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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Julius Evola’s “Traditionalist” Critique of Modernity


Against Nihilism: Julius Evola’s “Traditionalist” Critique of Modernity

With the likes of Oswald Spengler, whose Decline he translated for an Italian readership, and Jose Ortega y Gasset, Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stands as one of the notably incisive mid-Twentieth Century critics of modernity. Like Spengler and Ortega, Evola understood himself to owe a formative debt to Friedrich Nietzsche, but more forcefully than Spengler or Ortega, Evola saw the limitations – the contradictions and inconsistencies – in Nietzsche’s thinking.
Evola differed from Spengler and Ortega in another way: like certain other Men of the Right during the same decades, he involved himself deeply in matters mystical and occult, creating a reputation during the last part of his life as an expert in such topics as Eastern religiosity, alchemy, and the vast range of esoteric doctrines. Hermann Keyserling comes to mind also, as having directed his interest to these matters. Nevertheless, Keyserling, who knew Evola’s work, avoided Evola, rather as Spengler had shied from Keyserling. It would have been in part because Evola’s occult investment struck Keyserling as more blatant and far-reaching than his own and in part because Evola appeared, in the early 1930s, to be sympathetic to Fascism and National Socialism, whereas Keyserling, like Spengler, saw these unequivocally as signs of the spreading decadence of his time and so criticized them from their beginnings.
While Evola’s transient proclivities justified Keyserling’s misgivings, swift mounting mutual distaste put actual distance between Evola and the dictatorships. Had he known, Keyserling might have warmed to Evola. By the time war broke out, the self-styled Baron had explicitly repudiated dictatorial principles. Evola, who had his own theory of race, expressed particular revulsion towards Nazi race-policy and Mussolini’s aping of it in Italy after 1938.
Evola nevertheless makes difficulties for those of conservative temperament who would appreciate his critique of modernity. He could be dismissive of Christianity, at least in its modern form, as a social religion; and like his counterparts on the Left, he despised the bourgeoisie and its values, so much so that at least one of his biographers has compared him, by no means implausibly, to Frankfurt-School types like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor W. Adorno. Yet Evola’s all-around prickliness belongs to his allure. Thus in a 1929 article, “Bolchevismo ed Americanismo,” Evola condemns with equal fervor Muscovite communism and American money-democracy, as representing, the both of them, the mechanization and dehumanization of life. Unlike the Marxists – and unlike the Fascists and National Socialists – Evola saw the only hope for Western Civilization as lying in a revival of what he liked to capitalize, on the one hand, as Tradition and, on the other, as Transcendence; he thus rejected all materialism and instrumentalism as crude reductions of reality for coarse minds and, so too, as symptoms of a prevailing and altogether repugnant decadence.

I. Evola scholar H. T. Hansen sets out the details of his subject’s political involvements, making a generous exculpatory case, in the article that serves as introduction to the English translation of Men among the Ruins: Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist (1951). I direct readers to that article and to Evola’s own Autodifesa, which the same volume offers as an appendix to the main text, should they be interested in the particulars. Evola’s analysis of modernity interests me in what follows more than his vanishing political affinities in the Italy of his early maturity. Evola’s passionate distaste for the vulgarity of such things as democracy (that fetish of the modern world), “the social question,” and economics  which, as E. Christian Kopff points out in arecent article at the online journal Alternative Right, he regarded as “demonic” – belongs to his absolute conviction that the West has been locked in a downward-spiraling crisis of nihilism since the Eighteenth Century at the latest. The break-up of the Holy Roman Empire in the wars of religious factionalism presaged the break-up of coherent wisdom in the self-nominating Enlightenment’s war against faith. The era of the nation-state, as Evola sees it, disestablished the principle that political authority derives from a transcendent source. Evola admired what he calls the Ghibellinism of the Empire although he defends it against its modern detractors without nostalgia. One can never go back; one must deal with conditions, as they exist.
Evola seems to have conceived Men among the Ruins, its title already commenting on existing conditions, and Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul (1961) as a dual introduction to his masterwork, Revolt against the Modern World (1934).
In Men among the Ruins, Evola assesses the contemporary crisis, the “disease” and “the disorder of our age,” paradoxically: Totalitarianism, a grim trend fully abetted by eager widespread conformism, is, in effect, a type of chaos such that the maximum of illegitimate coercion exists in a society simultaneously with the maximum of riotous lawlessness; meanwhile the proliferation of dazzling technical gadgetry, in fascination with which the masses believe themselves to be participating in progress, coexists with a descent from the social and ethical refinements of medieval civilization into various resurgences of degrading primitivism. One might think of the way in which the Internet is bound up with pornography and gambling. In Evola’s scheme, the Reformation, the rise of science, and the Industrial Revolution mark stages of descent, not of ascent, in the history of viable socio-political forms. For Evola, the modern exaltation of the instrumental, the practical, and the material is tantamount not only to a petulant rejection of every “higher dimension of life” but also to a perverse embrace of “spiritual formlessness.”
Thus the degradation of the person, a term that Evola uses in a special way, belongs to a regime that achieves control, entirely for the sake of control, by encouraging the lowest appetitive urges of that desperate but useful creature, the mere numerical individual. Evola here avails himself frankly of Ortega’s category of the mass man, whose sole quality consists in his unavoidable overwhelming quantity.
