Re-thinking Spengler Part 8: Kings and Commoners

As Spengler notes in the Decline of the West, the ancient Romans did not so much build an empire as one was given to them. Now, of course, this statement is problematic for reasons I’ve mentioned before on this blog; namely, how can you tell the difference between wanting something and getting it anyway due to circumstances. No doubt, there were some Romans who wanted an empire and yet, if we look at the history, there is evidence that Spengler is right and the empire was handed to Rome, if not forced upon it.

Perhaps the best bit of evidence is the Roman relations with the Greeks. On several occasions, the Romans allied with the Greeks, usually to fight the Macedonians. Each time the Romans withdrew after the fighting in the hope that Greece would provide a buffer between Rome and its enemies in the east. Each time this proved not to be the case. Eventually, the Romans realised that they would have to directly administer Greece in order to prevent endless conflict. And that’s what they did in the 2nd century BC by splitting the area into two protectorates.

Does that story sound familiar? The Romans were the cultural heirs to the Greeks (educated Romans learned Greek as part of their education). Modern day Americans are the cultural heirs to Europe. And just like the Romans got dragged into Greek military conflict in ancient times, so too did the Americans get dragged into conflagrations in Europe in modern times. The US intervened in WW1 with big dreams of spreading democracy around the world and putting the continent on a secure footing. But those dreams fell apart with the Treaty of Versailles which all but guaranteed a second war. Much like the ancient Romans, the Americans had to resign themselves to taking control.

No doubt there were many in positions of power in the US who wanted to pursue imperialism. But there was also significant dissent within America both to involvement in the wars and to imperialism in general. Wasn’t the whole point of America to escape the troubles of the old world? Why not leave the Europeans to sort out their own mess?

The US might not have wanted to become the universal state of Faustian civilisation, but it had little choice in the matter. Letting Europe fail after WW2 would have driven it into the hands of the communists at the same time as significantly weakening the American economy which had become dependent on Europe as a market for its goods and services. The Americans had to save the Europeans just the same way the Romans had to save the Greeks.

In the cycle of civilisation as described by Toynbee and Spengler, both of these events amount to the creation of a universal state. The Roman was the universal state of the Classical culture and was complete at the time when Rome reverted away from a republic and back to a monarchy. The US became the universal state of the Faustian culture when it took control of the international banking system and set the rules of the global economy in the aftermath of WW2.

We can see in the difference between these universal states some differences in the underlying culture. Rome’s universal state was a geographical fact. It was tangibly marked by the presence of Roman legions on its borders which looked outward towards the barbarian wastelands. The US empire might have army bases all around the world, but its power is not localised by geography. It is found in the intangible realm of finance, the flows of resources and goods and the management and control of systems. The Classical world of Rome was extroverted and exoteric. The Faustian world of the US empire is introverted and esoteric.

We can draw out some more distinctions between the Classical and the Faustian by comparing the history of each leading up to the creation of its universal state.

It seems that most of Europe had a tradition of monarchy based on tribal kinship groupings going back millennia before Christ. It is likely that this tradition was shared by both the ancient Romans and Greeks as well as their northern counterparts. However, in the comparison between the Roman monarchy and the early Faustian monarchies which emerged in the aftermath of the Roman empire, we can see a big and important difference between the two cultures.

The Roman, and the Classical in general, was “democratic” by nature. Although the King was a king for life, he was nominated and elected to that role by the people. The plebs did not get to vote, but they were allowed to take part in the proceedings where the patrician class nominated the candidates and cast votes. That’s how it worked in the early days of Rome before what’s called the republican era.

Things were much different in the early days of Faustian culture which was elitist from the start. The Pope in Rome would nominate kings throughout Europe. This practice was justified by the concept of the divine right of kings but here is a key point which differs between the Classical and the Faustian and which grounds my analysis that the Faustian was founded upon a Classical-Magian symbiosis. The concept of the divine rights of kings is originally from the Magian culture. The fact that it got tied up with the cult of Caesar in the decadent phase of the Roman empire is not surprising since that was the time when the Magian religious practices took hold among the Roman proletariat and gradually worked their way throughout the culture.

