The self-knowledge that ‘historical studies’ might furnish us can help us to confront the crisis of our times.
History and the Origins
Following the course of our argument so far, we have been carried to a disquieting vista. Traditionalism and Modernism, these evident uncompromising antipodes, apparently agree on a crucial point: the present moment must be abolished. They propose diametrically contrary reasons for this conclusion, and profoundly different solutions to the problem it presents. Modernity would replace the here and now with the ‘next phase’, which ultimately culminates in a terminus to mankind itself; Traditionalism would replace the here and now with the ‘divine order’ or some echo thereof. Modernism opposes the present with an impatient ‘not yet’, Traditionalism, with a plaintive ‘no longer’. The unavoidable consequence of the one view as much as the other seems to be the necessity of more or less violent change.
This unexpected point of contact between these two great antagonists can be reformulated negatively: both Modernism and Traditionalism are necessarily anti-conservative with respect to the present moment, with respect to the whole of Modernity. They agree that the one view which is no longer possible, and perhaps no longer even palatable, is the conservative view.
How can we account for this point of community where we would least expect to find it?
Modernism conceives of the present moment as being governed by a secret law pressing mankind and human society ever upward; this is the crux of its ‘overcoming’ of the present.1 Traditionalism conceives of the present moment as being governed by a secret law pressing mankind and human society ever downward, save as they are infused or inspired by buoyant divine forces, whose reappearance will come at the end of the cycle of ages, after the Kali-yuga or the Iron Age. The Modernist views history as a trend which culminates in the ‘end of history’, a final and universal homogeneous world state, a kind of political Pangea. This world state alone would realize the ‘freedom’ of mankind, the freedom of everyman to seek what ends he will; it is the denatured theology of modernism incarnate on earth. The ‘aim of history’ by this view, as well as the right work of the individual, is governed inexorably by this ‘historical finality’. The Traditionalist meanwhile holds that the right work of the individual is to prepare for the return of the cycle from its lowest to its highest point, to prepare the rebirth of the origins after their long decadence in modern times. This will follow the collapse of the present ‘order’, the close of the present cycle in fire or ashes.
These views, apparently contrary to one another, are both open to the same fundamental philosophical objection: neither one has demonstrated, nor can demonstrate, the necessary issuance of its predicted future from out of the dark womb of ‘History’. The one has recourse to ‘historical necessity’ or to the supposedly inevitable but ultimately indemonstrable ‘march of history’, the other to what is openly acknowledged to be a myth, i.e. a story which is logically unprovable but which is supposedly bound to a divine past, and which thus contains a divine lesson or kernel of esoteric truth. Both are purportedly derived from a presumed insight into the ‘laws of history’; both acknowledge, that is to say, that there exist, at least for our fallen time, precisely such ‘laws’, and that these ‘laws’ are effective on human action and human societies. This makes for a philosophical dilemma: the particular interpretation that one makes of history depends, not on one’s analysis of history, but on one’s prior commitments to one or the other of these worldviews.
At the same time, in the absence of such commitments, the analysis of history seems to result forever in a kind of stalemate. The future is characterized by impenetrable mystery, the past by essentially ambiguous or equivocal facts, and the present by a quality of uncertainty and dependence on one’s embattled knowledge of what preceded it and what will follow it. Both Modernism and Traditionalism attempt to formulate such understanding and predictions, but how can they possibly do so to the satisfaction of a critical mind? One’s view of the past, as noted, is governed by one’s presuppositions, the very subject matter of philosophical inquiry. So far as the future goes, either man is free, and so history cannot be foreseen with any mathematical precision or any degree of surety since it depends decisively on unpredictable acts today and tomorrow, or else men are the slaves of contingency, so that nothing can ever guarantee or even forestall that tomorrow a piece of ‘bad fortune’ will not intervene and radically change his direction or destroy him altogether. Recourse to supposed ‘laws of history’, derived from history itself, are no good here, because the one thing visible on any naïve review of history is the total absence of such laws. History is not like the physical or organic worlds – evidently predisposed to a kind of intuitable regularity. There is no ordered firmament standing above the sphere of history, no cosmos in which it is evidently contained, no systems of stars which reflect in the regularity of their movements some manner of coherency and pattern; history, if it has laws, buries them deep within itself beneath a scintillating and mercurial skin, so that one must go delving Hegel-like or Spengler-like, deep into its bowels, to discover them. But then these laws are fundamentally disputable; they are the subject, not the presupposition, of philosophical inquiry. As little as history shows to us an unequivocally rising ladder of human progress, so little does it reveal a manifest cycle of downward motion or decay. History moves by fits and starts, now climbing and now descending, and reveals nothing so much to the impartial observer as the salient absence of regular motion.
