What is Puritanism?

P 01 Spengler Left-Glancing

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936)

In our sessions at Old City Hall, Richard Cocks and I often exchange ideas with our friend Richard Fader – a true Christian gentleman whom we both greatly admire – and among the recurrent topics is that of Puritanism.  Fader, as we call him, is part libertarian, part social conservative, well read, and a lively conversationalist.  The question used continuously to come up: Who are the Puritans of the present day?  Fader, who despite his socially conservative instincts, has voted Democratic all his life, was, when these colloquies began, all too ready to identify the Puritans with the people whom he called “conservatives.”  Richard and I, who work on the same college campus, have repeatedly explained to our friend that it is not “conservatives” who want to ban free speech, who physically threaten speakers with whom they disagree in order to silence them, or who abuse public institutions for the purpose of political indoctrination.  It is not “conservatives” who preach the lynch-mob sermons of our day.  Fanaticism and hatred, we have argued, are nowadays located almost entirely on the political left, which has taken over the Democratic Party and just about every institution.  As Fader has come around significantly on the issue, the question has changed from its original form to become one of definition: What is Puritanism?  I recently came across a provocative definition of Puritanism in a book that I periodically re-read.

The extended passage below comes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), where it appears in Chapter IX, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.”  Chapter IX is the third of three chapters that Spengler devotes to what he calls “The Problems of Arabian Culture.” The “problems” that Spengler discusses are both intrinsic to Arabian Culture and associated with the Western misinterpretation of Arabian Culture.  In the original, the passage is one long paragraph. I have broken it into three shorter paragraphs in order to facilitate its reading.  I offer a few glosses and comments after the quotation.

Puritanism manifests itself in the army of Cromwell and his Independents, iron, Bible-firm, psalm-singing as they rode into battle; in the ranks of the Pythagoreans, who in the bitter earnest of their gospel of duty wrecked gay Sybaris and branded it forever as the city without morals; in the armies of the early Caliphs, which subdued not only states, but souls. Milton’s Paradise Lost and many surahs of the Koran, the little that we know of Pythagorean teachings — all come to the same thing. They are enthusiasms of a sober spirit, cold intensities, dry mysticism, pedantic ecstasy. And yet, even so, a wild piety flickers up once more in them. All the transcendent inwardness that the City can produce after attaining to unconditional mastery over the soul of the Land is here concentrated, with a sort of terror lest it should prove unreal and evanescent, and is correspondingly impatient, pitiless, and unforgiving. Puritanism — not in the West only, but in all Cultures — lacks the smile that had illumined the religion of the Spring — every Spring — the moments of profound joy in life, the humour of life. Nothing of the quiet blissfulness that in the Magian Springtime flashes up so often in the stories of Jesus’s childhood, or in Gregory Nazianzen, is to be found in the Koran, nothing in the palpable blitheness of St. Francis’s songs in Milton. Deadly earnest broods over the Jansenist mind of Port Royal, over the meetings of the black-clothed Roundheads, by whom Shakespeare’s “Merry England” — Sybaris over again — was annihilated in a few years.
Now for the first time the battle against the Devil, whose bodily nearness they all felt, was fought with a dark and bitter fury. In the seventeenth century more than a million witches were burnt — alike in the Protestant North, the Catholic South, and even the communities in America and India. Joyless and sour are the duty-doctrines of Islam (jtkb), with its hard intellectuality, and the Westminster Catechisms of 1643, and the Jansenist ethics (Jansen’s  Augustinus, 1640) as well — for in the realm of Loyola, too, there was of inward necessity a Puritan movement. Religion is livingly experienced metaphysic, but the company of the “godly,” as the Independents called themselves, and the Pythagoreans, and the disciples of Mohammed, all alike experienced it, not with the senses, but primarily as a concept. Parshva, who about 600 B.C. founded the sect of the “Unfettered” on the Ganges, taught, like the other Puritans of his time, that salvation came, not from sacrifices and rights, but only from knowledge of the identity of Atman and Brahman.
In all Puritan poetry the place of the old Gothic visions is taken by an unbridled, yet withal jejune, spirit of allegory. In the waking-consciousness of these ascetics the concept is the only real power. Pascal’s wrestlings were about concepts and not, like Meister Eckart’s, about shapes. Witches were burnt because they were proved, and not because they were seen in the air o’ nights; the Protestant jurists employed the witches’ hammer of the Dominicans because it was built on concepts. The Madonnas of the early Gothic had appeared to their suppliants, but those of Bernini no man ever saw. They exist because they are proved — and there came to be a positive enthusiasm for existence of this sort. Milton, Cromwell’s great secretary of state, clothed concepts with shapes, and Bunyan brings a whole mythology of concepts into ethical-allegorical activity. From that it is but a step to Kant, in whose conceptual ethics the Devil assumes his final shape as the Radically Evil. (Page 302)

