Translation and commentary by Cologero Salvo
In “Roma e il natale solare nella tradizione nordico-aria” (La Difesa della razza, 1940), Evola writes:
Very few suspect that the holidays [i.e., Catholic holy days] of today, in the century of skyscrapers, radio, great movements of the masses, are celebrated and continue . . . a remote tradition, bringing us back to the times when, almost at the dawn of humanity, the rising motion of the first Aryan civilization began; a tradition, in which, moreover, the great voice of those men is expressed rather than a particular belief.
A fact unknown to most must be first of all remembered, viz., that in its origins the date of Christmas and that of the beginning of the new year coincided, this date not being arbitrary, but connected to a precise cosmic event, namely, the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice falls in fact on December 25, which is the date of Christmas, subsequently known, but which in its origins had an essentially solar significance. That appears also in ancient Rome: the date of Christmas in ancient Rome was that of the rising of the Sun, the unconquered God, Natalis solis invicti. With that, as the day of the new sun — dies solis novi — in the imperial epoch brought the beginning of the new year, the new cycle. But this “solar birth” of Rome in the imperial period, in its turn, referred to a somewhat more remote tradition of Nordic-Aryan origin. Of the reset, Sol, the solar divinity, appeared already among the dii indigetes, that is, among the divinities of Roman origin, passed on from even more distant cycles of civilization. In reality, the solar religion of the imperial period, in a large measure had the meaning of a recovery and almost of a rebirth, unfortunately altered by various factors of decomposition, of a very old Aryan heritage.
First of all, let us clear up a misconception of the date December 25, which some have believed represents an error on Evola’s part. Julius Caesar, in his calendar reform of 46 BC, did indeed set the date for the Winter Solstice on December 25. Over the centuries, the error in the length of the Julian gradually moved the astronomical date backwards. When Pope Gregory reformed the Julian calendar, he began with a later year, corresponding to a Church council, rather than the original year of 46 BC. Thus, the Winter Solstice moved back to around December 21 instead of the original December 25. Thus, Evola was correct in his claim that the data of Christmas was set to coincide with the Winter Solstice.
In the article, Evola goes on to tie in the date with the birth of Mithras. He also points out that in ancient Rome, the “day of the sun” was also the “Lord’s day,” another tradition adopted by the Christians. He also ties this symbolism of the light with the prologue to John’s Gospel.
The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world
Evola concludes the article:
In the Aryan and Nordic tradition and in Rome itself, the same theme had an importance not only religious and mystical, but sacred, heroic and cosmic at the same time. It was the tradition of a people, to whom the same nature, the same great voice, which I wrote about , at that date, a tradition of a mystery of resurrection, of the birth or rebirth of a beginning not only of “light” and new life, but also of Imperium, in the highest and most august meaning of the word.
Trans. G. A. Malvicini
One of the most indicative signs of the influence of the regressive processes that we have described in the preceding pages of this book [L’Arco e la Clava] with regard to customs and tastes, is the enjoyment of vulgarity, with its more or less subconscious undercurrent of pleasure taken in degradation and self-contamination. Related to it are the various expressions of a tendency towards deformation and a taste for the ugly and the base. A few observations with regard to this matter will perhaps not be devoid of interest.
It is almost unnecessary to point to this tendency in certain forms of a new literary realism, in its choice of subject matter, which does not — as the term otherwise might suggest — deal with “reality” in general, whether individual or social, but only with its most vulgar, base, dirty, or squalid aspects. This subject matter becomes an object of “commitment,” to the point that the term “committed literature” has often been used by authors of this type, whose works are also linked to the specific intent of social and political agitation. However, what above all matters here is that the representatives of this movement do not, in general, themselves come from the world they so morbidly or tendentiously focus their attention on. They are, in fact, members of the bourgeoisie, even the upper bourgeoisie with intellectual pretensions, but which also takes an obvious pleasure in descending into degradation or succumbing to the unwholesome enticements of the inferior.
The same characteristic appears in a much larger domain, in varied forms, for example in the vulgar manner of speaking. Low-class slang has become so common that not only novels and stories, but even radio and television do not hesitate to make use of it on some occasions. The same observation can be made with regard to this phenomenon as was made above. Since this manner of speaking is not that of their social class, of the social environment to which they belong by birth, and since youths, girls, and even elderly persons from the middle classes, from the respectable bourgeoisie, and even parts of the aristocracy, imagine themselves to be demonstrating anti-conformism, freedom, and “modernity” by ostentatiously making use of slang, the real meaning of the phenomenon must simply be a pleasure taken in self-degradation, self-abasement, and self-contamination. To anyone who speaks of freedom from convention here, one should reply that all convention has different aspects; conventional or not, certain customs are — or were — intrinsic to a given class, are — or were — its “style” and distinguishing mark. To take pleasure in flouting them simply means wanting to transgress all limits and all boundaries, and opening oneself to that which lies below. Until recently, the tendency was exactly the opposite: many men and women of the lower classes sought, more or less artificially and clumsily, to imitate the manners, the speech and the behavior of the upper classes. Today the reverse is true, and people think they are emancipated, when, in fact, they are merely vulgar and idiotic.
Another, similar phenomenon, is the taste for the ugly, vulgar, and slovenly in clothing and hair-styles, which has also become fashionable in some circles: workers’ or cyclists’ jerseys, farmers’ jackets and pants, shirts untucked and tied in knots, and so on, together with long and dishevelled hair, and the careless and coarse manners and attitudes that American films have taught a boorish youth, with its whiskey shots and “double gin.” The most prodigious phenomenon of this kind is the fashion, which has not yet waned, of blue jeans for girls, and even for ladies: blue jeans being, as we know, work pants. The passivity and tolerance of the male sex is, in this regard, astonishing. These young women ought to be put in labor and concentration camps; that, rather than luxurious existentialist apartments, would be an appropriate place for them and for their “practical” outfits, and might bestow upon them a salutary reeducation.
