Afterthoughts on Afterlife
by Revilo P. Oliver
WE DO NOT KNOW when or how or by whom the notion of a life after death was invented. All mammals instinctively fear death, but if they escape their natural enemies and survive to senility, they seem to acquiesce in a quiet extinction of their enfeebled consciousness. We cannot suppose that the Australopithecus or any species of Homo erectus imagined a possible prolongation of life, and, despite some very recent claims, it is highly improbable that the Neanderthals did. The remote ancestors of our own race, the Cro-Magnons, must have had the capacity for such imagination, but we have no means of knowing what they believed.
We are often told that burials are evidence of some belief in an afterlife, but they may be no more than a manifestation of an instinctive respect or affection for the dead man and an unwillingness to see his corpse devoured by beasts. When a man’s possessions are buried with him, there may have been some notion (as is attested in Egypt, for example) that the equipment would be useful to him in a post-mortem existence, but it is equally possible that some or many instances of this custom may indicate the emergence of a strong sense of private property: the spear or the beads or the golden drinking-horn were the dead man’s, and no one should steal from him when he dies.
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However men came to imagine a survival after death, it is probable that the very oldest form of the notion was a belief that the corpse in the grave retains a certain sentience. Numerous inscriptions attest the survival even to Roman times of a belief that wine poured through the opening of the tomb would rejoice the spirit of the dead and even induce drunkenness. And this most primitive belief survives poetically today, as in Tennyson’s
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead.
When men imagined ghosts, shadowy and tenuous, but not absolutely immaterial, simulacra of the dead in which their consciousness persisted, at least for a time, the phantoms, now detached from the grave, were given a realm of their own in an underworld, far beneath the ground, or, more poetically, in a misty land beyond the sunset. There the dead man, whether hero or peasant, was automatically and inexorably doomed to a miserable life-in-death, a helpless and almost voiceless shade, whose umbratile consciousness is embittered (as in the Homeric Nekyia) by the knowledge that it is better to be a dog among the living than a monarch of all the dead.
It is hard to account for the origin of the really revolutionary idea of a divine discrimination between ghosts, so that the afterlife of the ghosts will correspond in some way to the degree of moral excellence attained during life or, what is only slightly different, the special favor of some god. In his play, Critias (Plato’s uncle) explained it as a device to enforce the doctrine that the gods sustain human society by rewarding right conduct and/or punishing the reverse: when experience had made it only too obvious that Hesiod’s Zeus does not act on the reports of the invisible spirits he sends to observe even the most secret acts of men, i.e., that just men do suffer unjustly while scoundrels flourish throughout long lives, it became necessary for lawgivers to invent the notion of a life after death in which Zeus will at last give effect to his judgement of men’s morality.
What is certain is that if a large populace really believes in the inevitability of justice after death, fear of condign punishment will to some extent inhibit crimes against society, and that the social utility of the myth commended it to many thoughtful men who did not themselves believe it.
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A meaningful concept of immortality always includes more than existence after death. No one wants the immortality of Tithonus.
If there is a divine justice, it must do more than discriminate among ghosts and allocate post-mortem residence according to moral criteria. Although the dead in Hades are usually in the form they had at the time of their death (e.g., Deiphobus and others in Vergil), the favored dwellers in Elysium or the Beatae Insulae seem always to have the bodily form that was theirs at the time of their greatest excellence: the warrior is in the prime of his physical prowess, regardless of when or how he died; the sage has the maturity of his wisdom, but is exempt from the effects of old age; and a woman who has earned such immortality reverts to the age at which she was most beautiful.
One of the Christian apocalypses composed under the name of John has Jesus promise that, come the resurrection, all the Christians, whether they died as infants or of old age, will pop out of their graves exactly thirty years old. I think there was a comparable doctrine in the gospel of Zoroaster, although it is hard to elicit anything specific from the gathas or to be sure of their respective dates. Immortality must be at the prime of life.
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“Immortality” generally means only survival after death, with an indefinite perdurance thereafter. The concept of eternity is rarely thought out to its logical conclusion, for merely an assurance of continued life in some comfort after death suffices to content most minds.
