Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Unfounded

Somewhere in The Everlasting Man, Chesterton takes on a common tendency of some academic types to infer a spiritual meaning in prehistoric artifacts and then to teach their theory as if we had direct, primary evidence of the religious tenets of the people involved. Some have said, for instance, that the cave dwellers of Lascaux worshiped the animals they painted on their walls and that rooms with more paintings than others functioned as sanctuaries. Maybe, counters G. K., they simply admired the beauty of the animals they hunted, and perhaps the rooms where animal pictures abound served as nurseries.

I see bold declarations of the inner motivations of prehistoric people disturbingly often. My son's high-school American history text taught that the first Americans crossed a land bridge between Asia and Alaska in order to find food. I'm sure that they hoped to find food, because all members of the animal kingdom share that need. And I'm sure that they found food, because their descendents live today in testimony to their survival. But I'm not sure at all that we can know that finding food provided their sole motivation for migration. Humans move for many reasons. Maybe the original immigrants were trying to get away from an aggressive enemy. Maybe they were searching for furs. Maybe they just liked the look of the mountains. That history book did nothing to teach young people about these possibilities based on observations of human nature. And, by the way, it certainly didn't teach young people about the nature of history since, without primary documentation, the historical method can make no conclusions whatsoever about human motivation.

This kind of confident but unfounded speculation lies near the center of Spengler's approach in The Decline of the West. Spengler's main thesis is that Europe and the Americas have seen many cultures rise and fall -- not just one "Western Civilization" -- and that the arc always follows the same trajectory. But I haven't encountered anything like an argument for the thesis with which I can either agree or disagree. He often draws his comparisons between cultures by simply mentioning, for instance, the Baroque era in Classical Civilization or saying that Napoleon and Alexander were alike; explanations of these intriguing turns of phrase appear rarely. At least he's consistent with his own vision, since he says that the true spirit of a civilization can not be explained, only felt. I guess I don't feel it. In any case, having convinced some readers by intuition that all cultures rise and fall in the same way, Spengler sometimes describes prehistoric cultures based only on his theory that they must be like all the others.

Spengler says in fact that all cultures begin without history. So he rules out the very possibility of documentary evidence for the conditions of early cultures and doesn't offer any other basis for his observations beyond his idea that Destiny determines that early cultures be the way he says they were. According to Spengler, one of those destined features of prehistorical cultures is an original lack of religion. (The cave dwellers of Lascaux, we must suppose, had advanced beyond this stage.) He also claims to know the way that language started and how grammar developed. Anyone watching a man converse with a dog, he says, can see how it must have been.

I have trouble agreeing with many of the points he makes about historical times, too. I became very intrigued (at last!) when Spengler started talking about the tendency of western religion and philosophy of the last 1000 years toward expecting their standards of everyone, or even of imposing those standards. I agreed when he suggested that demonstration taught better than force. But he lost me again when he said that no western religion before 1000 AD would have dreamed of imposing itself on others. I don't understand what he thinks he can achieve by saying something so revolutionary without any explanation. Islam spread extremely rapidly in the century after Mohammed, and common understanding says this expansion benefited from both words and swords. Millions suddenly became nominal Christians when the Empire became officially Christian at the end of the fourth century. And I seem to remember something about a pagan emperor or two forcing everyone within reach of the legions to sacrifice to Caesar as a god. Now maybe some big change of attitude happened around 1000 AD that Spengler has discovered. But he doesn't help me see it simply by rewriting the prior thousand years of documented history in a single, unexplained, unsupported sentence.

Again, I'm puzzled when Spengler says the Classical (i.e. ancient Greek) person had no sense of the importance or influence of past and future. His evidence is the Greek statue, which captures and preserves, he says, a single, undifferentiated moment. Because of this extreme version of "living in the now," the protagonist in a Greek drama is simply a victim of the present whims of the gods and the coincidental circumstances of the moment. Nothing in the character or history of Oedipus makes any difference to the story of his unwitting patricide and incest, he says. It could just as well have been anyone.

I read this section constantly thinking of counterexamples. I don't buy his interpretation of Greek sculpture to begin with. Don't many of those statues suggest an awful lot of gymnastic exercise prior to the captured moment? Doesn't Poseidon have a future target in mind for that missing trident? And doesn't that beautiful split second of rest at the top of the discus thrower's upswing clearly suggest both a past and a future? My confusion continues as I think about Greek drama and epic. Of course Oedipus' past matters. He's received a prophecy that warns him of his fate. And in the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, the plot makes no sense without the past (i.e., the events shown in Oedipus the King) and the courage of his daughter, Antigone. Agamemnon is all about the wicked character of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon's history as a general in the Trojan War. "It could just as well have been anyone"? Substitute Shakespeare's Portia and Falstaff for Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and theater-goers won't see a play about a woman killing her husband.

So what about "the good" that the title of this post promises? Spengler proves accurately prescient when, in 1922, he reports his vision of our era:
Even now the world-cities of the Western Civilization are far from having reached the peak of their development. I see, long after A.D. 2000, cities laid out for ten to twenty million inhabitants, spread over enormous areas of countryside, with buildings that will dwarf the biggest of today's and notions of traffic and communications that we should regard as fantastic to the point of madness.
 It's curious that the one point that Spengler admits might sound mad is the point that proves the most sane.

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