The Long View: Revolt Against the Modern World

Tradition [in the René Guénon sense] isn't really something that I am in favor of. However, reading John's synopsis of Revolt Against the Modern World, I cannot help but be struck by how many concepts he shares in common with many of my favorite writers. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth is pretty much exactly the world that Evola means when he refers to the archetype of the traditional world. Tim Powers' books on the Fisher King draw on the same mythology Evola used to describe kingship. Even Robert E. Howard has themes in common with Evola.

None of that makes me trust Evola or his ilk one whit more. Primarily because Evola takes otherwise sound ideas places no sane person would want to follow. Yet, some do. Anyone who puts forward a spiritual argument for destroying the modern, scientific, capitalist world is echoing some of Evola's key themes. Hopefully, this will remain unintentional.

Revolt Against the Modern World
By Julius Evola
Original Italian Edition 1934
Revised 1951, 1970
Inner Traditions International 1995
(Translation by Guido Stucco)
375 Pages, $29.95
ISBN 0-89281-506-X
The sections of this review may be read
sequentially. Please note that the sections do not correspond to the divisions of the book.
See also:
Men among the Ruins
The Hermetic Tradition
Summary & Notes on the Author
One way to look at “Revolt Against the Modern World” is as a readable version of Alfred Rosenberg's “Myth of the 20th Century.” The authors of both books were mythographers for fascist governments, Rosenberg for the German National Socialists and Julius Evola (1898-1974) for Mussolini's regime. Both Rosenberg and Evola had ambiguous relationships with their governments. Rosenberg was often ignored as an eccentric. Evola sometimes excited substantive opposition, particularly to his attempt to define “race” as a spiritual property of elites. Although Rosenberg and Evola differ on many points, the mythological systems they articulate both belong to the modern theosophical tradition. The origin of the Aryan race in Atlantis is important for both.
Evola was one of the great underground notables of the 20th century. A Sicilian baron living in Rome, he studied engineering but never took a degree. He served as a cadet artillery officer in the First World War. Afterwards, Evola became a major figure in dadaism and other radical post-war artistic movements. He used hallucinogenic drugs. Evola is chiefly remembered, however, as a scholar of the Hermetic tradition and as a practicing occultist. He was also an important theorist of the Conservative Revolution.
Evola advised and criticized the Mussolini regime from its beginning to its end. Some stories say that Mussolini always spoke of Evola with respect; other say he was terrified of Evola's magical powers. In Nazi Germany, Evola was officially disfavored but still influential. A Russian bombardment permanently crippled Evola at the very end of the war, while he was doing research in Vienna for the SS into the history of secret societies. After the war, he became a gray eminence in the international neo-fascist network, for which he further developed his theory of “direct action” anarchism as a kind of spiritual initiation. Softer versions of his ideas later found favor in the New Age movement. Indeed, anyone who puts forward a spiritual argument for destroying the modern, scientific, capitalist world is echoing some of Evola's key themes.
"Revolt Against the Modern World" is usually cited as the best general introduction to Evola's thought. Generically, Evola's ideas are an adaptation of René Guénon's philosophy of Tradition. In this context, the Tradition in question is not so much the historical heritage of the West, or of any particular society, but rather of the archetypal forms of society, the state, and spirituality. Evola uses particular histories and particular myths chiefly to illustrate these ideal forms. The result is not so different from the cross-cultural medlies produced by C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade. This comparative method is open to criticism, but Evola's use of it is as accessible as Joseph Campbell's. Generally speaking, “Revolt Against the Modern World is sparing of citation. However, the authorities the author does cite are usually familiar enough. There is Johann Jacob Bachofen on the matriarchal nature of the pre-Aryan world, for instance, and Fustel de Coulanges on the ritual-based legitimacy of the ancient Roman patriciate. Evola's authorities are not always so authoritative as one might wish, but he tells us that he is not interested in mere facticity: legends often contain the more important truth.
Evola claims to have little use for "apocalypticism," which he regards as an example of spiritual degeneration that is both demotic and demonic. He also has little use for the principle of historical determinacy; for him, whatever happens in history is at least proximately the result of someone's will. Nonetheless, one cannot help but notice that this book describes a model of history in which the modern world is at the very end of a dark age, the Kali Yuga. He offers the hope, though not the assurance, that an elect might come through the final collapse. They might even achieve god-like illumination in the next creation.
The book is divided into two parts: “World of Tradition” and “Genesis and Face of the Modern World.” The first is chiefly concerned with describing the archetypes that inform the world and history. The second describes how these forms have decayed over time, but with occasional revivals of “tradition” that interest the author keenly. The first half is by far the more plausible and interesting. The “polar” and “Atlantean" past that the second part describes is implausible. Also, his account of the more historical parts of history will strike many readers as tendentious. Nonetheless, the particulars of Evola's system are worth considering in detail.
 
Traditional Spirituality
The traditional world is timeless. It is never perfectly realized in history. It depends from its relationship to an impersonal transcendent. Evola gives these as the salient features of those societies that embodied tradition most perfectly:
“The traditional world knew divine kingship. It knew the bridge between the two worlds, namely, initiation; it knew the two great ways of approaching the transcendent, namely, heroic action and contemplation. It knew the moral foundation, namely, the traditional law and the caste system; and it knew the political earthly symbol, namely, the empire”
The key to tradition, the defining feature of the traditional world, was the experiential knowledge of the two natures: high and low, being and becoming, supernatural and natural. The natural included the human and the subhuman, which included the demonic and the dark underworld.
The traditional world had no ethics. It had no theory of any kind. Realities corresponded to symbols of the transcendent. Actions corresponded to rites mandated by it. These rites encompassed the whole of human existence. There was no progress; there was no learning. There was only adherence to the primordial archetypes. The only change that could occur in history was decay.
Evola's system is characterized by polarities that are called “masculine” and “feminine.” The masculine is supernatural, the feminine natural. The masculine is still and self-subsistent; the feminine is reactive and dependent. “Spiritual virility” is a feature of societies that most closely accord with tradition. The “Fall” of original sin can be likened to the loss of masculine self-sufficiency.
Women approach the transcendent through mediation. The roles of lover and mother correspond to asceticism and war for the male. This is why the harem in traditional society was comparable to a nun's cloister. The harem ideal was devotion to a man, devotion so great that it excluded jealousy. In traditional society, reciprocal love was regarded as inferior. For the woman, such a relationship would include a measure of masculine egotism. For the man, such love would require the surrender of some portion of masculine independence. Sati, the Hindu practice of widow-burning, was a commendable way of achieving transcendence. It was pure action, taken without regard to object or means. One may note that these views do not quite contradict Evola's endorsement of chivalry.
The traditional ascetic was above the castes, as the pariah was below them. The ascetic seeks direct contact with the transcendent, through the path of action or the path of contemplation. Western contemplation, except in its neoplatonic forms, was defective, because it sought to mortify desire. The true contemplative moves beyond desire; he does not desire even the liberation he seeks. This liberation is not the dissolution of the self, but of the contingencies that bind the self. The goal of contemplation thus rises above mere theism to a state that is like the sun compared to theism's moon. The goal is the experiential knowledge of a substance beyond all form, a substance barren and absolute. One might say that the liberated self becomes God; one might also say that the liberated self moves beyond God.
Active asceticism takes the form of war, which is only natural for a society in which every action is a ritual. War reenacts the victory of masculine, solar, Olympian order against lunar, Titanic chaos. This is true even in defeat, since traditions all over the world speak about the special place in paradise for the warrior who dies with a proper orientation to the transcendent. However, the achievement of the transcendent in that manner is not just for the casualties of the Lesser Holy War of combat. Combat supplies a context for the Greater Holy War within each warrior, because warriors must cultivate indifference to fate. Sacred games were also a manifestation of the path of action. The exultation of victory made the daemon visible, and so presented an opportunity for the victor to create an immortal “body of light,” which we will consider below.
Religion as we know it was almost absent from traditional society:
“The hyperrealistic world that was substantiated with pure and sheer action was replaced with a subreal and confused world of emotions, imaginations, hopes, and fears…”
The gods were not independent of men, but were at most symbols or numena. Ideally, the highest caste was both regal and sacral. They controlled the numena. The high gods of ancient Egypt were threatened with destruction, if they failed to do what the priests asked of them. It was degeneration that made the gods into anthropomorphic beings, who might love men and whom men might love in return. The primordial magical system was devoid of morality. Even when the soul was purged, the rite was more in the nature of a medical procedure than of Christian repentance.
Natural man consists of an ego, a demon and a shadow. The demon, sometimes called the “double,” is the foundation of most people. It is what we share with our ancestral stock. The ego is ephemeral. The personalities of ordinary people dissolve after death, leaving the shadow, which fades away in due course. The demon returns to the ancestral source, in effect being eaten by the infernal powers. Then it suffers impersonal reincarnation as the foundation of new human beings of the same lineage. Often in traditional societies, the aristocratic cult seeks liberation from the ancestral totems, but the popular cult simply facilitates the desire of the chthonic forces to incarnate in human beings.
There are two paths after death. One is the path of the god, the solar path, which leads to the dwelling of the immortals. The other is the path of the ancestors, the lunar path, which leads to dissolution and Niflheim, the house of the chthonic deities. Failing the trial in the afterlife brings the second death. However, initiates do have the possibility of turning their demon into an immortal “body of light.” Their souls are united with Brahma.
 
