This is a somewhat belated commentary on, and a response to, an article Jules Evans wrote three months ago entitled ‘The Cosmic Right: on right-wing spirituality’, which purported to be an exposé of supposed right-wing tendencies in spiritual thinkers. Even though I think he was well-intentioned, and eventually reached some worthy conclusions, I nevertheless found it muddled and confusing, and contained much that I objected to.
It is not clear whether his complaints are political, theological, or sociological. One might think that the opposite of right-wing spirituality would be left-wing atheism. If that were the case, then the latter hasn’t exactly got a great record. We need only think of the former USSR and Maoist China: totalitarian authoritarianism, mass murder of citizens, gulags, secret police, censorship, lack of free speech, suppression of religion, and indoctrination programmes. North Korea is also not currently a good model.
Evans, however, contrasts right-wing spirituality, not with left-wing atheism, rather with a progressive liberalism which is “opposed to traditional religions”. I didn’t understand why some ideas he claims to be right-wing are that, so some explanation or definition would have been helpful. He doesn’t provide one, so I’m left wondering whether right-wingness may be something merely in the eye of the beholder; to those on the Left even some moderate ideas may appear right-wing.
Here are some of the statements he focusses on. I should say in advance that I personally have no disagreement with the ones I have selected, and I consider myself to be a political centrist:
1. Evans says that “one finds in much right-wing spirituality a suspicion of modern, secular, materialist, urban, multicultural, mass democracy, and a hankering back to ancient wisdom and more closed, traditional and hierarchical societies”. In similar vein: “Modern liberal democracy is soulless. It is over-rationalistic, and has lost touch with the sublime and the numinous, with the depths and heights of Being… It finds the idea of anything genuinely transcendent deeply threatening and disturbing”.
I assume that by ‘democracy’ Evans means modern culture in general, rather than a political system. So what is the problem with these statements? We are in an age of increasing secularism, anti-religious attitudes, where so-called Enlightenment — but highly flawed — science overvalues reason, and where materialist, atheist scientists deny the existence of anything transcendent. It is hard to see how such a culture could be described as anything other than soulless. And if we interpret materialism in its other sense as an obsession with becoming rich, and the acquisition of consumer goods, then we still have good reason to be critical. What has any of this got to do with being right-wing?
2. Along similar lines, Evans says that “one can also find a suspicion of city life — the city is rootless, soulless, disconnected from nature and filled with chaotic ‘mass man’, while the countryside still has soul, myth, ritual and salt-of-the-earth rustic types connected to the soil”.
If that is a right-wing opinion, which I don’t think it is, then it is shared by a significant number of the city-dwelling population, who, if they can afford such luxury, seek to escape to the countryside after a hard week’s work, in order to reconnect with nature. If they can’t manage that, they long for a walk in the park. I’m a city-dweller myself, and am happy living there, but love nature and going for country walks. I can’t believe that Evans thinks that the city is as connected to nature as the countryside. What has this got anything to do with being right-wing?
3. Even though this is more true of others he names, Evans associates Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey with “celebration of war, violence and military heroism as a means to virtue, transcendence and ecstatic experience”, saying that “this emphasis on heroism is very appealing to young men, who yearn for a life of military valour…”
If this is true — no reference is provided — then such men are in need of some spiritual education, since Campbell’s hero’s journey is not about literal warriors, rather the trials and tribulations encountered on the spiritual path, where great courage is needed. There is nothing right-wing or elitist about this, since the spiritual path/hero’s journey is open to all those who wish to undertake it.
4. “In their search for exotic wisdom, western liberal seekers can end up immersing themselves in cultures like Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism or Amazon shamanism, which they then discover are deeply patriarchal and hetero-normative”.
From my politically centrist position, I am very interested in all four of these, but I perceive them to be religions rather than cultures. We should always distinguish between religious teachings and the cultures in which they are found. Anyone in a position of power can manipulate teachings to their own advantage, and often do. I would be interested to be informed about any patriarchal or hetero-normative statements in the foundational texts of the religions mentioned.
5. Evans says that one solution put forward by allegedly right-wing spiritual thinkers is “individual self-realization. If enough people can reconnect with their inner soul, perhaps society can be saved from the mindless mob and soulless mass consumerism”. (He is referencing here, among others, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.)
