Recently, Counter-Currents republished a work by Julius Evola (“The most right-wing thinker in history”) called “The Decay of Words”. As a poet and amateur philologist, I enjoy the most the often-frustrating attempts of philosophers to explain, define, and shape language. Sometimes they develop a term of art which comes to color a word; sometimes they strip away its later uses, or its former, or those between, sometimes they try to form a new definition that combines them, or sometimes they represent a legitimist or populist position on the use of the word. There are other variations, including what I would call “pure mythologizing”—an attempt to shape consciousness by defining a word out of the blue. This may be pure brilliance except when that word has an already-established history and meaning, and those are simply denied to attain the end desired of the philosopher.
Overall, Evola’s work here is most notable for his keen sense of words which are important to a right-wing thinker, but that have drifted and perhaps been debased. Certainly much of the modern debasement has been purposeful; neutering terms that let one think about unacceptable things in unacceptable ways—but the end result of this neutering has rarely been the subject of individual or even cleanly directed whim; often unpredictable. The general trend, as Evola admits, has mostly been a loss of depth in the language (he claims that ancient languages were “3-dimensional” while new languages are “2-dimensional”).
However, reading through the translation, one gets the sense (which may not have been present in the original) that Evola is slightly, well, stung. The term we use in our time, which is marvelous in being able to sting the stung, is butthurt.
In some cases, he’s just flat wrong (innocent does indeed imply “not guilty”—which in the Western Christian tradition is meant to imply the more weighty matters of original sin—much deeper than his definition) but in others he’s doing some flattening himself. I tend to think, however, that Evola is intentionally shaping language here, and in a way that favors his project. The mask slips most poignantly here, when he hits the word humility:
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.
No, sir, as a Roman (of the Byzantine variety) I can tell you that humility merely as a synonym for “base” or “mean” is rather un-Roman. But before we unwind his knot here, do take note of the stroke of mythologizing he is doing here—the Romans were not humble! They were proud! Humility is the opposite of virtue! He does not say this precisely, but implies that in the better, deeper languages, humility meant less than it did later, during the Christian period (he is vague here about “the religion that came to prevail in the West”).
What he is attempting to do here is untangle dignity from arrogance, and to do so, he is attacking humility. This is a move typical of certain strains of neopaganism, which are not so much pagan as they are Nietzschean. Nietzsche seems to have played a key role in coaxing men to abandon attempting to achieve the virtue of humility, as of course all virtues require an ordering of natural powers that is difficult and in that peculiar way, unnatural.
It’s clear to me that he understands his sleight of hand, because at the end he says, “one might recall the remark of a Roman emperor, that nothing is more despicable than the pride of those who say they are humble.” But wait, why would you have pride in being humble? Does anyone have any pride in being base? But we have just said that humility and basesness are the opposite of the elevated sense of virtue and pride the Roman supposedly had.
We should understand clearly that the only reason anyone would have pride in being base is if prestige were attached by those with prestige to being base. Other than that it’s impossible outside of a tiny set of outliers who truly possess a monstrous self-esteem (as Evagrius put it, “if they cannot glory in their riches, they glory in their rags”) for a person to really be proud of their baseness.
So if a Roman emperor is annoyed about humblebragging it indicates someone with status is giving status to people who humble themselves. Odd for these supposedly “high” and “dignified” and decidedly not humble Romans. But the explanation is simple: abasing one’s self before a greater power, versus being prideful, shows that one can be relied on to obey the greater power. The emperor is clearly annoyed at people overdoing it—clearly an example of a kind of minor holiness spiral in action. And by this I mean that the original purpose of abasement before a ruler, to establish obsequience, is lost and there appears to be some competition going on for who can show that he is the humblest before the ruler. I heard an old joke about a few Jews that goes:
Three men were in the synagogue, praying before God. The first says, “O Lord, I am a lowly creature of earth.”
The second, seeing this, says, “O Lord, I am but a speck of dust, and thou art everything.”
The third, not to be outdone, says, “O Lord, I am infinitesimal and worthless, and thou art most great and gracious!”
