April 17, 2013

Johan Huizinga On The Need For A Spiritual Regeneration of The Individual And A Rebirth of Humanity

"A new culture can only grow up in the soil of a purged humanity." - Johan Huizinga.

Johan Huizinga (December 7, 1872 – February 1, 1945), was a Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history.

In 1942, he spoke critically of his country's German occupiers, comments that were consistent with his writings about Fascism in the 1930s. From then until his death in 1945, he was held in detention by the Nazis. He died in De Steeg in Gelderland, near Arnhem, just a few weeks before Nazi rule ended, and he lies buried in the graveyard of the Reformed Church at 6 Haarlemmerstraatweg in Oegstgeest.

Alarmed by the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Huizinga wrote several works of cultural criticism. Many similarities can be noted between his analysis and that of contemporary critics such as Ortega y Gasset and Oswald Spengler. Huizinga argued that the spirit of technical and mechanical organisation had replaced spontaneous and organic order in cultural as well as political life.
Below is an excerpt from Johan Huizinga's book, "In the Shadow of Tomorrow." W.W. Norton & Company, Inc: New York. 1936. Pg. 231-39.

It is from an address Huizinga delivered in Brussels on March 8, 1935. His reflections on the geopolitical tensions, political divisions, and national rivalries of the time also apply to our own time. His words hold more meaning today than when he said them in the mid 1930s, before the catastrophe of World War II.

"It is not from intervention by social organisations that we must expect deliverance. The foundations of culture are not such that the organs of society, whether they be nations, churches, schools or parties, could reaffirm or strengthen them. What is required is an internal regeneration of the individual. The spiritual habitus of man himself will have to change.

The world of to-day has gone far on the road towards a universal disavowal of ethical standards. It no longer draws a clear line between good and evil. It is inclined to view the entire crisis of civilization as simply the conflict of opposing forces, a struggle for power between antagonists. And yet the one and only hope lies in the recognition that in this struggle human action must be governed by a principle of absolute good and evil. From such recognition it follows that deliverance cannot lie in the triumph of one State, one people, one race, or one class. To subjugate the criteria of approval and condemnation to a purpose which is based on egotism is to pervert all true feelings of human responsibility.

The dilemma facing our time grows more acute every day. Once again look at the world in its present political confusion. Everywhere there are complications whose solution can hardly be evaded any longer, and of which any impartial observer must admit that a solution satisfying all legitimate interests and meeting all legitimate demands can hardly be devised. They concern problems of national minorities, impossible boundaries, prohibitions of natural unions, intolerable economic conditions. All these situations engender an atmosphere of exasperation which makes them into so many powder magazines threatening to blow off the lid at any moment. In every one of them the opposing interests are deadlocked in the conflict of rightful claims. There appear to be only two solutions. One of them is armed force, the other is adjustment on the basis of real international good will, of mutual renunciation of legitimate claims, of respect for the rights and interests of others; briefly, of unselfishness and equitableness.

From these virtues the world of to-day seems further removed than it has been, or at least pretended to be, for many a century. Even in principle the requirement of international equity and of international harmony to-day finds widespread disavowal. The theory of the unbridled authoritarian State provides an a priori acquittal for any potential invader. The world remains helplessly threatened by the madness of a devastating war bringing new and greater degeneration in its wake.

Public forces operate to ward off the senseless evil, to bring agreement and consultation. The smallest success of the League of Nations, though Ares greet it with a smirk of derision, to-day means more than the greatest display of power on land or at sea. Still, in the long run, the forces of a sensible internationalism are not enough if there is no change of spirit. Neither the prevention of war by international action nor the restoration of order and prosperity is in itself sufficient to bring a purification of culture. A new culture can only grow up in the soil of a purged humanity.

Katharsis: thus the Greeks called the state of mind produced by the spectacle of the tragedy, the stillness of heart in which compassion and fear have been dissolved, the purification of the soul which springs from having grasped a deeper meaning in things; which creates a grave and new preparedness for acts of duty and the acceptance of fate; which breaks the hybris as it was seen to be broken in the tragedy; which liberates from the violent passions of life and leads the soul to peace.

