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Beyond the Cosmic Ladder:

The Ultimate State, According to Julius Evola and Paul Brunton


The purpose of this paper is to explain and compare two modern views of the ultimate in human consciousness. I have chosen Julius Evola and Paul Brunton because of some close coincidences of life and doctrine, despite their contrasting personalities, and for the clarity and objectivity of their writing. In my understanding they both furthered the Theosophical current, though neither claimed to have received his wisdom from Masters or from clairvoyance, nor were they concerned with mapping the cosmic ladder. Instead, they proposed the ultimate challenge: to get beyond it altogether.

Although they discouraged curiosity about their family roots and early life, some synchronicities are worth mentioning. Evola (1898-1974) was born in Rome into a middle-class family of Sicilian origin, which he dismissed as follows: “I owe very little to the milieu in which I was born, to the education which I received, and to my own blood.”ii Brunton (1898-1981) was born the same year into London’s Jewish diaspora, of which he wrote: “The narrow matrix in which heredity attempted to mould my nature, I early broke and discarded, for my whole thought and temperament were of another cast.”iii

Aside from conventional schooling they were autodidacts: neither completed higher education.iv In the First World War, when Britain and Italy were allies, Evola served as an artillery officer, Brunton in a tank regiment. At the war’s end, aged 21, they emerged into the tumultuous postwar culture of Rome and London, respectively. At first they were drawn to Bohemian circles: Evola as a painter and both of them as occasional poets, then to the occultist milieu whose visible center, in both cities, was the Theosophical Society. Brunton joined the Astrological Lodge in April 1920;v Evola never joined the Society, but participated in Rome’s Independent Theosophical League and made lasting contacts there. They were soon attracted to Eastern wisdom, Evola to Taoism and Tantrism, Brunton to Vedanta and Buddhism. They also had close friends in the Anthroposophical movement—Brunton heard Steiner lecture in London in 1919—but kept their independence from all organizations. By their early twenties they had found their vocation as writers, supported by independent journalism.

Evola and Brunton had both experienced unusual states of consciousness, but came to them by very different ways. By the age of sixteen, Brunton had discovered a book by a Sufi, Ibn Tufail’s Awakening of the Soul. Inspired by its example of self-initiation, he took up daily meditation and, after what he calls “eighteen months of burning aspiration for the Spiritual Self…underwent a series of mystical ecstasies.”vi Evola began meditation in wartime, while stationed in the mountains, for no apparent reason beyond disgust with life and the wish for dissolution. This led to a series of illuminations and adventures in the supersensible world that he later described in some detail.vii He also made temporary use of drugs (notably ether) which gave him what he calls “forms of consciousness removed from ordinary sense perception.”viii

Each in his own fashion suffered the “dark night of the soul.” Evola, a warrior at heart, regretted that the war had given him no real military action, and returned to civilian life with a sense of emptiness that brought him at the age of 23 to the brink of suicide. Suddenly he happened to read a passage from the Buddhist scriptures which stated that even the urge to extinction was only another bondage from which to be freed. “At that moment,” Evola writes, “a change took place within me, and I acquired steadfastness capable of withstanding all crises.”ix Later he took up the daily practice of Buddhist meditation.x

Brunton records a loss of his early aspirations after the war and an intense dislike of the city’s atmosphere, to which suicide seemed the only rational solution.xi He gave himself two weeks to prepare for the deed by studying books on death in the British Museum, and there discovered spiritualism, which so fascinated him that he postponed his suicide for another two weeks, and then indefinitely. His meditation resumed with renewed vigor, and soon he received a tremendous initiatory vision and a sense of his appointed mission. From then onwards both young men were set on their lifetime’s path, aspiring to the complete transcendence of the common human condition.

Brunton was the first to publish the fruit of his experiences. By 1919 he was contributing to the Occult Review, the main independent journal of its kind in England. His framework at this point was broadly Theosophical. He quoted Steiner and Annie Besant, discussed planetary influences, and wrote, as he would always write, on the borderline between the intellectual and the inspirational. A short article of 1921 about the Mystic and the Occultist as the “two faces of man” sets out a distinction that would be crucial in Brunton’s later work: the difference between the mystic and the philosopher, here called the Occultist.xii He uses Theosophical terms to describe how the Mystic is at home in the astral realm, but has to move up to the buddhic realm. The corresponding task for the Occultist is to move from the lower mental plane to the higher mental plane. Brunton warns of the pitfalls on both paths, and says that the only guarantee, for both types, is selfless love.

Evola was meanwhile working with similar ideas but on a larger scale. By 1924 he had completed a treatise on the “Theory” and “Phenomenology of the Absolute Individual.”xiii The first volume surveys the idealist philosophies of East and West; the second is concerned with experience, notably on the higher path which Evola calls “magical idealism.” Benedetto Croce, at the time Italy’s most eminent philosopher, facilitated publication of the two-volume work.

