From Charles Rollin writing in the middle of the 17th century through the Enlightenment which gave birth to the USA and the French Revolution and on to Spengler we can see a clear progression in worldview. For Rollin, the problem of history was a moral one. The fall of past civilisations was due to moral corruption and there were various religiously-inspired debates about whether that corruption could be avoid through the exercise of free will or whether it was preordained.
By the time you get to the Enlightenment, the question was not primarily a moral but a rational one. Past civilisations had fallen due to errors and we could apply our intellect to learn from those errors so as not to repeat them. This was the attitude that motivated the French and American Revolutions against the order of old Europe which was assumed to have already entered the tyrannical/decadent phase of civilisation.
The intellectual dreams of the Enlightenment were shattered by The Terror, Napoleon and various other developments. By the end of the 19th century there was a crescendo of pessimism seen most clearly in Schopenhauer and the artistic movement called the fin de siecle with its themes of degeneracy, cynicism and fatalism. It is into this world that Spengler was born and he made no bones about the fact that he was a pessimist and even a misanthrope.
Meanwhile, the proletarianisation of society continued apace. The industrial revolution and corresponding rise of modern banking chewed up and spat out what was left of the nobility and peasantry. Nobody took the church seriously anymore. The army, which had previously upheld codes of honour and rules of engagement, was replaced by conscription and meat-grinder battle tactics while the advent of Total War meant that it became a viable tactical approach to try and destroy the enemy’s economy to prevent them from being able to wage war at all. This led to the perception of betrayal by soldiers on the battlefield. Breakthroughs in science and technology were also radically transforming society.
The psychological effect of all these trends was that people had the feeling that all tradition had been lost. Society seemed to be driven by new and mysterious forces that could scarcely be identified let alone controlled. Some tried to identify those forces. Among them were Jung and Freud, who went looking into the unconscious to account for personal psychology. Spengler and Toynbee turned their attention to the macro picture and investigated the patterns that underlay history.
I have already mentioned that there are two separate types of analysis going on in Spengler. There is the cyclical analysis of civilisation on the one hand and the phenomenological analysis of culture on the other. Toynbee only worries about the cyclical analysis and his work is clearer and more concise. It’s also more careful, restrained and humble. Toynbee openly admits we do not have the data to draw many firm conclusions. Spengler is quite happy to jump to conclusions. He cannot keep his “will” out of his history which is rather fitting since he defines the Faustian culture itself as a culture of will. This is the key difference between him and Toynbee and also the crucial fact that must be understood to make sense of Spengler and his work. As we will see, Spengler’s seeming ignorance of his own will makes his story a tragedy.
Because Spengler bases his psychology on will alone, in my opinion he downplays the fairly obvious generalisation which I presented earlier in the series which is that Faustian culture is the opposite of the Classical. We can tease out that distinction by comparing two of the great tragedies of the respective cultures: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Consider these inversions. Oedipus is king at the beginning of his story while Macbeth will become king. Oedipus has already inadvertently committed parricide and incest. Macbeth will consciously choose to commit regicide. Nothing Oedipus does in his story is personally revealing. He does what anybody would do and comes to grief through no fault of his own. Everything Macbeth does hinges on himself. He has numerous choices to make each of which would change his story completely. Right up until the end, he could “save himself”.
There is also an important distinction in thinking/knowledge in the two stories which relates to a broader distinction between the Classical and the Faustian and that is a crucial point in Spengler’s history. The information Oedipus gets from the oracles and the other characters in the play is clear and unambiguous. Some characters attempt not to give him information because they know it will be personally damaging to him. But Oedipus is not trying to get the information for his own purposes. He is trying to solve the problem of the plague affecting his kingdom. In this way, he is doing exactly what we would expect from a good king.
When all the information comes out at the end of the play, it is also clear and unambiguous. Because of that clarity, it instantly overturns Oedipus’ world. He is a mighty and powerful king one minute and the next minute his life in ruined. He responds by gauging out his eyes raising the philosophical question of whether ignorance is bliss. Sophocles invites us to imagine that Oedipus could have remained happy if he didn’t know the truth.
The clarity of the information means that Oedipus does not have to think. There is no reflection required on his part to make sense of what has happened to him. His world is a binary. There is the world before he knew the truth and the world after. Moreover, the knowledge he discovers is universal. Even the lowest peasant can understand what has happened to Oedipus. There is no ambiguity in the story and therefore no need to think about things.
This is not the case in Macbeth. Part of the reason is that the information sources are not clear and unambiguous. The story begins with mysterious witches on a heath in foggy weather speaking in cryptic language. The experience leads Banquo to ask Macbeth “have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?”
