Spengler on Militant Religiosity

Spengler 01

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936)

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the German historian and philosopher, devotes a suite of three chapters (VII, VIII, and IX) in his Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), to what he calls “The Problems of the Arabian Culture.”  The third of these chapters, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell,” explores the parallelisms that, in Spengler’s view, and in his use of the word, make these figures “contemporary” with one another.  The same chapter also contains Spengler’s analysis of Puritanism, but not strictly in the sense of Calvinist doctrine although he includes Calvinism in his discussion.  Spengler views Puritanism as an inevitable phase of religion, one of doctrinal hardening and literalism in which a totalitarian impulse predominates.  Puritanism has manifested itself in all the Great Cultures, as Spengler calls them, such as the Chinese, the Classical, and the Gothic.  By “The Problems of Arabian Culture” Spengler does not mean to confine himself to a history of Monophysitism or Islam although these come under his three-chapter remit.  Spengler subsumes “Arabian Culture” under the larger category of “Magian Culture,” which embraces both Arabia Felix and Arabia Deserta but reaches far beyond them to aspects of the late Persian and Syriac societies, to the Hellenism of Alexandria, and even to the Iconoclastic centuries of Byzantium.  The term Magian also reaches back in time to the late stages of Mesopotamian society.  For Spengler, St. Augustine shares rather more with Islamic theology than he does, say, with St. Thomas and the Scholastics.  For Spengler, the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople anticipates the mosque.  To understand the chapter-sequence on “The Problems of Arabian Culture,” however, requires that Spengler’s often shocking and sometimes counter-intuitive pronouncements, like the ones just mentioned, take their place among the over-arching assumptions of The Decline.

Spengler’s opus impresses the first-time reader as a colossal improvisation.  Its erudition and seeming formlessness put off many would-be explorers.  Spengler’s basic propositions nevertheless lend themselves to summary.  Spengler rejects the idea of a universal history.  He recognizes no singular history but a number of histories in the plural each one peculiar to its own Great Culture.  Thus the Classical or Mediterranean Culture begins with the palace kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece and ends with the Severan Dynasty of the Late Second and Early Third Centuries.  Indian Culture begins with the Vedas and ends with Buddhism.  Western or “Faustian” Culture has its earliest glimmerings in the Eighth Century but really only leaps into being after the year 1000.  Western Culture preserves a profound awareness of Classical Culture but this awareness implies, for Spengler, no actual continuity.  Each Great Culture constitutes itself hermetically as an organic whole without debt to adjacent or precursor cultures.  Borrowings are never essential, but only ornamental.  Spengler emphasizes the organic character of culture.  He regards each Great Culture as a living entity, whose mortality impends as soon as it comes to birth.  Each Great Culture follows the same seasonal life-course – a vivacious and creative spring, a productive summer, a crisis-afflicted fall, and an increasingly inflexible winter.  Spengler also makes a distinction between culture, as such, and civilization.  Culture flourishes as the vital phase; civilization takes over as the mechanical phase, becoming more and more rigid until the machine stops.

Each Great Culture first expresses itself in a springtime outburst of religion.  The Classical pantheon and associated cults already existed in late Mycenaean times; Homer and Hesiod signify a literate transformation of a long existing Apollonian worldview, as Spengler calls it.  By the time of Septimius Severus (reigned 193 – 211), the Classical religion has become a syncretic henotheism, with one god in numerous guises, complete with a church-structure wedded to the state.  Whereas the springtime paganism knew nothing of prejudice, the syncretic henotheism has codified itself as a set of compulsory dogmas.  Spengler distinguishes between a Magian and a Gothic Christianity, which have little or nothing to do with one another.  The latter appears with the building of the Lady Churches and with the blazing out of sacred polyphony.  By the time of the Baroque, however, Catholicism has become the counterpart of syncretic henotheism.  A living entity no longer, the Church distinguishes itself hardly at all from the array of explicitly secular institutions.  As for Magian Christianity, Spengler classifies it as one of many apocalyptic movements that participate in the same mundial vision.  These dispensations show themselves initially around the time of Alexander’s campaigns.  Spengler writes in Vol. II, Chapter VIII, how “the world, as spread out for the Magian waking-consciousness, possesses a kind of extension that may be called cavern-like.”  A “primary dualism” governs the world-cavern of this revelation: “The light shines through the cavern and battles the darkness.”  The Magian Culture reaches its final, ossified phase when Mohammed issues his unalterable Koran and commences his coercive mission.

