Fish know not that they swim in the sea, nor birds that they swoop in the air. No more do the denizens of the prevailing era know that they live out their lives in a philosophically narrow, righteously conceited, anti-human, and anti-natural dispensation, calling itself modernity, which can trace its immediate beginnings only to the Eighteenth Century, and which represents a radical break with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom gleaned painfully from a massive human experience. No doubt but contemporary modern people, when they hear an invocation of the Eighteenth Century, locate that century in a periwigged past, thinking that it could not possibly have anything to do with them, as they exist, in the transient now. This very attitude betokens, in fact, an essential feature of modernity, which idolizes the present moment as the figure of a so-called progress that is self-consummating and that makes obsolete everything belonging to any moment in the historical continuum that precedes it. Indeed, the modern mentality necessarily rejects history; it is fundamentally non- or anti-historical, which also makes it anti-memorious, devaluing not only history, but memory. Thus the modern mentality has conveniently forgotten the violent origins of its perpetually disruptive mode. The mendaciously self-designating Enlightenment, rejecting the moral and intellectual inheritance of the European Middle Ages, viciously attacked the vestiges of the past and in so doing set the stage for the mayhem and terror of the French Revolution. The violence of modernity would perpetuate itself through the centuries, murdering a hundred million people in the middle of the Twentieth Century, always in the righteous name of that selfsame progress. The convulsion of modernity, however, provoked a response, and that response took the form of Traditionalism – a critique of modernity that seeks also to curb modernity, and to curb it for the sake of a human restoration. In Traditionalism humanity remembers itself. Traditionalism attempts to revive an immemorial wisdom and to place it once again at the memorious center of institutions.
The earliest representatives of Traditionalism gained prominence with the onset of revolutionary agitation in France in 1789. The Terror of September 1793 to July 1794 and the executions of the royal family, beginning with Louis XVI in January 1793 and concluding with Louis’ ten-year-old son and heir apparent in 1795 galvanized them. The Jacobins labeled the original Traditionalists reactionaries. But the term reaction requires a context. Reaction originates, in fact, in the revolutionary mentality itself, which reacts, or rather rebels, against the Tradition. Such names as Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821), René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), and Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) stand at the center of Traditionalism and produced the heart of its classical expression. In Contra Mundum – Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition (2017), Thomas Garrett Isham makes an important point about both Maistre himself and the loosely organized movement that Maistre initiated. Isham tells of Maistre’s adherence to the Catholicism in which he came to manhood and of his loyalty, both as citizen and public servant, to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. When in 1792 the Revolutionary Army invaded Savoy, the Piedmontese départment where Maistre’s parents had brought him into the world and raised and educated him, the magistrate and senator experienced the bloody barbarity and atheistic intolerance of revolutionary-nihilistic politics at first hand; the dispossession of his property and his forced exile to neighboring Switzerland provoked in Maistre a colossal reorganization of his philosophical and theological assumptions.
And yet as Isham argues the Revolution, in Maistre’s eyes, violated not only Christian principles, but also extremely ancient pre-Christian principles, which he therefore began to see as convergent with and anticipatory of the Gospel. Isham writes how Maistre came to reject “the anti-pagan purifiers of the early church, favoring instead such figures as Clement, Origen, [and] Dionysius the Areopagite, and the pagan Greek elements retained in their theologies.” Maistre concluded, on the basis of his knowledge of religion and history, that refined paganism and Gospel Christianity reflected a primordial revelation from which history consisted mainly in a prolonged falling-away. Later writers would call this primordial revelation the Tradition, from the Latin tradere, to hand on or hand down from one generation to the next, the only possible basis for cultural continuity. Isham defends Maistre’s religious synthesis: “We do not find in his spirituality any lessening of Christian faith or principle but rather an imaginative synthesizing (not syncretizing) of compatible ingredients, such that Christian dogmas are not weakened or diminished but rather enriched by their addition.” According to Isham, Maistre “discerned a metaphysical unity beneath the varied expressions of the world’s religions.” A couple of passages from Maistre’s posthumously published St.-Petersburg Dialogues bolster Isham’s claim. Writing of pagan thought, Maistre characterizes it as “a system of corrupted and displaced truths, which only need cleaning, so to speak, and restoring to their place to shine forth all their light.” Maistre regards contemporary thought as completely muddled, the virulent spread of the Revolution signifying its disorganized baseness. He calls attention to the typical modern conceitedness: “European scientists are presently a species of conjurors or initiates, or whatever you would like to call them, who make of science a kind of monopoly and who absolutely will not have anyone know more or other than themselves.” It is well to remark that whereas pagan thought consists in “corrupt and displaced truths,” it nevertheless consists in truths.