In a different field, another manifestation of the taste for vulgarity is the fashion of “screaming” singers, unfortunately widespread in Italy. The tendency is the same. One takes pleasure in descending to the level of the street, of the marketplace: the primitivism of the vulgar voice, at best an almost animal instinctiveness in expression and emotion. Another aspect of the same phenomenon are the ecstasies that white men and women for some time now have been sent into by the raucous and graceless singing of the Negro, which almost seems to take pleasure in its own vileness. At the time of this writing, a particular instance of vulgar singing were the Beatles, who aroused delirious enthusiasm among the youth. Apart from their hairstyles, which are of the kind indicated above, the very name chosen by this group is revealing: these screamers called themselves “the Beatles,” choosing as their symbol the most disgusting of insects [the Italian word scarafaggio can mean either “beetle” or “cockroach”]: yet another obvious example of the pleasure in abjection. We can also point out in passing, by way of illustration, that a member of the Roman aristocracy, who had opened a nightclub, wanted to call it “The Sewer,” had he not been prevented from doing so by the police. But back to the Beatles: have they not been made Knights of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth of England? These are signs of the times. The swamp has even flooded the palaces, which are now, however, only faded relics.
If these phenomena, as we have already stated, fundamentally stem from a pleasure in lowering and debasing oneself, we may add that this pleasure is the same that, in the field of sexology, characterizes masochism and auto-sadism. In terms of “depth psychology,” it is a destructive drive turned against the self. Thus, we should reflect upon the unconscious, but no less active “guilt complex” at work in these phenomena. Perhaps that is their most interesting and, in a way, most positive side. It is as if people sensed the failure to realize their true being, the renunciation of every higher meaning of life which characterizes the present time, and as if, as a result of this obscure feeling of guilt or betrayal, they took pleasure precisely in self-degradation, self-harm, and self-contamination.
But there are also cases where the destructive impulse is turned, not inward, not against ourselves, but outward, or cases where the two directions meet and are mingled. Concerning such cases, we could speak about that another set of typical modern phenomena, the scope of which ranges from the most banal everyday life to the level of culture. Indeed, the sadistic tendency, in the general sense, is also manifested in an aspect of the art and literature that enjoys focusing on types and situations pertaining to a broken, defeated, or corrupted humanity. The well-known pretext is that “this too, is life,” or that all this must be shown for the sole purpose of provoking a reaction. In reality, what is here at work is rather what the Germans call Schadenfreude, a spiteful pleasure, a variety of sadism, of sadistic enjoyment. One enjoys seeing not upright, but fallen, failed, or degenerate man: not the upper limit, but the lower limit of the human condition (we could repeat here, at least in part, what we will say later about the “laughter of the gods”). There was a time when it was mostly Jewish (and Russian) writers and artists that were active in this domain; today, the phenomenon has become ubiquitous.
We see similar phenomena even outside of literature, for example in music and figurative arts. Here again the critics and exegetes have their pretexts. We are told that the meaning of these displays is an “existential revolt,” and in some cases also the political and social motives of leftist “committed intellectuals.” In a well-known book on the Philosophy of Modern Music, Adorno rightly wanted to interpret atonal music along those lines: the irruption of sounds that shatter the norms of traditional harmony and rebel against the canon of the harmonic triad would be the expression of existential revolt against the false ideality and conventions of bourgeois and capitalist society. However, we recognize that in this case, the issue should not be addressed too simplistically; in order to judge, we must consider the variety of possible orientations. Besides what we have already stated about contemporary music in Ride the Tiger, we will return to this issue in another chapter of this book. There is no doubt, however, that in many cases the “valid elements” that we sought to uncover in contemporary music are nonexistent, and that, to a large extent, the right view is instead the one expressed by an American, John Hemming Fry, in a book entitled The Revolt against Beauty, published between the wars. This author speaks of the sadistic and destructive drives that permeate many areas of contemporary art, manifested in the deformations, distortions, and primitivism that characterize a vast category of works of figurative art, painting, and sculpture: the elective affinities with the art of savages and Negroes being, in some cases, a further, quite eloquent indication.
Naturally, our positive standard will not be beauty in the academic, empty, and conventional sense. Instead, we should refer to the opposition between form and the formless, to the idea that every truly creative process consists in the domination of form over the formless, in Greek terms, in the passage from chaos to cosmos. In its higher meaning, recognized not only by the classical authors but also by Nietzsche, the “beautiful” corresponds precisely to the perfect and dominant form, to “style,” to the law that expresses the sovereignty of an idea and a will. From this point of view, the advent of the formless, chaotic, and the “ugly” are signs of a destructive process: not of power but of impotence. It has a regressive character. Psychologically, it always has the same basis: a sadistic tendency, a pleasure in contamination in both the artist and in those who appreciate and enjoy art of this kind (if it is a sincere enjoyment, and not a stupid reverse conformism, as it is in most cases). It is not for nothing that in all representations of demons in fairy-tales or superstition, the grotesque distortion of the human figure is a key element: just as in the works of certain modern artists in fashion today.
Some of the latest dances also have typical self-sadistic traits. It is no longer simply a matter of “syncopated” or intense elemental rhythms (in which case we could even recognize a positive element in all this, as we have stated elsewhere), but dances with grotesquely epileptic and simian movements. It is almost as if they expressed a joy in degrading to the maximum anything noble in the human form through paroxysmal contortions, jumps, and puppet-like convulsions. There is a real sadism in the so-called “arrangements” practiced by almost all the orchestras currently in fashion, which specialize in anarchic “solos” as well as cutting up, tampering with, deforming, and decomposing themes from yesterday’s jazz and popular music that were once still acceptable, to the point of absolute unrecognizability.
