The traces left by certain great primordial civilisations — traces left often only in stone — possess a significance which is rarely perceived. Looking upon the remains of the archaic Graeco-Roman world and beyond — of Egypt, of Persia, of China, down to the last emerging and immobile vestiges of worlds submerged and swept away, those mysterious megalithic monuments scattered across deserts, wild areas and forests — or, to consider the opposite limit on the chronological spectrum of history, down to certain expressions of the European Middle Ages — looking upon all of this, one wonders whether the miraculous survival of such testimonies may not stand as a symbol, rather than simply as the consequence of a lucky combination of external circumstances.
This impression is further strengthened when we consider the general character of the life of those civilisations to which most of these traces belong, which is to say the general character of what may be described as ‘traditional’ life. This life has endured throughout the centuries and generations, essentially remaining faithful to the same principles, the same kind of institutions, and the same world-view. Though it is open to adaptation and exterior changes in the face of calamitous events, it is nonetheless unalterable in its core, its animating principle, its spirit, and its overall nature.
It is chiefly the East which this traditional world brings to mind. Consider what China and India were like until relatively recent times, or indeed Japan until an even more recent past. Generally speaking, the further back we go in time, the more vital, universal and powerful we find this kind of civilisation to be; so much so that the East alone must be regarded as that part of the world in which, thanks to lucky circumstances, traditional civilisation survived longer and developed better than anywhere else. It is as though the rule of time were partly suspended in civilisations of this sort. They seem to have been born not so much in time, as in space. They possess an ‘atemporal’ character.
According to the formula most current nowadays, the civilisations just described are ‘stationary’ civilisations — ‘static’ or ‘immobilist’ civilisations. In fact, they are civilisations whose very material vestiges are apparently destined to outlast all the modern world’s monuments or idealistic creations. For the latter hardly have the power to endure more than half a century: the words ‘progress’ and ‘dynamism’ mean nothing in relation to them but a mere subjection to contingency, to the movement of incessant change, of a rapid rise and a sharp and equally rapid decline. These processes do not obey any truly organic inner law; they are not enclosed within any limits, but they acquire a momentum of their own, so that they ultimately carry away the very people who have triggered them: such is the distinguishing feature of this different world, in all of its sectors. Yet despite all this, these processes have been turned into a kind of criterion for measuring everything which ought to be described as a ‘civilisation’ in an eminent sense, within the framework of a historiography marked by arrogant and disparaging value judgements of the kind already indicated.
It is quite typical, in this connection, to mistake for immobility what in civilisations with a traditional orientation possessed a very different meaning: immutability. Those civilisations were civilisations of being. They showed their strength precisely in their identity, in their triumph over becoming, over ‘history’, change, and the amorphous flow of things. These civilisations plunged deep, beyond the shifting and treacherous waters, and in the deep they firmly rooted themselves.
The opposition between modern civilisations and traditional ones may be summarised as follows: modern civilisations devour space, whereas traditional civilisations devoured time.
The former — modern civilisations — are dizzying in their fever for movement and for the conquest of space. This has led to the creation of an endless arsenal of mechanical means to reduce all distances, shorten all intervals, and contract into a sense of ubiquity whatever is scattered across a multitude of places. This is a frenzied need for possession; a dark angst towards all that is detached, isolated, deep or remote; an impulse to expand, circulate, associate with others and find oneself in any which place — anywhere except within oneself. Science and technology, which have been promoted by this irrational existential impulse, in turn strengthen it, nourish it, and exacerbate it: exchanges, forms of communication, ultrasonic speeds, radio and television, standardisation, cosmopolitanism, internationalism, unlimited production, the American spirit, the ‘modern’ spirit.
The net is swiftly being extended, strengthened and perfected. Terrestrial space practically no longer conceals any mysteries. All paths by land, water and aether have been disclosed. The human gaze has probed the remotest heavens, the infinitely great and the infinitely small. One no longer speaks of other lands, but rather of other planets. On our own planet, action is carried everywhere in a flash. A din of a thousand voices that gradually merge into a uniform, monotonous and impersonal rhythm. These are the latest effects of what has been termed Western ‘Faustianism’, which is not unrelated to the myth of revolution in all its various aspects, the technocratic included — all formulated within the framework of a degenerated messianism.
By contrast, traditional civilisations were dizzying in their stability, in their identity, in their subsisting in an unwavering and changeless fashion in the midst of the current of time and history: so much so that they even succeeded in lending sensible, tangible expression to eternity. They stood as islands or bastions in time; operating within them were forces that consumed time and history. For this reason, it is incorrect to say that they ‘were’: it would be more correct to say that they quite simply are. If they seem to withdraw and almost vanish into a remote past, which at times even acquires mythical contours, this is only the mirage reaching whomever is carried away by an unstoppable current which leads him further and further from the domains of spiritual stability. This idea moreover corresponds perfectly to the image of the ‘double perspective’ provided by an ancient traditional teaching: the ‘immobile land’ moves and withdraws from whomever goes with the waters, while the waters move and withdraw from whomever firmly resides in the ‘immobile land’.
