When human history began

I’m sharing a third and final Spengler passage that I’ll offer today without commentary, and that ties together the first two excerpts:

The development of theoretical thought within the human waking-consciousness gives rise to a kind of activity that makes inevitable a fresh conflict—that between Being (existence) and Waking-Being (waking-consciousness). The animal microcosm, in which existence and consciousness are joined in a self-evident unit of living, knows of consciousness only as the servant of existence. The animal “lives” simply and does not reflect upon life. Owing, however, to the unconditional monarchy of the eye, life is presented as the life of a visible entity in the light; understanding, then, when it becomes interlocked with speech, promptly forms a concept of thought and with it a counter-concept of life, and in the end it distinguishes life as it is from that which might be. Instead of straight, uncomplicated living, we have the antithesis represented in the phrase “thought and action.” That which is not possible at all in the beasts becomes in every man not merely a possibility but a fact, and in the end an alternative. The entire history of mature humanity with all its phenomena has been formed by it, and the higher the form that a Culture takes, the more fully this opposition dominates the significant moments of its conscious being.

[Human waking-consciousness consists of sensation and understanding and to that extent is equivalent to “ascertainment.” It thus encounters the epistemological problem. Waking-consciousness is synonymous with the existence of oppositions; whereas the world of tensions is necessarily rigid and dead, namely “eternal truth,” something beyond all time, something that is a state, the actual world of waking-consciousness is full of changes. Rest and movement, duration and change, become and becoming, are oppositions denoting something that in its very nature “passeth all understanding” and must therefore from the point of view of the understanding contain an absurdity. If the will to know breaks down on the problem of motion, it may well be because life’s purpose has at that point been achieved. In spite of this, and indeed because of this, the motion problem remains the centre of gravity of all higher thought.]

The problem of motion touches, at once and immediately, the secrets of existence, which are alien to the waking-consciousness and yet inexorably press upon it. In posing motion as a problem we affirm our will to comprehend the incomprehensible, the when and wherefore, Destiny, blood, all that our intuitive processes touch in our depths. Born to see, we strive to set it before our eyes in the light, so that we may in the literal sense grasp it, assure ourselves of it as of something tangible.

For this is the decisive fact, of which the observer is unconscious—his whole effort of seeking is aimed not at life, but at the seeing of life, and not at death, but at the seeing of death.

That we do not merely live but know about “living” is a consequence of our bodily existence in the light. But the beast knows only life, not death. Were we pure plantlike beings, we should die unconscious of dying, for to feel death and to die would be identical. But animals, even though they hear the death-cry, see the dead body, and scent putrefaction, behold death without comprehending it. Only when understanding has become, through language, detached from visual awareness and pure, does death appear to man as the great enigma of the light-world about him.

Then, and only then, life becomes the short span of time between birth and death, and it is in relation to death that that other great mystery of generation arises also. Only then does the diffuse animal fear of everything become the definite human fear of death. It is this that makes the love of man and woman, the love of mother and child, the tree of the generations, the family, the people, and so at last world-history itself the infinitely deep facts and problems of destiny that they are.


Oswald Spengler continues:

[The plant is something cosmic; the animal has an additional quality, it is a microcosm in relation to a microcosm. All that is cosmic bears the trademark of periodicity. It has beat-rhythm. Everything microcosmic possesses polarity. We talk of tense thought, but all wakeful states are in their nature tension—subject and object, I and You. To become aware of the cosmic beat we call “to feel;” microcosmic tensions we call perceptions. The ambiguity of the word Sinnlichkeit—sensitive faculty, sensuousness—has obscured the difference between the plant and the animal sides of life; the former [plant] always bears the mark of periodicity, beat: the latter [animal] consists in tensions, polarity of light and object illuminated, of cognition and that which it cognized. We use the word “touch” quite generally of contacts: to “establish” means to fix the position of something relatively to its surroundings. All senses are positive. The blood is for us the symbol of the living. The blood of ancestors flows through the chain of generations and binds them in a great linkage of destiny, beat and time.