State, Kingship, Empire
The principle of the victory of order over chaos runs through the traditional idea of the state. It is most perfectly realized in the occasional peaks of tradition, when the Empire appears.
“[T]he state was related to the people just as the Olympic, Uranian principles were related to the chthonic, 'infernal' world, or as idea is related to form, or [nous] is related to 'matter,' 'nature,' or [hyla]; or as the luminous, masculine, differentiating, individualizing, and life-giving principle is related to the to unsteady, promiscuous, nocturnal feminine principle.”
The ideal state is a universal empire. The empire is magical. Its law is truth, worthy of unconditional obedience. The law's utility is not a criterion. (Natural rights are a fiction, incidentally, since there is no “nature” that is good in itself; the demos is demonic.) Spiritual and political centralism are the predicate for a great deal of autonomous pluralism. When centralism rests on mere political power, however, there is no real empire; the empire is then not an organism, but a mechanism. A “national empire” is mere violence.
The King of the World is an archetype, and also a legend of a real earthly ruler. He sits unmoved at the hub, at the center of the world. The center has many names: Mount Meru, Shambhala, Olympus, Asgard. This seat is often placed in a polar region, as in the Greek legend of Hyperborea. The king's peace is an inner condition, and only incidentally a political one. He subdues opposition by the rumor of his imperturbability.
Traditional kings imitate the world ruler. They are not mere political actors, but the link to the transcendent. The king and the aristocracies and the patriarchs rule through rites. Rites renew the god and identify the celebrant with the god. That is their authority. Rites can create a god, as when cities and temples are founded. Evola was wholly credulous of Fustel de Coulanges account of the origins of the Roman state. Echoing Coulanges, he says that the difference between patricians and plebians was that the former had ancestral rites and the latter did not.
“In traditional societies the action par excellence consisted in shaping events, relations, victories and defense mechanisms through the rite, that is, in preparing causes in the invisible dimension.”
When the regality and sacrality of the state are separate, the descent to chaos has begun. The regal ideal is already weakened when only a divus, a hero, and not a deus, a god, performs the rites. Any sort of mediation with the transcendent is a decline. Kings are “masculine,” priests “feminine. Even the most exalted priest must call God “lord.” The king, in contrast, should be of the company of the gods. When it comes time for a new king, it is best when the priestly class simply seeks out he who is already the rightful king, because he is in contact with the transcendent through initiation; the real role of blood is as a medium through which a transcendent link may be formed over generations. Otherwise, the priests merely consecrate a worthy candidate, a man like themselves.
 
Castes and Traditional Economics
The traditional world had three or four castes. In India, they were the brahmana, kstriya, vaisya, and sudra. They corresponded, roughly, to the European feudal classes of clergy, nobility, burghers, and servants. More primitively, however, the priestly and warrior functions were united in a single caste. The caste system establishes natural justice; everyone “decides” before birth to incarnate the qualities that make them fit for one caste rather than another. Those in the lower castes were connected to the transcendent by their loyalty to their superiors. Note that this was not personal devotion; traditional loyalty is impersonal, just as the transcendent is nonhuman. The form provided by the caste system is an instance of “creative limitation.” The decay of the system is one of the marks of the Kali Yuga.
Work in traditional societies was not work in our sense of the term. All activities, from the sacred sciences to the inferior professions, had their mysteries, anagogic elements that looked upward. The mysteries were preserved by guilds, which eschewed competition and monopoly. The only people who “worked' were slaves, whose activities had no transcendent element. That was what “work” meant. By this definition, the modern West is the civilization of slavery par excellence.
 
Traditional Time and Space
Time was not uniform in traditional societies, but infused with meaning from above, particularly through a sacred calendar. Time was arranged in cycles, each point of which differed from every other. Comparable ages within a cycle might correspond to arbitrarily different lengths of natural time. Traditional time interacted with history like this:
“If traditionally, empirical time was measured by a transcendent time that did not contain events but meanings; and if the essentially metahistorical time must be considered as the context in which myths, heroes, and traditional gods lived and 'acted' – then an opposite shift acting 'from below' must also be conceived. In other words, it is possible that some historically real events or people may have repeated and dramatized a myth, incarnating metahistorical structures and symbols whether in part or entirely, whether consciously or unconsciously. Thereupon, by virtue of this, these events or beings shift from one time to another, becoming new expressions of preexisting realities…[W]e must look for the true meaning of characters who become 'invisible,' who 'never died,' and who are destined to 'reawaken' or to manifest themselves at the end of a given time, such as Alexander the Great, King Arthur, 'Frederick,' and King Sebastian. The latter are all different incarnations of the same one theme transposed from reality to superreality.”
Tradition also infused space with meaning. Landscapes have aspects that affect the character of those who live on them. The chthonic people have cults that bind them more closely to the collective, infernal powers of the land. In order to suppress these powers, only the patricians, who exercised priestly privileges, could own land. When ownership is possible for all, property tends toward Marxist promiscuity, and the people are again subject to collective possession by the dark powers.
 
Historical Decay
History runs from the ideal to the contingent in four ages, corresponding to the four castes. To use the Sanskrit terms, the ages are the Satya (Krta) Yuga, Trita Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and the Kali Yuga, or Dark Age. Evola notes the relationship of this model to the vision of Daniel and to the “Suns” of Mesoamerica, but he is most interested in Hesiod's metallic ages: gold, silver, bronze, and iron. In the last case, a fifth, penultimate age, the Age of Heroes, represents a partial restoration of the primordial condition just before the beginning of the Dark Age, or Iron Age.
Race is an element in this pattern, but race did not have the significance for Evola that it did for the Nazis. For Evola, “Aryan” means roughly “heroic,” with only an unstable relationship to any physical type. It is a “race of the spirit,” characterized by the tendency toward inner liberation and spiritual reintegration in an active and combative form. Heroes, in this sense, have often swept away or absorbed decadent, “feminized” societies. Civilizations often fall before invigorating barbarians. The ultimate cause of decline is supernatural:
“At the origin of every civilization there lies a 'divine' event…no human factor can account for it. The adulteration and decline of civilizations [are] caused by an event of the same order…when a race has lost contact…with the world of Being…then the collective organisms that a race has generated…are destined to descend into the world of contingency.”
The inferior strains spread because of the lack of truly virile men, who would be able to pass on their spiritual as well as their bodies' lineage. This lack of virile men, rather than excessive ambition among women, is to blame for feminism. Merely phallic men are the slaves of chthonic forces. Physical eugenics could produce nothing better than beautiful animals. Though fascist countries were notoriously pro-natalist, Evola insisted that underpopulation is not a problem. Rather, the danger is the proliferation of inferior races and castes, whose growth is like cancer.
 