Allowing for their different styles, their metaphysical systems were developing in parallel, with a ladder that placed religion at the bottom, mysticism in the middle, and philosophy or magic at the top. Evola had little regard for the bottom rung: he wrote that “any religion, if it is really religion and not something else, is mysticism”;xiv Brunton, that religion “ought never to forget its higher purpose which is to fit the more advanced among its flock for the next higher degree,”xv namely for mysticism. And for both, the degree beyond mysticism was distinguished by a quasi-scientific objectivity. Evola says that “unlike mysticism, magic would be primarily defined by the positively effective and objective character of its practice.”xvi Brunton, that the “hidden philosophy” “arrives at completeness of results, uncontradictability of truth and the verified principle underlying all phases of experience and knowledge which when attained, makes everything else understood.”xvii

Neither writer leaves the reader in any doubt about the perils awaiting the aspirant. Brunton warns that the Occultist who turns his energies to personal ambition runs the risk of “entering the very real sphere of black magic, or occult selfishness … then arises a really lost soul.”xviii Evola writes that once a certain state is reached, the mind must be “absolutely neutral towards any sort of subjective effort and appetite,” otherwise its tendencies can “generate a chaos which would block the way to any higher realization,” and in a footnote he mentions black magic as exploiting such projections of the developed but impure mind.xix Evola too treats the nature of love, not as anything sentimental or moral but as an active and purificatory suffering, leading to “the freedom of a life in such self-possession that…it can give all, release all without thinking of itself.”xx

But it does not stop there. To distinguish themselves from teachers of mystic paths and from academic philosophy, Evola and Brunton made it clear that theirs was a path of action, not just contemplation. Their concept of the ultimate state was not the merging of the dewdrop into the shining sea (as in the closing lines of Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia), but the return to the marketplace (as in the Zen Buddhist Oxherding Pictures). Brunton criticized the yogis of India for their indifference to the world and renunciation of action. Evola wrote that “development is an illusion when it does not affect and act on the factual, bodily reality in which men live.”xxi

They were equally pragmatic in their mapping of the human being. Brunton soon dropped those allusions to the multiple planes and principles of man which the Theosophists had been so diligent in elaborating. Evola was never tempted by them. Two were enough: for Evola, the “I” of common experience, and the transcendent I that he called the Absolute Individual. Brunton, starting with his Secret Path of 1935,xxii called them the ego and the Overself. He adapted the latter term from Emerson’s “Oversoul,” replacing the religious connotations of “soul” with the immediacy of “self.” Thus the process of the “quest,” of “high magic,” or of whatever one calls the development of man’s ultimate possibilities, was framed by its starting- and end-points. But how was one to go about it?

The great failing of the Theosophical Society, in the view of its more ambitious members, was its lack of practical instruction. Blavatsky’s writings were full of the allurements of occultism, but neither they nor the neo-Theosophists—Besant, Leadbeater, Bailey—taught one how to become an occultist. There were a few exceptions. The earliest Theosophical Society in New York had indulged the members’ hopes for paranormal powers and astral travel, but Blavatsky’s departure for India ended any such instruction that she may have given in private. The Esoteric Section that she founded in response to urgent demand remained secretive and extremely select. This accounts for the success of a rival body, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, which was little more than a mail-order service but at least offered some practical instruction based on Paschal Beverly Randolph’s methods: sex, drugs, and magic mirrors. Rudolf Steiner was a safer guide, of whose work Brunton and Evola were both aware.xxiii But books alone were not enough. If their natural gifts, already extraordinary, were to bear fruit, they needed personal guidance. Brunton names two mentors: an “advanced mystic” called Mr. Thurston or “Brother M” who guided him through initiatic processes, and Allan Bennett, who had been one of Aleister Crowley’s magical colleagues, then had taken Buddhist orders and returned to London to promote the Noble Eightfold Path.xxiv Once Brunton began his travels to the East in 1930 he met numerous sages, adepts, and holy men, notably the Advaitin sage Sri Ramana Maharshi,xxv but by then he was well on his way.

Evola acknowledges no such personal guides, but he was familiar with initiatic groups that claimed a long ancestry and deep secrets. He credits Arturo Reghini, a Pythagorean, neopagan, and esoteric Freemason, for freeing him from his last occultist and Theosophical leanings.xxvi He also knew members of Giuliano Kremmerz’s Therapeutic and Magical Brotherhood of Myriam, who provided some of the exercises later used by the Ur Group that Evola and Reghini founded. Certainly the group’s essays, taken as a whole, are outstanding among the practical manuals published in modern times. Evola contributed essays under at least four pseudonyms, Ea, Arvo, Agarda, and Iagla, reserving the latter for accounts of his personal experiences and practical advice arising from them.