If social, spiritual, and intellectual rigor mortis belonged to the autumnal and hibernal chapters of the cultural life-course, this would not mean that earlier chapters exhibited no forecast of rigidification.  Spasms of Puritanism occur in the vernal and estival chapters but show themselves as liable to suppression by the still-vivacious environments where they arise.  The first name in the title of Spengler’s third of three chapters on “The Problems of Arabian Culture” is that of Pythagoras, whose person will be familiar to most readers through its association with the theorem of the right triangle.  The lifetime of Pythagoras spans most of the Sixth Century BC, with scholarship locating his birth around 570 and his death around 495.  The prevailing myth treats Pythagoras in an anodyne way: Philosopher, mystic, mathematician, vegetarian, discoverer of the cosmic harmony, and champion of animals.  Pythagoras invited veneration from the Florentine Humanists and again from the French Symbolists as an idealist and altruist.  The truth puts Pythagoras in quite a different light.  “Pythagoras was not a philosopher,” Spengler writes; but rather, “he was a saint, prophet and founder of a fanatically religious society that forced its truths upon the people around it by every political and military means.”  Croton, the Greek colony in Southern Italy where Pythagoras took up residence in middle life, raised an army under his regime that “in the bitter earnest of [its] gospel of duty duly wrecked gay Sybaris and branded it forever a city without morals.”  What was that “gospel”?  It consists of the “enthusiasms of a sober spirit, cold intensities, dry mysticism, [and] pedantic ecstasy.”

Pythagoreanism belongs under the category of Puritanism.  Spengler defines Puritanism as a symptom of dour old-age: “It lacks the smile that had illumined the religion of the Spring… the moments of profound joy in life, the humour of life.”  The destruction of Sybaris, around 510 BC, finds affirmation in both history and archaeology; the city suffered such violence that its survivors had to abandon it and take up residence elsewhere, as in Thurii.  The wrath unleashed against Sybaris has lodged in the collective memory, Spengler speculates, “because it was the climax of a wild religious war… an explosion of the same hate that saw in Charles I and his gay Cavaliers not merely doctrinal error, but also worldly disposition as something that must be destroyed root and branch.”  Furthermore, “A myth purified and conceptually fortified, combined with rigorous ethical precepts, imbued the Pythagoreans with the conviction that they would attain salvation before all other men.”  The South-Italian cities that had come under the sway of the collective enthusiasm eventually found the furor too much to bear.  Inspired by Spengler, the scholar Kurt von Fritz issued his book Pythagorean Politics in Southern Italy in 1940.  Von Fritz pieces together a simultaneous multi-city uprising that in the space of a few days wreaked vengeance on the Pythagorean committees, burned down their lodges, and suppressed the fanatical portion of their following.  Spengler notes that the Pythagorean writings, such as the Golden Tablets, promise loyal adherents elevation to godhood.  That degree of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness could only – and soon – draw forth condign reaction.

Decline Vol. I

This exposition will postpone its treatment of Spengler on Mohammed and Islam to the last.  The third name in the title of Spengler’s third of three chapters on “The Problems of Arabian Culture” is that of Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658), “Iron Chancellor,” “Lord Protector” of the Puritan Revolution, and executioner of Charles I.  As Spengler practices comparative history, his treatments of Pythagoras, Mohammed, and Cromwell tend to intertwine, as in a sentence already quoted above.  Emphasizing his topic of Puritanism, Spengler gathers together his three personae and their movements: “Nothing of the quiet blissfulness that in the Magian Springtime flashes up so often in the stories of Jesus’ childhood, or in Gregory Nazianzen, is to be found in the Koran, nothing in the palpable blitheness of St. Francis’ songs in Milton,” who, as Spengler points out, served as Cromwell’s Secretary of State.  In the same vein, Spengler writes, “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 all over again – was annihilated in a few years.”  Puritan pamphleteering strikes Spengler as “joyless and sour,” quite like “the duty-doctrines of Islam.”  Spengler invokes a “need of the soul to be relieved of its past” as one source of Puritanism.  Thus under reformist agitation “music and painting, letter-writing and memoirs, from being modes of description became modes of self-denunciation, penance, and unbounded confession.”  The present can only accomplish its purification by the erasure of its past.  The execution of Charles I partook in the erasure of the past, for what is the monarchic principle except genealogical continuity, the past extending into the present?

