The Warrior, The Priest, and the Merchant
We search around for categories and schema to help us sort through our times. A portion of Spengler's discussion of language and culture may be helpful.
Oswald Spengler is always an interesting and enlightening read. I am currently working through the second volume of his The Decline of the West and came across an interesting portion in his chapter on “Peoples, Races and Tongues” that may help enlighten our current political situation and the problems we face. As most know, Spengler’s writing deals with his theory of the birth, life cycle, and death of the great cultures. Loosely, a great culture is a thing born out of the soil, among a people bonded together spiritually into a unified whole. Within this unified, rooted group, towns begin to form and over time the towns become cities and the living culture transitions to something which is freed from its attachment to the soil, is abstracted and becomes a thing of the cities and eventually the megalopolis. The cities then bleed the cultural energy of the soil attached culture until it is empty, there is nothing left, and it becomes a dead thing, sometimes to continue on zombie like indefinitely in its final form. Along the way there are transitions related to the use of language which I found illuminating for our present moment, living as we do in the nearly exhausted husk of the great Western culture.
We cannot have this discussion without mentioning Spengler’s definition of “race” which is very much defined differently than we do today, as partly a thing of genetics, skin color and politics. For Spengler, "race” is the essence of a culture. He calls it the plant-like rootedness to a physical space by a people bonded by blood, sharing the same language.
“Every race is a single great body, and every language the form of one great waking-consciousness that connects individual beings.”
Even though blood and language are connected, Spengler makes sure that we know that language and race are distinct things. Language is far more portable and transferable than is the connection to a specific place and its geographic shaping of a specific people.
“Race has roots. Race and landscape belong together.”
Culture is always a thing of the soil. Abstractness is a feature of civilization, that period when a great culture is already well on the way to dying, cut off as it is from the soil that nourished its birth. As we will see in a moment, one might question whether or not America was able to root itself properly in the soil of the New World. Was it already carrying with it the characteristics of civilization from Europe? Did it carry to these new shores a cultural history already well along the path to realizing its inner imperative? And in the place where it did seem most rooted, the South, was this blossoming culture crushed during the Civil War? It seems to me a fair question.
In filling this idea out, though, he notes that at its heart that:
“Comradeship breeds races…it is just this, too, that has bred the types of the European Jew, with his immense race-energy and his thousand years of ghetto life; and it will always forge a population into a race whenever it has stood for long together spiritually firm and united in the presence of its Destiny.”
In this example, the combination of ethnicity, religion, culture, and place—the urban ghetto—has forged the European Jewish people into a distinct race. To Spengler, this happens very quickly. In the compressed time frames of modern life, though, the 20 generations or so—400 years—he posits as the time frame needed to birth a unique culture seems like a near eternity.
“Within 20 generations or less the population of a land grows together into one single family.”
We can also see how constant mobility undermines the cultural identity of a people and prevents the forging of the bonds between people and soil necessary to forge a unified culture, a single waking-consciousness.
Here is where things start to get interesting for our purposes. Spengler argues that this birth of race and a unified culture is not primarily a thing of the mass of people. In fact, culture cannot be born among the masses. Culture is a product of society’s elites, specifically a soil connected warrior elite, each culture’s equivalent of the knight.
“Where a race-ideal exists, as it does, supremely, in the early period of the culture—the Vedic, the Homeric, the knightly times of the Hohenstaufen—the yearning of a ruling class towards this ideal, its will to be just so and not otherwise, operates…towards actualizing this ideal and eventually achieves it.”
What Spengler is saying here is that the big ideas of a culture, its main driving forms, are born among the warrior nobility and they then instantiate and make these forms a living reality, giving them life and shape, achieving in lived reality the impulses born in this process of cultural birthing in the mixture of soil, blood and language. He argues that these ideas exist spiritually among the people without signs or language. The spiritual connection comes first and in its formation and realization, gives birth to the signs and symbols of the people, a language of their own with a set of established meanings unique to this unified community. Spengler details the process of formation:
“This fixed stock of signs and motives, with its ostensibly fixed meaning, must be acquired by learning and practice if one wishes to belong to the community of waking-consciousness with which it is associated. The necessary concomitant of speech divorced from speaking is the notion of the school. This is fully developed in higher animals; and only in every self-contained religion, every art, every society, it presupposes the background of the believer, the artist, the “well-brought-up” human being. And from this point each community has its sharply defined frontier; to be a member one must know its language—i.e. its articles of faith, its ethics, its rules.”
