Action, Contemplation and the Western Tradition

To the modern man, accustomed to consider spirituality as something woolly, abstract, and conceptual, to hear of a spirituality of action could sound strange. However, where spirituality means an impulse of the human being towards an awakening, an inner presence, a liberation from the I and the mine, then action proves to be a powerful instrument of such a self-transcendence. According to Evola, this refers to action purified of selfishness, not subservient to desire but led by a lucid consciousness of ‘doing what is to be done’. This is the path that the Western warlike world has always perceived as its own.

Evola obviously refers to a Western world which existed prior to the advent of the Levantine and Christian ideal of the so-called ‘natural law’ according to which any man is identical to others and his true nature unmodifiable. On the contrary, it is to the vision of the sacred of the white and Indo-European races that he refers when he says: ‘It was through action which Rome knew and achieved spirit, in the form of those who fight and not of those who pray, and achieved it in victory in the ultimate solar form of the Empire’, or, when, quoting Nietzsche, he declares: ‘Beyond ice, North, death – our life, our joy.’

The other path to the sacred, essentially Oriental, to which Guénon attributed supremacy, is that of contemplation, of ‘non-action’: the examination, at first sporadic and vague but thereafter increasingly continuous and crystalline, of one’s body, voice, and ensemble of feelings and thoughts, acknowledging them as mere mirror-images, incapable of modifying in any way the mirror of consciousness, which identifies itself with the true ‘I’.

Action and contemplation, joined in the sole figure of the Universal Sovereign in mythological epochs, subsequently bifurcated into two paths suitable for, and further constituting, two human types.

While Evola, paying more attention to man, attributes a supremacy to the spirituality of action, to royal initiation rather than to sacerdotal initiation, Guénon, taking into greater account man’s function, grants only to the Brahmanic caste the exercise of spiritual faculties and considers the ‘revolt of the Kshatriya’ as a first step towards the decadence of man, who, forgetting his own origin and his own destiny, has ‘abandoned the sky to pursue the earth’.*

A.M.

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Esoterically, when we speak of ‘tradition’, we mean the ‘transmission’ (traditio) from generation to generation of a ‘presence’ of ‘transcendent’ nature, just as a flame lights another flame. A chain of individuals thus becomes the mediator of a continuity of contact with metaphysical reality and a non-human force.

This transmission can happen in an elite existing as a hidden vein behind the great historical and ethnic forces. But it can also occur that the occult shows itself and dominates, that is to say, that, in a given civilisation, all activities become organised around this elite, which becomes their manifest centre, the axis from which they draw their meaning and their orientation in a system of hierarchic participation.

All the original civilisations, albeit to varying degrees, have a traditional character in this sense. It must however be noticed that, from a certain point, a law of differentiation comes into play. When it appears as spirit of a given epoch or civilisation, the metaphysical identity bifurcates itself. In its most immediate manifestation, it produces two distinct trunks and gives rise to two fundamental forms.

The two trunks are: action and contemplation.

The two related forms are: royal initiation and sacerdotal initiation – hence there are two types of tradition: warlike-magic tradition and ascetic-contemplative or Brahmanic tradition.

The Two Traditions

Mortal life’s rule is ‘flow’. It does not possess Being, and, caught in varying external fortunes, it moves, restless, in the world of particular things and temporal interests. This law has been pointed out many times in these pages. Above this is the area of Being, according to which life becomes basis, reason and value in itself, gains stability, possesses in itself its own principle. Identical to that of the incorruptible and the eternal, this area can be reached either by means of Action as well as by means of Contemplative Knowledge.

Action can lead to it insofar as it is pure. At the inferior limit, there is the purity of the one who follows faithfully the rule of his own life and gives to his action the meaning of a rite and of a sacrificial offering. On a higher plane, there is the internalisation and development of this bent in the one who acts without aiming at contingent and particular fruits, considering as the same happiness and calamity, good and evil, even victory and defeat, looking neither at the ‘I’ nor at the ‘you’, overcoming love as well as hatred and any other pair of opposites. This man sets himself free from the individual condition; in the supranatural certainty of a borderline intensity, here ‘life’ is reversed into a ‘more-than-life’ and the contact with a state of light and power is achieved, which surpasses, dominates and carries off everything that is of a merely human or material order, giving way to actions, excitements and visions which would be impossible otherwise. We may summarise this as: heroic state, magic state, state of the Master of the Law. By transposition : warlike caste – warlike-magic and warlike traditions – finally: royal and imperial traditions.