The past informs and enriches the present.  A present that rids itself of its past impoverishes itself.  “In all Puritan poetry,” Spengler writes, “the place of the old Gothic visions is taken by an unbridled, yet withal jejune, spirit of allegory.”  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) no doubt transcends the limitations of allegory, but allegory itself remains a simplistic mode of thinking.  In it, one thing stands for another; allegory thus lacks the subtlety of symbol and metaphor, and it lends itself to a dogmatic state of mind.  Cromwell, as Spengler points out, characterized his opponents as Philistines and Amalekites, taboo-words by which one thing could be made to stand for another, and the primary thing erased in favor of a damning name.  In this process of imposing an empty concept on a living reality, Spengler perceives an essence: “In the waking-consciousness of these ascetics the concept is the only real power.”  Spengler indeed sees a link between Puritanism and Rationalism – and further with the Enlightenment, so self-called, as a continuation of Puritanism.  “Witches were burnt because they were proved,” Spengler writes; “the Protestant jurists employed the witch’s hammer of the Dominicans because it was built on concepts.”  Spengler’s argument gathers clarity when one draws on evidence from the contemporary scene.  What bears the name of journalism in the context of 2020 is the new allegory.  Such terms as Racism, Sexism, Islamophobia, and White Privilege function as the concepts whence proofs derive and on which the lynch-mob justifies its action.  Spengler’s descriptor black-clothed, his reference to Cromwell’s armed enforcers, applies with perfect aptness to the street-thugs of today.

Spengler urges his readers: “We have to emancipate ourselves from the surfaces of history – and, especially, to thrust aside the artificial fences in which the methodology of Western sciences has paddocked it – before we can see that Pythagoras, Mohammed, and Cromwell embody one and the same movement in three Cultures.”  Pythagoras sprang from the polis, not from the countryside; Cromwell from the London city-labyrinth of the mid-Seventeenth Century.  The Puritan mind, Spengler argues, arises not from a rural, but exclusively from an urban environment.  “Islam was no more a religion of the desert… than Zwingli’s faith was a religion of the high mountains.”  The Arabian Peninsula in Mohammed’s time had morphed into a region of inward-directed city-states, Christian, Jewish, and Pagan.  “It is incident, and no more,” Spengler reasons, “that the Puritan movement for which the Magian world was ripe proceeded from a man of Mecca and not from a Monophysite or a Jew.”  The Peninsular religions had shrunk down each to a dead, ritualistic morality.  In this sense, “Islam was a new religion only to the same extent as Lutheranism was one.”  Enclosure in the city amplifies the fundamental Magian trait of seeing the world as a cavern in which Light battles perpetually with Darkness.  Monophysitism, the likeliest soil of Islam, exhibited features of Gnostic dualism and, like all Christian heresies, vehemently despised every brand of Christianity not itself.  Islam concentrated the conviction of all dualists “that they were God’s elect.”  Spengler suggests that the rapid spread of Islam correlated itself with the nearness to Mohammed’s creed of such other creeds as Mazdaism and Monophysitism.

In The Decline, Vol. II, Chapter VIII, “The Magian Soul,” Spengler declares that: “Whereas the Faustian man is an ‘I’ that in the last resort draws its own conclusions about the infinite… the Magian man, with his spiritual kind of being, is only a part of a pneumatic ‘We’ that, descending from above, is one and the same in all believers.”  The Magian worldview assumes the form of a “consensus which, as the emanation of God, excludes error, but excludes also all possibility of the self-asserting Ego.”  Inside the cavern one submits.  The Magian conception of deity is of “the indefinite, enigmatic Power on high that pours out its Wrath or its Grace, [and] descends itself into the dark or raises the soul into the light as it sees fit.”  That which thematically excludes error poses as truth.  Magian religion requires, however, a “sacred book,” wherein truth “has become visibly evident” in “the sensible form of sounds and especially of letters.”  Spengler compares Mohammed’s Koran to Justinian’s Digest of the Law and “to the Gathas of the Avesta,” once Zoroastrianism had hardened.  “Such a Koran is by its very nature,” Spengler writes, “unconditionally right, and therefore unalterable and incapable of improvement.”  In The Decline, Vol. II, Chapter IX, Spengler employs a paradox which he regards as apposite to his three specimen reformers: “Every Late philosophy contains [a] critical protest against the uncritical intuitiveness of the Spring”; adding that, “this criticism of the intellect that is sure of its own superiority affects also faith itself and evokes the one great creation in the field of religion that is the peculiarity of the Late period – every Late period – namely, Puritanism.”  Puritanism rejects life as a pilgrimage of self-discovery while in search of God and recasts it as Jihad.

