Will Europe Follow Atlantis? Part II: Lewis Spence and The Occult War

Of all the interpreters of the Atlantis Myth since Plato, Lewis Spence (1874 – 1955), founder of the Scottish National Movement and folklorist-mythographer extraordinaire, most closely grasped the story’s cosmological-moral theme.  Although critics tend to treat Spence’s many books on Atlantis as falling into the archeological-literalist camp, their tenor, even in the earliest of them, The Problem of Atlantis (1924), is prophetic and apocalyptic.  The Atlantis Myth reveals to Spence a profound truth concerning human nature and the order of being.  The Atlantis Myth is a True Myth, just like the cosmological disquisition of the Locrian physicist in the Timaeus.  Moral actions incite cosmic reactions, Spence repeatedly argues, and nowhere does he argue it more outrageously, yet fully in the spirit of Plato, than in Occult Causes of the Present War (1940) and Will Europe Follow Atlantis? (1942).

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Many a contemporary writer might envy Spence.  Although Spence himself is sixty years deceased, and his titles long out of copyright, a majority of his books remain in print, in all the forms permitted by modern digital technology.  A vigorous trade goes on in second-hand editions from the middle of the last century.  Stylistically, Spence commanded a robust expository prose, sometimes running to brashness; he comes across as a man hotly impatient with the old-maid caution of establishment thinking.  Wherever the professors recoiled from drawing conclusions, Spence leapt.  He trained in journalism, editing The Scotsman from 1899 to 1906, and he worked as a journalist throughout his life.  Whether his founding role in Scottish Nationalism and his steady political work for Scottish Independence mark him out as a practical man is difficult to say, for the history of those linked causes is, as recently as 2014, one of ballot-box frustration.  But in a mad world, Spence hewed  to sane judgments.  He mistrusted Imperial arrangements believing that people would be happier, if not materially better off, in smaller rather than in larger polities.  An ardent student of folklore and legend – and an author of books on those subjects, which remain useful today – Spence stood outside the logical-positivist mainstream of modern thinking in being attuned to symbols and allegories and in taking their discourses seriously.

Spence adhered out of profound conviction to a thorough-going Romanticism.  He wrote Scots dialect poetry in the vein of Robert Burns and his volume of Collected Poems (1947) runs to nearly two hundred and fifty pages.  In “The Prows of Reekie” – “Reekie” being a nickname of Edinburgh – Spence represents modern humanity as consisting in so many “mannikins” who “scrieve oot their sauls.”  He became an initiate in various occult orders and associated himself with the likes of Montague Summers and Ross Nichols.  Spence’s Druidism was absolutely sincere, as eccentric as it appears to an outsider, but he never rejected Christianity, finding his way to a synthesis.  That a mythologist and folklorist should find his way to the Atlantis Myth will not surprise the astute observer.  At a deep level Myth is one; and Myth concerns origins.  The local variations invariably impress the investigator as tantalizing radiations-from-a-center that point to a central source.  Spence’s profile, which had hitherto been largely British, became international with the publication of his first book on the topic, The Problem of Atlantis (1924), acquaintance with which serves as a useful prelude to Occult Causes of the Present War and Will Europe Follow Atlantis.  

Spence brackets his case in The Problem with an invocation, in his second chapter, of “critics of insight,” among whom with cavils of modesty he includes himself; and, in his Conclusion, of “men of insight [who] have written of strange visions, and of stranger supernatural communications they have been vouchsafed.”  In Chapter I, Spence writes that “The folklores of the opposing European and American littorals are rich in memories of an ancient cataclysm, which precipitated the wreck of an oceanic culture from which their peoples believed themselves to have drawn the elements of progress.”  In the same chapter Spence calls the Atlantis Myth “a world-intuition” that “has its origin in folk-memory,” to which he importantly adds – “and is thus safe from the assaults of that description of science which has ever held tradition in disesteem.”  (Emphasis added)  Again in his Conclusion Spence writes that, “Imagination, vision, if rightly interpreted and utilized, is one of the most powerful aids to historical and archeological understanding; and the ability to cast an eagle glance down the avenues of the ages is, it seems to me, but one of the first steps in psychic progress.”

