Riding the Tiger

Riding the Tiger

In my last post, I examined René Guénon’s account of the Crisis of the Modern World. I will now examine an interesting response to his account set forth by his student Julius Evola. Whereas Guénon held out some hope for the survival of the West, Evola offers none.[1] Evola believes that the forces of dissolution now unleashed are too strong to be overcome; at best, one can attempt to “ride the tiger.” The principle here is derived from an ancient parable about fighting a tiger. If you were to attack it directly, you would stand no chance. It would simply overpower you and eat you. But if you were to jump on its back when it tried to pounce and rode it till it was exhausted, you may well be able to defeat it. Evola claims that, in the same way, the forces of chaos unleashed in the Kali Yuga would easily overwhelm us if we opposed them directly. Our best option is instead to grab on and try to wield the powers unleashed in this era for a higher spiritual purpose. Indeed, he maintains that there is no need to fight this present age directly since the cycle of ages will inevitably lead to rebirth and the forces of destruction “devoid of connection with any higher principle, are in fact on a short chain.”[2]

Evola does not recommend his approach for everyone. In fact, he explicitly limits his investigation to an exceptionally rare kind of individual, the man still inwardly connected to the world of Tradition and oriented towards that which is above. Such a man, to use Christian terminology, lives in the world but is not of it. He does not acquiesce to the contemporary world and “feels himself, in essence, as belonging to a different race from that of the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries.”[3] This central question of Evola’s book is thus how such an individual can live and act during this last degenerate phase of the Kali Yuga.

This proves to be a difficult task, since the higher man cannot rely on external support (because our age offers none).

“There no longer exist the organizations and institutions that, in a traditional civilization and society, would have allowed him to realize himself wholly, to order his own existence in a clear and unambiguous way, and to defend and apply creatively in his own environment the principle values that he recognizes within himself. Thus there is no question of suggesting to him lines of action that, adequate and normative in any regular, traditional civilization, can no longer be so in an abnormal one—in an environment that is utterly different socially, psychically, intellectually, and materially; in a climate of general dissolution; in a system ruled by a scarcely restrained disorder, and anyway lacking any legitimacy from above.”[4]

Evola here argues that the external scaffolding that would have allowed the man of tradition to realize himself has been destroyed. And, without that framework, the traditional rules that governed action in those domains also fail to apply. One must therefore guide oneself only by the principles of Tradition that exist prior to their historical manifestations (i.e., “in their superior, pre-formal state”), principles which in the past “had the character of an esoteric doctrine.”[5]

This collapse of all forms of traditional cultural institutions has been brought about by the spread of nihilism, and Evola follows Nietzsche in identifying the root of this nihilism with the death of God. The desacralization of Western culture was of “an ontological character” and as a result “human life loses any real reference to transcendence. All the developments of nihilism are already virtually contained in this fact.”[6] Even religion was left with nothing but a purely human morality and this quickly fell into mere social conformism. Evola also follows Nietzsche in maintaining that the higher man will treat this encroaching nihilism as a kind of challenge. But, unlike Nietzsche, Evola rejects the claim that this challenge can be accepted solely on the basis of immanent earthly life. According to Evola, Nietzsche was right to hold to the principle of “purely being oneself”, but wrong to cut off the self from the transcendent. He argues that this constraint leads to inconsistencies in Nietzsche’s view. For example, one’s inner nature might conflict with the demands of being an Übermensch. Or again, appealing to one’s essential self presupposes that this self is a unity, and such a unity is inconsistent with the concept of a formless will to power.[7]

The core of Evola’s proposal is the observation that for there to be an integrated self, the self must possess both a dominant unity and a relation the transcendent.[8] The higher man “does not find a changeable and divided substance but a fundamental direction, a ‘dominant,’ even though shrouded or limited by secondary impulses. What is more, the essential thing is that such a man is characterized by an existential dimension not present in the predominant human type of recent times—that is, the dimension of transcendence.”[9] But, Evola maintains that in articulating his relation to the transcendent realm, Western man can no longer appeal to the framework of Christianity, since Christianity has itself abandoned transcendence. He contends that

“Everything in the recent West of a religious nature, especially Christianity, belongs to the ‘all too human’ and has little to do with really transcendent values, beside being fairly incompatible, as a general climate and an internal attitude, with the dispositions and vocations proper to a higher human type.”[10]

Evola postulates that Christianity fell so easily because it lacked an esoteric tradition. If it had made recourse to such a tradition, it would not have fallen prey to the corrosive effects of the enlightenment.[11]

But Evola observes that the failure of contemporary Christianity does not imply the failure of religion as such. The God of theism may have died, but the God of metaphysics remains. And it is this God who is the object of faith for the higher man.  

