In 2014, speaking via Skype to a conference held at the Vatican, Donald Trump’s later advisor, Steve Bannon, casually mentioned Julius Evola (1898-1974), a thinker little known outside Italy, and who even within Italy was conventionally dismissed as a former Fascist whose writings still exerted a pernicious influence on the ’far right’. When that comment was unearthed by the US media in 2016, it sparked a furore amongst those desperate to discredit Trump as a danger to democracy. It also drew mainstream attention to a strange and possibly wide-reaching philosophy.
Evola’s Fascist sympathies went much deeper than anti-communist or nationalist sentiment, being rooted at least partly in a colourful and irrational worldview referred to by some authors (although not Evola) as ‘Traditionalism’. Through him, Bannon, and so by extension Trump, were potentially ‘linked’ to much broader intellectual currents, with connections across everything from the abstractest metaphysics to the earthiest ecologism.
There existed, obscure but important scholars had long argued, a mystical ‘perennial philosophy’ of transcendent religiosity and social stratification that was simultaneously as ancient as origin myths and applicable to modern discontents. Over the centuries, this concept has attracted intellectuals as diverse as the 15th century humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley. Other than Evola, its best-known and most systematic modern exponents were two metaphysicians, the Frenchman René Guénon (1886-1951), and the Swiss Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), who issued writings and launched initiatives that channeled underlying cultural gloom, and still resonate powerfully. Like Evola, Guénon did not use the term Traditionalism, but his writings are regarded as key texts.
As well as Bannon, ‘Traditionalist’ sympathies of some kind were avowed by, or detectable in, influencers outside America – Hungarian politician Gábor Vona, the Russian ideologue Aleksandr Dugin (whom Bannon met in 2018, and who was supposedly an influence on Putin), and the Brazilian writer, Olavo de Carvalho, credited with helping Jair Bolsonaro win the presidency in 2019. Beyond politics, the connections were even more diffuse, with well-known academics, artists and even King Charles III (when Prince of Wales), articulating Traditionalist tropes to combat anomie and materialism, and promote organic agriculture, small-scale economics, traditional arts, and interfaith dialogue. But did all these different things have anything in common other than root-and-branch discontent with a drably dispiriting status quo? What possible relevance could Traditionalists’ distaste for democracy, and even politics, have for determinedly populist politicians?
This is a long-standing area of interest for Oxford-educated Arabist, Mark Sedgwick, now professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at Aarhus University. His 2003 book, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, was the first to draw mainstream attention to Evola, Guénon, Schuon, and others dubbed or self-described as Traditionalists. He brings to this discussion special insight into Islamic influences on Traditionalism, from the inner ecstasies of Sufism to the academically distinguished elucubrations of the contemporary Iranian-American theologian, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Along the way, he treats ably and interestingly of many subjects, from Hindu ideas about caste via 17th century theories of history to the trajectory of Western feminism, and analyses the influence of Jordan Peterson, whom he regards as a Traditionalist for the internet age.
Traditionalism is a catch-all sort of term, and its outcomes are so diverse it is difficult to discern much consistency at all. Had it not been for Bannon’s remark, it is hard to imagine many even noticing Traditionalism existed. Conceptual complexity could help account for Traditionalism’s apparent ascent; as the author notes, “That which is not easy to understand is not easy to deny”. Sedgwick also suggests that Guénon’s theories may be fundamentally flawed because based on early 20th century understandings of ‘the East’ which are now regarded as too colourful and generic, even condescendingly ‘Orientalist’. Evola’s more dynamic and Western-oriented variant is likewise a product of its time, suffused with Nietzschean contempt for Christianity, and the epochal pessimism of thinkers like Oswald Spengler (even though he criticized both). Sedgwick nevertheless treats it as a coherent corpus of thought, with much relevance for today.
