The Knightly Spirit (Companion Commentary)

A while ago, I took an analytical look at Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s essay ‘The Authentic Reactionary’ (Parts I, II). Today I want to engage in a similar kind of analysis, this time delving into an essay by noted white émigré philosopher, Ivan Ilyin. Written sometime after the Russian Civil War, the essay speaks to national renewal and what it requires, not men who perform some necessary mechanical function, but a distinguished men of service, those whose orientation is profoundly non-materialistic and upward-facing. Mark Hackard is credited with translation. 

“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”

Psalm 51:10

“Through all the great discord of our days, amidst catastrophe, tragedy and loss, in disputes and temptations, we must remember one thing and live by it: the maintenance and propagation of a spirit of knightly service. First and foremost within ourselves, and then within our children, our friends and the like-minded. We should protect this spirit as something sacred; we must strengthen it in those who trust us, those who confide in us, and those who seek our direction. This is what we must advocate to our leaders and pastors, insisting and even demanding it. For this spirit is as the air and oxygen of Russian national salvation, and were it would run out, there would immediately set in an atmosphere of rot and decay, overt or hidden Bolshevism.”

The first thing to outline is the pursuit of virtue initially in oneself, analogous to ‘riding the tiger’ as propounded by Evola. In these times of great tribulation, man is at a loss for guidance in his own conduct. It seems for most, the Church is not explicit enough in giving men direction, and they certainly cannot look to their political leaders for any kind of true north. Some might suggest the father as a role model, but in all but a handful of instances, our fathers are not likely to have been fully aware of the disintegration of civilization, and thus have wallowed in a myopic ignorance, or have actively aided the cause of Liberalism and revolution themselves. In the long shadow cast by the age we have only dead men and our own ingrained cultural memory to act as divining rods, but if by these means we are spiritually and mentally healthy, Ilyin is confident we can sow a healthy crop and reap a bountiful harvest in our own children and like-minded compatriots.

“The decades we have experienced are such that men accustomed to holding indifferent and lukewarm positions, unable or unwilling to fortify themselves and make a decision, have already had their judgment signed in advance. They are condemned to humiliation and the mire, and their vital forces will be used by the tempters of this world. Everywhere that there is no will, the will of the sons of perdition shall take the field. Everywhere that the conscience is silent and greed divides the soul in two, Bolshevism already conquers, and everywhere that the crude lust for power of some irritates the insatiable ambition of others, there is prepared seduction, disintegration and the triumph of the enemy. Everywhere that the spirit of chivalry weakens or disappears, disaster awaits us. So it stands now, and so shall it be henceforth.”

What Ilyin condemns here is any notion that one can be neutral in what he in all his writings depicts as the cosmic struggle between transcendence (which might be called ‘ultimate unification’) and dissolution. He has no quarter with ‘conservatives’, those who waver, those who can ‘see both sides’ or attempt to play devils advocate. Within each of us, the will to the better self, the Imago Dei, requires attention lest it wither and die. The option in its stead is not one of quiet living nor respectable disinterest, but instead a contemptible cowardice. You must live under a roof, and are made to decide if the roof is that provided by God or satan, and while God asks you to break your back, satan will gently invite you to put your feet up, relax, and let those who are more fully in service to him go about their work without hindrance. There is no corner of the world in which this is not the case. When Tradition, and service to it, cease to become living realities in the minds of any man, regardless of race or creed, he turns over his land to despoilment. I am particularly reminded of this quote from Cortés:

“At whatever post a man may stand, this duty (if only the cause is not in itself shameful) has its idea giving meaning to his cause, consecrating it not as an occupation, but as service, service to God’s Unified Cause on earth. In distinction from the subject himself, having his own personal interests, sympathies and desires, God’s cause has its Transcendent paths of necessity and exaction. And so man’s personal interests and the Transcendent interest of his Cause at any moment can part and place him before the temptation of self-interest. At any moment, a man can find himself in the position of a mercenary, not knowing upon what course to decide, or the position of a traitor who prefers his interest to the Transcendent. The spirit of chivalry is comprised of steadfast loyalty to the Transcendent path.”