“The God who has been attacked is God conceived as the center of gravity of all this merely religious system. But in fact this may open the horizon of a new essentiality for those who accept as a trial of their strength—one might even say, of their faith in the higher sense—all the dissolving process brought about by the direction that civilization has taken in recent time. The ‘moral skin’ falls off a God who has finished up as opium of the people, or as the counterpart of the petty morality that the bourgeois world substitutes for the greater morality. But the essential core, represented by metaphysical teachings…, remains inviolate for those who can conceive and live them, remains inaccessible to all those nihilistic processes, and withstands any dissolution.”[12]

Since all external support has eroded, the point of contact with the divine will have to be found in the self. The challenge, then, that the contemporary world presents for the higher man is to find the ground of transcendence within oneself.

“In an epoch of dissolution, this is the essential basis of a vision of life that is appropriate for the man reduced to himself, who must prove his own strength. Its counterpart is to be central or to make oneself so, to know or discover the supreme identity with oneself, it is to perceive the dimension of transcendence within, and to anchor oneself in it, making of it the hinge that stays immobile even when the door slams (an image from Meister Eckhart). From this point on, any ‘invocation’ or prayer becomes existentially impossible. The heritage of ‘God’ that one dared not accept is [….] the calm sense of a presence and intangible possession, of a superiority to life whilst in the very bosom of life.”[13]

Evola suggests a twofold process by which the higher self is constituted. First, one must discover one’s inner nature and impose it as a law for the rest of one’s life. This law is “an injunction to face each experience and everything in one’s existence that is uncertain, ambiguous, and dangerous with the feeling that one will never do anything other than follow one’s own path. The essential thing in this attitude is a kind of transcendent confidence that gives security and intrepidity, and it can be included among the positive elements in the line of conduct that is gradually being delineated.”[14] In this manner one finds one’s central tendency as a manifestation of a primordial choice. One then “sets about identifying with one’s will, stabilizing it, and organizing all one’s secondary or divergent tendencies around it.”[15]

The second step of the process is to realize that the self stands in an immediate relation to transcendent Being. Evola claims that it is only in this manner that one’s life can derive meaning.

“After the whole superstructure has been rejected or destroyed, and having for one’s sole support one’s own being, the ultimate meaning of existing and living can spring only from a direct and absolute relationship between that being (between what one is in a limiting sense) and transcendence (transcendence in itself).”[16]

This relation to transcendent Being allows one to live one’s life with confidence and to be open to experience.

“The state in question is that of the man who is self-confident through having as the essential center of his personality not life, but Being. He can encounter everything, abandon himself to  everything, and open himself to everything without losing himself. He accepts every experience, no longer in order to prove and know himself, but to unfold all his possibilities in view of the transformations that they can work in him, and of the new contents that offer and reveal themselves on this path.”[17]

Living in this manner will requires a particular form of action. Evola notes that the path of the higher man will be characterized by two basic maxims. First, act without regard to results or to personal desire. Instead, one must simply do what needs to be done. Rather than being indifferent to earthly life, the higher man will thus be able to act with more force and intent than the ordinary man.  “The higher dimension, which is presumed to be present in oneself, manifests through the capacity to act not with less, but with more application than a normal type of man could bring to the ordinary forms of conditioned action.”[18] Second, act without acting. “It is a paradoxical, far eastern way of describing a form of action that does not involve or stir the higher principle of ‘being’ in itself. Yet the latter remains the true subject of the action, giving it its primary motive force and sustaining and guiding it from beginning to end.”[19]

After setting forth the inner character and spiritual orientation of the higher man, Evola explains how such a man can ride the tiger of contemporary society. He discusses four areas of dissolution in the modern world and explores some ways in which the higher individual might use these circumstances to further his spiritual quest.

