A Land Between Dread and Desire

“America is therefore the land of the future . . . . It is a land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical lumber-room of old Europe.” 

G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837)

Hegel called America a “land of desire” because, in the 1820s, when he gave his lectures on the philosophy of history, the American Spirit had only begun to realize its meaning as an objective America.   Old Europe was an “historical lumber-room” of spent dreams and hardened actualities.  Young America was the bare canvas of an artist whose brushes were still clean.  America was, in the 1820s, little more than ideas and the desire to make these ideas real.  The great west was empty, but America burned to make that wilderness into itself.

Hegel’s philosophy of history is that the life of an historical people is like the life of an artist.  Like an artist, an historical people begins as a unique inner life of misty visions and inchoate ideas.  Hegel calls this inner life the Spirit of that people.  Like an artist, an historical people expresses its Spirit by actualizing these misty visions and inchoate ideas in objective works.  Thus Spirit becomes flesh.  And, like an artist, an historical people is finished when all of its visions have been expressed, all of its ideas actualized.   It is finished when it sits, exhausted and no longer inspired, in a “historical lumber-room” filled with the things it has made.

“The Spirit of a people . . . is a Spirit  . . . which erects itself into an objective world . . . . A Nation is moral—virtuous—vigorous—while it is engaged in . . . giving to its purposes an objective existence.”

This objective world is what we call its mature civilization.  It includes the people’s religion, customs, constitution, laws, architecture, literature, art—“the whole complex of its institutions.”   And once the Spirit of a people has been fully expressed in an objective world, that people is finished, just like an artist who has completed his oeuvre and laid down his brush.  Like an old artist, an old people does not die at once, for natural life can continue when the creative spirit has gone, but an old people has finished its historical work. 

In Hegle’s philosophy, the engine of a people’s history is “the contradiction between its potential, subjective being—its inner aim and life—and its actual being.”  The desire of a people is to remove this contradiction by realizing its potential, by actualizing its subjective being.  The history of a people is its struggle to make its spirit flesh. 

And when that struggle ends, whether it be in failure or success, the people and its history are finished.

“The nation lives the same kind of life as the individual when passing from maturity to old age—in the enjoyment of itself—in the satisfaction of being exactly what it desired and was able to attain . . . . This mere customary life (the watch wound up and going on of itself) is that which brings on natural death.”

Students of Spengler will note that Hegel’s “customary life,” or “the watch wound up and going of itself,” is what Spengler calls a “civilization.” In Spengler’s scheme, a people are a Culture so long as they struggle to actualize their Spirit; but they are a civilization once they pass “from maturity to old age.” They pass from “desire” to “enjoyment,” and after this enjoyment nothing remains for the people but “natural death.”

This is why Spengler tells us that desire (which he calls longing) is for every serious man colored by dread.  An artist who desires to express himself dreads the day when he will have expressed himself and must therefore fall silent.  An historical people desires to remove the contradiction between its potential and actual being, but like the artist, it at the same time dreads the day when all its ideas have been actualized, all of its visions have been realized, and all of its dreams have come true.  

“But this longing which wells out of the bliss of the inner life is also . . . a dread as well.  As all becoming moves towards a having-become wherein it ends, so the prime feeling of becoming—the longing—touches the prime feeling of having become, the dread . . . .

Our dread in the moment when the possible is actualized . . . is the deep world-fear of the child—which never leaves the higher man, the believer, the poet the artist—that make him so infinitely lonely in the presence of the alien powers that loom, threatening in the dawn.”

* * * * *

In the 1820s, America was a land of “becoming.”  Two hundred years later, America is very largely a land of “having become.”  In the 1820s, Hegle could call America a “land of desire.”  Two-hundred years later, more and more think to call America a land of dread.   Dread was always implicit in this land of desire, and our “higher men” have always felt the fatal world-fear when they imagined our consummation; but the sense of dread has grown and spread as work has passed into works, and as this nation has thereby passed “from maturity to old age.” 

The dead of winter is implicit in the blooms of spring, but men in tune with the seasons stack their firewood in the fall.   Here is what Spengler says about those who feel and do not feel the dread.

“Only the spiritually dead man of the autumnal cities—Hammurabi’s Babylon, Ptolemaic Alexandria, Islamic Bagdad, Paris and Berlin today—only the pure intellectual, the sophist, the sensualist, the Darwinian, loses it or is able to evade it by setting up a secretless ‘scientific worldview’ between himself and the alien”

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