The Men Who Hate Destiny

In Oswald Spengler’s philosophy of history, every “historical people” is launched on its career by a “destiny-idea,” and it flourishes and has a history so long as it is occupied in “actualizing” this “idea into a living historical form” (1).  It is possession of (and by) a destiny-idea that raises a historical people above the grey morass of “historyless” peoples who simply exist through the endless “zoological” round of feeding, breeding, and death.

Spengler did not, of course, claim that possession of a destiny-idea would free a historical people from the fate of living through a cycle; but the evolutions through which such peoples lived were, in his philosophy, the “majestic wave-cycles” of history.   Completion of these cycles was the work of centuries, not years.  And completion of these cycles was most decidedly the work of nations

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Destiny, Thomas Cooper Gotch (c. 1890).  Like this young man roused by Destiny from the soft couch of Desire, so (in Spengler’s philosophy) is a Nation roused by Destiny from the soft couch of zoological existence.

Spengler took this idea from Hegel, who a hundred years earlier had written:

“The Spirit of a people . . . erects itself into an objective world . . . . That is its work . . . . A Nation is moral, virtuous, vigorous while it is engaged in realizing its grand object” (2).

One nineteenth-century Hegelian neatly explained the concept of destiny idea as a nation’s “consciousness of a vocation” (3).  Another described it as “consciousness of a special national destiny,” as the “national idea,” and as the belief in a “national purpose” (4).  This same writer also explained that a destiny idea does not spring into being, fully-grown, like Athena from the mind of Zeus, but is, instead, a “growth” that is “gradually shadowed forth.”

1

Germany, Friedrich August von Kaulbach (1914).  “In the history, the genuine history, of higher men . . . the stake fought for . . . is ever . . . the actualization . . . of an idea into a living historical form” (Oswald Spengler).

This means we must understand that a nation “realizing its grand object” will pass through three stages.  It must, first of all, realize (i.e. come to believe) that it has a grand object.  It must then realize (i.e. come to understand) just what that grand object is.  And then it must, at last, realize (i.e. actualize) that “grand object” by imposing it on reality.

Spengler called the period of national growth the period of culture in the strict sense of the word.  An historical people is a Culture so long as it continues to discover and develop the possibilities in its destiny idea.  And, Spengler wrote, “it dies when this soul [i.e. idea] has actualized the full sum of its possibilities.”

To say that it dies is not to say that it disappears, but that it “hardens . . . and becomes a Civilization.”  So long as it is able, a hardened Civilization will continue in its vocation of realizing itself, but it does this not by unfolding or developing itself, but by extending its domain and imposing its stamp upon the world.

Spengler calls this transition from Culture to Civilization the “Climacteric of Culture.”  A climacteric is, literally, a step in a staircase, and the figurative usage comes to us by way of the old notion that a man’s life is divided into four “ages” separated by “climacterics” or “grand alterations” (5).  The ages were childhood, youth, middle age (or maturity), and old age.  The climacterics were said to occur after twenty-one, forty-two, and sixty-three years.

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The Four Ages of Man, Hans von Marées (1878).  Childhood is the time of physical maturation.  Youth is sexually mature, but still strokes his chin with indecision.  The mature man of Middle Age harvests the fruit of his life.  In Old Age the man breaks down and returns to dust.

Spengler intended his Climacteric of Culture as analogous to the climacteric that separates Youth and Middle Age.  Childhood ends when a man reaches physical maturity.  Youth ends when he reaches moral, mental, and spiritual maturity.  Middle Age (maturity) is the age of harvest in which, for good or ill, a man reaps what he has sewn.  In Middle Age, he may well remain at the peak of his power, but he no longer sprouts, or shoots, or breaks out in wondrous blossoms.  His time of growth has passed.  And Old Age is, alas, the time decline.  (This is, incidentally, why it is called middle age, even though it does not begin until half a man’s years have passed.  It is the age between the ages of growth and the age of decline.)

Obviously, these four ages are analogous to the four seasons of the year.

