This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
On a Skype call to a 2014 conference at the Vatican, the political strategist Steve Bannon mentioned, vaguely and dubiously, “Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the Traditionalist movement, which really kind of eventually metastasized into Italian fascism”. Ever since, traditionalism has been a topic of contemporary fascination and fear.
Across dozens of half-literate magazine pieces and activist blogs, Evola in particular has been denounced as a quasi-supernatural contaminant fuelling an ever-rising far right. Meanwhile the Russian Traditionalist philosopher Alexander Dugin has emerged as an intellectual supervillain to the point where his translators are persecuted, his books are censored by Amazon, and his daughter’s death last year in a car bomb provoked pro-NATO journalists into a ghoulish chorus of cheers.
All this has been illuminating of contemporary intellectual attitudes, but mystifying of Traditionalism itself — a state of affairs that Mark Sedgwick’s welcome new study addresses. A British-born academic based at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, Sedgwick has been researching Traditionalism for more than two decades. He brings well-informed judgements to a complex set of themes. Whether it will improve the public discussion concerning them, though, is another matter.
Like any intellectual phenomenon, Traditionalism emerged at a specific historical moment, and it has developed through different milieu. Sedgwick’s engaging 2002 book Against the Modern World traced its birth from the interwar writings of the French Indologist, esotericist, metaphysician and eventual convert to Islam René Guénon. It travels across dozens of countries to the wild Soviet dissident intellectual art scene that produced the tragically misunderstood Dugin.
His new book presents a more systematic study of the commonalities and distinctions between four key Traditionalist personalities: Guénon; the Italian Dada artist, magician and radical right political activist Evola; the Swiss-born Sufi guru and New Age cult-leader Frithjof Schuon; and finally, strikingly, the Canadian psychologist and YouTube intellectual megastar Jordan B. Peterson. He has never mentioned Traditionalism or any Traditionalist thinkers (except the crypto-Traditionalist Mircea Eliade), but Sedgwick identifies him as a Traditionalist fellow-traveller due to proximate positions and themes.
The Traditionalist project, says Sedgwick, consists in an effort to restore “sacred order” against modern ethical and intellectual anarchy, but what this restoration should look like presents a point of dispute. Contrasting visions already began to emerge in the mid-1920s when Evola wrote a long and critical review of Guénon’s book on Vedanta, and Guénon responded to tell him that he had no idea what he was talking about.
Whereas Guénon emphasised intellectual contemplation, priestly authority and Eastern mysticism, Evola championed magic and myth, warrior virtues, and the logic of action in support of a doctrine of direct engagement. Later the Indiana-based Schuon, who is best known for the doctrine of the Transcendental Unity of Religions (“all paths up the mountain lead to the summit”), incorporated Native American practices into a quasi-Islamic framework to move Traditionalism closer to a spiritual environmentalism. It is mainly from Schuon that Charles III derives his own Traditionalist influences. Peterson, for his part, draws from the Bible and Carl Jung, and he generally presents his ideas in defence of traditional Western norms.
These different views are connected by a shared central emphasis on metaphysical, spiritual and cosmological themes. These exceed the bounds of Traditionalism, when conceived as a school, but they have become almost incomprehensible, if not heretical, from the viewpoint of contemporary progressive perspectives. The basic idea is to restore man to his reason by reconnecting his intellectual faculties with the premises it requires to operate, starting with the transcendent idea of sacred order itself.
This project isn’t for everyone, and it may not even be actionable. For all the Traditionalists, beginning with Guénon, the birth of the “social chaos” of secular, relativist modernity is not accidental, or the result of an evil conspiracy, but the expression of cyclical cosmic laws that underwrite modern linear history. We are in the kali-yuga (the “age of darkness’ in Hinduism) or “the age of iron” (as the Greek poet Hesiod terms it), or the “Age of Plastic” (as per the philosopher Nina Power’s analysis). As Sedgwick puts it:
In the kali-yuga, quantity reigned and the material triumphed over the metaphysical. As a result of a gigantic collective hallucination, the modern mentality worshipped false idols, notably material and moral progress, and science. Science indeed brought some material progress, but at a cost: industrial production turned workers into machines. Moral progress was an illusion. Inversion led people to think the abnormal was normal, and to mistake slavery for freedom, and uniformity for individualism.
There is nothing that anyone can do to reverse this: the only plausible strategy from a Traditionalist perspective is to seek out the metaphysical order underneath the modern pandemonium. This must be done on a more or less individual basis, to form some kind of outfit extending from it. Under the circumstances this effort is likely to prove problematic, as the psychological history of Traditionalism shows.
Guénon was plagued by persistent bouts of paranoia. Evola’s ill-judged attempts to rectify Italian Fascism and National Socialism in the 1930s led to the decay of his own intellectual faculties and the cross-contamination of Traditionalism itself. Schuon succumbed to the cult dynamics of gurudom, and he was allegedly the perpetrator of child sexual abuse.
In the absence of sacred authority, people lose touch with reality
Elevated almost arbitrarily to an impossible position of global moral authority and emotional transference, Jordan Peterson, a courageous but fundamentally sensitive man, has struggled with substance-abuse problems. He speaks increasingly of evil demons. All of this also shows the extent of our problems.
The significance of Traditionalism extends from an essentially correct recognition: that no society can survive without a conception of hierarchy — a sacred order, in other words, not simply a chain of command. For individuals to handle the flux of perceptions, desires and moods that characterise human existence, and for societies to form correct judgements and make good decisions, a transcendent framework of principles and ideals is critical.
In the absence of sacred authority, people lose touch with reality. They surrender to spiritual parodies and collective psychological breakdowns. These dynamics defined the trajectory of 20th century totalitarianism, and they are being repeated today in proliferating contemporary cults: the child-sacrifice cult of transgenderism, the “cult of Barabbas” of Black Lives Matter, the apocalyptic fanaticism of climate cults and, above all, the supernatural plague cult at the heart of the Covid pandemic.
Sedgwick ends his book by warning of the dangerous political implications of Traditionalist radicalism, but the more immediate danger is on the other side of the aisle. Although Traditionalism cannot itself supply all the tools for addressing contemporary conditions, the questions it formulates need asking again. In an era when real alternatives to the current consensus have become almost unthinkable, what makes Traditionalism controversial and alien is also what makes it important. Between what modernity celebrates and what Traditionalism rejects, lies the whole sociopolitical and spiritual problem.
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