Ilyin offers us the choice, sometimes presented in stark terms, between the higher and lower path of human will, that is the capacity for action in service to the self, or action in service to superior forces. God’s ‘Unified Cause’ is analogous to Tradition which raises man towards theosis and salvation by making him more than merely man. Often the virtues espoused routinely by Reactionaries come into conflict with our own immediate desires and interests, and the truly noble always default to the first insomuch as their self-discipline will allow. Accusations against the Reactionary worldview I have heard in the last year, that we are ‘Machiavellian’ in our reasoning, are preposterous in light of this.

“There are men who do not see the Cause at all and do not comprehend Transcendent requirements. They know only their own business, personal success, and everything else for them is only a means to that end. All their activity proves to be servility and treachery, and from the works of these careerists, flatterers, bribe-takers and time-servers have perished and will perish all human organizations and institutions. Venality is their credo – it matters not for what they sold out the Cause, whether for money, honors or authority, and it matters not what was hidden in their soul behind the betrayal: open nihilism (as among the Bolsheviks) or a sentimental lack of character and justifying sophistry (characteristic of the pre-Bolshevik Philistines).”

The men described here characterize the active betrayer, the Judas serpent in our midst, he who would prostitute his own mother for a cushy job at the Politburo. Always it seems his decisions which are motivated by only the basest of human vice, will be dressed up in elaborate justifications for evil. Ilyin often hits upon the inherent nihilism of the red movement in Russia, possibly relating it to the Neitzschean ‘will to power’. Lenin took the observations of Neitzsche, and discarded the philosopher’s ‘solution’ to these observations in favor of his own. Stirneresque moral anarchism was another bourgeois step along the road to the proletariat paradise, and the goals of the advanced Bolsheviks in Russia could be described as having stripped Marxism of any humane element, and nihilism of any libertarian element. A dark void arose to replace faith in every instance where apathy was found abundant and into this void, the snakes of the left have poured forth every parlor trick under the sun to replace God of Man with Man as God. For Ilyin these reasonings mean little, he views all betrayal of the transcendent path in such a manner as described, as an inexcusable and universally capital crime.

our enemy is legion and their contempt for the transcendent knows no end

“There are other men who know of the demands of the Cause and the Transcendent, but who treat them with formal indifference, as if they were a heavy and unpleasant duty or a repellent inevitability – without love, inspiration or creativity. Their activity is “service,” but their service is merely carrying out the next “order” or “item”; they work as hirelings, and in the best case do not curse their labor, or as slaves, weighed down by their every effort. The fate of the Cause makes no difference to them. The demands of the Transcendent, however it might be named – the Church, the Motherland, Orthodoxy, the Army, Science, Art – only belabor and burden them. They are not dedicated to God’s Cause on earth. And from the works of these unfeeling machines, these indifferent men and time servers, all human organizations begin to be emptied internally and die away, disenchanting and irritating all who come into contact with them, provoking censure and straining an atmosphere of destructive protest.”

By contrast, the men who fit this profile are those who, while not actively engaged in war with the World of Tradition for their own ends, in the nefarious or bloody schemes of Liberalism, their complete absence as a guard leaving his post maximizes the position of society’s worse elements who find a more shallow resistance than would otherwise be apparent. Often lamented, this is the product of the metamorphosis from ritual to chore. When people no longer see the higher meaning of the actions they are required to perform, these actions lose virtually all significance and yield no benefits. One can kneel, place their hands together, close their eyes, and speak, yet are they necessarily at prayer? In 1917, the February Revolution placed a provisional government into power in Russia (we must stress this was not the October Revolution which is when Russia became a communist country), and the government repealed the mandatory requirement of attendance at Orthodox Church services for conscripted soldiers. The soldier’s freedom of choice was put to the test, and a stunning 70% ceased attendance. It was not the repeal that killed spirituality in the Russian Army, it had already been killed prior, and the law only kept the phantom motions going as a crude masquerade. 

