Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898): Hesiod & the Muses (1860)
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.