The Long View: Third Law Conservatism

John Reilly proposes here an interesting psychology of schism:

The usual motive for schism, however, is conservative: new groups form because they believe that the old one has departed from tradition in some way.

For groups like the Old Catholics [split from the Catholic Church after Vatican I proposed papal infallibility] and the Old Believers [split from Russian Orthodoxy after a 17th century liturgical reform], this seems just so. One might argue the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation fall into this pattern as well, but that might stretch the point too far, and not entirely be fair to the latter events.

Third Law Conservatism

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is rapidly approaching a state of badly edited omniscience, Clarke’s Third Law runs thus: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Clarke here, of course, is Arthur C. Clarke, the venerable science-fiction writer who is credited with conceiving the communication satellite. His Third Law (the other two need not detain us) is among the most widely quoted aphorisms in the culture of cyberspace, and indeed among the enthusiasts for all new technology with an information component. It expresses the hope that matter can be wholly subjected to the imagination.

The Third Law is not without empirical support; certainly it reflects something of the experience of anyone who has lived a reasonably long life in an advanced country during the past two centuries. It also seems to be the case that the latter technological innovations are more uncanny than the former ones. Perhaps technological progress is inevitable and perpetual. More likely, it approaches an ultimate state where reality is a work of art. In any case, the point I want to make here is that the freedom afforded by technological power does not simply dissolve the world and human nature in mere caprice: quite the opposite, in fact.

Consider, for instance, Jonathan V. Last’s piece in First ThingsGod on the Internet. In that survey of religious expression in cyberspace, the author makes all the points that conservatives usually make about the cultural effects of the Internet. Religion online, Last notes, tends to become politicized, consumerist, and worst of all, denominationalist. Little groups of the saved create their webrings of the like-minded where neither authority nor informed criticism can enter. In this regard, cyberspace has lent its unique facility of disintermediation to the extension of what was already a deplorable tendency in modern religious life.

But there is this: these little cyberchapels are rarely liberal, much less daringly original. We find almost none of the new mutations of the spirit that many people (including me, frankly) were expecting only a few years ago to emerge from the ether of electronic environments.

Denominations form online for much the same reasons that they form in the outer world. Occasionally, someone pronounces a doctrinal innovation and convinces a fraction of an older religious body to break off and form a new group. The usual motive for schism, however, is conservative: new groups form because they believe that the old one has departed from tradition in some way. And in fact, conservatism in this sense has been typical of cyberspace in general. There are many reasons why conservative politics prospered in the United States through the latter 20th century, but part of the answer has to be just this pattern of refusal by newly empowered individuals to follow what they believe to be departures from historical norms of governance.

The Third Law has merit if by magic we mean the magic of fairytales. That kind of magic is normally conservative, or at least nostalgic. We see it deployed in the fantastically successful Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series. Purely surrealist fantasies have also been cinematicized, sometimes with commercial success, but none has had the impact of the works that present traditional themes and traditional images. To some extent, the reception of these was prepared by their familiarity as literature, but we must also consider that their force rests on the inherent power of their traditional elements: indeed, that those elements became traditional because they are powerful. The new power of illusion serves to visualize a world that never was, but that, somehow, always is.

Christian parents who worry that these series are propaganda for an occult view of the world should not be lightly dismissed. There is popular entertainment, particularly branches of popular music, which seeks to do just that. Magic in that sense, however, is magic in the sense that some anthropologists use it: magic as the illicit and private appropriation of a society’s religion. This is almost never a feature of digitalized sword-and-sorcery.

Whether on the screen or in print, this type of fantasy can be used to allegorize an orthodox religious message, as C.S. Lewis and Tolkein have demonstrated. (The Lord of the Rings is really about the relationship between grace and works, but that is another essay.) By no means do all such stories have a spiritual message, however, or even most of them. Was there ever a more secular institution than Harry Potter's Hogwarts? It is essentially a trade school. The Harry Potter stories might not work all that differently if the school had been founded to educate young prodigies with an aptitude for computer programming; instead of invoking supernatural powers, the students might as well use their dog Latin to operate voice-activated computer interfaces.

What all these stories have in common is an animate world, an ensouled world, that responds directly to the human mind. The world of animism is the most intuitive for human beings. Science itself assumes such a mind-friendly world even when it is dispelling crudely animist superstition. Given the premise of historical progress, whatever is intuitive is easy to see as inevitable. Clarke's Third Law implicitly posits a model of history in which the world evolves from material to animate.

This seems to be the real implication of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology. The notion is pure Hegel, which is hardly a criticism. Kurzweil hangs his forecast from computer science, and suggests that a very radical disjuncture from history and biology will occur by the middle of the 21st century. We should note, however, that much the same model can rest on different premises (and indeed many lesser lights have made many of the points that Kurzweil has). Most notably, the historian Henry Adams proposed an analogous idea 100 years ago, in the essays “The Tendency of History,” “A Letter to American Teachers of History,” and “The Rule of Phase Applied to History.” The idea achieved bestseller exposure in the Adams autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams: specifically in Chapter 34, A Law of Acceleration.

Adams derived his progression from growing energy use as measured by the consumption of coal. Like Kurzweil, his acme point was projected for just a few decades in the future, which in Adams’s case meant the first half of the 20th century. The physical model he favored as an analogy to the evolution of mind in the modern era was a cometary hyperbola. The comet moves very slowly, except for its brief stay in the inner solar system. Then it accelerates with stunning swiftness until it makes its closest approach to the sun. After that, it is flung out into space, where it again moves slowly among the stars. Adams's model allowed for the possibility that Earth might literally explode when historical acceleration reached its peak, but he suggests that the human race will "change phase," like a solid turning to a liquid, or a liquid to a gas. Modernity is simply the era of transition. After modernity will follow a future that, like the premodern past, is essentially changeless.

We know a bit more about the cultural effects of technology than Adams did. As we have seen above, one of the things we know is that technology sometimes favors the archaic. It has become a cliché to note that technological progress promotes personal interaction and networks. Human beings are not herd animals, and are never entirely comfortable being part of a mass. The drift of technology is toward a future in which everyone can act like a pack animal again: the rifleman of the First World War is wholly obsolete, but the knight is back, in electronic body armor.

Important as this trend is, I would suggest that the most important conservative effects of technology are more subtle. It might be too much to say that every human being secretly wishes to live in Minas Tirith, or even in the Shire. However, it may well be the case that the heart’s desire does not volatilize in all directions when freed from the constraints of physics and economics. In the space of the imagination, there are islands of stability. Information technology allows us to explore them in fine detail, but that technology did not create them, or even discover them.

In The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye notes that the progression of history in the Bible is marked by a change in man’s relationship to the world. In the beginning, the human body is contained in the garden that is the world. At the end, the body contains the world. The body is the New Jerusalem, the symbol of the humanized universe. By no means do I wish to equate the world of fairy tales with the eschaton, even the world of very good fairy tales like Tolkien’s, or to suggest that technological progress is the engine of salvation. Nonetheless, the humanization of the world that Frye proposes is at least in part a tale of technology, and the result must be something very like the magic of Clarke’s Third Law.

The irony is obvious. Technological optimists these last few centuries have trumpeted the power of technology to supersede all historical institutions and to replace them with radically new forms of life and thought. However, when freed from constraint, the creative impulse does not necessarily pursue the radically new. Frye suggested the opposite, at least with regard to literature: the only way in which writers can really be original is by reaching back to the origins, to the small set of plots and character types that inform all fiction. Original works in this sense simply break through ephemeral artistic conventions to a fresh representation of primordial forms. Similarly, the magic of the Third Law has in recent years served more to revive and conserve old ideas than to generate genuinely new ones.

Conservatism in this sense is not necessarily a bad thing, but then neither is it necessarily a good one. No one in his right mind would want to be the subject of a fairy-tale kingdom, even one without dragons. There can be tension between Burkean conservatism and Third Law conservatism, between the conservatism of deference to sentiment and the conservatism that seeks to incarnate archetypes which history may illustrate but does not define. Perhaps the most radical of all 20th-century ideologies, Tradition, has yet to be fully heard from. Tradition in this sense comes in various forms, but at its worst, it looks directly to the archetypes and distains all actual history. As an element of fascism, it had limited scope to develop. In a world where reality is becoming a work of art, its projects may be more practical.

For myself, I do not believe that Third Law Conservatism tends to a dark tyranny. Quite the opposite: we are dealing here with another version of Hegelian optimism, which itself was only a timid restatement of Joachim of Fiore's millennialism. One takes all such notions with a grain of salt, but we are wrong to dismiss their optimism. Indeed, faith in the providential structure of history is not just comforting, it is the predicate of sanity. It must, therefore, figure somewhere into any usable conservatism.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-04-18: Conspiracy Unmasked!

French philisopher Réne Guénon in 1925   By Unknown -, Public Domain,

French philisopher Réne Guénon in 1925

By Unknown -, Public Domain,

A few years ago, there was a movement on the fringes that called itself neo-reaction, or a variety of other things. This used to be the only places I ran into people who knew who Evola or Guénon were. I used to be amused when it was asserted C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and Chesterton were part of Tradition. Not everything they said was crazy, even if a lot of it was.

It was the non-movement Conservatives in the United States [those who were on the Right in one way or another, but estranged from the Reaganesque fusionism that blended the Religious Right with high finance and Chamber of Commerce types and a gloss of libertarians]. In the end, they were infiltrated by neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and eventually became the alt-right. Lots of people were disgusted and annoyed by this usurpation, and dropped out, ensuring that the alt-right would never have anything like the potential to be a mass-movement.

At this point I suspect the real win for Tradition, in the United States at least, would be on the Left. There is less white space than you might think between the radical Left and Tradition. Frances Parker Yockey worked for the Soviets, for example. There is also better message discipline and better organization on the Left at this point. A successful takeover could spread like a seed crystal in a super-saturated solution. Then you'd see what crazy really looked like.

How's that for horseshoe theory?

[fun note, the photo Réne Guénon in 1925 puts him at the same age as me right now]

Conspiracy Unmasked!


Well, maybe not conspiracy, since none of the information is secret, but there do seem to be certain anomalies in the provenance of Neo-Conned!: Just War Principles: A Condemnation of War in Iraq, a widely-praised anthology that was edited by John Forrest Sharpe and D. Liam O'Huallachain (otherwise known as Derek Holland) and published by the IHS Press. (Sharpe is the director of IHS.) The matter is of immediate concern, perhaps, only to the most conservative variety of Catholic. I did not run across it through the Catholic connection, but from the other end, through my continuing study of post-1989 anti-Americanism and the role played in it by esoteric fascism and the (often covert) influence of Guenonian Tradition. We must note that the contributors to the Neo-Conned! books (there is a sequel) cover a wide range of political and theological perspectives and cannot be held responsible for the views of their editors. Nonetheless, ordinary paleoconservatives who cite or recommend the books should consider that its publisher seems to have an agenda of which few Americans of any political persuasion would approve.

Before I begin, let me offer a hat-tip to Matthew Anger at Fringe Watcher and Christopher Blosser at Spero News. The most comprehensive treatment is at Against the Grain.

As readers no doubt know, The Society of Pius X is a schismatic group that thinks itself quite literally more Catholic than the pope, though it is currently in negotiations with the Vatican for a form of reconciliation that would allow it to keep the old Latin liturgy. The LeFloche Report is sympathetic to the Society of Pius X, but notes a strange ideological infiltration:

For years, many Catholics have been disturbed by the emergence of strange and novel ideas in their chapels. Among these are; the belief that one must move out of the city to a farm in order to live an integral Catholic life, that all forms of modern technology are intrinsically evil and must be avoided, that women are not to obtain a higher education, and that the total breakdown of civil society is to be wished for in order to bring about the emergence of a new Distributist economic order.

Tradition (or as the LeFloche Report prefers, Perennialism) is an apocalyptic doctrine which holds that the modern world is disintegrating because of its rejection of the link with the transcendent that is the organizing principle of human societies. The notion that society requires a transcendent dimension is not a very alarming idea. Tradition can be scary, however. Sometimes this knowledge of the inevitable collapse of the modern world inspires nothing more than the formation of groups of adepts who hope to manage the transition when civilization collapses. Sometimes, however, Tradition has sparked the creation of anarchist political groups that hope to accelerate the collapse.

The latter seems to have been the case with one of the editors of Neo-Conned!, Derek Holland, whose theory of the political soldier was an adaptation of the esoteric existentialism of the fascist ideologue, Julius Evola. Holland was involved in fascist circles in Britain during the breakup of the old National Front. He was among the founders of a new tendency, the International Third Position (ITP), which sought to bring British fascism more in line with Continental neofascism.

One of the features of political Tradition has been the search for a school of the transcendent that could serve as the organizing principle of a new society. Theoretically, any of the great religious traditions might serve. In practice, though, Traditionalists have usually chosen a radical version of Islam or some kind of neopaganism; some became Satanists.

The neopagan tendency strongly criticized the International Third Position, as we see in the Official Statement on the International Third Position Issued by the National Revolutionary Faction. One of the complaints is that ITP extended too much sympathy to antiquated reactionaries like Franco and Petain. Another was that the ITP seemed to be distancing itself from the rest of the anarchist movement. What most annoyed fellow fascists, however, was that the ITP seemed to be becoming a Latin Mass group with a "small is beautiful" economic agenda. (The latter is the "Distributism" mentioned in the Le Floche report: essentially a proposal, once favored by G.K. Chesterton, to replace capitalism with a society of small-holders.)

There have long been religious people who are "traditional" in both the colloquial and the esoteric sense of the word. However, as we have seen, Christian Tradition is rare. The attempt by the ITP and related groups to make it a major force is interesting because that is the road that founder of Tradition, Rene Guenon, considered in the early 20th century but did not take. His theory of spirituality held that the transcendent could be accessed only through one of the great, historical, religious traditions, because they each included a rite of "initiation," a rite reserved for the elect. After exploring Catholicism for many years, Guenon eventually concluded that Christianity had once had a method of valid initiation but had probably lost it. So, he turned to Islam and Sufism, but did not exclude the possibility that Christian Tradition might be possible.

Guenon's disciple, Evola, broke with Christianity far more decisively. He also politicized Tradition to a novel degree. Evolan Tradition became, in large measure, a generations-long insurgency against the liberal, democratic, capitalist West. Indeed, it became an international insurgency against the United States, as the exemplar and central pillar of the modern world that was characterized by these great evils. Though Evola himself was a man of the Right, his disciples frequently embraced some form of "national socialism." They sometimes worked with the Soviet Union, when that was an option. Now they work with Russian "Eurasianists." The consolidation of the European Union, however, revived the hopes of the pan-European Traditionalists. The ITP is one example of this tendency, and the Neo-Conned! books seem to be another.

There are reasons for objecting to the Iraq War, or to the principles of American foreign policy; there are even reasons for disliking the United States. However, we should be aware that, running through the flow of ordinary politics that deals with these questions, there is a dark thread of something far more sinister, a tendency that seeks defeat for the United States, not because of anything the US has done or plans to do, but simply as a predicate to a universal chaos that the tendency seeks for its own purposes.

And you thought you were worried before.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-29: Generations, Thermodynamics, Defeatism

November pageviews

November pageviews

I took a long break from the blog for Thanksgiving, but I'm back refreshed. Here we are at the end of another calendar year of John's blog. John's book reviews tend to be the most popular, but sometimes a blog post or two will sneak into the top ten.

Items about Tradition are perennial favorites. Evola and Guénon represent something genuinely different than anything mainstream Western politics have to offer. I don't think we really want to find out what will happen if Tradition gets its day in the [black] sun.

Generations, Thermodynamics, Defeatism


My regard for Strauss & Howe's model of American history remains undiminished. This is one of the class of models that view history as a recurring sequence of generational types. I still get mail asking whether the Crisis has begun yet. Be that as it may, even back in the tranquility of the late 20th century, it was clear the model would be capable of generating a kind of millenarianism among its adherents. Consider, for instance, The Fourteenth Generation, an essay by recent college graduate Hans Zeiger, which seems to be a realization of this possibility. There are some novel elements, however:

If, as President Bush said last year, it is to be “liberty’s century,” the members of the Fourteenth Generation are the appointed guardians...The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel opens the New Testament with a genealogy...Matthew 1:17 summarizes the genealogy. “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.” Fourteen is a Providential number....Fourteen generations ago was the age of the men and women who first called themselves Americans. It was the elder generation of the Founding Fathers, the contemporaries of the Great Awakening: Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams. About fourteen generations before them lived Christopher Columbus...The vanguard of the Fourteenth Generation is now graduating from high school, in college, entering the work world, and defending America in the Middle East. ...We are not protesters or slobs like the Baby Boomers. We are not slackers or radical individualists like the Xers.

For comparison, you might want to look at the model of Joachim de Fiore, the 12th century abbot who created the prototype for the three-stage outline of history (and who is usually remembered, quite unfairly, for predicting that the world would end in AD 1260):

For Joachim, the basic unit of history is the Status (Status=age or stage). History is divided into three ages, each with seven steps. The first status is the age of the Father, captured in the Old Testament, with seven steps represented by the seven seals mentioned in the book of Revelation. This first age had a germination period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Adam to Jacob and a fruition period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Jacob to Ozias. The second status is the age of the Son, with seven step represented by the opening of the seven seals in the book of Revelation. This second age had a Germination period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Ozias to Jesus and a fruition period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Jesus to St. Benedict.

As for the 14ers themselves, their defining characteristic so far is that they have haircuts like new chia pets.

* * *

Here is an embarrassment for you, from Granville Sewell, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso and visiting professor at Texas A&M University, who defends the proposition that Darwinian evolution is incompatible with the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

Anyone who has made such an argument is familiar with the standard reply: the Earth is an open system, it receives energy from the sun, and order can increase in an open system, as long as it is "compensated" somehow by a comparable or greater decrease outside the system...In these simple examples, I assumed nothing but heat conduction or diffusion was going on, but for more general situations, I offered the tautology that "if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable." The fact that order is disappearing in the next room does not make it any easier for computers to appear in our room -- unless this order is disappearing into our room, and then only if it is a type of order that makes the appearance of computers not extremely improbable, for example, computers. Importing thermal order will make the temperature distribution less random, and importing carbon order will make the carbon distribution less random, but neither makes the formation of computers more probable.

This is, of course, a good argument for why hurricanes could not occur. Hurricanes are quite complicated structures that are possible because Earth is an open system. Under the influence of Coriolis Force, they form spontaneously in the atmosphere over the oceans. Complicated things routinely form out of simpler things. No one, as far as I know, has ever argued that the fact a system is open is an explanation for why that happens, just that openness is a prerequisite

* * *

So you want a lost war, do you? Here some oddly familiar spin from Francis Parker Yockey, the American Nazi spy and later Soviet agent. The excerpt is from Imperium, the magnum opus that he wrote in the late 1940, which is now, perhaps not altogether fortunately, available online here:

Not only Europe, but also the American People, lost the War. Since the Revolution of 1933, this People has been working, producing, and exporting. It has given its treasures and the lives of hundreds of thousands of its sons; it has blindly obeyed Culturally alien leaders not of its choosing, and in obedience to them it has curtailed its standard of life and parted with its soul — and in return it has received nothing of any kind, spiritual or material. Nor is its time of sacrifices over. It will continue to pay for the Second World War, which it lost, for many a year. In America's cup of "victory," there was poison for the soul of America.

This is exactly what the extreme Right and the extreme Left say about the Iraq War. I, for one, find this coincidence disturbing.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-16: Better Paranoia; Testable Origins; Kantian Complacency

The manner in which radial organizations of the Left and Right are supported by organizations with nefarious motives, is a topic that doesn't seem to lose its currency.

Better Paranoia; Testable Origins; Kantian Complacency


Legend has it that, in the days of the Republic of Venice, a hollow statue of a lion stood in the Plaza of St. Mark. Into the statue's mouth informers could drop notes that anonymously identified the enemies of the Republic. For several centuries, that lion was the last word in paranoia technology. Now, however, the folks at Frontpage Magazine have set a new standard with their Discover the Network engine.