The 2010s saw a ramping up of contemporary Puritanism, as Spengler defines that term.  The last decade has brought forth a new Iconoclasm in the toppling of statues and historical markers, the re-naming of streets and institutions, and the veiling of paintings.  At the same time, the contemporary Puritan mind submits entirely, takes a knee to, concepts, or to the narrow range of them that dominates hackneyed professorial lectures in the humanities and the obnoxious prose of journalism, whether in print or in videography.  Such prose bypasses the intellect and addresses the endocrine system exclusively.  It would generate consensus, a word that lecturers and journalists use without embarrassment, as in “the consensus about global warming.”  The mindless reliance on slogans – “our diversity is our strength” – emphasizes the rebellion against intellect and spirit and the elevation over them of concentrated affect in modern Puritanical thoughtlessness.  Spengler’s reference to “enthusiasms of a sober spirit, cold intensities, dry mysticism, [and] pedantic ecstasy” bears repetition.  Contemporary Puritanism can take the form of a sixteen-year-old Swedish jungfru who grimly preaches to crowds of fawning adults or of a twenty-five-year-old black-clothed “Antifa” cornering a videographer on a riot-inflamed street, announcing that he works for Black Lives Matter, and demanding that the camera-carrier kneel and pronounce the mandatory words.  Both back themselves up with a threat.  In the case of the jungfru, it is a threat of indirect reprisal: “Agree with me or your foundation grant will be revoked.”  In the case of the “Antifa” it is a threat of immediate violence: “Do what we say or we’ll club you into a coma.”

32 thoughts on “Spengler on Militant Religiosity

  1. Pingback: Spengler on Militant Religiosity | Reaction Times

  2. I think the basic lesson of Spengler is that cultures pass through stages, and that understanding comes through understanding what stage your own culture is passing through. This of course leads to tolerant relativism. We do not condemn vivacious youth for lacking the sober judgement of old men, and we do not condemn old men for lacking the physical and mental vivacity of youth. This should cause us to understand that our culture is in a post-puritan stage, at least insofar as the outward forms of seventeenth-century puritanism are concerned. These outward forms lingered into the twentieth century as fundamentalism, but the seventeenth century was their heyday. I think the practice has fallen off of late, but as recently as thirty years ago a great deal of cultural criticism was directed at the bogyman of Puritanism–intolerant, joyless, sexually repressed, and hypocritical. You might say that all that all of our cultural criticism is just footnotes to The Scarlet Letter.

    Now from my perch of Spenglarian relativism, I do not condemn Hawthorn or his novel, but rather see them as normal reaction formations in stage of culture subsequent to a puritan stage. Romanticism follows puritanism (and, as you say, rationalism) just as night follows day.

    Although most people see puritans as party poopers, I see them as the last to see that the party is over. As you say, puritanism is a symptom of a culture that has begun to decline, just like a party that has begun to wind down. But the puritans are absolutely not the people who are handing people their coats and picking up the glasses. The puritans are the people turning up the music and pouring grain alcohol in the punch. All of their austerities are means to revival.

    I see a sort of puritanism in my life since I’ve turned 60. The spontaneous vivacity of youth is gone, but I seek to revive it in some degree by austerities of diet and exercise. I am very far from fanatical in these measures, but they do make me see the connection between puritanism and a desire to keep the party going.

    I would not call the incendiary barbarians of our present moment puritans because they are not trying to return to some primal purity. I know we might say that they entertain the usual hippy fantasies of a return to prelapsarian bliss, but I cannot call them puritans because the past is, for them, absolutely negative. The puritans aimed to revive the purity of the early church, but our barbarians want to burn everything to the ground.

    • Dear J-M:

      You write: “I cannot call them puritans because the past is, for them, absolutely negative.”

