Gallus Sallustius Crispus, known in English as Sallust, is the earliest known Roman historian who wrote in Latin. Now, it may simply be the case that the works of the other Roman historians have not survived for posterity. But there is another explanation for why Sallust might really have been the first and we find it in the opening pages of one of his own works, The Jugurthine War.
Before he gets into the history itself, Sallust writes what amounts to an apology. He anticipates that his fellow Romans will accuse him of “idleness”. Why, Sallustius, we can imagine them saying, did you waste your time writing history when you could have been making it? The short version of Sallust’s answer was that Roman public life had become corrupted and it was no longer a domain for the virtuous. This was the time of the Roman civil wars and Sallust had been on the side of Julius Caesar before the latter’s assassination.
Being active in public life at that time was dangerous and it would only get more dangerous in the centuries that followed. Consider the fate of another great scholar of Rome, Cicero. After the death of Caesar, Cicero remained active in public life and managed to get himself on the wrong side of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) who subsequently sent some men around to remove Cicero’s head, stick it on a pole and display it on a speaker’s rostrum; a very meta allusion to Cicero’s famous skills as an orator.
Having your head chopped off was probably the best way to go in those days given that other popular ways to dispatch of a political enemy included feeding them to a pack of hungry lions while a leering mob cheered on. One area that Rome continued to innovate on in its declining years was cruelty. In any case, Sallust’s “idleness” would certainly have been motivated by an instinct of self-preservation. He withdrew from public life to write histories and build magnificent gardens.
But the fact that Sallust felt the need to apologise for doing scholarship also tells us an awful lot about life in ancient Rome. This was a culture of deeds and action, not words. Rome never had any kind of public education system and private education was mostly tailored to practical pursuits. The Romans even renounced some aspects of Greek culture like music and athletics. Valour in war was the way to create one’s reputation. Anything else was “idleness”.
All this is in stark contrast to Faustian (European) culture which, as I have pointed out numerous times in this series, was built on the Classical-Magian symbiosis and inherited a scholarly tradition built around books. In this post, I want to talk about the huge turning point in Faustian culture that occurred with the birth of the United States of America and it is, therefore, very fitting that it was a book that is often credited with giving rise to the concept of the USA as a nation: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Paine had only been in America a couple of years when he wrote Common Sense and it’s possibly because of this that he hadn’t yet become accultured to the very provincial nature of society at that time. Most people were tightly attached to the colony they lived in and there had not yet developed a substantial American public discourse with a unifying character. That’s what Paine provided. His book become a best seller and, more importantly, it sold in all colonies. It got the public thinking about the possibilities of America as a political and cultural entity.
Although it’s a dirty word these days, we could accurately call Common Sense a work of propaganda. Propaganda had been in the control of the church right from the start of Faustian culture. It was arguably the church’s main source of power over the provincial kings of Europe. The fact that Paine, born to a working class family and a man who had not distinguished himself much in life up until that point, could become a famous propagandist tells us a huge amount about how life had changed following the Reformation and particularly how that change was manifesting in the early colonies of America. Propaganda had been democratised.
But the reason written propaganda could work at all was because so many of the colonists knew how to read and the reason they knew how to read was because learning to read the Bible for yourself had become a crucial component in Protestantism generally but specifically in Puritanism, of which there were many exponents in early America. Paine uses this fact for rhetorical purposes by cherry picking a few biblical references in Common Sense. These would have appealed mostly to men like himself, the working class. The influence of the Bible was so strong that many Puritans even considered themselves descendants of the tribes of Israel, giving rise to the idea of America as the Promised Land.
There’s much that could be said about all this and its continuation of Magian concepts that are still with us to this day like millenarianism (the notion of climate apocalypse and its use in propaganda is very Magian). The aspect I want to focus on relates to a concept I mentioned in the last post – the divine right of kings. Paine spends the first part of his book addressing this issue. The USA was, to a very large extent, founded on an explicit rejection of the divine right of kings.
To understand this better and see why this was such a huge turning point we need to introduce the philosopher who was an inspiration to Paine and people like him – John Locke.
In the first part of his work, Two Treatises on Government, Locke deals with the question of the divine right of kings by debunking the arguments raised by Sir Robert Filmer who had earlier written a work called Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings. In that book, Filmer had argued that the power of kings was descended from the biblical Adam.