Spence somewhat contradicts himself by devoting a long chapter to what he regards as geological – that is, scientific – evidence in favor of a sundered mid-Atlantic continent but even so he defers to empirical evidence only in the context of his larger folkloric and intuitional argument.  His Atlantis remains a symbol of “insight,” “intuition,” and “vision.”  Commentators who chide Spence for the insouciant way in which he selects the findings of geology have missed the emphasis in Spence’s argument.  L. Sprague de Camp, writing in Lost Continents (1954; revised 1970), while remarking Spence’s skepticism about science, notes also Spence’s penchant for “analogy,” and strongly implies that he never really escapes from the “lunatic” main body of “Atlantism.”  Martin Gardner, writing in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952; revised 1957) characterizes Spence as “the sanest of occult Atlantis scholars.”  (Emphasis added)  Gardner then makes a joke about Spence’s Scottish Nationalism, the point of which is to hold the man up to ridicule.  Gardner mentions Occult Causes of the Present War, but only as another object of ridicule.

Between The Problem of Atlantis and Occult Causes of the Present War Spence published at least a dozen books – including four on Atlantis and two on the related topic of Lemuria, a supposed counterpart of Atlantis in the mid-Pacific Ocean, also a source of cultural radiation in the aftermath of a disaster.  Occult Causes of the Present War, which nicely complements Will Europe Follow Atlantis, is, in a peculiar way, a practical book: It makes use of myth-analogy to diagnose the civilizational paroxysm that would later acquire the name of World War Two, to understand which, as Spence saw things, the usual socio-economic and political arguments simply did not plumb to a sufficient depth.  The scale of events required interpretation, not in strict positivistic, but rather in symbolic terms, as having cosmic as well as anthropic implications.  The old pattern of hubris and nemesis was at work in the violent enormity, but the modern mentality, having convinced itself that morality is fictitious, had ill-equipped itself to see moral causality at work.  Spence never mentions the Atlantis Myth in Occult Causes, but a structural parallelism becomes evident nevertheless.

In Plato’s story, the Atlantean polity begins in a divine endowment but across the generations the Atlanteans grow alienated from their foundation and devolve into wickedness and vainglory.  In the Foreword to Occult Causes Spence invokes a similar estrangement having to do with the Western continuum over the last two millennia.  “I have long been struck,” Spence writes, “with the circumstance that practically every revolution of any consequence in Europe for centuries past had been accompanied by a very definite intention on the part of its creators either to sweep away the Christian Faith, or so deface and alter it as to render it unrecognizable.”  Citing cases, Spence avers that “so it was in the France of the Revolution, so in Russia, in Spain, in Portugal, and so it now is in Nazi Germany.”  The language that Spence uses in his causal discussion of the war would invite derision from respectable contemporary people, but its terms address the enormity far more decisively than any relativistic hemming and hawing about moral questions.  For Spence, the only possible result of spiritual attenuation is the licensing of evil.  Not to understand the “Satanic” character of modern ideological bloodthirstiness strikes Spence as “nescience and willful blindness” encouraged by “comfortable standards of life” that seduce people from the judgment implicit in moral clarity.

On the question of wickedness Spence finds it necessary to stand against the Platonic position that evil is merely the privation of the good.  Spence devotes a paragraph to summing up that longstanding theory this way: “Good is a positive principle because it is the principle of order and the standard of judgment in the moral order.”  Good, so conceived, “has no opposite reality confronting it”; but “it stands beyond all contrasts, because evil is not a principle equal and opposite to the principle of good.”  Thus, in this, view, evil “is merely the denial of principle altogether, an out-and-out negation.”  Nevertheless, an implacable nihilism belongs to the “Satanic” and the “Luciferian.”  Moreover as Spence writes, “Of the presence of evil and destructive forces on this sad star of ours we cannot be ignorant”; and in fact, as he continues, “the whole history of human progress, civilization, in the true sense of the term, has been of a struggle to escape from the bonds of ignorance and all the vileness accruing to a lower and merely animal condition.”  In the structure of moral dualism, in Spence’s view of things, acquiescence in the campaigns of wickedness is itself wicked.  Morality calls people to unceasing active resistance.  The most coherent resistance occurs under a Christian dispensation.

