Ride the Tiger, a seminal book by Julius Evola (1898-1974), the Italian esotericist and political theorist, is the literary equivalent of a cold shower – bracing, perhaps, but unavoidably chilling. In what appears to be its publisher’s attempt to put a New Age self-help spin on its packaging, the newly published English translation is subtitled “A Survival Manual for the Aristocrats of the Soul,” but this is an incongruously upbeat description for a book that sets out to strip away any illusions that the reader may still have about modern existence.
Evola is often considered a “Traditionalist” in the special sense of the word ascribed to René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, and other defenders of Tradition: an exponent of traditional social orders where daily life is grounded in a vertical relationship to the sacred, and an organic interweaving of culture, spirit, and hierarchy provides a higher meaning to existence.
For the Traditionalists, who have always maintained that there is an esoteric or higher metaphysical unity behind the differing outer expressions of the world’s religions, the most fully realized social manifestations of Tradition are certain cultures of the past, such as in ancient India, medieval Europe, and (for Evola) classical Greece and Rome. Present secular culture, by contrast, is seen as a travesty of atomized and alienated “individuals,” rampant materialism, and an amoral scientism run amok. Yet even with such a dark view of the present era, most Traditionalists have held that solace and salvation can be – indeed, must be – found within the great religions, which remain living guideposts for humanity.
Evola finds even this life raft to be full of holes and launches his own extreme critique of the despiritualized modern era, one in which conventional religion (even esoterically understood) amounts to little more than a Ship of Fools. Evola is past caring about the fate of the mass of men, who he sees as hopelessly caught in the mystifications and material pursuits of a devolving bourgeois civilization. He is similarly contemptuous of the inherited religions which have “become secularized, one-dimensional, and [have] cease[d] to exercise their original functions.”(1) His concern is only with what he calls “differentiated man,” those few individuals capable of grasping the situation and of holding to essential values and a sense of their own being and transcendent origin as the Kali Yuga (Dark Age) draws to its cyclic conclusion. As Evola puts it:
It is good to sever every link with all that which is destined sooner or later to collapse. The problem will then be to maintain one’s essential direction without leaning on any given or transmitted form, including forms that are authentically traditional but belong to past history. In this respect, continuity can only be maintained on an essential plane, so to speak, as an inner orientation of being, beside the greatest possible external liberty.(2)
Needless to say, it is a curiously abstract Tradition that Evola defends – one without traditional forms and minus any cultural context. Evola says about it:
According to its true, living meaning, Tradition is neither servile conformity to what has been, nor a sluggish perpetuation of the past into the present. Tradition, in its essence, is something simultaneously meta-historical and dynamic: it is an overall ordering force, in the service of principles that have the chrism of a superior legitimacy (we may even call them “principles from above”).(3)
These aristocratic principles include a sacredly-ordained hierarchy (harking back to the divine right of Kings), loyalty, honor, heroism, and an austere, “solar,” linkage to an eternal and supra-human transcendental realm. These values, whether rightly or wrongly, are so perpendicular to present humanistic, democratic, “down to earth” values that it is small wonder that Evola ended up far out on a philosophical and political limb, secure in his eternal Self perhaps, but well beyond the reach of normal common sense or human connectedness.
While the younger Evola had projected his hopes for a restored higher order onto the rising stars of Nazism and Fascism – though not without his own misgivings and conflicts – their defeat, and the subsequent failure of any new opposition arising to counter the Capitalist-Communist hegemony, ultimately convinced him that the “integrated man” could only look after himself and tend to his own metaphysical garden.
Such an individual might “ride the tiger” of the collapsing epoch, avoid being eaten, and eventually get the better of the tiring beast. Although Evola’s prior book, Men Among the Ruins, still held out the hope of a transcendent meaning being found in helping to push a corrupt and dissolving society to the point of total collapse – thus hastening a possible restoration of Traditional values in a reconstituted civilization – by the time he authored Ride the Tiger, he had apparently given up even that last-ditch hope of constructive destruction.(4)
Men Among the Ruins spelled out a no holds barred vision of a new European Imperium ordered along corporatist lines, but with its neo-fascism guided by higher transcendent principles, with even less of a nod in the direction of populism than its goose-stepping predecessors. It was the kind of vision guaranteed to attract only those who assumed that they’d get to call the shots once this “higher order” was imposed. Everyone else would be relegated to their proper place, obeying the orders of the spiritual elite.
