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Spiritual Warfare, Part 1:
The Warrior & the Monk

1,556 words

A story is told (whether from the Zen tradition, the Bushidō tradition, or modern Japanese cinema I don’t remember) of an encounter between a Samurai warrior and a Zen monk. The warrior approaches the sitting monk and draws his sword. The monk remains impassive. “Don’t you realize that I have no qualms about killing you?” roars the warrior. “Don’t you realize that I have no qualms about dying?” quietly replies the monk. 

Which of the figures in this story exhibits the greater courage?

From some unknown source, certain modern writers who exalt the warrior ideal—Nietzsche, and (to a degree) Julius Evola—get the idea that the ability of the martyr to calmly face death is somehow servile, rather than being an example of manly courage in the highest degree. And this misconception is also accompanied by the notion that while cowardice is a betrayal of warrior virtue, the Christian idea of sin is not—as if self-indulgence of every sort were not the very thing that saps the warrior spirit, producing not the manly warrior but the effeminate debauchee.

How such a misconception could ever have grown up is puzzling—though not, as we shall see, entirely so. Was Thomas à Becket servile when he defied King Henry II in the name of the prerogatives of the Roman Catholic Church, and gave his life in defense of it? Speaking as plainly as I can, anyone who believes that the sort of courage exhibited by Becket was somehow groveling or unmanly is seriously out of touch with reality. There may be such a thing as a pathological, masochistic piety, as is sometimes portrayed in bad religious art, but this sort of mental illness has nothing to do with the courage and virtue of the saints.

Between the courage of the warrior and that of the monk we cannot easily decide, because these two renditions of the one virtue exist on different planes, guarded and exemplified by different castes. The courage of the warrior is of the lesser jihad, that of the monk a fruit of the greater: only the man who has triumphed in single combat over his own self-concept can let go of his life the moment his Lord demands it, as if releasing a captive bird from his grasp. And of course the greatest warriors owe their pre-eminence in the lesser jihad precisely to their successful conclusion of the greater one. A story is told of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in law of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them), fourth Sunni Caliph, first Shi’ite Imam and the greatest metaphysician and warrior of his time. During a battle he at last had one of his greatest enemies at his mercy, and drew his sword to slay him. At that moment, however, the defeated enemy spat in his face—at which point Hazrat Ali sheathed his sword, turned and walked away, it being an unseemly violation of adab (etiquette) for a true warrior—as for a true arif, a Knower of God—to kill in anger.

The Brahmin or sacerdotal caste is intrinsically higher than the Kshatriya or warrior caste precisely because the Divine Intellect within man is higher than the will. The strength of the will, the very root of its power, is certainty—and certainty is intrinsic to the Intellect; if Meister Eckhart was able to say “the soul is an aristocrat”, it was because he knew with unwavering certainty that “my truest ‘I’ is God”. Without contact with and loyalty to such metaphysical certainty, whether via direct Intellection or through that virtual Intellection known as Faith, the will becomes a mad dog—no longer the virtue of a cultivated gentleman, only the aimless impulse of a blind barbarian or a vulgar clown. It should be obvious that only the Intellect can tell the will what to will; a will that consults only its own intent, not those objective factors that alone could vindicate or invalidate that intent, becomes a meaningless, destructive impulse. All objectivity has its roots in the Divine, but when the will loses touch with objective reality and sinks into its own subjectivity, when it becomes self-serving rather than God-serving, then the pride of the warrior eclipses his self-respect. And this leads to the sort of disastrous corruption and precipitous fall discerned by René Guénon as the ancient revolt of the Kshatriya caste against the Brahmin caste, that subversion of the God-given order of things that resulted in the Tower of Babel. The will that submits to something higher than itself fills with power; the will that worships only itself ends by destroying itself.

Dr. Rama P. Coomaraswamy, the son of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and in his later years a traditional Catholic priest and exorcist, was initiated in his youth into the Brahmin caste in India. On one occasion he explained to my wife and myself that while the spiritual pride of the traditional Brahmin is mitigated by his life as a mendicant, dependent upon the Vaishya or commercial/artisan caste for his food and upon the Kshatriya caste for protection, the pride of the Kshatriya, that élan so necessary to all but the greatest of warriors, is tempered by the ever-present, humiliating specter of wounding, mutilation and death. And it is the traditional dharma of the Kshatriya, his whole raison d’être, to protect the Brahmin, so that his contemplative repose, on which both the social and the cosmic orders depend, will not be disturbed.

