The Problem of Decadence

It may be in politics that the difference of nature between the ancient Indo-European world and the ‘modern world’ is most striking. The former is aristocratic, whereas, in the latter, what prevails is the political regime which was considered as the worst of all by Aristotle, democracy, which, as shown by Plato, through the excess of liberty which characterises it, has tyranny as a natural outcome, it being understood that, reassuming in this the traditional Indo-European world-outlook, Plato and Aristotle criticise liberty only in that it is given to all, to people who, by nature, are not made for it, or, at least, not to the same extent. According to this view, man has a specific function dictated by his own nature and man can only fulfill himself by performing this function well. This view is thus a hierarchic one. Aristocracy is based on an objective qualitative fact of life: natural hierarchy. By holding in common a fundamental premise, the equality and freedom of all human beings no matter what their race and their sex, the political theories born out of the Enlightenment deny this natural hierarchy, base of any society worth of the name, and, practically, what this leads to is an inverted hierarchy: in the ‘modern world’, the best do not rule, it is the worst who rule, or, to put it more accurately, who ‘manage’, in a chaos that they feed and intensify. Following in Aristotle’s footsteps, René Guénon describes and analyses from a metaphysical standpoint this state of affairs in the sixth chapter of ‘La Crise du Monde moderne’, translated and prefaced by Julius Evola (‘La Crisi del Mondo moderno’, Hoepli, 1937) : ‘Le Chaos social’. This chapter, revised, was to be published in the Fascist paper Lo Stato in April 1936, as ‘Suggestioni sociali, Democrazia ed Elite’ (‘Social Suggestions, Democracy and Elite’). At the end of the 60’s, ‘the friends of the Ar group’ (Ar Edizioni is a publisher of books by Evola) decided to publish it, in an anthology called ‘Gerarchia e Democrazia’ (‘Hierarchy and Democracy’), along with two articles by Evola, also taken from Lo Stato and written at the same period, ‘Sull’Essenza e la Funzione attuale dello Spirito aristocratico’, October 1941 (‘On the true Essence and Function of the aristocratic Spirit’) and ‘Il Problema della Decadenza’, May 1938 (‘The Problem of Decadence’). ‘Il Problema della Decadenza’ was already translated into English and can be found on various Internet sites, as ‘The Secret of Degeneration’. The translation we propose here is a ne varietur one.


One of the most typical dogmas of so-called ‘modern thought’ in all its scientistic, rationalistic, illuministic and positivistic forms was the myth of ‘progress’, the interpretation of history as an uninterrupted ‘evolution’ of humanity, the latter conceived of uniformly, any articulation of mankind according to spiritual ideas, traditions, castes, or hierarchical traditional units being considered by that ‘modern thought’ as being peculiar to outdated stages of that so-called ‘evolution’. It is known that, by force of tragic experiences, such ‘myth’ has had its day: although it can still often be found in the methodological premises of various scientistic disciplines, the fields of culture and science being the ultimate strongholds of resistance in any outdated cycle of civilisation, the evolutionist and progressive myth, with regard to the political and social reality and the general vision of history, is nevertheless completely discredited ; and among the new forces suffused with the consciousness of these hard and tragic times, there is no lack of tendencies which return to more or less opposed views, peculiar to the greatest ancient traditions, to which this ‘evolutionist’ myth is totally foreign, for these are characterised on the contrary by the sense of a process of decadence, of a slow darkening or of a fall from a higher, primordial world. The fact that this view is singularly and impersonally shared by the traditions of the most different peoples, and not only in general, but also in detail, is, to a large extent, a proof that this is no mere philosophical attitude: in this connection, the reassumption of ideas of this kind must not be judged, as is erroneously thought in certain circles, as the contingent product of a certain pessimistic state of mind, as a sort of reflection of a state of crisis, but as the foreboding, though confused in most cases, of something far more real.

Anyone who wants to go deeper into this idea, both new and traditional or antievolutionist at the same time, cannot avoid tackling a further order of researches, to begin with those which are related to the mystery of decadence.

