Nerd Among the Ruins, Part I
An Exploration of Julius Evola's Traditionalism
The writings of Julius Evola first came to my attention in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Trump’s ex-consigliere, Steve Bannon, claimed to be an avid reader of the Italian occultist-turned-political-philosopher. When a number of Evola-related memes and debates began to filter up into my noosphere, I decided to see what the fuss was all about. Evola was said to be one of the most anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, and anti-democratic thinkers of the 20th century. He was also said to be one of the most challenging to read. Those in the know warned me that Evola was going to be very difficult for me to understand, but I dove headlong into Men Among the Ruins anyway. I felt up to the challenge.
I wasn’t. My first foray into reading Evola utterly failed. His every argument seemed to depend on axioms and convictions which, not only did I not share, I didn’t even understand. They were axioms and convictions of an earlier age, left unformulated and unspoken for centuries. His words might have been translated into Contemporary English, but his thoughts had not. He was simply inaccessible to a secular libertarian materialist modern nerd like myself.
Six years and eleven books later, I believe I understand him enough to spend some time elaborating on his thought over the course of a few essays. However, before proceeding, I must offer two caveats.
First, I cannot and do not claim to now be an expert on Evola’s thought; in fact, the exercise of writing these essays is largely an exercise in seeing how well I understand it at all, as well as an opportunity to acquire fresh insights from those with other knowledge. You will do me no discourtesy to share your own thoughts on him, and to point out any errors in interpretation I have made.
Second, I do not mean for my exploration of Evola’s thought to imply endorsement of any or all it. I explore a lot of thinkers, including the likes of Marx and Herbert Marcuse. I certainly do not endorse all of their thoughts. For that matter, seeing as Evola’s views evolved over decades, not even Evola endorsed all of Evola’s thought.
With those caveats proclaimed, let us cautiously proceed. In this first essay, we’ll start, as we must, with the esoteric and occult metaphysics that form the basis for Julius Evola’s political beliefs.
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Julius Evola is broadly considered to belong to the Traditionalist school of thought (albeit situated on its Farthest Right Wing). When I first approached Evola, in all of my naivety and ignorance, I assumed that the Traditionalist school supported something like “family values” or “social conservatism.” I thus expected to read something like, well, like William S. Lind’s Retroculture.
That is emphatically not what the Traditionalist school is about. Tradition doesn’t refer to the ‘50s, unless we’re talking the 1350s or the 350s. No, the Traditionalist school is about what is otherwise known as the prisca theologia, the Perennial Philosophy. Infogalactic explains:
Perennialism is a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown…
The universal truth which lives at heart of each religion has been rediscovered in each epoch by saints, sages, prophets, and philosophers. These include not only the 'founders' of the world's great religions but also gifted and inspired mystics, theologians, and preachers…
[A]lthough the sacred scriptures of the world religions are undeniably diverse and often superficially oppose each other, one can discern a common doctrine regarding the ultimate purpose of human life.
Now, a Perennialist is simply someone who believes that the perennial philosophy exists. Unitarian Universalists, who speak of “many windows, one light,” are Perennialists. But they are definitely not Traditionalists. (Indeed, no one who has ever stepped foot into a UU Church would ever accuse them of being traditional, let alone right-wing!)
A Traditionalist, on the other hand, is someone who believes that human society ought to be structured around an appropriate manifestation of the perennial philosophy. Such a society sets the stage for the highest forms of human life. Evola labels these as “Olympian,” “Apollonian,” or “high” civilizations. He considers the “high” civilizations to include, e.g., the Indo-Aryan kingdoms of the Vedas, the Roman Empire of the Principate, the Holy Roman Empire of the Ghibellines, and the Japanese Empire of the Meiji Restoration.
In contrast to the “high” civilizations are those which have rejected the perennial philosophy and therefore destroyed the very foundation for properly organizing human life. Evola calls these “Telluric,” “Titanic,” “Satanic,” “earthly,” “liberal,” “bourgeoise,” and “modern” civilizations. Traditionalists hold that the commercialism and materialism of modernity are anathema to the higher, spiritual purpose that should characterize life. Rather than represent the height of human achievement, modernity is actually an epoch of chaos and ruin, an Iron Age, a Kali Yuga.
Only when we reject modernity and embrace (capital-t) Tradition will this dark age end and a new golden age of high civilization begin again. Or so the Traditionalists assert.
But what does embracing Tradition even mean? Each of the members of the Traditionalist school has their own particular understanding of Tradition. Most of them have written books explaining it. Evola wrote… many.
The book that I believe best explains Evola’s understanding of tradition is The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art, first published in 1931 (three years before his better known Revolt Against the Modern World.) The Hermetic Tradition is ostensibly an explanation of Renaissance alchemical symbology and practice. But it is more fruitfully read as an explanation of Evola’s view of Tradition as a whole.
