King Charles’s Traditionalism

The new king is influenced by an obscure, anti-modern philosophy.
Members of the royal family stand on a balcony at Buckingham Palace following King Charles' and Queen Camilla's coronation ceremony in London (OSV News photo/Henry Nicholls, Reuters).

Although the coronation of King Charles III followed ancient precedent, the new king sometimes looks quite modern. As Prince of Wales, he was famous for his environmentalism—an apparently very modern stance. What could be more up-to-date than going green? Who is more hip than Greta Thunberg? In reality, however, his views are even more anachronistic than the ceremonies in which he just took part.

The king’s environmentalism derives from his support for a little-known philosophy, Guénonian Traditionalism, that is promoted in the United States by George Washington University professor emeritus Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian American scholar and environmentalist whose work has had a significant impact on the British king. For both Nasr and the king, the fundamental problem is that modern Westerners have lost touch with the spiritual tradition that informed the past, and that is why they despoil their surroundings. The solution is not just technical, but a return to the values and practices of earlier periods. Two questions arise: what exactly are these traditional values and practices, and to what extent are they compatible with the values and practices of liberal democracy?

First, however, an account of Charles’s environmentalism, which covers the built as well as the natural environment. It first became a topic of interest in 1983 when the then Prince of Wales described a planned extension to the National Gallery in London as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” The design of the proposed building had just won a national competition organized by the British architectural establishment, so the prince’s dissenting view was initially ridiculed by the arbiters of taste. Some also wondered whether it was proper for the heir to the throne to be intervening, even indirectly, in the process of granting construction permits. But it turned out that the British public mostly agreed with the prince’s architectural views, and ridicule slowly turned to respect. The term “carbuncle” is now used in the United Kingdom to refer to modern architecture more often than to real boils.

Even those too young to remember 1983 are familiar with the Duchy Organic brand, which started life in 1990 as Duchy Originals, oaten “biscuits” (cookies) grown organically on the prince’s own lands in the Duchy of Cornwall, and now sold at Waitrose supermarkets.

The connection between Charles’s architectural criticism and his organic foods is explained in a book published by the prince in 2010, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. To solve the environmental crisis and restore harmony to the planet, he argued, we need a new way of looking at things. Without a shift in perspective, any good done will remain isolated and marginal. Real improvement depends on viewing the relationship between people and nature in terms of “traditional philosophy.”

Prince Charles did not cite sources for these ideas—Harmony was not that sort of book—but his arguments closely resemble those made since 1966 by one of America’s most creative Muslim thinkers, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Nasr, who was born in Iran but educated at MIT and Harvard, has lived in the United States since the Iranian Revolution, which—ironically—he both opposed and helped produce. He opposed it because he was close to the Shah’s wife, Empress Farah, and because he saw the revolutionaries as untraditional; but his criticism of modernity and emphasis on traditional spirituality helped turn many young Iranians’ attention toward Islam.

For both Nasr and the king, the fundamental problem is that modern Westerners have lost touch with the spiritual tradition that informed the past, and that is why they despoil their surroundings.

Nasr was not just a royalist, however. He was one of the earliest religious philosophers and certainly the first Muslim to focus on the environmental crisis that was then becoming apparent. He was preceded by only a small handful of Christian thinkers, principally H. Richard Niebuhr in the 1930s and Joseph Sittler in the 1950s. Nasr argued, as Prince Charles would later echo, that the fundamental problem was the “alienation of man from nature” that resulted from modernity’s loss of traditional metaphysical knowledge—that is, from the “secularization of the Cosmos.”

Unlike Prince Charles, Nasr does cite sources. His thought is a development of the “Traditionalist” philosophy espoused in the 1920s by an obscure French philosopher, René Guénon. Guénon held that there had once been a “primordial tradition”—philosophical, religious, and spiritual—and that this primordial tradition survived as the esoteric core of all the world’s great religions. This idea had been around since the Renaissance, often known as the “perennial philosophy.” Prince Charles’s “traditional philosophy” is much the same as the perennial philosophy or primordial tradition.

Guénon argued that the primordial tradition was last widely known in the West among the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages. The loss of this primordial tradition is a defining characteristic of modernity. Modernity focuses on technological triumphs that are fundamentally unimportant, ignores all that is truly important, and values illusory ideals such as equality and individual freedom. The primordial tradition has nevertheless survived outside the West, according to Guénon, and in 1930 he emigrated from France to Egypt, spending the remainder of his life as a Muslim and a Sufi, following Islam’s esoteric spiritual tradition.

Nasr was the first to apply Guénon’s analysis to the environment. For Nasr, the loss of the primordial tradition in modernity led not only to prizing technological innovation above metaphysics, but also to the technological exploitation of the environment and a lack of respect for nature and appreciation of natural beauty.