In some ways, it's like any other database. You enter the name of someone on the Left you want to know about, or perhaps of some foundation that supports lefty causes, and you will get a prose narrative describing the malefactions of the object of your suspicions. The wonderful part, however, is the Image Map. Click on the icon for that, and you get a spider-web graphic that shows who that party knows and who finances that party's operations.

David Horowitz, whose industry brings us this service, really is onto something. Scratch the surface of the noisier antiwar groups, and you will find that many of its constituent parts belong to the creepy-crawly region of the Left. They are the sort of people who show up for every demonstration, but who have to work through front organizations, because their own agendas are too repulsive to expose to the public. The Frontpage folks also have a lively sense that this old New Left network is now in cahoots with Islamism, which is arguably now the world's most formidable revolutionary ideology.

Still, without having examined the database exhaustively, it seems to me that it misses something. The network is not merely Red-Green, but Red-Brown-Green, at least on the ideological level. Fascists and mystical nationalists are mixed up in it, too. The really radical Right in the US, the LaRouchies, the Russian Eurasianists, and the deformation of Shiism that rules Iran can, at times, be heard to sing a remarkably similar tune. Are there organizational links as well? I don't know, but a hunt merely for the residual Left could obscure the question. The mid-century hopes of Black Traditionalists like Francis Parker Yockey have progressed from insane to merely very unlikely.

* * *

The herd of independent minds is even larger than I thought. I had planned to post here about a certain advertisement that seemed to me to sin against geography, but then I found that many other people had noticed the same thing. Consider Diary of a Necromancer:

A question, raised by lying about watching TV all afternoon because I wasn't exactly up to much else yet: some of you may have seen that CG Coca-Cola commercial where the penguin gives the Coke polar bear a bottle of his favorite sugarwater; now, speaking off the top of your head, do you know if this is a likely scenario? Because I mentioned this to Mum as a prime example of how dumbed-down Society has gotten, and she expressed her doubts as to whether the average American on the street would think twice about the penguin and the polar bear...

There are no polar bears in Antarctica. Apparently, everyone knows this, but we all think that everyone else does not know. The one good point about solipsism is that you have so much company.

Of course, if there were polar bears near the South Pole, they would be antipolar bears.

* * *

Whatever happened to primordial soup? When I was in school, every biology text had a section on Stanley Miller's famous experiment that seemed to suggest that life could be expected to arise spontaneously in a reconstruction of the primitive environment of Earth, which you could reproduce using Tupperware and ordinary household cleansers. Thanks to a link from Danny Yee, however, we can now all get up to speed on the origin-of-life question. Science writer Richard Robinson, in his article Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks, has this to say about the Miller experiment:

“The initial Miller experiment was earth-shaking,” says Harold Morowitz, Professor of Biology at George Mason University, and a long-time theorist and researcher in this area. The suggestion that random chemistry could produce the molecules of life “held the field for a long time.” But later calculations appeared to show that the early atmosphere contained much more carbon dioxide and much less hydrogen than Miller's model required, and correcting these concentrations cast doubt on the likelihood that complex molecules would form in abundance. Where, then, might organic precursors have come from? There is some, albeit scant, evidence for their arrival on comets colliding with the earth, but there is little enthusiasm for this as a solution. Finally, there is no geologic evidence, in either sediments or metamorphic rocks, that such a soup ever existed.

The thinking now is that the kind of life we have today, with its DNA heredity, could not have arisen from prebiological components in any conditions that now obtain on Earth or that obtained in the past. (Why? I think the short answer is that early DNA and its catalyzers would have destroyed each other before they could organize.) However, it is possible to imagine that RNA-based life might have arisen spontaneously, because RNA, unlike DNA, can both encode information and catalyze other bits of RNA. It is not such a big step to imagine RNA life acquiring a DNA component, with RNA retreating to the auxiliary role it plays in the biology we know.

Apparently, some interesting feedback loops have been created using RNA. Should such reactions one day produce RNA life in a test tube, then the Intelligent Design hypothesis would have been falsified. Again: can anyone suggest a comparable test of Darwinian evolution?

* * *

But who first settled the Americas, you ask? A programme aired by the BBC supports something that a mad physical anthropologist told me almost 30 years ago:

"DNA lineage predominantly found in Europe got to the Great Lakes, 14,000 to 15,000 years ago"

The speaker is one Douglas Wallace of Emory University, who has been keen on explaining why the famous Clovis Point of Clovis, New Mexico, which has been dated to 11.5k years ago, resembles tools make in Europe during the Solutrean Ice Age. Modern Eskimos say that they would have had no trouble navigating around the edge of the extended ocean ice sheet between Europe and North America. Now, apparently, there is a bit of DNA evidence involving the Ichigua people, who live around the Great Lakes, to suggest that someone may have done it.

When I went to find more information about the Ichigua, by the way, I found that White Nationalist websites were featuring this story, in the misguided hope that a new model of the peopling of the Americas would allow them to win the game of more-indigenous-than-thou. Actually, though, you would have to reconcile any such claims with other new findings, such as this:

The 7,500- to 11,000-year-old remains suggest the oldest settlers of the Americas came from different genetic stock than more recent Native Americans. Modern Native Americans share traits with Mongoloid peoples of Mongolia, China, and Siberia, the researchers said. But they found dozens of skulls from Brazil appear much more similar to modern Australians, Melanesians, and Sub-Saharan Africans.

Somedays I think Tolkien's make-believe history is less misleading than the archeological consensus.

* * *

Fans of Peggy Noonan will know that, though she generally supports President Bush for much the same reasons I do, she also finds that the style of the Administration grates.

David Brooks noted last Sunday on "Meet the Press" that in private Bush aides are knowledgeable and forthcoming about the war--this is working, this isn't, we made a mistake here and are fixing it in this way--but that in public they rely too much on platitudes and talking points.

It's true. The Bush White House treats the message of the day as if it were the only raft in high seas. Hold, cling, don't let go. Their discipline seems not persuasive but panicky.

They think their adherence to spin is sophisticated and ahead of the curve, but it is not. What is sophisticated is to know that the American people have been immersed in media for half a century and know when they're being talked to by robots who got wound up in the spin shop. They are not impressed by rote repetition, cheery insistence or clunky symbolism. They see through it. When you have the president make a big speech and he's standing under the sign that says VICTORY, the American people actually know you're trying to send an unconscious message: Bush equals victory, Bush will bring victory, victory is coming. It's not so much nefarious as corny.

This political style seems to be shared by the Bush family. The elder President Bush had a sterling record of public service at every level of government. Few more knowledgeable men had ever sat in the White House. Nonetheless, he chose to run his 1988 presidential campaign as an extended visit to a flag factory.

On the other hand, Bush the Younger is not really ineducable. He has started to present his strategy for Iraq repeatedly and cogently, and events on the ground seem to be cooperating. Now it is the proponents of immediate withdrawal who seem locked in a logic loop when they repeat that the president has failed to articulate a strategy. This is all well enough, as far as it goes, but the White House must resist the temptation to move on "to the rest of its agenda." The war is the agenda. There is no other.

Speaking of events on the ground, Instapundit echoes some pointed questions about the establishment media's coverage of yesterday's parliamentary election:

THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: Ed Morrissey wonders why the New York Times editorial page isn't excited about Iraq.

Similar questions might be asked about me, too, but my silence is not malicious: I rarely talk in detail about events in Iraq, because I have no special sources of information. As for the significance of those events, I tend to follow the example of the old guy in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy:

I would sit here, in perfect confidence, if the [imperial forces] landed on the planet, Trantor, itself.

Anyone seeking a similar degree of metahistorical equanimity might consult the website of R.J. Rummel. Kant's Perpetual Peace, plus some AH novels: what more could a reasonable man ask for?

Well, Hegel, maybe.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-02: Tradition, Optimism & Cartography

It is rather sad that John didn't live to see the rise of the tradinistas. He would have enjoyed pointing out they make the same arguments as Tradition.

Tradition, Optimism & Cartography


Over at First Things, Fr. Neuhaus has noted that there may be a contradiction between the goals of the magazine and the argument against capital punishment that Joseph Bottum made in his famous article published over the summer. I have already remarked on the piece here. What drew Neuhaus's attention, however, was a comment by Caleb Stegall in the remarkable quarterly, New Pantagruel. In "Natural Law, the Death Penalty, and Political Theology," Stegall observes:

Bottum’s point about liberal forms forsaking history in favor of the dead letters of the social contract is quite good and right. What is startling is his blithe acceptance of this as the necessary result of Christianity... When, in the wake of religious wars, old Christendom attempted to do away with political theology altogether by demythologizing history (and the state along with it) and by rationalizing all order as nothing more than a social contract, it made the conscious decision to rely on positive law...

The problem, of course, is that First Things is dedicated to the reintroduction of a natural law perspective into American political life. Bottum's analysis rubbed me the wrong way because it too closely resembles the critique of the liberal state put forward by Tradition. Note that Stegall ends his piece by suggesting that the project of the liberal state should be abandoned In favor of an explicitly Christian political culture. Bottum, in contrast, says that it was one of the great victories of Christianity to whittle the state down to liberal dimensions. Go figure.

* * *

Speaking of Tradition, I recently came across this site, created in admiring memory of the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley.

The site is managed by neo-fascists, so it tilts toward the Continental Conservative Revolution. There is a long quotation from Julius Evola, for instance, on the prerequisites for the creation of a European nation . (Mosley did have thoughts along these lines in the 1930s, but he focused on them only after the Second World War, when he was little more than a national amusement.) The startling thing is the encomiums on the introductory page from people like AJP Taylor and Michael Foote. The site's editors have expanded their possible audience by using the word "Jew" very sparingly. The material is useful for anyone studying the interwar years, but it could mislead uninformed Youth.

Mosley and his ideas, as they appear here, remind me of HG Wells more than of anyone else. Wells, in his later years, had much the same notions. I don't mean just the obvious stuff, like the disgust with parliamentary democracy. Mosley and Wells both advocated turning the judiciary into a cadre of sociological experts with the power to make law, without reference to the constitution, and over the objection of the government. Today, this has a familiar ring, in both the US and the EU. It is startling to see it in a British context, since the notion of judicial review is quite limited in British jurisprudence. An idea that has gone down the memory hole entirely in recent years, however, is Mosley's proposal that the franchise should rest on the basis of occupation rather than geography. In the US, that was quite a Lefty notion in the 1930s.

Roger Eatwell once remarked that Mosley had the best-worked-out programme of all the fascists in Europe. No doubt Mosley suffered from the "if we build it, they will come" syndrome. In reality, if you build it, people will be able to see it from a distance, and they may have the sense to run away.

* * *

Am I too optimistic about Iraq?. Maybe, but then I see items like this one by Victor Davis Hanson, which recently appeared in National Review, and my assessments are reconfirmed:

Almost everything that is now written about Iraq rings not quite right: It was a “blunder”; there should have been far more troops there; the country must be trisected; we must abide by a timetable and leave regardless of events on the ground; Iraq will soon devolve into either an Islamic republic or another dictatorship; the U.S. military is enervated and nearly ruined; and so on.

In fact, precisely because we have killed thousands of terrorists, trained an army, and ensured a political process, it is possible to do what was intended from the very beginning: lessen the footprint of American troops in the heart of the ancient caliphate.

When Hanson speaks here of lessening the footprint, he seems to be referring to drawing down the number of troops present in Iraq now. However, we should not forget that reducing the military face of American influence in that region was one of the reasons for the Iraq War in the first place. As Walter Russell Mead has noted, there was no peace in and around Iraq even before 2003. The United States and Great Britain were involved in a low-level air-war with Iraq that began the last time the Baathist government kicked the UN weapons inspectors out. The Iraqi government was being forcefully restrained from entering its own Kurdish region, lest it murder the inhabitants. It was prohibited by force from flying its aircraft in the south of the country under the ceasefire agreement that ended the war of 1990-1991. Sanctions were kept in place that impoverished the population, enriched government officials and their agents of influence in the West, and created a propaganda theme that could be used against United States.

People sometimes object to the statement that the Iraq War was a reaction to 911. The objection is inapposite, whatever role the Baathist government might have had in the destruction of the World Trade Center. (There are actually pretty good reasons for believing that Iraq was directly involved with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, but that's another story.) After 911, the situation in Iraq had to be settled. Every day the regime survived was more evidence that even losing a war to the United States had a limited price that other regimes might be willing to pay.

* * *

If you are looking for the official manufacture of disinformation, Washington is probably not the place you should start. In yesterday's New York Times, there is a piece in the Business Section that records the continuation of an old Soviet tradition:

From the maps the Russians gave Mr. Monroe, he could never really know where he was, a mystery for him as an oil engineer at a joint venture between BP and Russian investors. The latitude and longitude had been blotted out from his maps and the grid diverged from true north....Even now, Mr. Murrow and his colleagues can use only Russian digital map files that encrypt and hide the coordinates of his location. Officially, only Russians with security clearances are permitted to see well field maps with a scale [finer than] 1:2500.

During the Cold War, it made a certain amount of sense for the Soviets to give false coordinates for the locations of their cities. Most of the information was available from pre-Revolutionary maps, of course. The locations of newer industrial facilities probably were not such great secrets, either. Still, the practice added another layer of complexity to nuclear targeting. In any case, the Times piece suggests that the continuation of this practice may be due to more than simple bureaucratic inertia. It's a jobs program, for one thing: the Russian Federal Security Bureau keeps a large cadre of cartographers harmlessly employed removing and falsifying the coordinates of important industrial facilities. Then there is the security-clearance angle. If only Russians are allowed to know where they are, then, all things being equal, it is better to hire Russian engineers.

And yes, they do have Google Earth in Russia. That is beside the point.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-07-09: The Three Rings; Transformations & Transitions

What lies beneath?

What lies beneath?

John makes an argument here that would make its way into international prominence with the publication in 2015 of Michel Houellebecq's Submission. The Charlie Hebdo shooting on the day of its publication in France only enhanced Houellebecq's reputation [or notoriety.]

I think John deserves credit for making this connection in 2005, but I also think it is too easy to draw facile inferences about an as yet hypothetical Traditional alliance. For example, after Afghanistan and Chechnya, I doubt the Russians would have anything to do with any self-consciously Islamic movement except as useful idiots and distractions.

The Three Rings; Transformations & Transitions


Never let anyone tell you that pathos is only in novels. Imagine a screenwriter who produced a script in which the people of a city were cheering in the streets one day because they had won the right to host the Olympics, and then the next day were removing the dead and injured from subway tunnels. He be would be roundly and justly condemned for writing an arbitrary melodrama. Only reality can get away with making a conjunction like that.

Of course, the main conjunction was not at all arbitrary. All those people were killed in London on July 7 because Britain was hosting the meeting of the G8 at Gleneagles. Note that G8 meetings are no longer limited to the G8. The New York Times says this in a piece about how the bombings distracted the conference participants from their agenda:

In addition to the leaders of the eight major industrial nations - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia - those of China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa were also on hand for Thursday's session.

The country was full of press; eager, if that is the word, for a soft-news summertime story. And in fact few stories had ever been whipped to a more mushy-soft consistency. In addition to the regulation NGO demonstrations and anarchists' riot in Edinburgh earlier in the week (the anarchist action seemed perfunctory to me, but that may be an illusion of distance), a network of musical concerts was coordinated globally under the name "Live 8" to focus attention on the part of the summit's agenda that dealt with aid for Africa. The other major item on the agenda was action against global warming, a cause to which the Bush Administration was at long last willing to give at least rhetorical support. This was the sort of globalized social-work conference that Bill Clinton loved.

The problem is that maybe you can't do this sort of thing anymore. Remember, after the first big anti-globalization riots in 1999, when anarchists and associated rabble boasted that they could make meetings of the major organs of transnational governance so dangerous and expensive that they could no longer be held? Now it may be that the protests will not be able to occur, at least as media events. The London bombings knocked Live 8 and the G8 agenda out of public consciousness.

Think of a system of three concentric rings. At the center we have ordinary statecraft, both international and transnational. In the next ring there are the transnational activists, some of whom have substantive agendas, but many of whom regard politics as a sort of therapy. In the outer ring are the Islamofascists, who hope to replace the Western international order with Dar es-Salam. Any institutional activity of the first ring that attracts the attention of the second ring will also attract the attention of the third. Since the third ring's tactic is to paralyze its victims through horror, any occasion on which the third ring acts will make the second ring seem unimportant. Additionally, the first ring will eventually stop reacting to the second ring as it concentrates on the third.

We should note that membership in the third is in principle fluid. There is at least the theoretical possibility for a Traditional alliance against world order that could also include Russian chauvinists and neofascists, as well as the radical Green movement. There are individuals and organizations that advocate such an alliance, but then there have been such people since the Second World War. As far as I can tell, only the Islamofascists are operationally active in the third ring today.

* * *

Speaking of things that you might prefer to ignore, genetics has taken an odd turn, if you believe a new study about Explaining Differences in Twins:

But a whole new level of explanation has been opened up by a genetic survey showing that identical twins, as they grow older, differ increasingly in what is known as their epigenome. The term refers to natural chemical modifications that occur in a person's genome shortly after conception and that act on a gene like a gas pedal or a brake, marking it for higher or lower activity....There are two possible explanations for Dr. Esteller's findings. One is simply the well- known fact that epigenetic marks are lost as people get older...A second possible explanation is that personal experiences and elements in the environment - including toxic agents like tobacco smoke - feed back onto the genome by changing the pattern of epigenetic marks.

Dr. Esteller believes he is seeing both processes at work.

No doubt I misunderstand the issues here, but I cannot help wondering: might the day come when we have to apologize to the shade of Lamarck?

And Lysenko? But no: that way madness lies.

* * *

In my entry for July 4, I asked the world at large why John O'Sullivan had been dismissed without comment or thanks from The National Interest. Quick as boiled asparagus, a perspicatious reader directed me to Social Affairs Unit, where a brief comment notes that O'Sullivan's departure was connected with the recent fall of the publishing magnate, Conrad Black. He had been supporting The National Interest, on whose Advisory Council he still sits. Now it is wholly operated by the Nixon Center.

* * *

The Summer issue of The National Interest, by the way, is full of stuff you don't ordinarily see, including what appears to be a trade piece by one Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association. And just what is the IPOA? We read at their website:

The International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) is an association of private sector service companies engaged in international peace operations around the world. Member companies are involved in all sectors of peace and stability operations including mine clearance, logistics, security, training, and emergency humanitarian services.

If I understand his article correctly, Brooks argues that mercenaries can be trusted not to abuse and despoil the populations they are sent to protect, abstinences which are not always observed among the military forces that the United Nations scratches together from member countries for peace-keeping operations these days. However, private-sector units need a clearer legal framework. For that matter, they need a body of law that they can carry with them and enforce in the areas they control.

* * *

The protests by spelling reformers at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, have gotten a bit more press coverage, from North Carolina and New Zealand. Note that discussion in the latter piece about the difficulty of creating a single spelling system for the many local pronunciations of English is a red herring. All major languages have pronunciation differences. All they ask of their spelling is that it reliably indicate a possible pronunciation.


Alert visitors will have noticed that we are not in Kansas anymore, or at any rate, that my site now has a new URL. I seem to have been the last person who maintained a large site but did not have a personal domain name, a deficit that has occasioned increasing levels of malicious hilarity.

My choices were constrained if I wanted to use my own name, which seemed advisable for a personal website. The domain "" was long since taken, of course; so was "" I would not have minded being a "," which has a fine institutional ring, but alas! I probably would not have used "," but was the spared choice, since someone beat me to it. So, that left me with:

The extension "info" is good. It makes me sound helpful.

I will maintain the old site for a while. However, if you have links to it, I would ask you to redirect here. Only the domain is different; the files still have the same names and extensions (for instance, this page is still "jjrblog.html"), except that the top page is now "index.html."

