There are at least 3 separate kinds of analysis going on in Spengler’s Decline of the West:-
- The analysis of civilisation as a cycle of growth, peak and decline (the organism metaphor)
- The analysis of culture as a phenomenology: what does it feel like to be part of the culture and what underlying structure creates this feeling
- The effects of the cycle on the phenomenology: how does what it feels like to be part of the culture change over time as the culture moves through its cycle. Does it feel different and does its structure change from the growth phase to the decline phase?
Previously, I have called Spengler an esoteric analyst while Toynbee is exoteric. Translated into the terms above, Spengler is mostly concerned with phenomenology and Toynbee is mostly concerned with finding cyclical patterns. In my opinion, Toynbee does a far better job of the cyclical analysis precisely because he leaves out the messy business of phenomenology. He treats culture as a black box and analyses it from an “external” or “objective” position.
Of course, Spengler would argue that it’s not possible to be “objective” and that the culture itself determines our phenomenology. I agree with him and in this post I’m going to map out where Spengler’s analysis fits not just within the Faustian phenomenology but within that culture at a specific time in its cycle. This will finally give me the answer to my hunch that the connection between the romantic movement in the intellectual sphere of the 19th century and the Nazis was not arbitrary. In fact, it is predicted by the phase of the cycle at that time.
Since Toynbee does a better job of analysing the cyclical pattern that cultures go through, I’m going to rely on his terminology and analysis to ground my argument. Here is a summary of the core concepts we will need:
Creative Minority: the ruling class of a society during its growth phase.
Majority: the body of society. For both Spengler and Toynbee, the ruling class is the driver of civilisation while the Majority follows along through mimesis. (I might have disagreed with this prior to 2020 but what we’ve seen in the last three years is all the evidence we’ll ever need that the Majority will do whatever they are told).
Universal State: the institution that politically unites a civilisation. The Roman Empire was the Universal State of the Classical Civilisation.
Dominant Minority: when a civilisation passes its peak and the Universal State is formed, the Creative Minority can no longer come up with innovative new ideas. It turns into a Dominant Minority which rules through force. This normally means military dictatorship.
Internal Proletariat: when the Dominant Minority begins ruling through force, this generates resentment. The Internal Proletariat are united in that resentment. They are members of the culture who still remember what the culture is supposed to stand for but who see that the ruling class no longer represents that vision.
Rebel Elites: the members (or potential members) of the ruling class who have become disillusioned with society and therefore join the Internal Proletariat. The Rebel Elites can be further split into Rebel Commanders, the political and military leaders of the Internal Proletariat, and Rebel Priests, the intellectual and spiritual leaders.
Rebel Majority: the rest of the Internal Proletariat. They will either follow the Rebel Commanders into battle or the Rebel Priests into religion.
We can represent all this diagrammatically as follows:-
During the growth phase of the culture, society is united behind the Creative Minority. Once the peak has been passed, the Creative Minority becomes the Dominant Minority and the Internal Proletariat forms. These transitions are gradual so that most members of the culture would not even realise they are happening at all, like the frog in the boiling water.
Now that we have the concepts, let’s use them to analyse the declining phase of the Classical civilisation (the Roman Empire).
Rome’s process of proletarianisation began with mass slavery which immiserated the existing peasantry and drove large numbers of poor into the city slums. Once the Internal Proletariat was formed, Rebel Commanders appeared and led military insurgencies against the Roman authorities. These were Roman citizens attacking the empire from within.
Because the Classical society had no original priesthood of its own, the Rebel Priests needed to be imported. They came from the cultures that had been brought into the Roman Internal Proletariat through imperialism. This is the story that we all know backwards because it’s the story of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate is the Rebel Priest standing before the Dominant Minority. Jesus’ disciples are the Rebel Majority while those who stood around and mocked were the Majority still faithful to the Dominant Minority. Later on, Paul of Tarsus (St Paul) would become the most important Rebel Priest who took the story of Jesus and turned it into the Christian Church.
But the story of Jesus was actually the second instance of the Internal Proletariat that was experienced by the Jews. The first instance was when the Jews became the Internal Proletariat of the Syriac civilisation in the period roughly from 1000 BC to about 500 BC. Following the pattern to a tee, there was armed resistance from Jewish Rebel Commanders at that time, but these proved fruitless.
The Rebel Priests had better luck. The Jewish prophets gave birth to a new form of Judaism. We can skip over the details but the important point is that it was this Judaism which Jesus would later rebel against. We can diagram this as follows:
The Syriac Civilisation was then overtaken by the Classical Civilisation which inherited the former’s Internal Proletariat. That Internal Proletariat gave rise to a dizzying number of prophets (Rebel Priests) and would-be religions. In addition, there were still Rebel Commanders willing to take up the fight against the new Dominant Minority. Thus, we see military insurgencies including the Great Jewish Revolt in 66 AD. Once again, the Rebel Commanders were defeated. And, once again, the Rebel Priests gave birth to new religions. Here is the diagram of this:
The early Christians were technically an Internal Proletariat of the already existing Jewish Internal Proletariat. Paul of Tarsus originally fought against the Rebel Priests of the nascent Christian religion but he changed sides on the road to Damascus and became the most important Rebel Priest of the Christian Internal Proletariat. His insistence that the new religion of Christianity should be open to gentiles as well as Jews changed the world.