Spence not only allows, however, but insists that the good Paganism approaches Christianity in its degradation-resistive coherence.  Taking note of National Socialism’s attempted revival of the Old Germanic cults, Spence distinguishes between the sanguine demands of “the ancient faith of Germany, popularly known as ‘the religion of Odin and Thor,’” on the one hand, and “the profundities of Druidism,” on the other, which he allies with Christianity.  “In many cases,” Spence writes, “Druidic communities in Britain and Ireland regarded Christianity as the natural sequel to the later, more highly developed Druidic ideals and aspirations and accepted it with joy and thanksgiving, many Druidic officials becoming Christian priests.”  The “Heathen Prussians,” by contrast, along with their fellow Germans, “were the last among European countries to accept the Christian faith.”  As Spence sees things – they hardly accepted it.  We remark this peculiarity of Spence’s idea of “Christian Faith”: Such faith stands in continuity with other, earlier but morally and philosophically developed doctrines, which found no contradiction in the new creed when it appeared but acknowledged and quickly assimilated to it.  Spence’s idolaters of the Northern Forests, if they ever briefly participated in the ancient moral enlightenment, must very early have fallen away from or else bluntly rejected it.

Occult Causes invokes the medieval heresies of Paulicianism and Bogomilism, variants of Manichaeism, to lend support to its argument.  Whereas Spence’s ideas about the intellectual and moral refinements of Druidism might stretch credibility slightly, established scholars of medieval Manichaeism, like Sir Steven Runciman (The Medieval Manichee, 1947) and Yuri Stoyanov (The Other God, 2000), agree that what in Twelfth-Century southern France took the name of Catharism had established itself previously in the Rhine Valley after having radiated westward from the Balkans.  Writing seven years before Runciman, Spence declares how, “the Bogomil doctrine [gained] its earliest European home [in] Tyrol, Bohemia, and Germany.”  Spence characterizes Manichaeism as “a lopsided dualism” according to which “all matter is evil in its origin [and] even humanity [is] Satanic.”  The implicit nihilism of Nazi doctrine, including its homicidal program of replacing man with the Superman, strikes Spence as stemming from the recalcitrant savagery of the Teutonic tribes.

The mentality of the incipient Twenty-First Century, which always quickly invokes Nazism in its response to dissent, would undoubtedly wince at Spence’s characterization of that same Nazism.  For Spence, Nazism consists essentially in its anti-Christian animosity.  Like the Manichaean doctrine from which, in Spence’s genealogy, it descends, however, Nazism adopts features of Christianity in order to disguise its nature.  Nazism consists in the sum “of efforts to impose… ancient horrors upon the Christian faith and to graft them on the gospel of Christ.”  Once having accomplished this task Nazism would seek beyond it “the utter extirpation of Christianity and its replacement by… gross heathenism.”  In Spence’s analysis Christianity is synonymous with Civilization and Civilization is synonymous with Tradition.  The Civilized Tradition sets its roots in a past older than Christianity which, in Spence’s many Lost-Continent books as well as in his studies of “The Celtic Mysteries,” he locates in Atlantis.  The ancient wisdom came to Britain by way of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula through the folk-wanderings of the prehistoric Aurignacians during the era of the mid-oceanic landmass.  In The Mysteries of Celtic Britain (1929), Spence states that “Druidism… arose out of a Cult of the Dead which had gradually been taking form during the Old Stone Age, and which in the New Stone Age had been disseminated from North-West Africa to Britain on the one and Egypt on Crete on the other.”

Druidic themes inform the Arthurian Legend including the Grail Saga.  Arthur, we recall, is the great Sixth-Century defender of Christian Britain against the invading Saxons in, as Spence calls it, “Brythonic Myth.”  So powerful is that “Myth” that it nevertheless conquers the conquerors and re-assimilates them to the native wisdom and order, so that Anglo-Saxons revere Arthur.  Again in The Mysteries of Celtic Britain, Spence discusses the three realms of Druidic cosmology, Annwn, or Bourne of Life; Abred, at once Earthly Plane and Temporal Realm; and Gwynvyd, or Astral Plane, which also functions as a heavenly destination for those who acquit themselves in the ordeals of existence.  Spence’s description of Abred, which must one day come to its end, holds considerable interest: “The manner in which the end of Abred… will be accelerated is set forth not so much prophetically as with an air of scientific exactitude.”  Spence continues by asserting that “three things… will accelerate [Abred’s] conclusion.”  These are, namely, “diseases, fighting, and becoming eneidvaddu, which has already been explained as the state of being legally punished for offense.”  In the context of Occult Causes, Nazism constitutes eneidvaddu.  Thus not only for Spence are Christianity and Civilization synonymous, and likewise Civilization and Tradition; but Nazism and anti-Civilization are also synonymous – being equivalent to eneidvaddu or an offense against the moral order of the universe that solicits its own nemesis.