1. The Dissolution of the Individual.

Evola notes that in the modern era, each individual is worn down and flattened out to resemble every other individual. People become simple quantitative units with no unique determining features of their own.[20] Unlike the Romantic, the higher man will not lament this loss. As far as he is concerned, the more idiosyncratic identities are dissolved the better. To understand this response, we need to understand Evola’s distinction between the individual and the person. The individual is the contingent empirical subject who is thrown into a particular history and as a result has a unique assemblage of feelings, thoughts, and desires. Evola contrasts this with the person which has an essential relation both archetypal roles and to the transcendent Self.

“Originally persona signified ‘mask’: the mask that ancient actors wore in playing a given part, in incarnating a given personage. Thereby the mask possessed something typical, nonindividual, especially in the case of divine masks and even more clearly when used in many archaic rites. … The ‘person’ is that which the man presents concretely and sensibly in the world, in the position he occupies, but always signifying a form of expression and manifestation of a higher principle in which the true center of being is to be recognized, and on which falls, or should fall, the accent of the Self.”[21]

Unlike the individual, the person will thus be constituted through its essential relation to the transcendent.

“Like the individual, the person itself is in a certain sense closed to the external world…. Unlike the individual, the person is not closed to the above. The personal being is not himself, but has himself (like the relation between the actor and his part): it is presence to that which he is, not coalescence with that which he is. Moreover, a kind of antinomy is brought to light: in order to be truly such, the person needs a reference to something more than personal.”[22]

And to the extent that it partakes of the transcendent, personhood will be something typical. This typicality is “the meeting point between the individual (the person) and the supra-individual, the boundary between the two corresponding to a perfect form. Typicality de-individualizes, in the sense that the person then essentially incarnates an idea, law, or function.”[23]

Just as “the absolute name is no longer a name”, so the absolute person would be “anonymous”.[24] Impersonality is thus not necessarily negative. For, while the impersonality of the individual that reduces it to a mere member of a mass society is to be avoided, the impersonality “typical of a sovereign being, the absolute person”[25] is worth pursuing.

Such an absolute person could use the contemporary world to his advantage. He will approach our harsh architecture in the same way the ancient Greeks approached the exactness of geometry. He will use the rootlessness of modern life to his advantage. Like the hermits and wandering religious orders of the past, he will not be attached to earthly existence. And the increasing speed at which society moves will inspire a sense of risk which will bring out his “a superior lucidity, bringing into play a higher type of calmness and internal immobility.” [26]

2. The Dissolution of Art.

Our age has overseen the debasement of art, but the higher man will not be disturbed by this fact, since he does not need art to mediate the spiritual world to him. Art never had the highest place in traditional societies. It was only in the modern era that art needed to take on the spiritual values that had been abandoned by religion.

“Art in a traditional and organic civilization never occupied the central spiritual position that the period of humanist and bourgeois culture accorded to it. Before the modern era, when art had a true, higher meaning, this was thanks to its preexisting contents, superior and prior to it, neither revealed nor ‘created’ by it as art. These contents gave meaning to life and could exist, manifest, and act even in the virtual absence of what is called art, in works that sometimes might seem ‘barbaric’ to the aesthete and the humanist who have no sense of the elementary and the primordial.”[27]

Because he is not overly invested in the spiritual value of art, he is free to ignore the crisis of contemporary art and be unphased by its impending demise.[28]

 “He is very little interested in, or preoccupied with, the current ‘crisis of art’. Just as he sees no valid, authentic knowledge in modern science, similarly he recognizes no spiritual value in the art that has taken shape in the modern era through the processes mentioned at the beginning of this chapter; he sees no substitute for the meanings that can be kindled by direct contact with reality in a cool, clear, and essential climate. Upon objective consideration of the processes at work, one has the distinct feeling that art no longer has a future: that it is relegated to an even more marginal position with respect to existence, its value being reduced to a luxury.”[29]

Indeed, Evola appeals to the maxim “it is good to give the final push to that which deserves to fall.”[30]

3. Dissolution of the Social Realm.

The higher man will take no part in the political theater of our age. Evola claims that he will be governed by the principle of apoliteia.  