Evola identifies the proximate source of these trends in “the subversion introduced in Europe by the revolutions of 1789 and 1848” although analysis could trace both outbursts to prior stages and events. In equality, the central fetish of revolutionary subversion, Evola sees a phenomenon neither natural nor properly cultural that suggests the deeply seated aversion of a reputedly liberated consciousness to the actual, graduated structure of reality. In particular, as Evola remarks, contemporary humanity has cut itself off entirely from the only context that could clarify a man’s worth for him and integrate him into a meaningful life: that concinnity of “sovereignty, authority, and legitimacy” by which “every true State” achieves “transcendence of its own principle.” More Platonist than Christian – perhaps in certain moods, as I have suggested, anti-Christian – Evola insists that the meaning of a polity consists solely in its embodying “a higher order,” through which alone its “power” derives. A traditional polity, being essentially hierarchical, will thus never adopt the face of democracy; indeed, its aristocrats will rule by “absoluteness,” in the sense that their stewardship of order, their “Imperium,” will always take direction from their spiritual participation in the same “aeterna auctoritas” that bestows intelligibility on the physical cosmos.
The social classes of the traditional polity recognize the authority embodied in their governors by its outward signs of dignity and justice proper to regal persons. Democracy represents the opposite principle to these (insofar, that is, as it can be said to represent any principle): democracy is dissolute; it liquefies all achieved structure and all justified value-subordination in its amoeba-like abolition of true differences.
One might note that a faint echo of what Evola would recognize as genuine order informs even so late a stage of modernity as the American founding, with its references to a “Creator.” Nevertheless, Evola’s assertion that the polity and its governors must make manifest a transcendent order – cosmic, divine, and paternal – lies so far from the prevailing definition of existence that even most of those calling themselves conservative must gape at it in dumb non-understanding. Modern practice has crassly inverted the traditional vision of order, orienting itself downwards to the chthonic, the animistic, and the maternal. Democracy, for Evola, belongs with this infantilizing abasement of life, as does the obsessive and vacuous notion, as he sees it, of individuality. Here too the prevailing mentality must recoil – how could anyone not advocate for the individual? Is not the sanctity of the individual the indispensable basis of Anglo-Saxon society? Is not the Bill of Right a set of guarantees for the individual?
But Evola rigorously distinguishes the individual from the person, valorizing the latter. “The person,” Evola writes, “is an individual who is differentiated through his qualities, endowed with his own face, his proper nature, and a series of attributes that make him who he is and distinguish him from all others.” By distinction, “the individual may be conceived only as an atomic unit… a mere fiction of an abstraction.” Persons, being actually individuated, hold rank as “peers” in the differentiated company; in “the will to equality,” by contrast, Evola sees only “the will to what is formless.”
Evola also insists on distinguishing “the organic State” from “the totalitarian State,” linking the former to individuation within a functioning hierarchy (topersons) and the latter to the featurelessness of democracy: “A state is organic when it has a center, and this center is an idea that shapes the various domains of life in an efficacious way; it is organic when it ignores the division and the autonomization of the particular and when, by virtue of the system of hierarchical participation, every part within its relative autonomy performs its own function and enjoys an intimate connection with the whole.” Evola writes that, “In totalitarianism we usually find a tendency toward uniformity and intolerance for any autonomy and any degree of freedom, [and] for any intermediate body between the center and periphery, between the peak and the bottom of the social pyramid.” In a society where Tradition governs, the “axiom… is that the supreme values… are not liable to change and becoming.” In a liberal society where democracy governs (which will be indistinguishable from a dictatorship), “there are no principles, systems, and norms with values independent from the period in which they have assumed a historical form, on the basis of contingent… and irrational factors.”
Evola refuses to retreat from the two phases of a stark judgment: First that “the beginning of the disintegration of the traditional sociopolitical structures, or at least what was left of them in Europe, occurred through liberalism,” which is the direct precursor of revolution; and second that “the essence of liberalism is individualism.” Because the notion of equality amounts to “sheer nonsense” and constitutes a “logical absurdity,” any implementation of equality will necessarily entail a destruction of that which, by existing really and actually, offends democratic sentiment. Thus for Evola democracy itself is nihilism.

II. Where Men among the Ruins takes on the task of describing our post-catastrophic predicament, Ride the Tiger prescribes how a genuinely individuated person might comport himself in a culturally devastated and morally degenerate environment. Ride the Tiger nevertheless also analyzes the topics that fascinate Evola, generally the grand spectacle of civilization in deliquescence and particularly the outward forms of the dominant corruption. The reader finds then, in Ride the Tiger, chapters devoted to “The Disguises of European Nihilism,” “[The] Collapse of Existentialism,” “Covering Up Nature – Phenomenology,” “The Dissolution of Modern Art,” and “Second Religiosity,” among many others. In respect of the mid-Twentieth Century situation Evola urges his readers not to mistake the ongoing visible disintegration of the bourgeois world for the primary cataclysm in whose shattered landscape they live: “Socially, politically, and culturally, what is crashing down [today] is the system that took shape after the revolution of the Third Estate and the first industrial revolution, even though there were often mixed up in it some remnants of a more ancient order, drained of their original vitality.” Evola remains steadfastly loyal to that “more ancient order,” in the resurrection of whose vitality the wellbeing of persons in a hostile world is implicated.
Nihilism, in Evola’s discussion of it, knows how to conceal and dissimulate itself, how to smile, soothe, and cajole. The ability to ferret out nihilism’s hiding places and to penetrate its masks thus plays a key role in the continued autonomy of the individuated person or “aristocrat of the spirit.” Evola takes Nietzsche’s trope of “The Death of God” as usefully designating a particular “fracture… of an ontological character” that afflicts the contemporary scene. Through this “fracture,” Evola writes, “human life loses any real reference to transcendence,” and in its train the innumerable “doubles and surrogates” of “the God who is Dead” rise into prominence. Thus “when the level of the sacred is lost,” only empty formulas – ideologies – persist, like the “categorical imperative” posited by Kant or the “ethical rationalism” (as Evola names it) promulgated by Mill and his followers. Lurking beyond the scrim of these and other constructions, Evola sees “nihilism already visible.” For example, nihilism bodies forth in “the Romantic hero: the man who feels himself alone in the face of divine indifference” and who “claims for himself exceptional rights to what is forbidden.”