A Mythological World History
Today's primitives are degenerates. Their ways contain only fragments of the ways of the primordial people. Primordial man had knowledge directly from the transcendent. We cannot even recognize the traces of these superior races. The fall from this state is associated with natural catastrophe, perhaps at first a shift of the earth's axis, and accelerated through history by the mixture of the high races (among whom the Aryans were the last example) with the spiritually enslaved races of the world.
History has gone through more than one great cycle. In this book, Evola bypasses the more ancient great cycles of Mu and Lemuria. He focuses on the great cycle now reaching its end, which began in the polar regions and passed through Atlantis.
The Golden Age found tradition natural. Death was not natural then; the people of the Golden Age live still as invisible immortals. Words such as "incorruptible,” “solar,” “luminous,” and “bright" cluster about the Golden Age. The primordial lands are usually in the north, as the legends of Hyperborea, Shambhala and Aztlan attest. Legends of a primordial polar mountain symbolize spiritual stability. This Lost Island can be found in later ages only by chance, not by seeking for it directly. However, it is more than symbolic; it connects tradition with history and geography. The region of nonhuman spirituality was once real, in the Arctic. Northern eschatology often mixes memories of the end of the Golden Age with the expectation of a devastating “fimbul-winter” at the end of the current age. In fimbul winter, the sun was dimmed, and the ice spread.
After the Golden Age ended, primordial men spread throughout the northern world, into Eurasia and the Americas, and also into Atlantis. They brought order to the peoples of those continents, some of them half-animals and others the degraded remnants of earlier cycles. Thus began the Silver Age, which was also the Age of Atlantis. That is why the Ones Who Never Die, from Quetzalcoatl to Heracles, live in the Atlantic paradises, such as Avalon and the Hesperides. As the expression “go West” testifies, that is the direction of initiation.
Solstice feasts are remnants of the polar mentality, of the Northern Light of the Golden Age; equinoctial feasts recall the Southern Light, the lunar spirituality of the Silver Age. The later saw the beginning, at first in noble form, of devotional religion. This was characterized by spiritual mediation and of theism, of the move away from spiritual virility. The Western Paradise was often said to be ruled by a great queen. In religions of the Southern Light, there may be a hierarchy, but kings are subordinated to priests. The moon is seen as a “purified earth.”
Toward the end, the Silver Age collapsed toward the promiscuous demon-possession of the autochthons. The Saturn of the Saturnalia, which recalls the transition, was actually a chthonic demon. The conflict grew between the luminous “deus” of the Indo-Europeans and the “al” of the south, the object of frenzied ecstasies. The North Light began to seem infernal.
Wherever the degenerate form of the Silver Light appears, it involves goddesses like Isis, Asharat, Cybele, Tanit and Demeter. Here we find the images of the Mother and Child that come to us from the Neolithic. In the Demetrian context, the solar is just an emanation of the mother. Darkness becomes stronger than light. The gods themselves become mortal; only the feminine substrate is immortal. Burial is favored over cremation. Pantheism makes its appearance. The occult is linked with fatalism.
When the spiritual becomes feminine, the masculine becomes material. Thus, violence and bellicosity have always been consistent with the spirituality of the mother; hence the chaos at the end of the Atlantean Age. The Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 and the Book of Enoch, the “giants” or “fallen ones,” were “people of the West.” Their miscegenation with the lesser races made possible the violence that ended the Atlantean Age. The worldwide stories of the Flood at the end of the Silver Age signify the occultation of nonhuman spirituality. The following Bronze Age, in Hesiod's nomenclature, was the age of the Titans. They were unjust, proud, violent, and eager for power. Titanic, Luciferian, and Promethean mean roughly the same thing in this context. New types of society arose in this era, which also appear in ours:
Titanic Civilization proper rejects the feminized priesthood and seeks invisible power directly. Norse eschatology, which is as much historical as prophetic, indicates that the "giants” will destroy both the sun and moon, or both the polar and Demetrian spirituality.
Another type of Bronze Age civilization was the Amazonian. There may or may not have been historical Amazonian societies, but the archetype is important. It signifies a disordered attempt to reinstate Demetrian dignity, as the Titanic was to reinstate spiritual virility. Amazonianism is the condition in which even feminine spirituality gives up on the spirit. Priests then don't want to be kings, but to dominate them.
There was also Aphrodistic civilization, in which the mother becomes the hetaera and the son the lover. In such a culture, the virile principle appears as mere phallicism. Men become slaves to feminine magic. Society becomes violent, warlike even in its deities. Dionysian ecstasy becomes the highest spiritual possibility; at least it seeks to break the bonds of matter.
The redeeming type of civilization that ended the Bronze Age was the Heroic. To some degree, it recalled the primordial age:
“Indeed not all 'heroes' became immortal by escaping Hades; this is the fate of only some of them…the hero and the Titan belong to the same stock; they are the daring ones who undertook the same transcendent adventure, which can fail or succeed. [Those who succeed] are really capable of overcoming, thanks to an inner impulse toward transcendence, the deviations proper to the Titanic attempt to restore the primordial spiritual virility…”
The other Titans and giants are those violent ones who “are taking [the Kingdom of Heaven] by storm” (Matt. 11:2). Evola fails to note that they go to Hades (1 Peter 3: 18-20).
There can be a male-female dyad even in a heroic age, as we see with the cult of Athena, or the cult of chivalry. The woman permits the warrior to integrate his virile character on a higher plane. However, the hero must fight gynaecocracy. Heroes avoid or put an end to the snares of women, even in the case of Parsifal's mother, who opposed his quest and died of grief after he left. Parricide (presumably by destroying the man who serves the maternal interest) and incest can in fact signify spiritual autonomy.
 
Degenerate Religions
Demetrianism, Aphroditism, Amazonianism, Titanism, Dionysianism, and Heroism: all these are higher or lower forms of “traditional” society. In mixed form, they are all met with in the Dark Age, which is the Iron age and our age. Societies outside the West were, until very recently, better at preserving traditional forms than the West has been. For instance, the end of Imperial Japan marked the end of solar regality for this age of the world. However, we can also trace the decay of tradition in every historical civilization.
We see decay beginning in ancient Egypt, when immortality became democratic at the end of the Sixth Dynasty. Pharaoh becomes a mere representative of deity; he is no longer transcendence himself. The cult of Isis appeared, and Osiris became a lunar god. Ra, with whom the state cult once chiefly identified, is impassive and solar. Osiris is a mere vegetation god:
“The solar-magical stage declined, followed by a new 'religious' stage: prayer replaced command; desire and sentimentalism replaced identification and magical techniques.”
The Hebrew cycle has some peculiar features. Adam failed in his quest, as did his prototype, Gilgamesh:
“[I]t is possible…to establish a traditional convergence of meanings between the traditional view of the 'vanquished' and the Jewish view of 'sin…Adam's fault is associated with a defeat he suffered in a symbolical event (the attempt to come into possession of the fruit of the 'Tree'), which may yet have had a victorious outcome. We know of myths in which the winning of [symbolically equivalent things, such as the Golden Fleece] is achieved by other heroes…and does not lead them to damnation…but rather to immortality or a transcendental knowledge.”
In Judaism, the heroic attempt became a sin, through woman's fault. Still, there are heroic Hebrews; Jacob even outwrestled an angel. There is an oscillation in the Jewish soul between guilt and Luciferic rebelliousness. The general picture is bleak. There is no Blessed Island to which heroes, at least, might repair. David himself must descend to dismal Sheol.
At the high end, the traditional component in Judaism became critical and abstract. We see this right through Jewish history; we can trace its effect on modern science. A human type arose whose ideas can never be realized, and who is therefore eternally dissatisfied. He is frustrated with any positive order of society, thus becoming a constant source of revolution.
There are further tensions. No king can enjoy divine regality, lest God's place be taken, but the Jews are themselves “God's people,” who have been promised dominion over all others. There is the disturbing borrowing of the Saoshyant, of the hope for a Messiah.
The Jews are not a race. The priests made the Jewish people through the Law. However, a rebellious substratum remains. The prophets turned defeat into expiation, with the hope of future restoration. Prophetism is rebellious, anti-hieratic by nature. When restoration did not arrive, prophecy degenerated into apocalyptic, which smacks of popular shamanism. “The Chosen People” became “the Eternal Servants.”
Ancient tradition says the Jewish God was one of the creatures of Typhon, which was the spirit of restlessness. When divorced from the law, the latent rebellion in the Jewish substratum acts dramatically and decisively.
Islam managed to overcome the negative motifs of its region. Again, we have a case where a divine law created a people, but the law worked on warrior stock. There was no direct dependence on Judaism or Christianity. Thus, there was no original sin. There is an outer law for public order, but this is complemented by a recognized esoteric tradition, complete with a system of initiation. Islam thus represents a tradition higher than that of Judaism or western Christianity.
In India, the role of the priests was a late and unhappy development. Contemplation gained ascendancy over action. The Aryan worldview began to dissipate in India when the identity of Atman and Brahman was interpreted pantheistically. This was the spirit of the South. Brahman had been an impersonal force, which the Aryan directed. Later, when Brahman was considered the All, the Source, and the Goal, the way was open to belief in the equality of all creatures.
Buddhism reacted against this, holding that even to identify oneself with nature or God was nonetheless an evasion of the transcendent. In early Buddhism, the self was not believed to reincarnate, but only a craving conceived in an earlier life.
Mithraism was a heroic, anti-telluric cult. This was no mysticism of love, but of warriors committed to the same enterprise, something we also see among the later Germans. It declined only after Mithras became a savior, not the archetype with which initiates identified.
Despite traditional elements, particularly in Catholicism, Christianity is subversive. God becomes a human being, not an impassive essence. Christianity's immediate antecedent is not even traditional Judaism, but prophetism. Christian spirituality is desperate; Jesus simply crystallized something in the atmosphere of late antiquity. Christianity exchanges the warrior messiah for a sacrificial victim. The victim is the object of an ecstatic cult that opposes all caste, all race and tradition. The cult is not heroic, sapiential, or initiatory; its confused link to the supernatural is nothing more than faith. The natural candidates for this cult are perturbed, broken people. Spiritual equality strikes at the heart of the traditional idea of personality. The Church substitutes mere collectivity for universality.
Christianity was defective for lack of an element of initiation. However, the Protestants made things worse by removing even the fragments of transcendence and hierarchy that Catholicism had preserved. Luther was right about the Church being “Babylonian,” but the Babylonian elements were the valuable ones. Anglo-Saxon Protestantism divorced religion from the transcendent completely. Sacrality was transferred to the worldly success of individuals, and to the “progress” of societies.
 
