Vesta’s Flame in Dixie: Oswald Spengler and Southern Culture

“Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it is the only thing that lasts.” – Gerald O’Hara, Gone with the Wind

Every year when I was a kid, usually around Christmas time, my family would watch the 1939 historical/romance epic Gone with the Wind. Over the years, after seeing the movie dozens of times, I was not so much captivated by the romances in Scarlett’s life as I was by her eventual love and renewed fidelity to the land of her birth. In fact, Scarlett’s struggle between finding fulfillment in romance and in her love of home is a theme seen throughout the film, as well as in Margaret Mitchell’s novel. At the beginning of the film, Scarlett’s father, Gerald, preaches to her that the love of the land is an Irish virtue, and because she is half-Irish, she too will learn to love the land of her birth. “…why the land they live on is like their mother! Oh but there, there! You’re just a child! It’ll come to you! This love of the land! There’s no getting’ away from it if you’re Irish!” Gerald exclaims in a moving sunset scene at the beginning of the film.

Eventually, Gerald’s prophecy is fulfilled for Scarlett as she experiences the oppressive years of Southern “Reconstruction,” where the O’Haras must till the land themselves to eke out a living. Scarlett goes to any means necessary, even marrying a wealthy man she has no love for, in order to keep carpetbaggers and scallywags from taking her ancestral home of Tara. While love of the land may indeed be an Irish virtue, it is also an indisputably Southern one (as anyone who is familiar with a variety of country-and-western songs can attest). Indeed, it could be said that a love of one’s land, hearth, and home might be the distinguishing Southern virtue.

Enter Spengler. Oswald Spengler (b. 1880–d. 1936) was a German historian and philosopher who is best known for his magnum opus, Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), which was first published in 1918. Decline is Spengler’s bold attempt to summarize of the entirety of human history, and also to show how the future of European civilization has been predetermined. Decline is also revolutionary because Spengler rejected the Eurocentric view of history popular at his time. Instead of looking at human history as a kind of stepping ladder leading to an advanced modernity of fueled rockets, skyscrapers, and nuclear weapons, Spengler saw individual civilizations as superorganisms that were creatures unto themselves, each with its own finite and predicable lifespan.

Spengler viewed a civilization’s organic lifespan in terms of seasons; each has a spring, summer, autumn, and finally a winter. Springtime is the birth of a culture, where that civilization’s basic principles begin to form. Summer is the height, where all these principles are working and the culture begins to create its great achievements. Then, in the autumn period, the culture’s principles begin to break down. Megacities are born; economics and social justice drives politics; people question established traditions; atheism spreads; and art loses its metaphysical drive and becomes almost a mystery religion, where the viewer must understand the artist’s secret code in order to appropriately interpret the piece. Eventually, despots take power, and winter is ushered in. In the wintertime, the civilization finally begins to ossify, as various despots vie for power, cities depopulate (think of Detroit), art becomes nothing more than repetitive copies (turn on the radio and it seems like everything now sounds like Drake’s “Hotline Bling”) and the masses gradually return to traditional values. Spengler viewed this process as cyclical—that is, new cultures may arise out of the ashes of the previous civilization.

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Drawing inspiration from Goethe’s metamorphosis of plants (Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären), Oswald Spengler also noted that each culture (he named eight in Decline of the West) has a “prime,” or “Ur,” symbol. One might think of this Ur-symbol as the “soul” of a culture. This symbol is the measure or drive according to which all art, religion, and politics form for that specific culture. For example, according to Decline, the Magian civilizations (Persian-Zoroastrian, Islamic civilization, Eastern Christianity/Byzantium, etc.) have as their symbol the cave, where magical, polarized forces fight for control of the universe. And as for the Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, Spengler determines their symbol to be the human body—an image that is almost obsessively portrayed in these cultures’ art.

So what of the European civilization that we typically consider our own to derive from? Spengler says that its symbol is infinity. Western culture is characterized by a strong drive to attain the unattainable. Inspired by Goethe’s Faust, Spengler dubbed the entire West “Faustian” after the protagonist who, in his lust for omniscience, gives his soul over to the devil, Mephistopheles. Thus, in Spengler’s interpretation, Western culture overcomes its fear of death through action and the will to power. The urge to change the world is inherent in the Western man. (For example, science is seen as a tool to improve life.) Furthermore, we Westerners see it as our moral imperative to convert others to our religion (in the past this religion was Christianity; now we might say that it has changed to free-market capitalism and democracy). This drive toward infinity is evident also in architecture, such as the Gothic cathedrals of Europe that seem to soar toward the heavens, as well as the skyscrapers of famous megacities like New York.

Spengler saw the Western man as a tragic figure, because infinity is ultimately unattainable. And in the end, like Faust’s, the West’s creative potential becomes depleted.

