Two weeks ago, in the first part of this sequence of posts, we explored the way that Oswald Spengler’s insights into the cycles of history can be used not only to make sense of the past, but also to get some idea of the shape of the future ahead of us. That’s explosive stuff, because the future thus revealed isn’t the one demanded by the cultural obsessions of the present day.
Every great culture, to use Spengler’s phrase, has its own vision of what the future ought to be like. In Apollonian culture—the great culture of the ancient Mediterranean basin, which hit its cultural stride in classical Greece and metastasized beneath the eagles of Rome—the future everyone expected was the present endlessly prolonged. The vision of time and change that guided Apollonian culture in the centuries of its maturity had three phases: first, things were in chaos, then a mighty power arose to set things in order, and that order endured forever. In religious terms, the mighty power was the god Jupiter taming the Titans with his thunderbolts; in political terms, the mighty power was the Roman Empire bringing the warring kingdoms of the world under its sway; the same logic applied to classical philosophy, which sought to teach the rational mind how to reduce the chaos of the self into an enduring order, and so on.
In Magian culture—the great culture that emerged in the Middle East as Apollonian culture peaked and began to fade, hit its cultural stride during the Abbasid caliphate and metastasized under the Ottoman Empire—this vision found few takers once the Apollonian pseudomorphosis faded out. The Magian vision of time and change, rather, is the one familiar to most of my readers through its reflection in Christian theology. The universe in this view is a stage on which the mighty drama of human salvation is played out; it runs in a straight line from Creation, through the revelation of the one true faith, to a cataclysmic finale, after which nothing will ever change again. At the center of the Magian experience, in turn, is the sense of being part of the community of the faithful, resisting the powers of evil while waiting prayerfully for the one true God to bring on the apocalypse.
As we saw two weeks ago, Faustian culture—the great culture that emerged in western Europe around 1000 CE, which hit its cultural stride in the Renaissance and metastasized in the gargantuan European empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—still carries remnants of Magian culture with it, which were picked up through the normal historical process of pseudomorphosis and remain more or less fossilized in place. (We’ll talk later on about why those fossils are so much more common and influential here in America than they are back in the Faustian homelands of Europe.) At the heart of the Faustian worldview, though, stands a vision of time and change starkly opposed to the Magian vision, and reminiscent of the Apollonian vision in a certain highly qualified sense.
In the Faustian vision, it’s not chaos that characterizes the original shape of things, it’s stasis. Think of all those old childrens’ stories about the first caveman to discover fire, or the echo of the same mythic narrative in the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey; think of the folk mythology that surrounds the Scientific Revolution; think of the rhetoric that still frames every one of the grand crusades for social betterment that hasn’t yet crumpled under the weight of its failure and turned to Magian apocalypticism instead. (When a social movement in the modern Western world starts shouting “The world will end if we don’t get what we want!” you can safely bet that it’s already failed and its days are numbered.)
The story starts in darkness and squalor and stasis, with everyone trudging through centuries-old routines under the leaden weight of superstition and ignorance. Then some bright individual has the “Aha!” moment that changes everything. He—it’s usually a man, at least in the myths—of course has to do battle with the entrenched forces of superstition and ignorance, but of course he wins in the end; darkness and squalor give way to something shiny and new, stasis gives way to movement, and the grand march of progress takes off toward the stars.
That’s where the Faustian myth seems to depart most obviously from its Apollonian equivalent, but the difference is less important than it looks. The word “progress,” after all, literally means “continued movement in the same direction.” Thus, in the Faustian myth, the pace of progress can change but the direction can’t. That’s why, to cite an example, the scientific establishment freaked out so comprehensively in the 1970s when various circles of avant-garde researchers started to find common ground with mystics and occultists. The definition of progress accepted then and now in the scientific mainstream consigned mystics and occultists to the dustbin of superstition and ignorance, and the so-called “skeptic” movement was the inevitable backlash.
It’s easy to make fun of the dogmatism and intolerance of the insufficiently skeptical skeptics who insisted that they were fighting against dogmatism and intolerance, but their holy war was the necessary consequence of the central logic of the Faustian cult of progress. Since, by definition, progress is what brought us here out of the squalor and ignorance of the benighted past, and since, by definition, continued movement in the same direction is going to lead us onward and upward to a shining techno-utopian future, any attempt to revisit the scientific community’s dogmatic rejection of spiritual experiences can only be seen as a surrender to the forces of superstition and ignorance that alone can deny us all our destiny among the stars.