The parallelism or analogy, to borrow a term from de Camp’s assessment of Spence, should by now be clear: The Mid-Twentieth-Century global scene replicates the web of cosmic, political, and ethical tensions of twelve thousand years ago, just before the foundering of Atlantis.  Britain, the inheritor of the original Atlantean wisdom and the modern counterpart of the Prehistoric Athens, faces Germany, which resembles the degenerate Atlantis of Plato’s story in Timaeus and Critias in having alienated itself from the divine ground of existence, cutting itself off from the Cosmic Order to indulge in the recurrent orgy of the “revaluation of all values,” just as in the ancient Gnostic creeds.  Unlike the purely political, economic, or ideological commentators on Nazism and the war, Spence understands Hitler’s Regime and its bellicosity in Mythic terms as an “ebullience of fiendish frenzy” led by “the man-god, Adolf Hitler.”

Seeing in the absolute nihilism of the Hitlerian enormity a kinship with “the French Revolution” and “the Bolshevist outbreak,” another observation that the modern mentality invariably refuses to make, Spence, thinking of the persecutions sweeping Germany, writes: “The only comfort which an afflicted faith can accept from the present apparition of a devil’s carnival… is the certain knowledge of terrible retribution upon the miscreants who have brought this, as well as many another woe – woe heaped upon woe – upon the body of a tormented Europe.”

It is a dreadful and portentous thing when, so affronted are they, the Gods in Olympian solemnity must gather themselves in conclave to decide a judgment.

II.

Spence resembles William Blake, William Butler Yeats, perhaps even Arnold Toynbee, a bit staid in style but hardly so in content, in his visionary proclivity to see local events in the largest possible context, as participating in the cycles of a Platonic Great Year, or something like it; and as boasting always and everywhere a metaphysical-eternal as well as a physical-temporal meaning.  So too Spence resembles Joseph de Maistre on the French Revolution, who grasped the Jacobin uprising as an ultimately self-punishing recrudescence of idolatry and human sacrifice, as both insufferable profanation and sanguine atonement all at once.  Spence, who referred to himself as a “British traditionalist,” prefigures later Traditionalist figures like John Michell (1933 – 2009) and Geoffrey Ashe (born 1923), whose thought goes perpendicular to anything established.  Michell’s View over Atlantis (1969) and Ashe’s Camelot and the Vision of Albion (1975) follow in the eccentric path first trail-blazed by Spence.  Their eccentricity – and Spence’s – likens itself to the fortuitous topography of the Nile Delta according to the Egyptian priests in Plato’s Timaeus, sheltering the adytum of insight-in-eccentricity from the deluge of opinion in conformity.  The discussion must return to this topic of eccentricity, closely related as it is to the opposition of myth and poetry to economics, and to the much-underrated value of eccentric people and their views under a conformist regime; but for the time being let Spence’s marvelous tome be to the fore.

A sampling of chapter-titles from Will Europe Follow Atlantis furnishes a useful prospect of Spence’s authorial ambition: (I) “The Threat to Europe”; (II) “The Fall of Atlantis”; (IV) “Modern Europe and Atlantis Compared”; (V) “Cataclysm and Divine Wrath”; (VIII) “How Europe May Follow Atlantis”; (X) “The Failure of European Man”; and (XI) “The Redemption of European Man.”  The last two chapters (X and XI) stand with the great chapters of René Guénon and Nicholas Berdyaev as exemplars of the Traditionalist critique of Modernity, in which vein Spence worked.  The temptation for a recommender is simply to quote Spence’s orotund sentences, many of which sound in the reading as though their author meant them for declamation in the pulpit.  From “The Threat to Europe” comes this archly rhetorical interrogative: “Will Europe, because of the madness of wrongdoing and violence which has come upon her during the last generation, because of her callousness, rapacity and viciousness, meet the doom of Atlantis, Lemuria, of the once fertile Sahara, all of which were destroyed or cursed with barrenness because of the moral turpitude and spiritual degeneracy of their inhabitants?”