I have tried to make the transition as seamless as possible, but glitches are inevitable with this kind of project. If you find anything that does not work, please let me know. And thanks again for visiting.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Holy Grail

The chalice in question

The chalice in question

A nice overview of the grail stories, and how they fit into European history. This was part of my background reading for Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark and Last Call.

The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief
By Richard Barber
Harvard University Press, 2004
463 Pages, US$17.61
ISBN 0-674-01390-5


At the climax of the French prose romance, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Sir Galahad looks into the dish that was the object of the long and perilous search by himself and his companions, Sir Perceval and Sir Bors. This is his report:

“For now I see openly what tongue cannot describe nor heart conceive. Here I see the beginning of great daring and the prime cause of prowess; here I see the marvel of all other marvels.”

That is as good a description of the Grail as we have. This survey of the subject defends the sensible thesis that the original Grail stories, which were written between 1180 and 1250, were closely connected with the development of Eucharistic adoration and of the concept of the Beatific Vision. The audience for these stories was a class of increasingly sophisticated knights, who wanted a transcendent ground for their careers of adventuring and their ethic of duty and loyalty. Now that's simple enough, isn't it?

The great merit of this excellent study is that its author, Richard Barber, realizes there is no single key to understanding the Grail. He has written many academically serious accounts of medieval subjects for a general audience. In this work, he does the service of lucidly summarizing the major versions of the Grail story. We get accounts, sometimes necessarily speculative, of the Grail authors, and of the history of the texts that have come down to us. Just as important, Barber describes the revival of interest in the Grail in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular emphasis on its new role in conspiracy theories of history.

None of this is a debunking exercise: Barber is willing to give Jungians and comparative mythographers a respectful hearing, and he at least entertains the possibility that the “secrets of the Grail,” so often alluded to in the Grail poems and romances, may have included some spiritual exercises that bordered on “white magic.” He does, however, let us know where evidence ends and speculation begins.

The chief source for all streams of Grail lore begins about 1180, with The Story of the Holy Grail by Chretien de Troyes. Little about him is known. His Story is an unfinished poem, not obviously of cosmic significance. Young Sir Perceval, who had been knighted at King Arthur's court, comes a across a mysterious castle. There resides a wounded lord. He invites Perceval to a feast, during which a procession occurs. It includes a lance, which drips blood, and a beautiful dish. (“Grail,” “graal,” “greal”: they are all variations on the word used for “dish” here: it is not a new coinage.) These objects are borne through the hall and into another chamber. Perceval had been taught not to ask questions, so he does not ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?” Had he done so, the lord would have been healed, and order would have been restored to that land. As it was, he awoke to a deserted castle. Then he began a career of aggression and cruelty, in the course of which he forgets about God. At the end of the poem, he meets a hermit, who turns out to be his uncle. The hermit explains that the wounded lord (the Fisher King) is yet another uncle. The Grail, which the hermit describes as “such a holy thing,” carries a consecrated host to the Fisher King's father, on which the old man subsists. Perceval repents. He promises to find the Grail castle again and ask the question. Meanwhile, the hermit teaches him a regimen of penitence, including some secret names of Christ that are not disclosed to the reader.

Bits of this tale might be traced, but not the ensemble: the basic Grail story is as original as Tolkien's Ring story. It is barely conceivable that the motif of the clueless young knight comes from Wales. It is also possible that the Grail is a refined version of the Welsh “cauldron of plenty.” However, there is no obvious way that those elements could have come to Chretien's notice, and it is not clear how our understanding of the story would be enhanced if they had.

As it stands, Chretien's account is little different from the sorts of adventures that fictional knights routinely experienced. What we do know is that Chretien's hints and omissions provided hooks for new story elements that snapped into place with lightening speed. New versions of the story said the Grail was not just present at the feast in the Grail castle, but magically provided the food. The Grail's ability to cure the Fisher king expands to the ability to cure all maladies, and eventually to confer immortality on those who remained in its presence. By the time we reach the Quest of the Grail, the chief Grail-quester is Galahad, whose spotless character and ultimate success in his endeavor is contrasted with the failure of his father, the adulterous Lancelot. The disorder of the Grail kingdom occasioned by the wounding of the king becomes the uncanny Wasteland, the suspension of the natural order while the quest is unfulfilled. In some versions, King Arthur himself becomes a Grail hero.

The Grail knights achieve their quest by finding the castle and asking the right question, thereby curing the Fisher King. Then, depending on the version in question, they may take part in a Mass using the Grail, at which Christ himself is seen to be present.

The Grail itself undergoes many modifications and improvements. The most important is that the Grail becomes associated with Joseph of Arimathea, a minor character in the New Testament. In Grail stories, he is said to have come to Britain, bringing various relics with him. Thus, the Grail becomes the dish used at the Last Supper, or the cup that Jesus used then, which is sometimes also the cup in which the blood of Jesus was collected at the Crucifixion.

That lance, by the way, becomes the Spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ at the Crucifixion. It, too, is sometimes the object of a quest within the larger Grail framework.

If you want to explore the Grail stories, there are two versions to start with. One is The Quest of the Holy Grail , an anonymous prose work in French from about 1220-1230 (actually part of an extended romance called The Lancelot-Grail). The other is Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic poem, Parzival, from about a decade earlier.

The Quest is the basis, more or less, of later Grail stories in French, and also of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. (Written about 1470, it was one of the first books printed in English.) King Arthur's Round Table in the French and English stories might seem like an Order of the Grail, but if so, the Order is ephemeral: the beginning of the quest is often the beginning of chaos. Their Grail is generally a plate or cup; it might appear in several such guises in the same story.

Parzival established a somewhat different Grail tradition, which we see in Richard Wagner final opera, Parsifal, the work that so infuriated Friedrich Nietzsche. In the German version, the Grail is a mysterious stone, the center of a sort of Grail utopia from which the world is secretly regulated. In Wolfram's version there is even a Grail dynasty. The connection of the Grail with a sacred bloodline has been revived sometimes, rarely to good effect. Some bad etymology helps here: “Holy Grail,” or “Sangraal,” was quickly mistaken for “sangre real,” or “royal blood.”

Some of these ideas are not self-evidently orthodox, and conceivably they came from a theological underground. I for one would suggest that Barber pays too little attention to the Grail tradition that the first bishop was Joseph of Arimathea. That would give England priority over Rome; it would certainly give Joseph's traditional seat at Glastonbury priority over Canterbury. Still, the medieval religious authorities took no official notice of the Grail stories. Several relics were identified as “the Grail,” in the sense of the cup or dish used at the Last Supper, but no one tried very hard to connect them with the Grail romances.

Interest in the Grail waned with the Middle Ages. Because of the strong Eucharistic associations of the stories, the new Protestant establishments condemned the whole Grail tradition, to the extent that they knew of it. Even in Catholic countries, though, literary taste moved on to other things. It was only in the 18th century that systematic interest in the subject revived, largely for antiquarian reasons. With the beginning of the Romantic movement, the Grail reentered popular culture. It also began to acquire an esoteric dimension that, probably, it had not had before.

Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was being reprinted by the early 19th century, and soon became a favorite source for artists. There was a revival, or a reinvention, of the rhetoric of chivalry and quest, quite often in the service of movements for social reform. The immensely influential Pre-Raphaelite Movement embraced the Grail. There was great demand for murals depicting Grail themes, for instance. In France, and especially in Germany, there were parallel developments.

There was a problem, though. The key scenes of Grail imagery were also often Catholic imagery. This was awkward in Protestant England when such works were commissioned for public places. It required tact on the part of the Anglo-Catholic artists to whom the subject most appealed. But it was also a problem in Catholic countries. People who might be attracted to the Grail material esthetically might also be alienated from the Catholic Church, whether theologically or politically. A trend began to separate the Grail from its obvious Christian context; or better, to show that the Grail was actually subversive of that context. Thus, perhaps inevitably, the Grail became part of the furniture of the occult revival.

Already in the 18th century, the suggestion had been made that the Grail knights were really Templars. The Masons had rather favored unsubstantiated theories that linked themselves to the Templars, too. One result was that, when a vast Masonic conspiracy was blamed for the French Revolution, the Grail tradition became an object of suspicion. In Metternich's Vienna, the theory was not unknown that perhaps the plot to overthrow Christianity had been operating as early as the 13th century. The people who identified the Grail with the Templars, and later the Cathars, generally regarded the identification as an indictment. However, even paranoids have enemies. By the end of the 19th century, there were people who were attracted to the Grail precisely because they thought that subverting Christianity was a really keen idea.

Of these perhaps the most flagrant was Otto Rahn, the Nazi researcher who is sometimes credited, on dubious evidence, with actually finding the Grail. What we know he did do was publish several books with titles like The Crusade against the Grail and The Courtiers of Lucifer. His argument was that the Grail legends masked Cathar doctrine. The Cathars worshipped Lucifer, understood as the liberator from the Jewish God, and the true Grail was the lost Cathar treasure.

One can see where these ideas might come from. In later German tradition, the Grail is made from a jewel that fell from Lucifer's crown, and of course Wolfram himself introduced the disturbing idea that the guardians of the Grail had been the Neutral Angels, who neither rebelled against God nor remained obedient to him. On the other hand, there is no way to connect these notions with the Cathars, much less with the Grail. There is also no reason to believe that these issues, or Rahn's researches, were especially interesting to the Nazi government. Still, they are not as idiosyncratic as one might suppose.

Much more intellectually serious was the attempt by Rene Guenon, one of the most influential of obscure 20th-century intellectuals, to incorporate the Grail into his theory of the Primordial Tradition. Tradition in this sense is the supposed orientation toward the transcendent that is shared by all the great religions. In their exoteric forms, these religions may be more or less corrupt, but Guenon suggested, along with other occultists, that the Grail stories might have been created by an esoteric Christian elite. Barber does not note this, but Guenon was always looking for means in the great religions of “initiation.” Guenon claimed to be frustrated in his search for a living initiatic tradition in Western Christianity. The vision of the Holy Grail, however defined, would have done quite nicely. Eventually, though, Guenon gave up on Christianity, and became a Muslim Sufi.

One of Guenon's disciples, Julius Evola, undertook to create, or recreate, an anti-Christian elite. Evola argued, along with Dante, that the Holy Roman Empire was a divine institution, and essentially the European expression of the primordial archetype of universal dominion. Unlike Dante, he dismissed Christianity, in both its contemporary and historical forms. Rather, Evola said the Grail represented the spirituality of the empire, and especially of a secret movement of knights and crusaders who were the true Grail knights. As a notable ideologist of fascism both during and after the Mussolini regime, he hoped to create a new Order of initiates around which the empire could form again, but this time without the Christian trappings. His success was mixed at best.

(But speaking of imperial Grail conspiracies, what about Lord Alfred Milner's Round Table Groups, so clearly derived from the Pre-Raphaelite Grail craze? But no: that way madness lies.)

The keynote poem of the 20th century was The Wasteland, a term from Grail mythology. In general, the 20th century tended to treat the Grail as an ominous symbol: Barber's survey of the literature is fascinating. The great exception he finds is the work of Charles Williams, who was a former occultist, a long-time editor at the Oxford University Press, and a friend of C.S. Lewis. He wrote several novels with Grail themes, and a major poem, Taliesin Through Logres. Barber credits Williams with doing what the medieval writers never quite managed: recasting the Arthurian material in a coherent structure around the quest, and giving the search for the Grail a universal significance. Moreover, Williams did this while returning to the idea of the Grail as the Beatific Vision, but with the added notion of the Grail as a mode under which the divine intervenes in history.

My quibbles with this book are very minor. Barber does not attempt a systematic history of the liturgy of the Eucharist, but his offhand remark that the Mass started as community morale-boosting sessions is almost certainly wrong. It might have been well to emphasize that there is more than one theology of the Real Presence, even though Aquinas's theory of Transubstantiation did become the orthodox one in the Catholic West. For that matter, it is a little misleading to define that latter doctrine as saying that the bread and wine at the time of consecration “are transformed into physically different substances.” Actually, they are transformed into different substances, but their physical “accidents” remain the same. (What's the difference? Go ask Aristotle.)

Despite the great length of this review, there is much more in this book than I have been able to cover. Anyone interested in the subject must read it.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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All of John's posts here

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Linkfest 2017-03-03

A Cold War era power plant could save us from ourselves

Thorium reactors are an idea that has been around for a long time. We'd try it if we got desperate.

Top professional performance through psychopathy

Being resistant to the feelings of others can be a good thing, or a bad thing. It depends on what end you put yourself towards.

Socialism is bad

When tradinistas say they want socialism, I have a hard time taking them seriously. Mostly, I just don't know what they really mean. Here, Adam Ozimek points to an essay by Matt Bruenig that helps me figure out what they are talking about. I still can't take them seriously.

USA Today has an excerpt of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I'm very excited about this. Thrawn is one of my favorite characters, and it looks like Timothy Zahn has been able to transfer the core of the character into the new Star Wars storyline.

The Islamic world did liberalize — but then came the First World War

Ed West reminds us the Middle East was having quite a bit of success integrating into the wider world during the first episode of globalization in the 19th century. Then we blew it all up. Makes you sympathetic to Edward Said.

The Amazon Rainforest Was Profoundly Changed by Ancient Humans

When I was a kid, the environmentalist narrative was very much about preserving and restoring pristine habitats unsullied by the hand of man. I'm glad to see this starting to change. I was first introduced to the Terra Preta of the Amazon by the now defunct Anthopogene blog. That blog had a number of fantastic articles on archaeological finds that helped to illustrate just how much the world has changed during human history. 

10 things about human evolution (genetics) you should know

Razib's listicle about genetics.

Danish Companies Seek to Hire, but Everyone’s Already Working

The horrors of actual full employment.

The Politics of Retelling Norse Mythology

The claim to being a modern 'pagan' is probably worse cultural appropriation than an author retelling old stories. I've never met a pagan who wasn't just a Christian heretic.

White self-interest is not the same thing as racism

A look at what counts as racist for whom.

Fascism in the White House?

A splash of cold water in the face of the minor panic that ensued when someone noticed that Steve Bannon knew who Julius Evola was.

What We Know About the 92 Million Americans Who Aren’t in the Labor Force

I love a great graph.

The US Special Forces Major who fought in the SS

Larry Thorne aka Lauri Allan Törni is the kind of guy who couldn't sit out a good war. So he fought in Finland against the Soviets, twice, against the Soviets again in Germany, and then in Vietnam against the Communists.

How Uber used secret Greyball tool to deceive authorities worldwide

I'm impressed. This is how big data works in the movies. And apparently in real life sometimes too.

Is there really a war on cops?

Short answer is no. More complicated answer is that the same advances in medical technology that keep the murder rate down in general keep cops alive too [I'm not saying this adjustment would make the trend line go up BTW], and that hostility to the cops certainly seems like it is on the rise. It would be interesting to make a third graph using cops per capita to adjust for changing employment. I have a hunch the long upward trend in the late nineteenth century was due to increasing use of police forces instead of citizen volunteers. However, that data seems to be hard to find.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild Explained

I can't wait for my copy to arrive!

The Long View 2004-09-08: Death Cult

Here, on the grounds of millenarian movements and apocalyptic expectations, I think John was at his best when describing what Islamic terrorism is. There is a link to esoteric fascism too, the ideology of Tradition. Pray that men such as these don't have their day in the sun.

Death Cult


Peter Preston wrote a piece for The Guardian that appeared on September 6, entitled Writing the script for terror. He is incredulous of the idea that the Beslan Massacre was the work of international terrorism. He is also patronizing toward Tom Clancy, which is easy to do, but ill-informed: Clancy's novel, Rainbow Six, described a school hostage taking and the sort of force needed to deal with it, a point worthy of attention. Chiefly, though, he implies that the best way to deal with incidents like Beslan is not to report them, or at least not to report them so prominently:

For the difficult, inescapable thing, watching those pictures, is an eery feeling of manipulation. Somebody planned this and reckoned the cameras would be there....Two bleak things follow. One is that - whether or not it exists on any organised level - we shall gradually come to identify a force called international terrorism, a force defined not by the coordination of its strikes or creeds but by the orchestration of its inhuman propaganda. I manipulate, therefore I exist...The other thing is self-knowledge for media-makers and media-watchers.

Certainly the Islamofascist strategy is based on creating spectacles. However, I don't think that "we shall gradually come to identify a force" behind this propaganda. I think the force has done a pretty good job of identifying itself.

* * *

The strangely ubiquitous David Brooks writes in The New York Times (September 7) about this force:

We should by now have become used to the death cult that is thriving at the fringes of the Muslim world. This is the cult of people who are proud to declare, "You love life, but we love death." This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergartners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.

This cult attaches itself to a political cause but parasitically strangles it. The death cult has strangled the dream of a Palestinian state. The suicide bombers have not brought peace to Palestine; they've brought reprisals. The car bombers are not pushing the U.S. out of Iraq; they're forcing us to stay longer. The death cult is now strangling the Chechen cause, and will bring not independence but blood.

This new phenomenon is just as nightmarish as Brooks suggests. However, if it's a cult, it's a cult without an essential theology. The massacres are apocalyptic, both in the popular sense of indiscriminately destructive, and in the scholarly sense of revealing the insubstantiality of the ordinary world. However, the death cult seems to be only incidentally related to eschatological belief systems. It's a mime, a ritual.

Nonetheless, I think I have some notion of what's going on here. In an e-book, I suggested that the final phase in the life of a great culture is a tendency toward pure destructiveness. I called that "The Terminal Apocalypse," to distinguish it from earlier versions of millenarianism, which are revolutionary and often creative. Of course, this tells us nothing about the subjective state of the people who experience this terminal mood. Brooks suggests this:

It's about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness. It's about experiencing the total freedom of barbarism - freedom even from human nature, which says, Love children, and Love life. It's about the joy of sadism and suicide.

Maybe, but I would remind readers that people do the worst things for what they imagine to be the best reasons. The terminal apocalypse seems to have something to do with the spiritual autonomy sought by esoteric fascists: neither life nor death, nor the failure of all one's historical hopes, can deflect the adept from his course. He can be killed, but not defeated.

This brings us to the question of how to manage these people. Brooks says:

This death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation. This is what makes it so frightening. This is what causes so many to engage in a sort of mental diversion. They don't want to confront this horror. So they rush off in search of more comprehensible things to hate.

It is not true that the followers of the death cult make no demands and cannot be negotiated with. As Anonymous tells us, al-Qaeda fundamentally wants the United States out of the Arabian Peninsula. That could be negotiated. The people who did Beslan want the Russians out of Chechnya. That could be negotiated, too. The problem is that the death cult is what its followers do, not what they want or believe.

Surrender doesn't help. The Russians actually tried that, after Yeltsin's first attempt to subdue Chechnya by force failed. They withdrew, in the expectation that a provisional government would form with which they could do business. What actually happened was that the state in Chechnya disappeared, and the chaos began to spill over into the neighboring areas of the Russian Federation. The state similarly disintegrated in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Somalia. The same would be true in Palestine, were it not for subventions from Europe.

The rubble produced by the death cult is contagious. Perhaps it, too, cannot be defeated, but only killed.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-07-26: Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics

Ordinarily, I would trust John's judgment on a matter of legal interpretation, but I do wonder whether his opinion on the Valerie Plame affair was unbiased. We don't have a legal decision to look back on, since the courts declined to take up the charge, although in this case it doesn't truly seem that Plame was much harmed, in retrospect.

John expresses an idea here that I brought up in a comment at Steve Sailer's blog: the present political environment in the United States is ripe for personal politics, in part because American lack of corruption makes politics relatively cheap, and also because the political parties are losing power as institutions.

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

The amount of money Hillary spent is arguably not a small multiple of $100 million, but Trump's spending falls in that range.

Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics


Anyone can write about the Wilson-Plame Affair, so I can do it, too. The question is whether a felony was committed when someone in the Bush Administration leaked the news to a columnist that Plame, Wilson's wife, was a CIA agent. For what it's worth, I would say "no."

The key provision is 50 USC 421 [Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources]. There are separate subsections creating liability for leakers and leakees in that section, but they both do so only for an offender "knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States." The term "affirmative measure" suggests some step in addition to the original designation of someone as working undercover. More specifically, 50 USC 426(4)(A)(ii) defines "covert agent" as someone "who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States."

There are factual issues here, of course, but also more questions of statutory interpretation. Suppose an agent simply traveled abroad on intelligence business: would that reset the five-year secrecy period? The CIA might not be well advised to pursue the widest possible interpretation of the statute in this case. If a court decides the ambiguity against the Agency, then the broad interpretation can no longer be used as a threat.

These are not new points. However, while looking up the statutes in the United States Code, I did make some startling discoveries. For instance, there was once a Chapter 7 of Title 50 of that Code that Jorge Luis Borges would have loved: Interference with Homing Pigeons Owned by United States. The provisions have long since been repealed. Casual readers of the US Code who are too lazy to hunt for the original legislation in the US Statutes, which is the uncompiled and unclassified output of Congress, must make do with these enigmatic repealer notes:

Section 111, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 1, 40 Stat. 533, related to prohibited acts affecting homing pigeons owned by United States. See section 45 of Title 18, Crimes and Criminal Procedure.

Section 112, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 2, 40 Stat. 533, related to possession of pigeons as evidence of violation of law. See section 45 of Title 18.

Section 113, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 3, 40 Stat. 533, related to punishment. See section 45 of Title 18

I used to write repealer notes, when I worked for West Publishing many years ago, so I know what extraordinary details may lurk behind the studied blandness of these memorial summaries. In particular, we must wonder what terrible punishment Congress deemed fitting for those who would molest the Pigeons of the Great Republic.

* * *

Even before I read Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World, I had reached the stage where I saw Traditionalists lurking in every footnote of every critique of modernity. I got this way because, in many cases, they do lurk in such places, but don't get me started. In any case, a more fruitful way to study Tradition is to read what people who identify themselves as Traditionalists have to say. I have become particularly interested in the overlap between Tradition in the Guenonian sense (which is what Sedgwick chiefly studied) and Catholic Traditionalism. The best-thought-out synthesis is the work of Rama Coomaraswamy, a retired thoracic surgeon and a priest in a group with its own bishops that continues to use the old Latin liturgies.

In his essay on Philosophia Perennis and the Sensus Catholicus, the Reverend Doctor Coomaraswamy does an interpretation of salvation history that is new to me, but which makes perfect sense in a Guenonian context:

It is also necessary to consider history, not as a progressive advance from primitive times to the present "enlightened" era but more realistically as a continuous degeneration from a former golden age. Adam’s fall from paradise is a paradigm for understanding the present situation. God did not abandon His creation and Adam found regeneration, and is indeed considered by the Church to be a saint. In ancient days, saving revelation, in accordance with man’s more direct apprehension of truth, was appropriately more simple. With each succeeding "fall," God provided more stringent requirements for man to follow if he sought to reverse the process of degeneration, until the time of Moses when the rules required encompassed every aspect of life. This is well reflected in the Sacrifice of Abel, followed by that of Abraham, and finally by that established through the medium of Moses. Yet throughout all this we have the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, renewed once again in Christ.

The author is a "sedevacantist." Such people believe that, quite literally, they are more Catholic than the pope. Because the pope supports the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, the author holds that the See of Peter is vacant. (Other sedevacantists say there is a pope, but someone other than John Paul II: an opinion that need not detain us.) It is interesting to note how sedevacantism recapitulates the original Guenonian critique of Catholicism. Rene Guenon said 70 years ago that the "initiatory" element in Catholicism had been lost for centuries, so that the chain of primordial Tradition was no longer intact in the Catholic Church. Sedevacantists say that everything was fine until the Second Vatican Council cut the cord.

It's not just that the decrees of the Council are heretical, they say, but that the new rites of ordination for priests and bishops that were among the new liturgies promulgated after the Council are not valid, for much the same reason that Anglican ordinations are not valid. Thus any Mass, even a Mass in Latin, said by a priest who was ordained by a bishop consecrated using the new rite is not a valid Mass. Thus, bishops consecrated after 1982 are not real bishops, and the Catholic hierarchy is gradually being replaced with imposters.

The really interesting point here is that "traditional" Catholics are usually keen on the exclusive truth of Catholicism and the almost inevitable damnation of everyone who is not a member of the visible Church (or, sometimes, of one's own schismatic sect). How does this square with the Guenonian principle of the "perennial wisdom," which all the great Traditions of the world supposedly share? In Dr. Coomaraswamy's version, the two meanings of Tradition can be reconciled by emphasizing scriptural rather than hermetic proofs for this wisdom, and also by leaning very heavily on the notions of "the baptism of desire" and the "invincible ignorance" of some unbelievers, including intelligent ones. Those points, at least, are not off the reservation of respectable Catholic opinion, but they are not the sort of thing usually embraced by conservatives.

The moral, I think, is that we have yet another instance in which we see that Tradition should never be confused with conservatism. Perhaps it would be too much to state this categorically, but we can clearly see this trajectory in every form of Tradition: for a Traditionalist, no public institution in his own society is legitimate.

* * *

Global Policy Exchange has been holding discussions on whether what Islam really needs is a Reformation. In the August/September issue of First Things, one contributor to the discussion, Paul Marshall of Freedom House, has an essay whose title, "Islamic Counter-Reformation," sums up a contrary position:

My view is that many of the problems of contemporary Islam are more like Protestant problems than like Catholic problems, and therefore more akin to a dilution of Protestantism is required.

You can make your own list of Islamic "Protestant problems": a principle of "sola scriptura" based on the Koran that makes flexibility impossible; a neglect of natural law; the lack of hierarchical oversight of charismatic leaders. Randall suggests that what Islam needs is a renewal of the ancient science of interpretation, along with the creation of a more centralized system of authority to issue such interpretations.

I might point out that Spengler, in The Decline of the West, identified Islam as a Reformation of Eastern Christianity within what he called "Magian Culture," or at least as the Puritan phase of a Reformation. The problem is that Islam may not only have had its Reformation, but also its Counter Reformation: that is arguably what Shia Islam was all about. Particularly in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is a strong hierarchy and a sophisticated magisterium. There are also the makings of nukes, in the hands of people who should not be trusted with sharp objects.

* * *

As part of the New York Times coverage of this week's Democratic National Convention, the newspaper's Sunday Magazine section of July 25 had a long article by Matt Bai, entitled Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. The story is about the efforts of leftist-progressive-democratic rich people to fund a network of new foundations and activist groups to counter the depredations of the American Enterprise Institute and the National Rifle Association and suchlike rabble.

There is something terribly delusional about all this. The organizers of the lefty network claim that they were blindsided by the fearsome new foundations and news outlets that the Right has assembled. Does the Hoover Institution really hold a candle to the Kennedy School of Government? Is FOX of much account compared to all three broadcast networks? About Hollywood we need not speak.

Be that as it may, the article is interesting because it emphasizes that the system of political financing is disengaging from the two major political parties:

The second potential outcome to which Dean alludes -- that the Democratic Party, per se, might not always exist in America -- might sound, coming from Dean, characteristically overwrought. But it does raise a significant question about the political venture capitalists: what if, in the future, they decided not to support Democrats at all? ... When I suggested this to Stern, the service employees' union president, he thought about it for a moment before answering. ''There is an incredible opportunity to have the infrastructure for a third party,''

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Against the Modern World

This book review is part of the reason I distrust Religious Studies departments. Anything influenced by Evola and Guénon probably bears close watching. John's warning here is pretty important in the post 9/11 era as well:

If you've been reading about Islam in English, you have probably been reading material heavily influenced by Traditionalism. The discipline of "religious studies" was largely founded by "soft Traditionalists."

It is always hard to come at a religious tradition from the outside. The relatively unknown ideology of Tradition makes that even harder.

I've been following Tradition for fifteen years now. As John says, there is a danger in thinking this movement stronger and more prevalent than it actually is. However, the alt-right, much in the news of late, really is influenced by Tradition. Or at least a small number of relatively uninfluential Twitterati are. The broader populist political movements in the West are not. Even the Russians don't pay much attention to Tradition.

I've also often felt relieved that Guénon deemed Catholicism [Christianity in general really, but he was from France] unsuitable ground for Tradition. Like John, and other authors who have studied Tradition, I find something intriguing about the idea, but at root, it seems wicked and perverse. Some seeds fall on on stony ground.

Against the Modern World:
Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
By Mark Sedgwick
Oxford University Press, 2004
370 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 0-19-515297-2
Companion Website:

“Some theories which he may meet in modern Christian circles may prove helpful here; theories, I mean, that place the hope of society in some inner ring of 'clerks,' some trained minority of theocrats. It is no affair of yours whether those theories are true or false; the great thing is to make Christianity a mystery religion in which he feels himself one of the initiates.”

--C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters

This general history of the Traditionalist movement starts with the author in a smoldering building in Moscow, wondering whether the security services had just tried to burn out his borrowed apartment in order to impede his investigation of the Tradition-influenced National Bolshevik Party. As a matter of fact, they hadn't, and the National Bolshevik Party turned out to be more a political performance-art ensemble than a serious political party. Still, anyone who has tried to assess the place of Traditionalism in 20th-century intellectual history has probably experienced something like his mild paranoia.

If you've been reading about Islam in English, you have probably been reading material heavily influenced by Traditionalism. The discipline of "religious studies" was largely founded by "soft Traditionalists." That is also true of some fields of anthropology, particularly regarding the Plains Indians. The paranoia sets in when you learn there is good reason to look for Traditionalism in the works of an apparently endless list of authors, including Thomas Merton, T.S. Eliot, and E.F. Schumacher. (Prince Charles is involved, too, a little.) The fact that some academic Traditionalists take care not to cite their Traditionalist sources only adds to the impression of a vast, shadowy network that includes everyone in the world but you.

Happily, this sober survey does not spin conspiracy theories. It also does not make the mistake of overestimating its subject, a movement that is important but not central to understanding the last century. The author, Mark Sedgwick, is a young British scholar at the American University in Cairo. He encountered Traditionalism while studying the spread of semi-secret Sufi orders among Westerners, a process that began in the early 20th century. From there, the study spread to mutations in French Freemasonry, to the development of the theory of esoteric fascism, and then to the nihilist political violence of the 1960s and '70s. The story goes on to Eurasianism, which is an anti-Western but increasingly respectable school of thought in Russia, and to the effects of Traditionalism on Islamism and on the politics of non-Arab Muslim countries.

In addition to paranoia, one of the dangers of studying Traditionalism is that you soon bite off more than you can chew. The only flaw I find in this book is that it does not cover nearly enough. Also, a note on nomenclature: self-identified Traditionalists generally refer to their system in print as "Tradition" or "tradition." However, this survey settled on "Traditionalism," so this reviewer is not going to argue.

Traditionalism is firmly rooted in Western hermeticism. Its most important element, "perennialism," may be traced to Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) of the Platonic Academy of Florence, who developed the hypothesis of the "philosophia perennis." (The term was coined later, though: Sedgwick credits Agostino Steuco at around 1540; Aldous Huxley, in The Perennial Philosophy, credits Leibnitz.) Ficino used the "Corpus Hermeticum," a venerable collection of neoplatonic texts, to argue that a primordial metaphysical basis lies behind all the world's major religions, which could therefore be said to be transcendentally united.

The problem was that the "Corpus Hermeticum" was not as venerable as the Renaissance thought. In the early 17th century, it was proven that the "Corpus" dates from the early centuries of the first millennium, and not from ancient Egyptian times, as had been supposed. Thus, it no longer seemed so remarkable that the texts contained Platonic and even Christian elements. Still, though Ficino's arguments for perennialism had been discredited, the idea never entirely went away. It received new support in the 19th century, when the availability of Vedanta texts made it possible to argue for metaphysical universals on a cross-cultural basis.

That was where René Guénon (1886-1951) came in. Traditionalism was his creation, and its history is largely the tale of his influence. The son of an ordinary French bourgeois Catholic family, he wandered from what otherwise might have been a conventional teaching career into Indic studies and thence into the occult milieu of the Belle Époque. His Traditionalism was a reaction to the Theosophy and spiritualism of the time, though a disinterested observer might be forgiven for concluding that it is simply another school of the same sort.

To the principle of perennialism, Guénon made two powerful additions. One was the principle of “initiation.” This meant that spiritual advancement required a direct link to the supernatural, which usually meant induction into a chain of adepts going back to some historical source of power. In his occult phase, which lasted until about 1920, Guénon was initiated into no fewer than six Masonic or mystical groups. One of these was the Sufi order, the Shadhiliyya Arabiyya. Guénon took the Arabic name “Abd al-Wahid.” Sedgwick insists this initiation was not a conversion; certainly Guénon did not begin to live as a Muslim for another decade.

One of the most important consequences of the principle of initiation was a tendency toward “vanguardism” (a term Sedgwick does not use). Traditionalism sought to create an elite, sometimes thought of as a saving remnant of the Western world. Traditionalism differs from Theosophy and other occult sects in that it has never sought a mass audience. In practical terms, this meant that Traditionalism expressed itself in Masonic groups and other semi-secret societies. When it took the form of Sufi orders, it often turned them into clandestine organizations, which is not how Sufism works in Muslim countries.

Guénon's second innovation was “inversion,” the principle that all the change in the Western world since medieval times was for the worse, indeed that all historical change is a decline. What the West thinks of as progress is really decay, leading to an inevitable collapse. Guénon defined modernity in terms of the privation of the good: “If everyone understood what the modern world was, it would immediately cease to exist.” Inversion gave Traditionalism its apocalyptic content. In some contexts, it gave Traditionalism revolutionary potential, as adepts sought to hasten the end of modernity.

When discussing Traditionalism, there is always the danger of attributing to Guénon projects that were really worked out in detail only by his followers. Still, it does not falsify his system to say that his general intent was to create an order of persons who could make the West a Traditional civilization again, either by arresting its decay or rebuilding it on Traditional lines after its collapse. The most interesting constraint on this ambition was Guenon's rejection of Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular as a possible basis for reconstruction. He sometimes wavered on this point, and there have always been Christian Traditionalists; in Paris, Guénon is still a “Catholic” author. Generally, though, Guénon argued that the chain of initiation had been irremediably broken in the Catholic Church. Thus, the true Tradition was to be sought in Vedanta, Sufism, Freemasonry, Taoism, or even High Paganism, but not in the public spiritual heritage of the West.

If Sedgwick is to be believed, one of the key inflections in the development of Traditionalism, the turn toward Islam, was an accident. Guénon's metaphysical point of reference was always Vedanta. Nonetheless, in the 1920s, when he wrote his principal books, Guénon seemed to be just a slightly eccentric Catholic intellectual. (His most-cited books, incidentally, are The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945).), He attended Mass regularly with his devout wife. For a time, he lectured at the Catholic Institute in Paris, where he was a protégé of Jacques Maritain. He did get into increasing trouble for declining to acknowledge Catholicism as the fullest expression of the truth, and he was quite capable of equating the Third Eye of Shiva with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In any case, after his wife's unexpected death at the end of the decade, Guénon made an unsuccessful business trip to Egypt. Perhaps simply because it was cheaper, he remained in Cairo, and took up the life of a Muslim. He started a new family. He did not abandon his perennialism, but thereafter advised his growing cadre of followers of the necessity to observe the full practice of one of the great Traditions, as he observed the Sharia.

The spread of Sufism in the West during the 20th century is a tale in itself, one that intersects only at points with Traditionalism. Sedgwick names Robert Graves as a Sufi, for instance, though apparently not of a Traditionalist order. (I would suggest that Graves's novel, “Seven Days in New Crete,” actually expresses the Traditionalist agenda quite well, but there's the paranoia again.) Rudolf Freiherr von Sebottendorf, the alchemist and numerologist who managed the Thule Society in Munich in the 1920s and who founded the party that eventually became the Nazi Party, was also a Sufi, but again, not a Traditionalist. (Hitler was neither, by the way.) There is even something called “Neo-Sufism,” which divorces Sufi initiation from Islam entirely.

By far the most important Sufi in Traditionalist history was Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), a man of complicated Franco-German parentage who acquired Swiss citizenship, but finally created a sort of commune in Bloomington, Indiana. Guénon seems to have entertained high hopes that Schuon's Alawiyya order (later the Maryamiyya order), then based in Switzerland, would develop a way to indigenize Traditionalism in Europe. That might spare the old continent the indignity of eventually being culturally annexed by alien Islamic societies. Schuon's version of Traditionalism had its own trajectory, however.

Schuon rejected Guénon's position that Christianity had lost the power of initiation: both baptism and confirmation really were the initiations they claimed to be, in his estimation. Schuon, in fact, is among the best-known exponents of the transcendental unity of religions. However, he went beyond perennialism to something like universalism, which mixes and matches elements of the major Traditions: a grave error for most Traditionalists. Moreover, he seemed to acquiesce in the belief among his followers that the Traditions were united, not just primordially, but in himself. In any case, he had considerable effect on several academic disciplines. His keen interest in Native Americans, for instance, ensured that friendly anthropologists would write about Black Elk from a Traditionalist perspective.

Traditionalism has often sought political influence, and not without success. For instance, the Iron Guard in Romania, which supported the alliance with Nazi Germany, grew out of a sophisticated Christian Traditionalist movement, the Legion of the Archangel Michael. Mircea Eliade famously supported the Legion, though he distanced himself as the movement became less spiritual and more political. However, the most important political Traditionalist, and indeed the best known of all Traditionalists after Guénon, was the Italian occultist, Baron Julius Evola (1896/8-1974).

Evola was able to get a hearing in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for his ideas about the cultivation of elites and the need to reconstitute the Holy Roman Empire on a non-Christian basis. Sedgwick emphasizes, however, that Evola had little effect on policy. The loss of World War II set Evola free. His philosophy was arguably a kind of existentialism; hence, perhaps, its influence in the postwar world, along with other kinds of existentialism. In the 1960s and '70s, Evola's ethic of “spontaneismo armato” inspired first a wave of rightwing anarchism, and then spread to the left.

Evola's ideas, and perhaps Evola himself, were connected with some early attempts to forge a “Red-Brown” alliance against the liberal West, a story that Sedgwick misses. However, Sedgwick gives considerable attention to efforts along these lines in post-Soviet Russia. Chief of these is the Eurasian Movement, organized by the Traditionalist and former-dissident, Alexander Dugin. Dugin's movement is not a political party; it maintains institutions to advise the government, which apparently takes it seriously.

Eurasianism combines the geopolitics of Sir Halford Mackinder with the Slavophilism of Konstantin Nikolayavich Leontyev. Its model of world history is a struggle between the spiritual Heartland and the materialist Atlantic Bloc. In this version of Traditionalism, Russian Orthodoxy plays the role that Islam plays in other versions. Russia's destiny is no longer to spread Marxism-Leninism, but to promote Slavic Christianity.

The same dissident group that produced Dugin also produced Gaydar Jamal, who somehow manages to support Russian policy in Chechnya while maintaining links to the Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi of the Sudan. Jamal's own version of Islamism is heavily influenced by Traditionalism, but has enough orthodox Islamic elements to make it difficult to classify. It is possible to speak of a “Red-Brown-Green” coalition (with green as the color of Islam) in some contexts, but Sedgwick reports that Traditionalism has little influence in the Arab world, except perhaps in Morocco. Its profile is higher in Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia, where its role is more cultural than political.