It is not clear whether the then prince was influenced by Nasr directly or adopted these perspectives from others in the group of Guénonian Traditionalists to which Nasr belonged. Three leading Traditionalists and one leading Traditionalist sympathizer were English, and all four were friends of the prince. The most important was Martin Lings, a scholar who as a young man had shifted his focus from C.S. Lewis, with whom he had studied, to Guénon, who he assisted during the latter’s last years in Cairo. Lings had also become Muslim and followed the Sufi path. He was the leader of the Traditionalist community in England, wrote books on Islam, Sufism, and the tradition, and regularly visited the prince. The sympathizer was a poet, Kathleen Raine—an expert on William Blake, W.B. Yeats, and Thomas Taylor—who led the Temenos Academy, an influential spiritual think tank where leading Traditionalists often spoke. The other two Englishmen were the composer Sir John Tavener, a convert to the Orthodox Church and composer of “The Protecting Veil” and “Song for Athene,” and the artist and architect Keith Critchlow, who wrote on “sacred geometry.” All were close to the prince.

Prince Charles’s “traditional philosophy” is much the same as the perennial philosophy or primordial tradition.

Prince Charles was more than a passive recipient of these ideas. He modified them by, for example, tackling head-on Traditionalists’ insistence that modernity is purely bad. This is clearly not the case, and Prince Charles admitted as much, accepting that modern life is easier and more comfortable than medieval life. Prince Charles also differed from most other Traditionalists in that he did not just write about Traditionalist ideas, but also held the power to implement some of them. In addition to his architectural interventions and Duchy Organic foods, he has supported Raine’s Temenos Academy, and an academy founded by Critchlow for teaching traditional art, The Prince's Foundation School of Traditional Arts. And then there is Poundbury, a “traditional” town started by the prince in 1993 and due for completion in 2025 with an expected population of 5,800 people. Absolutely no carbuncles, and respect for sacred geometry. Again, many have ridiculed the project, but time seems to be proving the prince right.

Yet there is a dark side to Traditionalism. As well as inspiring both Nasr’s support of the Shah and some young Iranians’ turn to Islam, Traditionalism’s critique of modernity has inspired political actors from Julius Evola and Aleksander Dugin to Steve Bannon. Bannon’s role in securing the election of President Trump is well known, while Dugin’s role in inspiring the Russian invasion of Ukraine is contested. Evola is less well known today than either Bannon or Dugin, but was very well known in Italy in the 1970s, when his followers took direct action against modernity and its illusions by planting bombs that killed and injured many people. There are no signs that King Charles follows this stream of political thought, and he may not even be aware of it. But Traditionalism is not just about organic agriculture, the extraordinarily spiritual compositions of Tavener, and the Sufi spirituality of Guénon, Lings, and Nasr. It also sees liberal democracy as a modern aberration and regrets the loss of a hierarchy in which traditional sacred authority derived from a priestly caste, from which it passed to a warrior ruling caste, and only from there to the bourgeoisie and the people. This analysis can be questioned on historical grounds, but it fits neatly with the Traditionalist world view.

It is hard to predict the extent to which King Charles will continue to promote Traditionalist thought, projects, and perspectives. In his first major speech to the British nation after the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II, he said that because of his new duties, he would have to spend less time on some of the causes he had supported in the past. Some read this as a sign he would follow the example set by the previous monarch, who, throughout her reign, never said anything even mildly interesting in public. This approach worked well, helping her navigate the massive social and political changes that took place during her long reign, which started in the last days of British imperial power and pomp, and ended with Brexit and Boris Johnson.

After succeeding to the throne, King Charles has indeed said very little that could be construed as controversial, beyond the “Dear, oh dear,” with which he on one occasion greeted Prime Minister Liz Truss. But that greeting was not intended to be audible to the media, let alone recorded, and it was not really that controversial, since Truss’s difficulties were by then very clear to all. She resigned twelve days later.

A British king has many ways of affecting events, mostly not public. While the king’s constitutional powers are so limited that they have been almost entirely eliminated, few will turn down an invitation to tea with him, and few will completely ignore what he then says. The king may not have any of the power that Guénon associated with the warrior caste, but he retains another sort of authority. Even if he is not a priest, there is still something sacred about his position.

Mark Sedgwick trained as a historian at Oxford University, taught for many years at the American University in Cairo, and finally moved to Denmark, where he is a professor in the Department of the Study of Religion at Aarhus University. His Traditionalism: The Radical Project for Restoring Sacred Order will be published in the United States by Oxford University Press on July 6.

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