Unlike the ages of man, or the seasons of the year, Spengler’s cycle of culture is not inexorably driven by underlying mechanisms of biology or astronomy, and this allows critics to deny that every great culture is doomed to die.  Such critics invariably believe that their own culture has discovered the elixir of eternal “Youth.”  But for Spengler the Climacteric of Culture follows necessarily from the premise that a Culture is the development of a destiny-idea, and thus must wind down once the “possibilities” of that destiny-idea have been realized.

Jacques Barzun recently described this loss of possibility as “decadence.”  This word decadence, he writes,

“implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense.  On the contrary it is a very active time . . . peculiarly restless, for it sees no lines of clear advance . . . . The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through . . . . Repetition and frustration are the intolerable results.  Boredom and fatigue are the great historical forces” (6).

Spengler wrote that, to understand the Climacteric of Culture and the onset of national decline, we must register these signs of exhaustions, or what he called “unfruitfulness.”  To understand our age, in other words, we must “understand [this] word [unfruitfulness] in all its direct seriousness.”  We must grasp without flinching the awful historical significance of comprehensive sterility.

Comprehensive sterility has two parts.

The first part is the unfruitfulness that marks “the brain-man of the megalopolis,” who is no longer capable of “great art,” “great courtesy,” or “the great style” in anything at all.  This brain-man of “cosmopolitan intelligence” is no longer an artist capable of creation.  He is merely a critic who churns out parasitic commentary—ironic or academic, as the market demands.

1

A Modern Idol, Umberto Boccioni (1911).  What awaits the man who finds his way back to zoological existence.

This is why Spengler tells us that “diatribe” is the typical intellectual product of a civilization in decline.  In its original sense, the word diatribe did not signify an angry rant, but rather a learned and scholarly dissertation.  Etymologically, the word diatribe means to wear away, the underlying notion being that diatribe is the essentially fruitless way in which the brain-men of a decadent civilization pass their time.

They are pedants after the fashion of the Reverend Edward Casaubon, in George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and their endless diatribes are nothing but variations on The Key to All Mythologies, the unfinished work of that old humbug.

In a stinging line, Spengler calls these pedants “intellectual male-prostitutes” who hire themselves out to simulate the “outward effect” of intellectual life.  The utterly sterile words of these voluble rent-boys are what “fills and dominates the halls and market-places of the megalopolis.”  This is to say, they are what fills and dominates everything that you and I read today.

The second part of comprehensive sterility is the literal “childlessness and ‘race-suicide’ of this civilized and rootless strata.”  Men who fritter away their lives with diatribes (as you and I are doing at this moment) turn out to be men who also fritter away their tribe.  Having lost all sense of national destiny and purpose, they become the “market-loungers of Alexandria and Rome,” the “newspaper-readers” of Spengler’s time, or the bored and despondent surfers of today’s worldwide web.

Cosmopolitanism is in every age marked by “hatred of Destiny,” and of “history as the expression of Destiny.”  Spengler did not live to see the term used, but today’s cosmopolitans expresses their hatred of Destiny by their love of Diversity.

Diversity is, after all, a negation of Destiny, just as Destiny as a negation of Diversity.

Spengler tells us that cosmopolitans hate Destiny because they are barren, because they are fruitless critics, pedants, and Casaubons.  They are hollow men who are “inwardly detached from the pulse of blood and being,” and who therefore feel the hatred of incomprehension when faced with the “nation-idea.”  These men yearn to return to the “formless and therefore historyless mass” of humanity, to the diverse swarm that that Spengler calls “fellaheen.”  In Diversity, they hope to find their way back to “zoological” existence, to a life that is “a planless happening without goal . . . wherein occurrences are many, but, in the last analysis, devoid of significance.”

1

The Course of Empire 5–Desolation, Thomas Cole (1836).  If Cole had painted his magnificent cycle today, perchance he would have called his final vision Diversity.

(1) Decline of the West (1918, 1922)

(2) Philosophy of History, 1822-1830.

(3) Elisha Mulford, The Nation: The Foundation of Civil Order and Political Life in the United States (1877).  Mulford was an Episcopalian priest who had studied in Germany in 1860.

