Rhythms of History (1)

This is Part 2 (A) of "'I See Further Than Others': Reflections On Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and The Hour of Decision", a serial essay by Steve Kogan.

Between 1911 and 1914, Spengler’s presentiments of an "approaching World-War" took a historical turn, and he began to see the present crisis as the contemporary form of a recurring phenomenon in the history of other cultures. The prime feature of this ever-recurring catastrophe, as he saw it, was the transformation of an old, form-filled, and soul-expanding culture into a nihilistic and outwardly-expanding empire of a "world-city" civilization, with the world war corresponding to the first phase of "the Classical Age from Cannae to Actium" (216-31 B.C.), as "The later Egyptian historian concealed under the name 'Hyksos period' the same crisis which the Chinese treat under the name 'Period of the Contending States.'" In Spengler's world-picture, this "age-phase" also coincides in the Arabian world with the ascendancy of "Baghdad - a resurrected Ctesiphon, symbol of the downfall of feudal Arabism - and this first world-city of the new Civilization became from 800 to 1050 the theatre of the events which led from Napoleonism to Caesarism, from the Caliphate to the Sultanate." In his introduction, Spengler remarks that above and beyond all the correspondences that were appearing to him "in every increasing volume . . . there stood out the fact that these great groups of morphological relations, each one of which symbolically represents a particular sort of mankind in the whole picture of world-history, are strictly symmetrical in structure." In the third chapter of Volume I, he underscores the complete design of this picture: "Every Culture, every adolescence and maturing and decay of a Culture, every one of its intrinsically necessary stages and periods, has a definite duration, always the same, always recurring with the emphasis of a symbol."   

The last phrase is both telling and unexpected. Spengler’s time-frames are remarkably constant, as he reckons them, yet he does not conclude that they recur with mathematical certainty but that they have the weight of a significance, a thought that grows out of his insistent impression that these periodic regularities have a "rhythm" that corresponds to the age-phases of an individual life, hence that there is something musical about these recapitulations (1). Since these "stages and periods" are "intrinsically necessary," causality plays no part in the process, in the same sense that a musical development appears with inevitable sureness at a particular moment in the score of a master yet is in no way "caused" by the central theme. What is decisive for Spengler is not the "How?" but "the When? of things, the specifically historical problem of destiny," with its "mystery-clouded, far-echoing sound symbols 'Past' and 'Future.'" Both here and throughout The Decline, Spengler turns to the arts to express what he means by the "livingness and directedness and fated course of real Time," indeed all that "we actually feel at the sound of the word," which "is clearer in music than in language, and in poetry rather than prose." Although history follows no laws, it is nevertheless filled with form and meaning, which for Spengler unfolds through the "deep logic of becoming." 

Spengler's critics have been quick to declare that his "metaphysical passages are . . . murky and superficial" (2), yet in every chapter he provides the lexicon:

We have before us a symbol of becoming in every bar of our music from Palestrina to Wagner, and the Greeks a symbol of the pure present in every one of their statues. The rhythm of a body is based upon a simultaneous relation of the parts, that of a fugue in the succession of elements in time.

It is one of the premises of The Decline that the discipline of history is inseparable from a disciplined study of the arts, both of which require the combined resources of scholarship and refined skeptical inquiry, "sympathy, observation, comparison, immediate and inward certainty, intellectual flair," and a trained eye for analogy and symbolic expression. I have never come across any reference to Sigmund Freud in Spengler's works and letters, and indeed he had nothing but scorn for the field of "scientific psychology . . . however remarkable as a study of cerebral anatomy"; yet he might have been surprised to discover that Freud did not fit his mold, for that controversial investigator of dream symbolism had a highly cultivated knowledge of literature, the arts, and history, a healthy dose of skepticism regarding “the over-estimation” of consciousness “in the course of psychic events,” including intellectual and artistic work, a conviction that dreams have a history, and a suspicion that “Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said that in a dream ‘there persists a primordial part of humanity which we can no longer reach by a direct path,’" all of which can be found in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), the classic study of form and meaning in dreams and recurring childhood fears and fixations.