In a superficial sense, it cannot be said of this problem that it is new. For instance, in front of the grandiose remnants of magnificent civilisations, whose names sometimes haven’t even reached us, but whose very monumental traces often seem to reflect on earth the greatness and the power of supraterrestrial things, there is not a single person who has not posed to himself the problem of the death of civilisations and has not sensed the inadequacy of most of the explanations given in this regard by researchers. To de Gobineau, father of racism, we owe one of the best formulations of this problem and, at the same time, a masterly and documented criticism of all the main theories proposed for the explanation of the phenomenon. However, the solution suggested by de Gobineau, according to us, has no great persuasive power, and the part it contains which is correct needs to be completed by considerations of a higher order. As noted, to de Gobineau, a civilisation develops, lives on, and dominates as long as in its center the race that created it remains pure ; it decays and dissolves as soon as this purity begins to vanish, bloods mix, an ethnic chaos occurs. Somewhere else ( J. EVOLA: ‘Revolt against the Modern World’, Chapters X and XXII), we have said why such a thesis is insufficient and basically ends up taking the causes for the effects, since we think that the creative virtues of any superior race cannot be purely and simply explained by the mere biological factor, which is itself only an effect of another cause. Here we will merely point out that in many cases a civilisation declines even where crossbreeding cannot be alleged and the original race has remained substantially pure. This is particularly visible among certain savage populations, caught in a fatal process of slow death, though ethnically they remained closed in upon themselves almost hermetically. There are examples which are closer: Stapel has reminded us that the Swedes and the Dutch, racially, are nowadays more or less what they were two centuries ago, and yet, now, there is no longer even a ghost of the heroic civilisation which was theirs at that time. Other great civilisations and their related states sometimes seem to have survived as mummies ; without any visible alterations, they died a long time ago and they live on in appearance only. The slightest blow is thus enough to reduce them to powder. Among those who are best known to us, a typical case is offered by ancient Peru, this magnificent, immense, ‘solar’ empire, which a bunch of adventurers sufficed to destroy.

The mystery of decadence becomes even more obscure in a specifically doctrinal presentation of the problem. In this presentation, it is necessary to start from a dualism of types of civilisation, and, consequently, of state. On one hand, there are the traditional civilisations, diverse in form, but identical in their principle; these are civilisations in which spiritual and supra-individual forces and values are the axis and the supreme point of reference of the hierarchic organisation, of the setting up and the justification of all subordinated reality. On the other hand, there is modern civilisation, antitradition, pure construction made of human, terrestrial, individualist or collectivist factors, complete development of all that life entirely separated from ‘supra-life’ is capable of. We owe to René Guénon a classical presentation and a concluding justification of this fundamental view with respect to the morphology of civilisation. On this view, the meaning of history is a decadence, for history shows us a disappearance of previous civilisations of ‘traditional’ type and the more and more precise and general advent of a new common civilisation of ‘modern’ type.

Here, the problem we are faced with is double. How is it, in general, that this was possible? Evolutionism is entirely based on a logical impossibility, since it is impossible that the greater comes from the less and the superior from the inferior. But are we not confronted with a similar difficulty when we wish to explain involution? How is it possible that what is superior degenerate?

Certainly, mere analogies are hastily proposed as solutions ; the sane man can indeed get sick ; the virtuous can become vicious ; a natural law, which does not come as a surprise to anyone, sees to it that any organism, after birth, growth and maturity, gets old, weakens, dies ; and so on. But all this is a statement of fact, not an explanation, even assuming that there is a complete analogy between both orders of things, which is doubtful in states and in civilisations, since the forces of will play a very different part in them than in these natural phenomena.

The mystery, we were saying, is double, because we must explain not only decadence within a given world, but also the possibility that this decadence, once it has asserted itself in a given world, may have been able to ruin and implicate all the rest. To express ourselves in a more concrete way, we would say that, for instance, we must not only explain how the ancient Western traditional reality could degenerate and give birth to modern civilisation, but how the latter could get under control almost the whole earth, perverting the various peoples of any other kind of civilisation, asserting itself even where states with ‘traditional’ characters seemed to exist – in this connection, let us just cite the Eastern Indo-Germanic civilisations, not to mention Islam and China.

