From 'Decline of the West' by Oswald Spengler, Vol. 2 (1923). Madness and Civilization, Cosmos and History: An Anthology: 'The Decline of the West' by Oswold Spengler (1923). Vol. 2
In the myth of the Holy Grail and its Knights one can feel the inward necessity of the German-Northern Catholicism. In opposition to the Classical sacrifices offered to individual gods in separate temples, there is here the one never-ending sacrifice repeated everywhere and every day. [...] The Cathedral, with its High Alter enclosing the accomplished miracle, is its expression in stone.
...the figure of the Virgin and Mother Mary, whose crowning in the heavens was one of the earliest motives of the Gothic art. She is the light-figure, in white, blue, and gold, surrounded by the heavenly hosts. She leans over the new-born Child; she feels the sword in her heart; she stands at the foot of the cross; she holds the corpse of the dead Son. [...] Countless legends gathered round her figure. She is the guardian of the Church's store of Grace, the Great Intercessor.
But this world of purity, light, and utter beauty of soul would have been unimaginable without the counter-idea, inseparable from it, an idea that constitutes one of the maxima of Gothic, one of its unfathomable creations- one that the present day forgets, and deliberately forgets. While she there sits enthroned, smiling in her beauty and tenderness, there lies in the background another world that throughout nature and throughout mankind weaves and breeds ill, pierces, destroys, seduces- namely, the realm of the Devil. It penetrates the whole of Creation, it lies ambushed everywhere [editors note: recall the antidote related by Heinrich Heine's in his 'On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany' about the abbots engaged in theological disputation as they walked through the forest and coming to a halt at the sound of a birds charming song, which they all agreed was a rouse of the devil trying to trick them, an indication of how deeply this fear penetrated the experience of nature, as the nature spirits of the primeval religion, which Bishop Boniface found the people observing around a central tree in the heart of Germania, were turned into 'chothonic daemons']. All around is an army of goblins, night-spirits, witches, werewolves, all in human shape. [...] An appalling fear... weighs upon man. Every moment he may stumble into the abyss. There were black magic, and devils' masses and witches' sabbaths, night feasts on mountain-tops, magic draughts and charm-formulae. The Prince of hell, with his... fallen angels and his uncanny henchmen, is one of the most tremendous creations in all religious history. The Germanic Loki is hardly more than a preliminary hint of him. Their grotesque figures, with horns, claws, and horses' hoofs, were already fully formed in the mystery plays of the eleventh century; everywhere the artist's fancy abounded in them, and, right up to Durer and Grunewald, Gothic painting is unthinkable without them.
The Mary-myths and the Devil-myths formed themselves side by side, neither possible without the other. [...] There was a Mary-cult prayer, and a Devil-cult of spells and exorcisms. [...] It is the two together, light and night, which fill Gothic art with its indescribable inwardness... . [...] The light-encircled angels of Fra Angelico and the early Rhenish masters, and the grimacing things on the portals of the great cathedrals, really filled the air. Men saw them, felt their presence everywhere. Today we simply no longer know what a myth is, for it is no mere aesthetically pleasing mode of representing something to oneself, but a piece of the most lively actuality... [...] What we call myth nowadays, our litterateur's and connoisseur's taste for Gothic colour, is nothing but Alexandrinism.
St. Francis's "Hymn to the Sun" ["Laudes Creaturarum"] had not long been written, and the Franciscans were kneeling in intimate prayer before Mary and spreading her cult afar, when the Dominicans armed themselves for battle with the Devil by setting up the Inquisition. Heavenly love found its focus in the Mary-image, and eo ipso earthly love became akin to the Devil. Woman is Sin- so the great ascetics felt... The Devil rules only woman. The witch is the propagator of deadly sin. It was Thomas Aquinas who evolved the repulsive theory of Incubus and Succuba. Inward mystics like Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, developed a full metaphysic of the devilish.
It was the tremendous background of this myth that awakened in the Faustian soul a feeling of what it was. An Ego lost in Infinity, an Ego that was all force, but a force negligibly weak in an infinity of greater forces; that was all will, but a will full of fear for its freedom. Never has the problem of Free-will been meditated upon more deeply or more painfully. Other Cultures have simply not known it.