In his introduction to The Hermetic Traditions, Evola explains that there exist what he calls “two natures”: the immortal nature and the mortal nature. Nature here should be understood both in terms of human nature and in terms of nature itself, Nature with a capital N. Evola posits that there is a corporeal mortal world to which those of a mortal nature belong, and a noncorporeal immortal world to which those of an immortal nature belong.
Man, as an individual ego or personality, enters the corporeal world with birth, and in so doing takes on a mortal nature. Then, upon a man’s death, Evola explains,
[t]he disintegration of the support of [the body] results in the loss of all consciousness in the personal sense, in the eternal sleep, in the larval existence of Hades, in the dissolution which is… the destiny of all those for whom this life constitute the beginning and end of everything…
[O]nly those will escape who, while still in life, learned how to focus their consciousness upon the higher world. [This] passage from [the mortal] to [the immortal] is… on condition of an essential, effective, and positive transformation from one mode of being into another. This transformation is acquired by initiation, in the strictest sense of the word. By initiation some men could escape from one nature and achieve the other… Their arrival at the plane of another form of existence, constituted an event on the new plane exactly equivalent to generation and physical birth.
Most men, then, are in some sense extinguished — at least in the sense of their personal consciousness — upon death. (They might be reincarnated, or perhaps spiritually recycled, but their self is annihilated.) Only the few, those who are initiated, are reborn to an immortal nature on a higher plane of existence.
This view, Evola asserts, is found throughout the ancient Indo-European religions. In Hellenistic religion, ordinary men went to Hades when they died, where they languished as witless wraiths, but distinguished individuals could attain the immortality of the Elysian Fields or even become gods. In Norse religion, those who died of sickness or old age were confined to Hel, but those who died in battle were taken as heroes to Valhalla. In certain Buddhist teachings, ordinary men were reincarnated upon their death, but the enlightened attained Nirvana.1
The opposing view, espoused by Christian, Jewish, and Islamic teaching, holds that all men have universally immortal souls, which are assigned to Heaven and Hell at death or some other time of judgment. Evola, who was stridently anti-Christian at the time that he wrote The Hermetic Tradition2, rejected the Abrahamic view as vulgar and incorrect:
It was the vulgarization and abusive generalization of a truth valid exclusively for initiates that was to give birth to the strange idea of an “immortality of the soul,” and then extend [it] unconditionally to the same for all souls.
From that moment until today, that illusion has been perpetuated in diverse forms of religious thought: the chimera that the soul of a mortal is immortal; that immortality is a certainty, not a mere possibility…
That which some consider a sure thing and others an arbitrary hope [is] actually a privilege bestowed by a secret and sacred Art.
The afterlife posited by Julius Evola, then, is hierarchical rather than egalitarian. And this — as we shall see in later essays — is one of the most important keys to understanding his politics.
But what is initiation, and how is it to be achieved? Over the course of The Hermetic Tradition, and in later books such as The Bow and the Club, The Metaphysics of War, and The Metaphysics of Sex, Evola suggests that there are actually a number of pathways to initiation. He assigns them different names in different works (each of which is written from the point of view of particular spiritual traditions). For our purposes, we will call them the Ascetic path, the Mystic path, the Heroic path, and the Erotic path. Each path follows a similar course. Each path ultimately offers the reward of a sort of apotheosis in this life and immortality in the next.
In the first stage, separation, the would-be immortal must, by some means, experience a temporary separation of the soul from the body. Evola refers to this variously as “dissolution,” “alchemical death,” “entrance into the tomb of Osiris,” “mors triumphialis,” and “philosophical death.” He writes, “it is not a question of a body which, upon disintegrating loses its soul, but of a soul so concentrated in its power that it unmakes the body.
In the Ascetic and Mystic paths, the philosophical death is often part of an initiatory ritual, such as those used in Orphic, Dionysian, or Mithraic mysteries. In the Heroic path, the philosophical death is that state of suprapersonal existence achieved before or during a battle wherein the hero accepts the inevitability of bodily death in pursuit of something higher. (As the Bushido teachers explain, “the way of the Samurai is found in death.”) In the Erotic path, the philosophical death is related to the moment of deindivualized ecstasy that the French call la petite mort.
In the second stage, ascent and purification, the would-be immortal must retain consciousness and suppress the reactions that would immediately return his soul to his corporeal body, while at the same time avoiding being overwhelmed by the experience of the transcendental Godhead that is the ground of all being. One must “identify oneself with the original power in order to be reintegrated supernaturally - but avoid being fulminated.” It is a trial in which both desire for the earthly and rapture by the celestial can destroy the aspirant.
