“The present can only accomplish its purification by the erasure of its past.”
Below is the third of Thomas Bertonneau’s three-essay sequence on the crisis of modernity.
Spengler on Militant Religiosity
by Thomas F. Bertonneau
Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), the German historian and philosopher, devotes a suite of three chapters (VII, VIII, and IX) in his Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), to what he calls “The Problems of the Arabian Culture.” The third of these chapters, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell,” explores the parallelisms that, in Spengler’s view, and in his use of the word, make these figures “contemporary” with one another. The same chapter also contains Spengler’s analysis of Puritanism, but not strictly in the sense of Calvinist doctrine, although he includes Calvinism in his discussion. Spengler views Puritanism as an inevitable phase of religion, one of doctrinal hardening and literalism in which a totalitarian impulse predominates. Puritanism has manifested itself in all the Great Cultures, as Spengler calls them, such as the Chinese, the Classical, and the Gothic. By “The Problems of Arabian Culture” Spengler does not mean to confine himself to a history of Monophysitism or Islam, although these come under his three-chapter remit. Spengler subsumes “Arabian Culture” under the larger category of “Magian Culture,” which embraces both Arabia Felix and Arabia Deserta but reaches far beyond them to aspects of the late Persian and Syriac societies, to the Hellenism of Alexandria, and even to the Iconoclastic centuries of Byzantium. The term Magian also reaches back in time to the late stages of Mesopotamian society. For Spengler, St. Augustine shares rather more with Islamic theology than he does, say, with St. Thomas and the Scholastics. For Spengler, the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople anticipates the mosque. To understand the chapter-sequence on “The Problems of Arabian Culture,” however, requires that Spengler’s often shocking and sometimes counter-intuitive pronouncements, like the ones just mentioned, take their place among the over-arching assumptions of The Decline.
Spengler’s opus impresses the first-time reader as a colossal improvisation. Its erudition and seeming formlessness put off many would-be explorers. Spengler’s basic propositions nevertheless lend themselves to summary. Spengler rejects the idea of a universal history. He recognizes no singular history but a number of histories in the plural, each one peculiar to its own Great Culture. Thus the Classical or Mediterranean Culture begins with the palace kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece and ends with the Severan Dynasty of the Late Second and Early Third Centuries. Indian Culture begins with the Vedas and ends with Buddhism. Western or “Faustian” Culture has its earliest glimmerings in the Eighth Century but really only leaps into being after the year 1000. Western Culture preserves a profound awareness of Classical Culture but this awareness implies, for Spengler, no actual continuity. Each Great Culture constitutes itself hermetically as an organic whole without debt to adjacent or precursor cultures. Borrowings are never essential, but only ornamental. Spengler emphasizes the organic character of culture. He regards each Great Culture as a living entity, whose mortality impends as soon as it comes to birth. Each Great Culture follows the same seasonal life-course — a vivacious and creative spring, a productive summer, a crisis-afflicted fall, and an increasingly inflexible winter. Spengler also makes a distinction between culture, as such, and civilization. Culture flourishes as the vital phase; civilization takes over as the mechanical phase, becoming more and more rigid until the machine stops.
Each Great Culture first expresses itself in a springtime outburst of religion. The Classical pantheon and associated cults already existed in late Mycenaean times; Homer and Hesiod signify a literate transformation of a long existing Apollonian worldview, as Spengler calls it. By the time of Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211), the Classical religion has become a syncretic henotheism, with one god in numerous guises, complete with a church-structure wedded to the state. Whereas the springtime paganism knew nothing of prejudice, the syncretic henotheism has codified itself as a set of compulsory dogmas. Spengler distinguishes between a Magian and a Gothic Christianity, which have little or nothing to do with one another. The latter appears with the building of the Lady Churches and with the blazing out of sacred polyphony. By the time of the Baroque, however, Catholicism has become the counterpart of syncretic henotheism. A living entity no longer, the Church distinguishes itself hardly at all from the array of explicitly secular institutions. As for Magian Christianity, Spengler classifies it as one of many apocalyptic movements that participate in the same mundial vision. These dispensations show themselves initially around the time of Alexander’s campaigns. Spengler writes in Vol. II, Chapter VIII, how “the world, as spread out for the Magian waking-consciousness, possesses a kind of extension that may be called cavern-like.” A “primary dualism” governs the world-cavern of this revelation: “The light shines through the cavern and battles the darkness.” The Magian Culture reaches its final, ossified phase when Mohammed issues his unalterable Koran and commences his coercive mission.