The reason the Rebel Priests succeed where the Rebel Commanders fail is because, even though the dominant culture is in its decadent phase, it is still a military force to be reckoned with. In fact, its military capability is still improving since the use of force is now the only thing holding society together. The Rebel Commanders have little chance of defeating their military counterparts in the Dominant Minority and the dominant culture continues to atrophy. By the time the barbarians are at the gates, the culture is long dead and just its bones remain.
The Rebel Priests are not constrained by such matters because their domain is the esoteric and the spiritual. Even if they are persecuted by the Dominant Minority such as the Christians were in the Roman Empire, this persecution just creates martyrs and ends up contributing to the growth of the religion. This is why the religion created by the Internal Proletariat can live well past the end of the culture itself and give rise to new cultures such as Christianity did with the Faustian. We might use another metaphor here and call the work of the Rebel Priests the seed of the mature culture that can germinate into new civilisations.
We can summarise the relative success of Rebel Priests and Rebel Commanders as follows. The Rebel Priests eventually come to lead the Internal Proletariat via the new religion:
The Faustian (western) Internal Proletariat
Now that we know the pattern of the creation of the Internal Proletariat and its two types of leaders, we can superimpose it onto the history of Faustian civilisation and see what it has to show us.
Faustian civilisation begins around the year 1000 AD. At the beginning, it looks very much like a Christian caliphate but quickly settles down into a long period of growth based on feudal society. The formation of the Internal Proletariat begins with the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries which killed and displaced large numbers of people and marked the beginning of the end for the Christian Church as a productive force in the culture. Not coincidentally, this was also the beginning of the ascent of modern materialist science.
The disillusionment of the Internal Proletariat begins in earnest with the German Peasant’s War of 1525 and reaches new heights with the French Revolution which was a military and ideological rebellion against the Dominant Minority of both Church and State.
The Rebel Priest of the revolution was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau became known as a philosopher. But Rousseau’s likeness to a religious archetype was detected by none other than the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, who agreed to give protection and shelter to Rousseau. Frederick wrote in a letter that Rousseau should have been born a hermit and likened him to the desert fathers of early Christianity.
Here is a point which is crucial to the analysis I am making here and which Toynbee would not have agreed with because he was fixed on the idea that all Rebel Priests must be actual prophets or founders of religion.
If we assume that the ideology that led to the French Revolution was a secular religion, then we can say that the proponents of that ideology were Rebel Priests. It seems to me that the tenets of an ideology are identical to the dogma of a religion and so this comparison works. Just like there were many Rebel Priests (prophets) in the Roman Empire, there were many secular religions formed by the Rebel Priests of the 19th century, Marxism being the most famous.
Note that, within this reading, the US Constitution is also a secular religious document and the creation of the USA was also a proletarian rebellion with its own Rebel Commanders (George Washington) and Rebel Priests (Franklin, Jefferson). This makes sense. The USA was populated by the Faustian Internal Proletariat who were escaping the Dominant Minority of Europe. What does it say on the Statue of Liberty? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. It might as well say Give me your Internal Proletariat.
If this analysis is true, the consequences are revolutionary (pardon the pun). Faustian culture would have been the first that we know of to be successfully challenged in a military sense by its Internal Proletariat. That would be weird enough. But the story takes an even weirder turn because the success in America was not replicated in Europe.
(Note: another way to resolve this would be to say that the Romans were the Internal Proletariat of the Classical world. That makes a lot of sense to me but it is not the analysis that Toynbee gives. This might be an error in Toynbee).
If we call Rousseau and the romantic tradition that he inaugurated the Rebel Priests, then we would also expect to see Rebel Commanders appear on the scene. The Rebel Commanders in the United States had won their battle and created a new society. But the French Revolution had failed. Enter (stage left) Napoleon Bonaparte. The Rebel Commander.
Napoleon was born on Corsica to parents who were literally rebels. In fact, it is said that Napoleon’s mother was helping to fight the French while Napoleon was still in the womb. The French won, of course, and the result was that Napoleon became a French citizen. This was incredibly synchronous. Just a few years difference and Napoleon would not have been a French citizen and would likely have become an actual Rebel Commander fighting against the French. Instead, he joined the French army.
Napoleon’s outsider status gave him an inferiority complex (sometimes called the Napoleon Complex). He had to work extra hard to rise through the ranks. He spoke his whole life with a strong accent that was very different from his comrades and certainly nothing like that of the Dominant Minority in France. He rose through the ranks of the French army by winning the admiration and loyalty of his fellow soldiers. And Napoleon was a huge fan of the Poems of Ossian, one of the seminal texts of the romantic movement.