The Decline of Antiquity
Evola knew and admired Spengler's work. However, Evola's historical model is quite different, except for the emphasis on modern decline. Spengler had declared Classical antiquity a culture different from that of the West, which he dated from about A.D. 1000. Evola thought of the Classical world and the modern West as a unit. Its foundations were sound enough:
“The Olympian conception of the divine was one of the most characteristic expressions of the Northern Light among the Hellenes; it was the view of a symbolical world of immortal and luminous essences detached from the inferior region of earthly beings and of things subjected to becoming, even though sometimes a 'genesis' was ascribed to some gods…”
The terminal crisis of the modern world began in the 7th to the 5th centuries B.C. There were assaults against traditions all over the world at that time, but in the West, particularly in Greece, the assault was most acute and successful. (The term “Axial Period” does not occur in “Revolt Against the Modern World,” incidentally.) At that time, as again in more recent centuries, regality began giving way to oligarchy, followed by the rule of the bourgeoisie, followed by demagogy. Democracy was really a victory of Asia Minor. It succeeded where the underlying Pelasgic spirit overthrew Aryan hierarchy. Indeed, the whole Golden Age of Greece was a revolt against the transcendent. This was true even of Pythagoreanism.
Socrates hoped to use the discursive principle to overcome the disintegrating effects of Sophism, but the attempt was doomed. He succeeded only in substituting talk about Being for Being itself, all the while obfuscating the particularism and contingency of sensible reality. Humanism, philosophy, and scientific inquiry infected the spiritual life. Systematic thought of any kind is a late and degenerate development. Still, Greek philosophy had this merit above that of the later West: it always retained some elements of the practice of spiritual autarchy. It was only with the advent of Christianity that humanitarian pathos dominated the life of the spirit.
Rome made the only serious attempt to stop the forces of decay in Western antiquity. The attempt succeeded for a whole cycle. The Roman nucleus, wherever it came from, worked on an Atlantic, Silver Age environment. The plebians were the “Pelasgians” of Rome. The ancient Roman patrician religion was the magical manipulation of the numen, not the supplication of a deus. Pathos, mysticism, devotion, and other feminine qualities were minimized. Rome seemed to bring about the rebirth of solar regality, but it was undercut by every kind of cult. The centralization practiced by the Caesars was evidence of inner decline. When the empire began to totter, the proper remedy would have been to rally the Roman race, the minority whose spirit informed the empire. Universalizing citizenship was the opposite of what should have been done.
The Christian notion that “my kingdom is not of this world” makes traditional sovereignty impossible. This is why the early Church was persecuted. Evola insists, against considerable evidence, that the Pauline saying, “all authority comes from God,” remained ineffectual as a means of legitimizing the state.
 
Church versus Empire
After the Roman Empire fell, Christianity long prevented European man from taking the spiritual path of action, which would have been most congenial to him. Meanwhile, western man's active nature prevented the Church from creating a genuine priestly civilization. The Byzantine imperial idea did take the traditional archetype of the sacral empire to new heights. Still, however solar the Byzantine theocracy might have been in theory, the crepuscular society on which it rested could not sustain it.
That which is traditional in Catholicism is not Christian. Catholicism has always been an essentially southern, lunar religion. The history of the Middle ages runs like this. The Carolingians still ruled the Church, like their Byzantine contemporaries. Then the Church became the equal of the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, the Church tried to effect an inversion of their proper relationship. The pope tried to seize both of the “two swords.” The ideal of the Guelph party, of the pro-Church faction in the struggle between Church and Empire in Medieval Italy, was essentially a gynaecocracy. The opponents of the Guelphs were the Ghibellines, whose pro-imperial ideology was briefly triumphant.
At the height of the Ghibelline phase of the empire, both the Empire and the Church were seen as equally divine institutions. In legend, at least, the emperor was linked to the esoteric notion of a hidden World Ruler. Prester John, a medieval version of the King of the World, is said to have given Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II a magic ring that afforded invisibility, immortality and victory.
Chivalry was for the empire what the clergy was for the Church. The knights of the empire constituted a warrior caste, in defiance of Christian morality. The Crusades had an esoteric dimension. The movement to Jerusalem was a movement away from Rome in more than a geographic sense.
Something unchristian was always at work underneath the Christian surface of knighthood. Knighthood originally was a universal ordination. Knights even ordained each other, before an ecclesiastical ceremony was devised. Even then, the knight's promise to defend the faith was a symbolic expression of the intention to turn toward an a-Christian transcendent.
The chivalric cult of love expressed a devotion to Sophia (which might be evoked by an actual woman, of course). To die for Sophia was to achieve immortality. Evola does not doubt that the Templars, as their enemies charged, were required to acknowledge that Christianity was not salvific. It is significant that only in the High Middle Ages does the cult of the Grail emerge. This was a real departure from primitive Christianity. Before its association with the cup used at the Last Supper, the Grail was originally a “luciferic stone.” When it was found, a realm could be restored and a king could be healed. This story of quest and restoration was closely associated with the imperial ideal.
Evola does not like any form of the dialectic, but in this one instance he allows that the tension between Church and Empire was fruitful. In fact, both began to decay when they gave up their pretensions in each other's sphere. As early as 1338, consecration was declared to be no longer necessary to create an emperor. Once the Empire ceased to be sacred, it ceased to be the empire. The emperor became just a hegemon, if he was lucky. Often he wasn't. In due course, the Empire broke apart into national imperialisms.
 
The Post-Medieval Collapse
The Middle Ages had been the real Renaissance, of the Roman ideal. The period we call the Renaissance was the beginning of decline. It borrowed from only the decadent phase of antiquity. The decline occurred in the life of the mind as well as in politics. Modern natural science is directed at mere prediction. Thus, by definition, it is concerned with the inessential. The knowledge it produces cannot lead to spiritual liberation.
After the end of the medieval ecumene, kings became secular rulers, often mere warriors. The post-medieval divine right of kings was not comparable to the Empire's sacred regality. Divine right kings were, nominally, the secular arm of the Church. The universal Church itself became national churches. The sovereignties of the new sovereign states were like the schisms that created the new churches, except that the sovereignties denied any higher authority. France in particular had sought to undermine the Empire, and then to suppress its own, internal, feudal diversity. It was thus natural that the empowered Third Estate made the Revolution in France first, the penultimate step before the collectivist state.
Metternich was the last great European. His Holy Alliance would have been a league of divine-right monarchs against the equally international phenomenon of the revolution. However, a new Templarism was what was needed, not pledges to invade any country that showed revolutionary tendencies. In reality, there is no resource in the modern world to halt the descent:
“Through the concept of 'tradition,' nationalism aims at consolidating a collective dimension by placing behind the individual the mythical, deified, and collectivized unity of those who preceded him. In this sense, Chesterton was right to call this type of tradition 'the democracy of the dead.' Here the dimension of transcendence, or of what is superior to history, is totally lacking.”
The overthrow of the remains of tradition in the French Revolution unleashed subhuman forces that have a life of their own. Dark elemental forces now use the higher faculties of isolated individuals to impose obsessive possession on them. The French Revolution, whatever else might be said about it, was Romantic and chaotic. The Russian Revolution, in contrast, was all logic. The demonic forces can now move in the open, “one of the most salient characteristics of the terminal point of every cycle.” The First World War was almost a clash of estates, of the warrior aristocracies of the Central Powers against the bourgeois Allies. In different ways, so was the Second World War. The meaning of that war is that such opposition is no longer possible. In the Cold War, both sides represent the Fourth Estate, the lowest caste. America and Russia are fundamentally convergent.
The esoteric core of Marxism is not economic, but the rejection of the transcendent. However, what Russia (under the USSR) seeks to do by crude force happens spontaneously in America. In America there is the opposite of the Golden Age. America is a civilization of pure technique. Man in America is controlled by mechanisms he cannot control. American religion is harnessed to social causes and economic success. The supernatural, though much cultivated on the spiritualist side by American women, is actually thought to undermine religion. There is universal collectivist conformism, especially among the nonconformists. The mass mental state produced by Jazz is characteristic of the last age. Evola tells us that both America and Russia show warning signs of the Nameless Beast, a term he does not define here.
 