The answer is yes, because “if Europe does not repent of the evil courses which she has so long and implacably pursued, the Creative Power, through the instrumentality of primitive natural forces, will be compelled to destroy her as it has been compelled to do in the case of other civilized regions which were unresponsive to its divine plan and intention.”  These constructions hardly require commentary but rather they speak for themselves.  Yet at least one of Spence’s instances in the first sentence solicits attention – namely his inclusion of the Sahara in the exemplary trio of places punished by the gods for the sin of hubris.  It is worth recalling that North Africa once served the Roman Empire as bread-basket, a region of rich soil intelligently cultivated that supplied much of the panem in the panem et circenses of the Imperial economy.  The region could recuperate its fecundity even after a disaster like the multiple tsunamis of 385 AD, which devastated the coast far inland, and once it had done so the condition obtained down to the Muslim conquest, when productivity fell into desuetude.  If archeologists and historians attributed the decline to the brutal parceling-out of hereditary estates and the disestablishment of Roman agricultural practice, as they do, they would not be contradicting Spence’s basic argument.  Men in their concupiscence aided the desert in its expansion and condemned themselves to desiccation and poverty.

The issue concerns more, however, than simple economic or ecologic causality.  It concerns spiritual ecology and moral causality.  “We do foolishly,” Spence writes, “if we regard the evidences of divine displeasure in past ages as something to be conceived as of the nature of allegory.”  Spence’s mere but tantalizing mention of the Sahara points to another of his instances, this one from Chapter V, “Cataclysm and Divine Wrath,” which all by itself constitutes an encyclopedia of karmic retribution.  Among those regions fated by stubborn perversion to experience “the creeping palsy of the desert” Spence sees Guatemala and Yucatan as exemplary.  There “the forest [has been] another ocean, whose leaves are the waves which submerge the walls of evil civilisations.”  Spence remarks how the archeological investigation of the Olmec and Maya societies has not yet, in his day, discerned the cause of their demise, the chief feature of which is the apparent sudden abandonment of the cities.  Typically the scholars seek mechanical explanations – in exhaustion of the soil or disease and as though moral causality rules itself out a priori.  “But the history of these tribes,” Spence observes, “is eloquent of such monstrous iniquity and cruelty, such unnatural abomination and holocaust of human sacrifice as to make it plain that here, despite their considerable gifts as architects, painters and craftsmen, there flourished human beings so ineradicably evil that their destruction was only a matter of time.”

Spence cites Origen, the Third-Century Christian Platonist, on “the causes of cataclysm,” such as Noah’s inundation or the pyroclasm that overtook the Sodom and Gomorrah.  These cataclysms stem, in the philosopher’s words as reported by Spence, not from “cycles and planetary periods,” but rather from “extensive prevalence of wickedness, and its consequent removal by a deluge or a conflagration.”  The reader intuits Spence’s sense of modernity as a case of invincible ignorance.  Scholars and researchers collate the facts – the centuries-long orgy of sacrifice of the Mesoamerican societies and their abrupt disappearance prior to the European advent – but they refuse to see any direct cause-and-effect between behavior and destiny.  “With few exceptions,” Spence writes, “the science of the last two centuries has brought to mankind little but misery and wretchedness.”  On the contrary, that science “has reasoned away God Himself and separated Him from the life of man.”  The current war itself roundly rebukes Modernity’s sense of its own “infallibility.”  Spence has posed the question whether one might “regard the cataclysms and convulsions of nature – flood, fire, earthquake and volcanic activity – as in any sense the media by which offended Deity visits its displeasure upon an [errant] humanity.”

All historical societies before the Enlightenment held that view, Spence argues.  He adds: “It is, perhaps, the crowning fatuity of the present generation that, out of the vanity of a novel dispensation of science, it has thrust aside the entire wisdom and belief of its predecessors, and regards the supernatural, the hidden, the mysterious – indeed the whole corpus of ancient and inspired knowledge – as a waste-heap of delirious nonsense and fabulous extravagance which it must superciliously ignore if it is to be loyal to its new commandments.”

