Springtime For Spengler
Another fantastic essay by Paul Kingsnorth, published on his Substack site. I strongly encourage you to subscribe. This time, he’s been reading Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and offers some thoughts. Paul begins by discussing wokeness:
Why is this happening and what is going on? Looked at through a wide lens, it is a deeply weird (not to mention WEIRD) phenomena. What sort of country is ashamed of itself? What people wants to be governed by a ruling class that holds it in contempt? What historical precedent is there for a lasting culture whose story-makers are embarrassed by their own ancestors? How can any culture continue into the future if it is teaching its children a deeply disturbing form of racialised self-loathing?
Defenders of the current moment will usually respond that such accusations are hysterical. What is happening in the West, they say, is a long-overdue ‘reckoning’ with our culture’s past: the empires, the colonies, the imposition of our ways of life on the rest of the world. They’re not wrong about much of that history, however partially they tell the story. We know, or we should, that there were plenty of dark chapters in the Western past. If any culture takes to the high seas with cannons blazing and proceeds to paint half the world red (on the map and often on the ground), then at some point a reckoning will arrive. Actions have consequences. God is not mocked.
But this is not a good enough explanation for what is now clearly a process of accelerating cultural disintegration. After all, plenty of other parts of the world – pretty much all of them in fact, humans being what they are – have dark pasts too, but you don’t see Russia’s cultural elites collapsing into spirals of performative shame over how Lenin and Stalin brutalised eastern Europe or killed millions of their own people (on the contrary, Uncle Joe is very popular there these days.) Japan’s murderous history in southeast Asia doesn’t seem to have led to a desire to dismantle its historic identity, and China is certainly not about to start apologising for the last four thousand years – count them – that it has been engaging in imperial expansion.
No, something else is surely going on in the West, and especially in the Anglosphere, which can’t be explained purely by historical karma. Over the last few years, a new and still-coalescing ideology, which has been gathering steam in the post-modern catacombs of America for decades, has burst out onto the streets and into the studios, and is now coursing through the culture, overturning what was until recently uncontroversial or unquestioned. The energy around it is not that of the self-declared love and justice. It tastes of deconstruction, division, intolerance, hatred and rage.
Indeed it does. I am so very, very grateful for the countercultural work done by classical Christian schools, who are not ashamed of our Western civilization, despite its many sins and failings, and are passing on the memory of it to students.
Paul says, correctly in my view, that the disintegration marked by wokeness is not a cause, but rather a symptom of a deeper sickness. And this brings him to Spengler. Paul explains Spengler’s theory of civilizational rise and fall, and why, in Spengler’s view, the West was arcing downward. More:
But even as the West was conquering the world, its own soul was seizing up. By the twentieth century, the direction was clear, and for Spengler the Great War only confirmed it. Only disintegration, followed by Caesarism, a ‘return to formlessness’, awaited us now. The twenty-first century, predicted Spengler, would be the period in which this would begin. The only realistic response was to adopt some version of stoicism, and hope for the coming of a cultured and suitably strong Caesar to steady the ship as she sank.
It’s probably not necessary to labour the point that one of Spengler’s readers did indeed become leader of Germany fifteen years later, and tried to fill the role he believed the author had allotted for him. Spengler was not impressed: the parvenu Hitler was not the Caesar he was looking for, and he had no time for his racial theories about ‘Aryans’. But all Spengler’s talk about ‘blood’ and the ‘vigour’ of nations, not to mention his fear of ‘coloured races’ usurping ‘Prussians’, and the need for a strongman to respond, had fed the tiger which would come to eat his country. He had discovered that we don’t get to choose the shape of our Caesars, or their designs. All we can do is try to make sure we do not prepare the ground for them to spring from.
I expect that those academic historians could still kick a hundred holes in the details of The Decline of the West. What else are academics for? But it is hard to argue that the broad trajectory which Spengler offered was wrong. Now, as we watch a new period in our decline unfurl, with fear and trembling, I find it useful to keep his model in mind. I find it useful to remember that we are the men and women of the Faustian age; that we were formed by it, that its values are in us even if we think we reject them, and that, like any people formed by any culture, we find it hard to see beyond the horizon to what might come next.
