Spengler and the Challenges of Metahistory

“Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity…?”—Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

It was a chance remark by a friend that put me onto the track of the German historian. I knew little about Spengler other than that he was one of many ambitious intellectuals who have attempted a systematically interpretive, or metahistorical, record of human events. According to Christopher Dawson: “Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change” (Dynamics of World History).

Spengler achieved immense popularity after his publication of The Decline of the West in wake of the First World War. His intellectual legacy lingered into the middle of the century. It was about this time that a precocious young Roger Scruton became fascinated by Spengler’s vision: “how rewarding it has been to wrestle with his influence and, finally, to cast him aside.”

As Scruton notes, there are simply too many issues with “Spenglerism” to adopt it as a plausible worldview.  So why study it at all? Undoubtedly the very subject of his magnum opus, Western decline, seems of renewed relevance. Like Edward Gibbon’s flawed but brilliant history of the Roman Empire, it is admirably conceived. And there is something to be said for studiously dissecting a major philosophical work at first hand, even if one ends up critiquing it.

Dawson says that if the study of the past were left entirely to mere chroniclers, history “would never have attained the position that it holds in the modern world. It was only when history entered into relations with philosophy” at the hands of “Montesquieu and Voltaire, Hume, Robertson and Gibbon, that it became one of the great formative elements in modern thought.”

Metahistory also has its pitfalls. There is the temptation to oversimplification and the manipulation of evidence to fit an eloquent narrative. But there has never been any lack of interest in the topic. It explains, for example, the best-selling Outline of History by Spengler’s contemporary, H. G. Wells. Such comparative studies existed even in ancient times (e.g. Polybius). Later metahistory often took on the role of ersatz metaphysics—a kind of secular theology. Marx is an obvious example. Ironically, the foundational work of universal history, which set the pattern for all subsequent attempts, is St. Augustine’s Christocentric City of God.

In future posts I hope to discuss this topic in more detail….

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Meaningful Political Differences

“All perfection in this life is accompanied by a measure of imperfection, and all our knowledge contains an element of obscurity.”— Thomas à Kempis

In his book A Conflict of Visions Thomas Sowell looks past the labels and polemics of political controversy to understand why people tend to repeatedly cluster around specific ideologies. He explains that we are frequently motivated less by alleged facts or logic than by shared hopes and expectations.

The essential dichotomy is between “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions. The constrained vision distrusts the notion that any one group of people can know what is best for the rest of us. Knowledge is dispersed, and for that reason power must also be curtailed. It understands “the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.” Progress is possible; however, it is incremental and imperfect. The unconstrained vision, on the other hand, believes in planned and comprehensive outcomes. It is impatient of anything less, even if arrived at by democratic consensus.

Emotional or psychological dispositions may factor into our political alignments. Yet it is possible for people to reevaluate their attitudes, as was the case with Sowell himself (an erstwhile collegiate Marxist). Objectivity hinges on intellectual openness and ethical candor. Sowell’s approach is helpful at this time of heightened division, especially when superficial allegiances are often blurred.

In the face of aggressive bullying by unconstrained ideologues, one sees a loose but increasingly vocal coalition of skeptics. It comprises not only traditional conservatives, but also centrists, libertarians, and dissenting liberals. Very much in line with Sowell’s taxonomy there is a common ground to this opposition: belief in rule of law, individual (as opposed to collective) responsibility, empirical methodology and rational discourse.

For related posts see The Roots of Political Conflict, Indispensable Visions and Sowell Continued: Incentives Versus Dispositions.

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Missing Books

While reviewing Kenneth Minogue’s book Alien Powers David Guaspari remarked that “Modest effort is required to find a copy: my local library discarded the one it had; the sole copy at the New York Public Library doesn’t circulate.” His frustrations are mirrored by my own.

For decades I availed myself not only of Minogue’s book, but the works of such important twentieth century thinkers as Christopher Dawson, Joseph Pieper, Étienne Gilson and Thomas Molnar. These volumes, along with numerous others spanning the literary spectrum, have been inexplicably removed from my city’s library system. Nor are they making room for heaps of new titles. Formerly crowded shelves often contain fewer than a dozen books.

What is the mindset behind this postmodern textual cleansing? My guess is that it’s a combination of things. There is the desire to be more “relevant” and to make the library “a destination”—for things other than books, apparently. It can’t be a matter of funding. Libraries are pouring money into building renovations and expansion projects. Paradoxically there are vast open areas, once occupied by stacks, now containing a scattering of chairs and tables (usually unoccupied).

