This is John's review of Evola's best-selling book, Men Among the Ruins. It amounts to a primer of Evola's thought, and a useful summary of why I find Evola disturbing. There are certainly some ideas here that seem interesting. Taken in isolation, I think you could find a way to appeal to a large number of people with some of these ideas. It is the organic whole that gives one pause. These are truly revolutionary ideas, but also ideas that are largely untried. By common agreement, no state has ever really embodied Tradition, although some states started to move in that direction shortly before they were destroyed.
I am not sure I want to find out what kind of state Evola would have created if given the chance.
Men Among the Ruins:
Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist
By Julius Evola
Inner Traditions, 2002
(Translated from the revised Italian edition of 1972;
First Edition 1953)
310 Pages, $22.00
Table of Contents
Brief Introductory Review
Julius Evola (1898-1974) was the villain from Central Casting. A monocle-wearing baron and a distinguished occultist, Evola spent much of his life trying to bring about a future that would be both post-Christian and post-democratic. He wrote the racial policy for Mussolini's government, one that focused on elites rather than the general population. In 1945, he was permanently crippled during the Russian bombardment of Vienna, while working on a "secret history of secret societies" for the SS. Evola was a key figure in "esoteric fascism" after World War II, in Italy and throughout Europe. In 1951, he was tried and acquitted of inspiring political violence. Some called him "the Marcuse of the Right," while others dismissed him as "the Magic Baron." Still, it is clear that Evola's radical rejection of the modern world inspired radicals of all stripes. Both the politics and the esotericism of the early 21st century owe a great deal to the Magic Baron.
"Men Among the Ruins," as the title suggests, is an interpretation of the postwar world. The war had not turned out as Evola had hoped, but then Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had not been radical enough for him, either. The new situation had possibilities. The book was intended to give advice to Evola's young admirers, whom he had just been acquitted of inciting to terrorism. The Foreword to this edition, by Joscelyn Goodwin, says that the book is "by any standard far from being Evola's best work, and should never be the gateway to his thought: that function belongs to his masterwork, 'Revolt Against the Modern World.'" Still, we may note that "Men Among the Ruins" came closer than any of Evola's works to bestseller status. Moreover, this edition has a 114-page preface, by H. T. Hanson, that gives a dispassionate summary of the baron's life and thought. This edition really is not a bad place to start, though it would be better with an index.
Evola's system of thought is a philosophy of Nietzschean descent, but with a transcendent element. It both rejects and resembles Existentialism: Evola's ethics and politics are based on a defense of the essential self that goes beyond mere self-preservation. Personal action should be absolute, without looking for punishment or reward. Even the state rests not on force, but on the power of its idea. This Platonic foundation transcends mere history. This is what Evola, and his sometime colleague René Guénon, meant by Tradition.
Evola represents a segment of the Right that is simultaneously anti-socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-Christian. It is even, to some degree, anti-national. Though sometimes associated with the German "Conservative Revolution" (an association of which Evola approved), there is nothing very conservative about this Traditionalism. As Evola himself acknowledged, little now deserves to be preserved. Tradition is as revolutionary a doctrine as any that has appeared since the 18th century.
The model for Evola is a New Rome, governed by a sacral, organic hierarchy, at the pinnacle of which is a sacred monarch. His idea of monarchy is rather Taoist; the monarch rules by non-action, by the mere magic of his existence. Evola's Traditionalism is sometimes called "Magical Idealism." Simply invoking the Transcendent has an effect. The principle of social organization seems to be that "if we build it, they will come." "They" are the men suited by training and enlightenment to constitute the hierarchy; "we" are an esoteric Order, dedicated to Tradition.
In some ways, the Fascist and National Socialist regimes were moving toward Tradition, though in their decadence they turned toward socialism. In the end, it was the people, the race, who failed fascism. As for Nazism, the Führer principle was defective; the Führer acted for the Volk, not for the Transcendent. For Tradition, in contrast, "common ideas are the fatherland."
The Conservative Revolution does not seek to preserve antique forms, but to actualize perennial principles. Pretty much the whole of politics and culture since 1789 should be overthrown. This need not happen, of course. The future is a myth; it is not determined beforehand. Moreover, the future promises no real novelty, but simply the struggle to reverse decay. Those who have dominated history have not been adventurers, but those who sought to reconnect with essential Tradition. Though the discussion in "Men Among the Ruins" is too compressed to explain the grounds for these notions, Evola was probably thinking about the repeated restorations of Confucian orthodoxy in Chinese history.