After Romanticism, the spirit of negation appears under the label of “the absurd,” with its axiom of universal non-meaning and its dramatis personae of “lost youth,” “teddy boys,” and “rebels without a cause.” Hollywood and commercial culture continuously reinvent these limited types.
With a reference to Kopff’s recent article, I mentioned earlier how Evola characterizes modern economic theory as “demonic.” Evola applies this label irrespective of whether the theory under scrutiny advocates a view rooted in Karl Marx or in Adam Smith because both represent masquerading nihilism. A rational concept of wealth becomes a “demonic” theory when the idea of money and its relation to goods, first, reduces itself to something entirely abstract and, next, inflates itself until it is the central and dominating Mumbo-Jumbo of a polity. It matters not whether the prevailing ideology is socialism or capitalism: “The error and illusion are the same,” namely that “material want” is the cause of all “existential misery” and that abundance generates happiness and lawfulness. In a stunning sentence, whose import almost no currently serving politician could grasp, Evola offers that, “the truth of the matter is that the meaning of existence can be as lacking in one group [rich or poor] as in the other, and that there is no correlation between material and spiritual misery.” Evola remarks that all of modern politics tends towards “socioeconomic messianism.”
According to Evola, virtually all of modern and Twentieth Century philosophy is evasion or deception. Ride the Tiger’s chapters on Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre – not to mention Nietzsche – exposit the view that these thinkers, too, partake in the process of reducing reality to nothingness. Nietzsche, in Evola’s commentary, participates in the reduction of Transcendence to immanence: “Once the idols have fallen, good and evil have been surpassed, along with all the surrogates of God, and this mist has lifted from one’s eyes, nothing is left to Nietzsche but ‘this world,’ life, the body.” The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s ersatz-Transcendence. Evola ranks the Übermensch, a deferred futurity that supposedly justifies action now on its non-present behalf, as “not very different from Marxist-communist ideology,” with its sinewy image of Socialist Humanity. Nietzsche’s Will and Power are mere guises of “formlessness.” Husserl strikes Evola also as misguided, engaging in the old project of Saving the Appearances by de-realizing the appearances even further and so cutting off consciousness from its contact both with nature and Transcendence. As for Heidegger, as Evola sees things, theDasein-philosopher has failed to go beyond Nietzsche and like his precursor has reduced life to desperate immanence. Heidegger’s doctrine “is a projection of modern man in crisis, rather than of modern man beyond crisis.”
Nihilism can counterfeit itself in the guise of spirituality and religion. Thus what Evola calls “modern naturalism” and “the animal ideal” is linked to what he calls, while borrowing the term from Spengler, “second religiosity.” The labels “modern naturalism” and “the animal ideal” refer to the “back to nature” idea that the history of concepts traces to an original codification in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “The natural state for man has never existed,” writes Evola, because “at the beginning [man] was placed in a supranatural state from which he has now fallen.” A de-individuating descent to the bosom of Mother Earth remains impossible by definition for culturally mature persons. Thus “every return to nature is a regressive phenomenon, including any protest in the name of instinctual rights, the unconscious, the flesh, life uninhibited by the intellect, and so forth.” The neo-Chthonic movements familiar on the modern scene belong to “second religiosity.” Like the “second religiosity” of the ancient world, that of the modern world is effeminate, matriarchal, and anti-intellectual; it is also thoroughly anti-spiritual. “Second religiosity” permeates modern life in “sporadic forms of spirituality and mysticism, even in irruptions from the supersensible.” However, such “symptoms” definitely “do not indicate re-ascent” to anything genuinely metaphysical.
Evola died before environmentalism found its pseudo-Gospel in the scientifically now-discredited “Global Warming” hysteria, before organized feminism began its systematic emasculation of Western institutions, and before these trends had coalesced in Mountebanks and Priests-of-Atargatis like “Gaia” theorist James Lovelock and ex-Senator Albert “We-are-the-Enemy” Gore. Readers may take Evola as prescient when he writes that, “nothing is more indicative of the level of… neospiritualism than the human material of the majority of those who cultivate it.” Evola notes that, “mystification and superstition are constantly mingled in neospiritualism, another of whose traits, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries, is the high percentage of women (women who are failures, dropouts, or ‘past it’).” In a metaphor, Evola compares these manifestations of “escapism, alienation, and confused compensation” to “the fluorescence that appears when corpses decay.”

III. It might seem to have entailed an insuperable contradiction when, in my introduction, I wrote that Hermann Keyserling had shunned Evola because Evola’s investment in occult ideas stood in uncomfortable excess to Keyserling’s own; whereas, at the end of the foregoing section I reported on Evola’s critical hostility to “mysticism” and “superstition,” using his own terms from Ride the Tiger. There is no actual contradiction. Evola’s idea of Transcendence lies not so distant from similar ideas in the work of Giambattist Vico, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Eric Voegelin, and Richard Weaver. Evola, whose literary education was large, knows from the ancient texts that the sequence of intense visionary experience – followed by virile propagation of an at-first essentially religious order – lies at the inception of all known complex societies and civilizations. The similitude of mythic or prophetic foundations suggests that they all correspond to a singular source even though they cannot tell us, in modern rational language, what that source is.