Beginning in the 1950s, new generations of European neo-fascists latched onto Evola’s thought and saw in its conceptions of a traditional “warrior view of life” a rationale to justify their romance with terrorism. But Evola – partially paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair, due to war-time injuries – ultimately renounced politics altogether and proposed apoliteia instead. In Ride the Tiger, Evola notes:
. . . I mentioned the few who by temperament and vocation still think today, in spite of everything, about the possibility of a rectifying, political action. Men Among the Ruins was written with their ideological orientation in mind. But on the basis of experience we must admit the lack of the necessary premises to reach any concrete, appreciable results in a struggle of this kind. On the other hand, I have specified within these pages a human type of a different orientation, although spiritually related to those others who will fight on even in hopeless positions. After taking stock of the situation, this type can only feel disinterested and detached from everything that is “politics” today. His principle will become apoliteia, as it was called in ancient times.
It is important to emphasize that this principle refers essentially to the inner attitude.”(5)
This inner attitude – the object of Evola’s final allegiance – comes down to “the principle of purely being oneself. This is what remains after the elimination of what philosophy calls ‘heteronomous morality,’ or morality based on an external law or command.” Evola advocates, instead, an “autonomous morality” where “the command is internal, separate from any external mover, and is not based on hypothetical law extracted from practical reason that is valid for all and revealed to man’s conscience as such, but rather on one’s own specific being.”(6)
This specific being, in Evola’s view, should be “the supra-individual principle of the person . . . [not] that which they call the ‘physical I’.” Evola says little in Ride the Tiger about how to access this supra-individual principle – for which the reader is directed to the rest of Evola’s esoteric/metaphysical oeuvre.
If we restrict our gaze to the purely metaphysical plane, Evola’s insights are not without merit. He recognizes that very few feel compelled to persist in the inner discipline which may result in a “supra-individual” consciousness. Evola’s “heroic” approach to surmounting inner demons and storming Heaven does have its traditional antecedents, although it is a far cry from more familiar mystical paths, which Evola criticized as being unduly passive and “feminine.” “Purely being oneself” – where the Self doing the being is not one’s ego but the particularization of the Infinite that happens to coincide with one’s body-mind complex – is nothing to sniff at.
However, the question remains whether, ultimately, Evola was chiefly engaged in a solipsistic exercise of viewing the world in a drastically negative fashion from on high, for which the only appropriate expression was to distance oneself from all “normal” life.
The same dilemma can be found in the absolutist world view of the Situationists, the ’60s ultra-leftist critics of “the Spectacle,” who painted themselves into a theoretical corner by relentlessly critiquing all efforts to change things for the better as being inevitably cuperated or insufficiently revolutionary. Evola and the Situationists shared almost no premises or goals in common – beyond, perhaps, an equal contempt for the Left and Right – but they ultimately found themselves in a similar cul-de-sac based on faulty premises. We’ll leave a discussion of the Situationist fallacy for another time, but a consideration of Evola’s fatal obtuseness is apropos in order to evaluate what is valuable and what deserves rejection in his works.+ + +
To begin, while many would agree that today’s secularized, materialist society finds little place for the sacred or transcendent in daily life, it does not logically follow that an ideal “Golden Age” ever existed in which spiritual, cultural, and political (or ruling) concerns were harmoniously arranged. Employing the Hindu template of vast cosmic “Yugas” (Ages), the relatively brief era of recorded human history is swept into the Kali Yuga, the last and darkest Age. Within such a scheme, the present is, ipso facto, seen as the nadir of human existence.
This judgment may be satisfying to a certain kind of alienated psychology that sees the world “through a glass darkly,” and which enjoys asserting that “everything is crap,” but there is no more support for this sweeping indictment than there is for a Pollyanna-ish attitude that asserts that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Evola’s dismissal of the insights of depth psychology left him remarkably unreflective about the possible roots of his own prickliness. His disavowal of “feelings” and his unwillingness to compromise throughout his life suggest a lop-sided development that would inevitably result in profound blind-spots in judging an imperfect world.