Concerning this, it cannot just be said that it is a matter of mere material and political conquest, and this, for two reasons. In the first place, in the long run, a country materially conquered cannot but be subjected to influences of another order, coming from the type of civilisation of its conquerors, and, as a matter of fact, we see that the European conquest has spread to some extent everywhere a ferment of europeanisation, that is to say of modernisation, of materialism, of antitraditional and individualist spirit. In the second place, and we are coming here onto an essential point, the traditional conception of civilisation and of state is hierarchic, and not dualistic. One who holds this conception could not subscribe without reservation to the ‘give to Caesar’ and ‘my kingdom is not of this world’. Tradition is to us the victorious and creative presence in the world of what ‘is not of this world’, that is to say of spirit, conceived of as something stronger than any purely material and simply human force. The antithesis between spirit and power, the opposition between strength and authority is only, once again, a characteristic of ‘modern’ thought.

Once this is admitted, as it must be from a strictly traditional standpoint, it is clear that one cannot speak simply, and almost rashly, of a merely material conquest. The material conquest appears to us as a spiritual ‘retreat’ when it comes to civilisations which were defeated and lost their autonomy. If in any case the spirit, conceived of as tradition requires, that is to say as the strongest of all forces, had in fact been present, it would not have lacked the means, more or less invisible, direct or indirect, to overcome any technical and material superiority. We must thus conclude that, wherever the West was able to inflict defeat, the traditional appearances hid a degeneration already in progress. The West would then appear as the civilisation in which an already general crisis assumed the most acute form, in which the decadence peculiar to ‘modern thought’, so to speak, ‘became precipitated’ and, getting organised, could sweep away more or less easily the other peoples, in which, even though they were at far less advanced stages of involution, tradition did not possess its original force any more, and, for this reason, they were able to be subjected from the outside to the force of events.

On the basis of these considerations, the second aspect of the problem would refer itself back to the first: the only thing left to do would be to explain the sense and the possibility of degeneration from the inside, that is, the propensity to decadence as a phenomenon likely to occur in a given civilisation or in a given state of traditional type, without the help of external factors connected with other forms of civilisations or of other states.

To arrive at any positive results in this connection, we must firstly make clear an extremely important point, relating to the essence of hierarchy. What we have to do specifically is to deny the idea, tendentiously put into circulation by ‘modern thought’, according to which the hierarchies peculiar to ‘traditional’ civilisations would be the product of some kind of pressure, of direct control and of violent domination of what was considered as superior over what is inferior. This view is purely modern, absolutely foreign to the nature of ancient civilisations and, we can even say, of any normal civilisation. Traditional teaching has indeed conceived spiritual action as ‘acting without acting’, has spoken of an unmoved mover, has always used the symbolism of the ‘pole’, of the fixed axis around which any movement of the secret things occurs ; has underlined the ‘Olympian’ attribute of true spirituality and true sovereignty and their direct way of asserting themselves, not through violence, but through presence ; finally, it has sometimes used the image of the ‘magnet’, in which, as we are about to see, the key of the whole problem lies.

In his work on ‘The doctrine of Fascism”, Carlo Costamagna has had the merit of elucidating some concepts which are not so far from this fundamental truth. Opposing the theory of the violent origin of the state, Costamagna has attempted to eliminate “the confusion between the idea of force and the idea of violence which has spoiled the whole attitude of modern thought on this subject, because it has prevented it, firstly, from acknowledging that the very content of power is not in any way that of a physical predominance, but in reality of a moral predominance which doesn’t have submission as a justification, but, primarily, the agreement of the governed”. He has also pointed out that the actual currents of anti-Marxist and anti-bourgeois revolution give more and more value to “the circumstance of acting and sacrificing in the name of something which is not the individual anymore, which does not consider the animal instinct to live nor utility anymore ; that is to say, of living a life which goes beyond the material fact of living”. Such is indeed the central point of the true hierarchical idea, through which the ‘superstition’ that individual life is the basis of everything is fought and something which is more than life can be assumed as the point of reference of the moral experience and simultaneously as the objective of the political activity. That which Costamagna mentions as principle of a new ‘antimodern’ order really is the keystone of any traditional social organisation, the political process carried to such a degree that it identifies itself with the development of the human personality itself and the fulfillment of its superior possibilities.