The state is the intrusion of a higher order of reality, naturalized in the social world as a power. The state comes before all natural rights and historical associations. It is certainly on a higher level than mere community. The sovereignty of the state is absolute, since he who is the law has no law. Citing Carl Schmitt, Evola repeats the principle that the sovereign is he who can make exceptions. The state is masculine; society is feminine. Socialism and democracy are essentially anti-state. So is the nation. At most, the nation is formed by the state. Both liberal democracy and Communism are supra-national ideas, but inadequate ones, antithetical to Tradition. An adequate idea is needed to form the Order, the caste or sacred society, which properly embodies the state. Ideally, the Order is the meaning of the state.
Evola believed that the world had been on the way to the Finland Station for some time. Eighteenth century liberalism is the font of all later subversions. Equality is illogical. Equal individuals would be indiscernible from each other, and so would necessarily be a single entity. Liberalism confuses persons with individuals. Justice requires inequality. Equality is the will to formlessness.
Natural law is a superstition about individuals, who are minuses. Persons are prior to society. They are even prior to the impersonal state described by ideologies. The state is a pyramidal hierarchy of persons of different dignities. At the summit is the monarch, the "absolute person," who is the opposite of an individual.
Freedom means self-mastery. One has the right to govern others in the degree to which one can govern oneself. The ancients saw the superiority of the self-governing man as "mana," as a sacred force. Those who cannot rule themselves are elevated by being governed by those who can rule themselves. The inferior needs the superior, not the superior the inferior.
The state is legitimized by its anagogical function, which is the ability to orient people to the spiritual realm. This should not be confused with the categorical function, the impulse to mere consistency. That is a subversive principle, though both it and the anagogical function are anti-utilitarian.
Liberalism is violent. It elevates the principle of human freedom, yet coerces the minority to submit. Totalitarianism is really an extreme form of liberalism, not of the organic state. Liberalism is necessarily external and mechanical. Private property, in the absence of transcendent legitimation, is easily questioned and subverted.
The organic state forms around a central idea, a symbol of sovereignty, and a symbol of authority. This center is attractive, like gravity, yet it promotes differentiation. The notion of a "party state" is incoherent. The organic state is anti-partisan. Totalitarianism, in contrast, allows no private sphere. It tends toward bureaucratic hypertrophy. "Statolatry" is an attitude proper to a state not based on a Transcendent idea. The materialist state requires coercion, because its people cannot be connected to it internally. No secular power can properly require an oath. Similarly, it is "sociolatry" to expect someone to sacrifice himself for society. Totalitarianism is honest liberalism. Bonapartism is the extreme form of representative democracy. It makes a difference whether a leader's prestige is based on promises, as in the liberal state, or on demands, as in the Traditional state.
A constitutional dictator may be a genius, but the monarch is not chosen for any personal abilities. The Olympian quality he is supposed to embody is not heroic. For that matter, even the true aristocrat is not a superman, but regally impersonal, the embodiment of an idea. True leaders are not Machiavellian, contemptuous of the masses. In states that have more or less embodied Tradition, the ruling caste is not blind to the higher impulses that can be invoked in ordinary people. The Traditional state assumes the existence of heroic and other noble impulses. It is not a system of checks and balances designed to stem human corruption.
The economy is not the destiny of the state. The justification for the modern state, the management of the economy, is historically eccentric. Economism is anti-hierarchical. As Evola might have said, the rich are different from us only in that they have more money. Economic autarky is an ethical imperative for the state, just as self-mastery is for the individual. Self-government and austerity are better than mere national prosperity.
Elites & History
Evola qualifies Pareto's idea of the "circulation of elites." What history really shows is a "regression of castes." First there are ruling priests, then warriors, then plutocrats, and finally revolutionaries. Marxism caused the "social question," not the other way around. Work-worship is part of the problem. Cultural creation and leadership are actions, deeds, not work. Calling them "work" proletarianizes the higher spheres.
