Translated from the French and with the introduction by Tom Sunic
This article was first published in April 1996, in Chronicles; A magazine of American Culture Given the ongoing armed conflict between Israeli troops and Hamas-led Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip, it may be useful to reexamine the Biblical origins of total wars and the nature of modern totalitarianism.
Can we still conceive of the revival of pagan sensibility in an age so profoundly saturated by Judeo-Christian monotheism and so ardently adhering to the tenets of liberal democracy? In popular parlance the very word ‘paganism’ may incite some to derision and laughter. Who, after all, wants to be associated with witches and witchcraft, with sorcery and black magic? Worshiping animals or plants, or chanting hymns to Wotan or Zeus, in an epoch of cable television and “smart weapons,” does not augur well for serious intellectual and academic inquiry. Yet, before we begin to heap scorn on paganism, we should pause for a moment. Paganism is not just witches and witches’ brew; paganism also means a mix of highly speculative theories and philosophies. Paganism is Seneca and Tacitus; it is an artistic and cultural movement that swept over Italy under the banner of the Renaissance. Paganism also means Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Charles Darwin, and a host of other thinkers associated with the Western cultural heritage. Two thousand years of Judeo-Christianity have not obscured the fact that pagan thought has not yet disappeared, even though it has often been blurred, stifled, or persecuted by monotheistic religions and their secular offshoots. Undoubtedly, many would claim that in the realm of ethics all men and women of the world are the children of Abraham. Indeed, even the bolder ones who somewhat self-righteously claim to have rejected the Christian or Jewish theologies, and who claim to have replaced them with “secular humanism,” frequently ignore that their self-styled secular beliefs are firmly grounded in Judeo-Christian ethics. Abraham and Moses may be dethroned today, but their moral edicts and spiritual ordinances are much alive. The global and disenchanted world, accompanied by the litany of human rights, ecumenical society, and the rule of law—are these not principles that can be traced directly to the Judeo-Christian messianism that resurfaces today in its secular version under the elegant garb of modern “progressive” ideologies?
And yet, we should not forget that the Western world did not begin with the birth of Christ. Neither did the religions of ancient Europeans see the first light of day with Moses—in the desert. Nor did our much-vaunted democracy begin with the period of Enlightenment or with the proclamation of American independence. Democracy and independence—all of this existed in ancient Greece, albeit in its own unique social and religious context. Our Greco-Roman ancestors, our predecessors who roamed the woods of central and northern Europe, also believed in honor, justice, and virtue, although they attached to these notions a radically different meaning. Attempting to judge, therefore, ancient European political and religious manifestations through the lens of our ethnocentric and reductionist glasses could mean losing sight of how much we have departed from our ancient heritage, as well as forgetting that modern intellectual epistemology and methodology have been greatly influenced by the Bible. Just because we profess historical optimism—or believe in the progress of the modern “therapeutic state”—does not necessarily mean that our society is indeed the “best of all worlds.” Who knows, with the death of communism, with the exhaustion of liberalism, with the visible depletion of the congregations in churches and synagogues, we may be witnessing the dawn of neopaganism, a new blossoming of old cultures, a return to the roots that are directly tied to our ancient European precursors. Who can dispute the fact that Athens was the homeland of Europeans before Jerusalem became their frequently painful edifice?
Great lamenting is heard from all quarters of our disenchanted and barren world today. Gods seem to have departed, as Nietzsche predicted a century ago, ideologies are dead, and liberalism hardly seems capable of providing man with enduring spiritual support. Maybe the time has come to search for other paradigms? Perhaps the moment is ripe, as Alain de Benoist would argue, to envision another cultural and spiritual revolution—a revolution that might well embody our pre-Christian European pagan heritage?