The End of this World
In the ancient myths, the Aryan people first defeat the Dark Ones without the Law. They corral Gog and Magog, for a season. Eventually, however, those forces will break out and flood the Aryan lands, but will be defeated by a universal ruler. So say the stories. The real future, however, can only be the creation of an act of will.
Europe needs a return to tradition. However, the secret elites who might be interested in such a project cannot bring it about. For a renaissance, there must be a conducive environment. Flaws in Europe's religious tradition, added to political opportunism, preclude such an environment arising. There is no way to avoid falling all the way to the bottom of the cycle. Little or nothing will survive into a future age, which must be almost wholly a new creation.
There are possibilities for a minority, however. There are those in the world who are “wide awake,” who constitute the “perennial fire.” These few are occultly bound to each other. They must help those who seek liberation. There must be “watchers,” who will bear uncompromising witness to tradition. They must “ride the tiger,” accelerating the end of the cycle by turning the modern world against itself. Evola also asserts, though not in this context, that victories are first won in the spirit, and only later manifest themselves in the world of becoming. This is likely to be an important point for any adept trying to manipulate history at the end of the age.
Regarding “Manu's” race that is preserved through the Dark Age, Evola quotes the Visnu Purana:
“When the practices taught by the Vedas and the institutions of the law shall have nearly ceased, and the close of the Kali Age shall be nigh, a fragment of that divine being who exists in his own spiritual nature in the character of Brahma…shall descend to earth…He shall then reestablish righteousness upon earth, and the minds of those who live at the end of the Kali Age shall be awakened, and shall be as pellucid as crystal. The men who are thus changed by virtue of that peculiar time shall be as the seeds of [new] human beings and shall give birth to an age that shall follow the laws of the Krita Age, or age of purity….”
The stock from whom the divine principle will be born will come, as you might expect, from Shambhala.
 
A Critique and Anathema
The notion of “tradition” is not easily dismissed, nor is it inherently sinister. More than one commentator has noted that the world of tradition is simply the world of fairy stories. Tolkien's “Middle Earth” is a nearly perfect picture of the traditional world. The Italian Right even uses Tolkien's work for recruiting, to the continuing consternation of the British-based Tolkien Society. Middle Earth becomes a sinister place only if one uses it against history, and not as an illustration of continuing historical themes. For Tolkien, history was a theodicy. There was decay from age to age, but in some ways the world also grew wiser through experience and revelation. Tolkien was a conservative, but he was he the kind of conservative who was interested in conserving things. This was not a project that Evola endorsed until he was practically on his deathbed.
Tradition appears in more uncompromising light in other fiction; the model of history in Doris Lessing's “space novels,” particularly “Shikasta” and “The Sirian Experiments,” tracks Evola's scenario very closely, down through the end of the current world. What particularly struck me, once I encountered Evola, was the relationship between his ideas and those of some New Agers from the 1970s, particularly William Irwin Thompson. He and the Lindisfarne group seemed for a time to have been planning to constitute groups of “seed people” against the darkness to come.
Evola's model of history is oddly parochial. It even smacks of Frazier's “Golden Bough.” Comparative mythographers of about 1900 assumed that magic came first, and then religion, and finally philosophy and science. Evola says much the same: first came the pre-religious “Polar” era, when supernatural forces were commanded, not worshipped. Evola differs from the early mythographers only in his insistence that magic works.
Most later anthropologists seem to think otherwise. While this may be putting the matter too simply, the rule of thumb is that magic is misused religion, particularly religion used for a private purpose, such as to hex a neighbor. We see this even in sophisticated societies. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages, as C. Lewis noted. The European interest in the subject became pronounced only during the Renaissance, when religious prohibitions weakened. My point here is not to debate whether Evola's “Polar Age” ever happened; he makes clear that he is willing to use the idea simply as an archetype. The problem is that he seems to have defined his archetype by using bad anthropology.
Evola is proud that his model is anti-historical. There is indeed an attraction to a model that purports to encompass a world beyond history. The problem is that Evola's “magical idealism,” as it is sometimes called, seems to have more than the usual amount of trouble dealing with mere historical facts. This is what happens when you exclude progress from history and dialogue as a method of enlightenment.
There is no way that historical events can modify the system. Traditionalists must reject “devotional religion” and capitalism, democracy and science, indeed all the features of the modern world, no matter what occurs within those structures. Despite his insistence on the superiority of traditional societies, he never quite comes to terms with the immense historical success of the “bourgeois” West. His argument that this success is merely material rings more and more hollow as he laments its victories in every field, and not least over the semi-traditional powers in the 20th century world wars. Even granted Evola's different standards of evidence, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the superiority of tradition is not just occult, but undetectable.
Actually, Evola's understanding of tradition is more sinister than the systematic misreading of history it promotes. The system also leaves no way in which events can modify the autonomous will of those who embrace Evola's ideas. What we have here is a kind of occult pietism. Those who embrace it are forever after on automatic pilot. Indeed, even if the Dark Age ended, and the world began the process of reintegration, still the “seed people” would continue on their perfectly autonomous path of criticism and destruction. No natural event could change their wills; only the divine intervention to which Evola refers at the end of his book could do so. One wonders whether even that would suffice, however. The sort of fixity of the will for which Evola evangelized has sometimes served as a definition of damnation.
Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Hermetic Tradition

Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex wonders how someone as bright and generally capable as Isaac Newton could be interested in anything as bizarre as alchemy. I wonder whether he and his readers see alchemy just as defective chemistry, or a spiritual practice and rite of initiation. I suspect the former, but I also think his largely rationalist readership would find the latter equally unappealing. At the least, it is wrong in a more interesting way.

The Hermetic Tradition:
Symbols & Teachings of the Royal Art
By Julius Evola
First Published in Italian, 1931
Revised 1948, 1971
English Translation Copyright:
Inner Traditions International, 1995
220 Pages, US$16.95
ISBN: 0-89281-451-9
 
There are two modern opinions about alchemy. One is that alchemy was bad, early chemistry. Alchemists tried to turn base metals into gold or to create an elixir of immortality; things that are impossible, or at any rate, that are impossible with chemistry. The other opinion holds that alchemy was a spiritual or psychological exercise, which may or may not have involved the manipulation of actual chemicals. These views are not mutually exclusive; historians of science acknowledge that even alchemists who were clearly engaged in pragmatic chemistry may also have attached some mystical significance to their work, while cultural historians admit that the alchemical mystics could have employed real metals and fires in their rites.
Baron Julius Evola (1898-1974), the noted esoteric fascist and magical idealist, comes down strongly on the “spiritual exercise” side of the question. In fact, he will not even keep company with the psychological interpretation: Evola thinks that C. G. Jung, who popularized the psychological approach, conceded too much to modernity and its denial of the transcendent. For Evola, true alchemy was a technology of initiation, involving mental exercises and physical substances, that allowed the adept to achieve immortality, indeed godhood. The interesting thing about this interpretation is how neatly it fits into the broad outlines of 20th-century philosophy.
There is more than one alchemical tradition. “The Hermetic Tradition” treats simultaneously of the traditions of India, China, and the Islamic world, though it gives most attention to the esoteric tradition of the West. Everywhere in the world, the alchemical enterprise is couched in unhelpful language. The texts, which are quoted copiously in the footnotes to this book, talk about a process that turns material from back to white and then to red, about sulfur and the liberation of mercury, about the purifying fire and a fixative arsenic, and about the Great Marriage and the resurrection of the king. Here is one of the more lucid explanations of the first stage:
 