To translate into modern vernacular: “bro, are we trippin’?”
We see the same thing in Hamlet with a ghost providing the information which kicks the plot into action. Hamlet shows himself to be an empiricist by not taking the ghost’s word at face value. Rather, he sets up a test which will corroborate the information given by the ghost. Based on the results of that test, he concludes that the ghost spoke truth. Macbeth doesn’t need to test. Immediately after his encounter with the witches he receives information that seems to validate what they told him; that he will become king.
Even with this corroborating evidence, however, the information is not conclusive and the reason is because the information itself is only half the issue. The other half is the interior state of Macbeth and Hamlet; not just their mind but also their will.
To be or not to be. To slay Duncan or not to slay Duncan. These are interior questions. Oedipus does not have to face any such problems. His will and his mind plays no role in his downfall. For Macbeth and Hamlet, will and mind and the confusion between them are central to the story. The two men live in a world where appearance is deceptive and where they themselves are the wilful propagators of, to use a term that has become popular in recent years, misinformation.
Oedipus and everybody else in his story, including the oracles, are an open book. Everything takes place out in the open; extroverted, exoteric and unambiguous. Nobody is trying to fool anybody. By contrast, Macbeth is introverted, esoteric and ambiguous. When he does become king, it is by deception and subterfuge. The other characters are suspicious but they too live in a world of ambiguity where they cannot know the truth without willingly setting out to find it through investigation.
What we have here is a distinction which takes several forms: politics vs psychology; will vs reason; instinct vs mind. Spengler, following Nietzsche, wants to get rid of mind altogether and say that the real Faustian is all about will. This is a very strange thing to say for a scholar, who works exclusively with the mind, but it was part of the disillusionment with the Enlightenment that prevailed at that time. Spengler puts it this way:
“The rationalism of the late Baroque….decided in favour of the Goddess Reason (Kant, the Jacobins) but almost immediately thereafter the 19th century (Nietzsche above all) went back to the stronger formula Volunatas superior intellectu, and this indeed is in the blood of all of us.”
(Note that Spengler likes to use the word “blood” a lot even though he didn’t mean it in the way that the Nazis would later use it as a catchword for genetic determinism. He was talking about a kind of collective will/consciousness).
Using the concept of will alone, Spengler might analyse the story of Macbeth as a straightforward example of will-to-power. Man wants to become king. Man kills existing king to get what he wants. It’s the kind of thing that happened all the time in the decadent phase of ancient Rome. But even that reading doesn’t work for the story of Macbeth since Macbeth does not act alone. He is initially tempted into his actions by the witches and then explicitly goaded into them by Lady Macbeth. His will is not his alone.
I don’t believe you can understand Macbeth, and by extension Faustian culture, on will alone. Mind and will are intrinsic to the story. Back in the Classical world, Oedipus had solved the riddle of the sphinx. But that riddle was completely objective and nothing to do with Oedipus as an individual. By contrast, the riddles given by the witches to Macbeth are personal. It’s because they are personal that they trigger what we might as well call Macbeth’s will.
Macbeth clearly desires to become king. It is that desire which the witches play on at the beginning of the story. What Macbeth perceives in their information, the picture he forms in his mind, is inseparable from his will, his vanity and his ambition. Similarly, when Macbeth returns to the witches for more information later in the story, he is not a disinterested participant. He is looking for reassurance that he has nothing to fear from Macduff. The witches information is again ambiguous but Macbeth cannot see that because they are telling him what he wants to hear. At no point does he ask the obvious question: what is in it for these witches? Why are they supposedly helping me? Is it a good idea to believe strange creatures that have no skin in the game?
Macbeth lacks the self-knowledge and scepticism to distrust information that he wants to hear. Is this a problem of mind or of will? Viewed through the lens of will, we would say that Macbeth does not own his will. It is the witches and Lady Macbeth who use their will to shape his thoughts. But therein lies the whole problem. How can Macbeth tell the difference between his thoughts and the will of himself and others. We see the same dynamic in Hamlet who kills Polonius through a combination of misunderstanding and misguided will. To simply insist that mind plays no role is to lose half the meaning of these stories.
But that’s what Spengler does in his historical analysis. For him, the statesman or nobleman has an “instinct” or feel for history that has nothing to do with mind. Therefore, the real changes, the important political decisions, do not require mind at all. They are carried out by intuition (another concept popular in the 19th century). By contrast, the priesthood, and their modern counterparts the intellectuals, flounder away with airy-fairy theories that get nothing done. That is the story Spengler paints for us in Decline of the West.