What is wrong with self-realization and reconnecting with one’s inner soul? How could they not be the solution to the world’s problems? The quote does, however, contain the unfortunate expression ‘mindless mob’. Evans makes an analogous statement when he says that spiritual thinking can “lead to the belief that some people are realized and awake, while other people are asleep, and are mindless automatons. Some people are spiritually advanced superbeings, other people are degenerate animals”. This is strong language, and it would have been helpful if he had provided a quote from someone who had used those specific words. I would be amazed, and extremely disappointed, if Jung or Campbell had used them. Instead I’m left wondering whether he is putting words into the mouths of others, and thereby exaggerating what they actually said. In any case, anyone who did think that would, by definition, not be a spiritual person in any meaningful sense of the word.
Having made all these strong complaints against supposedly right-wing spiritual ideas, Evans then, somewhat strangely, says that he agrees with quite a lot of what is said in this critique of modern society: that “it can be flat, mediocre, lacking in transcendence, that it has lost touch with myths and ancient wisdom, and with the natural world, and this leaves people lonely, disconnected, filled with inner turmoil, and at the mercy of consumer capitalism and Big Tech”.
He continues: “I believe in the power of wisdom and myth to help people flourish and develop their souls”. He further says that he believes in transcendence, soul, self-realization, wisdom, patriotism, and connection to nature.
It therefore emerges that the ideas of ‘right-wing’ spirituality might not be so bad after all! What Evans really objects to are not these ideas as such, rather hierarchy, spiritual inequality, and elitism. Thus, spiritual people “believe in higher and lower levels of spiritual attainment”. “If you believe in vertical transcendence, and higher and lower levels of truth, beauty, goodness and spiritual initiation, then you believe some people are higher up the ladder than others. Some people are more realized than others”.
This is one of the most confusing passages, for elsewhere in the article he says that he also believes in ‘vertical transcendence’, and ‘higher and lower’. He therefore seems to be confessing that he is guilty of the attitude for which he criticises others. In any case, why is this a right-wing opinion? If Evans is denying that this is the case, then is he saying that the Dalai Lama is no more spiritually realised than the average dustman or postman? If so, then let him produce some evidence or an argument to back up his statement. It is clear that some people are more spiritually realised than others, even if that offends Evans’ Woke sensibilities.
The real issue is how such people behave. Evans thinks that “if you believe that, then you believe in leaders and followers, and you are probably opposed to the egalitarian flattening of society. You believe some have the authority to give instruction, and others should follow those instructions, for their own good”. There may well be some such people out there, but they would be the opposite of spiritual, and would be perverting spiritual teachings, because the enduring values of these teachings are love, compassion, and service to humanity.
Evans concludes with a list of spiritual thinkers and his complaints against them, which are unsubstantiated, at least in this article. We have to take his statements on trust, and do our own research if we want to find any evidence for his accusations. It would be helpful, therefore, if he made reliable statements. This doesn’t always seem to be the case, and one sometimes wonders if he even knows what a spiritual thinker is. For example, Julian Huxley is on his list, whom he accuses of supporting eugenics, which he did. Huxley, however, was an avid Darwinian atheist and humanist, denier of the soul, and anything transcendent, about as unspiritual as it is possible to be. Given his unpleasant views, he could be considered a great advert for the ideas of the spiritual people whom Evans rejects as being right wing. (I have discussed Huxley in detail, click here.)
From my own personal perspective, those I was most concerned to find on the list were Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, where they are described as “conservative reactionaries who thought modern liberal society had lost touch with its mythical roots”. (Jung is my number one intellectual hero, and his ideas have been exceptionally helpful in my own life.) As I mentioned above, earlier in the article Evans had said that their solution to society’s problems “is individual self-realization. If enough people can reconnect with their inner soul, perhaps society can be saved from the mindless mob and soulless mass consumerism”. If those are their worst sins, then I would say “bring it on”. If these are right-wing opinions, which I don’t think they are, then perhaps being right-wing is not such a bad thing after all. As I noted above, Evans himself says that in some ways he shares the spiritual critique of secular society. In that case he would seem to be in agreement with the ‘conservative reactionary’ Carl Jung, who wrote Modern Man in Search of a Soul, and The Undiscovered Self, and who spent his whole life as a psychotherapist seeking to help other people, and as a writer seeking to address precisely the problems that Evans describes here.