Enlightenment thought by contrast consists, as Maistre sees it, of magical gestures and pseudo-esoteric claims, thereby disqualifying itself from any ownership of truth. Elsewhere in the Dialogues, Maistre praises Pythagoras, the pre-Socratic thinker who coined the word philosophy (“love of wisdom”), Plato, the greatest of Greek philosophers, and the Stoics. As did St. Augustine in his Confessions, Maistre regards Plato’s literary corpus as a direct precursor of the Gospel. Maistre goes further than Augustine in that he regards Socrates as a genuine martyr – fully five hundred years before anyone preached the Good Word. For Maistre, men never create wisdom; they only ever acquire wisdom from a higher source or restore it from its desuetude or dutifully pass it on to those who are currently in ignorance. The struggle of politics is not to invent something, but to draw on an unwritten tradition that already affirms the Rights and Duties of Man. The Magna Carta only belatedly documented in writing precepts that had existed, in an oral tradition, for hundreds of years. The American Constitution only restated in writing precepts already established in the oral continuity that resulted in the Magna Carta. For Maistre, a written constitution always arrives belatedly. A written constitution indeed signifies the decline of Tradition; those who write it fail to recognize its redundancy and that very redundancy indicates the restriction on their consciousness.
Maistre’s discernment of an anciently once-given acknowledgement of God, Cosmos, and Man, which strikes the modern mind as dubitable, can nevertheless claim a parallel in a development of the last two hundred years that no one doubts and that sets its roots precisely in the reconstructive study of the remote past. Since the early Nineteenth Century philologists have been aware that a large number of languages spoken from India in the East to Iceland in the West, and later, beyond Iceland, in North America, bear a relation to one another through their derivation from a common ancestral tongue whose speakers lived as long ago as seven thousand years. The Indo-European family of languages first revealed itself to Classicists with a knowledge of Greek and Latin who encountered Sanskrit, the sacerdotal and heroic language of the Hindus. Sanskrit resembled Greek and Latin in remarkable ways. As the germ of this insight developed, it gradually became clear that languages seemingly as different as Old West Norse, Lithuanian, Hittite, Greek, Latin, Armenian, and Tocharian in fact shared a basic vocabulary and grammar that researchers could trace back with great certainty, via the comparative method, to the Ur-language that they named Proto-Indo-European. A contemporary Indo-Europeanist, the late Calvert Watkins (1933 – 2013), plausibly reconstructed a Proto-Indo-European poetics whose continuity he could demonstrate from the earliest Indo-European inscriptions, both verse and prose, going back to the Bronze Age, through to Late Medieval literature. (See Watkins’ monumental How to Kill a Dragon ) Importantly, Proto-Indo-European was not a primitive language, but a fully developed one, with a grammar more complicated than that, say, of modern German or Russian.
Traditionalism makes the same claim concerning the Ur-wisdom as the Indo-Europeanists make concerning Proto-Indo-European. Traditionalists reconstruct the Ur-wisdom, moreover, by the same method that the philologists use to reconstruct the Ur-language. Just as the developing Indo-European theory raised challenges to accepted human chronology, as rooted in a literal reading of the Bible, so too does Traditionalism raise challenges to the institutional or textbook version of that same chronology. Traditionalism also pitches on its head the central modern notion of progress, which it interprets as already being an inversion of truth. René Guénon (1886 – 1951), whom Isham identifies as Maistre’s chief successor in the first half of the Twentieth Century, repudiates the notion of progress in his two key works, The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) and The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times (1945). In The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon borrows the Hindu phrase Kali-Yuga to designate the phase of modernity that began to prevail with the outbreak of the French Revolution and had just reached a climax in the war of 1914-18, with its bloody slaughter in the trenches. Kali-Yuga means the “Age of Kali,” Kali being the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Guénon remarks in The Crisis, Chapter 1, entitled “The Dark Age,” how human chronology tends to be detailed and reliable until pushed back to the Sixth Century BC: In that century, “considerable changes took place for one reason or another among almost all peoples… In some cases it was a readaptation of tradition to conditions other than those previously prevailing.” Guénon adds that in other cases, the change took the form of a “revolt against the traditional spirit.” That revolt blocked the handing-down of the Tradition.
