Re-thinking Spengler Part 3: The Problem of the Magian

One of things in the study of history that our modern mindset chaffs against is the imprecision of it all. We want to do “science”. We want clean and firmly delineated categories that we can then use to test and map out relationships between the interacting components. We want a system, a machine.

As Spengler correctly points out, this is not possible when it comes to history. We can only look for patterns and those patterns will be more or less well-defined. I have mentioned before that I did my degree in linguistics and linguistics suffers from the same problem. It is clear that there is a deeper structure at play in language but that structure consistently eludes attempts to nail it down into a fixed system. Part of the reason for that is that the structure is in a constant process of becoming. Language is always changing. Even if you could systematise it for some period of time, it will soon have evolved to something new.

Modern scholarship in the life science and humanities with its physics envy avoids these problems by overlaying a veneer of rigor which simply isn’t there. We saw a great example of this during the last 3 years as virologists, with their preferred mathematical algorithms, analysed the genetic code of the sars-cov-2 virus and generated a stupefying number of sub-sub-sub-variants. Viruses provide perhaps the ultimate example of the categorisation problem involved in the life sciences since they are in a constant state of becoming (mutation) and so defy definition. The etymology of the word define is to finish, to conclude. But life never concludes. It rolls on leaving the scholar scratching his or her head.

As I mentioned in the last post, it is this problem of definitions which led me to go back and re-read Spengler recently with a particular focus on the definitions of the Magian and the Faustian cultures.

It is no coincidence that Spengler gives the most attention to the Faustian, the Classical and the Magian in Decline of the West since these are the three cultures that we have the most knowledge of due to the close historical relationship of the three. The distinction between the Classical and the Faustian is clear. Spengler refers to the Classical as day and the Faustian as night and they are in many respects inversions. The distinction between the Magian and the Faustian is far less clear. They share a number of important properties as we’ll see shortly.

One way I’ve been trying to make sense of the problem is to think about politics and culture as different things. Spengler uses a similar distinction between nobility and priesthood, which he assumes are united but also in conflict but I think politics and culture work better in modern terminology. We saw many examples of this conflict in the 20th century and preceding centuries.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the mismatch between politics and culture can be seen in practice of politicians drawing arbitrary borders on maps and calling them countries. (For those who haven’t seen it, there’s a great Laurie and Fry sketch satirising the drawing of maps at the Treaty of Westphalia.)

The business of elites drawing political maps that didn’t correspond to reality had been a problem in Europe for centuries but reached a peak at the time of the world wars. One of the reasons Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia was because there was a substantial German-speaking population there that he claimed he wanted to reunite with the fatherland. But most of central and eastern Europe at that time had minority populations that had been displaced by wars and other political happenings. Many of them ended up stateless and were thrown into internment camps while politicians figured out what to do with them.

The current war in Ukraine is partly about reuniting people who speak and think of themselves as Russian with the political entity known as Russia. With Taiwan, we have the reverse issue of a people who are culturally Chinese but don’t want to be reunited with the political entity known as China.

Such problems did not exist for the Classical culture. You belonged to a polis. A polis was a place with a fixed geographical position. The polis was the location of all politics and culture. Outside the polis was nothing. It was for this reason that ostracism (expulsion) was considered the worst punishment for Classical man, even worse than death. It was akin to being annihilated (literally, reduced to nothingness).

We might summarise the Classical as follows:


With the pseudomorphosis of the Magian, we must add a new layer to the dynamic. The Magian grows up under the auspices of the Classical. A Christian in, let’s say, the second century AD who was a citizen of the Roman Empire was expected to follow the exoteric requirements of Rome. But they also had a separate set of beliefs that were esoteric and, from the point of view of official Roman life, subconscious. Thus, we can add the Magian to the table as follows:-


Using the above-mentioned concepts of politics and culture, the Magian had become a sub-culture within the political structure of the Roman Empire. Over time, as the Classical culture atrophied, the Magian became the culture but this led to a split because now culture was separate or out of sync with politics.

Later on, as Spengler notes, the Magian culture (religion) managed to influence and change the exoteric political structure in subtle ways. Once this had happened, however, we must look beneath the surface to understand what is going on. Now we have a subconscious and introverted culture rising up from the shadows to affect the body politic. Therefore, with the appearance of the Magian we, as amateur historians, can no longer take things on face value. It is with the appearance of the Magian that Spengler’s kind of historical analysis becomes valid.

