The Universal State of America Part 3: The Civilisational Oedipus Complex

To say that the Classical civilisation of Greece and Rome was a massive influence on modern European civilisation is a statement of the obvious. It’s when we try to be more specific about the nature of that influence that differing perspectives appear. Many historians think that the modern European is a simple linear progression of the Classical interspersed by the dramatic period of the dark ages where the light of civilisation was almost snuffed out for good. It is because such a view was so common that Oswald Spengler repeatedly insisted, and provided ample evidence to back up his claim, that the modern European (Faustian) was, in fact, a completely different civilisation to the Classical and needed to be understood as such. In between these two extremes was the position of Toynbee who called the Classical the “parent” of the modern European thereby allowing for both an independent existence for the modern while also acknowledging the influence of the ancient.

In the last post in this series, I made the claim that the macrocosm of civilisation needs to be understood as identical to the microcosm. If that’s true, and if the Classical is the “parent” to the Faustian, then wouldn’t we expect to see similar elements of the relationship as it exists between individual people and their parents? It’s a question that most historians would never think to ask but one that I had accidentally stumbled upon with my Devouring Mother analysis. The answer seems to be a solid yes. But we can be even more specific because what we see in the archetypal dynamic between the Faustian and the Classical is a Father – Son relationship manifesting the psychology of the Oedipus Complex.   

As far as I’m aware, Freud never made the Oedipal case for modern European civilisation but he made a similar case for society in general in Totem and Taboo and also Civilisation and its Discontents

Where things get rather meta, however, is that it seems that the desire for an archetypal Father figure was itself a major change that occurred in the Classical civilisation and that specifically arose at the time when Rome made the change from republic to military dictatorship. The Caesars became the societal Fathers of Rome. This was true in both symbolic and more practical forms.

Prior to this development, Rome was a genuine, old-school patriarchy at the microcosmic level. The father was head of the household and had complete legal and moral authority over the members of the household not just including slaves and servants but wives and children too. When Rome changed into a military dictatorship, one way to think about that change was that the macrocosmic structure of the state was being brought into line with the microcosmic structure of the family. Just like the fathers of Roman households, the Caesars became the primary breadwinner, the protector and also the religious leaders of Rome.

One piece of evidence for this claim is that, beginning with Julius, the Caesars were endowed with the title pater patriae which means father of the fatherland. This was tied in with the emergence of the cult of Caesar which appeared to be a genuine grassroots movement, a collective religious and psychological cult of the Father. If this is true, then the ascendance of Christianity to the state religion of Rome actually makes a great deal of sense since the Father – Son relationship is built into its theology. Curiously, it was at this same time that bishops started to be referred to as popes. The word pope is rendered in Greek and Latin as papa meaning father. Prior to that, the term pontiff was used, which did not have the paternal connotation. Thus, beginning with the cult of Caesar and picking up steam as the centuries progressed, the Roman Empire became based around the Father archetype.

It was the remaining organisational structure of the western Roman Empire that would then be carried over into the nascent Faustian civilisation. Early modern Europe was created by the popes who were archetypal Fathers promulgating a theology where the archetypal Father was supreme. Although the psychology of this is important, we should understand that this was baked into the institutional structures of society at that time and therefore had a variety of real world effects that go beyond the merely psychological.

Thus, there is plenty of symbolic evidence that the Faustian was the Son to the Classical’s Father but, in the secular modern West, we don’t take symbolism seriously and so most people would not find this convincing. Nevertheless, we can see that the symbolism really affected how people thought about these things. As late as 1680, Robert Filmer could argue in his book Patriarcha that kings were the fathers and their subjects were children and that citizens ought to show obedience to their king just as they would to their father. Filmer was not being symbolic. This was a work of political philosophy.

If the Classical was the Father and the Faustian was the Son, do we find any evidence for an Oedipal nature to the civilisational relationship? The Oedipus Complex involves at least two responses on the part of the son. On the one hand, he will idolise the Father as an all-powerful god. On the other hand, he will rebel against the Father. These two normally occur one after the other. Thus, young boys will tend to idolise their Father and then rebel against him later when they are trying to assert their own independence. Ideally, the process works itself through and sons come to see their fathers as human beings with faults and virtues like anybody else, but this is not always the case. What is the case is that we see exactly this Oedipal pattern in the Faustian civilisation’s attitude towards its civilisational Father, the Classical.

The idolisation of the Classical began right from the start. The barbarian warlords of northern Europe were keen to align themselves with the glory of Rome and often made up fictitious genealogies linking themselves back to the greats of antiquity. One example of this is the story of Brutus of Troy, a fictitious Greek character who was said to have been the founder of Britain. This story was really believed as a true historical account of the founding of Britain by the people of the time and even Henry VIII made use of this myth to try and link himself back to antiquity. The practice was not unique to Britain. Many kings and nobles of northern Europe made up similar stories.

