If there ever was a civilization that deserves the name of Renaissance, this was the civilization of the Middle Ages. In its objectivity, its virile spirit, its hierarchical structure, its proud antihumanistic simplicity so often permeated by the sense of the sacred, the Middle Ages represented a return to the origins.Julius Evola (1)
While definitions of “humanism” vary, ranging from the fairly banal focus on human needs to the fifteenth-century revival of classical letters, contemporary humanism is most often defined by its atheism, egalitarianism, and progressive politics. A suitable definition of this ideology, featuring all the necessary shibboleths, comes from Humanist magazine: “Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice.”
Humanism in the modern West is typically portrayed as a legacy of the Italian Renaissance, which is itself understood as a revolt by classical scholars against the otherworldliness of medieval Christianity. Nowadays, however, mainstream Christianity is firmly in the humanist camp, with the pontiff of Rome waxing lyrical on the “infinite dignity of every human being” and both Catholic and mainline Protestant churches promoting a variant of social justice that prioritizes material welfare over any traditional concern with the salvation of souls, the inculcation of virtue, or spiritual transcendence. Mainstream Christianity has, in other words, become a de facto religion of mankind – one that worships, more often than not, its basest representatives.
This contemporary religious humanist perspective, which can be traced to the centuries-long “feminization of Christianity” and the infection of many sects by modernist heresies like liberation theology, naturally repels individuals of a classical, conservative, and reactionary spirit. Indeed, despite their hubristic self-image as heralds of a reborn classical civilization, many of the major figures of the Italian Renaissance merely adopted the irreligion, materialism, and worst excesses of imperial paganism rather than the cold piety of ancient Rome. Their humanism was a rejection of the transcendent and deeply religious ethos of classical civilization, and it is a softer version of this humanism that we see in many churches today. This weak-minded, limp-wristed moralism represents the type of Christianity that Nietzsche justly criticized and ridiculed.
However, it was the faith of historic Christendom – the adaptation of ancient Christianity to Greco-Roman and Frankish society which, following Oswald Spengler, I refer to as “Gothic Christianity” – that gave us the soaring cathedrals, knightly orders, chivalric code, and Grail legends of the Middle Ages. As a corrective to contemporary misunderstandings, I offer the following theses.
1. Gothic Christianity is elitist and hierarchical, not egalitarian.
Christianity teaches that all souls will be judged by God after death. This does not mean that all judgments will have the same outcome. Nor does it mean that humans are equal in any other respect. It does mean that kings will be judged as well as peasants, and the peasant who lives righteously and performs his role well will be judged more favorably than an inept and vicious king. A spiritual hierarchy therefore exists, though it may not necessarily correspond to the earthly one. Such postmortem judgments are common among the religions of the world, yet I’ve never heard anyone accuse Pharaonic Egypt of egalitarianism.
The contemporary association of Christianity with democratic egalitarianism is a form of heresy, unknown to the early church. Indeed, as opposed to contemporary Christian’s mawkish insistence that all people are “children of God,” Gothic Christianity tended to view most men as little better than beasts – often worse, in fact. The true human life is the life of reason, virtue, and godliness, and those who give themselves over to sensual pleasure and wickedness are generally regarded as subhuman. All men cannot indiscriminately be called children of God, but only those who follow the path of the “new man” or “athlete of Christ”; as St. Paul writes, “If we are children [of God], then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:16-17).
Gothic Christianity accepted that there were differences among humans in terms of gifts, virtues, and bloodlines. The mere possession of a soul does not mean that this soul is well-used, and some people are incapable of self-rule and therefore must be ruled by others of superior virtue and wisdom. It was for this reason that early Christianity accepted monarchy and slavery. This was reinforced by the Church Fathers, who obtained further rationale in the writings of the Greeks and Romans. Similarly, some people are, by grace and effort, more capable of attaining theosis and achieving sainthood in this mortal realm. The communion of saints does not consist solely of monks, priests, and hermits, but includes kings and warriors as well: Joan of Arc, Martin of Tours, Louis the Pious.