We don’t need to worry about any of the details of the arguments here. The very fact that Filmer felt the need to defend the divine right of kings presupposed that it was a concept under threat. Locke had little trouble pointing out the logical problems with Filmer’s argument and then went on to outline his alternative concepts, including the one that still gets used to this day – the social contract.
The reason why the divine right of kings had been called into question was because the Pope had been a key player in the divine right of kings from the start of Faustian culture. But the Reformation had gotten rid of the Pope as an authority in protestant countries. In his absence, scholars like Filmer turned to the Bible itself to look for justification for kingship. The larger problem was that anybody was now free to read and interpret the Bible and so how could you know whose interpretation was right? Philosophers like Locke and Rousseau stepped in to try and fill the void with new concepts like states of nature, social contracts and natural rights.
Spengler differentiates the political from the religious. He calls the former nobility and the latter priesthood. In later culture, the priesthood gives way to the intellect while nobility gives way to money. We can see both of these trends in Paine’s book and in the foundation of the US in general. The rising bourgeoisie wanted to found relations between the USA and Europe on trade (money), not politics. Ideas like social contracts were understandable to the rising merchant class.
Meanwhile, after the Reformation, each person became free to use their own intellect to question old-fashioned ideas like kingship. When they did so, they could find no good reason to obey a king, especially one on the other side of the world. This caused the need to find a new justification for politics using the intellect (a job that used to belong to the priesthood).
The distinction between nobility and priesthood was problematic from the beginning of Faustian culture. The church was always involved in politics and the nobility fought the church. The Renaissance popes, in particular, were not men we would identify with religious archetypes. To take just one example, Pope Alexander VI managed to sire numerous children, including Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, with different mistresses. That’s the kind of behaviour we would these days expect from a rock star or sports playboy, not a pope.
The Reformation was in large part a reaction against exactly this kind of (mis-)behaviour by the church in Rome and the desire to split up church and state was supposed to solve the problem. But that desire brought into question the whole notion of the divine right of kings. With the Pope’s authority no longer recognised, the Bible was turned to for justification. But the problem with the Bible was that you could use it to defend any position. Filmer used it to argue for the divine right of kings. Locke and Paine used to argue against the divine right of kings.
These debates would once have taken place behind closed doors. But now they became public. In any case, the connection between politics and intellect was still maintained. What had changed was the question of obedience. Blind obedience to the Pope and the priesthood had gone. Blind obedience to the King was soon to meet the same fate.
When Charles I was placed on trial he appealed to the divine right of kings saying that obedience to the king was grounded in the Bible. Once upon a time, that would have worked. But not anymore. Charles got his head chopped off and when William of Orange came to power decades later it no longer had anything to do with the Bible or the Pope. William was crowned king by the express invitation of the parliament of England.
All this was old news by the time Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense in 1776. He all but assumes the divine right of kings is dead and buried. But the British still had a King and the new question for the American colonists became what is the point of a King at all? This question was made more urgent because George III was still very much involved in politics including the question which the colonists cared most about which was taxation.
Books can and have been written about the complex issues involved in these matters. For our purposes, what is important is that George III was painted as a tyrant and tyranny was still, in the mind of Paine and others like him, tied to Popery.
“And a man hath good reason to believe that there is as much of king-craft, as priest-craft, in withholding the scripture from the public in Popish countries. For monarchy in every instance is the Popery of government.”
The divine rights of kings had always been a kind of joint pact between the Pope and the kings of Europe. It now become a byword for tyranny. When the Reformation got rid of the Pope, it was only a matter of time before the King was next. Just as puritans had demanded the freedom to read and interpret the Bible independent of the Pope, now they demanded the freedom to create their own government independent of the King.
The characterising of the kings of Europe as tyrants was not just a creation of propaganda, of course. The American colonies were full of Europeans who had fled actual persecution. For them the tyranny and the injustice of Europe was not an academic matter but a lived experience. What Paine made them see was that America could become a new kind of country where all the old tyranny was left behind. He found the words that gave expression to the sentiment that was already there.
King George III, who needed money to pay for his war debts and did so by arbitrarily imposing taxes on the colonists, managed to embody the archetype which the colonists were rebelling against: the Tyrannical Father. This reading of the archetypal Father is further evidenced by the fact that familial relations were changing at the same time as the political. The father had previously been the head of the household and was to be obeyed like a king or a pope. But that was now thrown into doubt too. Things were changing at the macrocosmic and the microcosmic level.