In the summer of 1925 Evola gave a lecture to the Independent Theosophical League of Rome on L’individuo e il divenire del mondo (The Individual and the Becoming of the World). The League’s journal published it later that year.xxvii The main argument stretches philosophical idealism to the limit. It is one thing to persuade one’s audience that all they can ever know of the world is their own thoughts of it: Brunton would write a whole volume on that.xxviii But the words “of it” are the crux. In Evola’s system there is no “it,” no real world independent of one’s own consciousness. Those interested in his arguments can read them for themselves; I will summarize their conclusions.

The only thing I am absolutely certain of is my own consciousness. I know the world only as it appears to me. It is a messy and unsatisfactory world, separate from myself and causing incessant desires in me. Most people suffer this as the only possibility, reproaching the world for its imperfections vis-à-vis some idea of how it should be. Religions aid and abet them. One higher solution is the mystic’s abandonment of the world for absorption in nirvana or some equivalent. Another is the Stoic’s, who makes himself a bulwark of indifference to the world’s inevitable assaults. Those do not satisfy Evola. He calls on the individual to find a principle in himself that is simple and ineffable: “that point of pure centrality of which the Upanishads speak…the absolute presence that I am in the depths of my individual being.”xxix

At this point we move from theory to phenomenology, beyond the pale of academic philosophy, because Evola is writing about states of consciousness beyond the rational consensus, and only attainable through extraordinary effort. In this state of absolute presence, the outside world is no longer known as real, but rather as something missing and incomplete in oneself that demands This can only be achieved through the free action of the self, and only thus does the world become real.xxxi Evola puts this in no uncertain terms: “We fiercely oppose the intellectual and philosophical rhetoric in which man wastes time in discussions within his impotence (meaning when he talks about “truth,” “objectivity,” “rationality,” etc.) instead of finally jumping to his feet, getting a grip on himself, and burning it up, and making himself what he is: a God, a constructor of worlds.xxxii

When Evola read this paper to the astonished Theosophists, he had already finished his two-volume work on the Absolute Individual. In one passage he contrasts the Buddha of the Hinayana, who attains an abstract, individual liberation, with the Buddha of the Mahayana, a cosmic being who returns to the world, “sacrificing” himself for its liberation. The principle is not a liberation from the world, but the world as liberation.xxxiii In the same spirit, Evola contrasts the Apollonian with the Dionysian way. Apollo’s is the way of detachment from an imperfect and frightening world and the “horror of the infinite,” creating the surrogate of an orderly and reliable cosmos.xxxiv For the Dionysian, in Evola’s stirring words,

There is only one obstacle: fear. Once that is overcome, Apollo is vanquished. Then in a timeless instant, like ice crystals touched by blocks of incandescent metal, the film of forms, of names, and all the exteriority of mind and heart vanishes and falls away. A great dawn rises, a higher levity; in the midst, a body woven of naked light; then slowly a new world, ‘no longer stained by spirit,’ transformed. Finally the ‘heavens fall’ and reveal the original tragedy of an ardent chaos, in which, in a flash, one attains the apex of absolute possession, which is the power of affirmation and of negation.xxxv

The last pages of his treatise are indeed incandescent in their effort to convey the reality of the Absolute Individual, beyond all categories of thought, imagery, or logic. This prospect of transcending every shred of human personality to become an autonomous cosmic power, above even the gods, was the foundation for all his later work. If Evola did experience what he was writing about, there was no further to go. We will leave him there for now, still in his mid-twenties, and turn to corresponding ideas in Brunton’s work.

Brunton’s books of the 1930s were written to encourage Westerners to take up meditation, not as an exotic import but as a practical way to restore balance to modern life and discover their “inner reality,” as one of the books is titled.xxxvi By Evola’s standards they would qualify as Apollonian, rather than Dionysian, for the goal is the “inner world of the Overself [that] is our true homeland,” where we can find “silent and eternal solace for our hearts.”xxxvii The path, however, is not all rosy. Here Brunton describes one of its more challenging stretches:

The first-fruit of success will be a feeling that one is being torn asunder from one’s mooring in life, a momentary loss of the sense of reality of the universe. It is like plunging into an abyss of infinity where the essence of one’s existence threatens to pass away beyond recall. This curious condition mingles a momentary but powerful fear of death with a sense of being liberated…. Absolute fearlessness, a readiness to die, is now called for. Such a burning purpose will, with time, turn all resistance to ash and dust.xxxviii

Brunton’s next project was to expound a metaphysical system to serve as a corrective to current beliefs, whether religious or secular, and to give a rational foundation to mystical experience. In The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga he argued the case for the mentalist world view against the materialist, meaning that the universe is fundamentally a mental construct manifesting through consciousness. In The Wisdom of the Overselfxxxix he explained the interaction of the individual Overself with the World Mind, and of that with the ultimate and ineffable reality he simply calls Mind. To students of Indian philosophy this was perhaps familiar ground, but Brunton adapted it to plain English. He added a series of exercises designed to make this philosophy an experiential reality and indeed a way of life.