Spengler himself provides a suggestive parallel to Freud when he writes that "the awakening of the inner life," which "marks the frontier between child and . . . man," is linked to a fearful "depth-experience" of time and space. As with Spengler vis à-vis Freud, I do not know if Freud ever read The Decline, but, if he did, he might have recognized something of his own concerns and literary bent in the following passage from "Symbolism and Space":

It is because there is this deep and significant identity [between death and space] that we so often find the awakening of the inner life in a child associated with the death of some relation. The child suddenly grasps the lifeless corpse for what it is, something that has become wholly matter, wholly space, and at the same moment it feels itself as an individual being in an alien extended world. "From the child of five to myself is but a step. But from the new-born baby to the child of five is an appalling distance," said Tolstoi once.

In Spengler's understanding of history as "soul-study," the earliest appearance of every "grand culture" is marked by a similarly fateful moment of perception, in which the spirituality of a particular people is born out of its own unique experience of "world-fear" in relation to space, time, and death: 

Every great symbolism attaches its form-language to the cult of the dead, the forms of disposal of the dead, the adornment of the graves of the dead. The Egyptian style begins with the tomb-temples of the Pharoahs, the Classical with the geometrical decoration of the funerary urns, the Arabian with catacombs and sarcophagus, the Western with the cathedral wherein the sacrificial death of Jesus is re-enacted daily under the hands of the priest. . .  . It was when the idea of the impending end of the world spread over Western Europe (about the year 1000) that the Faustian soul of this religion was born.

Unlike Freud, whose world view was informed by his clinical research into psychological conflicts and pathologies, Spengler drew sharp distinctions between eras of creation and dissolution; yet there is an unmistakable echo of Freudian dream analysis in Spengler's belief that his patterns of historical recurrence open a "world of most mysterious connexions" and that, if we are receptive to their empirical content and symbolic character and are tactful in our judgments, they "will tell us of themselves how much lies hidden there." 

In keeping with his aesthetically-oriented reading of history, Spengler rejects all systematic approaches to historiography and proceeds instead by means of questions, analogies, philosophical arguments, and whole chapters of illustrative analysis. Moreover, as Koktenek observes, he is always present in his writing, one characteristic of which is to engage the reader directly in his thoughts, as he does almost immediately after he declares that the age-phases of a culture recur ‘with the emphasis of a symbol”:

What is the meaning of . . . the rhythm of the political, intellectual and artistic "becoming" of all Cultures? Of the 300-year period of the Baroque, of the Ionic, of the great mathematics, of Attic sculpture, of mosaic painting, of counterpoint, of Galilean mechanics? What does the ideal life of one millenium for each Culture mean in comparison with the individual man's "three-score years and ten?"

The crucial word in the passage, on which everything else depends, is "rhythm." In a note at the bottom of the page, Spengler remarks on the periodic "distances apart of the three Punic Wars, and the series   . . . Spanish Succession War, Silesian Wars, Napoleonic Wars, and the World War," which he says are "comprehensible only as rhythmic" recurrences.

As the rhythm and tempo of a musical score are open to subtle yet profoundly different interpretations, so too Spengler argues that history is not available to the strict terms of scientific analysis, for "It is one of the tacit, but none the less firm, presuppositions of nature-research that 'Nature' (die Natur) is the same for every consciousness and for all times," whereas real historical study "rests on an equally certain sense of the contrary; what it presupposes as its origin is a nearly indescribable sensitive faculty within, which is continuously labile under continuous impressions, and is incapable therefore of possessing what may be called a centre of time."

A straight-line history of the world is therefore meaningless in his eyes, together with any notion of universal progress or division of history into "ancient, medieval, and modern," a western world view born in the mysticism of "the great Joachim of Floris (c. 1145-1202)" and secularized since the seventeenth century to the point where "the sacrosanct three-phase system" became endowed with progressivist notions that brought history "exactly to one's own standpoint." For Spengler, this is history cut to the mold of a program, thus

making of some formula - say, the "Age of Reason," Humanity, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, enlightenment, economic progress, national freedom, the conquest of nature, or world-peace - a criterion whereby to judge whole millenia of history.

All such readings of the past are arbitrary, writes Spengler, and lack a sense of proportion and natural limits. The involuntary side of history and human nature is ignored, and ideals of all sorts are held to be universal when in fact they belong to their own time and place and often become dated by the sheer force of events. By the same token, their creators overlook the fact that "Cognition and judgment too are acts of living men" and are therefore not exempt from the human condition. In the language of an earlier time,

Whatsoever is told us, and what ever we learne, we should ever remember, it is man, who delivereth, and man that receiveth: It is a mortall hand, that presents it, and a mortall hand, that receives it. . . . I alwaies call reason, that apparance or shew of discourses, which every man deviseth or forgeth in himself (3).

