To “learn a little more about Traditionalism itself,” writes Michael Warren Davis at The American Conservative, “we should start by making a distinction between the School’s two main branches: the Guénonians and the Evolians” — War Against the Modern World.
René Guénon was born in Blois on November 15, 1886. By then, French intellectual life had long been dominated by secular humanism. Guénon was given a solid Catholic education, but the French church was a spent force, more interested in political power than religious revival. When Guénon was still in his teens, French Catholics chose Charles Maurras, an avowed atheist, as their champion.
So, like many young men with a more spiritual cast of mind, Guénon turned to occultism. He was involved with a number of pseudo-Christian groups such as the Martinist Order and the Gnostic Church. But like most French occultists—Éliphas Lévi, for instance—Guénon was still a man of the right. Eventually, he saw through these newfangled sects. He craved a more ancient, organic wisdom. So, like many modern gurus, he looked to the East.
In Guénon’s system, the Occident represents the horizontal axis. It is “this-worldly,” grubbing, and decadent. It had chained itself to the twin pillars of Modernity: atheism and materialism. The Orient, meanwhile, represented the vertical axis. It was otherworldly, more concerned with storing up spiritual treasures than earthly wealth.
Though fascinated by all the great Eastern faiths, his true love was Islam. He saw the Middle East as a bulwark against Western decadence. Muslims were themselves a living rebuke to modernity. Eventually he converted to Sufism and moved to Egypt, taking the name Sheikh Abdul Wahid Yahy. He died in Cairo in 1951 at the age of 64.
Today, Guénon is best known for his theory of the Philosophia Perennis, or perennial philosophy; that’s why Traditionalists are sometimes called Perennialists. The perennial philosophy is the highest Truth, the ultimate Reality, to which all the great religions aspire. (Guénon’s thought was heavily Platonic.) Over thousands of years, humanity has undergone a kind of spiritual evolution, rising from “lower” to “higher” religions. The five main phases of that evolution are animism, shamanism, fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism.
A critical aspect of religious evolution is the development of religious authority. So, Guénon believed the West’s evolution was derailed by the Protestant Reformation. Then, with the Enlightenment, it was plunged into materialism, a state even lower than shamanism. For Guénon, the modern West was worse than primitive. It denied the ultimate Reality. It is—in the words of T.S. Eliot, a fellow traveler of the Traditionalist School—the Unreal City.
Julius Evola was born in Rome on May 19, 1898. Like Guénon, he was raised Catholic but dabbled in the occult (and drugs) as a young man. Unlike Guénon, his experiments only brought him to the edge of despair. In 1922, he began making plans to kill himself. But then he began to immerse himself in Buddhist sutras, which shook him from his decadence and awakened him to the “vertical axis.” Soon Evola, too, had embarked on a long study of Eastern religion.
Like Guénon, Evola became convinced that the West was living through a Kali Yuga: a dark age, in which “the truths which were formerly within reach of all have become more and more hidden and inaccessible.” But instead of abandoning the West, Evola sought to resurrect the reign of Europe’s great warrior-kings. This he called imperialismo pagano, or pagan imperialism.
To Evola, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini signaled the beginning of the end of the Kali Yuga. At last, great-souled men were revolting against Modernity and all its craven handmaids. He never thought much of fascism but was deeply encouraged by the Nazis’ penchant for Germanic paganism. The dark age was drawing to a close; the Age of Heroes was about to begin.
Evola greatly admired Guénon, but Guénon and his followers had little time for Evola. And that’s no surprise. Evola was a racist, albeit a “spiritual racist,” which the Guénonians found decidedly “horizontal.” They had no use for political violence. Guénon said that “a true elite…can only be an intellectual one.” So, what the West needed was an intellectual revival, not a political revolution. Hitler and Mussolini were also deeply influenced by socialism. Their aims were altogether “this-worldly.” Beneath all the runes and miters, fascism was deeply materialistic.
Those are the obvious differences. But there are two even greater divisions between the Guénonians and Evolians.
The first is this: Guénon believed that, in order to reach the Perennial Philosophy, man had to travel “upward.” To achieve that higher Truth, Western man had to resume his spiritual evolution. Guénon always taught that a good Traditionalist must choose a single tradition and practice it faithfully. He preferred Islam, of course, but believed that Christians, Buddhists, and Taoists were all traveling on the same path. Today, most Guénonians—even those who convert to Islam—argue the West can only be saved by a return to its indigenous traditions: Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Evola, meanwhile, believed that man had to travel “downward.” The philosophia perennis isn’t found at the highest branches, but in the deepest roots. The more advanced religions tend to obscure the primordial Truth that undergirds all true spirituality. Some, like Christianity are actually part of the problem. At best, they’re a faint echo of that primordial Truth, which forged the great Aryan warrior-priests, whose kingdom stretched from India to Ireland. At worst, they helped to sap the West of its spiritual vitality, paving the way for Modernism. Evola even referred to Christianity as the cult of “the humble, the abject, and the miserable.”
And here is the second: Guénonians believe that Modernity can only be defeated through spiritual renewal. Evolians believe that the modern world must first be smashed to bits. A new elite—a heroic vanguard—must grind liberal democracy under its bootheel. Only then may Tradition be restored to the West. The Guenonians’ methods are fundamentally religious; the Evolians’ are political.