The Universal State of America Part 5: Once more on pseudomorphosis

Everything that I’ve written in the last few posts is broadly compatible with the analysis of Spengler in Decline of the West, and so it’s probably worth spending a post on the comparisons between my analysis and his, since this will also allow me to present what I think is my final answer to a puzzle that I’ve been trying to sort through for more than a year. The puzzle relates to Spengler’s concept of pseudomorphosis.

To describe pseudomorphosis, I like to use my levels of being concept. Mostly, I’ve been using a three-part distinction between Physical, Exoteric and Esoteric, but since we’re talking about Spengler, it’s useful to further divide the Esoteric into upper and lower. While we’re dividing, I’ll also divide the Physical into alive and inanimate. Here’s how that looks:-

Level of BeingScientific domain
Physical – inanimatePhysics, chemistry
Physical – aliveBiology
ExotericSociology, politics, anthropology
Esoteric – lowerPsychology
Esoteric – upperTheology, philosophy

The Exoteric level of being includes all the outward forms of a society, including the political, economic, and religious institutions as well as cultural practices embodied in symbolic form in rites of passage. A wedding ceremony, for example, has an Exoteric form in the ceremonial actions carried out by the various actors, the special clothing, the sacred location (e.g. Church building) etc. A wedding ceremony also resonates at the Esoteric level. It gets its meaning at the highest level of the Esoteric, while also having a psychological resonance in all of the emotions, excitements, and dramas that accompany the event. In real life, of course, we experience the levels of being simultaneously and don’t differentiate between them.

It is because Spengler speaks in the high falutin’ language of German romanticism that reading him can make us lose sight of the fact that these concepts belong to everyday life in society. Nevertheless, it is true that Spengler is mostly concerned with what we have defined as the upper Esoteric, which are the core concepts that unify a culture and which, almost by definition, require an extensive education to come to grips with. Therefore, they are usually understood in the fullest terms only by a small minority. An educated priest should be able to explain how the layout of the church maps to the concepts of Christian theology, but two people getting married in a church don’t need to know any of that Esoteric stuff. They simply need to perform their prescribed Exoteric roles.

The assumption is that it is the Esoteric level of being that determines the Exoteric, and this is the main reason why I prefer these abstract names. Esoteric simply means “hidden”, while Exoteric means “visible”. By calling it the Esoteric, we abstract away from theological and philosophical debates and avoid getting bogged down in metaphysics. As a result, the term Esoteric works equally well whether we think the highest meanings of our lives come from God or whether, like Spengler, we assume they come from some kind of cultural instinct derived from geography.

Now that we know the difference between the Esoteric and Exoteric in broad terms, we are ready to understand the concept of pseudomorphosis, which is one way in which the two levels of being get out of alignment. Since Spengler was concerned with entire societies, that’s where his focus lies but, again, we should note that this is a very common occurrence in our own lives. Ever had a job that you used to like but then got bored with? That means your Esoteric level of being (emotions, goals, desires) no longer matched your Exoteric level of being (the job). The same can happen in marriage or romantic relationships, in church, in your political affiliation or even in banal things like what you normally eat for breakfast. Life is the process of trying to find an equilibrium between the Esoteric and Exoteric levels of being so that the outward expressions of our lives match the inner.

Sometimes, the equilibrium between Esoteric and Exoteric is thrown out of balance by factors external to us. That can also happen at the societal level. It is the latter which Spengler was concerned with when he talks about pseudomorphosis. Specifically, he was referring to a general pattern that occurs where the Exoteric institutions of a dominant society are imposed on a subordinate one. Implied in his definition is that we are talking about a situation where one culture is defeated militarily and is now under the domination of another. A classic example from our time would be the nations conquered by the United States, which then had parliamentary democracies installed in them. Parliamentary democracy is an Exoteric institution born in western Europe and is, therefore, not “native” to those nations.

What happens in pseudomorphosis is that the Esoteric spirit of the subordinate culture finds itself mismatched with the Exoteric forms that have been imposed on it. Spengler assumes that this will give rise to the emotion of hatred on the part of the subjugated people, who will come to despise the culture that dominates it. For Spengler, this hatred is not just born out of the obvious resentment that comes from military defeat but is inherent in the mismatch between the Esoteric and Exoteric.