It is absurd to believe that the true representatives of spiritual authority, that is to say of tradition, would set about running after all their subjects in order to grasp them and bind everyone to his own place ; that, in short, these representatives ‘act’ and have some sort of direct interest in creating and maintaining these hierarchic relations, by virtue of which they could visibly appear also as the leaders. The recognition from the inferior is on the contrary the true base of any normal and traditional hierarchy. It is not the superior who needs the inferior, but the inferior who needs the superior ; it is not the Duce who needs a private, but the private who needs a Duce. The essence of hierarchy lies in the fact that there is in some superior beings, as a presence and as an actualised reality, what exists, in the others, only as confused aspiration, presentiment, so that the latter are irresistibly attracted by the former and they naturally submit to them, submitting in this not so much to something exterior as to their realer ‘I’. Here lies the secret of any readiness to sacrifice, of any heroism, of any manly dedication in the world of ancient hierarchies, and, on the other hand, of a prestige, an authority, of a calm power and influence which not even the most heavily armed tyrant could ever have secured.

To acknowledge this also means to see under a different light not only the problem of decadence, but also that of the possibility, in general, of any subversive revolution. Don’t we hear constantly that, if a revolution has triumphed, it is a sign that the ancient leaders were weak and the ancient leading strata had degenerated? And so would it be, if ever it had been about chained wild dogs which ended up biting the hands which fed them: this would obviously prove that the hands which had been holding firm these animals were not, or are not any more, strong enough. But things are different when the theory of the violent origin of the true state is rejected and when the starting point is spiritual hierarchy, whose true foundation we have just pointed out. Such hierarchy may decay and be ruined only in one case: when the individual decays, when he uses his fundamental liberty to say no to the spirit, to deprive his life of any higher point of reference and set himself up as a stump. Contacts are then fatally interrupted, the metaphysical tension which united the traditional organism and made of the political process the counterpart of a process of elevation and of integration of the individual loosens, any force becomes unsteady in its orbit, and, finally, after the vain attempt to substitute the lost tradition for rationalist interpretations and utilitarian processes, frees itself from it: the heights remain pure and intact, but the rest, which was beforehand as it were suspended from them, will look like an avalanche which, in an initially imperceptible, then accelerated movement, once the stability is lost, falls down, to the bottom, to the leveling of the valley: socialism, mass collectivism, Bolshevism.

This is the mystery of decadence, this is the mystery of any subversive revolution. The revolutionary has started by killing in himself hierarchy, mutilating himself of these possibilities to which corresponded the inner foundation of the order, which he has then brought down also externally. Without a preliminary inner destruction, no revolution, in the sense of antihierarchic and antitraditional subversion is possible. And since this preliminary stage escapes superficial observation, the one who, with an obtuse short-sightedness, can only see and appreciate the ‘facts’, has to get accustomed to considering revolutions as irrational phenomena and even to justify them by referring to materialist and social factors, which, in any normal civilisation, only ever had, contrarily to his view, an absolutely secondary and subordinated function. When the Catholic myth refers the fall of the ‘primordial man’ and the ‘revolt of angels’ to free will, it basically relates to the same explanatory principle. It is about the terrible power, inherent in man, to use freedom in the sense of a spiritual destruction, to reject everything that can secure him a supranatural dignity. This decision is a metaphysical one, of which the whole current which has been snaking through history, in the various forms of appearance of the antitraditional, revolutionary, individualist, humanistic, secular and, finally, ‘modern’ spirit is only the manifestation and, so to speak, the phenomenology. This decision is the sole active and determining cause in the mystery of decadence, of the destruction of tradition.

This being understood, we are able to comprehend the meaning of ancient traditions, of a rather enigmatic nature, related to the leaders who, in a certain sense, already exist, having never ceased to exist, and who can be found again (themselves or their ‘faiths’) by means of actions described in various ways, but always of symbolic character ; in fact, their search is equivalent to a reintegration, the creation of a certain attitude, whose virtue is similar to the essential qualities by which a given metal suddenly feels the magnet, discovers the magnet and orientates and irresistibly moves towards the magnet. We will limit ourselves to this remark, which anyone who wishes to can easily develop. To deal in detail with this order of ideas and to explain the myths to which we have just alluded and that come from the oldest Indo-European antiquity would lead us too far. We may get back on another occasion to the mystery of decadence, of the ‘magic’ able to bring back again the collapsed and unleashed mass, more than to temporary forms of order, to the unchanging peaks still suspended, invisible, in the heights.

Julius EVOLA