That same logic pervades Faustian culture at all levels. Have you noticed how common it is, for example, for people who come up with a diet that’s good for their health to insist to all and sundry that the same diet must be good for everyone’s health, that every other diet is bad and evil and wrong, and that if only everyone can be browbeaten into following the one true diet, all illness will go away? It’s the identical way of thinking, transposed into the key of crank diets. The food crackpot seeks to occupy the culturally mandated role of the bright individual with the “Aha!” moment that changes everything, so that the one true diet can become the fixed direction along which dietary progress can then march onward forever. It’s central to the entire Faustian vision that progress is a straight line going in one and only one direction and everyone has to be made to follow it.
It’s when the onward march of progress falls flat on its face, in turn, that the downside of the Faustian narrative becomes painfully clear, because it has no way to deal with failure.
That’s something that varies dramatically from one great culture to another. The Chinese and Indian great cultures, for example, differ in immensely important ways but approach time and change through a broadly similar scheme: a vision of cyclic movement. Hindu philosophy has one of the two most richly elaborated schemes of cyclic time in any recorded high culture—its only rival is the equally intricate system of nested cycles worked out in equally immense detail by the cultures of native Mesoamerica. In both these traditions, everything that happens has happened countless times before and will happen countless times again, and if hard times come, why, that’s just another incident in the spinning of time’s vast wheel.
The Chinese vision of time is somewhat different, but equally cyclical. The I Ching, the great Chinese textbook of time theory, identifies sixty-four basic conditions of time, each of which can morph into any of the others by way of specific transformations. Thus the rise and fall of nations and dynasties isn’t fixed quite so rigidly on the wheel of time as in India; a government that pays attention to the way that time is flowing can often prevent the conditions of downfall from coming into play—in traditional Chinese terms, to keep hold of the mandate of Heaven and prevent it from shifting to new hands. In the Chinese way of seeing things, in turn, when hard times come, that just means that the bureaucrats in the capital have failed to judge the temporal flow correctly, and the situation will be rectified just as soon as the bureaucrats either get a clue or have their heads displayed on bamboo spears by the soldiers of the incoming dynasty.
The Magian culture doesn’t have a cyclical sense of time—there’s no other great culture that has had so strictly finite a vision of history—but the inherent flexibility of the Magian temporal scheme makes it relatively easy to deal with failure and defeat. In the Magian worldview, after all, the community of the faithful is constantly beseiged by the powers of evil, who are permitted great leeway by the one true God for His inscrutable reasons. Someday the Messiah or Christ or the Mahdi or whoever will show up and transform the world utterly, but no one knows when, and in the meantime the faithful must expect to have their faith tried in the flames of worldly disappointment and suffering.
The Apollonian great culture had none of these resources to hand. In the Apollonian vision of history, again, once the universe is set in order by the might of its rightful ruler, and everyone accepts their proper place in the order of things, that’s the way it’s supposed to stay forever. The fall of the Roman Empire was thus a shattering experience for those who lived through its more drastic phases. A strong case can be made—and indeed it was made, early in the fifth century CE, by Augustine of Hippo in his polemic masterpiece The City of God—that the fall of Rome disproved the most fundamental assumptions of the Apollonian worldview. That experience of cognitive dissonance was what left the field clear for the rising Magian culture to seize the imagination of the ancient world and impose its own religious and cultural vision on the disillusioned masses of the late Roman Empire.
The Faustian culture, though, is even more vulnerable to the same sort of disillusionment. If we were to set up a spectrum of resilience to the experience of failure among great cultures, with India and China way over to one end of the spectrum, Faustian culture is about as far as you can go to the other end. For the Faustian sense of time to remain intact, after all, it’s not enough to survive; it’s not even enough to establish the sort of steady state to which Apollonian culture aspired, and which it achieved for centuries at a time. The Faustian sense of time requires progress—continued triumphant movement in the same direction. When that movement stops, or even slows down noticeably, the widening gap between what’s supposed to happen and what’s actually happening becomes a source of massive cognitive dissonance, and if that condition keeps going for more than a little while, people start to wig out.
Parenthetically, that’s the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with for the astonishing craziness of the US political mainstream today. In the early 1980s, a set of economic policies—free-trade agreements, tacit encouragement of unlimited illegal immigration, and ever-expanding government regulations that benefited big corporations at the expense of small businesses—got assigned the role of the fixed direction that economic progress would thereafter follow. About a decade later, the ideology of political correctness, with its fixed allotment of the roles of “victim” and “villain” by gender and ethnicity and its systematic erasure of the realities of social class (and middle-class bigotry toward the working classes), got assigned the same status in terms of social and cultural progress.
Both the policies and the ideology failed to achieve their ostensible goals; neither the general prosperity that was supposed to result from the former nor the increasing equality that was supposed to come out of the latter ever got around to showing up. The result was a forceful backlash, spearheaded in the usual manner by those who were expected to carry the costs of both the policies and the ideology while receiving none of the benefits. At this point the backlash has put opponents of the policies and the ideology alike into decisive positions in the executive and judicial branches of the US government, and the grassroots economic boom that free-trade policies were supposed to provide has now been set in motion by the abolition of free-trade policies.