We talk as if the Roman empire collapsed and disappeared from the face of the earth but that is not true. Its forms continued on for centuries in the eastern Roman empire. But the ideas of late Rome, which included Magian concepts like the divine right of kings, were propagated throughout the empire including the north of Europe. These ideas were then used to found the new Faustian culture.

The reason why Popes were so heavily involved in politics in the early days of the Faustian culture was because of the Magian influence. We see this also in another Magian idea, the notion that the church could levy taxes on the public, which gave the church political and economic clout. Thus, the early church of western Christendom was as much as secular power as a sacred one. It’s for these reasons that I think early western Christendom can rightfully be called a Christian caliphate.

By contrast, the original Roman monarchy was far more egalitarian and democratic than any European monarchy ever was. The details by which that monarchy gave way to the Roman republic are sketchy but the best guess is that it was an aristocratic rebellion to remove a corrupt King which then did away with the idea of a monarch altogether. It seems that this caused little change in the actual structure of the political system. The concept of an elected monarch was replaced by the idea of elected consuls. Perhaps the most important difference was that consuls only held power for one year after which they were not able to serve again for another ten, thereby ensuring that a dodgy leader could not hang around and cause trouble over a long period of time.

We see a similar aristocratic rebellion in Faustian culture with the writing of the Magna Carta which coincided with a baronial rebellion against the English king that also took the form of two military campaigns, both of which were lost by the barons. It’s noteworthy that the Pope took the side of the King in these matters which makes sense as any watering down of the monarchical role would have also reduced the power of the church. The divine rights of the barons doesn’t quite have the same ring to it and the divine right of kings.

The Papal authority was tied up with the divine right of kings but it’s also very important to understand that the church and state were intertwined at all levels in early Faustian culture. Later demands for a separation of church and state only made sense as an opposition to the status quo where church and state were identical. The truth was that in the early days the church played a fundamental role in the exoteric organisation of Faustian society.

Consider that the church was the record keeper of births, deaths and marriages right up til the 19th century in Britain. The church also provided what was essentially a public relations function for the state in the era prior to the printing press. If an official message needed to be promulgated throughout the land, it was sent to the local priest who would read it out with the Sunday sermon. Churches also provided food and shelter to the needy and so were a precursor to the modern welfare state.

The ambiguous nature of this shared power between church and state was the cause of endless conflict between the nobility and the church. But there was another side to the argument which was abstract and intellectual. Thus, alongside the baronial rebellions of aristocrats, there were various rebellions by religious leaders, most of whom wanted the Church to get out of politics. Martin Luther’s 95 theses was just the most famous of a centuries-long series of intellectual challenges to the secular role of the church. Such ideas had a long religious tradition before Enlightenment atheists got hold of them.

In addition to the aristocratic and theological revolts, there were also peasant rebellions and these were motivated by grievances against both church and nobility. Thus, the demands of the peasants in the German Peasant’s War of 1525 included being able to elect and dismiss their own clergy while also stopping the nobility from stealing common land and resources. A peasant revolt in the north of England in 1536 was motivated by the fact that Henry VIII had shut down a number of catholic monasteries which had provided important services to the commoners including food and shelter.

Ultimately, the revolts by the peasantry in Europe achieved little more than getting their ringleaders executed. The church and the state were not in the slightest bit interested in listening to peasants. None other than Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet called Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants wherein he stated that the peasants were doing the devil’s work and anybody who killed them would be assured of God’s good favour. Change “peasant” to “anti-vaxxer” and we can see Luther’s attitude to the general public is still shared by our modern “elites”, however much they might reject the religious terminology.

All this is in stark contrast to the plebeian rebellions in the Roman republic. The foundation of the republic had favoured the patrician class and there followed a long period of centuries where the plebs rebelled for a greater share of the decision making power. As far as we know, and the historical sources on these matters are not thorough enough to know for sure, these rebellions did not take the form of pillaging and looting as they would later in feudal Europe. Rather, the plebs simply went on strike.

