The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
All genuine historical work is philosophy, unless it is mere ant-industry.
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of my favorite books, not only because it is written so beautifully, but because of the spectacle of decline—of a great empire slowly and inevitably crumbling. The scene is irresistibly tragic. Like a Macbeth or an Oedipus, the Empire succumbs to itself, brought down by its own efforts at self-expansion. Or perhaps the scene can be better compared to the Fall of Man in Milton’s poem, a grand cosmic undoing, followed by the heroic struggle against the inevitable.
Besides the sublime tragedy of Rome’s decline, it fascinates because it gives us a foreboding of what might happen to us. Indeed, maybe it is already? This would explain all the banality we see on television every day, all the terrible music on the radio. More than decline—a loss of political and economic power—this is decadence: a decay of taste, morals, artistic skill. Decadence seems observable in many historical instances: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines: they all petered out, losing cultural vitality until they disappeared completely. Couldn’t the same thing be happening to us?
Oswald Spengler thought so, and he turned this thought into the basis for an entire philosophy of history. He was not a professional historian, nor an academic of any kind. He worked as a school teacher until his mother’s inheritance allowed him quit his job and to devote all of his time to scholarship. This scholarship was mustered to write an enormous book, whose publication was delayed by World War I. Probably this was very lucky for Spengler, since the pessimism and anguish caused by that war set the mood for his grand theory of cultural decline.
The Decline of the West puts forward a radically unconventional view of history. Spengler divides up world history, not into countries or epochs, but into “Cultures.” There have been only eight: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Meso-American, the Chinese, the Indian, the Classical (Greco-Roman), the Arabian (includes the Byzantine), and the Western (European Culture, beginning around the year 1000). Each of these Cultures he conceives as a super-organism, with its own birth, middle-age, and dotage. These Cultures all age at a similar rate, and go through analogical stages in the process (Napoleon is the Western equivalent to Alexander the Great, for example). Spengler believed that he had delineated these Cultures and traced their basic growth and aging process, thus providing a valid scheme for all future history as well, if any new Culture should arise.
Spengler is a cultural determinist and a cultural relativist. This means that he does not see these Cultures as dependent on the talent of individuals to grow; the individual is a product of the Culture and not the reverse. He also thinks that each of these Cultures creates its own self-contained world of significance, based on its own fundamental ideas. There is no such thing as inter-cultural influence, he thinks, at least not on any deep level. Each of these Cultures conceives the world so differently that they can hardly understand one another, let alone determine one another, even if one Culture can overpower another one in a contest of arms. Their art, their mathematics, their architecture, their experience of nature, their whole mental world is grounded in one specific cultural worldview.
Because Spengler is a determinist, he does not present us with a Gibbonian spectacle of a civilization succumbing to its own faults, struggling against its own decline. For Spengler, everything that happens in history is destiny. People don’t make history; history makes people. Thus, while often classed as a political conservative, it is hard to put any political label on Spengler, or to co-opt his views for any political purpose, since he didn’t think we directed our own history. To be a true Spenglerian is to believe that decline is inevitable: decadence wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” and it can’t be averted.
Much of this book consists of a contrast between what he calls the Apollonian (Greco-Roman) worldview, and the Faustian (Western) worldview. The Apollonian world-picture is based on the idea of definite form and definable shape; the nude statue is its most characteristic art, the delineated human body; its mathematics is all based on geometry, concrete shapes and visible lines. The Faustian picture, by contrast, is possessed by the idea of infinity; we make fugues, roving explorations of musical space; our mathematics is based on the idea of a function, an operation that can create an endless series of numbers. Spengler dwells on this contrast in chapter after chapter, trying to prove his point that Western Culture, far from being a development of Classical Culture, is entirely incompatible with it.
His own Culture, the Western, he traces to around the year 1000, at the commencement of the Romanesque. How or why new a Culture begins, Spengler doesn’t venture to say; but once they do begin, they follow the same definite steps. It was inevitable, he thinks, that the Romanesque transformed into the Gothic, and then eventually flourished into the Baroque, the high point of our Culture, wherein we expressed our deep longing for the infinite in Bach’s fugues and Descartes’s mathematics.
Sometime around the year 1800, the Western Culture entered its late, senescent phase, which Spengler terms ‘Civilization.’ This is the phase that follows cultural growth and flourishing; its onset begins when a Culture has exhausted its fundamental idea and explored its inherent forms. A Civilization is what remains of Culture when it has spent its creative forces: “The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.”
The ‘decline’ that forms the title of this book is just this transition from Culture to Civilization, wherein major creative work is at an end. Civilization is, rather, the age of Caesarism, the consolidation of political power. It is the age of world cities, major metropolises filled with cosmopolitan urban intellectuals. It is the age of academics rather than geniuses, the Alexandrine Greeks instead of the Golden-Age of Athens. It is, in other words, the period that corresponds with the onset of the Roman Empire, a period of no substantial innovation, but of magnificent stability. The Western Culture, Spengler thought, was entering just this period.
