Re-thinking Spengler Part 2: The Psychology of Pseudomorphosis

I said at the end of the last post that I was going to talk about Hyper Masculinity this week. However, I’ve decided to push that topic back to later on. So, in this post I want to talk about the not necessarily unrelated topic of psychology.

Spengler devotes a section of the first book of Decline of the West to a critique of psychology on the grounds that it falls into the same error as modern history by applying cause-and-effect analysis to a domain where it does not belong. That criticism is valid. Psychology and history belong to the group of disciplines that should be doing morphological analysis based on pattern, form and the other elements on the right-hand side of the table we looked in the last post.

Curiously, Spengler also criticises the modern psychological distinction between conscious and unconscious on the basis that it invokes a spatial metaphor. This is a strange thing to complain about since Spengler grounds his own concept of pseudomorphosis in a spatial-geological metaphor.

You get the feeling that Spengler simply has something against psychology and this is all the weirder since the entire basis of his analysis is, in my opinion, predicated on the concept of the Unconscious. Indeed, it might not be an exaggeration to say that Faustian culture is the culture of the Unconscious, as we will see later.

It’s noteworthy, and just a little bit synchronous, that Spengler had finished writing the first book of Decline of the West in 1914, just one year after Jung’s famous break with Freud and at the same time when Jung began to have the psychological experiences that he describes in The Red Book. Those experiences changed his life and his attitude to psychology. From that time on, Jung pursued exactly the kind of psychology that Spengler would have approved of (with reservations) and this led Jung to the very Spenglerian idea of the archetypes.  

Jung would later write one of his better known books “Modern man in search of a soul”. But the whole concept of “soul” is central to Spengler. Spengler’s analysis is predicated on discovering the Faustian “soul”. Jung identified the soul as belonging to the Unconscious, although capable of integration into consciousness. Meanwhile, Spengler seems to suggest that the task of Faustian culture, the collective “soul”, was also to finally become self-aware. Thus, the tasks the two men set for their respective fields was very similar.

All this makes Spengler’s rejection of the Unconscious more mysterious. He clearly sees Faustian culture as being concerned with that which lies beneath.

“To battle against the comfortable foregrounds of life, against the impressions of the moment, against what is near, tangible and easy, to win through to that which has generality and duration and links past and future – these are the sum of all Faustian imperatives…”

This could serve as an exact description of Jung’s psychology of the Unconscious. It is difficult and most people will try to avoid it. But it aims to see beyond the cognitive impressions of the day and link modern psychology back to its history. In doing so, it aims to find the parts of the psyche that have duration. In other words, it’s very Faustian.

If Faustian culture is primarily concerned with the depths, it is almost certainly because that culture has been lurking away somewhere beneath the surface from the very beginning. This is a point that Spengler makes time and again in his book and the easiest way to understand it is to compare the Faustian against the Classical culture because the two are, in many ways, antithetical.

The Classical is perhaps the ultimate example of an exoteric, extroverted culture. Everything that we think of as Classical culture happened out in the open. That culture was centred around the polis. Whatever happened outside the polis was simply irrelevant. This included all the activities that were tied up with existence such as growing and preparing food, making clothes, tending the house etc. The Classical man had a contempt for work and not having to work to support yourself was a basic criterion for membership of the polis.  

This latter fact is why slaves, women and children were excluded from the polis and, by extension, the culture. They were relegated to the household and the household was the economy (the word economy comes from Greek oikos, meaning “house”). Our obsession with the economy is the opposite of the Classical mindset.

The Greek psychology was a tripartite distinction between God – animal – plant. But the latter two were synonymous with the economy and were explicitly excluded from both psychology and politics. It was only the godlike in man that could take part in the polis. Man was godlike to the extent that he had disconnected himself from the activities required for basic subsistence.

Viewed from the frame of modern psychology, the Unconscious did not exist for the Greeks and Romans. What we have in the Classical culture is the purest form of the exoteric at the macrocosmic (political) level and the purest form of the conscious at the microcosmic (psychological). There were no priests, no experts, no middlemen, no psychoanalysts, no deep state or anything of the sort in Classical culture. Everything was right out in the open.

Et tu, Brute?

Julius Caesar was knifed on the steps of the Senate in full view of everybody. There was no mystery about who killed him or why. Compare that with the assassination of JFK, where decades later documents are still being released (how very Faustian) and conspiracy theories stoked.

Compared against the Classical, both the Magian and then the Faustian cultures introduced the esoteric, the occult and the unconscious into the equation. Note that this happened at both the microcosmic and the macrocosmic levels. The various religious communities of the Magian grew up underneath the political structure of the Classical. Spengler called this a pseudomorphosis. In his analysis, the Magian was a brand new culture that was trying to emerge but was stifled by being made to conform to the exoteric forms of the Classical.