Is Brunton’s concept of the Overself the same as Evola’s of the Absolute Individual? Yes and no. As I understand Brunton’s scheme, in one sense the Overself exists as a distinct entity, but in another sense it is an aspect of the World Mind, of which it is like a single ray. That ray projects an indefinite series of egos or lives which, from the temporal point of view, form an evolutionary chain, of which one life will eventually achieve union with it. Thus every person is a stage on the way to the conscious identity with his or her Overself. Naturally this is a rare occurrence in times such as ours, but every step towards it, hence every individual, is of value. In Evola’s scheme, on the contrary, the Absolute Individual does not have a history or intentions of its own: it is there to be realized, made real, only by the man who is capable of the task. His later writings insist that the immortality of the individual is conditional, not universal. But if that means that the ego, which includes the psyche, is not immortal, Brunton would certainly agree, unlike the teachings of Christianity and Islam, in which the soul lives for ever on the strength of a single life, or the beliefs of reincarnationists who can only imagine that what transmigrates resembles their present selves.

Brunton published no books in his last thirty years,xl but continued to write, mostly in epigrammatic form, leaving the results for publication after his death in 1981. His admirers edited them in sixteen volumes of “notebooks,” following the author’s own classification.xli Like Evola, he writes of both the theory and the phenomenology of consciousness, but with a difference even from his own previous writings. There he taught a path, a quest, a method, and an intellectual rationale for the experience of the Overself. In the language of Yoga, its culminating state is called nirvikalpa samadhi, absorption in the Absolute. Brunton now wrote from a still higher standpoint: that of sahaja samadhi, which is the coexistence of that absorption with normal consciousness.

I will summarize briefly from the several hundred notes that Brunton wrote on this subject. Unlike the yogi, the sage (as Brunton calls the person in this condition) can lead an outwardly normal life while enjoying unbroken consciousness of the Absolute, even in deep sleep.xlii Along with the physical body he retains his individuality, but has no sense of personal attachment to them.xliii He watches the world-process with intelligent interest in the “interplay of cyclic impetus and karmic results,”xliv while being free of all negative thoughts or emotions about it,xlv or about his fellow humans: he knows and accepts them as they mentally are.xlvi He will return to incarnation, time and again, to help all beings to attain truth and happiness.xlvii But he is not a god. As though cautioning Evola’s youthful excesses, Brunton writes: “It is a fallacy to think that this displacement of the lower self brings about its complete substitution by the infinite and absolute Deity. This fallacy is an ancient and common one in mystical circles and leads to fantastic declarations of self-deification. If the lower self is displaced, it is not destroyed. It lives on in strict subordination to the higher one, the Overself…”xlviii

Whom did he have in mind? Scattered among this section of his notes are a few suggestive names, including Buddha and Jesus, Lao Tzu and Confucius, Sengai Gibon, St. Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vivekananda, Ananda Mayee, Atmananda, and Sri Ramana Maharshi. Brunton asks: “Do such men of realization live among us today?” and answers “Once I thought so, but now I must honestly confess that I have no proof of the existence of even a single one.”xlix Elsewhere he says “There may be some hiding in the monasteries of Tibet or in the penthouses of New York City,”l while nature “may well be contented if she creates one sage in a hundred million people.”li To be sure, anyone who publicly announces the fact of his illumination is an impostor.lii

Evola was familiar with the concept of sahaja samadhi from his study of Buddhism, especially what he calls the “most extreme Mahayana schools.”liii In The Doctrine of Awakening he treats their doctrine of non-difference between Nirvana—the Absolute—and samsara—the conditioned world. In a chapter on “Phenomenology of the Great Liberation,” Evola describes the highest degree as “that where, while yet a living man, one has completely achieved extinction through having permanently destroyed the primordial ignorance, thirst, and transcendental intoxications.”liv That is a negative definition. For a positive one, he quotes from a Zen master: “Do not be attached to anything whatsoever: if you understand this, walking or standing, sitting or lying, you will never cease to be in the state of Zen, in the state of contemplation and of illumination.”lv And in this state of ultimate reality, “no one and nothing ‘extraordinary’ exists in the beyond; only the real exists. Reality is, however, lived in a state in which ‘there is no subject of the experience nor any object that is experienced’.”lvi

