Oswald Spengler’s magnum opus, The Decline of the West has become something of legendary scholarship. With the infamous “Clash of Civilizations” theorist, Samuel Huntington claiming Spengler as his primary historical and philosophical influence, it becomes imperative to revisit Spengler. To re-read Spengler in the present.
The text is a prophetic roadmap charting the end of western civilization. It was written between World War I and World War II in Germany and its influence was so immense that Hitler had called on Spengler over Heidegger to be the Third Reich’s historian, for which he turned him down, not believing the Hitler’s ideology.
How to Read Decline:
Despite much of Spengler’s tangential style, there is something incredibly nostalgic about the Decline of the West. To begin, there are two distinct ways of analyzing some of its larger implications and findings. The first involves appendix charts, graphs and timelines, where concepts are foisted as mathematical law, or analogy. Analogy uncovers periodicity and polarity between various concepts, events or symbols. It is within this extremely positivistic realm that all theories must fit in rigid accordance with each other. Mathematical law then replaces conventional chronology and composes a timeline based upon the symbols of the various cultures and civilizations. These symbols are extracted from actual cause-and-effect events that are then taken out of common understanding and transformed via a “morphological” process, and posited as symbolic indicators to the progression of the larger flow of the culture. This inversion of historical logic renders causal events as the logic of space, while destiny the logic of time.
The other component to Decline involves the internal lifeline of the eight various cultures Spengler puts under his lens. The formation of each abides by a more abstract and less fixed pattern than the comparative parts of the text. It is within this strand of thought that Spengler struck a popular cord; the poetic flow of the text and the romantic tones mesh for a lyrical ride through history where the last spiritual crisis of the west is uncovered.
Each culture is centered around a prime-symbol which forms within a thousand year period. This early stage of a civilization is filled with vitality, a soul-feeling tied to the land is incorporated with a worship deity that tends to be feminine. This rudimentary stage of a culture will forever be an integral part, usually conflicting with the exterior manifestations of the “civilization stage.”
Along the incremental evolution to civilization, the internal culture begins to oppose the mechanistic, artificial, and rationalistic stage of hardened civilization. This process oversees the subjugation of the culture’s humanity while the prime-symbols are transferred from the culture stage into an existence devoid of inner-form. The west witnessed this phenomenon with the French Revolution and the emergence of bank-centered commerce, standing armies and intra-imperial wars. Since every essence of a culture is religion, every essence of the civilization stage is irreligion. The atheism and Deism spread post Napoleon then crystallized the West’s transformation into “civilization.”
All scientific discoveries are arbitrary to the morphological process and artistic creativity is forced to portray the Megalopolitan (or Fellahin folk) consciousness. What vestiges are intact of the original soul feeling are amalgamated into a unitary ethic. This “life-feeling” for the west revolved around a rigid social structure of sexuality and encompassing expectations placed outside of the individual, order, title and validity.
These outside expectations fused with Christianity to center the individual as the centerpiece of agency. This individual centered ethic referred to as “ethical socialism,” arose in 1900 and remained distinct from Indian, Classical or Buddhist civilization. Classical civilization “life-feeling” produced Stoicism, while Buddhist developed Brahman theology. Both ethics wanted only to know the future, not forcibly alter it as Western civilization. This will-less ethos dealt with all action within a static space.
The concept of socialism in Decline resonates on many levels with Max Webers’ Protestant work ethic, however, both thinkers dealt with separate academic objectives, the ascetic branches of Western Christianity, that sought salvation through deed and work, are similar to Spengler’s entire summation of the western man, or “Faustian man.” Happiness, for both composites is never found within the present moment and sees the future as the aim to reaching an ethereal award. The Protestant notions of predestination and providential history are also mentioned within cultures outside of the Faustian West.
Working with life-forces and denying causal relations tweaked much of Spengler’s capitalist critique. The burgeoning Faustian money-force renders much social complexity irrelevant. The categorical rejection of any class struggle is rationalized by the all pervasive money-force, which has the three symbols of the Faustian machine, “the entrepreneur, worker and engineer” bound together to their demise. In fact the people in this schema are also merely vessels in which the destiny of the proto-spiritual soul plays itself out, leaving them idly sitting by.
Through all of history then man is embarking his destiny within a given civilization and subconsciously revealing the symbols of his actions that are always subject to the esoteric soul-feeling. Contrary to the irrelevance of the individual in the context of the life-line of civilizations, Decline examines the Faustian composite in great depth. The Faustian obsession with limitless space found its most apt symbol in Gothic art. The mass of forms and endless lines is a metaphor for the consciousness and tendencies of western culture. Scientific discoveries beginning with Newton expose further the west’s obsession with distant forces. It was the west’s need to control and apprehend these distant forces that separate its intellectual curiosities from the other culture’s.
Although the most obvious manifestation of the Faustian soul would be imperialism, much of Decline’s unconventional approach again overlooked the influence of the age of exploration and colonial periods that were ignored in lieu of the morphological dogma. The Faustian struggle in its most basic form consists of a bifurcation within the western psyche- a conflict between a life of experience and intuition versus a life of strict rationalism and cold science. Spengler admittedly allegorized this concept based upon the second part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s narrative, “Faust.” This current of thought shows the strong influence of German mysticism in Decline. It was Goethe who inspired the morphological approach to cultural growth and decay and Nietzsche’s definition of civilization that Spengler built upon what he considered to be, “a real life will to power.”