      Puritans did a good deal of burning, killing, and statue-smashing under Cromwell and in the Thirty Years War — and, as Spengler points out, under Pythagoras and Mohammed. Puritanism is not free from that taint. While Spengler anticipates Voegelin in his analysis of Puritanism, we might nevertheless gain in perspective by adding Voegelin to Spengler. Puritanism is a radical diminution of consciousness: It reduces that Gift-of-God, the person, to the ritual utterance of a few stupid, but also wicked, slogans and abasement before an extraordinarily narrow restriction on free behavior. I would put it this way — the English Puritans indeed thought that they could restore the primitive church, almost as though they could, by doing so, overthrow Original Sin and realize the Heavenly City. The current mob pursues an even more radical agenda than that: To return past every institution so as to recreate that thing which never existed, Rousseau’s blissful tribe. When the blissful tribe “reappears,” which, of course, it cannot, it takes the form that we see: The Dionysiac orgy of murder and looting and something like the Jihad.

      An additional thought: It is possible for people who are chronologically young, like SJW and BLM thugs, to be actually senile and demented in their state of mind; and for codgers like you and me to preserve something — appreciation, at least — for the spontaneity and (admittedly, often haywire) creativity of youth. I never saw much in the way of haywire creativity in my students, but I saw a good deal of sullen narrowness and contempt for the beautiful and the sublime.

      Sincerely, Tom.

      • What you describe in the last paragraph, Tom, wasn’t always so, in my experience. How have things gone so badly wrong?

        [See my response below. (TFB)]

    • “These outward forms lingered into the twentieth century as fundamentalism…”

      And, shorn of its doctrinal basis, it not only lived, but thrived, as the morality of a largely urban and half-educated class.

      Mgr Ronald Knox describes them perfectly: “In England and Scotland, at any rate, a system of rigorism in morals commended itself to, and imbedded itself in, the mentality of the lower middle class. … A class that has to be frugal, has to maintain a certain standard of respectability, that is excluded from the freer activities of the landed gentry, easily develops and clings to a tradition of Puritanism. There is no room for it in the theatre ; it is too poor for the dress circle, too refined for the pit. It has no money to waste on racing or on gambling ; it is too superior to join in the rough dances of the countryside, too provincial to acquire the manners of the ballroom. Finally, in England, though not in Scotland, it loses the tradition of drinking intoxicants, because it is too proud for the public houses and cannot afford to belong to clubs; so a temperance movement rounds off the completeness of the Puritan mentality.”

      • The thought has occurred to me that today’s Leftists are doing a perfect imitation of the the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Unable to enjoy themselves, they extract what emotion (positive? — negative?) they can from telling us what should be banned in Boston. I write this in a half-inebriated state. Richard Cocks, David Lambie, Mark Hoogers, and I have spent the afternoon under my covered patio drinking beer and eating pizza — and complaining about the state of the world. We all feel the better for it.

      • There is truth in Knox’s description of the lower middle class, but there is precious little charity. He obviously dislikes them, but what is the petit bourgeoise supposed to do? There are a dozen reasons why they cannot rise into the gentry, and a dozen reasons why they would not want to sink back into the rabble puking on the street outside the public house. In any case, the puking rabble would not have them back. Knox also gets causality backwards. People did not embrace moral rigorism because they were lower middle class; they became lower middle class because they embraced (or more likely were naturally disposed to) moral rigorism. Lower middle class is what you get if you combine mediocre intelligence and clean living.

        I say this partly from family pride, since I come of teetotaling lower middle class stock. I deviated from that tradition is ways that were mostly disastrous, and too many in the generation after mine abandoned moral rigorism for low-class squalor. The jolly camaraderie of working class drinking houses is a durable myth of the middle middle class, especially when they are young. An attempt to partake in that jolly camaraderie will usually cure the illusion.

      • ” People did not embrace moral rigorism because they were lower middle class; they became lower middle class because they embraced (or more likely were naturally disposed to) moral rigorism.”

        Perhaps, the truth of the matter is that the the lower-middle class is particularly insecure; they see themselves as perpetually teetering on the brink of a fall into the working-class, or even the underclass.

        Literate, but not learned, they formed the backbone of the original Puritan movement (the first to be largely spread by printed pamphlets), along with their rural equivalents, the small squire or the “bonnet-laird,” who filled the ranks of the New Model Army and of the Covenanters respectively.