“Hermetically speaking, 'separation' means the extraction of the mercury from the body. Once the action of the animal organism on the vital force has been suspended, the other principles are virtually free as well. For this reason it is said that Mercury is the only key 'capable of opening the locked Palace of the King' or as Philalethes also says, 'breaking the barriers of the Gold.' Thanks to the separation Mercury is again liberated, returned to the state of vital, unlimited possibility (it is this that is known as 'conversion in the First Matter'). And now the internal Sulfur finds the way open to every transcendent activity or transformation.”
Obviously, whatever else is going on here, the Mercury in question is not that found in thermometers, and the Sulfur is not that found in matches. When the planets are mentioned, Jupiter and Saturn, for instance, the reference is not quite to the objects in the night sky.
Evola explains the cipher-quality of the hermetic language in two ways.
First, certain aspects of hermetic doctrine are disturbing and even subversive, so the art should not be easily accessible. In Evola's estimation (though not in Rene Guenon's), alchemy is literally a royal art, more powerful and fundamental than the knowledge of priests. The adept has no king, being himself in direct contact with the transcendent that kingship is supposed to mediate. Additionally, alchemists know that immortality is a prize for the few, and not an attribute shared by all human beings.
Second and more important, the alchemical process is explained in concrete terms because abstraction will not do. As Heidegger put it, some things are simply “thrown” into our experience; they cannot be reduced to anything else. Heidegger was thinking chiefly of death, but alchemy expands the list of realities that are prior to thought, that are prior even to physical science. Evola interpreted alchemy as a species of existentialism. The alchemist defines himself, creates his immortal body of light, by struggling successfully against primordial realities. One might almost say that there is no alchemical “doctrine”: there is only practice.
Be that as it may, the alchemical process has the skeleton of the quest stories. The would-be initiate must go on a night-journey, perform a great deed, and then return to transform his place of origin. The initiate, in fact, must literally die, or at least temporarily dissociate his consciousness from his physical body. He must hold his awareness together against the temptation to dissolve into the All, which is the trap of mysticism. He must withstand the universal elemental forces that lie below the threshold of conscious. These are the archons, the souls of the metals and their associated astrological planets, which may appear as demons or as gods.
The spirit of the initiate must be “fixed,” its individuality frozen out of the infinite possibilities of the disincarnate state. This is done by union with the poison that initiated the dissolution. The spirit then returns back to the body, which it transforms into an indestructible “body of light” (though this will not necessarily be apparent to objective observers), in which the primordial elements are balanced. Such a body will have lost the ability to die.
Although “The Hermetic Tradition” has one half dedicated to theory and the other to practice, we are in fact told little about how the wonders of alchemy are effected. Drugs can apparently be used to achieve out of body states. So can breathing techniques. Prayer can enter in, if it is understood as a technique for commanding non-human forces rather than as devotion or supplication. For that matter, the mere shock of death can fix the spirit of a suitably disciplined person, even if he knows nothing of initiation. In general, though, there are two paths.
The “wet” path is that of meditation and of induced out-of-body states. The “dry” path is that of asceticism, which seeks to harden the spirit by cleaning it of impurities. In this context, impurities are not sins. They may also be habits that moralist would call vices, but I gather that some of them might be considered virtues. According to Evola, the initiate, like the strict Buddhist, rids himself of all emotional connections with the material world. In the purified state, he will therefore be able to act, not from desire, but from transcendent necessity.
The dry path apparently also includes the “heroic” methods of initiation, which strike directly at the natural body and turn it immediately into a body of light. Death in battle can do this. So can Kundalini Yoga, a sexual technology about which Evola has written elsewhere. I have never read a discussion of Kundalini Yoga that did not remark that its practitioners have a fair chance of winding up dead or insane. It's probably one of those things that readers should not try at home.
Evola is careful to distinguish between immortality and mere survival. Ordinary human beings may become ghosts or shades in Hades for a time after their death, but their personalities are extinguished. The initiate, in contrast, joins the ranks of Those Who Are. Evola associates them with the undying immortals of the Hesiod's Gold and Silver Ages, and with the Sons of God in Genesis who looked on the daughters of men with favor. They are the Watchers. They have no need of incarnation, though they sometimes appear as living men, and they affect history in ways unfathomable to the mortal world. Yes, he does mention the Rosicrucians favorably.
Evola has some remarks about the powers of the immortals. They can, it seems, project specters of themselves to distant places. At a higher level of practice, they can teleport matter. For that matter, they can indeed turn base metals into gold, if they feel sufficiently strongly about it: Evola cites historical examples. They can read minds, and put thoughts and emotions into the minds of others. They can even put spiritual illumination into the minds of others, which is part of the reason alchemy has remained in the shadows. It seems that sometimes the alchemical process does produce a physical elixir or Philosopher's Stone. However, only an initiate can make it work.
Evola also tells us that initiates can cure bodily afflictions. Evola was himself unable to walk unassisted for the last 29 years of his life, because of injuries he suffered at the end of the Second World War. He revised this book twice since that event, and at one point, he does seem to try to address the charge of “magician, heal thyself.” He notes that the great initiates, or at least those who were not also kings, were often obscure. They were beyond worrying about what people thought of them. For Those Who Are, the events of the human world are of no essential importance, even if an adept presents “the spectacle of a life that perhaps few would envy.”
On many occasions, Evola denounced fatalism. He does so again in this book, in connection with his discussion of the prophetic abilities afforded by alchemical initiation. The immortals are, of course, freed from time; they can see past and future as easily as the present. However, we should not imagine that they simply acquiesce to the flow of history that proceeds from the astrological gods or the fates. Rather, the will of the initiates becomes one with the transcendent. They know the future, because they will it. Since they are immortal, their will never ceases to operate; it is reality itself.
Evola even draws a distinction between the “white” level of alchemical initiation, which Rene Guenon said was the goal of the Work, and the “red” or royal level. Both raise the initiate to immortality, but the white initiate rises merely beyond this creation: this is the highest illumination for the sacerdotal soul. The red initiate, however, goes beyond being itself.
As so often with Evola, one notes that his idea of initiatic prescience turns out on examination to be a fantasticated version of a familiar notion from modern philosophy. We are dealing here with just another version of Hegel's solution to the problem of Freedom and Necessity. Hegel says that these become one at the end of history, when consciousness understands how the world works, and so sees that all the free choices ever make were also necessary choices. Nietzsche's proposal to embrace the Eternal Return, to will the wheel of history, is very much along the same lines. Evola's sole novelty is the projection of the principle into the future.
Evola's reading of the alchemical tradition is not the only possible one. He does provide a fairly straightforward account of the symbols and language common to the art. Although the author is beyond such bourgeois concerns as a standard of evidence, he does make some effort to deal with the objections and general incredulity that alchemy occasions. Still, there are matters on which Evola prefers not to dwell. He is aware that the great tradition of spiritual practice in the West is often little different from the process described by some alchemists. Evola would have us believe that the saints were practicing magic without knowing it. One might more reasonably say that the better alchemists were practicing a very eccentric form of prayer. The worse alchemists, or the worse people who were alchemists, simply corrupted prayer into a singularly futile technology.
Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-02-27: What Would Jesus Do?

This is one of the posts I turned to often when I was considering converting to Catholicism. My own reading of the Gospels matched up entirely with John's description here: Jesus of Nazareth said some astonishing things, even at the distance of 2,000 years. I'm not sure I know what he meant much of the time, but I do know this man was very much unlike the men who are often compared with him.

It was also clear to me that interpretation of the Bible was an enterprise fraught with difficulty. Necessary, for those who seek to pick up our cross and follow Him, but also very easy to get wrong. Something I thought John had said, but I haven't been able to find in his archived website, is the most important question is not "What Would Jesus Do?" Rather, it is "What Would Jesus Have Us Do?" Since Christ came to expiate our sins, which is precisely what we cannot do ourselves, this is an important point. Jesus did his job, now the rest is up to us.

On the gripping hand, this means that we need to figure out what to do in many situations without expecting a pat answer from Scripture. War and politics are foremost among these things where Christ left us with little concrete guidance. I'm more sympathetic now to the efforts the Catholic Church made in 2002-2003 to prevent war in Iraq. Given the appalling state of the country now, and the persecution the Christian minority suffered in a democratic Iraq, it would appear that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had a valid point. Would that we had heeded their words. Unfortunately, the primary thing the United States seems to have learned about war in the last fifteen years is that the news cycle is easier to manage if the people dying aren't American. We continue to foment war around the world, but we have learned to let other people do the killing and dying for us. Unfortunately, the USCCB has had less to say about this.

Perhaps the more fruitful question is what will the future bring? John expected the formation of a universal state during the twenty-first century. Several of the universal states that we know of have been theocracies, so the key question here seems to be: will the universal state that forms be a theocracy? And if so, which religion will it espouse?

What Would Jesus Do?

