One little-known but highly controversial author is Julius Evola. An Italian that wrote in the mid-20th Century, his ideas are often derided and dismissed as little more than defenses of fascism. For that reason, I was a bit hesitant to read and review any of his works; while I despise cancel culture, I’m not a fascist and have no desire to be associated with that evil movement. Reading A Handbook for Traditional Living by Raido was close enough. However, when I listened to a Jack Murphy podcast about Steve Bannon and learned that Evola’s concept of “Tradition” is what inspired Bannon to get involved in politics, I manned up and decided to try reading Evola’s most famous work, Revolt Against the Modern World.
Turns out, those derisions of Evola as a “fascist” are misleading. Surprise, surprise.
It is true, as the editor of Revolt Against the Modern World noted, that Evola had some fascist sympathies:
“Evola’s known sympathies for Italian Fascism and National Socialism, to which we will return in this article, were recalled. There is also Richard H. Drake’s essay “Julius Evola and the Ideological Origins of the Radical Right in Contemporary Italy,” which contributed a great deal to Evola’s negative image in the English-speaking world, and Thomas Sheehan’s “Myth and Violence: The Fascism of Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist.”‘
However, he was more than that.
For one, he ended up being an enemy of both those groups. The Nazis dismissed his ideas and he was a frequent and ruthless critic of Mussolini’s incompetent regime. As I’ll get to later in this review, Evola’s view of fascism seems quite similar to Yarvin’s as presented in An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives: fascism is the dimwitted cousin, the poor imitation, of the glory of monarchies at their height. While that’s not exactly the ringing condemnation most Americans might hope for, it’s a fair point; Il Duce’s time in power was an embarrassing disaster compared to the Empire under Augustus.
Furthermore, viewing his ideas only in the political realm completely misses the point of his work, which is mainly about the decline of civilization over a four-part (Gold-Silver-Bronze-Dark) timeline. As the editor says:
“Evola is not first and foremost a right-wing, reactionary political thinker, but rather a leading representative of that Esoteric Spirituality that has always existed in many forms in or alongside every civilization, age and religious tradition; therefore, when Evola deals with socio-political issues, he is just following the premises of his metaphysical and religious convictions, and not the other way around.”
He is concerned with the trend of civilizations, not temporary changes to the modern political regime, which he condemns entirely in Revolt Against the Modern World.
With the fascism issue dealt with, we can now turn to the actual content of the book.
To be honest, it was somewhat disappointing. While Evola makes some interesting points and quite interestingly ties together Greek, Roman, Indian, and Norse mythology, the book is a bit odd, for lack of a better world, and the second half is overly dense, complicated, and uninteresting.
However, he does make some novel points about human nature and civilization that are worth hearing, even if you disagree with them. Nearly all come from the first half of the book, in which he traces “the main principles according to which the life of the man of Tradition was manifested“:
Note: I’ve included these extended quotations without commentary so that you can decide for yourself what they mean. I’ll discuss them further below, but I highly recommend you read them without any commentary first
“Though modern men have come to perceive the West’s bleak future only recently, there are causes that have been active for centuries that have contributed to spiritual and material degeneration. These causes have not only taken away from most people the possibility of revolt and the return to normalcy and health, but most of all, they have taken away the ability to understand what true normalcy and health really mean…In the West, too many adaptations and “reactions” have taken place. Experience has shown that nothing that truly matters can be achieved in this way. What is really needed is not to toss back and forth in a bed of agony, but to awaken and get up.”
“to understand both the spirit of Tradition and its antithesis, modern civilization, it is necessary to begin with the fundamental doctrine of the two natures. According to this doctrine there is a physical order of things and a metaphysical one; there is a mortal nature and an immortal one; there is the superior realm of “being” and the inferior realm of “becoming.” Generally speaking, there is a visible and tangible dimension and, prior to and beyond it, an invisible and intangible dimension that is the support, the source, and true life of the former. Anywhere in the world of Tradition, both East and West and in one form or another, this knowledge (not just a mere “theory”) has always been present as an unshakable axis around which everything revolved…Let me emphasize the fact that it was knowledge and not “theory.” As difficult as it may be for our contemporaries to understand this, we must start from the idea that the man of Tradition was aware of the existence of a dimension of being much wider than what our contemporaries experience and call “reality.”
