How the Russia/Ukraine War Became a Fight for Civilization
The final battle between Tradition and Modernity?
A hot topic of discussion on the Unprepared Discord lately: how is it that the Russia/Ukraine war has become a civilizational battle? From the beginning, Putin has framed it that way. General Miley has repeatedly framed it that way, claiming that if Russia succeeds, the international order will fall.
How is it that a relatively insignificant European country like Ukraine has become a battleground for civilization? One worthwhile enough to fight a nuclear war? On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense, as our friend Julie Fredrickson pointed out on her blog.
If you follow BowTiedSalesGuy or have read Pitch Anything, you know the importance of mental frames. If you’re losing an argument, a good approach is to reframe it entirely. Likewise, if you can’t understand something, you have to ask whether you’re examining it from the correct frame.
I believe I have identified the correct frame to not only understand the battle over Ukraine but to understand the culture war and worldwide political stability.
We’re fighting a world war—on many fronts—between two fundamental egregores: Tradition and Modernity.
I want to be clear that for the most part, this battle is happening on a subconscious level, with most people completely unaware of it. Or if they’re aware of it, they don’t have the language to describe it. If you call it out, they may assume you’re a lunatic. But after you consider this framing, the world may start making sense again, and you’ll know how to discuss it with those in the know.
To RETVRN or not to RETVRN?
You’ve probably seen this meme: “EMBRACE TRADITION. REJECT MODERNITY.” Or you may have seen someone call for a “RETVRN” to tradition, almost always ironically. Or at least that’s how I usually use it. But just what does that mean?
Many of us read that as “Reject new things, embrace old things,” but that’s not quite accurate. For instance, I would argue that the French Revolution was the pinnacle of Modernity and that happened several hundred years ago. And some will ask, “Why don’t traditionalists just do what their parents do? Isn’t that ‘tradition’?” Not quite, especially if your parents are Baby Boomers, the first postmodernist generation, who are the generation probably most adverse to Tradition. (I’m capitalizing Tradition here to set the egregore apart from the general concept of “tradition.”)
Tradition and Modernity are difficult concepts to neatly define because they weren’t invented, they developed organically. There are philosophers and prophets of both, but it’s not like Marxism where someone sat down and clearly delineated a philosophy. They’re more like thematic collections. That’s why I use the esoteric term “egregore.” Originally, it was an occult concept, but Wikipedia states, “In more recent times, the concept has referred to a psychic manifestation, or a thoughtform, which occurs when any group shares a common motivation—being made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of the group.” I think that fits.
On the topic of the occult, perhaps the best single work to understand the concept of traditionalism is Julis Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World1. Evola is…controversial to say the least, so to spare you dirty looks on the subway, I’ll briefly summarize his overview of Tradition:
A firm belief in the supernatural.
Adherence to hierarchy, especially caste systems, with priests at the top, followed by warriors, then farmers and tradesmen, peasants, and “untouchables.”
Typically an absolute monarch2, usually from the warrior caste, but with the blessing of the priestly caste. In Tradition, the monarch is either a god himself (like a Pharoah or a Caeser) or is blessed by God (divine right of kings, like Charlemagne).
In Tradition, it was believed that all power flowed from heaven on down through the castes. Likewise, physical realities reflected spiritual truths. If your army lost a battle, it’s because they lost the favor of the gods or God.
A belief in “natural law,” in other words: laws that make intuitive sense. For instance, outlawing marriage wouldn’t fly, because humans tend to get married in every generation.
Adherence to ritual, even going so far as to believe that ignoring a ritual would cause disaster.
A deep love of beauty, especially natural beauty.
The family as the core building block of society. And, of course, the family itself has a strong patriarchal hierarchy.
There are other things I would add to this: preference for the natural over the manufactured (ever notice how trads really like leather-bound books?), intuition over logic, and an affinity for classicalism.
To most of us today, this mindset seems incredibly backward. Who would want to abandon progress and RETVRN to backward superstition and oppressive hierarchy?