The first so-called secession involved the plebs of Rome walking out of the city on mass and taking up camp at the nearby Mons Sacer. As none of the patrician class could possibly be expected to cook their own food or clean the dishes for a couple of days, they were forced to negotiate. This tactic was used numerous times over a period of centuries and each time the plebs won a little more power for themselves.  

The apparent lack of violence during the various pleb revolts in ancient Rome has led some scholars to question the veracity of what happened. But, again, this reflects an underlying cultural difference where Classical society was already more egalitarian and had what appears to be a complete absence of dogma.

Unlike the early Faustian debates, the disputes of the Romans did not appear to have any religious element meaning there was no ideological bickering about abstract principles but demands for practical and tangible results. It’s also true that many Roman plebs were experienced in the arts of war and would have known how to organise themselves for a fight. This, no doubt, gave the patrician class a strong incentive to negotiate rather than try to put down any rebellion.

The Classical presents a challenge to Spengler’s assertion that there is a separate path of nobility and priesthood in any culture. There is no doubt that this has been true for Faustian culture right from the start. But it seems invalid when applied to the Classical world where the priesthood only became relevant during the decadence of the Empire when it was imported from the Magian.

The Roman system was not without its flaws, of course. Carpe diem was how the Romans lived; what Spengler identified as the Classical focus on the present. Having consuls only serve one-year terms fits with this cultural trait. But it also means that the leaders of Roman society were unable to make any long-term plans. By contrast, the early Faustian church-state system did allow for longer term planning and this strength was often cited by those in favour of monarchy as a system of government which was uninfluenced by the fleeting passions of the day.

But maybe the murderous, thieving hordes wouldn’t have been so murderous if the elites had condescended to give them some of what they wanted. The unwillingness to consider the interests of commoners led to a build-up of pressure that needed to find an outlet. That outlet was violent revolution which usually provoked equally violent counter-revolution. The revolutions of the Faustian have always had a strong ideological element. Initially, this was religious ideology. These days its secular ideology. We look back at the religious arguments of early Europe and wonder what all the fuss was about but are the ideological debates of our time any less wacky?

The Romans seemed to lack this altogether and one can’t help but think this is tied in with their absence of dogmatic religion. The Roman system was practical. It was tinkered with over centuries but never overthrown. Even when it transitioned back into monarchy with the elevation of Octavian to Augustus, the change was minor. All the old institutions and roles were still there and everything seemed to work as before.

The transition to Caesarism and then to barbarism also happened gradually over centuries and there appears to have been no effort to overhaul the system no matter how dysfunctional it became. It’s probably true that the average Roman simply didn’t know the difference. They lived in the present and if the present meant that new emperors massacred their rivals in cold blood then that was the way it was and probably always had been.

Looking back from our vantage point, we can see that when Rome took on the role of universal state of the Classical civilisation, this was the death knell for Rome as a body politic. The demands of the universal state were not compatible with the demands of the Roman state.

Looking at the current state of the USA, it’s not hard to see similar pressures at play. The tension between the USA as a republic supposed to represent its own citizens and the requirements of the now global Faustian civilisation is a daily fact of politics. But in order to understand these tensions better we need to map out the rest of the journey that Faustian civilisation took from the Reformation to the end of WW2. We’ll do that in the next post.

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

10 thoughts on “Re-thinking Spengler Part 8: Kings and Commoners”

  1. It’s pondering these traits of the classical culture that Spengler highlights that makes me envious of them. Their laws are an even greater example, there is no appeal to perpetuity, to high ideals or dogma, merely what worked and what was practical. How refreshing.

    The classical priesthood was probably present early, in the form of the Orphic, but because classical culture was so sensory present focused they were uniquely irrelevant; there was no need for an interpreter of the unseen. Spengler thought that in this culture was unique in that the nobility very quickly established their dominance and any priesthood disappears. It’s a sure sign that classical cultural influence is at an end and the Magian is taking over when a priesthood appears.