But just as there was a congruence between the political and the psychological in the Classical societies, we can also see that the pseudomorphosis gives rise to its own psychology. This is something that Spengler seems to have missed, which is strange because he was clearly an admirer of Nietzsche and Nietzsche devoted an entire book (The Antichrist) to the subject.

To translate Nietzsche’s argument into Spenglerian terms: it was because the Magian could not find exoteric expression that it became esoteric. A community which could not have politicians and citizens would have priests and a consenus of the faithful instead. What emerges is a dual society and a dual psychology with the Classical taking its familiar role as the exoteric and the Magian becoming the esoteric. You give unto Caesar what is his while keeping your real beliefs to yourself.

Viewed psychologically, this amounts to the emergence of the Unconscious. In the pure world of the Classical, there is no difference between believing and doing. But when the Magian cultures got stuck in a pseudomorphosis, they had to separate their culture from the dominant culture. When the persecution of the Christians started, many decided it was easier to renounce the faith. Others chose to become martyrs. Once the Magian found an esoteric toehold, it created a society which needed to be deciphered. The exterior form could no longer be taken at face value. One had to look beneath to understand what was really going on.

Nietzsche wrote the whole thing off as an example of slave morality compared to the master morality of Rome. This was consonant with the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiment that became popular in the 19th century. But it also followed a pattern whose history goes right back to the start of the Faustian. Spengler talks about this dynamic numerous times. It’s the Faustian obsession with the Classical.

Consider that, even to this day, much of our technical language of law, science and medicine is derived from Latin and Greek. We might write this up to simple pragmatism. After all, the texts that formed the early Faustian culture were written in Latin for the most part. But, even if it was just pragmatism, it still created a dynamic where the Classical culture came to constitute the exoteric form of the Faustian. The Renaissance was just an especially enthusiastic episode in the ongoing attraction of the Classical for Faustian culture.

Classical architecture has had numerous “revivals” including in the 18th century.

It is strange that Spengler never tries to explain the worship of the Classical in general terms even though he refers to it countless times throughout the book. The reason could be because it causes problem for his analysis.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Faustian culture was in a dual pseudomorphosis. There was a Magian pseudomorphosis in the religious sphere and a Classical pseudomorphosis in the intellectual, legal and political sphere. Technically, this explanation doesn’t work because a pseudomorphosis requires a dominant culture and neither the Magian nor the Classical were politically dominant in Europe at the time of the birth of the Faustian. Rather, it seems that the Faustian willingly incorporated the Classical and the Magian.

Things get more complicated when we consider that, by Spengler’s own analysis, the Magian religion had taken over the Classical in its civilisational phase. The Classical was still exoterically present while the Magian was esoterically or spiritually dominant.

Thus, there is an obvious linear explanation. First, there was the Classical culture as purely exoteric. The Magian came along and added the esoteric/unconscious. When Faustian culture began, it took both of these as its starting point. This idea of a linear progression, ancient – medieval – modern, is exactly what Spengler is arguing against in his book. He argues in favour of a cyclical pattern based on biology where a culture is born, rises to its peak and then dies.

Whether the linear or the cyclical explanation is ultimately true, it is just a fact that with both the Magian and then the Faustian cultures we must posit a deeper reality behind appearance. It’s because the Faustian borrowed so explicitly from the Magian and the Classical that the real Faustian can only be found beneath the surface. Spengler repeatedly insists that we must ignore the exoteric appearance of Faustian society (Magian in religion, Classical in intellect) and look beneath. He uses the word “soul” to refer to this but if we translate it into Jungian terms it is nothing more or less than the Unconscious.

The result is that Faustian culture has always, to use a Nietzschean phrase, worn a mask. We have worn the Magian mask in religion and we have worn the Classical mask in the intellectual sphere. To understand Faustian culture, is to learn to look beneath the mask, to disregard the exoteric and the conscious and to get down into the esoteric and the unconscious.

And herein lies a fascinating possibility. What if the 19th century is the age in which Faustian culture finally throws off the dual pseudomorphosis and learns to see itself for the first time. Can it be a coincidence that just at this time Jung and Spengler were working on very similar ideas? The other cultural trends of the time seem to fit too. We see the Christian church (the Magian pseudomorphosis) become all but irrelevant to the general culture while the Classical has almost disappeared from architecture.

Hyper-masculine phallic symbol?

What if in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche we see the true Faustian philosophy; in Jung, the true Faustian psychology; in Spengler, the true Faustian history; quantum mechanics is the true Faustian physics; electronic fiat currency (and possibly Bitcoin!) is the true Faustian currency. Planes, trains and automobiles are the true Faustian transport etc etc.