Spengler dated the “winter” of Western civilization to the beginning of the nineteenth century, just after the Napoleonic Wars. It is interesting to note that Spengler never mentioned the American South or the War of Northern Aggression in Decline. Perhaps he saw it as just another paradigm of the Western winter. While one could argue that the American South and its quest for independence is a continuation of traditional American values—the other half of the American Revolution—I propose that the American South is an entirely different “culture” in its seminal formation. This seed was planted during the early days of colonization in the Americas by our ancestors, but was not allowed to germinate by the aggressive powers of the North. There is much possibility that, given the right chances and conditions, the American South could still become a great culture in its own right.

If the South is a distinct culture, then, what is its Spengler-esque Ur-symbol? It is here that I return back to Gone with the Wind and old Gerald’s musings about land, which, combined with home, is the Southern Ur-symbol. For this reason, I would classify Southern culture as new type not described by Spengler: “Vestal.”

Vesta was the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, home, and the state; she was both the protector of families and an agricultural goddess. A promoter of the greater good, civic virtue, and modesty, Vesta—not Jupiter—was the divine being who embodied the ethos of the yeoman farmer. If Cincinnatus called on any deity before leaving his plow in the field and answering his citizens’ call to lead, it would have been Vesta. And when Cincinnatus’s job was done, he relinquished his dictatorial powers and went right back to his plough. One could easily see Cincinnatus taken from a Latium field and placed in the cane fields of Louisiana where he would fit in almost perfectly.

One can view the American South as an amalgamation of Anglo-Saxon warrior virtues and Roman-inspired, Classical agrarianism with the entire ethos of duty thrown in. This characterization not only explains the South’s strong traditions of independence, militarism, and civic virtue, but also the ties of us Southerners to our home and our land, as either a place where we obtain existential identity or as an extension of ourselves. Slave ownership, as well as love of the land, created a unique Southern culture. Like the Romans of old, who viewed themselves as simple farmers in spite of their urban lifestyles in the late Republic and throughout the Empire, I know many Houstonians who still think like farmers and see land as a source of self-sufficiency, wealth, and comfort. And indeed, in the history of the Civil War, one can see how the love of the land turned the Southern soldier into a tragic figure.

While this description of Southern culture as Vestal may seem a simple philosophical musing, if there is one thing that Spengler is right about, it is the decline of Western civilization. And it is never going to return to its former glory. But something else can rise from its ashes — a new world: a Southern culture triumphant.

Yes, his views are fatalistic—but there is a certain liberty in that fatalism. Spengler’s insights can teach us to seize the opportunities to turn our own lives into things of greatness. The tapestries of great civilizations are woven by individuals who are determined to not only make their mark, but to benefit others too, so that their lives echo throughout eternity. If we mean to create a Southern culture triumphant, I think the question we must ask ourselves is: “Do you want one, Southern man?”

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Retake Everything –
– By Southern Comfort

One comment

  1. A truly wonderful article. Whoever wrote it – may The Good Lord bless you and yours!

    Some comments on the side…

    #1. Long before Goethe was Hinduism, and, even before that, Vedantick philosophy which states that, like organisms, all abstracts (ideas, cultures etc, etc…) are in a constant flux, ebbing and flowing, until dying, and then being reborn. This same philosophy stated that there is never anything new in the universe – only new manifestations of what is very very old.

    #2. As to Spengler positing that we, Western Man, are after the unattainable – I can only agree if we understand that all rules have exceptions. One exception to this is Southern Society and Civilization, for, if every there was a culture preoccupied with the concrete, now, and tangible, ’tis we.

    Lamentably, these characteristicks are juxtaposed against a time in history which is utterly antithetical to them; yet, this juxtaposition is an ever changing landscape, which, soon enough, will shift and favour us – if it has not already done so.

    I believe 2010 was the beginning of that shift, and that, with the passage of every year thence, that shift only becomes more obvious.

    Yet, the opposite trend was going it’s way for a very very long time, and it won’t come crumbling anytime soon.

    The answer to your final question : ‘Do you want a triumphant Southern Culture?

    Sadly, the answer, at this time, is a resounding no. I’ve been around for a while and even in my childhood in late Jim Crow North Carolina the answer was a very resounding NO.

    Although most of our Brethren would not be philophically articulate enough to say it, I’ll say it for them – ‘We’ want Yankee-Doodle-Dandy culture, and, if our Yankee masters please, we would like to have our own subculture, so long as they don’t mind, and so long as it comes free and easy.

    For some of us, who hate that answer, living with this is a daily challenge in not being overcome by a rage born of grieving. So, we do the next best thing – we work towards another day, as best we can, because we DO want a triumphant Southern culture.