Historicism is based on the transition from a civilization of being to a civilization of becoming. People stopped looking to eternity, and began deifying flux. Evola condemns Hegel's philosophy of history, plus Hegel's formulation of the Absolute State. For good measure, he discountenances Transcendental Idealism, too. Contra Hegel, the past merely provides the conditions for history; the past does not determine the future. More fundamentally, Evola insists that the Real is not necessarily the Rational, nor the Rational the Real. Historicism's search for the Rational is subversive. "Conservative" Hegelianism is just as bad: it posits the principle that everything that exists is rational, and so promotes acceptance of the decadent status quo.
"Men Among the Ruins" reviews the main themes of Evola's political philosophy, but it was written with an eye to developments in Italy. Evola says that, to begin a new historical cycle, Italy must make a choice of traditions. The nationalist history taught in Italian schools is actually a hoax. The medieval struggle between the Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Empire, and the Guelphs, who supported the Communes, was really a conflict of supra-national castes. It was not a conflict of German versus Italian.
It might be said of Evola that he did not think that Hitler had the right idea, but that Frederick Barbarossa nearly did. The Communes, the young Italian city-states, were on the road to decadence that eventuated in the French Revolution. As for the Risorgimento, there was good reason why it was regarded with the same horror as Communism was later. Both were stages in the same process. Masons led the national revolutions, and wrote the historiography in a way that obscured the deeper causes.
In more recent times, Italy's true path had been with the Dreikaiserbund of Hohenzollern Germany, Habsburg Austria-Hungary, and Romanov Russia. Those empires did not embody Tradition perfectly, but they could have formed a barrier against the spread of ever less Traditional forms. In any case, Italy should certainly have remained with the Triple Alliance in the First World War. The Allies on whose side Italy finally fought (including Evola as an artillery officer) were the champions of chaos. After the war, Fascist Italy chose the Roman version of Tradition, however imperfectly realized. This was the correct choice, as was the alliance with Germany and the war they fought together. Unfortunately, that was the World War that Italy lost.
The opposites in the nature of Italy are Roman and Mediterranean. A renewal must choose to crystallize around the former. Only a minority can be expected to have the virtues of the Roman Tradition. That, however, is all that any society needs. A nation is drawn upward by its elites.
Evola insists that Anglo-American society is naturally civilian, even pacifist. This is because of its origin in the bourgeois caste. In a democracy, there can only be soldiers. The other major European possibility, the Prussian, is militaristic because it comes from the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The knights were not mere soldiers, but warriors. The warrior-based society, with its hierarchy and high ethics, has the higher right as opposed to democracies. This does not mean that warriors need be the actual governors; the barracks is not the ideal state. Rather, the Traditional state is imbued by the military virtues.
When war occurs, it is not a mere negative for the warrior state. In the just war, Uranian light fights against telluric chaos. Just wars can occur even between good men, who also battle the chaos in themselves. Warrior hierarchies come next lower in the scheme of things than priestly hierarchies, of course, but the warrior ethic is nonetheless fundamentally ascetic. Evola gets some consolation from the belief that modern war requites a cold, lucid heroism, divorced from sentiment and patriotism. Modern war means the de-individualizing of force. Evola cautions that future wars will be meaningless from the point of view of Tradition. Still, warriors and not soldiers will fight those wars. They will lack the hatred that characterized the wars of the democratic era.
Many of Evola's friends were "integralists," people who hoped to re-sacralize modern societies by making them Catholic theocracies. Evola, in contrast, presents the spectacle of an Italian "traditionalist" who was not just anti-clerical but anti-Catholic. While Evola acknowledged that there were Traditional elements in Catholicism, he insisted that Tradition was wider than the Church, and that in some ways Catholicism was contrary to Tradition. All religions are historically conditioned, and so more or less orthodox in terms of the eternal and universal Tradition. Catholicism's claim to exclusive truth, even after Vatican II, severely limits Catholicism's ability to participate in this supra-orthodoxy. Only ignorance about history and other cultures, Evola says, would try to maintain exclusive Christian claims to truth.
Ghibellinism, though historically unique in some ways, does present many of the universal issues inherent in the relationship between religion and sovereignty. The Ghibelline Empire was an ideology about the Holy Roman Empire. In the Ghibelline ideal, the Empire was a supra-national institution, like the church. Its sovereignty was divine, too: the rite of kingly coronation differed little from that of episcopal consecration. In the Roman view, which was closer to tradition, there was no dualism, but a single imperium that was both political and sacred.
