Earlier this month, we explored Nazi spirituality and the contemporary spread of far-right conspiracies in New Age and wellness networks. But the overlap goes deeper than that.
The fact there is such a thing as ‘right-wing spirituality’, or the ‘Cosmic Right’ as some call it, comes as a shock to some New Age seekers, who may have thought spirituality is essentially liberal and progressive, as opposed to traditional religions.¹
But in fact, many of the most popular thinkers in alternative spirituality — Plato, Nietzsche, Aldous Huxley, Yeats, Rene Guenon, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley, Chogyam Rinpoche, Jordan Peterson and many others — were on the right, some of them are on the far-right.
How can this be?
First of all, right-wing spiritual thinkers believe in hierarchy and spiritual inequality. They believe in higher and lower levels of spiritual attainment. This goes all the way back to Plato, the Buddha, Hinduism, Christian mysticism, and classical magic and mystery cults.
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.
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.
This leads naturally to various forms of hierarchical and authoritarian organisations, with a ruling elite of philosophers / monks / sages / hidden masters or an all-powerful guru or monarch. One finds this in Plato’s Republic, say, or in Tibetan feudal theocracy, or in pretty much every spiritual cult.
It can also 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 spiritual elitism can be found all the way through New Age spirituality, from Nietzsche’s cult of the supermen to the contemporary New Age belief that there are 144,000 light-bearers among the dross of unregenerate humanity (some Christians also believe this, taking the figure from Revelation).
Finally, 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.
The critique goes back to Plato. Modern liberal democracy is rule by the mediocre and ignorant masses. It caters to their base desires, and ignores the True, the Good and the Beautiful, which is only perceived by the initiated few. Mass democracy is flat, grossly material, lacking in vertical transcendence. It has fallen for the myth of secular progress, and lost touch with its deeper myths and religious beliefs. Its universities promote faddish new ideas and attack traditional values and ancient wisdom. Its media celebrate the individual ego, rather than finding meaning in the national, ecological and cosmic whole.
Modern liberal democracy is soulless (the critique goes). It is over-rationalistic, and has lost touch with the sublime and the numinous, with the depths and heights of Being. It has degenerated into neo-liberal economics, the ‘reign of quantity’ as Rene Guenon called it, and dismisses what can’t be measured. It finds the idea of anything genuinely transcendent deeply threatening and disturbing.
Part of this hankering to ancient wisdom and traditional values can involve a critique of feminism and LGBTQ diversity, and a harking back to traditional sexual and gender roles. I think this is less common in right-wing spirituality than in the Christian Right. But it’s sometimes there (in, say, Jordan Peterson, or Olavo de Carvalho, the New Age advisor to President Bolsonaro of Brazil).
And it’s certainly the case that, 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.
The Cosmic Right is probably more prone to historical pessimism than the Cosmic Left. Things were better in the past. There was a Golden Age, a time of wisdom, but now we’re in the Age of Kali. Sometimes there is a hope of some sort of revolutionary change, but not usually.
One can find in the Cosmic Right a celebration of the nation as a sacred and transcendent community, and a celebration of the spiritual and mythical connection between an ethnic group and the land. This goes back to German Romantics like Herder and JG Hamann, and to Hindu nationalism of the late 19th century. Of course, this sense of an ethnic group’s spiritual connection to the land can end up in some fairly nativist, fascist, anti-immigrant positions.
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.
One finds in some ‘Cosmic Right’ figures a celebration of war, violence and military heroism as a means to virtue, transcendence and ecstatic experience. I’m thinking particularly of Ernst Junger here (a German soldier, author, and early experimenter with LSD), but also Nietzsche, the Bhagavad Gita, Zen nationalism, and even Joseph Campbell and Jordan Peterson’s celebration of the hero’s journey. This emphasis on heroism is very appealing to young men, who yearn for a life of military valour and instead get a life of boring work in consumer capitalist society. It’s also part of the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism.
So if this is the right-wing critique of secular capitalist democracy, what is the solution? On the whole, few figures in the ‘Cosmic Right’ call for violent revolution and the overthrow of liberal democracy. Julius Evola — a Traditionalist figure beloved of Steve Bannon — did flirt with Italian and German fascism, but seemed too pessimistic to believe in political action.
Instead, the solution often put forward by thinkers like Jung, Nietzsche, Jordan Peterson, Joseph Campbell and others 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. That’s the theory.
I haven’t gone into the attraction of conspiracy thinking on both the spiritual right and the spiritual left. But, briefly, spiritual seekers are attracted to the idea of secret, hidden knowledge, and grand cosmic designs. They also readily believe in a secret elite of Grand Masters. They may try to join that hidden elite, or they may try to learn about them and expose their evil ways (which is kind of a fascinated attraction and adolescent demand for the elite’s attention). Either way, this sort of New Age conspiracy thinking can flow into far-left or far-right thinking…but it seems more rabid on the right at the moment.
Finally, where do I stand in relation to this tradition? Well, in some ways I share the critique of whiggish, secular society. I feel 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.
I believe in the power of wisdom and myth to help people flourish and develop their souls. However, I believe that happens best in a liberal democracy, where people’s rights are protected. I am very wary of authoritarianism of the right or left. I don’t believe people can be ‘forced to be free’. And I am hopeful about mass education and ordinary people’s capacity to ‘get’ wisdom teachings. I’ve taught Stoic wisdom, for example, in all kinds of places. People get it quickly.
I also believe 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. And you should recognize that inner development happens easiest amid economic stability and the room to breathe. So it requires a certain level of economic justice.