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Alain de Benoist
Nietzsche well understood the meaning of “Athens against Jerusalem.” Referring to ancient paganism, which he called “the greatest utility of polytheism,” he wrote in The Joyful Wisdom:
There was then only one norm, the man and every people believed that it had this one and ultimate norm. But, above himself, and outside of himself, in a distant overworld a person could see a multitude of norms: the one God was not the denial or blasphemy of the other Gods! It was here that the right of individuals was first respected. The inventing of Gods, heroes, and supermen of all kinds, as well as co-ordinate men and undermen— dwarfs, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons, devils—was the inestimable preliminary to the justification of the selfishness and sovereignty of the individual; the freedom which was granted to one God in respect to other Gods, was at last given to the individual himself in respect to laws, customs, and neighbors. Monotheism, on the contrary, the rigid consequence of one normal human being —consequently, the belief in a normal God, beside whom there are only false spurious Gods—has perhaps been the greatest danger of mankind in the past.
Jehovah is not only a “jealous” god, but he can also show hatred: “Yet, I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau” (Malachi 1:3). He recommends hatred to all those who call out his name: “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies” (Psalm 139: 21-22). “Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God” (Psalm 139:19). Jeremiah cries out: “Render unto them a recompense, O Lord, according to the work of their hands. . . . Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord” (Lamentations 5:64-66). The book of Jeremiah is a long series of maledictions and curses buried against peoples and nations. His contemplation of future punishments fills him with gloomy delight. “Let them be confounded that persecute me, but let not me be confounded: … bring upon them the day of evil, and destroy them with double destruction” (Lam. 17:18). “Therefore, deliver up their children to the famine, and pour out their blood by the force of the sword; and let their wives be bereaved of their children, and be widows; and let their men be put to death” (Lam. 18:21).
Further, Jehovah promises the Hebrews that he will support them in their war efforts: “When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land” (Deuteronomy 12:29). “But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth” (Deut. 20:16). Jehovah himself gave an example of a genocide by provoking the Deluge against the humanity that sinned against him. While he resided with the Philistine King Achish, David also practiced genocide (1 Samuel 27:9). Moses organized the extermination of the Midian people (Numbers 31:7). Joshua massacred the inhabitants of Hazor and Anakim. “And Joshua at that time turned back, and took Hazor, and smote the king thereof with the sword: for Hazor beforetime was the head of all those kingdoms. And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire” (Joshua 11:10-11, 20-21). The messianic king extolled by Solomon was also known for his reign of terror: “May he purify Jerusalem for all gentiles who trample on it miserably, may he exterminate by his wisdom, justice the sinners of this country. . . . May he destroy the impious nations with the words from his mouth.” Hatred against pagans is also visible in the books of Esther, Judith, etc.
“No ancient religion, except that of the Hebrew people has known such a degree of intolerance,” says Emile Gillabert in Moise et le phénomène judéo-chrétien (1976). Renan had written in similar terms: “The intolerance of the Semitic peoples is the inevitable consequence of their monotheism. The Indo-European peoples, before they converted to Semitic ideas, had never considered their religion an absolute truth. Rather, they conceived of it as a heritage of the family, or the caste, and in this way they remained foreign to intolerance and proselytism. This is why we find among these peoples the liberty of thought, the spirit of inquiry and individual research.” Of course, one should not look at this problem in a black and white manner, or for instance compare and contrast one platitude to another platitude. There have always been, at all times, and everywhere, massacres and exterminations. But it would be difficult to find in the pagan texts, be they of sacred or profane nature, the equivalent of what one so frequently encounters in the Bible: the idea that these massacres could be morally justified, that they could be deliberately authorized and ordained by one god, “as Moses the servant of the Lord commanded” (Joshua 11:12). Thus, for the perpetrators of these crimes, good consciousness continues to rule, not despite these massacres, but entirely for the sake of the massacres.
A lot of ink has been spilled over this tradition of intolerance. Particularly contentious are the words of Jesus as recorded by Luke: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Some claim to perceive in the word “hate” a certain form of Hebraism; apparently, these words suggest that Jesus had to be absolutely preferred to all other human beings. Some claim to see in it traces of Gnostic contamination that suggest renouncement, despoliation of goods, and the refusal of procreation. In this context, the obligation to “hate” one’s parents is to be viewed as a corollary of not wishing to have children.
