Oswald Spengler & the Faustian Soul of the West, Part 1Ricardo Duchesne
Part 1 of 2
If I had to choose one word to identify the uniqueness of the West it would be “Faustian.” This is the word Oswald Spengler used to designate the “soul” of the West. He believed that Western civilization was driven by an unusually dynamic and expansive psyche. The “prime-symbol” of this Faustian soul was “pure and limitless space.” This soul had a “tendency towards the infinite,” a tendency most acutely expressed in modern mathematics.
The “infinite continuum,” the exponential logarithm and “its dissociation from all connexion with magnitude” and transference to a “transcendent relational world” were some of the words Spengler used to describe Western mathematics. But he also wrote of the “bodiless music” of the Western composer, “in which harmony and polyphony bring him to images of utter ‘beyondness’ that transcend all possibilities of visual definition,” and, before the modern era, of the Gothic “form-feeling” of “pure, imperceptible, unlimited space” (Decline of the West, Vol.1, Form and Actuality [Alfred Knopf, 1923] 1988: 53-90).
This soul type was first visible, according to Spengler, in medieval Europe, starting with Romanesque art, but particularly in the “spaciousness of Gothic cathedrals,” “the heroes of the Grail and Arthurian and Siegfried sagas, ever roaming in the infinite, and the Crusades,” including “the Hohenstaufen in Sicily, the Hansa in the Baltic, the Teutonic Knights in the Slavonic East, [and later] the Spaniards in America, [and] the Portuguese in the East Indies.” Spengler thus viewed the West as a strikingly vibrant culture driven by a type of personality overflowing with expansive impulses, “intellectual will to power.” “Fighting,” “progressing,” “overcoming of resistances,” battling “against what is near, tangible and easy” – these were some of the terms Spengler used to describe this soul (Decline of the West: 183-216).
A variety of words have been used to describe or identify the peculiar history of the West: “individualist,” “rationalist,” “imperialist,” “secularist,” “restless,” and “racist.” Spengler’s term “Faustian,” it seems to me, best captures the persistent, and far greater, originality of the West since ancient times in all the intellectual, artistic, and heroic spheres of life. But many today don’t read Spengler; there are no indications, in fact, that the foremost experts on the so-called “rise of the West” have even read any of his works.
The current academic consensus has reduced the uniqueness of the West to when this civilization “first” became industrial. This consensus believes that the West “diverged” from other agrarian civilizations only when it developed steam engines capable of using inorganic sources of energy. Prior to the industrial revolution, we are made to believe, there were “surprising similarities” between Europe and Asia. Both multiculturalist and Eurocentric historians tend to frame the “the rise of the West” or the “great divergence” in these economic/technological terms. David Landes, Kenneth Pomeranz, Bin Wong, Joel Mokyr, Jack Goldstone, E. L. Jones, and Peer Vries all single out the Industrial Revolution of 1750/1830 as the transformation which signaled a whole new pattern of evolution for the West (or England in the first instance). It matters little how far back in time these academics trace this Revolution, or how much weight they assign to preceding developments such as the Scientific Revolution or the slave trade, their emphasis is on the “divergence” generated by the arrival of mechanized industry and self-sustained increases in productivity sometime after 1750.
But I believe that the Industrial Revolution, including developments leading to this Revolution, barely capture what was unique about Western culture. I am obviously aware that other cultures were unique in having their own customs, languages, beliefs and historical experiences. My claim is that the West was uniquely exceptional in exhibiting in a continuous way the greatest degree of creativity, novelties, and expansionary dynamic. I trace the uniqueness of the West back to the aristocratic warlike culture of Indo-European speakers as early as the fourth millennium. The aristocratic libertarian culture of Indo-European speakers was already unique and quite innovative in initiating the most mobile way of life in prehistoric times starting with the domestication and riding of horses and the invention of chariot warfare. So were the ancient Greeks in their discovery of logos and its link with the order of the world, dialectical reason, the invention of prose, tragedy, citizen politics, and face-to-face infantry battle.
The Roman creation of a secular system of republican governance anchored on autonomous principles of judicial reasoning was in and of itself unique. The incessant wars and conquests of the Roman legions, together with their many war-making novelties and engineering skills, were one of the most vital illustrations of spatial expansionism in history. The fusion of Christianity and the Greco-Roman intellectual and administrative heritage, coupled with the cultivation of the first rational theology in history, Catholicism, were a unique phenomenon. The medieval invention of universities — in which a secular education could flourish and even articles of faith were open to criticism and rational analysis in an effort to arrive at the truth — was exceptional. The list of epoch making transformation in Europe is endless, the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Scientific Revolution(s), the Military Revolution(s), the Cartographic Revolution, the Spanish Golden Age, the Printing Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, the German Philosophical Revolutions from Kant to Hegel to Nietzsche to Heidegger.
