‑known performers and preservers of traditional American Indian dances.

After Paris, several of the group came to Lausanne, Switzerland for a week of vacation between their theatrical engagements, in order to visit the Schuons—notably Thomas Yellowtail, who subsequently became an important medicine man and a leader of the Sun Dance religion. Five years later, the Schuons traveled to Brussels in order to meet a group of sixty Sioux who had come to give Wild West performances in connection with the World’s Fair, and with some of whom they developed a lifelong friendship.

These meetings paved the way for the Schuons’ first visit to America, in the summer of 1959, when they were warmly welcomed on the Sioux reservations in South Dakota, and the Crow reservation in southern Montana. In the company of Indian friends they visited other tribes of the Plains and had the opportunity to attend a Sun Dance at Fort Hall, Idaho, on the Shoshoni‑Bannock reservation. When at Pine Ridge, the Schuons were adopted into the family of Chief James Red Cloud, a grandson of the great chief known to history.

The old chief gave Schuon the name of Wambali Ohitika—Brave Eagle—the name of his famous forebear’s brother. Later, at an Indian festival in Sheridan, Wyoming, the Schuons were officially received into the Sioux tribe, and Schuon was given the name of Wicahpi Wiyakpa—Bright Star. His wife also received a name from Chief Red Cloud and another at Sheridan, but she gives preference to her first Indian name, Wambali Oyate Win—Eagle People Woman—given to her by old Black Elk, the renowned Sioux medicine man, through the intermediary of their mutual friend Joseph Brown, at the time he was recording Black Elk’s explanation of the Sioux rites.[2]

In 1963, the Schuons visited the Plains tribes a second time, spending the summer among their Indian friends and once again attending a Sun Dance at Fort Hall. During this trip, Schuon took the opportunity to visit the grave of Black Elk in Manderson, South Dakota, and to spend some time with the venerable medicine man’s son Benjamin in the Black Hills. He had already met him during his first trip to the West and then again in the fall of 1962 when the Schuons spent several days in his company in Paris. These visits also consolidated a deep friendship with Thomas Yellowtail begun earlier in Europe.

Mention should also be made of Schuon’s numerous travels to various European countries, notably England where he noticed how the Anglican tradition had preserved the Medieval style of churches and houses, especially in the hamlets, sparing this country the horror of Baroque and Rococo art which did so much to warp the religious culture of the Christian West.

He also traveled to Turkey, notably to Ephesus, visiting the shrine of the Virgin Mary’s last home on earth. His travels also took him to Spain, where in Seville he knelt before the Macarena and strode through the halls and porticos of the Alhambra, the Moorish art of which combined, as he expressed it, richness and poverty, the synthesis of sober ecstasy or of ecstatic sobriety. Morocco was also the destination of a number of journeys, as it had been in the time of his sojourn in Mostaghanem. His book, Sufism: Veil and Quintessence, was one of the fruits of these experiences.

A brief comment should be made here of Schuon’s love for the Blessed Virgin, expressed by his visits to her shrine in Ephesus, where she is revered alike by Christians and Moslems, and the shrines in Spain of the Macarena in Seville, the Virgin del Pilar in Saragossa, and that of Montserrat, as well as the shrines in France of Saintes Maries de la Mer and Notre Dame du Bon Séjour, not forgetting in Switzerland the black virgin in l’Eglise des Cordeliers in the medieval town of Fribourg; these sanctuaries were luminous reference marks in his travels where he paid homage to a saint he knew not only as “Mother of the Prophets”, but as the embodiment of the perfect sanctity of soul in which the Spirit is to be born.

Dozens of icons are the artistic fruit of Schuon’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin, a devotion hailing back to his youngest school days when he wrote a poem to her extolling her grace. He depicts her both as primordial maiden and heavenly queen, both in her Semitic “likeness” and as the embodiment of the divine Prakriti of primordial metaphysics. To quote Schuon: “The soul in the state of baptismal grace corresponds to the Virgin Mary; the blessing of the Virgin is on him who purifies his soul for God. This purity—the Marial state—is the essential condition, not only for the reception of the sacraments, but also for the spiritual actualization of the real Presence of the Word.”[3]

Finally, at the age of seventy-four, Schuon emigrated to the United States, settling in a home in Bloomington, Indiana, surrounded by forests and far from the din of civilization. The charms of a small university town brought him a peace that he yearned for; and in this woodland retreat, Schuon felt the closeness with the Indian soul as well as with certain Biblical values he so loved and that had not yet vanished among the rural inhabitants. Here also, the friendship begun with the Crow medicine chief so many decades ago in Europe flourished as Yellowtail made a series of yearly visits to Bloomington where both men communed in a privileged spiritual intimacy known only to sages.

Schuon’s Bloomington years culminated with the outpouring in the last few years of over three thousand poems written in his native German. Soon after putting his pen down for the last time, he died at dawn in his home on May 5, 1998 on a day when all of the dogwoods celebrated spring, their sparkling whiteness echoed by white clouds floating across azure heavens. It was a day where it could be said that nature mirrored the grace of soul of a departed man Hindus would certainly have termed a mahatma, a “great soul”.

Adapted from Mark Perry, “Frithjof Schuon: Metaphysician and Artist”, previously unpublished.