The concept of a perpetual deathlessness created difficulties even when applied to gods. In some mythologies, diuturnal life suffices even for them: the Norse gods themselves die, at least in the Ragnarök, some (Balder) earlier. When Cronus was overthrown by Zeus, he really perished from this world, but since the di immortales were, by definition, immortal, it was necessary to suppose that he was either imprisoned in the darkest depths of the underworld or transported to the Isles of the Blest. One of the quirks of the inconsistent religion of the Egyptians was the provision of a heaven for dead gods, Duat. And in the mystery religions, chiefly Oriental, some gods (Tammuz, Osiris, Mithras, Christ) are slain but are resurrected, being thus both mortal and immortal! And in every religion, all gods (except a first one, for whom it is impossible to suggest a parentage without embarking on an endless regression) are born, so they are not really eternal, and their existence is assumed for only a few thousand years at most, leaving their future indefinite.
No one really believes in an eternal existence after death. The mind staggers before the concept of infinity in either time or space. Even the Hindus, who have calculated that the present age will end precisely, in terms of our calendar, on 17 February 428,898, when the universe (with all its gods except the Trinity) will perish in a cosmic conflagration, believe that the senior member of the Trinity, Brahman, will create another universe and yet another in a process that will continue for another 311,035,680,000,000 years, after which, they modestly admit, they do not know exactly what will happen, except that the creative force itself cannot perish with the total destruction of all things, including the supreme gods. Even they draw back before the horror of infinity!
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The eternal, like the infinite, is really a mathematical concept and involves, of course, the well-known Kantian antinomy. Has anyone tried to determine whether the notion of immortality takes a special form in the Aryan mind, corresponding to the characteristic drive of what Spengler terms the “Faustian soul,” with is passion for what is unlimited and infinite? And is it true that only the Aryan mind (which, I take it, is what Haas calls the philosophical mentality) really perceives the difference between eternal and diuturnal life?
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A belief in life after death is by no means an Aryan characteristic. In all ages of history, many Aryans of reflective minds have been convinced by observation of the processes of organic life that perdurance of the individual after death is impossible, and have accepted that conclusion as fully as did Lucretius, for example. Although the Stoics were primarily concerned to establish a rational basis for morality, some of them, notably Panaetius, who did the most to make Stoicism acceptable to the Romans, categorically denied the possibility of survival after death. Even for rational Christians, when not in a mood of emotional exaltation, life after death has been le grand peut-être, a possibility, a hope, rather than a certainty. And although the exceptions may be numerically negligible, even a desire for immortality is not universal:
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never . . .
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When an hypothesis of life after death is entertained by a rational mind, its grim consequences become at once apparent. Generations of men have for millennia come and gone, like the leaves of the trees, and each dead man, if his ghost survives, goes “to join the greater majority” in some realm of which the population must be increasing at a fearful rate. “O Earth! art thou not weary of thy graves?” And to the Aryan mind, there is something repellent and horrible about the prospect of becoming a mere unit in some vast proletarian mass, packed together in some afterlife, like bees in a hive or Jews in a vast ghetto. To endure after death only to become lost among billions and billions of swarming rabble would be a Hell in itself.
The Aryan mind is natively aristocratic: if life after death is a reward, it must be won by some kind of personal excellence, some achievement, not by the merely passive virtues of a timorous slave. The Classical mind could not conceive of Elysium or the Isles of the Blest as a refuge for a multitude of merely harmless wights: they were reserved for the few who had risen above the herd to make themselves illustrious for courage or wisdom. The Norse Valhalla admitted warriors who had proven themselves in battle under the eyes of the gods, with whom they would dwell until all went forth, foredoomed, to fight the good fight in the last battle and perish in the Götterdämmerung. What happened after death to the villains and knaves, no one cared.
This racial sentiment led naturally to a concept of a selective and limited immortality, most familiar to us from its statement by many of the Stoics (Chrysippus et al., but not Panaetius): the souls of ordinary men evaporate at death, but the souls of men who have attained distinction as heroes or sages endure in some celestial region (most clearly portrayed in the Somnium Scipionis) until the ecpyrosis, the universal conflagration. Thus, in a sense, a man who is highly endowed genetically may create his own limited immortality, i.e., a diuturnal but not eternal existence. One need not remark on the social advantages of a belief that inspires great men to serve their nation and race.