The most important Traditionalist institution of the 20th century was the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. It was founded by the eminent scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and generously funded by the last shah's government. The Academy was a serious academic institution, created to study Islamic art and philosophy, as well as modern science, from a Traditionalist perspective. Sedgwick notes the ironies in its history. Though Nasr is a man of conservative disposition who endorsed the monarchy as a Traditional form of government, the studies his Academy sponsored were a part of the renewal of enthusiasm for Iran's spiritual past that ultimately overthrew the shah. The academy survived the Islamic Revolution, but Nasr sought exile in the United States, where he is now an ornament to the faculty of George Washington University.

Actually, for followers of a philosophy with a name that suggests reverence for the past, Traditionalists are peculiarly liable to get into trouble when they try to deal with actual history. Ananda Coomaraswamy, one of the earliest of Guénon's followers, was already in an unassailable position as curator of the Indian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when he became a Traditionalist. He continued to do valuable work, and he added an esthetic element to Traditionalism that it never lost. However, even his admirers noted that his interest in history evaporated in favor of metaphysics. Guénon himself failed to get a doctorate from the Sorbonne because his thesis on Indian philosophy dispensed with the historical-critical method. When scholars influenced by Traditionalism do not cite to Traditionalist authors, they were not necessarily trying to conceal the connection; the sources are sometimes just too embarrassing.

One could add a critique of Traditionalism as a kind of fancy-dress. Guénon was relatively isolated in Cairo: he soon discovered that the spiritual East of Traditionalism often had little to do with the merely eastern East. From the 1970s into the '90s, the face of “Islam” in Italy was largely that of another European Sufi, Felice (Abd al-Wahid) Pallavicini. Unfortunately, his career as a participant on interfaith dialogues was interrupted by the immigration of Muslims, who pointed out that his theology and practice were not very orthodox. Particularly in the Arab world, the open exponents of Traditionalism are told that perennialism is not an Islamic doctrine. Indeed, in the Islamic world since the 19th century, the Sufism that Guénon identified with initiatic Islam has been in retreat before Salafism and Wahhabism.

Despite these weaknesses, and the odd turns that Traditionalism has sometimes taken, Sedgwick cautions that we should not dismiss Traditionalism as evil or deluded:

“Traditionalism was the exhilarating attempt to reinstate a divine order, the response of sensitive and intelligent individuals to an alien world...”

He doubts that it has much of a future in the West, where it is merging with the esoteric background from which it came. However, it may have an impact on those societies that are still trying to decide between East and West. Whatever you think of this assessment of Traditionalism's future influence, it is certainly high time that more attention was paid to its impact on the past.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The System of Antichrist

Here is an excellent example of why I still think John J. Reilly has something to say all these years later. This book review is a synthesis of ideas he had been working on for nearly ten years, nicely summarized by the links he put in to his earlier work. And also, this paragraph:

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Reminds me of this current controversy in the Catholic Church. These ideas haven't gone away, or even changed very much.

The System of Antichrist

Truth & Falsehood in
Postmodernism & the
New Age

By Charles Upton
Sophia Perennis, 2001
562 Pages, US$27.95
ISBN 0-900588-30-6

A Review by
John J. Reilly


Globalization, the New Age Movement, and postmodernism did not merely arise at about the same time, according to The System of Antichrist. Rather, they are all manifestations of a common impulse, one that is not entirely of human origin. They are in fact symptoms of the impending end of the world. As is the way with eschatological analysis, much of the book's argument is best taken metaphorically. However, these are the sort of metaphors you neglect at your peril.

The author, Charles Upton, began life as a conventional Catholic. He experienced the 1960's Counter Culture and subsequent New Age spiritualities, which he now views as pathologies that have been marketed to a mass audience. Eventually, he washed up on the shores of Tradition, and became a Muslim Sufi. Upton's book is largely a synthesis of the theological metaphysics of Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions with the eschatology of Rene Guenon's The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

The System of Antichrist does not attempt to summarize Tradition systematically, so neither will this review. Suffice it to say that Tradition is a curious blend of neoplatonism and comparative religion that was devised in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Tradition, or corruptions of it, crops up in the most extraordinary places, from Black Metal music to the writings of Robertson Davies. As a matter of intellectual history, it belongs in the same class as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy, Jung's psychology, and the comparative mythology of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.

Additionally, I think it important to point out that Tradition is also closely related to the reaction against speculative philosophy that we see in Heidegger, with the vital difference that Traditionalists find that the Transcendent, rather than Being, is inescapably "thrown" to them.

As we will see, Traditionalists tend to believe that the state of the world is very unsatisfactory, and fated to get worse. Wicked Traditionalists not only believe that the world is ending, but are keen to help it along. (One of the most puzzling features of this book is the failure to engage directly the esoteric fascism of Julius Evola.) In the sense in which Upton uses the term, however, "Tradition" means almost the opposite of world-hating Gnosticism. Gnostics deny the value of the world; Traditionalists see eternal value in the world. For Tradition, the creation of the world was not a mistake, but an act of divine mercy. Everything in it tells us something about God. These things include the human institutions ordained by God, the most important of which are the world's revealed religions.

This is where Tradition differs from ordinary syncretism. Tradition is a spiritual practice that needs a revealed matrix. Traditionalists can be Muslims, or Jews, or Christians, or Buddhists, or even shamanists, but they cannot mix and match. These traditional religions, at least according to the Traditionalists, are united by the transcendent object toward which they look. Each represents a revelation of the divine nature; the differences between them can be resolved only eschatologically. The attempt to create a world spirituality, in fact, is one of the satanic counterfeits of these latter days.

Although The System of Antichrist has its biases, it is not religiously partisan. Many of its theological points are perfectly orthodox. For one thing, Upton never departs from the principle that eschatology is fundamentally personal. Creation and apocalypse are always present. Eschatological history is only a symbol of the death of the ego and its replacement by God. In one sense, you are the Antichrist, and in your own latter day that tyrant will be overthrown. On the other hand, there is no denying that eschatology also has a universal dimension. The book usually works on the assumption that a personal Antichrist will appear in the penultimate stage of world history; several of the world's religious traditions say as much, and personification facilitates the discussion. However, Upton reminds us repeatedly that the concept of Antichrist can also be taken to refer to a collectivity, one that has existed as long as Christianity itself. That collectivity becomes coherent and visible as the end nears.

Admirers of C.S. Lewis will be happy to know that they may have already read some fictionalized Traditional metaphysics, in the form of Lewis's novel, That Hideous Strength, which deals with a conspiracy of scientific magicians to open a branch office of Hell in central England. In The System of Antichrist, Upton seeks to make explicit the suppositions behind that story:

"[A]s this cycle of manifestation draws to a close, the cosmic environment first solidifies – this being the result and the cause of modern materialism – after which it simply fractures, because a materialist reality absolutely cut off from the subtle planes is metaphysically impossible. These cracks in the 'great wall' separating the physical universe from the subtle or etheric plane initially open in a 'downward' direction, toward the 'infra-psychic' or demonic realm (cf. Rev. 9:1-3); 'magical realism' replaces 'ordinary life.' It is only at the final moment that a great crack appears in the 'upward' direction..."

If you don't like esoteric metaphysics, this would still be an interesting statement about the history of philosophy. The rejection of the transcendent resulted in materialism, which, like all monisms, is at best incomplete. By the middle of the 20th century the materialist edifice was riven by skepticism toward scientific and historical knowledge. With the coming of postmodernism, very strange substitutes for metaphysics began to appear. Upton means much more than this, but this is one way to look at it.

The Intellect is the faculty of the mind by which we perceive "self-evident truths." During the 19th century, the Intellect could no longer look to a transcendent God; even metaphysical first principles were rejected after Kant. In consequence, emotion became divorced from the truth. The affective part of human nature was expressed, for a while, as the irrational sentiments of Romanticism. The postmodern declension from Romanticism is emotional numbness, enlivened by atrocity and sinister fascination. There is such a thing as emotional intelligence, and the trajectory of the postmodern world is to stultify it. Postmodernism removes the possibility of romantic heterosexual love as a spiritual exercise. Worse yet, it makes God inaccessible.

The New Age might be called "folk postmodernism," except that folk religion is better structured. In traditional civilizations, there is a hierarchy of the religious life: popular practice, an institutional church, and esoteric tradition. The New Age collapses these layers, so that the transcendent element that had been the object of esoteric spirituality is lost. All that remains is the psychic, meaning both ordinary psychology and the shadowy realm that surrounds the material world but is not necessarily superior to it. The result is people who channel extraterrestrials, or embrace psychological management techniques, or are attracted to some of the less-grounded forms of Pentecostalism. The forgetting of the distinction between psyche and spirit makes Antichrist's counterfeit of the spiritual possible.

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Anti-historicism is central to Tradition. The school arose in opposition to that other tradition, the one that proceeds from the French Revolution. Tradition denies the possibility of historical progress. It is resolutely anti-Hegelian. Also, largely in response to the evolution-based postmillennialism of the Theosophical Society, it will have nothing to do with the concept of evolution. Even if new forms of life appeared over time, they were simply the instantiation of preexisting archetypes. The only historical change is decay:

"It is certainly true, according to esoteric philosophy, that the created order returns to its Divine Source through the conscious spiritual unfolding of individual sentient beings. But this 'evolution,' this unfolding of the individual through a transcendence of the self-identified ego, is not a continuance of the cosmogonic process, but a reversal of the process..."

One could expand at length on the misapprehensions in this book about evolution. The chief one is the common error that the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids local increases in order. As a corrective, one might refer to Robert Wright's "non-zero-sum" model of evolution, which gives a persuasive explanation for why history must be, in some sense, both progressive and teleological. Actually, the idea that evolution may be a process by which "ideal forms" incarnate is not so far off the scientific reservation, according to Simon Conway Morris. However, even a Platonic approach to evolution requires that higher forms appear with the passage of time.

Be this as it may, the point Tradition tries to make is that religious novelty is never for the better. This has proven to be the case with the New Age. There is such a thing as a New Age agenda, one with a long pedigree. New Agers suppose that belief in anything beyond the psychic is patriarchic oppression. The major New Age writers usually envisage the end of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church.

Upton gives us a selective tour of some of the fashionable New Age belief systems of the past three decades. James Redfield's Celestine Prophecies gets a rather more thorough critique than the matter merits. (Upton does hit the nail on the head by calling the cult of the books a manifestation of "New Age singles culture.") Deepak Chopra comes in for measured criticism for seeming to equate enlightenment with material well-being. Some of these writers have always been obscure and have become only more so with the passage of time. Still, their ideas have permanently affected the popular imagination.

Upton believes that "A Course in Miracles" is the acme of New Age thought. It is based on the channeling of the "Seth Material" by Jane Roberts. As you might expect, this is a lengthy revelation that is supposed to come from a supernatural entity named Seth. The resulting doctrine does, at least, accept the existence of a divine absolute. The problem is that the absolute is so absolute that God does not even know this world exists. "A Course in Miracles" purports to go beyond the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence by saying that this ego-generated world is too unreal for God to be immanent in.

I was previously unfamiliar with "A Course in Miracles." It seems to be almost classically Gnostic, complete with a dying and senescent demiurge in the form of the Christian God. Remarkably, "A Course in Miracles" adapts the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as the basis of a theory of simultaneous incarnation. That is unlikely to be true, but it is very ingenious.

Upton is so impressed by the Seth material that he wonders whether it may have been designed to lead astray the metaphysically inclined. He has particularly harsh words for its treatment of the question of whether God is personal: "The tendency to use the Impersonal Absolute to deny the Personal God, all-too-common among many people shallowly interested in mysticism and metaphysics, is simply another form of the ego's desire to be God." Depersonalizing God distorts the divine essence into a mere cosmic potentiality. We may use it, but it can make no demands on us. In Christianity, Upton points out, the meaning of the incarnation of the Second Person is that no one may approach the Godhead except through personality.

There is a larger metaphysical point here that is worth a little attention: the distinction between transcendence and abstraction. An abstract idea is merely a selection of common features. Upton's notion of a transcendent idea, in contrast, sounds like a "phase space." It encompasses all that something can be. Archetypal ideas are ideas of this order. In Upton's system, an entity of this sort is just what we mean by a "person." God is more than personal, but he is also personal in this way.

If great archetypal ideas are personal, it by no means follows that they are necessarily friendly. The powers of darkness appear as unconscious belief systems and social mores. An unconscious false belief on the psychological level is a demon at the psychic or spiritual level. The world is misled by fallen entities of a high order: cherubim, demons of the Intellect rather than of the will. In Upton's estimation, these shadows of the Four about the Throne can be characterized as Law, Fate, Chaos, and Self. These false alternatives war among themselves, and foment war on Earth. Self-deluded, they delude us.

The postmodern world presents a greater peril than merely a disordered cultural climate:

"Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Be careful: while you are looking into the abyss, the abyss is looking into you.' This is why I caution the reader not to open this section while in a state of depression, anxiety, or morbid curiosity. Whoever already knows how bad UFOs are, and is not required by his or her duties to investigate them, should skip this chapter."

Despite the warning, Upton's account of extraterrestrials as a postmodern demonology is not without a certain morbid fascination. The growth of the popular cult of UFOs means that the blackest kind of black magic has gone mainstream; an assessment that, oddly enough, echoes Michael Barkun's conclusion that the UFO mythology have served to distribute "stigmatized knowledge" throughout the whole culture.

Upton relies heavily on the UFO researcher Jacque Vallee, who is best-known for arguing that the reports of UFO encounters closely resemble folkloric accounts of meetings with faeries, incubi, and (Upton's favorite spooks) jinn. Vallee does not limit the phenomenon to folklore. In the more than fifty years of UFO reports, there are real physical effects, instances of mass psychological phenomena, and human manipulation. About this Upton says: "The critical mind tries to make sense of this, fails, and then shuts down. It is meant to."

Upton sketches a history for us. The earliest accounts of meetings with extraterrestrials, which date from the mid-20th century, come from people with connections to the occult underground. Black magicians, who earlier in the Occult Revival had been able to invoke demons only for themselves, had been searching since the beginning of the century to invoke them for the masses. This was not entirely the magicians' idea. The Jinn, or at least the malicious ones, are seeking a stable incarnation in this world. They induce people to welcome and worship them. They also, perhaps, inspire computer technology and genetic engineering. These technologies undermine the human image. They also could be media through which the jinn achieve bodily form. They would then either displace the human race, or corrupt it to their purposes.

I would say that little of this is likely to be literally true. Still, it is true that there is a deep connection between flying-saucer cults and transhumanism. In any case, these dark desires, whether human or demonic, interpenetrate seamlessly with the spirituality of what has been called "the transnational class," but which Upton calls simply "the global elite":

"The characteristic 'religion' of some (but not all) sectors of this global elite is a kind of 'world fusion spirituality' – which, however, is essentially psychic, not spiritual – made up of texts, music, ritual objects, yogic and magical practices, and even shamanic initiations from around the world."

The spiritual disorders that arise from the denial of the personal God are important precisely because they are integral to the drive toward world unification. Neither side of the globalization struggle is strictly on the side of the Antichrist, but then neither is necessarily opposed to him.

Postmodernism is one of the reasons what a united world would be intolerable. Upton correctly notes that pluralism and the subjectivity on which postmodernism is based are incompatible. Postmodernist globalism, under the cover of multiculturalism, creates unity by denying its possibility. Metaphysical unity is a reality, always and everywhere. When it is denied, it reasserts itself as power rather than as cognizance. On the other hand, the multiplicity of cultures is metaphysically necessary, because each reflects some aspect of the divine. Suppress that multiplicity, and the result will be inter-ethnic chaos, which only force can control.

As is so often the case in this book, one notes that Tradition comes in different forms, and that all of them use the cultural resources of historical societies in a selective fashion. Other writers influenced by Tradition emphasize the archetype of the "empire," of the necessary unity of humanity, which is found in many civilizations. Even Islam, which makes a point of officially tolerating the existence of other confessions, contemplates that this toleration should occur in the context of a universal Caliphate. Upton's critique echoes the common anti-globalist complaint that both the unity and the diversity offered by globalization are disingenuous.

In any case, Upton asserts that today we live in a world that has moved from "the revolt of the masses" (which old-style conservatives like Guenon worried about) to "revolt of the elites" (which troubled another of Upton's favorites, Christopher Lasch). For the first time in history, it is the wealthy and educated who want to remake the world. As a critique of globalization, The System of Antichrist is in many ways a more lucid version of Hardt & Negri's "Empire." (That book, despite it postmodern Marxist rhetoric, expresses many Traditional themes.) Actually, for a book that is supposed to reflect the viewpoint of primordial truth, Upton's seems to accept uncritically the "litany" of the anarchist left, from alleged environmental collapse to corporate malfeasance. Fundamentally, however, politics and economics are epiphenomenal to what is really happening.

The Antichrist appeals to the best in us; therefore he is at his worst when he most closely approximates the truth. Beyond the vulgar New Age, we learn, there is a long-running tradition of "counter-initiation." The people engaged in this project do not seek to destroy the revealed religions, but to subvert them in all their forms, exoteric and esoteric. The Theosophical Society is the best–known example, but Upton is most alarmed by those he calls the "false traditionalists." Most famous of these is Carl Gustav Jung, who is a well known inspiration for the world's proto-global elites. The object of Upton's peculiar ire, however, is one William W. Quinn, Jr., author of The Only Tradition. While sometimes deploring the dissolution of traditional cultures and religions, Quinn sees it as a necessary step toward the creation of a Traditional Planetary Culture, one that will be simultaneously scientific and religious, a post-democratic world ruled by a hierarchy of adepts. This is very much what the system of Antichrist would look like in its maturity.

Upton admits he was strongly tempted by the prospect of a Traditional Planetary Culture, but overcame the glamour. False Tradition of this kind is a mere "higher empiricism." It views revelation, not as the word of God, but only as data. The result is metaphysics without religion; in other words, a sort of psychic engineering. Again, God becomes a resource, not a person.

As for the apocalypse itself, we are given a comparative tour of mythologies as they relate to the endtime. (I once attempted such a study myself, by the way, in a book called "The Perennial Apocalypse.") Upton's survey includes aspects of the eschatological ideas found in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity (chiefly in its Orthodox version), Islam, and the religions of the Hopi and the Lakota. As you might expect, the survey finds a high incidence of Antichrist-like figures who deceive the world in the latter days, and Messianic figures who briefly restore Tradition before the end.

We learn quite a lot about the Shiite idea of the "occultation": messianic figures disappear for centuries, until they are ready to play their endtime role. Despite the high incidence of millenarian hopes throughout history, we are given to understand that a literal Millennium, of a perfected earthly society, is not Traditional. However, Upton intriguingly parses the possibility of a "short Millennium." This might be consistent with the reign of the Mahdi, or the period alluded to in Revelation that occurs immediately after the Second Coming. This period is variously described as lasting a few days, or months, or years; in one Shiite version, it lasts 309 years.

Our destiny is the New Jerusalem, the perfection and crystallization of our world. Though Upton is no more clear than his sources, one gathers that will occur Elsewhere. There may be some continuity of our physical world with a following one. It is possible that Earth will not be destroyed, and even that there may be a few human survivors. That next world, however, will be another creation. Our business is with salvation in this one.

Upton suggests some spiritual possibilities unique to the endtime. The latter days allow for detachment, since at last we know enough not to place our hopes in history or "the future." There is also a unique opportunity to acquire encyclopedic spiritual knowledge from around the world. Indeed, the very advent of the Traditionalist school is a providential "sign of the times." Finally, we may hope for the spread of serenity like that which accompanies the old age of just persons, through whom eternity begins to shine.

On a practical level, we must not forget that the forces of globalization and those opposed to it are equally apt to the hand of Antichrist. He might even come to power to overthrow a previously established world system. The System of Antichrist suggests that we deal with this situation in the way that Jesus did when he was asked whether it was licit to pay taxes to the Romans. To that he answered that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. We must avoid being trapped in crooked choices. Our goal in the latter days is not to save our lives, but our souls. Even politics can be a "liturgy," in which we play the role we are assigned.

* * *

Upton's analysis merits comment. So does the doctrine of Tradition itself.