Paul argues that if Spengler is correct, then we shouldn’t try to shore up the ruins of a decaying empire, which can’t be saved anyway, but should rather tender the seeds of rebirth. More:
Whether or not that is true, the useful work now seems to me to be that outlined by Campbell: to conquer death by birth. As Simone Weil explained in the book I wrote about last time, the correct response to a rootless, lost or broken society is ‘the growing of roots’ – the name she gave to the final section of her work. Pull up the exhausted old plants if you need to – carefully, now – but if you don’t have some new seed to grow in the bare soil, if you don’t tend it and weed it with love, if you don’t fertilise it and water it and help it grow: well, then your ground will not produce anything good for you. It will choke up with a chaos of thistles and weeds.
This, in practical terms is, the slow, necessary, sometimes boring work to which I suspect people in our place and time are being called: to build new things, out on the margins. Not to exhaust our souls engaging in a daily war for or against a civilisation that is already gone, but to prepare the seedbed for what might, one day long after us, become the basis of a new culture. To go looking for truth. To light particular little fires – fires fuelled by the eternal things, the great and unchanging truths – and tend their sparks as best we can. To prepare the ground with love for a resurrection of the small, the real and the true.
Do read it all. Seriously, please don’t take my quoting from the piece as anything more than a barely adequate summary of the essay. This essay only confirms my confidence that Paul Kingsnorth is fast emerging as one of the most important thinkers of our time.
Now, readers of The Benedict Option will see in the Kingsnorth essay the core of my idea, as laid out in that book. If you bypassed The Benedict Option, but find Kingsnorth’s essay stimulating, you should give TBO a try. The book sold well, but I think if it were making its debut right now, in 2021, as opposed to 2017, when it first came out, I think it would sell even better. The speed and intensity of our decay is much clearer now than it was then. And besides, there were lots of conservatives who had the idea that the Trump presidency would arrest the decline. As I wrote in the book, at best, Trump could delay it. The heart of the problem is not political, but spiritual.
In The Benedict Option, I tried to give voice to people who are good at preparing the seedbeds. My gift seems to be to see signs of trouble, and to identify the people who have a solution, or part of a solution, and to shine a light on them. I do not have a gift for “the slow, necessary, sometimes boring work” of building “new things, out on the margins.” But you know, so what? I am happy to use what limited talents God has given me to help with this enterprise, and support people like Paul Kingsnorth, Leah Libresco Sargeant, and others whose talent is to be builders of the Benedict Option, in whatever way I can.
In his piece today, Paul cites Spengler’s classification of history. It goes like this (what follows is not from the Kingsnorth essay, but from Wikipedia’s Decline Of The West entry):
Culture and Civilization is focused around Ancient Greece and Rome. Spengler saw its world view as being characterized by appreciation for the beauty of the human body, and a preference for the local and the present moment. The Apollonian world sense is ahistorical, it is why Herodotus claimed in his Histories that nothing of importance had happened before him. Spengler claims that the Classical Culture did not feel the same anxiety as the Faustian when confronted with an undocumented event.
Culture and Civilization includes the Jews from about 400 BC, early Christians and various Arabian religions up to and including Islam. Its world feeling revolved around the concept of world as cavern, epitomized by the domed Mosque, and a preoccupation with essence. Spengler saw the development of this Culture as being distorted by a too influential presence of older Civilizations, the initial vigorous expansionary impulses of Islam being in part a reaction against this.
Culture began in Western Europe around the 10th century and according to Spengler such has been its expansionary power that by the 20th century it was covering the entire earth, with only a few Regions where Islam provides an alternative world view. The world feeling of Faustian Culture is inspired by the concept of infinitely wide and profound space, the yearning towards distance and infinity. Faustian is a reference to Goethe’s Faust (Goethe produced a massive effect on Spengler) in which a dissatisfied Intellectual is willing to make a pact with the Devil in return for unlimited knowledge. Spengler believed that this represents the Western Man’s limitless metaphysic, his unrestricted thirst for knowledge, and his constant confrontation with the Infinite.