Finally, a specific area that must be considered is pornography and obscenity, so widespread nowadays. There is no need to provide examples here. Various controversies, sometimes touching the problem of censorship, have been raised with regard to writings deemed obscene, but have never arrived at any clear notions of this issue. It may be of interest to quickly bring up the trial for “obscenity” brought against the famous novel by D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a trial that took place in London thirty-two years after its first publication, on the occasion of the release of a cheap edition of the book in England, where it had been banned until then.
In England, as in other countries, the law defines as obscene anything that may have a tendency to corrupt and pervert. It does not permit the prosecution of works that, despite being “obscene,” are valuable in the domains of art, science, or “any other field of public interest.” Two things were at issue in the case of Lawrence’s novel: the obscene language and some descriptions of erotic scenes, which “left nothing to the imagination.”
We must distinguish these two points. With regard to the second, a general problem arises: to what extent sex in itself could be something “obscene” and unclean, so that to talk about it and draw attention to sexual experiences could have a corrupting effect. We know that Lawrence not only denies this, but even makes sex a kind of religion: he saw in sexual experience a means “to realize the living and undivided wholeness of the person.”
In a later chapter we will discuss at some length the nature of the various contemporary trends that glorify sex and propound sexual freedom. For the moment, we will merely state that our view has nothing to do with bourgeois puritanism and its various taboos. One can indeed go beyond the prejudices of Christian sexophobic moralism and recognize that, in many higher civilizations, sex was not at all considered to be something shameful, unclean, and “obscene.” The problem is something else. Today, it is rather to take a stand against anything that only serves to incite a kind of chronic obsession centered around sex and woman, and that is, fundamentally, a systematic attack, conducted on a grand scale, against virile values. For where love and sex predominate, the influence of women predominates, in one way or another. This obsession is fed in countless ways, mostly by media that are not not strictly speaking “obscene,” in magazine illustrations, advertising, films, beauty contests, literature on ”sexual education” with scientific pretensions, female immodesty, striptease shows, shop windows exhibiting lingerie, etc. “Racy” novels are only one particular instance of this. It is the total phenomenon that should be made visible in order to expose its corrupting action, not on the basis of a petty moralism, but because of its surreptitiously corrosive effect on those interests and values that must always remain dominant in any higher type of civilization.
But with regard to the particular matter we are discussing, what is relevant is the “obscene” in the proper sense. In order to adequately define the “obscene” and “pornographic,” a recourse to etymology is sufficient. “Pornographic” comes from porne, which in Greek means “a low-class prostitute” (as opposed to the courtesan); the application of the term to writings that do not only concern themselves with prostitution and low-class prostitution, is arbitrary. The term “obscene,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin word caenum, which means filth, dirtiness, mud (also excrement). It can therefore be used to characterize an aspect of recent erotic literature, which brings us back to our main theme, the taste for all that is dirty, inferior, vulgar. What is relevant here is the choice, in many authors from Lawrence onwards, of the most vulgar, low-class words, ”obscene” words, precisely, to designate sexual organs and sexual acts.
What Henry Miller has written in defense of obscenity [“Obscenity and the Law of Reflection”], with its characteristic confusions, is typical. Miller is also regarded as openly “pornographic.” For him, “obscenity” in literature, with recourse to the most vulgar erotic language, is a form of protest, rebellion, and liberating destruction; through it, Miller wants to awaken man, by means of an anti-conformism that does not hesitate to perform ”sacrilegious acts.” “Ultimately, then, [the artist] stands among his own obscene objurgations like the conqueror midst the ruins of a devastated city. . . . he knocked to awaken [. . .].” Here, we are really at the limits of the ridiculous. Since Miller is not a theoretician, but primarily a novelist, he should provide some compelling examples of these miraculous powers of “obscenity”; but his books are not even exciting in the manner of certain risqué literature; instead, it all boils down to the grotesque and the dirty when subject matter of this kind is treated and erotic scenes are described. All that remains is the satisfaction in pure and simple obscenity in the etymological sense mentioned above, the reference to sex being secondary, and, for our purposes, irrelevant, since it is possible to speak of even the most risqué matters while avoiding vulgarity and obscenity. A short book generally categorized as pornographic literature, Gamiani, is said to have been written by Alfred de Musset to win a bet that he could describe the wildest and most perverse erotic scenes in a way “that leaves nothing to the imagination” without using a single vulgar word; certain works of anonymous French literature sold under the counter (for example, Vingtquatre nuits charnelles), offer further examples of the same kind. Thus, beyond any moralistic sexual taboo, the salient point is precisely “obscenity” — and the current use of obscene language, regardless of absurd pretexts like those concocted by Miller and Lawrence, belongs essentially to the tendency of self-degradation and contamination, of which we have enumerated a series of typical expressions. That the extolment and the exaltation of sex is associated with obscene language that can only make sex disgusting and repellent, can only be considered singular. Anti-conformist revolt, which has descended from Nietzschean heights to the level of solidarity with the Negro, has found a worthy counterpart in those who have recourse to the dirty and vulgar language of the street. If the justifications of obscenity mentioned earlier are made in good faith, we must simply conclude that those who make them do not even realize the nature of the influences they are subject to, that they merely undergo them and are used by them, pulled along by a deep current, the multitudinous manifestations of which all rigorously converge in a single direction.
Attentive observers will have no difficulty in extending the list of phenomena enumerated here, all of which betray the same origin, and are telltale signs of an atmosphere now prevalent everywhere. We do not need to repeat that any form of conformism is alien to us: in general, conformism consists of residues of bourgeois mores and culture which do not deserve to survive, and which are increasingly affected by processes of dissolution which have become irreversible. Under certain conditions, these processes of dissolution may even be a prerequisite for a new and better order. But this is certainly not the case in everything we have discussed here so far. With regard to all of that, one must only speak of debasement, vulgarity and pure degradation as essential components of the taste and mores predominant today.