Thus, the Classical is a problem for Spenglerian analysis because it seemingly has no hidden parts. Spengler admits that there is no evidence for a priestly or religious basis for the Classical. He simply asserts that it must be there because that’s what his model requires.

Eventually, of course, the Roman Empire faded away. What lived on, however, was the combination of the Classical and the Magian preserved by the scholars of the time who were almost universally monks and hermits who lived in monasteries scattered throughout Europe and the east including as far afield as the western shores of Ireland. It was these religious people who fostered what is sometimes called medieval philosophy which combined study of the Classical philosophy, mostly Plato and Aristotle, with Christianity. There was also significant influence from Islamic and Jewish scholarship.

All this wasn’t just random, of course. Christianity had become the state religion under Constantine and the spread of Christianity happened in areas under Roman influence. When Charlemagne ascended to power, it was to these religious institutions he turned to guide the development of what became Faustian culture. Christianity was fundamental to this development. Charlemagne and later rulers forced the remaining pagan tribes of Europe to convert to Christianity either voluntarily or at the point of a sword.

In this way, the Classical-Magian symbiosis became the basis for the Faustian. We could map it out this way:-

FaustianExotericConsciousExtrovertFiefVassal or Peasant

But this diagram is perhaps more accurate of what happened later when one’s religion became a personal matter that was separate from one’s political identity (again, a separation of politics and culture).

In the early years of the Faustian, the Church was arguably the main organising force in society. That is certainly what is implied by the Crusades which were initiated by the Pope. The crusaders primarily saw themselves as Christians fighting a holy war. In fact, the structure of the Christian realm of Europe at that time looked an awful like the structure of the Islamic caliphate that it was fighting against. The early Faustian mirrored the Magian in that religion had now become the exoteric political structure in the form of the caliphate.

Spengler acknowledges these developments a few times in his book but de-emphasises them because he is trying to get away from the linear version of history that they imply. For example, he says of the Faustian:

“He required a past in order to find meaning and depth in the present. On the spiritual side the past which presented itself to him was ancient Israel, on the mundane it was ancient Rome, whose relics he saw all about him.”

Is this true? Did Faustian man “require” a past or was he simply making use of what was there? The Islamic caliphate paradigm was not just there, it was dominant. It had conquered the Visigoths in Spain and was threatening the rest of Europe. The unification of Europe into what was basically a Christian caliphate makes sense as a political response in much the same way that Russia and China are currently trying to compete with western political hegemony by creating economic networks (belt and road) and establishing rival financial systems.

This would help to explain one of the ambiguities about the early Faustian that Spengler left unanswered: the question of Magian-Classical influence.

If the Magian arose in pseudomorphosis, unwillingly and resentfully dominated by the Classical, what do we call the Faustian’s willing embrace of the Magian-Classical. It could be a “love of the past” as Spengler asserts or it could have been political-military pressure and mimicry. Spengler appeals to the “Faustian soul” while the latter explanation applies an evolutionary understanding of history. New evolutionary paradigms which are advantageous to the organism (society) will spread and propagate. The caliphate model was adopted because it had been proven to work. The success of that approach can perhaps best be seen in the fact that Christians recaptured Spain in the late 13th century, coincidentally at just the time when the crusades ended.

It also seems to me that the relationship of the Faustian to the Magian doesn’t make sense within Spengler’s framework.

There are 3 different relationships of the Magian to the Faustian. The Muslim was the enemy in a political and military sense. The Christian had been adopted willingly as an organising principle of society. And the Jewish had become the Other. If the Muslim, Christian and Jewish are all, at base, Magian, how can it be that the early Faustians should have such different relationships with all three?

But it’s more complicated than that and the issue of the Jews can help us to see why. One way to explain this while also giving an insight into the mindset of the early Faustians is through the story of Peter the Hermit, one of the first crusaders.

