Let me begin with the conclusion I reached from the last two posts which I never spelled out concisely: I don’t find Spengler’s concept of pseudomorphosis to be valid. The idea that the dominance of one culture over another leads to hatred independent of the far more obvious psychological explanations that come from being politically disenfranchised (Nietzsche’s slave morality) doesn’t stack up for me, especially as Spengler shows a lack of rigor by extrapolating this one special concept from only two examples (the Magian and a hypothesised modern Russian that seems to rest on little more evidence than Dostoevsky novels).
If it was underlying cultural differences that really drove such hatreds, how can we explain the incessant violence and hatred of all the different Magian religions and societies (Islamic, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Western Christian) against each other? Why have European Faustians for centuries committed violence against each other every bit as bad as that which they committed against people of different cultures?
More generally, doesn’t the most deep-seated hatred arise from those who are closest to us? Don’t we hate friends who have betrayed us far more than our worst enemies? And don’t family feuds often lead to loathing that lasts a lifetime?
Furthermore, even if it was true that there was a relation between cultures which was destructive and led to hatred, that does not rule out the possibility that there could also be the opposite relation where cultures are mutually beneficial to each other leading to feelings of appreciation and affection. That is exactly the relation the early Faustian had with the Classical-Magian symbiosis. Faustian culture worshipped the Classical-Magian and rightly so because it was on that foundation that the Faustian raised itself.
Spengler was perfectly well aware of this. He repeatedly laments the fact that even some modern Europeans were still in thrall to Classical thinking. But he never gave this dynamic a name because he sees it as a problem. The underlying pessimism behind the pseudomorphosis concept was a feature of the German intelligentsia going back at least to Schopenhauer. We’ll examine what I believe to be the root of it later.
Firstly, though, let’s look at an example of cultural sharing that contrasts with Spengler’s default assumption that cultures are in a Darwinian struggle to the death.
Everybody knows that modern rock and jazz music are derived from the blues and that the blues originated in west African folk music. African folk music influenced black American culture leading to the R&B and early jazz music that was played mostly in small clubs and which developed an underground following in the US in the early 20th century. Later on, that milieu gave birth to rock’n’roll and, as rock’n’roll relied on technology such as electric guitars, amplifiers, electricity and light shows, I think we can properly call rock’n’roll Faustian music.
There’s a scene in the 90s movie White Men Can’t Jump which, funnily enough, explores this progression of rock music from its African roots in a Spenglerian fashion.
Wesley Snipes’ character is in the car with Woody Harrelson’s character. It’s Woody Harrelson’s car and he’s got Jimi Hendrix playing on the car stereo. Wesley Snipes’ character tells him “you can’t hear Jimi” (because you’re white). An argument ensues in which Harrelson’s girlfriend points out that the rest of Jimi’s band was white and so the argument on racial lines makes no sense.
If we assume that rock music belongs to Faustian culture and blues music to African, then we also have to posit that, at some point in the progression from blues to rock, the music became truly Faustian? Where does Jimi Hendrix fit in that progression? Is he a blues player or a rock player? Is his music Faustian or African?
No doubt Spengler, as an unashamed elitist, would write off the pop culture reference as irrelevant. Nevertheless, this is exactly the same dynamic he identifies in Faustian culture. Just like rock music grew from exposure to the blues, Faustian culture grew from exposure to the Magian-Classical symbiosis. And just as there would have been a time when rock music became recognisably rock and no longer blues, there would have been a time when the Faustian became itself.
Of course, Spengler’s book deals with exactly this issue. It’s because Faustian culture had still not recognised itself as a historical entity that he needed to write The Decline of the West . The fact that Spengler became wildly popular after the book was published is evidence that many people were eager to hear just this kind of message. He was an overnight success in much the same way that the early rock’n’roll musicians were. What novel elements do we find in Spengler that could explain this enthusiastic reception by his contemporaries?
There is the positing of a cultural “soul” as the true location of “real” culture against the surface phenomena. In the terminology I have been using, Spengler’s is an esoteric account as contrasted with a materialist or exoteric account. This was something new since almost all historical scholarship up til that point had been concerned entirely with exoteric phenomena: the Who, the What and the When with almost nothing about the Why.
Spengler provided an explanation of the Why. He also provided a notion of identity that went beyond the nationalist categories that had dominated history until that point. Thus we have the Faustian “soul” and not the British or French or German. With the concept of soul, Spengler could also talk about emotions as historical phenomena.