In the Ascetic path, the initiate uses exercise and technique to both stay open but not be overwhelmed. Evola notes this as requiring “rigorous inner discipline.” In the Heroic path, the initiate uses the exaltation of battle to purify himself of worldly concerns. In the Mystic and Erotic path, the initiate uses mystic and ecstatic states respectively, perhaps in conjunction with dance, music, orgiastic frenzy, and entheogenic herbs, to more easily maintain the separation of soul from body; but there is great risk of losing consciousness to the overwhelming union with the transcendental. In the Erotic path, for instance, Evola considers the release of orgasm to represent failure at this stage, while Taoist and Tantric self-control represent the initiatic way.
In the third stage, descent and transformation, the would-be immortal must return his soul to his body in order to transform it into a glorified vessel for his newly empowered spirit. The details of this stage occupy most of The Hermetic Tradition, which focuses on the Ascetic path. The details of how descent and transformation work for the other paths is left unsaid.3 In any case, the details are unnecessary for purposes of our essay.
What matters is that upon completing the descent and transformation, the initiate becomes something more than human. In Introduction to Magic Volume I, Evola writes:
He who has undergone this “death” has ceased to be a mere man: he is no longer tied to an individual form; his “Self” no longer is a reflection, but rather a being. He has actualized the “spiritual personality.” Having done that, the support of the physical body and of sensible experience may fail without the individual consciousness becoming dissolved and sinking.
The initiate, akin to a god among men, gains more than just immortality. He acquires supernatural or occult powers derived from the higher plane. At the end of The Hermetic Tradition, Evola asserts that an initiate can:
“Community directly without bridging the spatial separation between individuals…”
“Arouse, in other beings, specific thoughts, visions, and plans of action…”
“Project to other beings not only ideas and images, but emotions and affective states in general, even “charging” objects and places with specific emotive states.”
“Project one’s own ‘double’ which, as a regenerated consciousness, has the power to transport itself instantly to any given point in space, resulting thereby in a corresponding apparition.”
If you are a materialistic or skeptic, I ask you to set your presuppositions aside for a moment. Let us imagine, as Evola does, that some men like this might exist. Imagine that some men might be able — not by glory of God but by god-like glory — to transcend the merely human and become regal and Olympian kings and heroes, great-souled and charismatic, capable of overcoming petty materialism and vulgarity in order to lead us into higher orders of life. Imagine that there are men who possess what the Romans called auctoritas, the numinous power to command. Certainly our ancient ancestors believed in such men.
If we can imagine that being reality — and granted, that’s a big if — then we can begin to understand why Evola rejected modernity, egalitarianism and democracy, and favored tradition, hierarchy, and monarchy. We can understand why he believed kings ruled by divine right and the masses were rightly ruled by the divine.
In The Federalist No. 51, Hamilton and Madison justified our newly-established constitutional republic as the only suitable form of government for imperfect men:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
To this, Julius Evola might respond that their chief error lies in trying to frame a government in which men administer over men, when a superior alternative to mere men is available.
Next week, we’ll again don a monocle and Italian suit to explore Evola’s beliefs on cosmic dualism, occult warfare, and more. Things only get more esoteric from here!
Contemplations on the Tree of Woe will be banning anyone who makes a joke in the Comments section about the Erotic Path to Initiation, unless they are subscribers. So you know what to do, funny people.
Those you familiar with my role-playing game writing may note that this description of the afterlife closely parallels the afterlife presented in the Auran Empire campaign setting. This is not coincidental; in developing the Auran cosmogony, I did a great deal of research on Greek, Roman, and Vedic religion, and eventually, and unintentionally, reached the same conclusion that Evola did with regard to the unitary theory underlying what the ancients believed. It is one of life’s little ironies that I’d have easily understood Evola the first time I read him if only I’d just interpreted him as an Auran philosopher justifying the rule of the deified Tarkauns. Ah well.
Later in life, Evola was more receptive to the value of Christianity as a possible path that might lead men to embrace Tradition. The Christianity he concerned himself was Roman Catholicism, of course; but a thoroughly Traditional Christianity (in the sense of Evolan Traditionalism) could be easily imagined. It would require a denomination that embraced Annihilationism (such that only the saved will enjoy eternal life); Pelagianism (such that man earns salvation by his own effort); and Deification (such that in earning salvation man is apotheosizing to the likeness of God). Some of the strands of Eastern Orthodox thought seem to me to approach this. The hieromonastic ascetism exercised to achieve theosis is akin to Evola’s Ascetic path. The recent declaration by Patriarch Krill of Moscow that soldiers slain in battle for the Motherland ascend to Heaven is suggestive of what Evola calls the Heroic path.
It may be that Evola explains it in one of his other occult books. I have not yet read his entire corpus! Be sure to enlighten me (so as to speak) in the comments.