Peter the Hermit on a recruitment drive

Prior to the crusade, Peter had gone on a pilgrimage to the holy land but he only began his preaching career once Pope Urban II announced the crusade. Apparently Peter was good at his job. He assembled no less than 40,000 crusaders in Cologne, most of whom were apparently peasants. But, before leaving for the crusade, Peter came to be a leader in what later was called the Rhineland Massacres which might have been the first pogroms against the Jews driven by mob psychology.

Within Spengler’s framework, this would be a signal for a pseudomorphosis. The Jews were the older civilisation and were in a position of some power being traders and financiers. The hatred towards them from the nascent Faustians would make sense. But, again, how can we square that with the fact that the Faustians had embraced Christianity? That would mean they both hated the Magian and worshipped the Magian at the same time.

Of course, the crusading mobs were barely Christianised at all. They’d certainly skipped the parts of the scriptures about loving thine enemy. Peter the Hermit and other mob leaders were interested primarily in the creation of the Other and the Jews filled that role from the Christian point of view in exactly the same way that we see in the other Magian religions: Jew/Gentile, Muslim/Infidel, Christian/Heathen.

The crusading mobs had an obvious target in the Jews. The people knew enough about their new religion to know who had killed Jesus. However, there was also a significant financial element to the violence. Many crusaders financed their expedition by buying supplies and borrowing money from Jewish traders.  The pogroms were certainly partly motivated by a desire to get out of debt. This reading is enhanced by the fact that Peter the Hermit and his merry band would later set fire to Belgrade on the way to the holy land, killing 4,000 people and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down.

Of crucial importance is the fact that all this lawless violence, including against the Jews, was forbidden by both church and feudal leaders and this gives us an insight into how tenuous was the grip on power of the elites of that time because the mobs were not afraid to disobey. In one case, the Bishop of Worms had tried to hide a group of Jews who were escaping from the mob but the mob broke into the church and slaughtered them on the spot (if this sounds like an early version of Schindler’s List, it’s because it was).

Officially, the Jews were afforded a status in the Christian lands that was almost identical to that given to Christians and Jews by regions under Islamic rule. That is, they had a subordinate but protected status. Thus, we see a clear difference in attitude between the nobility/priesthood and the average person.

But it was more than a difference of attitude. It is just a simple fact of history that the Jews became financiers to the European elites, most notably in times of war. Jewish negotiators were also used to nut out the details of peace treaties following the wars where they played the role objective observers who were also able to facilitate the financial transactions once the deal was done. This dynamic lasted all the way up until the Franco-Prussian war. The Treaty of Versailles was the first not negotiated by Jewish intermediaries (and if you look at the quality of that treaty, you might conclude that it would have been better to have enlisted Jewish help on that one too).

What all this looks like to me is the elites of the nascent Faustian adopting the means necessary to build a society. Let’s be honest, the Europeans of the time were barbarians. Peter the Hermit was not unique. The Jews were not just traders and financiers but also played an important role in the scholarship of medieval period. Meanwhile, the Islamic countries were way ahead economically, militarily and culturally. Thus, the adoption of the Magian-Classical paradigm at the start of the Faustian made sense on purely pragmatic grounds.

Spengler notes that the Faustian culture has always been ruled by elites but those elites did not come out of nowhere. They formed themselves around the Magian-Classical paradigm. The knowledge of the Classical and the Magian was revered because it really was the cutting edge knowledge of the time. If there was a real Faustian then it too must have bubbled up from the common folk. But if that’s true then I fail to see why this isn’t a pseudomorphosis exactly as Spengler describes it. The difference would be that the Faustian elites themselves were the ones preventing the emergence of the new culture by clinging to the Magian-Classical paradigm that was the basis of their power.

But maybe there was no pseudomorphosis. Maybe it’s all just mob psychology, the resentment of the poor against the rich, the weak against the powerful. If that’s true, then a linear explanation appealing to general evolutionary and psychological principles works better.

This wouldn’t negate Spengler’s cyclical view of history or even his idea of a “Faustian soul”. On the contrary, the appearance of a linear progression through evolutionary history is facilitated by the lifecycles of the individual organisms who participate in the process. The question here may be a theological one: is there an immutable (cultural) “soul”?

In the next post, we’ll use these concepts to look at the developments that happened in the 19th and 20th century that originally got me thinking about all this. There really does seem to have been an explosion of the Magian at that time and next week we’ll try to unpack it and find out why.

