Evola Warning

Evola was an author who used the word ‘spiritual’. As Evola gets into the main stream, the word ‘spiritual’ has been given a slightly less fuzzy definition in the culture. It is associated with wellbeing, wholeness, mindfulness and therapy. This makes it more specific than the conversation with imaginary friends which its detractors made it out to be. It has been naturalised, by an age which rejects the supernatural and sees nature, as the Stoics did, as divine. But this is not what Evola means at all — and Evola’s meaning is also entering the culture.

On the face of his wording Evola seems to hark back to the Christian heritage, but Catholic Christian tradition — Evola was writing in Italy — had more detailed prescriptions of what counted as spiritual. From a critical point of view, that was its problem. When the Unitarian William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience at the start of the last century, the point that he was making even in that title was that spirituality could not be pinned down or prescribed. It is the action of the Holy Spirit, or — from a more individualistic standpoint than a Catholic perspective — the property of each person. Either way it cannot be controlled and taxonomised.

Perhaps a pendulum swung with James from extreme prescription towards quite a lot of vagueness; be that as it may: Evola is not using ‘spiritual’ as his readers might have supposed from shared Catholic sources. The subtle differences between Evola and any Catholic understanding are worth setting out briefly here because it is the subtleties which get lost as authors like Evola succeed, albeit posthumously, in going mainstream. Words that sound like one thing slip by unnoticed and import something else, and in this case it has become the deliberate strategy of extremist groups to influence or infiltrate religious or conservative ones.

Evola’s book Men Among The Ruins is subtitled ‘Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist’, but the adjective is not just grandiose. Evola could claim to be a radical traditionalist because he thought he went to the root of things behind or beyond the tradition; the root (radix) of any and all tradition. It is tradition itself — as he conceives it — which Evola advocates, and not the Catholic tradition. When Evola seems to speak in Catholic terms, in fact he reaches outside Catholic tradition for realities that he thinks are more fundamental still. He writes: ‘the true traditional spirit is a category wider than what is merely Catholic’. (p.204)

Catholics in the US election just held went beyond saying that Democrats who publicly opposed the teaching of their Church had gone beyond the private bounds of legitimate dissent. They actively supported a candidate who — well, let us cut this short and say, that candidate turned out badly. Catholics actively spoke out for that candidate and against his Catholic opponent, but Trump did not play fast and loose with Catholic tradition; he leapfrogged it. Evola writes that ‘the true traditional spirit acknowledges a superior, metaphysical unity beyond the individual religious traditions’. (p.204)

Ridiculous to suggest that Trump ever struggled to read Evola, but when an author acknowledges primordial order supposedly ‘superior’ and prior to the Church, and places the Church even in his own view on a par with ‘individual traditions’, he is no longer writing as a Catholic. The truly traditionalist way to write about ‘other faiths’ was to see them by analogy with ‘the Faith’, and not to relativise the Faith as one among many. Evola’s position does not amount to disagreement within a tradition, or even disagreement with a tradition: it places the object of the author’s own belief above and apart from the Church of Christ, in just the same way as it puts everything else second to ‘order’. It leaps past the Church. But Christ is the metaphysical unity (in whom all things were made) and the Church is His Body. Evola is at odds, here, with the basis of Catholic faith.

The problem which William James identified in Catholic treatments of ‘spirituality’ was that they defined ‘spiritual’ experience exclusively in terms of the revelations or visions of a small, celebrated number, like St Teresa d’Avila, leaving no room for ‘ordinary’ religious experience — or for ordinary experience to be seen religiously. This cut God, as it were, out of life; when God is life’s continuing cause. It made religion abstract and unreal; it ‘spiritualised’ and ‘supernaturalised’ religion. It did little justice to the Holy Spirit’s work beyond the sacraments when, of course, He is not bound by them. And in all these ways it failed to speak to people.

But if the Church could be distorted to seem like an abstract world beyond this world, Evola’s view is still more sinister. He sees that ‘spiritualised’ Catholicism is for ‘half-traditionalists’ but in his own case goes beyond the Church altogether. The Church fails to speak to Evola. It had been said, by a Catholic, of that candidate last year that, he was a barbarian, but he was ‘our barbarian’. Evola’s worldview, by contrast, is not just a barbarian one which might on a very optimistic view be reconciled with the Gospel. Evola’s world-view is fundamentally at odds with Catholic theology.

Evola opposes ‘the bourgeois spirit’ and individualism, but he wants to see the individual caught up in nationalism and not the open community which Church teaching commends, nor any ‘civilisation of love’. He writes of spiritual nobility because he sees the modern democratic person as ‘spiritually formless, and thus open to any suggestion and ideological intoxication’ (p.223); and this is similar to the warning in Gaudium et spes that without conscience, individuals will be subsumed by forces beyond them — yet what is to give a defined and noble character to human beings in Evola is nationalism and not conscience. Evola wants people to be subsumed by forces beyond them, and he wants these to be the forces of his own preference.

Nationalists might suppose that would restore some lost order (even after the Capitol Hill), but it is hard to see how that would be Christian order. To whom would it be Christian? As St Basil of Caesarea once asked, whose feet would it wash? Evola makes it clear that it is an interpretation of ‘Classical and Indo-European antiquity’ that guides him: ‘forces of the cosmos against forces of chaos’ (p.236). It is not the Church established afterwards. He thinks that chaos is what the French Revolution released once more. It is trivially true, of course, that there was chaos as a result of the French Revolution, but Evola goes further is asserting that 1789 is an instance of a cosmic, or an anti-cosmic, principle. He sees cosmos and chaos as eternal or perennial in some way that the Church is not; sees them as beyond ‘the realm of tangible causes beyond known history’; sees them waging an ‘occult [hidden] war’.