In contemplation the metaphysical state, rather than by the means of assertion and liberation of action, is achieved by rejecting action. In the higher forms it resembles the fire of an intellectual catharsis. The bond of individuation dissolves in knowledge, in universality, in a vision of an eternal kind. It is the impulse towards the One. It is the path of the mystic identifications whose direction is opposed to that which leads towards form and differentiation. To summarise: ascetic (in a specific sense) and sacerdotal state. By transposition: sacerdotal caste, mediator and bearer of the sacred – sacerdotal, hieratic-sapiental and religious-pontifical (the king-priest) traditions.

It should be noted that these two forms of tradition are to be considered as distinct not insofar as that each of them would be based on a term which the other would be deprived of, but, rather, insofar as that each of them has both but in a different hierarchical order. As a matter of fact, the heroic path and the magic path involve ‘asceticism’, yet according to action, achieved as a way of being of action. Conversely, high contemplation is realisation and as such entails the element ‘action’, which, however, remains here dependent on pure knowledge, interest in the universal and pure transcendence. In the same way, on the concrete and historical plane a tradition of a warlike kind can certainly admit sacerdotal castes, but subordinated to the royal and warlike castes, that is to say that it is characterised by a synthesis of what is sacred and what is royal which is determined by the predominance of the active and sovereign aspect of the force from above. The opposite occurs in the other case: for example, here the warlike caste is given the role of defending the sacerdotal caste and of being its secular arm.

The spirit of both traditions having been briefly and approximatively indicated, we offer a few suggestions as to what ‘Western Tradition’ may mean.

The modern world and Christianity

First of all, it must be borne in mind that it is not possible to speak in any way of ‘Tradition’ in the West if one identifies the West with the ‘modern world’, that is, with the civilisation which has developed in Europe from the century of the Renaissance onwards with the ideologies of the French revolution and the advent of science and technology.

Such civilisation, in fact, systematically destroyed the premise of any tradition, whatever type it may be, and, thus, the contact with the metaphysical reality and the hierarchical coordination of the activities and the ways of living based on the principles which are related to this reality. The ‘modern world’ is characterised by a development along purely material, practical, and industrial lines, in which what is at work is completely human and social forces, and, moreover, by the fact that forces once turned towards transcendence, towards what in man goes beyond man, so as to at least counterbalance purely material and temporal interests, instead stir, incite, and foment what has a practical, political, and merely human character, so as to make every higher point of reference vanish.

What opposes the modern world to any traditional civilisation, what is at the root of all its crises and precludes it from healing is not so much its being a body without spirit as its being a body which has reduced the spirit to being its instrument. This is why it is meaningless to refer in any way to a ‘Western Tradition’ if it is the modern West that we have in mind. The modern West and anti-tradition are the same thing. The fact is nonetheless that there were still in Europe, at least until a certain period, centres in possession of esoteric knowledge, that is, of the occult tradition. However, even though those centres had a genuine Western character, they did not exert a direct influence on the formation of the overall civilisation, when it comes to tradition in the broad sense. The modern West has constructed itself by breaking from any influence of that kind. If anything, it is ‘counter-initiation’ (1) which has played this role of influence.

In the second place, it is a matter of not granting to the religion which has come to prevail in the West either the character of a true, complete tradition, or of a ‘Western Tradition’. In support of the second point, Pietro Negri has already made some interesting observations (2). On the whole, what follows must be borne in mind.