Limitations in Charles Murray’s Measurement of the Accomplishments of Western civilization
Some may wonder how can one make a comparative judgment about the accomplishments of civilizations without some objective criteria or standard of measurement. There is a book by Charles Murray published in 2003, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, which systematically arranges “data that meet scientific standards of reliability and validity” for the purpose of evaluating the story of human accomplishments across cultures. It is the first effort to quantify “as facts” the accomplishments of individuals and countries across the world in the arts and sciences by calculating the amount of space allocated to these individuals in reference works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Charles Murray informs us that ninety-seven percent of accomplishment in the sciences occurred in Europe and North America from 800 BC to 1950. It also informs us that, in the Arts, Europe alone produced a far higher number of “significant figures” than the rest of the world combined. In music, “the lack of a tradition of named composers in non-Western civilization means that the Western total of 522 significant figures has no real competition at all” (p. 252-259).
Murray avoids a Eurocentric bias by creating separate compilations for each of “the giants” in the arts of the Arab world, China, India, and Japan, as well as of the “giants” of Europe. In this respect, Murray recognizes that one cannot apply one uniform standard of excellence for the diverse artistic traditions of the world. But he produces combined (worldwide) inventories of “the giants” for each of the natural sciences. Combined lists for the natural sciences are possible since world scientists themselves have come to accept the same methods and categories. The most striking feature of his list of “the giants” in the sciences (the top 20 in Astronomy, Physics, Biology, Medicine, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, and Mathematics) is that they are all (excepting one Japanese) Western (p. 84, 122-29).
What explanation does Murray offer for this remarkable “divergence” in human accomplishments? He argues that human accomplishment is determined by the degree to which cultures promote or discourage individual autonomy and purpose. Accomplishments have been “more common and more extensive in cultures where doing new things and acting autonomously [were] encouraged than in cultures [where they were] disapprove[d].” Human beings have also been “most magnificently productive and reached their highest cultural peaks in the times and places where humans have thought most deeply about their place in the universe and been most convinced they have one” (p. 394-99). The West was different in affording individuals greater autonomy and purpose.
One major limitation in Murray is that he attributes to Christianity this sense of purpose and place in the universe, unable to account for the incredible accomplishment of the pagan Greeks and Romans. It is also the case that Murray’s Human Accomplishment is a statistical assessment, an inventory of names, not an attempt to capture the historically dynamic character of Western individualism. His book leaves out all the dramatic transformations historians have identified with the West: Why did the voyages of global discovery “take place” in early modern Europe and not in China? Why did Newtonian mechanics elude other civilizations? Actually, no current historical work addresses all these transformations together. Countless books have been published on one or two major European transformations, but no scholar has tried to explain, or pose as a general question, the persistent creativity of Europeans from ancient to modern times across all the fields of human endeavor. The norm has been for specialists in one period or transformation to write about (or insist upon) the “radical” or “revolutionary” significance of the period or theme they happen to be experts on.
Missing is an understanding of the unparalleled degree to which the entire history of the West was filled with individuals persistently seeking “to transcend every optical limitation” (Decline of the West: 198). In comparative contrast to the history of India, China, Japan, Egypt, and the Americas, where artistic styles, political institutions and philosophical outlooks lasted for centuries, stands the “dynamic fertility of the Faustian with its ceaseless creation of new types and domains of form” (Decline of the West: 205). I can think of only three individuals, two philosophers of history and one historical sociologist, who have written in a wide-ranging way of:
- the “infinite drive,” “the irresistible trust” of the Occident,
- the “energetic, imperativistic, and dynamic” soul of the West, and
- the “rational restlessness” of the West
— Hegel, Spengler, and Weber.
Spengler is the one who overcomes in a keener way another flaw in Murray: his account of European distinctiveness is limited to the intellectual and artistic spheres. He pays no attention to accomplishments in warfare, exploration, and heroic leadership. His definition of accomplishment includes only peaceful individuals carrying scientific experiments and creating artistic works. Achievements come only in the form of “great books” and “great ideas.” In this respect, Human Accomplishment is akin to certain older-style Western Civ textbooks where the production of “Great Works” by “Great Men” in conditions of “Liberty” were the central themes. David Gress dubbed this type of historiography the “Grand Narrative” (1998). By teaching Western history in terms of the realization of great ideas and works in the arts and sciences these texts “placed a burden of justification on the West” to explain how the reality of Western colonialism across the world, the higher degree of warfare among Europeans, the invention of far more destructive military weapons, the slave trade, and the unprecedented destruction of the civilizations of the Americas, should be left out of the account of Western accomplishments. Gress called upon historians to move away from an idealized image of Western uniqueness. Norman Davies, too, has criticized the way early Western civilization courses tended to “filter out anything that might appear mundane or repulsive” (A History of Europe, 1997: 28).