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The most reasonable theory that offers immortality to all is metempsychosis [reincarnation — Ed.]. It avoids all the absurdities and the repulsive immorality of such cults as Christianity, and, by a doctrine of karman, yields the only rational theodicy. It assumes no childish miracles or divine meddling with the immutable laws of nature, but instead presents itself as natural law that operates uniformly throughout the universe as precisely as do the forces that determine gravity, chemical combinations, or optical phenomena. So plausible and reasonable a doctrine, which cannot be shown to be inconsistent with ascertained facts, naturally appeals to our racial mentality. There is the difficulty, of course, that the reincarnated individual does not remember his previous lives, but it is assumed that his subconscious being persists through all his lives, and it is usually provided that he will at some time remember all his previous lives, at least those in human form, when “the veil of ignorance” drops from his eyes. In many forms of belief in transmigration, one also avoids the embarrassing question why an afterlife is the perquisite of a limited number of species of anthropoids, to the exclusion of mammals, e.g., dogs and horses, that are often morally superior. And, most persuasive of all, one can construct for each individual a neat evolutionary sequence from the lowest forms of organic life to the human, from the lower races to the higher, from the morally mediocre to the morally superior, and then onward to superhuman beings who reside, perhaps, on other planets in the vast universe in which our earth is but an atom. Metempsychosis could be called a psychic Darwinism, the evolution of spiritual species.
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It is possible, of course, to combine the two doctrines, metempsychosis and an Elysium. The most beautiful conception of immortality of which I know, and certainly one that by contrast shows the utter vulgarity of Christian ideas, is set forth in Pindar’s second Olympian: after three or six lives in which a man has lived with strict justice and perfect integrity, he passes beyond the tower of Cronus to the fair realm that cannot be reached by land or sea, where gentle breezes from a placid ocean blow forever on the fields of asphodel. For a description, see Pindar. If the beauty of great poetry can commend a religion, here you have it.
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A radically different and, to us, very strange conception of immortality has been evolved by the Jews. Originally, as is obvious from almost all of the tales in the collection Christians call an “Old Testament,” their racial god, Yahweh, who fought other gods to help them prey on the more civilized nations of the Near East, could do nothing for them at death, and a Jew’s ghost went to a ghastly life-in-death in Sheol, which, of course, is simply the Irkalla of the Babylonians, from whom the Jews took all their cosmogonic myths. This conception, however, attained a fine literary expression in the older parts of the diatribe called Ecclesiastes. When the Jews thought of appropriating the monotheism of the Greek Stoics and thus promoting their Yahweh from a tribal deity to the sole god of the entire world, some Jewish sects took from Egyptian and Zoroastrian cults the notion of a Last Judgement, at which the dead, reassembled and repaired, would pop out of their graves, and pious Jews, thus resurrected and reanimated, would be rewarded with a new life on an earth that had been vastly improved by the butchery of most of the goyim and the enslavement of the rest to their divinely-appointed masters. All this, however, was secondary to the real sense of immortality, which transcends the mythology and is thus felt with equal intensity by the many Jews who are privately or admittedly atheists. As candid Jewish writers explain to us, a Jew feels himself a part of a superorganism, his race, of which the god is merely a personification. His criterion, therefore, is what “is good for the Jewish people,” and his immortality is that of the superorganism of which he is but a small and ephemeral digit. There can be no doubt but that this conception of immortality is innate in the racial mentality, although it escapes the comprehension of our race, for whom an immortality in which the individual, with all of his personal character, thoughts, and memories, does not survive seems a contradiction in terms.