Over this period of about 20 generations, an unconscious beneath the surface connection develops with its own symbols and signs. These then form the underlying meaning of the conscious use of language. As this develops over time and the culture group is formed there is a growing intensification, depth and strictness of the subconscious form-language. The boundary between who is on the “inside” of this group and who is on the outside clarifies and solidifies. It becomes the settled set form of the culture.
“Metaphysically the significance of this separating off of a set language can hardly be overestimated.”
It is very important for understanding the process of cultural development that we grasp the importance of the reality that the words, symbols and artifacts of culture and their meaning to the society and its members are two distinct things. The word and its meaning are independent of each other. The meanings of words exist on the level of shared consciousness and are simply there beneath the surface in the waking-consciousness of the people. This is why, he argues, there is an incommensurability between culture groups and why it takes time to assimilate into a culture, to pick up its unspoken “spiritual” language of meaning. Learning the dictionary meaning of words in translation does not thereby make you part of the culture, does not make you a part of its waking consciousness. Real understanding is knowledge conceived of as being. Understanding involves a joining together of two people at the metaphysical level, in the unspoken world of being.
Words, argues Spengler, conceal as much as they reveal. The difference between words and their meaning is the source of the lie. The signs and symbols are fixed, but their meanings are not. So too, we have all had that moment where there is something we wish to covey to another person, some idea, some feeling, often deep or profound, where we struggle to find the words, where words fail us and we are not able. We have all had the experience where the meaning of our words have been misunderstood, bringing hurt or conflict as a result. Words are a kind of mask that we wear as opposed to the kind of soul connection that one can make with eye-to-eye contact. As an aside, this is part of why true community cannot be built over social media. The deeper and more intimate the spiritual connection, argues Spengler, the more we can dispense with signs and symbols to communicate. We can communicate without words. He goes as far as to say this:
“Speech and truth exclude one another.”
What does all this have to do with the American political situation? We are getting there. We need one or two more steps before the payoff. Spengler notes that this move from a primitive, or a pre-cultural state to the expression of a definite culture, does not happen among the whole of the people at once, among the “all.” As mentioned above, the decisive group which truly awakens and propels the people’s culture idea towards its inevitable end is the warrior nobility. The warrior despises “speech” and the reliance on the abstracted meaning of words. He is connected to the soil, to the house, to his castle. The warrior nobility is concerned with “talk.”
“Talk is the custom of speech, its manners—”good form” in the intonation and idiom, fine tact in choice of words and mode of expression. All these things are the mark of race; they are learned not in the monastery cell or the scholar’s study, but in the polite intercourse from living examples. In noble society, and as a hallmark of nobility, the language of Homer, as also the old French of the Crusades and the Middle High German of the Hohenstaufen, were erected out of the ordinary talk of the countryside. When we speak of the great epic poets, the Skalds, the Troubadours, as creators of language, we must not forget that they began by being trained for their task , in language as in other things, by moving in noble circles. The great art by which the Culture finds its tongue is the achievement of a race and not that of a craft.”
The time of great cultural formation and realization is in the infancy period. Incubated in the pre-cultural phase, which sometimes lasts indefinitely, a warrior nobility emerges to give the nascent culture shape and form, to instantiate its imperative, its ideals within itself. Thus begins the history of the people, born through its warrior elite who were nourished in the soil of race, that mix of place, blood, language and a deep unspoken spiritual bond.
As the warrior nobility solidifies itself and begins to give expression culturally to its inner spiritual essence, a shift takes place from “talk”—which is of the earth, a thing of customs and manners—to “speech”—which is an abstract thing, a thing freed from the soil. The abstract is tied into the previously unspoken religious beliefs and so speech and with it writing becomes part of the priesthood.
“Writing is above everything a matter of status, and more particularly an ancient privilege of priesthood. The peasantry is without history and therefore without writing.”
With the warrior nobility comes the gradations of status and rank. The priest grow up along side of the warriors and together with them realizing their purpose as well. Thus castle and cathedral develop along side each other as twin institutions.
“In all cultures the script is the keeping of the priesthood, in which class we have to count also the poet and the scholars. The nobility despises writing; it has people to write for it.”
