The Long View 2006-11-28: The Wall; Justice; the Red and the Green

Gilets Jaunes

Gilets Jaunes

While the alliance of Western Muslims and Western Leftists generates a lot of press, both now [cf. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission] and in the past, actual proletarian uprisings stubbornly refuse to follow suit.


The Wall; Justice; the Red and the Green

Are you troubled by the wall of separation between church and state this Christmas season? Has the ACLU declared a jihad against your town's Christmas creche? Well, Fr. Neuhaus has these words of comfort for you in the December issue of First Things:

As we all know, "the wall of separation between church and state" is in the Constitution. Except that it isn’t. Daniel Dreisbach, professor of law at American University in Washington DC, reflects on the damage that has been done by "constitutionalizing" the phrase found in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptist association of Danbury, Connecticut. He writes:

A wall is a bilateral barrier that inhibits the activities of both the civil government and religion—unlike the First Amendment, which imposes restrictions on civil government only. In short, a wall not only prevents the civil state from intruding on the religious domain but also inhibits a religion from influencing the conduct of civil government. The various First Amendment guarantees, however, were entirely a check or restraints on civil government, specifically on Congress. The free press guarantee, for example, was not written to protect the civil state from the press, but to protect a free and independent press from control by the national government.

Actually, the idea of a First Amendment "wall of separation" between government and the press is not as strange as might at first appear. The principal of "petrolism," after all, is that the state will not interfere in the affairs of civil society if civil society promises not to interfere with affairs of state. That sounds fair.

* * *

There is even more about fairness in that December issue of First Things, such as this review by Justin Shubow of William Ian Miller's An Eye for an Eye:

A professor of law at the University of Michigan whose previous books concerned topics as disparate as courage, disgust, and Icelandic blood feuds, Miller here offers an "antitheory of justice," a concrete, unsystematic look Ask how people historically have perceived and achieved justice through revenge. To the extent that there is a unifying theme in this meandering but fascinating essay, it is that the mercantile diction of obligation—of payback and owning up, of settling accounts and obtaining redemption and--cuts to the heart of our deepest intuitions about right and wrong. So, too, does the closely related language of measurement and valuation.

May I suggest that this is important? For several decades now, informed opinion of all political persuasions has more or less accepted John Rawls's premise that "justice is fairness"; that is, that what people mean when they say that they have been treated justly is that they have been treated according to procedures that are unbiased in such a way as to minimize the role of chance. If this new study is to be believed, however, a natural-language investigation of the term "justice" shows that it actually means no such thing. Someone should turn this antitheory into a proper theory.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Wreck of Europa draws ever closer, if we are to believe the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard. I note particularly this item, Another French Revolution? The rioters and their admirers--on the right and the left, by Michel Gurfinkiel of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Paris:

Indeed, there are intellectuals on the left and right who relish the prospect of a new French Revolution, and welcome the suburban rioters as its spearhead. Nothing is more revealing, in this respect, than the success of a feverish political novel, Supplément au roman national (A Sequel to the National Narrative), by 28-year-old author Jean- ric Boulin. Published two months ago, it forecasts a "social and racial" revolution in France in 2007. First a wave of suicide bombings in Paris. Then martial law. Then, finally, the great rebellion of the French poor: the native underclass, the Arabs, and the blacks, who unite under the green flag of Islam and the tricolor of France and march on Paris--as a sort of Commune in reverse. Boulin gallantly supports such an outcome. [Despite the support on the Left for the unrest, this is just a novel. Nonetheless] it would be wise not to write off entirely the possibility of a green-red alliance. There is a historical precedent in the spread of Islam itself, in the 7th century. ...Even the green flag of Islam was borrowed from non-Arabs: It was originally the symbol of rebellion in Byzantium, the equivalent in its day of the red flag in ours.

Scary stuff: should we be comforted or disconcerted by the fact it is old scary stuff? Note this passage from Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision, a book published in 1933 that treats of the menaces posed by the White Revolution (the radical European Left) and the Coloured Revolution (what we would now call the Third World, plus Russia, but minus Japan, which seemed to drift to Europe in Spengler's later thought):

But the greatest danger has not yet been even named. What if, one day, class war and race war joined forces to make an end of the white world? This lies in the nature of things, and neither of the two Revolutions will disdain the aid of the other simply because it despises its supporters. A common hate extinguishes mutual contempt. And what if some white adventurer - and there have been many such - whose wild soul cannot breathe in the hothouse of civilization and seeks to satiate its love of danger in fantastic colonial ventures, among pirates, in the Foreign Legion - should suddenly see this grand goal staring him in the face?

The leftist masses of Spengler's day have largely evaporated, and when he talked about the extra-European menace, he seems to have been thinking more about colonial revolt than immigration. Still, to the extent there is an ideological merger of the Red and the Green, he seems to have foreseen it.

On the other hand, think how pleasantly surprised he would be by Benedict XVI. He represents the sort of unflustered return to tradition that Spengler thought was the hope of the West.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century

This is a seminal essay that John wrote for a presentation at the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in Minnesota, USA in 2005. He synthesizes many of his ideas into a broader prediction of the 21st century.


The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century

 

By John J. Reilly
aesir@prodigy.net
For the 34th Annual Conference of the
International Society for the
Comparative Study of Civilizations
:
Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
June 9-11, 2005

 

The term "Second Religiousness" was used by Oswald Spengler in his great metahistorical study, The Decline of the West, to mean the final phase in the spiritual development of a civilization. (1) This phase arrives "after history," when all internal development is over, and the only change possible is accident or syncretism. To put it briefly, this refers to a time when the primordial religion comes back: holy people, holy law, holy places overshadow the theological systems that the civilization creates earlier in its history, as well as the skepticism that briefly replaces religion among the educated. With the coming of the Second Religiousness, there is no longer any great divide between popular and elite opinion on these matters.

It is easy to multiply examples of what Spengler was talking about: popular Sufism, and later Wahhabism, in Islam; millenarian Taoism in China; emperor-worship and Stoic piety in the Roman world. All comparative studies of civilizations are a footnote to Spengler: this paper is a footnote to a footnote, the one on page 311 of the second volume of The Decline of the West. There, Spengler says the Second Religiousness still lies many generations in the future of the West, but he speculates briefly about what the Western Second Religiousness would look like when it finally arrives:

"It is perhaps possible for us to make some guess as to these forms, which (it is self-evident) must lead back to certain elements of Gothic Christianity. But be this as it may, what is quite certain is that they will not be the product of any literary taste for Late-Indian or Late-Chinese speculation, but something of the type, for example, of Adventism and suchlike sects." (2)

Well, here we are, at least three generations after that was published in 1922, so let us take another look.

Here is the gist of Spengler's model of history. The notion is that at least some societies develop in roughly the same way over a period of between 1,000 and 1,500 years. They begin as feudal societies organized by common metaphysical insights; they become increasingly urban and develop those insights into characteristic art and philosophy and politics; they enter a period corresponding to Western modernity, which Spengler dates to the French Revolution, that is intellectually skeptical and politically chaotic; finally, they enter the age of Caesarism and full civilization. By then, as a rule, the international system has collapsed into what Spengler called the Imperium Mundi, and which Arnold Toynbee would later call a "universal state." The Second Religiousness is the spiritual complement of Caesarism.

We should note two things about this outline. One is that, considered just as a narrative structure, it is very close to Northrop Frye's definition of a "comedy," meaning a form of drama in which what was hidden and implicit in the first act is revealed and explicit in the last. (3) The other is that it is actually not a bad description of the ancient Mediterranean world through the end of the Western Roman Empire and of China through the Latter Han. It works after a fashion for the second round of Chinese history and, maybe, for the Middle East. It also seems to work well for the West in the second millennium. Why should the model work? That is a good question. (4) All that concerns us here, however, is that the model suggests that modernity in the West will end in something like the way the Hellenistic Period and the Era of Contending States ended in antiquity.

Spengler and Toynbee both assert that the world of late civilization becomes resacralized, not because the critical intelligence is repressed or underfunded, but because it refutes itself. We can empathize with this: postmodernism, someone said, is not a philosophy, but a "bag of tricks." (5) To the metahistorians, that is the fate of every great philosophical tradition. It becomes a canon, an armory of techniques, which no longer makes strong claims to truth. According to Toynbee, this is what happens then:

"If we pass to our examination of the complementary movements in which the philosophers of the dominant minority make their approach towards the religions of the internal proletariat, we shall find that on this side the processes begins earlier, besides going farther. It begins in the first generation after the breakdown; and it passes from curiosity through devoutness into superstition." (6)

Toynbee, at least in his later period, did not regard this transition as much of a loss, because he became convinced that the meaning of history is the development of the higher religions. Civilizations, and particularly the universal states into which they collapse in their final stage, can be justified only because they act as chrysalises for Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam: add your own examples. Notice that Toynbee was no longer thinking just about the religious future of the West, but of the whole world, which he held was moving toward an ecumenical society.

In the middle of the 20th century, Toynbee was not the only person having thoughts along these lines. In 1956, William Ernest Hocking, the theology-friendly Harvard Pragmatist, published what I think is a remarkable little book called The Coming World Civilization. (7) It scarcely speculates about what that civilization will be like. Rather, the book argues that any society must have some transcendent basis, and goes on to discern what the transcendent basis for a universal society must be.

Little of what Hocking says is original, but is nonetheless important. For instance:

"[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art — the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command...

"We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We have taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

"We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things." (8)

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. (9) Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the inner disposition of the individual is essential. Political rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Hocking was keen to link the basis of science with the basis of religion. He tells us that the experience of the Thou, of a rational Other, is the foundation of science, and is identical to the intuition of the existence of God. Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. For instance, the will to futurity is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer.

As an aside here, we may note that, in Spengler's system, the era of the Second Religiousness is also the period in physical science becomes another finished canon. Spengler's favorite example is Classical mathematics, which culminated in Euclidian geometry and then just stopped, though there were plenty of teachers of mathematics for centuries afterward. If you need a parallel example today, it might be the search for a Theory of Everything. Curiously, Stephen Jay Gould's last book on popular science, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox (10), outlined a model for integrating science and humane learning, including religion, by using the concept of "non-overlapping magisteria," which is very similar to Hocking's model. What Gould wants to avoid is the sociobiological reductionism that his colleague, E. O. Wilson, advocated in his book Consilience.

In any case, what Hocking was trying to do was to end inter-religious controversy, and for that he employs a form of existentialism. Start with this premise: the sense of sin is not an artificial guilt created by an external command, but a direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand. When Hocking talks about religious unity in the world civilization, he was not predicting a new revelation. He advocated that the existing great religious traditions accept that they are united at their summits, where creed becomes wordless experience. (Again, if you are familiar with René Guénon or Frithjof Schuon, none of this will sound new. (11)) Hocking did argue that Christianity would play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era, because the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

One might note that the necessity for a transcendent basis of world order has not been lost on the Bush Administration. In his Second Inaugural Address, President Bush identified the transcendent basis of the United States as the principle that legitimizes America's role in the world:

"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth." (12)

This aspect of 21st-century geopolitics is one of the key themes of Walter Russell Mead's essential book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War. (13) Mead accepts the Bush Administration's assessment that nothing less than the Kantian Peace of a world of liberal republics can ensure the security of the United States. Unlike Kant, though, Mead recognizes that any world consensus for world order must have some basis less self-referential than the Categorical Imperative. Meade argues that there are two reasons to applaud the appearance of conservative ecumenism in the United States among Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. The first is that, by deploying Realpolitik for moral ends, American governments can hope for a level of domestic political support that, frankly, Cold War internationalism never enjoyed. The second is that a conspicuously religious America can actually make the United States a more attractive partner to much of the world. It is not Christianity that offends Muslims, Mead argues, but atheism. American hegemony is in competition with secular transnationalism, and it is not at all clear that the secular transnationalists have a long-term advantage.

This raises the question of just what kind of transcendent the world wants. Hocking said that Christianity should deal with modernity by divesting itself of its own mythological and cultural baggage, so that it can become less Western and more Christian. Well, now we know better. "Exculturation" refers to the process by which a religious denomination becomes disassociated from the surrounding culture. (14) It may reject its own traditions to meet the believer afresh, the way a missionary would. Many denominations and religious institutions actually tried this in the last half of the 20th century; they lost their old audience and gained no new one. The prospects for a worldwide religious revival have not dimmed with the passing decades, however. The irony is that the religion of an ecumenical society cannot be Hocking's Christian existentialism, but it might be Pentecostalism.

This, at any rate is what one might gather from Philip Jenkins's book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. (15) Anyone who foresees a Muslim future is going to be gravely disappointed, he says, if for no other reason than that Christianity is well represented in the countries with the fastest-growing populations. In fact, that has been the case for centuries, even though the areas of growth have changed. Demographics are the least of it, however.

In general, he characterizes the Christianity of the South (which, oddly, includes the East, except for Japan) as visionary, charismatic, apocalyptic. At the same time, it is also theologically and culturally conservative. Jenkins points out that, when the Vatican reasserts dogmas that seem to Europeans and Americans to run against the tide of history, it is in fact simply responding to the Church's key demographics.

Jenkins cites repeatedly Harvey Cox's noted study of the worldwide spread of Pentecostal worship, Fire from Heaven. (16) By Pentecostalism, Jenkins does not mean principally the self-identified Pentecostal denominations, important though those are. More important is the spread of a pluripotent spirituality through the older denominations. If present trends continue, there will be a billion Pentecostals, variously defined, by 2050.

Jenkins says that, in much of the South in which this spirituality is spreading, we are back in the world of the New Testament. Much of the world is becoming urbanized in chaotic megalopolises The displaced people there need communities, and services that the government cannot provide, which in part explains the growth of the new churches. In the long run, Jenkins suggests, the greater threat to secular McWorld may not be the Jihad, but the Crusade. The North could eventually define itself against Christianity.

Reasonable people might quarrel with Jenkins' conclusions, and for that matter with his facts. He himself points out that there is a long tradition on both the Right and Left in developed countries of using the South for rhetorical purposes. A generation ago, the radical Left said that political battles that were lost in the West would be won in the South and East. Now conservatives are saying the same thing. One suspects that the Right will be just as surprised by what actually happens as the Left ever was.

So far we have been eliding the difference between the future spiritual state of the West and that of the rest of the world. That actually makes more sense in Toynbee's model, which, as we have seen, tries to understand world history in terms of spiritual evolution. But let us take a look at the final form of the West, or at least of the Western tradition.

When both Spengler and Toynbee wrote about the future, they had a preference for images of blood and iron, which was perfectly reasonable, considering the era in which they lived. It would be rash to assume that we have all the blood and iron behind us. However, these models of history that foresee the end of modernity also see the beginning of an era of peace, when all the great questions are answered. Francis Fukuyama wrote a book about this 15 years ago; the thesis of The End of History (17) can still be defended, even if its application to current events seems in retrospect premature. Fukuyama is not a Spenglerian, but Hermann Hesse was, for some purposes. If you want an image of the world of the Second Religiousness, you could do much worse than to read The Glass Bead Game. (18)

We get no dates, but the novel seems to be set around the beginning of the early 24th century. The age of wars has ended. We learn that major historical events no longer happen in the Occident. The Catholic Church seems to be as influential again as it was in the High Middle Ages. There is a lively intellectual life, but it is directed toward competition in a sort of game show, the "Glass Bead Game" of the title. Scholars in that period have to struggle to understand what the past meant by terms like "Bohemian" and "avant-garde," or even "revolutionary." Modernity is called "the Age of Wars" or the "Age of the Feuilleton," thus suggesting a connection between universal disorder and a culture that lacked intellectual seriousness. The Introduction puts it like this:

"The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to the pruning back of the plant to its roots...[It had] become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer's slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization -- technology, industry, commerce, and so on -- also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality." (19)

This is oddly reminiscent of the account of the Roman Empire that Peter Brown gave in The Making of Late Antiquity. (20) The more common view has it that the glittering culture of the empire in the second century masked a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. The civil wars and economic immiseration of the third century simply revealed the real state of things. Many historians who say this also characterize the rise of Christianity as a "loss of nerve," as men fled from reason in a world that no longer seemed to make sense. Brown, however, says that the fusion of piety, culture, and society under the high empire was adaptive, because it served to prevent the recurrence of the excesses of the late Republic.

Brown keeps the conventional structure, but changes the plus and minus signs. Maybe the culture of the Antonine period was more interested in the performance of classical styles than in creation; that is where Hesse's Glass Bead Game comes in. However, the formalities of Antonine culture did serve to channel private ambition. At the local level, the empire ran on the competition between notables to garner popularity through providing public amenities. Roman politics during the Republic had degenerated into a potlatch of vote-buying; the control of the state was at stake. Two centuries later, competition took the more seemly form of privately financed infrastructure and religious festivals; generally, the only thing at stake was good repute, which was quite enough.

What was true politically was also true spiritually. The empire in the second century did not lack for cults and proselytizers. For the most part, however, such wizards kept their claims limited. Toward their colleagues, they were tactful. Ordinary people believed that they had direct access to the supernatural through oracles (the gods spoke notoriously good Greek in this period) and through dreams. Brown repeatedly mentions the dream-compendium of Artemidorus, composed around AD 140, which reports dreams from all around the Mediterranean, along with their interpretations. Some of these dreams were quite dramatic. In other cultures, at other times, they might have launched the careers of prophets and conquerors. In the Antonine empire, in contrast, their use was diagnostic. Indeed, Freud cited Artemidorus as a sort of forerunner.

This condition did not last after Marcus Aurelius, but Brown emphasizes that the empire of the third century was not seized by superstitious hysteria. (21) Quite the opposite: people saw the supernatural as just another of life's problems. As in the second century, people in the later empire believed they encountered the supernatural daily. The difference was that they tried to limit their contact with it.

In the third century, the mechanisms that had dampened ambition no longer worked. This development was overdetermined: civil war, barbarian invasion, monetary inflation; the list is well known. The traditional life of the towns and smaller cities did not break down, but exploded upward, seeking powerful protectors. Society everywhere became more pyramidal. The powerful mined civic life, sometimes even diverting public buildings to private use. One is reminded of privatization in some post-Communist countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union and once-upon-a-time Yugoslavia.

Something similar happened spiritually. In the third century, the "debate about the holy" became a matter of life and death, of salvation and damnation. The great anxiety of the age, in Brown's telling, was to sort out saints from sorcerers. Just as in public life people sought reliable connections to the center of power, so in spiritual practice people sought out "friends of God," who could be relied on not to exploit the connection. The early Christian desert fathers gained credibility precisely because they did not promise magical effects.

Is this the future? I don't know. One thing is certain, though: Oswald Spengler inspired some really great science fiction, of which perhaps the best-known example is Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. (22) In those books, a scholar named Hari Seldon develops a model for predicting the future, and he tries to ensure the best of all possible outcomes for crises that will occur long after his death. During one of those crises, a group of politicians meet, and ask what Seldon meant them to do. They finally realize that, if Seldon long ago could see the answer to their problems, then they should be able to see it now that Seldon's future had arrived.

That will always be sound advice.


Notes

(1) The Decline of the West, Volume I, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1926; German original 1918), p. 424.

(2) The Decline of the West, Volume II, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1928; German original 1922), p. 311note

(3) Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye (Princeton University Press, 1957; Paperback 1990). Comedy is defined on pages 43, 44, but see Frye's own views on Spengler at 160, 343. Note also that Spengler himself said that Western civilization is uniquely tragic, because it insists on a historical goal even after history is over: see Spengler, Decline, Volume I, p. 365.

(4) The use of the "generation" as a fixed quantum of historical change has, perhaps, rendered parallels in the pace of historical change in different societies a little less mysterious. For a popular treatment, see Generations: History of America's Future, 1584—2029, by William Strauss & Neil Howe (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991).

(5) See, for instance, "A Bag of Tired Tricks," by B. R. Meyers: Atlantic Monthly, May 2005 (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200505/myers)

(6) A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement (Oxford University Press, 1947), Volume I, p. 478

(7) The Coming World Civilization, by William Ernest Hocking (Harper & Brothers, 1956)

(8) Hocking, pp. 6, 7

(9) Ibid.

(10) The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony Books, 2003)

(11) The modern doctrine of the transcendental unity of religions is called "traditionalism" or "Tradition." The leading study is Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, by Mark Sedgwick (Oxford University Press, 2004).

(12) See: http://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural/index.html

(13) Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, by Walter Russell Mead (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

(14) The term "exculturation" was coined by the French sociologist, Danièle Hervieu-Léger. My use of it here, as a self-destructive modernizing tendency in religions, follows that of Gianni Ambrosio in his article, "On the Future of Catholicism in France" (English title from the Italian original), in La Rivista del Clero Italiano (No. 12, 2004), which was excerpted for the English-language version of Chiesa (May 9, 2005) by Sandro Magister (http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=30332&eng=y).

(15) The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2002)

(16) Fire from Heaven, by Harvey Cox (Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley, 1995)

(17) The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press, 1992)

(18) Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse: German Original Das Glasperlenspiel (1943); English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (Bantam Books, 1986)

(19) Hesse, pp. 24-26

(20) The Making of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown (Harvard University Press Paperback, 1993). The book contains the Carl Newell Jackson lectures of 1976.

(21) An issue that lies beyond the scope of this paper is Spengler's interpretation of Christianity as a development of the Springtime of what he calls the Magian Culture of the Near East, a Culture part of whose territory happened to be controlled by Greco-Roman Civilization during the latter's Winter. One result of this accidental overlap was "pseudomorphosis," the cloaking of Magian spirit in Classical form. An example might be the cult of Apollonius Tyana, a Sophist contemporary of Jesus with a reputation as a wonderworker. Scholars of the New Testament often point out the formal similarity between the canonical Gospels and the early third-century biography of Apollonius by Philostratus. (See, e.g., What is a Gospel? by Charles H. Talbert (Fortress Press, 1977).) The difference is that we must imagine that the Sermon on the Mount dealt with the benefits of a high-fiber diet.

(22) Foundation (1951); Foundation and Empire (1952); Second Foundation (1953), by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday & Company)

The Long View: Anatomy of Criticism

As a believer that great works of synthesis are the characteristic work of our age, I support this kind of book.


Anatomy of Criticism
By Northrop Frye
Foreword by Harold Bloom
Princeton University Press, 1957
(Paperback 1990)
383 Pages, $17.95
ISBN 0691069999

 

A review of this book really should not be a text. It should be a diagram of a landscape, like a medieval mappa mundi, or maybe like one of those intricate cosmological charts that brilliant schizophrenics sometimes produce. The subject is the whole of literature, a continent whose shores are the boundary between imagination and experience, and whose countries are marked by the undefended frontiers between comedy, tragedy, masque, romance, the novel, the lyric, and every form and type of recorded use of imaginative language. The book was written just before the rise of postmodernism, at almost the last moment when a serious critical study could aspire to tell readers how the whole world is, rather than how it isn't. The book is dense, therefore, but it is not malicious.

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) needs no introduction, but that consideration has never yet stopped a reviewer. Frye was the Canadian academic magus who was not Marshall McLuhan, who was his colleague at the University of Toronto, but reportedly not his friend. In the 1960s, both achieved worldwide reputations. McLuhan's theme was the emergence of universal consciousness in a world mediated by audio-visual technology. Frye's project was ahistorical, and far more ambitious: to grasp the whole world of story. He seems to have spent the rest of his long career unpacking the details of the vision he synthesized in Anatomy of Criticism.

One should note that Frye's reach exceeded his grasp. Though he sought a universal synthesis, Anatomy of Criticism is chiefly about English literature, beginning with Shakespeare. The literatures of the Classical world are consulted for parallel historical development; the Christian Bible is searched for themes and structures. (Frye himself was an ordained Methodist minister.) European writers are conflated with their anglophone contemporaries. There are a few references to Hindu literature, and fewer to anthropology.

Frye's project is to identify and classify the archetypes of literature. These include the sort of things that Jung and Joseph Campbell have taught us to identify as archetypes. We are suitably instructed in the various incarnations of the hero's Quest, for instance, though Frye points out that Jung's idea of a collective unconscious is an unnecessary hypothesis for literature. Most of Frye's form analysis is technical but illuminating, such as the observation that the clever slaves in the comedies of Plautus and Terence are structurally equivalent to the subversive villains of drama, such as Iago. Other analyses are broad and illuminating: if I understand correctly, for instance, he suggests that the whole Bible is a comedy. In any case, particular observations of this sort culminate in glimpses of the Platonic Forms, Greek vocabulary and all:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypical theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvelous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.

Anatomy of Criticism would not be so notable if it were a static taxonomy. It is more like a phase space, a model that describes every possible state of the system through time. The key to that is Frye's five “modes” of fiction, with each mode defined by the power of the hero. Here they are, in their proper order, which also happens to be a brief outline of the development of literary forms in the modern West since the Dark Ages, and of the ancient West in the previous cycle:

---In the mode of myth, the hero is superior in kind to other men and the environment of other men. These stories in which the hero is a divine being are important for literature, but generally fall outside the normal literary categories.

---In a romance, the hero is superior in degree to other men and to the environment, but is simply an extraordinary human being. The laws of nature in romances are often not those that we meet in the real world, but they are self-consistent once they are established.

---The high mimetic mode obtains when the hero is superior in degree to other men, but not to the environment. This is the kind of hero Aristotle principally had in mind: the leader whom we find in most epic and tragedy.

---The low mimetic mode treats of a hero who is no better than the rest of us, which we find in most comedy and realistic fiction. We respond to the hero's common humanity in this sort of fiction. The story must display the canons of probability that we use in ordinary experience.

---When the hero has less power or intelligence than ourselves, so that the scene is one of bondage, absurdity, or frustration, the mode is ironic.

Frye tells us that irony, pushed to extremes, returns to the mode of myth. Characters who are so constrained by circumstances that they fall below the level of common humanity become hard to distinguish from the superhumans of myth: both kinds of stories enact archetypal patterns that do not turn on ordinary questions of personality or motivation. Frye's chief example of this return to myth is Finnegan's Wake, but we also see it in the low mimetic mode, particularly in science fiction.

This notion of the “recursion” of historical cycles is familiar from Vico. It is even more familiar from Spengler, whose ideas Frye assumed and fought against throughout his career. Since I have a rather similar relationship with Spengler's model of history, I have no trouble understanding what Frye is trying to say in statements like this:

Participation mystique is essentially spasmodic: in primitive communities it may be sustained for hours by dance, and in decadent ones, by oratory, but in a state of culture it falls into the background

"Culture," of course, in Spengler's parlance, means roughly the period from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 19th century. After that, we began to see the return of Mass Man that McLuhan was so keen to tell us about. Frye continued to work for several decades after Anatomy of Criticism, and this is by no means the favorite work of all of Frye's admirers. Still, I cannot help but wonder whether, in this book, he was attempting to create one of the great summa that Spengler predicted would be the glory of the final stage of the Western intellect.

