War Against the Modern World
Not all Traditionalists are created equal.
The United States is positively saturated with conspiracy theories. Most of them are either stupid, insane, or both. All of them are boring; in the age of the internet, even Pizzagate seems a little quaint. There’s only one exception to that rule, so far as I can tell, and that’s the Traditionalist School.
Spend enough time on Reddit or Twitter and you’ll hear plenty about these “Traditionalists." It is said they are quietly seizing control of right-wing groups all throughout the West. They control everyone from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump to King Charles III. And they pose a threat far greater than Christian nationalism.
Had they but world enough and time, the Traditionalists would (quite literally) bring us back to the year zero. They are at war with Modernity itself. They would tear down liberal democracy and build a great pagan reich on its smoldering ruins. And, with each passing day, they come just a little bit closer to their goal.
As with all conspiracy theories, there’s a kernel of truth at the center. (Anyone who doubts the existence of elite satanic pedophiles should google “Herod Antipas.”) Before we can separate that kernel from all the hot, buttery fluff, we have to learn a little more about Traditionalism itself. And we should start by making a distinction between the School’s two main branches: the Guénonians and the Evolians.
René Guénon was born in Blois on November 15, 1886. By then, French intellectual life had long been dominated by secular humanism. Guénon was given a solid Catholic education, but the French church was a spent force, more interested in political power than religious revival. When Guénon was still in his teens, French Catholics chose Charles Maurras, an avowed atheist, as their champion.
So, like many young men with a more spiritual cast of mind, Guénon turned to occultism. He was involved with a number of pseudo-Christian groups such as the Martinist Order and the Gnostic Church. But like most French occultists—Éliphas Lévi, for instance—Guénon was still a man of the right. Eventually, he saw through these newfangled sects. He craved a more ancient, organic wisdom. So, like many modern gurus, he looked to the East.
In Guénon’s system, the Occident represents the horizontal axis. It is “this-worldly,” grubbing, and decadent. It had chained itself to the twin pillars of Modernity: atheism and materialism. The Orient, meanwhile, represented the vertical axis. It was otherworldly, more concerned with storing up spiritual treasures than earthly wealth.
Though fascinated by all the great Eastern faiths, his true love was Islam. He saw the Middle East as a bulwark against Western decadence. Muslims were themselves a living rebuke to modernity. Eventually he converted to Sufism and moved to Egypt, taking the name Sheikh Abdul Wahid Yahy. He died in Cairo in 1951 at the age of 64.
Today, Guénon is best known for his theory of the Philosophia Perennis, or perennial philosophy; that’s why Traditionalists are sometimes called Perennialists. The perennial philosophy is the highest Truth, the ultimate Reality, to which all the great religions aspire. (Guénon’s thought was heavily Platonic.) Over thousands of years, humanity has undergone a kind of spiritual evolution, rising from “lower” to “higher” religions. The five main phases of that evolution are animism, shamanism, fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism.
A critical aspect of religious evolution is the development of religious authority. So, Guénon believed the West’s evolution was derailed by the Protestant Reformation. Then, with the Enlightenment, it was plunged into materialism, a state even lower than shamanism. For Guénon, the modern West was worse than primitive. It denied the ultimate Reality. It is—in the words of T.S. Eliot, a fellow traveler of the Traditionalist School—the Unreal City.
Julius Evola was born in Rome on May 19, 1898. Like Guénon, he was raised Catholic but dabbled in the occult (and drugs) as a young man. Unlike Guénon, his experiments only brought him to the edge of despair. In 1922, he began making plans to kill himself. But then he began to immerse himself in Buddhist sutras, which shook him from his decadence and awakened him to the “vertical axis." Soon Evola, too, had embarked on a long study of Eastern religion.
Like Guénon, Evola became convinced that the West was living through a Kali Yuga: a dark age, in which “the truths which were formerly within reach of all have become more and more hidden and inaccessible." But instead of abandoning the West, Evola sought to resurrect the reign of Europe’s great warrior-kings. This he called imperialismo pagano, or pagan imperialism.
To Evola, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini signaled the beginning of the end of the Kali Yuga. At last, great-souled men were revolting against Modernity and all its craven handmaids. He never thought much of fascism but was deeply encouraged by the Nazis’ penchant for Germanic paganism. The dark age was drawing to a close; the Age of Heroes was about to begin.
Evola greatly admired Guénon, but Guénon and his followers had little time for Evola. And that’s no surprise. Evola was a racist, albeit a “spiritual racist,” which the Guénonians found decidedly “horizontal." They had no use for political violence. Guénon said that “a true elite...can only be an intellectual one." So, what the West needed was an intellectual revival, not a political revolution. Hitler and Mussolini were also deeply influenced by socialism. Their aims were altogether “this-worldly." Beneath all the runes and miters, fascism was deeply materialistic.
Those are the obvious differences. But there are two even greater divisions between the Guénonians and Evolians.