1. In the case of genuine, original works by Negroes and primitives, it should be noted that this is not a matter of artistic style; deformation and distortion are usually a component of “magic art,” which is not based not on the subjective imagination, but on the actual perception of certain dark, elemental powers.
2. In another misuse of terms, Miller says that “the whole edifice of civilization as we know it” is “obscene,” which is nonsense, since that edifice is, if anything, absurd and meaningless. For Miller, who is an extreme pacifist, what is particularly “obscene” is modern mechanized warfare, and war in general: another absurdity that reflects the same overwhelming tendency to emphasize only that which, in any given experience, is of an inferior character. The negative, and sometimes degrading and demoralizing aspects of modern warfare — the only ones that are described and emphasized by authors like Barbusse and Remarque — can be contrasted with what men like the early Ernst Jünger and Drieu La Rochelle personally experienced in the same “total war.”
Part 3 of 3
Trans. G. A. Malvicini from L’Arco e la Clava [The Bow and the Club] (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1968)
We will end these observations by examining the original content of three ancient Roman notions, those of fatum, felicitas, and fortuna.
15. Fatum. According to the most common modern usage, “fate” is a blind power that hangs over men, which is imposed on them by making what they least of all desire come true, eventually pushing them towards tragedy and misfortune. Hence the term “fatalism,” the opposite of any attitude of free, effective initiative. According to the fatalistic worldview, the individual is nothing; his actions, despite an appearance of free will, are predestined or vain, and events follow each other in obedience to a law or a power that transcends him and that does not take him into any account whatsoever. “Fatal” is an adjective with prevalently negative connotations: “fatal” outcome, “fatal” accident, the “fatal hour of death,” and so on.
According to its ancient meaning, fatum instead corresponded essentially to the law of the continuous manifestation of the world; this law was not deemed blind, irrational, and automatic — “fatal” in the modern sense of the word — but full of meaning, and proceeding from an intelligent will, above all the will of the Olympian powers. The Roman fatum referred, like the Indo-European rta, to the notion of the world as a cosmos, as an order, and in particular to the concept of history as a development of causes and events that reflect a higher meaning. Even the Fates of Greek tradition, while presenting some evil and “infernal” aspects (due to the influence of pre-Hellenic and pre-Indo-European cults), often appear as personifications of the intelligent and just law that presides over the government of the universe, in certain of its manifestations.
However, it is above all in Rome that the idea of fatum takes on particular importance. This was because Roman civilization was, of all traditional and sacred civilizations, the one that focused particularly on the plane of action and historical reality. For Rome, it was, therefore, less important to know the cosmic order as a supra-temporal and metaphysical law, than to know it as a force in action in reality, as a divine will ordering events. This was linked to fatum in the Roman sense. This expression comes from the verb fari, from which is also derived the word fas, right as divine law. Thus, Fatum refers to the “word” — meaning the revealed word, first and foremost that of the Olympian deities, which allows men to know the right norm (fas) and also announces what is going to occur. Regarding this second aspect, oracles — who through a special traditional art sought to discern, in a state of potentiality, that which corresponded to situations there were in the process of being realized — were also called fata; they were almost themselves the revealed word of the gods.
But to understand this matter, we must remember that in ancient Rome and in traditional civilizations in general, man’s relationship to the general order of the world was very different from the one that later came to predominate. The idea of a universal law and a divine will did not cancel the notion of human freedom; the constant preoccupation of traditional man was to shape his life and actions so they would continue the cosmic order — so that they would represent, so to speak, an extension or further development of that order. Starting from pietas, that is to say, for a Roman, gratitude towards and veneration of the divine forces, he set himself the task of foreseeing the direction of these divine forces in history, so as to opportunely leave room for their action, so as to make them effective to the highest degree and full of meaning. Hence the important role played in the Roman world, even in the field of public affairs and military art, by oracles and soothsayers. Roman man was firmly convinced that the worst mishaps, including military defeats, depended less on human error, weakness, or deviancy, as from having neglected divine signs, that is to say, essentially to have acted in a disorderly and arbitrary way, following merely human criteria, severing one’s connections with the world above (for a Roman, this meant acting without religio, without “connecting”), without regard for “directions of efficacy” or for the “right moment,” which were indispensable conditions for “felicitous,” successful action. Note that fortuna and felicitas are often, in ancient Rome, only the other side of fatum, its univocally positive side. The man, the leader or the people who use their freedom to act in accord with the divine forces hidden in things are successful, they succeed, they triumph — and that meant, in antiquity, being “fortunate” and “happy.” A modern historian, Franz Altheim, believed he could discern in this attitude the effective cause of Rome’s greatness.
In order to further clarify the link between “fate” and human action, we can refer to modern technology. There are certain laws governing things and phenomena, which can be known or ignored, which we can take into account or neglect. In the face of these laws, man remains fundamentally free. He can even act in a manner contrary to what these laws advise, resulting in failure, or in the achievement of the goal only after an enormous waste of energy and every kind of difficulty. Modern technology corresponds to the opposite option: one seeks to know the laws of things so as to be able to make use of them, letting them show the path of least resistance and maximum efficiency in the achievement of a given objective.