Both Locke and Rousseau elucidated new theories of education and child-rearing alongside their political writings. Just as Kings and Popes could no longer demand blind obedience from their subjects, so parents could no longer demand blind obedience from their children. Instead, parents must lead by example. The parent-child relationship was now to be founded on shared values and the job of education was not to fill the child’s mind with facts but to shape that mind to become a fully autonomous and self-sufficient adult capable of reasoning for themselves.
If all this sounds familiar and uncontroversial, it’s because we still live in the world created by these Enlightenment ideas. These same ideas created the nuclear family. They also led to the practice whereby people choose their own spouse rather than have their parents choose for them and a whole host of other concepts we take for granted nowadays.
Locke’s tabula rasa and Rousseau’s state of nature meant that humans were innately good and that the fault of corruption must therefore lay with their upbringing and socialisation. Education suddenly became an issue of religious importance in a way that the Romans and Greeks could never have understood. With the role of the priest and church degraded, it was now up to the parents to provide an education for their children that, by assumption, was crucial in determining the child’s whole life. It was the birth of helicopter parenting. Our modern obsession with education flows directly from these societal changes that happened in the 17th and 18th centuries.
All these issues were front and centre of the debate that led to the American Revolution. Thomas Paine, John Locke, Rousseau and the others were what I call Rebel Priests and they teamed up with the Rebel Commanders who led the battle against the British. And they won. That victory does seem to be genuinely unique in history. At the very least, we look in vain for a similar precedent in the Classical world. On the contrary, the Classical seemed expressly to avoid such an outcome by keeping its Rebel Priests in their place.
Everybody knows what happened to Athens’ most famous thinker (Rebel Priest). He had a run in with a cup of hemlock. Fewer people would know that Plato also got involved with politics. In Syracuse, two disciples of Plato, Dion and Callipus, both had a shot at governing that island on Platonic ideas but they failed and Plato got himself into some trouble over the matter. Alexander the Great might have been a student of Aristotle, but it would be hard to find any Aristotelian principles in his actions. We’ve already seen what happened to Cicero.
On the whole, the ancient world and Rome in particular shows little sign of “mind” playing any role in politics. This would help to explain the lack of change that is a remarkable feature of ancient politics and especially of the decadent period of the Roman Empire. Things just gradually got worse and there is no record of any attempt to change the system or any ideas about what that change might look like. Both Gibbon and Nietzsche blame the arrival of “mind” brought in by the Magian as causing the downfall of Rome. I see it the other way around. The Romans had actively suppressed “mind”. Its arrival was the symptom of a deeper problem.
By contrast, the Faustian has been incredibly dynamic and ideas have always been at the centre of that dynamism. We can see this combination of ideas and power at the birth of the United States. The divine right of kings and popes had disappeared, but the union of power and ideology remained. The USA got rid of the Tyrannical Father and replaced him with the founding fathers. These founding fathers were lawyers, doctors and scientists. They were men of the Enlightenment who wished for and attained the ideals of autonomy, self-sufficiency and independence. They were a community of grown adults managing their own affairs.
I use the word “adults” on purpose here because the idea of growing up was a strong thread in the Enlightenment thought that influenced the American Revolution. Immanuel Kant wrote that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”. The kings and popes had kept the people immature. Now was the time to become adults.
That’s what people believed at the time but it should be pretty clear to us now that something has gone wrong. Perhaps Kant had already identified the problem. Enlightenment was only for the few, he said. The majority would always prefer to be spoon-fed dogma.
If that’s true, then getting rid of kings and popes did not change much at all. It just created a new group of people who sit at the top of society. Ironically, the lawyers, doctors and scientists have ended up becoming priests, whether they wanted to or not. Just like the priests of old, they are fundamentally connected to the power structures of society; money. Thus, the old Faustian intertwining of nobility and priesthood, money and intellect is just as true today as it ever was.
What happens in a society where the Tyrannical Father has been banished but the majority of the public are unable to attain “adulthood” (enlightenment)? Within the psychology of Locke, the public is left defenceless against propaganda. Whatever can be said about Popes and Kings, their propaganda was always overt. You knew who was lying to you. Now we have propaganda that is covert. Strangely enough, this covert propaganda was foreshadowed by Rousseau’s theories on education. But that is a subject for another post.
We can sum up the situation this way: we might have got rid of the Tyrannical Father. But all we achieved was to replace him with the Devouring Mother.
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