Unlike modern teaching, which would have us all believe that we could all be millionaires and celebrities if these oppressive social systems didn’t keep bringing us down, there is a definite elitism to the traditional Christian view. It is not, like other elitisms, predicated on wealth or birth or doctrinal knowledge, but on a spiritual quality. Through grace, ascesis, faith, and good works, all could potentially achieve a higher state after death – but it is only given to the very few to achieve such a state in life. Once again, it is important to note that the possession of superior gifts does not entitle the possessor to unjust privileges or cruelty. Indeed, it requires a life of humility and self-sacrifice: “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” The Christian does not live for himself, but sacrifices himself to serve his God and his people. To again quote St. Paul, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
2. Gothic Christianity’s ultimate goals are liberation, salvation, and transcendence, not universal material welfare.
Just as it is sometimes thought to preach the equality of all mankind, Christianity is alternately praised and blamed for placing the universal improvement of human welfare above all other concerns. This, it is argued, is the end result of a theology of universal “love” and “charity.”
There are few words in the English language more misused than “love.” When mainline pastors and pop stars rhapsodize that “God is love” or reference the overplayed greeting-card version of 1 Corinthians (“love is patient, love is kind,” etc.), the whole idea naturally sounds quite effeminate and off-putting to those of a reactionary temperament. As used in the New Testament, “love” is a translation of the Latin caritas, and its frequently used cognate – “charity” – hardly sounds any better to contemporary ears. It conjures up images of soup kitchens, checkbooks, and Sally Struthers, and while commendable in itself fails to capture the radical nature of the concept. “Charity” and “love” have unfortunately become synonymous with contemporary ideologies of social justice, thereby diminishing mainline Christianity into a form of bourgeois philanthropy (at best) or revolutionary ideology (at worst).
Caritas is a Latin translation of the Greek agape. Both words connote a type of love or benevolence that is more aptly applied to God’s love for mankind, connoting radical self-sacrifice and magnanimity. In the Christus Victor view of atonement, Christ’s Incarnation, life of service, sacrificial death, and triumphant Resurrection were all undertaken to liberate mankind from the prince of the world and all of his snares – one of which was the dry legalism of Jewish law, which made man’s relationship to God a purely judicial transaction. In this interpretation, through Christ’s intervention man is offered the possibility of genuine transcendence, union with God or the beatific vision. Caritas is a theological virtue whereby we are enjoined to emulate the radical and self-sacrificing agape of God in seeking to realize our own divinity. Oswald Spengler contrasts the sentimental moralism of today’s churchgoers with the radical, dynamic caritas of Gothic Christianity:
But we must not confuse this sympathy in the grand religious sense with the vague sentimentality of the everyday man, who cannot command himself […] That which in civilized times is called social ethics has nothing to do with religion, and its presence only goes to show the weakness and emptiness of the religiousness of the day […] But compassion likewise demands inward greatness of soul, [exemplified by] the most saintly servants of pity, the Francis of Assisi, the Bernard of Clairvaux, in whom renunciation was a pervading fragrance, to whom self-offering was bliss, whose caritas was ethereal, bloodless, timeless, historyless, in whom fear of the universe had dissolved itself into pure, flawless love. (2)
This caritas does include acts of charity and philanthropy, to be sure, both as expressions of religious faith and as positive goods for their own sake. But that is not the ultimate aim of spiritual practice, which is the achievement of a higher state of being. And though contemporary Christian social teaching would have us believe otherwise (see, for instance, the “seamless garment of life,” which degrades Catholic ethics into a support for contemporary notions of social justice with a veneer of sexual prudery), contributing to universal human material welfare is not the only possible expression of caritas. Indeed, the furtherance of human material welfare and preservation of life are sometimes at odds with true benevolence. An excess of comfort and material wellbeing can have negative effects on the human spirit and are needlessly destructive of other human lives as well as the integrity of the natural world, which is an expression of divine beauty and not merely a storehouse for human material consumption. Moreover, Gothic Christianity prioritized many things over the mere preservation of human life or material welfare, including the salvation of souls, the maintenance of social order, the administration of justice, and the defense of the community against those who would do it harm. Caritas does not require that a man sacrifice his own people or community to a nebulous “humanity,” as the Christian tradition affirms the existence of valid ethnic, cultural, and racial distinctions, considered a divine gift in their own right.
