The question of Modernism versus Traditionalism hinges on the nature of the origins.
[I]t is interesting to clarify the objective value of a principle by means of the demonstration of its universality, that is to say, of its conformity to the principle of quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, et quod semper. Only in this way can we establish with certainty that some values are absolutely independent of the views of any particular thinker, and also that, in their essence, they are superior to the particular forms which they have assumed in order to manifest themselves in one or another historical tradition.
— Julius Evola, Metaphysics of War (Arktos, 2011), p. 41.
[This spiritual justification for war] is something which has appeared always and everywhere, in the ascending cycle of every great civilisation; while the neurosis of war, the humanitarian and pacifist deprecation of it, as well as the conception of war as a ‘sad necessity’ or a purely political or natural phenomenon – none of this corresponds to any tradition. All this is but a modern fabrication, born yesterday, as a side-effect of the decomposition of the democratic and materialistic civilisation against which today new revolutionary forces are rising up.
— Ibid., p. 52.
I. The Great Conflict: Traditionalism vs. Modernism
The quotations which head this essay take as their presupposition an idea which appeared almost even self-evident to the thought of their author – Julius Evola, that anti-Modernist par excellence: they presuppose that Modernity is wrong. Save as this point is established either as axiom or by prior argument, the particular logic which informs these paragraphs appears curiously lame. For by the perspective of Modernity,1 with its obsessive and even ravenous hunger for novelty and for production, for the avant-garde and the cutting-edge, for what it abusively calls ‘creation’ and ‘creativity’, modern times are essentially in step with the march of Progress itself; they represent the overcoming of prior conditions and limitations in the name of a ceaseless and indeed sleepless improvement of the lot of man. From the perspective of Modernity, Evola’s points above are wholly beside the point – are indeed even simple confirmation of what every modern knows with equal ‘self-evidency’: namely, that modern times are superior over all past times. Modernity has so far progressed beyond the wretched limitations of the past that it no longer even recognizes them, nor they it; it stands upon an unprecedented pinnacle, if only a relative pinnacle with respect to what is yet to come.
Putting the matter otherwise, Evola presupposes here, without demonstrating it, that the oldest things are the best things, or that Modernity does not and cannot represent progress with respect to the past, and especially with respect to the origins. The dispute between Modernity and Traditionalism is a dispute over these origins. If the origins are of greater dignity or divinity than anything to follow, they can be regarded as the transhistorical standard by which to judge of all past or contemporary political or social forms; if not, then they are surmountable or surmounted, they can be overcome, they can perhaps even be left behind altogether. If what follows the origins is contingent upon the origins for its being and its excellence, then the origins cannot for a moment be forgotten by serious or moral men; if on the other hand the origins with respect to what follows are low, base, or even only relatively conditional, then they are as but a rung of the ladder, and hardly should one care if later they are trampled and destroyed by climbing feet, or if, upon having reached a safe and stable perch on some cleft above, the climber even kicks the ladder out from underneath himself and lets it go tumbling into the void. By this view, the origins can be regarded as primitive in the derogatory sense – limited, simplistic, mindless, unconscious, ignorant, barbaric, etc. The very evaluation that one gives to the origins, the comprehension that one has of them, determines one’s position with respect to Modernity.
Modernity regards all the past as standing at a comparatively lower level, and the further into the past one proceeds, the lower this level becomes. The past is only that which Modernity has superseded; Modernity is greater than anything to come before. Modernity detests or contemns the origins, disregards the origins as being unimportant or arbitrary or primitive. But by the suggestion and often by the proclamations of many representatives of Modernity, each time has its own standard, differing from our own. The various historical standards are at once irreconcileable and absolutely disconnected from one another. One cannot substitute the standards of a past age for our own, nor our own for past standards. So great a distance divides the past from the modern that there is even a question as to whether the standards of the past can be understood at all by any modern; it is at least clear that the modern cannot be understood by the past, or that what is unique to modernity is found nowhere in the past save at best in vaguest and most inept foreshadowing.
Modernity for this reason tends toward relativism. But absolute historicist relativism contradicts the very notion of progress. If every time has its own standard, absolutely isolated from every other, absolutely immune to rational evaluation by any other, then our time cannot represent an improvement over the past, but merely a change away from it; it is merely one historical period sui generis amongst a host of historical periods sui generis.
