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Dreaming History

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible" (T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom).

"Our children will sing great songs about us years from now." This daydream belongs to Michael Ledeen, the same fantasist who foresees that "we're going to be obliged to fight a regional war whether we want to or not" with respect to the Middle East. Dreaming on, he adds that "it may turn out to be a war to remake the world."

One doubts that Michael of Mesopotamia will be the subject of a motion picture years hence. Maybe a country song, but not a movie. Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, Mr. Ledeen does his dreaming from behind a desk. Not the stuff of film epics, far less Homeric epics: "Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Rumsfeld"?

Lawrence's "immortal" epic is not a best seller, despite its relevance to recent events: the paperback edition is ranked 1,859th by Amazon US; the two British editions are ranked even lower, with the Penguin version at 8,090th and the budget edition at 2917th. He is handily outsold by the derring-do of fictional adventurers Harry Potter and Tom Clancy's John Clark, the ex-Navy SEAL described in an Amazon review as "embodying the more paranoid sensibilities of the late u201890s" who believes "violent, deadly force to be the best deterrent for terrorism."

Lawrence of Arabia subtitled his book "A Triumph." A scholar, Lawrence almost certainly intended to call up the image of the Roman triumphs, though with what degree of irony we will never know. The "triumph" of liberation the Arabs thought they'd won was illusory, as the British would soon teach them. Lawrence described his initial entry into conquered Damascus thus: "Quite quietly we drove up the long street to the Government buildings on the banks of the Barada. The way was packed with people lined solid on the side-walks, in the road, at the windows and on the balconies or house-tops. Many were crying, a few cheered faintly, some bolder ones cried out our names; but mostly they looked and looked, joy shining in their eyes. A movement like a long sigh from gate to heart of the city, marked our course."

Shortly thereafter, the march resumed: "When we came in there had been some miles of people greeting us: now there were thousands for every hundred then. Every man, woman and child in this city of a quarter-million souls seemed in the streets, waiting only the spark of our appearance to ignite their spirits. Damascus went wild with joy. The men tossed off their tarbushes to cheer, the women tore off their veils. Householders threw flowers, hangings, carpets, into the road before us; their wives leaned, screaming with laughter, through the lattices and splashed us with bath-dippers of scent."

Latter-day dreams of an Iraqi populace welcoming their Anglo-American liberators with flowers in their hair and hands failed to materialize in the manner foreseen. There was screaming, to be sure, but not with laughter.

It must be recalled that Lawrence was with an Arab army, albeit one led in part by an Englishman in Arab dress, a dreamer whose dreams would soon enough turn to nightmares that would haunt him for the rest of his days. The formal, Roman-style "triumph" of the British "liberators" was planned for the following day, because Lawrence (according to his own account) "could not guarantee administrative services until the following day." But it all began to go bad for Lawrence when the Australian (still a British colony back in 1918) General Chauvel indicated he had no intention of saluting the Arab flag as they passed the town hall: "I wanted to make faces at his folly: but… [a]s a compromise, I suggested we leave out the Town Hall, and invent another route, passing… by the Post Office. I meant this as farce, since my patience had broken down." The general made a concession: "In place of an u2018entry' he would make a u2018march through': it meant that instead of going in the middle he would go at the head, or instead of the head, the middle. I forgot, or did not well hear, which: for I should not have cared if he had crawled under or flown over his troops, or split himself to march both sides."

Thus do dreams of glory, of high drama, give way to farce and end in the dusty recesses of the mind where one wakes to learn that all was vanity.

The British Empire – that upon which the sun never set – has largely turned to dust since the days of T.E. Lawrence. This, history shows, has been the destiny of all empires, all visions of "remaking the world." Any dreamer of history – indeed, any student of history – might benefit from a backward glance at The Decline of the West (1918), the best known work of Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), a dreamer of history on a grand scale.

Spengler, like Lawrence, was an eccentric, but unlike Lawrence, not a man of action. Oswald Spengler was one of what is now a completely vanished breed: a private scholar with private means. Spengler worked alone, outside of the academic community. He had been formally educated in mathematics, but was otherwise an autodidact, something of a polymath and a dilettante. And in his nearly monastic isolation, he developed a highly original and sweeping view of history as a process of evolution, of the rises and subsequent falls of Cultures, Civilizations and Empires.