The Christian principle of "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" implies a disparaging view of Caesar. The Church has always had a relativist view of the value of the state, holding that no particular constitution is willed by God. It will tolerate any state that serves religion. Kings have accommodated this indifference: Philip the Fair started the long slide toward the secular state by distinguishing political from ecclesiastical government.
Church politics itself has always been on a democratic, socialist trajectory, but this is not simply because of the missteps of churchmen. Indeed, to some extent Catholicism managed to inject Traditional elements into Christianity. The real problem is Christianity itself. Its virtues are those of the humble, not of those for whom the exercise of power is normal. The state must be both just and merciful, but mercy can be granted responsibly only by the victorious.
Culture & Worldview
The bourgeois world is corrupted and deserves to be destroyed. Realism unmasks it. However, the realism of reductionism leads only to the sub-personal. This is also the case with existentialism. Existence does not precede essence, because existence has meaning only in relation to something outside itself. It is possible to be anti-bourgeois and to be more radical than the Communists.
Excessive regard for high culture is a trap. The "aristocracy of thought" is a bourgeois notion. The bourgeoisie has nothing to do with Tradition. Certainly the bourgeoisie could not aid a revolution for Tradition. A new beginning requires a worldview, not a new culture. Tradition uses thought to clarify what is already known to be true through extra-rational means. (The early Wittgenstein might have approved this principle.) Worldviews are not just theories, but existential determinants. A new, anti-bourgeois Traditionalism would create a new kind of man.
The institutional mechanism for the renormalization of society into harmony with Tradition is the "corporation," characterized by communal necessity and impersonal dignity. Corporations would be like medieval guilds, non-capitalist entities for which finance was extraneous. Corporations will de-proletarianize the worker and eliminate pure capitalism. To do this, however, corporations should be organized toward the higher, political plane, not to the lower trade-union level. The state must act, bringing revolution from above.
The new Traditional state might have a Lower House of corporations, whose members might be chosen by elections and other representative devices. However, unlike in Mussolini's Italy, there must be not only a House of Corporations, but also an Upper House, controlled by an Order.
Regarding demographic policy, Evola says that the real objection to population growth is not Malthusian, a merely materialist objection. The problem is that massive populations promote a "mass civilization." The decrease of population would mean the end of high capitalism. The superior element among the people can grow only arithmetically, but the inferior breed geometrically. Additionally, family life is an impediment for members of an elite: wife and children are bourgeois distractions. We know from history that a successful Order need not reproduce itself physically.
The Occult War
The social and economic explanations for the problems of the modern world are true as far as they go, but they do not reveal the final causes. Those who look at history in three dimensions see that an Occult War is underway. Not all historical forces are merely human. There is a subterranean dimension. This is not to be confused with the subconscious of depth psychology, though the war is waged in part in the subconscious of history's objects. Intelligences are at work. Evola presents a system of non-religious dualism, in which cosmos battles chaos.
The Cunning of History, the fact that consequences are often so different from what the actors intended, shows that deeper forces are at work. They rarely appear directly. Rather, they make subtle cracks in the structure of events, and so give the development of the world a direction. Though one should assess the effect of these forces only with prudence, there is something suspicious every time a historical effect transcends its apparent cause. Wild speculation has prevented the formulation of a science about this, thus meeting the expectations of the hidden enemy.
Evola wrote a supportive preface and appendix for "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," a book he also discusses in "Men Among the Ruins." He does not endorse the "Protocols" as literal fact, noting that real secret organizations do not leave documents like that. Still, even though the "Protocols" clearly draw on fictional sources, that does not mean that the plan they present is unreal. He says we should take the book seriously, because its predictions are reliable. We are dealing, he suggests, with prophetic premonition.
The "Protocols" is correct in saying that the primary modern ideologies were devised by forces that knew them to be false, but which promoted the ideologies for their subversive effect. Conspiracy theory itself is part of a program of demoralization. For that matter, "Traditionalism" can be an evasion, a tactic of chaos. Jung, for instance, represents a turn away from the Transcendent, masked in a system suitable for those too smart for Freud.