“Modern Europe and Atlantis Compared” (Chapter IV) competes with its successor-chapter in filling out the details of Spence’s Platonic, anti-modern view of his century.  In addition, it displays Spence’s breadth of knowledge, which covers literature, history, the arts, and the sciences – and, in prose, his poetic vision.  Midway through the chapter Spence conjures an image of the pristine Atlantis, the high stone-age civilization, confessing, as he writes, that “my own visionary glimpses of Atlantis scarcely chime with the Platonic account of it.”  Spence draws rather on the description in the Library of History by Diodorus Siculus (First Century BC) of the legendary City of Cercenes: “A lofty place, down whose slopes terrace on terrace of hanging gardens brilliant with flowers descend to dim vales of grassland, the airs of which were magically trellised by the delicate boughs and filmy leaves of strange semi-tropic foliage and made curious by the fantastic shapes of fruit-trees dwarfed and distorted by cunning fingers.” Spence’s vision includes “birds like sunbeams,” “the white fronts of temples,” and “palaces of marble, white as sculptured ice.”  Spence himself mentions S. T. Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” as a model, a gesture indicating once again a conscious affiliation with the Romantics.  What of the decadent Atlantis?  “All this lavish beauty of art and nature does not seem to have made the same appeal to the later Atlanteans.”  The achievement of the “fathers” was to the offspring “nothing more than the pleasant background to their lusts and ambitions.”  Like the city-dwelling modern people of Coleridge’s poems and those of his friend William Wordsworth, Spence’s decadent Atlanteans could respond neither to “divine distances” nor to “the seraphic peace and radiance of parkland and forest.”

Whereas Modern Western Civilization, like its Atlantean precursor, “has raised for herself great and beautiful cities, [where] the work of man… has rivaled that of nature, and is eloquent of his divine origin,” that same civilization has also, again like its Atlantean precursor, “prostituted that very gift and genius of art.”  The modern aesthetic in Spence’s view, being symptomatic of the modern soul, consists in “foul and unseemly shapes and distorted abominations in stone, in verse, in colour and music.”  The modern aesthetic owes its allegiance to “the Pit.”  Germany, Spence asserts, early established itself as the vanguard of “darkness and folly.”  German cities become for Spence types of the antediluvian cities that the Biblical God judged fit only for punitive obliteration.  “Is not Berlin,” Spence writes, “the most claimant among these?”  Berlin is the capital city of “Vandal vulgarity” and “Hunnish tawdriness.”  Of Germany, in a sequence of sentences that might have come from Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, had it been written at the time, Spence refers to “the demonic spirit of Prussianism,” which has “infected” the Reich, such that the Reich, sensing the “fatal tendency of the weak and thoughtless to accept the novel [has] succeeded in poisoning the whole of Europe with her venomous ideals.”  The pernicious cycle begins “when man looks elsewhere than to Celestial sources for the inspirations of art.”  It is not just Germany: Europe as a whole must share blame in the moral-cultural debacle.  Modernity has everywhere and characteristically spurned the gods.

It belongs to Spence’s Atlantis Theory that the story of the Lost Continent has more sources than Plato – but that Atlantis appears under different names in other venues, not least in the Genesis variant of the older common Mesopotamian Deluge Saga, as exemplified by the Utnapishtim side-story of Gilgamesh.  Spence discovers yet other extra-Platonic versions of Atlantis in Greek accounts of the Hesperides, or Golden Isles, Tartessos, the Biblical Tarshish, in Diodorus’ account of Cercenses, as mentioned above, and in the Breton saga of Caer Ys.  In Will Europe Follow Atlantis, Spence reiterates his interpretation of those sources as directly relevant to the story that Plato had from the successive hands of the Egyptian priests, Solon, the Elder Critias, and the Younger Critias.  He calls to readerly attention one of their shared structural traits: The Titanic rebellion against lawfulness that demands nemesis and receives it as though sufficient arrogance in action had insured the reaction by a process inherent to the cosmic foundation. Nor is spurning God the only form of arrogance: In an epigrammatic sentence that concludes one of his lapidary paragraphs, Spence writes, “The blasphemy against nature is second only to the ultimate blasphemy.”

Spence develops his critique of modernity further in the penultimate chapter (X) of Will Europe Follow Atlantis, “The Failure of European Man.”  Once again Spence takes the flouting of perennial truths as his main theme.  “It is a dread thought,” he writes, “that, because of its contemptuous attitude to the eternal verities, our continent may sink into abysses deep as those in which Atlantis lies, abysses not only of the profound in earth and sea, but, what is more terrible, of the soul.”  European Man, inheriting the Classical Tradition as well as the Holy Scripture possessed an integral image of himself and a plan of God’s intention to redeem the descendants of Adam and Eve from their fallen status.  European Man attained his spiritual zenith around the Fifteenth Century, after which, succumbing to the allure of scientific reductionism, he lost sight of things transcendent and became fixated on the material world and his technical mastery over it.  Spence asserts that “the beginnings of Christianity in Europe were almost miraculously triumphant in their acceptance,” exerting noteworthy “humanizing effects… upon life and civilization.” The departure from spiritual clarity and discipline initiated a trend of increasing dehumanization.  The trend is actually a program, but it calls itself by a false name, “science.”  Spence sees this “science” as “one of the salient destructive influences on faith.”  He condemns “the rash conclusions of that empirical system of thought which, with amazing self-satisfaction, alludes to itself as modern Science, thereby adopting a title at variance with its own code, which expressly lays down that nothing is true until it can be proved.”