Things are no different on a plane where it is no longer a question of the laws of matter, but of spiritual and “divine” forces. The man of ancient world thought it was essential to know, or at least sense these forces, in order to be able to form an idea of the propitious conditions for a given action, and possibly an idea of what he should or should not do. To him, challenging fate, rising against destiny, was not “Promethean” in the romantic sense glorified by the moderns; it was just foolish. Impiety (meaning the opposite of pietas, in other words, to be without religio, without “connection” or respectful comprehension of the cosmic order) was for the man of antiquity, more or less equivalent to stupidity, infantilism, fatuousness. The comparison with modern technology is flawed in one respect: the laws of historical reality did not present themselves as inanimately “objective” and completely detached from man and his goals. One might well say: beyond a certain limit, the objective, divine order connected with “fate” ceases to be decisive, and only inclines events (hence the well-known astrological formula: astra inclinant non determinant). This is the point where the human and historical world, properly speaking, begins. Normally, this world should be continuous with the previous one, the human will should carry the “divine” will further. Whether this occurs or not depends, essentially, on freedom: one must will it. If it does occur, that which was only potentiality is, through human action, realized. The human world will then manifest itself as a continuation of the divine order, and history will configure itself as a revelation and a “sacred history”; then, man will no longer have any value in himself, will no longer act for his own sake, but will be invested with divine dignity, and the whole human world acquires, in a certain way, a higher dimension.
We see, then, that there is no question here of “fatalism.” Just as acting in opposition to “fate” is foolish and irrational, so is an action harmonized with “fate” not only effective, but also transfiguring. Whoever fails to take fatum into account is almost always destined to be passively carried along by events; he who knows fatum, makes it his own and grafts himself onto it, is instead guided to act in a way that realizes a higher order and totality, one that is enriched with a meaning that is no longer merely individual. This is the meaning of the ancient maxim that fata “nolentem trahunt, volentem ducunt.”
In the ancient Roman world and in ancient Roman history, there are numerous episodes, situations and institutions that reveal the feeling of “fateful” encounters between the human world and the divine world, of forces from above that flow through history and manifest themselves in human actions. To limit ourselves to one example, we can recall that “the culmination of the Roman cult of Jupiter was an action in which the god manifests his victorious essence in a man, in the vir triumphalis. It is not that Jupiter is the sole cause of victory, but that he himself is the victor; the triumph is not celebrated in his honor, but he himself is the man of triumph. It is for this reason that the imperator wears the god’s insignia” (K. Kerényi, F. Altheim). To realize the divine — sometimes prudently, sometimes boldly — in action and existence was a guiding principle that ancient Rome also applied to the political order. This is why some authors have rightly pointed out the degree to which Rome lacked myths in the abstract and supra-historical sense prevalent in some other civilizations; in Rome, myth becomes history, just as history, in turn, takes on a “fateful” aspect and becomes myth.
From this, an important consequence follows. In cases like the one mentioned, an identity is realized. It is no longer a matter of a divine word that can be either heard or not heard. This is a higher manifestation of forces, in which human will appears as identical with that of higher forces. Here we are in the presence of a very particular, objective, we would be tempted to say transcendental concept of freedom. By opposing fatum, I can of course lay claim to a free will, but it is a sterile freedom, a mere “gesture,” since it cannot have any deep effect on the fabric of reality. By contrast, when I act in such a way that my will continues a higher order, that is, when it becomes the instrument through which that order is realized in history, in such a state of coincidence or correspondence, what I will may possibly become a command addressed to objective forces that otherwise would not easily be dominated, or would have no regard for what human beings desire or hope for.
Now we may ask: how did we come to this modern notion of fate as a obscure and blind force? Like so many others, such a shift in meaning is far from being a matter of chance. It reflects an inner change in level in and can essentially be explained by the rise of individualism and “humanism” understood in a general sense, that is to say, in relation to a civilization and worldview based solely on what is human and earthly. It is obvious that — once this break occurred — instead of an intelligible order of the world, only the power of something obscure and alien could be felt in its place. “Fate” then became the general symbol of all the deeper forces at work in the face of which man, despite his mastery of the physical world, is powerless, since he no longer understands them and has cut himself off from them; it also symbolizes forces that man, through his own attitude, has liberated and made sovereign in certain domains of existence.
With this study of the ancient and the modern notions of fatum, we end our series of examples. It should already give an idea of the interest and importance which an enlightened philology would have, since, as has been stated, words have a soul and life, and a return to origins can often open up surprising perspectives. This work, however, would be even more fruitful if it did not content itself with going back from the modern “Romance” languages to Latin, but from Latin itself to the much broader, common family of Indo-European languages, of which Latin was, in its fundamental elements, a differentiation.
Part 2 of 3
Trans. G. A. Malvicini from L’Arco e la Clava [The Bow and the Club] (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1968)
10. Labor. Regarding changes in the value attached to words, changes that clearly indicate a radical change in world view, the most typical case is perhaps that of the term labor. In Latin, this word had a mainly negative meaning. Although in some cases, it could refer to activity in general — such as in the expression labor rei militaris, activity in the army — its predominant meaning expressed the idea of fatigue, exhaustion, unpleasant effort, sometimes even disgrace, torment, a burden, a punishment. The Greek term ponos had an analogous meaning. Thus, laborare could also mean suffer, be anxious, tormented. Quid ego laboravi? means: “why did I torment myself?” Laborare ex renis, ex capite means: to suffer from a backache or a headache. Labor itineris means the fatigue and inconvenience of travel. And so on.
So that the Roman never would have thought of making labor a sort of virtue and social ideal. And Roman civilization was no civilization of slackers, loafers, and “idlers.” The truth is that at that time, one had a sense of distance. To “work,” one opposed agere, action in its higher meaning. “Work” corresponded to the dark, servile, material, indifferent forms of human activity, with reference to those for whom activity was determined only by need, necessity or an unfortunate fate (the ancient world knew a metaphysics of slavery). Opposed to such people were those who act in the proper sense of the term, those who devote themselves to free, non-physical, conscious, deliberate and to some extent disinterested forms of action. Even to those who exercised material activities, but with a certain qualitative character, and on the basis of an authentic and free vocation, the term “work” was not applied; such a person was an artifex (there was also the term opifex), and this view was also retained in later times, in the climate and style of the traditional craft guilds.