The problem with trying to formulate the political theory of the Gospels is that there isn't one. As far as I can recall, every time a political issue came up, Jesus made a wisecrack. Consider a partial list: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's"; "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone"; "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword"; "The poor you will always have with you." Jesus actually indicated a specific course of action in each of the situations that occasioned these remarks. However, it is pretty clear that, in each case, Jesus deliberately declined the invitation to formulate an ideology. He was not even much interested in history, in any conventional sense. "There will be wars and rumors of wars." Thanks.
In The Cunning Man, Robertson Davies remarks that, while there may be real power in prayer, it is hard to get God interested in the stock market or examination results. In fact, the really disconcerting thing about God, as He appears in the New Testament, is His almost complete indifference to things that human beings think are so all-fired important. There is just a little on sexual ethics, for instance. Slavery is no more than mildly discountenanced, by a few oblique phrases from St. Paul. Notoriously, the New Testament lacks a coherent account of the afterlife. And then there's diet. Apparently, one of the things that most people in the world want from religion is some rules about what they can eat and when they can eat it. Christians don't fully appreciate how odd their religion is in not having dietary laws in its basic text. (There is just a little in Acts 15, of course, but few versions of Christianity have ever elaborated on the matter.)
In none of these areas of divine reticence should we infer that the activities in question are forbidden to Christians, or even that no theological principles apply. These areas are often matters of life and death, so we have to deal with them. What we do decide will not be a mere construct: these freedoms touch on the deadly serious issues to which the power of "binding and loosing" applies. Among them is the whole question of statecraft, including the question of war and peace.
* * *
There are three ways that Christians have tried to apply Christianity to the question of government:
First ,there is the pietistic response, which limits the political duties of Christians to submission; or, in extreme circumstances, to passive resistance. In this interpretation, the Gospels forbid Christians to employ even that minimum of violence that is needed to maintain public order.
Second, there is theocracy, by which the state is seen as incarnating the divine order in the world.
Third, there is the Augustinian approach, which holds that no political order is wholly coincident with the City of God, but that governments can be more or less good, and that Christians owe them their support as a matter of charity.
These three options are not a historical sequence, and they are not a dialectical sequence in which the porridge is first too hot, then too cold, then just right. The first option does incorporate the Gospels' unshielded ethics, which enjoin nonresistance to evil without qualification, as well as complete indifference to economics and self-support. Some Christians have always tried to live just that way. Still, it is probably a category mistake. I don't mean the obvious point that the "Counsels of Perfection" are directed to the behavior of Christians as individuals, not to the behavior of Christian public officials. Arguably, all Christians should be anarchists. Rather, the Gospel ethic defines a trajectory of the individual will. Some behaviors are absolutely forbidden by scripture. (Killing people, by the way, isn't one of them: the Decalogue prohibits "murder.") The New Testament, characteristically, restates what had been prohibition of acts as prohibitions of intent. Anger looms larger than violence, for instance, or lust than adultery. In place of specific prohibitions and injunctions, the Gospels give motives. These motives can lend support to a theory of pacifism. However, they cannot be said to require pacifism.
Theocracy has not been in favor for some centuries now, for good reason. It dumbs down the state, for one thing, by making constructive criticism more difficult. Even if your primary concern is the advancement of religion, it has notoriously been the case in modern times that the more the state supports the church, the more the church declines. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that sometimes theocracy was the best that a society could do, and it was not always such a bad best. Theocracies from the Byzantine Empire to Puritan New England have often provided reasonably good government, as well as genuine support to the spiritual well-being of their citizens. There is also the embarrassing fact that government in the Gospels is a divine institution. Pilate's authority "comes from above," and so presumably does Caesar's. Whatever else early Christians thought about the Roman Empire, they did not think that it was illegitimate.
This is not to say that any given government is the only possible government. Christianity requires no particular form of government, much less the existence of any particular state. Even at the height of cooperation between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, the Empire never quite became a point of doctrine. Theocracies, however, generally respond badly to the observation that the world can live without them. The real problem with theocracies is, oddly enough, the same as the problem with pietism: both try to make necessary what is in fact contingent.
* * *
This brings us to the prudent, responsible, grown-up statecraft of the Augustinian tradition. Despite being named after a Catholic saint, the Church does not quite hold the patent on this tradition. This is just as well, considering the often incompetent use that the Church has made of this tradition in connection with the Iraq crisis.
Catholic social doctrine, as it evolved by the end of the 20th century, tended to conflate the domestic and international spheres. It is standard social theory to say that the police can use force, even lethal force, to protect public order. As properly constituted officials, they are morally permitted to do things that private persons generally would not be. Just War Theory uses much the same logic, but extends it between states. It also applies between a state and pirates, or to other irregular menaces to peace. One of the goals of Just War doctrine was to make clear the illicitness of "private war": that is, war conducted by persons or groups who do not have the authority to do so. This is the kind of thinking that got rid of feudalism. More recently, the Church has brought the same logic to bear in connection with the sovereignty of states.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very keen on international organizations, so much so that it might be taken as a brief for world government, but that may be saying too much. Say rather that the Church assumes that the purpose of the international system is to create and maintain "the tranquility of order." Organizations and institutions that promote this order are to be defended and extended. The Church promotes a multilateral approach to war and peace. Like feudal barons, states should lose the legal competence to employ violence outside their borders. Increasingly, the Vatican diplomatic corps has come around to the position that the United Nations Security Council is the only body in the world with the legal competence to authorize the use of force, except in cases of immediate self-defense.
This development will prove to be another blow to the Church's credibility. The Vatican's use of this reasoning to oppose US and British action in Iraq has not reached the levels of fatuity evidenced by some Catholic and Protestant peace groups. Nonetheless, it repeats the error of the pietists and the theocrats in mistaking an optional for a necessary means. The principle that statesman should seek to spread the tranquility of order universally is well founded. So is the proposition that this requires global institutions. The problem is that the Vatican has placed its hopes in the UN, an organization whose very headquarters is falling apart.
* * *
The Iraq matter has undermined every international institution, of which the Roman Catholic Church is the most venerable. It's all the result of the innocent good-will of Colin Powell. If the US had simply gone ahead with the invasion of Iraq last Fall, which seemed to be the plan, the integrity of the UN would have been maintained, for better or worse. There was already enough legal authorization from the Security Council to cover the operation. Had the matter not been brought to the Council again, the world would have been spared the "Dr. Blix and His Elves" show, and Americans now would not be calling the French cheese-eating surrender-monkeys. The European Union would still be a union. Since Secretary Powell persuaded President Bush to "build a coalition" and "get the international community on board," the situation has just become worse and worse.
The UN and the EU may be scrap when all this is over. As for the Church, people will chiefly remember how hard it tried to prevent the overthrow of the Baathist dictatorship in Iraq. The Iraqis most of all will remember this.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: World Government and the Roman Catholic Church

One of the complaints about Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si is that he calls for a world government. This isn't really something new in Catholic social teaching. John frequently argued that Catholic social teaching and just war doctrine assume that something like a competent international authority already exists.

However, John also makes the point that Catholic teaching has a lot to say about what a government should do, but nothing at all about how it should be structured. This is one of those little points that makes Catholic thought so fascinating to me. In principle, any form of government, or any particular government, can be in accord with the universal principles articulated in the Catechism, but no particular government is singled out as best. While many Catholics over the years, even popes, have expressed preferences about what form of government is best, when it came time to write a universal catechism the long institutional memory of the Church ignored all of those particulars in favor of something more universal.