    I think it’s also important to note the difference in life cycle with the classical and Faustian. One big problem with the classical is that the early stuff is lost to us, which in some ways would be the most important. Even the very beginning of Roman history, is late in terms of the classical culture as whole ( Alexander is Napoleon). It’s like taking the USA as representative of Faustian culture and not having anything to glean from European history. The Greeks themselves saw the Romans in a similar way that Europeans view Americans. So any conflicts of around 1000 BC to 500 BC in Greece would be critical to compare to the medieval Faustian conflicts.

    It’s similar with the Magian, in that the western historical view is shaped by the Church of the Pseuodmorphosis (in Rome) whereas the further development is going on much further East, in Persia and Arabia. Islam therefore erupts as something foreign to the west but under Spengler’s scheme is the Puritan version that is the logical endpoint of Magian religious development.

  2. True. As both Spengler and Toynbee point out, we don’t have enough data to draw firm conclusions. And even if we had perfect data about the 21 or so civilisations that have existed so far, what we call civilisation is a new arrival on the scene. The “normal” state of affairs for most of history was non-civilisation. And that also raises the possibility that civilisation might be a fleeting phenomena soon to be replaced by something else (or maybe nothing else if we manage to destroy ourselves).

    If you look at the broader arc of the Faustian, it does seem like one long attempt to get rid of the priesthood. That’s definitely true for the protestant north. Even now, with the church completely removed from secular affairs, you still get atheists (and atheism is just a sub-sect of protestantism) dancing on its grave. This does seem like a good use of Spengler’s pseudomorphosis concept. The church of pseudomorphosis in Rome was inherited by the Faustian which then spent centuries trying to overcome it.

  3. Yeah, as we have discussed, Faustian religiousness is interesting because following its progression it gets rid of more and more exoteric forms, from Catholicism to Protestantism to Puritanism and then Humanist rationalist atheism. So by applying a classical or Magian viewpoint, it seems as though Faustians are no longer religious.

    But this misses the point, it’s all about the internal. It all came out into the light over the past few years, that Faustians are still deeply religious, and if you go against it the internal order the full force of religious fervour will be directed against you as a heretic. You must trust the experts, the ‘science’, the pope of medicine (Fauci) etc. Another great insight of Spenglers was that all the institutions of learning in the west, from medicine to philosophy, follow the form and structure of the Catholic Church. This includes the punishment of excommunication.

  4. Good point. That reminds me of an anthropology lecture I once accidentally walked into when I was at uni. The lecturer was demonstrating how the gown which students wear when they graduate is directly taken from medieval outfits worn by the clergy. Everybody ooh-ed and aah-ed like this was some huge revelation.

    How many of them know that two of the most famous universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were originally managed by the church in Rome but funded by the people of England (against their will) –

    “King John was in due course forced to submit to the will of the Pope who in 1213 sent his legate, the Bishop of Tusculum, to carry out the necessary formalities.

    While in England the legate was requested by the town of Oxford to settle the dispute between it and the university and in June 1214 he issued his judgment in the form of a document known as the award of the papal legate.

    “The town, or a substitute, was to pay the sum of 52 shillings a year in perpetuity to the university”

  5. While this doesn’t relate to the present discussion , just two points : are the bongos of Tittybong {v. 1 } Magian ?Do drugs help ?
    Seems to me they exhibit some signs of Faustian ?
    This, to say how I enjoyed the fun of the book, and learnt the appropriate terms for various bases of currency.
    It is scarcely a novella which would be appreciated to a full extent outside those who know something of small town Australia, I’d guess, but , as with the minimal character development , you were not perhaps expecting a vast readership.
    I am glad you mention here the issue of “non-civilisation” being the anthropic “normal state”, an idea well-developed by Darren Allen in his Self and Unself.
    As for my life-time, I would only say that someone remarked that the 1960’s were a time when the world dared to be young again; this is touching ,and probably of philosophical import as we sink deeper into gerontocracy,whatever the age of our rulers [!!] Are the young ever “civilised” {Faustian or whatever ?