A cursory examination of world literature would reveal to the balanced eye that equal proportions of pain and joy, harmony and discord, purity and corruption, and consciousness and blindness have always been part of the human condition.(7) Evola seems to have been impervious to this simple truth, preferring instead to blame unseen dark forces for why things didn’t match his exacting standards.(8)
While the Traditionalists may have been astute in dismissing New Age evolutionist philosophies that assert that we are undergoing an ever-increasing spiritualization and enlightenment of humanity, at the same time one has to look askance at Traditionalist devolutionary philosophies that bemoan each new day as more benighted than the last.
Evola was clearly not firing on all pistons if he thought that a New Order under the auspices of the Nazis or Fascists would have improved matters one iota. Worse still, he collaborated with the SS in analyzing the confiscated archives of Masonic and occult groups deemed subversive, in order to prepare a “Secret History of Secret Societies.”(9) This work was apparently lost in the Allied bombing that left Evola paralyzed from the waist down, a darkly ironic injury for one who placed such a high value on the power of virility.
Evola’s pro-Nazi stance may have fit his self-conception as a superior being beyond conventional morality and able to strategically choose his allies according to whom might best further his own goals of reinstating a Traditional order. In other words, Evola may not have betrayed his own integrity in aligning himself with forces that the world has come to view as thoroughly evil, but one has to question the premises that led to such an inverted sense of integrity in the first place.
The other Traditionalists – who were certainly not without their warts and failings – were also elitist and believed that some rare individuals were a cut above the herd. But in bonding their notions of Tradition to the timeless ideals of the great religions, they confirmed that the superior man works on behalf of the rest of humanity (and all Creation, in fact), not just on behalf of himself or some timeless principles. This crucial compassion is entirely missing in Evola’s thought.
Evola may have stipulated painstaking standards of inner being and experience for one to qualify as a “human of a certain disposition” to whom Ride the Tiger is ostensibly addressed, but we can be sure that his skinhead fans no more qualify as “differentiated men” than abortion clinic bombers qualify as “good Christians.”
Although Evola’s constant reference point is the eternal principles embodied in Tradition, this transcendent order is strangely removed from any reciprocal interaction with, or effect upon, our lived material reality. In agreeing with Nietzsche that “God is Dead,” Evola seems to act as if it is up to man – or more precisely, up to Evola and a handful of other “integrated” men – to defend a transcendent Absolute that isn’t quite up to the job Itself. In the end we are left wondering if this is truly a heroic duty or a case of making wine from sour grapes.
Inner Traditions, the publisher of Ride the Tiger and the many other English translations of Evola’s oeuvre, should be commended for making this difficult and damaged thinker more widely available for study and critique. Evola’s command of esotericism was unrivaled in the 20th century, and a close study of his work invariably repays one’s time and effort. But Ride the Tiger, and its companion volume Men Among the Ruins, make all too clear that Evola is best imbibed in carefully measured doses, perhaps filtered through a sugar cube like a strong absinthe. Quaffed unreservedly, as Evola did in drinking his own bile, Evola’s thought can immobilize any moral sense and lead the unwary reader to lie down with monsters, slipping into dreams of a Tradition that never was.
(1) Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003) p. 209.
(2) Ibid., p. 6.
(3) Julius Evola, Men Among the Ruins (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2002) p. 115.
(4) H. T. Hansen, in his “Preface to the American Edition” of Men Among the Ruins, p. xvi, indicates that Ride the Tiger was, in fact, written prior to Men Among the Ruins. Be that as it may, internal evidence would seem to indicate that revised editions of both books resulted in Ride the Tiger’s perspective superceding that of Men Among the Ruins. The possibility remains that Evola was simply addressing each book to a different audience and creating an ideological stance for each.
(5) Ride the Tiger, p. 174.
(6) Ibid., p. 41.
(7) See: Jay Kinney, “The Millennium is a Mirage,” Gnosis Magazine, No. 29, Fall, 1993, p. 1.
(8) See, for instance, chapter 13 on “Occult War” in Men Among the Ruins.
(9) H. T. Hansen,”Julius Evola’s Political Endeavors,” introduction to Men Among the Ruins, p. 50.
© 2004 by Jay Kinney
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