As late the 20th century, we see Spengler lamenting the fact that many scholars of his day were still in thrall to Classical concepts. The whole reason Spengler had to insist that the Faustian was unique was because people still believed it was not. The idolisation of the Classical was still present in the culture. If we think about some of the major characters in Faustian history, a central motif in their life is the relationship with the Classical. Thus, Martin Luther’s war against the Pope began with his trip to Rome. Goethe’s trip to Italy was a major turning point in his own life and a big inspiration on Spengler’s later work. Even as Faustian a philosopher of Nietzsche has the relationship with the Classical as a central theme in his work. He constantly laments the meekness of the modern European in contrast to the health and vigor of the ancients. There is the fact that Napoleon had a Roman crown made for himself when he became emperor or that Mussolini promised the Italians a return to the glory of Rome. The list could go on and on.

All of this is indicative of the Oedipal idolisation of the Father. What we see with the Reformation is the beginning of the rebellion against the Father and it is impossibly coincidental that this should come during the teenage years of the Faustian and would be led by a man who rebelled against his own father: Martin Luther. Luther was the microcosm to the macrocosm. He was the Faustian son rebelling against the Classical Father. It really was a rebellion, too. The Protestants went around smashing up churches. The patriarchs of Europe responded with a display of fatherly discipline that resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand people.

The kings of northern Europe had supported the Reformation for solid political reasons, most notably because the Catholic Church had been sucking money out of northern economies and sending it back to Rome. No sooner was the power of the church broken than the political and economic power shifted to the north. The problem for the kings was that by breaking ties with the Pope, they had sawn off the symbolic branch that supported their own power and had done so ever since Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans by Leo III. It turns out that symbolism is important after all.

The pact which had been created between the Popes and rulers of Europe came to be called the divine right of kings and it was this which Robert Filmer referred to in trying to defend the old order in 1680. Of course, it was too late for that. Charles I had already had his head chopped off. The divine right of kings was finished and with it the blind obedience due to the Father. In rejecting the holy Father of the Pope, the kings of Europe had undermined their own patriarchal claim inherited from the Classical civilisation.

To cut a long story short, the Faustian came into its mature phase in the lands which had rebelled against the Father i.e. the Protestant North. The British had thrown off the Pope and then decapitated Charles I. They went on to create the most powerful empire the world had ever known. But it was the nation that Britain gave birth to which would exceed its empire in power and reach and it can be no coincidence that a defining feature of that nation is that it was born out of rebellion. In the next post, we’ll see that the United States of America went even further than Britain in its rejection of the Father.  

11 thoughts on “The Universal State of America Part 3: The Civilisational Oedipus Complex”

  1. If Classicism, and by extension Catholicism represented by the Pope, is the Father, then what exactly is Protestantism? The (Devouring) Mother…?

    So, Protestantism is a rebellion against Catholic tyranny. Fair enough. But wouldn’t any objective assessment conclude that Protestantism is more tyrannical than Catholicism ever managed to be? What with its doctrine of predestination and all that? Not to mention the witch hunts, but I suppose Catholics had that, too.

  2. Yeah I think the problems really come up when you try and define any specific influence that the Classical has had on the Faustian. Is there actually any? It seems that it has just cherry picked concepts and things that make sense to it but then has dismissed everything else as ‘in error’, which is really just a way of using the language of another to express your own biases.

    One problem is with the whole concept of ‘influence’ as influence through centuries is a specifically Faustian conception of history, so is it something that is actually real, or a deep psychological requirement of Faustian culture that needs to live historically (biographically) both in the personal and societal sense.

    The obsession with the Classical may just be because was the closest and most obvious previous civilisation, and in fact once Faustian culture discovered the bones of other civilisations, such as Egypt, a similar obsession has taken place. This obsession has then moved deeper in time to beyond the last ice age and then beyond again, into the realms of palaeontology and deep geology that no other culture would even dream of touching because when it boils down to it who the hell cares what happened 77 million years ago.

    In many ways the Faustian (and Magian) is a radical rejection of the Classical, so the father rejection thing makes sense, but then again the classical is a radical rejection of the Egyptian, and the Classical certainly didn’t see itself as descended from Egypt and therefore didn’t have any psychological baggage (I doubt such a thing as psychological baggage could ever exist for a Classical person). It also looks as though a potential future American great culture is a rejection of the Faustian (ahistorical, individually rather than universally focused). So perhaps it’s something baked into the pie, which would line up with your macrocosm/microcosm idea that each cycle rejects the previous.

  3. Irena – that is the big question. Arguably, what the Protestants did was to deny the earthly manifestation of the Father because they believed that we should have direct access to the spiritual Father. Setting aside the theological debate, what that achieved in reality was to transfer earthly power to the state which is exactly why the kings of Europe supported the Reformation. So, yes, we now have a worse tyranny than the Catholic Church could ever have imagined because it’s a tyranny over the mind and not the body. Archetypally, it’s because the Protestants became obsessed with a rebellion against the earthly Father of the Pope that they opened the way to an invisible form of tyranny which is the Devouring Mother.

