Oswald Spengler, Prophet of World Chaos
Article III: Spengler's Physiognomic View of History
Published 27 August 1922
What is said here about Spengler's book will have to be the view precisely of those who see in him an eminently representative expression of the modern soul-constitution among men of the Occident. Spengler thinks through to the end what others leave one half or one quarter done. This thinking cannot find the spiritual development-forces which work in mankind from the beginning of earth existence until far into the future. These forces live themselves out in the various cultures, so that each culture goes through childhood, maturity, and decay, then finally succumbs to death. But within each culture there is formed a seed which blossoms in the next culture and in this blossoming leads humanity through a stage of development which is necessary to it. Those abstract thinkers are wrong who see in this development only progress to ever higher stages. Many a later thing appears to a sound appraisal to be a step backward. But these steps are necessary because they lead humanity through experiences which must be gone through.
Hegel's idea, that history manifests humanity's progress in the consciousness of freedom, is certainly abstract. But at least it is a significant attempt to find a thread running through history. If you try to find for the abstract idea some content which pierces the multiplicity of human history, you need spiritual perception. Intellectualistic thinking is not adequate for this.
If this thinking remains honest, it must limit itself to describing the physiognomies of the cultures. It cannot see through the physiognomies into the souls of the cultures. But just in what reveals itself only behind the physiognomy lies the seed which leads over from one culture into another.
In this respect Spengler's work is cruelly honest. He limits himself to the physiognomies of cultures. “There are truths for the spirit: there are facts only in reference to life. Historical contemplation, which I call physiognomic time-beat, is the resolution of the blood, human knowledge expanded over the past and future, the born insight into persons and situations, into events, into what was necessary, into what had to be. It is not the mere scientific knowledge and criticism of data. For every true historian scientific experience is irrelevant or superfluous.” A man must speak this way when he completely immerses himself in intellectualistic thinking and looks honestly at historical evolution. Such a man can go no further into historic forces; but if sharp intellectuality guides his physiognomic time-beat he can depict brilliantly the various cultures.
An example of this brilliance is the chapter on “Problems of the Arabian Culture” which Spengler placed at the center of his World-historic Perspectives. The essence of the world-conceptions which, centuries before the appearance of Christianity, emerged from the womb of oriental life, is here described in a penetrating, sharp-eyed, erudite way. The concept of the “Magian” philosophy is worked out in clear contours. You see how an ancient world, in which men were limited to one locality and were placed among kinfolk so that they felt themselves to be members of the clan, is stripped away from a later world, which leads men into communities where they are held together by the consciousness of a spirit above the earthly order. In place of the god who can be thought of only in the particular spot where the clan lives, there arises the god who is independent of place and lives in the souls of the men who acknowledge him. For a local clan-god one can make no attempts at conversion. Another clan worships the god who reveals himself in another place and in other cults. It would be senseless to try to carry over to another place what bears the character of one place. For local gods there are no missionaries. These first appear when the soul raises itself to the “higher” god whose spiritual force streams into the soul. For this streaming-in one tries to win as many souls as possible.
Thus humanity enters the stage of the Magian religions. Man on earth feels himself as the sheath of the unitary world-spirit which should live in all souls. The human ego is not yet placed entirely on its own feet. It is the sheath of the world-being. This thinks in man, acts through man. This is the characteristic trait of the Magian religious feeling.
In Asia Minor this feeling appears in different peoples. Jesus, in Spengler's opinion, stands in the midst of it. Occidental Christianity arises through the fact that this Magian feeling streams into the Greek and Roman World and takes on its forms. Thus what is essentially oriental Magianism lives on in the outer forms which, in Greece and Rome, arose out of cults which themselves had no Magian orientation. In his book Spengler expresses the abstract thought through which he tries to grasp this: “In a rock-stratum are embedded crystals of a mineral. Clefts and cracks occur, water filters in, and the crystals are gradually washed out so that in due course only their hollow mold remains. Then come volcanic outbursts which explode the mountain: molten masses pour in, stiffen, and crystallize out in their turn. But these are not free to do so in their own special forms. They must fill up the spaces that they find available. Thus there arise distorted forms, crystals whose inner structure contradicts their external shape, stones of one kind presenting the appearance of stones of another kind. The mineralogists call this phenomenon pseudomorphosis. I call historical pseudomorphosis those cases where an older alien culture lies so massively over the land that a young culture, born in this land, cannot get its breath and fails not only to achieve pure and specific expression-forms, but even to develop fully its own self-consciousness.”
Thus in the western Christianity of the first centuries Magian Arabism lives itself out as a pseudomorphosis. It takes on the forms of the Greek and Roman World. “Actually, Augustine was the last great thinker of Early Arabian Scholasticism, anything but a Western spirit. Not only was he at times a Manichaean, but he remained so even as a Christian in some important characteristics, and his closest relations are to be found amongst the Persian theologians of the later Avesta, with their doctrines of the Store of Grace of the Holy Ones and of absolute guilt.”
Thus does the matter appear to one who observes the physiognomy of Arabism and pursues it with a clear eye down to the personalities in whom it can still be traced. But the soul is not perceived here, the soul which does not only stream into a strange environment as a pseudomorphosis but experiences this environment, shows itself to be a germ which comes to birth in new forms. The abstract mineral metaphor is not enough. The soul of a culture lives and perceives its environment. Out of this perceiving it unfolds, not a pseudomorphosis, but a transformed impulse. The characteristic thing in Augustine is not his Manichaeanism nor his relation to Persian theologians, but his elemental self-perception which makes itself a part of Christian Rome and thereby forms a concept of grace and guilt. This concept is distorted when one points only to physiognomic similarity to oriental views. On Augustine's physiognomy there is no living-on of the Orient, transformed and grown older; rather is this physiognomy like that of a son who bears the features of the father, but has a soul of his own.