The result of this in-looking was that immense sense of guilt which runs throughout these centuries like one long, desperate lament. The cathedrals rose evermore supplicatingly to heaven... . ...the Latin hymns, tell of bruised knees and flagellations in the nocturnal cell. For Magian man the world-cavern had been close and the heaven impending, but for Gothic man heaven was infinitely far... all about the lone Ego the mocking Devil's world lay in leaguer [i.e., seige]. And, therefore, the great longing of Mysticism was... to be rid of self and all things (Meister Eckart), to abandon selfness (Theologie deutsch).
To be able to will freely is, at the very bottom, the one gift that the Faustian soul asks of heaven.
... the Magian proto-sacrament of Baptism... forms a contrast of the deepest intensity with the Faustian idea of Contrition.
... the essentially Faustian prime-sacrament [is] Contrition. This ranks with the Mary-myth and the Devil-myth as the third great creation of the Gothic. And, indeed, it is from this third that the other two derive depth and meaning. [...] The effect of the Magian baptism was to incorporate a man in the great consensus... But in the Faustian contrition the idea of personality was implicit. It is not true that the Renaissance discovered personality; what it did was to bring personality up to a brilliant surface, whereby it suddenly became visible to everyone. Its birth is in Gothic; it is the most intimate and peculiar property of Gothic; it is one and the same with Gothic soul. For this contrition is something that each one accomplishes for himself alone. He alone can search his own conscience. He alone stands rueful in the presence of the Infinite. He alone can and must in confession understand and put into words his own past. [...] Baptism is wholly impersonal- one receives it because one is a man, not because one is this man- but the idea of contrition presupposes that the value of every act depends uniquely upon the man who does it. This is what differentiates the Western drama from the Classical, the Chinese, and the Indian. [...] Faustian responsibility instead of Magian resignedness, the individual instead of the consensus; relief from, instead of submissiveness under, burdens- that is the difference between the most active and the most passive of all sacraments, and at the back of it again lies the difference between the world-cavern and infinity-dynamics. Baptism is something done upon one, Contrition something done by oneself within oneself. And, moreover, this conscientious searching of one's own past is both the earliest evidence of, and the finest training for, the historical sense of Faustian mankind. There is no other Culture in which the personal life of the living man, the conscientious tracing of each feature, has been so important, for this alone has required the accounts to be rendered in words. If historical research and biography are characteristic of the spirit of the West from its beginnings; if both in the last resort are self-examination and confession... -we have this sacrament of the Gothic Church, this continual unburdening of the Ego by historical test and justification to thank for it. Every confession is an autobiography. This peculiar liberation of the will is to us so necessary that the refusal of absolution drives to despair, even to destruction. Only he who senses the bliss of such an inward acquittal can comprehend the old name of the sacramentum resurgentium, the sacrament of those who are risen again [authors note: ...the notion of confession as a duty, which was finally established in 1215, first arose in England, whence came also the first confession-books (Penitentials). [...] It is evidence of the independence of Faustian Christianity from Magian that its decisive ideas grew up in those remote parts of its field which lay beyond the Frankish Empire.].
When in this heaviest of decisions the soul is left to its own resources, something unresolved remains hanging over it like a perpetual cloud. [...] The whole inwardness and heavenly love of the Gothic rests upon the certainty of full absolution through the power invested in the priest. In the insecurity that ensued from the decline of this sacrament, both Gothic joy of life and the Mary-world of the light faded out. Only the Devil's world, with its grim all-presentness, remained. And then, in place of the blissfulness irrecoverably lost, came the Protestant, and especially Puritan, heroism... "Auricular confession," said Goethe once, "ought never to have been taken from mankind." Over the lands in which it had died out, a heavy earnestness spread itself. Ethic and costume, art and thought, took on the night-colour of the only myth that remained outstanding. Nothing is less sunlit than the doctrines of Kant. "Every man his own priest" is a conviction to which men could win through, but only as to that part of priesthood that involves duties, not as to that which possesses powers. No man confesses himself with the inward certainty of absolution... in Protestant countries music and painting, letter-writting and memoirs, from being modes of description became modes of self-denunciation, penance, and unbounded confession. [...] Outlook on the world was lost in ceaseless mine-warfare within the self. [...] Personal art, in the sense that distinguishes Goethe from Dante, and Rembrandt from Michelangelo, was a substitute for the sacrament of confession.