Antisemitism is another misleading ideology. The "Protocols" exaggerates the role of the Jews in the Occult War, perhaps for the purposes of those further in. The process of subversion started in the Renaissance; the Jews enter the mainstream of European history much later. The "Protocols" also distracts attention from Masonry. As the Regression of the Castes continues, the Occult War could turn against both the Masons and the Jews as the age of plutocracy ends and that of the proletarian revolution begins.
Evola had no enthusiasm for global government. He wanted Europe out of the UN. However, he endorsed a united Europe in principle, though he disapproved of the steps in that direction which had been taken so far. Before 1945, he asserts, there was a European army, in the form of the SS, which might have been the basis for future unity. The European Community of his day was objectionable because it was founded on mere economics. He believes that a "Nation of Europe," founded on common historical experience, is chimerical. The dynasties of historical Europe created their nations, and none is available for the larger project. A European Empire is a possibility, however. In such an Empire, the historical nations might continue to exist, but there would be no nationalism.
Imperialism, Evola notes, is just distended nationalism. The organic Empire, in contrast, would be an organism of organisms. Authority must be anti-democratic, particularly among the elites on the imperial level, but also to some extent in each country. Evola returns again and again to the need for an Order. On the European level, this might have a core of the old nobility, with a larger, active membership of warrior mentality. The Order also needs a leader. Evola is too modest to speculate about a suitable candidate.
Unfortunately, neither a suitable religion nor culture is available for a united Europe. The culture that liberals want to defend in Europe is disintegrating. However, creating just another superpower in opposition to America and Russia would not be worth the effort. Europe should bracket modernity, as Japan did after the Meiji Restoration. It should take such modern elements as are necessary for survival in a competitive world, but cultivate its own spirit.
This brings us to the question of Evola's influence, even on the popular level. Was the revolutionary New Age anthem, "Ride the Tiger," by the musical group Jefferson Starship, inspired by Evola's tract of roughly the same name? It is not impossible; the tract was read aloud to striking students in Europe in 1968. Then there is the Muslim connection. Evola's theory of the sacral state is not very different from the Muslim ideal, and in fact René Guénon embraced Islam and became an influential Sufi.
Many writers come to mind who have invoked themes similar to Evola's. To take a currently popular author, Evola's "Empire" clearly has something to do with that of Antonio Negri, but then both were also influenced by the Augustinian "City of God." Evola's idea of an esoteric Order also chimes with Negri's idea of post-bourgeois, non-theist "Franciscans." Of course, Evola's Order upholds the Empire, while Negri's Order undermines it. Both Evola and Negri have models of history that are permissive rather than deterministic. In both cases, a new society is a matter of will.
Among other recent writers, one might note that Robert Kaplan's idea of "ancient pagan virtue" in his book, "Warrior Politics," is not so different from Evola's concept of warrior ethics. Both Evola and Kaplan might have profited from a reading of Victor Hanson's "The Western Way of War," which argues persuasively that warrior societies are losers, especially when they engage liberal democracies.
Evola reviewed and gave qualified endorsement to Francis Parker Yockey's pseudo-Spenglerian tract, "Imperium" (That title, by the way, recurs in Evola's biography as the title of a journal with which he was associated, and with at least one political organization.) The doctrine of "Magic Idealism" clears up the cryptic assertion in Yockey's "Imperium" that merely reading the book is a political act.
One need not seek only among the wicked for what seems to be Evola's influence. C.S. Lewis's novel "That Hideous Strength, written during the Second World War, has a character belonging to an occult conspiracy who explains to a captive why he should join the conspiracy. Oddly, the conspirator is a psychologist of the behaviorist school, and for most purposes an extreme materialist. The captive asks how the reasons the behaviorist offers can be persuasive, if in fact all the captive's behavior is physiologically determined. The behaviorist answers that, once the training has begun, initiates see that their motives are epiphenomenal; they find they can function more efficiently without them. This is very close to Evola's idea of "absolute action." Lewis was a serious scholar of medieval Italian literature, and a somewhat less serious student of the occult. It would hardly be surprising if he were familiar with Evola's ideas.
As the Magic Baron advised, we should be cautious about identifying hidden actors in history. Still, many events look a little different, once you know that there is such a thing as Traditionalism in the world.