The word “consciousness” is ambiguous; it contains the meaning Being (“Dasein”) and Waking-consciousness (Wachsein). Being possesses beat and direction; waking-consciousness is tension and extension. The plant exists without waking-consciousness.

The opposite pole of the eye is light. The picture of life is taken in through the light world of the eye. In man’s waking-consciousness nothing disturbs the lordship of the eye. The idea of an invisible God is the highest expression of human transcendence. Where the boundaries of the light world are lies the beyond. Music is the only art whose means lie outside the light world. Hence it can take us beyond the tyranny of light. Even in the higher animals there are differences between mere sensations and understanding sensation. The development of language brought about the emancipation of understanding from sensation. Understanding detached from sensation is called thought.

This is a challenging passage, and it’s my amateur sense that Spengler’s German thinking makes this passage particularly difficult, because I think his distinction between “being” and “waking-consciousness” is better understood as the difference between “existence” in the physical sense, and “being” in the metaphysical sense.

In any event, here’s my thinking on this passage: that the waking-consciousness we possess (the ability to perceive of ourselves as creatures in time) is the same consciousness that suggests the likelihood of a “somethingness” to life rather than a “nothingness;” in short, the likelihood of meaning.

Individuality and loneliness

Oswald Spengler writes in Chapter 11 of The Decline of the West on “The Cosmic and the Microcosm:”

Regard the flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence. The dumb forest, the silent meadows, this bush, that twig, do not stir themselves, it is the wind that plays with them. Only the little gnat is free—he dances still in the evening light, he moves whither he will.

A plant is nothing on its own account. It forms a part of the landscape in which a chance made it take root. The twilight, the chill, the closing of every flower—these are not cause and effect, not danger and willed answer to danger. They are a single process of nature, which is accomplishing itself near, with, and in the plant. The individual is not free to look out for itself, will for itself, or choose for itself.

As animal, on the contrary, can choose. It is emancipated from the servitude of all the rest of the world. This midget swarm that dances on and on, that solitary bird still flying through the evening, the fox furtively approaching the nest—these are little worlds of their own within another great world. An animalcule in a drop of water, too tiny to be perceived by the human eye, though it lasts but a second and has but a corner of this drop as its field—nevertheless is free and independent isn’t he face of the universe. This gaint oak, upon one of whose leaves the droplet hangs, is not.

Servitude and freedom—this is in last and deepest analysis the differentia by which we distinguish vegetable and animal existence. Yet only the plant is wholly and entirely what it is; in the being of the animal there is something dual. A vegetable is only a vegetable; an animal is a vegetable and something more besides. A herd that huddles together trembling in the presence of danger, a child that clings weeping to its mother, a man desperately striving to force a way into his God—all these are seeking to return out of the life of freedom and into the vegetal servitude from which they were emancipated into individuality and loneliness.

This instinctive desire among the emancipated to transcend that emancipation is self-evident in the fact that we’re conscious creatures who finds ourselves deeply unsettled by our existence. Perhaps particularly so because nature itself seems to point to another life.

I’ll return to Spengler for his insights on consciousness.


Newt Gingrich wrote almost ten years ago:

Adolescence was invented in the 19th century to enable middle-class families to keep their children out of sweatshops. But it has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history: consigning 13-year-old males to learning from 15-year-old males. …

The fact is, most young people want to be challenged and given real responsibility. They want to be treated like young men and women, not old children. So consider this simple proposal: High school students who can graduate a year early get the 12th year’s cost of schooling as an automatic scholarship to any college or technical school they want to attend. If they graduate two years early, they get two years of scholarships. At no added cost to taxpayers, we would give students an incentive to study as hard as they can and maximize the speed at which they learn.

Once we decide to engage young people in real life, doing real work, earning real money, and thereby acquiring real responsibility, we can transform being young in America. And our nation will become more competitive in the process.

Remove Gingrich’s politics and his tendency to be provocative for its own sake, and you’re still left with a worthwhile thought. Some people talk about the problem of “extended adolescence,” but why not help (emotionally, socially, and educationally well adjusted) kids avoid adolescence altogether? We have one life.