World Government and the Roman Catholic Church
by John J. Reilly
There are lots of things which can be said for and against the "GATT" (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), "NAFTA" (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the other acronym organizations that have been created since the end of World War II to orchestrate a general reduction of tariffs, either regionally or around the world. The logical sides to this issue would be people who support free trade as a stimulus to economic growth (projecting domestic laissez faire onto the international level) versus those who believe tariffs and preferences are needed to protect domestic jobs and industries (projecting domestic regulation onto the international level). Little about the politics of these debates in the 1990s has followed logical expectations, however. Although it is Republicans who traditionally supported letting the free market operate with a minimum of government interference, the Democratic Clinton Administration considered the 1994 GATT agreement to be the crown jewel of its foreign policy in its first term. The opponents to the agreement ranged from consumerist semi-socialists like Ralph Nader to the conservative nationalist admirers of Patrick Buchanan. (The sentiments of the latter became even better represented in Congress when the Republicans took control.) There were reactions to the GATT more surprising than these, however. There are people who think that the GATT was quite literally the work of the devil.
We live in an age of eschatological expectation, and for most of this century a feature of popular American eschatology has been the expectation of the rise of a wicked world government, controlled by Antichrist. It was, perhaps, the "World" in the name of the World Trade Organization, the arbitration association created by the latest GATT agreement, which set off the reaction. In any case, the GATT was denounced by hostile congressmen as a move toward world government, while the chatter on computer bulletin boards described it as yet another sign of the near approach of the endtimes. Throughout the discussion, the explicit premise was that world government is inherently diabolical, and that any international organization is a sort of "government" until proven otherwise.
Although the hostility to world organizations is at least as widespread among conservative Catholics as among conservative Protestants, it really does not fit very well with Catholic tradition or the current understanding of doctrine. Since the Holy Roman Empire proved to be something of a disappointment, the Church has been slow to support particular schemes for universal government. However, the notion of some sort of secular international authority, one that would not detract from the sovereignty of independent states but serve to facilitate their interaction, does fit rather neatly into Catholic social teaching.
Reference to the new Catechism of the Catholic Church can quickly illustrate this point. The general rationale for government is given by section 1927. As we can easily see, this rationale in principle invites universal application:
"It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society. The common good of the whole human family calls for an organization of society on an international level."
The Catechism is careful, however, to point out that even an authority which is universal in jurisdiction is not therefore necessarily universal in power. Indeed, as Section 1884 explains, the situation is quite the opposite:
"God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard to human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence."
What we are talking about here, of course, is the principle of subsidiarity. In political theory, it takes the form of the axiom that the most local level of an organization which is capable of handling a certain issue should have the authority to handle that issue. Subsidiarity is the guiding constitutional principle of the Church. It is the reason why bishops have such wide discretion over matters of discipline and liturgy in their own dioceses. Indeed, it is part of the secret of the Church's longevity: if the Church really were the centralized autocracy of Protestant mythology, it would have strangled in red tape many centuries ago.
Subsidiarity has applications far beyond ecclesiology. It is closely akin to the principle of federalism in American constitutional theory, under which the states are supposed to retain primary jurisdiction over government functions that are local by their nature. The European Community explicitly defines the relationship of its member states to the union government as one of subsidiarity. What we should note here is that the principle does not just protect the rights of local jurisdictions. It also strongly implies that hierarchy, properly understood, is a positive good. Section 1885 suggests, in fact, that good government naturally seeks to make the tranquility of order universal:
"The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order."
In discussing the hypothesis of world government, we should recall that not all governments are twentieth century bureaucracies. Henry Kissinger, in his book "Diplomacy," notes that the rather informal association of great powers known as the "Concert of Europe" was for all intents and purposes the government of that continent in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. The United Nations, in contrast, has all the trappings of a government, except the ability to actually govern anything. The Catechism has nothing to say about what form the institutions of world order should take. Rather, it seeks to outline what their functions should be. Quoting the Vatican II document, "Gaudium et spes," Section 1911 gives us some notion of what a world government would be expected to do:
"Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the whole world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy natural dignity, implies a UNIVERSAL COMMON GOOD [phrase italicized in original]. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to 'provide for the different needs of men; this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education....and certain situations arising here and there, as for example...alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families."
Governments normally provide disaster relief and social services, but then so do private agencies. The defining power of government has usually been a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, particularly of military force. The sections dealing with war, 2306-2316, rather grudgingly allow to states a right of self-defense, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power" to maintain world peace. Presumably, then, a universal government would have as one of its functions the duty to police the world, though the principle of subsidiarity would suggest that local disorders should normally be dealt with by local forces.
The verb "police" here is precisely the right one to describe the Catechism's view of the role of the military. Sections 2306-2316 (which together comprise a division entitled "Safeguarding Peace") simply restate traditional Catholic doctrine on war. Peace is defined as not just the absence of conflict, but as the tranquility which naturally arises from a just social order. The familiar criteria for a "just war" are set out. Anyone who reads this material out of context is likely to be struck by its legalism. For statesmen in most places at most times, questions of war and peace are questions of policy, of contingency. While not quite lawless, perhaps no decision about going to war has ever been governed entirely by a legal formula. If the principles enunciated in "Safeguarding the Peace" are supposed to be normative, they are not descriptive norms.
What Catholic military doctrine does resemble is the criteria that well-run civilian police forces articulate regarding the use of deadly force. As the nightly television news will tell you, rules of this sort often work imperfectly. However, they do make sense for any law-governed society in which the authorities, too, can be held responsible for their actions.
In other words, Catholic doctrine best fits a world in which subsidiarity has already reached its logical conclusion. It assumes that a universal "law" and "government" are somehow normative. The present society of nations, in which states must resort to self-help to protect themselves, is provisional. Catholic doctrine looks toward a future situation in which there is some supernational entity with the acknowledged right to settle disputes among states, and the physical ability to make its decisions effective. In that world, the rigid legalism which the Catechism prescribes for questions of war and peace would be not only workable, but morally unavoidable.
There are some denominations that lay great stress on international cooperation and occasionally give explicit support to the idea of world government. They dismiss the anxieties of millenarian evangelicals because, for liberal Christianity, the "endtimes" have become purely metaphorical. The Second Coming means only the eventual victory of goodness and niceness, and the only Final Judgment will be the judgment of history. There are, of course, Catholic theologians who think much the same way these Protestants think, but the actual deposit of the faith is quite otherwise. The Antichrist is alive and well in Catholic eschatology, as section 675 of the Catechism indicates. So is the notion of a final tribulation, when many will be tempted to apostasy by a false messianism. In those days, the Church will "follow her Lord in death and Resurrection" (section 677). The liberal belief that "the kingdom will be fulfilled...by a historic triumph of the Church by a progressive ascendancy" is specifically rejected. Only the direct intervention of God in history will defeat the final unleashing of evil. For the Catholic Church, the apocalypse is not a metaphor.
The Catholic Church's lack of anxiety about international organizations has another foundation: historical memory. The Church has lived before under governments with pretensions to universal sovereignty. There is no reason in principle why it could not do so again. As the neo-Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper once noted, although it is likely that the reign of Antichrist would involve some sort of world state, a universal government might still be a goal which men of goodwill could pursue if it seemed advisable at the time. The Roman Empire, for instance, was sometimes hostile to Christianity, sometimes indifferent, and sometimes friendly (too friendly, according to many observers). A government that could actually claim jurisdiction over the whole human race for any length of time would be likely to make a similar record, but even a hostile world government would not necessarily be the mark of the endtimes. The final tribulation is a unique event, a miracle of evil. Religious persecution, in contrast, typically needs no explanation beyond politics.
Considering the dismal record of the United Nations in recent years, this is not one of those eras in which stronger international bureaucracies are a self-evidently good idea. The contemplation of a world government which accurately reflected the political culture of the world today is enough to give any reasonable person the heebie-jeebies. Fine. Nevertheless, it does seem to be a law of history that any international system, such as that which existed in the Mediterranean world in the centuries before Christ, will eventually fall under the control of some overarching sovereignty. I suspect, like Toynbee and Spengler, that our own civilization will also someday find itself governed by a universal state. If you don't live to see it, maybe your grandchildren will. Be this as it may, there is no cause for undue anxiety. It does not have to be the end of the world.
End
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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Hope Reborn and Conqueror Book Review

Belisarius

Belisarius

Hope Reborn
by David Drake and S. M. Stirling
Contains the Forge and the Hammer
Baen Publishing Enterprises, 2013
586 Pages, US$13.00
ISBN 978-1-4516-3877-6

Conqueror
by David Drake and S. M. Stirling
Contains the Anvil, the Steel, and the Sword
Baen Publishing Enterprises, 2003
633 Pages, US$25.00
ISBN 978-0-7434-3594-9

In our world, Belisarius was one of the greatest Roman generals, a servant of the Emperor Justinian I, who nearly managed to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory after the Vandals and the Ostrogoths overran the Western Empire. One of the great what-ifs of history is is to ponder how the world might have been different if Belisarius and Justinian had managed to reestablish a lasting Roman presence in Western Europe and North Africa. Despite the dramatic victories of his campaigns, the conquests of Belisarius were short-lived. The Lombards conquered Italy only three years after Belisarius and Justinian died, completely severing the political ties that remained with the Eastern Empire. A century and a half later, the Arabs would ride across all of North Africa, and then into the Iberian peninsula.

David Drake and S. M. Stirling have taken these events and personalities and transported them to the human colony world of Bellevue, 1000 years after a destructive civil war has cast down civilization on Earth and all her colonies. By combining military scifi with alternative history, Drake and Stirling give Belisarius the opportunity not only to conquer the Western barbarians he fought in our world, but also the armies of Islam that ultimately destroyed the Second Rome long after his death.

Since this is a future history as well as alternative history, Drake and Stirling also get to play around with the weapons and tactics available to Belisarius. In our world the core of the Roman army were cataphractii, heavy cavalry armed with lance, sword, and bow. On Bellevue, Belisarius is reborn as Raj Whitehall, a cavalryman as well, but one armed with a single-shot cartridge fed rifle, and capable of calling fire from black powder field artillery. Rapid communications are available via heliograph, and steam power enables train and ship transport to be far more rapid than anything Belisarius could have achieved.

Despite the technological differences, Whitehall's campaigns closely follow those of Belisarius. There is indeed a sense in which war never changes. Where these books differ from history, it is due to Whitehall being more successful than Belisarius was. Whitehall has an unfair advantage over Belisarius: the covert assistance provided him by Center, a battle computer that fortuitously escaped destruction in the wars that ended the prior civilization. Center can provide maps, enhance the senses, detect lies, and provide all of the accumulated experience of waging war from the sweep of human history. If that sounds a little unfair, it is. War isn't fair.

The fun here is seeing the battles of the historical campaigns waged with gunpowder, and with the tactical and strategic commentary provided by Center. The core audience for this kind of book already geeks out over lines of battle and armchair generalship. Added on to that is the gritty kind of war realism that Drake is known for. There is nothing romantic about war in these books. Yet there is the realization that for all that, some men really do love war, and find their fulfillment in it. Raj Whitehall loves war, and he is good at it, yet he does not love the things that war inevitably brings, or the things that he must do in order to win. Whitehall is a hard man, as Belisarius was before him, but not a monster.

Raj Whitehall does fight monsters however, both within and without the Empire he serves. The Western barbarians are perhaps less culpable for their excesses than the decadent aristocrats who grow fat off of slave labor and starve the army while the barbarians mill about the gates. This series of books plays upon the ideas of historical cycles. One thousand years after the interstellar civil war, the civilization that emerged on Bellevue is starting to ossify, slowly losing its capacity to do something truly different. Like the Later Roman Empire, bureaucracy and corruption have become embedded within civilization.

In our world, perhaps that was why Belisarius ultimately could not succeed. The vital force of the Roman Empire was spent, 1000 years after the founding of Rome. Younger, more dynamic societies developed in the hinterlands and then displaced Rome when her internal weaknesses grew over time to eclipse her fading strengths. Whitehall and Center provide an unexpected impetus to break that cycle on Bellevue. Whether the acts of one man could truly restore the energy and power of an entire civilization is perhaps a question to be asked in a different kind of book.

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