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Spengler vs. Evola

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 [1], 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.” [2]

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 [3] 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 [3] 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.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Spengler vs. Evola"

#1 Comment By Christian On February 21, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

This was good until the last paragraph.

#2 Comment By The Autist Formerly Known as “KD” On February 21, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

You write:

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.

I am not sure what the difference is between “psychological” and “emotional factors”. If you mean something like greed + will to power, I guess that is part of the story.

However, if you look at the emergence of Islamic civilization, while greed + will to power was certainly important, those forces converge around Islam, which presupposed Islam functions as a “meta-historical” purpose. I don’t know how you would get Islamic civilization without that shared social conviction that actions early Umma’s actions were serving a “meta-historical” purpose.

Leaving aside the “existence” of such a purpose, its “existence” certainly serves as a social assumption in many instances, ergo, the historical behavior of human beings cannot be explained in the absence of language of “meta-historical purpose”.

Gravity may not “exist”, but you need to postulate gravity exists to predict the trajectories of bodies in motion, for example. Likewise, “metahistorical purposes” may not exist, but you need to postulate that a shared belief that the activities of a particular community serves a metahistorical purpose in order to explain their behaviors, such as the Islamic conquests, or the First Crusade.

Physical conditions and historical patterns ensure that these motivations are expressed in many different ways.

To invoke patterns is to invoke the idea or form. Where there is no form, there is no pattern. Form does not emerge from the individual’s material or psychological needs, form emerges from the synergy of a group of individual’s material or psychological needs.

Unfortunately, you are trying to describe the motion of a body in three dimensions using only two coordinate axes. Rather than see the real movement of the things, you are simply watching its patter on a wall. Likewise, trying to explain historical trends based on individuals is a gross oversimplification, as it does not admit the pattern. [While the pattern is manifest in history, is it not “metahistorical” if it in some manner recurs, such as the cycling of the elite?]

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.

But you haven’t given a sufficient conceptual basis for discussing what a historical pattern consists in.

A word has a historical form “WORD” but it also has a meaning that is distinct from its form. One cannot decipher the meaning of a foreign word without either a Rosetta Stone (translating another language into an existing system of meaning) or training in the language. If a language dies without leaving some Rosetta Stone behind, it is dead, and it will never be capable of being rendered meaningful, no matter how much physical evidence you possess.

In this sense, meaning and the physical manifestations of meaning are divorced from each other. Likewise, to speak of a “pattern of history” is itself to imbue historical events with a particular kind of meaning or significance. The fact that history has a meaning entails that its meaning is divorced from its physical manifestation, e.g. historical patterns presuppose meta-historical purposes which they express.

I know it is very clever to claim that you don’t need to postulate three dimensions in order to describe the movement of bodies in space, when two dimensions create simpler math. This is not, of course, a cogent argument, it is an affectation.

#3 Comment By The Autist Formerly Known as “KD” On February 21, 2017 @ 2:40 pm

One distinguishes a living language from a dead and unintelligible language is, of course, memory.

Likewise, what distinguishes groups of people, on the basis of collective identity, is historical memory. Different historical memories, different groups.

Further, it is not only memory (e.g. the Protestant Reformation may be remembered by Protestants and Catholics), but also meaning, in the sense of importance, and value.

A group of Catholics that places high importance and highly negative value on the Reformation will be in conflict with a group of Catholics who assign it little importance. One will be seeking to purge the Protestant influence, the other will be almost totally indifferent (and therefore disloyal in the eyes of the first).

Meaning in the sense of Importance.

These three components are “just” missing from your conceptualizations of history.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 21, 2017 @ 3:32 pm


Systems theory.

#5 Comment By John Bruce Leonard On February 21, 2017 @ 4:15 pm

“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.”

Yet it seems to me that everything depends on just who the “people” in question are, and what their relation is to the wellsprings of power. The motivations of the American electorate are not those of a Napoleon; and these motivations in turn are not identical to those those of, say, the Venetian Doge in the Renaissance. The character of the very social order changes dramatically on the basis of the motivations of its rulers.