No doubt it is true that God forgives even theologians for their theology. Nonetheless, the principle of the transcendental unity of religions is open to question. The doctrine holds that the revealed religions are more similar to the degree that they approach their Object. This is not obviously so. Regarding personal eschatology, for instance, the Buddhist "moksa" is not equivalent to the Christian Beatific Vision; neither is self-evidently identical to the model of collective immortality that Upton himself seems to favor. The latter's best known exponent is the Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi. That is an important point.

In addition to Western Hermeticism, Tradition exhibits quite a lot of Sufism. The primordial Traditionalist, Rene Guenon, famously became a Muslim, and Upton followed suit. There are Christians, indeed Latin Christians, who consider themselves Traditionalists. Still, sometimes I can't help but wonder whether Tradition is just a very refined form of Sufism. This suspicion is probably misplaced, but Tradition is nonetheless parochial in a more fundamental way.

Sufism is a wisdom that crystallized from an age of skepticism and heresy. So, for the most part, are the other civilized esoteric traditions from which Tradition was composed. Tradition is not primordial. It's like the music of Solesmes, which was created at almost the same time as Tradition, and for much the same reasons. The Traditionalists are right, surely, when they say that it is mere bigotry to look on the past as inferior simply because it is past. We have a duty to extend the same sort of imaginative sympathy to the modern era that we do to distant times and places. The West is still going through its own centuries of skepticism. Someday, modernity could appear as primordial as Atlantis.


Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.

The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages



This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking

The Long View: The Demoralization of Society from Victorian Times to Modern Values

This book is probably best read in productive counter-point to Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms. It is not possible to understand the modern world without understanding both genetics and moral reform. Victorian England was the product of at least 1500 years of selection that made the most prudent, hard-working, and law-abiding population on the face of the Earth. However, there is enough slack in the leash biology keeps on culture to allow an oscillation between Regency dissipation, to Victorian prudery, back to yobs, within the space of 200 years. There is no known genetic mechanism that would allow that much change in that time span, so that leaves other causes. Since I haven't completed the demonstrative regress, I cannot claim that the moral revolution of the Victorians was the exclusive cause of the change for the better in the nineteenth century. However, I can claim it to be plausible to be one of the causes.

We do have the Victorians to thank for changing caritas from love in general into alms for the poor. In their eminent practicality and domesticity, the more rarefied meaning was lost, or perhaps discarded. We probably also owe our notion of progress in the Anglosphere to the Victorians. Progressive politics as such was a late Victorian/Edwardian thing, but the ball got rolling much, much earlier than that. 

One of the big differences between the attitude of the early Victorians and anyone who self-described as a "Progressive" at the time, is how they saw the poor. The attitude of the earlier Victorians is echoed in C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. In a passage describing the difference between a trendy English textbook of the day and what Lewis chose to call the Tao [Natural Law was too Romish]

If they embark on this course the difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely "conditions." The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them this or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.

The progressive era was also the era of eugenics. Lewis was astute to notice that the attitudes of his social betters tended to see the poor as livestock. It isn't an accident that eugenics and evolutionary theory grew up together among country gentlemen who bred animals for sport.

The other aspect of decadent Victorianism that largely goes unsaid here was the occult revival. John was familiar with this, as a student of the occult. I do think I detect something of this in the last lines of John's essay, but this a topic for another time.

The Demoralization of Society From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Alfred A. Knopf,1995
ISBN 0-679-43817-3


Nietzsche's Victory


Educated people in England and America around the year 1900 believed in social progress because they had experienced it. In England, where our statistics are best, crime and illegitimacy rates at the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 had fallen by about half from their mid-nineteenth century high. Public drunkenness became rare and alcoholism ceased to be an accepted fact of private life. Literacy became nearly universal, sanitation and diet improved at every level of society. People put great effort into staying clean, and governments built infrastructure that enormously increased the availability of water to common people. Wages nearly doubled in a generation. The entire adult male population was enfranchised. Married women gained control over their own property. All this happened while large towns became sprawling cities and severe financial panics periodically shook the economy. (The term "depression" is a later American euphemism).

This level of civilization was maintained through the first half of the twentieth century, through two world wars. Then, in the 1950s, the statistical indices of social pathology began to creep upwards. In the 1960s, they vastly accelerated. By 1990, crime rates were ten times their nineteenth century high, illegitimacy over four times. (Remember, these former highs had been reached in the most Dickensian years of the Industrial Revolution.) Additionally, in some ways the population was getting appreciably stupider and sicker. As the century neared its end, it had become fashionable to belittle the idea of progress. No wonder.

So what happened? That's the question that Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of the City University of New York (and wife of neoconservative scholar Irving Kristol) tries to answer in this brief and very readable overview of social history. There is no attempt here to turn the Victorian era into paradise lost. Victorian women may not have been the silent slaves depicted in feminist mythology, but they were sufficiently dissatisfied with their lot that they collectively exerted themselves for almost a century to widen their public role. Society was riddled with class and racial prejudices that most people today would find gruesome. (Curiously, the word "imperialism" does not even appear in the index, though the book treats mostly of England in the last fifty years of the nineteenth century.) Though working people were not as poor as they used to be, they still worked appalling hours for wages not far above subsistence levels. The Victorians were even more familiar with poverty, ignorance and disease than we are. The difference is that they believed these things could be greatly mitigated. Their belief was not irrational; they really knew how to do it.

If you need an example of a society in a state of moral and social collapse, you might do worse than to study England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Cities were growing in an almost unregulated fashion as the impoverished peasantry were driven off the land. The capital was intermittently in the hands of a mob bent on revolution. Crime was so common that the hundreds of capital offenses on the books were no longer considered sufficient deterrent, so the transportation of criminals to Australia was begun. The national government was corrupt to a degree that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed. Parliament was the tool of aristocratic factions. The aristocracy itself was violent, promiscuous and ruthless. The Church of England, though blessed with a few great apologists, served mostly as a source of undemanding careers for less gifted younger sons. The country was obviously in a chaotic condition, but its rulers had no plans to put it back in order, or even any clear idea of what was wrong. Though hardly unprejudiced observers, the American Founding Fathers tended to assume that the British Empire was about to go the way of the later Roman Empire.

It was not the rulers of Britain who saved the nation, but the pious middle class. Led most famously by John Wesley and his Methodists, the English evangelicals and nonconformists (i.e., people belonging to non-Anglican protestant churches) began a program of moral reform that, within a century, had transformed society almost as much as technology had transformed the economy. It was a moral revival. Its mechanism was the dissemination of virtues in churches, in schools, and, where applicable, whenever the state met the citizenry. The revival was a long march through all the institutions of the nation. It took four generations, and it was one of the most successful social enterprises in the history of the world.

This work was not accomplished through social bureaucracies; for the most part, they did not exist until the end of the period. The Victorian era (which for many purposes began before Victoria's actual accession to the throne in 1837) was the great age of private philanthropy. Though philanthropy did involve large financial donations, to a large extent it was a hands-on affair. University graduates and professional people established and worked in settlement houses in poor neighborhoods. They taught adult education classes and provided free health care. Successful businessmen undertook surveys of health and poverty at their own expense. Using skills learned in the business world, they invented empirical social science. More to the point, they were able to craft proposals for reform that could be understood by other practical men in government.

The state helped where it could, for good or ill. The workhouse system under the Poor Laws, which in principle required unemployed able-bodied people to live in a workhouse, was leniently applied in practice. It was cheaper to support the indigent if they lived on their own. However, the system helped to stigmatize poverty, even poverty through ill-fortune. Particularly in the final decades of the century, a series of remarkably strict antipornography laws were passed. The state became concerned with discouraging abortion and contraception (some feminists supported these policies, some opposed them). The state served to promote private morality best, perhaps, through the example of the royal family. Though George III had been popular, neither George IV nor William IV had been especially well-liked, for good reason. In contrast, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, surrounded by their innumerable children, were the very picture of domestic bliss. The wealthy and powerful often led the sort of irregular lives that the wealthy and powerful sometimes do. However, they were at pains to maintain the appearance of propriety. Any history of high society from the period is replete with sham marriages and shocking discoveries found posthumously in the personal diaries of eminent Victorians renowned in life for their moral rectitude. This was not hypocrisy, in the sense that naughty Victorians were pretending to standards in which they did not believe. They did believe in them; they just were unable to live up to them. Their pious impostures, however, gave many lesser contemporaries the strength to succeed where prominent persons failed.

Lists of the "Victorian Virtues" have multiplied since that day in the 1983 when a reporter was so ill-advised as to suggest to Margaret Thatcher that her social ideals were merely Victorian. She immediately took the offensive in the cause of the Victorians, one that this review, perhaps, is continuing. The virtues the Victorians cherished were "domestic" in the general sense of personal, practical, humble. While they were consistent with the noble virtues expounded by Aristotle and the theological virtues as summarized by St. Paul or St. Thomas, they were the versions of these ideals which would appeal to people who had to work for a living. Aristotle endorsed wisdom, justice, magnanimity, temperance and courage. The Victorians, more prosaically, were interested in diligence, cleanliness, honesty, sobriety, civic pride. "Charity" ceased to mean love and came to mean the dutiful support of the deserving poor.

Victorian attitudes toward sex varied, though Ms. Himmelfarb is careful to debunk some of the extreme anecdotes on the subject as later satires. (Victorian matrons did not really put little skirts around the bottoms of their pianos to cover the legs. I, for one, am disappointed.) On the other hand, the Victorians did bowdlerize Shakespeare so that salacious passages might not offend innocent eyes. (Thomas Bowdler was the ingenious publisher who gave us this eponymous verb.) They did the same to Gibbon in order to expunge the impieties from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." However, throughout the period, they never lost sight of the virtue of chastity itself. It was a positive good, not simply the failure to commit evil.

Victorian virtues were also domestic in the specific sense of being centered on the home and the family. "Respectability" was something that Victorians worried about, particularly the working class. It meant that husbands worked as much as they could, and then they came home and gave their paypackets to their wives, who might then give them some spending money. It meant that the mothers of large families kept her children clean and sent them to school. In a world without washing machines or food that could be stored for more than a few days, this was no small proposition. Perhaps a quarter of Victorian women worked for wages, either at home or in commercial settings. This was "respectable" because it was necessary, but it was not regarded as a good in itself. Women of the professional and upper classes often had what amounted to demanding careers, but these were likely to be volunteer positions in charitable or social service enterprises.

I suspect that Ms. Himmelfarb underestimates the rates of marital breakup and illegitimacy before the nineteenth century and into its first half. She argues, on the basis of selected statistics from parish registers, they such things were rare going back to Tudor times. As Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" explains, "marriage" in the early years of the century was still a surprisingly slippery notion. Only marriages before a Anglican clergyman were automatically valid. People married in a Baptist chapel might not bother with a license. There was also the ancient and amiable institution of the "common law" marriage. (In common law marriages, the state usually takes no notice of the arrangement until one partner dies and the other claims the departed's property.) There were also popular customs, a sort of common law divorce, for ending these unions. The most picturesque of these was the public "wife sale." (The portrayal in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is misleading, since these performances were not open auctions.) A full legal divorce in England literally took an act of parliament, but some large percentage of the married population was not "married" in way of which the law took cognizance. The regularization of marriage and divorce laws in England must therefore be included among the century's reforms. It was made easier to get married, and control over marital disputes was removed from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. Popular behavior gradually conformed to the law. The early Victorians, particularly the common people, were rather lax about these matters. The latter ones were not, and divorce was rare.

The Victorians did not exactly invent childhood, but they made it a special stage of life. They created the peculiar culture of children, the literature and the clothes and the toy industry. It was Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic who gave us Christmas trees and "The Night Before Christmas." Maybe more important, they gave us universal compulsory education and the first restrictions on child labor. School became the career of Victorian children, in principle of the children of all ranks. When marriage laws were amended, one of the principle goals was the protection and support of children. Producing children and raising them were unambiguously the chief priorities of both sexes and of all classes. Only at the very end of the period did serious people begin to suggest that maybe career or eugenic factors should play a role in these matters.

Nietzsche did not cause the end of the Victorian era. He was early read and appreciated by people like Shaw, of course, but the fin de siecle had interests other than the German philosopher's aesthetic nihilism. However, he understood what was happening, and what was going to happen, better than anyone else. God had died for a growing fraction of the intellectual class of the West sometime in the middle of the 19th century. Without a theological grounding, he realized, virtues would become "values," social conventions that could be debated and modified as convenience suggested. Nietzsche had only contempt for his contemporaries' comfortable assumption that society would go on much as it had, except that people would no longer go to church. The moral system of Western civilization is founded on Judaism and Christianity. Once this foundation was removed, the superstructure would start to crumble. Although it was not until the 1960s that the effects would be felt on a popular level in the English-speaking world, the moral imagination of the West was becoming visibly unhinged in Nietzsche's lifetime.

The moral revival had succeeded because it was not original. The working classes and the rural poor did not have a system of morality different from that of the reforming middle class. The virtues the reformers sought to encourage were principles that just about everyone acknowledged. There were rare exceptions, such as the Poor Laws turning poverty into a near crime, that could be characterized as social engineering. Even in those cases, however, the state cannot be accused of trying to make up a virtue out of whole cloth. In the second half of the century, in contrast, that is precisely what the increasingly secular intellectual class tried to do. The aesthetes, for instance, tried to develop an ethics of art-for-art's-sake. While the actual art produced by the self-conscious "decadents" of the end of the century is an acquired taste, it was in fact during this period that art became a substitute for religion for many people. Other late Victorian reformers began to promote more intrusive measures to improve public health or fix the economy. Even when some of these measures were plausible ideas, like the total prohibition of alcohol, they were not to most people self-evident moral principles. The new reformers, however, continued to press them with the self-assurance of their pre-Darwinian forebears. They became moralists who had forgotten what morality looked like.

This era also saw the appearance of eugenics, originally one of the enthusiasms of the Fabian socialists. Earlier Victorian social reformers had looked out on the drunken and dirty laboring classes and seen fellow creatures who needed to be lifted from their deplorable state. The term "patronizing" does not quite do justice to this attitude, but at least it was an attitude of one human being regarding another. The Fabians, on the other hand, such as G. B. Shaw and Beatrice Webb, began to regard their countrymen as cattle in need of an intelligent breeding program. The attitude did not change even when their interest in eugenics wavered; thirty years later these people were also enthusiastic supporters for totalitarian experiments on the continent. Shaw and the Webbs (Beatrice and her co-author husband Sidney) were conspicuous for their support of the Soviet Union during the worst phases of Stalin's regime. (Shaw, by the way, was not as ignorant of what was happening in the Soviet Union as he pretended in public.)

The problem with these opinion-maker enthusiasms is not that they are necessarily wicked, though many of them are. The problem is that they are constructs, something that someone made up. They cannot form the basis of a social consensus, because they are alien to all but their makers. Even when, as in totalitarian societies, they can be imposed by the police, the police themselves are likely to lose interest in them after a while. What happened in the twentieth century was that the opinion-makers continued the cottage industry of value-making which the decadent Victorians had founded. They busied themselves concocting what were, in effect, exotic poisons in the arts and politics and the principles of personal relations. For the first half of the twentieth century, the major institutions of society continued along the vector which the Victorian moral revival had imparted. Teachers knew how to teach, the police knew how to keep the streets safe. For that matter, the Post Office knew how to deliver the mail. However, these funds of institutional wisdom were scarcely inexhaustible. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was obvious that some novel thinking was needed about everything from race relations to the control of industrial pollution. So society applied to the opinion-makers for guidance. And the injection of the poisons began.

Today, we live in a time that bears comparison to the eighteenth century. We have a fatuously self-confident upper class, the New Class of information manipulators, who have forgotten the moral law. We have an increasingly feral underclass who have never heard of it. We also have a very lively sense that something is radically wrong. Many people these days look to the Victorian moral revival as a model for us to follow. If the Victorians were able to reconstruct their society, surely we can engineer a revival of our own?

What happened once can happen again, and certainly not all the cultural indices are falling these days. However, we have to remember that the Victorian moral revival was a side-effect of a popular religious movement. Though the political and economic powers of the time frequently manipulated it, they did not originate it or control it. How could they? No one could have conceived where it would lead. The problem with what many people believe to be the incipient moral revival of America is that we are still playing by Nietzsche's rules. We continue to talk about establishing values, not discovering virtues. To every secularist's considerable surprise, religion is back in politics to a degree not seen for a hundred years, but there is something artificial about the phenomenon. The Methodist revival began as a movement for personal reform that only later developed political significance. (The Labor Party, Ms. Himmelfarb notes, was practically born in a nonconformist chapel.) Today, however, one may be forgiven for suspecting that much of the new-found piety of American conservatives is a political tactic to coopt evangelical and conservative Catholic votes. Secular conservatives seem to think that they can conjure up God to be their familiar spirit and serve their interests. They may well succeed in conjuring up something, but maybe not exactly what they expect.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Glass Bead Game

I don't think this counts as a prediction, but there is an interesting parallel to subsequent events. John says:

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

After Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, John said that Pope Benedict is exactly the kind of man who would enjoy playing the Glass Bead Game. As it turns out, he is also exactly the kind of man who enjoys resigning from the Glass Bead Game.

Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game

By Hermann Hesse

German Original “Das Glasperlenspiel” (1943)

English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (1969)

520 Pages; Approximately US$18.00

ISBN: 080501246X

Editions are available from Henry Holt and Bantam.

This book earned Hermann Hesse his Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. World War II had just ended then, so the novel's depiction of a debellicized future for Europe no doubt had special appeal in the German-speaking world. “The Glass Bead Game” is not an arbitrary Utopia, however. (The renderings of the title for some editions are arbitrary, unfortunately; sometimes it's “Magister Ludi” or the English equivalent, “The Master of the Game.”) What we have here is an example of speculative fiction that applies a humane gloss to the model of history in Oswald Spengler's “Decline of the West.” The result belongs to that small set of speculative futures that are both surprising and plausible.

Hermann Hesse was born in Germany, in 1877, where he achieved early success as a journalist and novelist. During the First World War he was an example of that modern conundrum, the pacifist activist. His career took off in 1919, when he published “Demian” and moved permanently to Switzerland. At his death in 1962, he was thought of as an esoteric and even somewhat obscure writer. Immediately afterward, however, his books gained wide popularity as guides to the path of spiritual enlightenment.

Because of the assimilation of his work by the Counter Culture of the 1960s, Hesse is often remembered, whether fairly or not, as the novelist of the truculent intellectual adolescent. This reputation is reflected in the four novels for which he became best known in the English-speaking world: “The Glass Bead Game,” “Siddhartha,” “Demian,” and “Steppenwolf.” The first three are Bildungsromane: novels about education and growing up. In all three, the protagonists eventually transcend cultural norms. The fourth is about a midlife crisis, but “Steppenwolf” deals, on the surface at least, with sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (well, with jazz; it was published in 1927). Perhaps for that reason, it has often served as the smart teenager's answer to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The Counter Culture has long since become the middle-aged establishment, but Hesse's books still renew their readership. For one thing, they are informed by a Jungian interpretation of Chinese and Indian mysticism, features which are all perennial favorites for several audiences. Hesse's Spenglerian view of history fell out of fashion after the middle 20th century, but that does not seem to have hindered the reception of his books. Quite the opposite, in fact: without familiarity with Spengler, “The Glass Bead Game” in particular seems even more original and mysterious. I might also mention that Hesse's German is very accessible, and it translates well into English.

The text does not say just when the story takes place. However, Hesse let it be known that the principal narrator is supposed to be writing around the beginning of the 25th century, about a person who had lived long enough ago for legends about him to spring up. The action, then, is probably in the early 2300s. We learn pieces of the historical background, which we will discuss below, but part of the book's purpose is to depict an era that is anti-historical, or post-historical. Indeed, the book is largely devoid of the sort of things that novels set in the future often emphasize. We are told there are radios, telephones, ground cars, and trains: so much for technology. It is clear that a “Century of Wars” lies in the past, but the usual term for what we call modernity is the Age of the Feuilleton, of trivial and occasional literature. There are different states, or at any rate countries, which have parallel cultural and educational institutions. We learn almost nothing about the state of the world, except that Europe is extremely peaceful and has been so for longer than living memory.