In response, the defenders of yesterday’s version of progress have done what failed causes normally do in a Faustian society, and reverted to the habits of the Magian pseudomorphosis. Thus you get the shrill moral dualism, the posturing as goodness incarnate, the increasingly frantic insistence that the backlash against their version of progress can only be motivated by deliberate evil, and the rest of it. On cue, in turn, we’re starting to see articles in the media insisting that the end of the world will follow promptly now that the self-anointed “good people” have failed. If supporters of Donald Trump know their way around the history of ideas, they’re reading these articles with glee, since—as noted above—such diatribes are the death rattle of a modern social movement.
Keep in mind, though, that the antics we’re seeing in US politics today are a mild preview of the far more drastic disillusionment that’s already beginning to take shape as the entire Faustian project of perpetual progress betrays the hopes that have been placed on it. The difficulty that the Faustian culture has never grasped is that any attempt at continued movement in the same direction is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Scientific discovery and technological progress aren’t exempt from this law; it’s worth noting that the cost of each generation of scientific and technological advances has increased steadily with each passing decade, while the benefits provided by each decade’s advances, on average, has turned out to be more and more marginal where it hasn’t yet dipped well into negative numbers.
We’re already seeing people going back to an earlier generation of cell phones because the latest gimmick-laden smartphones are literally more trouble than they’re worth. In exactly the same way, manned space flight has become a publicity gimmick for ambitious nations and billionaire celebrities, and as orbits fill up with junked satellites and space debris and the risk of a Kessler-syndrome catastrophe rises, the smart money is moving into the early 20th century technology of high-altitude balloons to fill many of the roles now filled by satellites.
The entire narrative of human expansion into outer space is perhaps the most typically Faustian of all our dreams, the ultimate expression of a culture that loves to imagine itself zooming out to infinity in all directions. Scientists have known for decades that it’s not going to happen—outside of the Earth’s magnetosphere, space is so full of hard radiation that prolonged exposure to it will guarantee death by radiation poisoning, and neither the Moon nor Mars nor any other body in the solar system that human beings can visit has a comparable magnetosphere to keep out the lethal rays that stream from the ever-exploding thermonuclear bomb at the center of the solar system. The continuing hold of the myth of space colonization on our collective imagination, in the teeth of such scientific details, may turn out to be the weak point that brings the whole dream crashing down; if it’s not that, though, it’ll be something else.
Thus technological retrenchment, not perpetual progress is the wave of the future. As the failure of the grand myth of progress becomes increasingly hard to avoid, more and more people are turning their backs on the latest dysfunctional upgrades and new-but-emphatically-not-improved technotrinkets to return to things that actually work. Expect world-class meltdowns as that reality begins to sink in.
Thus I expect Faustian culture to undergo the same kind of catastrophic disillusionment that swept the Apollonian worldview into history’s dustbin. If anything, to judge by the foreshocks of that event that can be seen in the Western industrial cultures today, the rejection of the myth of progress may turn out to be even more sudden and sweeping. That won’t necessarily involve the collapse of nations—I expect that, too, but it’ll happen in its own time as a result of other pressures—but it’s pretty much certain to involve the overthrow of most of the automatic assumptions that govern public policies and personal lives alike just now. Many of my readers have already been through the tectonic shift that follows when it sinks in that the future really isn’t going to be better than the present. (The rest of you might want to brace yourselves, since you’ll be having the same experience soon enough.)
This brings us around finally to the theme I began to explore two weeks ago in the first post in this series, the likely emergence of two new great cultures in the post-Faustian world, one in eastern North America and one in Russia. Will these be the only great cultures to be kickstarted into motion by the failure of the Faustian dream? I have no idea. Certainly there’s every reason to think that the still-vital Chinese and Indian great cultures will respond to the shock of the Faustian era by cycling back around to some new version of their classic cultural themes; it seems likely, similarly, that Magian culture will continue to thrive in its Middle Eastern heartlands, and could well finish up its long and bitter struggles with Faustian culture by expanding north and west in the wake of the Faustian disillusionment, and imposing its rule on the exhausted nations of Europe for a time.
The wide, fertile, and climatologically fortunate watersheds of the Ohio and Volga rivers, though, are likely to play distinctive roles in the post-Faustian future. The two valleys and the cultures that emerge from them, though, will not follow identical trajectories by any means. Two crucial factors distinguish them. One has already been mentioned in this series of posts: Russia is already in its second pseudomorphosis, while America has so far experienced only one. The other is a subtler but more pervasive factor, rooted in the land itself. Two weeks from now, with the help of Carl Jung and Vine Deloria Jr., we’ll follow that subtler factor to its roots and try to make sense of the way it will shape the cultures of the future.