This is not to say that this work is predominantly Spenglerian. A lesser critic could have used Frye's system of modes to tell a tale of decline and fall from the primordial age of faith to the 20th century's kali yuga of irony and nihilism. Frye, in contrast, points out that elements of each mode are present in every age. In fact, at every point he reminds us that his system does not judge the quality of any piece of literature; the system simply assigns a work to its proper place in the structure of literature. He will, in fact, have nothing to do with a theory of criticism that praises or disparages a work because of its consonance with the classics of the past, or because it is supposed to reflect the state of things in a brighter future. Such questions are part of the history of taste. The confusion of criticism with taste detracts from the total sum of human knowledge.

In Frye's model of literature, it is impossible to produce a form of work that is original in the sense of “new.” Even the most self-consciously avant guard artist will employ ancient archetypes and structures, however obscurely. Actually, Frye suggests, those authors whom we treasure for their originality were really original in quite a different sense: they returned to the archetypal origins for their stories, and thus often cut through the accretions and refinements with which their contemporaries were familiar. Frye explains that even the greatest author is not the greatest expert on his own work for the purposes of criticism. The critic discerns the form and phase of the work; the work's author is not necessarily equipped to do that.

Some of Frye's ideas remain stunning. In the next two generations, however, notions very much like his ideas led to the demoralizing relativism in academic life from which we have not yet recovered. As an aside, I must also point out that Frye's notion of “primordial originality” sounds much like the principle of “resourcement” that gained currency in the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council a few years later. This was the idea that the way to reform was to “return to sources,” particularly to the Fathers of the Church and to historical reconstructions of the earliest forms of liturgy. In practice, the attempts to carry out this program often had unfortunate results.

Be that as it may, the final impression I took away from this book was its encyclopedic scope. Actually, it goes beyond encyclopedic. I have never seen an encyclopedia that covered this aspect of rhetoric:

In English we have Burton, who is said to have amused himself by going down to the Isis and listening to the bargemen swear. Perhaps his visits were professional, for the qualities of his style are essentially the qualities of good swearing: a swinging sense of rhythm, a love of invective and catalogue, an unlimited vocabulary, a tendency to think in short and accentual units, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the two subjects relevant to swearing, theology and personal hygiene. All of these except the last are musical characteristics.

The book says quite a lot about music, too.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Spirit Wars

John Crowley

John Crowley

Now nearly twenty years old, this book review is a pretty good primer of the cultural movements in America that made the Da Vinci Code a best-seller.

So far, the biggest religious revival of the early twenty-first century has been an increasing lack of religious affiliation at all. The Second Religiousness may yet come, but it isn't here yet.


Spirit Wars: Pagan Renewal in Christian America
by Peter Jones
WinePress Publishing, 1997
$18.95, 331 pages
ISBN: 1-883893-74-7

 

A Preview of the Great Apostasy?

 

"Where was it ...said...that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to..the Northern gods...who became horned devils for Christians to fear...And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver-spotted greasy-bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though...
(John Crowley, "Love & Sleep," pages 499-500)

 

It's a rare American church-goer who has not noticed that at least some of the leaders of his denomination have been talking funny in recent years. The use of gender-neutral language does not prove much, since this is becoming a standard professional-class dialect (failure to use which is in some cases actionable at law). Nevertheless, even the most trusting parishioner has to wonder whether new formulas like "Creator, Savior, Comforter" really mean the same as the old "Father, Son, Holy Spirit." Perhaps more incomprehensible to the folks in the pews has been the dogmatization of ecology, which might seem to some people to be the paradigm case of a prudential issue.

Paradoxically, it is only in the most extreme situations, where pastors speak openly of the Earth as the goddess Gaia and churches invite practicing witches to lead Bible study groups on Halloween, that it really becomes clear what is going on. The bald truth is that a large slice of the American theological establishment has abandoned Christianity as expressed in its traditional creedal formulations and adopted a species of gnosticism. "Spirit Wars," a new book by Peter Jones, currently Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, is a guide to this new religion, showing how it fits into the intellectual landscape of late twentieth century America and describing in detail its many close links with the classical gnostic heresies of the first few centuries A.D.

Professor Jones writes from an evangelical perspective, though not without reference to the state of Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church. (Regarding the latter, he quotes frequently from Donna Steichen's "Ungodly Rage.") With a masters degree from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary, he is certainly in a position to describe the progressive paganization of the leadership of the mainline churches in America. Though British-born, he seems to have made his way through the great educational institutions of the United States just before the Long March of `60s ideology began. Unlike many of his younger colleagues today, he is therefore still able to be shocked.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is the connections it makes between the resurgence of gnosticism and other trends in the academy and politics. The literary technique known as deconstruction, for instance, helped to create the intellectual universe in which the transcendental monotheism of orthodox Christianity became quite literally unthinkable to many people with expensive educations. I might add that, most recently, deconstruction (which turned out to have been founded by Nazis) has been superseded in some institutions by some form of "historicism." As practiced by many prominent theologians, this approach essentially consists of recasting biblical history to fit an ideological perspective. The metaphysical anti-monotheism inculcated by deconstruction still remains, of course, but there has been added to it a profound dishonesty in the use of historical sources.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is Jones's assertion that American gnosticism has begun to serve as the theological underpinning of cultural and even political liberalism. For two centuries, the chief alternative to orthodox Christianity was atheist humanism, or agnostic scientism, or at any rate some way of looking at the world that categorically excluded the supernatural. This is no longer the case. Increasingly, people who oppose traditional ethics and who seek to collapse the human race into the natural world are claiming some sort of supernatural sanction. This trend has entered the mainstream to an appalling degree, as even a cursory familiarity with Vice President Al Gore's preachy eco-feminist tract, "Earth in the Balance," will confirm. In some ways, the people who control the key institutions of American society are more pious than their predecessors were a century ago. The problem is that this piety is directed toward objects that have less and less in common with the religion of the people these institutions are supposed to serve and represent.

The origins of gnosticism are disputed, as is the precise time of its appearance, but it is clear that in the first few centuries after Jesus there was a variety of sects, other than the orthodox church, that claimed to be Christian, indeed to be the true and esoteric Christianity. They changed and multiplied, as their adherents followed after one charismatic adept after another, but a few themes and names stand out. Marcion, for instance, who lived in the second century, essentially threw out the whole Old Testament as the work of the devil and kept only fragments of the New. Others, such Valentinus, tended to keep the scriptures but modified their meaning. As a rule, though, in gnostic speculation the God of the Jews was denounced as a tyrant who had created the inferior world in which we live. His law is folly and his promises are lies. The universe over which he rules is a multi-layered prison in which human beings are confined in ignorance of their origin and destiny. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was seeking to liberate mankind, and Eve was its prophet.

In most gnostic systems, there is indeed a god worthy of worship, but one wholly alien to this world. This god is neither male nor female, neither good nor evil, but beyond all categories even by analogy. The Christ is his agent, but understood primarily as a psychological function. The Jesus of history, to the extent the gnostics were interested in him at all, was an exemplar rather than a redeemer. Human beings contain the "sparks" of the alien god. After many incarnations, these captive souls may hope to attain the "knowledge," the "gnosis" (the words are cognate, by the way) that will allow them to return to their origin.

How did the sparks get there? They are trapped, through "love and sleep," in the mass of the world, into which a fragment of the complex divine reality called the "pleroma" has fallen. This final emanation of the divine is called Sophia, "wisdom." She is conceived of as a goddess whose fear and terror and grief at her separation from the pleroma gave birth to the Demiurge, the false god of our creation. There is a "higher" or unfallen aspect of Sophia who works to undo the enslavement of the divine to matter and to rescue the human race from the world of birth, death and division.

Now, all of this sounds like pretty esoteric stuff, something that only scholars or would-be magicians might be expected to run across. Until a few years ago, that was largely true. Today, in contrast, expressions of gnosticism turn up in the most unexpected places. Consider, for instance, the following autobiographical description of a vision experienced by the author of a recent book that dealt largely with the state of current progress toward a unified field theory in physics:

"...I became convinced...that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to ecstasy, it might consume me...With this realization, my bliss turned into horror...As I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves."
(John Horgan, "The End of Science," page 261)

The interesting point here is that the writer of this passage had apparently never heard of the gnostic doctrine that the world had been created through God's own fear. He mulled over this experience for many years and eventually wrote "The End of Science" to work through the possibility of a downside to omniscience. However, most people do get their ideas about gnosticism from books rather than personal experience. With certain adaptations, all of the themes described above as elements of ancient gnosticism now have modern analogues, expounded in prestigious schools of divinity and, in many cases, preached to actual congregations.

Some things have needed translation, of course. Classical gnostics loathed matter and the structures of this world because they thought there was an immeasurably better world elsewhere. However, though this better reality was absolutely transcendent, they believed the way to find it was by looking within. In modern gnosticism, in contrast, the transcendent is a more muted theme; any appeal to the "beyond" is likely to be denounced as an ideology. The search within continues, however. Instead of seeking union with the alien god, modern gnostics seek their authentic selves. The techniques for this search are therefore more likely to be considered therapy than magic, though in fact rather a lot of traditional hocus-pocus has become fashionable in progressive religious circles.

In any event, today the opposition to the "structures of this world" is at least as fierce as it was in the religious underground of second-century Alexandria. To take the most colorful example: if the God of Genesis said to be fruitful and multiply but otherwise to behave yourself, then obviously the way to subvert his law is to engage in any form of sex that does not result in children. There has always been a real horror of reproduction in gnostics of all ages. This sentiment was well expressed by Jack Kerouac in his declining years, when he regretted that he had fathered a daughter and thereby had added to the "meat-wheel" of the world system. Similarly, both in modern and in ancient times, there has been a strong gnostic tendency to regard homosexuality as metaphysically superior, since it moves beyond the division of gender roles established by the Demiurge.

Modern gnosticism is predominantly feminist, and indeed to the extent that feminism seeks an ontological justification, gnosticism is probably it. However, we should keep in mind that consciously gnostic feminism has as little to do with the actual needs and concerns of most women as Leninism does with those of industrial workers. I, at least, am increasingly convinced that the role of feminism in the critique of the Western tradition is in any case largely instrumental. Notions like "patriarchy" are essentially a form of class analysis, with the genders substituted for economic classes. It is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Like the term "bourgeois," it is a cuss-word rather than a description of anything. When the whole of art and science and politics are denounced as part of a system of patriarchal oppression, the point is not to draw attention to unjust gender-relationships, the point is to get rid of the art and the science and the politics. Again, the impulse here is fundamentally gnostic, a studied loathing of ordinary life not because it is evil, but because it exists.

A novel aspect of modern gnosticism is its millenarian streak. Ancient gnostics anticipated that the corrupt world system created by the incompetent Demiurge would come crashing down one day, but they did not normally anticipate it happening anytime soon. They were wholly uninterested in transforming the world or in becoming a universal faith. In today's gnosticism, in contrast, there is a strong dispensationalist sentiment. The Age of Christianity (or of Jehovah) is over, they say, and the New Age is about to begin. Among feminist gnostics, the motto "women will destroy god" is frequently met with. There is a high end and a low end to this sentiment. The low end is represented by "witches" who conduct gothic ceremonies in honor of the return of the Goddess Sophia. The high end is represented by people like Joseph Campbell, who held that the global society of the third millennium requires a new global myth, one consonant with modern science and social practice. There is no lack of perfectly respectable people, again notably including Al Gore, who have suggested that the myth of the Goddess Gaia, of the Earth as organism, might serve this function. Thus, modern gnosticism has plans not only for destruction, but for the reconstruction to follow.

On a less global level, vandalism is a good enough description for what has been happening in the Protestant mainline churches and elements of the Catholic Church for the past quarter century. (Actually, in the case of Catholic parish churches, "vandalism" is not a mere metaphor, considering the ghastly effect that modernizing liturgists have had on the ornamentation and design of church buildings.) Church-goers who have been paying any attention at all have had little trouble following the irresponsible mutations that have occurred in the treatment of scripture and liturgy.

Peter Jones is particularly exercised by the proliferation of tendentious Bible translations in recent years. Perhaps the most dishonest exercise so far has been "The Five Gospels," a heavily-marketed translation of the four canonical gospels, plus the "Gospel of Thomas," a work that came to light among the gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The "Gospel of Thomas" is simply not a "gospel," both because it is of later composition and quite different in form, a mere collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Nevertheless, this is precisely the kind of distinction that many modern theologians have been systematically subverting.

The progressive line now is that the gnostics had as much right to be considered Christians as did the orthodox Church. The victory of one faction over the other was a matter of pure chance, the outcome of a power struggle. How Christian orthodoxy, an outlawed religion for three centuries, could have won a power struggle against anybody is hard to see. Syncretistic religions that included elements of Christianity were not illegal; a statue of Jesus stood in the pantheon of the third century emperor Alexander Severus. Nevertheless, in the interests of inclusiveness, "Gnostic Bibles" containing apocryphal literature from Nag Hammadi and other sources have already begun to appear. They find increasing acceptance in seminaries where the whole idea of a biblical canon is under question.

The situation is only exacerbated by enterprises like the "Jesus Seminar," whose participants vote periodically on which elements of the New Testament should be given what level of credence, and particularly on which sayings attributed to Jesus were really his. The sayings they endorse are those that suggest Jesus was mostly interested in finding the inner self and subverting gender roles. The Seminar is, as Jones notes, essentially a hoax perpetrated by people with impeccable credentials. However, it has the backing of Time Magazine, which gives choice bits of its "discoveries" wide publicity every Christmas and Easter.

Just thinking about this subject is enough to invite cosmic paranoia (which is a good definition for gnosticism in the first place). And then, of course, sometimes merely odd stuff happens. As I mentioned, Peter Jones is English, and he hails from Liverpool. In fact, he was a good friend of John Lennon in high school. They parted company when Lennon went to vocational school for the arts while Jones took a college track. Jones pronounces himself mystified as to how, despite this divergence in education, Lennon was incorporating gnostic themes into his later work that Jones knew about only because he had studied patristics. I mention this because, a few hours before starting to read this book, I was poking about on the Web and I came across a site whose author purported to be no less a person than Antichrist himself. Of course, sites purportedly maintained by Abraham Lincoln are probably no less numerous than those maintained by Antichrist. This particular Antichrist, however, had an eschatology that incorporated John Lennon as the final incarnation of Christ, so that Lennon's death marked the beginning of the end of the Christian era. I hate it when this kind of thing happens.

Spirit Wars is in fact fairly free of paranoia and quite devoid of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, towards the end of the book, Jones does permit himself this observation:

"As she covers her anemic body with a fake robe of Christ, Sophia begins to look more and more like the harlot of the Apocalypse, that startling image of an apostate Church, fornicating with the kings of the earth, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus. On the threshold of the third millennium, the `Spirit Wars' have begun in dead earnest, though at present we have only seen the initial skirmishes. Sophia is only at the beginning of her reign."
(Spirit Wars, page 257)

Well, maybe. On the other hand, there are some other points to consider. The big one is the size of gnosticism's actual audience. Peter Jones cites dozens of conferences, books and papers that propound a gnostic point of view (the book has 60 pages of notes; I just wish it had a better index). I am quite ready to believe, as Jones suggests, that gnosticism is now the orthodoxy of many of America's major seminaries. Still, he does overlook one key point about the power of gnosticism: it empties churches faster than stink bombs. The mainline Protestant churches with which Jones is primarily concerned have been bleeding membership for thirty years. They adopted fad after fad in theology and liturgy, so that when gnosticism and feminism came along they had no living tradition of resistance. The result was that soon many such churches also had no members.

On the Catholic side, of course, the saddest case has been what happened to American nuns. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, some few orders made only the modest reforms suggested by the Council, and at this writing they look like they will survive. Most, however, followed essentially the same gnosticizing trend as, say, the Episcopal Church in America. The result is that the scariest academic conferences Jones discusses, in which the God of the Bible is denounced as an idol and goddesses are openly worshipped, are largely populated by Catholic nuns. They are, however, for the most part aging nuns. Their orders do not attract new members. They can solicit contributions from ordinary Catholics successfully only by appealing to old memories of parochial school graduates. Their fate is as clear an indication as one could wish that liberal Christianity has no future.

The churches that are growing in the United States are for the most part those that make some effort to remain theologically conservative, though one might wish that they could combine this endeavor with a higher level of theological sophistication. Some of the mainline churches, notably the Presbyterians, have recoiled from the abyss at the insistence of their local memberships and started firing liberal staff in their central organizations. The Catholic Church in this decade has produced a thoroughly orthodox Catechism that has reached a wide popular audience despite the efforts of liberal ecclesiastical bureaucrats to suppress it. While these developments hardly constitute rollback (a fine old Cold War expression), they do suggest that Sophia is not having things all her own way.

Finally, there is one other point to consider in assessing the prospects of modern gnosticism. The religious future of the West cannot be discussed without reference to the future of the West as a whole. Peter Jones notes the analogies between the religious climate of the early Christian centuries and that of today. Cyclical historians have given this matter a great deal of thought. Jones cites Toynbee on the subject, who says that the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when the "Higher Religion" of the third millennium appeared. You may pick your own favorite historical tea-leaf reader, but mine is Oswald Spengler. Writing seventy years ago, he used the term "Second Religiousness" to describe the cultural state of old civilizations, after their "modern" eras have ended. According to him, it is precisely in this final phase that "fancy-religions" like Theosophy and the cult of Isis lose their appeal. Civilizations return to the forms of their springtimes, which in the case of the West means a form of conservative Christianity. It is not wholly clear that time is on the gnostics' side.

This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.


The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages

 

 

This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking

The Long View: The Perfection of the West

The Perfection of the West is one of John's self-published books, an anthology of the writings on his blog. It is an attempt to build a thematic whole out of his writings, and I think he succeeds. You can still order the book from xlibris. I've copied the table of contents on this page,  with links to each article or essay.


The Perfection of the West
By John J. Reilly

There was certainly at least one way in which the great 20th-century macrohistorians were wildly misleading: the expectation that the West would become increasingly amoral as it passed into a season of pure power politics. Postmodern theory, maybe, tended to move beyond good and evil, but postmodernism is really just a phase of late modernism, and it shows every sign of being mortal. In contrast, one of the characteristics of today's world is the search for legitimacy, for an ethic suited to a world that Toynbee hoped would become "an ecumenical society with Western characteristics."

This anthology is intended to aid that search. The book has two themes.

The first is that the morphology of history that Spengler and Toynbee described is essentially correct. Yes, the modern world has turned out to be very much like Hellenistic times. Yes, the modern international system is probably going to coalesce into a global version of the Roman Empire. Yes, the real post-modern age, the age that will follow when the modern era is really past, will lack something of the cultural innovation and democratic ethos of modernity. Very little of this is happening in quite the way that macrohistorians expected in 1920 or even 1950. However, simple realism requires that we acknowledge the shape of the future will resemble that of late antiquity in important ways.

The other theme is that this future is not necessarily a tragedy, or even a "decline." As the items in this anthology remind readers more than once, Oswald Spengler himself denied he was a pessimist: instead of The Decline of the West, he said that he might have called his big book The Completion of the West or The Perfection of the West. Sometimes it is hard to know what to make of intellectual misnomers of this sort. Spengler's contemporary, Albert Einstein, once remarked that a better popular title for Special Relativity would have been "The Theory of Invariance." If that is what these people meant, then why didn't they say so in the first place? Be that as it may, this book embraces Spengler's more sanguine interpretation of the trajectory of the modern world: the work of the modern age is to produce the final forms of the West, the culture and institutions that will last as long as the civilization of the West endures. In Spengler's model, that need not be forever, but it could also be a very long time.

What makes it worthwhile to take another look at these ideas at the beginning of the 21st century? In part, because the speculations of Spengler and the other macrohistorians were so often wrong. For instance, the contemporary course of globalization is quite contrary to Spengler's state-driven model of economics. Toynbee's surmise that the fate of the world would be resolved by a "knock-out blow" of one superpower by another now seems very unlikely to come true. Even when the macrohistorians seem to have been right about the structure of history, their imaginations failed them with regard to the specifics. Thanks to the passage of time, this anthology can provide many of the specifics. We can see the often-ironic ways in which a philosophy of history has turned into real history.

The imaginations of the macrohistorians failed them regarding evil as well as good. The Perfection of the West also deals with some of the dark alternative histories. Although the 20th century seems to have avoided the worst possible outcomes, there are imaginable final forms for the West that would mean a civilization of waking nightmare. These futures are not likely, but the currents that would make them possible still flow underground. Folly and malice could bring them to the surface again.

* * *
A glance at the Table of Contents to the left will show regular visitors to this website that the material in The Perfection of the West is not new. The book consists of book reviews and essays, most of which have already appeared on this site and in print. All this work has, of course, been edited. There has been some reorganization of the texts, particularly with an eye to reducing repetition. (Some readers may think two eyes would have been even better.) Still, this material can be offered again, in book form, with a clear conscience. For one thing, +70,000 words are a great deal to read in electronic format, even on sites with better resolution than this one. (An ebook version is nonetheless available from the publisher, by the way.) More important, I hope that presenting these items in this order will clarify the key ideas I have been trying to get across through this website. Yes, there really is a point to all these menus and subpages, or at least there is supposed to be. The Perfection of the West should help make it portable.


Table of Contents
--------------------------

Preface

Part I
Terminal States

The World After Modernity
(The archetype of the Once and Future Empire: Presented at the Sixth Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston 2001.)

Prophet of Decline
(John Farrenkopf's groundbreaking contribution to Spengler Studies, including the conclusion that Oswald Spengler's late thought went beyond historical cyclicity.)

Tragedy & Hope
(In this key text of conspiracy theory, Carroll Quigley explains why the future is the Holy Roman Empire.)

Empire
(Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's postmodern plot to overthrow the City of God.)

Our Global Neighborhood

(The Report of the Commission on Global Governance, setting out a plan for world governance and a new People of the World: Culture Wars, September 1995.)

Part II
Imperial Ethics

One World
(Peter Singer urges global government with a redistributionist ethic.)

Warrior Politics
(Robert Kaplan urges Peace with Teeth: First Things, June/July 2002.)

Tribe and Empire
(In a new “Essay on the Social Contract," Patrick E. Kennon argues that the Nation must give way to the Empire.)

Part III
The Great Republic

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
(G. Edward White's biography of a decisive man during the Decisive Lifetime: Culture Wars, January 1996.)

TR: The Last Romantic
(Theodore Roosevelt, in this biography by H. W. Brands, gives imperialism a good name: Culture Wars, March 1998.)

A Republic, Not an Empire
(Patrick J. Buchanan explains why the US should not have entered either 20th-century world war.)

The Coming Caesars
(Amaury de Riencourt applies The Decline of the West to the United States.)

Part IV
The Evil Empire

After the Third Age
(Esoteric Fascism and the Future of the West: Presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston 2002.)

The Dreamer of the Day

(Kevin Coogan's account of the life and times of the Red-Brown conspirator, Francis Parker Yockey.)

Imperium
(Francis Parker Yockey explains how the outcome of the Second World War will be reversed.)

Men Among the Ruins
(The thought of the strangely influential Baron Julius Evola.)

Part V
Late Culture

From Dawn to Decadence
(Jacques Barzun explains the meaning of the past 500 years: First Things, November 2000.)

Art Lessons
(Alice Goldfarb Marquis on the decline and fall of the National Endowment for the Arts: Culture Wars, February 1996.)

At the End of an Age
(John Lukacs on the end of the Modern Age, and maybe the of the world.)

Part VI
Fiction

The Seafort Saga
(David Feintuch's series: the Empire is a democratic theocracy, with space ships.)

The Cunning Man
(Robertson Davies mixes Spengler and the Perennial Philosophy.)

The Glass Bead Game
(In Hermann Hesse's famous novel of the future, perfection is not enough.)

End

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Perfection of the West
By John J. Reilly

The Long View: The Glass Bead Game

I don't think this counts as a prediction, but there is an interesting parallel to subsequent events. John says:

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

After Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, John said that Pope Benedict is exactly the kind of man who would enjoy playing the Glass Bead Game. As it turns out, he is also exactly the kind of man who enjoys resigning from the Glass Bead Game.


Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game

By Hermann Hesse

German Original “Das Glasperlenspiel” (1943)

English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (1969)

520 Pages; Approximately US$18.00

ISBN: 080501246X

Editions are available from Henry Holt and Bantam.

This book earned Hermann Hesse his Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. World War II had just ended then, so the novel's depiction of a debellicized future for Europe no doubt had special appeal in the German-speaking world. “The Glass Bead Game” is not an arbitrary Utopia, however. (The renderings of the title for some editions are arbitrary, unfortunately; sometimes it's “Magister Ludi” or the English equivalent, “The Master of the Game.”) What we have here is an example of speculative fiction that applies a humane gloss to the model of history in Oswald Spengler's “Decline of the West.” The result belongs to that small set of speculative futures that are both surprising and plausible.

Hermann Hesse was born in Germany, in 1877, where he achieved early success as a journalist and novelist. During the First World War he was an example of that modern conundrum, the pacifist activist. His career took off in 1919, when he published “Demian” and moved permanently to Switzerland. At his death in 1962, he was thought of as an esoteric and even somewhat obscure writer. Immediately afterward, however, his books gained wide popularity as guides to the path of spiritual enlightenment.

Because of the assimilation of his work by the Counter Culture of the 1960s, Hesse is often remembered, whether fairly or not, as the novelist of the truculent intellectual adolescent. This reputation is reflected in the four novels for which he became best known in the English-speaking world: “The Glass Bead Game,” “Siddhartha,” “Demian,” and “Steppenwolf.” The first three are Bildungsromane: novels about education and growing up. In all three, the protagonists eventually transcend cultural norms. The fourth is about a midlife crisis, but “Steppenwolf” deals, on the surface at least, with sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (well, with jazz; it was published in 1927). Perhaps for that reason, it has often served as the smart teenager's answer to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The Counter Culture has long since become the middle-aged establishment, but Hesse's books still renew their readership. For one thing, they are informed by a Jungian interpretation of Chinese and Indian mysticism, features which are all perennial favorites for several audiences. Hesse's Spenglerian view of history fell out of fashion after the middle 20th century, but that does not seem to have hindered the reception of his books. Quite the opposite, in fact: without familiarity with Spengler, “The Glass Bead Game” in particular seems even more original and mysterious. I might also mention that Hesse's German is very accessible, and it translates well into English.

The text does not say just when the story takes place. However, Hesse let it be known that the principal narrator is supposed to be writing around the beginning of the 25th century, about a person who had lived long enough ago for legends about him to spring up. The action, then, is probably in the early 2300s. We learn pieces of the historical background, which we will discuss below, but part of the book's purpose is to depict an era that is anti-historical, or post-historical. Indeed, the book is largely devoid of the sort of things that novels set in the future often emphasize. We are told there are radios, telephones, ground cars, and trains: so much for technology. It is clear that a “Century of Wars” lies in the past, but the usual term for what we call modernity is the Age of the Feuilleton, of trivial and occasional literature. There are different states, or at any rate countries, which have parallel cultural and educational institutions. We learn almost nothing about the state of the world, except that Europe is extremely peaceful and has been so for longer than living memory.