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I need not remark that Christianity is merely a Judaized rifacimento of Zoroastrianism, as is, indeed, symbolized in the well-known myth that the nativity of the avatar of one-third of its god was attended by Zoroastrian priests (Magi). The Zoroastrian-Christian notion of an afterlife is based on the radical religious innovation that imagines a conflict between a good god and an evil god who is the master of all the other gods in the world. A prudent individual will enlist on the side of the good god, since he is certain to be victorious in the end. When a person has professed faith in the good god, his first duty is to weaken the forces of that god’s competitor by seducing (“converting”) the votaries of all gods but his own or slaughtering them in holy wars. He is also obliged to respect most of the rules of conduct that are common to all organized societies and a few peculiar ones in addition. He thus acquires credits in heaven, but contracts debts when he indulges himself in forbidden pleasures. When he dies, his discarnate soul comes to a bridge or gate, where the celestial bookkeeper consults the entries in his ledger and admits the man with a credit balance to heaven, throws debtors into hell, and, according to some accounts, provides a limbo for souls that have just broken even on his books. One of the joys of heaven will be that of delightedly watching the torments that will be inflicted on the luckless debtors and the persons who did not even open an account in the right god’s bank. The other joys are endless idleness, a great attraction for born loafers, who, presumably, will not have their immortality terminated by being bored to death.
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Christianity as we know it must have originally been a cult confined to members of Yahweh’s race, but in the Second Century they began to peddle it to the multi-racial proletariat of the Empire that had been Roman. Although a veneer of talk about Love was added for sentimental women and timid men, the underlying sadism and malice that makes the religion so repugnant is evident in its conception of an afterlife. Admission to heaven is won by an unquestioning and mindless Faith in inherently improbable tales, and the seething proletarian masses that will throng the celestial streets will principally enjoy the bliss of watching for all eternity the sufferings of their betters — the rich, the cultivated, the wise, the learned, the well-born, the aristocrats of birth or intellect, the rulers of nations — who, not having had the unthinking faith of mustard seeds or sparrows, will have inflicted on them, forever and forever, every agony that can be devised by diabolic ingenuity.
Christianity was basically a religion for the proletariat, standing in sharp contrast, for example, to the Norse religion, which was frankly aristocratic: Valhalla was reserved for heroes, and it was only an afterthought that provided for women, even if well-born, the rarely-mentioned Freyja’s Bower. And we must never underestimate the influence of women. In the last days of the decaying Empire, Christianity’s principal competitor was the Mithraic cult, another derivative of Zoroastrianism. That cult, which was no more plausible but was more virile, simply excluded women; and although females could have a cult of their own, that of the Magna Mater Idaea (whose shrine was sometimes conveniently located just across the street), they probably felt themselves the victims of “discrimination” and worked zealously for the cult that, as Anatole France remarked, exalted women by making them a sin.
After the collapse of the Empire in the west, Christianity became useful to ambitious kings in the northern nations. Very few Norse kings were as honorable as Hakon the Good (note the appreciative epithet) of Norway, who, although a Christian in his youth, renounced the alien cult rather than impose it on his subjects. During the critical period, few Norse kings overlooked the advantages of a religion that provided a specious pretext for extending their own power by destroying the independence of the aristocracy. It is also noteworthy that the Christianizing kings introduced the practice of torture, which was and is so repugnant to our racial instincts. There is a long and bloody record of men who were forced by physical torture to become “converted” or who obstinately refused that humiliation and honorably perished amid abominable torments inflicted on them by the monarch’s real or assumed piety: even more moving are the records of men who became Christians to save their sons from being blinded, mutilated, or killed. When one remembers that the pagan hero kills, but never tortures, one has a certain measure of the corruption of morality wrought by the Oriental superstition.
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It is noteworthy that in all meaningful conceptions of immortality, the soul, though perhaps composed of more tenuous matter, is corporeal: it feels bodily pains and pleasures. In every hell that the various religions have invented, the dead suffer physically: darkness, hunger, thirst, wounds, fetters; in some cults, they are roasted in flames or congealed in ice. In every heaven, the fortunate enjoy sensuous pleasures: sight, hearing, balmy climate, beautiful landscapes, choice viands, good conversation, and the like; urban cults provide golden streets and jewelled edifices. The sensuous pleasures may become sensual. There is extant a sepulchral inscription on which the dead man depicted the rewards that he is confident he will enjoy for his righteousness: the sexual organs of, as I remember, thirty-two women. For that matter, if the author of one of the tales in the “New Testament” knew enough Greek to write it correctly, his Christians expected to enjoy the bliss of unlimited promiscuity in their heaven, although our salvation-hucksters naturally think it expedient to claim, as usual, that the words do not mean what they say. (Current tendencies in the churches, however, may make them revert to the literal meaning.)