The issue I have been puzzling over in relation to the concept of pseudomorphosis is that it seemed certain to me that Faustian (modern European) civilisation was itself born out of a pseudomorphosis of the Classical civilisation (ancient Greece and Rome) in that it was created from the Exoteric institution of the Catholic Church, which was itself the product of the Classical civilisation. The problem was that there was no emotion of hatred involved and also no implied real-time political and military domination since the Classical civilisation had ceased to exist by that time. Since Spengler had defined pseudomorphosis to require both of these properties, it didn’t strictly fit his definition, but, if we allow the definition to be expanded, we can account for two phenomena that Spengler and many other thinkers have puzzled over for centuries and which are crucial to understanding Faustian civilisation.

The first is what happened in the late Roman Empire. In one sense, this was a classic pseudomorphosis in exactly the way that Spengler defined it with the Classical civilisation being the dominant one and the Magian (located mostly in what we would now call the Middle East) being the subordinate. We all know this story intimately since it’s the civilisational background of the New Testament. Moreover, we even see exactly the forms of hatred and resentment that Spengler talked about, for example, in the various Jewish revolts against the Romans. We can represent that pseudomorphosis in table form as follows:-

Level of BeingClassicalMagian
Esoteric – lowerClassicalMagian
Esoteric – upperClassicalMagian

The Magian civilisation is under a pseudomorphosis to the Classical at the Exoteric level of being but retains its Esoteric identity. This is a perfect example of the concept exactly as Spengler defined it. But then something happened that has puzzled scholars all the way up until our time: Christianity became the state religion of Rome. Since Christianity belongs to the Magian civilisation, this implies that the Magian had somehow taken over the Classical even though it was under a pseudomorphosis of the Classical. That’s weird, but it actually fits within both Spengler and Toynbee’s model of history.

Rome represented what Toynbee called the Universal State of the Classical civilisation. The Universal State is the dominant political structure that ushers in a long period of peace and material prosperity. Its arrivals marks the final phase of the cycle of civilisation and the reason is because the Esoteric level of being becomes moribund. We find that life loses its meaning (upper Esoteric) and stagnates in general (lower Esoteric). That’s why the Romans needed circuses to go with their bread. They were bored and needed to be distracted. We can capture this dynamic in our table as follows:-

Level of BeingClassicalMagian
Esoteric – lowerN/AMagian
Esoteric – upperN/AMagian

The dominance of the Universal State over foreign nations continues and, in general, the Exoteric structures of society remain. They can remain in this petrified state for a very, very long time. Ancient Egypt is the prime example of that. Rome itself lasted many centuries in unchanged form. But life in the Universal State has lost its spark and the civilisation has lost its ability to come up with something new. Therefore, we say that the Esoteric level of being has become moribund, especially the upper Esoteric.

What happened in the case of the Roman Empire, however, was very unusual and perhaps unprecedented. There was, using Spengler’s terminology, a reverse pseudomorphosis, or, we might call it, an Esoteric pseudomorphosis. Spengler describes the situation in almost exactly those terms although, because he had given a specific definition to the concept of pseudomorphosis, he didn’t apply that concept to what had occured. When Christianity became the state church of Rome, we can say that the Classical civilisation was now under an Esoteric pseudomorphosis to the Magian. Note that this is exactly the same analysis that Nietzsche and Gibbon made, although they obviously didn’t use this terminology.

This gives us the following table:-

Level of BeingClassicalMagian
Esoteric – lowerMagianMagian
Esoteric – upperMagianMagian

The Classical Exoteric forms remain, but now under an Esoteric pseudomorphosis to the Magian.

There are specific developments that made this possible, the most important of which is that St Paul won the argument within the nascent Christian movement to allow gentiles to join the faith. That’s the only reason Romans could become Christians in the first place. A different but symbolically and archetypally important fact is the one I noted a couple of posts ago where the Christian faith explicitly built the Father archetype into its theology, and this seems to match exactly what was going on in the Classical civilisation with a desire for the Father emerging in the cult of Caesar and other developments.