In his preface of 1922, Spengler predicates the world view of The Decline on this same principle, remarking that "the essense of what I have discovered . . . is true for me, and as I believe, true for the leading minds of the coming time." Setting definable limits to the life-span of his thoughts, Spengler insists in his introduction that

my own philosophy is able to express and reflect only the Western (as distinct from the Classical, Indian, or other) soul, and that soul only in its present civilized phase by which its conception of the world, its practical range and its sphere of effect are specified.

History for Spengler admits of no universal truths but only truths "in relation to a particular mankind," yet what they lose in timeless validity they gain in inward value as expressions of "a superlative human individuality."

Spengler’s unique culture-worlds are the record of this human heritage, which becomes all the more rich and profound when viewed through the experience of irreversible time. It is this inseparable connection between life and death that gives real-world meaning to “the deep logic of becoming,” which Spengler can only describe as a kind of spontaneous inevitability, or "living" destiny, as a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy conveys a sense of fatality that never stultifies the work but becomes evermore complex, subtle, and mysterious the more we steep ourselves in every aspect of the text.

This habit of "intelligent saturation" (4) is at the heart of aesthetic vision and is a recurring theme in numerous accounts of artists who are known to have spent hours in rapt attention to a landscape or a work of art, among them Da Vinci, Constable, Turner, Delacroix, and Cézanne. For Spengler, the historian who practices a similar discipline will become capable of feeling "the become in its becoming" and gradually come to experience the "inner necessity" of a culture in all its manifestations. It is one of Spengler's compelling motives for turning, as he so often does, to masterpieces of art, music, and literature for his illustrative examples, precisely because they are heightened forms of sensation and therefore belong to the same world of impressions in which we all experience life. Pascal says somewhere that if we practice kneeling, we will end by believing, and so it is for Spengler with regard to the spirituality that inheres in a great work of art. We have only to stop thinking and start absorbing the impressions that the work generates in us, and they will lead us by degrees into its world of form and meaning. History for Spengler is just such a world, in which "Countless shapes that emerge and vanish, pile up and melt again" nevertheless embody "those pure forms which underlie all human becoming." Plato’s Ideas exist in a timeless realm of Being, the philosophical equivalent of what Spengler calls the “noonday” clarity of the Olympian myths, a Classical nude statue, or Doric temple; whereas his “pure forms" originate in time as the “inner form” of a destiny, in which great events, philosophies, scientific discoveries, and artistic masterworks have an aura of historical inevitability - the impression that everything about them, both in themselves and in relation to their time and place, is just so and could be no other.

In a related discussion on chance and "the unforeseen," Spengler distinguishes between the Incidental and Destiny and argues that the "Destiny-idea" of a culture holds true even if the incidental happenings of an era had turned out differently:

Imagine Columbus supported by France instead of by Spain, as was in fact highly probable at one time. Had Francis I been the master of America, without doubt he and not the Spaniard Charles V would have obtained the imperial crown. The early Baroque period from the Sack of Rome to the Peace of Westphalia, which was actually the Spanish century in religion, intellect, art, politics and manners,would have been shaped from Paris and not from Madrid. Instead of the names of Philip, Alva, Cervantes, Calderon, Velasquez we should be talking to-day of great Frenchman who in fact - if we may thus roundly express a very difficult idea - remained unborn.

"The Incidental," he continues, "chose the Spanish gesture," but the "inward logic of that age . . . remained the same."

By contrast, if we regard history strictly as a collection of facts, its “anecdotal foreground" and "pragmatic aspect" often take on the character of a "comic-opera" of "ridiculous incidents":

Do not the deaths of Gustavus Adolphus and Alexander seem like expedients of a nonplussed playwright? Hannibal a simple intermezzo, a surprise intrusion in Classical history; or Napoleon's "transit" more or less of a melodrama?

Seen through "the logic of Destiny," however, everything that occurs "in the whirl of becoming"   reflects an underlying theme, again by analogy to music:

Supposing that [Napoleon] himself, as "empirical person," had fallen at Marengo - then that which he signified would have been actualized in some other form. A melody, in the hands of a great musician, is capable of a wealth of variations; it can be entirely transformed so far as the simple listener is concerned without altering itself [in a fundamental way], which is quite another matter.

