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Can Conservatives Preserve Tradition, or Is It a L...

Can Conservatives Preserve Tradition, or Is It a Losing Fight?

I ended my last essay (comparing the philosophers Edmund Burke and Julius Evola) on a question fundamental to the budding Traditionalist:– “whether modern man is psychologically able to commit to Tradition and to what extent.” I am not considering whether reactionary policies are possible in the practical sense, but whether or not one could actually bring oneself to live as one’s ancestors did hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Reactionary societies have been cultivated under reactionary régimes; the primacy of Islamism in the Middle East, particularly the institution of the caliphate by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, dispel all doubts as to the truth of this assertion.

As far as the modern West is concerned, however, Nietzsche provides a standard line of argument for the impossibility of reactionism,

Whispered to the conservatives. — What was not known formerly, what is known, or might be known, today: a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible. We physiologists know that. Yet all priests and moralists have believed the opposite — they wanted to take mankind back, to screw it back, to a former measure of virtue. Morality was always a bed of Procrustes. Even the politicians have aped the preachers of virtue at this point: today too there are still parties whose dream it is that all things might walk backwards like crabs. But no one is free to be a crab. Nothing avails: one must go forward — step by step further into decadence (that is my definition of modern “progress”). One can check this development and thus dam up degeneration, gather it and make it more vehement and sudden: one can do no more.

Nietzsche suggests that there is something within the constitution of modern man that prevents him from going back in time, especially with regard to adopting older moral systems. Man cannot become something other than what he is, and if he is helplessly modern there is no saving him, irrespective of political action. Although Nietzsche leaves it unclear as to whether this is psychological or physiological problem is of less concern that its implications.

In any case, conduct a thought experiment: Can I, a modern man, reject the core tenants of my society for those of my ancestors? More specifically, can I bring myself to disown so many liberal idols – freedom, liberty, equality – in favor of their opposites? Can I really live in a society where the rank-ordering of man is the organizing principle of society, where hierarchy compels me to serve in the capacity of my proper role, whether it is one of a ruler or slave? Most honest men – men who are truly honest with themselves – would answer in the negative. Freedom and liberty, equality of opportunity and choice, these things are the operating assumptions of modern Western life, and indeed they seem irreversible. To give men a right is to make it impossible to take it away from them – unless they want someone to (hence populist dictators), and how often do we really see freemen clamoring to be made bondmen? Only under extraordinary circumstances does a liberal state collapse into an illiberal one, and even then there are always outside forces pressuring a reversal (think of the Bush administration’s mantra of “nation building”). Liberalism is more a part of modernity than any other political arrangement; totalitarian régimes are but so many hiccups.

Nietzsche’s conception of the impossibility of going backwards was adopted and elaborated by late nineteenth- and twentieth-century pessimists such as Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) and Julius Evola (1898-1974): the former saw the lives of civilizations as independently cyclical, the latter all of time itself. The Kali Yuga, so dear to Indian thought, looms large in such pessimists’ thinking. Individual or mass action is subject to the law of degeneration just as the universe is subject to the law of entropy. The modern age is the Dark Age and can be rejected just as easily as one’s own essence or character. Human agency of all sorts is subjected to the inexorable rule of decline; as Nietzsche claimed, conservatives can only try to freeze things in place, but will be swept in the current like a bridge in a flood. A man does not walk like a crab but a man – otherwise he does it imperfectly.

The ultimate result of this pessimism is an extreme sort of individualism bordering on the existential. Civilization on the whole cannot escape its fate and neither can the individual, but at least the individual has the ability to “go with flow” on his own terms. Nietzsche’s Übermensch achieves something akin to the Greek cheerfulness of ancient times in the modern era, but he creates his own set of values apart from the rest of the rabble. Evola eventually came to a similar conclusion: his later work Ride the Tiger (1961) suggests that “aristocrats of the soul,” who are forced to confront modern vices in a modern world, should use these vices for the benefit of their spirit rather than its degradation.

The budding Traditionalist is, then, in the position of unriddling Fate. Even if he himself is ready to abandon the liberal worldview, his comrades certainly are not. How can he achieve the politically impossible? Is he, like Nietzsche and Evola, destined to be an outsider, making his own values apart from and independent of society? It seems his proposition is a losing one, that the best he can do is go the route of the ascetic or finds ways that Tradition might be preserved in a modern fashion for modern purposes. Evola’s attraction to India is intelligible in this context: India is the only society that has in many respects maintained an unbroken link with Tradition, whether it be through the caste system or orally transmitted Vedas. The sad truth:– only a society that has not already thrown Tradition to the wind is in a position to preserve it. One would hardly wager a great sum on the chance that the West is not already irrevocably committed to a path of modernism; the forward push of history – what we call progress – is a train without brakes.


Troy is an aspiring attorney and 3rd year undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies both English and Philosophy. He currently serves as speechwriter for a Congressional campaign and manages communications for the Berkeley College Republicans.

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