        Knox’s implied rebuke was mild compared to Matthew Arnold’s taunt: “How is the ideal of a life so unlovely, so unattractive, so narrow, so far removed from a true and satisfying ideal of human perfection, as is the life of your religious organisation as you yourself image it, to conquer and transform all this vice and hideousness?”

      • Obviously the lower middle class has unattractive qualities, as do the classes above and below them, but I do not think they are uniquely hideous or ludicrous. They cannot take a spacious view of life and remain lower middle class, and the bohemian exit is not really open to them. Genteel poverty is only available to the children of the gentry. Their status anxiety is not a ridiculous psychological tic. Their status really is insecure, and it is simple snobbery to laugh this predicament. Much of the cultural decay we lament here at the O. is really decay of lower middle class culture, and of the anxiety that used to make them worry about how they were dressed and whether or not their yard was mowed.

  3. Puritans normally have a holy book because they hope to arrest the rot with scripture. I know our society is entirely post-literate, but do the Woke have anything equivalent to an authoritative text? Their counterparts in the 1960s had Marcuse or Mao’s Red Book. The Woke obviously inhabit a discourse of tropes and shibboleths, but this seems very fluid. In fact its so fluid that many progressives commit thought crimes from a failure to stay up to date.

    The puritan tendencies of the left are evident in their habit of purging deviationists, in their blaming their own failures on impurities in their own movement. I grant that we see this at work in denunciations of feminists who oppose transgender rights. But historical puritans saw this danger and tried to stop it with a holy book. In the case of Christian puritans, they doubled down on the Bible when they saw where Quakerism was going.

    • Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. It is read only by a minority but it is an oral tradition for the many.

      The English Puritans placed a barrier of hortatory pamphlets between themselves and Scripture.

  4. Dr. Bertonneau and JMSmith,

    My own sad dealings with these sorts is that their “book” is a virtual one consisting of a gestalt formed from highly curated twitter sayings and other ephemeral images. When I have recently interacted with them – I quite literally do not recommend this. I wonder if many people realize how seriously imperiled one’s life and livelihood is at the moment for saying something they do not allow. As an academic of sorts myself I’m not sure how long I am for this mob-by-corporatism – I have always been directed to someone’s twitter feed which then usually only directs back to a video someone snapped on his phone. It’s all sad. I’m not sure I have ever in my life thanked the Good Lord for good bourbon and good books as much as now. I hope you both continue to write here for many years to come.

    • Literacy, as Walter Ong argues, results in the “interiorization” of consciousness, a new introspectivity, and a heightening of conscience. Digital technology results in the opposite — an “exteriorization” of consciousness, a dumbing-down of intelligence, and the mobilized suppression of conscience. As long as I escape the clutches of the mob, I will continue to write. Thank you for your comment. (TFB)

  5. Now that everyone from Altoona to Zanzibar has a “smart” phone, a lie can race around the world on the internet, formerly known as the “information super highway,” 1000x faster than Samuel Clemens Longhorn could have imagined. The truth, laboring, exhausted, enfeebled, bloody ( but hopefully unbowed), trudges along in the mud by the side of the road.

    I’m Intrigued by the (inevitable?) phases/cycles of civilization theories presented here, but how much of it can apply to the internet-only world that we are doomed to inhabit?

    • See my reply to Mickvet below.

      Digital technology facilitates and accelerates basic anthropological tendencies that civilization tries to suppress — like the formation of crowds, the descent of individuality into conformity, the spreading of opinion, and therefore the alienation of people from the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

      The Satanic opinion that there is no such thing the Good or the True or the Beautiful spreads with horrifying rapidity — because it relieves people of the obligation to be as fully human as possible. The subject, much reduced spiritually, can slide into animalistic behaviors that free him from the rigors of mindedness.

  6. @Mickvet: “How have things gone so badly wrong?”

    As Nick Berdyaev puts in one of his books, the opposite of equality is not inequality, but simply quality. Egalitarians hate quality because quality differentiates people hierarchically. We have lived under a fanatically egalitarian regime for a long time. One of the things that the egalitarians have done is to dumb-down education so that intellectual differences rarely appear. And the cultural ambiance has been purged of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. These things inspire people; inspiration drives people to excel; excellence is difference, which cannot be suffered to exist.

    A conspiracy theory is not necessary in assessing the impact of digital technology on the cohorts of the young. College students squirm in their seats during class-period because they cannot access their cell phones. As soon as the class period ends, while rising from their seats, they whip out their phones and glue them to their faces. Like the mandatory surgical mask and like the niqaab, cell phones hide the face and they therefore hide the human being. As a result, humanity itself has disappeared from the public scene.