Spengler awaited a Caesar, and I fear that we will soon have our own version of him. I await another, doubtless very different, St. Benedict — and any of us could be that St. Benedict. In his essay, Paul says that Spengler identified the “Magian” age of history as a time of “mystery.” In Spenglerian terms, the Benedict Option should be seen as a quest for replenishment in the Magian. Just over a year ago, when I was in Rome, someone who heard my speech about Live Not By Lies told me that I should read Ernst Jünger’s 1951 book The Forest Passage. I did, and wrote something about it on this blog. This passage from Russell Berman’s introduction to a 2013 edition tells you where Jünger is coming from:
Religion is important for Jünger because it taps into dimensions of irrationality and myth, the deep wisdom at home in the forest. It is not that Jünger proselytizes or engages in theological speculation, but he recognizes how irrational contents nourish the capacity for independence. No wonder the regimes of power celebrate the cult of reason instead. “How is man to be prepared for paths that lead into darkness and the unknown? The fulfillment of this task belongs chiefly to the churches, and in many known, and many more unknown, cases, it has effectively been accomplished. It has been confirmed that greater force can be preserved in churches and sects than in what are today called worldviews—which usually means natural science raised to the level of philosophical conviction. It is for this reason that we see tyrannical regimes so rabidly persecuting such harmless creatures as the Jehovah’s Witnesses—the same tyrannies that reserve seats of honor for their nuclear physicists.” It is worth noting how the two twin totalitarianisms of the twentieth century each posed as the carrier of a scientific mission: the biological racism of Nazism and the economic “science of Marxism- Leninism” in Communism. From our contemporary point of view, of course, neither is a science, but Jünger’s point is that modes of scientistic thinking are fully compatible with reigns of terror, while the integrity of faith may preserve a space of freedom, a leap of faith into the forest passage.
The “forest passage,” for Jünger, is a metaphor for exile to the woods, cut off from civilization, where we can gain the insight and strength to return and renew. He writes:
To overcome the fear of death is at once to overcome every other terror, for they all have meaning only in relation to this fundamental problem. The forest passage is, therefore, above all a passage through death. The path leads to the brink of death itself—indeed, if necessary, it passes through it. When the line is successfully crossed, the forest as a place of life is revealed in all its preternatural fullness. The superabundance of the world lies before us. Every authentic spiritual guidance is related to this truth—it knows how to bring man to the point where he recognizes the reality. This is most evident where the teaching and the example are united: when the conqueror of fear enters the kingdom of death, as we see Christ, the highest benefactor, doing. With its death, the grain of wheat brought forth not a thousand fruits, but fruits without number. The superabundance of the world was touched, which every generative act is related to as a symbol of time, and of time’s defeat. In its train followed not only the martyrs, who were stronger than the stoics, stronger than the caesars, stronger than the hundred thousand spectators surrounding them in the arena—there also followed the innumerable others who died with their faith intact.
To this day this is a far more compelling force than it at first seems. Even when the cathedrals crumble, a patrimony of knowledge remains that undermines the palaces of the oppressors like catacombs. Already on these grounds we may be sure that the pure use of force, exercised in the old manner, cannot prevail in the long term. With this blood, substance was infused into history, and it is with good reason that we still number our years from this epochal turning point. The full fertility of theogony reigns here, the mythical generative power. The sacrifice is replayed on countless altars.
To be clear, Jünger was not a Christian, though I think he did convert to Catholicism shortly before his death at 102. In any case, this is not a Christian book, though it can be read through Christian eyes. This weekend, as we Orthodox Christians — the most mystical of all forms of Christianity — celebrate the greatest mystery of all: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — I will be meditating upon these truths, and praying for insight.
Join me, won’t you? Pray for the ability to see clearly the necessity to light out for the forest, and the courage to enter into its shadows.