This makes scientific prophecy of the future impossible: the future remains mysterious so far as rigorous science is concerned. On the other side of history, the deep past, history is bound by an equally impenetrable pre-historic shadowland. We know that this pre-history exists on account of the enigmatic traces it has left for us in the rumours and ruins of what were, to all extant evidence, mighty civilizations, quite sufficient in their extent and achievements to disprove the anthropological or scientistic assessment of pre-history as a world of primitives and savages. But at the same time we know almost nothing concrete about the beliefs or ways of life or quality of the men who peopled it. It is a city unknown, and our investigations into it always have the character of guesswork.
The existence of this past and its simultaneous inaccessibility suggests to us the the terrible reality and devastating power of telluric catastrophes, disasters capable of wiping entire civilizations, not only off the map, but out of human memory. This is inbuilt into the very idea of Traditionalism and its cyclical view of the world; but it would appear that these catastrophes can occur at any moment during the cycle, and not only at its nadir. By Traditionalist standards, at least, it appears that the Golden Age lies on the other side of just such a catastrophe. For all we know, this worldwide catastrophe brought an end to the Golden Age. One is compelled to ask if such catastrophes, which have led to the annihilation of civilizations entire, might not lead as well to the annihilation of mankind itself. Today indeed we are forced to approach this question from a fundamentally new standpoint: for today, for the first time in history, mankind itself is capable of producing precisely such a man-annihilating catastrophe. This power is not even limited to a single possibility: nuclear holocaust; the artificial production of a super-virus or super-disease which can eliminate the race; the ruination of the planet’s atmosphere through ‘manmade global warming’ or the desertification of the Earth’s surface until the Earth can no longer sustain human life; the production of an ‘artificial intelligence’ of sufficient uncontrollability and unpredictability that it might massacre the species entire; the manufacture of self-propagating ‘nanotechnology’ which might alter the physical conditions surrounding us until they become inhospitable to human life; the engineering of the human genome for so long and to such a radical extent that the races genetic profile becomes unstable or susceptible to any number of unexpected disasters – these are only the possibilities which might face us in the relatively near future on account of our current level of ‘technological progress’. We can thus derive no complacent optimism from our review of history: the ‘necessity of progress’ is called into question by the evidences of the deep past on the one hand and by the fruits of that very ‘progress’ itself on the other.
In this sense, it would appear that the Traditionalist perspective is in its way more ‘optimistic’ than the Modernist, for it seems to provide for the commencement of a new cycle, and thus at least promises the preservation of the race, if not of its present forms or achievements. At the same time, there can be no fixed surety that mankind is destined to survive the coming ‘end of the cycle’. Its survival depends, not certainly on the laws of nature, but on the will of the divine; but what do we know of the divine will, or of what the divine mind thinks of humankind and its wretched struggles? Surely the existence of individual men is not a matter of concern to the divine; this conclusion is so obvious as to become trivial, and hardly needs a work like Voltaire’s Candide to bring us to awareness of it. One has merely to consult the mortality list of the most recent earthquake to confirm as much. Nor are good men, nor even divine men, spared these disasters, so far as their earthy existence goes. What can guarantee then that the divine will ensure the survival of any man when the final catastrophe comes? Who can assure us that the gods will scoop up even some handful of worthy survivors from out of the inferno to see to their continuation? Both Modernism and Traditionalism seem to be conditioned by a secret optimism which has no clear grounding, and which would seem to be contradicted by other elements of the same views. Traditionalism has, however, this excellent reason for hope, which Modernism cannot claim: even if the end of man is to come, the divine is eternal, and divinity in man is equally so. Man, insofar as he has become a transcendent being in his person, is deathless in the decisive respect. To this extent, Traditionalism gives an empyreal guarantee of life to man or to the best men.
Be this as it may, we are concerned with the question of human history and its conservation or loss; and whatever the reality of the Traditionalist promise, the earthly destruction of man means necessarily the end of that history. So far our analysis of history goes, we find nothing to guarantee its continuation; a multitude of contemporary viewpoints promise to us a bright tomorrow (e.g. the universal liberal order of freedom, equality, prosperity; the return of the Golden Age; the technological singularity which brings a new state of wonder and makes possible the physically impossible, transforming us into gods), but all of them might in fact be but a secret nightmare gilded in false array (e.g. a global dictatorship, the final Armageddon, a technocratic tyranny or the abolition of our humanity in a digital death). All these views in their popular form tend to lead to nothing so much as the deresponsibilizing of men, for they convince us to shuck our duties from our shoulders and thrust them upon the back of some fantastical tomorrow. In the meantime we bury ourselves in complacency and wretched contentment, a kind of nihilism which is so petty and pathetic that it hardly deserves so dire a name.
