Review: The Decline of the West

Review: The Decline of the West

The Decline of the WestThe 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.

View all my reviews

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

“History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

—Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gibbon does not merely assert this definition of history. In the thousands of pages of his magnificent book, he chronicles every type of vice, wickedness, immorality, imprudence, venality, depravity, villainy, and man-made calamity that has occurred beneath the sun.

For me, reading Gibbon was a thoroughly sobering experience. Nine out of every ten rulers was hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, or malicious. Religious sects spilled each other’s blood over tiny differences of doctrine. Wives poisoned their husbands, fathers executed their sons. Whole cities were destroyed, whole populations slaughtered. Good men were disgraced, bad men elevated to the height of power and respect. Whatever lingering sense of cosmic justice I had before I read that book—the sense that, in the end, most wrongs are righted, most crimes punished—was destroyed. History has no moral compass.

As a writer, Gibbon was at his best when he was portraying decadence. The Roman Empire began as one of the most noble and impressive creations of the human species. Then, slowly but inevitably, the great edifice began to collapse. Sadistic and cowardly emperors took the throne. The love of wealth replaced the love of glory. The desire for gain, comfort, and security destroyed the old Roman ethic of respect, loyalty, and bravery. Institutions slowly crumbled from abuse and neglect. Respect for knowledge was lost, then knowledge itself. Tolerance of differences faded, then the society became pervaded with a sterile uniformity of opinion.

When I first read Gibbon’s book, I thought that his emphasis on moral decline—the decline in values and character—was, at the very least, a superficial explanation for Rome’s decline. Aren’t values and character just adaptations to, and products of, social and economic circumstances?

After witnessing this election, I am inclined to give Gibbon’s view more respect. The degree of incompetence, cowardice, short-sighted ambition—in a word, decadence—displayed by the political class, the media, and the populace, is nothing short of embarrassing.

The debate was rarely, if ever, substantive. We were not seeing two competing philosophies of government, or two rival solutions to the country’s problems. Instead, we saw two outdated candidates who, in different ways, promised nothing but a recapitulation of the past.

Hillary was symbol of the political establishment. She explicitly linked her goals to her husband’s and Obama’s legacies. She would not do anything radically new, but protect (and maybe expand) the work that Obama accomplished against a Republican onslaught. And Trump, with his promise to Make American Great Again, explicitly placed America’s glory days in some idealized past, where white men with little education were able to work good blue-collar jobs and were socially superior to every other demographic group.

(And while I’m at it, it’s worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders was hardly an exception to this. He more or less promised a return to FDR’s New Deal.)

In other words, Clinton promised a return to the 1990s, and Trump to the 1950s.

I can’t help but find both of these campaigns pathetic. Trump’s platform was emptier than a vacuum. His policy suggestions were bad jokes. He is so clearly, so obviously ignorant, and so transparently a con man. But I think it shows that there is something terribly wrong with the political establishment if the best defense they could put forward was Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

As a politician, Clinton has been consistently tone-deaf and uncharismatic. The entire ethos of her campaign was out of step with the country’s mood. The most persuasive reason to vote for her was to prevent Trump from winning. She had no new ideas, but only promised to continue the old ones—and I think it’s obvious by now that lots of people have no love for the old ideas. Many, including myself, were excited to have the first women president. But I think it’s significant that this was the most exciting thing about Clinton.

The media was also consistently pathetic during this campaign. Time after time after time, they predicted Trump would lose. This would be the end of the Republican party, a historic disaster from which they wouldn’t be able to recover. And yet, they gave Trump free air time. They treated his lies like valid opinions. His buffoonery brought them too much revenue, and they focused on profit rather than the truth. The old pundits analyzed, editorialized, and forecasted, and what they said had nothing to do with reality. Over and over, the political, economic, and social elite showed that they had no inkling of what was happening in the country.

In sum, I can’t help but see this election as an unmistakable sign of decadence in the United States. On both sides the campaign was intellectually empty, absent of any new ideas, explicitly focused on preserving or bringing back the past, and fueled by fear rather than hope. And I know from reading Gibbon that when you elevate a narcissistic, demagogic, and incompetent man to the height of power, the results are seldom pretty.

Why are we in the midst of a moral decline? I certainly cannot say. At the very least, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that this era will likely furnish ample material to historians of the future, as they document our crimes, follies, and misfortunes.

Quotes & Commentary #12: James Joyce

Quotes & Commentary #12: James Joyce

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

—James Joyce, Ulysses

I can’t imagine a more appropriate quote for today, the day I learned that Donald Trump had been elected president.

