The apocalyptic worldview promoted by prominent political figures such as Steve Bannon in the United States and Aleksandr Dugin in Russia is premised on the notion that ordinary political and legislative battles are more than just quibbles over contemporary issues. Rather, political debates are fronts in a greater battle of ideas, and everything is a struggle for the meaning of civilization and human nature. Bannon’s worldview is preceded by the thought of two early-20th-century thinkers, Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola—and his passing mention of the latter in a 2014 speech has caused some controversy in recent weeks, including a New York Times article entitled “Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists.”
These thinkers wrote at a time when the Western narrative of progress and improvement was shattered after World War I. Interest in both Spengler and Evola has recently revived, though Spengler was always fairly well-known for his thesis that civilizations grew and declined in a cyclical fashion.
Although both Spengler and Evola shared a pessimism over the direction of modern Western civilization, they differed on human nature. Is there a way to reconcile two vastly different observations?
The first is that people in different eras and locales display a remarkable degree of behavioral similarity; id est, human nature is universal and constant. However, on the other hand, the peculiarities and differences between some cultures are so great that it is hard to see how these are derived from a common source. This question is really what lies at the root of the current argument between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. For if human nature is universal, cultural convergence seems to be the logical outcome of a globalized world.
Are there alternatives? Building off of ideas introduced in the early 19th century by Hegel, Spengler argued that the very framework of human experience was limited by the time and the civilization in which the person lived:
“Mankind” … has no aim, no idea, no plan … [and] is a zoological expression, or an empty word. But conjure away the phantom, break the magic circle, and at once there emerges an astonishing wealth of actual forms. … I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitier of facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures. … There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained.
Spengler’s views can be seen in the context of a movement known as historicism, the idea that human societies were the products of historical and material circumstances, which arose as a result of the universalism propagated by the Enlightenment and spread by the French Revolution. While Spengler makes some valid points, particularly in arguing against the idea that history is goal-oriented and directional, his view denies the very concept of empathy, that one can look at, say, Caesar, and see things through his eyes.
Age after age, people look back on history for inspiration, and it is hard to accept this lack of commonality with historical figures: the idea of a common human nature is a compelling concept. It also has the weight of historical, literary, and anthropological evidence behind it. But it does not follow that the idea of a fixed human nature leads to a form of neoliberal universalism.
One alternative was provided by Evola, who sought to reclaim the idea of human nature from the Enlightenment and reconcile it with the observations described by Spengler and Hegel. Instead of the liberal, convergent universalism championed by the Enlightenment, Evola advocated a traditionalist universalism, because “there is no form of traditional organization … that does not hide a higher principle.” In an argument that echoes Plato’s Theory of Forms, he wrote:
The supreme values and the foundational principles of every healthy and normal institution are not liable to change. … In the domain of these values there is no “history” and to think about them in historical terms is absurd … even where these principles are objectified in a historical reality, they are not at all conditioned by it; they always point to a higher, meta-historical plane, which is their natural domain and where there is no change.
In other words, Evola believed that there was a common core to human beings, a set of higher principles and heroic “traditional” values that lay at the root of every successful civilization. Even when eclipsed, these values remained in a dormant form, waiting to be reactivated. It is not surprising, then, that Evola is popular among nationalists and reactionaries today, because his framework allows for a shared nationalistic struggle that is simultaneously individualistic and universal in the chivalric sense that true warriors always recognize and respect each other even when serving different causes.
But Evola’s formulation is just one of many theories that acknowledge such a thing as human nature. Unlike Spengler, Evola makes the same mistake as universal liberalism does by trying to use a set of observations about human nature to come up with some grand statement on humanity.
But the truth is probably a lot simpler: people are motivated by similar and fixed material, psychological, and emotional factors across time and space, not by any liberal or “meta-historical” purposes. Physical conditions and historical patterns ensure that these motivations are expressed in many different ways. And since physical conditions and historical patterns continue to be different among people, it is unlikely these motivations will converge over time. That is all there is to it.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.