At one point in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, our protagonist, a shiftless Californian in search of class and culture at a sequestered, elite East Coast College, talks about the feeling he gets when he studies Ancient Greek late into the night. Breaking from the reverie, he says that in this he sees, briefly, the world with “5th century eyes,” a world “disconcertingly sluggish and alien, as if it were not their home.”
I thought about this line a lot as I sat doing the emails and admin that make up so much of contemporary life and listening to nasal American crypto-fascist men stumble over the words of Julius Evola on YouTube. Wouldn’t we all like to see the world with fifth-century eyes? To have rituals that bind us to eternity, to spans deeper and truths larger than ourselves, and to not have to commute and wait for things to load and feel our lives to be small, disconnected slivers?
A Made-Up Tradition
If there is an intellectual movement that holds such an attainment close to its heart, it is Traditionalism, a once obscure school of twentieth-century thought among whose key thinkers is the oft-discussed Evola. Born in Italy in 1898, he was raised Catholic — a belief system he was to reject early in life — and later fought as a young man in World War I. After the war’s end, he became briefly involved in the Italian modernist art movement Futurism, and then, after forming a friendship with the French and Romanian poet and artist Tristan Tzara and developing a close affinity for Dada, he first met Benito Mussolini. Evola’s interest in art waned early, however, and by the age of twenty-four he had stopped painting entirely. In the late 1920s, he turned to writing, establishing the philosophy, a mix of politics and occultism, that would be his life’s work.
The key themes of Evola’s writing are his hostility to modernity and his quest for the transcendental. While one of his earliest works, Pagan Imperialism, published in 1928, made the case for reinhabiting the spirit of ancient Rome, he also incorporated elements from a wide variety of spiritual traditions into his thinking, with a particular focus on the Hindu text The Bhagavad Gita. His 1934 book, Revolt Against the Modern World, is subtitled “Politics, Religion, and Social Order in the Kali Yuga,” with the Kali Yuga being the age of Kali, Hinduism’s vengeful demon, and the final of the four ages in the Hindu cosmological cycle characterized by violent conflict. For Evola, the contemporary world was such an age.
Evola lived until 1974, and his last book of note was Ride the Tiger, published in 1961. The titular “tiger” is liberal modernity, and the book advises a withdrawal from political life (framed as the debated concept of “apolitia”) and the practice of a preservation of the spirit of tradition within oneself in order to live alongside the tiger without being corrupted by it. It is something close to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for pagan traditionalists. Dreher’s book took inspiration from the fifth- and sixth-century Christian response, led by St Benedict of Nursia, to the beginning of the so-called European Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman empire in 476. Following the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, these early Christians withdrew from political life and sought refuge in the spiritual world until conditions became once again favorable to the construction of a Christian empire.
In some ways, this is what Evolaism did in the latter part of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first: largely disappear, to be read only by members of the far right who wished to mark themselves out as more politically and intellectually advanced than the street-brawling skinheads. Yet in 2015, prominent Swedish neo-Nazi Daniel Friberg — one such intellectually aspirant member of the far right — wrote a blog calling in Evolaist terms for the far right to “strangle the tiger,” arguing that liberal modernity was sufficiently weakened, lagging under the weight of its own decadence and contradictions, and that the time had come to dismount and take up arms. Such murmurs soon grew, and by the 2010s, at the fringes of an ascendant radical right, Evola’s influence was increasingly prominent.
As the American writer Benjamin Teitelbaum writes in his book War for Eternity, it was sometime in July 2014 that Steve Bannon first publicly discussed the work of Evola and his engagement with traditionalism. Two years later, Bannon would be running Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the US presidency. A few months later again, he would be in the White House. For Teitelbaum’s book, which primarily focuses on Bannon and Alexander Dugin, the Russian Traditionalist with links to Putin, Bannon sat for a series of interviews where he discussed his Traditionalist influences, something he says he first encountered while serving in the Navy. The hierarchical and ritual-steeped environment proved a welcome home for the development of fascist sympathies.
Since then, Evola has found something closer to mainstream influence, and not just in the White House. In Hungary, the far-right party Jobbik has listed him on their website as recommended reading, as has that of Greece’s Golden Dawn. On Instagram, Joe Rogan discusses the Kali Yuga, while on Twitter the Tucker Carlson–platformed writer “Raw Egg Nationalist” discusses Evola.
History on Repeat
Evola is often discussed alongside Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher who gained intellectual notoriety in the interwar years across Europe. Both he and Evola figure in the small group whose work the historian Mark Sedgwick terms the “required reading for today’s intellectual radical right.” Spengler’s best-known work is The Decline of the West, published in two parts in 1918 and 1922, a book Evola was to translate into Italian in the 1950s.
The book advances a theory of cultures as organisms, and crucially, as cyclical, possessed of recurring stages of ascent, potency, and decadence. Evola too embraced cyclical ideas of history, drawing on Hindu time cycles and on the work of the French Traditionalist René Guénon, his contemporary and great influence. Ideas about the cyclical — rather than progressive — nature of history are widespread in conservative intellectual writing; consider William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning (from which the play Heroes of the Fourth Turning takes its name) or, more recently, Ross Douthat’s Decadent Society.