Having arrived at such a point we are compelled to step back and take stock. The question reasserts itself: What are Modernism and Traditionalism, and where do they originate? What are their origins?
Traditionalism takes its bearings, as we have lately stated, by the unitary and esoteric truth lying behind appearances and exoteric teachings; but it takes its point of departure from the necessity of finding one’s way in fallen times. Its point of departure, that is to say, is not the esoteric (that is rather its destination); its point of departure is a rebellion against Modernism. It is late-come, tardy; even by its own estimation, it would not exist at all if we lived in a truly ‘Traditionalist’ epoch. The very titles of many of its founding works – as for instance Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World and Guénon’s Crisis of the Modern World – point to its reactionary nature. It exists in reaction to, in response to, the modern crisis. It therefore points us in two directions simultaneously: first, to analysis of the pre-modern Traditionalist line of teachers and civilizations, and second, to its great contender, the Modern World. It would not exist in the absence thereof; Modernism is the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for Traditionalism. To adequately understand Traditionalism, we must therefore understand Modernism.
Modernity takes its proximate origins from two sources: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The first is equivalent to the attempt to resuscitate a dormant Antiquity, primarily in the political and artistic senses. Philosophically, it represents a conscious departure from Antiquity, an overcoming of a dark ‘history’ through the diligent study of the same. The Renaissance rebirth of Antiquity thus unwittingly laid the groundwork for its subsequent murder in the Enlightenment; and for the same reason, the Renaissance has a more peripheral role in the development of Modernism than the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment is the true ‘origin’ of Modernism.
But the Enlightenment, as even these remarks demonstrate, was not born of the void. It consisted primarily in a response to, a modification of, or a rebellion against classical philosophy, and classical political philosophy in particular. Its purported reasons for this rebellion were from the very first pragmatic; classical political philosophy, as Machiavelli stated it,2 did not treat of the reality of human life, but rather of some ‘ideal’ human life which was not actual and could not be made so. This was aggravated by the irksome disproportion, noted classically by Hobbes,3 between the seemingly objective and final successes of mathematics in the new science on the one hand, and the continuing disrepair and chaos of human polities on the other. The difference between geometry and political philosophy, of course, had always been known; this was hardly a discovery of modern times. But classical philosophy had taken the difference to be produced by the nature of geometry as opposed to the nature of the human being; these natures differed, and consequently it would be meaningless to attempt to understand them via parallel philosophical approaches or methodologies. The moderns were enormously impressed, however, by the emergence of natural science, which they took to be a demonstrable improvement over classical science; and, having seen that this natural science could be extended to the whole of the physical world (what began to be known as ‘nature’ in the inclusive sense in contradistinction to the restrictive or distinctive classical idea of nature),4 believed that this science could be extended to human beings and human things as well as to number and geometrical form. For by the new view, the human being was considered ‘a part of nature’, comprehensible in light of the ‘natural laws’. One primary source of Modernism, if it is not the true source of Modernism itself, is therefore located in the question of science, as this was elaborated by Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Copernicus, Kepler, Lavoisier &co.
The question therefore opens of the character of the change which these men produced in the former natural science – that natural science of the scholastics which traced its origins back the Philosopher, to Aristotle himself, and which was transmitted to the first modern natural scientists via the reconciliation which Thomas Aquinas had effected or attempted to effect between classical philosophy and Christian theology. Why did the moderns effect a break with this tradition? In what did this break consist? To what extent is it tied to the spirit of the Renaissance, and to what extent did it represent rather an extraneous and unrelated spirit, a spirit of its own – the Modern spirit in ovo? What is the relation of this idea to the concept of History which arose in that same period, and what critique can be made of both these new ideas?
These questions, some of which are neglected to such a shocking extent that they are often not even perceived any longer, point us emphatically to a conclusion which is relevant to our present disquisition: Modernism arose in specific dialectic with pre-Modernism. One must therefore comprehend the ‘before’ if one is to rightly comprehend the ‘after’: the true origins of Modernism are coeval with the origins of the West itself, of the Western Tradition. It is imperative that these origins be understood.
The origins of the Western Tradition can be traced back to a remarkable extent to two men, two ‘historical moments’ which were absolutely unique and ‘creative’ with respect to all that followed: Socrates and Christ. In some ways, these men were strangely parallel in their lives: they both voluntarily chose to live lives of comparative poverty and even ‘ignominy’ with respect to the standards of their time; they were martyred by their governments on the pretext (among other things) of impiety; both were regarded as being in some way totally new or revolutionary by the milieus in which they moved, and were therefore largely greeted with strong mistrust on the part of the older generations and ecstatic devotion on the part of the younger; and neither of them, so far as we know, wrote down even a single one of their teachings, but were rather recorded in these teachings by their pupils or disciples. But here the similarities end, and a remarkable series of contrasts commences.