  6. David – hadn’t thought about the Magian or Faustian aspects of Tittybong. Although, burning money (money as a proxy for energy) does strike me as Faustian. Tittybong should be a movie (stoner comedy) but as I don’t have millions of dollars lying around to have it made, I had to settle for book form 😉

    Interesting question about youth. There is a theory, which seems correct to me, that the Enlightenment created our modern conception of youth. Prior to that, you were a child until you were mature enough to be an adult. There was no intervening period.

  7. In very recent times, the awful exploitation of youth ,associated with various “cults”{“heroes”, “warriors” “masterful males”and tinsel damsels ,etc] has been a key factor in the blurring of reality. The motivation for this, imho, has been essentially political- to retain the hold of the ruling classes over the people as a whole- rather than simply commercial [if there is such a thing] Advertising and, in general, “Americanism” has preyed above all on younger folk,and is, surely the emblematic “industry” of our times, with “marketing”.
    I wonder,indeed, if Spengler had much to say about youth ? The unprecedented despair-creating war clearly prompted a burgeoning of flight from a range of “values” into such voids as surrealism [harmless ?] and fascism [Giovanezza and all that ] and we have now grown used to eternal “students”, a category which suits many who can’t quite see how or why to “grow up”. It seems to me that industrial “civilisation” , based on capitalism,has encouraged the notoriously impressionable young to swallow ersatz ideas, ethics and goods and to suppose that There Is No Alternative .
    In short, a vital aspect of maturity , perhaps THE characteristic feature of it, probably throughout history and cultures, has been delayed or indefinitely postponed : I mean discrimination and its companion, responsibility.
    A second point regarding Spengler and, no doubt, other important thinkers over the last three centuries, is the woman question. Midgley notes how the whole Enlightenment project has been profoundly sexist, and any progress [!!!???]in thinking our way out of the current mess must confront this charge. One would hope in fairly easy to understand language , but words and arguments which do not assault the dignity of the young or, indeed, of the less articulate.
    With a grand-nephew in the R.A.N., I was yet horrified some years ago when Mr Rudd ,surely a very Enlightened man, remarked that the Oz armed forces in Afghanistan etc, etc,were the “finest specimens” of Australian manhood ,or words to that dismal effect. The manipulation of the young ,and through them, of the general public may have already struck thinkers in the 1920’s and 1930’s – I wonder? My memory of the 1950’s would make me think that such a statement would have been quietly derided by the great majority, who would have smelt an indecently posturing rat .

  8. David – what is the difference between the political and the commercial these days? Seems to me they are one and the same thing. That’s why Bill Gates can travel the world and meet with the leaders of countries or Australian billionaires can invite the Prime Minister around for a BBQ. I agree on the maturity question. I wrote about this at length last year. I think it aligns with the archetype or the “Orphan”. That is, we are these days stuck in the period between childhood and adulthood. That situation maps very well onto Enlightenment ideas because the idea of growing up was the centre of the Enlightenment.

  9. I may be able to accept your estimate that “growing up was the centre of the Enlightenment” if you qualify that with “within the framework of Enlightenment pedagogics” – that is, in effect, the imposition of an “education”almost exclusively aimed to produce a model bourgeois man/citizen/ semi-intellectual.
    A strange view of growing up, when, for example,one looks at a Boris Johnson,say, graduate in Classics [should that read “Greats” ?]eternal schoolboy and Orphan.
    Meanwhile,worker and peasant children tended to grow up in a more valid way. There is surely a good argument that the English “Public School” has shaped the modern world more than any other institution , alongside the English Monarchy.We now enter the “post-modern” penumbra where any “growing-up” at all is problematic or irrelevant.

  10. David – yes, I think the Enlightenment was tied in with the already underway proletarianisation of Europe. The idea was that everybody could become, in Rousseau’s dream, a kind of self-sufficient citizen. Basically, an old-fashioned peasant but one who got to keep the fruits of his labor and choose his own government. That dream was destroyed by industrial capitalism which meant the majority then became the proletariat who were the opposite of self sufficient and were easy prey for exactly the sort of divide and conquer tactics we see in politics to this day.

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