Ultimately, while Christianity does not condone cruelty and is not indifferent to human suffering, its highest earthly good is the establishment of a society aligned with the will of God and supportive of human transcendence. As Evola wrote, “The perfection of the human being is the end to which every healthy social institution must be subordinated, and it must be promoted as much as possible” (3). Working to this end is itself a form of caritas – genuine benevolence and magnanimity – far greater than mere humanistic morality.
3. Gothic Christianity is theocentric, not anthropocentric.
As a corollary to this common misperception of Christianity as chiefly concerned with advancing human material welfare, critics and supporters alike often depict Christianity as a distinctly human-centered or “anthropocentric” creed, one that is interested solely in human welfare and the experience of the human species. This point is often made by ecological critics, who, like Lynn White Jr. in a famous essay, interpret the Biblical injunctions to “subdue the Earth” and “be fruitful and multiply” as invitations to the wholesale slaughter and domestication of the natural world. It is true that this interpretation has been eagerly embraced by many Christians throughout history (the Puritans in particular come to mind). However, in truth Christianity is theocentric, not anthropocentric. It regards God as the source of all Being, and the earth and its myriad beings as creations of God and therefore possessed of dignity. And though creation is not equal in dignity with God himself, this does not mean it is any less deserving of respect and proper stewardship.
If Christianity seems particularly focused on mankind, this is because it is a religion for men and therefore deals with the peculiar features of human life. Moreover, it is an especially introspective religion, demanding much examination and soul-searching, and it is only natural that devotional and theological writings would be dedicated largely to the movements of the human spirit. However, this does not denigrate the natural world. In traditional Christian thought, before the schisms and reformations of the second millennium, the “book of nature” was held in equal esteem with the scriptures. Gnosticism may regard the material world as evil, but traditional Christianity, like Neoplatonism, rejects this view. Christianity is blamed for what should more accurately be attributed to the anthropocentrism and materialism of the Enlightenment – a period when Christianity was in decline.
It is also important to note that the exalted place given to mankind in Christianity – viceroys of God, stewards of Creation – does not apply to man in his fallen state. It is initially granted to Adam and his descendants before the Fall, and therefore properly applies only to men who have regained the primordial state of purity, wisdom, and immortality. Since the days of Adam no human other than Christ himself has attained that state, and others who have come closest – celebrated as saints – have been markedly different from the domineering, anthropocentric bogeyman of contemporary imagination.
Humans are very small and insignificant compared to the might of God and the cosmos, and due to our corrupted wills have fallen lower than other creatures, which have largely retained their original divine nature. Humans are not even most powerful of created beings – they are certainly inferior to the angels in wisdom and might. Therefore, while man is capable of reaching great heights, of all known creatures he is uniquely capable of evil. As Savitri Devi (no friend of Christianity) astutely wrote,
[M]an is, of all living things on the Earth, the only one where there are, in the midst of the same race, élites and physical, mental, and moral dregs; the only one that, not being strictly defined by its species, can rise (and sometimes does rise) above it until it merges (or almost) with the ideal prototype that transcends it: the superman . . . but that can also lower itself (and lowers itself, in fact, more and more in the age in which we live) below, not only the minimum level of value that one expects to find in his race, but below all living creatures—those prisoners of sure instinct and of practical intelligence put wholly in the service of this instinct that are unable of revolt against the unwritten laws of their being, in other words, to sin. (4)
Ultimately, mankind’s high calling is to transcend its fallen condition – its severance from the will of God and laws of nature – and serve as the viceroy, steward, student, and appreciator of the created world, seeking knowledge of and union with transcendent being. As in Heidegger’s thought, man is not merely a “thinking animal” intended to rule over other beings as their physical master. He is called, rather, to be the “shepherd of Being” (5). Mere humanism is a particularly low conception of man’s true destiny.