Just to reinforce the historical parallels here, the story of Napoleon is almost identical to the story of the first barbarian to become emperor of Rome in 235 AD, Maximinus Thrax. Maximinus was also born on the periphery of the empire. He barely spoke Latin. He was an outsider but, like Napoleon, he was an outstanding military man who worked his way to the top by winning the fierce loyalty of the soldiery. Also like Napoleon, Maximinus came to power in a military coup.
There is one important difference between Napoleon and Maximinus. Maximinus arrived on the scene when the Universal State of Rome was already established (and well into decline). Napoleon, on the other hand, was trying to create the Universal State. He was trying to unify Europe. He failed to do so, of course, and the continent was thrown into more than a century of political disarray until another Rebel Commander arrived on the scene with the same intention to finally create a Universal State.
The parallels between Hitler, Napoleon and Maximinus are clear to see. Hitler was born outside the German Empire (the 2nd Reich). He spoke with a non-standard accent (combination of Austrian and Bavarian) that marked him out as being an outsider from the Dominant Minority (the Prussians). Hitler was a social outsider too. He tried and failed to become an artist (Rebel Priest) before finding his way into the German military in WW1 through an administrative error (as an Austrian, he should have been disqualified). He was a model soldier who won medals for bravery but would later end up in jail for attempted insurrection. Like Napoleon and Maximinus, he eventually came to power via a coup (the night of the long knives).
In Hitler we see the psychology of the Internal Proletariat on full display. Napoleon might have had an inferiority complex, Hitler had a full blown hatred of the Dominant Minority who he believed, like many of his fellow soldiers, had betrayed him in WW1. The disastrous Treaty of Versailles only reinforced this idea and fueled the rise of the Internal Proletariat in Germany.
Both Napoleon and Hitler were Rebel Commanders from the Internal Proletariat who rose up to become the leaders of their country. They enjoyed popular support from other members of the Internal Proletariat and, partly because of that support and partly because both were pushing for the creation of the Universal State, they were tolerated by members of the Dominant Minority who thought they could manipulate them to achieve their goals and then get rid of them. That’s why most of the Prussian military officers and the German business leaders co-operated with the Nazis.
If Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini and others were the Rebel Commanders, where were the Rebel Priests? The answer is in romanticism but also in the explosion of interest in the occult and the esoteric that took place in the 19th century, including and especially modern psychology.
What the Rebel Priests were fighting was the ideology of the Dominant Minority of the 19th century which was increasingly anti-Christian and anti-religious as the success of science led to the embrace of the philosophy of scientific materialism.
One of the main features of scientific materialism was to remove the observer from a position of importance so that “objectivity” could be achieved. This notion was dominant throughout the 19th century and it wasn’t until Quantum Mechanics that the problems with it became evident from within the dominant paradigm itself. (It’s noteworthy that another Rebel Priest, Nietzsche, had already presaged several of the most important philosophical implications of the quantum revolution).
The removal of the observer in science was the corollary of the trend in general society where industrial capitalism was removing the worker from the skilled autonomy of his job. Just like industrial capitalism creates conditions where any worker can be replaced by any other worker, scientific materialism imagines a situation where any scientist can be replaced by any other. Finally, they can all be replaced by machines, conceptual models and ChatGPT.
These trends drove the increasing proletarianisation of society in intellectual and economic spheres. When Hitler came to power, one third of the German workforce was unemployed. The Rebel Commander had found his Internal Proletariat.
The romantic movement was a pushback against the Dominant Minority in the intellectual sphere. It pushed back by putting the individual front and centre. The Rebel Priests of the romantic movement, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and more all focused on the individual. Like any reactionary movement, they went too far in their individualism. Their excesses are still with us today in the form of the rampant narcissism bordering on pathological dissociation that we see everywhere around us.
Spengler, of course, belongs to that movement and he shared its shortcomings. His insistence on the individuality of a culture was overblown. But he also gave us a uniquely intricate view of the phenomenology of culture and one that is archetypally Faustian. Note that Spengler, like the other Rebel Priests mentioned above, did all his work outside the institutions of the Dominant Minority even though they were educated inside those institutions. Spengler was an auto-didact who wrote The Decline of the West while unemployed and living on a small pension.
Putting all this together, we can see why romanticism got tied up with the Nazis: they were both born of the Internal Proletariat of Faustian civilisation.
It is, therefore, synchronous that when Spengler met Hitler he criticised him for being “proletarian”. But Spengler himself is proletarian to the extent that he represents a break with the dominant historical scholarship that had existed up until that time. This is not a criticism. Rebel Priests have given us monotheism (some people might say that’s bad). They have given us arguably the greatest book ever written (the Bible). If my analysis is correct, they created the US Constitution. What else will romanticism leave for posterity? That is a question that can’t yet be known as we are still living through it.
One other unique thing they have given us is what I have called the Unconscious Empire. That Empire was born in 1945. The circumstances of that birth are so unique that even Toynbee missed them. It is perhaps the first empire in history that pretends it is not an empire. How very proletarian!
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