Julius Evola: Theosophy and Beyond
In 2008 Marco Iacona asked me to join 40 others in answering some questions about Julius Evola, specifically (in my case) about his connections with Theosophy. The questions and answers were published in Italian as Il Maestro della Tradizione: Dialoghi su Julius Evola (Naples: Controcorrente, 2008), which for its balanced approach and multiple points of view is surely the best all-round book on Evola. Here is the English original of my contribution.
What is Theosophy, and what are its ramifications?
Theosophy, as the Greek etymology of the word suggests, is the wisdom or knowledge of God, seen from the human point of view as something to be striven for and attained. The word first came into use among the Neoplatonists and can appropriately be applied to the quest for divine wisdom as found in the works of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, and Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite. With the dominance of Christianity over paganism, the term fell out of favor, for the Church was then supposed to be the repository of all the wisdom needed for salvation. It reappeared in the Protestant domain during the seventeenth century, among the followers of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, and continued into the nineteenth century with Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin and Franz von Baader.
However, most people today associate “theosophy” with the Theosophical Society, which was founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in New York in 1875. They chose the term partly because of their sympathy for the Neoplatonic and mystical currents, and partly because their society aspired to knowledge, not just to theory. This, at least, was the situation in the early Theosophical Society, which arose out of a context of spiritualism, psychical research, and practical occultism. Later the word would apply to the particular knowledge revealed by Blavatsky’s masters or “Mahatmas,” both directly through their letters and through her major work The Secret Doctrine.
Because of the appropriation of the term by Blavatsky and her successors, those outside the Theosophical Society who aspired to theosophy had to find other words for it. Thus Rudolf Steiner called his movement “anthroposophy,” the French continued to use the term “occultism,” and other esoteric groups sailed under the banners of “magic,” “metaphysics,” “tradition,” “Hermetism,” “Rosicrucianism,” etc. Seen from the outside, they were all theosophists in the sense of seeking understanding and direct knowledge, whether of God, the gods, or more impersonally “the Divine” or “the Absolute.”
Can Evola also be considered a Theosophist?
What has been said above explains why this question cannot be answered with a simple Yes or No. If the person asking it associates theosophy only with the Theosophical Society, the answer is No. If on the other hand the question is based on an appreciation of the distinction between that society and the theosophical tradition, then the answer is Yes. Evola was certainly engaged on a search for the Absolute, and he recognized that this search had been pursued by many different routes, at many different periods. In point of fact, he had more in common with Blavatsky than he would have liked to admit, because the goal of his sophia was, like hers, an impersonal one. Both were more sympathetic to the Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism, than to the monotheistic or Abrahamic religions. In reading the Christian theosophists and alchemists, both looked beneath the surface, at the metaphysical doctrines and experiences that transcended dogmatic and biblical modes of expression. Also, the very idea of “tradition,” of a primordial wisdom that has reappeared in different forms throughout the ages, was mediated to Evola’s generation by the Theosophical Society. The Renaissance had known this as the theory of a prisca theologia, a wisdom possessed by pagans as well as by Jews and Christians, but it was the Theosophical Society that publicized it, and widened its scope by including the wisdom of the Near and Far East, even privileging the latter. By the time Evola came of age, the idea that the ancient East possessed a wisdom superior to that of the modern West had entered the general fund of ideas, attracting people who were disillusioned both by Christianity and by atheistic materialism.
How much do his well-known works Imperialismo pagano and Rivolta contro il mondo moderno owe to Theosophy?
The hostility towards Christianity and the Catholic Church expressed in Imperialismo pagano parallels that of Blavatsky, who had no love for either. Like Evola, she despised the crawling worship of a personal, suffering god. She deplored the Church’s duplicity, by which a religion of ascesis and personal salvation had grown into a monster of power politics. However, there is no doubt that Evola’s master in this regard was Nietzsche. The political solutions that he draws from his interpretation of history are diametrically opposed to those of Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, which were always more on the “left” than the “right” politically.
There is a closer convergence of attitudes between Evola and Blavatsky in Rivolta contro il mondo moderno. They shared the idea of a primordial tradition whose traces we can detect and, to an extent, understand through the symbols it has left behind in religions, legends, art, etc. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine writes much about these universal symbols, especially geometrical, numerical, and astronomical ones, and natural objects like the Tree, the Rose, and the four elements. Evola expands on these, but his basic premise is the same as hers.