GLOSSES – Contemporaneity. The paragraph exemplifies Spengler’s method of cultural cross-comparison, which involves his notion of contemporaneity.  According to Spengler there is no one line of history along which all civilizations (he calls them “Great Cultures”) might be placed in a sequence.  Every civilization is a monad that exists entirely apart from all others, but each unfolds according to a similar pattern of organic development.  Thus each civilization begins in its Springtide, enjoys its summer of robust maturity, and then declines into its autumn and winter of decrepitude and final mortality.  While there is no sequence, it is nevertheless possible according to Spengler to observe the similarities of phase in each civilization.  In this way, then, Pythagoras, Mohammed, and Cromwell can be “contemporaries” of one another.

The City. Every “Great Culture,” according to Spengler, begins in the countryside in a people rooted in the soil.  Urbanization belongs to the end of the culture’s summertime and to its autumn and winter of decrepitude and mortality.  Spengler is the grandfather of the modern European Archeofuturists and Identitarians in that he, anticipating them, reviles the corruption and rootlessness – the spiritual depletion and bloodless abstraction – that set the tone of life in the modern megalopolis.  (See, for example, Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier’s remarks on urbanization in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance.) The city for Spengler is a prime symptom of the moribund culture: It is inhuman and distorting and its reign gradually destroys everything youthful, spontaneous, or creative in the society.  In the city, no one is truly indigenous; everyone is a type of homeless foreigner or nomad.

The Living versus the Abstract. These are central terms for Spengler, who valued instinct and intuition and who deplored the facticity of the self-congratulatory modern type of intellect.  The healthy subject of the cultural Springtide never lacks intellectual ability, but he little requires intellectual proofs; rather, he knows vividly his lifeworld (to borrow useful term from Spengler’s actual contemporary Edmund Husserl) and negotiates it with confidence.  He has faith. Such a life responds to its sense of a destiny; it embraces what befalls it; and its persistent condition is that of the joie-de-vivre.  Spengler’s phrase to the effect that “religion is livingly experienced metaphysic” is apropos.  By contrast, the urbane mentality of the City-phase has lost all vital connection with life – principally from isolating itself in its unnatural, increasingly anti-natural urban environment.  The City-mentality is the fact-mentality, but its facts are a mere dead record of things that have already occurred and exist now only as a contextless hence also meaningless reportThe syllogism, detached from life, is the characteristic form of the abstract City-phase a culture-turned-civilization. Detached from life, the premises of modernity’s syllogisms are false.

Kant. Spengler mentions Immanuel Kant in almost every chapter of The Decline and he only ever discusses Kant critically.  Kant embodied (although that is not quite le mot juste) for Spengler the pure intellect divorced entirely not only from its bodily, lived experience, but from the whole of the living world.  For Spengler, The Critique of Pure Reason is a fossil.

COMMENTS – Who is or is not a Puritan? Spengler would not blithely conflate all of Protestantism with Puritanism, nor would I.  Spengler himself was a nominal Lutheran, and almost certainly an agnostic, but he was also a Bavarian and therefore the scion of a Catholic nation; he shows pronounced sympathy for the high phase of Medieval or Gothic Catholicism and is not hostile to genuine religion.  The label Puritan must justify its usage not entirely in respect of the content of belief but by emphasis on the style of belief.  Puritanism mobilizes itself – hence Spengler’s opening references to Cromwell’s army, the Krotoniate-Pythagorean crusade against the Sybarites, and Mohammed’s jihad.  Puritanism in Spengler’s definition is also heretical; that is, it takes a piece of something pre-existent and expands it, at the expense of all the rest, into a pseudo-whole, to which it then fanatically devotes itself.  Many Catholic congregations in North America qualify as Puritanical in that they have liberalized themselves and so assimilated themselves to the Left, which is indeed a heresy of Christianity.  All humanities professors are Puritans – as are all college administrators.  Trumpskyites in North America and adherents of the Fidesz Party in Hungary are not Puritans.  Everything today describing itself as “comedy” is archly Puritanical and extremely unfunny.  It never smiles; it only smirks and scowls and uses four-letter language. Islam is ultra-Puritanical. That California, governed by an octogenarian ex-Jesuit, is the vanguard Puritan republic of the United States, the Salem Colony of its day, is in no way belied by the other fact that it is the home-state of the pornography industry.