I have already pointed out the obvious problem here that Spengler himself was a practitioner of mind. But Spengler claimed to be doing a new kind of history, one that saw beneath the surface appearance to the deeper symbolic meanings. Thus, Spengler could have his cake and eat it too. He could claim to be in the instinct and intuition camp, not the intellectual one. He was not an intellectual like the Enlightenment philosophes who were detached from the stream of history. Ironically, and maybe tragically for Spengler, this turned out to be true. His concepts were eagerly adopted by the nascent Nazi Party and incorporated into their ideology. When the party came to power, they proceeded to put those concepts into action.
Let’s assume, as I believe, that Spengler is wrong. Let’s assume that what distinguishes Faustian psychology is the inextricable combination of will and mind. In that case, for any product of the mind such as a work of history, there is inevitably an element of will involved. Just as we cannot understand Macbeth except by the combination of his will and his mind which create his picture of the world, so too we cannot understand Spengler without understanding what will he is bringing to his work of history. This is all the more important because it turned out that Spengler was not a disinterested observer after all.
A few biographical details will suffice to make this clear.
When Spengler wrote The Decline of the West, he was unknown. He was not a professor at a university but a self-funded scholar living alone on a small family pension. With the publication of the first edition of the book in 1918, he became an overnight celebrity. This makes a great deal of sense in hindsight because Germany had lost the war and there were a lot of people who were trying to make sense of that loss. Spengler provided a new way of looking at things, one that fitted the pessimistic mood of the time.
With the success of the first edition, Spengler then worked on the second edition of the book which was published in 1922. In 1924, no doubt encouraged by his growing celebrity and social connections, Spengler got involved in politics but proved ineffectual in that field. He went back to writing and published two more books – Man and Technics (1931) and The Hour of Decision (1934) – before his death of a heart attack at age 55 in 1936.
It’s Spengler’s final book, The Hour of Decision, that is crucial for our understanding of him because by then he had become famous. He knew that whatever he wrote in that book would receive a wide audience. He knew that audience would include the Nazis since they had eagerly adopted many of his concepts. If Spengler had wanted to distance himself from the Nazis, this would have been the book to do so.
But he did not. The only explicit reference he makes to the Nazi ideology was a rejection of the idea of genetic “race”. By contrast, Spengler refers to the Nazi takeover of power in 1933 as a “mighty phenomenon” that was guided by the “Prussian spirit”. This error was not random bad luck or a one-off mistake. It happened precisely because Spengler had allowed his will to come into the picture and distort his understanding. Or, we might say that Spengler’s understanding changed now that he believed he could make a difference in the world.
Consider this passage from the introduction of The Hour of Decision:
“The man of action is often limited in his vision. He is driven without knowing the real aim. He might possibly offer resistance if he did see it, for the logic of destiny has never taken human wishes into account. But more often he goes astray because he has conjured up a false picture of things around and within him. It is the great task of the historical expert (in the true sense) to understand the facts of his time and through them to envisage, interpret, and delineate the future…”
This represents a 180 degree turn on what Spengler had written in Decline of the West. In that book, it was the man of action who had direct access to the course of history. He had no need of intellectuals because he didn’t need to consciously understand what he was doing. He felt “destiny” in his “blood”. Spengler explicitly relegated the intellectual to a useless appendage who only appeared in the late urban decline phase of the culture.
But in The Hour of Decision, Spengler paints himself as the historical “expert” who will tell the “man of action” what is going to happen. This is all very convenient. When Spengler wrote his first book he probably assumed nobody would read it. But now that he was famous, suddenly he recommended that intellectuals should be listened to. Spengler had also tried and failed to influence politics directly. So, he fell back to doing what had worked before, writing books.
The Hour of Decision contains one other big change that differentiates Spengler’s view in 1934. In his earlier work, Spengler had presented a fatalistic view of history as a cycle that was inevitable. The cycle would be repeated whether anybody liked it or not. The only thing to do was to stoically resign yourself to it. But in the Hour of Decision, suddenly that is not the case anymore. Spengler presents a program that he literally says can be the “saviour” of the “white world” (Faustian culture). All of a sudden, the Buddhistic and Schopenhauerian pessimism had gone.
More specifically, Spengler uses pessimism for effect. The first 190 pages of The Hour of Decision are a repetition of Spenglerian history with a specific focus on recent European history and Germany’s place within it. It’s 100% doom and gloom; a detailed account of everything wrong with the modern world presented without a glimmer of positive emotion. This is the Spengler we know from the earlier works albeit with a more explicitly political bent.