Another coincidence is in their reconstruction of humanity’s prehistoric past. In Rivolta, Evola mentions ancient races inhabiting first Lemuria, then Atlantis, and follows these with the “Aryans,” which are the same as Blavatsky’s third, fourth, and fifth “root races.” Blavatsky places an even earlier race around the North Pole—her second, or “Hyperborean” root race. Here the two authorities differ, for while Blavatsky’s Hyperboreans occurred so early in the evolution of humanity that they did not even possess physical bodies, Evola’s were fully physical, contemporary with the Atlanteans, and the direct ancestors of the Aryans. This is explainable through the additional influence on Evola of Herman Wirth’s Der Aufgang der Menschheit, which made a strong case, based on symbolism, for the existence of an Arctic or circumpolar culture in recent prehistoric times.
One should remember that by the 1920s, the major branch of the Theosophical Society, under the leadership of Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater, had mutated from its original nature. Under Leadbeater’s influence, it had become obsessed with the young Krishnamurti, who was being prepared for revelation as the “World Teacher,” to inaugurate a new era for humanity. Coupled with this was Leadbeater’s reintroduction of Christianity into the Society through the Liberal Catholic Church, and his rewriting of world history based on the reincarnations of himself and other prominent Theosophists. The Society as Evola knew it, or knew of it, was so unappealing to him that he could not see it in anything but a negative light (see especially the lengthy treatment in Maschera e volto dello spiritualismo contempraneo). In any case, Evola was never going to respect wisdom that came through a woman! It seems probable that he derived his idea of Lemuria, Atlantis, etc., from Anthroposophy, for Rudolf Steiner has exactly the same scheme—derived, in turn, from Blavatsky, but supposedly confirmed by Steiner’s own supersensible vision.
How important for Evola was the encounter with Guénon?
Some writers on the Traditionalists have given the impression that Evola and Guénon were close colleagues and even friends, but this was not the case. The two men never met, their correspondence was quite limited, and their philosophies coincided only at a few points. What was important for Evola was the encounter with a few of Guénon’s ideas. First among these was the crystallization of the idea of Tradition, as the perennial meeting-point of humanity with the transcendent. Second was the view of modernity that followed inexorably from it.
In two cases, Evola’s works can be seen as deliberate emulations of Guénon’s. Maschera e volto dello spiritualismo contemporaneo (1932) shares the same attitude and polemical intentions as Guénon’s early works Le Théosophisme, histoire d’une pseudo-religion (1921) and L’erreur spirite (1923), but spreads the net wider to include post-World War I movements. Rivolta contro il mondo moderno (1934) defines “tradition” more explicitly than Guénon had done, and expands the refusal of modernity sketched by Guénon in La crise du monde moderne (1927). But there were enormous differences between them. Guénon’s version of prehistory followed the Hindu legend of the kshatriyas (warrior and royal caste) rebelling against the brahmins (priestly caste); Evola’s version had the two castes originally united, then the priesthood breaking away from the kshatriyas’ rightful control. This reflected a fundamental psychological difference between Evola, whose attitude was that of the kshatriya, active and even aggressive, and Guénon, who was a typical brahmin, a contemplative scholar and sage. It explains Evola’s engagement in politics, versus Guénon’s disengagement; Evola’s heroic path of the solitary “special type of man” working to realize the transcendent in himself and become an “absolute individual,” versus Guénon’s concern with initiation as the necessary condition for the esoteric path.
The differences multiply, as one can see simply from the titles of their works. Guénon had a low opinion of Buddhism (compare Evola’s La dottrina del risveglio), little interest in alchemy (compare La tradizione ermetica), kept aloof from any discussion of psychology or sex (compare La metafisica del sesso), and completely ignored anything German. Evola, for his part, never accepted the myth of the King of the World and his subterranean kingdom of Agarttha (compare Guénon’s Le roi du monde), had scant interest in Freemasonry (compare Etudes sur la Franc-Maçonnerie et le Compagnonnage), and a very limited respect for even esoteric Christianity (compare Saint Bernard, Aperçus sur l’ésotérisme chrétien). Finally, can one possibly imagine Evola marrying into an Islamic family and becoming a practicing Muslim? Or Guénon placing any hope in the Nazi Schutzstaffel (the “SS”)?