The Traditionalist would argue that this is simply how people are wired and Modernity is like putting a sweater on a dog (an invention of Modernity). When we fight against our true nature, bad things happen, like growing rates of suicide and drug addiction, existentialism, world wars, and environmental pollution.
And it’s not like the world of Tradition made no progress. Imperial Rome was very much a society of Tradition, but it made many technological breakthroughs, some which still exist to this day. The scientific method didn’t exist, but discoveries were made nonetheless. But the sciences, such as they were, had a spiritual element. Alchemy vs. chemistry or astrology vs. astronomy.
The Case for Modernity
Modernity is commonly believed to have begun during the Renaissance, and is best understood as the inverse of Tradition:
Rationality over intuition3.
Science over superstition4.
Industrialization over craftsmanship.
The manufactured over the natural.
The individual as the basic building block of society.
The elimination of hierarchy. Equality and egalitarianism.
Utility over beauty. See the debate between fans of brutalist and classical architecture, which makes more sense through this frame of Tradition vs. Modernity.
New concepts of government and economics: constitutional democracy, Communism, capitalism, and fascism5.
Most of you reading this probably firmly identify with Modernity. Hey, in the world of Tradition, it wasn’t uncommon to die young of an infected papercut or some other disease that we can easily treat with a pill. In Modernity, you can be anything you want to be: a president, an astronaut, or even completely genderless. You’re not lorded over by your dad or some mad king. You can do whatever you want as long as you can afford it.
You might say, “Didn’t you just describe Republicans and Democrats?” Kind of, but not really. I would argue that in addition to the outward battle between Tradition and Modernity, most of us also have an inward struggle between the two. For instance, the woman who wishes to “have it all,” who simultaneously wants to be a mother and housewife and also an independent woman who is CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
If you’re being honest with yourself, you probably identify a bit with both of these lists. Democrats constantly yell about “our democracy,” but they also embrace the Dark Brandon meme, which paints Joe Biden as an all-powerful tyrant who will fix everything and punish the “wicked.”
Or people who simultaneously want to end carbon emissions immediately but reject the most practical way to do so: nuclear power. My theory is that deep down, the inner Traditionalist in these types wants industrialization to end6.
Wiliam F. Buckley once said, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop,” but I would argue that most conservatives are in fact Modernists. They believe in rationality, constitutional democracy, the scientific method, and the concept of “progress,” but they would just like to walk a little more carefully toward it.
What Does This Have to Do With World War III?
If you’ve followed me this far, I’m probably trying your patience. What does this have to do with anything? Where did I get this crazy idea that Ukraine vs. Russia is actually a battle between Modernity and Tradition? I’ll explain, but first, one more little rabbit hole.
If you don't follow the Roman Catholic Church, you probably don’t know that it’s in a a civil war right now. In the 1960s, Vatican II changed almost everything about Church teaching, how the Mass is performed, and even the liturgical calendar. Many Catholics (the “trad caths”) reject these changes, citing the fact that the Catholic Church draws authority from tradition and unchangeable dogma. They prefer to attend the old Traditional Latin Mass, they use the old pre-Vatican II calendar, they never eat fish on Friday, and the women wear veils in church.
Recently, Pope Francis has been at war with the trad caths. Last year, in the midst of all the chaos in the world, he clamped down on the Latin Mass not just once but twice. In the midst of the threat of nuclear war, he’s continued to focus on his crusade, recently declaring that traditionalism is infidelity to the faith. In other words, if you’re a traditionalist, you’re a heretic. Them’s fighting words.
It struck me as an incredibly bizarre priority given everything going on7. John Paul II would have been on the phone with Biden, Putin, and Patriarch Kiril trying to put a stop to this madness. On the surface, it’s like complaining about dirty silverware as the Titanic is sinking into the ocean.
But if you reframe current world events as a spiritual struggle of Tradition vs. Modernity, it all starts making sense. So, in a roundabout way, Pope Francis has been intervening in the war.
Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia is very much the representative of Tradition.
King Putin, Champion of Tradition
Putin is, for all intents and purposes, a monarch, much more so than Charles III. He has restored Russia’s priestly caste in the Russian Orthodox Church, and in fact, has the blessing of its patriarch. In other words, he has “divine right.” Patriarch Kiril, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently declared that Putin is fighting against the Antichrist.
Russia embraces the caste system. They literally call their oligarchs “oligarchs.” I appreciate the honesty.
And Putin, being a former KGB agent and an accomplished martial artist, is very much of the Warrior caste.
Putin rejects Modernist concepts like gay marriage and transgenderism8, and promotes Traditional virtues like family and strength. Why does he want Ukraine? For the same reason Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar wanted new land: for the glory of conquest.
Putin drives home this point when he decries the degeneracy of the West, and when Russia starts hanging billboards with icons of the Virgin Mary.
This is also incidentally why many right-leaning people sympathize with Putin, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s not because they’re secret Russian agents, it’s because Putin stirs their inner sense of Tradition. It’s also why Modernists instinctively want to nuke Russia.
Ukraine meanwhile has been shifting toward Modernity to curry favor with the West, even considering legalizing same-sex marriage, which had been previously unthinkable in deeply Orthodox Ukraine. Reject Tradition, embrace modernity, and receive several billion dollars in war funding.
Zelensky himself is a very Modernist sort of leader. He doesn’t come from a family of politicians or have any claim to “divine right.” He’s a comedian who used to have a TV show. It doesn’t get much more Modernist than that.
On a deep subconscious level, the adherents of Modernism sense this battle, which is why they’re willing to risk everything on it. Will Modernism or Tradition rule the world? The outcome in Ukraine may decide. Only one can win.
And this battle is on millions of fronts. Recently, two women, both close friends, drifted apart for no discernable reason. They shopped together, watched TV, and went to the movies together. Both are moms and their kids were friends.
But one woman slowly drifted toward Tradition. She didn’t stop shopping or going out, but she started raising her own food, reading classic literature, and learning traditional crafts. Her friend slowly cut her out of her life to where they barely spoke. Then the woman leaning toward Tradition quit her job to be a stay-at-home mother and farm wife. Now they don’t speak at all.
The Traditional mother was heartbroken. They had so much in common, so many memories together. Their politics fundamentally were the same. Why was she cut off?
But now it’s clear to me. Deep down, one was aligned with Modernism, the other with Tradition. And the two cannot peacefully coexist.
Democracies and republics existed, of course, but were often overtaken by some sort of tyrant, either on a temporary basis or permanently. I also wouldn’t say that democracy and Tradition are inherently incompatible—G.K. Chesterton believed in both, but Tradition tends toward monarchies.
Of course reason existed in the world of Tradition. In fact, some of the greatest philosophers came from it, like Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Traditionalism is often confused with anti-intellectualism, but trads are often quite intellectual. It’s simply that Tradition and Modernity have different ways of interpreting the world.
Ironically, scientists have become something of a new priestly caste in Modernity, and people often equate scientific personalities with “the science” instead of the scientific method. For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci once claimed that criticism against him was an attack on science because he represents science, much like a priest might claim a personal attack is an attack against God.
Many would say fascism was (is?) an attempt at RETVRN to Tradition, but I look at it more as a Modernist imitation of it.
I was recently rewatching the Lord of the Rings movies, and it struck me how it’s fundamentally about Tradition vs. Modernity, with the forces of Isengard explicitly being on the side of industry.
As I was drafting this, Pope Francis did come out against nuclear war, but he seems to still be much more focused on the trads.
Of course, homosexuality and gender-bending are nothing new, but our embrace of them is very much Modern. Men in Ancient Greece enjoyed their boys, but they married women. Nero married two men and even dressed in a bridal gown while doing so. Today he’d be seen as a genderqueer in a gay marriage. Back then he was just a mad emperor.