Whether it is Homer’s “Dike” (“Justice”) whose origin is Zeus, the Hebrew’s “I am that I am,” the Middle Kingdom’s “Dao,” or the beatific vision in Plato, Augustine, and Dante – the formative effect of the experience is to establish a notional hierarchy of structures, oriented to that which is “above” the human world, which, while announcing itself as eternal Being, takes physical form through human creative activity in the actual world. Founding visions organize people anagogically. That is an historical fact. Even Spengler, a rigorous skeptic, writes, in The Decline (Vol. I), that, “a Culture is born when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirituality… and detaches itself, a form from the formless.” Toynbee, quirkily Catholic, writing in Civilization on Trial (1948), recognizes Christianity as a vision of life that “arose out of the spiritual travail which was a consequence of the breakdown of the Graeco-Roman civilization” and which forecast the shape of a successor-civilization amidst the ruins of the old. As for Voegelin, in Israel and Civilization (1956), he writes: “Cosmological symbolization is neither a theory nor an allegory. It is the mythical expression of the participation, experienced as real, of the order of society in the divine being that also orders the cosmos.”
Evola, while prickly and eccentric, may nevertheless claim lively company in the convergent testimonies of so many legends and sagas from antiquity and the middle ages. Evola’s great work, Revolt against the Modern World, makes explicit the philological and anthropological bases of his convictions concerning Tradition. Evola divides Revolt into two parts: First, a comprehensive description of the structures and assumptions of those historical societies that body forth Tradition; Second, a “genealogy” of modern decadence. In Part One of Revolt, Evola draws heavily on James G. Frazer, Franz Cumont, Georges Dumézil, Fustel de Coulanges, and other scholars who, without prejudice, had attempted to understand primitive and archaic customs and institutions, as it were, from the inside out. Evola admires ancient and historical societies for the virility of their structures – royalty, aristocracy, priesthood, warrior, worker, and serf – which, in his view, allowed people to integrate themselves in a meaningful, living arrangement with others, including their superiors, with a minimum of invidious friction. Every station in the hierarchy has its privileges, but every station also has its obligations to the stations below it, just as each has its duties to the whole.
Modern people find in social hierarchies, and such institutions as castes and guilds, something arbitrary and limiting, but Evola insists that traditional estates and vocations allowed for a natural sorting-out of talents and potentials and that they permitted people, by apprenticeship and initiation, to realize personal progress in a well-defined context. Evola also remarks that, especially in medieval society, certain institutions cut across the estates, so that a man whose trade, say, was a cobbler, might, as a member of one or another lay order, attain social recognition for activity outside that by which he earned his bread. Hans Sachs, in Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger, is by trade a shoemaker, but his peers celebrate him as an artist-adept of Stabreim and Minnelied. The Church, too, cut across the estates and offered avenues of mobility. By constant implication, Evola suggests that, insofar as happiness concerns us, people have been happier in traditional societies than they are, despite material comforts, in modern society. Evola is aware, as was Nietzsche, that the dissolution of forms exacerbates resentment and that modern people are more resentful than their predecessors.
Evola goes so far as to defend the attitudes of Aristotle and the Old Testament to slavery, attitudes that occasion reflexive dudgeon in modern commentary: “Let us set aside the fact that Europeans reintroduced and maintained slavery up to the nineteenth century in their overseas colonies in such heinous forms as to be rarely found in the ancient world; what should be emphasized is that if there ever were a civilization of slaves on a grand scale, the one in which we are living is it.” Modern people wear the badge of their “dignity” brazenly. Yet “no traditional civilization ever saw such great masses of people condemned to perform shallow, impersonal, automatic jobs.” It is the case furthermore that, “in the contemporary slave system the counterparts of figures such as lords or enlightened rulers are nowhere to be found,” but only rather “the absurd structures of a more or less collectivized society.” Must one say that this makes no brief for slavery? Rather it condemns the parochialism and self-righteousness of liberals and democrats, and castigates the spiritually destructive tedium of the bureaucratic functions on which liberal-democratic society bases itself.
In the same paragraph from which I draw the foregoing lines, Evola mentions the Soviet slave-labor camps, which attest for him the evil inherent in “the physical and moral subjection of man to the goals of collectivization.”
As any admirer of chivalry must, Evola deplores feminism and female enfranchisement, both belonging, in his view, to the trend of the purely quantitative individual, with his infantilized egocentrism. “A practical and superficial lifestyle of a masculine type,” Evola writes, “has perverted [woman’s] nature and thrown her into the same male pit of work, profits, frantic activity, and politics.” It follows that, “modern woman in wanting to be for herself has destroyed herself” because “the ‘personality’ she so much yearned for is killing all semblance of female personality in her.” But Evola never spares anyone: “We must not forget that man is mostly responsible for [female] decadence… In a society run by real men, woman would never have yearned for or even been capable of taking the path she is following today.” As Kopff writes: “Evola rejected the Enlightenment Project lock, stock, and barrel, and had little use for the Renaissance and the Reformation. For Evola those really opposed to the leftist regime, the true Right, are not embarrassed to describe themselves as reactionary and counterrevolutionary.”

IV. Part Two of Revolt against the Modern World traces the pedigree of the existing nihilism-crisis by providing “a bird’s eye view of history.” Naturally, Evola refuses to follow standard historiography, dismissing roundly its most basic assumption – namely that the original human societies were primitive and that civilization is a late stage in the social development of humanity. Evola similarly rejects the related Darwinian idea that complex entities evolve from primitive entities. In both instances he sees things the other way around, not out of egocentric crankiness, but rather as he writes, because Tradition itself, to which he defers, sees things the other way around. He takes seriously, for example, the archaic poet Hesiod’s five phases of humanity from the didactic poem Works and Days; he takes seriously Plato’s “Atlantis” story from the tandem dialogues Timaeus and Critias, and he admits as respectable similar model polities or societies that the variety of myth and literature locates in an antediluvian age. In the Hesiodic scheme, the earliest men were those of the Golden Race after which came the Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron Races. Hesiod famously vows that he wished he did not belong to the degenerate Iron Race, so wicked and unsalvageable is it. In Plato’s “Atlantis” story, the original Atlanteans are demigods, who live in a technically and morally perfected state; but their descendants become gross, materialistic, and degenerate.