Modernity and modern men almost never satisfy themselves with this frank historical relativism, not even when they most emphatically embrace it. Modernity proposes, nay it depends upon, the superiority of modern democracy, modern liberalism, modern science, modern economy, modern technology, etc. etc. over all past analogues or alternatives. It therefore presupposes a common ground of judgement which it holds in common with the past; it transcends relativism, if only tacitly. All ideas of progress, of the historical improvement of one time with respect to another, presuppose a single standard which encapsulates, or which is applicable to, both of them; to that extent the idea of progress itself is transhistorical. Whether or not this makes a profound point of inner contradiction in the fabric of Modernism itself is matter for another essay.
Modernity’s key point of superiority with respect to the past is that facet of Modernity which practically everyone agrees can be more or less satisfactorily measured: Modernity is superior in raw material terms, in terms of food production, medicine, housing, clothing, wealth, economic well-being – in short, that which today is called the ‘standard of living’, and which is measurable through various physical and mathematizable indices. Because this represents a measurable aspect of any society, certainly of Modernity and to a large extent also of past epochs, this tends to be the point around which the presumed superiority of Modernity revolves, as around its gravitational centre; it is practically impossible to find any serious defence of the superiority of Modernity which does not sooner or later have recourse to this kind of argumentation. The ‘standard of living’ in turn presupposes the standard of ‘life’ itself; vitality, or more precisely that end which life is universally supposed to seek, according to evolutionary theory, becomes the transhistorical standard by which the past can be measured against the present, and found wanting. That which conduces to survival, to procreation, to longevity, to material flourishing, etc. becomes the standard by which all societies or civilizations can be weighed.
Life itself is presumed by Modernity to be a movement upward, a rising; life begins low, indeed at the lowest point, the point nearest non-life, nearest the inorganic, nearest ‘death’, and proceeds from there to expand, to complicate, to improve. Life is an upward striving toward increased sophistication, strength, complexity, intelligence, consciousness.
But this is the very opposite movement to that which the Traditionalist posits in history, and in many cases even in ‘evolution’ itself.2 To the Traditionalist, our history, the history which has come down to us, represents decline along the arc of a great cycle – the Five Ages of Hesiod and the Four of Ovid,3 the Hindu Yugas, the Aztec ‘Five Suns’. The movement of history is a downward movement – movement toward increased materialism, decreased consciousness, decreased divinity or decreased connection to divinity. The movement away from the origins is identical to decadence in its etymological sense: it is identical to a falling.
The Traditionalist views the origins as being divine, the consequence of a divine intervention, a divine spark, a divine inspiration.4 Life itself, and in particular human life, is inexplicable without this divine intercession; man cannot be adequately understood in the light of the material or the lower alone. Man’s task is therefore the maintenance of his connection with the original divine forms; he is charged as the caretaker or the guardian or the custodian of the origins. Since the earliest forms of civilization were instaurated by a god or the son of a god or a student of the gods, man must conserve these forms, must preserve them, must seek to replenish them as they wither or to reinstate them where they have been substituted, subverted or outraged. Traditionalism for this reason is the original and most radical form of conservatism, and stands opposed to the principle of progress as such.
Put in brief, Modernism views the origins as being organic and evolutionary, conditioned or conditional, contingent and surpassable, and thus eternally surpassed. Traditionalism regards them as being divine, life-giving and soul-giving, archetypal, the model and the mode, the ideal or the Idea.
To understand the great dispute of our time, then, it is necessary to gain clarity about these two views of the origins; it is necessary in some respect to return to the origins themselves.
II. Traditionalism and the Origins
We begin our disquisition on the origins with reflection on Traditionalism, because it is the oldest view – as it were, the most ‘original’ view. Traditionalism proceeds from reverence of the origins; it holds that the origins are divine or divinely inspired. It bolsters this opinion on the back of a number of observations or rumours regarding the origins, to wit: ubiquitous ancient customary beliefs of the earliest societies of which we have knowledge, which hold that they were founded by a god or the son of a god or a pupil of the gods; myths and tales suggesting the excellence or virtue of past heroes or demigods, at such a high level as to shame this bad present, and connected generally with indications of the divine issuance or heritage of these heroes; the physical ruins and artefacts of the civilizations of the past, which bear physical and tangible witness to their greatness, far in excess of our concept of the baseness or ‘primitiveness’ of those times; linguistic evidence suggesting that language has steeply declined in complexity, conceptual richness and power over the course of time; and the writings and histories which have come down to us from the earliest documented times, within which it can be directly apprehended that the men of the past were or were regarded as being of superior strength or virtue as compared to us.