“Now as never before, Russia needs men capable not of servility or time-serving, but service. Men who not only see the Cause and comprehend the demands of the Transcendent, but who are devoted to God’s Cause on earth. Men not only not indifferent and not unfeeling, but inspired and inspiring others – men who do not concede the interests of the Cause neither for money, honors, and authority, nor over any requests or favors – incorruptible in the fullest and highest meaning of this word. These are men for whom duty is not hard labor and obligation is not repellent, because in their soul, obligation is covered by personal devotion, and duty has been submerged in passionate interest for the cause. These are men who are, of course, gladdened by any personal success, but for them, their own success always remains a means to serving the victory of God’s Cause. These are men who do not fear responsibility precisely because they are wholly invested in the Cause, and not at all do they seek personal good fortune and advancement at whatever cost. These are men of character and civic courage, men of an idea of will, volunteers for the Russian National Cause. Men summoned as organizers of Russia.”

The differentiated man, the Reactionary, he whose ultimate service is to the transcendent path and its earthly imitation is the only hope for the salvage of society’s ruins. Ilyin is not only looking for men who smile in the face of death, but who take great joy in their duties. These are, in his opinion, the men who can inspire a revival of the Russian spirit, but interestingly he presents the test of worldly ‘good fortune’ and ‘personal success’ to the proposed organizers. This was apparent to very few in Russia after the revolution. Once the shroud of ignorance was uncovered, a vanishingly small percentage of Russians had anything to gain from the overthrow of the tsar. In our post-Cold War, unipolar Liberal hegemony, the situation is far more taxing. There are no bread lines, there are no five year plans, and instead we have Xbox and iPhones, microwavable dinners and college sluts in ever club downtown. The immediate and personal benefits of Liberalism are easy to obtain, while those of Communism were placed in some distant future, after much toiling. We who set these idols of the Modern World aside to pursue that which is clearly not in our personal interest are those who pass through the philosopher’s trial by fire. Nobody suffers more than the Reactionary, as in a pit of human excrement filled with teeming masses, he is the only one with a sense of smell.

“The spirit of chivalry comprises first and foremost the voluntary and willed acceptance of hardship and danger in the name of God’s Cause on earth. And we must admit that if life expects this from us always, and even in the most happy time it proposes us such burdens and the responsibilities and danger tied to them at every step – then after Russia’s military collapse in the Great War and her defeat in the Revolution, all of her rebirth and restoration will depend totally on whether there shall be found in our land a cadre of men firm in such a spirit and capable of such service. An incorruptible cadre, and therefore selling out nothing to either foreigners or the internal enemies of Russia; loyal in love and conscience, and therefore capable of gathering around themselves trust and dedication in all hearts faithful to the Motherland; knightly, and therefore called to service and the organization of public salvation.”

This essay is devoted in part to the men of action, as opposed to the men of thought whom Ilyin typically addresses. He asks his audience to accept ‘danger’, and in his case this would have meant those committed to the physical removal of the Bolshevik menace from Russia. No alterations to the deepest hollow of society is ever brought about in ‘theory’, but in ‘action’ that flows from theory. One is passive, until it is no longer appropriate to be passive and then some process begins to either great success or monumental failure, and the outcome hinges in many cases upon the conviction of the participants (though this is not always the case, as with the tragedy of the Romanian Iron Guard). Can the radical right inspire this kind of conviction in men of action? This is an essential question, for without the emergence of an ‘incorruptible cadre’ the entire Occident faces extinction.

Codreanu surveys bones of his countrymen fallen in battle
Predeal, 1937

“The essence of knighthood necessary to Russia is first of all not in infringement, but in self-denial. Not one of the contemporary political parties is knightly, for they all infringe upon power and its attendant benefits. What Russia needs is a cadre of men with renewed and ennobled political motivation in their souls. Only new men can create a new regime, “new” not in the sense of age, name or the all-corrupting “revolutionary standing,” but namely in the sense of direction of the will and strength of will: of Transcendent direction and unbreakable strength. He who over these years of disasters, tragedies and losses has been unable to find within his soul new sources of political reason and political activity – sources religious, patriotic and chivalrous – who as before conceives of Russia (regardless of whether from the left or right) as a field for his career and private advancement – such a man is an enemy of Russia, bringing her poison and death from his heart, whatever programs and slogans he would use as cover. Outside of the knightly spirit of national service, all is aimless, harmful and in vain; outside of it, no one will free or restore anything, but will only create new discord, new chaos and a new civil war to Russia’s ruin and the joy of her immemorial adversaries the world over.”