It’s clear that authors like Minogue, Pieper and others have fallen victim to ideological decimation. According to the book Gestapo these older tomes contain “dated attitudes” or speak from viewpoints that are “racist” or “sexist.” The same people who once decried “censorship” have undertaken the most ruthless book banning in recent memory.

Addendum: I should note an admirable exception to the current bibliophobia. Since I started visiting the Library of Virginia in the late ’90s I have enjoyed consistent access to hard-to-find classics on history, philosophy and theology. The other day I borrowed Christopher Dawson’s Dynamics of World History. The fact that it was last checked out in 1973 did not prejudice the librarians’ judgment. The true worth of a book can never be measured “quantitatively.”

Related commentary: Ranging the Book Shelf, Preserving Endangered Detective Novels, and Protests About Nothing: “Banned Books Week”

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The Soviet Contribution to Hitlerism

Making my weekly perusal of The Wall Street Journal, I came across an interesting review of a new study about Soviet-German collaboration (Ian Ona Johnson, Faustian Bargain, Oxford). It touches on a theme that seldom gets much air time. As the reviewer, Daniel Ford, puts it:

Adolf Hitler gets the blame for lighting the fuse of World War II…. Yet Germany had a partner in Soviet Russia, not only during the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 but well before, starting with the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Without his enablers in Moscow, it’s hard to imagine that Hitler would have dared go to war against the rest of Europe.

Ford summarizes the extent of cooperation between totalitarian Russia and the German military and notes that this was in place well before Hitler’s takeover. Commanders of the small but proficient Reichswehr (German army), along with government and industry leaders, worked out a modus vivendi with the Soviets. Russia wanted territories that had broken away from it during the Revolution and Civil War, while Germany chafed at the creation of the Danzig corridor granted to Poland. Both were agreed in dismembering the recently resurrected state of Poland. Thus we can see that the 1939 pact between Moscow and Berlin, which paved the way for total war and genocide, was more than an opportunistic fluke.

While there were opponents to Hitler among the traditional officer class, it is clear that this same institution was heavily compromised. The Reichswehr benefited from secret training and construction of its panzer (armored) units in Russia, thus circumventing the restrictions of Versailles, while the Kremlin profited from insights into German technology and tactics.

One of the architects of proto-Nazi militarism, and Soviet collaboration, was General Hans von Seeckt (1866-1936). This otherwise prim aristocratic officer proclaimed that “Poland must be wiped off the map.” Like many contemporaries he was also an anti-Semite. Although the Reichswehr officially permitted Jewish officers, Seeckt privately prohibited it.  Indicative of his quietly ruthless mentality was his stint as a military advisor to Turkey (a German Ally in World War I). At the time Turkey was conducting its genocide against the Armenians, evoking moral outcry even from German political and religious leaders. But Seeckt callously responded that “It is an impossible state of affairs to be allied with the Turks and to stand up for the Armenians. In my view, any consideration, Christian, sentimental or political, must be eclipsed by its clear necessity for the war effort.”

The point is that nascent Hitlerism had important non-German and non-fascist influences. Just as Turkish ethnic cleansing served as a lesson so did the Soviet experiment. The late Richard Pipes, a leading American Sovietologist, explained that the U.S.S.R. set the stage—both politically and psychologically—for the idea of mass enslavement and killing of ideological opponents (see related comments).  

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A Page From Antisthenes

Visitors to this blog will know that I am a long-time fan of Diogenes LaertiusLives of the Eminent Philosophers. Written in the third century A.D., it chronicles the Greek thinkers (major and minor) up through the later Stoics and Epicureans, providing analysis of their teaching and lively anecdotes. One of the philosophers discussed is Antisthenes (c. 446 – c. 366 BC). He was a lesser-known student of Socrates and founder of the Cynic school. Here is a selection of some of his maxims:

Being asked what was the height of human bliss, he replied, “to die happy.” When a friend complained to him that he had lost his notes, “You should have inscribed them,” said he, “on your mind instead of on paper.” As iron is eaten away by rust, so, said he, the envious are consumed by their own passion. Those who would fain be immortal must, he declared, live piously and justly. States, said he, are doomed when they are unable to distinguish good men from bad. Once, when he was applauded by rascals, he remarked, “I am horribly afraid I have done something wrong.”

Another memorable axiom is Antisthenes’ definition of magnanimity as “the habit of mind which makes one superior to anything that happens, whether good or evil.”

Loeb Classics publishes the only quality hard copy edition (in two volumes) of Diogenes’ work. More recently, Standard Ebooks has issued a free electronic version.