After hearing this, the second turns to the first and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
It seems less likely that Evola is actually correct (or intends to be correct) about the underlying meaning of the Emperor’s statement, and it is more likely he is using it rhetorically and somewhat deceptively. Abasement before a greater power, something all Romans would be familiar with, is a virtue of sorts—certainly understanding one’s station is indicated by the Centurion in the gospels—and long before any of this, Solomon notes with authority: “Pride goes before a fall”. The distinction between arrogance and dignity is real, but the line doesn’t fall at humility. This is simpleminded Nietzschean mythologizing going on, and we ought to cut it off at the knees.
The Christian notion of humility has everything to do with this abasement before a greater power and the joke about Jews both demonstrates this and gives us a little picture of how silly holiness spirals are in reality (and how little effect they have on God.) Christian humility starts with abasement before God, who, if panto-kratos (all-powerful) would be to anyone other than a soft, unitarian kind of religious person, a source of dread. (The latter person is incapable of comprehending the actual sort of Power that God is.) Humility has lost its flavor not from some slavish morality (note he hits the Nietszchean dogwhistle) but from the loss of a comprehension of servitude—from democratization. If “Christ is our brother” and that only, and if we are but “Friends” (as the Quakers would have it) there is no sense of humility that begins with abasing one’s self before a greater power out of dread of its might.
This dread then is the source of a very rooted—very deep in fact, and involving both body and soul—self-understanding. Before the existing one, what are we who are contingent? But we are told, “If a man does not love his brother, whom he can see, how can he love God, whom he cannot see?” I think this phrase does not just apply to love, but also applies to humility; if we cannot humble ourselves before those who are greater than us, whom we can see, how do we intend to humble ourselves before those who are greater than us, whom we cannot see (such as God)? Evola’s “solution” to the problem—pooh-poohing the virtue of humility—is actually just another symptom of the disease of modernism disguised as a cure. A purple pill, if you will.
In democratic society, it is necessary that every man be both proud and humble—proud in that he is as good as any man (and thus able to make decisions on their behalf) and humble in that he is no better than any other man (and thus not able to countermand them when they make decisions on his behalf.) Evola is, on the one hand, rightly attacking a false humility which is merely abasement for show, but his attack is uncoordinated and misses the mark.
In our language we have two terms, humility and humiliation, which are related. It is best to think of humility as a kind of humiliation—a simple lowering or abasement regardless of truth. The two typical humiliations are falling on one’s face (as “pride goes before a fall” might poetically suggest) or being hung up by or caught in one’s own trap. In the latter, the humiliation is sometimes called a “petard hoist”—from when Hamlet is going to figuratively get his opponents to step on their own land mines (but no real “petards/mines” are involved in that case) and get blown to the moon. (However, in our language, “petard” seems to suggest an article of clothing, such as a cloak or stole. Odd.) The card “The Hanged Man” also is about humiliation. (Tarot cards originate from much earlier than any use for them in fortune-telling.)
As one can see, humiliation is itself rather base and may overstep the purpose of putting someone in their actual place and so we have the term “humbling” which intends to specify just such a case when the humiliation’s purpose is to restore a person from tottering, soaring pride, to solid ground without (hopefully) permanent damage. Begin humbled still is a bad thing—not because it is bad to end up in your proper place, but because it is bad to be humiliated. At least in being humbled, one gets a consolation prize.
Humility is thus the virtue of avoiding arrogance—which Evola himself rightly decries. It is perhaps better to translate Humilitas into our modern tongue as “humiliation” since the term has deepened considerably since, covering both the senses he used, plus others that developed under Christendom.
Between the two of us, it’s hard for me to imagine a hierarchical and generally right-wing civilization without humility on the part of lessers towards their greaters, which might save them some fatal petard hoists. It’s also hard to imagine noble Romans not having that attitude towards their gods—as we the latter Romans have towards our only God. A general virtue of not exalting yourself over others seems wise, and indeed, how could one exult one’s exercise of this virtue without falling short of it?
In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. – Benjamin Franklin