As the liberal west runs toward expiration, there is the growing phenomenon of traditionalism, in all its multiplicity, which has become the target of the ire of liberals in politics, universities, and the media. What is traditionalism? Why is it emerging now? And what parallels does it have with the traditionalism of the nineteenth century?
The attempt to question of traditionalism will undoubtedly be insufficient for some, if not many, who may not regard my understanding of traditionalism as their understanding of traditionalism. It is the same argument that we have heard from the likes of certain pundits and politicians that as traditionalism is insurgent, the insurgent traditionalists are not “my kind of conservative.” I am not interested in providing a roadmap through the Traditionalist School, Burkean conservatism, of Fichtean and Schellingian metaphysical rage at the heart of German nihilism. Instead, I wish to examine the heart of the phenomenon of traditionalism and illuminate the burning heart of traditionalism and answer the question of why it is emerging now; not merely in politics, but in religion, Catholicism especially, and in the broader cultural milieu of what is called Western civilization.
There are, as I see it, two core manifestations of traditionalism from which smaller branches stem from. One is essentially secular, though it wears the veil and verbality of “paganism” with its peons and salutations to Athens, Rome, Sol Invictus, Valhalla, and the old gods. The other is Christian, specifically traditionalist Catholic or Orthodox, with interests in integralism, Christendom, and authority. Pagan traditionalism is the low form of traditionalism, for it is a traditionalism that revels in the morality of combative resentment and the primal struggle for honor. Christian traditionalism is the high form of traditionalism, for it is a traditionalism that revels in the morality of community, law, and rigorous spiritual practice that leads to phronesis and a culture of high reverence.
One might object to my sharp classification of one school of traditionalism as the lower form that traditionalism manifests itself. But this lower form of traditionalism is not base. It is complicatedly moralistic and sacramental in the low sense; its moralism is the morality of the sacred and dutiful violence that is sung memorial hymns of by Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil. Pagan traditionalism is traditionalism is in its most primal, disheveled, and warlike form. It is a traditionalism of honor because honor has been stripped away from those who gravity to it. Where such men were, in times past, consider the image of honor, success, and nobility, they have become the very image of civilization to the image of deplorability, scorn, and contempt; the pagan traditionalist has fallen from Olympus and been dethroned with images—sacrilegious and idolatrous as they are—that don’t deserve to be at the apex of the pantheon of civilization. It is a traditionalism that embodies the martial virtues because the martial virtues are eternal, and the martial virtues are all that people have left when they’re scrapping in a fight for survival.
The pagan traditionalist is not even a pagan in the classical sense. Few advocate a return to the old gods and temples with their blood sacrifice of bulls and goats. While some may go so far as to ceremoniously and ritualistically reenact such pagan sacrificial ceremonies, the majority of pagan traditionalists see paganism as an ethos of embodiment rather than the superstitious religion of spirits, rape, and devilry as left to posterity from the pagan writers themselves. After all, Saint Augustine noted how the educated pagans of his time wanted to shed themselves of their fables in favor of a naturalistic religion of seasonal cycles and harmony; not only was this the case with Marcus Varro but is also visible in Plato’s Symposium through the speech Eryximachus who, although he lists Hesiod as his authority, thoroughly de-mythologizes Hesiod in his speech.
The nihilism of the pagan traditionalist is not a rejection of life, a rejection of self, or the embrace of the Nothing. I follow Leo Strauss, in his lecture (now essay) “German Nihilism,” in recognizing the phenomenon of modern nihilism (and German nihilism in particular) as an intensely moral movement—“a moral protest” against the empty project of modernity.
What the pagan traditionalist objects to is not life itself, but modern life in particular. Contra Paul Berman, the seemingly nihilistic movements of the twentieth century rooted in German romanticism was not the embrace of the cult of death and destruction but the rejection of what was perceived as leading to the cult of death and destruction which manifested itself, ironically, through its martial militarism, into something destructive. But the destructive impetus of twentieth century German nihilism, like the pagan traditionalism of today, manifested because traditionalism is destructive. Traditionalism wants to destroy something. Traditionalism believes that a current form of life, the current form of modern civilization, is a lie, the true embodiment of the meaningless Nothing that traditionalists object to. The monstrous lie of modernity is the Whig myth of progress; technology, wealth, and science are simply a glossy veil that covers over the moral and spiritual decadence of humanity.
The two key intellectuals of pagan traditionalism, Friedrich Nietzsche and Julius Evola, appeal to the pagan traditionalist not because of their paganism or anti-Christianity, nor even their esoteric mysticism (specifically with Evola), but because of their recognition of the importance of military morality. Or at least with the case of Nietzsche, pagan traditionalists think the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy of self-overcoming and the struggle for life is erudite philosophical parlance for the morality of the martial virtues. Those martial virtues are more succinctly and clearly spelled out by Evola in his series of essays known as “The Metaphysics of War” which also carry on spiritual significance since Evola—following Varro and others—identified the cardinal virtues as essentially spiritual in nature.