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

All this is expounded through long talks and little incident (there is one stinging memorandum). At school, Knecht is assigned to defend the educational system against a schoolmate named Plinio Designori (there are many Italian names in this book) who later facilitates his departure from his exalted status. Knecht receives precocious promotions. Knecht's mentor turns out to be a saint. Aside from Knecht's resignation, the most dramatic episode is a long stay in a Benedictine monastery. There Knecht is instructed in the neglected subject of world history by wise old Father Jacobus, whom critics say is supposed to represent the great Swiss historian, Jacob Burkhardt. (The most annoying character is a neurasthenic named Tegularius, who represents Friedrich Nietzsche.) There is just one, very minor, female character: Designori's wife. Knecht dies of heart failure on his first day as tutor to Designori's son, thereby giving the sulky good-for-nothing something to live up to. The conversations are really interesting.

One should note that the life of Joseph Knecht in “The Glass Bead Game” was planned as just one of a number of lives of the same man; Hesse had at first envisioned an anthology of incarnations, from the prehistoric past to the distant future. In the course of composition, however, the bulk of the book became a hagiography of the famous and infamous Magister Ludi. Just three other incarnations survive as appended stories, supposedly as examples of the school exercises the students of Knecht's time are assigned to develop the historical imagination. They deal with the life of an ancient shaman, a Desert Father, and a hard-luck Indian raja.

Hesse renders the Glass Bead Game of the title absolutely believable by not describing it in detail. We are never told just what a match consists of. Some early prototype of the Game used actual glass beads. The great annual Game matches are followed as closely and widely as international soccer (the latter isn't mentioned in the book, by the way). Those matches use some unspecified projection equipment. Calligraphy enters into it. So does music. On the other hand, people can and do play by themselves.

The Game seems to be about spotting and extending homologies in the phenomena of nature and in cultural history. The notes of a musical scale, for instance, can conform to the arrangement of the elements in the Periodic Table, or the growth pattern of a plant can conform to the expansion and leveling off of an animal population. Organic growth in general can be shown to have something in common with the efflorescence and exhaustion of an artistic style. Aquinas called these commonalities “intelligible elements”; Leibnitz actually tried to create a numerical language that could express them and even generate them. Hesse posits that some such project eventually succeeds and becomes institutionalized. The Game players seek to express all the phenomena of history and science in the Game language. An international authority oversees additions to the form and subject matter.

All in all, the Game sounds like a competitive jazz of literary and scientific allusions. It serves as an outlet among the finest minds for the creativity that in prior eras would have found expression in art. It is more than a mere trial of mental dexterity, however, because it contains a strong component of meditation. Indeed, many people pursue it as a path to spiritual enlightenment, as a way to perceive Being behind the shimmering veil of thought. The Game simply makes the veil visible, however; it is no business of the Game to suggest what may lie behind the veil.

The hints we get about the Game make it sound more than a little like the “I Qing,” the famous Chinese book of divination. However, Hesse goes out of his way to dispel any implication that they might be equivalent. One Sinicizing teacher of Knecht says this to his suggestion that a Game might be based on the “I Qing”:

“Anyone can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world into his grove.”

As Magister Ludi, Joseph Knecht presides over the Game center at Waldzell, which is located in an unnamed German-speaking country. The Magister Ludi is just one of the dozen Magisters of the national Board of Educators, however. There is also a “Magister Mathematicae,” for instance, and a “Magister Musicae,” and so on. The primary duty of the Magisters is to oversee the teaching of their subjects in the elite schools. The Magisters as a group oversee Castalia, the “province” (it is never clear to what extent the characterization is geographical or administrative) of all disciplines.

The students in the system of elite schools, all boys, are recruited as children. They normally serve as teachers, researchers or Game players for life. The Order to which they belong, in fact, holds them to a life of comfortable poverty and bachelorhood; to judge by this book, that also means celibacy after their student years. The people call them “Mandarins,” with some reason. Unlike the Mandarins of traditional China, however, their power does not extend beyond pedagogy.

There are also ordinary schools, up through the university level, which prepare their students for the practical professions. Castalia provides many of the teachers for the public system, but the Magisters do not control it. Castalia is wholly dependent on public funding. The Magisters even spend a fair amount of time lobbying.

It is a measure of the distance that the West has traveled by the Age of Castalia that the 20th century idea of biography has become a historical curiosity. The narrator of Knecht's life puts it this way:

“[F]or the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance…We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generalities.”

In the age of Castalia, the West has again become a Traditional society, in the special sense of “tradition” coined by René Guénon. Though he does not say this, Hesse seems to have tried to map out a trajectory for the West like that of China after the Sung Dynasty. After several centuries of dramatic growth, chaos, and experimentation, Chinese culture turned toward consolidation under the banner of Neo-Confucianism. Like the Glass Bead Game, that philosophy is as comprehensive as it is final. However, Hesse is at pains to emphasize that a comparable transition in the West need not produce an alien world, much less the fascist outcome that some followers of Tradition favor. In the Age of Castalia, there are still political parties, elections, and newspapers. Nonetheless, the creativity of the modern era is over, as well as its violence and instability.

The Age of Castalia understands the prior thousand years in this way. Two trends had been in play since the end of the Middle Ages. One was the liberation of thought from authority, particularly from the Church of Rome. The other was the “covert but passionate search” for legitimacy for this freedom, for a new and sufficient authority arising from reason itself. The result was disaster, followed by recovery:

“[T]hey were already on the verge of that dreadful devaluation of the Word which produced, at first in secret and within the narrowest circles, that ascetically heroic countermovement which soon afterward began to flow visibly and powerfully, and ushered in the new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect.”

The reformation of the life of the mind began, clandestinely at first, even in the 20th century. This was done under the impetus of musicologists and of the loosely organized religious movement called the Journeyers to the East (a reference to Hesse's novel of similar name, published in 1932).

After the crisis of civilization, intellectual life became monastic. People understood that their culture was no longer creative, but they also understood that there were still worthy goals to pursue. There was still the work of pious preservation, of systematization and sympathetic critique. The liberal arts began to aspire to the rigor of engineering. The Glass Bead Game was just part of a general turn toward synthesis.

By Knecht's time, no one is much impressed by Enlightenment philosophy anymore. Kant is little known, while the High Scholastics are part of the regular curriculum. On the other hand, everyone is familiar with the music of the 18th century. That's the only reason they think the 18th century is important. As Spengler predicted, the controversies of the modern era have become literally incomprehensible. A Castalian refers to a long-defunct economist sect, for instance, that is probably supposed to be Marxism, but it's hard to tell; the ideology is just too alien to mean anything to him.

Knecht's society is by no means a theocracy, but neither is it secular in the modern sense. This is, no doubt, a nod to another of Spengler's prophecies: the “Second Religiousness.” The Vatican, based on its moral authority, is again a force in culture and in world politics. (Knecht spends that time at the monastery to help Castalia negotiate an agreement to send an ambassador to the Holy See.) Protestantism has died out. However, historians within the Church remember Protestantism rather fondly. As Father Jacobus puts it: “They were unable to preserve religion and the Church, but at times they displayed a great deal of courage and produced some exemplary men.”

One might think that all this hierarchy and authority would provoke a backlash, but no. The elite schools and the hierarchy of Castalia are tolerable precisely because society is not going anyplace. The qualities of a great musician, for instance, are said to be “enthusiasm, subordination, reverence, worshipful service.” Maybe only superior people have those qualities, but their superiority does not include the sort of genius that demands attention for its novelty. The Magisters do not conceive avant-garde ideas and expect people to follow. The hierarchy is the embodiment of a consensus by which the hierarchs themselves are the most strictly bound.

However, though history may have ended, time has not stopped. In preparation for his resignation, Knecht warns the other Magisters, “The world is once again about to shift its center of gravity.” Ominous but unnamed developments in the Orient threaten not just peace, but life and liberty. Serious rearmament could be just a generation or two away. When that happens, Castalia may seem an over-expensive luxury, unless its spirit can be communicated to society as a whole.

The Order is not impressed:

“In the view of the majority, the calm that descended upon our Continent must be ascribed partly to the general prostration following the bloodlettings of the terrible wars, but far more to the fact that the Occident has ceased to be the focal point of world history in which claims to hegemony are fought out.”

Oddly for men who must convince their government every year of the indispensability of their institution, the Magisters also have little patience with Knecht's argument that the calm and sanity of Castalia has itself been a force for peace. Instead, the Magisters reply that Castalia, and indeed the life of the mind, are not historical factors:

“Rather, culture or mind, or soul, has its own independent history – a second, bloodless, and sanctified history – running parallel to what is generally called history.”

Knecht does not resign as Magister in order to sell war bonds. The short explanation for his departure from Castalia is that he had exhausted his own capabilities. There was nothing left for him but the “eternal recurrence” of routine. More important, though, was the characteristic way in which he fulfilled his destiny as a servant. Like St. Christopher, he possessed “a self-reliance which by no means debarred him or hampered him serving, but demanded of him that he serve the highest master.” Because of his introduction to history, he understands that the Glass Bead Game is not the final truth. The Game, too, will prove to be ephemeral:

“Yes, Castalia and the Glass Bead Game are wonderful things; they come close to being perfect. Only perhaps they are too much so, too beautiful. They are so beautiful that one can scarcely contemplate them without fearing for them.”

“The Glass Bead Game” is the story of the progressive “awakenings” in Knecht's life. He comes to realize that these gates through which he passes do not lead to any inner sanctum. Rather, they are awakenings to the reality of each new situation. The same can be said for the progress of the spirit in history. The lack of linearity, however, does not imply a lack of exigency:

“In history, too, moments of tribulation or great upheavals have their element of convincing necessity; they create a sense of irresistible immediacy and tension. Whatever the consequence of such upheavals, be it beauty and clarity or savagery and darkness, whatever happens will bear the semblance of grandeur, necessity and importance and will stand out as utterly different from everyday events.”

In some ways, “The Glass Bead Game” represents the road that Spengler did not take. At one point in the 1920s, Spengler replied to the charge that “The Decline of the West” advocated nothing but pessimism and despair with the assertion he could fittingly have called the book “The Fulfillment of the West” or the “Perfection of the West.” His thesis, after all, was that the West may have exhausted its creative potential, but that modernity was the age in which it would fashion the final forms of Western Civilization in art, science, politics and religion. His model of history was quite consistent with a future that was humane, peaceful, and orderly. Sadly, he was distracted from pursuing this insight by Nietzsche's nihilism and the sour politics of the Conservative Revolution. More and more, he foresaw a Faustian future of disaster and tyranny.

In “The Glass Bead Game,” however, Hesse took the hint. The most intriguing story in the book deals with the final stage in the life of Knecht's old mentor, the Magister Musicae:

“He certainly does not seem to me to be close to his life's end, but his way of taking leave of the world is unique…[I]t is as if he has been on his way elsewhere for some time, and no longer lives entirely among us…
[H]is cheerfulness, his curious radiance…While his strength is diminishing, that serene cheerfulness is constantly increasing.”

Many legends later grew up about the Transfiguration of the Magister Musicae, we are told. The interesting point is that the episode seems to relate Spengler's prediction of the Second Religiousness to the palpable aura of eternity said to surround some living saints. Knecht remarks:

“Even though whole peoples and languages have attempted to fathom the depths of the universe in myths, cosmologies, and religions, their supreme, their ultimate attainment has been this cheerfulness.”

The old Magister, however, was not just any kind of saint, but a specifically Castalian saint. The sanctity he manifested was intrinsic to the Game, which is the final form of the spirit of the West:

“With us scholarship, which is the cult of truth, is chiefly allied also with the cult of the beautiful, and also with the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation. Consequently it can never entirely lose its supreme cheerfulness.”

Good Spenglerians (among whom we must number Spengler himself) tend to imagine the final stage in the life of the West as a heroic last stand, perhaps lasting centuries but ending in defeat. Evil Spenglerians, not a trivial class, hope for conquest and domination. Hesse's book hints at the possibility that the same insights into historical morphology might be put to quite a different use. Is the world ready for holy Spenglerians? Maybe someday.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-03-06: Four Fronts

John made something of an off-hand comment at the end of this entry about the build-up to the Iraq War,

There are plausible reasons to oppose the war, but I do not see them in the anti-war movement. I see only the glinting monocle of Baron Evola.

I think there is something to this. There is a segment of the Right in the United States that has been emboldened by the debacle in Iraq, and it is precisely the segment of the Right that has links to Evola.

Four Fronts
The reports that the Iraq war will start with a bombardment on March 13 or 14 seem reasonable. It would begin with what sounds like "precision saturation-bombing," if that is not a contradiction in terms, followed by a ground invasion on March 17. The war is supposed to be over by the second week in April. Yesterday's dueling press-conferences between Secretary Powell and Inspector Blix suggest that the diplomatic process has come to an end. Dr. Blix has decided to accept Iraq's dribble of concessions as "disarmament." Secretary Powell claims to have yet more intelligence that the Iraqi government is engaged in a pattern of evasion.
Make no mistake: the inspections are working. Their function is to preserve the Baathist regime until the pressure of events forces America's attention elsewhere. Given the climatic constraints on a campaign, the inspection process is within a few days of accomplishing just that. It is inconceivable that an invasion could be delayed until next Fall. If the Iraqi government survives the Spring, the states of the region will conclude, correctly, that America cannot act without an approval that the UN is structurally unable to give. They will then sue for the favor of Saddam's government, on what terms they can.
This is one of the reasons why the British proposal to set a hard deadline for the end of March is unlikely to win much favor in Washington. It would simply bring the start of a war closer to the end of the campaign season, while the diplomatic situation continues to deteriorate. It is also unlikely to win much favor at the UN, simply because it is a hard deadline.
* * *
We should never lose sight of the interconnectedness of the events of these days. It is reasonably clear that the North Koreans began to act up precisely because the attention of the US was on the other side of Asia. One of the reasons we should want to examine the files of the Baathist government is to discover whether the timing was opportunistic or a matter of actual collusion. We now have at least the appearance of a crisis in northeast Asia, with violations of air space being answered by a reinforcement of bombers. Still, there is something rather artificial about the whole business. The condition of the North Korean regime was no more critical after talks with the US broke off last year than before. There is no particular reason why they have to open a nuclear assembly-line now (unless perhaps they anticipate a burgeoning market in the Middle East if the US backs off from Iraq).
The North Korean government is not crazy. They are misunderstood, because diplomacy is not in their cultural repertoire. What they are trying to do is cement tribute relationships with their neighbors. Like the Iraqis, their longer term goal is to survive until the attention of the United States is elsewhere. Then they can reunite the peninsula through force and subversion. They cannot do that now, though. It seems likely to me that, in the event of an Iraqi war, you will be hearing quite a lot about Korea at the same time. However, they won't start their own war now.
A minor aside: A special Anachronism Award should go to Senator Carl Levin, who recently came out against deploying the prototype antimissile system for the West Coast. The argument for years has been that the threat of a North Korean ICBM was too hypothetical to build a defense against. Well, it's no longer hypothetical. Senator Levin still opposes deployment, however, on the grounds that deploying an unproven system would introduce "uncertainties." That's perfectly true. With the system activated, Seattle might not be nuked if the government in Pyongyang waxes spiteful.
* * *
The Islamist terrorist networks have the mirror image of America's problem. If they do not make their presence felt outside the West Bank in short order, they will lose credibility. This will particularly be the case if they fail to provide a diversion from a war in Iraq. The fact is, though, that the war against terrorism per se has gone better than anyone might have hoped. It also seems to be the case that the campaigns against the state bases of terror, in Afghanistan and Iraq so far, have rather contributed to these efforts than distracted from them.
Still, as has been the case since 911, there are rumors of impending attacks. One says there will be a Taliban offensive into Afghanistan from Pakistan in the event of a war with Iraq. Others continue to talk about attacks in the US, particularly using shoulder-launched missiles against aircraft. In any case, the terrorists will be under pressure to do something, even if a lack of preparation reduces the chance of success. Karl-Heinz Stockhausen was quite correct: Islamist terrorism is essentially theater.
* * *
Finally, this brings us to the Communist-Fascist-Islamist alliance that uses the anti-war movement as its front. They seem to be working on the same assumptions about the timing of a war that I have outlined here. If they are to be believed, they will go from protest to civil disorder once the bombardment starts. The war will probably not last long enough for these efforts to have much of an effect, but there could be disruptions of government functions, particularly through "denial of service" attacks.
There are plausible reasons to oppose the war, but I do not see them in the anti-war movement. I see only the glinting monocle of Baron Evola.
* * *
There are other things that might happen, but these will do to get on with. This should be a busy month.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: After the Third Age

Tradition isn't all bad. After all, it is just a kind of historically informed neo-Platonism. However, it does have some sketchy friends. Tradition is one of the elements that makes up esoteric fascism, the New Age occult revival of actual fascism. One nonetheless cannot equate esoteric fascism with Tradition. The postwar international fascists are not the only movement inspired by Evola. Catholic Integralism has some overlap with Tradition, but so does the Muslim Brotherhood, existentialist philosophy, and even the direct action anarchists that protest the WTO and provided the intellectual grounding for the Occupy Wall Street movement. As is often typical of the fringes, many of the movements that share some ideas in common hate each other.

Here, John is primarily interested in the intersection between Evola and Francis Parker Yockey, a less successful Fascist version of Kim Philby. There is some really weird New Age stuff that crept into fascism after the end of the Second World War, and you can blame Evola and Yockey for most of it.