Evola’s logic must be that were the prior metaphysical principle of chaos to enter the Church, his loyalties would lie with what he calls ‘cosmos’ and not with what would be left, as he would see it, of the Church. Evola’s worldview cannot support a defence and revival of the Church, and I do not believe it can be intended to do so. (The book goes on at this point into an apparently fastidious discussion of a famous global conspiracy theory. Evola always makes out his position to be more intellectual and precise than some more vulgar Rightist might have it. Yet the theory is as crass as he says, and there is no reason to repeat it.)

Evola has relegated the Church to the ‘tangible forces’ of history, and meanwhile he is concerned with powers beyond it. He makes the same move as sociological theology can when not only does it describe the Church as a social institution, but it also reduces the Church to that. More sinister, however, is Evola’s attraction to forces supposed to work beyond society. Having evacuated the Church of its properly theological meaning, Evola persists in a ‘spirituality’ of his own. And it is not clear what his spirit is.

Evola purports to defend as noble ‘everything that is form, order, law, spiritual hierarchy, and tradition in the higher sense of the word’ and to defend it against anything that ‘disintegrates, subverts, degrades, and promotes the predominance of the inferior over the superior, matter over spirit, quantity over quality’ (p.236). You could pack quite a lot of specific doctrines into those grand and capacious terms, without making any explicit (should you wish to play them down); but because Evola makes his primordial cosmic principles ‘Indo-European’ rather than Christ, the one doctrine which is kept out by the rhetoric is any respect for the fact that ‘spiritual hierarchy’, for Christians, is upside down. That cannot be the principle. It cannot be, that: the mighty are cast from their thrones; the lowly are raised; the last shall be first. Christian ‘spiritual hierarchy’ has a quite specific content; the Word of God in whom all things were made empties himself to be an infant outcaste and yet he remains Lord of that ‘hierarchy’ of angels that attends him. That cannot be the principle of all creation.

Very subtly, in this book’s argument, the opposite of Christianity is conveyed. Christ himself would have to be seen relative to what Evola calls ‘cosmos’ and ‘order’. It is the ‘pagan’ hierarchy, which the apostles are told not to have among them, that is made out here to be the ‘noble’ one; when in Christian belief, kenosis or self-emptying is higher than the high. The asceticism of the Teutonic Knights as Evola sees them (seeming at this point not unlike a propagandist for the Walloon Legion) is not the asceticism of Christians. On this point above all William James, or some vague, CBT-style understanding of ‘spiritual’, could not help us to understand what is involved. Making all these things out to be details, subject to variation, an approach like that cannot see how and where the details differ. And here is the crux of today’s problem in confronting the Far Right strategy.

Several generations have now been taught that all faiths are the same, when not one of them thinks it is the same as another; the weasel-word is ‘“basically” the same’. Recent generations have been nudged into thinking that only Muslims were likely to be radicalised, whereas longer memories recalled Baader-Meinhoff, and whereas people now are awaking to the revived Far Right threat. First ‘religion’ was neutralised into a generic concept; next Muslims were ‘othered’ out of it; now we have no common language or religious literacy left by which to parse what Rightists say when they speak of what should be good things like the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘noble’. The general and vulnerable ignorance is already very well advanced.

If all we were discussing were, say, learning a language, then the reëmergence of Evola here and there in discourse would be less momentous. Hierarchy of thought, with the more important above the less important, is crucial to learning — it actually is, getting one’s thoughts in order. Then, Evola quoting Aristotle on ‘the rational part of man’, being the superior part, would be fine. But respect for conscience means ordering one’s own thoughts. That is why Evola saying that Aquinas would say the same as he, Evola, says, cannot wash. The Church accepted Aquinas, and Aquinas accepted Aristotle, but not to this effect. Hierarchy in Christian thought does not mean putting other people in the order we think they must be made to have, and in its failure to stand out against the fetish of tests and exam cramming religious education has not been training people to think for themselves. They are more socialised into compliance than ever they were.

Obscure writers such as Evola can develop a cachet not just because people wish to appear clever and well-read by quoting them but because genuinely inquiring folk find their way to authors like him. They are out there like deep pools on the moor which seem more shallow than they are. It is exactly this situation, ‘spiritually formless, and thus open to any suggestion’, which Evola described and which his fans on the Far Right seek to exploit by mainstreaming his name and writings. The Far Right hopes that people will know no better and will embrace these ideas, feeling empowered by the little learning that is indeed a dangerous thing. His prosyletisers would welcome a study of Evola alongside Heidegger and Nietzsche, which argued the toss about whether he is right to despise what is Christian but to see Christian churches as useful tools, when what I have wanted to zone in on here is the fact that these ideas, however he has reached them, cannot make for Christian order.

Books and ideas like these, promulgated by neo-fascists two generations ago, have gained new currency in the last twenty years. If members of the Catholic Church have been falling into that stream, or if that has been swelling towards a mainstream, it is the metaphorical small print that Catholics should read; and if the Church is to assess its part in recent American events, it needs also to assess the extent of this influence. I have no wish to add to publication on this area but an Evola warning is necessary, because we destroyed the religious education which could show up a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Page references to the Inner Traditions edition

Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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