It is alluded that those who set in motion the usurpation of left domination will deny themselves any hope of seeing its fruits themselves, thus asking of them a price, that they burn a structure to the ground with themselves inside it, so that something good may come of this monumental evil at long last. When Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War were gearing up to square off with General Franco, there was a string of grizzly murders perpetrated against right wing figures in the areas they controlled. Near Madrid, essayist Ramiro de Maeztu was shot dead, his last words being “You do not know why you kill me, but I know why I’m dying: For your children to be better than you!” Through a needle’s eye of violence comes peace, through a tunnel of carnage comes repair, through a spark of chaos comes order. The goals are clear and yet the hazards on the journey are both necessary and obscured. The ones who will not restore anything are those for whom a personal opportunism remains supreme and so we can never rely on such people, for in the end we will have to deal with them as well. Their torpidity has condemned the state once before and it can never be turned over to them again with the delusion of their loyalty. They have none. 

“Here is why those who stand aside from all foreign and Soviet “policy,” from all of these endless “initiatives” (abroad) and treacherous “compromises” (in the underground), from all the concoctions and squabbling of political parties, are right. However, this distancing should hardly signify the denial of sovereignty; not at all does it coincide with political meaninglessness and a lack of will. To the contrary – its entire meaning is in stockpiling political meaning and political will and in the Transcendent purification of the soul, in the concentration of the soul’s capability for comprehension and its most noble forces. This abstinence from the frivolous and the premature, from the vanity and intrigues of party politics, is imperative precisely to set a beginning for a new ideational and volitional approach to sovereignty in general and to Russian statehood in particular – the knightly way.”

Unlike all political pieces within the purview of the overton window, the Reactionary stands completely aside from not only the rigged ‘party system’ of various states, but even the very notion that we should be in dialogue with this extremely narrow ideological spectrum, beyond holding it up to ridicule. There is no legitimacy to present Liberal dominion, just as there was no legitimacy to Communist dominion in Russia. And yet to separate ourselves from sanctioned debate, we have not relinquished an iota of our claim to that which has been so sadistically stolen from us and our progeny. This claim was protected, not by any legal structure, but by one of divine right, and so has endured the fire of war and revolution. We are strengthened by our segregation from the corrupt political world. We transcend it.

“For this we must begin from the establishment of an indisputable maxim that holds: Russia’s ruin was brought about and conditioned by the fact that Russian men possessed insufficient chivalry, and henceforth have flowed all the errors and crimes that have despoiled Russia, all these currents of spinelessness, faint-heartedness, greed, cowardice, venality, betrayal and savagery. And these errors and these crimes will be repeated; and the currents of this cravenness and faint-heartedness will pour out – until Russia paves a course to spiritual and religious renewal; until men of knightly style and knightly character arise and close ranks. And when this takes place, it is then they will found and strengthen a new sovereign tradition, for now dispersed and lost, but conceived many centuries prior in the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy, a tradition that endured through ages of struggle for Russian national greatness. This is the tradition of religiously-rooted state voluntarism that was again reborn in the Russian lands ten years ago.”

It is unclear what precisely Ilyin is referencing as having occured in Russia ten years ago, but it could be the failed attempt to stem the rise of and eventual victory of Bolshevism in the empire. The quality of men is paramount, their pursuit of virtue, the knightly duty that is guided by a higher principle which dwarfs simple ‘politics’ to a triviality, that is what will bring about the restoration of the nation. This strikes me at least as being incredibly Evolian in its methodology, that it is not so much about any set of actions that bring about the downfall of Liberalism, but that the perennial virtues of the past be resurrected in a few who will bring about renewal in very much a natural order of things, the closing of a cycle. Ilyin imagines the Orthodox martyr as the pinnacle of this higher spiritual current that will once more bring the land into the harmony of ‘sobornost’ which seems to fit his description of ‘religiously-rooted state voluntarism’ (I will have an essay on this in the coming weeks). With that, I will give the writer under analysis the last word.

“This is what is most elementary and important. If it is not there, then neither shall there be a Russia, but there shall be discord and chaos, shame and disintegration. It is now that we must take this path and begin our renewal, today, without hesitation or delay.”

Tsarist Imperial Navy Admiral Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak
ready to be martyred after capture by the Red Army
Gotov Umeret

(Thanks to Michael Pascal for drawing my attention to this essay. A great find.)

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