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

All this is expounded through long talks and little incident (there is one stinging memorandum). At school, Knecht is assigned to defend the educational system against a schoolmate named Plinio Designori (there are many Italian names in this book) who later facilitates his departure from his exalted status. Knecht receives precocious promotions. Knecht's mentor turns out to be a saint. Aside from Knecht's resignation, the most dramatic episode is a long stay in a Benedictine monastery. There Knecht is instructed in the neglected subject of world history by wise old Father Jacobus, whom critics say is supposed to represent the great Swiss historian, Jacob Burkhardt. (The most annoying character is a neurasthenic named Tegularius, who represents Friedrich Nietzsche.) There is just one, very minor, female character: Designori's wife. Knecht dies of heart failure on his first day as tutor to Designori's son, thereby giving the sulky good-for-nothing something to live up to. The conversations are really interesting.

One should note that the life of Joseph Knecht in “The Glass Bead Game” was planned as just one of a number of lives of the same man; Hesse had at first envisioned an anthology of incarnations, from the prehistoric past to the distant future. In the course of composition, however, the bulk of the book became a hagiography of the famous and infamous Magister Ludi. Just three other incarnations survive as appended stories, supposedly as examples of the school exercises the students of Knecht's time are assigned to develop the historical imagination. They deal with the life of an ancient shaman, a Desert Father, and a hard-luck Indian raja.

Hesse renders the Glass Bead Game of the title absolutely believable by not describing it in detail. We are never told just what a match consists of. Some early prototype of the Game used actual glass beads. The great annual Game matches are followed as closely and widely as international soccer (the latter isn't mentioned in the book, by the way). Those matches use some unspecified projection equipment. Calligraphy enters into it. So does music. On the other hand, people can and do play by themselves.

The Game seems to be about spotting and extending homologies in the phenomena of nature and in cultural history. The notes of a musical scale, for instance, can conform to the arrangement of the elements in the Periodic Table, or the growth pattern of a plant can conform to the expansion and leveling off of an animal population. Organic growth in general can be shown to have something in common with the efflorescence and exhaustion of an artistic style. Aquinas called these commonalities “intelligible elements”; Leibnitz actually tried to create a numerical language that could express them and even generate them. Hesse posits that some such project eventually succeeds and becomes institutionalized. The Game players seek to express all the phenomena of history and science in the Game language. An international authority oversees additions to the form and subject matter.

All in all, the Game sounds like a competitive jazz of literary and scientific allusions. It serves as an outlet among the finest minds for the creativity that in prior eras would have found expression in art. It is more than a mere trial of mental dexterity, however, because it contains a strong component of meditation. Indeed, many people pursue it as a path to spiritual enlightenment, as a way to perceive Being behind the shimmering veil of thought. The Game simply makes the veil visible, however; it is no business of the Game to suggest what may lie behind the veil.

The hints we get about the Game make it sound more than a little like the “I Qing,” the famous Chinese book of divination. However, Hesse goes out of his way to dispel any implication that they might be equivalent. One Sinicizing teacher of Knecht says this to his suggestion that a Game might be based on the “I Qing”:

“Anyone can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world into his grove.”

As Magister Ludi, Joseph Knecht presides over the Game center at Waldzell, which is located in an unnamed German-speaking country. The Magister Ludi is just one of the dozen Magisters of the national Board of Educators, however. There is also a “Magister Mathematicae,” for instance, and a “Magister Musicae,” and so on. The primary duty of the Magisters is to oversee the teaching of their subjects in the elite schools. The Magisters as a group oversee Castalia, the “province” (it is never clear to what extent the characterization is geographical or administrative) of all disciplines.

The students in the system of elite schools, all boys, are recruited as children. They normally serve as teachers, researchers or Game players for life. The Order to which they belong, in fact, holds them to a life of comfortable poverty and bachelorhood; to judge by this book, that also means celibacy after their student years. The people call them “Mandarins,” with some reason. Unlike the Mandarins of traditional China, however, their power does not extend beyond pedagogy.

There are also ordinary schools, up through the university level, which prepare their students for the practical professions. Castalia provides many of the teachers for the public system, but the Magisters do not control it. Castalia is wholly dependent on public funding. The Magisters even spend a fair amount of time lobbying.

It is a measure of the distance that the West has traveled by the Age of Castalia that the 20th century idea of biography has become a historical curiosity. The narrator of Knecht's life puts it this way:

“[F]or the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance…We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generalities.”

In the age of Castalia, the West has again become a Traditional society, in the special sense of “tradition” coined by René Guénon. Though he does not say this, Hesse seems to have tried to map out a trajectory for the West like that of China after the Sung Dynasty. After several centuries of dramatic growth, chaos, and experimentation, Chinese culture turned toward consolidation under the banner of Neo-Confucianism. Like the Glass Bead Game, that philosophy is as comprehensive as it is final. However, Hesse is at pains to emphasize that a comparable transition in the West need not produce an alien world, much less the fascist outcome that some followers of Tradition favor. In the Age of Castalia, there are still political parties, elections, and newspapers. Nonetheless, the creativity of the modern era is over, as well as its violence and instability.

The Age of Castalia understands the prior thousand years in this way. Two trends had been in play since the end of the Middle Ages. One was the liberation of thought from authority, particularly from the Church of Rome. The other was the “covert but passionate search” for legitimacy for this freedom, for a new and sufficient authority arising from reason itself. The result was disaster, followed by recovery:

“[T]hey were already on the verge of that dreadful devaluation of the Word which produced, at first in secret and within the narrowest circles, that ascetically heroic countermovement which soon afterward began to flow visibly and powerfully, and ushered in the new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect.”

The reformation of the life of the mind began, clandestinely at first, even in the 20th century. This was done under the impetus of musicologists and of the loosely organized religious movement called the Journeyers to the East (a reference to Hesse's novel of similar name, published in 1932).

After the crisis of civilization, intellectual life became monastic. People understood that their culture was no longer creative, but they also understood that there were still worthy goals to pursue. There was still the work of pious preservation, of systematization and sympathetic critique. The liberal arts began to aspire to the rigor of engineering. The Glass Bead Game was just part of a general turn toward synthesis.

By Knecht's time, no one is much impressed by Enlightenment philosophy anymore. Kant is little known, while the High Scholastics are part of the regular curriculum. On the other hand, everyone is familiar with the music of the 18th century. That's the only reason they think the 18th century is important. As Spengler predicted, the controversies of the modern era have become literally incomprehensible. A Castalian refers to a long-defunct economist sect, for instance, that is probably supposed to be Marxism, but it's hard to tell; the ideology is just too alien to mean anything to him.

Knecht's society is by no means a theocracy, but neither is it secular in the modern sense. This is, no doubt, a nod to another of Spengler's prophecies: the “Second Religiousness.” The Vatican, based on its moral authority, is again a force in culture and in world politics. (Knecht spends that time at the monastery to help Castalia negotiate an agreement to send an ambassador to the Holy See.) Protestantism has died out. However, historians within the Church remember Protestantism rather fondly. As Father Jacobus puts it: “They were unable to preserve religion and the Church, but at times they displayed a great deal of courage and produced some exemplary men.”

One might think that all this hierarchy and authority would provoke a backlash, but no. The elite schools and the hierarchy of Castalia are tolerable precisely because society is not going anyplace. The qualities of a great musician, for instance, are said to be “enthusiasm, subordination, reverence, worshipful service.” Maybe only superior people have those qualities, but their superiority does not include the sort of genius that demands attention for its novelty. The Magisters do not conceive avant-garde ideas and expect people to follow. The hierarchy is the embodiment of a consensus by which the hierarchs themselves are the most strictly bound.

However, though history may have ended, time has not stopped. In preparation for his resignation, Knecht warns the other Magisters, “The world is once again about to shift its center of gravity.” Ominous but unnamed developments in the Orient threaten not just peace, but life and liberty. Serious rearmament could be just a generation or two away. When that happens, Castalia may seem an over-expensive luxury, unless its spirit can be communicated to society as a whole.

The Order is not impressed:

“In the view of the majority, the calm that descended upon our Continent must be ascribed partly to the general prostration following the bloodlettings of the terrible wars, but far more to the fact that the Occident has ceased to be the focal point of world history in which claims to hegemony are fought out.”

Oddly for men who must convince their government every year of the indispensability of their institution, the Magisters also have little patience with Knecht's argument that the calm and sanity of Castalia has itself been a force for peace. Instead, the Magisters reply that Castalia, and indeed the life of the mind, are not historical factors:

“Rather, culture or mind, or soul, has its own independent history – a second, bloodless, and sanctified history – running parallel to what is generally called history.”

Knecht does not resign as Magister in order to sell war bonds. The short explanation for his departure from Castalia is that he had exhausted his own capabilities. There was nothing left for him but the “eternal recurrence” of routine. More important, though, was the characteristic way in which he fulfilled his destiny as a servant. Like St. Christopher, he possessed “a self-reliance which by no means debarred him or hampered him serving, but demanded of him that he serve the highest master.” Because of his introduction to history, he understands that the Glass Bead Game is not the final truth. The Game, too, will prove to be ephemeral:

“Yes, Castalia and the Glass Bead Game are wonderful things; they come close to being perfect. Only perhaps they are too much so, too beautiful. They are so beautiful that one can scarcely contemplate them without fearing for them.”

“The Glass Bead Game” is the story of the progressive “awakenings” in Knecht's life. He comes to realize that these gates through which he passes do not lead to any inner sanctum. Rather, they are awakenings to the reality of each new situation. The same can be said for the progress of the spirit in history. The lack of linearity, however, does not imply a lack of exigency:

“In history, too, moments of tribulation or great upheavals have their element of convincing necessity; they create a sense of irresistible immediacy and tension. Whatever the consequence of such upheavals, be it beauty and clarity or savagery and darkness, whatever happens will bear the semblance of grandeur, necessity and importance and will stand out as utterly different from everyday events.”

In some ways, “The Glass Bead Game” represents the road that Spengler did not take. At one point in the 1920s, Spengler replied to the charge that “The Decline of the West” advocated nothing but pessimism and despair with the assertion he could fittingly have called the book “The Fulfillment of the West” or the “Perfection of the West.” His thesis, after all, was that the West may have exhausted its creative potential, but that modernity was the age in which it would fashion the final forms of Western Civilization in art, science, politics and religion. His model of history was quite consistent with a future that was humane, peaceful, and orderly. Sadly, he was distracted from pursuing this insight by Nietzsche's nihilism and the sour politics of the Conservative Revolution. More and more, he foresaw a Faustian future of disaster and tyranny.

In “The Glass Bead Game,” however, Hesse took the hint. The most intriguing story in the book deals with the final stage in the life of Knecht's old mentor, the Magister Musicae:

“He certainly does not seem to me to be close to his life's end, but his way of taking leave of the world is unique…[I]t is as if he has been on his way elsewhere for some time, and no longer lives entirely among us…
[H]is cheerfulness, his curious radiance…While his strength is diminishing, that serene cheerfulness is constantly increasing.”

Many legends later grew up about the Transfiguration of the Magister Musicae, we are told. The interesting point is that the episode seems to relate Spengler's prediction of the Second Religiousness to the palpable aura of eternity said to surround some living saints. Knecht remarks:

“Even though whole peoples and languages have attempted to fathom the depths of the universe in myths, cosmologies, and religions, their supreme, their ultimate attainment has been this cheerfulness.”

The old Magister, however, was not just any kind of saint, but a specifically Castalian saint. The sanctity he manifested was intrinsic to the Game, which is the final form of the spirit of the West:

“With us scholarship, which is the cult of truth, is chiefly allied also with the cult of the beautiful, and also with the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation. Consequently it can never entirely lose its supreme cheerfulness.”

Good Spenglerians (among whom we must number Spengler himself) tend to imagine the final stage in the life of the West as a heroic last stand, perhaps lasting centuries but ending in defeat. Evil Spenglerians, not a trivial class, hope for conquest and domination. Hesse's book hints at the possibility that the same insights into historical morphology might be put to quite a different use. Is the world ready for holy Spenglerians? Maybe someday.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Coming Caesars

Riencourt's book makes the argument that America is literally the second coming of Rome. In this, he follows the views of many of the American founders. I stumbled on this idea when I was reading about Cincinnatus, the Roman who was twice elected dictator, and twice resigned his imperium. One of the books I read was a detailed study of the art and iconography of revolutionary and post-revolutionary America, and it was pretty clear the Americans saw themselves as Romans.

Also, the form of government selected by the founders was a republic, in imitation of Rome. The founders saw a republic as a mixed government, following Polybius, blending monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Of course, the Roman Republic eventually became the Roman Empire, which is the transition everyone is interested in, including Riencourt.

In 2003, this book was out of print, but now a new edition is available. In this book review, John talks about keeping track of Spengler's successes and failures at predicting the future. Spengler had a pretty good track record, although some of his successful predictions might have surprised him.

I think the same is true of John. Here is an interesting prediction: American political parties are less ideological constructs than vehicles for charismatic personalities seeking office.Interpret as you will.

Table of Contents

Introduction

From Culture to Civilization

God, Space, & Law

The American Psyche

Russia & Communism

The Necessity of Empire

Tribune, President, Emperor

When the Future Becomes the Past


The Coming Caesars

By Amaury de Riencourt

Jonathan Cape, 1958

384 pages; Out of Print

No ISBN.

 

Introduction

Since Oswald Spengler first published The Decline of the West at the end of the First World War, a main attraction of the comparative study of civilizations has been the prospect of predicting the future. As more and more of that future has passed, this attraction has only increased. It's not that Spengler was a perfect prophet. Even when he was right about the future, he was right in ways he did not foresee. Still, though taking Spengler too literally has never done anyone any good, there is something to be said for keeping track of the successes and failures of the great doomsayer.

The Coming Caesars was published just 40 years after the first volume of The Decline appeared. It was much discussed by the intelligent Right in its day, perhaps in part because Arnold Toynbee's Study of History was still on people's minds. However, The Coming Caesars does not even mention that enormous work. The author, a Frenchman with extensive experience of the United States, adheres closely to Spengler's views and methods. There is one big difference. Spengler hoped that Germany would play the “Rome” of the future. Riencourt makes the most detailed argument I know for the proposition that America does not just have a Roman future, but an essentially Roman culture.

This review was written about as long after the publication of The Coming Caesars as that book was published after The Decline of the West. Surely it's time to take another look. Whatever the book's merits as prophecy, what we have here is the finest collection of alleged American mental problems since Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

 

From Culture to Civilization

The Spenglerian model is only incidentally about wars, revolutions, and the evolution of the international system. The transition to what Toynbee called a “universal state” is only one aspect of the general turn of a society toward its final forms. “Civilization,” in Spengler's usage, is the “late” phase in a society's life. It follows the period of “Culture,” when society creates its characteristic science, religion, art, and politics. The French Revolution is roughly the cutoff point for both Spengler and Riencourt between Culture and Civilization in the modern West. In Greece, the Revolution was less localized, since democracies tended to replace oligarchies everywhere. The important comparison is that Napoleon and Alexander the Great are “contemporary” as transitional figures in their civilizations' histories.

The transition to Caesarism began in the Victorian Era, which Riencourt identifies in part with the Hellenistic Age. Both were “the beginning of bad taste and ostentation, of insincerity in art, of pomposity, of grand and ornate pseudostyles”; yet also of “city planning, hygiene, and comfort: of modern pavements, and improved sewers, aqueducts…fast-expanding networks of world-wide economic relations”; not to mention “pedantic scholars, critics, grammarians, commentators, and editors.” The age of Plato passed to the age of Aristotle, as the age of Kant passed to that of Hegel.

Culture is pioneering, aesthetic, and fertile. Civilization is sterile, extensive, practical, and ethical. They are related as systole and diastole. Riencourt multiplies oppositions like that, but here are the important ones: Greece was the youth and maturity of Classical civilization; Rome was its old age. Similarly, Europe was the youth of the West, and America is its old age.

There are complexities here. For the purposes of macrohistory, apparently, America and Great Britain are the same country. Riencourt lays great stress on the fact that America developed, not just under the influence of British ideas, but behind the shield of the British Navy. It is impossible to imagine the United States developing as it did during the 19th century if the country had not been, in effect, a protectorate of the British Empire. In the 20th century, the relationship began to reverse. After the Second World War, Britain has functioned as America-in-Europe.

In outlining the transformation from Culture to Civilization in the political dimension, Riencourt often sounds like many another member of the French Right since 1789: “[E]xpanding democracy leads unintentionally to imperialism and…imperialism inevitably ends in destroying the republican institutions of earlier days…the greater the social equality, the dimmer the prospects of liberty…as society becomes more egalitarian, it tends increasingly to concentrate absolute power in the hands of a single man.”

Riencourt is not forecasting the appearance of a mere Anglophone Napoleon, however. Modernity has a terminus quite different from that of the ancien règime: “Caesarism is not dictatorship, not the result of one man's overriding ambition, not a brutal seizure of power through revolution…It is a slow, often century-old, unconscious development that ends in a voluntary surrender of a free people escaping from freedom to one autocratic master.”

Note that, although this language is cast in terms of a general law of history, it simply restates the history of the Roman Republic. Spengler himself took care to elaborate parallels with other civilizations, where democracy had never been an issue. Except in an Appendix and a few asides, The Coming Caesars treats of parallels only between the ancient and modern West. The bulk of the book, in fact, is a history of the United States, spiked with more or less apt references to supposedly comparable events and persons in Roman history. Riencourt is particularly interested in the evolution of the office of tribune in ancient Rome and that of the American presidency, but we will get to that presently.

 

God, Space, & Law

Every book about America has to deal with religion, and this one is particularly concerned with the American mutations of Calvinism. (Was there a Roman “Reformation”? Indeed there was, in the form of Orphism, which culminated in Pythagoreanism. Go ask Spengler.) According to Riencourt: “But Calvin's doctrine as applied at Geneva was based on a spiritual legalism, mechanical, stern, without compassion and without appreciation for art, inhumanly practical, and in many respects iconoclastic. In Geneva were sown the spiritual seeds of what was to become the New Rome of the West.”

This is not to say that American religion itself has retained these harsh features. After the collapse of metaphysical theology, American religion became notoriously emotional and sentimental. Prayer was replaced by good works, not as payment for salvation, but as a sign of election.

The secular versions of the Calvinist virtues became the bases for American politics and commercial culture. Thus, no matter their confessional affiliation, Americans are like the Biblical Jews: suspicious of beauty, with a characteristic tension between the knowledge of God's will and Man's inadequacy. Similarly, Rome's gods, like Rome's later civilization, were austere and impersonal, unlike Greece's warm pantheon. (Spengler discountenanced this opposition, by the way. He pointed out that the peculiar cult of each polis was darkly numinous rather than colorful. The “Greek Pantheon” was late and literary.)

In addition to religion, every study of America has to consider the role of space. Both America and Rome, in Riencourt's telling, were “frontier” societies, on the rim of civilization. America, famously, could dispense its dissidents to the west. Rome could do likewise, to the north, into the Po Valley and Cisalpine Gaul. In both cases, easy expansion into a sparsely peopled hinterland facilitated political stability at a time that, elsewhere, was an age of revolution and counterrevolution.

The English-speaking world in general is characterized by a tradition of compromise under law. This legalism, like Rome's, is the product of a remarkable sense of continuity. It's not that American's are particularly law-abiding; they are law-minded. Combined with their ancient Biblicism, they have turned the Constitution into a sacred text. The system works because the scripture of the law requires interpretation. Lawyers are hierophants, interpreting the mystery of the law. The effect is conservative: unlike the legal codes of Europe, mere logic is not enough.

America and Rome were both “urban” from the beginning, despite the fact both had overwhelmingly rural populations for much of their histories. Their farmers were not peasants, but citizens. This was somewhat less true of Virginia, with its attempt to transplant England's gentry. However, southern culture was eventually overwhelmed, ideologically and economically. Perhaps more important was that Virginia set the pattern of a conservative, aristocratic east, versus the democratic frontiersmen of the west. The east demanded enough centralization to keep the polity together. The west acquiesced, but only if they were allowed freedom of action: “thus started the fateful, unintentional, and unplanned expansionism which, in less than two centuries, was to establish the frontiers of American security well into the heart of the European and Asiatic continents.” He makes the same argument about Rome's expansion, starting from central Italy.

Unlike the rest of the Classical world, Rome had a knack for the judicious extension of citizenship rights, which Riencourt compares to America's power of assimilation. Rome did suffer the “Social Wars,” conflicts with its Italian allies about the franchise, just as America suffered lapses like the Civil War. He also makes the interesting suggestion that the importation of slaves into Italy was a real immigration. Manumission was normal in the Roman world, so that slave families often became citizens after a generation or two. In contrast, slavery in America resulted in a caste system that has yet to be dismantled.

 

The American Psyche

The key to American psychology is the position of America in world history: “America's destiny is conditioned by the fact it is an old and not a young nation, as far as essential age goes…America represents, in world history, the old age of Europe…This essential oldness is rooted in an eighteenth-century atmosphere where optimism still survives in America and wears the mask of youth, but has disappeared in Europe as outdated.”

According to Riencourt, Americans are naturally conformist, compared to Latin peoples. He even says that Americans are “natural socialists.” In many ways, America is like what Americans say about Japan: “a far higher average than in Greece and Europe, and yet an almost complete absence of great creative personalities.” He says there is an American saying: “To be different is to be indecent.” Americans are self-disciplined; even more so than the Germans, who at least have the option of intellectual “inner migration.” The key to America's tribal collectivism is to be found in the fact that America has come almost full circle in social development. Foreigners often note a strange similarity between Americans and Russians. That is because the Last Man of Civilization resembles the First Man of the pre-Cultural period, which is the state of Russia in comparison to the West.

Freedom in America does not mean what it means in other places, or what it meant in the West in the past. American freedom is a legal notion, unlike the French liberté. “Where, then, does freedom reside in America? Mostly in the fact that the individual American is physically more independent of other human beings than anywhere else in the world.” Americans are notably lacking in jealousy and resentment. Conversely, the rich are rapacious, but not selfish.

There is an upside to this. Americans can make good use of individualistic philosophies, such as that of John Locke, which created chaos in continental Europe. Atomistic English economism, with its emphasis on property rights, soon made the English-speaking world the most conservative area on earth. It is a progressive and enlightened conservatism, however, a sure defense against both revolution and reaction.

None of this should suggest that Americans are gullible or obtuse. “American Civilization is successful because of the remarkable American gift for psychological understanding…When they choose political or business leaders, Americans do so on the basis of their general human qualities rather than their technical proficiency.” Americans have an expert's distrust of all experts.

The author makes a remarkable equation of Americanism with Classical “Romanitas.” Both value organization, efficiency, and earthly success. Also, “in a chaotic world where sensitive men are baffled and often despair, [Americans] are not easily baffled and never despair.” The American mind is not cultural or aesthetic, but moralistic. It deals with extension rather than depth, especially temporal depth, but it eschews abstraction generally: “Americans think in pictures.”

Despite America's non-metaphysical cast of mind, it is far from mere materialism. Riencourt establishes the point with a fine display of non-falsifiable dialectic: “Since every coin has two sides, the necessary counterpart of an extreme utilitarianism bent on concrete achievements is an equally extreme idealism of a more abstract nature than any put forth in the Old World.”

Riencourt returns again and again to the topic of Americans' essential conservatism, for which he finds an explanation in gender dominance: “It is this fundamental conservatism that gives Americans in the modern world a position almost identical with that of the Romans, a conservatism bolstered by the complete ascendancy of the conservative-minded sex – women.” The author makes a great deal of this point: “All this links up with the best-known characteristic of American life: the hen-pecked nature of American men…the childish desire for love that Americans display in their contacts throughout the world is a direct consequence of the absolute predominance of the female principle…[I]ntimacy, familiarity, lack of reverence have become the dominant themes of American life. Nothing leads more implacably to Caesarism than these traits.” Noting that the emancipation of women was also a feature of the late Roman Republic, the author asserts that a democratic electorate tends to become “feminine,” emotional, eager for leadership. A feminine public opinion looks for a virile Caesar.

 

Russian & Communism

In the 19th century, during the age of high imperialism, practically the whole world was controlled by European powers or European settler-states. Again, the Hellenistic empires in the east, and the Greek settlements in southern Italy and Sicily, are often cited as analogies. Riencourt, following Spengler, says that the Greeks did not properly distinguish between the different classes of barbarian societies. Some, like the Egyptians, belonged to ancient, fossilized civilizations. Others were mere primitives. Yet others, in the east, belong to a “young” Culture that would eventually overwhelm the Classical world. Much the same thing happened in modern history: “The Nemesis in the Classical world was the rise of Parthia and the…war against Mithridates – in the context of our won [20th] century, the rise of Soviet Communism and World War II.”

Communism in Russia was a western import that was part of the “pseudomorphosis” of Russian culture, comparable to the superficial and transitory Hellenization of the east that occurred after Alexander. However, the effect of the Soviet Union was to drag Russia back to its Mongolian-Byzantine roots. The origins of the Soviet and Parthian threats were similar, too. The Romans helped to overthrow the Hellenistic empire of the Seleucids, but then simply withdrew, allowing the unhellenized east to recover. This was pretty much what America did after the First World War and the collapse of the Habsburg and Czarist empires. However, this new class of threat is not merely military, and not merely external: “This deep-rooted antagonism that springs outside the area of a given Civilization always coincides with a social disintegration inside it – with a period of revolutions and social upheavals that always accompany the collapse of a Culture and symbolizes the loss of that precious self-confidence of former times.”

The Coming Caesars repeats familiar conservative critiques of FDR's policy toward the Soviet Union: the sick old man was duped by Stalin's oriental cunning. Additionally, since the American mind is analytical rather than synthetic, American statesmen were slow to see the need for a grand strategy to counter the Soviet Union. However, even with the best negotiator and a coherent worldview, the outcome of Yalta and Potsdam might not have been different: “Behind the armed might of Soviet Russia lay another active force in the realm of ideas and passions, the religion-like force of Marxist philosophy extending from France to China…And behind Marxist philosophy a deep distrust of Western Civilization as such. In this the rustic patriotism of the Russians joined the widening revolt of Asia's crippled civilizations against the West.”

Riencourt rather doubts that the West will ever be free of the Russian menace. Though the Roman Empire at its height was perfectly secure against Parthia, the East nonetheless eventually overwhelmed the fossilized Classical civilization. On the other hand, a Third World War is far from certain; there really is progress, and the modern world is less brutal than the ancient world.