(4) Charles Brandon Boynton, The Four Great Powers (1866).  Boynton was a Presbyterian minister and Chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives (1865-1869)

(5) Benjamin Allen, Natural History of the Chalybeat and Purging Waters of England (1699)

(6) Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (2000)

29 thoughts on “The Men Who Hate Destiny

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  2. Now that is a powerful “black pill.” Our entire movement, such as it is, is in vain; there is no renewal, nothing to hope for except a slightly lengthened sunset gleam before the everlasting darkness.

    • @ Ironsides: Funny, that’s not at all what I took from it. My reaction was rather the opposite. It was to reflect that, if Reaction is to amount to something more than mere diatribe, it behooves us Reactionaries to proceed from mere reaction against the base and perverse aspects of modernity on to limning a positive and enchanting vision of civic life as it could and should be lived; not a nostalgic reverie so much as a concrete and actionable proposal. It’s a move from dour gloomy curmudgeon to enthused happy patriot.

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  4. Spengler tells us that cosmopolitans hate Destiny because they are barren, because they are fruitless critics, pedants, and Casaubons.

    History teaches us that the the people who say things like that about “cosmopolitans” are basically Nazi cretins — hatred of modern art was a big deal in the Reich.

    Never read Spengler and probably won’t, but my intuition is the opposite — almost everything worthwhile in civilization comes from cosmopolitanism, diversity, and multicultural exchange. As true today as it was in Rome or along the Silk Road. There is no destiny and no purity, and no ontologically pure nations, they are constructs as presumably any student of history should know. Germany or Italy or the United States is an assemblage of parts, not some unitary thing with a unitary destiny.

    • Modern art is hideous, degrading, and stupid, favored only by posturing ciphers who want to signal how sophisticated they are. It is literally often garbage that requires no talent to create, and which celebrates ugliness and pointlessness.

      • I made heroic attempts to appreciate modern art, to the extent of stalking around the galleries in Soho with a copy of the Village Voice rolled beneath my arm. I had a very good college course on it as well. But in the end my senses revolted and I began to hate it. I now think it is as lovely as leprosy.

    • Life in a Hellenistic culture is generally said to to be agreeable. There is, of course, a great deal of variety, and widespread skepticism ensures that no one gets all hot and bothered about ideas (their own or anybody else’s). But the cultures themselves are sterile, ossifying in mannerism or simulating creativity with the outrageous or the bizarre.

      Spengler’s notion of the nation is not reducible to biology or to simple creedal nationalism. This is somewhat obscured because he uses words like “race” and “idea.” I’m not sure I understand just what he means, but his “idea” is not a proposition. It is something much closer to Plato’s “soul.” It all goes back to something he calls “life-feeling.”

      • Spengler was keenly aware that the words nation, nature, and natal stemmed from a common root, the Latin natus or birth. In French, the verb that English-speakers translate as “to be born” is naître. A nation is something that is born in a founding and mystical vision and that in its life articulates that vision. Being subject to birth, it is also subject to death. This does not imply, however, that anyone should go softly and passively into that good night.

        P.S. Concerning Cole’s suite of paintings: Multiculturalism is there, in the penultimate painting, “The Fall.” It takes the form of the invading barbarians.

      • Also worth noting is that Latin “Gnascor” shares the same Indo-European root as “Kind” (Old English “Gecynde”) and “Kin,” all components of the concept of “Nation.”

      • I understand Spengler as suggesting a third way to understand Nation. It has a racial component, but is not simply racial. It has a spiritual component, but is not simply spiritual. So a nation can die while the descendants of its people live on as what he calls fellaheen. Living in upstate New York, you may have read Wallace’s Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. The rebirth part is something of a stretch, but the account of the death of the Seneca spirit is unforgettable. If the descendants of a real nation do not live on, it seems that the spirit cannot not transmigrate to an entirely different body. That’s what “assimilation” really is, or claims to be–a sort of metempsychosis of the national spirit. This never results in a high-fidelity transcription.

    • These are very honest expressions A.M., and perhaps indicate the fruitlessness of dialogue, if for the sake of resolution, between us and him. This of course does not mean that we cannot learn from one another.
      However, where two people “evalue” things oppositely, there is no argument.
      The Good, the True, The Beautiful. The Evil, The False, The Ugly. Where is there room for argument?
      Where A.M. sees Progress and “everything worthwhile,” I see degeneracy and degeneration. Where I see nobility and civilization, A.M. sees ignorance and oppression.