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Various religions, of which we have mentioned a few, offer conceptions of a life after death that are either more or less plausible than others and more or less attractive. If we abstract from them the fundamental question of the possibility of some kind of afterlife, we can draw no conclusions from the prevalence of a desire to live beyond the natural span of human life. Whenever men hear of anything that pleasures their fancy, they naturally desire it. And they may long for what is in fact unattainable, as in the famous example of Alexander’s pothos. Indeed, they usually do, and, significantly, they commonly long for what is not only physically, but also psychologically, impossible, given their own nature. The common ending of fairy tales, “and they lived happily ever after,” not only implies that the protagonists will never grow old, but also that they, like Christians in their heaven, will be content with an unchanging and static existence.
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No weight can be given to claims by individuals that they sense or feel they are immortal. If we except the Jews, in whom the feeling is probably biological and refers, as we have noticed, to something that is not a personal survival, we cannot dodge the epistemological problem. If there is life after death, the ghost can say to himself, cogito, ergo sum, and thus he will know than an afterlife is possible. But only the dead can know that. The living can never know they will exist after they die. They may try to convince themselves of immortality by reasoning from some reported phenomena, much as some persons now convince themselves that there is life on the hypothetical planets of other stars, and they may attain an emotional state called faith, in which they gratify themselves by assuming the reality of what they like to imagine. Their only “proof” of immortality is Unamuno’s dictum, “Si el alma humana es inmortal, el mundo es bueno; y si no lo es, es malo.” But good and evil do not exist in the physical universe, which is unaffected by human predilections. Reality cannot be deduced from desire: Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit is certainly true, but proves only that a man who despairs of other possibilities of survival will excogitate (as did some of the ancient Stoics, long before Nietzsche) a theory of die ewige Wiederkehr (which, by the way, is quite sound philosophically, if one postulates that time, like light, is composed of quanta). There can be no knowledge of immortality; only a belief, held with greater or less emotional conviction.
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Since immortality is, by its very nature, unknowable, a belief in it is not irrational per se, as is, for example, belief in racial or other human equality, which is made patently false by everyone’s quotidian observation of reality. To maintain a belief in spite of indubitable evidence to the contrary is a symptom of irrationality; to accept a belief on the basis of fallacious evidence and in the absence of proof that it is false is to err, but not to be irrational. Some persons, for example, believe in an afterlife because numerous individuals claim to have seen or heard ghosts; they are deficient in critical judgement, since they allow neither for the prevalence of fraud, mendacity, and hallucinations, nor for the perturbing influence of their own mammalian fear of death, but they are not irrational in their reasoning from the data they have credulously and imprudently accepted as genuine.
We regard immortality as a superstition because there is no cogent evidence of life after death, and what we know of organic processes and of the power of the human imagination makes any hypothesis that the individual can survive the disintegration of his body extremely improbable. But, at the limit, we cannot conclusively refute the sophistic analogy that just as there are invisible and normally impalpable forces, such as radio waves and subatomic radiation, perceptible only by their effects, so consciousness may be produced by an invisible force that is separable from the biological organism on which it impinges under certain conditions. We may think that highly improbable, but we cannot prove that it is flatly impossible. Like Aristotle, we cannot prove that the psyche or some part of it, such as the power of ratiocination, cannot be more than the functioning of organic life. We can never disprove an hypothesis that is, by its very terms, not subject to empirical verification. But we can be prudent enough not to mistake an unverifiable conjecture for a fact.
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A recent article in Instauration offers an acute and cogent explanation of one of the most drastic and puzzling effects of Christianity on our race and civilization.
The Nordic peoples accepted Christianity for several reasons, of which the most important, in my estimation, was the Bible, which, unlike other mythologies, so simulates an historical record that it seems to be an account of events that actually happened; and if its tales are historical truth, they prove the existence and power of a capricious and ferocious god whom mortals must dread and strive to placate. This god, furthermore, offered to his votaries, under conditions that it was painful but not impossible to meet, an assured and comfortable life after death. Our ancestors naturally desired an afterlife, if it was to be had: who (except a world-weary and over-civilized décadent) would not long to extend his existence far into the future? And the new religion, distasteful as it was in many ways, offered what seemed to be a certain way of attaining what all men desire.