Traditionalism is therefore marked by reverence for these forms and personages, and by the nonsceptical belief in a (possibly very remote) divine origin to our present-day people or civilization or race, which belief opposes the stance of Modernism on the one hand, and the attitude of the philosopher on the other. Traditionalism is therefore marked by a will to preserve these origins or to re-establish them; it aims to conserve or to return, as the case may have it, and shuns above all things progress detached from the roots. This thrusts it into zealous conflict with the Modernist position.
In its view and its aims, the Traditionalist is confronted immediately by the difficulty of the conservative: there is a patent diversity of traditional customs, laws, ways in the world, all of which claim foundation in some proximate or remote divinity. It would therefore appear that the divine origins are not unified, which either calls into question the divinity of these origins or the unity of the gods. Either question propels us beyond Traditionalism to a philosophizing which is characterized by refusal to accept authority, even the eldest and longest-lived. The Traditionalist solves this problem by proposing two distinctions: first, between true or authentic civilizations on the one hand and false or inauthentic civilizations on the other (the ‘civilizations of space’ versus the ‘civilizations of time’); second, between integral traditions and decadent traditions.
True or authentic civilizations are intimately connected to the original civilization, which was given by a god; false or inauthentic civilizations are the artificial construct of man alone in his revolt against the gods, and must, if they are to regain their dignity and proper stature, be revolutionized, in the sense of returned to their right orbit,5 or else rectified, put into a line accordant with the origins. A decadent order which has been revolutionized or rectified cannot be regarded as identical to the original civilization, save as it attains such heights that it is able once again to pierce the dome of the sky itself and come into transcendent contact with divinity, thus becoming an original, an integral civilization. But that possibility lies far beyond even the most irrational hopes that one might hold for a civilization which wallows already in a fallen state, and depends in any case on an initial revolution or rectification.
This suggests the bearing of the second distinction between civilizations, between integral civilizations and decadent civilizations. Integral civilizations, standing yet astride the divine origins, feed yet of that deep root. With respect to every fallen ‘modernity’, they are located in the deep past; they do not even form a part of the ‘history’ of any ‘modernity’ so much as of its ‘prehistory’, for the simple reason that, pertaining as nearly as is possible for human things to being or to divinity, they see no need to record their ‘deeds’ or ‘actions’ or the constitution of their orders. These things, being immediate, vital, existent, true, are in no need of registry: the eternal comes written only for the benefit of the ephemeral. Moreover, according to Traditionalist doctrine, the men of these original societies were endowed with such memory as to make record-keeping superfluous. Moreover again, these same men had a feel for symbolic language such that they are able to read a higher form of language contained in, for instance, the composition of tones or colours or gestures, such as might be preserved even in such unlikely places as rug-weaving or stylized dances.6 Such civilizations do not ‘keep history’ in our sense of the word; and the manner in which they do keep it is fundamentally inaccessible to us. They are for this reason transhistorical, even ahistorical.
From the Traditionalist point of view, history, we might say, is reflexive; it commences upon the decline of the original civilization. With the birth of history arise individual Traditions as opposed to the unique original civilization; these Traditions are fit to the given conditions of an already (if still mildly) decadent civilization, and they are created by wise or divine rulers to align those civilizations as much as possible with the original divine order or with its aims and its essence – to play the vices of a falling or fallen state toward its virtue. The variety between these Traditions pertains to appearances alone, to the exoteric as opposed to the esoteric sphere; they represent the outward forms taken by a particular civilization toward the rectification of its necessarily individualized ills. Beneath this outward diversity or variety, however, every authentic, i.e. non-degenerate civilization – every true Tradition – preserves an esoteric unity with every other.
By banishing the problem of the conservative to the realm of mere appearances, this Traditionalist view offers resolution to that problem; the variety which we perceive in the earliest historical societies, which seems to point us towards the necessity of philosophy, is in fact only apparent, and conceals a true but not readily accessible unity.