 

The Necessity of Empire

The coming universal state is not founded on mere degeneration. Speaking of the world after World War I, Riencourt says: “The problem, which no one could as yet formulate, was that the Western world was longing to get beyond an outdated nationalism and a vague internationalism that solved nothing, longing for a new political conception of organic cooperation that would preserve what was best in local patriotism, but transcended it at the same time.”

Sometimes the author equates the 20th century with the 2nd century B.C. In those days, when Rome had no serious rivals but wanted nothing more than to be left alone, it sent commissions all over the world to mediate disputes: Carthage and Numidia, Egypt and Cyrene, plus any combination of Greek states. Since Romans took no responsibility, their efforts often made things worse. When, in the 1st century B.C., Rome finally established regular structures of governance, “Roman domination at first was heavy and harsh, but it was a crude world that could respond only to crude treatment. Our twentieth century is far more sophisticated and the reorganization of our own world has to be carried out with a far greater discretion.” The model imperial official would resemble Douglas MacArthur. Not simply occupiers are needed, but statesmen committed to a long-term, conservative, social revolution around the world.

America had yet to understand its full vulnerability, the author implies. Rome was terribly dependent on the world outside Italy for manpower and grain. America might seem self-sufficient, but in 1955 “the United States absorbs 10 per cent more raw materials than she produces, whereas at the turn of the [19th to 20th] century she produced 15 percent more than she needed.” He suggests that much future history might concern access to Malaysian tin and Arabian oil.

Reviewing Europe a little over ten years after the end of the Second World War, Riencourt is much impressed by the success of the Marshall plan. In contrast, he finds the idea of independent European unity chimerical: “If unity is to come, it will have to be from extra-European sources and take place within a much larger framework. It will have to be based on the only unity that has any concrete reality: the Atlantic Community, the geographical unit of Western Civilization.” Noting the extent to which American and European bureaucracies interdigitated during the postwar emergency, he suggests that something similar might happen in the future: “European political structures will not be brutally abolished; they will simply atrophy and die.”

Obviously, there is considerable opposition to this outcome in Europe, both political and psychological. Riencourt finds it anachronistic: “Instead of looking upon America as she is – the New Rome – the puzzled and embittered Europeans prefer to see a new Carthage – soulless, exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of wealth, vaguely hypocritical, the land of sharp and ruthless Yankee businessmen. They fail to see that America today, and alone in the world, has the necessary ingredients of a stable civilized order: moral ideals and ethical purpose.”

World order is an old dream, the author notes. Different versions of it appear in different civilizations: the Caliphate of Islam; “All under Heaven” in China; and of course the Roman ideal in the ancient West. In the modern West, a new version is likely to have something to do with the United Nations, starting with a universally valid international law.

Before the First World War, the world still had regional empires with universal pretensions. When they disappeared, chaos followed. The League of Nations failed to end the chaos, but it was an instructive failure. The United nations, which followed, was largely an American initiative; certainly it was designed with an eye to American constitutional history. It quickly became paralyzed between two international blocks. The UN, after all, was supposed to institute democratic procedures on a world scale, but one of the opposing blocks did not believe in liberal democracy at all. The fundamental flaw with the UN, however, is that it embodies the parliamentary system in an age that is becoming sick of parliaments. What the world needs, and wants unknowingly, is an international presidential system. This could be democratic: rights under international law would be extended to individuals, even if that diminishes state sovereignty.

According to Riencourt, the UN will probably become the second layer of the “Roman” commonwealth of the future. The core will be the Atlantic Community. Such a world system will work, if the masses are given sound administration. Just as important, the system must give the world's elites full scope for personal development.

Sometimes Riencourt suggests that the final phase of Western Civilization is, in some sense, the final act of history. He points to the similarities between the apocalyptic anxiety of the early nuclear era and of the Mediterranean world around the time of Christ. In both cases, he suggests, people were onto something: “Man…is not merely going through a change of historical phase but…in the coming centuries, he will be stepping out of history altogether into a new 'geological' age…He is becoming, for the first time, a planetary phenomenon.”

 

Tribune, President, Emperor

Riencourt emphasizes the conservative nature of the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers were “men of the transition, a last link to the past, conservative engineers of a healthy reaction.” What would have surprised them was the evolution of the presidency they created, an essentially weak office, into an organ of popular sovereignty.

The mass politics of the Hellenistic and modern eras is a struggle between the people and Big Money. In that struggle during Roman times, the tribunes were created to protect the people. Over time, however, the struggle becomes less and less about class, or even economics. What begins as the struggle of the Populares against the Optimates becomes a contest between the Caesarians and the Pompeans; that is to say, a conflict between personal parties, mere cults of personality and systems of patronage. In contrast to their European counterparts, American political parties were already more like vehicles for personalities seeking office than like ideological organizations.

There was in fact no precise counterpart to the presidency in the Roman constitution, but the office of tribune showed the ability to evolve in that direction. The tribunician power included personal inviolability, the right to summon the Senate and to direct its debates, the right to nominate candidates for some offices, the right to arrest even consuls, and, most famously, the right to veto the acts of all magistrates. This list of negative rights ensured positive power when combined with some other source of authority, such as military command, or even mere popular approval. The tribunate was the legal basis for the office of emperor.

No doubt inspired by the characterization of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a "traitor to his class," the author observes: "Rome's outstanding democratic leaders, from the noble Gracchi brothers to Caesar [a period of about 90 years], whose ancestry was as old as the dawn of Rome herself, were all blue-blooded aristocrats who turned against their narrow-minded peers and led the aroused people against them…Thus, what made the democratic evolution of America relatively peaceful was the self-immolation of the founding oligarchy."

In America, politics are aggravated by a public opinion that is volatile on matters of foreign policy. Thus, American policy lurches from crisis to crisis, throwing up a strongman to meet each new emergency. But again, the authority of the Caesars is only incidentally military. Speaking of the Grant Administration, but with perhaps a glance at Eisenhower's, Riencourt notes that "professional soldiers are not the stuff that Caesars are made of." He characterizes Franklin Roosevelt, the first proto-Caesar, as “like another typical American creation, the master-mind sports coach who bosses his team, devises its tactics and strategy, switches players and substitutes at will.”

Riencourt attributes the role of the presidency in American politics in part to a growing "father complex" in America, though he also observes that, throughout the West, publics are increasingly disgusted with parliamentary incompetence.

To a large extent, the Roman Republic was destroyed by a change in political psychology. The early Caesars kept trying to give real authority back to the Senate, and the Senate kept refusing to take it. Responsible people lost the knack of operating a republican system. Candidates no longer presented themselves for important offices. Finally, all posts were filled by appointment, and became part of the imperial bureaucracy.

After its founding, the politics of the empire will have a predictable trajectory: “The transition from Sulla to Caesar and from Caesar to the absolutism of Vespasian was partly the result of the growing orientalization of Rome and the decline in the prestige of elective institutions. In the modern instance, it is clear that 'democrat' Roosevelt was not half as much repelled by Stalin's views on strong executive power and the absolute supremacy of the great powers as 'conservative' Churchill was.” In the author's telling, the Caesars became monarchs in Rome because they were monarchs abroad. Caesar Augustus, for instance, because he was also the titular King of Egypt, did not dare retire. The Egyptians would tolerate being ruled by him, but not by some bureaucrat in the name of a faceless “republic.”

When the Future Becomes the Present

Speaking of the would of the late 1950s, the author judges that Russia and America were evenly balanced; they were the tiger versus the shark, each safely dominant in its own domain. Inevitably, he cites Tocqueville's famous prediction that the Russians and the Americans each seemed destined to “sway the destinies of half the globe.” He remarks: “Tocqueville would have been unable to forecast the complex state of the world as it was in 1926, yet he was able to prophesy what it would be in 1946, 20 years later.”

That is almost precisely my experience of this book. I first read it in 1982; my marginal comments say that this or that trend will have to reverse if the author's thesis is to hold up. Writing this in 2003, I see that many of them did reverse. Doubtless they could all reverse again. Meanwhile, some new ones arose that he did not foresee. I know of no book that illustrates the limits of prediction better than The Coming Caesars. It bears rereading, at suitably long intervals.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming Caesars
By Amaury De Riencourt

The Long View: The World After Modernity

For a span, John was an unaffiliated but not wholly unrespectable scholar of millennialism. This essay dates from that time. This is a useful précis of John's thoughts on Spengler, millennialism,  and the imperial turn.

The e-book of John's entitled Spengler's Future can be found here.


The World After Modernity

Presented under the Title:
Spengler's Future

At the Sixth Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies Boston University, November 3 to 6, 2001.
Another version of this piece appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Comparative Civilizations Review.

A persistent and highly influential image of the future appeared in the late nineteenth century. It occurred to a long list of people: I might mention Ernst von Lasaulx, Henry and Brooks Adams, Nikolai Danilevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev and Walter Schubart, and for that matter Albert Schweitzer and Jacob Burckhardt. They all shared the intuition that the Western world had entered a new "Hellenistic" age, and the twentieth century was going to see a recurrence of the less pleasant aspects of Hellenism. (1) These would include such things as demagogic tyrannies, annihilation warfare, and a relaxation of traditional restraints in art and personal life.

Nietzsche had said as much, too, and in fact anyone who entered the 20th century with this modest insight would have met with few surprises. (2) During the 20th century itself, the notion was worked up into great, formal models of history. This enterprise is sometimes called "macrohistory," (3) unless it waxes very philosophical, in which case it is called "metahistory." Either way, the best-known example is still Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West," the first of whose two volumes appeared just as the First World War ended. The biggest example, in fact the biggest book of the 20th century, is Arnold Toynbee's 12-volume "Study of History," most of which was published in the 1930s and '50s. The aspect of the Hellenistic analogy that chiefly interested them, like us today, is the way the modern era can be expected to end.

To put it more crudely than most macrohistorians do, the idea is that, just as the Hellenistic phase of Classical culture ended in the Roman Empire, and just as the Warring States period in Chinese history ended in imperial unification under the Qin Dynasty, so the modern era of Western Civilization would end in a post-national universal state. For the sake of brevity, and because some of the authors we will consider do likewise, we will call this final phase of historical development simply "the Empire."

We are talking here about the evolution from Alexander to Caesar. Some macrohistorians expected Western modernity to last the same length of time, two-and-half or three centuries. We may note that macrohistorians generally equate Alexander and Napoleon, so, if you like, you can do the arithmetic to see where we are now. (4) If you really like these analogies, we may also note that the societies most often identified as universal states, Han China, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and New Kingdom Egypt, all lasted about 500 years after their founding by a Caesar-like figure. (5) So, now you know the future. Just try to look surprised when it happens.

Philosophical history of this type gives most historians fits, but it's inescapable. Northrop Frye was not a great fan of "The Decline of the West," at least on its merits, but he also said "we are all Spenglerians." (6) For instance, Spengler can be considered the father of multiculturalism. He treats the eight cultures whose life cycles he considers as all equivalent in some sense. Although he was developing ideas that had long been familiar from German historicism (6), the fact is that he wrote the first history of the world that really was about the world, and not just a chronicle of the rise of the West.

Cyclical historical analogies affect statecraft. Henry Kissinger's undergraduate thesis at Harvard was on Spengler, and he never quite got over it. (8) Former President Bill Clinton's favorite teacher at Georgetown, at least by some accounts, was Carroll Quigley, a follower of Toynbee in the School of Foreign Service. The debates after the Cold War about globalization and American hegemony have, in effect, put the Empire front and center.

Perhaps the most topical model of international relations these days is Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations." He accepts the Hellenistic analogy as a matter of course, though with his own peculiar spin. He tells us:

"[T]he international system expanded beyond the West and became multicivilizational. Simultaneously, conflict among Western states - which had dominated that system for centuries - faded away. By the late twentieth century, the West has moved out of its 'warring state' phase of development as a civilization and toward its 'universal state' phase. At the end of [the 20th] century, this phase is still incomplete as the nation states of the West cohere into two semi-universal states in Europe and North America. These two entities and their constituent units are, however, bound together by an extraordinary complex network of formal and informal institutional ties. The universal states of previous civilizations are empires. Since democracy, however, is the political form of Western civilization, the emerging universal state of Western civilization is not an empire but rather a compound of federations, confederations, and international regimes and organizations." (9)

Among scholars interested in such things, Huntington is a little unusual in rejecting the idea of global civilization. Among people with a basically cyclical approach to history, he is also, as we will see, unusual in assuming the continuing vitality of democracy. On the other hand, he is not at all unusual in considering that the Empire already exists to some extent. This is the thesis of the fashionable book, entitled "Empire," by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

According to those authors, the Empire is Saint Augustine's City of God. (10) They themselves are Marxists who write impenetrable postmodern prose and who hope to replace the City of God with the City of Man, but their analysis is worth considering, to the extent they will permit themselves to be understood. Like its Roman predecessor, today's Empire seems to its subjects to be permanent, eternal, and necessary. It has no outside, at least in principle, and internally it distinguishes neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free. It does not rest on conquest, but on consensus.

The Empire is the post-historical incarnation of eternal justice. It does not merely happen to exist, like a historically contingent state; rather, it must exist, at least as an ideal. It closes the gap that opened in the Renaissance between the ethical and the juridical. Its wars are just wars, police actions against opponents who cannot make a principled case against the Empire as such. No civil or military stresses remain that might threaten it. The Empire is always in a crisis, so its acts are emergency measures that trump the ordinary law of the sovereignties and corporations that comprise it.

The authors say the Empire is not really a state. It does indeed have state-like organs, such as the UN and the IMF, but it has no center. For that matter, it has no geography: the old divisions between First, Second and Third World have collapsed. The difference between France and India in the world system, for instance, has become a matter of degree rather than kind. The Empire does have a tripartite anatomy, in the sense of an executive, an aristocracy, and a people, like that which the second century B.C. historian Polybius ascribed to the late Roman Republic.

The Empire is imperial, not imperialist. Imperialism, in the authors' analysis, was simply the extension of European nationalism outside Europe. The Empire arose precisely because capitalism could not endure if the divisions between nations were not dissolved. The authors count the loss of national sovereignty, and even of national identity, as no great tragedy. Nations themselves, as well as the Peoples that comprised them, were largely confected for the benefit of early capitalist production.

A retired CIA analyst, Patrick E. Kennon, recently published a witty apology for the Empire as an ideal, entitled "Tribe and Empire." He finds far deeper support for the Empire than does Samuel Huntington, who dismisses the actual membership of international society as a thin crust of what he calls "Davos People." According to Mr. Kennon:

"Now, as we enter the twenty-first century, the future of the nation-state is much in doubt...Indeed, tribalism has revived with a brutal savagery from Rwanda and Cambodia to the newly dissolved USSR and the newly unified Germany...At the same time, a kind of shadow empire...is being embraced by elites around the globe. UN bureaucrats and Greenpeace activists, Carlos the Jackal and Mother Theresa, Toyota and Amnesty International, the Cali drug cartel and the World Bank, people who worry about the dollar-yen ratio and people who worry about the ozone layer, all of these consciously or unconsciously look to empire for their profit or salvation. All of these have largely given up on the nation." (11)

Mr. Kennon attempts to account for globalization and its attendant anarchic backlash in terms of classical Social Contract theory (the very class of theory that Hardt and Negri say is the source of false consciousness in the world today). "Tribe and Empire" argues that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were too pessimistic in relegating international relations to the state of nature. According to Mr. Kennon, there is an ethical trajectory that leads away from the local and toward the universal, from the political and toward the administrative, from predation and toward commerce.

The pure forms of human life, the "tribe" and the "empire," correspond to "community" and "society," respectively. These dualities also correspond to life before and after the Social Contract. The contract turns mere homo sapiens into human beings. In the tribe, everyone is equal, every man is a warrior, and there is the war of all against all. In society, there are no enemies, only superiors and inferiors. Community is familiar and exclusive, governed by a traditional morality that is not subject to analysis. In society, there is ethics rather than morality, and right and wrong are subject to pragmatic reformulation. The most significant thing about ethics is that it is universal in principle: everyone, near and far, should ideally be treated according to the same rules. The political form that has substantially fulfilled this ideal is the "empire," something that has in fact existed at various times and places.

So far we have been talking about the Empire in terms of political theory, but that is not the only aspect of the Hellenistic analogy that interests macrohistorians. They are concerned with the way that whole societies evolve, and this is one of the points about which they have received the most criticism. They tend to speak as if societies were organic wholes, with life cycles like living things. This analogy is no worse than any other, but it is difficult to defend in detail. Burckhardt, in fact, even though he saw parallels between his own late 19th century and late antiquity, specifically rejected the biological analogy. (12) We should note, though, that even those who used organic language most heavily were not necessarily relying on it.

Spengler himself is a good case in point. Though he spoke of the cultures he examined as living organisms, his philosophy was much more sophisticated. "The Decline of the West" is a profoundly Kantian book. In Spengler's view, the course of history is circumscribed by the limits to human understanding that Kant described. According to Spengler, just eight cultures in the history of the world have tested those limits, in the sense of trying to produce final answers to life's questions. Beginning from a unique religious base, each produced its own philosophy, family of arts, and a political style. Spengler said that even the natural science and mathematics of each were idiosyncratic. In any case, all these attempts to express universal truths are failures. Whatever meaning they have is internal to the societies that produce them, and the skepticism of the late culture realizes the fact. However, the attempts are not just failures; they are magnificent failures. The living cultures that Spengler describes die, but in the process produce fossils, canons of art and science and political forms. The period of fossilization, after the end of the culture proper, is what Spengler calls civilization, which he said began for the West at the end of the 18th century. The work of modernity, in Spengler's estimation, is the completion of the final forms.

The German title of Spengler's big book, "Der Untergang des Abendlandes," is not nearly so ominous as its English translation. Literally, it is closer to "The Sunset of the Evening Land." Spengler himself said that he might better have called the book the "The Completion of the West," or even "The Perfection of the West." (13)

All this suggests Francis Fukuyama was essentially correct in saying that the West has reached "the end of history" (14): liberal democracy really is the end of Western political thought. It will never be superseded, and it will never cease to have some effect on the way government is conducted. However, that does not mean it may not someday be honored chiefly in the breach. Spengler wrote this eighty years ago, speaking about a time that could still be a good century beyond us:

"Once the Imperial Age has arrived, there are no more political problems. People manage with the situation as it is and the powers that be. In the period of Contending States, torrents of blood had reddened the pavements of all world-cities, so that the great truths of Democracy might be turned into actualities, and for the winning of rights without which life seemed not worth the living. Now these rights are won, but the grandchildren cannot be moved, even by punishment, to make use of them. A hundred years more, and even the historians will no longer understand the old controversies." (15)

In 1920, it was easy to imagine that some totalitarian system might conquer the world, but it took a measure of imagination to foresee a world in which democracy is simply forgotten. No imagination at all is necessary today, what with the low voter turnouts in the US and the emergence of post-democratic supranational entities like the European Union. The Empire means the end of democracy as anything but a venerable anachronism. Indeed, as Patrick Kennon would have it, it means the end of politics itself. In his view, government by reliable routine has been the distinguishing feature of the Empire wherever it has existed. Politics went on, of course, in Antonine Rome or Ming China, but as self-contained court intrigues and bureaucratic squabbles. It was no longer in a position to derail the essential operation of the state. The same process in the West is far advanced, and maybe this is a good thing. The mandarins in Brussels are often crudely corrupt, and they don't respond to emergencies particularly well. They are, however, quite certain not to lead civilization over a cliff in pursuit of a manifest destiny, something that national societies have done in almost every century.

A recurrent theme in metahistory is that the economic Left always wins. William McNeill, another admirer of Toynbee, has made the observation that governance tends to expand to cover the size of the economy. (16) Where it doesn't, the result is piracy, and often barbarian powers that threaten civilization itself. The Empire, in the form of universal states, can and does facilitate economic activity through the rule of law, or at least through maintaining public order. On the other hand, it is also in a position to tax and regulate universally, which it does in the interests of income redistribution and the prevention of disruption from economic change. So, for example, the expansive, technologically innovative economy that appeared in China during the politically chaotic Sung and Yuan periods was brought to heel when order was restored in the Ming period. By the 18th century, China's manufacturing sector was still huge and sophisticated, but wholly subordinate to the imperial autocracy and gentry. (17)

On the other hand, the cultural Left always loses. The arts under the Empire are well funded, technically proficient, and highly eclectic, but they are rarely new. The art of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, for instance, can usually be dated to within a generation, just as the periods of Western art can be easily distinguished from the Middle Ages on down. When you get to the New Kingdom, the age of the Empire, repetition predominates, except for freakish episodes like the Amarna period. The work that survives from the very end of Egyptian civilization is almost impossible to distinguish from that of the Old Kingdom 1500 years before. One might say that Egyptian history ended in a sort of permanent Gothic revival. (18)

The function of art organizations today is generally curatorial. With some notable exceptions, orchestras usually find themselves playing the familiar canon that runs from Bach to Brahms (19). In the 20th century, for the first time in the cultural history of the West, time began to no longer make a difference. Imagine two picture books, one of the famous New York Armory Exhibition of 1913 and the other of the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibition of 1999. Now imagine switching the covers. The switched dates would still be plausible. The point is not that the work is bad; it's just that it isn't going anywhere.

What is true of art is also supposed to be true of science, but this question would take too long to explore. The notion is that some areas of rational inquiry can simply be finished. Classical Mathematics, to take the easiest example, was substantially completed in Hellenistic times by Euclidian geometry. It did not advance further, because that geometry answered the questions Classical culture asked. So, for that matter, did Ptolemy's astronomy and Aristotle's physics. Those who apply the analogy to the West note that physics entered the 20th century with quantum mechanics and relativity and spent the century merely elaborating them. A "theory of everything," which would combine the two, may be achieved in this century. If so, it would seem to meet the criteria for one of Spengler's magnificent fossils. (20)

The Empire is a theocracy. In general, macrohistorians have welcomed the prospect of religious revival. The chief example is Toynbee himself, who decided that history was really about the development of universal religions, and only incidentally about civilizations. His "Study of History" became remarkably evangelical in its later volumes. Toynbee's reputation never recovered from the derisive, secularist critique that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave his work. (21) As we know, God severely punished Hugh Trevor-Roper for this through the Hitler Diaries fraud, but that's another story. (22) Samuel Huntington acknowledges the growing role of religion, though he seems less than pleased at the prospect, calling it "la revanche de Dieu." He speaks of "the end of the Westphalian order," referring to those aspects of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 ensuring religion would be a domestic matter.

An influential argument supporting just this change has recently been offered by A.J. Conyers in his book, "The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit." (23) Conyers says the kind of toleration that spread in the West after the wars of religion is actually something of a fraud. It is based on a nominalist metaphysics that brackets the truth claims of each confession as parochial eccentricities. Religious truth-claims must be tolerated for the sake of peace, but merit no deference from the wider world. Conyers says that toleration in the West before the wars of religion, where it existed, had a different basis. Traditionally, tolerance assumed the validity of truth claims, but took the platonic view that specific expressions of them could, at best, be expected to be incomplete. Now that the Westphalian truce is over, Conyers argues, this traditional approach to tolerance should supplant the disingenuous secularist one of the past few centuries.

Some suggestion of where it may lead is offered by Spengler's famous prophecy of the "the Second Religiousness." He tells us:

"But neither in the creations of this piety nor in the form of the Roman Imperium is there anything primary and spontaneous. Nothing is built up, no idea unfolds itself - it is only as if a mist cleared off the land and revealed the old forms, uncertainly at first, but presently with increasing distinctness. The material of the Second Religiousness is simply that of the first, genuine, young religiousness - only otherwise experienced and expressed. It starts with Rationalism's fading out in helplessness, then the forms of the Springtime become visible, and finally the whole world of the primitive religion, which had receded before the grand forms of the early faith, returns to the foreground, powerful in the guise of the popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase." (24)

This brings us to the decline and fall of the Empire. Not all macrohistorians say that the Empire is inherently mortal. Hardt and Negri say specifically that, whatever traditional Marxism might have predicted about the fate of the world capitalist system, the Empire has moved beyond those vulnerabilities. The Empire actually thrives on crisis. It is eternal in principle. However, that does not mean that it cannot be overthrown through an act of will. They offer this comparison from a prior incarnation of the Empire:

"Allow us [an] analogy that refers to the birth of Christianity in Europe and its expansion during the decline of the Roman Empire. In this process an enormous potential of subjectivity was constructed and consolidated in terms of the prophecy of a world to come, a chiliastic project. This new subjectivity offered an absolute alternative to the spirit of imperial right-a new ontological basis. From this perspective, Empire was accepted as the "maturity of the times" and the unity of the entire known civilization, but it was challenged in its totality by a completely different ethical and ontological axis. In the same way today, given that the limits and unresolvable problems of the new imperial right are fixed, theory and practice can go beyond them, finding once again an ontological basis of antagonism-within Empire, but also against and beyond Empire, at the same level of totality." (25)

This would be more interesting if the two authors had not excluded religion as a future revolutionary force. One of their few substantive suggestions for undermining the Empire is an absolute freedom to travel and immigration. This also happens to be the only right that Patrick Kennon of the CIA says is essential for the integrity of the Empire. As the French say, go figure.

Spengler, too, was of the opinion that the Empire did not have to end. Fossils can last indefinitely. In his estimate, Classical civilization was destroyed by historical accident. There was no internal reason why it could not have gone on without collapse as he thought, wrongly, that China had done. Spengler in his later work suggested that the imperial phase of Western history was likely to end apocalyptically for the whole world, but that is a question specific to Spengler studies. (26)

Toynbee was of two minds about the future. He thought that either the winner of another world war would create a Western Universal State, or that an ecumenical society would arise peacefully. It would have western characteristics, and maybe a world government, but it would not be a Universal State in the traditional sense. For Toynbee the Universal State was a slow-motion catastrophe that was doomed from the start, even though, as he put it, its citizens "in defiance of apparently plain facts...are prone to regard it, not as a night's shelter in the wilderness but as the Promised Land, the goal of human endeavors." (27) In his view, the Empire's internal proletariat deserts it in favor of a higher religion, in rather the way Hardt and Negri mention, while at the same time the outer barbarians become stronger and stronger. This view is not so different from Huntington's "Clash of Civilization" thesis, which interprets "the decline of the West" to mean the decline of the still-forming Western universal state relative to other civilized societies.

The Empire we have been considering is an archetype. I mean this in a modest sense. It's an inevitable notion that anyone thinking about world history is going to have to confront, even if only to reject. Hardt and Negri do hit the nail on the head: the Empire does look like the City of God, though Toynbee may have been on to something when he cautioned that it is a counterfeit of the real thing. Obviously, there is no way to say today whether the Empire is going to stay in the platonic realm, or whether, as the macrohistorians speculate, it will become incarnate in the light of day. In any case, though the Empire may fall, it never goes away.

References
(1) Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization, by B.G. Brander, (Spence Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 21-84.