This is not a "what if?" view of history but of history as an almost mystical field of unrealized variations: 

The epoch of German national union accomplished itself through the person of Bismarck, that of the Wars of Freedom [against Napoleon] through broad and almost nameless events; but either theme, to use the language of music, could have been "worked out" in other ways. . . . Goethe might - possibly - have died young, but not his "idea." Faust and Tasso would not have been written, but they would have "been" in a deeply mysterious sense, even though they lacked the poet's elucidation.

Western classical music is not the only art that Spengler requires for the study of history, but it is the one that comes closest to defining what he means by the apprehension of a destiny.

Our classical music also provides countless examples of "unborn" events through the uses of silence and, in one striking instance, even as the unheard introduction of a "Destiny-idea." A cultivated German of the old school once described a rehearsal recording to me in which the conductor Bruno Walter made this very point about the first bar of Beethoven's C Minor Symphony. According to the account, Walter stops the orchestra shortly after the thunderclaps of those all-too familiar opening four notes and, with a soft-spoken “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” instructs his musicians not to come crashing down on them but to feel the exact instant of the opening eighth note rest as an inrushing silent beat. Thus, the moment in which the symphony begins was for Walter both intangible and decisive for the performance of the entire work. Even in this brief report, I could sense that it was not just his words but the whole manner of the man that spoke to his musicians and drew from them that special quality of warmth and richness which so many listeners could feel in his conducting.

In a documentary on the Berlin Philharmonic, a tympanist recounts a similar experience of Wilhelm Furtwängler even when he was not conducting, which occurred one day when the orchestra was rehearsing before the maestro arrived for the session. The performer was following the score when he suddenly heard the music gain a richness that had been missing until then. He looked up and saw that Furtwängler had just come through the door and was standing in the rear. And that was Furtwängler, says the tympanist. He was so entirely made of music that his silent presence alone could inspire people with its spirit. A contemporary of Anton Chekhov's, who experienced his unassuming dignity first-hand, similarly remarked that in his presence one felt oneself wanting to rise to one's better nature.

How is it that these feelings have so much objective truth in them? The answer, says Spengler, is “physiognomic tact”: the ability to assimilate the significant facts and impressions of an event and  grasp their import in the moment. In Daniel Benioff’s novel City of Thieves, the author’s Russian grandfather describes this faculty in relation both to musical performance and the playing of chess:

When I was fourteen, I quit the club. I had learned that I was a good player but would never be a great one. Friends of mine at Spartak, whom I had beaten consistently when we were younger, had left me far behind, advancing to a plane I could not access no matter how many games I played, how many books I read, how many endgame problems I worked on in bed at night. I was like a well-trained pianist who knows which notes to hit but can’t make the music his own. A brilliant player understands the game in a way he can never quite articulate; he analyzes the board and knows how to improve his position before his brain can devise an explanation for the move. I didn’t have the instincts.

Like the “brilliant player” of Lev Benioff’s memories, who “understands the game in a way he can never quite articulate,” Spengler’s "born historian" is capable of “various kinds of intuition – such as illumination, inspiration, artistic flair, experience of life,” and “the power of ‘sizing men up,’” which can only be "felt with a deep wordless understanding." Lev’s “well-trained pianist” who “can’t make the music his own” likewise recalls Spengler’s critique of the academic historian, whose empirical research will never lead him to “the heart of things” in the unfolding of human events, whereas "The artist or the real historian" sees “the becoming of a thing" with the "inward certainty" of vision.

For Spengler, as for Nietzsche, one of the chief expressions of "inward certainty" is music, the western art form par excellence for both and "the only art," writes Spengler, “whose means" can free us "from the spell of the light-world and its facts." It is this "spell" that governs "our waking-consciousness," which "is now so dominated by one sense only, so thoroughly adapted to the eye-world, that it is incapable of forming, out of the impressions it receives, a world of the ear." There is an inherited tradition in these words that stems from Arthur Schopenhauer's reflections on music in The World as Will and Representation (1818-19), which Wagner incorporated in his commemorative essay on Beethoven in 1870 and the pianist Alfred Brendel updated in 1991 in an article on Furtwängler in The New York Review of Books: "In an age such as ours which is fascinated by language and linguistics it is easy to forget that organized thinking is possible without the help of words."