No doubt, Christianity, and especially Catholicism, had for centuries the power to organise the various races in the West according to its unique corpus of doctrines and faiths. However, it is questionable whether this corpus retained within itself any higher elements of a truly metaphysical character and whether the organisation which is usually indicated generically as ‘Christian civilisation’ was ever ‘traditional’ in the complete sense of which we have spoken. We must distinguish very clearly between religion as a devotional, emotional, and popular fact accompanied by theologising philosophy, dogma and apologetics, on the one hand, and spirituality as metaphysical realisation by means of regular initiation, on the other. Faith, hope, charity, the ‘need of the soul’, the ‘fear of God’, and all elements of that kind by themselves do not lead by an inch beyond what is merely human, nor have they had anything to do with true spirituality, either with a heroic spirituality or a tradition of sacred knowledge.

But it is precisely a body of elements of that kind which, in fact, makes up the substance of the Christian tradition, in which it takes the place of spirituality, and this results in the frequent and contaminating humanisation of the divine. That, in spite of this, in rites and symbols taken to a large extent from previous or different traditions, the consciousness of the most profound meaning of which is however almost always nonexistent, the Christian tradition still retains traces of a metaphysical teaching – this is too little for a real and operative traditional ‘orthodoxy’, as opposed to a merely formal one.

The human, devotional plane, or rather the plane of theological speculation onto which these traditional traces have been transposed and within which they have been preserved, is not a plane on which they can be completely validated. And it is Catholicism itself which gives the confirmation of this: with the harsh loathing it has always nursed for any attempt to complete on esoteric lines its doctrines – from some ‘non-orthodox’ branches of the Greek Patristic Age and that of the Gnostics to that of the Templars and of various Christian Hermeticists, and to today. Nowadays, Catholicism worries much more about ‘getting sorted out’ with ‘modern thought’ than about gaining height in any way through elements of esoteric character.

Experientially, leaving aside the merely charismatic or sacramental life, whose significance we will speak of on another occasion, in Christianity everything comes down to the climactic achievements of some mystics, who do not form any tradition, any continuity or chain and do not have any determining, standard-setting, regular or direct relation with the centre of orthodoxy. Moreover, Christianity cannot claim, with respect to the West, the character of a native tradition, congenital to its races, as is the case for, for instance, Brahmanism for Hindus, Islam for the Arabs, or the whole Far-Eastern tradition. Christianity asserted itself in the West on the ruins of a previous Western tradition, which had its achieved heroic and sacred traditional character; with that former world it has maintained only a very relative and apparent continuity, in spite of everything it has borrowed and has sought to absorb and ratify.

A great part has been played within Christianity by influences that are in no way Western or even, more broadly, Aryan: influences deriving either from Judaism or from the devious substratum of pre-Aryan and anti-Aryan Mediterranean spirituality. In some cases, these influences are limited to the superficial, to the most popular and sentimental aspects of Christianity. In other cases, however, they corrode the essence. The doctrine of Original Sin, the exacerbated dualism, the very concept of ‘Redemption’, the anti-Olympian root theme of the god who suffers, dies, and rises again, all this shows the presence of external influences, neither Aryan, nor Western, in Christianity and in Catholicism itself (3).

This is why we think that, in regard to the ‘modern world’ and to the ‘Christian world’, it would be risky to speak, in general, of a ‘Western tradition’.

The Real Western Tradition

This is no longer the case, however, if we return to the ancient Aryo-Mediterranean and Roman world. We find here, albeit interspersed with forces from various other traditions, traces of a formative force and of a spirituality to which the true face of the West can be specifically attributed. This force and this spirituality refer to a tradition of an essentially heroic type. If, from the principle, already indicated, which defines a warlike tradition we deduce its expression on the plane of conditioned events, we find forms and ideas which characterise precisely the Western civilisation and spirit. On the most external plane, the law of action actually finds expression in the style of races of navigators, conquerors, colonisers – in the Homeric and Roman epic world: a free, liberated, heroic world, devoid of uncertainties, of any idea of an ‘infinite’ in the romantic sense, constituted of simple forces and elementary purities: the Doric style, the Roman virtus, the monumental element, the solar ideal of the Imperium, the type of Augustus.