Before one dismisses this framework as an instance of irremediable credulity, one should carefully note two things. The first is that unlike the ideologues whom he criticizes, who place their Social Justice or their Master Race in the indefinite future, Evola places the irreproducible model-polity in an irretrievable past, from which locus it can justify no reality-altering agenda; it can only serve as a remote measure for conscientious persons who seek standards other than contemporary ones. The second is that Evola thinks by habit in mythopoeic terms, as did Plato and Giambattist Vico; and it is through symbols and metaphors that he defeats the mechanistic-literalistic pseudo-cognition that he deplores. Like Plato and Vico – and like P. D. Ouspensky, who also entertained the idea of cycles of civilization and destruction, and who was certainly not a fantasist – Evola would advise honest people to begin their contemplation of human achievement from a position of humbleness rather than arrogance. I note that this tenet, central to Evola’s ethos, excuses him from the charge of Gnosticism. Despite Evola’s many references to esoteric knowledge, he never qualifies such knowledge as miraculously or uniquely vouchsafed him. He asserts that he has teased it out of myth, saga, and folklore by diligent study.
One might also note that in the last fifty years archeology has steadily deepened the chronologies of complex human associations and of material achievement; and that in the same period the once-discredited idea of a primordial human language from which all others descend has reappeared, quite respectably, in the “Nostratic” and “World” hypotheses. Why, one might ask, as long as the theory of African Genesis remains formally unobjectionable, should anyone object to Evola’s theory of Far-Northern or Hyperborean ethogenesis, formally speaking? The theory of the Hyperborean Ur-Tradition explains cultural diffusion as adequately as the standing theory; the preference for which is a matter largely of sanctified prejudice. Indeed, a “boreal” first formation of high culture in no way makes impossible a prior equatorial appearance of Homo sapiens, considered under a purely biological category. As Evola points out, many southern people place their culture-ancestors in a northern homeland. Of course, the main interest in Revolt, Part Two, is in the diagnosis of modern corruption.
What is Evola’s history of that corruption? In a remote first collapse in “the regression of the castes,” as Evola calls the long-term degenerative process, “the regality of blood replaced the regality of spirit,” and this alteration corresponded with an insurgency of “The Civilization of the Mother” over the original “Patriciate.” Much later – in the Late Medieval Period – “a second collapse occurred as the aristocracies began to fall and the monarchies to shake at the foundations,” when “through revolutions and constitutions they became useless institutions subject to the ‘will of the nation.’” Next comes the collapse from an already-narrowed nation-consciousness to the paradoxical undifferentiated collectivism of the bourgeois society of mere individuals, where equalityis the tyrannical Shibboleth and absolute conformity the mode. Next, out of the incipient collectivism of the bourgeois society, comes “the proletarian revolt against capitalism,” in which Evola discerns “a reduction of horizon and value to the plane of matter, the machine, and the reign of quantity.” The phenomenon is a nadir, entirely “subhuman.” Thus, “in the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution it is possible to detect a ruthless ideological coherence.”
As his early article “Bolschevismus ed Americanismus” should lead one to guess, Evola never spares the United States: “America too, in the essential way it views life and the world, has created a ‘civilization’ that represents the exact contradiction of the ancient European tradition.” In words reminiscent of Spengler’s diction, Evola describes the United States “a soulless greatness of a purely technological and collective nature, lacking in any background of transcendence.” Whereas “Soviet communism officially professes atheism,” Evola remarks, and whereas “America does not go that far”; nevertheless, “without realizing it, and often believing the contrary, it is running down the same path in which nothing is left of… religious meaning.” According to Evola, “the great majority of Americans could be said to represent a refutation on a large scale of the Cartesian principle… they ‘do not think and are.’” Evola links American anti-intellectualism with the proliferation in the United States of “the feminist idiocy,” which travels in tandem with “the materialistic and practical degradation of man.”
In its conclusion, Evola’s Revolt forecasts a new “dark age,” for which his preferred term is the Vedic Kali Yuga. America will assimilate the crusading impulse of Soviet communism and will begin to try to universalize its destructive pseudo-values through imperialistic aggression; the Imperium will be a short-lived calamity leading to global wreckage. When Evola speaks thusly in 1934, one listens, and dismissing him becomes difficult.
What is one to do then with a writer of foresight, whose literacy and education remain indubitable, who nevertheless serves up his social and political analysis, however trenchant it is, in the context of an alternate history, the details of which resemble the background of story by Lord Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith? I am strongly tempted to answer my own question in this way: That perhaps we should begin by reassessing Dunsany and Smith, especially Smith, whose tales of decadent remnant-societies – half-ruined, eroticized, brooding over a shored-up luxuriance, and succumbing to momentary appetite with fatalistic abandon – speak with powerful intuition to our actual circumstances. I do not mean to say, however, that Evola is only metaphorically true, as though his work, like Smith’s, were fiction. I mean that Evola is truly true, on the order of one of Plato’s “True Myths,” no matter how much his truth disconcerts us.

The Indo-European Languages: A Summary


The Indo-European Languages: A Summary

Since I have written several essays about the Indo-European language family I can sum up what I have found so far. Interesting things happened in Europe long before the Greeks and the Romans entered the scene. One of the hypotheses presented in my writings is that culture is the product of genes plus ideas. Since most of our genes date back to the Stone Age, you could successfully claim that our culture indirectly has roots dating back to that era. However, one the most ancient parts of the European cultural heritage still used is the language.
Modern English, Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Russian have roots back to the Late Neolithic and are all derived from a single mother language that is referred to as Proto-Indo-European. This is universally accepted, but where and when this language was initially spoken is more controversial. I belong to those who support the theory that PIE was originally spoken north of the Black Sea in what is today the Ukraine and southern Russia by 3500 BC, when the first expansion began with the introduction of wheeled vehicles. David W. Anthony writes about this subject in his book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.