If the dual pseudomorphosis that took place in the late Roman Empire was already unusual, what happened next was even weirder because it was that dual pseudomorphosis that gave birth to Faustian civilisation through the auspices of the Catholic Church that was carried over from late Rome. The symbolism around the Father was now extended to the highest levels of the Exoteric in the person of the Pope, whose title comes from papa, meaning “father” and who is still referred to as the “holy father”.  But that symbolism is a direct match with the upper Esoteric in the form of the holy trinity: Father – Son – Holy Spirit. Thus, we have a template that presents a unified structure at the Exoteric and Esoteric levels of being:-

Level of BeingFaustian
ExotericClassical-Magian Father
Esoteric – lowerClassical-Magian Father
Esoteric – upperClassical-Magian Father

The Faustian was then born out of a dual pseudomorphosis at both the Exoteric and Esoteric levels of being. This gave rise to a truly uncanny relationship between the Faustian and Classical-Magian which was something that Spengler touched on time and again. In one place, he describes it this way:

“The freedom and power of Classical research are always hindered…by a certain almost religious awe. In all history there is no analogous case of one Culture making a passionate cult of the memory of another.”

But this is the whole point. It was not “almost” a religious awe; it was an actual religious awe that comes from the fact that the Faustian was created by the Classical-Magian synthesis. The parental metaphor here is perfectly apt. The Faustian civilisation was born as a “child” to the “father” of the Classical-Magian dual pseudomorphosis. That would have already been weird enough but what are the odds that the Father-Son relationship would be baked into the very theology itself and which was also represented in the Exoteric forms of the culture through the office of Pope (papa, father)?

We have to remember that theologians used to debate the issue of the trinity furiously, and the trinity is still denied by certain Christian sects, such as the Unitarians. The formulation of these theological concepts into archetypal terms of Father and Son is already a big move psychologically because most conceptions of God talk in abstract terms of a “supreme being” or a deity, or any other term which does not have archetypal resonance in the way that “Father” inevitably does. Can it be a coincidence that this civilisation that was obsessed with the Father would later give rise to the Oedipus Complex?

Freud noted that the son may come to hate the father. Why? Because the father is the dominant power in the household and he prevents the son’s attainment of what he wants (the Esoteric level of being). But that is the exact same relationship that Spengler identified in the hatred of the subordinate culture to the dominant one in pseudomorphosis. It is clear that there is a more general principle which holds both at the individual and collective levels, which makes perfect sense since the collective is made up of individuals. We come to resent and maybe even hate those who stifle our growth and throw our Esoteric and our Exoteric out of balance. That is true of individual people and it is true of entire societies.

But there is another psychology at play, one that Freud also built into the Oedipus Complex. The son may worship and idolise the father. But this is exactly the attitude of the Faustian towards the Classical. Thus, as late as Nietzsche, we find Faustian thinkers who are convinced the Classical civilisation was the greatest thing ever and the thing to do was to try and go back to the glory of Rome.

In truth, both of these Oedipal responses are present throughout the history of the Faustian civilisation. We see equal parts idolisation and rebellion. It’s this exact psychology that Dostoevsky captured so beautifully in many of his novels. We can love and hate somebody at almost the same time. What’s more, the “dominance” they have over us need not be physical in nature. Somebody who is virtuous can be admired for that fact and then hated by the exact same person because their virtue makes that person look bad.  The Faustian has always measured itself against the Classical. It idolised it as an ideal to live up to and then rebelled against it when it failed to do so.

Curiously, we see a similar psychology in modern America’s relationship to Europe. Americans will alternately ridicule Europe as an unproductive backwater while also proudly announcing their European heritage. “I’m half Spanish, half Dutch.” “Oh yeah, well I’m half Swedish, half German.” I saw a classic example of this a couple of months ago in a video of a speech by Tucker Carlson, who referred to the Swedish as “my people”. Apparently, he sees no contradiction between such a statement and the fact that he is “America first”. It is these logical paradoxes that are a hallmark of psychology.

And that’s why we must include the psychological point of view when understanding Faustian civilisation. It’s not a coincidence that psychoanalysis would be born of the Faustian. It was the civilisation which needed it – the civilisation of daddy issues which, these days, are turning into mommy issues.

10 thoughts on “The Universal State of America Part 5: Once more on pseudomorphosis”

  1. Hello,
    I enjoyed your discussion and found much to think about. However I would like to suggest, if I may, that the category physical-dead is better described as non-living or inanimate or something.
    For example a rock is usually described as an inanimate or non-living object not a dead object. At least not in English.
    Two reasons: first a living thing must end up dead so death is a property of life.
    Secondly: dead is a word that is emotionally charged. If you like a word that can summon ghosts.
    I studied a little chemistry in uni. The difference between living and non-living things was discussed. Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon based compounds – living compounds . In-organic chemistry is the study non-carbon based compounds – nonliving compounds. Of course this is a very simple way of looking at a very complex issue.
    I look forward to your next essay with great interest.
    Best regards.