If social, spiritual, and intellectual rigor mortis belonged to the autumnal and hibernal chapters of the cultural life-course, this would not mean that earlier chapters exhibited no forecast of rigidification. Spasms of Puritanism occur in the vernal and estival chapters but show themselves as liable to suppression by the still-vivacious environments where they arise. The first name in the title of Spengler’s third of three chapters on “The Problems of Arabian Culture” is that of Pythagoras, whose person will be familiar to most readers through its association with the theorem of the right triangle. The lifetime of Pythagoras spans most of the Sixth Century BC, with scholarship locating his birth around 570 and his death around 495. The prevailing myth treats Pythagoras in an anodyne way: Philosopher, mystic, mathematician, vegetarian, discoverer of the cosmic harmony, and champion of animals. Pythagoras invited veneration from the Florentine Humanists and again from the French Symbolists as an idealist and altruist. The truth puts Pythagoras in quite a different light. “Pythagoras was not a philosopher,” Spengler writes; but rather, “he was a saint, prophet and founder of a fanatically religious society that forced its truths upon the people around it by every political and military means.” Croton, the Greek colony in Southern Italy where Pythagoras took up residence in middle life, raised an army under his regime that “in the bitter earnest of [its] gospel of duty duly wrecked gay Sybaris and branded it forever a city without morals.” What was that “gospel”? It consists of the “enthusiasms of a sober spirit, cold intensities, dry mysticism, [and] pedantic ecstasy.”
Pythagoreanism belongs under the category of Puritanism. Spengler defines Puritanism as a symptom of dour old-age: “It lacks the smile that had illumined the religion of the Spring… the moments of profound joy in life, the humour of life.” The destruction of Sybaris, around 510 BC, finds affirmation in both history and archaeology; the city suffered such violence that its survivors had to abandon it and take up residence elsewhere, as in Thurii. The wrath unleashed against Sybaris has lodged in the collective memory, Spengler speculates, “because it was the climax of a wild religious war… an explosion of the same hate that saw in Charles I and his gay Cavaliers not merely doctrinal error, but also worldly disposition as something that must be destroyed root and branch.” Furthermore, “A myth purified and conceptually fortified, combined with rigorous ethical precepts, imbued the Pythagoreans with the conviction that they would attain salvation before all other men.” The South-Italian cities that had come under the sway of the collective enthusiasm eventually found the furor too much to bear. Inspired by Spengler, the scholar Kurt von Fritz issued his book Pythagorean Politics in Southern Italy in 1940. Von Fritz pieces together a simultaneous multi-city uprising that in the space of a few days wreaked vengeance on the Pythagorean committees, burned down their lodges, and suppressed the fanatical portion of their following. Spengler notes that the Pythagorean writings, such as the Golden Tablets, make the promise to loyal adherents of elevation to godhood. That degree of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness could only — and soon — draw forth condign reaction.
This exposition will postpone its treatment of Spengler on Mohammed and Islam to the last. The third name in the title of Spengler’s third of three chapters on “The Problems of Arabian Culture” is that of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), “Iron Chancellor,” “Lord Protector” of the Puritan Revolution, and executioner of Charles I. As Spengler practices comparative history, his treatments of Pythagoras, Mohammed, and Cromwell tend to intertwine, as in a sentence already quoted above. Emphasizing his topic of Puritanism, Spengler gathers together his three personae and their movements: “Nothing of the quiet blissfulness that in the Magian Springtime flashes up so often in the stories of Jesus’ childhood, or in Gregory Nazianzen, is to be found in the Koran, nothing in the palpable blitheness of St. Francis’ songs in Milton,” who, as Spengler points out, served as Cromwell’s Secretary of State. In the same vein, Spengler writes, “Deadly earnest broods over the Jansenist mind of Port Royal, over the meetings of the black-clothed Roundheads, by whom Shakespeare’s ‘Merry England’ — Sybaris all over again — was annihilated in a few years.” Puritan pamphleteering strikes Spengler as “joyless and sour,” quite like “the duty-doctrines of Islam.” Spengler invokes a “need of the soul to be relieved of its past” as one source of Puritanism. Thus under reformist agitation “music and painting, letter-writing and memoirs, from being modes of description became modes of self-denunciation, penance, and unbounded confession.” The present can only accomplish its purification by the erasure of its past. The execution of Charles I partook in the erasure of the past, for what is the monarchic principle except genealogical continuity, the past extending into the present?
The past informs and enriches the present. A present that rids itself of its past impoverishes itself. “In all Puritan poetry,” Spengler writes, “the place of the old Gothic visions is taken by an unbridled, yet withal jejune, spirit of allegory.” John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) no doubt transcends the limitations of allegory, but allegory itself remains a simplistic mode of thinking. In it, one thing stands for another; allegory thus lacks the subtlety of symbol and metaphor, and it lends itself to a dogmatic state of mind. Cromwell, as Spengler points out, characterized his opponents as Philistines and Amalekites, taboo-words by which one thing could be made to stand for another, and the primary thing erased in favor of a damning name. In this process of imposing an empty concept on a living reality, Spengler perceives an essence: “In the waking-consciousness of these ascetics the concept is the only real power.” Spengler indeed sees a link between Puritanism and Rationalism — and further with the Enlightenment, so self-called, as a continuation of Puritanism. “Witches were burnt because they were proved,” Spengler writes; “the Protestant jurists employed the witch’s hammer of the Dominicans because it was built on concepts.” Spengler’s argument gathers clarity when one draws on evidence from the contemporary scene. What bears the name of journalism in the context of 2020 is the new allegory. Such terms as Racism, Sexism, Islamophobia, and White Privilege function as the concepts whence proofs derive and on which the lynch-mob justifies its action. Spengler’s descriptor black-clothed, his reference to Cromwell’s armed enforcers, applies with perfect aptness to the street-thugs of today.