The PIE language which has been reconstructed by linguists over the past two centuries contains words for a technological package that according to archaeological evidence existed after 4000 BC. An early form may have existed just prior to this and a late form after 3000 BC, at which point PIE was breaking apart. Scholars J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams explain in The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World:
“[I]ndividual Indo-European groups are attested by c. 2000 BC. One might then place a notional date of c. 4500-2500 BC on Proto-Indo-European….Byc. 2000 BC we have traces of Anatolian, and hence linguists are willing to place the emergence of Proto-Anatolian to c. 2500 BC or considerably earlier. We have already differentiated Indo-Aryan in the Mitanni treaty by c. 1500 BC so undifferentiated Proto-Indo-Iranian must be earlier, and dates on the order of 2500-2000 BC are often suggested. Mycenaean Greek, the language of the Linear B tablets, is known by c. 1300 BC if not somewhat earlier and is different enough from its Bronze Age contemporaries (Indo-Iranian or Anatolian) and from reconstructed PIE to predispose a linguist to place a date of c. 2000 BC or earlier for Proto-Greek itself.”
Greek, the Indo-European language of the palace-centered Bronze Age warrior kings who ruled at Mycenae and other strongholds, is attested in the mid-second millennium BC. The breakthrough in the decipherment of the Linear B tablets was made by the Englishmen Michael Ventris (1922-1956) and John Chadwick (1920-1998) in the early 1950s. Ventris was himself surprised to discover that the language in question was a very early form of Greek.
How was the Indo-European language family discovered? Similarities between European languages had been known for a long time, but systematic studies of them appeared gradually in early modern Europe. For instance, the scholar Joseph Scaliger constructed language groups based on their word for “god,” i.e. the Deus group (from Latin deus, with variations in the Romance languages), the Gott group (from Germanic god or Gott) and the Bog group (from Slavic bog). Suggestions of similarities between Indian and European languages began to be made by European visitors to India in the sixteenth century. Mallory and Adams again:
“Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), French (later Dutch) Renaissance scholar and one of the founders of literary historical criticism, who incidentally also gave astronomers their Julian Day Count, could employ the way the various languages of Europe expressed the concept of 'god' to divide them into separate groups; in these we can see the seeds of the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic language groups. The problem was explaining the relationship between these different but transparently similar groups. The initial catalyst for this came at the end of the sixteenth century and not from a European language. By the late sixteenth century Jesuit missionaries had begun working in India – St Francis Xavier (1506-52) is credited with supplying Europe with its first example of Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India, in a letter written in 1544 (he cited the invocation Om Srii naraina nama). Classically trained, the Jesuits wrote home that there was an uncanny resemblance between Sanskrit and the classical languages of Europe. By 1768 Gaston Cœurdoux (1691-1777) was presenting evidence to the French Academy that Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek were extraordinarily similar to one another and probably shared a common origin.”
The year which is usually seen as the birth of Indo-European studies is 1786, when the English scholar William Jones (1746-94) gave a speech to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. Jones is said to have known thirteen languages well, and twenty-eight fairly well, at the time of his death. In 1783 he was appointed to the judgeship at the high court at Calcutta. He arrived in 1783 and was to stay there until his death.  He was to transform the intellectual life of India when he founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the associated journal, Asiatick Researches, dedicated to the scientific study of the literature, history and philosophy of India. In 1786 he elaborated a theory of the common origins of most European languages and those of much of India, an intuition that marks the beginning of comparative-historical linguistics:
“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic [Germanic] and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the Old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.”
As Ibn Warraq says in Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, “With his work on Indian chronology, and having created a solid framework for the understanding of India’s past, Jones, in effect, can be considered the father of Indian history. Jones’s translation of Sacontala(Shakuntala) had an enormous influence in Europe, inspiring Schiller, Novalis, Schlegel, and Goethe, who used its introductory scene as a model for the ‘Vorspiel auf dem Theater’ of Faust (1797). But even more remarkably, the collection, printing, and translations of Sanskrit texts by Jones and other Orientalists made available for the first time to Indians themselves aspects of their own civilization, changing forever their own self-image. Until now, these texts had only been accessible to a narrow coterie of Brahmins.”
By 1800 a preliminary model for this language family had been constructed. The English polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829) first used the term “Indo-European” in 1813. The great French philologist Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) is correctly credited with having deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs from the trilingual Rosetta Stone in 1822, but contributions were made by Young and others such as Johan David Åkerblad (1763-1819) from Sweden. In the early nineteenth century, progress was made by the German linguist Franz Bopp and the philologist Rasmus Rask from Denmark. The German linguist August Schleicher (1821-1868) in 1868 published the first artificial text composed in the suggested PIE language:
“The language family came to be known as Indo-Germanic (so named by Conrad Malte-Brun in 1810 as it extended from India in the east to Europe whose westernmost language, Icelandic, belonged to the Germanic group of languages) or Indo-European (Thomas Young in 1813). Where the relationship among language groups were relatively transparent, progress was rapid in the expansion of the numbers of languages assigned to the Indo-European family. Between the dates of the two early great comparative linguists, Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) and Franz Bopp (1791-1867), comparative grammars appeared that solidified the positions of Sanskrit, Iranian, Greek, Latin, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, and Celtic within the Indo-European family. Some entered easily while others initially proved more difficult. The Iranian languages, for example, were added when comparison between Iran’s ancient liturgical texts, the Avesta, was made with those in Sanskrit. The similarities between the two languages were so great that some thought that the Avestan language was merely a dialect of Sanskrit, but by 1826 Rask demonstrated conclusively that Avestan was co-ordinate with Sanskrit and not derived from it. He also showed that it was an earlier relative of the modern Persian language.”