    Skip – depends how much importance we give to the Catholic Church. I’d say that the Church was a fundamentally Classical institution and that institution really did build the Faustian. It’s hard to overstate the importance of that. I think most historians would agree that if the Church had not survived, modern Europe would never have been created. Therefore, it’s not too strong to use the Father analogy even in a purely pragmatic sense.

    Then, when we think about what was the main difference between the Church in early modern Europe and its old Roman manifestation, we find that the monastery was new. That really didn’t exist for the Classical (setting aside the Christians who created proto-monasteries for themselves which had no bearing on Roman culture). The monasteries then gave birth to one of the institutions that is uniquely Faustian: the university. Then, pretty much all “real” Faustian culture comes from the university. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Foxe, pretty much all the Protestants were university men as have practically all the big names of Faustian culture ever since. The university is, therefore, a prime example of a genuinely Faustian institution that was born out of the old Classical institution of the Church and then rebelled against it.

  4. I think the shift came from the evens of the french revolution, where revolt took place against religious institutions, as total and violent as against the aristocracy.
    A secular oriented revolution in a catholic country.
    There was a Protestant revolution as you described, but it seems like where it happen, they managed to find some equilibrium, to keep the system working, including king, aristocracy, and religious institutions, in there case a modified religion.
    Not so after the french revolution, which left a vacuum in need to be filled.
    I am not Christian (I am jew). I sense Protestant more patriarchal than Catholic, and also more masculine. I can not say why, that is how it feels to me.

  5. עינת וימן – yes, the American and French revolutions and then all the subsequent smaller revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries can be seen as the continuation of the same trend. The British definitely handled it better than most other countries. (Arguably, the Netherlands was the most functional, but they ended up being too small to become a major power). A big part of the credit has to go to Oliver Cromwell who worked hard to keep the more radical factions in check during the British Civil War. If it wasn’t for him, the British may have ended up in a shambles just like the French did.

    I don’t know enough about the subject to say for sure, but I’ve heard it said that Islam and Protestantism are masculine religions while Catholicism and Judaism have more balance. That seems correct to me from a casual observer’s point of view.

  6. Christianity and the Catholic church are anti-classical though. Their Piscean universalism, abstract belief and community of believers outside and beyond the polis are completely at odds with the Classical culture. I think Spenglers was right when he pointed out that a completely different is at work here, whose home was the middle east.

    I would definitely agree that this Magian culture has influenced the Faustian, as they were concurrent, but there isn’t a trace of the old Classical in the Christianity of the Catholic Church.

  7. Skip – I disagree. The Catholic Church was a Roman institution and the version of Christianity that it adopted had been made commensurate with the tenets of Classical culture. That’s why St Paul travelled around arguing with philosophers and writing letters.

    Even though I enjoy a hearty debate about the philosophical differences between cultures, I think the reality is that the average person couldn’t care less. Cultures are held together by fundamentals and that’s why I think the archetypal approach works, especially because it incorporates the basics of human psychology. What we see in both the Classical and the Magian (at least, in the Bible) is the worship of the archetypal Father. That seems to me to be a big part of the reason why two completely different cultures could be merged into a single institution.

  8. Hi Simon,

    How do the puritans fit into the story? After all, Cromwell deposed Charles II, but eventually the population had had enough and restored Charles II, in a lesser role of course. By all accounts, he was meant to be quite the fun King, if such a thing is even possible. The puritans rebelled, but like the French Jacobins may have taken things a bit too far. In that latter case it lead to restoration in a different form with Napoleon. Mind you smashing things up like culture and societal norms, does seem to have the sniff of adolescence about it. Hmm. Dunno. What do you reckon? An early foray away from the Classical perhaps?



  9. Chris – well, Cromwell basically became the king while he was alive and then he tried to hand over power to his son on his death. Trouble was, the son was nowhere the man his father was and so there was a power vacuum that led to the restoration of the crown. Actually, it’s almost the same thing that would happen later in France with Napoleon becoming emperor. The Europeans were not quite ready to get rid of the Father 😉

  10. The Protestant rejection of the cult of Mary and the demotion of all the Saints generally, maybe explains some of its excessive masculine energy. There are no feminine leads to follow. Listening to a (male) pastor drone about God’s motherly “feminine side” by quoting the passage about a hen gathering her chicks under her wings always struck me as a cringeworthy stretch.

  11. AM – agree. That’s why Jung’s idea of the integration of the feminine in Answer to Job is interesting. It seems that the materialist West took the same underlying energy and channeled it into the feminist movement instead of a spiritualised form.

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