      So yes, A.M. I do see the Nuremburg Rally as (although only conditionally and ultimately, deceptively) more beautiful and redemptive than the recent Women’s March on Washington.

  5. Great ideas never die.

    To take Sir Harold Nicholson’s example, “The Greek ideal of the beautiful and the good, although it was realised for no more than eighty short years, has left behind it an imperishable memory. We may deplore their indifference to suffering and untruthfulness, yet it was they who discovered and bequeathed the bliss of abstract speculation and aesthetic delight. The treacheries and tragedies that marred the dominance of Athens are to our minds barbaric. Yet still she shines for us, violet-crowned and unblemished, serene and formidable, across two thousand years of fog and strife.”

    The fact that when I first read this I found myself reciting the great lines of Pindar proves how true this is.

    “Ω ται λιπαραί και ιοστέφανοι και
    αοίδιμοι, Ελλάδος έρεισμα, κλειναί,
    Αθήναι, δαιμόνιον πτολίεθρον !”

    [O glistening and violet-crowned and famous in song
    Bulwark of Hellas, glorious Athens
    Fortunate city.]

    • And the Greeks were consequently historical in a way that, say, the Phoenicians were not. Of course it helped that the Greeks also had thumos.

  6. Spengler’s “Magian” culture, represented today by Islam, began many centuries earlier than his “Faustian” (Western) culture and would therefore, according to the Spenglerian morphology of the Great Cultures, be even farther advanced into its “civilized” or rather ossified and hyper-smug phase. It is characteristic, Spengler notes, of the fellaheen to regard themselves as the pinnacle of humanity, its best and most noble, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Spengler’s idea would explain the convergence of Liberalism and Islam, ossified, smug, and equally convinced that they must rule and regulate — infecund in complementary ways. They have both become rigid regimes, soulless, flailing grimly against their approaching mortality.

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  8. If Spengler is right, there is no hope for the West. None. All its nations will die and vanish from the earth as a living thing. Once a man enters old age, he cannot return to youth or middle age. No matter how long he may linger, how good his health and diet, whether he takes blood infusions from younger men, decline unto death is inevitable, his body to be returned to the elements and nothing left (in this world) but, possibly, the memory of him. So too with nations. There is no going back, no resurrection to an earlier age. Any effort “to limn a positive and enchanting vision of civic life” is and must be bootless. We may fight so as not to “go softly and passively into that good night,” but go we must and night with overtake us all.

    Then again, Spengler might not have got it 100% right.

    • Classical civilization is dead. Yet it lived on, translated into the civilization of Medieval Europe and of the Byzantine Empire. That civilization, too, is dead. Yet it lived on, translated into the civilization of what we have come to call “the West.” The West as we have known it seems now to be dying. In what form might we enable it to live on, translated?

      NB: with each of the translations I have noticed, the power, scope, reach, and depth of each succeeding translation grew exponentially. Classical civilization conquered the entire Mediterranean littoral, deep into its productive hinterlands. Feudal civilization ended by discovering and then conquering the world. Western civilization transformed the other high cultures of the planet in its own image, so that in most of them, men now dress as we do, and deploy our double entry accounting, finance, economics, engineering, and science – not to mention Christianity. It began the exploration of outer space.

      What will the next translation accomplish?

    • Spengler’s view was that “Faustian” Culture had passed the climacteric of culture and hardened into Western Civilization. He described its destiny idea as the “infinite,” and said that this idea (or soul, or form) had hardened into the routines of politics, science and technology. Thus Western Civilization was powerful, but also lacking in vital force, rather like a mighty tree that has stopped growing. I think he would say that the West has realized its purpose and there is nothing left for it to do. It is in the state of an artistic style that has explored all of its inherent possibilities and can only sink into mannerism.

      There is also, of course, his use of the rather ominous title “Faustian” to describe Western Culture. When Faust came to the end of his powers, it was uniquely dreadful.