Listening to the rain

We seem determined to let no part of nature remain truly natural—for no part of the environment to remain truly untouched by our hands. Even our natural spaces are increasingly tamed and managed and planned, which means they’re not really natural spaces any longer. So I thank God that we still have the experience of rain showers to provide a sense of the natural and timeless and lovely amidst our landscapes.


Fire this gentle

It’s been a while since I shared poetry I’ve liked, so here’s Las Animas by Dana Gioia:

Fire everywhere, soft fire of brushwood, fire
on walls where a faint shadow flickers
but lacks the strength to imprint itself, fire
in the distance rising and falling across the hills
like a bright thread through the spreading ashes,
fire in flakes from the trellised vines and branches.

Here neither before nor after its proper time,
but now that everything in this festive,
sad valley exhausts its life, exhausts its fire,
I turn back and count my dead,
and their procession seems longer, trembling
leaf by leaf from the first felled tree.

Grant them peace, eternal peace, carry them
to safety—far from this whirlwind
of ash and flame that twists choking
through the ravines, wandering the paths,
spinning aimlessly, then disappears.
Let death by only death, nothing other
than death, beyond struggle, beyond life.
Grant them peace, eternal peace, appease them.

Down there where the harvest is thicker,
they plow, they roll their barrels to the spring,
they whisper in the quiet transformations
of each hour. A young dog stretches out
in the corner of the garden for a nap.

A fire this gentle is barely enough, perhaps
not even enough, to cast light long
on this life’s undergrowth. Only another fire
can do the rest and then more—
to consume these remains, to change
them into light, clear and incorruptible.

Requiems from the dead for the living, requiems
in each flame for the living and the dead.
Stir the embers: night is here, the night
that spreads its pulsing web between the mountains,
now the eyes fail, but from the heat,
from the darkness, they know what remains.

(From the Italian of Mario Luzi)

Conserving as much as creating

When I think about conservation, I think about the necessity of being creative in order to be successful. That is, I don’t think it’s possible to conserve something without also to some degree changing the thing you’re conserving—and in that change, creativity emerges.

What a conservationist exists to do first and foremost is conserve something—speaking in the broadest way, this is usually a way of life, or a way that people or a community relate to one another. A conservationist is guided by creativity and principle, but only secondarily concerned with things like institutions or abstract ideas. And a conservationist’s interest in being creative and the principle of the thing he’s trying to conserve usually comes from his relationship with his other people, his neighbors.

In life, in family, in the church, in schooling, in social clubs, in recreation, all these things require actively recreating a way of being that has been lived before and born the fruit of the present—or at least born fruits that are no longer present but at least vaguely remembered. A dilapidated but historic house crying out for renovation is one example. A run-down neighborhood once made vibrant by an economic or intellectual strength is another example. But the essential point is that every choice in and of itself is an act of creation, or writing the next chapter. In this, we are creating the good life as we understand it with those we love.

A tangible example of the way that both conserving and creating relate to one another can be seen at Philadelphia City Hall. There is the mighty old building herself, but there is also the conservationist’s creative touch in the cleaning and restoration of the original white of the building’s tower. Its cleaning certainly helped conserve the building, and simply in cleaning it did not change the tower. And yet, in cleaning that tower the conservationist created an entirely new experience of City Hall that is altogether different than the one that generations had before of a filthy, pollution-covered symbol of the city.


The same idea can be seen around City Hall in what is now called Dilworth Park. This was a concrete and marble skirt for the building until a few years ago, when the entire thing was transformed by Center City District into an inviting and attractive public space. Achieving this transformation required a great deal of creative thinking, and in executing the change Dilworth Park was born as an entirely new space. And yet Dilworth Park also in some form conserves Centre Square, one of William Penn’s five squares laid out hundreds of years ago.

To conserve something is rarely a passive thing. It requires as much vision and thoughtfulness about what’s value and good as the newest thing under the sun. Maybe more so, given human tendency to prize novelty over the proven and timeless.