When the Holy Fire Dies

“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.”

William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1799)

“Then a moody youth sat down on a world in ruins.”

Alfred de Musset, Confessions of a Child of the Century (1836)

The poet Wordsworth tells is that it is bliss to set out on a crusade.  Every crusader (but especially the young) rejoices that he has been specially chosen to join in the great task of saving humanity from barbarism, ignorance, tyranny, superstition or false gods.  But alas, before he reaches the New Jerusalem, the holy fire dies and the crusade breaks down in an inglorious bedlam of peculation, chicanery and quarrels.  As Eric Hoffer famously put it, “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”  Thus, the crusader who felt so hopeful when he set out at dawn returns tired and hopeless at the close of the day.  From bliss to this, he thinks, as he sinks into the drab and prosaic life of what Spengler called the fellaheen.

My two epigrams indicate the mood at the beginning and end of a crusade.  The first was written in the euphoric dawn of the French Revolution, a seemingly glorious crusade for human liberty, equality and fraternity.  The second was written a quarter century later, in the inglorious bedlam into which that glorious crusade broke down.  The revolutionary armies had marched out from France to redeem the world, but they never found their New Jerusalem.  They pulled the Old Jerusalem down, but then the holy fire died and the crusade broke down in an inglorious bedlam of peculation, chicanery and quarrels.

This is why Musset likened the generation of the 1830s to a moody youth sitting on a world in ruins.  They had lost their fathers’ hopes, had not found what their fathers hoped for, and could not rebuild the what their fathers had destroyed.

“The entire malady of the present age comes from two causes: the nation that has passed through ’93 and through 1814 carries two wounds in its heart.  All that was is no more; all that will be is not yet.  Look not elsewhere for the secret of our evil.”

Musset tells us that, after the revolutionary enthusiasm dissipated, the French were in the position of a man who has pulled down his old house in expectation of a shipment of new-cut stone.  When the work of demolition is done, this hopeful homebuilder receives a notice that the quarry is too deep to extract the blocks he has been promised.  He is thus obliged to make whatever shelter he can from the broken rubble, and ends more discontented and ill-housed than before.

French civilization is, of course, the “house” to which Musset’s analogy refers.  France of the ancien régime was the old house.  It was in many ways an uncomfortable house; it was in many parts a rotted and ruinous house; but in spite of all this it was still a noble house in which a man might be proud to live.  Indeed, it was so noble that a man might be proud to pull it down.  But when it was down, the new stones that had been promised did not arrive.  The crusade failed before it found the New Jerusalem.  It broke down in an inglorious bedlam of peculation, chicanery and quarrels.  And in this dismal dusk of their fathers’ dreams, the young men of France sank into the drab and prosaic life of a historyless fellaheen.  The disillusioned sons of crusaders became decadent aesthetes or sensual philistines.

“From that time there were formed, as it were, two camps: on the one side exalted, suffering minds . . . bent their heads weeping; they enveloped themselves in sickly dreams . . . . On the other side, the men of flesh remained erect, inflexible, amid positive enjoyments, and they took no other care than to count the money that they had.  It was only a sob and a burst of laughter, the one coming from the soul, the other from the body.”

* * * *

There are many names for the spirit that inflames the hearts of men and women on a crusade.  Some call it élan, some call it morale, some call it enthusiasm.  Whatever we call it, the fire is kindled by the leadership of a natural aristocracy, and it spreads to the multitude by a process of spontaneous mimesis.  The historian Arnold Toynbee calls this natural aristocracy a “creative minority” and says that it causes spontaneous mimesis by “charm.”  Other writers call this attractive power charisma, mystique, or heroism.

The multitude falls in behind a creative minority because they have been charmed into believing that this natural aristocracy knows the way to the New Jerusalem, and it is bliss to join in the ranks of a glorious crusade.

It is bliss, that is, until the creative minority loses its way and the crusade breaks down in an inglorious bedlam of peculation, chicanery and quarrels.  It is bliss until the charm wears off, and the disillusioned multitude begins to grumble that their leaders are swindlers, New Jerusalem is a myth, and the crusade is a racket and a cheap mug’s game.  The mystique evaporates and the natural aristocracy that came to power by charm mutates into an entrenched aristocracy that remains in power by fear.

Toynbee’s calls this entrenched aristocracy a “dominant minority,” and tells us the appearance of a dominant minority is the beginning of the end.