Not breaking stride with the tradition begun by Martin Luther, Decline has nationalistic precedence. Similar to many post modern critiques of Heidegger’s An Introduction to Metaphysics, as an almost intellectual treatise of Fascist living, Decline is often overlooked because of Spengler’s later nationalistic agenda. Spengler’s denial of Hitler’s offer for a propagandist post within the Nazi party does not negate his support for the war and nationalistic leanings.
The initial popularity of Decline resonated with a large audience because historiography was posited for perhaps the first time as an intellectual technique to unravel the complexities of modern industrialism in the face of destruction. Attractive subtitles to his corpus such as the “philosophy of the future,” and “the prophet of doom,” established his canon during the inter-war period.
Some of the less general limitations Spengler faced revolve around his inability to transcend the ethnocentric confines of both his nationalism and immediate environment. His coverage of Chinese civilization was blocked from a true understanding due to linguistic barriers. Much of humanities menaing is derived from language and without a deeper understanding; Decline lacked the rigorous scope it proposes. Some of the most dramatic ethnocentrisms come to light under the Islamic coverage. Reduced to the rubric “Magian,” Arabian civilization possesses a consciousness that is, “cavern-like.” A clear adoption of Plato’s cave allegory, this soul-feeling consists of a limited capacity for waking consciousness, which is tied to their geographic proximity to the monotheistic heritage beginning with Zoroastrianism. The natural tendency of this monotheistic tradition is to reconcile evil in the world through positing a messiah that represents goodness. The Magian cultures (Arab, Persian and Jewish) were trapped from this savior because the residue of classical-human centered views never penetrated their cultural tradition. Instead lasting truth of God’s will is arbitrary to their immediate waking consciousness. This peculiar interpretation arose in the final publication of Decline and clearly represents the positivism pervasive throughout the text.
Another highly controversial concept invented in the text is pseudomorphosis. This term, borrowed from a geologic occurrence when a rock takes on exterior qualities that differ from the interior was used to describe Eastern Europe and Russia. Both culture’s had not been fully formed, stuck between the forces of the Magian to the south and Faustian to the west. Since Peter the Great, Russia has been undergoing pseudomorphosis and is not able to express its inward soul-feeling. His main source for this is Theodore Dostoveskey a late nineteenth century Russian novelist. More generally the concept implies that the destiny of an alien civilization once fused with another results in an adaptation process that is set for inevitable failure.
For instance, the Bolshevik revolution had no place in the primitive barter economy of Russia’s original soul-feeling. The Bolshevik revolution was only allowed through this adaptation process and is considered to be the third wave of Christianity. Writing before World War II, Spengler believed a great war would emerge again, fought over the forces of race and economics. The colonial world would exert their power for recognition over the over-extended Faustian machine. After the Great War the west will begin an “Age of Caesars,” where all public thought is controlled by a totalitarian state obsessed with money and maintaining control.
Democracy will be the tool for the rulers to collect capital and the people at this point will go through a “second religiousness” in which relics of the old, died out culture begin to emerge amidst the crowded megalopolitan masses.
Spengler rejected any social Darwinian theories, and saw race struggle through the prism of physiognomic fact, related to his concepts of time and destiny, not based upon material observation. Darwinian race is translated as metaphysical power, “something cosmic, directional, a felt harmony of a destiny, single cadence of historical march.”
Many of Decline’s prophecies found their warmest reception amongst the various literary circles in both Europe and America. The modernist group of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats incorporated the apocalyptic guise upon western civilization. In America the legacy of Decline set n after World War II among the literary circle of jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. During the formative years of what would become the beat movement, the three writers attacked the spiritual malaise of postwar America through a Spenglerian lens. Decline found some of its most impressionable audience throughout America during the 1950’s caused from the growth of technological innovations and the immediate power shift from Europe to America in the face of a bipolar power structure during the cold war. Sublimating Spengler’s dogma the Beats integrated his ideas, primarily his definition of the Faustian composite. Perceiving a hardening of Faustian existence much of America’s original cultural symbols were becoming stymied.
One of the most defining aspects of the beat oeuvre is their interest in jazz music and African American culture. This interest held as a precursor to the civil rights movement had profound influence from Decline. Spengler’s belief that at the highest point of a civilization the labor force of the urban city (or Megalopolitan) is the subjected consciousness gave impetus to the beat’s interests. The Fellahin class is then the ultimate expression of the original civilization. Beat novels such as On the Road, The Soft Machine and poems like Howl have underlying residues of the Faustian intrusion onto American soil. While America rationalized its technological growth as a progression towards a utopian end, the beats saw themselves as prophets pointing out to a naïve nation the source of their unraveling.
What if history is an inner expression and when the linear constructs are torn down a more profound substance is unfurled? What makes this time period different from another? Aren’t such questions the goal of history, to shed insight on the future? According to many post modern theorists Spengler’s method suffers methodologically. The theories result in a principal of cohesion that is narrowly categorized and too general; resulting in one of the more dangerous regimes of truth to come out of the twentieth century, totality.