Under this false science the discipline of forming hypotheses and testing them becomes the job of declaring and enforcing a mandatory worldview dissent from which becomes a punishable offense.  Darwinist literalism – which claims that, “humanity… so far from having a divine origin [is] little more than a by-product of the animal creation” – offers a case in point.  Spence draws a direct connection between the “demonic” disestablishment of Man from his source in supernatural dignity, on the one hand, and the savagery of National Socialism, on the other.  An exclusive empiricism is, for Spence, a moral disaster of the first order because it systematically suppresses the language necessary for an understanding of that which transcends the empirical.  Christendom, now abolished, was an undertaking in co-creation, by which the human creature “signifies his willingness… to assist the Creator by every means in his power to carry out that great design which is the end and aim of God.”  Rejecting “the League of God” Europe established a foolish and impotent “League of Nations.”  Spence constructs no Manichaean dichotomy.  “So far as war is concerned,” he writes, “none of us is without blame for the continuance of its horrors and blasphemies.”

Spence, diagnosing further Modernity’s sins antecedent to the new bellicosity, praises the socialism of William Morris but condemns “the dull and turgid systematizings of [those] champions of Labour [whose] sodden materialism,” as the critic sees it, expresses itself in an invidious desire “to manumit and enlarge one class only.”  Spence decries the psychic debilitation inherent in a mechanized society and promoted by the insipidity of trade, for its own sake, in “myriads of utterly useless articles.”  He points to the acceptance of a vast annual “sacrifice” to the “Moloch of Speed.”  In a single-sentence summary Spence writes, “Modernity, what we have called ‘progress,’ is not civilization, but a cheap and vulgar substitute for it.”

As for the redemption of Modernity, it consists, for Spence, in a conscious return to Tradition, not only Christian Tradition, but the traditions of Philosophical Paganism whether of the Greek or, as it might be, the Celtic variety.  Spence reveals himself a Perennialist, for those traditions are, as one.  Spence opens a panorama cosmic and visionary.  “I believe,” he writes, “that this Tradition has existed before the beginning of the world, so far as humanity is concerned, for it must have endured for ages and ages before the appearance of man upon this planet.”  Spence’s conviction, which once again would strike the specimen Contemporary Man as risible or worse, is nevertheless only Plato’s, Augustine’s, Toynbee’s, or Eric Voegelin’s.  Civilization commences in a vision of order in the scheme of which Man has an inescapable relation with and duty toward a Divine Ground.  Tracing out the Prophetic statements of the Old Testament Patriarchs, Spence refers to “a cultus of divine illumination” at the origin of any intelligible order.  Illumination recurs from time to time in a renewed access of vision as it did in the preachments of Jesus, the codifications of Paul, and that medieval glory the Grail Saga.  The law of moral causality is well-known, as is the consequence of flouting it.  “The cataclysm that befell Atlantis was as much a prophecy and a terrible example to humanity as a striking event in its history.”  Spence confesses that, “No man can be more conscious of the imperfections of statement and argument which attend this essay than he who has written it down.”  He writes further that, “In simple truth I can say it was compelled upon me by exterior energies the behests of which I was powerless to resist.”

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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  1. Thank you for this article Dr. Bertonneau. I’d never heard of Spence but will look him up. According to the 3rd century Christian monk Euhemerus the pagan gods and heroes were humans. Their natures and exploits, shaped by prehistoric storytelling over many generations, illustrate eternal psychic states, virtues, and vices if interpreted as primordial (racial?) archetypes. Paganism lived on in Christian Europe through mythical storytelling, astrology, alchemy, folk tales, God as great geometer, Ptolemaic music of the spheres, and sheer awe.If you can make it, I highly recommend visiting the Power and Pathos exhibition now currently on view at the National Gallery, Washington, DC. The almost unbelievable accomplishment and grandeur of Ancient Greece can still cast a spell. I urge you to briefly escape modern madness by walking through several rooms surrounded by images cast in bronze. Display of European achievement that contains such divine power may very well be viewed as racist and sexist in the not too distant future, but for now, has slipped under the malignant radar.

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