Concerning Spengler’s Phraseology. I call attention to Spengler’s knack for coining necessary terms and phrases.  Consider his “enthusiasms of a sober spirit,” with their “cold intensities, dry mysticism, and pedantic ecstasy.”  I particularly like the last – “pedantic ecstasy” – which is what, I would guess, the conformist and advocate of multiculturalism experiences when, at an academic conference, reading her twelve-minute presentation, she solemnly pronounces the word intersectionality.  (“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most intersectional of them all?”) Then there is “wild piety.”  There is something Bacchic in the coinage and that Dionysiac lynch-mob glee makes itself obvious in every “Antifa” protest against something the protesters have been convinced by constant incantation to dislike – that is to say everything except their own limited lifeworld. (A better diction-choice would perhaps be deathworld).  Here too the words impatient, pitiless, and unforgiving apply, as we frequently see in the determination of institutions to destroy the lives of those who criticize what one can only call the reigning Puritanical Regime.

Is Puritanism Gnostic, Manichaean? I apologize in advance to JM Smith who will find these particular remarks tedious and unconvincing, a reaction to which I acknowledge that he is perfectly entitled.  The ancient Gnostics and Manichaeans were cosmic dualists, positing a good deity and a swindling, false anti-deity who contend for the universal crown – the eventual triumph of the good deity being presumed but also being continuously presumptively deferred.  The modern liberal mentality is not cosmically dualistic in the style of The Gospel of Truth or Bardesanes, but that is because it rejects anything transcendent apriori, and the battling gods are necessarily transcendent.  Neither in Islam is there any cosmic dualism although there are significant traces in its doctrines of a Gnostic-like anti-cosmicism.  Nevertheless, like Islam, the modern liberal mentality transfers the cosmic dualism down from the heavens to the earthly realm where it re-emplaces it in the form of the vehemently guarded in-group/out-group division.  To qualify for in-group membership, one must be illuminated, or, in the current term, “woke.”  There is no middle ground.  Any given person is either inside right-opinion, by virtue of knowledge that transforms the subject ontologically, or, lacking that knowledge, outside it.  Spengler’s sense of this Gnostic or Manichaean character of Puritanism comes out in his invocation of the concept, the dead and counter-intuitive (one might say, the deconstructive) notion that lodges itself at the center of an ossified network of other notions, where it functions like a Mumbo-Jumbo. There is ratiocination, but only on false premises and within a restricted mental horizon. There is no living thought – no phsyiognomic tact.

Is Puritanism Gnostic, Manichaean — Continued?  Notice that in Spengler’s presentation, Puritanism is other than genuine religion.  The livingly experienced metaphysic of the believer begins not in a concept, but in a “vision.”  The “vision” communicates “quiet blissfulness” and “profound joy in life,” elements entirely lacking in the Puritan soul, as Spengler describes it.  Indeed, the Puritan soul boils over into resentment merely on witnessing “quiet blissfulness” or “profound joy in life.”  These spiritual phenomena offend Puritanism’s demand that the creed always must mobilize itself – that its grand march of progress must never be reined in but must go forward forever like some Juggernaut.  Consider the politically correct bear-trap of subjective offense as the “proof” of transgression.  Everything for the modern liberal mentality is, in Spengler’s term, “proved,” even proved in advance, so that nothing need be seen and nothing need be brought in evidence except the claim of lèse majesté. The ascription of “racism,” “sexism,” and “white privilege” by one party to another assumes the accusing party’s possession of special knowledge – of an inner disposition in the accused party – that others, not possessing similar clairvoyance or telepathic ability, cannot detect. It is a magical performance by an illuminatus.