All that changes in the last 40 pages of the book. Spengler switches gears altogether and presents a vision for the future of Germany. We don’t need to worry about the details but suffice to say they are very Nazi-like and involve everybody doing their duty and following great leaders to victory.
This last 40 pages forces a complete re-evaluation of Spengler’s previous works. Spengler’s earlier pessimism had created a strange kind of trust. If somebody sugar coats things, we assume they are buttering us up for some ulterior motive or maybe even deceiving themselves. But when somebody tells us everything is hopeless, we are inclined to trust them as objective observers. They seem to have no reason to lie; no ulterior motive.
As soon as Spengler starts to present a positive vision for the future, he reveals his own will and therefore his own bias. More importantly, that view necessarily contradicts his earlier history because now he is implying that the future is not inevitable after all. Spengler doesn’t clarify how exactly how his vision will work or what is going to happen if it’s implemented. He simply asserts that Germans are the chosen people because they display “Prussianism”. The irony is that this opens Spengler up to the exact criticism he had earlier made of Nietzsche which was that he was good at pointing out what was wrong with the world but not so good and coming up with a productive vision for how to make things better.
When Spengler was able to keep his will out of the equation, he presented a consistent and compelling analysis. As soon as his own will came into play, he became contradictory and ambiguous. In other words, he became Faustian. It’s because of the will that we live in a world where appearance cannot be taken for granted. What we see in the world is fundamentally determined by what we are looking for and because we are all looking for slightly different things we do not see the same thing.
But more than that, unless we have mastered our own will, we become victim to it and it influences our mind in ways we do not understand. This is the Faustian condition that Shakespeare so perfectly described in Macbeth and it is the one that Spengler was trying to pretend didn’t exist by stating that the will could exist without the mind. Ironically, the desire to get rid of mind and revert to will is nothing more than a yearning for the Classical world where people really did operate far more from instinct (will) alone. Spengler wanted Germany to become like the Roman Empire.
The Faustian condition creates an anxiety that was unknown to the ancients and has been unknown to most of the people in the West for most of its history for the simple fact that the majority of people worked on the land and retained an intrinsic connection with reality. Once upon a time, it really was just the nobility and the priesthood who had to face the inherent uncertainty of the Faustian mindset. That changed with the Reformation but really kicked into gear in the 19th century as we began to democratise the culture. Fast forward to today and we have created the perfect Faustian world where nothing can be taken on face value and where anxiety is all pervasive. We are all Macbeth now.
Just like Macbeth, our anxiety sends us off looking for certainty. Spengler found that certainty in the cycles of history. With those cycles he was able to locate the place of western history as if on a map and give context to what was happening. In my opinion, however, he failed to extrapolate the essence of the Faustian onto where we are in the cycle. If Faustian culture is the inverse of the Classical, we would not expect the same pattern to play out. We would expect its opposite.
And this brings us to Caesarism and the concluding point of this post and this series of essays.
Caesarism was one of Spengler’s predictions for the future. As the name suggests, it is based on the declining period of Roman history where dictators ran around chopping people’s heads off and feeding them to lions (OK, there were some good Caesars too, I’ll admit).
In Decline of the West, Spengler presents Caesarism as the inevitable part of the cycle that we must go through. But in The Hour of Decision we can see that he is emotionally attached to the concept because now he presents it as part of his vision for the future that will “save us”. It is implied in his concept of Prussianism which entails a dictator for whom the rest of the public is happy and content to “do their duty”.
This admiration for the strong man was not just theoretical. Spengler speaks in glowing terms of the Italian dictator. “Mussolini sees everything.” Yes, Spengler actually wrote that. But it gets worse:
“Mussolini is a master-man with the Southern cunning of the race in him….and is therefore able to stage his movement in entire consonance with the character of Italy – home of opera – without ever being intoxicated by it himself…”
Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight and we know that Mussolini did become intoxicated by his power. Spengler was also not alone in thinking that Mussolini and Hitler really did “see everything”. What is important here is not so much that Spengler got it wrong but why he got it wrong. In the Hour of Decision, Spengler lets the cat out of the bag. He was not a disinterested, pessimistic, sceptical observer as he portrayed himself to be in Decline of the West. He wanted Caesarism to happen. He is very clear on that point. That explains his support for the Nazis and for Mussolini.
This feeling is understandable. Like Spengler, we also live in crazy times where all kinds of mad things happen on a daily basis. Many people would love it if some strong man came along and made it all stop. “Make it make sense,” is the catchcry you can still hear today. The problem is that the world we live is far too complex to be managed by a single person. All a strong man can do is simplify the world and that simplification necessarily happens at the end of a gun barrel. You can have complexity or you can have Caesarism. You cannot have both.