A theory of metempsychosis was not unknown to the Nordics, but it was unsystematic and seems to have provided that a man would be reborn as his own grandson or great-grandson, as obviously did not happen in some observable instances. For this or some other reason, there is no trace of a real faith in reincarnation in our earliest sources. Valhalla was accessible only to heroes who died in battle, and it was no paradise: it was a military encampment of an army that intends to die honorably, fighting for a lost cause. And, for that matter, no man, however valorous, can be certain that he will die in battle. If Norse ladies heard the faint rumor that their souls would dwell in the halls of the Vannic goddess, Freyja, the prospect cannot have pleased them. Everyone knew, furthermore, that the myths were myths, based on no authentic information and subject to alteration, within very wide limits, by the fancy of the skalds, whose songs were poetry, not revelations. Some of the Norse quite frankly admitted they were atheists; the majority believed or thought it likely that Odin, Thor, and the other gods existed, but no one could claim to have any certain and definite knowledge of them, let alone of what might happen to their worshippers after death. There is no evidence of a confidence in any kind of afterlife among the Nordic peoples when the Christian salesmen arrived with what they claimed to be an historical record and a guarantee of immortality — to be had at a price, to be sure, but what would not a man pay not only to survive death but to enter on a life free of the striving, the toil, the sorrow, and the eventual failure of a life on earth? For many, the temptation must have been irresistible.
So much, we may take for granted. The price to be paid for this immortality, however, was conduct that was in many ways unnatural, even inhuman. As the writer in Instauration perspicaciously observes, the alien cult’s doctrine of “original sin” had a certain plausibility in that men are always tempted to violate the code of their society, whatever that may be, and not infrequently do so. But it was enforced by the Aryans’ subconscious sense that, for the sake of obtaining the immortality promised by a god whose existence seemed to be an historical fact, they were betraying and violating their own inner nature by imposing on themselves conduct that their instincts rejected. They thus had a sense of guilt without understanding why. By not sinning in the eyes of the god, they were sinning against themselves. They were biologically guilty.
From this inner discord, the author of the article concludes, — from the subconscious mind’s reaction to the perpetual conflict between the innate nature of a healthy Aryan and the conduct that his superstition requires of him, — comes the maddening sense of guilt that has been for fifteen centuries, and is today, a black and monstrous incubus on the minds of our race.
This explanation seems to me psychologically sound and cogent. The feeling of guilt would have increased proportionally as the new religion began to affect the conduct, as distinct from the superstitions, of the Norse, as it did only gradually. The holy men who sold immortality to the Norse shrewdly concealed from their customers the price that would eventually be demanded. They not only did not try to change the established norms of social conduct, but they even invented miracles to sanction those Nordic standards, e.g., Jesus restored the sight of a blind man so that he could split the skull of the enemy who had insulted him. It was only when Christianity had been firmly established, by fire and sword where necessary, that the religion began gradually and progressively to tighten its noose about our throats, as its dervishes discovered that more and more of the natural conduct of healthy men had been forbidden us by the Jewish god. The Christian concessions to the Aryan ethos were gradually eliminated — some only quite recently — and the subconscious perception of biological guilt was proportionately exacerbated. And the menticidal poison was the more deadly in that its virulence lay below the level of cognition.
This explains much that was puzzling in the history of Europe — and much that is puzzling today. It explains, for example, the frenzy of “Liberals” and “Democrats” as they try, ever more furiously, to impose on their race the Christian myths about “all mankind,” the equality of races, and “one world,” — as they impose on themselves the Christians’ maudlin or malicious doting on whatever is lowly, inferior, debased, deformed, and degenerate. The modern “Liberal” cannot even promise himself that Jesus has reserved for him a spacious condominium in a heavenly metropolis, but as he phrenetically tries to impose Christian superstitions on the world, he knows, at least subconsciously, that he is a member of a superior race that he is betraying in violation of his racial instincts. Hence his frantic sense of guilt; hence the subconscious death-wish of our Christian-dominated people today.