Modern Ugliness is One and the Same with Modern Puritanism. A Gothic Lady-Church is a miracle of rare device, beautiful in every detail, with every detail contributing to a sublime whole that transcends the sum of its mere parts.  A Gothic church is full of images. Byzantine Isaurian Orthodoxy and Islam were – and Islam remains – not merely aniconic but positively iconoclastic.  So was the ostensibly Catholic Savonarola dictatorship in Florence that made poor Botticelli bring his canvasses to the bonfire.  The implications of artistic beauty, which cannot be separated from spiritual beauty, threatened these regimes. Whether Luther and Calvin urged them to do so or not, early Protestants practiced iconoclasm: The destruction of Catholic property and of Catholic art in England and in Northern Europe, especially in Sweden, was widespread and atrocious.  The modern liberal mentality is iconoclastic hence also Puritanical in any number of ways.  It would like to banish all Christian imagery from the public square.  It attacks beauty always and everywhere, substituting for it every variety of deformity and ugliness.  It is intent on removing what offends it from the field of vision, whether it is a bronze statue of a confederate general or a painting by John Waterhouse that depicts “the male gaze.”  The fact that the modern liberal mentality immediately forges an alliance with Islam against the traditions of the West suggests that it is psychically convergent with Islam. Modern Art’s flattening-out of the depth-saturated three-dimensional image into Cubism or the depthless non-representational blotches of abstract art is at once iconoclastic and Puritanical. It disdains the world. One might say the same of cacophonous modern music, rock-and-roll, and the so-called hip-hop.

Naturally, I invite other comments.

20 thoughts on “What is Puritanism?

  1. Pingback: What is Puritanism? | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: What is Puritanism? | Reaction Times

  3. With respect to “the living versus the abstract,” we can also turn to S.T. Coleridge and his distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata. Puritans can only view the world through the lens of natura naturata, missing out on the dynamism inherent in life as it unfolds.

    • And Coleridge’s idea communicates with those of Goethe and Schelling, both of whom, but especially the former, Spengler greatly admired.

  4. I do not actually deny that progressives are dualistic. In fact I think it is clear that their good (although still partly hidden) God is “History” and their bad (although ultimately doomed) God is “Reaction.” It is right there in their name, Progressive. A Progressive is “on that right side of history,” a situation exactly analogous to Christian “righteousness,” “justification,” or “being right with God.” This is, of course, a mythical interpretation of actual human events.

    Spengler is very good on the phenomenology of Puritanism, but I would amplify his explanation of its cause. Puritanism is essentially a movement to purge a cultural body of impurities, and is, I believe, always triggered by a premonition of cultural death. Puritanical Christians aimed to purge the Church of unregenerate souls and superstitious practices, all in th hope of reviving the sickly body of Christ. Puritanical Progressives aim to purge their Church (in other words cultural institutions such as universities) of regenerate souls (in other words non-Progressives) and retrograde practices, all in the hope of reviving the sickly body of their mythical interpretation of History.

    • Dear JM: Your idea that Puritanism is essentially a purgative spasm and that it is a reaction to its own crisis (the sense of its end) is consistent not only with the view that Puritanism is dualistic (hence also generically Gnostic) but with the view (mine) that Puritanism is a recursion to pre-Christian sacrificial practice. All around us today we can see the crisis of Liberal Puritanism intensifying.

  5. It was my understanding that the definition of liberalism broadly agreed to on the Orthosphere was a political philosophy espousing freedom and equal rights as governmental priorities. What you describe in your post as Puritanism (i.e., a subset of liberalism) is not that. Rather, it seems that the liberalism / Puritanism you describe is simply everything you dislike about modern Western civilization. What is the connection between freedom / equality and Puritanism if any?