That Traditionalist who lives, as indeed we all live, in an inauthentic or false or artificial civilization, is therefore forced to become a scholar, a student of past wisdom. The reverence of the Traditionalist today is best expressed in his willingness to engage in a quest – a quest for the true origins, via the true teachers. But he must have care; for as stated he cannot rely on the teachers to furnish him mere precepts for living, because the teachers taught in radically different times and their various teachings differed accordingly. The precepts they outwardly taught, be these for personal existence or for religious rites or for rules of statecraft and law, were fit for their times; they might not be fit for our own. The Traditionalist must then transcend the outward doctrines or exoteric teachings to grasp the inward or true doctrines or esoteric teachings.
The quest of the Traditionalist in a false age begins negatively. A Traditionalist or a potential Traditionalist knows that modern society, from its very premises, rejects the origins as being primitive or base or undeveloped; it seeks the origins in materiality or in secondary or even tertiary effective causes. Thus, whatever is modern is likely false. Generally speaking, then, the Traditionalist today commences from a sense of the wrongness of today. He is tempted to take Modernity as being simply wrong, wrong in all its aspects and manifestations, and to seek the good society or the divine order as its polar opposite, its negative image.
This is as hasty as it is reckless; one cannot suppose a priori that this or that aspect of Modernity is perforce false. It would appear indeed that all things human participate to some extent in the true and the good; so long as humanity exists as humanity, and does not decline to the state of the Last Man or to a humanoid robot or machine or to a state of savage primitivism or bestiality, the question of the truth or falsity of human society remains necessarily one of degree and not kind. Moreover, Modernity, which exists in blithe ignorance of the past, might well have accidentally preserved or rediscovered this or that legitimate practice or idea, all the moreso because in its contempt of the past it fails to understand the past, and so must inevitably be imperfect even in its most radical and tenacious attempts to reject the past. Modernity is characterized by poor memory in every sense of the word, along with an incapacity to comprehend high and divine things; thus, even if it actively sought to produce the perfect contrary of Traditional civilization, it would fail in its efforts; it would be hampered on the one hand by its inability to recall what that civilization even was, and on the other by its innate inability to comprehend the deepest hidden principles of Traditional civilization, the existence of which, not to speak of the nature of which, it denies.
The Traditionalist can therefore not rely solely on negating the present. A generally correct standard is offered by Evola at the opening of this essay: whatever is universal to pre-modern civilizations and simultaneously absent from present ones is likely to be Traditionalist.
But while this establishes a useful rule, it is insufficient for two reasons. What we know of past forms comes down to us principally through our history, the written documentation that we possess of the past. But this history, by the Traditionalist standard, is already to some extent bound by the ‘fallen state’ of man; it does not reflect the origins so much as their already faint or distant echoes. The forms to which we have readiest access via history are not the forms of the ‘Golden Age’, which we know at best by hearsay or rumour or archaeological, anthropological and mythological extrapolation, or else what we have been told of them by wise or truly spiritual men. In all these cases, interpretation is wanted; in the first cases because we are dealing with fragmentary or contaminated or potentially corrupted knowledge; in the second cases because wise or spiritual men present their teachings exoterically, and there is no reason to believe a priori that their exoteric statements regarding the Golden Age are not themselves tempered by some exigency of presentation, which prohibits them from telling the truth or the whole truth about the cycle of the ages. All historical knowledge, then, is at best ambiguous and unclear, at worst inaccurate and misleading. History itself does not contain the Golden Age, but at the very most the Silver Age, and even this is questionable enough; Hesiod, for example, who preceded the first historians, already ascribed his time to the lowest age; and the Greeks stand infinitely taller than we do. The Traditional forms to which history gives us access, then, reflect, not the just or divine city, but rather the Traditional rectification or correction of a partially or wholly decadent society. As if all of this were not enough, there is good reason to believe that the original or Golden Age, if not the Silver and Bronze ages, is divided from our own by the intercession of one or more telluric catastrophes, which are indicated in a wide variety of myths regarding the Flood. It must therefore remain an open question how much of the original or Golden Age was really preserved or rediscovered by the survivors of this catastrophe, and how successful they were in passing their wisdom on to subsequent generations. Yet it seems that there are no stable criteria to make a judicious determination on this point.