(2) E.g., The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, 1974), p. 318 (sec. 362).

(3) For an excessively postmodern take on the subject, see Macrohistory and Macrohistorians, by Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah (Praeger Publishers, 1997).

(4) Readers who really, really like these analogies can see them worked out for the next seven centuries in a short book, also entitled "Spengler's Future," at http://pages.prodigy.net/aesir/speng.htm.

(5) Toynbee, more cautiously, notes a common rhythm in the decline of the Empire, rather than a strictly uniform duration. A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement Vols. I-VI (Oxford University Press, 1947), pp. 548-554.

(6) On the influence of Spengler generally, see Neil McInnes, The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered (The National Interest, Summer 1997), pp. 45-76. Frye is quoted on page 68.

(7) Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, by John Farrenkopf (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), pp. 77-90.

(8) McInnes, p. 69.

(9) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 53.

(10) Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 207, 394-396.

(11) Tribe and Empire: An Essay on the Social Contract, by Patrick E. Kennon (Xlibris, 2000), p. 15.

(12) Force and Freedom: Reflections on History, by Jacob Burckhardt, ed. by James Hastings Nichols (Pantheon Books, 1943).

(13) Farrenkopf, p. 167.

(14) "The End of History and the Last Man," by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press, 1992).

(15) The Decline of the West, Volume II, by Oswald Spengler, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson (Alfred A Knopf, 1928; German original 1922), p. 432.

(16) The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View, by William McNeill (Princeton University Press, 1980).

(17) China: A New History, by John King Fairbank (Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 161.

(18) The Culture of Ancient Egypt, by John A. Wilson (University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 294-295.

(19) Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding, by Alice Goldfarb Marquis (Basic Books, 1995), p. 150.

(20) The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, by John Horgan (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

(21) Arnold Toynbee: A Life, by William H. McNeill (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 239.

(22) The Hitler Diaries: Fakes that Fooled the World, by Charles Hamilton (University Press of Kentucky, 1991).

(23) The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers (Spence Publishing Company, 2001).

(24) Spengler, p. 311.

(25) Hardt & Negri, p. 21.

(26) Farrenkopf, p. 214 et seq.

(27) A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee: Somervell Abridgement Vols. VII-X (Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 4.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly 

The Long View: Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

Imperialism is a subject John often returned to, but his interest in the subject was quite different from most others. For John, what mattered were not mere national empires like the British Empire, but the Empire, the universal state into which all political and economic systems seem to eventually collapse.

Even though the process can be justly described as a collapse, it is not primarily negative. For example, one of the reasons the political order collapses into an empire is that the stakes and pressures of governance have become too high for society to bear. The empire is seen as an improvement by most of its subjects; it is genuinely popular.

Despite the differences between an empire and the Empire, you can still find some interesting features of the British Empire that may be reproduced in the coming universal state. For example, the British Empire was cheap, in terms of both money and men. It was also relatively tolerant, and preferred local control whenever possible.

There are also some features that probably wouldn't work well. The British Empire was an extension of national ambition. The universal state is the oecumene, the abode of man. As such, purely national ambition no longer has a way to even be expressed. There are no separate countries, although there might be rebellious provinces. The universal state is also usually not very dynamic. All of the civilizational energy has already been expended creating the universal state, everything you have is everything you'll get. The British Empire at its best was exceptionally dynamic.

At this point, the real question would be how Western will the universal state be? John wrote some interesting speculations about this. We shall get to them in time.

Empire:
The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
By Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 2002
392 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN 0-465-02328-2
You might think this book was just an essay about the 18th-century Caribbean sugar-island economy that morphed into a profusely illustrated anthology of The Boy's Own Paper, but you would be wrong. What we have here is part of a concerted campaign (the book is a companion to a television series) to rehabilitate the idea of “empire” in general, and of the British Empire in particular. The author is the oddly ubiquitous Niall Ferguson, the Scottish economic historian. He does not suppress his famous interest in alternative history in this volume: one of the questions he sets out to answer is: “Was there a less bloody route to modernity?” The answer to that may be the key to a larger question, one with implications for the future as well as the past: “Can there be globalization without gunboats?”
The British Empire had a solid genesis in government-licensed piracy. The Spanish in the 16th century beat the British to the plunder of the major civilizations of the New World, leaving the British no recourse but to rob the Spanish. Still, even at that point the British displayed some hidden advantages. The English government was not centralized enough to simply expropriate the funds from its citizens to do its own empire building. By preference, it privatized British activity abroad, both commercial and military. As time went on, England outgrew piracy and turned to the licensing of the great trading companies. The greatest of these, the East India Company, was running India by the end of the 18th century. Strangely, the Honorable Company got India as a booby prize; the Dutch East India Company got the originally far more profitable East Indies. Even so, all that the Company's charter conveyed was a monopoly right to British business with India, provided the Company could do any. They wound up governing the place only because the Mughal empire unraveled in the 18th century; if the Company was going to enjoy any security, the Company would have to provide its own government.
In addition to piracy, there were drugs and slavery. Ferguson gives us a judicious helping of statistics about the “sweet tooth” economy of the 18th century Atlantic. Britain's possessions produced sugar. They also produced coffee, tea, and tobacco. All these things are mildly addictive stimulants. The market for them was bottomless, and the labor for them was largely unfree. Readers may be surprised to learn quite how lethal this labor system was. It is well-known that one out of seven of the prisoners on slave ships died in passage, but the death rate for the crews was even higher. The islands of the Caribbean were immensely profitable; the exports from Jamaica alone were worth more to England than the whole of the exports of America at the time of the Revolution. That was one of the reasons the British decided to let the colonies go. However, the populations of these tropical colonies, slave and free, did not reproduce themselves. Most immigrants from the British isles died soon after arriving, and it was to the Caribbean that most of them went in the 17th century.
Nonetheless, even at its most amoral, the “First British Empire” of pre-Victorian times was a “liberal” empire, if not quite an empire of liberty. It was very keen on the rule of law, particularly law as it related to property rights. American colonial complaints against London really came down to the argument that one's property is not really secure without some say in how much it is taxed. The empire was also tolerant, sometimes shockingly so. The government in London and the trading companies had no interest in spreading Christianity; they also no objection to customs like widow-burning, provided the subjects of the empire kept it to themselves. Imperial libertarianism sometimes extended to disinterest in famines in the areas the empire controlled. On the positive side, the people who administered the empire were sympathetically curious about the cultures where they worked. They adapted to them, cultivating their arts and literature. As a rule, the British co-opted local elites: there was no color bar to social interaction, or even marriage.
Some of this changed with the transition to the “Second Empire” of Queen Victoria's time. The empire became more humane as it became less tolerant. Much of this occurred under the influence of the evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic fought slavery, with greater and much earlier success in the empire. (In America, the effort was stymied after abolition in the northern states; Ferguson suggests that the success of the American Revolution delayed the end of slavery in America by at least a generation.) Despite the protestations of old India hands, the East India Company did begin to make a fuss about widow-burning and female infanticide. The rule of the Company itself was replaced by paternalistic political control from London after the Mutiny of 1857. The imperial government promoted education, public works, and public order. The settlement of Australia was a Monty Python parody of a whole society organized as a Victorian reform school. It was also a rousing success. The British role in the “scramble for Africa” in the last quarter of the 19th century began at the behest of evangelicals, to suppress the Indian Ocean slave trade to the Middle East.
In the 1890s, the last decade of Queen Victoria's reign, the empire was at the height of its power and self-confidence, though not yet of its territory. It controlled a quarter of the world's land surface and roughly the same proportion of its population. Its control of the oceans was uncontested. In Ferguson's estimate, it was the closest thing the world has ever seen to a world government. The empire was characterized by a high degree of local autonomy. Even India, ruled by an autocrat appointed by London, pretty much ran itself. As for the white dominions, they got almost anything they wanted in terms of “responsible self-government” after the 1830s. The imperial center made a point of protecting the rights of aborigines throughout the empire; the chief audience for Darwinian racism was among the colonists on the periphery.
The empire supported free trade: sometimes at gunpoint, and not always with happy results, as the Opium Wars illustrate. Be that as it may, in this laissez-faire empire, the imperial bureaucracy and military were fantastically small. There were fewer than half-a-million members of the armed forces at the empire's height, including the Indian Army. With few exceptions, colonial wars were small, quick, and resulted in few British casualties. There were no more than a thousand members of the “covenanted” India Civil Service, the people who actually ran India. That number is a bit misleading: Imperial India had a fairly large public sector. It was staffed largely by Indians, including some who passed the exam to enter the covenanted Service, just as the bulk of the military in India was Indian. Because the regions of the empire were normally self-sufficient, the structure was cheap for Britain: military expenditures late in Victoria's reign came to 2.5% or 3.0% of net domestic product: not so different from British defense expenditures in the early 21st century.
Imperial mysticism and liberal disgust with the empire arose at about the same time. Kipling and Ruskin and Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) saw the empire as a chivalric enterprise, the chief pillar of a civilization that made the world better for everyone, everywhere. This was also the view of Cecil Rhodes, the imperial entrepreneur. Ferguson does not dwell on the historical significance of the Anglophile network that Rhodes promoted, though he does note that Rhodes hoped his scholarships would create something like the Jesuit order, with the empire substituted for the Catholic religion. The problem was that the Boer War he provoked was nakedly commercial and not at all cheap, in British lives or in any other way. That event began the turn of enlightened sentiment away from empire. It would accelerate in the 20th century, until the very word “imperial” became a term of opprobrium.
The key to Ferguson's assessment of the empire is his analysis of the circumstances under which it ended. In the first half of the 20th century, the real alternatives to the British Empire were the Third Reich, or the Japanese East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, or the Italian Empire, or even the Soviet Union. Fighting off these alternative and far worse empires justified the British Empire's existence. Similar arguments could be made for earlier periods in the empire's history. The alternative to British India would have been a morbid extension of Mughal India, which would have been no more successful than Manchu China during the same period.
And what about the other colonial empires? The French were serious rivals in India and North America until the Seven Year's War (1756-1763). The Dutch actually got the better of the British during several conflicts in the 17th century; the competition was ended only when the Dutch and British executives merged in the Glorious Revolution (1688). It is possible to imagine a history dominated by a far greater French Empire, with its whitewashed architecture and frigid bureaucratic routine. One could imagine the same of the Dutch Empire, with its single-minded devotion to business. In either case, the British idea of liberty would have been largely absent from the modern world. Ferguson tells us that all the post-colonial states with populations over a million that became democracies are former British colonies. The qualifications in that statement are intriguing, but Ferguson may be onto something. Certainly the regime of free trade that Britain promoted in the decades before the First World War made the world a more economically dynamic place.
Ferguson makes some interesting comparisons between that “First Age of Globalization” and the Second, which he dates to the last quarter of the 20th century (and which he evidently believes is over). Though he does not argue the case in detail, Ferguson suggests that it would be hard to condemn 19th-century colonialism as merely exploitive. The colonial powers made huge infrastructure investments in their colonies. (The Congo Free State of King Leopold the Wicked may have been the chief exception.) India had a small trade deficit with Britain, for instance, but British India was a capital importer. During the Second Age of Globalization, in contrast, most trade and investment moved between developed countries. The income gap between the developed and undeveloped world widened during the Second Age, whereas it narrowed during the First.
Then there is the phenomenon of political fragmentation. The number of independent states tended to decline during the 19th century; around 1910, there were just 51. At this writing, the number is just short of two hundred. The new polities, fragments of old empires, often have tiny populations and economies that don't make much sense in isolation. Nonetheless, each must support the whole apparatus of national government. In the former Soviet area and in Africa, many of them plainly are not up to it. The implication of Ferguson's description is that what the world really needs is for some power to do in the 21st century what Queen Victoria's empire did in the 19th.
One may note in passing that Ferguson believes Britain itself might still have done at least part of this, in a slightly different history. There was talk well into the 1950s of a “Third British Empire,” under which the Commonwealth would function as a federation. There were several reasons this did not come off. One was that the United States was not particularly helpful during the Sterling crises that punctuated the post-war years, thus encouraging the trade patterns of the old empire to break up. Also, the Commonwealth became so big and diverse that it no longer meant anything. A federation of just the white dominions might have worked, in the unlikely event that its non-British members could have been persuaded a Third Empire was in their interests. As things turned out, the only power left to take up the imperial slack is the United States, about which Ferguson has his doubts.
In some ways, America is better positioned for global empire than Britain ever was. The US economy is about a quarter the size of the global economy; Britain at its height represented about 8%. Even at the empire's height, there were theoretical combinations of navies that might have challenged British naval supremacy, and of course Britain did not purport to be a great land power. In the early 21st century, the US has something close to a monopoly of supremacy in every dimension of conventional force. And the US manages to do this with not much more of a percentage of the national product than Gladstone or Disraeli's governments used. One might also add that Ann Coulter is much better looking than Queen Victoria ever was. The problem is that, in some ways, the US position in the world is the mirror image of a proper empire.
Ferguson does not use this analogy, but he might have likened the “American Empire” to the successful Japanese exporting corporations of the 1970s, those uncanny enterprises whose capital structures consisted almost entirely of debt. Quite aside from chronic federal deficits, the US seems to have given up on ever running a positive trade balance again. The country is an immense importer of foreign capital. It is also an immense importer of foreign people. One of the characteristics of the British Empire at every stage was Britain's huge emigration, which created whole new countries. Americans, in contrast, are reluctant even to go abroad on short business trips. As for military power, the American ability to project it is at least matched by the American eagerness to withdraw it just as soon as possible. In fact, the US tends to withdraw before it is possible, or at least prudent. The Widowed Queen would not have been amused.
To Ferguson's critique, I would say this: I like history as much as the next guy, indeed considerably more than most next guys. Pirates, the Raj, explorers, habeas corpus, the Boy Scouts, the RAF: they are all part of quite a story. Ferguson may well be right that it is the story of one of the better possible worlds, if not necessarily of the best. Still, the story is history, just as the age of empire is history. Empire, in the sense that Ferguson uses it, is a projection of the nationalism of some nation or other. The great national empires, like the great absolute monarchies, were possible during only a limited epoch. The United States in the 21st century could not create such an empire, even if it were foolish enough to try.
What the United States can do is anchor a Universal State or, to use Toynbee's other coinage, “an ecumenical society with Western characteristics.” The story of the better-possible-world that the British Empire created may yet continue. The trick is to avoid the temptation to emulate the noble empire's example too closely.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-03-08: Terminal Notes

In his 1997 review of William Strauss and Neil Howe's The Fourth Turning, John predicted that a crisis would erupt in the early twenty-first century. In the cyclical historical model of The Fourth Turning, a crisis successfully averted produces a generation of heroes, for example the Greatest Generation who defeated Germany and Japan in World War 2. A failed resolution to a crisis breeds cynicism and a causes a decay of public order, like the decades after the Civil War that brought us Jim Crow, forgettable presidents, and economic inequality.

At this point, it looks very much like the crisis came as predicted, and also that we haven't really successfully resolved it. As John noted, this does not bode well for the next couple of decades. Those who were in power at the beginning of the crisis will likely not be remembered well by history:

We should note that these changes in the cultural weather are not necessarily good news for GWB or the Republicans. To be in power at the beginning of a crisis, like the Civil War or the Depression-World War II era, is to risk historical opprobrium.

Hopefully it won't turn out as bad as it sounds now.

Terminal Notes
 
The president's ultimatum address last night was perfectly adequate, though it was not one of his great speeches. I was puzzled why it was not delivered from the Oval Office. According to the New York Times today, the reason is that the president looks too isolated when he speaks from behind that big desk. He was already isolated enough diplomatically, the Times implied; why emphasize the point visually? I suppose it would be too much to suggest that the president did not want to be seen talking in front of the Oval Office's familiar French Windows.
When the president does speak from the Oval Office, no doubt he will have good news, for which he wants to take sole credit.
* * *
What shall we say of the assessment by Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic Minority Leader in the Senate, that the diplomacy of the Administration had failed miserably? To begin with, the attitude of the Senator and his party essentially recapitulates domestically what the French have been doing internationally. All these parties have been trying to milk opposition to the war for short-term advantage, all the while positioning themselves to profit more substantially should the war miscarry. So, the short answer to the Senator's question is that the diplomatic prelude to the war developed as it did because the Administration was dealing with people like him.
The long answer is more interesting. The truth is that the US has rarely exercised its diplomatic resources more skillfully and persistently. The best possible outcome would have been a unanimous Security Council resolution last November, with an ultimatum date for February. With that kind of pressure, it's quite likely the Iraqi regime would have cracked. The failure of such an outcome to materialize was not due to any failure of skill or patience on the part of the US Administration. The problem is that the international system in which they had to work is a perpetual-motion machine.
The collective security system that was devised at the end of World War II never really functioned while the Cold War was on. In a way, it was like the constitutions the Soviet Union had. They were wonderfully democratic, pluralistic, and humane. They were also dead letters as long as the Communist Party ran the country. When the Party relaxed its grip, however, the most recent constitution started to function, and everyone discovered it did not work. We now see that the same decision, to relax the rule of Communism and end the Cold War, also allowed the "global constitution" to function for the first time. After a dozen years, we have found out it doesn't work either.
* * *
After the address, I watched the analysis on PBS given by four historians, who were moderated by Jim Lehrer. They acknowledged the novelty of the situation, but they did not seem much inclined to second guess the Administration. They were, on the whole, hopeful that the US would gain credit internationally in the long run.
The exception was Howard Zinn. I was reminded of the joke about the old dog who still chased bitches but had forgotten why. There he was, still spouting the Soviet line after all these years. Again, back when people like him thought that the Fatherland of Socialism was the vanguard of history, it made a certain amount of sense to try to frustrate US policy and diminish US influence. Now he is reduced to defending the manufacture of poison gas. His one consolation is that the preparations to liberate Iraq have made the US internationally unpopular. May he have joy of it.
* * *
Maybe this goes without saying, so I will say it anyway: Strauss & Howe's generational model of American history has been borne out remarkably well by these late, unnerving events. They predicted that the US in the 1990s would try to deal with international and domestic disputes one by one, in isolation. The culture then was centrifugal; there seemed to be a thousand problems. They also predicted that a crisis would begin in this decade, when the nation would abandon half-measures. Those thousand problems would become One Big Problem.
George W. Bush is the very image of the implacable babyboomer Strauss & Howe foresaw; so are his principal opponents. All this is happening a bit earlier than they predicted, which is actually a bad sign: the last time a "crisis" arrived a little early was the Civil War. In any case, the model runs true to form. Stories that would have dominated the news during the Clinton years are now just sidebars: compare the relative public indifference to the recent gender-scandal at the Air Force Academy to the witchhunt occasioned by the Tailhook incident. Even if the media wanted to, it could not return to the Clinton-era definition of "military issue."
We should note that these changes in the cultural weather are not necessarily good news for GWB or the Republicans. To be in power at the beginning of a crisis, like the Civil War or the Depression-World War II era, is to risk historical opprobrium. Consider what happened to President Herbert Hoover: a capable, even a brilliant man, who did not realize the rules had changed. This does not seem to be the problem of Bush & Company, but it is very early days.
* * *
A final point: has anyone noticed that the surname of the US commander in the Persian Gulf, Tommy Franks, is the generic Near Eastern term for "Westerner"? The pronunciation is usually something like "firengi," but the etymology is well-known. (Fans of the later Star Trek spin-off series will no doubt recognize the term.) Far be it from me to be sensitive, but maybe someone should have considered that the phrase "General Franks' headquarters in Baghdad" will grate on some ears like "Sultan Mohammed's palace in Rome."
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Permanent Interests

This is a short essay by John, now nearly 20 years old. It bears recollection now. Would that John had remembered this wisdom in the run up to the Iraq War:

The fundamental reality is that Earth is Eurasia. The important parts of Eurasia are its extremities. The rest of the world's territory is important only as it relates to the ancient civilizations that exist on the supercontinent's eastern and western ends. America is endangered if either of these peripheries becomes aggressive, or falls under the control of a hostile power of the interior. Preventing these things from happening is what American statecraft and armed forces exist to do. Everything else, absolutely everything else, is optional.

The important bits of this essay:

  • Any fixed goal of statecraft is not as good as a willingness to respond to objective circumstances
  • The "international community" is an American invention, made possible by victory in WW2
  • Not all things are possible to all countries at all times
Permanent Interests
by John J. Reilly
 
Probably we can do without a general field theory of U.S. foreign policy. At any rate, it would not be a good idea to run the country's foreign affairs according to one. Nevertheless, there should be certain things that are obvious to everyone about America and the world. You don't have to be very familiar with today's opinion leaders to realize this is not the case. Jack Beatty at the Atlantic Monthly thinks that the end of the Cold War frees us to demobilize. Michael Lind at The New Republic supports the single-minded pursuit of national interests. For that matter, Bob Dole speaking before the World Affairs Council in June of 1996 seemed to think that what U.S. foreign policy needs is "men, not measures." It is hard to think of three establishment figures with more different views generally, yet in this area they all still manage to miss the point in almost the same way.
The point is this: American security is a function of the state of the world. It does not depend on the state of American culture or the competitiveness of the American economy. Such things may determine our ability to do what we have to do. However, the domestic life of America does not define our international needs. Naturally, just because we need to do something, it does not follow that we will be able to do it. One can conceive of a world so hostile or chaotic that no level of American mobilization would make us physically safe and let our society flourish. In such a case, some commentators might be tempted to speak of an America that had turned its attention homeward. The reality would be an America that had ceased to be a subject of history and had become an object. The "state of the world" is not like the state of the weather. It is defined by physical and cultural geography, and it changes far more slowly than daily newspaper readers are apt to think. The fundamental reality is that Earth is Eurasia. The important parts of Eurasia are its extremities. The rest of the world's territory is important only as it relates to the ancient civilizations that exist on the supercontinent's eastern and western ends. America is endangered if either of these peripheries becomes aggressive, or falls under the control of a hostile power of the interior. Preventing these things from happening is what American statecraft and armed forces exist to do. Everything else, absolutely everything else, is optional.
As a practical matter, the pursuit of this strategy means maintaining the outcome of the Second World War. The gaggle of international bodies created by 1950 were designed to do this. The U.N. is simply the alliance that won the Second World War, preserved in amber and surrounded by a rabble of international social workers. The other institutional monuments from that era, the International Monetary Fund and NATO and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (which finally achieved its originally intended form in the World Trade Organization) are similarly American inventions. There is no "international community" to which the United States must defer or against which it must defend its national interests. To the extent there is an international system, it is an American artifact. You neglect its maintenance at your peril.
As a theoretical matter, the nature of this international system was not determined by the Cold War. The combination of the rise of Soviet power and the successful defense against it was simply a particular instance of the system at work. The American interest in a secure Europe and East Asia antedated the Cold War and continues after it. It would have required something like the same level of American engagement even if the Soviet Union had never existed. It requires a comparable level of American engagement now.
This is all you absolutely have to know to keep American foreign policy on-track. Still, there are some other points you might want to keep in mind. For instance, be wary about trying to whittle down U.S. defense commitments to "vital interests." A vital interest is something that, if you don't have it, you are likely to die. A country that will fight only when its vital interests are at stake will only fight when it is fighting for its life. This is not a good idea. Also, beware the notion of the inevitability of a multipolar world. It is based on the false assumption that any political entity will act as a world power as soon as its economy achieves a certain relative size. In reality, not everything is possible to a culture at every point in its history. People who think that today's China is just a larger version of Wilhelmine Germany are in for a surprise rather like that experienced by the enthusiasts for the European Union.
Finally, we may note one other way in which the state of the world has not changed with the end of the Cold War. The Left in the U.S. throughout that period saw its role as more or less the defense of socialism. Thus, they sought to limit the influence and power of the United States. Even with no more Fatherland of Socialism to defend, they still continue the same policy, like a missile defense system that keeps working even after the civilization that built it has died out. When they finally realize that anything they want to achieve in the world will have to be achieved through the United States, we will have a different politics.
End
 
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: After the Third Age

Tradition isn't all bad. After all, it is just a kind of historically informed neo-Platonism. However, it does have some sketchy friends. Tradition is one of the elements that makes up esoteric fascism, the New Age occult revival of actual fascism. One nonetheless cannot equate esoteric fascism with Tradition. The postwar international fascists are not the only movement inspired by Evola. Catholic Integralism has some overlap with Tradition, but so does the Muslim Brotherhood, existentialist philosophy, and even the direct action anarchists that protest the WTO and provided the intellectual grounding for the Occupy Wall Street movement. As is often typical of the fringes, many of the movements that share some ideas in common hate each other.

Here, John is primarily interested in the intersection between Evola and Francis Parker Yockey, a less successful Fascist version of Kim Philby. There is some really weird New Age stuff that crept into fascism after the end of the Second World War, and you can blame Evola and Yockey for most of it.

After the Third Age
 
Eschatological Elements of
Postwar International Fascism
Presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies
Boston University, November 2 to 4, 2002
This topic got away from me. I had planned a simple historical account of how millennial-minded Nazis dealt with the end of the Second World War. Instead, I discovered the beginnings of trends that could have disturbing implications for ordinary politics in the 21st century.
For the most part, we are talking here about the evolution of "esoteric fascism." Which is what? Here's an example:
There is a book called "Imperium," 1 by an extraordinary figure named Francis Parker Yockey. He was an American renegade who spied for the Germans in the 1940s and for the Russians in the 1950s; in 1960 he killed himself in federal custody, after he was caught traveling under a false identity. "Imperium" was first published in 1948. Thanks in large part to Willis Carto, the book is a familiar text on the international Right and among Satanists: These are the first two sentences:
"This book is book is different from other books. First of all, it is only in form a book at all. In reality, it is a part of the life of action."
Well, "Imperium" certainly looks like a book; it's over 600 pages long. Yockey's thesis is that Oswald Spengler's model of history implied the appearance of a pan-European Nazi empire. Though Yockey did not say that had to happen (neither did Spengler, by the way), Yockey was confident that the outcome of the Second World War would be reversed before 2050.
This is odd political science, but there are odder things in the book than that. Spengler often spoke of cultures in vitalist terms, but Yockey treats them almost as hauntings, as if history were a combat of ghosts. A key feature of "Imperium" is an ontological antisemitism that interested Spengler not at all. The author almost certainly intended the book as an exercise in what is called "magical idealism." The "magic" here is not metaphorical. Certain ideas are supposed to compel action, whether or not they are logically persuasive. Secret societies, communities, even civilizations can form around such ideas. The principle is: "If we think it, they will come."
"Imperium" was an early point on the trajectory to the sort of outlandish notions that we find today on the occult Right. For instance, there is, or was until recently, a group called the Order of the Nine Angles, which claimed to represent something called "Traditional Satanism." Their specialty was "Aeonic Magick," 2 which seeks to found the next civilization by creating its archetypes now.
There are real ideological connections between groups like the Order of the Nine Angles and some factions of the German National Socialist Party, as well as with some circles in Mussolini's Italy and in the Balkans, notably in Romania. Still, though the people who ran Nazi Germany were often very strange, they were not that strange. So, where did the more exotic notions come from?
 