The problem is that the mere existence of human nature is no guarantee of its consummation. Human beings may live pathetic or ignoble or fragmentary lives. Evola’s concern (whatever one might think of it) was with encouraging the perfection of human nature through political means. That perfection may have little to do with the commonest “material, psychological, and emotional factors”; indeed, it most certainly requires their overcoming.

This is important, because it forms one of the strongest critiques that the far right brings against democratic republics: namely, that they are materialistic and emotionally hollow; that they provide no transcendental or ennobling vision of the life of human beings and the destiny of societies.

Until democratic republics can answer that charge, which is a poetic, a spiritual, a philosophical charge, they will remain vulnerable to the peril of “fascist revolt.”

#6 Comment By William Burns On February 21, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

When did people start “building off of” things rather than “building on” them? Makes no sense.

#7 Comment By TJ Martin On February 21, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

Placing Bannon’s name in context with or the same sentence of genuine critical thinker / philosophers such as Spengler and Evola is both an insult to Spengler and Evola as well as the epitome of oxymoron and contradiction .

Suffice it to say Bannon does not think .. beyond his Ayn Randian indoctrinations and racist white supremacy zeitgeist . As for Dugin ? What he really is about other than the quest for power is anybodies guess

#8 Comment By kalendjay On February 21, 2017 @ 8:16 pm

Of course there really is a “higher plane” of history from which dormancy of feeling can be transcended, by history. But that is not to say all cultures experience this plane of experience equally, or successfully. Some cultures live, and some others die: Some learn from their bad experiences, some exist by luck, and some perish for lack of growth.

In modern civilization, ownership of a culture is critical. Samuel Huntington recognized the phenomenon within a “Clash of Civilizations” as erstwhile westernized leaders such as Ghandi became rabid spokesmen for their own nationalism. And there is very little commonality between ‘the West’, which is a metaphor for shared modern civic sensibility (such as immigrationism) and the Ummah, which now claims ownership of the Spirit, without successful ownership of rule of law, fairness (the stuff of folk tradition, which is a means of guiding and assuring ordinary people and children of basic civic virtues), or learning.

There is a very real clash of cultures here which seems to be attended by the West’s (and America’s in particular) willful distortion of historical sensibility and lessons.

Spengler understood that the instinct of a culture is to grasp for symbols that guide worldly purpose and behavioral norms. He understood that declining civilizations reduce symbols to mass-produced commodities, as life becomes too complex to manage, and gargantuanism and praetorianism replace the sensibilities of custom and legal genuflection.

Perhaps your most craven Islamists implicitly understand this, as they need something to rebel against, by way of exploiting the dismal, and really spiritless nature of their lives in the Middle East and elsewhere. But that is not to say that there is really a common plane between the two cultures. There is certainly little common culture, I can say that much, except within the minds of globalists and permanent Progressives.

#9 Comment By Ted Schrey Montreal On February 24, 2017 @ 11:02 pm

There is plenty of “righteousness” and sense of “duty” to be found in western Protestantism to feel the need to use terms and concepts like dharma.

#10 Comment By Ted Schrey Montreal On February 25, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The concept of “empathy” seems somewhat shallowly or lightly used or applied here.

The human ability to “read” other (people’s) minds covers it a bit more adequately.

It might also have the advantage of providing a way out of the realm of arid abstractions of a cultural/ historical type.

#11 Comment By Don P On February 25, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

Perhaps American Conservatives can take special comfort from the inauguration of a president who seems indifferent to precedents
(or perhaps anyhing in print.)

#12 Comment By Ronald Pavellas On February 26, 2017 @ 4:09 am

People tend to live. Theories tend to kill.

#13 Comment By RD On February 28, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

This is either a gross misunderstanding of both authors’ ideas or the writer does not have more than a vague familiarity with either, especially Evola. His summation of Evola’s ideas sounds like a book report from someone who didn’t read the book in question.