In the second place, precisely given the great rift standing between Modern civilization and every Traditional civilization to which we have any access at all, we must presume that Modern civilization stands on a uniquely lower level. As has been stated, the whole historical past stands lower than the divine origins, and for this reason took on a variety of ‘correct’ or Traditional forms. Modernity stands lower still, and its own ‘correct form’ must differ correspondingly. It is obvious, it goes almost without saying, that modern man cannot live by the high, exacting, halcyon standards of the first origins, even supposing he is able to rediscover them. For he cannot live even by the much more modest standards of his own forebears. There is wanted a special political order for our time, which is the lowest time, and for that reason might be required to adopt Traditionalist standards that would be applicable to no other historical age. Only a wise or spiritual man, communicant in some way with the origins or with that Origin which is itself the fount of every integral civilization, would be competent to determine what this order might be.
We might hope against hope that such a one would seize power or somehow be ceded power in our day, and would wield his power wisely, but this hope must be imperatively tempered by the merest glance at the conditions of our time. The people are no longer inured to obedience to high men; they have lost even the sense of any subtler or truer distinctions in rank between man and man, and more readily follow posturers and pretenders, preferring as it were the thyrsus to the Bacchants. Moreover, in the best of times, wise or spiritual men are exceedingly rare, and generally loath to involve themselves in the business of ruling; all the moreso in our day. Thousandfold more common are the would-be tyrants who believe themselves wise or who perhaps despise wisdom, and who are more than ready to exert their opinions or their whims in any way they can. Our hope in the most exceedingly unlikely wise rule of a wise man cannot blind us to our awareness of the most probable outcome of any kind of radical change in the political order of our time: the rise of a foul despot or group of despots who are inured to culling their citizens for the sake of their gain.
Therefore, to say it once more, we are in need above all things of a political order fit to our conditions. This order cannot be merely the mechanical reinstatement of any given traditional or Traditional order, for which we are no longer fit, or which is no longer fit for us. To establish the outward conditions of the past in the form of institutions or official constitutions of state in the hope of thereby curing our inward disorder is literally parallel to the fundamental error committed by the so-called Cargo Cults; we bear forth formal laws and hollow rites and empty offices to the gods that have abandoned us, as if the mere existence of such cargo would suffice to bring the heavens back to earth. But no outward miracle can suffice us for an inward change of spirit.
Yet to abandon the question at this point is to abdicate, to acknowledge that everything is in vain, everything futile, and that no good can be wrung from our day even by the strongest hands. But whoever seeks the Grail must fight with the monsters and the imposters that hinder his quest; he is tested with mirages and must see through them, must be able to measure out the true Grail against the false, though he be guided by nothing more than an instinct or intuition through this labyrinth of mirrors. That we live in godless times means that everything or most everything immediately surrounding us is likely in some way to be void. But that is an emptiness which defies the filling; it is a closed shell with no nut, a locked chest with no treasure.
We must then to that extent be destroyers or sounders, following the arc of Nietzsche’s hammer, to make this emptiness known and to break it open to new content, or to the renewed presence of a god. We must be qualified nihilists, naysayers to the whole of our time, but naysayers who do not rest content with blind and reactive and hateful rejection of things we know nothing about or wish to know nothing about. Henrik Jonasson in this Journal has with a masterful series of essays indicated the necessity of our coming to the very core of Modernity, and embracing our moment in all its terror and emptiness, so as to repossess and reconstitute it for the creation of a new future.7 He has indicated a kind of uncompromising warrior ethos which cannot help but call to mind Julius Evola, and which points us to the path of the knights of old: we do not avoid this awful dragon called Modernity, but seek to slay it, and that means observing it long and carefully in the very heat of battle, to spy out its habits and its weaknesses, to know its nature and if need be to perish like Beowulf in its embrace. Nor do we slay the drake for the mere joy in slaughter, but rather because it is our prayer that in killing this fetid beast, we will have liberated some princess splendid with innocence and beauty, or regained some lost treasure, or earned anew our right to afterlife in glory or godhead. Our naysaying must be only the precondition for our yeasaying, else in truth all is lost, fatuous, false and vain.