One was given to the shocking and, to orthodox minds, insanely arrogant claim that he was the incarnate Son of God; the other was given to the provoking and maddeningly humble claim that he knew that he knew nothing. One silenced his critics with the power of his single utterances; the other demonstrated the poverty of his critics’ views through ruthless and lengthy dialectic. One is recorded primarily as speaking to or before crowds and masses of men, and was intent on the conversion of all mankind; the other did all in his power to turn his conversations upon a single specifically chosen man or else very small select groups, spoke in dialogue even in the presence of others, and sought the cultivation of an extremely exclusive group of rare potential philosophers or philo-philosophers. One wept thrice, proclaimed the coming of God, promised redemption and the overcoming of the grave and founded hope as a virtue; the other promised, it would seem, nothing at all, and is said to have laughed in the very hour he was made to die. Finally, one of them impelled men to absolute loving obedience to the One God; the other, to absolute uncompromising investigation of the cosmos, without restriction and without special regard to supposedly divine commandments.
This is, of course, an impossibly curtailed treatment of either of these men, not to speak of both together. We present it merely to indicate the route by which a ‘return to the origins’ might bear real fruit for our study of the modern crisis. For nothing can be clearer than this: that the confrontation with Modernity demands of us a return to the origins, both the proximate (in the Renaissance and Enlightenment) and the deep (in classical and Christian Antiquity). The origins must be unearthed and grasped; the alternatives which they supplanted (as for instance: the Greek poetic tradition; the European pagan traditions; the rival cults of late Rome, such as the Mithraic; Christendom and the Gothic Age; etc.) must be drawn with due clarity, sympathy and justice, that their potential and their limitations in our modern day can be brought to light; for only through the self-knowledge that such ‘historical studies’ might furnish us can we possibly hope to confront the crisis of our times.
Such a return must be an act of reverence or of wonder. It opens the meaning of Modernity itself, and represents at the same time the revival of our Tradition; rather than rejecting the present or the history which produced it in favour of some tenuous future or haze-bound pre-history, we make time itself the object of our work, we dwell like divers or fishermen on this sea of memory, this wellspring of matchless vitality beneath us. We transform ourselves from mere cynical critics of our age into lovers of the West, philoccidentals. Thereby we revive, not only the customs, ways, styles of life contained in this superabundant and multifaceted past of the West, but its very soul, its philosophy or its faith, its eternal and unchangeable ‘Ideas’ or archetypes, which form its pith and its essence. And thereby, and thereby alone, do we open the possibility, the unique and precious chance, of a non-nihilistic response to Modernity, through the resurrection or rebirth of its truest and most fundamental origins.
1In this overview we disregard the powerful critique brought against this notion of history by men like Nietzsche and Hiedegger, who, one might say, preserved the modern sense of history, but shore it of the modern notion of progress. Both men have been implicated much more clearly in the advent of those political regimes which opposed the modern trend than in that trend itself, and this is no doubt in part due to their anti-progressivist, anti-meliorist view of history.
2See Machiavelli, The Prince, esp. Chapter XV.
3See Hobbes’ introduction to his Philosophical Rudaments Concerning Government and Society. See also Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, esp. Rules Two and Three, which would form the basis for his subsequent Meditations.
4This distinction can be briefly summarized as follows. The classical idea of nature took nature to be that which distinguishes the beings of the world from the other beings of the world; the nature of man is not the nature of dog, which in turn is not the nature of the stars or the stones. Each nature implies an end, a telos for the being in question, and these teloi cannot be interchanged. The right end of man is not the right end of a dog. ‘Nature’ for modern times, on the other hand, is rather something equivalent to the universe as such; it is the sum total of things that exist and that emerge on the basis of identifiable and mathematizable laws. But in the comprehension of these laws, the possibility arises of changing their emergent course; man can influence or alter or command the ‘natural’ order. To this extent, man stands in some mysterious way outside of ‘nature’; ‘nature’ is therefore increasingly understood in contradistinction to ‘man’ or ‘technology’ or to the artificial world that man produces. There appears to be a tension here; for man’s separation from the ‘natural world’ indicates that he cannot be comprehensively analysed in the light of its laws. Yet modern science is dedicated to nothing so much as the presupposition that the entire world, man included, can be analysed in the light of these laws. Man appears to wish to destroy his own underpinning, and the doctrine of progress suggests moreover that he is capable of doing so. Man remains the one open question in the world, the one ‘unnatural’ being. This inclines man along a path which ultimately seems to aim at his extricating himself altogether from the ‘laws of nature’ – process we have reviewed to some extent in Part II of this essay, and which appears to culminate in self-annihilation.