“It is important to emphasize that this principle refers essentially to the inner attitude. In the present political situation, in a climate of democracy and ‘socialism’, the rules of the game are such that the man in question absolutely cannot take part in it. He recognizes, as I have said before, that ideas, motives, and goals worthy of the pledge of one’s own true being do not exist today; there are no demands of which he can recognize any moral right and foundation outside that which they derive as mere facts on the empirical and profane plane.”[31]

As a result, he will have to embrace apoliteia “to defend the world of being and dignity of him who feels himself belonging to a different humanity and recognizes the desert around himself.”[32] This will hold not just for politics, but for society in general.[33] He will not even hold to the values of homeland, nation, and patriotism, since these are themselves the products of the modern world. “The traditional world knew ‘nationalities,’ ethnicities, and races only as natural facts, devoid of that specific political values that they would receive in modern nationalism.”[34] And the very word “patriotism” was coined during the French revolution.[35]

Such values are mere abstractions and cut off from the true sources of value, the spiritual world.

“For the essence of nationalistic ideology is to hold homeland and nation as supreme values, conceiving them as mystical entities almost with a  life of their own and having an absolute claim on the individual; whereas, in reality, they are only dissociated and formless realities, by way of their nation of any true hierarchical principle, and of any symbol or warrant of a transcendent authority. In general, the foundation of political unities that have taken form I this direction is antithetical to the traditional state. In fact, as I have said, the cement of the latter was a loyalty and fidelity that could dispense with the naturalistic fact of nationality; it was a principle of order and sovereignty that, by not being based on this fact, could even be valid in areas including more than one nationality. It was the dignities, particular rights, and castes that united or divided individuals ‘vertically’, beyond the ‘horizontal’ common denominator of ‘nation’ and ‘homeland’. In a word, it was unification from above, not from below.”[36]

The higher man can then, at best, find an invisible unity with others. A community which in other times was instantiated in esoteric orders.[37]

4. Spiritual Dissolution.

Evola believes that new age spiritualism is degenerate. The higher man will refuse to be taken in by it. He will view death as a challenge, “a matter of surpassing an inner limit, breaking a bond.”[38] He will live every day as if it were his last and view human life as a transitional state, “a journey in the night hours.”[39] His attitude towards earthly life will be that of a traveler on a train who knows that the travel will be only for a limited time and that his journey will continue afterwards.[40]

Though death involves a change of state and constitutes a crisis, the higher man will face it with a “transcendental confidence.”[41] The higher man will also likely see his earthly life as the outworking of a pre-temporal choice.

“As in an adventure, a mission, a trial, an election, or an experiment, earthly life appears to be something to which one committed oneself before finding oneself in the human condition, accepting in anticipation whatever difficult, miserable, or dramatic aspects it might bring, aspects that are especially likely in an epoch like the present.”[42]

The concept of such a pre-temporal choice can even spread an aura of heroism over life in the wasteland of the Kali Yuga.

 “Elevating oneself above that which can be understood in the light of human reason alone; reaching a high interior level and an invulnerability otherwise hard to attain: these are perhaps among the possibilities that, through adequate reactions, are offered in the cases in which the night journey allows almost nothing to be perceived of the landscape that one traverses, and in which the theory of Geworfenheit, of being absurdly ‘flung’ into the world and time, seems to be true, especially insecurity. If one can allow one’s mind to dwell on a bold hypothesis—which could also be an act of faith in a higher sense—once the idea of Geworfenheit is rejected, once it is conceived that living here and now in this world has a sense, because it is always the effect of a choice and a will, one might even believe that one’s own realization of the possibilities I have indicated—far more concealed and less imaginable in other situations that might be more desirable from the merely human point of view, from the point of view of the ‘person’—is the ultimate rationale and significance of a choice made by ‘being’ that wanted to measure itself against a difficult challenge: that of living in a world contrary to that consistent with its nature, that is, contrary to the world of Tradition.”[43]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] He argues for this pessimism by noting the extent to which the East is following the same path as the West (as in Communist China) and pointing to the extent to which Catholicism has already thoroughly assimilated itself to the modern world. This undermines both components of Guénon’s plan to revive the Catholic tradition by brining it into contact with the living tradition of the East.