These interpretations remain pure conjecture. What is certain is that Christian intolerance began to manifest itself very early. In the course of history this intolerance was directed against “infidels” as well as against pagans, Jews, and heretics. It accompanied the extermination of all aspects of ancient culture —the murder of Hypatia, the interdiction of pagan cults, the destruction of temples and statues, the suppression of the Olympic Games, and the arson, at the instigation of the town’s Bishop Theophilus of Serapeum, of Alexandria in A.D. 389, whose immense library of 700,000 volumes had been collected by the Ptolomeys. Then came the forced conversions, the extinction of positive science, persecution, and pyres. Ammianus Marcellinus said: “The wild beasts are less hostile to people than Christians are among themselves.” Sulpicius Severus wrote: “Now everything has gone astray as the result of discords among bishops. Everywhere, one can see hatred, favours, fear, jealousy, ambition, debauchery, avarice, arrogance, sloth: there is general corruption everywhere.”
The Jewish people were the first to suffer from Christian monotheism. The causes of Christian anti-Semitism, which found its first “justification” in the Gospel of John (probably written under the influence of Gnosticism, and to which many studies have been devoted) lie in the proximity of the Jewish and Christian faiths. As Jacques Solé notes: “One persecutes only his neighbors.” Only a “small gap” separates Jews from Christians, but as Nietzsche says, “the smallest gap is also the least bridgeable.” During the first centuries of the Christian era anti-Semitism grew out of the Christian claim to be the successor of Judaism, and bestowing on it its “truthful” meaning. For Christians, “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), but it is only Christianity that can be verus Israel. Hence the expression perfidi, applied to the Jews until recently by the Church in prayers during Holy Friday—an expression meaning “without faith,” and whose meaning is different from the modern word “perfidious.”
Saint Paul was the first to formulate this distinction. With his replacement of the Law by Grace, Paul distinguished between the “Israel of God” and the “Israel after the flesh” (I Corinthians 10:18), which also led him to oppose circumcision: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Romans 2:28-29). Conclusion: “For we are the circumcision” (Philippians 3:3). This argument has, from the Christian point of view, a certain coherence. As Claude Trestmontant says, if the last of the nabis from Israel, the rabbi Yohushua of Nazareth, that is to say Jesus, is really a Messiah, then the vocation of Israel to become the “beacon of nations” must be fully accomplished, and the universalism implied in this vocation must be put entirely into practice. Just as the Law that has come to an end with Christ (in a double sense of the word) is no longer necessary, so has the distinction between Israel and other nations become futile as well: “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). Consequently, universal Christianity must become verus Israel.
This process, which originated in the Pauline reform, has had a double consequence. On the one hand, it has resulted in the persecution of Jews who, by virtue of their “genealogical” proximity, are represented as the worst enemies of Christianity. They are the adversaries who refuse to “convert,” who refuse to recognize Christianity as the “true Israel.” As Shmuel Trigano notes, “by projecting itself as the new Israel, the West has given to Judaism a de facto jurisdiction, albeit not the right to be itself.” This means that the West can become “Israelite” to the extent that it denies Jews the right to be Israelites. Henceforth, the very notion of “Judeo-Christianity” can be defined as a double incarceration. It imprisons “the Christian West,” which by its own deliberate act has subordinated itself to an alien “jurisdiction,” and which by doing so denies this very same jurisdiction to its legitimate (Jewish) owners. Furthermore, it imprisons the Jews who, by virtue of a religion different from their own, are now undeservedly caught in the would-be place of their “accomplishment” by means of a religion which is not their own. Trigano further adds: “If Judeo-Christianity laid the foundations of the West, then the very place of Israel is also the West.” Subsequently, the requisites of “Westernization” must also become the requisites of assimilation and “normalization,” and the denial of identity. “The crisis of Jewish normality is the crisis of the westernization of Judaism. Therefore, to exit from the West means for the Jews to turn their back to their ‘normality,’ that is, to open themselves up to their otherness.” This seems to be why Jewish communities today criticize the “Western model,” only after they first adopt their own specific history of a semi-amnesiac and semi-critical attitude.