We know of the first contacts between Evola and Guénon from some letters dated 1925. That was a crucial year for Evola, in which his first real philosophical work appeared (Saggi sull’idealismo magico) and Giovanni Colonna di Cesarò’s fortnightly Lo Stato democratico published his first political articles. In 1925, Evola was only 27, yet he already seems to have mapped out the general lines of his system of thought: philosophy, Tradition, and politics.
Like Guénon, who traced the main elements of all his later metaphysical thought in a series of articles in La Gnose between 1910 and 12 (then aged 24–26), Evola arrived at his system at a very young age, for a philosopher. They were both, in a way, philosophical prodigies: a much rarer phenomenon than musical or mathematical prodigies, but no easier to explain rationally. However, if we accept their metaphysics the question takes on another aspect. According to this, human beings do not come into the world as tabulae rasae, blank slates awaiting the inscription of experience, but with a spiritual history already behind them. Although both Evola and Guénon repudiated the doctrine of reincarnation in its commonplace form, this did not eliminate the possibility of other forms of pre-natal existence. The magical goals of the Gruppo di Ur included the preservation of individual consciousness beyond the point of death, and the making of the individual into a self-directed will, not the passive object of cosmic forces like the majority of humanity. My own comment, which you invite here, is that if such a thing is possible, the individual might choose a deliberate incarnation for a specific purpose. In that case, one might well expect that the person’s life’s work would make an early appearance, and that a minimum of time and energy would be wasted on the normal diversions of youth.
A complicated question, that cannot be answered in a few lines: What are the myths that Evola used most in the works mentioned?
There are at least four. The myth which pervades Evola’s works from beginning to end is the Olympian. It is the myth of the highest state of which man is capable, expressed through the imagery of the mountain home of the Graeco-Roman gods. The “Olympian man” is impassive, calm, and absolute master of himself. As the “absolute individual,” he has only to will a thing for it to be realized. Other associated images favored by Evola include Uranos, the sky god in contradistinction to Gaia, the earth goddess; Plato’s myth of the True Earth or the World of Forms that is separate and superior to the material world; the Arya or superior man who manifests “Olympian” and “Uranian” qualities; and the mountain-climber who enacts the ascent of Olympus in body as well as in spirit.
A second myth, whose connections with the Olympian are fairly evident, is the Hyperborean. Having accepted Wirth’s revelation of an ancient Arctic race, Evola made it the cornerstone of his mythic history of humanity. According to this, the Hyperboreans “descended” from their polar homeland to found the great traditional civilizations, and they remain the ideal of Evola’s threefold racial theory, being exemplary in body, soul, and spirit. (It is significant that Guénon, while also accepting the Hyperborean theory in principle, preferred to locate his “supreme center” in subterranean Agarttha.)
A third myth is that of the Four Ages of the World, and of the present age as being the lowest and darkest of these: the Age of Iron according to the Greeks, the Kali Yuga of the Hindus. To accept this version of macro-history, as Evola did, affects one’s every attitude towards the present: it is seen in a uniformly negative light. It subjects human history to a cosmic inevitability and denies any hope to the mass of humanity. The only one who can escape the dire situation is the possessor of the Aryan spirit, who can “ride the tiger” as the rest of the world hurtles to destruction.
A fourth and last myth is Empire: the myth that a divine order is possible in human society. It supposes that such an order has existed in the past, and that it can be restored. The temporal power of the ideal empire is justified by its spiritual authority: it is ruled by divine right and there is no questioning its hierarchies. Evola imagined this empire as having been realized, to a degree, in ancient Rome and in the Middle Ages; it was the foundation of his political opinions. For a while he hoped that the myth would become reality in the mid-twentieth century, and saw a better chance of this with a victory of the Axis powers in the Second World War.
There are obvious contradictions between such hopes and the myth of the Four Ages of the World, but myths are not rational. Whether “true” or “false” in a scientific sense, they are the most powerful molders of human opinion and motivators of human activity, and Evola himself did not so much “make use of them” as he was used by them.