    • It would be a gross error to take liberalism’s self-description or self-definition at face value. I have no idea what the “broadly agreed” definition of liberalism might be at The Orthosphere, but my understanding of liberalism and therefore also my definition of it differ from yours. Liberalism is essentially the rejection of traditions; it is fundamentally reactionary and anti-historical, no matter its invocations of History as a substitute god, and despite its rabid devotion to Progress. I evaluate social phenomena teleologically, under which view liberalism is whatever it has become however anodyne it might have seemed in the beginning. The Jacobins put into effect a program of social reconstruction whose main themes were Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Liberty is not the same as freedom, as its etymon suggests. Equality is other than the carefully limited guarantee of equality before the law articulated in the Constitution. Fraternity, to which attaches the threatening word citizen, is nothing less than retribalization. Fraternity especially signals the fundamental Us-Them dichotomy of Liberalism-as-Puritanism. “That is not who we are,” as Obama infamously said more than once; or “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton calls those who voted for Trump. Impure is the synonym of “not who we are,” just as it is the synonym of “deplorable.” That means that those who invoke those others, the out-group, who are “not who we are” and call them “deplorables,” are – yes – Puritans, seeing themselves as righteously unlike the impure.

      The liberals who now call themselves progressives and whom Spengler recognizes as Puritans endow themselves with the liberty to quash other people’s traditional freedoms and political rights.

      Finally — please tell me — is there anything in modernity that I dislike that you, in fact, like?

  6. I have pointed out in the past that the various Orthosphere contributors are working with different definitions of the word “liberalism” and yet discussing liberalism as if they were all using the same definition. I think it is difficult to have a meaningful conversation involving liberalism if this is the case. Several people including Terry Morris (who was the most vocal) argued that I was quibbling and that there was “broad agreement” as to the definition. It seems that you are confirming my original position.

    The “freedom and equal rights” definition comes from Zippy’s blog. I question whether governments espousing freedom and equal rights as priorities is the cause of all society’s ills in modern times. But if you are not using the “freedom and equal rights” definition of liberalism then this is not at issue.

    I agree with the points made in your blog that modernity dispenses to its detriment in many ways with beauty and a whole-hearted connection to religion. I’m not saying I like any part of modernity that you dislike. My concern is about whether a consistent definition of liberalism is being used and whether “freedom and equal rights” are the cause of what you dislike about modernity.

  7. “I have pointed out in the past that the various Orthosphere contributors are working with different definitions of the word ‘liberalism’ and yet discussing liberalism as if they were all using the same definition.”

    Contributors to The Orthosphere are not bound to some invariant, dictionary-type definition of liberalism, in adherence to which there is no tactical facility. Dictionary-definitions are literal-minded. You might even call them Puritanical. We are not at war with a definition. We are at war with a long-standing social and political — and religious — deformation. That deformation although dedicated to death is still alive and active and capable of carrying out its fatal program. The “different definitions” that you cite are not really “definitions”; they are intuitions, but they are convergent and complementary intuitions, precisely of that fatal deformation. We need all of them because each one of us, including you, can perceive aspects of the deformation that elude the perceptions of others. Pace Terry Morris, I am happy to confirm your original contrary position in your debate with Terry Morris, against whom I hold nothing.

    • , I am happy to confirm your original contrary position in your debate with Terry Morris, against whom I hold nothing.


  8. The question remains, are the governmental priorities of freedom and equal rights to blame for the puritanical ugliness of modernity you describe in your post? I am not convinced of this.

  9. I humbly think that in this discussion there has been a fair amount of (as the kids say) intersection going on between “modernity,” “Puritanism,” and “liberalism.” Each of these is a distinct concept albeit with a fair amount of contemporary overlap.

    Which is not to say there are no similarities. Puritanism was an interesting mix of radical Exit (in the Exit-or-Voice sense) minded sola scriptura-ists who were committed to a view of the Good as discovered in the Bible and nothing but the Bible. And they were rather unafraid to see (their interpretation of the) non-Good crushed under the boot of the law’s heel. However, given their commitments they also repudiated good faith disagreement of scriptural interpretation as an impossibility. Disagreement about justification, morality, ecclesiology, etc just proves the non-Puritan to be an evil reprobate, ie less than Christian.

    The parallels to liberalism are obvious. Liberals analogously view disagreement over freedom as an impossibility. Liberty, it is argued, is obvious once one removes all those man-made traditions of men. It just is manifest that free speech and free press and men-pretending-to-marry-men is the Good. Disagreement just proves the one who disagrees to be a liberty-hating deplorable. And since “men were endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” liberty-hating deplorables are less than human. And therefore, liberals eloquently argue, these things may be crushed under the heel of the law’s boot. It is perhaps the only context in which animal rights nonsense may save non-liberals from the guillotine.

  10. Pingback: An Essentialist Making the Case for Nominalism | Winston Scrooge


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