Spengler's work was not so much pessimistic with respect to the West per se, as the translated title of his major work (Der Untergang des Abendlandes in the original German) might suggest. The thesis of the work was simply that all civilizations/cultures arise, flourish and decline in a cyclical pattern, not just that of the West, which he described as "the only Culture in our time … actually in the phase of fulfillment – the West European-American." And, too, Spengler points out that for the student of history: "It makes a great difference whether anyone lives under the constant impression that his life is an element in a far wider life-course that goes on for hundreds or thousands of years, or conceives of himself as something rounded off and self-contained. For the latter type of consciousness there is certainly no world-history, no world-as-history." He later adds what is that sets him apart from the "optimist" camp around whose fire Ledeen and friends imagine their progeny singing paeans to their wisdom: "It is a quite indefensible method of presenting world-history to begin by giving rein to one's own religious, political or social convictions…" with the intention of bringing it "exactly to one's own standpoint."

Spengler attempted to evaluate history in a "scientific" manner, but was wise enough to recognize that "Truths are truths only in relation to a particular mankind. Thus, 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." The use of the word "soul" with respect to a collective is certainly open to question, but what is not is that no "science" exists that can quantify the often irrational longings of the individual and perhaps by extension "collective soul" of a particular group of humans in a particular place at a particular time. Lawrence's account of the Arabs at whose side he fought would certainly lend credence to such an idea.

As might be expected, Spengler has been attacked (along with Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), a work that received much attention following the tragic events of 11 September 2001) as belonging to "the sad school of Western oracular literature," in an NRO 8 October 2001 article, "Vanquishing Spengler's Ghost," by Michael Knox Beran. Apparently "oracular" history is acceptable only when it is of the "happy" school, that which foresees the inevitable "triumph of the West" dreamt of by oracles such as Michael Ledeen, a position congruent with the very sort of magical thinking Beran pretends to decry.

Spengler did not, as Beran claims, see "only obstacles to the continued vitality of Western Kultur;" rather what he "saw" was a process (which he believed inevitable) by which "Culture" ( the "soul" of a people) evolved into a "Civilization" (the "intellect" of a people) which he conceived to be "the inevitable destiny of the Culture," its "fulfillment and finale," the stage that leads to the conclusion: imperialism.

"The expansive tendency is a doom, something daemonic and immense…”. Far from being the "defeatist" described by Beran, Spengler accepted – indeed advocated – this fulfillment: "He who does not understand that this outcome is obligatory and insusceptible of modification, that our choice is between willing this and willing nothing at all, between cleaving to this destiny or despairing of the future and of life itself; he who cannot feel that there is a grandeur also in the realizations of powerful intelligences, in the energy and discipline of metal-hard natures, in battles fought with the coldest and most abstract means; he who is obsessed with the idealism of a provincial and would pursue the ways of life of past ages – must forgo all desire to comprehend history, to live through history or to make history." Hell: it sounds like a New Republic editorial!

Indeed, it seems strange to find a neo-conservative so critical of Spengler when much of what he wrote is in line with the latter-day messianic mission deemed to be America's: "Life if it would be great, is hard; it lets choose only between victory and ruin, not between war and peace, and to the victory belong the sacrifices of victory;" "The alternatives now are to stand fast or go under – there is no middle course;" "The courage of a troop depends upon its confidence in the leadership, and confidence means involuntary abstention from criticism;" "We of today find ourselves in a period of boundless confidence in the omnipotence of reason. Great general ideas of freedom, justice, humanity, progress, are sacrosanct…"

One wonders why it was that Beran chose to use the German word "Kultur" instead of Anglicizing it. It serves no purpose; at least no narrative purpose. Perhaps the reader is intended to associate the spelling with… what, exactly? Was the use of the German spelling some sort of snide slur? "Old Europe"? Or perhaps Nazisim, of which Spengler has been falsely accused? Reading Spengler – carefully reading him – might lead the reader to understand what sort of thinking it was that leads to Nazism or a present-day equivalent; best from the point of view of the powers-that-be-and-would-be that those who "live so cowed under the bombardment of [ruling class propaganda] that hardly anyone can attain to the inward detachment that is required for a clear view of the monstrous drama" don't learn of any work of history that might awaken them. Spengler, after all, had the audacity to suggest that Anglo-American ruling class interests "have created through the press a force-field of world-wide intellectual and financial tensions in which every individual unconsciously takes up the place allotted to him, so that he must think, will and act as a ruling personality somewhere or other in the distance thinks fit." Perhaps, too, Beran regards as "pessimistic" Spengler's cynical observation that "as for the modern press, the sentimentalist may beam with contentment when it is constitutionally "free" – but the realist merely asks at whose disposal it is."