4. Gothic Christianity is militant, not pacific or quietist.
Though the earth and its myriad beings are a creation of God and therefore imbued with divinity, the fact remains that the world has fallen under the sway of the Enemy and is full of its snares and wickedness. Gothic Christianity has always been a militant creed, emphasizing ceaseless combat against “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” C.S. Lewis encouraged Christians to regard the world as “occupied territory” and themselves as secret agents: “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
By contrast, Leftist adherents of contemporary pseudo-Christianity, as well as their critics, often argue that true piety demands a rejection of violence, self-defense, judgement, and harsh language. This depiction of Christ as a harmless teacher of love and resignation ignores his exhortation that he came not “to bring peace, but a sword;” his instruction to his disciples that “he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one;” his praise for the faith of the centurion; his violent expulsion of the moneychangers from the Temple; his constant condemnations of the hypocritical Pharisees; his ominous parables about separating the wheat from the chaff and the sheep from the goats; and his cursing of the fig tree. Caritas is an outgrowth of the Christian’s love of God, extending ultimately to all beings (even those who do little to merit it). But it does not preclude judgement, and it reaches its limits when it conflicts with other aspects of the divine law. Indeed, sometimes it may require violence.
Violence is the rule in this fallen world. It is sometimes necessary to defend the pure and innocent from the depredations of the wicked. While senseless violence, cruelty, and rapine are absolutely prohibited by Christian ethics (in keeping with all civilized moralities), certain forms of violence have been sanctified. This includes holy war, a means of defending the innocent and one’s people from destruction; it also includes the judicial punishment of those who would defile the sacred as well as wicked criminals who subvert the laws of God and man. In the words of St. Paul, “If you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
Contrary to the Christian pacifism that is alternately praised and vilified these days, the Christian is under no obligation to allow evil to overtake the earth without protest. As the world grows darker, revolt against the Enemy will likely become more violent. The dogma of nonresistance to evil is the coward’s way out and merely serves to hasten the triumph of the wicked. The violence of the Christian should be of a detached nature, done out of love for God and one’s people, without hatred or viciousness; but it is necessary nevertheless. The holy warrior is one who performs the necessary sacrifice, who takes upon himself the guilt and suffering that violence entails, in service of God and mankind. The wielders of violence maintain order and justice, and therefore play a role in salvation. This is the true meaning of the seventh beatitude, “blessed are the peacemakers.”
* * *
Humanism, as defined in this essay, is the pseudo-religion of our elites, the bastard child of Renaissance iconoclasts and Enlightenment philosophes, a warmed-over concoction of late classical degeneracy, misotheistic Gnosticism, and scientific progressivism that has led to the ghastly spectacle of the contemporary world.
However, it is not our intention to denigrate mankind altogether. Contemporary humanism, divorced from the sacred, viewing man merely as a “rational animal,” and depriving mankind of access to the transcendent dimension, is actually the greater calumny on human existence. The most cursory examination of contemporary society makes it clear that it can only be considered “man-centered” in the grossest sense, and in every other way has proven inimical to the human spirit. A true humanism would rest upon the certitude of something transcending humanity, and the nobility of our perennial quest to know, to serve, and to attain union with it. Therein lies the true “dignity of man.”
- Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1995), 309.
- Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991 ), 322.
- Julius Evola, Men Among the Ruins, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002), 139.
- Savitri Devi, “Contempt of the Average Man,” Chapter 4 of Souveniers et réflexions d’une Aryenne, trans. R.G. Fowler.
- “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being. Man loses nothing in this ‘less’; rather, he gains in that he attains the truth of Being. He gains the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being itself into the preservation of Being’s truth.” (Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism, 1964)