Further, action requires objects, limits, boundaries: it implies form, difference, individuation. While within a sacerdotal tradition form [there] is almost always only symbol, concealment of a mysterious, ineffable, incorporeal spirituality, in the opposite tradition the form almost always gains importance and value. Here the physical and the metaphysical, the material and the immaterial, the corporeal and the incorporeal coincide in the balance of two coessential terms, in very distinct and intensively individuated types and forms. In fact, here we find the classico-Aryan cult of form, strength, corporeal perfection, of beauty itself as expressions of spirituality; here is a natural overcoming of the dualisms of Levantine character; here is the anti-romantic doctrine, and, therefore, everything that is ‘infinite’ is seen as an abstract potentiality, an imperfection and the finite, on the contrary, is seen as a value, recognising in it the limit of a force which has managed to give a form, a law, an achieved individuality to itself. The particular value assumed by law refers, partly, to the same order of ideas.

The eye which stops at form and at limit sees harmony and number. Hence, from the time of Mediterranean antiquity, in Greece and in Rome, we see the blossoming of sacred sciences based on number and harmony; a heritage perhaps esoteric, within which precedents in Chaldea, but, more immediately, Egyptian contributions of archaic Atlantico-Western origin, assume a very special development. If, compared with such sciences, the quantitative method of the modern exact sciences (which were formed almost exclusively in the West) represents a degenerative deviation, yet it is a degeneration which starts from the same stock. Something similar could even be said of Western rationalism, which started in Greece: the passion for the concept in the sense of distinct, definite, precise notion, which means this and nothing else, in the sense of notion which measures (mens could derive from mensurare, and a similar derivation can be supposed for ratio) is something specifically Western, which equally reveals the law of action, which, asserting itself, implies limit, difference.

When it prevails over contemplation, action thus moves in a definite world, constituted of forms, governed by a law of difference and, therefore, of plurality too: many forces, many consciousnesses, many types, distinct and unmistakable, almost ‘Microcosms within the Macrocosm’, since each of them contains and resolves in its own being the amorphous cosmic possibility. What is thus particularly significant for the Western Tradition is the Aristotelian vision of the world, which is characterised by the fact that, in a being, it considers what is ‘universal’ as less real, more abstract, incomplete (steresis – privation (of being)); the particular, on the contrary, it considers to be what has value, what is desirable, what is more than real, the fulfillment or end (telos) of a being. The Aristotelian doctrine of the sunolon is that, specifically classic, doctrine of the idea or of the ‘engendering force’ which is really real when it actualises itself, individuates itself, asserts itself as power and life of a form, in an indissoluble unity.

Naturally, this should not lead us to attribute to the Western vision of the world a mere pluralism or individualism. There is still a unity, the world is not pure plurality, but rather cosmos, uni-verse, divine order. However, in a warlike tradition, this unity does not have the exclusivist emphasis that the opposite tradition, the ascetic-contemplative one, grants it. Whence, too, the sense of polytheism of the pre-Christian Western world, considerably different from the Oriental one: it is focused, above all, on the concrete and individuated form of the divine powers at work in things, in heroes, in completed types as living works of art, within this clear and harmonious cosmos whose beauty the poets would sing and whose hidden laws and secret analogies the initiates would penetrate.

What is also typical is the importance that, especially in the ancient Roman world, the notion of numen had. The ancient Roman-Occidental man was inclined to conceive any divinity not so much as deus but rather as numen, that is, as a force, a power, which was defined essentially through its action. Moreover, he would differentiate himself from the Greek spirit by the emphasis he would put on the political and historical element. While, in Greece, the contemplative tendency saw to it that the divine world was conceived of as a sort of atemporal supraworld and, so to speak, as absolute space, Rome strained to grasp this world in its manifestation in time, in history, in the state, in the actions and creations of men, without however diminishing its august character in any manner thereby. The Roman, much more than the Jew, had the sense of a sacred history. The Roman conception of the state, of law, and of the Imperium was based essentially on this historical sense, active and sacred at the same time. The warlike and political caste in Rome typically held a sacred dignity.

Many traces of the ‘heroic truth’ were found in the West on the plane of initiatic myth too. Among the origin myths opposed to that, also present in the archaic Mediterranean, of the ‘fall’, there is that of the ‘heroes’ and of the sons greater than their fathers, who dominated the Mothers and reconquered the realm of the killed father.