To the pagan traditionalist, the martial virtues are eternal because the martial virtues—in their embodiment of sacrifice and camaraderie—embody and make present in this empty life the two things modernity has swept away from human life: sacrifice and camaraderie. As modern, liberal, and bourgeois civilization moves toward the universalization of peaceable and safe producerism and consumerism to secure humanity’s estate and self-preservation, in line with the true genus and impetus of liberal philosophy from Hobbes and Locke to Mill and Rawls, this movement to the universalization of a life of easy and cheap comfortable consumerism—the city of pigs—necessarily eradicates sacrifice. “Freedom,” as mythologized by rightwing liberals like Ben Shapiro or Jonah Goldberg, despite professing themselves to be conservatives, is not what most have been indoctrinated to think it is. Instead, the “freedom” of the liberals is the freedom from harm. Even Mill states in his preface to On Liberty, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Sacrifice must be eliminated in the liberal project of modernity because sacrifice entails harm. To have to give up, or even to strenuously work hard in labor, is to put pains on the body and such pain on the body is harmful. Leisure is good. Work and sacrifice are bad. Sacrifice, in its most noble form, takes the form of death. Death for others. Death so that others may live. Which is the extirpation of the body which Hobbes and Locke and the French physicalists considered the measure of all things.
The dissolution of camaraderie, of community, is another thing the traditionalist objects to. This is the outcome of liberalism’s atomistic and solitary anthropology. Humans are not naturally political, or social, animals as the ancients thought. Instead, humans begrudgingly enter community with each other only to secure their comfortable life and estate. To be free of the fear of violent death, as even Locke wrote, is the primary reason for humans leaving the state of nature. The pursuit of individual hedonism, the common manifestation of the liberal project of a life of non-harm and maximized bodily pleasure, leads to the atomization of society as the chains of family, community, and nation all serve to constrict individuals in their choices of consumption and movement. The loosening of the bonds of civil society as Rousseau said, is the necessary requirement for individuals to be free. Humans will be “forced to be free.”
Modernity’s project of hollow relations, atomistic living, and catatonic consumption horrifies the traditionalist. This is not the progression of humanity to their final state but the degradation of humanity to a truly base state of existence. The pagan traditionalist romanticizes the pagan ethos, which he finds reflected in the heroic warrior ethos of the Teuton and the conquering history of the Roman Empire, as the pulsating moral heart that has been cut out of modernity and tossed aside. The pagan traditionalist seeks to revive this heart for the salvation of humanity because the heart of sacrifice, struggle, and companionship is what laid the building blocks of civilization in the first place. Civilization is under threat, and these defenders of the earthly city identify the castration of the martial virtues which were, in times past, so instrument and essential to the formation of civilization, as needing to be revived if civilization—and humanity—is to endure.
The absence of sacrifice and camaraderie is met by the strenuous moral demands of the martial virtues. Following Evola, the martial virtues take on spiritual virtues now incarnated in martial embodiment—for the sacred, in the pagan mytho-poetic tradition is from combat: Hesiod, Homer, Virgil; Thor slaying Jörmungandr and Marduk killing Tiamat. The embodied life of the warrior, the soldier, and the struggler is the spiritual reality that is left in a disenchanted world obliterated by the mechanicalism of modern science and the Baconian dream of mastery of nature.
If pagan traditionalism sees a world of combat where the highest form of morality is the martial virtues, the lowness of pagan traditionalism compared to Christian traditionalism is because Christian traditionalism includes the positivity of the civilizational project that pagan traditionalism lacks. The traditionalist Christian, specifically, the Catholic, is not detached from the martial virtues either. The Bible is filled with military imagery and language much more than it is images and language of peace; the Prophet Isaiah, in prophesying the Last Judgement, writes that the Messiah will come in flaming glory, with a fiery sword, and an army of chariots. The Lord tells his apostles and followers that he has come not to bring peace but a sword. The Apostle Paul advises Christians to put on the armor of God and do battle. In fact, the very consciousness of Christian life in the here and now is militaristic; Catholicism understands the Church on Earth as the Ecclesia Militans, the Church Militant. Part of the essence of spiritual life is combat and sacrifice.
But the martial virtues of the Christian traditionalist extend only to his religion instead of life universally as conceived by the pagan traditionalists. The Catholic traditionalist, in particular, wants a return to a Christianity of sacrifice, struggle, and striving. The Catholic traditionalist wants this in the mass, in the general life of the Church, and in the perpetual self-overcoming of spiritual life on this pilgrimage to the Jerusalem above. The Catholic traditionalist is abhorred by the empty vacuum not of the city of man, which he regards as always having been hollow, but in the four walls of the Church. The Catholic traditionalist is abhorred by the cheap Christianity of the modern Church, a Church of no confessions, no demands, and no sacrifices; a Church that lacks the sacrificial spirit of the saints, of the Christians who came before, and very sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
The Christian traditionalist is higher than the pagan traditionalist because the Christian traditionalist also sees a civilizational element to the Christian religion. The great commission is to go and baptize, teaching the nations in the ways of the law of the Lord and form communities out of the crashing and warring sea of libido dominandi. The call of the Christian is to orient the passions of the world to the praise and glory of God, the Author of Life, Beauty, and Truth, which all human motives and actions should be directed to. If civilization is the conscious cultural productivity of manifesting a metaphysical ideal in art, poetry, literature, architecture, and other such human activities, then the religious ideal does have a civilizational reality; just look at Dante, Tasso, Michelangelo, Plutarch, Rubens, or Mozart.