The central element of all variants of Traditionalism is ‘perennialism’ – the notion that beneath all the exoteric differences of world religions there is a unifying ‘sacred order’ understood only by the deepest thinkers, although hazily intuitable by the masses, if only they can be detached from the trammels of modernity. This is not just a tradition, but the Tradition that unlocks all cosmologies, and renders the most impassioned theological and political disputes not just superficial, but almost risible. Traditionalist writings are predictably esoteric, aimed solely at a supposedly more spiritually attuned elite.
Traditionalists tend to be greatly interested in such things as hermetic philosophy, occultism, shamanism, and symbolism, and believe strongly in what the ethnomusicologist Benjamin R. Teitelbaum called “spiritual mobility” (see his 2020 book, War for Eternity). They regard 21st century preoccupations like equality, gender politics, individualism, material progress, and technology as mere aspects of modernity, harmful or simply inconsequential.
The second ingredient is a belief in cosmic circularity, as opposed to the ideas of inevitable linearity inherent in mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and so throughout modern politics. The world, in this reading, goes through ‘ages’ of decline that can be followed by renewal. An original golden age of unity and quality is ineluctably succeeded by silver, bronze and ultimately dark ages of increasingly mechanistic reductionism – what Guénon memorably called the “age of quantity” – after which the cosmic wheel turns back to the start.
‘Golden Age’ thinking is common to many civilizations, but there are especially close parallels with the four ages (Yugas) of Hinduism, with ‘Kali Yuga’ (the last, sin-filled age of conflict) a shorthand term for today among ‘Aryan’-interested Rightists. This process is almost irrespective of politics, although some theorists see an expeditious role for ‘disruptors’. Evola saw Fascism as a means of reconstituting the Roman Empire, and Bannon saw (and perhaps still sees) Trump as a kind of creative destroyer of consensus, but politics has been a lower priority for other Traditionalists, who concentrated instead on transformation through self-realization.
It may easily be imagined that Traditionalists are prone to eccentricity; for instance, Evola believed that ‘Aryans’ were descended from an ethereal Arctic race which had decayed as they came south. In the 1980s, a writer calling herself “Alice Lucy Trent” officiated in County Donegal over a small community called the Silver Sisterhood, which worshipped a female deity, sported Victorian clothing, and refused to use electricity. Trent later changed her name to “Miss Martindale”, and moved to Oxford, to found a movement called Aristasia in a modest terraced house, where ambiguous persons wearing dresses and veils would hold ultra-reactionary court in a candle-lit, gramophone-sounding interior, and be seen driving around town majestically in a 1950s car. It was part-pantomime, part-serious critique, at once amusing and interesting.
Sedgwick rues some Rightists’ co-option of some parts of Traditionalism. Indeed, perennialism can be hard to square with ideas about a “clash of civilizations”, or immigration, or belief in physical racial differences (which even Evola downplayed). He nevertheless examines their thinking with commendable fairness. He differentiates between genuinely traditional teachings about religion and society, which really can be millennia old, and 1920s-to-present-day attempts to turn some of these teachings into realities. For Sedgwick, whatever about the youthful Evola, by his late period he had become a “non-traditional Traditionalist”, and the Evolan phraseology deployed by some on today’s radical Right is therefore mostly “post-Traditionalism”.
But logical consistency matters little in politics, even metapolitics. Traditionalism may persist as a presence on the Right, if sometimes more symbolically than as substance. Traditionalists’ emphasis on arcane knowledge is intrinsically appealing to some who aspire to be elite leaders. There are also similarities in outlooks and temperaments between Traditionalists and some Rightists – shared perspectives on the manifold problems of modernity, shared detestation of bleak materialism, and shared love of grand and sweeping narratives. As the once world-bestriding West shivers in winnowing new winds, and mainstream conservatism flounders, the epic appeal of a mythical past (and implied enchanted future) seems likely to grow. Sedgwick’s second book on this too long neglected theme makes another significant contribution to what may be an expanding as well as evolving field.
Book Details: Mark Sedgwick, London: Pelican, 2023, hb., 410pps., £25
My thanks to John Morgan for invaluable input on this article.