Although Evola and Brunton had no illusions about the rarity of such attainment today, they were more optimistic when taking a wider view of the individual’s history. As Evola puts it in his late work, Ride the Tiger, “the human condition of earthly existence is only a restricted section in a continuum, in a current that traverses many other states.”lvii Brunton says that “other lives, other days, other times, other levels of consciousness already exist just as much as this very moment, even though we do not apprehend them…”lviii Readers of René Guénon will recognize the theory of the “multiple states of the being,”lix which teaches that human life on earth is one of an indefinite number of states which, from the point of view of the total being, are co-present. We just happen to experience this one in isolation and under the conditions of time, space, and causality. Given that, it is reasonable to suppose that other states preceded our birth and will follow our death, though in Guénon’s system a being cannot manifest more than once in the same state: hence there is no reincarnation on earth.lx

This remains a bone of contention between Traditionalists and Theosophists. Brunton agrees with Theosophy, and indeed with most Hindus and Buddhists, that many earth lives are necessary to develop man’s ultimate potential. He writes ruefully that the sage is “forced to live among people who are mostly several hundred earth-lives younger than he, and consequently quite ‘unsympathetic’…”lxi

Traditionalists are also uncomfortable with the theory of evolution. One reason is their antipathy to the modern world, seen as the result of devolution or degeneration compared to earlier times. But taking a longer view, morality does not enter into it, and there we find a surprising consensus between our two philosophers. In The Secret Path, published in 1935 with a foreword by Alice Bailey, Brunton mentions that if we peer back “into the dimmest regions of prehistoric antiquity, we reach a period when man entirely dropped his body of flesh and inhabited an electro-magnetic form, a radiant body of ether.”lxii This is Blavatskian anthropology in a scientific guise.

In Revolt against the Modern World, published in 1934, Evola also mentions the non-materialized state of early humans: “the absence of human fossils and the sole presence of animal fossils in remotest prehistory may be interpreted to mean that primordial man (if we can call ‘man’ a type so different from historical humanity) was the last to enter that process of materialization that—after the animals—endowed his first stock, already degenerate, deviant, and mixed with animality, with an organism able to be preserved in the form of fossils.”lxiii He probably got the idea from his Anthroposophist friends, for Steiner in Cosmic Memory writes of how some primordial humans followed the animals in a premature descent from the etheric state, while others remained there longer to develop their spiritual organs, before being the last creatures to acquire physical bodies.lxiv

It is surprising to find such ideas in Evola’s central work, but for all his antipathy, he cannot be absolved from complicity in the spiritual movement launched by H. P. Blavatsky. As mentioned, his first esoteric ventures were with the Roman Theosophists, and it was members of that group—quite independent of the Anglo-Saxon worldlxv—who guided him to the study of Taoism and Tantra: traditions that the early Theosophists had neglected, or, in the case of Tantra, misrepresented. Evola relied, of course, on secondary sources, notably the English translations by Sir John Woodroffe, who in correspondence approved of Evola’s insights. After making these traditions accessible for the first time in Italian, Evola went on to elucidate Western traditions such as Hermeticism, alchemy, and the quest for the Holy Grail. With the Ur Group in the 1920s he experimented with the latent possibilities of the human being, with a guarded respect for Steiner’s and Kremmerz’s methods. If we define the Theosophical current not as the narrow history of the Society but as the continuation of its original impulses, then Evola greatly furthered two of the three original objects. And one can imagine HPB’s delight at his and Reghini’s promotion of paganism on the very doorstep of the Vatican!lxvi

Much the same can be said of Brunton. His early membership of the London society soon lapsed, but he always defended Blavatsky: “If H. P. Blavatsky got some things wrong, it is pardonable in a work of vast dimension. She got many new unfamiliar things amazingly right.”lxvii In sum, both philosophers continued a globalizing project that did not even begin with Theosophy: that of gathering esoteric wisdom, especially from the non-European world, and interpreting it for the benefit of a nucleus of their own: in Evola’s case, what he called the “differentiated man,” and in Brunton’s case the solitary seekers who found that it answered their needs. As for the third object, gathering the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, both philosophers had witnessed its futility when even the Theosophists could not stick together.lxviii

At this point one naturally thinks of Krishnamurti (1895-1986), who was in the public eye throughout our subjects’ adult lives. If anyone was famous for kicking away the cosmic ladder, it was he; and it was generally understood, at least by his admirers, that he had attained the ultimate state. As it happens, no other contemporary received such extensive treatment from both our authors. Evola devotes most of a chapter to Krishnamurti in his book of 1932, Mask and Face of Contemporary Spirituality, updating it in re-editions up to 1971.lxix Brunton, who met Krishnamurti at least twice, left many notes on the subject.lxx They both admire him for his integrity in refusing the messianic role that had been forced on him, and they make allowances for his upbringing. But they note the irony that, after denying any need for teachers, gurus, systems or practices, he spent his life with all the apparatus of a spiritual master leading a successful sect. Philosophically they consider him sadly deficient. Evola finds Krishnamurti’s replacement of the ego with what he calls “Life” a poor substitute for what should be eternal and invariable.lxxi Brunton allows that “Krishnamurti has seen through the religious and mystic illusions—a rare attainment—but unfortunately he is still finding his way through the third degree and has not finished yet.”lxxii As for the effect on his disciples, Evola warns that “It is certainly not a wise thing to propose ideas which are true, if at all, on the level of the truly ‘liberated’ to distracted types like modern men, who are far from lacking incentives to chaos and anarchy.”lxxiii Brunton puts it more bluntly: “it takes naïve people out into the wilderness and leaves them there.”lxxiv Finally, they both associate Krishnamurti’s popularity among the post-1968 generation and his rejection of traditional values with student riots and violent demonstrations.lxxv