For Guénon, then, the falling-away from Tradition began with the so-called rational revolution in the Greek and Chinese worlds and with the dispossession of the priestly class by the warrior class in India. These events set the trend for the next two-and-a-half millennia. What are the signs of the crisis of the modern world according to Guénon? One sign is forgetfulness. Again in The Crisis, Chapter 1, Guénon writes of the way in which the modern mentality has consigned the achievements of the Middle-Ages to oblivion. Guénon sees the Middle-Ages as the last time in the inexorable march of the centuries since the Sixth Century BC that Western civilization restored and sustained Tradition, and he therefore ranks the Medieval Period as superior in its achievement to the suite of centuries from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth. “An altogether extraordinary fact,” Guénon writes, “is the rapidity with which the Medieval civilization was completely forgotten; already in the seventeenth century, men had lost all idea of what it had been, and its surviving monuments no longer had any meaning for them, either intellectually or aesthetically.” Consider the indifference that followed the fire at Notre Dame in Paris in April 2019. Proposals appeared in the press that promoted the transformation of the building into a postmodern edifice that would celebrate, not history, but the affectations of the reigning political and cultural vulgarity.
For Guénon, the birth of Humanism in the Italian Renaissance marked another phase of Western decadence; it displaced the transcendent theological and cosmological principles and subordinated them to a purely immanent human principle. According to Guénon: “Men were… concerned to reduce everything to purely human proportions, to eliminate every principle of a higher order, and, one might say, symbolically to turn away from the havens under pretext of conquering the earth.” Conquering the earth is, of course, an action. Another sign of the crisis of the modern world is its placement of action over knowledge, which derives from contemplation. In The Crisis, Chapter 3, under the title “Knowledge and Action,” Guénon contrasts the Middle Ages with modernity: “In ancient times, and especially in the Middle Ages, the natural bent of Westerners for action did not prevent them from recognizing the superiority of contemplation, or in other words, of pure intelligence.” Nowadays everything advertises itself as an emergency demanding immediate action. The press and broadcasting promote a climate of panic and hysteria totally lacking in contemplation.
Other signs of the crisis of the modern world appear in what Guénon calls materialization and quantification. In The Crisis, Chapter 7, under the title “A Material Civilization,” Guénon defines the attitude of “materialism” as follows: “It seems that nothing exists for modern men beyond what can be seen and touched; or at least, even if they admit theoretically that something more [might] exist, they immediately declare it not merely unknown but unknowable, which absolves them from having to think about it.” Modernity’s increasing animosity toward religion, even while it begins to resemble a cult-like religion complete with dogma and ritual, derives from its stubbornly materialistic dogma. Guénon provides a codicil to his main definition of materialism: “Modern persons in general cannot conceive of any other science than that of things that can be measured, counted, and weighed, in other words material things, since it is to these alone that the quantitative view can be applied.” A materialistic civilization will center on economics; it will reduce everything to a monetary value, such that “the object is merely to produce as much as possible… it is quantity alone that is of importance.” Quantification is strongly related to materialization. In The Reign of Quantity, Guénon links quantity to uniformity. In mass production, all items of a particular species – this or that brand of cell phone, say – must be identical. If, however, the identity of mass-produced objects were a requirement hence also an intention of the manufacturing mentality, this intention would exert itself also by a reversal, such that uniformity would enter into and begin to undifferentiate those who thought that they controlled the means of production. Every acute observer of the last 150 years has noticed the downward spiraling conformity of Western societies. Guénon writes that uniformity “presupposes beings deprived of all qualities and reduced to nothing more than simple numerical units.”
Guénon’s books, of course, go unread by those who most desperately need to read them, but that fact belongs perfectly to modernity’s passive presentism and its consequent narrow horizons of cosmic and historical awareness. The same might be said of the whole stable of Traditionalists: They remain unknown to those who most need them. Take, for example, Count Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), who regarded himself as a successor to Guénon. Just as much as Guénon’s books, Evola’s books should be read by modern people. Doing so might open their eyes. It will not happen. Evola wrote counterparts to Guénon’s Crisis and Reign of Quantity in his Revolt against the Modern World (1934) and Ride the Tiger (1961). The first sentence of The Revolt, Chapter 1, is: “In order to understand both the spirit of Tradition and its antithesis, modern civilization, it is necessary to begin with the fundamental doctrine of the two natures.” That is to say, “There is a physical order of things and a metaphysical one; there is the superior realm of ‘being’ and the inferior realm of ‘becoming.’” Note that Tradition is the antithesis of modernity. Before the rise of modernity, and in places where modernity has not yet penetrated, Evola asserts, “this knowledge (not just a mere ‘theory’) has always been present as an unshakable axis around which everything revolved.” In archaic and medieval societies, for example, the king functioned as the visible regent of a higher, invisible authority; and authority never ended in the king, but only passed through him, as through a medium. The disappearance of regalitas in the modern world betokens that world’s obliviousness to the invisible realm and its fixity in matter.