Evans had said earlier in the article: “I think that the Left needs to offer more than rationality, diversity and economic justice. It needs to offer transcendence, soul, self-realization, wisdom, patriotism, connection to nature, (and) the celebration of some traditions”. This is precisely what Jung and Campbell were offering in recent times, along with other figures in his list of alleged right-wing thinkers, for example Abraham Maslow, Ken Wilber, Sri Aurobindo, and Aldous Huxley. It is also what Traditionalism, the Perennial Philosophy, has been offering for thousands of years, although for some reason Evans has taken against it. He says that Traditionalism “argues there is a perennial philosophy at the heart of all religions, which modern society has lost touch with”.
How is that untrue? And how is that right-wing? This perennial philosophy is the teaching that the essence of every human being is ultimately the same as the divine, as expressed in the Chandogya Upanishad “Tat Twam Asi -Thou art that”, and that every human being is capable of realising reunion with that essence. If that is true, how can it be called elitist or right-wing? Traditionalism would seem to be offering the transcendence and soul that Evans thinks the Left is currently lacking. So is he arguing that the Left needs to catch up with right-wing thinking? Presumably not, given his hostility to the Right, although he is certainly giving that impression here.
Another of his targets is Theosophy, which he says, “preached a spiritual hierarchy led by an elite of hidden masters, and argued that some races were more spiritually evolved than others”. Discussing that statement in detail would require a separate article. I’ll just note therefore that, if that were true, it would be somewhat strange, given that the Theosophical Society’s first founding principle is “to form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed or colour”. Does that sound elitist or hierarchical to anyone?
Evans also complains that “the struggle for Indian nationalism was championed by many spiritual thinkers like Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo”. He could also have mentioned Gandhi. And what exactly is his problem with that? Who wouldn’t champion such a cause when your homeland is being run by a foreign country, which believes in the superiority of its own culture, and which is plundering your natural resources? They were opposing the kind of elitist, authoritarian dictatorship that Evans claims to dislike so much. (And I’m saying all that as a Briton.)
His main complaint is indeed against what we would now call dictatorships. Some of those he accuses of advocating this are Plato, W. B. Yeats, Ken Wilber, Sri Aurobindo, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, and D. H. Lawrence. He, on the other hand, is in favour of liberal democracies and “mass democracy”. When put in those terms, who could disagree?
From his leftish perspective, however, I wonder whether Evans always understands what these people are saying. I suggested above that some people are indeed more spiritually advanced than others. It seems obvious that this is the case, even though in the current climate it might be politically incorrect to think this. Why shouldn’t such people be put in charge of society, provided they are accepted and trusted by the people, and have proved their worth? There could even be regular referendums to confirm the continued approval of the populace. This is a concept something along the lines of a benign dictatorship, one where the people have trust in the leadership because they recognise and appreciate its superior wisdom.
This reminds me of a line from the I Ching, “to rule truly is to serve”. It’s also worth remembering again that the constant teachings of the great spiritual traditions are love, compassion, and service to humanity. Why wouldn’t we want such figures leading our societies? There is a well-known saying, “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. That seems often to be the case in the modern world, even in the liberal democracies that Evans is so keen on. There we often end up with ambitious, self-serving, dishonest, incompetent and unethical politicians. In Britain, which I imagine qualifies as a liberal democracy in Evans’ eyes, we still seem to be run on the whole by a privately educated, wealthy, intellectual elite. I, for one, would be happy to give something else a try. Putting truly spiritual people in charge of society might be the exception to the rule that all power corrupts.
As I noted above, before he gave that final list, having enumerated all his strong complaints against right-wing spirituality, Evans had said that he nevertheless agrees with a lot of what they say in their critique. I’ll repeat that he believes in, and wants to see offered by the Left, transcendence, soul, self-realization, wisdom, patriotism, and connection to nature. He is “hopeful about mass education and ordinary people’s capacity to ‘get’ wisdom teachings”. He also believes that “if you have been lucky enough to get a good education and get access to wisdom, you have a responsibility to try and pass it on, not sneer at those who haven’t had your good fortune”.
So here are some ideas that I can definitely agree with; they would be an expression of a truly spiritual society. I don’t think, however, that the Left has a monopoly on this way of thinking.