If this sounds fanciful, we have to bear in mind another assumption of Spengler’s and this is another point where comparison to the Classical can help us understand a key point about our own culture.

In the Classical polis, everybody was an equal. The polis was not a universal institution (slaves and women were excluded). But once you were in the polis, you were equal to everybody else. Nothing could have been more absurd in the Classical world than the idea of “trusting the experts”. There was no hidden knowledge, and even if there was, it was worthless and even dangerous, something to be fought against. In the Classical, a man was synonymous with his deeds and his words. Russell Crowe’s line in the movie Gladiator captures the ethic perfectly: “what we do in this life echoes in eternity.”

By contrast, Faustian culture (the real Faustian culture, not the exoteric form of the culture) has from the start been limited to the elites. Spengler is quite open and, from a modern point of view, derogatory about this. For him, only a small number of people have ever been real players in Faustian culture. Nevertheless, as we saw in the last 3 years, the vast majority of people agree with the him. The general public believes that we must trust the experts. The assumption of the culture is that there is a small number of people who know what’s really going on and our job is to do what they say.

This has been the (unspoken) conviction right from the start of the Faustian. There are deeper “truths” that only a select few can know. Trusting the experts is a peculiarly Faustian quality. The Classical would have rejected it outright and for the Magian there needed to be general consensus through understanding.

Thus, if the Faustian really is the culture of the elites, it does look like something big happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries because this was the golden age of the genius. Just think of names like Nietzsche, Boltzmann, Einstein, Faraday, Rutherford, Darwin, Bohr, Pasteur, Gödel. The list could go on and on. Has there been even one person in the post war years to compare against these giants? Similarly, has there been a single scientific breakthrough in the post war years to match those of the 19th and early 20th centuries? I can’t think of any.

Spengler hypothesised that, in the years prior to the war, there was a great battle going on between money and intellect. This battle had its roots in the original grand cosmic contest which begins every culture and that is the contest between nobility and priesthood. Well, we now know who won: money. Money destroyed intellect (although it could very well be argued that the intellect destroyed itself. How many 19th C geniuses were half insane?). The corona debacle is the clearest possible indication of how decisive that victory was. There appears to no longer be a single institution of society which has not been corrupted by money, including and especially “science”.

The post war period has only been held together by the domination of money which is why for decades the only thing we ever heard about in the media was the GDP or the inflation rate or the unemployment figures. Given the current state of money, it may very well be that its dominance too is coming to an end. What should happen next according to Spengler is the arrival of the Caesars and the Second Religiosity. And, yet, this is the one prediction in the book that Spengler seemed to get wrong. The question is: did he just get the timing wrong or is something more fundamental at work? We’ll return to that question in the last post of the series.

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

12 thoughts on “Re-thinking Spengler Part 2: The Psychology of Pseudomorphosis”

  1. “In the Classical polis, everybody was an equal. The polis was not a universal institution (slaves and women were excluded).”
    And in a democracy, noone is excluded, yet inequality is a permanent area of political contention.
    (Those are also Lacan’s definitions of male and female btw.)

    I hope you’ll have enough material for a book on Spengler one day.


  2. Michael – interesting. Actually, I could add that the US Empire is also the ultimate Faustian empire: in order to know it’s an empire at all, you have to look beneath the surface.

  3. An empire trading in and expanding via pseudomorphoses of itself.
    Didn’t Japan get handed a ‘Commodore Perry to Rape of Najing, Embargo to Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima to Keiretsu’ pseudomorphosis?

  4. Well, there’s another interesting inversion between Rome and the US. The Romans only cared about the exoteric. You could worship whoever you liked as long as you publicly paid tribute to Rome. The US Empire lets you manage the exoteric structure while demanding esoteric allegiance. It’s the original deal with the devil.

  5. I think Spenglers critique of psychology relates to living in the historical world rather than the causality world.

    Spengler might say to Jung ‘Hey Karl, the term unconscious only make sense to Western Europeans like us, and has a historical lineage I can trace back to the Germanic tribes, therefore you are just a Faustian priest with rational clothing on’.

    Any claim of universality is misled, because you see the world through a Faustian lens that is based on the same assumptions as Faustian Christianity, Faustian mathematics and on and on. By merely mentioning the individual unconscious, you are revealing yourself to be Faustian. The Magian has something like it, but it is a pneuma that is in all the believers at once and not in the unbelievers, and is not an infinite wilderness of the mind that it is framed in the Faustian way. So I think he would at Jung is correct, but only for Faustian man. To classical man (Chinese man, Indian man, etc) it is unintelligible, or means something different.