“According to Tradition, every authority is fraudulent, every law is unjust and barbarous, every institution is vain and ephemeral unless they are ordained to the superior principle of Being, and unless they are derived from above and oriented “upward.” The traditional world knew divine kingship. It knew the bridge between the two worlds, namely, initiation; it knew the two great ways of approach to the transcendent, namely, heroic action and contemplation; it knew the mediation, namely, rites and faithfulness; it knew the social foundation, namely, the traditional law and the caste system; and it knew the political earthly symbol, namely, the empire.”
“Wherever a monarch has descended to such a lower plane, in other words, wherever he, in losing his spiritual function, has promoted an absolutism and a political and material centralization by emancipating himself from any bond owed to sacred authority, humiliating the feudal nobility, and taking over those powers that were previously distributed among the aristocracy—such a monarch has dug his own grave, having brought upon himself ominous consequences. Absolutism is a short-lived mirage; the enforced uniformity paves the way for demagogy, the ascent of the people, or demos, to the desecrated throne. This is the case with tyranny, which in several Greek cities replaced the previous aristocratic, sacral regime; this is also somewhat the case with ancient Rome and with Byzantium in the leveling forms of the imperial decadence; and finally, this is the meaning of European political history after the collapse of the spiritual ideal of the Holy Roman Empire and the ensuing advent of the secularized, nationalist monarchies, up to the age of “totalitarianism” as a terminal phenomenon.”
“If the modern world has disapproved of the “injustice” of the caste system, it has stigmatized much more vibrantly those ancient civilizations thast practiced slavery; recent times boast of having championed the principle of “human dignity.” This too is mere rhetoric. 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 was a civilization of slaves on a grand scale, the one in which we are living is it. No traditional civilization ever saw such great masses of people condemned to perform shallow, impersonal, automatic jobs; in the contemporary slave system the counterparts of figures such as lords or enlightened rulers are nowhere to be found. This slavery is imposed subtly through the tyranny of the economic factor and through the absurd structures of a more or less collectivized society.”
“To fight on “the path to God” has been characterized as “medieval” fanaticism; conversely, it has been characterized as a most sacred cause to fight for “patriotic” and “nationalistic” ideals and for other myths that in our contemporary era have eventually been unmasked and shown to be the instruments of irrational, materialistic, and destructive forces. It has gradually become possible to see that when “country” was mentioned, this rallying cry often concealed the plans of annexation and oppression and the interests of monopolistic industries; all talk of “heroism” was done by those who accompanied soldiers to the train stations. Soldiers went to the front to experience war as something else, namely, as a crisis that all too often did not turn out to be an authentic and heroic transfiguration of the personality, but rather the regression of the individual to a plane of savage instincts, ”reflexes,” and reactions that retain very little of the human by virtue of being below and not above humanity.”
“The Caesars thought that a despotism based on military dictatorship and on a soulless bureaucratic and administrative structure could successfully hold together the Roman ecumene, which had truly been reduced to a cosmopolitan and disarticulated mass. Nobody was able to do anything decisive to stem the general process of decadence, not even people who exhibited traits of greatness and ancient Roman dignity, who embodied some features typical of a sidereal nature and the quality of a “stone,” who had the sense of what true wisdom was, and who at times even received an initiatory consecration (like the emperor Julian).”
“the Hellenization of Rome, under this aspect of humanistic and almost enlightened development promoted by poets, literary types, and scholars, was a prelude of its own decadence.”
“The degeneration of the ancient aristocratic and sacred ethics into the modern plebeian and materialistic morality is expressively characterized by such a shift from the plane of action to the plane of work. Superior men who lived in a not so distant past, either acted or directed actions. Modern man works.”
Those quotations I included are the ones that are both somewhat uncontroversial on the modern right, to some extent, at least, and make points that I think we might want to start considering more thoughtfully. When I defend them in the paragraphs below, I’m doing my best to defend them as a reasonable supporter of Evola would, not as I see them. Because of their controversial nature and unique perspective, I think it’s important to give them as fair a hearing as possible.