In the pseudomorphosis concept, we see a deep hatred (esoteric) welling up from the soul when it is held back by external forces (exoteric). This hatred is not explained by external political and economic factors but by the more human factors of emotions and feelings. In this way, Spengler fits within the German romantic tradition with its emphasis on feeling over thinking and its predilection for emotional states that were mostly negative such as seen in the pessimist and nihilist movements.
This brings me back to a point I made in a post late last year about the underlying causes of German romanticism. The executive summary is this: following the French revolution, the concept of nationalism became dominant in Europe. The problem for Germany was that it was still a relatively dis-unified group of small states and, despite a popular desire to unify into a country, the politicians could not find a way to create a single nation-state. Many decades of failed political negotiations, riots, uprisings and attempted coups passed until finally the Prussians under Bismarck created the modern nation state of Germany in the 1870s.
Because of the political prevarication, there had been a significant push from the intellectual sphere to define and determine a German identity that would be the basis for a corresponding political structure. This movement inevitably got tied up in populist nationalism which was then hijacked by the Nazis who used it for propaganda. (It should also be noted that many of the intellectuals involved got sucked in by the Nazis to varying degrees, including Spengler). Spengler’s focus on identity and soul fits perfectly within this trend that was taking place in Germany.
Running parallel with the tide of nationalism was the idea of a pan-European political entity. This notion had begun in earnest with Napoleon. It took varying forms but included most of the things that we’ve seen enacted in the post-war years such as customs unions, freedom of movement etc.
Thus, we can see that Spengler’s positing of a cultural “soul” fulfilled a need that had been created in Germany specifically but which was also relevant to the whole of the (continental) Faustian realm. His book fits better with the pan-European or pan-Faustian viewpoint and yet it has the distinctive style of German romanticism which, in my opinion, was born out of the political and cultural identity crisis that Germany had gone through in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This identity crisis was far more prevalent on the continent than in Britain, which was enjoying a long period of political stability as well as the economic benefits of a growing empire. And so it’s not a coincidence that we see an absence of the romantic concepts that Spengler uses in the work of his British contemporary, Arnold Toynbee.
Toynbee writes in the clear, concise prose of 19th century English scholarship. He is Darwin to Spengler’s Nietzsche. Like Darwin, Toynbee is methodical and thorough to the point of being boring and repetitive. Whereas Spengler focuses almost entirely on the Faustian-Classical-Magian axis with occasional references to the Chinese or Egyptians, Toynbee catalogues 21 civilisations and gives them all roughly equal attention (well, for the most part). In that way, he came closer than Spengler to Spengler’s own stated goal of achieving a Copernican revolution in historical scholarship that shifted the focus away from parochialism.
Perhaps most importantly for the terms of reference I have been using in this series, Toynbee is concerned with the exoteric while Spengler is concerned with the esoteric. He is the yang to Spengler’s yin.
Whereas Spengler ignores the obvious cases of cultural inheritance and sharing, Toynbee notes that there can be many different relations between cultures that are in close contact with each other including animosity, ignorance and appreciation. Conversely, Toynbee is embarrassingly shallow on esoteric questions which he either resolves down to a timid moral discussion or avoids them altogether and slips back into talking about mechanism. This distinction between the two historians fits with the other differences between Britain and Germany that had manifested in the 19th century.
Because of Britain’s political stability and economic growth, it was the natural home of the bourgeoisie whose primary preoccupation was comfort and materialism. Not without good reason, the bourgeoisie came to be associated with the term philistine, meaning a willful ignorance of the higher things in life combined with a petty moralising that is nothing more than a flimsy veneer for a stifling social conformity.
The bourgeoisie, for all its moralising, turned a blind eye to the poverty, crime, child labour, horrific workplace conditions and all the other very tangible and very obvious negative results of industrialisation that immiserated thousands if not millions of the working class. Hence, bourgeois philistinism came with a generous side order of hypocrisy and sanctimony.
The rise of the bourgeosie was correlated with the creation of mass movements which saw the homogenisation of society. The romantic movement was in large part a revolt against this process. Its focus on the individual came as a direct response to the fact that real individuality was disappearing.
It’s because the romantic movement was reactionary that it was primarily concerned with negative emotional traits and states of mind which captured the feelings of meaninglessness and despair that were prevalent in a society which had broken with tradition and seemed to lose its moorings. Spengler’s romantic pessimism places him firmly in this camp while Toynbee belonged to the British stiff upper lip stoicism which preferred to dissociate itself from real emotions and real moral questions altogether.