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

6 thoughts on “Re-thinking Spengler Part 3: The Problem of the Magian”

  1. Nice writing Simon, and much food for thought. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot with regard to the occult scene and hermeticsm and other things like Gnosticism. Under Spenglers scheme they are all very obviously Magian, but obviously have some appeal to Faustians. I think the critical difference is though when are used, they used in the Faustian dynamic way not in the Magian submission way. The Gnostics wanted to leave reality; a Faustian will take the same idea and fight reality.

    As to the relations between the culture, I think Spengler was critiquing this as a Faustian trait itself, to actually look for relation and a historical linear progression. He called it ‘pure 19th century’, a chain of cause and effect where nothing is prime. He noted that the Gothics of old were the originators of the idea, that people come and go but ideas stay the same and were evidence of God working through the people. His big theme was products don’t influence, creators absorb. And when Faustians even so much as think, we see units in motion, a dynamic picture of influences, which isn’t how other cultures necessarily view reality.

    When we speak of Greek Philosophy, or Buddishm or Christianity, for us Faustians these ideas are an actualised being, something that has agency in the world, something that almost possesses a man and uses him as an instrument to guide its own ‘life’. Spengler was pointing out that this is really strange and unique, and that he thought that man possessed the idea rather than the other way around. When we see a ritual, we interpret it in our own way, and most likely not the same way it was originally intended or was done so historically. What we find is a language to express our own feeling, rather than a language possessing our feeling. I think this quote says it best:

    ‘The was no movement of Buddhism from India to China, but an acceptance of part of the Indian Buddhist’s store of images by Chinese of a certain spiritual tendency, who fashioned out a new mode of religious expression having meaning for Chinese, and only Chinese, Buddhists.’

    He noted that when we presuppose influences, we undertake a process of selection that ignores an enormous portion of another cultures legacy. Faustians only take the Greek philosophy that makes sense to them, and leave out everything that doesn’t, making the assumption that the ancient Greeks, Gnostics or Jews were ‘in error’ on the parts left out but were correct on the parts we keep, and then trace a lineage to us (a very Faustian thing to do). So it’s in the stuff we leave out that you can see that the influences aren’t there so much as a culture is selecting forms that make sense to it, and using it to express itself, rather than be influenced by it in a linear progression.

  2. Skip – yes, and now we’re back to a variation of Kierkegaard’s conundrum: what is the difference between wanting (willing) something and just doing it mindlessly? As my old bass teacher put it: are you playing the bass or is the bass playing you? The musical analogy works well here. As a beginner, the instrument is playing you and it takes years of practice before you are playing (imposing your will through) the instrument. That matches up with Spengler’s idea that there are elites i.e. the one who impose their will on the culture rather than the other way around. It also corresponds with his distinction between training (willful, political) and education (scholarly, priesthood). We see this a lot today: people who are highly educated but all they do is parrot the party line. They haven’t been trained to think for themselves (willfully).

    One of the common threads of the German romantic movement, of which I consider Spengler a part, is the desire to will everything. That’s what was behind Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return. To say “yes” to everything. Of course, that’s the message which is implied by Goethe’s Faust.

    So, I think there’s a reading of the 19th century that goes like this: the Magian-Classical pseudomorphosis was coming to an end as Christianity’s influence waned and the Faustian Europeans were taking over the Jewish identity. This meant that the “real Faustian” was finally coming through but the real Faustian is will-to-power. The problem is that will-to-power in the psychological/political/propaganda realm is nothing more than magic. But magic is Magian! Thus, the Faustian ended up becoming the Magian and that’s why our world is now drowning in Magic. I think that’s what was behind Nietzsche’s almost hysterical desire to destroy religion.

    Just a hypothesis 😉

  3. Skip & Simon – this is fascinating. Unfortunately I haven’t read Spengler (so nought to contribute on that score) – but I wonder how the influence vs. absorption debate relates to archetypes? Because the Gothic idea that ‘ideas stay the same’ & are ‘evidence of God working through the people’, & Spengler’s idea of the Faustian ‘dynamic picture of influences’, & the idea of an idea of ‘something that has agency in the world… that almost possesses a man and uses him…’ all seem somewhat suggestive of archetypes…?