This mysterious knowledge, which sometimes appears as that of the ‘immaterial race of those without king’, passed into certain initiatic currents, in the symbols of which new references to the active, creative spirit are not lacking. We will limit ourselves to indicating the symbolism of building and to recalling how in Hermetism it is spoken of not as much as a knowledge but rather as an art, which was generally called ars regia. Its formula: ‘corporealise the spirit, spiritualise the body’, reconfirms the anti-mystical and anti-ecstatic classico-Occidental ideal. The red and the gold, and not the white, mark here the supreme fulfillment. In the Graal [wouldn’t ‘Grail’ be more appropriate?] tradition the warlike theme and the Regnum motif reappear, as they will continue to do in secret centres until the period of the later Rosicrucianism. More generally, we must note the persistence in the very Western Middle Ages of the symbol of magic, which, instead of exhausting itself on the lower plane of a mere science of psychic powers, was closely linked to a particular interpretation of the initiatic ideal. And if, as pointed out, the development of positive sciences is a characteristic of the West, it is based on the tendency to an active knowledge and to a clarity which, even though it fell to a lower level and exerted itself only in a material and physical field, is nonetheless significant as a component of the Western spiritual attitude.

Christianity, whose external, non-Western and non-Aryan aspects have already been pointed out by us, is a maimed and truncated tradition of the hieratic-sacerdotal type which has managed to prevail over a tradition of the heroic type which predominated in the most ancient Mediterranean and, in general, Aryo-Western world.

But Christianity achieved this supremacy only insofar it adapted many forms peculiar to traditions different from it, especially that of Rome. It was more Roman Catholicism than Christianity which won in the West and, in its turn, Catholicism had its golden age in the feudal, knightly and crusading Middle Ages; and, until it decayed into mere spurious forms, the active and conquering contribution found expression in the proselytising, missionary, and supremacist instinct that Christianity displayed, from its beginnings to Protestantism and Calvinism.

The tradition to which the event in Palestine gave birth has thus the character of an ambiguous and almost contradictory thing. However, it is precisely to this contradictoriness that Christianity owes its force; it has given to it, until lately, the means to control races congenitally inspired by a warlike tradition, such as the Western one, before their complete secularisation and terrestrialisation. If Christianity is a counterfeiting of a tradition of a really sacred, ascetico- metaphysical, Brahmanic type, the ‘modern world’, which from one day to the next is undermining what remains of the Western religion, represents in its turn, in many respects, a teratological counterfeiting of a tradition of a warlike type.

It is therefore clear that, if it had been at all possible to rebuild a ‘tradition’ in the West, it could only essentially have been done via forces of a heroico-initiatic character, on the basis of a vision of the world of a more or less magical type (in the special sense that is always given here to this word).

Any attempt at a traditional Restoration along other lines in the West would meet quite definite difficulties and would lack any point of application. If this body of barbarian grandeur that the West has built with its civilisation reacted against any soul, that is to say, against any supernatural element intended to recapture it, to hold it up, and to lead it, this reaction would be particularly vigorous if the soul were different from that of the warlike and active races whose degenerated heir the West is.

Clarifications

Just as the West is mainly stamped by the tradition of action, the East is mainly stamped with the tradition of contemplation. We say ‘mainly’ because the East too has known heroic and imperial cycles, and, for instance, it is difficult to find elsewhere such advanced motifs of transcendent justification as in the Bhagavad-Gita. In addition, the example of imperial and warlike Japan, in which, until the collapse of 1945, the ascetic formation of life played a great part, not to mention the frankly esotericist Zen schools, must not be forgotten. Further, for those who understand the tradition in which action prevails over contemplation equally with the one in which we have the opposite relation, as two paths both possible and competent [better as ‘able’] to reach something which is beyond both action and contemplation, independent, as it is, of any particular conditionality, there is no contradiction between the two. These people will abstain from judging either tradition, they will limit themselves to understanding them and realising the truths, the perspectives and the principles that must be asserted, once, according to one’s own nature, one adheres to one tradition or the other.