* * *
The history of esoteric fascism falls into five periods: The Primordial Age, the Third Reich, the early Cold War, the Late Cold War, and the Third Millennium.
The Primordial Age actually goes back no further than the last quarter of the 19th century. I believe there were three principle sources for what esoteric fascism later became.
The first was the occult revival. There was much more to it than Theosophy, but theosophical ideas are a handy place to start. The founder of Theosophy, the great Madame Blavatsky, divided world history into different ages of rise and decline, each dominated by a leading race. 3 This model is associated with apocalyptic expectations for the end of the current age, which is the age of the Aryan, and millenarian anticipation of the coming race. This model is, for the most part, consciously post-Christian, though under Blavatsky's successor, Annie Besant, Theosophy tended to simply cloak evangelical eschatology in Sanskrit terms. 4
This milieu of beliefs took different forms in different places. In the German-speaking world, it seemed to involve a bit less Cabala than in Anglo-Saxondom, and rather more mediumship and folk magic. The whole phenomenon is sometimes called "völkish," meaning just "folkish." Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, whose research I am stealing shamelessly for this paper, has written extensively on the importance of the folkish subculture for Nazism. 5 This is the source that provided most of esoteric fascism's antisemitic content, in large part as a reaction to large-scale Jewish immigration into German-speaking Europe. The class of ideas that most interested Goodrick-Clarke was the so-called "Ariosophy," particularly as represented by the Viennese mystics Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. Lanz's project to found a new knightly "Order" to advance pan-Germanism clearly influenced Heinrich Himmler's model for the SS.
The second source of esoteric fascism was the basket of ideologies it shares with fascism in general, and for that matter with other forms of 20th century radicalism. The beginning of evils is Nietzsche's proposal that, if human society is not a divine artifact, then it is a product of human will. Maybe the will is collective, and grounded in culture or biology or something, but even the collective will speaks through an individual. This is the "artist politician," who creates reality rather than responds to it. 6 As Sorel and Pareto later said, you build reality through "myth," in the sense of a limit that defines the world. Often this is a "worst case," like Sorel's "General Strike." As a practical matter, General Strikes rarely succeed, but the prospect of a General Strike dictates how labor should be organized.
These ideas were part of the Conservative Revolution 7 . This was a mood more than a movement: anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, metaphysical but anti-religious, it was a substitute for conservatism that attracted people like Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, or for that matter Ezra Pound. Leo Strauss's contrast of Machiavelli's political theory to Aristotle's helps here. 8 Aristotle's statesman thinks in terms of the middle case, of the normal situation; Machiavelli's statesman thinks in terms of the extreme. The Conservative Revolution focused on the worst case, and so it tended to hysteria. This goes a long way to explaining Hitler's "death or glory" foreign policy, and even the Kaiser's. Existentialism applies the same sort of analysis, but at the personal level.
The third source of esoteric fascism grew out of the occult revival, but it is sufficiently distinct to be considered a separate influence. Very misleadingly, it is called Tradition.
The Primordial Traditionalist was the noted French occultist René Guénon. 9 In the years before the First World War, he abandoned the speculative occult in favor of a description of the perennial ideas that inform society and the spiritual life: just the sort of synthetic comparative mythology that Jung and Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell would do later. He used sources from all over the world, especially from esoteric Islam. Indeed, Guénon eventually became a Muslim and moved to Cairo.
Tradition has been defined as the world that never was, but always is. It has also been defined as the world of fairy stories. There are sacred kings and a caste system. There are numena that are not necessarily personal gods, but which can be invoked and manipulated. Tradition was the default position for mankind for most of history.
Traditionalists can be mere reactionaries; there are Catholic Integralists who think that what the world needs is a theocracy with a Latin liturgy. Very often, however, Traditionalists think that almost nothing can or should be saved from the coming collapse of the West.
In the second age of esoteric fascism, of fascism in power, these three sources mixed in different proportions in different countries. They never quite gelled. For that matter, esoteric fascism never quite gelled with fascism as a whole.
Steven Spielberg exaggerated in the "Indiana Jones" movies. There was an occult establishment in Nazi Germany, but it was only one aspect of the regime. 10 Yes, the German SS really did have a fellow named Otto Rahn out looking for the Holy Grail, or at least for traditions that would connect the Grail with Catharism. He was also a kind of Satanist, but that's another story. 11 Heinrich Himmler had his own folkish wizard, named Karl Maria Wiligut, who would issue oracles when the occasion required. The Nazi state used symbols like the swastika and the SS-runes that came out of the occult milieu. Quite un-mystical Nazis, such as Joseph Goebbels, might cite the apocalyptic World Ice Theory in their private papers. 12
On the other hand, the Nazi regime suppressed most commercial outlets for occult activity within a year of taking power. 13 Alfred Rosenberg, who was definitely in the metaphysical wing of the Party, went out of his way to combat the widespread notion that the Nazis' amazing successes were supernatural. 14 Even the term "Third Reich" is ambiguous. We know it can mean "millennium," as in Joachim of Fiore's Third Age, but it also meant simply the successor to Bismarck's Hohenzollern empire. In 1939, Goebbels actually banned the media from using the term. 15
In "The Myth of the 20th Century," 16 Rosenberg uses myth in the Sorelian sense. The "myth" is a Greater Germany that can trace its origins back to Atlantis. He suggests Atlantis may have been historical, but he says that is not essential to its symbolic role. He seems to have shared with other Nazis a sense of "already and not yet." The book was published before Hitler came to power in 1933, and it underwent revisions in its reprintings. However, Rosenberg never revised the section called "The Coming Reich." It was still coming, even in 1945. 17
The title of a collection of Rosenberg's occasional writings, "Tradition and the Present," is significant. 18 Rosenberg represented the dark, chthonic, mediumistic wing of esoteric fascism. He clearly hoped to de-universalize German spirituality, trading Christianity for a cult of the blood, almost a funerary cult. He bitterly opposed Tradition, which was relatively lucid and had a universal perspective. Its chief fascist proponent was the Italian baron, Julius Evola, who made esoteric fascism what it is today.
Evola's books about magic and alchemy and Tantric sex are now widely known, but he is most interesting as a political theorist. His great work is "Revolt Against the Modern World," 19 first published in the 1930s, though his early postwar book, "Men Among the Ruins," 20 was more widely read. Another of his books, "Riding the Tiger," is supposed to have been important in Europe during the events of 1968. One Italian neo-Fascist famously called Evola: "our Marcuse, only better." Is "Riding the Tiger" related to the Jefferson Starship song of similar name? Maybe.
Evola said that, in Traditional society, the meaning of the state is not to serve or represent the people, but to house a link to the transcendent, which Evola conceived as an impersonal source of power. The link creates the state. It even creates the people, from the population that assembles spontaneously around it. This link was normally embodied in a divine king, or in an Order of initiates, whose authority was impersonal and non-contingent on their performance.
The most perfect examples of Traditional society have in some sense been universal empires. In such a system, there may be local kings, and even republics, but the basis of all legitimacy is the sacred empire and its unmoving ruler. He does not rule by force, but by transcendent right. One way to put Evola's hope for the constitution of Europe is that Hitler did not have the right idea, but maybe Frederick II Hohenstaufen did.
Evola's ethics were anti-utilitarian. He advocated the expression of the essential self, even if that conflicted with mere self-preservation. This sounds like garden-variety existentialism, but Evola derived it from alchemy and his theory of immortality. Human beings, in Evola's view, are not naturally immortal. A shadow of the dead may persist as a ghost for a while, but the soul is re-absorbed by the collective spirit of the folk. Rosenberg thought this, too, but did not have a problem with it. Evola did. In fact, his politics was a ritual designed to produce personal immortality.
Evola says that, to become immortal, the spirit must separate from the body in a conscious state. It can then be fixed with a preservative, and lose the ability to die. The result is the Philosopher's Stone, the goal of alchemy. Meditation can do this; Evola makes it sound like St. John of the Cross on hallucinogenic drugs. The other path is to harden the self through heroic action. Any acute stress can transform the daemon of the hero into an immortal body of light. Athletics can do this. So can the shock of death. In any case, the adept must be absolutely indifferent to the consequences of his actions. If you think this sounds like a formula for suicidal propaganda of the deed, you are onto something. Evola was tried in 1951 for inspiring his young admirers to do roughly that, though he was acquitted.
Baron Evola's immortals are called Those Who Are, or the Watchers. Only they can hope to survive the impending collapse of the current order of things, and become "Seed People" for the next cycle.
Evola expresses distain for apocalypticism, but there is a fair amount of it in his own system. His history is generically theosophical. The current cycle started in ancient Hyperborea, before the world's axis shifted, and passed through Atlantis. Like Rosenberg, Evola declares himself indifferent to the historicity of these eons. He is, however, quite clear that modernity is literally the Kali Yuga of Hindu metahistory. Not just the West will end in a generation or two, but every society of the current cycle.
Historical development is largely a process of running down. The history of each individual civilization begins with the establishment of a link to the transcendent; it passes through the weakening and final breaking of the link. He characterizes the process as "the regression of the castes," with each age in the story of decline characterized by a lower caste than the one before.
Evola prefers the Sanskrit terms for the castes, but basically he means priests, warriors, burghers and peasants. In the most perfect Traditional state, the sacred and regal functions are united in the same people. The early differentiation of a separate clerical estate in the West was the beginning of the secularization of politics. Once started, the process leads, almost inevitably, from sacred kingship to proletarian chaos. In the very last days, Gog and Magog are released and demons can walk in broad daylight, taking the form of members of secret societies who can at last work openly.
The German and Italian governments had mixed feelings about these ideas. Evola composed the Fascist government's race policy in terms of elites rather than eugenics. On the other hand, he was both too anti-socialist and too anticlerical for most Fascists. In Germany, Evola had his admirers. His pan-Europeanism won some support among the Waffen SS. However, this was just the sort of universalism that Rosenberg was trying to suppress. The Black SS decided his ideas were too Latin and too aristocratic. Nonetheless, Germany gave him refuge after the Allies occupied Rome. He was crippled during a Russian artillery bombardment of Vienna at the end of the war, where he was doing research for the SS into the history of secret societies. He lived until 1974, in a wheelchair, as his influence grew.
During the early Cold War period, wonderful rumors sprang up. Hitler was still alive, and not just as a human being. In the opinion of the European convert to Hinduism, Savitri Devi, Hitler was Kalki, the tenth and last incarnation of Vishnu. There were supposed to be German bases in the Arctic or the Antarctic, where super weapons were stored. These rumors quickly merged with UFO mythology. The "Black Sun" symbol appeared. Himmler had actually used it in the 1930s, referring perhaps to Madame Blavatsky's spiritual "Invisible Sun," and also to the stage of death before resurrection in the alchemical process. In later years, the Black Sun would become the symbol of neo-Nazism.
Postwar esoteric fascism benefited from the eclipse of German chauvinism. Several international fascist networks grew up, with extensive contacts in Europe and the Middle East. We should note once again that Islamicism, as represented by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, is a modern phenomenon. Early Islamicists like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb were influenced by Italian fascism. After the war, German exiles arrived in the Middle East as part of the apparat of an anti-Zionist network in contact with the Kremlin.
This is the milieu in which Francis Parker Yockey lived, writing propaganda in Egypt and Europe and Latin America. He helped revive old notions from the 1920s, like Karl Haushofer's proposal for a geopolitical league of Germany and Russia, and the Strasser brothers' "National Bolshevism." The idea of a Red-Brown coalition had few takers in the 1950s, but it has many in Russia today, where Yockey is fairly well-known. 21
Despite the spies and flying saucers, neo-fascism was essentially backward-looking into the 1960s. People like George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party would dress up like storm troopers and go get beaten up. James Madole and his National Renaissance Party tried to promulgate a novel synthesis of theosophy, science fiction and fascism, but they were just street-corner cranks.
In the 1970s, the situation changed. Nazi Germany became Atlantis, a magical society that had sunk out of sight, but which might someday rise again. There had always been a literature about the role of the occult in the Third Reich. With the rise of the New Age Movement, this kind of interpretation became not just popular but plausible. Pseudo-historical accounts like Trevor Ravencroft's "Spear of Destiny," 22 in which Hitler is portrayed as an evil magician, were wildly inaccurate on their face, but they are fun to read, so many people did.
To some extent, the magical Reich was just a new story device; Nazi villains had something new to be villainous about. On the other hand, a wing of the budding Satanist movement decided that, if the Nazis were that evil, then they must have been onto something, so they began a revival of folkish magic and Nazi themes. These became important in Black Metal and Industrial music. 23 On the less extreme end, pro-Nazi science fiction began to appear. Those mythological postwar Nazi bases played a role, as did the hidden underground realms of Agarthi and Shambalah, and hollow-earth theories having to do with secret entrances in the Arctic to the land of the Titans. 24
As Goodrick-Clarke points out, another factor that favored the expansion of esoteric fascism was the beginning of large-scale immigration into Western Europe. In his analysis, it was the immigration into central Europe in the late 19th century that gave the earlier occult revival its popular traction. Political terrorism and vandalism in the '60s and '70s had been largely a leftist activity. In the '80s and '90s, it increasingly became a right-wing affair. Goodrick-Clarke suggests that neo-Nazism is a form of multiculturalism; it's just another instance of people making up an ethnic identity and clinging to it for dear life. 25
The New Age was less innocent than it seemed. It was not an accident, as the Marxists used to say, that Mircea Eliade was Julius Evola's long-time correspondent. Back in the 1970s, William Irwin Thompson and David Spangler and the Lindisfarne Foundation were clearly getting ready for the end of Evola's Kali Yuga. 26 Actually, the best fictional presentation of the whole esoteric scenario I know of is in Doris Lessing's forays into science fiction, particularly "Shikasta" 27 and "The Sirian Experiments." Even "The Lord of the Rings" starts to look fishy, because there are few more attractive portrayals of the world of Tradition. Italian fascists use the books for recruiting, to the continuing horror of the Tolkien Society. 28
Esoteric fascism is not the cause of all the world's troubles, but its agenda is much with us. Consider antiglobalist anarchism, as represented by Hardt & Negri's book "Empire." 29 Negri's analysis of modern history follows Evola's point by point, even when it makes no sense, as in the assertion that America is the first country whose political system wholly excludes the transcendent. 30 Modern anarchism embraces the Traditional prediction that capitalism will be brought down by a post-modern multitude, not by economic forces.
I don't want to dwell on Islamicist ideology; I don't know that much about it. Still, we should note that recent Islamicist terrorists quote Evola with facility. 31
Then there is pan-Europeanism. Esoteric fascists generally supported European solidarity, provided it was anti-American. This take on the subject is no longer confined to heavy-metal enthusiasts. There was, maybe there still is, an annual colloquium called the Politica Hermetica, 32 hosted by the School for Applied Advanced Studies at the Sorbonne. It deals largely with Evola and Guénon, and not particularly critically. The old New Right even has a postmodern version of Tradition in the thought of Alain de Benoist. 33 This sort of thing is too esoteric to find a wide audience, but it does leak into elite opinion.
Finally, there are the new, progressive forms of anti-Zionism, made possible by the internationalization of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. After nearly seventy years of propaganda, America and the Jews are finally linked as joint targets of progressive opinion throughout the West. Francis Parker Yockey would have been so pleased.
The theologian Owen C. Thomas wrote something a few years ago that may illuminate our current condition. 34 He suggested that, in retrospect, the real alternative in the West to the Biblical religions was never Marxism or scientific materialism. The alternative has always been "the perennial philosophy," which is basically a historically informed neoplatonism. The perennial philosophy is actually very powerful, and for the most part it is a good thing. Tradition is a form of the perennial philosophy, and how scary are Huston Smith and T.S. Eliot? Esoteric fascism, however, is a perversion of the perennial philosophy, and that is a very bad thing indeed.
Thank You.
Notes:
1 Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics, by Ulick Varange (Francis Parker Yockey), The Noontide Press, 1962 (First Published 1948) Reviewed here.
2 Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke New York University Press, 2002, p. 219 Reviewed here.
3 The Occult Underground, by James Webb, Open Court Publishing Company, La Salle, Il. 1974, p. 92
4 Webb, p. 100
5 The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, New York University Press, 1985, 1992
6 Fascism: A History, by Roger Eatwell, Penguin Books, 1996, p. 9 Reviewed here.
7 Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International, Autonomedia, by Kevin Coogan, 1999, p. 74. Reviewed here.
8 "Definitions, Doctrines and Divergences" by Pierre Hassner, The National Interest, Fall 2002, p. 32 footnote
9 Coogan, p. 293
10 James Webb's "The Occult Establishment," Open Court Publishers, La Salle, 1976, is still a fair assessment. 11 German version here.
English version here
12 Final Entries 1945: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels, edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1978, p. 1. For an account of the "Welteislehre" to be taken with a grain of salt, see The Morning of the Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, Dorset Press, New York, 1988 (First Published as "Le Matin des Magiciens" 1960), p. 153.
13 Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant, by Mel Gordon, Feral House, 2001, p. 253 Reviewed here.
14 The Myth of the Master Race: Alfred Rosenberg and Nazi Ideology, by Robert Cecil, Dodd Mead & Company, New York, 1972, p. 96
15 Grosse Lexikon des Dritten Reiches. English: The Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, edited by Christian Zentner and Friedemann Bedürftig; English translation edited by Amy Hackett, New York, 1991, Vol. II, p. 954. See also "Thousand Year Reich," Vol. II, p. 955. Anton Moeller van den Bruck employed the term both ways in his book, The Third Reich. The text is online here.
16 Der mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts: Eine Wertung der seelish-geistiger Gestalten Kaempfe unserer Zeit by Alfred Rosenberg, Hoheneichen-Verlag Muenchen, 1932
17 Cecil, p. 91. The text of "The Myth" is available here.
18 Alfred Rosenberg, Tradition und Gegenwart: Reden und Aufsätze 1936-1940 Blut und Ehre, IV. Band, 1941, Verlag Franz Eher Nachf. GmbH., München The text is here.
19 Revolt Against the Modern World, by Baron Julius Evola, Original Italian Edition 1934, Revised 1951, 1970, Inner Traditions International 1995 (Translation by Guido Stucco) A review is here.
20 Men Among the Ruins: Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist, by Julius Evola, Inner Traditions, 2002 (Translated from the revised Italian edition of 1972; First Edition 1953) A review is here.
21 Read about the Conservative Revolution in Russia here.
22 The Spear of Destiny, by Trevor Ravenscroft, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1973
23 Dagobert's Revenge, which is here, follows this scene.
24 A recent novel involving most of these elements is "Under Down Under," by Gerry Forster. Published in 2001, it is available free, online, here . The Nazis in the book are not represented sympathetically, however.
25 Goodrick-Clarke "Black Sun," pp. 5-7.
26 Passages about Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture, by William Irwin Thompson, Harper & Row, New York, 1973, p. 150 et seq.
27 Shikasta, by Doris Lessing, Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 1979.
28 Thomas Sheehan, "Myth and Violence: The Fascism of Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist," Social Research 48: 45-73 Spring 1981
29 Empire by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Harvard University Press, 2000. Reviewed here.
30 I am scarcely the first person to notice the parallels between Negri and Evola. See Sheehan, op. cit.
31 Boroumand, op. cit.
32 Politica Hermetica links are here.
33 Sheehan, op cit.
34 Theology Today, "Christianity and Perennial Philosophy," Vol. 43, No. 2, July 1986, pp. 259-266
Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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Hope Reborn and Conqueror Book Review

Belisarius

Belisarius

Hope Reborn
by David Drake and S. M. Stirling
Contains the Forge and the Hammer
Baen Publishing Enterprises, 2013
586 Pages, US$13.00
ISBN 978-1-4516-3877-6

Conqueror
by David Drake and S. M. Stirling
Contains the Anvil, the Steel, and the Sword
Baen Publishing Enterprises, 2003
633 Pages, US$25.00
ISBN 978-0-7434-3594-9

In our world, Belisarius was one of the greatest Roman generals, a servant of the Emperor Justinian I, who nearly managed to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory after the Vandals and the Ostrogoths overran the Western Empire. One of the great what-ifs of history is is to ponder how the world might have been different if Belisarius and Justinian had managed to reestablish a lasting Roman presence in Western Europe and North Africa. Despite the dramatic victories of his campaigns, the conquests of Belisarius were short-lived. The Lombards conquered Italy only three years after Belisarius and Justinian died, completely severing the political ties that remained with the Eastern Empire. A century and a half later, the Arabs would ride across all of North Africa, and then into the Iberian peninsula.

David Drake and S. M. Stirling have taken these events and personalities and transported them to the human colony world of Bellevue, 1000 years after a destructive civil war has cast down civilization on Earth and all her colonies. By combining military scifi with alternative history, Drake and Stirling give Belisarius the opportunity not only to conquer the Western barbarians he fought in our world, but also the armies of Islam that ultimately destroyed the Second Rome long after his death.

Since this is a future history as well as alternative history, Drake and Stirling also get to play around with the weapons and tactics available to Belisarius. In our world the core of the Roman army were cataphractii, heavy cavalry armed with lance, sword, and bow. On Bellevue, Belisarius is reborn as Raj Whitehall, a cavalryman as well, but one armed with a single-shot cartridge fed rifle, and capable of calling fire from black powder field artillery. Rapid communications are available via heliograph, and steam power enables train and ship transport to be far more rapid than anything Belisarius could have achieved.

Despite the technological differences, Whitehall's campaigns closely follow those of Belisarius. There is indeed a sense in which war never changes. Where these books differ from history, it is due to Whitehall being more successful than Belisarius was. Whitehall has an unfair advantage over Belisarius: the covert assistance provided him by Center, a battle computer that fortuitously escaped destruction in the wars that ended the prior civilization. Center can provide maps, enhance the senses, detect lies, and provide all of the accumulated experience of waging war from the sweep of human history. If that sounds a little unfair, it is. War isn't fair.

The fun here is seeing the battles of the historical campaigns waged with gunpowder, and with the tactical and strategic commentary provided by Center. The core audience for this kind of book already geeks out over lines of battle and armchair generalship. Added on to that is the gritty kind of war realism that Drake is known for. There is nothing romantic about war in these books. Yet there is the realization that for all that, some men really do love war, and find their fulfillment in it. Raj Whitehall loves war, and he is good at it, yet he does not love the things that war inevitably brings, or the things that he must do in order to win. Whitehall is a hard man, as Belisarius was before him, but not a monster.

Raj Whitehall does fight monsters however, both within and without the Empire he serves. The Western barbarians are perhaps less culpable for their excesses than the decadent aristocrats who grow fat off of slave labor and starve the army while the barbarians mill about the gates. This series of books plays upon the ideas of historical cycles. One thousand years after the interstellar civil war, the civilization that emerged on Bellevue is starting to ossify, slowly losing its capacity to do something truly different. Like the Later Roman Empire, bureaucracy and corruption have become embedded within civilization.

In our world, perhaps that was why Belisarius ultimately could not succeed. The vital force of the Roman Empire was spent, 1000 years after the founding of Rome. Younger, more dynamic societies developed in the hinterlands and then displaced Rome when her internal weaknesses grew over time to eclipse her fading strengths. Whitehall and Center provide an unexpected impetus to break that cycle on Bellevue. Whether the acts of one man could truly restore the energy and power of an entire civilization is perhaps a question to be asked in a different kind of book.

My other book reviews

 

The Long View: Spengler's Future

When I did the site upgrade, John's online book, Spengler's Future, got jumbled up because I had it hosted on separate pages. I rolled everything up into one page, and added it to the navigation bar.

Spengler's Future was an interesting exercise, a book written around a very simple BASIC program, one that correlated contemporary events to the history of four civilizations that exhibited Spenglerian cycles by simply adding a fixed number of years to the date on which any given event occurred:

If E$ = "China" then let H = F + 2300
If E$ = "Egypt" then let H = F + 3547
If E$ = "Rome" then let H = F + 2127
If E$ = "Islam" then let H = F + 626

For so simple an attempt, this actually worked pretty well. This approach is a quick and dirty way to see the kind of parallels in history that have inspired the many attempts to make cyclical models of history. Go check it out, it is worth a read.

The Long View: The Cunning Man

This is why I do this. Coming back to this barely remembered book review after many, many years is much like reuiniting with an old friend. I can see in these paragraphs things I have said, and things I have thought, forgetting their true source. This post is a rich vein of the insights that I have applied over the years.

John liked Robertson Davies for the same reason I like Tim Powers, he was an author you could use to cleanse your palate after reading some modern drivel. There is something disheartening about so much modern fiction, that it is a real joy to read a book that doesn't drag you down. John notes that while Davies was never opposed to modern culture as such, Davies managed to avoid modernity's worst excesses by looking beyond modernity to what is inevitably to come.

Davies' novel is grouped where it is in John's blog because it is thematically related to Tradition, the political embodiment of the perennial philosophy. You could read John's post as an indictment of Tradition, but mostly I think he wanted to draw attention to something that possesses latent power, and his review of The Cunning Man seeks to draw out the good there is to be found in the perennial philosophy, much as Davies looked for the good in modernity.

John felt that the perennial philosophy at its best was far from the worst possible world, but probably also not capable of achieving the best. Graceful despair was how he characterized it, perhaps most memorably embodied in the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. However, John clearly also felt that the hermeticism of the perennial philosophy could conjure a world that none [or almost none] of us really want.

Searching for the even better alternative was John's ultimate purpose, and by extension it is now mine.

The Cunning Man

by Robertson Davies

Viking Publishers, 1995
$23.95, 469 pp.
ISBN 0-670-85911-7

 

The Breath of Coming Winter

 

Some years ago, for reasons that seemed sufficient at the time, I read Doris Lessing's great novel, "The Golden Notebook." The novel takes the form of a long, agonized memoir by a progressive young woman in the middle of the 20th century, in which the protagonist tries to come to grips with the political and sexual struggles of her time. This really is a great book. It succeeds like few other works in conveying to the reader the dismay and self-disgust of the modern mind. Then I happened to read Robertson Davies' novel, "The Lyre of Orpheus," the first of his books I had ever encountered. Reading it was like being cured of an abscessed tooth. Since then, I have been reading everything by him I could find.

I don't think that my reaction to Davies is altogether unique. Many people find his prose to have the same curative effect. His books breathe compassion and an intelligent sense of history. In contrast to so much of what goes on in fiction these days, his vision seems to capture the light of sanity. In his latest book, "The Cunning Man," he puts a fittingly old name to this light: the perennial philosophy. (This term has been variously defined, but perhaps Aldous Huxley's book, "The Perennial Philosophy," comes closest to an extended exposition of what Davies means.) Today, many people speak of the end of the modern era, and some even say it has already ended. They call our time "the postmodern age." This is nonsense, of course. Postmodernism is merely a satirical epilogue to modernity. Robertson Davies, though often accounted a somewhat old-fashioned author, shows us in his books one of the spiritual regimes that could actually succeed modernity when it does end. If so, it will be better than we deserve. Even now, however, with modernity still largely undismantled, it is not too early to begin to understand that the perennial philosophy is in essence a form of graceful despair.