Spengler urges his readers: “We have to emancipate ourselves from the surfaces of history — and, especially, to thrust aside the artificial fences in which the methodology of Western sciences has paddocked it — before we can see that Pythagoras, Mohammed, and Cromwell embody one and the same movement in three Cultures.” Pythagoras sprang from the polis, not from the countryside; Cromwell from the London city-labyrinth of the mid-Seventeenth Century. The Puritan mind, Spengler argues, arises not from a rural, but exclusively from an urban environment. “Islam was no more a religion of the desert… than Zwingli’s faith was a religion of the high mountains.” The Arabian Peninsula in Mohammed’s time had morphed into a region of inward-directed city-states, Christian, Jewish, and Pagan. “It is incident, and no more,” Spengler reasons, “that the Puritan movement for which the Magian world was ripe proceeded from a man of Mecca and not from a Monophysite or a Jew.” The Peninsular religions had shrunk down each to a dead, ritualistic morality. In this sense, “Islam was a new religion only to the same extent as Lutheranism was one.” Enclosure in the city amplifies the fundamental Magian trait of seeing the world as a cavern in which Light battles perpetually with Darkness. Monophysitism, the likeliest soil of Islam, exhibited features of Gnostic dualism, and, like all Christian heresies, vehemently despised every brand of Christianity not itself. Islam concentrated the conviction of all dualists “that they were God’s elect.” Spengler suggests that the rapid spread of Islam correlated itself with nearness to Mohammed’s creed of such other creeds as Mazdaism and Monophysitism.
In The Decline, Vol. II, Chapter VIII, “The Magian Soul,” Spengler declares that: “Whereas the Faustian man is an ‘I’ that in the last resort draws its own conclusions about the infinite… the Magian man, with his spiritual kind of being, is only a part of a pneumatic ‘We’ that, descending from above, is one and the same in all believers.” The Magian worldview assumes the form of a “consensus which, as the emanation of God, excludes error, but excludes also all possibility of the self-asserting Ego.” Inside the cavern one submits. The Magian conception of deity is of “the indefinite, enigmatic Power on high that pours out its Wrath or its Grace, [and] descends itself into the dark or raises the soul into the light as it sees fit.” That which thematically excludes error poses as truth. Magian religion requires, however, a “sacred book,” wherein truth “has become visibly evident” in “the sensible form of sounds and especially of letters.” Spengler compares Mohammed’s Koran to Justinian’s Digest of the Law and “to the Gathas of the Avesta,” once Zoroastrianism had hardened. “Such a Koran is by its very nature,” Spengler writes, “unconditionally right, and therefore unalterable and incapable of improvement.” In The Decline, Vol. II, Chapter IX, Spengler employs a paradox which he regards as apposite to his three specimen reformers: “Every Late philosophy contains [a] critical protest against the uncritical intuitiveness of the Spring”; adding that, “this criticism of the intellect that is sure of its own superiority affects also faith itself and evokes the one great creation in the field of religion that is the peculiarity of the Late period — every Late period — namely, Puritanism.” Puritanism rejects life as a pilgrimage of self-discovery while in search of God and recasts it as Jihad.
The 2010s saw a ramping up of contemporary Puritanism, as Spengler defines that term. The last decade has brought forth a new Iconoclasm in the toppling of statues and historical markers, the re-naming of streets and institutions, and the veiling of paintings. At the same time, the contemporary Puritan mind submits entirely, takes a knee to, concepts, or to the narrow range of them that dominates hackneyed professorial lectures in the humanities and the obnoxious prose of journalism, whether in print or in videography. Such prose bypasses the intellect and addresses the endocrine system exclusively. It would generate consensus, a word that lecturers and journalists use without embarrassment, as in “the consensus about global warming.” The mindless reliance on slogans — “our diversity is our strength” — emphasizes the rebellion against intellect and spirit and the elevation over them of concentrated affect in modern Puritanical thoughtlessness. Spengler’s reference to “enthusiasms of a sober spirit, cold intensities, dry mysticism, [and] pedantic ecstasy” bears repetition. Contemporary Puritanism can take the form of a sixteen-year-old Swedish jungfru who grimly preaches to crowds of fawning adults or of a twenty-five-year-old black-clothed “Antifa” cornering a videographer on a riot-inflamed street, announcing that he works for Black Lives Matter, and demanding that the camera-carrier kneel and pronounce the mandatory words. Both back themselves up with a threat. In the case of the jungfru, it is a threat of indirect reprisal: “Agree with me or your foundation grant will be revoked.” In the case of the “Antifa” it is a threat of immediate violence: “Do what we say or we’ll club you into a coma.”
Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books,Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website. For his previous essays, see the Thomas Bertonneau Archives.