If some modern writers, both spiritual and political, have made the error of placing the warrior above the priest, this may be traced to the degeneration of the priestly caste in our time, not to its supposed intrinsic inferiority. The fluttering, effeminate, birdlike curate so familiar in both fiction and real life has—like the pedophile Catholic priest—absolutely nothing in common with the priestly archetype, but is based precisely on the individual’s betrayal of that archetype, according to the principle of corruptio optimi pessima, “the corruption of the best is the worst”. We tend to think of the priest or prelate as soft and passive and the warrior as active; however, according to Scholastic  Philosophy, since God is Pure Act, the contemplation by which this Act is realized or the prayer by which It is invoked are the most active, and thus the most manly, of possible human pursuits. The Act of the contemplative is motionless and impassive to the degree that it is perfectly realized; in the face of such realized Action, the busy activity of the worldling, and even the passionate and devoted action of the warrior, are mere Potency. Act is the expression of Necessary Being, the Divine Reality, the Always So; Potency is the expression of Possible Being—not of that which must be but only of that which might be, and so must call upon might in order to be realized.

This quality of virile contemplation may be seen even more clearly in the Hindu tradition of Shaivite Tantra, where Shiva, the admantine Absolute as universal Witness, is the Shaktiman, the “Power-holder”, while his female consort, his Shakti, is the Power He holds. It was this distinction that led Guénon to assign the greater or masculine mysteries to the Brahmin caste, and see the romanticism of the Kshatriya caste, its tendency to unite chivalry with heterosexual romantic love, with the lesser or feminine mysteries. The knight’s mistress is his Lady; the monk’s master is his God. Nonetheless, it is through faithfulness to his Lady that the knight realizes God—and the realization of God may also open the monk to the transcendent charms of secret and most beautiful Lady, who is Holy Wisdom. (The quintessential expression of this development in literature is the story “The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love” by Yukio Mishima.)

The mighty man is the one with the power to actualize potency, to realize possibility—so according to this criterion, the contemplative in the only truly finished warrior, the only Complete Man. The idea that the contemplative is soft, comfort-loving, servile is nothing more than the self-serving prejudice of the degenerate warrior (better called the “thug”, the “gangster” or the “bandit”), the man eaten up by self-will who has rebelled against the Will of God because the Intellect within him that might discern that Will has been darkened. Unfortunately, the slander of the fallen will against the man of spiritual Intellect, no matter how false it may be in principle, is apparently confirmed, all-too-often, by the sleaziness and cowardice of the degenerate priest.

According to Thomas Aquinas, the contemplative life has pre-eminence over the active life—but the “mixed” life, the synthesis of contemplation and action, is the highest. Thus the saintly warrior-king is, in theory, the greatest of all—not because the function of the warrior is greater than that of the monk, but because in him the monk has triumphed over the warrior, and reached such a degree of perfection that even the rigors of battle can no longer distract him—the Complete Man in whom monk and warrior are perfectly united—from the constant contemplation of God. Let those who are doing their best to resurrect the chivalric ideal in our time thoroughly understand this, and then act upon it, lest their long quest for the Warrior, all their courage and self-sacrifice, lead them only to the doorstep of the Thug.



  1. Eric Hale
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Love it! Great article!

  2. Roissy Hater
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    This is an excellent article.

    I’m not sure whether Evola or Guenon are correct in asserting the preeminence of their respective castes. There should be more discussion about this issue.

  3. Posted November 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Excellent. I think who is a thug and who is a warrior tends to be somewhat subjective. The thug who is loyal to his own people, but who burned your village, is just a thug to you. I also think there’s a tendency among priest types (of which I am probably more than warrior) to elevate themselves above the warrior, and I am skeptical of this personal bias. I’d put the warrior above the priest, but in my ideal hierarchy they work closely together to serve the same ends.

    • Posted November 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Jack, traditionalists follow the Vedic social hierarchy, in which the brahmanas (priests) have the ultimate authority over the kshatriyas (warriors), even though the kshatriyas form the monarchy and are the political authorities. I know Evola believed that, in primordial times, the kshatriyas had authority over the brahmanas, but this is unsupported by any scriptural or archaeological evidence, and was based on a Western misinterpretation of a kshatriya ritual. Of course, even Evola’s ideal was to have a monarchy that rules with the guidance of the priests, as in the Holy Roman Empire.

      • Jaego
        Posted November 5, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

        But the castes became heriditary instead of by actual quality of the child. Thus the Ksyatrias developed their own spiritual traditions since the Brahminical ones were closed to them. Both Buddha and Mahavira were Ksyatrias by birth.