For the spiritual clarification which our time needs, a new askesis will be necessary. The bearers of a purified culture will have to be like those waking in an early dawn. They will have to shake off evil dreams. The dream of their soul which grew up out of the mud and would sink back into it. The dream of their brain which was but steel wire and their heart of glass. The dream of their hands growing into claws and the tusks between their lips. They will have to remind themselves that man can will himself not to be an animal.

The new askesis will not be one of renunciation of the world for heavenly bliss; it will be one of self-domination and tempered appraisal of power and pleasure. The exaltation of life will have to be toned down a little. One will have to remember how Plato already described the occupation of the wise man as a preparation for death. A steady orientation of the life-consciousness on death heightens the proper use of life itself.

The new askesis will have to be a surrender, a surrender to all that can be conceived as the highest. That can no more be nation or class than the individual existence of self. Happy those for whom that principle can only bear the name of Him who spoke: "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

The political revivalisms of the day have caught something of the spiritual attitude necessary for the restoration of culture, but it is impure, wrapped up in excessive puerilism, overborne by the cries of the caged animal, sullied by falsehood and deception. The younger generation, which will somehow have to carry on this culture in its next phase, is not lacking in readiness to give itself, to serve and to suffer, to do great deeds and to sacrifice itself. But the general weakening of judgment and the subversion of moral standards prevent it from testing the true worth of the principle which it is asked to serve.

It is difficult to see where the indispensable purification of the spirit will have to set in. Do we have to pass through still greater depths to become pliable? Or has the rallying of men of good will all over the world, unseen under the noisy confusion of the day, already begun? To repeat: the cultivation of internationalism is not all that is needed. None the less, it is of the greatest importance that this patient labour of preparing mankind for better times is continued, as it is carried on to-day in many places throughout the world, by small groups of like-minded individuals, by official international organisations, from the religious, political or cultural point of view. Wherever even the frailest flower of true internationalism (better were to call it internationality) raises its head, support it, strengthen it by grafting it on to the national consciousness, provided the latter be pure. It will flourish all the better for it. The international spirit—the word international itself already implies the preservation of nationalities, but of nationalities which tolerate each other and which do not make conflicts out of contrasts—may become the mould for the new ethics in which the opposition collectivism-individualism will have been dissolved. Is it an idle dream that one day this world could know such goodness? Even if it were, we would still have to cling to the ideal.

But does not the expression of these desires and expectations of a purging of the spirit, a catharsis which would be like a conversion, a rebirth, a regeneration, involve us in a contradiction with something we established in the beginning of this book? There we said that earlier periods, in their longing for a better society, had fixed their hopes on a reversal, an insight, a regaining of sense and virtue, as a conscious and early change for the better. Our time, however, knows that great spiritual and social changes are realised only through a process of gradual development, at the best temporarily accelerated by some extraordinary sudden impetus. And yet we are now demanding and hoping for a revulsion, in a way even for a return.

We are here faced again with the antinomic determination, the inconclusiveness of all our judgment. We are forced to recognise a certain amount of truth in the older vision. There must be a possibility of conversion and reversal in the development of civilization. We are thinking here of the recognition or retrieval of eternal truths, truths that are above the stream of evolution and change. It is these values that are at stake.

A time of heavy mental pressure such as that in which we are living is easier to bear for the old than the young. The old know that they only have to help carrying the burden of the times a little further. Resignedly they review how the world was, or seemed to be, when they began to shoulder their share of the burden, and what it appears to be turning into now. Their yesterday and to-morrow almost fade into one. Their fears and cares grow lighter in the proximity of death; their hope and trust, their will and courage to act, they place in the hands of those who have the task of living still before them. It is for the latter to accept the grave duty of judging, choosing, working, acting. Theirs the heavy responsibility, theirs the knowledge of what is to come.

The writer of these pages belongs to those whose privilege it is in their official occupations and personal life continually to remain in close contact with youth. It is his belief that the now young generation, in fitness for the difficult tasks of life, is fully equal to that which preceded it. The loosening of restraints, the confusion of thought, the diversion of attention and dissipation of energy under which this generation grew up have not made it weak, lax or indifferent. It seems open, generous, spontaneous, ready for pleasure but also for hardship; decisive, courageous and of great purpose. It walks with a lighter step than its predecessors.

To this young generation the task of ruling this world again as it would be ruled, to save it from perishing in pride and folly, to permeate it again with the spirit!"