However, these theories also feed more extreme currents, and it is Evola’s ideas about the course of history that constitute perhaps his most dangerous legacy, as one of the thinkers underpinning radical accelerationism.
Such a view of history is shared by accelerationism — a term most commonly associated with the cultural theorist Nick Land but also prominent in the writing of neoreactionary blogger Curtis Yarvin and others in the radical right milieu — which holds that the conditions of the current age are in the process of collapse, failing under the weight their own follies and contradictions. In this, they maintain, it is possible, through certain actions, to accelerate the coming of the next age. These contradictions, for those who follow Evola, usually relate to things like the validity of democracy or the assertion that there is no racial hierarchy of intelligence. Militant accelerationism, often drawing explicitly on Evola, features heavily in the thought of marginal neo-Nazi groups such as the Atomwaffen Division in the United States and others in the Iron March network and elsewhere, who advocate (and carry out) political violence as a means of bringing about the collapse of modern liberal society.
If part of Evola’s contemporary appeal is his plausible disconnect from historic fascist atrocities, and another is the strange and to certain eyes utopian nature of the world he describes, his appeal lies equally in his obscurity. He is, in the words of the former director of the far-right press Arktos (Evola’s English-language publisher), “more referenced than read” — being into Evola as opposed to, say, Friedrich Nietzsche or even Carl Schmitt (with whom Evola corresponded at some length) is the far-right political theory equivalent of announcing oneself to be ‘not like other girls.’
Evola is also, for want of a better word, quite vibey; he wrote a lot, and his work has wide-ranging applications. Whether you are a young Republican looking for some esoteric intellectual cred, a statue avi Twitter user looking for theoretical justification for your posts about ancient wisdom and contemporary decadence, or a man embedded in the far-right media ecosystem planning to kill innocent civilians in a local bar, school, or shopping mall, there will be something for you to adapt to your purposes in his body of work.
Of the contemporary texts most clearly influenced by Evola, one is Bronze Age Mindset, the political manifesto of the anonymous writer Bronze Age Pervert, and a book that holds not insignificant sway over the young American right. (As the American conservative writer Nate Hochman puts it: “Every junior staffer in the Trump administration read Bronze Age Mindset.”) The clue to the book’s content is in the title: it focuses on the supposed lost connection to the ancient and vital, the core of human potential, brought about by the “bugmen” of liberal modernity. Yet, it’s not just in the general ideas about “retvrn” (the letter “u” is modernist tripe) that Bronze Age Pervert’s Evolaist influences become apparent; his views on biology and evolution also tack closely to those Evola expresses in Eros and the Mysteries of Love: The Metaphysics of Sex (1958).
There, the Italian argued that attempts to explain human sexuality in biological or procreative terms, rather than in ritual or transcendental terms, is part of the broader quest to separate us from the higher parts of ourselves. As such, Bronze Age Pervert rejects the idea of evolution. “Biology,” he writes, “gives little opportunity for the kind of thinking that penetrates the mystery of nature”; “Darwinism is the product of bug-thought. In the end it won’t show you the way out of the prison of the ages.”
Bronze Age Mindset is stunningly racist and antisemitic; Evola thought Hitler was too interested in democracy. These are not people whose influence is anything other than cancerous. However, we are remiss if we fail to understand that what they describe, and what their writing purports to offer, is in its own way utopian, presenting the idea of a different and complete world. Teitelbaum quotes a description of Traditionalism as “Dungeons and Dragons for racists,” but this seems a little off; it’s closer to A24 fascism — deep greens and sanctified meaning laced into ritual across grand expanses of time that collapse into one another. Early in his book, Bronze Age Pervert describes the ancient philosopher Empedocles, who threw himself into a volcano believing that he would become a god. “What Mount Aetna was to Empedocles — is there something like that to you? Is there something like that at all anymore?”
It’s an unusually romantic way of talking about how you’d like there to be fewer Jews and black people. It is certainly far more convoluted than more conventional strands of Christian nationalism. The political right is often seen as representing a desire for the status quo or a restoration of some disappeared tradition. For the most part, this is the case; conservatism is about conserving, not about stark divergence.
The left-wing cultural theorist Mark Fisher described the desire to break out of capitalist stasis and imagine a radically different world as central to any socialist program. It is foolish, however, to assume that this is a desire limited to the political left. As Matthew Rose writes in his exploration of anti-liberal radical right thinkers, A World After Liberalism, the appeal of the theorists he analyzes lies in the fact that “we are too often denied, and too often deny others, the freedom to entertain radically different views of what it means to be a human being” and that these thinkers offer just such a freedom. Evola’s writing certainly contains a view of a radically different world, one that, however repellent, can be both enchanting and enticing, particularly for those sitting alone in a dark room looking for the next best thing to a volcano to throw themselves into.