The first is this: Guénon believed that, in order to reach the Perennial Philosophy, man had to travel “upward." To achieve that higher Truth, Western man had to resume his spiritual evolution. Guénon always taught that a good Traditionalist must choose a single tradition and practice it faithfully. He preferred Islam, of course, but believed that Christians, Buddhists, and Taoists were all traveling on the same path. Today, most Guénonians—even those who convert to Islam—argue the West can only be saved by a return to its indigenous traditions: Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Evola, meanwhile, believed that man had to travel “downward." The philosophia perennis isn’t found at the highest branches, but in the deepest roots. The more advanced religions tend to obscure the primordial Truth that undergirds all true spirituality. Some, like Christianity are actually part of the problem. At best, they're a faint echo of that primordial Truth, which forged the great Aryan warrior-priests, whose kingdom stretched from India to Ireland. At worst, they helped to sap the West of its spiritual vitality, paving the way for Modernism. Evola even referred to Christianity as the cult of “the humble, the abject, and the miserable.”
And here is the second: Guénonians believe that Modernity can only be defeated through spiritual renewal. Evolians believe that the modern world must first be smashed to bits. A new elite—a heroic vanguard—must grind liberal democracy under its bootheel. Only then may Tradition be restored to the West. The Guenonians’ methods are fundamentally religious; the Evolians’ are political.
King Charles III is a Guénonian. As he explained in his 2006 address to the Sacred Web Conference,
The teachings of the Traditionalists should not, in any sense, be taken to mean that they seek, as it were, to repeat the past—or, indeed, simply to draw a distinction between the present and the past. Theirs is not a nostalgia for the past, but a yearning for the sacred and, if they defend the past, it is because in the pre-modern world all civilizations were marked by the presence of the sacred.
Their aim is twofold: theophany (direct experience of the Divine) and theosis (assimilation into Divinity). In other words, it’s the same goal shared by virtually all of the “great religions." That’s the whole point. But Charles would no doubt agree with his mentor—and Guénon’s greatest living disciple—Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
The sapiential dimension which lies at the heart of tradition had become too weakened in the West to enable tradition to become revived during this century without authentic contact with the Oriental traditions which had preserved the inner teachings intact in both their doctrinal and operative aspects.
Hence Charles’s infamous affinity for Islam. Contrary to what his critics claim, His Majesty doesn’t want to “Islamify” the West. He’s not trying to erase the distinctions between all the world’s religions. On the contrary. He wants Muslims to remind Christians how to become better Christians, to help us make the Unreal City real again. Now, Charles may be stupid, or naïve, or just plain wrong. But he is also quite sincere.
Meanwhile, the greatest living Evolian is probably Aleksandr Dugin. Some allege it was thanks to Dugin’s influence that Vladimir Putin has courted both Orthodox Christians and Slavic neo-pagans, both of whom are firmly “on the right." Dugin presents himself as a faithful member of the Russian Church but, like Evola, it appears his true faith lies in the bloody cult of the warrior-priest.
Clearly, Dugin is not as hostile to Christianity as Evola. But he has no loyalty to the teachings of Jesus Christ or to His Church. That is not a criticism per se; it is a statement of fact. Like all Evolians, he rejects Guénon’s idea that one must follow a single tradition in order to perceive the higher Truth. He doesn’t care if Russia is Christian or pagan, so long as she triumphs over the decadent West.
Steve Bannon falls somewhere between the two. Like Evola himself, Bannon was raised Catholic but came to Traditionalism via Buddhism. He has since reverted to Catholicism (at least on paper; he has been divorced three times) and has worked to elevate reactionary Catholics within the New Right. He has also dialogued with Dugin in the past, though their “Traditionalisms” don’t quite align. As Bannon’s biographer Benjamin Teitelbaum wrote in The New Statesman,
as a traditionalist it was imperative that he embrace Russia’s ancient Judeo-Christian roots and begin agitating for union with the West. Such a change would initiate a new geopolitics, one based not on secular political values such as democracy and human rights, but on archaic identities. It would affirm the value of precedence, that the past is not past but lives today for those who would seize it. China, Bannon argued, was no counterweight to modernity as Dugin believed: its manufacturing base was instead the economic engine of globalization—modernity’s pre-eminent homogenising force. Isolate and weaken the Chinese state, and a global system funnelling vast wealth to a rootless, cosmopolitan mercantile elite will dissipate.
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In his understanding of religious traditions, then, Bannon is more of a Guénonian. But in his choice of methods, he is an Evolian. He believes that, in order to restore Tradition, he must first smash the modern world.
So, where does this leave our grand Traditionalist conspiracy?
The reign of Charles III will likely prove to be a short one. He is not likely to dissolve Parliament and demand his right to rule as well as reign (alas). Bannon’s influence on American politics has usually been overstated—by himself, his friends, but especially by his enemies. As for Dugin, after Putin swore to purge the earth of Western “satanism” at a massive state-sponsored rally last week, he said the Russian president had issued a “fundamental declaration of War against the West and the modern world." Evola would be pleased, though I doubt Steve Bannon is going to answer Putin’s call, much less the King of England.