“The nature of the breakdowns of civilizations can be summed up in three points: a failure of creative power in the minority, an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority and a consequent loss of social unity in the society as a whole.”

“When, in the history of any society, a creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority which attempts to retain by force a position that it has ceased to merit, this change in the character of the ruling element provokes, on the other side, the secession of a proletariat which no longer admires and imitates its rulers and revolts against its servitude.”

* * * * *

I began talking about crusades and just quoted Toynbee talking about civilizations.  This is because every civilization begins with a belief that it has a mission, that it is in some sense a crusade.  This is why Oswald Spengler said that every civilization is fired by a “destiny idea.”  Here is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, expressing his belief that Russian civilization is on a mission and has a glorious destiny.

“He who believes in Russia knows . . . that she will remain . . . our Holy Russia . . . . Her mission is so lofty . . . that he who believes in this mission must stand above all doubts and trepidation.”*

In Toynbee’s model, a civilization begins to disintegrate when its leaders lose the gift of creativity, and with it the charm that commands the loyalty and mimesis of the multitude.  The result is a deadly “schism” in the social body of the civilization.  The unpopular and senile elite begins to hate and fear the multitude; the disaffected and mutinous multitude begins to hate and fear the elite.

And at the heart of this schism there is the terrible knowledge that the sacred fire of creativity has gone out.  When this happens, belief in the mission gives way to Dostoyevsky’s panic of “doubt and trepidation.”  Toynbee describes this panic with the striking analogy of “a phalanx” that disintegrates in the midst of a battle.  The phalanx was, of course, the battle formation with which the hoplites of ancient Greece welded themselves into an indomitable military machine.

When its sacred fire of creativity is burning and the mimesis of the multitude is assured, a civilization is like a disciplined phalanx.  Its shields are locked and its spears are aligned.  But when the sacred fire goes out, a civilization is like an undisciplined phalanx whose soldiers begin to break ranks.  And Toynbee tells us that, in both civilizations and phalanxes, soldiers break ranks in two directions.

In the case of the phalanx, some soldiers break ranks backwards.  Toynbee calls such soldiers “truants” and says:

“The soldier realizes with dismay that the regiment has now lost the discipline that has hitherto fortified his morale, and . . . allows himself to believe that he is absolved from his military duty. In this unedifying frame of mind the truant steps out of the ranks backwards, in the futile hope of saving his own skin.”

In the case of a civilization, the truants who break ranks backwards are the dropouts who no longer believe that their civilization is holy, or that it has a lofty mission.  The sacred fire has gone out and the charm is gone, so they begin to grumble that their leaders are swindlers, New Jerusalem is a myth, and the crusade is a racket and a cheap mug’s game.  Now it’s every man for himself.  In other words, it breaks down in an inglorious bedlam of peculation, chicanery and quarrels

Returning to the analogy of the disintegrating phalanx, Toynbee tells us there are also soldiers who break ranks forward.  They do this in the desperate hope that their example, even their valiant death, will reignite the holy fire, so Toynbee calls such soldiers “martyrs.”

“The martyr is a soldier who steps out of the ranks on his own initiative in a forward direction in order to go beyond the demands of duty . . . . The martyr courts death for the vindication of an ideal.”

In the case of a civilization, these martyrs who break ranks forward are zealots who, like the zealots of ancient Israel, hope to revive creativity and charm with a flamboyant display of loyalty to the lost cause of the dying crusade.  They believe the cinders and ashes of the sacred fire will burn if only the multitude truly wants them to burn.

* * * * *

It seems to me that we nowadays have a singularly charmless and uncreative elite.  Many of them are ghastly to look at, and not a few more closely resemble comic-book supervillains than the politicians and statesmen of a civilized land.  But their ghastly appearance is only a token of the deeper problem that they are a senile elite that has run out of ideas.  The sacred fire of creativity has gone out and our civilization is breaking down in an inglorious bedlam of peculation, chicanery and quarrels.

Our elite know that they have no idea where the New Jerusalem lies.  And they know that we know that they do not know.  That is why they hate us and call us populists, deplorables, racists, bible-clutchers, and other epithets for the rabble, the riff-raff and the great unwashed.  That is why we hate them and call them creatures of the swamp.

As I said above:

“The unpopular and senile elite begins to hate and fear the multitude; the disaffected and mutinous multitude begins to hate and fear the elite.”