    If there were a conspiracy, however, it could not have been more successful.

    Egalitarianism is a species of active nihilism. At Santa Monica High School in the late 1960s, everyone studying in the “college prep” program read Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Emerson, Thoreau, and even, believe it or not, Nietzsche and Camus. Contemporary college freshmen have read — nothing. We have become a nation of functional illiterates.

    • Education has not only been dumbed down. It has also been redesigned to select for obedience. High-stakes tests and assignments have been replaced with a slew of niggling assignments and quizzes. I have succumbed to this, and therefore know the pressures that push faculty in this direction. One pressure is the explicit requirement by the university to “assess” vague qualities like social and personal responsibility. Let’s set aside the leftist spin these words are given, and simply note that these things cannot be measured with academic instruments like tests and papers. To test a student’s character, you would have to maroon them on a desert island with ten others, Lord of the Flies like. Shoving this sort of thing into the classroom simply selects for the ability to recite cant phrases. Turning these “tests” into a dozen stupid assignments selects for the willingness to do stupid tasks cheerfully and on time.

      The phones are changing everything, but one important change is elimination of the empty times in which men and women are left with their own thoughts. It is true, as you say, that we never see a student reading a book (unless it is a horrible textbook), but we also never see them ruminating or daydreaming as they wait for the bus or for class to begin. And it is not only students. I’ve grown far more impatient with the mild boredom of empty times.

      • I propose the assessment of all college and university deans, provosts, vice presidents, and presidents by marooning them on a desert island, Lord-of-the-Flies-like. Oh — and don’t forget the diversity officers and Title IX administrators! We should reserve a special island just for them.

    • I recall the way in which Homer, Sophocles and other classical authors were taught in the England in the 1950s and 1960s.

      Our masters were fascinated by Greek and Latin grammar, syntax, prosody and vocabulary. For them, one text was more worthy of study than another only insofar as it yielded more rare inflections, to be noted, recorded and memorised. If they believed that any ancient author had said anything worth saying, they kept their opinion to themselves. We did not study literature, but dissected and anatomised its dead remains.

      Homer was an especial favourite, as illustrating the Ionian dialect. So was Plautus, for his archaisms (It was only when I re-read him many years later that it dawned on me that he is actually very funny)

      • At Santa Monica High School, we read the Classics in English translation, so the linguistic niceties were lost on us. We concentrated on the moral and philosophical implications of the stories. Of course, when we tackled Emerson and Thoreau, language came to the fore. There is a density to the prose of the Transcendentalists from which any would-be writer can profitably learn. Not to mention Shakespeare! His plays enriched us vocabulary-wise.

    • Thanks for taking that trouble, Tom.

      Of course, there are going to be, indeed are already, practical consequences. When these former students enter the workplace, if they do so at all, they can hardly be expected to be competent, not only in their specialised area of work, but also in communicating and socialising with their colleagues and customers. Drastic social and economic decline is inevitable, something of which we find ourselves right in the midst.

      • Twenty-four years ago, in October, I published, with the help of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities. For almost a week I was front-page above-the-fold news in Michigan newspapers while McCain and Clinton were relegated to below-the-fold. (Not that it had any long-term results — it had, precisely, none.) One of the questions that I explored in my study was, what complaints do Michigan employers have concerning the newly graduated young people from the state university whom they hire? The universal response to this question was that those new degree-holders were so deficient in their reading and writing skills that Michigan businesses spent huge amounts of money — in the range of millions or tens of millions — in making them basically competent in their practice of written language. I mention this to emphasize that the problem has existed for a long time. It existed for decades prior to the issuance of Declining Standards. A famous book called Why Johnny Can’t Read appeared in the 1950s.

        In the ensuing debate, people typically assumed that the education system was making some kind of mistake and that, having called its attention to the pedagogical error, it would swiftly mend its ways — because obviously the purpose of the system was not to keep graduates incompetent, but to make them competent. I responded with a glum “No.” This is the result that the system wants, I argued. It wants people to think badly, express themselves incompetently, and to suffer from a lack of basic knowledge because, that way, they are easy to control. No one believed me. Even the intelligent people at the Mackinac Center had trouble believing it. But I stick by my conclusion. Gross miseducation is central to the program of the left radically to transform our society.