In view of this. Christian anti-Semitism can be rightly described as neurosis. As Jean Blot writes, it is because of its “predisposition toward alienation” that the West is incapable of “fulfilling itself or rediscovering itself.” And from this source arises anti-Semitic neurosis. “Anti-semitism allows the anti-Semite to project onto the Jew his own neuroses. He calls him a stranger, because he himself is a stranger, a crook, a powerful man, a parvenu; he calls him a Jew, because he himself is this Jew in the deepest depth of his soul, always on the move, permanently alienated, a stranger to his own religion and to God who incarnates him.” By replacing his original myth with the myth of biblical monotheism, the West has turned Hebraism into its own superego. As an inevitable consequence, the West had to turn itself against the Jewish people by accusing them of not pursuing the “conversion” in terms of the “logical” evolution proceeding from Sinai to Christianity. In addition, the West also accused the Jewish people of attempting, in an apparent “deicide,” to obstruct this evolution.
Many, even today, assume that if Jews were to renounce their distinct identity, “the Jewish problem” would disappear. At best, this is a naive proposition, and at worst, it masks a conscious or unconscious form of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, this proposition, which is inherent in the racism of assimilation and the denial of identity, represents the reverse side of the racism of exclusion and persecution. In the West, notes Shmuel Trigano, when the Jews were not persecuted, they “were recognized as Jews only on the condition that they first ceased to be Jews.” Put another way, in order to be accepted, they had to reject themselves; they had to renounce their own Other in order to be reduced to the Same. In another type of racism, Jews are accepted but denied; in the first, they are accepted but are not recognized. The Church ordered Jews to choose between exclusion (or physical death) or self-denial (spiritual and historical death). Only through conversion could they become “Christians, as others.”
The French Revolution emancipated Jews as individuals, but it condemned them to disappear as a “nation”; in this sense, they were forced to become “citizens as others.” Marxism, too, attempted to ensure the “liberation” of the Jewish people by imposing on them a class division, from which their dispersion inevitably resulted.
The origins of modern totalitarianism are not difficult to trace. In a secular form, they are tied to the same radical strains of intolerance whose religious causes we have just examined. The organization of totalitarianism is patterned after the organization of the Christian Church, and in a similar manner totalitarianisms exploit the themes of the “masses”—the themes inherent in contemporary mass democracy. This secularization of the system has, in fact, rendered totalitarianism more dangerous—independently of the fact that religious intolerance often triggers, in return, an equally destructive revolutionary intolerance. “Totalitarianism,” writes Gilbert Durand, “is further strengthened, in so far as the powers of monotheist theology (which at least left the game of transcendence intact) have been transferred to a human institution, to the Grand Inquisitor.”
It is a serious error to assume that totalitarianism manifests its real character only when it employs crushing coercion. Historical experience has demonstrated—and continues to demonstrate—that there can exist a “clean” totalitarianism, which, in a “soft” manner, yields the same consequences as the classic kinds of totalitarianism. “Happy robots” of 1984 or of Brave New World have no more enviable conditions than prisoners of the camps. In essence, totalitarianism did not originate with Saint-Just, Stalin, Hegel, or Fichte. Rather, as Michel Maffesoli says, totalitarianism emerges “when a subtle form of plural, polytheistic, and contradictory totality, that is inherent in organic interdependency” is superseded by a monotheistic one. Totalitarianism grows out of a desire to establish social and human unity by reducing the diversity of individuals and peoples to a single model. In this sense, he argues, it is legitimate to speak of a “polytheist social arena, referring to multiple and complementary gods” versus a “monotheistic political arena founded on the illusion of unity.” Once the polytheism of values “disappears, we face totalitarianism.” Pagan thought, on the other hand, which fundamentally remains attached to rootedness and to the place, and which is a preferential center of the crystallization of human identity, rejects all religious and philosophical forms of universalism.