The change in the meaning and value of the word in question is therefore a very clear sign of the plebeian character that has increasingly come to predominate in the Western world, a civilization that increasingly is shaped by the lowest strata of any complete social hierarchy. The modern “cult of work” is all the more aberrant because today, more than ever, under the regime of industrialization, mechanization and anonymous mass production, work has necessarily lost any higher value it might have had. Despite this, one has reached the point of speaking of a “religion of work,” of a “humanism of work,” and even of a “labor state,” making work a kind of insolent ethical and social imperative for everyone, to which one almost wants to answer defiantly with the Spanish saying El hombre que trabaja pierde un tiempo precioso (“the man who works loses precious time”).
On another occasion, we had already identified the following contrast between the traditional world and the modern world: in the first, even “work” could take the form of an “action,” of a “work,” and of an art; in the second, action and art sometimes take on the character of “work”, that is, of coerced, opaque and interested activity, not according to a vocation, but to need and, above all, for profit, lucre.
11. Otium. This term has undergone a change exactly inverse to that of the preceding one. Today, the Italian word ozio [idleness] has, almost without exception, a pejorative sense. To be idle, according to modern usage, is to be useless to oneself and to others. To be idle and to be indolent, distracted, inactive, listless, prone to the “dolce far niente” of the mandolin-playing Italy for tourists, are all more or less equivalent. However, otium in Latin meant a period of free time, corresponding more or less to meditative state of calm, transparent contemplation. Idleness in the negative sense — also known in antiquity — was only what it can lead to when misused: only in such cases could one say, for example, hebescere otio or otio diffluere, that is to say, to become stupid or dissipated through idleness. But this is not the usual sense. Cicero, Seneca, and other classical authors understood otium was understood primarily as the healthy and normal counterpart to everything that is action, and even as a necessary condition for action to truly be action, and not agitation, not business (negotium), not ”work.”
We could also refer to the Greeks, as Cicero wrote: “Graeci non solum ingenio atque doctrina, sed etiam otio studioque abundantes” — “The Greeks are rich not only in innate gifts and doctrine but also in otium and application.” Of Scipio the Elder it was said: “Nunquam is minus esse quam cum otiosum otiosus esset aut minus solum esse quam cum solus esset” — “He was never less idle than when he was idle, and never less alone than when he enjoyed solitude,” which refers to an active (in a higher sense) type of “idleness” and solitude. And Sallust: “Maius commodum ex otio meo quam ex aliorum negotiis reipublicae venturum” — “My leisure will be more useful to the state than the busyness of others.” To Seneca we owe a treatise entitled De otio, in which “idleness” gradually takes on the character of pure contemplation.
Some of the characteristic ideas in this treaty are worth mentioning here. According to Seneca, there are two States: one greater State, without exterior and contingent limits, encompassing both men and gods; the other is the particular, earthly State, to which one belongs by birth.
Now, Seneca says, there are men who serve the two States at once, others who serve only the greater State, and others that serve only the earthly State. The greater State can also be served through “idleness,” if not better through idleness — through investigating what constitutes virtus, strength and virile dignity: “huius maiori rei publicae et in otio deservire possumus, imno vero nescio an in otium melius, ut quaeremus quid sit virtus.” Otium is closely linked to the tranquillity of mind of the sage, to the inner calm that allows one to reach the summits of contemplation; contemplation which, if understood in its right, traditional sense, is not an escape from the world or a distraction, but a deepening and elevation to the perception of the metaphysical order that every true man must never cease to keep in sight when living and struggling in an earthly State.
Moreover, even in Catholicism (before Christ the worker, to be honored on May 1, had been thought up, and before the church had “opened itself to the left”), there was the phrase sacrum otium, “sacred idleness,” referring, specifically, to contemplative activity. But in a civilization where all action has taken on the dull, physical, mechanical and mercenary traits of work, even when the work is done in one’s head (“intellectual workers,” who naturally have their “unions,” too, and fight for the “demands” of their “trade associations”), the positive and traditional signification of contemplation inevitably had to disappear. This is why modern civilization should not be considered an “active” civilization, but a restless and neurotic civilization. As compensation for “work” and a reaction against a life that has been worn down and demeaned to the level of vain activity and production, modern man, in fact, does not know classical otium, contemplation, silence, the state of calm and pause during which one can return to oneself and find oneself again. No: he knows only “distraction” (the literal meaning of distraction is “dispersion”); he looks for sensations, for new tensions, new stimulants, almost a kind of psychic narcotics. Anything, as long as he can escape himself, as long as he does not find himself alone with himself, isolated from the noise of the outside world and fraternization with his “neighbor.” Whence radio, television, cinema, cruises, the frenzy of sports or political rallies in a regime of the masses, the need to find out the latest, the hunting for news and the sensational, “fans” and “supporters” of all kinds, etc. Every expedient seems to have been diabolically put into play in order to destroy any kind of inner life, any internal defense of the personality, so that, almost like an artificially galvanized being, the individual lets himself be swept away by the collective current, which, naturally, according to the famous “meaning of history,” moves forward in unlimited progress.
12. Through the association of ideas, this brings to mind the decay the meaning of the Greek term theoria has undergone. When one speaks today of “theories,” one is more or less referring to “abstractions,” things far removed from of reality, “intellectual” matters; a great poet [Goethe] even wrote: “All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.” Again, we find an alteration and a weakening of meaning. For the Greeks, theoria did not mean abstract intellectuality but realizing vision, something particularly active, the act of the highest principle in man, the nous, or Olympian intellect (which will be discussed in another chapter).
13. Servitium. The verb servio, servire in Latin also has the positive sense of “to be faithful.” However, the negative sense — “to be a servant” — prevails; it is this latter sense, in any case, that is found in servitium, which specifically meant slavery, serfdom, as derived from servus = slave. In modern times, the word “serve” has become increasingly widespread, while losing this negative and demeaning connotation, so that service as “social service,” especially among the Anglo-Saxon peoples, has almost become the a kind of ethic, the only truly modern ethic. And just as one has not sensed the absurdity of speaking of “intellectual workers,” the sovereign has been called “the first servant of the nation.”