    And the idea of imposing one’s will through an instrument… Obviously will is required for discipline & persistence & to direct stages of development. But isn’t it about getting out of one’s own way, a kind of alignment w/ something greater, even if that’s an improvisation? Which then harks back to the question of archetypes…?

  4. Shane – interestingly, that same debate happens in biology. Can the phenotype transmit properties to the next generation that it has acquired in life (Lamarckism) or does DNA “stay the same” and determine everything (with mutation thrown in to keep things interesting). I think of archetypes exactly like Lamarckian inheritance i.e. it’s mostly the inherited structure but the archetype can be modified and transmitted by the “phenotype”. That allows for Spenglerian individuality while also acknowledging the role played by inheritance.

    As for playing an instrument, I think you’re right. Imposing one’s will can often turn into technical masturbation (I’m looking at you jazz and prog rock). Communicating something universal involves tapping into something greater. Maybe a higher “will”?

  5. I think Spengler would say though that Kirkegards argument is already a Faustian assumption. An individual ‘willing’ something, or doing it mindlessly, had to assume that the individual will is even a real thing, something that is actually active in the world, and therefore it’s opposite (doing something mindlessly) is even possible.

    By using the term Magic how are you using it? I think we have to define magic. How Greer defines it is the Dion Fortune definition which is change of consciousness in accordance with will, which is the Faustian conception of magic. There is nothing that says that that is the same to a Magian. You’re assuming that it is similar.

    Again, Faustians are taking a magian outer form, and using it to express their own world feeling. Because under the Magian scheme of duality there is no such thing as an individual will, you either have the substance of good within you or evil. A human is not an individual willing being l, but a battlefield between the forces of good and evil. So any ‘will’ are greater forces acting within you rather than ‘you’.

    To take the instrument example, Magian man would say when you play well, God is acting within you. When you play bad, evil is. You are a vessel to be filled up with a substance, and these substances are at a cosmic scale.

    But when we Faustians say ‘the instrument is playing you’ you are (perhaps not consciously) giving the instrument an individual will, which is Faustian through and through, it’s will to power of the instrument! Although this sounds silly, this formulation of the language can be revealing of the thought forms behind it.

    This conception of ‘will’ is why Spengler is saying Faustians need history. Because our whole conception of reality is depended on development , and movement, especially in regards to the individual but society more generally. When he says the classical man lived in the present, he lived it in a way we can barely conceive.

    Because the past, even our own memory, is an abstraction, and this is what classical man would critique Faustian man endlessly on. He would say that most of the things you take to be real and important are in your head, none of it is sensory present. To take the music example, how the hell do you know you were playing the instrument a few days ago, and why does that matter right now? You are wearing the present mask of musician, so be one.

    And if you apply this to itself in a sort of infinite regress to say, only Faustians would have this discussion we are having now, and it is impossible to get out of this box, I think that is the exact point Spengler was trying to make.

  6. Skip – very fitting words on this Australia Day which inevitably turns into an ideological battle about an event which nobody alive today had anything to do with. Reminds me also of Spengler’s idea of the Faustian need for contrition, colloquially known as “white guilt”.

    Clearly Classical man, and probably most people throughout history, knew that people of a different culture thought differently to themselves. But it doesn’t seem to have interested them at all. Herodotus, for example, gathers a few tall tales about the barbarians and presents them matter-of-factly, even when they make no sense. So, it does seem fitting that Spengler would be writing when he did because the need to understand how others thought at such a level of depth and sophistication also seems very Faustian. Most history until that point had been nothing more than an accumulation of the driest-of-dry facts about what happened and when.

    But, again, this is more evidence that the 19th and 20th centuries do appear to have been when the “real” Faustian emerged and I don’t think it’s coincidence that this coincides with interest in the Magian.

    P.S. I wonder if the relativism of Spengler isn’t overblown. Take the “will”. Don’t a group of tribal hunters have a will to catch an animal for dinner. Wouldn’t they also know that the animal has a will not to become dinner? On that level, they must know what the “will” is. Similarly, even though I live far too much in my head, I know what it feels like to “live in the moment” and so I don’t think the attitude of the ancient Greeks is completely foreign to me.

    I’m with Gebser on this one. I think we all have access to the same reality but cultures choose the parts of the reality most important to them.

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