If one understands this image by viewing it in relation not to the physical plane but to the spiritual plane, one thereby perceives the correct hierarchy of values; thus we cast our gaze beyond the horizon which confines our contemporaries. What seemed to be past becomes present, by virtue of an essential relating of historical (and hence contingent) forms to meta-historical contents. What has been referred to as ‘static’ proves to be overflowing with a dizzying life. The others — they are the fallen, those who have lost their centre. Changeism, historicism, evolutionism, and so on, all seem like the thrills of the shipwrecked, truths applying to whatever flees (où fuyez-vous en avant, imbéciles? Bernanos),1 to whatever lacks inner consistency and ignores what this means or even what the origin of all elevations and achievements is. By such achievements, I mean here not merely an intangible and often invisible spiritual culmination, but achievements which rather expressed themselves through events, epic deeds and the cycles of civilisations which even in their silent and scattered stone vestiges seem to adumbrate something supra-temporal and eternal. To this we should further add certain traditional artistic creations, monolithic, rough and mighty creations utterly foreign to all subjectivity — often anonymous creations that constitute almost an extension of elemental forces.
Finally, it is worth recalling the conception of time which traditional civilisations had: not an irreversible linear conception but a cyclical, periodical one. A range of customs, rites and institutions distinguish both higher civilisations as well as the echoes which survive of them in certain ‘primitive’ peoples (one may wish to refer here to the material collected in the history of religion — Hubert, Mauss, Eliade, and others).2 These reveal a constant intention to bring time back to its origins (hence the cycle), which means destroying everything that represents mere becoming, curbing it, or making it express or reflect supra-historical, sacred or metaphysical structures, often connected to myth. It was in such terms — as a ‘mobile image of eternity’ — that time acquired value and meaning, not as ‘history’. Returning to the origins meant renewing oneself, drawing upon the spring of eternal youth, and confirming one’s spiritual stability, against temporality. The great cycles of nature encouraged such an attitude. The ‘historical awareness’ that is inseparable from the situation of ‘modern’ civilisations only seals this fracture, this fall of man into temporality. Yet it is presented as one of the conquests of the last mankind,3 which is to say of crepuscular mankind.
Concerning certain discoveries, even such as allegedly fall within the range of scientific objectivity, it is not at all uncommon that they, as the origins of those general conceptions destined to revolutionise an age, constitute a symptom; so much so that their occurrence in one particular period rather than another cannot be regarded a matter of chance. With reference to the natural sciences, for example, it is widely known that according to the most recent theory en vogue — that of Einstein and his followers — it makes little difference whether we say that the Earth moves around the Sun or vice versa: it is only a matter of preferring a greater or lesser complexity in the astrophysical calculations used to establish relational systems.4 Now, with the ‘Copernican discovery’, it ceased to be ‘true’ that the Earth is the firm and immobile centre of the heavenly bodies, and it became ‘true’ that the Earth moves and, following its own law, travels through cosmic space, an irrelevant part of a dispersed or indefinitely expanding universe. It seems highly significant that this discovery occurred more or less in the age of the Renaissance and of Humanism, which is to say in the age of the most crucial upheavals in the emergence of a new civilisation, whose individuals were progressively to lose all connections with what ‘is’ and to fall away from all forms of spiritual centredness in their adoption of the perspective of becoming, of history, of transformation, of the uncontrollable and unpredictable current of ‘life’. (The most peculiar thing is that the beginning of this upheaval was marked by the claim — the illusion — that it had finally discovered, affirmed and glorified ‘man’ — hence the term ‘Humanism’; in fact, everything was reduced to the ‘merely human’, thereby impoverishing the possibilities of any opening to and integration within the ‘more than human’.)
This is not the only symbolic upheaval that could be mentioned in this connection. With regard to the example just adduced — the ‘Copernican revolution’ — one point is worth noting: in the traditional world no so-called ‘objective’ truth was granted importance; truths of this sort might be taken into account, but only secondarily, according to their actual relativity on the one hand, and to their human value on the other, ever bearing in mind criteria of what would be opportune for the general way of perceiving things. A traditional theory about nature may have been ‘wrong’ from the point of view of modern science (at a given stage of its development); yet its value — the reason why it was chosen — lay in its suitability as a means of expressing something true on a different and more interesting level. For example, the geocentric theory grasped an aspect of sensible reality that might serve as a support for a truth of a different sort, an unassailable truth, namely the truth regarding ‘being’, spiritual centredness, as the principle governing the true essence of man.