"The Cunning Man" consists of a series of reflections and character sketches, held together by a loose account of the life and times of one Dr. Jon Hullah, master diagnostic physician of the city of Toronto. There are three stories here: Hullah's school life and professional career, the growth of the cultural life of Toronto to world-class status, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of orthodox religion. The doctor, like so many other characters in Davies' books, is a wizardly man, a bachelor and a bit of a misanthrope with some odd intellectual interests. After a boyhood in the Canadian north and a tough-but-fair elite boys' prep school, he has an early infatuation with Freudian theory when it was still new and not particularly respectable, at least in Canada. He has some occasion to put this interest into practice while treating "friendly fire" casualties during World War II. Back in civilian life, the doctor develops into a physician in the tradition of Paracelsus. This means that, in practice, he learned the value of just listening. He is, of course, perfectly expert in scientific medicine, but he tends to take his science as a metaphor. There are genuine mysteries in the case histories of his patients. To illustrate this, he has a bas relief of a caduceus on the wall of his waiting room. Its two intertwining snakes symbolize empirical science and "wisdom" respectively, while above both is written the Greek word for "fate."

The health of every individual, the doctor believes, is as unique as each soul, and so is every disease. The point is not that all diseases are psychosomatic; they aren't. However, the conditions to which the body is prone are usually expressions of the mind, and the patient's state of mind is of critical importance to the success of any therapy. Dr. Hullah acquires a quiet but wide reputation as a "diagnostician of last resort," a physician whose results other doctors cannot quite explain and which they usually have the sense not to ask about. His clinic, it happens, is located in a building in close proximity to a high episcopal church.

At the time of the main action of the story, St. Aidan's was a very high episcopal church indeed, with a congregation that provided a good social cross-section of Toronto. In those glory days, its pastor was the saintly Father Hobbes, a man who literally went hungry to feed the poor. We meet him as he sinks in his last years into a pious and well-beloved dotage. Though the pastor was willing to accommodate elaborate ritual practice, the church's splendid liturgies during the late period of his tenure were the work of the parish's sophisticated music directors, and even more so of the curate, Fr. Iredale, one of Dr. Hullah's old schoolmates. The artistic life of the church was greatly enriched by, indeed it really only reflected, what went on next door in Glebe House. This old mansion had once been parish property, but came into possession of two representatives of another stock type in Davies' books, the Lovable Lesbian Artists. Called the Ladies, they were friends with their tenant Hullah (his clinic is located in a building that had been Glebe House's formidable stone stable). Starting first with artistically-inclined people at St. Aidan's, they came to host a weekly salon that attracted most of the musicians and plastic artists of the nascent artistic world of Toronto at midcentury. (The Ladies invited few writers, since writers proved to drink too much.)

Lest anyone miss the moral, this arrangement is supposed to illustrate the fruitful relationship that art can have with religion. The artists themselves are in large part infidels and persons whose private lives do not bear close scrutiny, yet their community is created by the need of the church for music and vestments and sculpture. Once assembled, they develop their art according to its own needs, but the church continues to benefit from the new creations it has neither the funds nor the imagination to produce itself. During the Golden Age of St. Aidan's, faithful parishioners like the Ladies and Dr. Hullah do not of course believe in the tenets of orthodox Christianity. They are attracted to the church because they intuit that there is a dimension of Being beyond the material. They see that the Good is often the occasion for the Beautiful, as illustrated by the beautiful ceremonies presided over by the genuinely admirable Fr. Hobbes. They are, however, too sophisticated to believe that the Good must also be linked to the True. The Gospel taught at St. Aidan's is a kind of significant poetry. To think otherwise is a bit of naivete that might be tolerated in simple people, but which leads to disastrous results in the hands of men with intellect and imagination.

Such, unfortunately, was Fr. Iredale. Everyone agreed that the pastor was a saintly man. His curate, however, inspired by private visions he could not dismiss, came to regard Fr. Hobbes as a living saint in the most literal sense. The book is in small part also a murder mystery, so it would not be appropriate to set out here just what steps the curate took to prepare the pastor for canonization. Fr. Iredale wanted nothing less than that for the late Fr. Hobbes: a shrine, a cult, and finally official recognition of sainthood by the whole Anglican communion. The cult of Fr. Hobbes was to save not only Toronto, but the whole of North America. The problem, the curate soon found, was that the enthusiasm he had whipped up could not be kept within church walls. One of Dr. Hullah's truly psychosomatic patients declared herself cured by the lately deceased saint's miraculous intervention, and began preaching in the little graveyard by Glebe House where he was buried. She attracted dangerous crowds of those whom Fr. Hobbes had helped in life, street crazies, thieves and invincible alcoholics. (The Unworthy Poor are another staple of Davies' fiction. Here they take the Orwellian name of "God's People.") The bishop of Toronto, alarmed at the disorder and credulity at St. Aidan's, sends his favorite hench-cleric to preach on the dangers of ritualism. Fr. Iredale is banished to a parish in the farthest north. There he must listen to the private revelations of his landlady and try to adapt to a poor rural congregation (actually six small ones at various widely-separated churches). He takes to drink and becomes himself one of God's People, eventually dying in Dr. Hullah's care.

We learn of all this as Dr. Hullah explains it many years later to his godson's wife, an investigative reporter in Toronto. (Newspaper journalism, like the theater and the academy, is yet another stock feature of Davies' fiction. He has, after all, had significant careers in all three professions.) Thus, we get to look at these events from their aftermath. One Lady has died and the other moved away. In any event, the artistic life of the city has become too large and too commercial to fit into one of their artistic evenings. St. Aidan's has become a parish of the rich and tonedeaf. Dr. Hullah has stopped accepting new patients. We see him planning a great literary study for his retirement, a compendium of medical diagnoses of the great characters from literature, based on their spiritual conditions as set out in the texts.

We are given various hints that these personal things are not all that is ending. The doctor's indispensable nurse-therapist, for instance, is a great reader of Toynbee and Spengler, especially the latter. The era of classical modern culture with which the doctor literally grew up seems to be drawing to a close with his career. As a doctor, he has less and less faith in contemporary science, even as metaphor. AIDS and cancer research go on and on, costing ever more but yielding few results. Even the old diseases he thought conquered as a young man are staging comebacks. The suspicion grows that the whole business of research is just that, a business, perhaps finally a bit of a racket. One of his old friends discourages him from making a bequest to a university unless he attaches strict conditions. Otherwise, the greedy scientists will eat it up without licking their lips. Like the monasteries of Henry VIII's time, the laboratories have become bloated and corrupt. The time is coming for a cleaning out.

Robertson Davies has never set his face against the trends of the modern world. Insofar as modern culture has had a strong psychoanalytical component, his novel "The Manticore," which deals with a course of Jungian analysis, may someday be seen as one of the key texts. His novel "The Lyre of Orpheus," which deals with a university production of an original opera about King Arthur, is open to the possibility that there may be worth in today's experimental musical styles. In "The Cunning Man," he even manages a few kind words for feminism, of a sort. Though he clearly prefers some cultural usages of previous periods to those of the twentieth century, he has always been willing to acknowledge whatever good the world has on offer. Still, he suggests that modern culture, at least as it has been known in Canada, is drawing to a close. There is no Spenglerian gloom associated with this development. Empires may crumble and the arts go into hibernation, but the wise do not despair. Every historical era is equally far from God, but the perennial philosophy is there to console us in each.

Davies' idea of enlightenment seems to bear a certain family resemblance to that of the English novelist and former Oxford philosopher, Iris Murdoch, who has been promoting a brand of moderate Platonism for years. The reference point of Murdoch's philosophy is not a personal God, but the abstract Good. The Good, of course, issues no orders, but informs every choice we make, even those that deliberately contravene it. It does, if you will, set the agenda. It does not punish, but reality exacts a price from those who do not seek the Good, which is also the ultimately Real. Popular religion provides a form of the Good that can be understood even by people without a philosophical education. For the mass of mankind, the search for the Good can be reduced to a set of crude injunctions. This is at least sufficient for the purpose of maintaining social order. Sophisticated minds, however, will usually find that, as they climb the ladder of moral perfection, they will eventually no longer need a personal God in order to understand the Good. They need not then abandon God, but may continue to cherish Him as a metaphor. Indeed, Murdoch is a great promoter of High Church practices. As limited beings, we need symbols to help compose our minds to higher things. Ritual links us to the past and so to each other; it helps constitute society. Murdoch is the kind of Anglican who cares little whether her priest believes in God, but a great deal whether he reads from a Bible other than the Authorized Version.

There are a number of flaws one might find with an idealism so chilly. For one thing, a lot of people with expensive philosophical educations, such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis, found that the Good was a steppingstone to God and not the other way around. In any event, Davies' philosophy (to the extent it can be derived from his novels) is much less desiccated than Murdoch's. Davies has, for one thing, a strong taste for the merely uncanny. Although there is little actual magic in his books, there is great deal of talk about astrology, alchemical philosophy, and archetypes of one kind or another. These factors are hardly an impediment to sales in today's intellectual climate. He does favor his readers with significant coincidences, effective curses, the odd ghost (his last novel, "Murther and Walking Spirits," was a posthumous narrative by a murdered man) and one memorable case of the Evil Eye. One way of looking at the supernatural is that it is just a plot device that got out of hand, but one of Davies' attractions is that his use of it makes his fiction feel more realistic. Some people all their lives, and others during one or more vivid passages, sense a purpose or presence behind everyday life. Modernity, unlike most cultural periods, has been dedicated to dismissing this intuition as an illusion, or to explaining it in material terms. Davies' kind of realism does not do this. His vision, which perhaps reached its clearest expression in his deservedly-best selling book, "What's Bred in the Bone," can claim the designation "perennial" with some justice.

A taste for the uncanny is a long way from a religious perspective, of course. The uncanny can be a source of bad as well as good, of horror as well as illumination. If you believe in C.G Jung's idea of luck, the "synchronous event," then you must believe in the possibility of bad luck and inescapable ill-fortune. The ultimate that we sometimes sense beneath the surface of our lives is not necessarily friendly. Those characters who seek to understand it, like the diabolical old Jesuit in Davies' "Fifth Business," may be merely entertaining. On the other hand, like the nihilist monk Parlebane (another Anglican ritualist) in "The Rebel Angels," they can become formidable monsters. This view is not a kind of Manicheanism, the idea that there are independent and roughly equal forces of Good and Evil in the universe, each perhaps with its own god. Rather, it is the suspicion that God is both good and evil, that He and the devil are the same thing as seen from different angles. A God of this kind might be respected, and probably should be placated. However, it just presents another problem for human life, it is not a solution to anything.

All of this, Evil Eyes and intuitions of Being and so on, may be gross superstition. For that matter, maybe the Good and the cult of the Authorized Version are subtle superstition. The fact is, however, that educated people in most times and places who did not accept the formal theology of a major religion believed something like this. Even the secular Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was suffused with "hermetic" ideas of this type. They are, if you will, the "default position" for the sophisticated human mind, a kind of historically-informed skepticism that gives no special priority to materialism. For over two hundred years, the progress of scientific theory (and only secondarily of the technology incorporating it) has kept these ideas at bay. Today, one may argue, this perennial philosophy is returning. The problem is not that science has failed. It has almost succeeded in everything it set out to do. We understand much of the chemical aspects of biology. Even the progress of cancer research is not quite the shell-game Davies seems to think it is. We may soon have a Unified Field Theory short enough to write on T-shirt. Even before we have complete solutions to these problems, however, we know that they will not be enough.

What is true of physics is also true of morality. Nietzsche promised us a thorough-going reexamination of all values, and damned if we did not get it. Today, the experiments have all been run, and it is pretty clear to all but the most obtuse observer that the only alternative to something like the traditional systems of ethics is no human life at all. The alternatives will simply kill any society that tries to adopt them. We know what we set out to discover, and now it remains only to implement our findings. To this extent, perhaps, the future is not problematical.

What is problematical is the atmosphere in which this reconstruction will occur. It is easy to imagine a transition in which "secularism" gradually ceases to mean materialism and comes to mean something very like the perennial philosophy. This would make sense. The excitement of modernity being over, it only follows that the more relaxed "default" position would kick in. It would not be the worst thing that could happen, but one can't help but wonder whether it would really be the best. The perennial philosophy is, after all, not really very optimistic about the world or about mankind. It is not ambitious to do things that has not been achieved before. Its highest value is order. Of course, in the terminal stages of modernity, order is nothing to be sneezed at. In the final analysis, however, I think that we will finally come to see that order is not enough, either.


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The Long View 2002-07-25: An Unexpected Abyss

Baron Julius Evola

This is where you will find John's real view of the Global War on Terror. It wasn't, and isn't, possible for any of the various counter-insurgencies, civil wars, and bush wars currently raging in the world to bring down the United States of America. To think so is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in general, and America's power in particular.

The alternatives currently on offer simply cannot fill the mental space that America currently occupies in the world. None of our declared enemies have the ability to bridge that gap, let alone dislodge us from our position. This is not to say that America deserves to be on top because it is better, or that our enemies merit failure because they are wicked.

The argument is simply that civilizations exhibit something very much like a lifecycle, and not all things are possible at all times and all places. This argument at least has the benefit of empirical evidence, although the sample size is small.

However, there is a viable alternative. It is simply not a visible alternative. And that is all part of the plan.

I used to find John's discussions of Tradition rather mysterious. What exactly is this Tradition thing? It is not the people you usually find called traditional, or traditionalists. John often referred to René Guénon and Baron Julius Evola, but they just seemed marginal figures of European history. Who exactly is it that subscribes to the one twentieth century ideology that never had a state? Then I met a man who did.

I couldn't exactly figure what unsettled me about this man until I re-read what John wrote here:

While there are groups that promote one or more aspects of the Politica Hermetica, there is no great conspiracy behind it. René Guénon called it "Tradition," which comes close enough, though even that exaggerates its coherence. In any case, it is a mode of thought that political science tends to overlook. It is characterized by self-appointed elites who represent a cause rather than human constituents. This implicit devotion to hierarchy, however, coexists with a tactical anarchism. This is the world of "direct action" anarchists, but it is not confined to them. No doubt we have all met "conservatives" who would not leave one stone of the modern world standing on another. Their loyalty is not to this world, but to a transcendent realm. If they are conventionally religious, they adhere to some ineffable orthodoxy that excludes most of their nominal co-religionists. To some extent, this is just a matter of personality type. Still, when we find such people, I suspect we will often find some direct ideological influence from writers associated with Tradition or the Conservative Revolution.

Ah. That described him perfectly, and explained why I felt so odd about him. I had read this twelve years ago, and while my memory isn't what it used to be, I doubtless retained at least some faint memory of it. That memory served as a Gestalt, even as faint as it was. This was a man who would destroy everything; he would not leave one stone stacked upon another.

Sometimes you hear that the left-right political spectrum is not a line, but a circle. Tradition is where the two lines meet.

An Unexpected Abyss

 

I don't believe that we are experiencing a crisis of capitalism, or that we could be defeated in the current Jihad. I think this way because I believe that capitalism and liberal democracy are strong. However, many people seem to think that the success of liberal capitalist democracy is assured simply because there is no alternative. The worst outcome they can imagine is a spate of "chaos" until the liberal order is restored. I increasingly appreciate that this is not the case. The outcome might not be chaos, but a quite different order.

Francis Fukuyama was largely correct in The End of History: communism, and even socialism, have been permanently discredited. The events of 1989 really did constitute the end of the line of ideological evolution that began in the Enlightenment. Communism today is not an alternative. However, one might argue that it was not a likely alternative even in the 1930s, which was the last time the real alternative surfaced. It's too simple to call the alternative "fascism." The fascist states of the first half of the 20th century still had mass political cultures; to some extent, they remained parodies of democracies. At their hearts, however, there was the esoteric alternative. For lack of a better term, we will call it the Politica Hermetica (which should in not be equated with the journal of that name and the annual symposium that deals with the subject). It antedates the Enlightenment, though of course it has undergone development over the last two-and-a-half centuries. Nonetheless, it has a content that is not merely reactionary.

I mention this now because bits of the Politica Hermetica keep turning up in the news. There is the esoteric Islamic connection, which had a long history even before the postwar fascist-Muslim links. There is the reunification of Europe, which might seem like a good idea on the merits. There are the increasingly successful attempts to remove the Catholic Church as a public voice. In some ways, the most alarming development is the attacks on capitalism and the market. Though some commentators don't seem to appreciate the fact, the Politica Hermetica has always appeared on the left as well as the right, among Greens as well as Black Metal fans.

While there are groups that promote one or more aspects of the Politica Hermetica, there is no great conspiracy behind it. René Guénon called it "Tradition," which comes close enough, though even that exaggerates its coherence. In any case, it is a mode of thought that political science tends to overlook. It is characterized by self-appointed elites who represent a cause rather than human constituents. This implicit devotion to hierarchy, however, coexists with a tactical anarchism. This is the world of "direct action" anarchists, but it is not confined to them. No doubt we have all met "conservatives" who would not leave one stone of the modern world standing on another. Their loyalty is not to this world, but to a transcendent realm. If they are conventionally religious, they adhere to some ineffable orthodoxy that excludes most of their nominal co-religionists. To some extent, this is just a matter of personality type. Still, when we find such people, I suspect we will often find some direct ideological influence from writers associated with Tradition or the Conservative Revolution.

My own problem with the Politica Hermetica is that I find parts of it intrinsically attractive. The Perennial Philosophy, as explained by Aldous Huxley's book of that name, is a sunny doctrine. It is more or less explicit in the work of writers I admire, such as Robertson Davies. As for its political implications, I think it is one of those "self-evident" truths that government requires some transcendent basis; even democracy is not self-legitimizing. For that matter, I am also one of those people who keep referring to the impending "end of modernity." The Politica Hermetica makes similar assumptions, but then takes them to places where no sane person would want to follow.

What happened in the 1920s and 1930s was that many did follow, because they did not know that there were such places. In those days, when people despaired of democracy and capitalism, they thought the alternative was some familiar form of authoritarian government. Even those who supported "socialism" did not understand what a break with the past it would mean. At the international level, the respectable great powers laid aside their informal policing roles in order to deal with their internal problems. They thought that the worst that could happen would be distant disorders, of little interest in a world of diminished global trade. The scope of the disaster was made possible by a failure of imagination.

There is no great wave of political hermeticism poised to overwhelm Western civilization, but then neither was there one 75 years ago. My point is that, when the system imploded, the result was not Bolshevism, or chaos, or a return to the virtuous past. Rather, an alternative way of organizing the world seemed to appear out of nowhere. In fact, it had been there before. It's still there now.


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The Long View: Dreamer of the Day

Francis Parker YockeyI am astonished that men like Francis Parker Yockey actually exist. Yockey is a reminder that truth is always stranger than fiction. The closest literary analogue that I have read is Tim Power's Declare. Of course, that is a secret history, based on the very real life of Kim Philby. You can't make this stuff up.

For example, Yockey supported himself as a gigolo. I suppose in way he was the dark shadow of James Bond. Yockey really was an international man of mystery. He was certainly a spy, and traveled all over the world in the pursuit of secret goals. Unlike Bond, he was also a man of letters. He had a law degree from Notre Dame and wrote a book that is more cited than read. In the end, Yockey was unmade by a very prosaic method: the airline lost his luggage containing all his fake passports.

Yockey was primarily of interest to John because he was a posthumous prophet of the one twentieth century ideology that never ran a state: Tradition. Tradition is thankfully rather obscure. I had never heard of it until I started reading John's website. You should be glad you've never heard of it, because that means it has not been successful.

It would be easy to paint Yockey as a tool of fascists, but in truth he was a fellow traveler with the communists as well. The movement with which he was associated also influenced the Third World. There are interesting connections between Yockey and his ilk and the modern Islamists that plague the Middle East. He was after something quite different than most of the Nazis, which is why he is so interesting.

John finishes up this review with an aside about Spengler that is most illuminating. John felt that Yockey mis-interpreted Spengler's ideas, but that very mis-interpretation demonstrated a clear flaw in Spengler himself. Toynbee probably understood the nature of universal states better than Spengler, but you had to read a lot more to get there.

Dreamer of the Day:
Francis Parker Yockey and the
Postwar Fascist International
By Kevin Coogan
Autonomedia, 1999
644 Pages, $16.95
ISBN: 1-57027-039-2

 

Francis Parker Yockey was born in Chicago in 1917 and committed suicide in 1960, when the FBI finally caught him. He dedicated his life to reversing the outcome of the Second World War, a project he believed could be accomplished by 2050. From an early age, he identified anti-Americanism with antisemitism and supported both. He opposed early steps toward economic globalization and gave covert assistance to Muslim enemies of the West. He speculated hopefully that an enemy to whom it would be impossible to surrender would eventually attack Americas' cities. He worked to create a pan-European superstate, indeed a Eurasian superstate including Russia, that would displace America's global influence. He expected that the world would someday be ruled by elites for whom hermeticism had replaced Christianity. On the whole, he probably would have been pleased by the state of the world today.

One should not exaggerate the degree to which the recent prominence of Yockey's constellation of enthusiasms is due to his influence. His great ideological tome, "Imperium," has had some currency in fascist and occult circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, though extremists from American Satanists to Russian revanchists may sometimes invoke his name today, they generally do so without much knowledge of his ideas. A few references to Yockey himself turned up in the popular press in the 1950s, as a mystery man somehow linked to both Soviet espionage and the world's neofascist network, but Yockey never even rose to the level of infamy. He remained a denizen of the fringe of the fringe. This does not make Kevin Coogan's treatment of Yockey's life and times any less valuable. Yockey's life intersected with 20th century forces and ideas that were often obscure. That is not to say they were not also powerful, and may be more so in the 21st century.

"Dreamer of the Day" wanders amiably back and forth between high theory and very informed rumor mongering. We get useful pocket summaries of the ideas of some of the chief ideologues of the "Conservative Revolution" of the first half of the 20th century, a "movement" that ranged from Martin Heidegger to Ezra Pound. The book continues through the tangle of small organizations and petty conspiracies that maintained this tradition in the second half of the century, after it was eclipsed by the overthrow of openly fascist governments. You have to read the book to appreciate the full sweep of history between the Thule Society of Munich and the Ancient and Noble Order of the Blue Lamoo of Leonia, New Jersey. The book also treats of matters such as Yockey's posthumous effect on Satanism, as well as the sexual ideologies that percolated among Right and Left in the postwar era. Coogan usually manages to relate all this fascinating material to Yockey, but the connections are often tenuous. This is not the author's fault. Even after exhaustive research, we still know little more about Yockey's life than a disturbing outline.

Yockey's family was of the professional classes, though in somewhat straitened circumstances after the coming of the Depression. His people were German, Irish and French Canadian. Coogan does dangle the rumor of a Jewish grandfather, just for the sake of completeness. In any case, the family was Catholic. Yockey himself later drifted into the theosophical Nietzscheanism that characterized his underground milieu.

He was a small man, about five feet, seven inches. There is one picture of him, on the book's cover. Readers may be reminded of Rod Serling, the somewhat funeral creator and master-of-ceremonies of the original "Twilight Zone" television series. All sources agree that Yockey was highly intelligent. He was a concert-level pianist, though he could only rarely be persuaded to play. All sources also agree that he had a difficult personality. Nonetheless, he was able to support his political interests in part as a gigolo and occasional bigamist. He seems to have appealed to slightly older women who liked to talk about Hitler and to be whipped.

Francis Parker Yockey was involved with organizations of the radical right in the 1930s. This included such groups as William Dudley Perry's Silver Shirts and the various incarnations of the German American Bund. Such connections, however, did not exclude other links, with Stalinists and Trotskyites. His Chicago-area home was a time and place when the semi-fascist followers of Father Coughlin might make common cause with the most radical Progressives. This common front against capitalism was, for radicals like Yockey, also part of the struggle against the Jews.

Yockey for most purposes was a "National Bolshevik," a tendency that in the German Nazi Party was represented by the Strasser brothers, Otto and Gregor. As the term implies, National Bolsheviks supported radical socialism, but for the preservation of the "Volk," the ethnic and cultural unit of the People, rather than for the proletariat. They also supported a policy of alliance with Russia against the West. "Strasserism," as this tendency was also called, was disfavored: after the Nazis came to power, Gregor was assassinated and Otto escaped to Latin America. Still, it continued to appeal to some leading Nazis, notably Joseph Goebbels. He actually took the opportunity to implement some of the Strasserist program right at the end of the regime, in the WerwolfMovement

Rather like the young Goebbels, Yockey pursued an academic career at so many universities that it is hard to settle on a final count. We know that he finished a law degree at Notre Dame and that he qualified to practice. The most important part of his undergraduate career was probably his stint at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. That was, perhaps, the only place in America where he could have been introduced to the ideas of two leading lights of the Conservative Revolution, Karl Haushofer the proponent of geopolitics and Carl Schmitt the jurist.

Haushofer is best known for the propositions that the key to world dominion is the control of Central Asia and that, as the Strasserists said, the proper role for Germany was as the western wing of a great Eurasian power. Furthermore, he argued that Germany was essentially a "have-not" nation. Its proper allies were not in the liberal West, but among the anti-colonial resistance movements of what would later be called the Third World. In Europe, he hoped, Germany would eventually be the center of a hegemonic system that was not quite an empire, but no longer a system of truly sovereign states.

Schmitt is a famous "anticonstitutionalist," whose ideas are somewhat reminiscent of the pragmatic Legal Realists in America during the 1930s. In his view, the real law was what happened at the "Ernstfall," the point of decision where one party succeeds and another fails. He is best known, perhaps, for his definition of "the sovereign" as the entity that can designate who is an enemy.

Between them, Haushofer and Schmitt disposed of the notion of the rule of law both domestically and internationally. There were no principled norms, but simply the exercise of power, which could be more or less predictable. One may note that the Jesuits of Georgetown studied the theories of these two men chiefly in order to refute them; in those days, the Jesuits were less susceptible to intellectual fashions.

By far the greatest intellectual influence on Yockey, however, was Oswald Spengler. Yockey spent his adult life believing that he was implementing the ideas about the future implied by "The Decline of the West." Yockey was also heavily influenced by "The Hour of Decision," a tract Spengler published at the beginning of the Nazi regime. As we will see, Yockey's interpretation of Spengler was somewhat idiosyncratic.