Whereas those who are actuated by a Culture during its creative period feel themselves driven by inevitable impulses, which allow even mediocre artists to create great works, people within a Civilization are creatures of the intellect, not the instinct; and instead of being given creative power and direction by their Culture, they are left to substitute their own subjective tastes and whims for cultural destiny. Instead of, for example, having one overriding epoch in our artistic productions—such as the Gothic, the Baroque, or what have you—we have artistic ‘movements’ or trends—Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism—which, far from being necessary phases in a Culture’s self-expression, are merely intellectual fads with no force behind them.
Spengler’s theory does have the considerable merit of being testable, because he made very specific predictions about what the immediate future held. We had gone through the period of ‘Warring States,’ he thought, in which country fought country and money ruled everything, and were about to enter a period of Caesarism, wherein people would lose faith in the power of self-interested capitalism and follow a charismatic leader. This would also be a period of ‘Second Religiousness,’ a period of faith rather than reason—a period of patriotism, zeal, and peaceful capitulation to the status quo.
Nowadays, one-hundred years later, it seems these predictions were certainly false. For one, he did not foresee the Second World War, but thought the period of internecine warfare was coming to a close. What is more, economic power has grown even more important—far more important than political power, in many ways—and no Caesar has arisen, despite many contenders (including Hitler, during Spengler’s lifetime, of whom Spengler didn’t think highly).
Aside from its breadth, one thing that sets this book apart is its style. Spengler is a remarkable writer. He can be poetic, describing the “flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.” He can be bitter, biting, and caustic, castigating the blind scholars who couldn’t see the obvious, satirizing the pseudo-sauve intellectuals who populated the cities of his time. He can be lyrical or epigrammatic, and can write ably about art, music, and mathematics.
His most characteristic mode, however, is the oracular: Spengler proclaims, predicts, pronounces. His voice, resonating through the written word, booms as if from a mountaintop. He sweeps the reader up in his swelling prose, an inundation of erudition, a flood that covers the world and brings us, like Noah in his ark, even higher than mountaintops. Perhaps a flood is the most apt metaphor, since Spengler is not only overwhelming in his rhetorical force, but all-encompassing in his world-view. He seems to have thought of everything, considered every subject, drawn his own conclusions about every fact; no detail escapes him, no conventionality remains to be overturned by his roving mind. The experience can be intoxicating as he draws you into his own perspective, with everything you thought you knew now blurry and swirling.
Spengler is so knowledgeable that, at times, he can sound like some higher power declaiming from above. But he was a man, after all, and his erudition was limited. He was most certainly an expert on music, mathematics, and the arts, and writes with keen insight in each of these subjects. But in politics, economics, religion, and especially science, he is less impressive. He completely fails to understand Darwin’s theory, for example, and he thought that physics was already complete and there would be no more great geniuses (and this, in one of the greatest epochs of physics!). He doesn’t even mention Einstein. Spengler also thought that our scientific theories were culturally determined and culturally bound; the Western conception of nature, for example, would have no validity for the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese from learning Newton’s theories).
His grand theory, though undeniably fascinating, is also impossible to accept. What is the nature of a Culture? Why do they arise, why are they self-contained, why do they follow the same life-course? Why would one single idea determine every single cultural production—from mathematics to music, from architecture to physics—in a Culture from birth to death? All these seem like fundamental questions, and yet they are not satisfactorily addressed—nor do I see how they could be.
By insisting on the Culture as the unit of history, Spengler seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. Too narrow, because he does not allow for the possibility that these Cultures can influence one another; while it seems obvious to me that, yes, there was influence from the Classical to the Western, as well as from the Classical to the so-called ‘Magian’ (his term for the Arabian Culture), and from the Magian to the Western, and so on. And too broad, because within any given Culture there are not only different ages but different areas. Is the cultural difference between Spain and England ultimately superficial, but between the Renaissance and Classical Greece unbridgeable? Really, the more you think about Spengler’s claims, the less credible they seem. After all, if Spengler were right, how could he, a Western intellectual living in the Civilization phase of Western Culture, delineate the fundamental ideas of other Cultures and produce what he regarded as a major intellectual achievement?
I am certainly not saying that this book is intellectually valueless. By comparison, Walter Pater had this to say about aesthetic theories: “Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.”
This seems equally true with regard to Spengler’s universal formula for history. Although I think his theory is untenable, this book is nevertheless filled to the brim with suggestive and penetrating observations, especially about art, architecture, music, and mathematics. Spengler may be a failed prophet, but he was an excellent critic, capable of making the most astonishing comparisons between arts of different eras and epochs.
Even if we reject Spengler’s proposed theory, we may still savor the grand vision required to see all of human history as a whole, to scan one’s eye over the past and present of humankind, in all its forms and phases, and to form conjectures as to its destiny. And Spengler was undeniably original in his inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Meso-American Cultures as of equal importance as Western history; indeed, it is at least in part to Spengler that we owe our notion of world-history. Rich in ideas, set forth in ringing prose, invigorating in its novelty, breathtaking in its scope—here we have a true classic, yet another example of a book whose enormous originality outweighs every conventional defect we can detect in it.