Take, for example, Evola’s critique of the Caesars’ attempts to hold together the empire with an administrative apparatus. It didn’t work because the Roman spirit had been forgotten by a decadent populace. What made Rome great was that her citizens loved her. When they stopped caring about Rome and her traditions, Rome lost its greatness and collapsed. Remind you of America?
Then there’s Evola’s depiction of traditional society. At first, you might recoil in horror at his depiction of the caste system as a societal good. But is it so bad? We have a semi-permanent underclass now, but it faces the indignity of being told it could be better if only it did more, worked more, sacrificed more. At least the peasants weren’t derided as lazy by their lords and blamed for their station in life; rather, all parts of the whole were celebrated and the slaves (POWs, not chattel slaves of the horrific American model) did the nasty jobs no one wanted to do. That can be critiqued, to be sure, but not easily dismissed.
And the king was at the top. But was the king any worse than modern leaders? We like our ability to “represent” ourselves at the polling booth, but who would rather have Biden than Octavian, Chuck Schumer than Constantine? When the monarch is the one described by Evola, one that has limited power and is focused upon what is right and holy rather than attaining the absolutist power associated with the Orient, he’s hardly more of an overlord than those oligarchs imposed on us by America’s ruling class.
Now, a king or emperor might not be what we want. I still value the system the Founders created, despite its flaws. But Evola makes a point that can’t be easily dismissed; for all our technology, our society doesn’t seem much better than traditional societies at their peak. Why? Perhaps because they were on to something about the natural order of the universe…
However, that’s not an endorsement of the work, especially as a whole. There are absolutely parts of Revolt Against the Modern World that most everyone in reasonable circles would reject. Here are a few of the highlights:
“one can say that the superior Western races have been agonizing for many centuries and that the increasing growth in world population has the same meaning as the swarming of worms on a decomposing organism or as the spreading of cancerous cells: cancer is an uncontrolled hypertrophy of a plasma that devours the normal, differentiated structures of an organism after subtracting itself from the organism’s regulating laws. This is the scenario facing the modern world: the regression and the decline of fecundating (in the higher sense of the term) forces and the forces that bear forms parallels the unlimited proliferation of “matter,” of what is formless, of the masses.”
“In a society that no longer understands the figure of the ascetic and of the warrior; in which the hands of the latest aristocrats seem better fit to hold tennis rackets or shakers for cocktail mixes than swords or scepters; in which the archetype of the virile man is represented by a boxer or by a movie star if not by the dull wimp represented by the intellectual, the college professor, the narcissistic puppet of the artist, or the busy and dirty money-making banker and the politician—in such a society it was only a matter of time before women rose up and claimed for themselves a “personality” and a “freedom” according to the anarchist and individualist meaning usually associated with these words. And while traditional ethics asked men and women to be themselves to the utmost of their capabilities and express with radical traits their own gender-related characteristics—the new “civilization” aims at leveling everything since it is oriented to the formless and to a stage that is truly not beyond but on this side of the individuation and differentiation of the sexes.”
“The periods in which women have reached autonomy and preeminence almost always have coincided with epochs marked by manifest decadence in ancient civilizations.”
Unlike Evola, I don’t blame women for societal degeneration. That’s absurd, as is his view that population growth makes humanity a worm or cancer.
But, as you can tell from looking at the selected passages, the ideas that are at least worthy of consideration far outnumber the parts that are undeniably objectionable. And, in any case, it’s not a “fascist” book. It’s many things, but not that.
In fact, when I wasn’t a fan of Revolt Against the Modern World, it generally wasn’t because I was horrified by the content, but rather because I was bored. He frequently delves into the mystical, discussing various concepts from China, India, and Persia that I didn’t think related to the Western experience or made much sense to include. Plus, as I said earlier, some of it was a bit “odd.” Paganism can be discussed in a proper way, but Evola takes too much of it seriously and damages the credibility of his work in doing so. It’s one thing to say that history moves in cycles and that there might be some truth behind myths like The Odyssey. It’s another entirely to be taking the magi at face value, and his frequent diversions into such concepts make the book a bit dull and hard to focus upon, at times.
Despite those oddities and shortcomings, it’s not all bad and a good bit of it is quite thought-provoking. If you want to understand Tradition and what separated traditional societies from ours, it might be worth a read.