        Given human nature, it’s hard to believe that any Aristocrat would allow their child to be downgraded into a lower caste. One famous French king loved to tinker with clocks for example. And Nero fiddled while Rome burned…But as Traditionalists, we must believe that at one time humans were this noble and submissive to Destiny or the Will of God.

        Christians of course believed that God would automatically put the right man on the Throne apart from any question of qualification. And now we believe in virtual Monarchy chosen by the Masses as the equivalent of the will of God.

        Or perhaps in Primordial Times, heridity was more reliable and the unreliability merely a feature of the Kali Yuga and the accelerating decline of human quality.

      • Posted November 5, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, John. I’m not really trying to figure out what a particular group of traditionalists do or believe, just responding to the material at face value and looking for what makes the most sense to me. I like some things Evola wrote, but he’s more interested in spirituality than I am, so I read him very skeptically.

  4. J.Morphy
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting piece. I would add that Evola, though undoubtedly adamant about his having a “kshatriya nature” rather than Brahmanic, certainly did not find it “servile” to stare down death — he regularly wandered the streets during bombing raids to “ponder his destiny” and got a shell fragment in the spine for his troubles.

  5. Izak
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Very nice little essay, here.

    For the most part, I think that the spiritual power/temporal authority dichotomy is a bit overblown, since most people seem to concede that combining both at once would be the ideal mark of tradition, if not an incredibly difficult one.

    I’m not willing to take Vedic culture as the end-all/be-all of tradition, either, although it does seem to be the best representation about which we have information. The best would be knowing about the Indo-Europeans/Aryans before they spread out, but that information is very sparse, and comparative linguistic reconstructions can only do so much.

    But I do want to stress, for those who strongly prefer the warrior elite over the spiritual elite, that one of the reasons for the Kuruksetra War was because Brahmins were shirking their duties and becoming Kshatriyas… not because they truly wanted ‘the warrior experience’ or any such thing, but because it paid better, and they were becoming greedy. I don’t know much about the details, but that idea should shed some light on the interactions between those two castes.

    Here’s an interesting idea. It might be good for someone at C-C to do a study on the total weakness of temporal authority during historical moments of peace. For the modern world, I’m thinking particularly of the lower-nobility hidalgos in Spain (the guys that Don Quixote was based on), as well as the British knights who would buy their knighthood without true warrior credentials (like, say, Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). Regardless of what people’s preferences might be, we can at least show that without a strong spiritual counterweight to differentiate between purposeful and non-purposeful combat, the nobility is prone to becoming devoid of purpose and hollowed out.

    Never forget that the greatest monk of the middle ages, Bernard of Clairvaux, both hated the world-denying, extreme ascetic Cathars, and was a true friend to the Knights Templar.

    • Jaego
      Posted November 6, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

      Remember though, the Cathars were a different religion. Bernard certainly respected Monks who never left their monastaries – he may have wanted to be one himself.

      In the last Ox Herding Picture, the Master rides the Bull of Enligtenment back into the Marketplace. This is equivalent to the 4th of Bernard’s stages:
      Love Man for Man’s sake. (Marxism)
      Love God for Man’s sake. (Social Gospel)
      Love God for God’s sake. (consecration, strict monasticism typically)
      Love Man for God’s sake. (Christian charity in the original sense of both preaching and helping the sick, hungry etc.

      Many men and women were monastics and then were inspired to go into the World and start new orders etc – living very extroverted lives but balanced with prayer. The Sisters of Mother Theresa spend hours a day in prayer for example in addition to their social work.

  6. Andrew II
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    “Which of the figures in this story exhibits the greater courage?”

    This stroy has always frustrated me. The monk’s courage is obvious, but the story gives us no evidence, either for or against, the presence of courage in the warrior’s character.

    We can see the warrior’s behavior toward the monk as disdainful, perhaps, or even arrogant, ruthless, or cruel. But such qualities do not necessarily preclude the possibility that in some other setting, such as open combat, the warrior may show extraordinary personal courage against, say, a numerically or technologically superior foe whom he knows he cannot defeat.

    A comparison of the two men, based on the story alone, cannot be made.

  7. Max
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    The main problem with the priestly caste is that their duty is preservation. The higher form of being has access to the realm of creation/destruction directly. The priests are only preserving what a “barbarian” once created with godly inspiration. When the priestly teachings over time unavoidably degenerates it is their destiny to be detroyed, so that the possibility for humans to know God and the devil personally opens up for the masses. The true nature of the souls of humans will in this way be laid bare for everyone to see and to be judged accordingly. The problem is not contemplation, which may indeed be an active participation in creation, but the priestly caste itself and the existance of which is a sign of degeneration. I think it is in this light that one must see Evola’s preference.

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