Although small, “Traditionalism” is a broad and influential movement — or, rather, various overlapping movements, to different degrees political and spiritual. It’s founder, French esotericist Rene Guenon (1886-1951), was involved, as a young man, in Theosophy, Freemasonry, and conservative Catholicism, but later found these too liberal and too modern, though he retained a respect for Freemasonry, and believed that it, at least, had the potential to offer authentic initiation.
Guenon, who later adopted Islam, and spent his later life in Cairo, was largely opposed to mixing politics and spirituality. Nevertheless, his anti-modern views helped to inspire devotees who have, occasionally, dabbled in politics.
The most controversial of Guenon’s disciples was, undoubtedly, Julius Evola, an Italian baron who had been loosely associated with the Dada and Futurist art movements., and who painted a number of not very successful works in the style of the latter.
Evola later became interested in spirituality and occultism, and eventually authored a number of books on everything from Hermeticism to Buddhism, most of which have been published over the last couple of decades by the respected spiritual and New Age publisher Inner Traditions.
Had the Italian baron stopped at spirituality, he may have gone down in history as one of the more colorful and thoughtful esotericists of the 20th century. However, Evola also ingratiated himself to Mussolini’s regime, and even spoke in Germany, during World War II, to an SS audience. He may not have been accepted wholeheartedly by either regime (and the Nazis found his views somewhat contradictory of theirs), but he did accept — from perhaps an unorthodox perspective — the essential national socialist worldview of good versus evil, and, most specifically, of the idea of an “occult war,” as he called it.
The sides in Evola’s occult war were derived from his reading of the notorious anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, created by the Russian secret police just prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Certainly, the baron did not accept it wholesale, and understood that it was essentially a fake. Nevertheless, Evola took it seriously on another level, claiming, for example, that “modern Masonry” had been responsible for “political subversion” in his book Men Among the Ruins.
For Evola, Freemasonry was associated with the French Revolution, democracy, and anti-Tradition. It ushered in equality, and destroyed true spiritual hierarchy.
The history of Freemasonry, and Freemasons, is complicated and contradictory. A case could be made for it as a very liberal movement, and another for it being a conservative one. In reality, though, it is concerned only with the spiritual elevation of the individual by himself. While breakaway or “irregular” Masonic jurisdictions in some countries have promoted atheism, and while others, equally irregular, insist that members must be believing, practicing Christians, in the English-speaking world, Freemasons can belong to any religion they wish, from Hinduism to Islam, so long as they believe in a higher Being. Many do not belong to a religion at all, but merely claim to believe in God.
Ironically, English-speaking Freemasonry shares this ecumenicism with Guenonian Traditionalism. (Evola, who wanted a return to a pagan way of life, is often seen as outside of Traditionalism proper, especially because of his association with the extreme-Right.) Traditionalism asserts that one can come into contact with the authentic and primordial spiritual Tradition by adhering to one of the major faiths, which are deemed to be imperfect reflections and approximations of the former.
It is through esotericism (the interpretation of religious texts, in combination with meditation, and so on) that the devotee comes to perceive, and thus exist within, the primordial Tradition and the full Light of Deity. For Traditionalists, knowledge of the Divine is grasped through stages in a spiritual ascendancy. Likewise, in Freemasonry, the initiate passes through various Degrees, where he finds, in some cases, the same symbols, reinterpreted. These interpretations work together, and the progress of the interpretations is one of moving into increasingly subtle and spiritual notions (hence the letter ‘G’ represents Geometry and God, or, combined, the Great Architect).
Because of its ecumenicism, the views of many Traditionalists occupy the opposite end of the political spectrum. They believe, for example, in the equality of religion, and peoples, and so on — something that is implicit within modern Freemasonry in the English-speaking world.
At their best, Traditionalism and Freemasonry (like Sufism and Hindu Tantra) reorient the individual towards the Divine, and encourage him to move away from what is base to what is elevated. This doesn’t mean fantasizing about supermen or creating the perfect society, but, rather, overcoming the self.
Angel Millar is the author of The Crescent and the Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism and Revolution in the Modern Age, and the editor of People of Shambhala.