    I agree with all the 19th century tech and breakthroughs being Faustian, but I would argue nothing fundamentally changed, merely went from culture to civilisation with all the fun new toys that entails. The mathematic breakthroughs and breakaways from classical and Magian maths had happened much earlier through the 17th century, and the philosophy actually ended before the 19th century, as it I switched from questions of epistemology and deeper questions of the nature of reality to social questions and prescriptive ‘how to be’ advice columns, which is actually what a lot of it amounts to.

    I can’t agree Faustian has ever been under a pseudomorphisis. Spengler himself mentions that it was very close to happening if the Moors had won in France against Charles Martel, but this didn’t happen, and there is a big difference between using the exoteric forms of another culture to express your own world feeling, to growing up with another culture dominant on top of you. Of course there is a whole chapter in volume 2 called historical pseudomorphisis which goes into it in detail, and has a fair bit on the current pseudomorphisis we are witnessing, that of the Faustian on Russian soil.

    I’ll note too that I was flicking through the chapter called ‘Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell’ in volume 2 the other day and on the last 8 pages or so he talks about precisely what we were talking about regarding the Jews in Faustian culture in the 19th century and going forward in great detail.

    And finally, Spenglers reason for why Faustian aped the classical so much is for a few reasons, one is the elite thing in which the betters try to distinguish themselves by speaking the language of another culture, another is our love of history in comparison to other cultures, and the history of the Faustian homeland was littered with classical artifacts both physical and intellectual. But also because we envy the classical. Faustians find it almost impossible to live in the moment, whereas classical couldn’t live any other way.

  6. Skip – totally agree that Jungian psychology is not universal. Jung did have a habit of talking in universals, although that was very common for scholars at the time. Still, that’s an easy fix. We just change “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” to “Modern Western Man in Search of a Soul”. It’s also pretty obvious that the psychoanalyst replaced the priest at just the time that the church was no longer taken seriously. Jung himself wrestled a lot with the problem of the difference between psychology and theology. Spengler would have told him not to bother since psychology is just the extension of theology into the civilisational phase.

    I guess the question, which is really unanswerable, is how much did the context of having the Magian and the Classical influence around it influence the development of the Faustian. If the Faustian was to disappear tomorrow due to a fast collapse scenario, we’re going to leave a lot of stuff lying around. It’s almost certain that any future culture will be able to incorporate that stuff into its worldview. How that will affect the culture’s development is not a question we can know with certainty but we can safely assume it will happen.

    To my mind, this follows quite naturally from Spengler’s organism metaphor. Organisms don’t come out of nowhere. They show discontinuous changes that build on what was there before. Culture should be the same. The Faustian built on the Magian and Classical. Future cultures will build on the Faustian.

  7. And Progress is the true Faustian religion, the one true doctrine dictated to the many plebs by the select few Experts, consecrated and administered by the high priests of medicine and psychology.

  8. AM – yes. But today “progress” means “hey, look at this new thing we came up with to cover for the fact that the last thing didn’t work” 😛

  9. Ah yep now I understand where you’re coming from. No doubt each on influences the others, especially regarding those close geographically. The differentiating factor is if a new culture is free to develop its own art forms, modes of government etc without another older civilisation being dominant. Spengler noted that the intellectual history of the west is one big emancipation away from the classical, but they were aping it by choice rather than being forced to conform to it. So perhaps a future culture (Russian comes to mind) will face a similar long journey of emancipating itself from Faustian thought (although it has had it forced upon it).

    Somewhere he mentioned his thought as to what actually causes a culture to develop its world feeling is most primarily the geographic setting of its homeland, with a few examples:

    Egyptian: The Nile, a path with only one direction.

    Classical : The Aegean, an archipelago of polis’.

    Magian: The Middle East, the desert under a cavern of stars, dissolving light and bodily objects.

    China: Yellow and Yangtze river valleys and surrounding mountains, the way, path through, flow.

    Faustian: the Northern European forests, upward striving, spooky, unseen.

    Coming Russian culture: the Steppe, level plain, horizontal brotherhood.

  10. And what if the Second Religiosity is already here, but we are just not seeing it, because it is so obvious? Science has already morphed into a religion, enforced upon us with force, if necessary, and the original spirit of science, which used to be one of open enquiry and curiosity, a quest for truth, is gone, and has been replaced with dogmas, priests, baptisms and rituals.
    Maybe “science” is the true Faustian religion?

  11. Peter – In Spengler’s analysis, science is the extension of the original religious core of the culture. Spengler would say science is the continuation of the original religion in the civilisational (late) phase of the culture.

    It’s worth bearing in mind that, in the early days of modern Europe, the Church was the centre of all spiritual and intellectual activity. It was a thriving institution that really did create the intellectual culture. Later on it became corrupt and science took over. Now that science has also become corrupt, Spengler predicts a reversion back to the original religion and that’s what he calls the Second Religiosity. If he’s right, we should see the cultural importance of science drop while older forms of religion come back into fashion.

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