A few Indo-European varieties still spoken today are not allocated to major IE sub-groups or branches. Greek has a long history, whereas Armenian dates from the first millennium AD. The earliest references to Albanian are found in the fourteenth century AD. The central part of the IE area is represented by little-known ancient languages such as Illyrian in the west Balkans, Dacian and Thracian in the east Balkans and Phrygian in Anatolia.
The sub-group parent known as Proto-Celtic may have been spoken by 1000 BC. Celtic-speaking groups spread across much of the European continent, except the far north, east and south, during the first millennium BC. As a consequence, Celtic place-names abound from Portugal to Poland. The name of the province of Galicia in northern Spain is definitely a Celtic one. The province of Galicia in southern Poland and western Ukraine may be so, too. The Celtic root of Gal-, indicating “Land of the Gaels or Gauls,” occurs in Portugal (possibly), Galicia in Spain, Gallia (Gaul), Pays des Galles (Wales) and in distant Galatia in Asia Minor. The western Celts called themselves Cymry or “compatriots,” but were dubbed Welsh or “foreigners” by their Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxon neighbors in medieval times.
The Insular Celtic languages in Britain and Ireland of the first centuries BC later evolved into Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Welsh developed a rich literary tradition during the Middle Ages and is still a living language whereas Cornish became extinct by the end of the eighteenth century. Breton originated in Britain and was carried from there to Brittany from the fifth to seventh centuries AD, where it may have encountered surviving speakers of Gaulish Celtic. Irish yielded two languages derived from Irish – Scots Gaelic and Manx – that were imported to their historical positions in the Early Middle Ages. From a linguistic standpoint, the most important of the Celtic languages are Old and Middle Irish due to their large textual output.
In the Mediterranean zones at the onset of literacy a number of languages are attested, but because of the Roman Empire these were replaced by Latin and its descendants. The Italic branch of the Indo-European tree includes several extinct ancient languages such as Oscan, spoken south of Rome, and Umbrian spoken north of Rome, but also the Romance group comprising modern languages that descend from Vulgar Latin: Spanish (Castilian), Catalan, Galician and Portuguese in the Iberian Peninsula and its former colonies in Latin America as well as French, Italian, Romanian and a number of smaller languages. The development of these languages is relatively easy to record. The earliest textual evidence for the various Romance languages begins with the ninth century for French, the tenth century for Spanish and Italian, the twelfth century for Portuguese, and the sixteenth century for Romanian. Author James Clackson states in his book Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction:
“In the case of the Romance languages, we have the bonus of having records of Classical Latin, which is close enough to the spoken variety from which the Romance group evolves to be considered the sub-group parent. We can see in Latin the word-forms which will eventually evolve to become the shared vocabulary of Romance: aqua ‘water’ can be considered the earlier form ancestral to Italian acqua and Spanish aguapater ‘father’ develops into Italian padre and Spanish padre. For the Romance group, we can unearth the phonological changes which words have undergone in the centuries between Roman times and the present. We can identify which words are borrowings and which stem from Latin.”
Modern-day Spain and Portugal have a complex linguistic history. The Iberian language, a non-Indo-European tongue, went extinct during the Roman period. Celtic was spoken in the north before the Roman conquest and Germanic afterward. Semitic tongues came with traders from Carthage in Antiquity and Arab invaders during the Middle Ages. The Spanish and Portuguese languages evolved from Vulgar Latin in medieval times.
The Basque people inhabit the Pyrenees in northern Spain and southwest France. Their tongue is a language isolate, with no known living or dead relatives. It contains words for knife, axe and other tools which carry the root meaning of “stone.” Most likely it represents the last surviving descendant of the languages that existed in some regions of Stone Age Europe.
The Proto-Germanic language is not directly attested, but was probably spoken in the first millennium before the Christian era, possibly in southern Scandinavia. Eastern Germanic is attested by a single language, Gothic, the language of the Visigoths who settled in the Balkans. The spread of Christianity encouraged literacy in many languages, also non-Indo-European ones such as Georgian in the Caucasus. As with Slavic and Armenian, the oldest extensive written document in Germanic is a Christian text, the Gothic translation of the New Testament of the Bible by the bishop and missionary Ulfilas, or Wulfila (ca. AD 311-382).
The runic alphabet, often known as futhark after its first six letters, is thought to have been modeled on the Latin and/or Etruscan alphabet somewhere in south-central Europe where Germanic-speakers encountered literate peoples. In Old Norse, rune meant “inscription” or “mystery.” Runes are attested in Central Europe, Britain, Scandinavia and later Iceland from the 1st century AD to the 1600s for specialized purposes such as short inscriptions on weapons and in the sphere of cult and magic, although some longer runic texts were made during the Middle Ages. Their use continued into the Christian era in certain parts of Scandinavia, but runes appear to have been associated with the pagan religion. Mallory and Adams state:
“The northern group of Germanic languages is the earliest attested because of runic inscriptions that date from c. AD 300 onwards. These present an image of Germanic so archaic that they reflect not only the state of proto-Northern Germanic but are close to the forms suggested for the ancestral language of the entire Germanic group. But the runic evidence is meagre and the major evidence for Northern Germanic is to be found in Old Norse. This comprises a vast literature, primarily centred on or composed in Iceland. The extent of Old Norse literature ensures that it is also regarded as an essential comparative component of the Germanic group. By c. 1000, Old Norse was dividing into regional east and west dialects and these later provided the modern Scandinavian languages. Out of the west dialect came Icelandic, Faeroese, and Norwegian and out of East Norse came Swedish and Danish. The main West Germanic languages were German, Frankish, Saxon, Dutch, Frisian, and English….Incidentally, the closest linguistic relative to English is Frisian followed by Dutch.”