Just as the Romans clearly were not a race of “idlers,” one can also say that they present us with the highest examples of political loyalty, of loyalty to the state and its leaders. However, the tone is very different. The change in the soul of words is not a matter of chance. That words like labor, servitium, otium have taken on their modern sense, is a subtle, but eloquent sign of a change in perspective, which has certainly not occurred in the direction of virile, aristocratic, qualitative vocations.
14. Stipendium. We hardly need to mention what the word “stipend” means today. One thinks immediately of an employee, of bureaucracy, of pay-day for civil servants. In ancient Rome, this term referred almost exclusively to the army. Stipendium merere meant to be in the military, being under the orders of a particular leader or condottiere. Emeritis stipendis meant: after having completed military service; homo nullius stipendii meant one who had not known the discipline of arms. Stipendis multa habere meant to boast many campaigns, many military enterprises. Again, the shift in meaning is of no small significance.
The complete meaning of other Latin words, such as studium and studiosus, is now preserved only in certain special turns of phrase, such as the Italian expression “fare con studio,” meaning to do something on purpose or with a certain application. In the Latin term, there was the idea of intensity, warmth, deep interest, which has been obscured in the modern word, which brings to mind more or less arid intellectual or scholastic disciplines. The Latin studium could even mean love, desire, sharp inclination. In re studium ponere meant taking something to heart, deeply and actively take an interest in it. Studium bellandi meant the pleasure, the love of combat. Homo agendi studiosus was one who loves action — so that recalling what was said earlier about labor, he was the opposite of the man for whom action can only signify “work.” What should we think, today, of the expression studiosi Caesaris? It did not mean those who study Caesar, but those who follow him, who admire him, which take his side, who are dedicated and loyal to him.
Other words whose ancient meaning has been forgotten are, for example, docilitas, which did not mean docility, but good disposition or ability to learn, to assimilate a teaching or principle; then ingenuus, which did not at all the mean naive, but referred to free-born man, to a non-servile condition. It is more or less widely known that the Latin word humanitas did not mean “humanity” in the democratic and decayed sense of today, but cultivation of the self, fullness of life and of experience — not, however, in the “humanist” sense à la Humboldt. Another quite important example: certus. In classical Latin, the notion of certainty, of something certain, was often connected with the idea of a conscious decision. Certum est mihi means: it is my firm intention and will. Certus gladio is he who can rely on his sword, who knows how to use it. A well-known phrase is diebus certis, which does not mean “on certain days” but on the fixed, established days. This could lead us to considerations of a certain conception of certainty: an active conception, which makes it dependent on that which is within our power to decide. This is what Gian Battista Vico, in the same spirit, articulated with the formula verum et factum convertuntur – but everything was to end later in the ravings of neo-Hegelian “absolute idealism.”
Part 1 of 3
Trans. G. A. Malvicini from L’Arco e la Clava [The Bow and the Club] (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1968)
One of the signs of the fact that the course of history has, outside of the purely material plane, been anything but one of progress, is the poverty of modern languages compared to many ancient languages. Not a single one of the Western so-called “living languages” can compare, in terms of organic, articulated structure and plasticity, with, for example, classical Latin or Sanskrit. Among the European languages, perhaps only German has preserved something of its archaic structure (and this is why German has a reputation for being “difficult”), while the English language and those of the Scandinavian peoples have suffered a process of erosion and flattening. In general, one might say that ancient languages were three-dimensional, while modern languages are two-dimensional. Here, too, time has had a corrosive effect; it has made languages “practical” and ”fluid” at the expense, precisely, of their organic structure. This is only a reflection of what has occurred in many other domains of culture and existence.
Words, too, have their history, and changes in their meaning are often an interesting indicator of corresponding changes in general sensibility and worldview. In particular, it would be interesting to compare the meaning of certain Latin words with that of terms that have remained virtually identical in Italian, and often in other Romance languages as well. In general, one notices a lowering in level. The earliest meaning is either lost, or survives in a residual form in certain special meanings or phrases, without any longer corresponding to the current sense of the term, or else, appears completely distorted and trivialized. We will provide some examples.
1. The most typical and best known case is perhaps the word virtus. “Virtue” in the modern sense has almost nothing to do with virtus in the ancient sense. Virtus meant strength of character, courage, valor, virile firmness. The word was connected to vir, a term that designated a man who was truly a man, not “man” in the generic and naturalistic sense. The word has taken on an essentially a moralistic meaning, very often associated with sexual prejudices, to the point that Vilfredo Pareto coined the term “virtuismo” to refer to the puritanical and sexophobic morality of the bourgeois. Generally, when speaking of a “virtuous person” today, we think of something far different from what was referred to, through an effective use of reiteration, by phrases like vir virtute praeditus. And it is not uncommon that the difference in meaning turns into a veritable antithesis. Indeed, a firm soul, proud, fearless and heroic, is the opposite of a “virtuous” person in the modern, moralistic and conformist sense.
The meaning of virtus as an efficacious force has only been preserved in certain specific modern phrases: the “virtues” of a plant or a drug, “by virtue“ of this or that.
2. Honestus. Linked to the idea of honos, in antiquity this term mainly meant “deserving honor,” “noble,” “of noble rank.” What, of this, is conserved in the corresponding modern term? An “honest” person now means a “decent” member of bourgeois society, someone who does not do anything really bad. The phrase “born of honest parents” [“nato da onesti genitori”] has today taken on an almost ironic nuance, while in ancient Rome it was used specifically to designate nobility of birth, which often also corresponded to biological nobility. Vir honesta facie meant, indeed, a man of fine appearance, just as the Sanskrit term Aryan referred both to a person worthy of honor, as well as to a nobility that was as much of the mind, as it was of the body.