Finally, while I believe in vertical transcendence, while I believe in ‘higher and lower’, in practice, I have been endlessly disappointed in the gurus and enlightened teachers of our times. And I know very well my own personal limits. So I have ended up very suspicious of spiritual hierarchies.
All of which is to say that, while I recognize the attraction of the ‘Cosmic Right’, and agree with some of its critiques of contemporary society, I reject its tendency to elitism, authoritarian hierarchies, contempt for ordinary people, and hankering after a lost Golden Age.
But if the Left wants to oppose the ‘Cosmic Right’, I think it needs to offer more than rationality, diversity and economic justice. It needs to offer transcendence, soul, self-realization, wisdom, patriotism, connection to nature, the celebration of some traditions, and something more positive and even heroic for young white men than self-loathing. All of which is doable — look at, say, the Quakers or William Blake’s or Walt Whitman’s mystical democracy.
Right-wing spiritual thinkers:
I am just giving a journalistic snapshot here — every one of these thinkers expressed a whole range of opinions which have been explored and discussed at length, but at certain points in their careers they expressed views that can be characterized as right-wing, anti-democratic and illiberal.
Plato: in his Republic, Socrates criticizes liberal democracy and suggests a theocratic state ruled by philosopher-kings. The book is the founding text of western mysticism
Nietzsche: the German philosopher despised mass egalitarian democracy and preached the cult of the superman, who followed his own laws.
DH Lawrence: the British novelist followed Nietzsche in his contempt for mass democracy and search for a more traditional and irrationalist society.
Knut Hamsun: another Modernist spiritual seeker, who welcomed the Nazis into Norway
WB Yeats, Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn: although some members of the Golden Dawn (a magic order of the late 19th century) were on the left, its spiritual hierarchy attracted elitists like Yeats and Crowley, both of whom believed in rule by the enlightened few over the ignorant masses.
Rene Guenon & Julius Evola: two leading thinkers in the ‘Tradionalist’ school, which argues there is a perennial philosophy at the heart of all religions, which modern society has lost touch with. They both believed spiritual realization would always be reserved for the initiated few. Traditionalism is very popular today with far-right thinkers like Aleksander Dugin, Steve Bannon and Olavho de Carvhalo (for more on this, see this article by Mitch Horowitz and this book by Benjamin Teitelbaum).
Integral: ‘integral’ is a buzz-word among New Age thinkers, who largely associate it with Ken Wilber (a champion of spiritual hierarchy). In fact, ‘integral’ education is historically associated with Guenon and Evola, and with spiritual elitists Sri Aurobindo and Aldous Huxley. Integral Tradition Publishing (now Arktos) was a leading far-right publisher in the Noughties.
Aldous Huxley: the British novelist shared the contempt for mass democracy of many of his Modernist peers. He preached instead a return to the ‘perennial philosophy’. He grew a bit more optimistic about mass democracy in his old age, suggesting psychedelics could enable a mysticism for the masses.
Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell: as recounted in Robert Ellwood’s Politics of Myth, all three of the great mythologists of the 20th century were conservative reactionaries who thought modern liberal society had lost touch with its mythical roots. All three flirted with far-right ideas and movements during their lifetime.
JRR Tolkien: The beloved myth-maker was a traditionalist and monarchist. His book inspired many hippies, including far-right hippies in Italy who ran annual ‘Campo Hobbits’ (one of which is shown in the main picture, above).
Indian spiritual nationalism: the struggle for Indian nationalism was championed by many spiritual thinkers like Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. This spiritual nationalism has sometimes morphed into a spiritual chauvinism, as today when the right-wing BJP party is supported by many gurus.
Chogyam Rinpoche: the hard-drinking and womanising Tibetan guru (left) established a militaristic monarchical court called Shambhala, where he ruled as a sort of military dictator.
Osho: Likewise, the groovy Indian teacher set up a utopian commune which also degenerated into a militaristic cult which tried to assassinate its enemies (watch Wild West Country for a great exploration of this).
Theosophy: in some ways Theosophy was quite a progressive movement, championing women’s rights and a global, cosmopolitan, anti-imperialist outlook. However, it also preached a spiritual hierarchy led by an elite of hidden masters, and argued that some races were more spiritually evolved than others. This idea was developed into philosophies of overt spiritual racism like Ariosophy.
Abraham Maslow: although some of his political views were clearly left-wing, one finds in Maslow the Nietzschean idea of a spiritual hierarchy. He believed only a few people could reach the apex of self-transcendence. Most humans are still driven by basic needs, he believed, and should be ruled according to ‘jungle politics’.
Teilhard du Chardin: One of the most beloved New Age thinkers believed in spiritual evolution, and that some people and some races were more spiritually evolved than others. He also occasionally supported eugenics to encourage humans’ spiritual evolution. Eugenic policies were popular with many other spiritual thinkers, from HG Wells to Julian and Aldous Huxley to Osho.
Finally, just in case you think right-wing spirituality is always male, there are also female right-wing spiritual thinkers, such as Savitri Devi, a Nazi-loving spiritual teacher in the 1930s, or Teal Swan, a YouTube guru who has spoken in favour of Adolf Hitler and against human equality, or Osho’s follower Ma Anand Leela (below, next to Osho), who organized his commune like a military cult.
- On spirituality being essentially or usually liberal and progressive, see for example ‘Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality’ by Leigh Eric Schmidt, which positions American spirituality in the tradition of liberal progressivism. See also recent arguments for a liberal spirituality from Ronan Harrington and Jonathan Rowson.