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Are Things Ever “As Bad As” We Think?

News commentary has been dominated by dire warnings for some time now, though of late it is completely unhinged. There are the apocalyptic admonitions by scientifically uncredentialed politicians about human-inflicted “climate change.” On the racial front, we are berated by highly paid athletes and entertainers who explain that the plight of contemporary black Americans is indistinguishable from the worst days of slavery, Jim Crow, etc.

In response, I invoke an interesting commentary in the Wall Street Journal discussing Harvard law professor Derrick Bell and the origins of Critical Race Theory. It is a rare example of objective journalism. Since the arguments in favor of Bell’s outlook are, at the moment, well represented, I will note some of the rebuttals. And it should be remarked that both Reed (who is black) and Traub are on the political left.

The political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., whose work focuses on race and inequality, wrote about a conference he attended at Harvard Law School in 1991, where “I heard the late, esteemed legal theorist, Derrick Bell, declare on a panel that blacks had made no progress since 1865. I was startled not least because Bell’s own life, as well as the fact that Harvard’s black law students’ organization put on the conference, so emphatically belied his claim.” Mr. Reed dismissed the idea as “more a jeremiad than an analysis.”

To the journalist and historian James Traub, who profiled Bell for the New Republic magazine in 1993, this amounted to a recipe for paralysis: “If you convince whites that their racism is ineradicable, what are they supposed to do? And what are blacks to do with their hard-won victim status?”

I will concede that the “as bad as” or “things are worse than” mentality is not limited to one side of the spectrum. Over the years I have experienced it, in more limited—though often equally obnoxious—forms in some right-of-center circles. Irrational obsessions with impending doom and conspiracies (fashionable only for the left at the moment) boil down to motivations of power, hubris and laziness.

A historical parallel in “crisis politics” is Hitler’s exploitation of popular hysteria to excuse repressive measures following his rise to power in 1933. There were in fact plenty of moderate alternatives (liberal and conservative) in Germany. But a reasonable outlook would not have given the fanatics the totalitarian control they desired. The same is true today, with individuals continually seeking to “out woke” one another or insisting on greater “emergency powers.”

It is not that one can completely avoid decisive or tough political choices—confronting Hitler’s aggression being a case in point. That said, most of the horrific conflicts in history might have been avoided with a little more patience and less panic. To quote the late John Lukacs: “Things are never as bad, or as good, as they seem.”

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Friday Philosophizing

According to Socrates: “no one willingly errs.” It was a much repeated conviction of the Athenian philosopher that, with sufficient knowledge, people will invariably make the right choices. Insofar as individuals make bad choices, this is due to ignorance. Admittedly something about this outlook, while not altogether incorrect, seems inadequate. It was the opinion of Aristotle that Socrates’ optimistic view of knowledge should be qualified. He argued that wisdom is a necessary condition of goodness, but is not goodness itself. Virtue still requires effort and intent to act on what we know.

Although I am an incorrigible introvert, I do not lead an eremitical existence. Samuel Johnson observes that “Happiness is not found in self-contemplation; it is perceived only when it is reflected from another” (Idler, No.41). There is a human necessity in socialization. On the other hand, Seneca famously said, “As often as I been among men, I have returned home a lesser man” (Letter VII). Take your pick.

The Roman Stoic offers another insight: “He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him” (Seneca, Letter LIV). This is not fatalism per se. One hears the same advice from Christian writers like Thomas à Kempis. It indicates an adaptability to what to life sends our way, and is a sound piece of wisdom. But as for putting it into practice… well, as Aristotle would have said, that is another thing entirely.  

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Alien Powers Revisited

In his essay for The New Criterion David Guaspari pays tribute to Kenneth Minogue (1930-2013). He specifically singles out the Australian philosopher’s comprehensive 1985 study of modern ideology, Alien Powers. It is a work I have read and commented on previously.

Guaspari focuses on some of the intrinsic contradictions of radical theories of liberation as chronicled by Minogue. There is, for example, the leftist critique of traditional society. It is typically detailed and pedantic. But contrast, it “cannot specify its goal, except negatively: the end of oppression.” Marxists have proven adept at abolishing old institutions. But what they establish in their place—protracted ineptitude, corruption and impoverishment—is justified as part of the vague and interminable transition to pure communism.

“An ideology,” Guaspari explains, “is… committed by its internal logic to the view that no problem can be solved without solving all problems.” It is in line with the attitude that practical reform is insufficient. Instead, the entire system must be replaced by a new regime, regardless of how it affects ordinary people. It is crisis politics applied to any situation—race relations, the economy, etc. —with the attitude that “worse is better than half measures.”