Thus Traditionalism bears us, by very different roads, to strangely similar conclusions as those drawn by the culminating philosophers of Modernity itself. It was Derrida who pointed to the meaningless and the inner contradiction in all standing structures; it was Foucault who, with wickeder denunciation of politics than any man before him would have dared, demonstrated the infusion of arbitrary power into our political institutions. It was Heidegger who declared that only a god can save us, and it was Nietzsche who laid forth nihilism as a means to break apart this present to win a greater future – to take man under, that the overman might come.
We opened this essay with a statement on the great conflict between Traditionalism and Modernism. We seem now to bear witness to their eerie truce, their basic agreement regarding our present plight. Then we must turn to Modernism to understand the extent, and the limits, of this détente.
1We largely include ‘Postmodernity’ under the heading of ‘Modernity’ for the purposes of this article; this, not to detract from the importance or characteristic individuality of ‘Postmodernity’ with regard to ‘Modernity’, but rather because ‘Postmodernity’ is unthinkable without ‘Modernity’, makes a kind of conceptual or philosophical or social or political development upon it, and thus is founded on the same notion of history or evolution over time as ‘Modernity’. It would appear that the one truly distinguishing feature, which in some way might qualify the relation of ‘Postmodernity’ to the origins, is that Postmodernity, as opposed to Modernity, is radically relativistic, and has hence abandoned the idea of progress. To Postmodernity, change contains no value, is merest alteration, is arbitrary or governed by ungovernable and incomprehensible laws. Postmodernity is connected to radical historicism and radical relativism, and its direct father is Heidegger. Heidegger, as is known, did more to discover the origins in Western philosophy than perhaps any other figure of certainly late Modernity, which made way for the much more dedicated work in that direction of men like Jacob Klein, Leo Strauss, Alexander Dugin and Alexander Kojève. There thus appears to be an unexpected deep connection between the rejection of transhistorical standards on the one hand, and the quest for historical roots on the other. The question of the nature of this connection cannot possibly be addressed here; it must suffice to note two things. First, the work of Klein or Dugin or Strauss or Kojève appears to be fundamentally different from the work of Guénon or Coomaraswamy or Evola, and this would appear to be owing to a different sense of the ‘origins’. Second, Heidegger approached the origins from the perspective of one who was superior to them, while the other men we have mentioned approach them from the perspective of pupils or students, not to say adherents or apostles. Insofar as ‘Postmodernity’ succumbs to that most modern disease, contempt of the origins, it can for the purposes of this essay be considered a subcategory of ‘Modernism’; insofar as Postmodernity approaches the origins in a state of wonder, it rather pertains to that approach we shall treat of in the third part of this essay.
2Regarding this last point, consider Evola’s suggestion that those primitive tribes which even now exist in the world are actually not representative of original man, but are rather the senescent vestiges of ancient civilizations which have declined into barbarism. Cf. The Bow and the Club (Arktos, 2018), p. 73 and the entire chapter which contains it. Consider as well Beelzebub’s remarks to the effect that monkeys are descended of men; G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (Penguin Compass, 1999), Chapter 23, ‘The Fourth Sojourn of Beelzebub on the Planet Earth’, pp. 271–281. See also Saggiomo, ‘When Form Ignored Darwin’, Part 3.
3May it well be noted that the Classical interpretation differs from the Traditionalist: in the Five Ages of Hesiod, the Heroic Age stands higher than the Bronze Age, though it follows upon it chronologically. Ovid, who was a poet after the emergence of philosophy, excluded the heroic age. The discrepancy may be owed to philosophy (cf. Plato, ; the question of the rank or status of philosophy as against tradition may well form the bone of contention standing between philosophy and poetry on the one hand, and between Classicism and Traditionalism on the other.
4Recall the original meaning of inspiration: a breathing into. Cf. Genesis, 1:2. Also numerous origin myths, as for instance an Incan myth by which the Viracocha created a race of giants by breathing into stones, or the Nordic myth by which the gods gave life to the race of men by breathing into two tree trunks.
5See Julius Evola, Recognitions (Arktos 2017), Chapter 7, ‘The Inversion of Symbols’.
6Cf. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales (ibid.), Chapter 30, ‘Art’, pp. 449–523.