After the Third Age
Eschatological Elements of
Postwar International Fascism
Presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies
Boston University, November 2 to 4, 2002
This topic got away from me. I had planned a simple historical account of how millennial-minded Nazis dealt with the end of the Second World War. Instead, I discovered the beginnings of trends that could have disturbing implications for ordinary politics in the 21st century.
For the most part, we are talking here about the evolution of "esoteric fascism." Which is what? Here's an example:
There is a book called "Imperium," 1 by an extraordinary figure named Francis Parker Yockey. He was an American renegade who spied for the Germans in the 1940s and for the Russians in the 1950s; in 1960 he killed himself in federal custody, after he was caught traveling under a false identity. "Imperium" was first published in 1948. Thanks in large part to Willis Carto, the book is a familiar text on the international Right and among Satanists: These are the first two sentences:
"This book is book is different from other books. First of all, it is only in form a book at all. In reality, it is a part of the life of action."
Well, "Imperium" certainly looks like a book; it's over 600 pages long. Yockey's thesis is that Oswald Spengler's model of history implied the appearance of a pan-European Nazi empire. Though Yockey did not say that had to happen (neither did Spengler, by the way), Yockey was confident that the outcome of the Second World War would be reversed before 2050.
This is odd political science, but there are odder things in the book than that. Spengler often spoke of cultures in vitalist terms, but Yockey treats them almost as hauntings, as if history were a combat of ghosts. A key feature of "Imperium" is an ontological antisemitism that interested Spengler not at all. The author almost certainly intended the book as an exercise in what is called "magical idealism." The "magic" here is not metaphorical. Certain ideas are supposed to compel action, whether or not they are logically persuasive. Secret societies, communities, even civilizations can form around such ideas. The principle is: "If we think it, they will come."
"Imperium" was an early point on the trajectory to the sort of outlandish notions that we find today on the occult Right. For instance, there is, or was until recently, a group called the Order of the Nine Angles, which claimed to represent something called "Traditional Satanism." Their specialty was "Aeonic Magick," 2 which seeks to found the next civilization by creating its archetypes now.
There are real ideological connections between groups like the Order of the Nine Angles and some factions of the German National Socialist Party, as well as with some circles in Mussolini's Italy and in the Balkans, notably in Romania. Still, though the people who ran Nazi Germany were often very strange, they were not that strange. So, where did the more exotic notions come from?
* * *
The history of esoteric fascism falls into five periods: The Primordial Age, the Third Reich, the early Cold War, the Late Cold War, and the Third Millennium.
The Primordial Age actually goes back no further than the last quarter of the 19th century. I believe there were three principle sources for what esoteric fascism later became.
The first was the occult revival. There was much more to it than Theosophy, but theosophical ideas are a handy place to start. The founder of Theosophy, the great Madame Blavatsky, divided world history into different ages of rise and decline, each dominated by a leading race. 3 This model is associated with apocalyptic expectations for the end of the current age, which is the age of the Aryan, and millenarian anticipation of the coming race. This model is, for the most part, consciously post-Christian, though under Blavatsky's successor, Annie Besant, Theosophy tended to simply cloak evangelical eschatology in Sanskrit terms. 4
This milieu of beliefs took different forms in different places. In the German-speaking world, it seemed to involve a bit less Cabala than in Anglo-Saxondom, and rather more mediumship and folk magic. The whole phenomenon is sometimes called "völkish," meaning just "folkish." Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, whose research I am stealing shamelessly for this paper, has written extensively on the importance of the folkish subculture for Nazism. 5 This is the source that provided most of esoteric fascism's antisemitic content, in large part as a reaction to large-scale Jewish immigration into German-speaking Europe. The class of ideas that most interested Goodrick-Clarke was the so-called "Ariosophy," particularly as represented by the Viennese mystics Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. Lanz's project to found a new knightly "Order" to advance pan-Germanism clearly influenced Heinrich Himmler's model for the SS.
The second source of esoteric fascism was the basket of ideologies it shares with fascism in general, and for that matter with other forms of 20th century radicalism. The beginning of evils is Nietzsche's proposal that, if human society is not a divine artifact, then it is a product of human will. Maybe the will is collective, and grounded in culture or biology or something, but even the collective will speaks through an individual. This is the "artist politician," who creates reality rather than responds to it. 6 As Sorel and Pareto later said, you build reality through "myth," in the sense of a limit that defines the world. Often this is a "worst case," like Sorel's "General Strike." As a practical matter, General Strikes rarely succeed, but the prospect of a General Strike dictates how labor should be organized.
These ideas were part of the Conservative Revolution 7 . This was a mood more than a movement: anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, metaphysical but anti-religious, it was a substitute for conservatism that attracted people like Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, or for that matter Ezra Pound. Leo Strauss's contrast of Machiavelli's political theory to Aristotle's helps here. 8 Aristotle's statesman thinks in terms of the middle case, of the normal situation; Machiavelli's statesman thinks in terms of the extreme. The Conservative Revolution focused on the worst case, and so it tended to hysteria. This goes a long way to explaining Hitler's "death or glory" foreign policy, and even the Kaiser's. Existentialism applies the same sort of analysis, but at the personal level.
The third source of esoteric fascism grew out of the occult revival, but it is sufficiently distinct to be considered a separate influence. Very misleadingly, it is called Tradition.
The Primordial Traditionalist was the noted French occultist René Guénon. 9 In the years before the First World War, he abandoned the speculative occult in favor of a description of the perennial ideas that inform society and the spiritual life: just the sort of synthetic comparative mythology that Jung and Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell would do later. He used sources from all over the world, especially from esoteric Islam. Indeed, Guénon eventually became a Muslim and moved to Cairo.
Tradition has been defined as the world that never was, but always is. It has also been defined as the world of fairy stories. There are sacred kings and a caste system. There are numena that are not necessarily personal gods, but which can be invoked and manipulated. Tradition was the default position for mankind for most of history.
Traditionalists can be mere reactionaries; there are Catholic Integralists who think that what the world needs is a theocracy with a Latin liturgy. Very often, however, Traditionalists think that almost nothing can or should be saved from the coming collapse of the West.
In the second age of esoteric fascism, of fascism in power, these three sources mixed in different proportions in different countries. They never quite gelled. For that matter, esoteric fascism never quite gelled with fascism as a whole.
Steven Spielberg exaggerated in the "Indiana Jones" movies. There was an occult establishment in Nazi Germany, but it was only one aspect of the regime. 10 Yes, the German SS really did have a fellow named Otto Rahn out looking for the Holy Grail, or at least for traditions that would connect the Grail with Catharism. He was also a kind of Satanist, but that's another story. 11 Heinrich Himmler had his own folkish wizard, named Karl Maria Wiligut, who would issue oracles when the occasion required. The Nazi state used symbols like the swastika and the SS-runes that came out of the occult milieu. Quite un-mystical Nazis, such as Joseph Goebbels, might cite the apocalyptic World Ice Theory in their private papers. 12
On the other hand, the Nazi regime suppressed most commercial outlets for occult activity within a year of taking power. 13 Alfred Rosenberg, who was definitely in the metaphysical wing of the Party, went out of his way to combat the widespread notion that the Nazis' amazing successes were supernatural. 14 Even the term "Third Reich" is ambiguous. We know it can mean "millennium," as in Joachim of Fiore's Third Age, but it also meant simply the successor to Bismarck's Hohenzollern empire. In 1939, Goebbels actually banned the media from using the term. 15
In "The Myth of the 20th Century," 16 Rosenberg uses myth in the Sorelian sense. The "myth" is a Greater Germany that can trace its origins back to Atlantis. He suggests Atlantis may have been historical, but he says that is not essential to its symbolic role. He seems to have shared with other Nazis a sense of "already and not yet." The book was published before Hitler came to power in 1933, and it underwent revisions in its reprintings. However, Rosenberg never revised the section called "The Coming Reich." It was still coming, even in 1945. 17
The title of a collection of Rosenberg's occasional writings, "Tradition and the Present," is significant. 18 Rosenberg represented the dark, chthonic, mediumistic wing of esoteric fascism. He clearly hoped to de-universalize German spirituality, trading Christianity for a cult of the blood, almost a funerary cult. He bitterly opposed Tradition, which was relatively lucid and had a universal perspective. Its chief fascist proponent was the Italian baron, Julius Evola, who made esoteric fascism what it is today.
Evola's books about magic and alchemy and Tantric sex are now widely known, but he is most interesting as a political theorist. His great work is "Revolt Against the Modern World," 19 first published in the 1930s, though his early postwar book, "Men Among the Ruins," 20 was more widely read. Another of his books, "Riding the Tiger," is supposed to have been important in Europe during the events of 1968. One Italian neo-Fascist famously called Evola: "our Marcuse, only better." Is "Riding the Tiger" related to the Jefferson Starship song of similar name? Maybe.
Evola said that, in Traditional society, the meaning of the state is not to serve or represent the people, but to house a link to the transcendent, which Evola conceived as an impersonal source of power. The link creates the state. It even creates the people, from the population that assembles spontaneously around it. This link was normally embodied in a divine king, or in an Order of initiates, whose authority was impersonal and non-contingent on their performance.
The most perfect examples of Traditional society have in some sense been universal empires. In such a system, there may be local kings, and even republics, but the basis of all legitimacy is the sacred empire and its unmoving ruler. He does not rule by force, but by transcendent right. One way to put Evola's hope for the constitution of Europe is that Hitler did not have the right idea, but maybe Frederick II Hohenstaufen did.
Evola's ethics were anti-utilitarian. He advocated the expression of the essential self, even if that conflicted with mere self-preservation. This sounds like garden-variety existentialism, but Evola derived it from alchemy and his theory of immortality. Human beings, in Evola's view, are not naturally immortal. A shadow of the dead may persist as a ghost for a while, but the soul is re-absorbed by the collective spirit of the folk. Rosenberg thought this, too, but did not have a problem with it. Evola did. In fact, his politics was a ritual designed to produce personal immortality.
Evola says that, to become immortal, the spirit must separate from the body in a conscious state. It can then be fixed with a preservative, and lose the ability to die. The result is the Philosopher's Stone, the goal of alchemy. Meditation can do this; Evola makes it sound like St. John of the Cross on hallucinogenic drugs. The other path is to harden the self through heroic action. Any acute stress can transform the daemon of the hero into an immortal body of light. Athletics can do this. So can the shock of death. In any case, the adept must be absolutely indifferent to the consequences of his actions. If you think this sounds like a formula for suicidal propaganda of the deed, you are onto something. Evola was tried in 1951 for inspiring his young admirers to do roughly that, though he was acquitted.
Baron Evola's immortals are called Those Who Are, or the Watchers. Only they can hope to survive the impending collapse of the current order of things, and become "Seed People" for the next cycle.
Evola expresses distain for apocalypticism, but there is a fair amount of it in his own system. His history is generically theosophical. The current cycle started in ancient Hyperborea, before the world's axis shifted, and passed through Atlantis. Like Rosenberg, Evola declares himself indifferent to the historicity of these eons. He is, however, quite clear that modernity is literally the Kali Yuga of Hindu metahistory. Not just the West will end in a generation or two, but every society of the current cycle.
Historical development is largely a process of running down. The history of each individual civilization begins with the establishment of a link to the transcendent; it passes through the weakening and final breaking of the link. He characterizes the process as "the regression of the castes," with each age in the story of decline characterized by a lower caste than the one before.
Evola prefers the Sanskrit terms for the castes, but basically he means priests, warriors, burghers and peasants. In the most perfect Traditional state, the sacred and regal functions are united in the same people. The early differentiation of a separate clerical estate in the West was the beginning of the secularization of politics. Once started, the process leads, almost inevitably, from sacred kingship to proletarian chaos. In the very last days, Gog and Magog are released and demons can walk in broad daylight, taking the form of members of secret societies who can at last work openly.
The German and Italian governments had mixed feelings about these ideas. Evola composed the Fascist government's race policy in terms of elites rather than eugenics. On the other hand, he was both too anti-socialist and too anticlerical for most Fascists. In Germany, Evola had his admirers. His pan-Europeanism won some support among the Waffen SS. However, this was just the sort of universalism that Rosenberg was trying to suppress. The Black SS decided his ideas were too Latin and too aristocratic. Nonetheless, Germany gave him refuge after the Allies occupied Rome. He was crippled during a Russian artillery bombardment of Vienna at the end of the war, where he was doing research for the SS into the history of secret societies. He lived until 1974, in a wheelchair, as his influence grew.
During the early Cold War period, wonderful rumors sprang up. Hitler was still alive, and not just as a human being. In the opinion of the European convert to Hinduism, Savitri Devi, Hitler was Kalki, the tenth and last incarnation of Vishnu. There were supposed to be German bases in the Arctic or the Antarctic, where super weapons were stored. These rumors quickly merged with UFO mythology. The "Black Sun" symbol appeared. Himmler had actually used it in the 1930s, referring perhaps to Madame Blavatsky's spiritual "Invisible Sun," and also to the stage of death before resurrection in the alchemical process. In later years, the Black Sun would become the symbol of neo-Nazism.
Postwar esoteric fascism benefited from the eclipse of German chauvinism. Several international fascist networks grew up, with extensive contacts in Europe and the Middle East. We should note once again that Islamicism, as represented by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, is a modern phenomenon. Early Islamicists like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb were influenced by Italian fascism. After the war, German exiles arrived in the Middle East as part of the apparat of an anti-Zionist network in contact with the Kremlin.
This is the milieu in which Francis Parker Yockey lived, writing propaganda in Egypt and Europe and Latin America. He helped revive old notions from the 1920s, like Karl Haushofer's proposal for a geopolitical league of Germany and Russia, and the Strasser brothers' "National Bolshevism." The idea of a Red-Brown coalition had few takers in the 1950s, but it has many in Russia today, where Yockey is fairly well-known. 21
Despite the spies and flying saucers, neo-fascism was essentially backward-looking into the 1960s. People like George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party would dress up like storm troopers and go get beaten up. James Madole and his National Renaissance Party tried to promulgate a novel synthesis of theosophy, science fiction and fascism, but they were just street-corner cranks.
In the 1970s, the situation changed. Nazi Germany became Atlantis, a magical society that had sunk out of sight, but which might someday rise again. There had always been a literature about the role of the occult in the Third Reich. With the rise of the New Age Movement, this kind of interpretation became not just popular but plausible. Pseudo-historical accounts like Trevor Ravencroft's "Spear of Destiny," 22 in which Hitler is portrayed as an evil magician, were wildly inaccurate on their face, but they are fun to read, so many people did.
To some extent, the magical Reich was just a new story device; Nazi villains had something new to be villainous about. On the other hand, a wing of the budding Satanist movement decided that, if the Nazis were that evil, then they must have been onto something, so they began a revival of folkish magic and Nazi themes. These became important in Black Metal and Industrial music. 23 On the less extreme end, pro-Nazi science fiction began to appear. Those mythological postwar Nazi bases played a role, as did the hidden underground realms of Agarthi and Shambalah, and hollow-earth theories having to do with secret entrances in the Arctic to the land of the Titans. 24
As Goodrick-Clarke points out, another factor that favored the expansion of esoteric fascism was the beginning of large-scale immigration into Western Europe. In his analysis, it was the immigration into central Europe in the late 19th century that gave the earlier occult revival its popular traction. Political terrorism and vandalism in the '60s and '70s had been largely a leftist activity. In the '80s and '90s, it increasingly became a right-wing affair. Goodrick-Clarke suggests that neo-Nazism is a form of multiculturalism; it's just another instance of people making up an ethnic identity and clinging to it for dear life. 25
The New Age was less innocent than it seemed. It was not an accident, as the Marxists used to say, that Mircea Eliade was Julius Evola's long-time correspondent. Back in the 1970s, William Irwin Thompson and David Spangler and the Lindisfarne Foundation were clearly getting ready for the end of Evola's Kali Yuga. 26 Actually, the best fictional presentation of the whole esoteric scenario I know of is in Doris Lessing's forays into science fiction, particularly "Shikasta" 27 and "The Sirian Experiments." Even "The Lord of the Rings" starts to look fishy, because there are few more attractive portrayals of the world of Tradition. Italian fascists use the books for recruiting, to the continuing horror of the Tolkien Society. 28
Esoteric fascism is not the cause of all the world's troubles, but its agenda is much with us. Consider antiglobalist anarchism, as represented by Hardt & Negri's book "Empire." 29 Negri's analysis of modern history follows Evola's point by point, even when it makes no sense, as in the assertion that America is the first country whose political system wholly excludes the transcendent. 30 Modern anarchism embraces the Traditional prediction that capitalism will be brought down by a post-modern multitude, not by economic forces.
I don't want to dwell on Islamicist ideology; I don't know that much about it. Still, we should note that recent Islamicist terrorists quote Evola with facility. 31
Then there is pan-Europeanism. Esoteric fascists generally supported European solidarity, provided it was anti-American. This take on the subject is no longer confined to heavy-metal enthusiasts. There was, maybe there still is, an annual colloquium called the Politica Hermetica, 32 hosted by the School for Applied Advanced Studies at the Sorbonne. It deals largely with Evola and Guénon, and not particularly critically. The old New Right even has a postmodern version of Tradition in the thought of Alain de Benoist. 33 This sort of thing is too esoteric to find a wide audience, but it does leak into elite opinion.
Finally, there are the new, progressive forms of anti-Zionism, made possible by the internationalization of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. After nearly seventy years of propaganda, America and the Jews are finally linked as joint targets of progressive opinion throughout the West. Francis Parker Yockey would have been so pleased.
The theologian Owen C. Thomas wrote something a few years ago that may illuminate our current condition. 34 He suggested that, in retrospect, the real alternative in the West to the Biblical religions was never Marxism or scientific materialism. The alternative has always been "the perennial philosophy," which is basically a historically informed neoplatonism. The perennial philosophy is actually very powerful, and for the most part it is a good thing. Tradition is a form of the perennial philosophy, and how scary are Huston Smith and T.S. Eliot? Esoteric fascism, however, is a perversion of the perennial philosophy, and that is a very bad thing indeed.
Thank You.
1 Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics, by Ulick Varange (Francis Parker Yockey), The Noontide Press, 1962 (First Published 1948) Reviewed here.
2 Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke New York University Press, 2002, p. 219 Reviewed here.
3 The Occult Underground, by James Webb, Open Court Publishing Company, La Salle, Il. 1974, p. 92
4 Webb, p. 100
5 The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, New York University Press, 1985, 1992
6 Fascism: A History, by Roger Eatwell, Penguin Books, 1996, p. 9 Reviewed here.
7 Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International, Autonomedia, by Kevin Coogan, 1999, p. 74. Reviewed here.
8 "Definitions, Doctrines and Divergences" by Pierre Hassner, The National Interest, Fall 2002, p. 32 footnote
9 Coogan, p. 293
10 James Webb's "The Occult Establishment," Open Court Publishers, La Salle, 1976, is still a fair assessment. 11 German version here.
English version here
12 Final Entries 1945: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels, edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1978, p. 1. For an account of the "Welteislehre" to be taken with a grain of salt, see The Morning of the Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, Dorset Press, New York, 1988 (First Published as "Le Matin des Magiciens" 1960), p. 153.
13 Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant, by Mel Gordon, Feral House, 2001, p. 253 Reviewed here.
14 The Myth of the Master Race: Alfred Rosenberg and Nazi Ideology, by Robert Cecil, Dodd Mead & Company, New York, 1972, p. 96
15 Grosse Lexikon des Dritten Reiches. English: The Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, edited by Christian Zentner and Friedemann Bedürftig; English translation edited by Amy Hackett, New York, 1991, Vol. II, p. 954. See also "Thousand Year Reich," Vol. II, p. 955. Anton Moeller van den Bruck employed the term both ways in his book, The Third Reich. The text is online here.
16 Der mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts: Eine Wertung der seelish-geistiger Gestalten Kaempfe unserer Zeit by Alfred Rosenberg, Hoheneichen-Verlag Muenchen, 1932
17 Cecil, p. 91. The text of "The Myth" is available here.
18 Alfred Rosenberg, Tradition und Gegenwart: Reden und Aufsätze 1936-1940 Blut und Ehre, IV. Band, 1941, Verlag Franz Eher Nachf. GmbH., München The text is here.
19 Revolt Against the Modern World, by Baron Julius Evola, Original Italian Edition 1934, Revised 1951, 1970, Inner Traditions International 1995 (Translation by Guido Stucco) A review is here.
20 Men Among the Ruins: Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist, by Julius Evola, Inner Traditions, 2002 (Translated from the revised Italian edition of 1972; First Edition 1953) A review is here.
21 Read about the Conservative Revolution in Russia here.
22 The Spear of Destiny, by Trevor Ravenscroft, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1973
23 Dagobert's Revenge, which is here, follows this scene.
24 A recent novel involving most of these elements is "Under Down Under," by Gerry Forster. Published in 2001, it is available free, online, here . The Nazis in the book are not represented sympathetically, however.
25 Goodrick-Clarke "Black Sun," pp. 5-7.
26 Passages about Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture, by William Irwin Thompson, Harper & Row, New York, 1973, p. 150 et seq.
27 Shikasta, by Doris Lessing, Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 1979.
28 Thomas Sheehan, "Myth and Violence: The Fascism of Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist," Social Research 48: 45-73 Spring 1981
29 Empire by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Harvard University Press, 2000. Reviewed here.
30 I am scarcely the first person to notice the parallels between Negri and Evola. See Sheehan, op. cit.
31 Boroumand, op. cit.
32 Politica Hermetica links are here.
33 Sheehan, op cit.
34 Theology Today, "Christianity and Perennial Philosophy," Vol. 43, No. 2, July 1986, pp. 259-266
Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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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.
Table of Contents
Summary & Notes on the Author
Traditional Spirituality
State, Kingship, Empire
Castes and Traditional Economics
Traditional Time and Space
Historical Decay
A Mythological World History
Degenerate Religions
The Decline of Antiquity
Church versus Empire
The Post-Medieval Collapse
The End of this World
A Critique and Anathema
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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