[2] Evola, Ride the Tiger, 10.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 3-4.

[5] Ibid., 6

[6] Ibid., 17

[7] Ibid., 45

[8] Ibid., 47

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 54

[11] “In particular, an important factor has been the mutilated character of Christianity when compared to the majority of other traditional forms, mutilated, because it does not possess an ‘esotericism’, an inner teaching of a metaphysical character beyond the truths and dogmas of the faith offered to the common people. The extensions represented by sporadic experiences that are simply ‘mystical’ and little understood cannot make up for this essential lack in Christianity as a whole. This is why the work of demolition was so easy with the rise of so-called free thought, whereas in a different, complete tradition the presence of a body of teachings above the simply religious level would probably have prevented it” 54.

[12] Ibid., 56-57

[13] Ibid., 57-58.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 62-63

[17] Ibid., 65

[18] Ibid., 68

[19] Ibid.

[20] For example, consider the fact that all hipsters look the same.

[21] Ibid., 109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 110.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 111.

[26] Ibid., 121

[27] Ibid., 156.

[28] Though he does note that in the case of music there might be some positive use to be made of it. He notes that music has severed itself from its roots and become more bodily and ecstatic. He won’t fall into the diffused hypnosis of the of the masses, but he will use it for his own lucid inebriation. “Quite apart from similar extreme and aberrant forms, one can still consider the general problem of all these methods that provide elemental, ecstatic possibilities, which the differentiated man, not the masses, can use in order to feed that particular intoxication descried earlier, which is the only nourishment the can existentially draw from an epoch of dissolution” 165. Similarly, he will not use drugs to reach such states but bring them about from his own resources. “In general, one must keep in mind that drug use even for a spiritual end, that is, to catch glimpses of transcendence, has its price. How drugs produce certain psychic effects has not yet been determined by modern science. It is said that some, like LSD, destroy certain brain cells. One point is certain: Habitual use of drugs brings a certain psychic disorganization; one should substitute for them the power of attaining analogous states through one’s own means. Therefore, when one has chosen a path based on the maximum unification of all one’s psychic faculties, these drawbacks must be kept firmly in mind” 170.

[29] Ibid., 156-157.

[30] Ibid., 158.

[31] Ibid., 174.

[32] Ibid., 176.

[33] Ibid., 180.

[34] Ibid., 181.

[35] “To an extent, the formation of nations has run parallel with the revolutionary idea. Already in the oldest historical example, that of the France of Philip the Fair, one can see how the move toward a national state went hand in hand with a process of anti-aristocratic leveling, an incipient destruction of the articulations of an organic society due to absolutism, and the constitution of those centralized  ‘public powers’ that would become ever more prominent in modern states. We are well aware of the close relationship between the dissolution corresponding to the declaration of the ‘rights of man and the citizen’ of 1789 and the patriotic, nationalistic, and revolutionary idea. The very word ‘patriot’ was unknown before the French Revolution; it first appeared between 1789 and 1793 to indicate one who supported the revolution against the monarchies and aristocracies” 181.

[36] Ibid., 182.

[37] “For lack of a third force [between the capitalism and communism] of a different character, and a true ideal to unite and divide beyond homelands, nations, and anti-nations, the only prospect is that of an invisible unity, in a world without frontiers, of those few individuals who are associated by their very nature, which is different from that of the man of today, and by the same inner law—in short, almost in the same terms as Plato used, speaking of the true state, which idea was then taken up by the Stoics. A similar, dematerializied type of unity and state was at the basis of the Orders, and its last reflection, deformed to the point of being unrecognizable, can be seen in secret societies like Freemasonry.” 183

[38] Ibid., 219.

[39] Ibid., 220.

[40] Ibid., 220.

[41] Ibid., 221.

[42] Ibid., 225.

[43] Ibid., 227.

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