The Faustian Personality
I believe that Oswald Spengler’s identification of the West as “Faustian” provides us with the best word to overcome the current naïve separation between a cultured/peaceable West and an uncivilized/antagonistic West with his image of a strikingly vibrant culture driven by a type of Faustian personality overflowing with expansive, disruptive, and imaginative impulses manifested in all the spheres of life. For Spengler, the Faustian spirit was not restricted to the arts and sciences, but was present in the culture of the West at large. Spengler thus spoke of the “morphological relationship that inwardly binds together the expression-forms of all branches of Culture.” Rococo art, differential calculus, the Crusades, the Spanish conquest of the Americas were all expressions of the same restless soul. There is no incongruity between the “great ideas” of the West and the so-called “realities” of conquest and suffering. There is no need, from this standpoint, to concede to multicultural critics, as Norman Davies believes, “the sorry catalogue of wars, conflict, and persecutions that have dogged every stage of the [Western] tale” (p. 15-16). The expansionist dispositions of Europeans were not only indispensable but were themselves driven, as I argue in my book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, and will briefly outline below, by an intensely felt desire to achieve great deeds and heroic immortality.
The great men of Europe were artists driven by an intensively felt desire for unmatched deeds. The “great ideas” – Archimedes’ “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world,” or Hume’s “love of literary fame, my ruling passion” – were associated with aristocratic traits, defiant dispositions – no less than Cortez’s immense ambition for honour and glory, “to die worthily than to live dishonoured.”
In contrast to Weber, for whom the West “exhibited an unrivaled aptitude for rationalization,” Spengler saw in this Faustian soul a primeval-irrational will to power. It was not a calmed, disinterested, rationalistic ethos that was at the heart of Western particularity; it was a highly energetic, goal-oriented desire to break through the unknown, supersede the norm, and achieve mastery. The West was governed by an intense urge to transcend the limits of existence, by a highly energetic, restless, fateful being, an “adamantine will to overcome and break all resistances of the visible” (Decline: pp. 185-86).
There was something Faustian about all the great men of Europe, both in reality and in fiction: in Hamlet, Richard III, Gauss, Newton, Nicolas Cusanus, Don Quixote, Goethe’s Werther, Gregory VII, Michelangelo, Paracelsus, Dante, Descartes, Don Juan, Bach, Wagner’s Parsifal, Haydn, Leibniz’s Monads, Giordano Bruno, Frederick the Great, Rembrandt, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
The Faustian soul — whose being consists in the overcoming of presence, whose feeling is loneliness and whose yearning is infinity — puts its need of solitude, distance, and abstraction into all its actualities, into its public life, its spiritual and its artistic form-worlds alike (Decline: 386).
For Spengler, Christianity, too, became a thoroughly Faustian moral ethic. “It was not Christianity that transformed Faustian man, but Faustian man who transformed Christianity — and he not only made it a new religion but also gave it a new moral direction”: will-to-power in ethics (344). This “Faustian-Christian morale” produced
Christians of the great style — Innocent III, Loyola and Savonarola, Pascal and St. Theresa [ . . . ] the great Saxon, Franconia and Hohenstaufen emperors . . . giant-men like Henry the Lion and Gregory VII . . . the men of the Renaissance, of the struggle of the two Roses, of the Huguenot Wars, the Spanish Conquistadores, the Prussian electors and kings, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes (348-49).
But what exactly is a Faustian soul? How do we connect it in a concrete way to Europe’s creativity? To what original source or starting place did Spengler attribute this yearning for infinity? To start answering this question we should first remind ourselves of Spengler’s other central idea, his cyclical view of history, according to which
- each culture contains a unique spirit of its own, and
- all cultures undergo an organic process of birth, growth, and decay.
In other words, for Spengler, all cultures exhibit a period of dynamic, youthful creativity; each culture experiences “its childhood, youth, manhood, and old age.” “Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression, which arise, ripen, decay and never return” (18-24, 106-07). Spengler thus drew a distinction between the earlier vital stages of a culture (Kultur) and the later stages when the life forces were on their last legs until all that remained was a superficial Zivilisation populated by individuals preoccupied with preserving the memories of past glories while drudging through the unexciting affairs of their everyday lives.