This morning I fully expected to wake up to news of Clinton’s victory. Even though I wasn’t very happy with Clinton, I was still excited for the first woman president. But I was much more excited to never have to look at, think of, or talk about Donald Trump ever again.

The truth is, I have developed an unhealthy loathing for the man—not just as a politician, but as a person. This hatred is unhealthy because it gives Trump, an egomaniac, exactly what he wants: power over my attention. Unwittingly I got sucked into his reality show world, watching out of spite just to see him lose. Instead, I lost.

This morning I went to work with a pit in my stomach, a feeling of impotent, nebulous anxiety. Seeing the gloomy faces of my coworkers, blanched and speechless, only tightened the knot in my gut.

It wasn’t long before the initial shock wore off, my powers of denial began to fail, and the full enormity of what happened hit me. My reaction was more physical than intellectual. I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I couldn’t think, talk, or do anything remotely productive. I could just sit in sullen silence, trying to hide my feelings from my students.

But James Joyce’s quote reminds me of something. History is nearly always a nightmare. Corruption, bigotry, xenophobia, the lust for power—these have been with us from the beginning, and always will be. The wicked leaders far outweigh the decent ones. Trump is not new, merely a new manifestation of something very old: a demagogue who represents and draws upon the darker impulses of our nature.

If by history we mean the ceaseless tide of human action, propelling us forwards and backwards, raising us to the heights and sinking us into the depths, then it is impossible to awake from history. As long as humans are humans, history will be, in the words of Edward Gibbon, “little more than a register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” History is the constant, heroic, and ultimately doomed attempt to fight against entropy.

But besides the literal meaning, I also like to interpret this quote in another, more psychological, way.

Trump is an archetypical example of a man who places value in external things. For him, this thing is winning. He needs it like a drug, in ever-increasing doses. While it may seem like a strength, this craving to win is really the product of a crippling weakness: the need for constant validation.

When you identify your own value with something external—whether it be money, love, or whatever—you doom yourself to a hamster wheel existence. You spend all your time pursuing it. But when you get it, you immediately want more; and when you don’t get it, you feel worthless.

For me, this is the history from which I am trying to awake. Instead of chasing things, I want to enjoy them. Not that there is anything wrong with pursuing a goal—to the contrary, it is the most admirable thing you can do. But you can pursue goals without wagering your sense of worth and identity in the bargain. You can treat the hustle of life as a necessary, exciting, and vexing game, not the ultimate judgment of your value.

Donald Trump does just the opposite. In his world, if you lose then that makes you worthless, an insect, a nobody, a loser. And if you win, your life has been validated. He identifies totally and completely with the outcome of the game of life. Because of this, no matter how successful he is, he will always feel a gnawing sense of emptiness at the core of his being. No win will ever be enough, and every loss will be devastating.

The reason I am thinking along these lines is that I am now reading Epictetus, the former slave who became a Stoic philosopher. Because Stoicism grew up amid political turmoil and instability, it is a philosophy ideally suited for disastrous times.

Epictetus teaches that external things (like elections) are always ultimately beyond our control. Of course, you do what you can, and you must do so. But you are not obligated to be agitated when it doesn’t go your way—as will frequently happen. Indeed, agitation serves no purpose. Either act, or be tranquil. We cannot always control events, but we can always control how we react to those events.

This Stoic lesson will be increasingly necessary in the coming years, if we are not to wear ourselves out with worrying. It is especially necessary with a man like Trump, who is so addicted to attention. When I talk to friends, watch TV, or look on Facebook,  I am constantly surprised by how completely he has captured the attention of the entire world. And this is exactly what he wanted. It’s the only thing he’s good at. Whether you love or hate him, chances are that you can’t stop thinking about him.

But letting Trump totally dominate our thoughts and moods is giving him the ultimate victory. It is giving him exactly what he craves. And ultimately this stress and anxiety will not make us any more effective in countering his proposals or fighting against his influence. To act appropriately, we must remain calm and focused; and to do that, we cannot, must not, let Trump so totally invade our thoughts and destroy our ability for reflection and thoughtful action.

And we certainly cannot let ourselves, like I have done, become obsessed with our hatred and loathing for the man. To act hatefully is to sink to his level. To become obsessed with beating him is to let him win the ultimate battle over your soul.

All power fades, all tyrants die, and everything, good or bad, is swallowed by time. History can indeed by a nightmare; but like a nightmare upon waking it will one day vanish into nothingness.

Change what you can. Accept what you can’t. Enjoy what you have. This is how we can awake from history.