Thus, Christian traditionalism moves beyond just the martial virtues. Christian traditionalism enters the morality of community building and community formation; of the erection of the civilization of God, which is eternal, amid the civilization of man (which is temporal). The city of God exists on earth, though its ultimate destination is beyond, the call of the Christian is to build up the city of God on earth and to call people to the heavenly Jerusalem from the earthly Jerusalem—there is not an abdication or flight from the world as sometimes cheaply and ignorantly said of Christianity. The morality of Christian traditionalism, then, is not just in the martial morality of religious life but the legal morality of civil life. To love one’s neighbor, to good to others, and help all in need.
The Christian understands, as St. Thomas Aquinas explained, that the cardinal virtues are only possible through the theological virtues, and the manifestation of the cardinal virtues is because one has mastered the theological virtues first and not the cardinal virtues leading to entry into the realm of the theological virtues. Only a civilization ordered to a Transcendent core, not something internal to the nothingness of man, can actualize a good life on earth and perpetuate itself until the end of the age. As Augustine exhorted in City of God, Christianity was the fulfillment of the desires of the Roman heart, the noble Romanitas of Cato the Elder and Younger, Scipio, Cicero, and Seneca.
One might argue that the pagan traditionalist can constitute civilization building too; this, I am not sure. The phenomenon of pagan traditionalism comes from the eclipse of civilization and its ongoing dissolution where the heroic pagan struggles against the Abyss of Dissolution. Again, part of the pagan traditionalist’s appropriation of Nietzsche is what else is there to do but to violently protest the Abyss through struggle? The pagan traditionalist offers no positive program other than the negative embodiment of perpetual struggle. The pagan traditionalist embraces the fight against the serpent of modernity but not much beyond that. The struggle itself is what matters.
While the Christian traditionalists also protests modernity in the name of seriousness and has an embodied negativity, the Christian traditionalist also posits a positive program of reconstitution. That seriousness, first and foremost, extends to religious life and the seriousness of the Mass. But the seriousness of religious life and the Mass touches society; the Christian religion doesn’t simply exist in the four walls of the Church but flows out of it and transforms the creation which is groaning for restoration. Thus, the Christian traditionalist offers integralism or reconstructionism to the society as well as the personal embodiment of the spiritual virtue of martial theology instead of martial living.
There is an overlap between the Christian and pagan traditionalist. Both see modernity as the empty Nothingness that threatens to overwhelm humanity and transform humanity into a base animal who lives for nothing beyond stimulating and sizzling self-pleasure as frequently and cheaply as possible. Both agree that this nothingness of unseriousness and cheap atomistic hedonism has dissolved the bonds of relationality and the seriousness of life in the polis. The Christian differs only in seeing that unseriousness of emptiness having also infiltrated the Church while the most radical of pagan traditionalists would claim Christianity is the empty vessel that destroyed the rigorous vitalism and heroic seriousness of paganism—but those anti-Christian pagan traditionalists are few and far between for many pagan traditionalists see a functional utility to the strenuousness and seriousness of authentic Christianity.
What is visible from a true penetration into the heart of the protestors of modernity, the traditionalists, is that their “nihilism” is a No! to the empty and lifeless carcass of modern civilization. The traditionalist, in whatever form he is found, is deeply moralistic. The traditionalist wants to see a return of the seriousness of moral life, and moral life in a community and, necessarily, a closed community because only in a closed community can the seriousness of moral demands be met and manifested.
There is an irony, however, in how the two traditionalisms manifest their morality. Pagan traditionalism is much more modern and individualistic than let on or initially perceived. For the sacrificial and camaraderie morality of the martial virtues in the pagan traditionalist disposition are equally individualistic if not atomistic. The self is at the center of the pagan traditionalist morality.
Christian traditionalism is the more ancient, rooted, and tied to history and community through the communion of the saints. He who is already atomized and uprooted finds the seriousness of moral demand in the martial virtues of heroic paganism. He who is still rooted in a community, the eternal community that connects heaven to earth, finds the seriousness of moral demand by being that member of the eternal community, and running the race to the end. Though he would prefer many more to be alongside him than to be alone.
We return to the question of why now? Why is traditionalism a resurgent force in the present? Traditionalism is deeper than Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Richard Spencer, and all the figureheads of so-called rightwing populism. Traditionalism arose in the chaos of the nineteenth century released in the fire and bloodshed of the French Revolution. Traditionalism has manifested itself again today because of the chaos of the dissolution of the formerly closed West to the dream of the open and universal society. Traditionalism depends on nihilism and is the reactive force to nihilism. Without the impending possibility of nihilism there is no counterreaction to it. That counterreaction is what is known as Traditionalism, however it may constitute and manifest itself in the world. And in our increasingly nihilistic world of the Nietzschean Last Man, traditionalism will only grow as time goes on.