The Vesting of Authority

Oswald Spengler

In the historical world there are no ideals, but only facts -- no truths, but only facts. There is no reason, no honesty, no equity, no final aim, but only facts, and anyone who does not realize this should write books on politics -- let him not try to make politics. In the real world there are no states built according to ideals, but only states that have grown, and these are nothing but living peoples "in form." No doubt it is "the form impressed that living doth itself unfold," but the impress has been that of the blood and beat of a being, wholly instinctive and involuntary; and as to the unfolding, if it is guided by the master of politics, it takes the direction inherent in the blood; if by the idealist, that dictated by his own convictions -- in other words, the way to nullity.

The destiny question, for States that exist in reality and not merely in intellectual schemes, is not that of their ideal task or structure, but that of their inner authority, which cannot in the long run be maintained by material means, but only by a belief -- of friend and foe -- in their effectiveness. The decisive problems lie, not in the working out of constitutions, but in the organization of a sound working government; not in the distribution of political rights according to "just" principles (which at bottom are simply the idea that a class forms of its own legitimate claims), but in the efficient pulse of the whole (efficient in the sense that the play of muscle and sinew is efficient when an extended racehorse nears the winning-post), in that rhythm which attracts even strong genius into syntony; not, lastly, in any world-alien moral, but in the steadiness, sureness and superiority of political leadership. The more self-evident all these things are, the less is said or argued about them; the more fully matured the State, the higher the standing, the historical capacity and therefore the Destiny of the Nation. State-majesty, sovereignty, is a life-symbol of the first order. It distinguishes subjects and objects. Strength of leadership, which comes to expression in the clear separation of these two factors, is the unmistakable sign of the life-force in a political unity -- so much so that the shattering of existing authority (for example, by the supporters of an opposed constitutional ideal) almost always results not in this new party's making itself the subject of domestic policy, but in the whole nation's becoming the object of alien policy -- and not seldom forever.

In every healthy State the letter of the written constitution is of small importance compared with the practice of the living constitution, the "form" (to use again the sporting term), which has developed of itself out of the experience of Time, the situation and, above all, the race-properties of the nation. The more powerfully the natural form of the body politic has built itself up, the more surely it works in unforeseen situations; indeed, in the end, it does not matter whether the actual leader is called King or Minister or party-leader, or even (as in the case of Cecil Rhodes) that he has no defined relation to the State. The nobility which managed Roman politics in the period of the three Punic Wars had, from the point of view of constitutional law, no existence whatever. The leader's responsibility is always to a minority that possesses the instincts of statesmanship and represents the rest of the nation in the struggle of history.

The fact, express and unequivocal, is that class-States -- that is, States in which particular classes rule -- are the only States. This must not be confused with the class-States to which the individual is merely attached in view of belonging to an estate, as in the case of the older Polls, the Norman States of England and Sicily, the France of the Constitution of 1791 and Soviet Russia today. The true class-State is an expression of the general historical experience that it is always a single social stratum which, constitutionally or otherwise, provides the political leading. It is always a definite minority that represents the world-historical tendency of a State; and, within that again, it is a more or less self-contained minority that in virtue of its aptitudes (and often enough against the spirit of the Constitution) actually holds the reins. In by far the greater number of cases this minority is one within the nobility -- for example, the "gentry" which governed the Parliamentary style of England, the nobiles at the helm of Roman politics in Punic War times, the merchant-aristocracy of Venice, the Jesuit-trained nobles who conducted the diplomacy of the Papal Curia in the Baroque. Similarly, we find the political aptitude in self-contained groups within the religious Estate -- not only in the Roman Catholic Church but also in Egypt and India and still more in Byzantium and Sassanid Persia. In the Third Estate -- though this seldom produces it, not being itself a caste-unit -- there are cases such as those of third-century Rome, where a stratum of the plebs contains men trained in commerce, and France since 1780, where an element of the bourgeoisie has been trained in law; in these cases, it is ensured by a closed circle of persons possessing homogeneous practical gifts, which constantly recruits itself and preserves in its midst the whole sum of unwritten political tradition and experience.

There is no best, or true, or right State that could possibly be actualized according to plan. Every State that emerges in history exists as it is but once and for a moment; the next moment it has, unperceived, become different, whatever the rigidity of its legal-constitutional crust. Therefore, words like "republic," "absolutism," "democracy," mean something different in every instance, and what turns them into catchwords is their use as definite concepts by philosophers and ideologues. A history of States is physiognomic and not systematic. Its business is not to show how "humanity" advances to the conquest of its eternal rights, to freedom and equality, to the evolving of a super-wise and super-just State, but to describe the political units that really exist in the fact-world, how they grow and flourish and fade and how they are really nothing but actual life "in form."

The preceding text is excerpted from Chapter XVII of Spengler's Decline of the West (1918-23). The title is editorial.


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