Because they lack creativity and charm, our elite has mutated into a “dominant minority” that compels obedience with threats and bribes.  There are good reasons to believe that the Covid Crisis has been a drill.  Our elite is an entrenched aristocracy that cannot be budged, and if you grumble too loudly they will rifle through your social media and find a reason to have you fired.  And it would be a real shame if they found some woman from your past who suddenly remembered that you once flashed your willy or pinched her bum.

“The mystique evaporates and the natural aristocracy that came to power by charm becomes an entrenched aristocracy that remains in power by fear.”

Naturally, those of us in the phalanx have begun to break ranks forward and backwards.  The sacred fire has died for the truants and dropouts, who now grumble that our leaders are swindlers, New Jerusalem is a myth, and America is a racket and a cheap mug’s game.  At the same time, we have no shortage of martyrs and zealots who hope to bring the fire back to life by blowing like Aeolus on its cinders and ashes.  This zealotry is by no means limited to the Yankee-doodle patriots of the Right.  One sees the same thing among the Woody-Guthrie patriots of the left.  And that thing one sees in both cases is the zealot’s belief that cinders and ashes of the sacred fire will burn if only we really want them to burn.

But cinders and ashes will not burn, and the multitude in any case feels the terrible lassitude of a fellaheen.

“A general weariness on all things sank!
A readiness for sleep—a dull desire
To be at rest forever.  Men shrank
From labor of all kinds.  The sacred fire
Was dead upon the altar—for the Sire
Had quenched it in the Son; nor fear nor joy
In any bosom lived.”

Robert W. Thon, The Epochs  (1816)

11 thoughts on “When the Holy Fire Dies

  1. “It seems to me that we nowadays have a singularly charmless and uncreative elite. Many of them are ghastly to look at…” Like Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, whom, in my unshorn condition, I resemble. (See the previous post.)

    I have commented before on the ugliness of the university’s physical plant, but you are depressingly accurate in extending the description to the faculty members, whose bitterness expresses itself in their drab dress, their pursed lips, their squinting eyes, and generally in their resemblance (acknowledging Gogol’s priority) to a proboscis with legs. Or let’s say to a proboscis with feet because that accounts better for the rat-like shuffle. I could name names…

    There are any number of video documentaries on YouTube that explain how an alien race of Reptilians has long infiltrated mankind, sought and gained offices of power, and now rules us. (All praise to our Reptilian masters!) It is a myth, but like most myths it grows on the basis of a truth-perception. (See also They Live, with Rowdy Roddy Piper.)

    As much as I value Wordsworth, the elan of the Revolution in its early days caused him to confuse liberty with libertinism. When he got the Hell out of France, taking his skin with him, he left behind an unwed teenage mother and her child. Wordsworth in his irresponsible naivety still manages to differentiate himself from the young professoriate, many of whom are dedicated to childlessness. (Potential mates, on the other hand, observing such people, might well say to themselves — “Who would want to have a child with that?” Again, I could name names…)

  2. When I look at photographs of congresspersons, senators and recent presidents, I feel I am reading an old Dick Tracy comic strip. The photos of faculty on department webpages are often a hoot. This is one group that should not be encouraged to express their personalities. You’re right about Wordsworth. But revolutionary disgust is better than healthy appetite for revolutionary illusions.

    • Dear JM — I tried looking at photographs of congress-critters, but the leering, lizard-like visages temporarily blinded me. I’ll take your word for it.

      • High resolution images are part of the problem, but I also believe in the old science of physiognomy. Looking at a photograph of Bill Clinton the other day, I thought how much he has come to resemble W. C. Field’s character, Larson E. Whipsnade. And there is no shortage of gargoyles on the right.

  3. Pingback: When the Holy Fire Dies | Reaction Times

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  5. There is an old Peggy Noonan column that has haunted me for a long time that is exactly this. http://peggynoonan.com/326/

    And one paragraph in particular.
    “This is. Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they’re living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they’re going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley’s off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

    I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, “I got mine, you get yours.”

    • When you don’t know what to do, it is sometimes best to cary on and hope something turns up. But leaders also a fiduciary responsibility to be honest, and to step aside when they are truly baffled. That is your point. Our elites are just faking it, and hope to die before anyone notices. What you call the “I got mine” ethos is to be expected when the sacred fire dies.

  6. Regarding “High resolution images” — High-res pics of low-res people make me dizzy. Then they make me nauseous. If I wanted to keep vampires away from my house, I would post a photograph of HC or Godfather Cuomo on my front door. Better than garlic…


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