Given Evola’s and Brunton’s confident exposition of the highest states of human consciousness, we may ask, in conclusion, how it served them through the central crisis of the twentieth century, the Second World War.

After the First World War Evola had shared the hopes of the so-called “Conservative Revolution” and tried to influence both the Fascist and the National Socialist movements in that political direction, with the added motive of spiritualizing their ideas. In the process he became deeply compromised, especially through his infatuation with the subject of race. He put up with Nazism, whose methods and leaders he despised, because it seemed the only weapon against what he saw as the greater evils of Soviet Communism and American democracy. In 1934 he concluded Revolt against the Modern World with a double tirade against Russia and America: the former for its proletarian principles and its rule of terror, the latter for its materialism and complacency. Behind both, he says, one can detect the warning signs of the advent of the “Nameless Beast.”lxxvi

Evola’s wartime exploits have been researched and revealed almost day-to-day by Gianfranco de Turris.lxxvii A high point was his presence at the meeting between Benito Mussolini and the German High Command in September 1943. Mussolini had been deposed by king Vittorio Emanuele III, imprisoned, rescued with incredible daring by Otto Skorzeny, and brought to Rastenburg in East Prussia. The meeting was to decide Italy’s part in the ongoing war, as well as Mussolini’s own destiny, and Evola, with his fluency in German, probably served as an interpreter. What interests us is that on his return to Rome, now under German occupation, he published two articles in a daily newspaper, one on “Liberation” and the other on the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There he writes of how to face the tragic upheavals of history, when neither religion nor stoical detachment can suffice. He compares the situation to a bad dream, because whatever happens “can only be an episode with respect to something stronger and higher, which does not begin with birth nor end with death, and can even serve as the principle of a superior calm and an incomparable, indestructible security against every trial.”lxxviii

Brunton was in India when England declared war on Germany in 1939, and remained there for the war’s duration as a guest of the Maharajah of Mysore. In 1942 he wrote The Wisdom of the Overself, whose philosophy of engagement in the world could not ignore the ongoing war. Brunton, too, could write of the philosopher who “practises non-attachment by understanding the transiency of all things,”lxxix but he saw the war as much more than an “episode”: rather as the effort of malignant forces to block the spiritual evolution of mankind. “This is a war in the heavens as well as on earth.”lxxx

The difference in attitudes hinges on a difference in how they viewed world history and the destiny of the individual. Evola’s framework was the traditional one of the Four Ages, Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron, with their Hindu equivalents of the Satya, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali Yugas. By common consent we are now in the last part of the Kali Yuga, in which humanity attains the depth of depravity and materialism. The world itself is heading for catastrophe, which will be succeeded by a new Golden Age and a new cycle of 64,800 years, or whatever duration is assigned to the Yuga cycle.lxxxi But there is no point in waiting for that. The “differentiated man” can turn any situation to favor his quest for the Absolute Individual, and war, if we believe the Bhagavad Gita, offers the opportunity for the kshatriya to attain liberation. The rights or wrongs of the two sides are a secondary matter, though in the present case Evola identified the chief enemy as materialism. The goal of communism, as he had written in Revolt against the Modern World, was “the total and definitive negation of the supranatural order” and “radical materialism in every domain.”lxxxii Under such a tyranny even the lower rungs of the spiritual ladder, like religion and mysticism, were inaccessible.