Among the Indo-European branches we find the Slavic or Slavonic languages. In the prehistoric period the Baltic languages, which include modern Lithuanian and Latvian, were so closely related to the Slavic ones that we can speak of a Balto-Slavic proto-language. The Slavic languages in early medieval times expanded over territories previously occupied by speakers of Baltic languages. Slavic place-names abound further west than the current limits of Slavic speech, especially in Germany and Austria. From the sixth century AD, Slavic tribes pushed south and west into the world of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire to settle in the Balkans and East Central Europe. The first written Slavic language, Old Church Slavonic, relates to the Byzantine Christianizing missions of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century, with Biblical translations directed at Slavic speakers in Moravia and Macedonia.
The prestige of Old Church Slavonic, closely associated with the rituals of the Orthodox Church, made it play a major role in the evolution of the Slavic tongues. The South Slavic languages, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian, are recognizable about 1000-1100 AD. The East Slavic ones, Russian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian, are closer to each other and developed after 1600 due to the influence of OCS. The West Slavic languages, Polish, Czech and Slovak, were less affected by OCS since they came under the dominion of the Roman Catholic Church, which used Latin. The origins of the Slavs are shrouded in uncertainty and national myth. As The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe says:
“Earlier notions of a Slav genesis within a limited area have now been generally abandoned, though they are still made to appear in some accounts fully formed from the Pripyet Marshes. More plausibly, the Slavs, the Sclaveni of Byzantine sources, were an amalgam of cultural groups based between the Dnestr and Dnepr in the east and the Vistula and Oder in the west during the late fifth and earlier sixth centuries. They certainly had links with the Baltic peoples to the north and various Germanic groups to the west. Their movement westward and southward was facilitated by the advance of Germanic peoples into the Danube lands. Within a short time of their recognition in our written sources, Slav settlers had entered Bohemia, passed from there down the Elbe valley, extended north into Poland and eastern Germany, and south into the Balkans by way of Bulgaria. Further expansion into western Europe seemed inevitable, but the Frankish advance east of the Rhine brought it to a stop. The Slavs did hold on to the northern Balkans, though their occupation of Greece was ended by the Byzantines in the ninth century.”
Prior to recent mass immigration to Western Europe and apart from invading Muslims, the vast majority of Europeans spoke some form of Indo-European language, but one smaller linguistic family did traditionally exist on that continent: The Uralic family currently contains just over 20 million speakers in total, which is tiny compared to the billions of people now speaking an Indo-European language. This group is believed to have its original homeland, or Urheimat, somewhere close to the Ural Mountains where a few Uralic languages are still in use, perhaps at the same time as PIE.
Among those speaking Uralic languages are the Hungarians (Magyar) in East Central Europe, otherwise these languages are mainly concentrated in the Nordic and Baltic Sea region. Before 1800 the Hungarian linguist Sámuel Gyarmathi (1751-1830) managed to demonstrate that Hungarian was distantly related to Finnish, the national language of Finland. Much more closely related to Finnish is modern Estonian. Finally, we have the Uralic languages of the Sami peoples or “Lapps” who inhabit parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. This region is sometimes referred to as Lapland.
Two new branches were added to the Indo-European linguistic tree in the early twentieth century. The first one was Tocharian, once spoken in Central Asia and the far western border regions of China. The other was Anatolian, which includes Hittite and Luvian. The Hittites created a state in central Anatolia (present-day Turkey). Hittite is extensively documented through tablets from the mid-second millennium BC and was first suggested to be an Indo-European language by the Norwegian linguist Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon (1854-1917). The Czech linguist Bedrich Hrozny (1879-1952) deciphered the Hittite language some years later.
There are those who argue that through comparative studies, you can find traces of a Proto-Indo-European mythological universe distributed throughout the area of early Indo-European speech, obviously overlaid with later changes and influences from preexisting cultures. There could be elements of a PIE creation myth preserved in the traditions of the Celts, Germans, Slavs and Indo-Aryans. These traditions indicate a proto-myth whereby the universe is created from a primeval giant – either a cow such as the Norse Ymir or a “man” like the Vedic Purusa – who is sacrificed and dismembered. The various parts of his anatomy serve to provide a different element of nature; his flesh becomes the Earth, his hair grass, his bone yields stone, his blood water, his eyes the Sun, his mind the Moon, his brain the clouds, his breath the wind and his head becomes the heavens. Here are the authors J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams again:
“As to the identity of the sacrificer we have hints in a related sacrifice that serves as the foundation myth for the Indo-Iranians, Germans, and Romans (with a possible resonance in Celtic). Here we find two beings, twins, one known as ‘Man’ (with a lexical cognate between Germanic Mannus and SktManu) and his ‘Twin’ (Germanic Twisto, Skt Yama with a possible Latin cognate if Remus, the brother of Romulus, is derived from *Yemonos ‘twin’). In this myth ‘Man’, the ancestor of humankind, sacrifices his ‘Twin’. The two myths, creation and foundation of a people, find a lexical overlap in the Norse myth where the giant Ymir is cognate with Skt. Yama and also means ‘Twin’. The dismemberment of the primeval giant of the creation myth can be reversed to explain the origins of humans and we find various traditions that derive the various aspects of the human anatomy from the results of the original dismemberment, e.g. grass becomes hair, wind becomes breath. The creation myth is then essentially a sacrifice that brought about the different elements of the world.”
Through Indo-European comparative mythology, scholars have examined the narrative structure of the literary traditions of the various Indo-European speaking groups to reveal striking parallels between their different traditions. Much of the career of the Greek Odysseus is paralleled by distinct incidents in the lives of Arjuna in the Mahabharata, the Buddha in the earliest Buddhist texts in ancient India and CúChulainn in early Irish heroic literature. A few of these parallels are thought to be too close to have evolved purely by accident.