Thus the warrior, the man born out of the soil, the man of action makes history. The priest, the scholar puts it on paper and externalizes it. As the priests work, they draw out and put into words the spiritual energy of the warriors. It is slowly reified, abstracted, made into an artifact. Thus the tension between castle and cathedral begins. What shall endure? Deeds or truth?
As the society continues along its path of revealing its destiny, the emergence of “the state presupposes intercourse by writing.” Thus begins the battle over law. But this is a thing of priests and scholars, not of warriors.
“The battle of legislation is a fight for or against written law; constitutions replace material force by the composition of paragraphs and elevate the piece of writing to the dignity of a weapon.”
There is one stage left, that of the rise of the merchants and the market. The bourgeoisie represent a third form of language, not of the castle or of the cathedral, but rather of the city. It takes the abstract language of the cathedral, making it reasoned and utilitarian and applies it to the task of making money. In the end, the the city and its merchant speech kills off both the castle and the cathedral. Merchant speech is perfectly mechanical, like the city, precise and cold. The culture of money replaces both the warrior and the priest.
It is within this context that the modern idea of nation is born. A nation is a thing of city culture. A spirit which began with a few warrior nobles is dispersed little by little in stages to the whole of society. Once a culture is democratized, its energy is gone and it quickly ceases to exist.
“A Culture—people which is coincident with “all” does not exist—this is only possible in primitive and fellaheen peoples, only in a mere joint being without depth or historical dignity.”
Once all men across the empire, across the great culture feel a commonality the culture has ceased to be “historical.” Once a culture is democratized and becomes the possession of men, it’s energy can be said to be exhausted. It may live on for a long time, but it’s inner purpose has been realized and it has no more reason for keeping on other than to simply continue existing.
So what has this to do with America and the current moment? As Spengler led me through this, it struck me that in the origins of America as nation, its beginnings were not in the soil of the new lands being colonized. Its beginnings lay back on another continent. By the time settlers were arriving in the New World, the phase of warrior and priest were long in the rear view mirror, since at least the Reformation if not before that. By the time people stepped onto the shores of what would become America, the warrior nobility had long been usurped and the authority of the church had been sundered. The merchant classes had taken their place and society was in the process of being democratized. When you read a story like The Song of Roland the roles of warrior and priest leap out at you with a clear vividness:
In many ways, the creation of America is a product of ideas. I suppose this is yet another example of the left being more correct. America has always been an idea. The level of abstraction and portability has increased over time, but what were the debates over the Constitution and the idea of a “social contract” if they were not the things of the market and the merchant class? These are not things of warriors or priests, but rather of merchants. America has had soldiers, many brave and honorable men who have fought its wars, but it has never had a true warrior nobility. In fact, one of the early debates was over the having or not having of a standing army. It was seen as a threat. Even though the people of the colonies and the early America were majoritarian Christian, they pointedly refused any place for the cathedral in society. No religion would be established. America, with its debate over words, over the instantiation and meaning of its Constitution, uses the language and commerce as its main tools. It is a thing of the city, of commerce, of abstraction.
The battles we fight today in the main media and in alternate media, social media, these are battles of words. They are abstract battles. They are the battles of scholars, who are the last vestiges of the priestly class. The city is everywhere all around us. It bleeds life out of the country. The spirit of economics reigns. It is rootless, abstract, everywhere the same. One large franchise allowing us to move from city to city throughout the empire never feeling any attachment to anything. We can export it and impose it everywhere and anywhere.
The problem we face with cultural renewal is that we have been severed from the soil. Or perhaps we have never been given the chance to grow rooted in the soil as a people. Twenty generations. And when it was rooting itself in the South, the industrial and commercial interest of the North destroyed it in its infancy. Most of us move around too much. How can a warrior nobility emerge from people with no real culture? Yes, we have many brave soldiers willing to fight and die. But they serve the needs of the scholars and merchants. Their spirit has been bled dry by the demands of the megalopolis and its money interests fighting the ever-war. Do our soldier they have their own inner warrior drive, their own inner soul nurtured in the soil that must be realized? When you read Spengler, you begin to truly understand the depth of the problem we face. We need a renewed soul as a people, something generative, something that is capable of birthing a new warrior nobility.
As the West dies there is a likelihood of a new Warrior Class or classes to arise. In fact, they could be birthing right now, or too young to identify in the face of the current Merchant Class. Do I have that right?