Brunton acknowledged the existence of the yuga cycle, but the matrix for his temporal system was the much longer Theosophical scheme, already alluded to by both authors in the passages I have quoted about primordial humanity and the descent of man. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine teaches that humanity as a whole has descended from a spiritual state into materiality, and is now about to reverse the process and return to a spiritual condition, with the advantage of the experiences thus gained. Here is a crucial sentence from The Wisdom of the Overself: “The same process which projected the ego from the Overself into that exteriorization of its own consciousness which we believe to be the material world, is now at work to withdraw it again.”lxxxiii According to the Theosophical doctrine of cycles this is an inevitable process, but exactly how and when it happens is up to the human race. There can be drastic setbacks to the process, and at the time of his writing one of these was the real possibility of a Nazi or a Communist takeover of Europe. Either of these, as Russia and Germany had already shown, would suppress freedom and crush or pervert all spiritual aspirations. Yet in Brunton’s view there was a difference between the totalitarian systems. He writes in a later note that “The dangers to which Nazism exposed the human race were immeasurably larger than those to which Communism exposes it.”lxxxiv His reason, briefly, is that Communism at least had a root in sympathy for the underprivileged, whereas Nazism was motivated from the start by hatred and revenge. That said, now that one evil was conquered, the other remained, and neither philosopher had any illusions about Soviet intentions, right up to their deaths—Evola’s in 1974, Brunton’s in 1981. Both of them thought a third world war extremely likely.lxxxv

In this paper it may seem unfair to have compared Evola’s views, most of which were formulated in his early twenties, with Brunton’s mature expressions. But that is all we have to go on: Evola did not write in that idiom in his later years. He was philosophically precocious, untaught yet with a mastery of sources that would do credit to a doctoral dissertation, plus insights of lasting value into transcendent states of consciousness. All his subsequent projects rested on that foundation, and so did the choices for which he is reprobated today. As Absolute Individual and illuminated Kshatriya, Evola might have said, with Sri Ramana Maharshi, that “the sage can watch with indifference the slaughter of millions of people in battle.” Brunton remarks: “That is quite true of the yogi but it will never be true of those who have sacrificed every future nirvanic beatitude to return to earth until all are saved; they alone are entitled to the term sage; nor can they do otherwise, for they have found the unity of all human beings.”lxxxvi Here “PB,” as he preferred to be known, shows himself a true companion of the “HPB” who wrote “To reach Nirvana’s bliss, but to renounce it, is the supreme, the final step.”lxxxvii

i An abbreviated version of this paper was read at the conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, Amsterdam, July 2-4, 2019.

iiJulius Evola, The Path of Cinnabar, translated by Sergio Knipe (n.p.: Integral Tradition Publishing, 2009), 8 [originally published in 1963].

iiiPaul Brunton, The Hidden Teaching beyond Yoga (London: Rider & Co., 1941), 29.

ivBiographical information on Evola is largely taken from The Path of Cinnabar; that on Brunton, from his Reflections on My Life and Writings in vol. 8 of his Notebooks (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1987), supplemented by Kenneth Thurston Hurst, Paul Brunton: A Personal View (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1989). [Kenneth Thurston Hurst was his son.]

vThanks to Leslie Price for this information.

vi Paul Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 8, 8.

viiJulius Evola and the Ur Group, Introduction to Magic, vol. 1, translated by Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2001), 167-72.

viii Evola, Path of Cinnabar, 15; see also Julius Evola and the Ur Group, Introduction to Magic, vol. 3, translated by Joscelyn Godwin (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, forthcoming in 2021), part XI.4, “On Drugs.”

ix Evola, Path of Cinnabar, 16.

x Evola, Path of Cinnabar, 157-58.

xi Kenneth T. Hurst, Paul Brunton, 43-44.

xiiRaphael Hurst, “The Two Faces of Man,” also entitled “The Mystery of Suffering,” The Occult Review, May 1922: 286-89. Reprinted in Paul Brunton, Three Essays and a Poem (Earlville, NY: Short Path Press, 1989), 8-12. [Raphael Hurst was Paul Brunton’s legal name in the 1920s.]

xiii Julius Evola, Teoria dell’individuo assoluto (Rome: Edizioni Mediterranee, 1988) [originally published 1927]; Fenomenologia dell’individuo assoluto (Rome: Edizioni Mediterranee, 1985) [originally published 1930].

xiv Evola, Fenomenologia, 173.

xvBrunton, Hidden Teaching, 382.

xviEvola, Fenomenologia, 178.

xviiBrunton, Hidden Teaching, 230.

xviii Raphael Hurst, “Two Faces,” 12.

xixEvola, Fenomenologia, 233 and n.

xxEvola, Fenomenologia, 224.

xxiEvola, Fenomenologia,268.

xxiiPaul Brunton, The Secret Path (London: Rider & Co., 1935).

xxiii See Rudolf Steiner, How to Know Higher Worlds: A Modern Path of Initiation (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1994) [originally published 1908].

xxivKenneth T. Hurst, Paul Brunton, 55-62.

xxvSee Paul Brunton, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider & Co., 1935).

xxviEvola, Path of Cinnabar, 79. See Marco Rossi, “Julius Evola and the Independent Theosophical Association of Rome,” translated by E. E. Rehmus, Theosophical History VI, no. 3 (July 1996): 107-114.

xxvii Reprinted as Julius Evola, L’individuo e il divenire del mondo (Carmagnola; Arktos/Oggero Editore, 1990).