However, notwithstanding this emphasis on the youthful energies of all cultures, Spengler viewed the West as the most strikingly dynamic culture driven by a soul overflowing with expansive energies and “intellectual will to power.” By “youthful” he meant the actualization of the specific soul of each culture, “the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, sciences.” Only in Europe he saw “directional energy,” march music, painters relishing in the use of blue and green, “transcendent, spiritual, non-sensuous colors,” “colours of the heavens, the seas, the fruitful plain, the shadow of the Southern noon, the evening, the remote mountains” (245-46). I think John Farrenkopf has it right when he argues that Spengler’s appreciation for non-Western cultures as worthy subjects of comparative inquiry came together with an “exaltation” of the greater creative energy of the West (2001: 35).
But what about Spengler’s repetitive insistence that ancient Greece and Rome were not Faustian? Although I agree with Spengler that in certain respects the Greek-Roman “soul” was oriented toward the present rather than the future, and that its architecture, geometry, and finite mathematics were bounded spatially, restrained, and perceptible, he overstates his argument about the lack of an expansionist spirit, downplaying the incredible creative energies of Greeks and Romans, their individual heroism and urge for the unknown. Farrenkopf thinks that the later Spengler came to view the Greeks and Romans as more individualistic and dynamic. I agree with Burckhardt that the Classical Greeks were singularly agonal and individualistic, and with Nietzsche’s insight that all that was civilized and rational among the Greeks would have been impossible without this agonal culture. The ancient Greeks who established colonies throughout the Mediterranean, the Macedonians who marched to “the ends of the world,” and the Romans who created the greatest empire in history, were similarly driven, to use Spengler’s term, by an “irrepressible urge to distance” as the Germanic peoples who brought Rome down, the Vikings who crossed the Atlantic, the Crusaders who wrecked havoc on the Near East, and the Portuguese who pushed themselves with their gunned ships upon the previously tranquil world of the Indian Ocean. Spengler does not persuade in his efforts to downplay this Faustian side of the Greeks and Romans.
What was the ultimate original ground of the West’s Faustian soul? There are statements in Spengler which make references to “a Nordic world stretching from England to Japan” and a “harder-struggling” people, and a more individualistic and heroic spirit “in the old, genuine parts of the Mahabharata . . . in Homer, Pindar, and Aeschylus, in the Germanic epic poetry and in Shakespeare, in many songs of the Chinese Shuking, and in circles of the Japanese samurai” (as cited in Farrenkopf: 227). Spengler makes reference to the common location of these peoples in the “Nordic” steppes. He does not make any specific reference to the Caucasian steppes but he clearly has in mind the “Aryan Indian” peoples who came out of the steppes and conquered India and wrote the Mahabharata. He calls “half Nordic” the Graeco-Roman, Aryan Indian, and Chinese high cultures. In Man and Technics, he writes of how the Nordic climate forged a man filled with vitality
through the hardness of the conditions of life, the cold, the constant adversity, into a tough race, with an intellect sharpened to the most extreme degree, with the cold fervor of an irrepressible passion for struggling, daring, driving forward.
Principally, he mentions the barbarian peoples of northern Europe, whose world he contrasts to “the languid world-feeling of the South” (Farrenkopf: 222). Spengler does not deny the environment, but rather than focusing on economic resources and their “critical” role in the industrialization process, he draws attention to the profound impact environments had in the formation of distinctive psychological orientations amongst the cultures of the world. He thinks that the Faustian form of spirituality came out of the “harder struggling” climes of the North. The Nordic character was less passive, less languorous, more energetic, individualistic, and more preoccupied with status and heroic deeds than the characters of other climes. He was a human biological being to be sure, but one animated with the spirit of a “proud beast of prey,” like that of an “eagle, lion, [or] tiger.” Much like Hegel’s master who engages in a fight to the death for pure prestige, for this “Nordic” individual “the concerns of life, the deed, became more important than mere physical existence” (Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life, Greenwood Press, 1976: 19-41).
This deed-oriented man is not satisfied with a Darwinian struggle for existence or a Marxist struggle for economic equality. He wants to climb high, soar upward and reach ever higher levels of existential intensity. He is not preoccupied with mere adaptation, reproduction, and conservation. He wants to storm into the heavens and shape the world. But who exactly is this character? Is he the Hegelian master who fights to the death for the sake of prestige? Spengler paraphrases Nietzsche when he writes that the primordial forces of Western culture reflect the “primary emotions of an energetic human existence, the cruelty, the joy in excitement, danger, the violent act, victory, crime, the thrill of a conqueror and destroyer.” Nietzsche too wrote of the “aristocratic” warrior who longed for the “proud, exalted states of the soul,” as experienced intimately through “combat, adventure, the chase, the dance, war games” (The Genealogy of Morals, 1956: 167). Who are these characters? Are their “primary emotions” any different from humans in other cultures?
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