During World War II, Yockey secured an Army commission. Soon afterward, he briefly deserted. Coogan notes that Yockey had many connections with the German sympathizers who probably aided the famous infiltration of German saboteurs into the United States, and that this happened at just the time that Yockey was missing. Coogan makes a plausible case that Yockey was part of a German-American espionage network that lead to the German Embassy in Mexico City. Plausibility is not proof, however. All we know is that Yockey returned to duty after some weeks. He persuaded the Army that he was suffering from a mental breakdown; he received a medical discharge with little trouble.

Through some appalling oversight in the vetting process for federal employees, Yockey landed a job after the war as an attorney with the war crimes tribunal in Germany charged with prosecuting lesser Nazis. He seems never to have actually function in that position; he was eventually discharged for abandoning his post. He would later do the same thing with a job with the American Red Cross, using it to finance another trip to Europe and then simply deserting. Yockey used these opportunities to make contacts with the growing pan-European fascist network.

In a way, the loss of the war liberated international fascism. As we have noted, it was only when the Nazi regime no longer had much of a country to govern that Goebbels was able to give effect to his revolutionary impulses. The same thing happened in Italy. After the Allied invasion in 1943, the Germans rescued Benito Mussolini. He briefly ruled the "Social Republic" of Salò, a rump state in the north of Italy that finally carried out the radical fascist ambition of nationalizing most of the economy. Fascism after 1945 was entirely free of the responsibility for government, and so could pursue the most radical agenda.

It is really as an ideologue that Yockey's chief significance lies. In 1948, working at Brittas Bay on the Irish coast, Yockey produced his masterpiece, Imperium. The book tried to update "The Decline of the West," but in many ways it stood Spengler on his bald head. Spengler, who died in 1936, had not wanted a war with Russia, but neither was he a Strasserist. He feared that Russia and the "Colored World" would make alliance against the West, in collusion with the radical Left of the Western nations. Spengler believed that the West was headed into a period like the Roman Empire, and that the elites of the West needed to cultivate Nietzschean virtues in order to make the transition. Yockey, in contrast, spoke of the need to create what in effect would be a new race to govern the coming Imperium. This notion, as Coogan points out, has more in common with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's prophecy of the coming Sixth Root Race than with Spengler's concept of "race" as the lineages of cultivated families.

The biggest difference is that anti-Semitism as a major historical force is wholly absent from Spengler's philosophy. For Yockey, modern history was about little more than the cultural distortion caused by the Jews. So great was their effect on the United States in particular, Yockey counseled, that the temporary domination of Europe by the healthy barbarians of Russia was the best short-term goal.

The original two-volume edition of Imperium ran to just 200 copies. There would have been more, but Yockey aliened the British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, who had once expressed an interest in promoting the work. Still, it was not without early admirers. The military historian, Basil Liddell Hart, wrote a favorable review. The hermetic Italian ideologue, Julius Evola, also praised it, though he observed that Yockey had misread Spengler. Yockey's book was more a rumor than a source for the fascist revival in the 1950s. It was not until after Yockey's death, when the radical-right publisher Willis Carto brought out a paperback edition of Imperium that the book began to reach a sizeable readership. Still, Imperiumdoes provide some guide to what important fascists were thinking in those days.

Acting in large part under the inspiration of Evola, postwar fascists cultivated ideas that had existed for decades, but that had become muted during the time of fascism in power. Evola was the chief inspiration for a Swiss-based umbrella-organization called the New European Order, or NEO. The group cultivated his favorite themes. These included government by a Platonic, "solar" hierarchy, the notion of sacred kingship, and myths of Aryan origin in the hyperborean north and in Atlantis. On a more practical level, these people were no longer constrained by Hitler's foreign policy. They could deal with the Soviets to oppose Western interests; they could and did deal with the CIA to give radical-right organizations some breathing room, particularly in Italy. (Carl Gustav Jung, also widely considered a Conservative Revolutionary, was CIA chief Allen Dulles's family psychiatrist.)

They were also able to do business with the Third World. A number of exiled Nazis moved through the Muslim capitals, organizing anti-Zionist propaganda. Notable among them was the Strasserist exile, Johann von Leers, who was an important figure in Nasser's Egypt. The network did not neglect Latin America, where the Red and the Brown made common cause on the question of anti-Americanism. Indeed, Coogan makes a good argument that the original post-revolutionary model for Fidel Castro was the Social Republic of Salò.

Amidst all this devilry, Yockey was a jobbing imp. He may well have acted as a courier for Czech intelligence. He may have spent a substantial blank space during the 1950s behind the Iron Curtain. He did work with Leers in Egypt. He even tried to sell the Egyptian government some bogus Argentine nuclear technology. Back in the United States, he worked briefly as a speechwriter for Senator Joseph McCarthy. He lived in New York City for some time, consorting with a strange section of New York's political bohemia. At least one host among his acquaintances kept a frame with a picture of Hitler on one side and of Stalin on the other, the better to accommodate the tastes of his guests. He attended the salon of the right-wing poet, George Sylvester Viereck, who had worked with Aleister Crowley when Crowley was a propagandist for Germany during the First World War. In that set, Yockey may also have met the sexologist, Alfred Kinsey. We know Yockey spent time in New Orleans, writing propaganda for use in Latin America. Coogan takes care to squelch the rumors of a link between Yockey and Lee Harvey Oswald, whose history was not altogether dissimilar.

As Yockey moved across borders, he acquired a bewildering number of identities. The American authorities realized early in the 1950s that whatever this man was doing, it probably was not good. In 1952 they stopped renewing his passport and the FBI started looking for him. His accumulation of false passports was his downfall. Some of his luggage went astray when he flew into San Francisco; his embarrassment of documents came to light in a lost-and-found center in Texas.

The FBI confronted him in Oakland, California, originally planning to arrest him for failure to register under the Selective Service Act. Yockey had in fact registered and served in the military, but the false identity he was using had no such record. The FBI was spared the embarrassment of using this perfunctory device when Yockey tried to run away, injuring an agent in the process.

Yockey was detained while participating in a series of ever less satisfactory immigration hearings. More of his identities surfaced. The list lengthened of things the FBI wanted to talk to him about. In some way that has never been explained, he obtained potassium cyanide. Like the Nazi leadership he so admired, he died by self-administered poison on June 17, 1960.

For me, "The Dreamer of the Day" clarified the Conservative Revolution as a form of existentialism. It began by valuing the clarity afforded by those situations where existence is at stake; it ended with the determination to wager the world's existence. Schmitt's "Ernstfall," Hitler's death-or-glory foreign policy, Evola's faith in lethal violence as the means to individuation, all of this is part of the same cultural moment as Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. For existentialists of all political persuasions, we can experience reality only at the limit, on the edge of the abyss.

This is a terribly distorting way to think. Now that I can recognize the pattern, I see that it is the chief flaw in Spengler's philososphy of history. I would still argue that his insight about a common morphology of cultural evolution is basically correct. The problem was that his existentialism caused him to read history, and particularly Classical history, through a Nietzschean lens. Spengler came to confuse realism with desperation, political skill with ruthlessness. He extolled the improvident genius of Caesar and belittled Augustus's respect for tradition, though in fact Augustus was arguably the most successful statesman who ever lived. Spengler's taste for politics on the edge made him dismiss constitutional forms and the principles of legitimacy as mere "literature."

This, perhaps, is why Spengler paid relatively little attention to the Roman Empire itself, or to any of the final societies that Toynbee later called "Universal States." Spengler's existentialism required him to view those late civilizations as essentially historyless. For Spengler, the Roman Empire was a paradise of will, where unfettered supermen did as they would. In reality, the history of the Universal States displays a morphology as clear as that of any period in a Culture's life. Except in their final decay, they are marked by piety and convention rather than by the antics of supermen. Artist politicians, the high-stakes gamblers, are creatures of modernity. It is a mistake to project them into the future.

The distortions of twentieth-century existentialism are not confined to political history. Those exhortations we have been hearing all these years to turn our attention to marginal people and liminal situations begin to look like a lethal misdirection. This is the nonsense that anarchism, fascism, and every avant-garde for 150 years have had in common. Let us beware of living on the edge. Francis Parker Yockey could still reach up to drag us over it.

 

 


 

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

 


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The Long View: The Prophet of Decline

Spengler with hairOswald Spengler remains of interest in the early twenty-first century because he managed to eerily predict some features of the world today. He didn't get everything right, for example his prediction that the United States would not survive the stress of the Great Depression, but he did manage to foresee both the Cold War and its resolution.

While the Decline of the West is Spengler's best known work, John here looks at the possibility that Spengler's unexpected death prevented him from elaborating on his theory of history [and probably also prevented the Nazis from eventually needing to deal with his anti-Hitler snark]

Arnold Toynbee would later publish a tremendous tome, in twelve volumes, expanding this kind of historical analysis from Spengler's seven civilizations to twenty-six.  While these men were rough contemporaries, the tone of their respective works are very different. The circumstances of their lives could not be more different either. Which makes the parallels between them so much more interesting.

Toynbee became something like the court philosopy of the Kennedy Enlightenment, thanks to Henry Luce. His works were more friendly to the role of religion in society, and more upbeat in general than Spengler's. However, in the end, even cranky old Spengler started talking less about decline [Untergang] and more about perfection [Vollendung]. In science, it is common for multiple researchers to independently converge on the same idea at about the same time. It looks very much like something similar was operating here.

Prophet of Decline:
Spengler on World History and Politics
by John Farrenkopf
Louisiana University Press, 2001
$24.96, 304 pages
ISBN 0-8071-2727-2

The first volume of Oswald Spengler's great comparative study of history, "The Decline of the West," was published in 1918, just as his native Germany lost the First World War. Spengler (1880-1936) has been with us ever since, though often only in caricature. Sometimes his name stands for little more than the sentiment of "historical pessimism," or for the proposition that "history repeats itself." After the Cold War, discussions about the "clash of civilizations" and hegemonic diplomacy raised issues that Spengler had first broached 80 years before. The time has come for Spengler's work to be critically reintroduced to a 21st century audience.

John Farrenkopf, an independent scholar who has labored in the Spengler Archive in Munich, here provides a guide to the current state of Spengler studies, particularly in Germany, as well as provocative conclusions based on his own archival work. "Prophet of Decline" answers many common questions about Spengler's politics. The most interesting part of the book, however, is the thesis that Spengler expanded his ideas after "The Decline of the West" into what is really a second, largely unpublished theory of history. The book even has a picture of the notoriously shiny-pated Spengler with hair. Revisionism can go too far.

Since the last quarter of the 19th century, many people have suggested that the modern era of the West bore significant similarities to the Hellenistic era and the late Roman Republic, a period running roughly from the death of Alexander the Great (330 B.C.) to the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.) Spengler elaborated this idea in two ways. First, he attempted to work out the analogy systematically. Other writers had noted parallels in the exacerbation of Great Power rivalries. Spengler went beyond that, arguing for parallels in the exhaustion of artistic styles, the domination of both periods by a few great cities, and even claiming that science and mathematics approached final formulations in similar ways in antiquity and modernity. Far more originally, he tried to identify similar patterns of development in seven other "High Cultures." Thus, not just the Greco-Roman World, but Egypt, ancient China, India and other societies had also experienced "modern eras" of two or three centuries. Each had also had its own peculiar "age of faith" (the pyramids, in Spengler's terminology, were "contemporary" with the Gothic cathedrals of Europe) and its cultural climax in a "Baroque."

Despite the many specific examples the "Decline" employs, the logic of the work is not empirical but metaphysical. It accepts Nietzsche's rejection of Kant's historical optimism, but embraces the limits set by traditional German idealism on the power of pure reason. The story of the High Cultures, in fact, is the tale of societies that seek to transcend the power of human understanding and fail. One may not like this kind of reasoning, but the fact remains that Spengler was the first philosopher of world history to really try to write about the world, rather than just dismiss the other great civilizations as a mere prologue to Western history.

Farrenkopf gives us a summary of the enormous critical reaction to "The Decline of the West." The critiques often said that Spengler's analogies were factually wrong, or claimed that Spengler's analogies were so obvious as not to need saying; a few critics said both in the same review. What really exasperated his critics from the first, however, was the fact that Spengler's "morphology" of the history of High Cultures had obvious implications for the future of the West. If the analogy from other "modernities" held, then, probably around the end of the 21st century, the West should collapse into a universal empire, with a culture that would ultimately become as stiff and curatorial as Egypt's during the New Kingdom. In the meanwhile, money and democracy would increasingly hollow out the traditional forms of society, until both collapsed in the face of mere power politics. Wars would reach a climax of technical sophistication and speed, even as nations disintegrated internally. This was a gospel of bad news, but Spengler used the worldwide notoriety of "The Decline of the West" to become its prophet. From the start, his success was mixed.

Spengler conceived the idea for "The Decline of the West" during the Agadir Crisis of 1911, when he realized that a general European war was inevitable. As he put it, the West was entering a period of two centuries of wars for world power, like that between the Battles of Cannae (216 B.C.) and Actium (31 B.C.). Because Germany appeared as a nation state late in Western history, just as Rome did in the Classical world, and because it was an economically dynamic power at the periphery of the ancient core of its wider culture, just as Rome had been relative to Greece, Spengler assumed that Germany would play a role in late Western history like that of Rome in late antiquity. That is, it would overcome the other Great Powers, establish hegemony over Europe, and go on to create an "imperium mundi," a universal empire that might, ephemerally, encompass the whole planet.

Spengler was a man of wide education, with a PhD in philosophy, though his day job had been teaching mathematics in a secondary school. He had quit some years before 1914 to pursue his literary interests, supported by a small but apparently adequate inheritance from his mother. Unfortunately, his property was largely in American stocks, the income from which became inaccessible during the First World War. He spent the war freezing in a Munich garret, working on the "Decline" and hoping his medical exemption from military service held up. Despite his threadbare circumstances, he took time out to compose a "memorial" for the Kaiser, explaining how best to navigate the difficult years that would follow a German victory. Examining this unfinished and happily unposted document, Farrenkopf reports that Spengler was then instrumentally friendly to democracy. Spengler suggested that support for the monarchy would be strengthened if the bourgeoisie and working classes were given real responsibility, which would have required a more democratic franchise than the class-weighted voting system of Prussia. It would also have required giving the Reichstag far more power than it had under Bismarck's constitution. Spengler came close to suggesting that the German government needed fewer monocle-wearing Junkers and more businessmen and labor leaders. Only thus could Germany achieve the degree of national cohesion necessary to carry out the foreign policy tasks that history had set for it.

The "Decline of the West" is not a political tract, or even a mirror of princes, but a densely philosophical work. Nonetheless, even Spengler's philosophical detachment was disturbed by the loss of the world war. Spengler accepted the "stab in the back" theory for the catastrophe: Germany was not defeated on the field, but betrayed by subversives and ideologues. He soured on democracy. In the years between the end of the war and the stabilization of the Weimar economy in 1924, he became involved in the plots among right-wing aristocratic circles to overthrow the fledgling government and establish an authoritarian regime. Farrenkopf relates that Spengler even spoke with army chief General Hans von Seeckt about becoming the minister of culture or education in such a government. (The general ultimately stayed loyal to the Weimar regime.) Spengler was peripherally involved with a prospective monarchist coup in Bavaria that was short-circuited by Hitler's own Beer Hall Putsch. Still, in those years Spengler did not spend all his time making a fool of himself, but elaborated a political philosophy that goes beyond the ideas he expressed in the "Decline."

The chief published presentation of this development is "Prussianism and Socialism" (1919), a short work in which Spengler tried to sketch a final philosophy of governance for the West. There were two options in competition for this role, he suggested. One was the "knightly" tradition, embodied in Prussia, of care for all and the will to plan for even the distant future. The other was the "Viking" tradition of the Anglo-American world. The Viking tradition could operate globally more easily than its competitor, but it was almost purely commercial. Its fate was therefore tied to that of financial capitalism, which Spengler believed to be an extreme and ephemeral characteristic of the modern era. What Germany needed to do, according to Spengler, was to rescue socialism from class warfare in general and Marxism in particular. The socialism of the future ("Ethical Socialism" was his term for it) would not be an economic theory, but a system of morality for the conduct of public affairs. To use a formula Spengler did not use, it would be the "chivalry" of the post-democratic elites of the coming centuries.

Farrenkopf makes some defense of Spengler's ideas about economics. The turn-of-the-millennium euphoria about a world of free-trade liberal capitalism (the "Viking" option) might not survive another systemic crisis, he reminds us. Additionally, one can say that Spengler's presentation of economic history as a branch of culture, subject to styles and "periods," is a refreshingly novel view of the subject. Even granting both points, I would suggest that Spengler's rather mercantilist preferences illustrate his limitations. Spengler spent his public career emphasizing the cultural unity of the West and the inevitability of the end of national sovereignty. Despite this, he seems never to have seen an international institution that he liked, either public ones like the League of Nations or private ones like the global banking houses. It is as if he imagined that the imperium mundi of which he dreamed would have no institutional predecessors.

Far more interesting than his politics, however, were the historical and philosophical concerns to which Spengler turned his attention after it became clear that the Weimar Republic would be around for a few more years.

Readers of "The Decline of the West" are often struck by the questions it does not answer. It does not explain how the group of "High Cultures" arose or what they have to do with each other. Quite the opposite: Spengler's method in his great book is perfect cultural relativism. Each High Culture is equivalent to all the rest. The peculiar ways of looking at the world that each culture develops is true for itself, but fundamentally incomprehensible for the people of the other cultures. While the High Cultures may borrow techniques from each other, they borrow nothing essential, and even what they borrow they put to uses peculiarly their own. (Spengler's best argument for this is mathematics, where he shows how the West put Classical geometry and Magian algebra to uses that were different in kind from those of the societies that invented them.) Historical meaning, in fact, occurs only within each High Culture; there is no truth for mankind as a whole.

In a scattering of unpublished notes, a few essays and one small book ("Man and Technics," 1931) Spengler modified much of this relativism, or at least created a larger context for it. He became deeply interested in the origin of civilized life. Cultures with civilizations (following an old tradition, Spengler reserved the term "Civilization" for the late phase of a High Culture) have existed for only a small fraction of the time that man has existed zoologically. Spengler at last pursued the possibility that all the High Cultures might be part of a larger story.

His researches persuaded him that man as we know him is quite young, on the order of 100,000 years. Spengler discerns four ages in the past, roughly the paleolithic (the bulk of human history), neolithic, precivilization (after the last ice age ended about 10,000 B.C.) and the time of the High Cultures, which began in the Near East about 3,000 B.C. This looks like a pattern of accelerated development, but Spengler goes farther even than that. Sounding more than a little like Arnold Toynbee, he says that the members of the class of High Cultures fall into generations, related by the widespread primitive societies from which they developed. The latter High Cultures are more powerful and profound than the earlier ones, with the West reaching a maximum. Indeed, he says that the final phase of the West opens a fifth and final age of the whole human story. By its end, the physical environment of the earth could be seriously disrupted. Human populations could fall back to the sparse numbers of precivilization. The species could even become extinct.

As Farrenkopf points out, what we see here is Spengler moving from qualified pessimism to full apocalyptic. In these fragments and short works, Spengler is reminiscent of Henry and Brooks Adams, or for that matter a negative image of Teilhard de Chardin. He sounds most of all like H.G. Wells in his last published work, "Mind at the End of Its Tether" (1945). Spengler never worked these new ideas into a coherent system, as he had hoped. (For one thing, he suffered a minor stroke in 1927, which made it difficult for him to concentrate on large projects.) He claimed repeatedly that he never changed his ideas about the pattern of historical development within each of the High Cultures. On the other hand, in his notes, he started to call them "End Cultures," so there was at least a change in emphasis.

In the "Decline," he had voiced an idea not uncommon around 1900, that Russia was a vital but still fundamentally primitive culture that would eventually supersede the West. While he never entirely took back the prediction that Russia wound someday add a ninth High Culture to his historical eight, in "Man and Technics" this becomes a "maybe." He calls the prospective Russian Culture a mere straggler. What clearly interests him far more is the dramatic vision of the High Cultures as a series of ever-greater failures, with the coming end of the West the greatest catastrophe of all.

This vision of ultimate doom, however, still left the question of how to manage the more immediate decline. As Farrenkopf points out, the destiny of the West as a High Culture is not purely pessimistic. As the era of Civilization advances, the West could be expected to produce a "final" version of science, of mathematics, of politics, of ethics, even a measure of universal peace in the imperium mundi. Spengler himself at one point suggested that he was really talking about the "Vollendung" of the West, its "fulfillment" or "perfection." ("The Perfection of the West"; now there's a title for you.) However, his advice about how to approach the terminal state was relentlessly anti-idealistic. The goal would not be achieved by nations and individuals cooperating to establish theoretically correct solutions, but through the unprincipled pursuit of national and individual self-interest.

The term for this attitude in the theory of international relations is "realism," and in fact Spengler's continuing currency rests on the relevance of his ideas to the anti-Wilsonian school of foreign policy. Indeed, one might call Spengler's theory of foreign affairs Social Darwinist, were it not for one thing: Spengler did not believe in Darwin. Part of Spengler's teaching certification required writing a thesis on evolutionary theory, so he was current with the biology of his day. He did not doubt that evolution had occurred, but he was inclined to doubt that it was a teleology of survival. Rather, it was an entelechy of creatures becoming more and more themselves. Thus, man could not make peace with nature by adapting his understanding to it. Man was what he was. As in the drama of the tragic character-flaw, man's story could only be the playing out of the consequences of his nature over time.

As Farrenkopf tells us, this is a far more fundamental objection to political realism than any posed by Wilsonian idealism. Realism and idealism presuppose there is a right answer; they differ only on how the world works. Spengler's apocalyptic realism, in contrast, suggests that, ultimately, there is no right answer. In the end, he counsels a historically informed Stoicism. This is not without practical merit, as we see in his last major work, "The Hour of Decision" (1933) and in his opposition to the Nazis.

Spengler's cranky anti-Nazism may have saved his ideas for serious consideration by future generations, but only barely. During the 1920s, Spengler had continued to hope for an authoritarian, perhaps monarchist successor to the Weimar Republic. He made clear his contempt for the Nazis' demagogy and mysticism. Spengler had complicated ideas about the relationship of the Jews to the West, but he did not think that the Jews were the cause of Germany's problems and he had little patience for anyone who claimed they were. Nonetheless, in the final crisis of the Republic, Spengler voted for Hitler twice, with the cryptic explanation that "one must support the Movement." If Spengler had shared the expectation on the Right that a government of old-line conservatives could restrain Hitler in office, he was quickly disappointed. In fact, he took the rather dangerous course of snubbing invitations from Propaganda Minister Goebbels himself, refusing to attend Nazi-sponsored events or to contribute his writings to Nazi publications. Still, his international reputation was such that he was able to publish "The Hour of Decision" in 1933, one of the few works critical of the regime that appeared during the Nazi period. Spengler's sudden death in 1936 may have saved him from arrest or exile.

Spengler being Spengler, "The Hour of Decision" was not a plea for parliamentary democracy and international understanding. Rather, he wanted to know why there were still all those marches and banners, even after the party had come to power. Did those people know what "government" meant? This book was not the occasion when Spengler made his famous anti-Hitler quip, "What Germany needs is a hero, not a heroic tenor," but the implication is there. Chiefly, though, he complained that Germany had no foreign policy and no military to speak of, this at a time that he characterized as the most fateful in all Western history. Clearly, Spengler said, a second world war was in the offing, one in which Germany faced not just a loss of status, but extinction.

Farrenkopf points out something that had escaped my notice, the extent to which "The Hour of Decision" anticipates the Cold War. Spengler understood the Bolshevik government of Russia to be alien to Russia. He thought it was destined to be overthrown, without much fuss, at no very distant date. However, he also suggested that, in the meantime, the anti-Western regime could use Bolshevism to organize the non-white world (a group among which he included the Russians themselves) against the West. At times, he seems to forget his nationalist realism and urge a united Western front against "Asia."

Spengler's advice here could have saved a world of trouble. He implicitly criticizes the Nazi regime again by advocating a purely defensive posture toward the East. We know from his letters and notes that he thought the idea of seeking "Lebensraum" in Russia was nonsense. In "The Hour of Decision," he emphasized that an invasion of Russia for purely strategic purposes was also unworkable; it would be simply a "thrust into empty space" that would not destroy Russia.

Quite aside from its relevance to the Cold War, Spengler's analysis does look a great deal like the "clash of civilizations" approach that gained favor among the foreign-policy realists of the 1990s. The chief point of difference is Spengler's assertion that old, fossilized civilizations could act only negatively. They could combat Western influence, but they could not become world powers. In contrast, the more recent realists seem to assume that anything is possible to any civilization, given the right circumstances. As Farrenkopf points out, it is still not completely clear who is right about this. Islam is a swamp, and India is a narrowly regional power. Even China could blow up from attempting to modernize. This is not to suggest that Spengler's prescience was ever better than uneven. "The Hour of Decision" contains the memorable prophecy that the United States could break up under stress of the economic collapse of the Great Depression. One successor state might well be a Bolshevik regime in the industrial Midwest, with its capital at Chicago. (Why Chicago? Was Spengler a fan of Bertolt Brecht?)

Regarding the United States, Farrenkopf notes that Spengler never treats it systematically. Sometimes, it is just a peripheral region of the English sphere, of no significance to the fate of the West. Sometimes, particularly in his earlier work, the US is a contender for the possible founder of the imperium mundi. Farrenkopf goes so far as to suggest that the United States actually did create the Western imperium mundi in 1945, 150 years ahead of schedule. Farrenkopf tries to fit the anomaly into Spengler's system by invoking Spengler's late idea of historical "acceleration." This really doesn't work. The temporal quantum in the life of Spengler's High Cultures is the generation, a measure that changes little over time. In any case, there is really nothing to explain. If you must look for an analogy, the situation of Rome after the end of the Second Punic War was not so different from that of the United States after the Second World War. Anyone who wants to see this idea worked out intelligently should read Amaury de Riencort's "The Coming Caesars" (1957).

Probably, though, it is better not to look for a close analogy. Spengler's belief that all international systems collapse into universal states has merit. So do his ideas about cultural "completion." So, more tentatively, does his time scale. Beyond that, the logic of his system does not make many specific predictions. Indeed, if we take seriously Spengler's protestations about the uniqueness of historical phenomena, we are required to resist the temptation to predict the future from analogy (something that, according to Farrenkopf, Spengler himself belatedly appreciated). Spengler's model would be consistent with a wide range of futures, from a distended Hohenzollern Empire to Toynbee's ecumenical society.

Farrenkopf observes that, as time went on, Spengler became less and less concerned with the prospect of universal empire and more worried about German national survival. "The Hour of Decision" is chiefly concerned about staving off mere chaos, another post-Cold War theme that Spengler anticipated. The path to the future that seemed so clear to Spengler when he was freezing in his Munich garret became obscure when he was a respected authority. Perhaps what we have here is not a growth of pessimism, but of a sense of responsibility.


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