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Tradition and Modernity

"All that is solid melts into air" - Karl Marx
"God is dead" - Fredrich Nietzsche.

These statements are perhaps the two most powerful characterizations of the arrival of modernity and the depth of its implications, both of which predate the resurgence of the study of the world's traditional societies in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Both Nietzsche and Marx are attempting to characterize the passing of a point which cannot be undone, the emergence of a consciousness based upon a lesson that cannot be unlearned. For these two thinkers, this new malleability will need to be met not with denial and an aim to undo the process of experience thus described, but to establish new ways of being and new avenues by which to strive for fulfillment. For Marx, the end lies in the realization of a rational and secular social unit providing unprecedented human freedom, whilst for Nietzsche it is in the replacement of hitherto accepted metaphysics with the fiercely individualist project of overcoming oneself. Seeing as the institutions whose death knells they herald were by their time already suffering extended decay, and as "that which is falling must also be pushed", there is little nostalgia or regret in each proclamation. Insofar as the traditionalist thinkers subscribe to the cyclical theory of history, there might not be much here about which they would disagree, until one reaches discussion of the details of how the future might play out. Nietzsche and Marx both envision this process maintaining some stability, and both in their own ways see the change as a step on a path to their ideal world, whether that is ultimately a process (Nietzsche) or an end (Marx). The traditionalist viewpoint, best exampled for our concerns by Rene Guenon and Julius Evola, holds that the state in which we currently find ourselves, i.e. after the dissolution of all tradition, is the penultimate stage in a great cycle of history, with the following stage being the utter destruction of the society and most of its people, which is followed by the birth of a new golden age in which the ideals of spiritual tradition and social order, authority and caste, and by extension, human fulfillment, are realized.

Traditionalism thus treads a fine line between a moral condemnation of modernity, a yearning for a return to a state of lesser experience (or delusion), and an inner belief that this is all a part of a program which is unalterable. The depth of study of the traditionalists is invaluable to an atomized modern individual, even if only to teach us the completeness of other ways of being and consciousness. It is my contention here however, that the recent resurgence of traditionalist thought is tending toward an unrealistic nostalgia for a dead past, and moral condemnation, which threatens by its emphasis to forget the implausibility of reinstating by force or any other means a society modeled upon the traditional. The central limit to this, and the reason that sentiments like Nietzsche's and Marx's carry such weight, is the fact that our modern world is populated by people of a modern consciousness, and here the traditionalists are no exception.

Traditionalism as a resurgent movement in the late twentieth century to the present has latched on to its forebears for their unparalleled critique of modernity, and for the socio-political alternatives which it affirms, which is only one part of the traditionalist teaching and a secondary one at that. For the force of the critique relies on eternal spiritual truth, as reliance on profane science (including psychology) or progressivist history and philosophy are regarded as being part of the problem, not a sufficient tool for critique. Yet it is precisely the spiritual realm which has been unalterably individuated (until such time as our civilization 'forgets'), as part of a great process of secularization, which limits any possible unified spiritual force and authority regardless of the traditionalist opinion of the common truth of the world's Traditions. It is this impasse which ensures that the determinist pessimism of the cyclical view of history triumphing is the only path to a return to the traditional way. Thus the central question for the student of Tradition today is, given the seeming mutual exclusivity of modernity and Tradition (that which gives the latter its potency but also renders it pragmatically impotent), can traditionalism have any legitimate socio-political aims, or if it does, has it already reached the stage of heterodoxy?

The socio-political implications of Tradition may be briefly summarized as follows; for further explication refer to Guenon's The Crisis of the Modern World and Evola's Revolt Against the Modern World. Spiritual orthodoxy is the unquestionable authority, against which the truth and viability of all other ideas is measured. From this there follows a spiritual and social hierarchy, determined by the varying aptitude of different peoples for spiritual development. The individual subject is regarded as secondary to the spiritual strivings of the social unit, and the material component of the world and existence is regarded as secondary to the metaphysical realm, manifesting only the effects of the spiritual. The implications of such a form are vast when considered from a modern viewpoint: Tradition finds the concepts of egalitarianism, humanism, progress, materialism, and secular science, politics and philosophy inherently alien.

That these modern pillars are great mistakes and that the alternatives of Tradition are ideal need not be argued for here, but I have described the skeletal form above to illustrate a particular point which contemporary traditionalists might quietly condone: such a society might be imagined that fits this form without reliance upon spiritual orthodoxy. Whilst the problem of consensus may ultimately only be able to be solved by spiritual unity, a state that has learnt from these ideals but manages to establish them in a secular age seems to be more the concern of the current movement. Needless to say, the great problem of authority remains unsolved, and it and its installation of hierarchy must be derived by some other, most likely modern, means. Such a project might be more of a midpoint between the ideal of Tradition and Plato's Republic, which asserts a meritocracy on more material and intellectual grounds.