Another trope is rampant oppression. Guaspari astutely inquires: “If the structure of domination is pervasive and controlling, how is liberation possible?” Cue repeated claims of “systemic racism.” If we really lived in an apartheid order, such open discussion of racism wouldn’t be happening. It is the political equivalent of wanting your cake and eating it too. Thus we see some of the richest and most powerful members of society insisting on their “victim” status.

Finally, there is the paradox of what J. L. Talmon (a writer admired by Minogue) referred to as “totalitarian democracy.” Such an ideology might be called “democracy of outcome” versus democracy of procedure. One sees this outlook regularly evinced by leftist politicians and judges. As Minogue put it: “Either a democratic vote elects the enlightened to power, or it does not. If so, is unnecessary. If not, it is pernicious.”

Related post: Minogue on Democracy

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Socrates on Death and the Soul

I was reviewing Plato’s Apology with one of my children. It is the defense speech given by Socrates to the Athenian judges prior to being condemned to death for alleged “corruption of the youth” and “impiety.” The philosopher was famously ordered by the judges to drink a cup of hemlock. In another of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedo, he recounts Socrates’ discussion of the immorality of the soul during the last hours of his life.

The soul… departs to the invisible world – to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she is secure of bliss and released from the error and folly of men….

At one point a companion asks him about the legitimacy of suicide. It seems that in ancient Athens it was officially frowned upon, though clearly many pagans countenanced it, at least in certain circumstances. It is therefore perhaps surprising to hear Socrates’ arguments against it. For example, even if a person would seem to “benefit” from death, he is not permitted to take his own life.

There is a doctrine… that man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door [to death] and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand. Yet I too believe that the gods are our guardians, and that we men are possessions of theirs…. Then, if we look at the matter thus, there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me.

According to many ethical traditions, we cannot dispense with our lives arbitrarily. We not only belong to God (as Socrates puts it) but also, in a way, to others around us. For related comments, see Pliny and Suicide.

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Lessons in Nazi Amnesia

This commentary was prompted by a discussion of postwar Germany in The New Criterion. The reviewer observes:  “It has… been argued (controversially) that drawing some sort of veil over the Hitler years was a necessary precondition if a country that contained Nazis, those who had opposed them, and many who were in between was to pull itself together. In some respects that anticipates Vladimir Putin’s approach to the Soviet past.” Yet one can’t help but wonder “if amnesty for crimes committed during the Third Reich indicates that something more than a very chilly pragmatism was involved.” In other words, there was wider complicity in Nazi ambitions than most postwar narratives tended to indicate.

I encountered this ambiguity even in the memoirs of Reinhard Gehlen, an officer in World War II who later headed the West German intelligence service. There is little doubt of Gehlen’s anti-Hitler credentials. He was well acquainted members of the military resistance, in particular General Henning von Tresckow, who attempted numerous plots against the Nazi leader. Gehlen describes at length his disillusionment with Nazi policy in occupied Russia. The German military wanted to arm anti-Communist Russians and turn them against Stalin. Hitler, however, had no interest in a war of liberation. Nazi officials instead enslaved and murdered millions of “subhumans.” Yet glaringly absent in Gehlen’s account is specific mention of anti-Jewish policies, which stood at the apex of German genocide.

Guilt avoidance operates on many levels. Individuals like Gehlen evinced historical squeamishness perhaps out of a wish to put the terrible memories of Hitlerism behind them. But there were certainly people who had wanted a Nazi outcome even if they didn’t actively take part in the killing. Still others did play an active role, though they managed to avoid postwar scrutiny. This becomes clear from a reading of studies like Hitler’s Furies, by Wendy Lower (see earlier review) and Christopher Browning’s works Ordinary Men and The Origins of the Final Solution. Nor is this sort of collective amensia unique to Germany. Clearly it has operated, and continues to operate, in places like Russia and China.

Browning’s view, it should be noted, stands in contrast to Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial thesis that Germans were motivated entirely by pervasive, long-term anti-semitism. Browning argues that while pathological anti-Jewish ideology inspired many Nazis; nevertheless, things like peer pressure, careerism and opportunism go a long way to explain the erosion of moral scruples on the part of the “ordinary men” in German execution squads, many of whom came from non-Nazi backgrounds. It thus serves as a salutary warning of the dangers of political intolerance and what may happen when certain groups of people are seen by fanatics as getting in the way of plans for social “perfection.”

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