“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.