(1) Both in The Decline and "Pessimism?" Spengler states that his association of rhythm and destiny with sensory alertness is rooted in experience. His point is aptly illustrated in the American vernacular toward the end of Busby Berkeley's film Strike Up the Band (1940), in which Paul Whiteman, the classically trained creator of "symphonic jazz," tells the high school bandleader Jimmy Connor: "Sometimes I think rhythm almost runs the world. In a little baby, the first thing that starts is his rhythm. His little heart starts to beat. . . . And in your own car, if the engine is missing and jerking or you feel the bump of a tire, it's the rhythm that tells you that something's wrong. And if you call a doctor, the first thing he does is check your rhythm. He feels your pulse to find if your rhythm is solid and your beat is strong. So, Jimmy, when we get to the last eight bars of the big tune and the old ticker kind of slows down, no matter what's wrong with us, the last thing to stop is our rhythm." For Spengler, the high cultures likewise have a "pulse-beat" that is extinguished at their death.

(2) H. Stuart Hughes, Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952, p. 155. On the same page, Hughes even pretends to be a more careful writer than Spengler, a vanity that leads him to reduce Spengler's reading of modern times almost to a cliché, since all he  supposedly needs to do "To make his point" is eliminate "the determinism of inevitable decline" and say that "present signs . . . point to cultural sterility, war, and dictatorship." In a related argument, John F. Fennelly agrees with Hughes and Koktanek that Spengler's "metaphysical superstructure" is based on "dogmatic exactitudes" that detract from the work. See his discussion in Twilight of the Evening Lands: Oswald Spengler - A Half Century Later, The Brookdale Press, 1972, pp. 59-61.

(3) Michel de Montaigne, "An Apologie of Raymond Sebond," The Essayes of Montaigne, trans. John Florio (1603), The Modern Library, 1933, pp. 508-09.

(4) T. S. Eliot, "Ben Jonson," Essays on Elizabethan Drama, Harcourt, Brace and Company (1956), p. 67, in which Eliot speaks of the need for "intelligent saturation in [Jonson's] work as a whole."


Responding both to Steve

Responding both to Steve Kogan’s second installment on Spengler and to Mpresley’s comment – Spengler’s younger, likeminded contemporaries like Gustave Le Bon, Hermann Keyserling, and René Guénon all recognized in him a blithe survival of pre-modern thinking.  Spengler’s “physiognomic tact” belongs to his pre-modernity, as does his willingness to argue by analogy.  I respond quite positively to Mpresley’s comment that the modern notion of “causation” is impoverished and that the Aristotelian and Thomistic plural categories are indispensable for an accurate understanding of the contemporary condition.  On the other hand, one might legitimately regard Spengler as plus moderne que les modernes in the sense that he understood modernity, in all its sordidness and limitation, better than the chest-thumping, vocal “moderns” did, or do.  As I recall, Spengler wrote his dissertation on Heraclitus.  The Heraclitean phrase that “the soul is smoky and deep” also helps us to understand Spengler, who understood the paradox that “understanding” is not entirely a logical or empirical procedure.  One best understands the river, as we might say, who stands in it, feeling its currents and character while he also cerebrates about its physics and hydrology.  I have long had the sense that “modern” is another word for a lamentable dwarfism of thought.  One really has to stand on one’s tiptoes to meet Spengler on his own ground, or, for that matter, Steve Kogan.

a footnote on causation

Since these "stages and periods" are "intrinsically necessary," causality plays no part in the process, in the same sense that a musical development appears with inevitable sureness at a particular moment in the score of a master yet is in no way "caused" by the central theme.

This is undoubtedly true if we rely upon our usual notions of causality, and it's likely one reason Spengler's ideas are seen as strange and ascientific (taking "science" in its Enlightenment derived, but historically limited, sense). Yet if it is so could it be the result of having long ago forgotten classical notions of causality?

Most notably from Aristotle, and principal within the commentaries of Aquinas, we can be reintroduced to a greatly expanded schema. Usually we think of causation as that which the classical world understood as efficient. But we can also know causation in its formal, material, and final manifestations. The idea of final cause, the intrinsic nature of a thing as it develops over its life, and leading to its natural end (what we moderns might call a thing's evolution—but not evolution in the genetic-biological sense) may have relevance to the ideas Dr. Kogen is discussing.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, for us today, the idea of final cause is a strange concept, requiring some inner work to adequately confront.