3. Gentilis, gentilitas. Today, when speaking of a “gentleman,” everyone thinks of someone who is courteous, charming, well-mannered. The ancient terms, however, referred to the notion of gens, of clan, race, caste or lineage. For the Romans, gentilis was applied to one who possessed qualities deriving from a lineage and from differentiated blood, which could, perhaps, but only as a reflection, determine a demeanor of detached courtesy, something very different from “good manners,” which even a parvenu can acquire by studying etiquette — and different, also, from the vague modern notion of “kindness.” Few people today are able to grasp the deeper meaning of expressions such as “a gentle spirit” and the like, which are isolated extensions of the original meaning in the language of writers of other times.
4. Genialitas. Who is a “genius” today? A predominantly individualistic man, brilliant and full of original discoveries. At the extreme, there is the artistic “genius,” to whom, as we know, bourgeois and humanist civilization has dedicated a fetishistic cult, to the point that the “genius” — more so than the hero, the ascetic or aristocrat — was often seen, in that civilization, as the highest type of man. The Latin term genialis, however, alludes to something that has little to do with individualism and “humanism.” It comes from the word genius, which originally designated the formative and generative, inner, spiritual and mystical force of a given blood lineage or race. One could therefore say that the qualities of genialitas in the ancient sense had a certain relationship with qualities that are “racial” in the highest sense of the word. In direct opposition to the modern sense of the word, the element of “genius” was distinct from everything individualistic and arbitrary; it was connected with a deep root, obeying an inner necessity through fidelity to the already supra-personal forces of blood and race, forces that, as we know, in any patrician lineage were connected to a sacred tradition.
5. Pietas. There is no real need to state what “pity” means today. One thinks of a more or less humanitarian, sentimental attitude — “pity” is almost synonymous with compassion. In Latin, pietas belonged, instead, to the realm of the sacred, signifying firstly the special relationship that the Roman had with the the gods, secondly with other realities in the world of Tradition, including the State itself. Before the gods, it meant an attitude of calm, dignified veneration: a sense of belonging and, at the same time, of respect, of grateful recognition, of duty and loyalty, the intensified form of the feeling elicited by the stern figure of the pater familias (hence pietas filialis). Pietas could also manifest itself in the political domain: pietas in patriam meant loyalty and duty to the State and to the fatherland. In some cases, the term also connotes the meaning of iustitia. He who does not know pietas is also unjust, almost impious, he is the one who does not recognize his place, the place he must hold in a higher order, which is at once human and divine.
6. Innocentia. This word, too, evoked ideas of clarity and strength; its prevalent meaning in antiquity was purity of soul, integrity, disinterestedness, righteousness. It did not just have the purely negative sense of “not guilty,” and had nothing of the connotation of banality found in the phrase “innocent mind” today, which has become almost synonymous with “simpleton.” In other Romance languages, such as French, for example, the same term, innocent, even designates idiots, congenital mental deficients, the feeble-minded and dazed.
7. Patientia. The modern sense, with respect to the old sense, is once again dulled and weakened. Someone “patient,” today, is someone who does not get angry, does not get irritated, someone tolerant. In Latin, patientia designated one of the primary “virtues” of the Roman: it connotes the idea of an inner strength, an unshakable firmness, it referred to the capacity to stand one’s ground, to have a soul that remains composed in the face any setback and any adversity. This is why it was said of the race of Rome, that it possessed the power to accomplish great things as well as to endure [patire] equally great adversity (cf. Livy’s famous saying: et facere et pati fortia romanum est). The modern sense is, relative to the other, completely watered down. Today, the donkey is considered an example of a typically “patient” nature.
8. Humilitas. With the religion that came to prevail in the West, “humility” became a “virtue” (in an un-Roman sense) and was glorified as the opposite of the style of dignity, of strength, and of calm awareness that we described above. In ancient Rome, humilitas signified the very opposite of all virtus. It meant a baseness deserving contempt, lowliness, abjection, cowardice, dishonor — so that death or exile were considered preferable to “humility”: humilitati vel exilium vel mortem anteponenda esse. Associations of ideas such as mens humilis et prava, “a low and evil spirit.” were common. The expression humilitas causam dicentium refers to the inferior and guilty condition of those being taken before a court. Here, too, we find an interference with the idea of race or caste: humilis natus parentis meant born of the people, in the pejorative, plebeian sense, in contrast to noble birth, and hence diverging significantly from the modern sense of the phrase “of humble origins,” especially considering that the sole criterion of social position today is economic. Anyway, never would a Roman of ancient times have dreamed of making a virtue of humilitas, let alone boast of it and preach it to others. As for a certain “morality of humility,” one might recall the remark of a Roman emperor, that nothing is more despicable than the pride of those who say they are humble — which does not mean that arrogance and presumptuousness are to be encouraged.
9. Ingenium. The old sense of the term has survived only in part, and, again, in its least interesting aspect. In Latin, ingenium also signified perspicacity, sharpness of mind, sagacity, foresight — but at the same time, it referred to character, to that which is, in each person, organic, innate, really one’s own. Vana ingenia could therefore refer to persons without character; redire ad ingenium could mean to return to one’s own nature, a lifestyle consistent with what one really is. This more important meaning has been lost in the modern word, the meaning of which has almost been inverted. Indeed, if “ingeniousness” has a sense of intellectualism and cleverness, this is obviously the opposed to the second meaning of the ancient term, which refers to character, to a style that is in conformity with one’s own nature; intelligence is then what is superficial, as opposed to what is organic; a restless, brilliant and inventive mobility of the mind, rather than a rigorous style of thinking that adheres perfectly to one’s own character.