  7. Thank you for your reply. Some observations:

    You wrote: “Digital technology facilitates and accelerates basic anthropological tendencies that civilization tries to suppress — like the formation of crowds…”

    Civilization, until very recently, encouraged things like 100,000-seat stadia, although I dare to presume that you may be referring to such modern things as Instagram-coordinated Flash-Mobs of retail stores and Twitter-inspired convocations of iconoclasts seeking to wreak vengeance on inert statuary.

    “…the descent of individuality into conformity…”

    Here and elsewhere I hear that it is the tyranny of the individual (with his selfish, often illicit and tawdry desires) and his refusal to conform for the greater good that has brought us to this societal precipice.

    “…the spreading of opinion…”

    As some anonymous jokester once said, “Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one.” (I don’t exclude myself from that.)

    “…and therefore the alienation of people from the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”

    This is inversion. I am certainly not the first to notice. Up is down, right is wrong, as above, so below.

    I cast my lot with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

    It’s so much better than the Bad, the False and the Hideous.

    • Dear David. —

      The thing to remember about the hundred-thousand-seat stadium is that it functions on the premise of orderly conduct by the people who fill the seats to watch the game. The audience at a baseball game is not a mob, but a civilized audience. (I won’t vouch for hockey or basketball.)

      You wrote: “I cast my lot with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.” I am with you. Thank you for your comment. (TFB)

      • Aside from the riotous “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979 and some other episodes of minor to mid-level mayhem, the audiences at baseball games are indeed mostly civilized and inclined to exhibit orderly conduct.

        At hockey games the disorder seems to be mostly among the players, although a fan will occasionally toss a sturgeon onto the ice to express his displeasure with the proceedings.

        Regarding 100,000-seat stadia, there are a few here in the U.S. devoted to “mostly peaceful” College Football, but the majority are abroad and host Soccer/Fútbol matches, which are notorious for hooliganism and rioting.

  8. Something I’ve always found curiously absent from analysis of Spengler is the fact that he was a Jew, born of Jewish mother and apparently inheriting that atavistic Jewish hatred for Christianity and preference for Paganism, as paganism is more accommodating for Jewry. You can see this self-serving promotion in programs like “Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom”, and among philosemitic politicians like Boris Johnson. The notion the Christianity is weak and ruinous while paganism is vital and vigorous has also gained traction in subverted segments of the alt-right, it is a favored narrative of CIA-affiliated figureheads like Richard Spencer. So when Spengler downplays or blames Christianity for the diminution of the west, he does the bidding of the synagogue.


    • It looks to me as if Spengler had a great grandmother who was Jewish. That takes us back to the eighteenth century, so her ancestors were probably endogamous, but Spengler was not a Jew by blood or culture. I do not think he was in any sense Christian, but recall no atavistic Jewish hatred for Christianity in DOW. He suggests that it is unsuited to the Faustian spirit of the West, but the Faustian spirit is tragic just like the spirit of every other great culture. Spengler’s model of cultural decline does not require an deleterious attack from an exogenous element (which is how Gibbon described Christianity attacking Paganism). Cultures break down and get old, just like everything else in the natural world.

    • For Spengler, indeed, Christianity is entirely inseparable from Gothic Culture. Lady-Churches and sacred polyphony are, for Spengler, the chief signs of the Gothic “Springtime.” In The Decline, he compares the Gothic arch to the cross-section of a Viking drakkar! This is not to say that Spengler was in any way confessionally a Christian; he was no more Christian than he was Jewish. That Gothic Christianity has almost nothing to do with Magian Christianity in Spengler’s view is another issue.

      If Richard Spencer (see the video of his tiki-torch procession), with whom I have had a few encounters, is a CIA plant (to do what?), then the CIA is even more stupid and incompetent than I previously thought.

      • If Richard Spencer (see the video of his tiki-torch procession)…is a CIA plant (to do what?), then the CIA is even more stupid and incompetent than I previously thought.

        Before Charlottesville, there were more people on the far right who were visibly positive or neutral towards a position that could be described as implicit white nationalism. After Charlottesville, the popularity of “wignat” exploded on the far right as a term of abuse to mock white nationalists into silence. I don’t have an opinion on the “CIA plant” theory, but if Spencer was hired to discredit his movement and its allies, then he and his handler deserve a raise.


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