Let this suffice for a morphological clarification of the antithesis between the civilisation of space and the civilisation of time. From this antithesis, it would also be easy to infer the corresponding typological and existential antithesis between the man of the former civilisation and the man of the latter. And should we wish to move on to the problem of the crisis of the present age based on what has been argued so far, it should be quite clear just how useless any criticism, reaction or aspiration toward rectifying action will be, unless an inner change of polarity has first taken place in man himself, or at any rate in a certain number of men capable of exercising a significant influence. This change may be described as a metanoia,5 to use the ancient term, meaning a shift towards the dimension of ‘being’, of ‘what is’ — a dimension which has been lost and dissolved in modern man, to the point that he hardly knows what inner stability or centredness is, and hence also calmness and a higher sense of security. Instead, a hidden sense of angst is becoming increasingly common, of disquietude and of emptiness, despite the widespread use, in all domains, of recently invented spiritual anaesthetics. A sense of ‘being’, of stability, is bound to produce also a sense of limits through a principle effective even in a more external domain, as a means of asserting oneself over forces and processes that have become more powerful than those individuals that have rashly set them in motion within the temporal realm.
Taking our civilisation as a whole, it is indeed difficult to say where any firm points of reference could be found in a civilisation which, like the modern one, is entirely — and to an unprecedented degree — a civilisation of time. It is moreover quite obvious that not so much rectification as the end of one form and the emergence of a new one is now possible. Thus, we can at most reasonably consider only a change in orientation in some specific domain; in particular, we can consider the goal that a few differentiated men, as though through an awakening, might still set themselves and invisibly accomplish.6
1The citation is French: ‘Whither are you fleeing, fools?’ It is taken from an essay by French novelist Georges Bernanos (1888–1948) entitled ‘La France contre les robots’ (France Against the Robots). The original French differs slightly from Evola’s reproduction: ‘Que fuyez-vous donc, imbéciles?’ meaning ‘From what are you feeling, fools?’ The response which Bernanos furnishes very much accords, however, with Evola’s argument in the present chapter: ‘Alas! You are fleeing from yourselves… One understands nothing of modern civilisation if one does not first admit that it is a universal conspiracy against every kind of interior life’. Bernanos is perhaps best remembered for his novel Diary of a Country Priest, which treats of a young but ailing pastor who, assigned to a troubled country parish, struggles against spiritual temptation and faithlessness. Bernanos was a Roman Catholic, a monarchist and an anti-democrat, who nonetheless manifested great intolerance for the politics of his epoch: though he fought in the First World War, he spent the entirety of the Second in self-imposed exile in South America.
2Henri Hubert (1872–1927) was a French archaeologist and sociologist of comparative religion. Most of his research centered on pre-Christian faiths, and particularly the religion of the Celts. He was a friend and collaborator of Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), best remembered for his comparative analyses of gift exchanges in various cultures, though his work with Hubert focused rather on magic and sacrifice. The brilliant Romanian religious historian and novelist Mircea Eliade was a somewhat later thinker (1907–1986) whose broad work in comparative religion included a study precisely of the traditional belief in the cyclical nature of time. Eliade was decidedly a thinker of the Right, and drew a degree of his inspiration from Evola himself, with whom he kept a long correspondence.
3Italian: dell’uomo ultimo. The Italian is ambiguous; it can mean both ‘the mostrecent man’ and also ‘the final man’. Given Evola’s general philosophy, this ambiguity is almost certainly intended and is probably meant as a reminder of the fact that we are living in the last times, the decades at the ‘close of a cycle’, as he says elsewhere. In reference to man, it might also be the Italian for the translation of the German der letzte Mensch, Nietzsche’s Last Man (see Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part, ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue’). This little word thus takes on a peculiar importance. In the present translation, ultimo has been uniformly translated as ‘last’ to preserve the original ambiguity.
4Hence the name given to the Theory of Relativity of Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Indeed, even more radically yet, according to Einsteinian physics, it is possible to take any arbitrary point or perspective as the center of the entire universe, such as the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, or a stone rolling down a hill; all that changes is the efficiency and clarity of the mathematical calculations which follow. This, as Evola indicates, stands in marked contrast to all past astronomical or physical theories, including those of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), which proposed always a true center, a true perspective. It might be said that the Copernican Revolution shifted the centre of the universe from the Earth to the Sun, while the Einsteinian Revolution abolished the centre altogether.
5From the Ancient Greek μετάνοια, ‘changing one’s mind’ (lit. ‘beyond the mind’). This is a prominent biblical theme and is generally translated in the Bible by the word ‘repentance’. Its original meaning, probably also among the Christians, was a change of heart or a profound spiritual conversion; and this is clearly the meaning it takes on in Evola’s use, as demonstrated by Evola’s indications here.
6[Evola’s note. —Ed.] The differentiated type, distinguished by the possession of the dimension of ‘being’, is the point of reference for existential orientations suitable for an age of dissolution such as the present one — orientations which I formulated in my book Ride the Tiger (1961).