Where things get weirder in relation to Spengler is that he lived right in the middle of Caesarism. Caesarism was everywhere in Europe in the 1930s. Apart from Hitler and Mussolini, you had Franco in Spain and numerous other dictators popping up all over the place (the interested reader can find a list of interwar European dictatorships here). Spengler wished for Caesarism and yet it was right in front of his face.
And here we come to a very Faustian question: to what extent did Spengler help to create the Caesarism of the 30s? He gave intellectual cover to the strong men not just in the concept of Caesarism itself but in the idea that everything was now a matter of will and nothing else. The Nazis carried out their first book burning in 1933. Spengler makes no mention of it in The Hour of Decision. For a man who wrote books, that’s a strange thing. But they weren’t burning his books. They were burning the books of those other intellectuals, the ones who didn’t have their finger on the pulse of history.
The time for thinking was over. The time for ideas was over. That’s what Spengler said and that’s what happened. Meanwhile, in The Hour of Decision he uses terms like “human vermin” and “human insects” to describe the people who he claims had brought about the dire state of the world. And he gave full permission for the leader who understands history to use people as “objects”. That was what history showed, therefore it must be right.
We know where such ideas led. They led to the gas chambers. Should Spengler have predicted that? The great historian who had won his reputation on his predictive powers did not see the most important thing. Spengler claimed to be a misanthrope. But he had also earlier claimed to be a pessimist. That was all fine in theory. I suspect if Spengler had lived to see his misanthropy put into action he would have been appalled. If he was honest with himself, he would also have wondered whether he was partly responsible.
If he had not published anything else after Decline of the West, we wouldn’t be able to hold Spengler responsible. But The Hour of Decision had revealed that he was not disinterested in these matters. It’s because mind and will are not separate that we can hold Spengler accountable. His ideas helped to unleash a misanthropic will that led to the deaths of millions of innocent people. The fact that he wasn’t aware of his error makes him a tragic figure just like Macbeth. Like the fictional character, he lacked self knowledge of his own will and that of others around him. He gave intellectual cover to barbarism.
And here is the final irony: on the second-last page of The Hour of Decision, Spengler writes as follows:-
“And what if some white adventurer…whose wild soul cannot breathe in the hothouse of civilisation and seeks to satiate its love of danger in fantastical colonial ventures, among pirates, in the Foreign Legion – should suddenly see this grand goal staring him in the face…
The loathing of deep and strong men for our conditions and the hatred of profoundly disillusioned men might well grow into a revolt that meant to annihilate.”
This must be one of the more extraordinary passages in the history of scholarship. It’s the perfect description of Hitler and the Nazis. Spengler knew the Nazis directly and yet he did not realise that the profoundly disillusioned men with hatred in their hearts were right in front of his face and that they would take his beloved Prussian army and unleash the exact annihilation he warned of. On the most important matter, Spengler was unable to differentiate appearance from underlying reality in his own life and with his own eyes.
What Spengler saw in Hitler was “Prussianism”. But Prussianism was nothing more than Spengler’s own idea, the contents of his own mind and his own will. Just as Macbeth convinced himself that the murder of Duncan was justified based on his own will, Spengler convinced himself that the crimes of the Nazis were justified based on his own view of the future. Unlike his earlier work, it was not a view based on analysis of real data but a story he had concocted for himself.
This is the fundamental condition of Faustian culture. Know thyself for us means to know our will and to know the will of others. Only that way can you understand the Faustian world. Spengler didn’t know his own will or the will of the Nazis. He fell into the same error he had accused the Enlightenment thinkers of. Just like them, he ended up wanting to change history. And he did. But not in the way he could have imagined.
It is the invisible element of will which makes the Faustian world ambiguous and mysterious and which creates the anxiety that we seek to relieve by turning to religion and ideology. Spengler ended up turning history into his own religion and ideology. He made history into a god and himself into its prophet. In doing so, he ended up playing the role of the witches to Hitler’s Macbeth. He would use his books to make the “man of action” do what he wanted. And that’s exactly what happened. For that he can be held responsible in a way that only the Faustian culture can hold somebody responsible: the wilful deception of oneself and of others.
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
Re-thinking Spengler Part 5: On Elitism
Re-thinking Spengler Part 6: Rogue Priests and Rebel Commanders
Re-thinking Spengler Part 7: A Pop Culture Interlude
Re-thinking Spengler Part 8: Kings and Commoners
Re-thinking Spengler Part 9: Escape from the Tyrannical Father
Re-thinking Spengler Part 10: The USA (Universal State of America)
Re-thinking Spengler Final