Evidently, without even the difficult deferral to the spiritual which the scholars of Tradition utilized, the current movement has some intellectual acrobatics to do if it is to present itself as a legitimate alternative to modernity, which I suspect it does. Even given this first step from orthodoxy, innumerable more compromises would be required for traditionalism to establish credibility in the modern socio-political arena. It would be firstly subject to the modern political norm, perhaps its greatest adversary, and is thus thrust into the undesirable position, like any move toward authoritarianism, of having to lobby the masses on the platform of their own illegitimacy for political decision. The modern political system, which is the embodiment of the modern consciousness, reflects the latter's assumption of choice, which all but invalidates an intellectual as much as political acceptance of hierarchy. This parallels the democratic problem, but at a much deeper level: we have succeeded in artificially postponing what is in fact a necessity, and we've re-established it as choice. Once that process is complete, the only way to return is to exercise choice, as any perceived threat to itself (the end of choice not sanctioned by itself, i.e. by force) would be responded to with all the hostility of a being preserving its own life. The great failure of democracy is also that which ensures its continuance, as its fluidity can absorb and marginalize innumerable antagonistic ideas, resulting in a terminally ill political form that has the power do nothing but maintain its own artificial life support. Tradition presents the alternative to this horrible stasis, but cannot inaugurate it.

A secondary quandary for the would-be traditionalist is on the level of the individual. If we are to accept the contention that Tradition has value by it's potential to circumvent modern anomie and atomization, it remains to be seen how the individuals of the current movement are to act in order to best minimize these modern diseases in a society void of Tradition. If one is to take solace in the latter's lessons and remain uncompromised, one will certainly feel an increase of alienation via social isolation, whereas if one compromises and seeks modern institutions which may provide a limited but similar sense of meaning to Tradition, one will certainly feel guilty at their selfish concession, and no closer to fulfillment. These problems are, to be sure, those of a subject in an individualist age and of an irrevocably individualist mindset. Similarly, on the spiritual side, traditionalists have varied interests, and in spite of the perennial tendencies of scholars like Guenon, no traditional society has existed with heterogeneous teachings co-extant. For a movement to solidify, indeed, the most popular spiritual tradition would succeed in the traditionalist movement, which, for reasons that should already be clear, would not likely be an orthodox interpretation. We could not escape the rule of quantity, even were we to isolate our concerns to a particularly favored subsection of modern society. The plausibility that Tradition might in any way deliver the modern subject from the punishments of his world, arguably one of its chief merits, is thus put into serious doubt.

The content behind the socio-political emphasis of contemporary traditionalists runs dangerously close to what the scholars like Guenon and Nasr would regard as heresy: conceiving of religion and perhaps all metaphysics from an anthropological standpoint, regarding it as a means to provide unity and coherence a society and nothing more. This might be amenable to a majority of modern people, but it also highlights the improbability of its own resurgence. The mutual exclusivity of the two forms of society, modern and traditional, and the paradoxes arrived at by a movement that attempts to bridge the gap (whether it explicitly admits to it or not, it must), had a predictable effect on the original scholars of tradition. Guenon specifically dismisses the possibility of a "revival" at the outset of his summary work, asserting that we've entered into a "state of dissolution from which there is to be no emerging except through cataclysm" (p. 11). Evola had an extended role in the politics of his time, despite never joining any political party, though he ultimately championed the withdrawal from modern processes at large, and the adherence to "the Idea" rather than any political stance and compromise in the realm of action. Both scholars conceived of their work as merely maintaining a small flame that might outlive the current society and be re-established after its dissolution.

Under this scrutiny, the traditionalist who can't endorse the metaphysics of Tradition becomes predominantly the embodiment of the modern quandary of navigating the profaned material world in search of meaning, highlighting the tragedy of the minimal likelihood of even realizing the vital form conducive to fulfillment. Tradition isn't here nullified; its critique of modernity remains supreme, but it becomes splintered: one fragment remains of the ideals of what once was (Tradition), and the other becomes mere reactive critique (traditionalism). For the traditionalists, the latter must come to the fore, due to the demands of pragmatism, but the critique is always subsumed into its antagonist, as Marx and Nietzsche knew. In this sense, traditionalism is indubitably a modern movement, a reaction similar to Romanticism and Fundamentalism.

Evola, Guenon et al. realized this, and thus arrived at their pessimism, but the traditionalists seem unwilling for the moment. The former were specifically wary of the latter, with Guenon targeting "traditionalists" and "traditional philosophy" (p. 23-4) as limiting their activity to the profane realm. Reading this passage with courage, we find that we're reading about ourselves. With this distinction being so clearly laid out in a key text by a fundamental scholar of Tradition, I believe we owe it to our own integrity and our intellectual forbears, to accurately locate ourselves in this primary aspect. From this clarification, our political engagement or abstention can follow. To do anything less would be unacceptably indolent imprecision. - Fieldmouse

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