This is not to say that Spengler was correct in his fatalistic and rather convoluted analysis and evaluation of "civilizations"; it merely indicates – to me, at least – that it is unwise to assume he must be incorrect merely because in Beran's opinion Spengler (like Huntington) is "unacceptably pessimistic" [emphasis added] because Beran believes their work "contains a stink of defeatism." History itself is not a contest: it is among other things the study of contests. History is the means by which we attempt to evaluate all that goes into contests; it is not merely a record of their outcomes. And it is always wisest to evaluate evolving events from as many standpoints as possible, particularly if a "contest" is perceived. This is not "defeatism;" it is simple common sense.

I reject the Spenglerian vision of inevitable historical process simply because I am an unregenerate believer in free will. Spengler closes his magnum opus with a quote from Seneca: "Ducunt Fata volentm, nolentem trahunt"; "Destiny guides the willing, drags the unwilling," loosely translated. Spengler posits an inevitable coming of "the Caesarism that… approaches with quiet, firm step." And what is it that the "Caesar-men" do? "They seize the management of the world." If there is defeatism to be found in Spengler, it is in this abdication of free will to destiny, to a collective impulse toward societal suicide characterized by a surrender of spiritual values and by dreams of statist glory. I cannot – or perhaps better said, will not – accept that this process cannot be halted by men and women of good will and firm belief, however much current events might lead one to conclude otherwise. But I believe myself sufficiently objective to confess that Spengler's "pessimism" may yet prove correct, however "unacceptable" it may be to Michael Knox Beran and to me, though our reasons as to why we find it unacceptable are likely quite different.

By way of a Spenglerian sidebar, I believe worthy of comment a recent (23 March) op-ed piece in The New York Times, "In Praise of Failed Diplomacy," by Niall Ferguson, a history professor at NYU's Stern School of Business. The piece praises another historical dreamer, "the mercurial George Canning", a British foreign secretary of the early Nineteenth Century. "In language that would surely warm Donald Rumsfeld's heart," Ferguson opines, the mercurial Canning stated that he would not take into account "the wishes of any other government, or the interests of any other people, except in so far as those wishes, those feelings and those interests may, or might, concur with the just interests of England" [emphasis added]. Mr. Ferguson goes on to praise the fact that Canning was unafraid to "take unilateral military action" with respect to British intervention in a dynastic dispute between Spain and Portugal: "To Canning's critics, this was – you guessed it – a colossal diplomatic failure. But did it matter? Scarcely. These assertions of British power signalled a profound shift in the balance of power in Europe away from reactionary Vienna toward liberal London."

It is this unabashed adoration of imperialism disguised as "liberalism" that should be viewed with a very wary eye. Spengler offers observations on liberalism that will give any pro-market individual pause: "Politics and trade in developed form – the art of achieving material success over an opponent by means of intellectual superiority – are both a replacement of war by other means." Spengler, it must be pointed out, was contemptuous of market activity, believing that "The genuine prince and statesman wants to rule, and the genuine merchant wants only to be wealthy, and here the acquisitive economy divides to pursue aim and means separately." Spengler was an admirer of the inevitability of Caesarism as statecraft.

Spengler cites the Rumsfeld-heart-warming Canning as superbly expressive of the sort of "liberalism" London had during Canning's term of office. When the South American colonies of Spain revolted at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Canning declared with telling Cesarean contradiction: "South America free! And if possible English!" Spengler commented on the quote by stating with admiration that "The expansion idea has never been expressed in greater purity than this."

Though Mr. Ferguson concedes that "even a hyperpower needs diplomacy," it is unlikely that he believes this to be anything but a measure of expediency, given his praise of Canning's "minimal regard for the other great powers." Power, and only power, is the goal of diplomacy, trade or war, if one is to take Canning as one's guide. Yet Canning's dreams of everlasting British glory ended as did the dandelions described in Shakespeare's magnificent metaphor: "Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust."

Dreaming history.

T.E. Lawrence closed his account with these words: "There remained historical ambition, insubstantial as a motive by itself. I had dreamed… of hustling into form, while I lived, the new Asia which time was inexorably bringing upon us. Mecca was to lead to Damascus; Damascus to Anatolia, and afterwards to Baghdad; and then there was Yemen. Fantasies, these will seem, to such as are able to call my beginning an ordinary effort."

Beware dreamers of history and the roads they wish to lead us down; it would not do to prove Spengler's dream correct that for all peoples, sooner or later, all roads lead to Rome. And to dust.

April 23, 2003

Timothy J. Cullen (send him mail), a former equities trader, lives in Seville, Spain.