Back to Eternity!

Eternity

CULTURE wars and alternative facts have become the battleground of modern politics – or at least they have for some on the right of the political spectrum. It is often said that the problem with the Left is that it still thinks that political thinking is still about, well, politics, while the Right has shifted to culture. It’s not that they are simply on different sides – they are on different playing fields. We all know about the phenomenon of ‘alternative facts’ and the so-called ‘post-truth era’, but is this more than just a political strategy by the Right in order to gain power? According to Benjamin R. Teitelbaum there is much more.

Teitelbaum is a Professor of ethnography at the University of Colorado, but he is also an award-winning expert on the radical right. His new book War for Eternity focuses on an obscure philosophical movement called Traditionalism. It would probably have remained in obscurity had it not been adopted by people in real power, or at least those who have at one time or another attracted the attention of those in power – people like Steve Bannon and advisors to Putin and Bolsonaro. Teitelbaum has been studying Traditionalism for years and argues that it underpins the intellectual justification of much of the populist right, including Nigel Farage. According to Teitelbaum Traditionalists set themselves against modernity – that is, they are opposed to modern secularism, socialism – even capitalism – and universal values like human rights, all of which they see as illegitimate forces working to replace their preferred social, cultural and political hierarchies.

Teitelbaum writes: “Traditionalists follow Hinduism in believing that human history has always cycled through four distinct ages from a gold age to a silver to bronze and to the dark before moving back to gold and starting the cycle again.” Each age belongs to a particular type of person descending from a priestly or spiritual class (gold), down through warrior (silver), merchant (bronze) and, finally the slavery of the dark age.

The golden spiritual age

There are variations in the structure of this hierarchy but all Traditionalists believe that we are currently in the dark ages and, while Hinduism says that this cycle can take millions of years to complete, they believe that it can take place over a much shorter, human timescale. There is a a certain fatalism in all of this, of course, but Traditionalists believe that one can accelerate the decay of the dark ages in order to return to the golden age all the sooner. It is in this context that phrases like ‘creative destruction’ and ‘make America great again’ gain a new resonance.

One of Traditionalism’s leading thinkers is the Italian Julius Evola, who added a layer of cultural bigotry with ‘whiter, Aryan people constituting a historical ideal atop those with darker skins – Semites, Africans, and other non-Aryans’. Chillingly, he saw tyrants like Hitler and Mussolini as a kind of destructive ‘readjustment’. And Bannon saw Trump as a destructive force, hastening the end of the dark ages (the fact that Trump saw himself as a builder may have contributed to the rift between them).

Fundamentally, Traditionalists are opposed to the very idea of progress while cyclical time gives them the intellectual cover for this view because the concept ‘recognises no past, present, or future’.

The cycle of life

Teitelbaum writes: “Those attuned to cyclic time do not attempt to progress toward a a previously unrealized state of virtue, condemning the present and the past in the process.” Further: “The cycle also entails a motion from the central core, away to its edges, and back again – centripetal and centrifugal. It entails movement of departure from the illusion of time and progress, and movement of return back towards the core of eternal truth, on and on.”

Teitelbaum argues that one of the most disturbing aspects of Traditionalism – apart from questions about the truth of cyclic time as such and, in particular its Hindu manifestation- is not its cultural bigotry, which some adherents don’t agree with anyway, but the idea that we can never make progress. The fact that we no longer hang, draw or quarter people or legalize profit from enslaving people is irrelevant. What’s important is a return to the golden age of spirituality, even if that entails a return to barbaric practices and enslavement. Indeed, the very notion of slavery has been turned on its head so that we in our Western ‘modernity’ are not actually free but enslaved by materialism and consumerism. In fact, some of their concerns about what some call the psycho-politics of Big Data and neoliberalism does have some resonance . Those on the Left, however, are more likely to seek ways of countering the wilful ignorance that goes hand-in-hand with psycho-politics in an attempt to encourage more critically aware and engaged citizens; while Traditionalists are more likely to see psycho-politics as a welcome sign of the degeneration of the dark ages on the way to spiritual renewal.

For some this choice is no real choice at all because they will find nothing intellectually attractive about Traditionalism, but in so far as it is important to know how at least some quite influential people think, then Teitelbaum has done us all a favour.

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Dickie, I am occasionally troubled by the suspicion that the pursuit of philosophical speculation is not just a waste of mental energy but a distraction from proper concern with moral and interpersonal values. Do we really expect to find “eternal truth” in the laughable mythology which formed the basis for Wagnerian opera? After all, in the XX Century, “some quite influential people” – to quote your own phrase – took them seriously. Doesn’t there have to be some regard for truth. So how are we to mark out XXI Century “Traditionalism”? C>Browne.

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  2. Hi Christopher, thanks for your comment. I think that far from being a distraction from the ‘proper concern with moral and interpersonal values’ philosophy is the home of such concerns but also concerns about the nature of truth itself and much else. When you start thinking about ethics you are indeed beginning to philosophize. That’s not to say that all philosophical thinking is true or even reasonable. Traditionalism is, I think, an example where philosophical thinking has gone awry, but it doesn’t follow that we should, therefore, abandon all philosophical thinking. Indeed, it is philosophical thinking that can expose falsehoods, if not always establish unassailable truth. The use of logic, a useful tool for philosophers, can identify and clarify the form of an argument and help to isolate its weaknesses. In Traditionalism, for example, the claim that life if cyclical in the specific form claimed by Hinduism is not backed up by any evidence and is a matter of pure faith and, therefore, not something that need trouble us too much even though it is a central premise of their argument. Scientists like Stephen Hawking speculated about a cyclic cosmos but that is on such a vast scale as to be useless for any human concerns. What is troubling is that some influential people are attracted to Traditionalism, but at least books like Teitelbaum and, hopefully, my blog can help to expose their thinking, the better to counter it. I certainly don’t think that Traditionalism is the way to go and I hope that this blog does not imply that I do.

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