xxviii Brunton, Hidden Teaching.

xxixEvola, Individuo, 42.

xxxEvola, Individuo, 50.

xxxiEvola, Individuo, 56.

xxxiiEvola, Individuo, 56n.

xxxiiiEvola, Fenomenologia, 263.

xxxivEvola, Individuo, 82.

xxxvEvola, Individuo, 87-88.

xxxviPaul Brunton, The Inner Reality (London: Rider & Co., n.d. [1939]). American edition titled Discover Yourself (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1939).

xxxviiPaul Brunton, The Quest of the Overself (London: Rider & Co., n.d. [1937]), 296.

xxxviiiBrunton, Quest of the Overself, 241.

xxxixPaul Brunton, The Wisdom of the Overself (London: Rider & Co., 1943).

xlThat is, after Paul Brunton, The Spiritual Crisis of Man (London: Rider & Co., 1952).

xliPaul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton,16 vols. (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1984-88).

xliiBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, p. 56, note 176.

xliiiBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 58, note 190.

xlivBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 109, note 230.

xlvBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 111, note 257.

xlviBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 112, note 262.

xlviiBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 155, note 40.

xlviiiBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 59, note 198.

xlixBrunton, Notebooks, vol, 16, pt. 1, 123, note 376.

lBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 81, note 37.

liBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 81, note 39.

lii Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 169, note 159.

liiiJulius Evola, The Doctrine of Awakening, translated by H. E. Musson (London: Luzac & Co., 1951), 273 [original edition 1943].

livEvola, Doctrine of Awakening, 241.

lvEvola, Doctrine of Awakening, 288.

lviJulius Evola, Ride the Tiger, translated by Joscelyn Godwin and Constance Fontana (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2003), 126 [original edition 1961].

lviiEvola, Ride the Tiger, 220.

lviiiBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 6, pt. 2, 51, note 163.

lixSee René Guénon, The Multiple States of Being, translated by Joscelyn Godwin (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1984) [original edition 1932].

lxSee René Guénon, Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines, translated by Marco Pallis (London: Luzac & Co., 1945), 320-21 [original edition 1930].

lxi Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 16, pt. 1, 132, note 443.

lxii Brunton, Secret Path, 66.

lxiiiJulius Evola, Revolt against the Modern World, translated by Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1995), 181, translation corrected from the original, Rivolta contro il mondo moderno, 2nd ed. (Milan: Fratelli Bocca, 1951), 243.

lxivRudolf Steiner, Cosmic Memory, translated by Karl E. Zimmer (Hudson, NY: Steinerbooks, 1987), 103-104 [original edition 1904].

lxvSee the positive remarks in Julius Evola, Maschera e volto dello spiritualismo contemporaneo (Rome; Edizioni Mediterranee, 1971), 74 and n. (English translation forthcoming from Inner Traditions in 2021.)

lxvi See Julius Evola, Imperialismo pagano (Rome: Atanor, 1928), which drew an angry response from the future pope Paul VI.

lxviiBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 11, 168, note 34.

lxviiiSee Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 11, 171, note 48.

lxixEvola, Maschera e volto, 112-23.

lxxSee Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 10, 147-52, notes 496-523.

lxxiEvola, Maschera e volto, 118.

lxxiiBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 10, 150, note 511.

lxxiiiEvola, Maschera e volto, 121.

lxxivBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 10, 152, note 518.

lxxvEvola, Maschera e volto, 121; Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 10, 151, note 514.

lxxviEvola, Revolt against the Modern World, 356.

lxxviiSee Gianfranco de Turris, Julius Evola: Un Filosofo in guerra 1943-1945 (Milan: Mursia, 2016). Translation by Eric Galati forthcoming from Inner Traditions in 2021.

lxxviiiDe Turris, Filosofo in guerra, 209.

lxxixBrunton, Wisdom of the Overself, 275-76.

lxxxBrunton, Wisdom of the Overself, 254.

lxxxiOn this question see Joscelyn Godwin, “When Does the Kali Yuga End?” New Dawn 138 (May-June 2013): 63-68.

lxxxiiEvola, Revolt against the Modern World, 346-47, translation corrected from Rivolta contro il mondo moderno, 446-47.

lxxxiiiBrunton, Wisdom of the Overself, 280.

lxxxivBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 7, pt. 2, 47, note 132.

lxxxvSee Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 7, pt. 2, 94-98, notes 289-317; Evola, Revolt against the Modern World, 357.

lxxxviBrunton, Notebooks, vol. 10, 143, note 470.

lxxxvii H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence (London: Theosophical Publishing Company, 1889), 44.

This essay by Joscelyn Godwin was published in Theosophical History, vol. XX, issue 3 (July 2020). Joscelyn provides some little known details about their lives in addition to presenting their views on final awakening.

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