One thing they both agreed on was that the homogenisation of the populace into a single mass had happened before in the declining years of the Roman empire. Thus the 19th century can be seen as directly analogous to that period in Classical history. But the esoteric reactionary movement of the Romantics also had a parallel in the ancient world. In order to understand this, we must put on our Spenglerian glasses and look past the surface phenomena that might seem to contradict this reading.
Firstly, there is the question of slavery. The latter stages of the Roman empire saw a new kind of brutal slavery that was very different from the earlier forms. This large scale slavery caused the cities of the time to become slums as conditions for the poor worsened.
By contrast, the 19th century saw the abolition of slavery in 1833 in Britain and 1865 in the USA. We might, therefore, think that our age was more enlightened. However, as I have already alluded to, the conditions in the sweatshops and mines of the 19th century were horrendous and the streets of London were arguably not much better than the streets of Rome back in ancient times.
If we look beneath the surface, what we find is that in both cases what was going on was the creation of the proletariat; a homogenous mass of workers and poor. That’s exactly what happened in the 19th century and Britain was the first to take this step.
The second important point is that, in ancient Rome, the formation of the proletariat was followed by an esoteric reaction in the form of Magian religion. This gave us the table we saw in the last post:
Here, again, we must look beyond the surface phenomenon which tells us that the 19th century was different. The Magian religion which had been used to found modern Europe (Christianity) went into seemingly terminal decline. This appears to contradict a supposed correspondence with the ancient world.
However, the Magian was simply the form of the esoteric that arose in Roman times. To compare to our time, we need to look for any kind of esoteric activity in general and, when we do, we see that there was an explosion of the esoteric in the 19th century and that the romantic movement itself was a primary exemplar.
Thus, literature and the arts started to focus on subterranean themes and emotions. There was surge of popular interest in the occult. Interest in eastern religions grew with a particular focus on the esoteric practices of meditation and yoga. Perhaps most importantly, we see the birth of modern psychology at the end of the 19th century, an esoteric discipline that cloaked itself in the guise of modern science.
If we lump all these esoteric developments under the banner of Romanticism, we get the following table:-
|Bourgeoisie||Exoteric||Conscious||Extrovert||Nation State, industrial capitalism||Businessman, worker, voter|
|Romantics||Esoteric||Sub-conscious||Introvert||Art, psychology, literature, occult||Individual|
The bourgeoisie dominated in the Anglo countries through the influence of the British empire while the continent became the primary location for the romantic movement due to the thwarting of imperial ambition. While Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland had been off sailing the seven seas, the beginnings of the esoteric counterpoint naturally found expression in Germany which was a latecomer to the exoteric developments of the nation state, industrial economy and imperialism. There’s a reason why Mozart, Beethoven and Bach came from the German-speaking lands.
Thus, I finally have my answer to the question which prompted this series of posts: why was there an explosion of the Magian in the 19th century. But, actually, I was asking the wrong question. The real question is: why was there an explosion of the esoteric. The answer is because we are in that part of the cycle where the esoteric arises due to thwarted exoteric ambitions. The Magian was the Classical world’s esoteric turn in Roman times. It came right after the creation of the proletariat. The same process happened in the 19th century.
The esoteric explosion of the 19th century often took Magain form because the Faustian was built upon the Classical-Magian symbiosis. So, it makes sense that the modern Faustian would use the Magian for inspiration because it is the primarily reference point for the esoteric in our culture. Thus, much of the esoteric turn of the 19th century used Magian symbolism and theory as its guide.
However, there is a meta element to this. The esoteric is not just concerned with negative emotions and states of mind. It is also concerned with death. And it’s exactly the question of death that had arisen in the 19th century. But the form that question took was very different to the form it took back in the ancient world. Thus, the Magian turn in the 19th century was actually, to bastardise Spengler’s concept, a pseudomorphosis. Something was hiding beneath.
In the next post, we’ll explore that development in more detail and then we’ll be ready to wrap up this series by addressing whether Spengler’s predictions for the future are still valid or whether something else might be going on.
All posts in this series:-
Re-thinking Spengler Part 1: Morphological Thinking
Re-thinking Spengler Part 2: The Psychology of Pseudomorphosis
Re-thinking Spengler Part 3: The Problem of the Magian
Re-thinking Spengler Part 4: Bourgeoisie vs Romantics