    • “There is no going back, no resurrection to an earlier age.”

      The Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who had long raided the Saxon shore of Britain, conquered and settled it after the departure of the legions and, for a thousand years, seemed sunk in torpor as laborious tillers of the soil, their heroic past as pirates and sea-rovers apparently lost and forgotten.

      A thousand years later, they took up their Volkerwanderung again, with three-decker men-of-war replacing the long boats of Hengist and Horsa, and plundering, enslaving and settling the largest maritime empire the world has ever seen; an empire that, at its zenith, embraced a little under a quarter of the earth’s surface and a little over a quarter of its population.

      • Same for the Iberian Visigoths. Crushed under the Mohammedan boot for centuries, they threw it off and instantly explored and conquered vast reaches of the planet.

      • Indeed.

        Again, one could point to the recovery of the art and architecture of their Classical past in Renaissance Italy, which undoubtedly produced a national revival.

        Then, there are some historians who see the French Revolution as a Gallo-Roman revolt against Frankish rule, and the Abbé Sieyès said as much at the time. As Lord Acton has it, “The Cæsarean system gave an unprecedented freedom to the dependencies, and raised them to a civil equality which put an end to the dominion of race over race and of class over class. The [Augustan] monarchy was hailed as a refuge from the pride and cupidity of the Roman people; and the love of equality, the hatred of nobility, and the tolerance of despotism implanted by Rome became, at least in Gaul, the chief feature of the national character.”

      • I think both you and Kristor are failing to take in what Spengler means by “exhaustion.” It is not exhaustion of energy, but exhaustion of possibility. Let’s say the destiny idea of our culture is personal freedom, so all our history is, essentially, Whig history. This is exactly the way a Hegelian American historian like George Bancroft wrote it. So to actualize the possibilities in this destiny idea, our people begins by freeing the barons with Magna Carta, and then freeing the common man in the American Revolution, and then freeing the blacks, and women, and homosexuals, and transexuals. Do you see the diminishing returns? It’s not obvious that this idea has lot’s of mileage left in it. We can, of course, extend the fully-developed idea in space, and impose it on other cultures, which is precisely what we are doing, but the destiny idea of freedom seems to be nearing the end of the line.

        The other thing to keep in mind with Spengler is that reaching the “end of the line” with a destiny idea does not mean that the idea is discarded or the people vanish, they simply “harden” and loose their spirit and life. Consider a man who’s project it is to clear forest and build a farm. His “life” is the making of the farm. When the farm is made, he can live in it, perhaps very comfortably, but everyone who does projects knows that the doing is more vital than the having done. In many ways, struggle is sweeter than victory.

      • No question that Whig history is self-limiting (viz., Fukuyama’s triumphal final entry in its own story, The End of History and the Last Man), if only because the maximum of personal liberty is the zero of social order. And personal liberty may indeed be the animating idea of the Modern era of our civilization. That era certainly seems to be drawing toward its absurd and vicious close.

        But I think it likely that our civilization (as distinct from its eras) is aimed at the destiny idea of the infinite, as Spengler thought. The Classical, Medieval, and Modern eras of that civilization, then, each sought the infinite under a different aspect, each taking the categories of its predecessor as the starting point for a new and different iteration of the quest. Each eventually reached a sort of climax ecology, stable yet no longer so vital or fecund as in its younger days, therefore vulnerable to attack (from Muslims, Mongols, plague, Vikings, Goths, whatever) and to the rot of decadence.

        But, can a quest for the infinite reach a terminus? Can there be an exhaustion of possible developments in that search? Hard to see how. Each finite cultural step toward the infinite must indeed reach some limit. But if the animating destiny idea of the West really is the infinite, then there are going to be an infinite number of Western steps toward its destiny idea. In that case, the West is again about to be refreshed, as something quite different, yet identifiable as traditionally descended from its predecessors, and integrating their advances in some new synthesis.

      • @ Michael Paterson-Seymour: The Italian resurgence that we have come to call the Renaissance founded (and financed) the successful maritime defense of Europe by Venice and the Papal States in the 16th Century, and then in the 17th Century the defeat of the Turkish terrestrial assault on Austria.

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