There is on the other hand an opposition between them and those who insist on the ‘orthodoxy’ and supremacy of one of the two traditions, condemning the other as a deviation and an error. This would merely produce the effect of a mental limitation. Yet we must eliminate any cause of misunderstanding by underlining that the supremacy of action in the tradition which corresponds to it has nothing to do with the usurpation of temporal power, since action always amounts here to a means of liberation and has always as its point of reference something transcendent and supersensible.

Ancient royalty can give us points of reference in this connection. Others can be given by Oriental traditions, for instance by the Hindu one, when it speaks of Rajarshi, those who used to be simultaneously clairvoyants and keepers of the tradition of ‘solar’ knowledge, or when, in the Upanishads, we see figures of Kshatriya (warriors) competing in sacred knowledge with the representatives of the Brahmanic caste. Besides, we must recall the forms of unity of the two powers which appeared in ancient Rome and reappeared, here and there, as residues, in the Middle Ages.

What can be called the primordial tradition is anterior and superior to the bipartition we have discussed. The active path and the contemplative path, let us repeat, are approximations to this supreme unity. When it comes to analogy, despite some people’s views, the active and warlike path, as explained here, has at least as much dignity as the other, because, fundamentally, it comprises both principles joined in the supreme synthesis, which is not simply light and liberation, but light and liberation joined in power with the basic principle of any manifestation and determination and with sovereignty.

On that basis, it would be appropriate to mention something to which we may come back later: the idea that the warlike-royal tradition leads normally and legitimately only to the ‘Lesser Mysteries’. This is an arbitrary limitation deriving from an abstract doctrinal scheme, which becomes completely absurd when, rather than speaking of ‘Lesser Mysteries’ and ‘Greater Mysteries’ as degrees in the same development but as attaining a transcendent character only in the latter, they speak of the duality of the lunar, Demetrian or telluric mysteries on the one hand, and the solar or Ouranic mysteries on the other; since, according to a better founded doctrine, the ‘Lesser Mysteries’ can be associated with the former of these, it is obvious that there is a contradiction between them and the tradition of royalty, except in a few cases of evident degeneration.

In any case, we have now set forth succinctly the general principles on the basis of which the problem of the duality of traditions can be understood, before turning to what follows from it in the study of the metaphysic of history.

Ea

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* The texts published in a series of booklets under the name of Ur, from 1927 to 1928, and Krur, in 1929, were compiled and published in 1955 and 1956 in three volumes by Bocca as Introduzione alla Magia quale Scienza dell’Io (Introduction to Magic as Science of the Self), then, again in three volumes, by Edizioni Mediterranee in 1971, by Tilopa in 1980 and 1981, and by Fratelli Melita Editori in 1987. The latter of these, to quote the publisher, ‘can be considered as an updated edition of that collective work. Compared to the original, it differs in (the exclusion of) texts which have in the meantime been republished verbatim or in further developed form elsewhere by their respective authors, and in that certain monographs have been substituted for others of the same general nature, following a principle of greater coordination, completeness and essentiality, but in the same spirit as the original edition, which followed the criterion of organic and chronological progression.’ The currently available edition in English, Introduction to Magic, Rituals and Practical Techniques for the Magus (Inner Traditions, 2001) contains only approximately one-third of the original texts, but not ‘Sull’“Azione” e la “Contemplazione” e la Tradizione occidentale’.

(1) Pietro Negri: ‘Della tradizione occidentale’ (Introduzione alla Magia quale Scienza dell’Io, Fratelli Melita Editori, vol II p. 58) – (‘About the Western Tradition’).

(2) Arvo: ‘Sulla contro-iniziazione’ (‘On the Counter-Initiation’) (ibid., vol. I p. 268) – (‘On the Counter-Initiation’, Introduction to Magic, Inner Traditions, 2001).

(3) It must also be noted that, while almost all the greater regular traditions had as their ‘sacred language’ that of the races in which they formed, this is not the case for the Christian-Catholic tradition, which, in this respect too, appears to be hybrid: its sacred language is Latin, the ancient language of Rome, while the Old and New Testaments, which are the basis of this tradition, were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Coptic.

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