Like Guénon, Evola takes myth seriously. He takes it for the articulation, on the symbolic level, of the Ur-wisdom. Consider the Greek creation-myth, as found in Hesiod’s Theogony, from an Evolan point of view, but without quoting from any Evolan commentary. In Hesiod’s telling, there are three generations of gods: The Elementals, such as Earth, Heaven, Night, and Ocean, whose environment is a surrounding Chaos, and who hate and fight one another even while they conceive and give birth; then come the Titans, more anthropomorphic than the Elementals, but inheriting their violence and perpetuating the anti-principle of chaos; finally come the Olympians, led by Zeus, who wages war against Titanic disorderliness, defeats his enemies, and thus resolves both the cosmic and the moral universes, which superimpose on one another, into the state of sublime order. This order has a visible component in the regular movement of the heavenly bodies. It has an invisible component in the human intuition of the gods, and especially of Zeus as guardian of justice. Hesiod urges that the big men of the society should subordinate their authority to Cosmos and Olympus and most importantly that they should imitate the justice of Zeus.
Hesiod, living and working in the Eighth Century BC, addressed himself to a Traditional society, using the vehicle of myth. Modernity obsesses over ideology, every instance of which plays false, but modernity owns no myths. Modernity’s lack of a mythic orientation, tantamount to its lack of orientation purely and simply, partly explains its penchant for chaos, which since 1914 has manifested itself in global wars, revolutions, and the proliferation of atomic weaponry. The modern mentality uses the word “myth” as an equivalent of “lie.” Nothing could be more of a lie. The Greek mythos equates to the Anglo-Saxon phrase, “word of mouth.” The words mythos and mouth are in fact cognates; and a myth is by definition an oral tale. Myth furnishes the typical vehicle of Tradition, which is why, in archaic societies, the role of the bard looms so high. The bard, typified by Hesiod, is a society’s professional rememberer. In this way Socrates appears as a descendant of Hesiod even though he criticized Hesiod as a purveyor of scandal. Socrates wished that his explanations of the structure of reality should not be written down; he preferred to remember them in viva voce before his students. His was a living person-to-person transmission. When Maistre argued that a constitution should never be written down, he did so because of his certainty that the modern equivalents of the Greek sophists would immediately begin their project of deconstructing the text in order to distort the sense of it for personal advantage.
In Ride the Tiger, Evola devotes a suite of chapters (Part 2: “In the World Where God is Dead”) to the symptoms of cultural dissolution in modernity’s New Dark Age, and to its primary symptom of nihilism. The word nihilism means a dedication to nothing and to nothingness. Nihilism, according to Evola, “is a fracture of an ontological character, through which human life loses any real reference to transcendence.” Evola adds that, “When the level of the sacred is lost, the absolute principle descends to the level of pure human morality.” The problem emerges that no such “pure human morality” exists. Lacking a transcendental reference – to Zeus or Jupiter or to the Christian Trinity with its divinely ordering Logos – man becomes wolf to man and seeks only his Darwinian advantage over the other. This phenomenon manifests itself today in the formation of uniform groups (“identities,” as they dishonestly call themselves) who compete with one another for status, privilege, and the bounty of redistributed goods. In the dishonest “identity,” the principium individuationis – that becoming of the person through stages of advancing initiation – goes missing. Everything human then tends towards homogeneity and subscendence hence also towards the subhuman. The pervasive blandness of the modern scene correlates with its pervasive nihilism. To obsess over a device is to be like everyone else who obsesses over his device although the devices sell themselves on a fraudulent claim of enhancing individuality. Imagine a crowd, all members of which carry the device perpetually in their faces, without any actual face-to-face contact. There are no people in that mass; there are only units severed from any transcendence and effectively isolated from one another in a self-replicating version of Hesiod’s pre-Olympian Chaos.
As Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier write in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance (2012), no doubt under the dual influences of Guénon and Evola: “The destruction of the life-world for the benefit of instrumental reason, economic growth, and material development have resulted in an unprecedented impoverishment of the spirit, and the generalization of anxiety related to living in an always uncertain present, in a world deprived both of the past and the future. Thus modernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known.” The sirens, however, who swim in the tepid waters, and the harpies who swoop in the tepid air, know not the tepidity, nor the jejuneness, nor the de-individuating insipidity of their milieu. The Traditionalists foresaw this impasse a long time ago.