  2. Sue – good point. Actually, I used alive and non-alive in the body of the post but dead in the table. I’ve updated it with inanimate. Thanks.

  3. What would be your archetypical take on the Council of Ephesus and the exultation of Mary as the Mother of God, and then during the birth of Faustian Catholicism the elevation of Mary to equal or even above Jesus as the Madonna and Goddess?

  4. Skip – don’t know much about the theological debates. I think the cult of Mary in the early Faustian is interesting since it seems largely to be have been a popular movement as opposed to one from the church leadership. Then, the Reformation looks to also be a popular movement that was, in part, opposed to the cult of Mary, although maybe that was just a byproduct of the general revolt against the church. In any case, I think the more interesting point is the one Robert Graves made which is that the West has lacked an archetype for the shadow feminine in the way that satan, lucifer etc represent the shadow masculine.

  5. That Protestant movement doing away with the feminine Mary is interesting because thinking of it now, the exact same thing happens with the Nestorians and then Islam in the Magian world. After the council of Ephesus the Nestorians, who saw Mary as birthing a man who became infused with God rather than a God, drifted away from orthodoxy and settled in Persia.

    Then at the council of Chalcedon the southern Coptic Christians revolted against the claim that Jesus was both God and Man and with the ‘no God but God’ cry set the stage for the coming of Islam in the southern and eastern realms of Christianity; almost all of the Eastern and Southern Christians converted to Islam once it roared out of Arabia.

    In both cultures movements there is the rejection of the Idolatry that for both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is an important component. Both of the movements are protesting against the Church drifting away from what they gather is the original form, but the question arises what was Catholicism and Orthodox drifting towards? If both added a Feminine/mother element and a bigger and more diverse pantheon of worship, it seems they adapted to the popular (and longer lasting) folk beliefs and the following reformers are rejecting these under the guise of emancipation.

    It’s telling that the Islam of the peasant people in the middle east took a magical turn and led to things like 1001 Arabian nights, and the Protestant movement in Europe led to a revival of Celtic-Germanic myth that continues to this day.

  6. Interesting. One thing that I realised about the Protestants was that they were explicitly rejecting the rites of passage of Catholicism in favour of “the book”. The Catholic rites were a definite carryover from Rome since the Romans practiced rites extensively and were suspicious about religions that were “too deep”. I know practically nothing about Islam but I’m pretty sure it was also in favour of the word over the rites. I wonder if there’s a similar pattern elsewhere.

  7. Out of curiosity, where does Orthodox Christianity fit into this debate? Is it more Magi in terms of culture and beliefs, is it more patriarchal than Protestantism (which has gone all in with the Whore of Babylon/ devouring mother)? How does it compare to Catholicism? Or is this all a big enough subject for another post?

    Also, is the hatred directed towards a Russia a byproduct of the daddy issues America has ? The Russians love their father Putin, as do the Chinese love their Mao. The East still has their father figures.

  8. Bwana – excellent question. I think Orthodox Christianity/Russia provides the perfect comparison to the Faustian since it was born out of almost identical circumstances. Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about it and haven’t had the time to investigate it further.

    As for father figures, there’s a lot more going on there. If we look at all the big names – Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Mao – almost all of them had personal issues with their fathers and all of them joined collective movements that dethroned the societal Father. The pattern we see with all these movements is the same: dethrone the Father –> chaos –> reinstate a quasi-Father. Thus, the French Revolution created Napoleon, the German Revolution of 1918 created Hitler, the Russian Revolution created Stalin and the Chinese civil war created Mao. Of course, much the same thing happened in Britain, where Cromwell became the Father. Even the Americans couldn’t help but create the “founding fathers”.

  9. Hi Simon,

    Interesting. Can the Faustian ever outgrow it’s roots and hatred? Or may there be a return to the Magian? Or something else entirely new?

    Congrats on the book.



  10. Chris – I think that finally happened with the two world wars. By my analysis, we are actually now living through the mature phase of the Faustian. I doubt we’ll see any return to the Classical-Magian from here. Strangely, the only hatred left now is self-hatred.

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